Episode 2: Bodies in the Barn
Riding horses in the pasture, swimming in the creek, playing army in the woods—fond memories flooded over me as we galloped over the knoll. Albright Acres sprawled before us, its white dormers and pillars reaching to absorb the fleeting rays of the sun. The wagon hit a bump and jostled the caskets, a reminder that the carefree days of youth were long gone.
The soldier’s hand slipped out from under the horse blanket. “Get back in there, Red,” Al said, as he reached and tucked the arm back in place. “We don’t want that to be the first thing everyone sees.” He readjusted the lid to Pa’s coffin, so it sat firmly on the walls of the pine box.
“Would you look at that?” I pulled the reins and slowed the horses.
The fields to the left of the house were charred and battle-scorched within yards of the main barn. The weathered copper blades on our windmill churned steadily in the setting sun, and ribbons of steam drifted up from the irrigation house out back. I could almost visualize streams of blood from battle, snaking through the patches of grass that had started to fill the scars in the ground.
“That’s a little too close to home. Once again, we almost made it through the war unscathed.” I eyed the pine boxes.
There was a shuffle to the left as pheasants flew from the brush. Al jumped and almost fell off the wagon. “Stupid birds. Wish I had my shotgun.”
I patted him on the shoulder. “I think we’ve seen enough killing for a lifetime.”
His forehead creased with a heave of his brow. “We still have to eat. Can’t give up killin’ all together. And we’re still men, you know. Men hunt. Men spit…”
I half-smiled, but it faded quickly as I zoned out of our conversation and turned back to the woods just beyond the dead fields. Lush foliage and healthy branches intertwined, casting blankets of darkness under the treetops. I stared through the undergrowth, lost in visions of the past. Each shadowy movement, a lost soul of war.
“…Men appreciate the finer things in life, like full-flavored whiskey…and fine-figured women.” Al nodded ahead and wiggled his eyebrows.
On the porch, Ellie swayed back and forth as she swept, the skirt of her faded blue dress swishing softly around her. I closed my eyes and imagined I heard her humming. What a sweet sound that would be after all these years.
“They’re here! They’re here!” A boy’s voice ripped from the porch, echoed by excited barking from the dog under his feet.
Kitchen maids, farm hands, and field-workers streamed from the house and the farmyard, mostly black, all freed before the war. Albrights didn’t believe it was right for one man to own another.
I looked at Al and then at the pile of bodies.
“Oh, no you don’t. One, two—,” he said with an impish glimmer in his eyes.
“Three. Not it!” I brought my finger to my nose, sealing the childish deal. “You lose. You tell them.”
“But you’re so much better delivering serious news. You’re the eldest, the head of the farm now. It’s your place to tell them.”
As Ellie stepped through the crowd I reined in the horses, and the wagon came to a stop. For a moment, words escaped me. The round, youthful curve of her face had thinned, revealing soft cheekbones and a dainty, but defined, chin. Her lips were fuller than I remembered, and her apron gathered around her waist and flowed off her hips in the most flattering way. Al was right, she had grown up.
Al hopped off the wagon, removed his hat, and clenched it over his heart. “Why Miss Ellie, you’re plum prettier than an oleander blossom in the moonlight, and only about half as poisonous.”
Ellie smiled, an ornery gleam in her eyes. “Sad day when the likes of you two are my shining rays of sunshine. Welcome home.” She reached out to hug him, and, as she did, her eyes met mine. I got down from the wagon, my eyes never leaving her gaze.
At that moment, the short, light taps of Sunday shoes scampered over wooden planks, and a squeal split the crowd.
“Aaaaaal!” Our little sister raced down the porch steps and flew into Al’s arms.
“Maddie!” Al spun her around and laughed, the happiest laugh I’d heard from him in quite some time. “Look at you, practically a lady. How old are you, now? Eleven? Twelve?”
She giggled at his teasing. “No, I’m eight.”
He spun her again, and she squeezed his neck.
I looked at Ellie, who looked as if she might cry. “You alright, Miss Ellie?”
She breathed in quickly and blinked a couple times, but no tears came. “I’m fine. It’s so good to have you home.” She balled her apron in her fists and looked me over like she was trying to remember everything about me.
I stepped closer and took her hand, placing my other hand on top of it. This was a moment I wanted to remember, too. In another time, in another place, I might have scooped her into my arms and given her a proper kiss. A kiss like a returning soldier should give his wife after aching for her for so long. But she wasn’t my wife, and maybe too many years had passed since I sneaked a goodbye kiss from her under the old oak tree. For now, I hoped the look in my eyes would be enough.
“It’s good to be home. I can’t even begin to tell you how good,” I said