A man can always hope, can’t he? Sure he can. But what he hopes for, now that’s another question altogether. You spend enough time alone, you begin to hope for things you’d always taken for granted. Like the sight of a human face, for one thing. Or the sound of a human voice, the soft touch of a woman’s hand. You might do anything for these simple gifts.
It was just last night that I was standing outside the grass and dirt walls of my one-room soddie and staring across the Dakota prairie. I think Cod was tired on the day he made the prairie. There’s just mile after mile of emptiness. Nothing. The sight of all that grass stretching to the sky is downright terrifying to some, if you’re not used to it. I’ve heard of folks driven mad by too much open sky.
I was watching the clouds. The sun was going down and they started to blow in from the north, swollen things that made me think of black blood boiling in the sky. Mottle — that’s my ox — started to wail in the barn. It was going to be a bad storm, so I made sure the barn doors were closed up good and tight. Then I loaded the wheelbarrow with buffalo chips for the fire. As I pushed the barrow across the yard back to the soddie, a cold wind began to blow. At first, it made a low moan, like the sound of someone crying from far away. Sometimes I swear I can hear voices on that bitter wind.
Before I had even closed and barred the door, the first of the rain started falling and it pounded the sod roof like hundreds of fists. I sat in my rocker by the stove and turned up the lantern. Aside from a table for eating, a bed in the back corner, and a bench by the stove for cooking, my home was empty. That’s pretty much the way I felt — empty. I had just started reading my verses in the book of Numbers when I heard the knocking on the door.
Now that was strange. I’d seen no one headed my way, no one for miles in any direction. On the prairie a man can look out into those grasses that roll like swells on the ocean and see farther than he cares to see. Sometimes you figure you’d be better off not knowing who or what’s coming your way. I’ve often wondered if I’ll see, on the day I die, the grim reaper plodding along the horizon half an hour before he calls for me. I reckon I could’ve missed a man on horseback in the storm. But my eyes are sharp and I reckon it would be just as likely for a man to have sprung up out of the dirt.
I’m not one to turn away a traveler, especially in the midst of a storm. And like I said, loneliness takes its toll. I unbarred the door and let the wind push it open. Night had painted the prairie as black as the heart of the devil. The icy rain slapped against my cheeks, stinging my skin. I held the lantern out in front of me. There was no one there. All I could see was the light bouncing off the sheets of rain, the rain turning the earth to mud. And I could hear and feel the bite of the cold wind, its roar carrying those whispering voices that rose and fell like a distant crowd.
“Who’s out there?” I yelled over the howling storm.
No one answered. I started wondering if I should have brought my rifle to the door.
“Last chance! Anyone out there?”
After a few long seconds I turned back inside to set down the lantern and bar the door. But something about the walls of my soddie stopped me. I swear in God’s name I saw those dried sod walls that are twenty inches thick and had seen two Dakota winters and more rain and tornadoes than any wooden house could withstand, turning to mud before my eyes. What’s worse is, the mud was moving, like it was filled with living things, squirming and sliding just below the surface of the muck.
“Hello?” a female voice called out.
I spun around, nearly dropping my lantern. A woman and a small child were huddled together out in the rain.
“Can you help us?” the woman asked, wiping the rain from her eyes. “It’s just my daughter and me. We were caught in the storm.”
It had been so long since I’d heard a woman’s voice, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sweeter sound. I stood there like an idiot, gaping at the two of them. It didn’t occur to me at the time why a woman and her child were traveling alone, without so much as a blanket between them. I was thankful for the company.
“Come on in,” I said. “Dry yourselves.”
As they passed through my door, I could smell the dirt of the prairie on their dresses and in their hair. It was the same scent I’d smelled on myself last spring when I’d been digging the well. I closed and barred the door.
I’d forgotten about the walls, you understand. When I looked this time, they were as dry as dust. I scratched my head. It must have been the lantern, I figured. Lantern light’s strange sometimes makes shadows do odd things.
Looking back now I think about the odd things the mind can do, the things you make yourself believe. It’s a sad state when you can’t trust yourself. It makes you feel like your mind is just an old, broken wagon being led in circles by a blind horse. What’s a man if he’s lost his mind?
“My name’s John Christian,” I said, smoothing my tangled hair.
“I’m Ella,” the woman said. Her face was plain but pretty, the kind of woman a man might take for his wife. She wore a simple gray dress that was well suited for farm work. ‘This is my daughter Daisy.”
“Pleased to know you. Miss Ella. How are you Daisy?”
The child looked up at me with huge dark eyes. Both women were dripping wet and skinny to the point of death. I could tell they’d seen hard times. That’s not unusual on the Dakota prairie, but it still tugs at your heart to see a child and her mother go hungry.
I strung a rope in the corner where the bed is and hung a sheet from it to give the ladies some privacy while they changed. I gave them a couple of my old nightshirts to put on until their dresses dried. Mean- while, I dropped a few more chips into the stove to beat back the cold. I wished I could’ve cleaned myself up; there’s something about having a woman around that makes a man suddenly realizes he hasn’t had a bath in a couple of weeks. Before too long we were sitting in front of the fireplace, me on the packed earth floor. Miss Ella in the rocker, and the child on a stool between us.
“You live alone, do you, Mr. Christian?” Miss Ella asked.
“Please, call me John. Can I offer you two some dinner? I’ve just some stew. It’s not much, but the meat is fresh and it’s hot and filling.”
“We’ve already eaten, haven’t we Daisy?”
The child nodded solemnly.
“Yeah, I live alone,” I said to answer her question. “Came out here two years ago this June. Water’s scarce but the land is good.”
“You’ve a fine home, John,” she said. “Solid walls and a dry floor. My husband built such a place and it’s a comfort in a storm.”
“Where is your husband. Miss Ella, if you don’t mind my asking?”
A shadow passed over her face. Or it could have been the flicker of the flame in the lantern. Lantern light is tricky, as I’ve said.
“He’s an evil man,” she said. “Pray you don’t cross his path. If he’s not dead already, he should be. Shouldn’t he, Daisy?”
“Why?” I asked. “What did he do? Gambling? Drink too much?”
“Nothing quite so harmless,” she said in a low voice. “It was this past winter. The snow was heavy. I don’t have to tell you that. Do I, John?”
I shook my head. The snow had been terribly heavy during the two winters I’d spent in this part of Dakota.
“Food was scarce. We first had to slay the milk cow for the meat. And— ”
Just then the little girl, Daisy, started to cry. It wasn’t a loud cry, like healthy children are known to make to get attention. It was just a few quiet sniffles and a lot of tears. And somehow that made her crying all the worse.
“You’ll have to excuse Daisy,” the mother said, making no move to comfort her daughter. “The memory is still fresh and it hurts her to remember.”
“I understand. No need to go on.”
Just then, I heard the wind picks up outside. It made a hollow cry as it whipped around the house. It sounded almost like a train whistle you might hear from miles away, a lonely sound that leaves you a little cold inside.
I was glad to have company on such a terrible night. And I was eager for more conversation. But I could see in the deep lines on Miss Ella’s face that rest was what she wanted and needed. I let them bundle up together on the only bed in the rear corner. It was big enough for three, but I knew it wouldn’t be proper. So, I wrapped myself with a blanket and curled up in front of the fading fire in the stove. Sleep came quickly and I remember drifting off to the haunting sound of the wind howling, an almost human sound that held hints of whispered words.
I don’t know what it was that woke me. There’s something about being stared at that Just doesn’t sit right with most folks, and that includes me. I remember sitting up straight. The soddie was filled with a reddish glow from the dying embers in the stove, a light that was just dim enough to fill the shadows with more shadows and make you see more than was actually there. I turned around to look in the direction of the bed and that’s when my heart started thudding in my chest.
Miss Ella and the child were standing by the foot of the bed. They were holding each other’s hands and looking at me. It was their faces that set my heart to racing. Their skin was as white and smooth as bleached bones and they Just stared at me. I don’t know how else to say it, but that they stared. It was horrible. All I wanted was for their faces to be gone from my sight, to be free from their relentless and accusing eyes.
And then they started moving. Still staring at me, they reached down and began lifting their nightshirts. What I saw were deathly white bones where their flesh should have been. Bits of tendon and dried blood stained the perfect whiteness of their skeletons and I could see where a heavy knife had scarred the bone while cleaving away the muscle.
I think I screamed then. I’m not sure. As I said, the mind is not always a perfect thing. It doesn’t always remember events exactly as they happened, if you know what I mean.
What I remember next are the sounds in the walls, the sound of mud stirring, of earth moving. I looked Just in time to see the figures of Ella and Daisy disappear into the sheet of churning mud, returning to the same earth that spawned their likenesses. Or perhaps they returned back to the corner of my mind that created them. I don’t know anymore. I only know they are gone, if indeed they ever were here.
I found the knife this morning. It was buried under the bed, beneath a few inches of dirt. The blood is still on the blade. The meat that has kept me alive these past few weeks is no longer fresh. Like my brain, the worms have done their work and the rotting has progressed too far for it to be of any use.
What’s left of my wife and daughter are buried back behind the barn. I can almost remember having a wife and a daughter. But it’s hard to know anymore. I’m not sure what’s real and what’s dreamed. I know it gets cold in the Dakota winters, and a man can get hungry. Maybe I had to kill them. Maybe.
A man can always hope. My hope is to be with my Ella and my daughter Daisy before this night is through. I’m ready to face the Lord and account for
what I’ve done. What else is there for a man, except to admit what he’s done and ask for forgiveness? Is there forgiveness for what I’ve done?
The wind is blowing now. Can you hear it? It’s the sound of the wind whistling through the bones of the dead. And I can hear the whispers carried on that wind and they’re telling me that they are coming. Soon the slithering noises in the walls will begin, the sound of bodies moving in the mud, the sound of the earth coming to greet me.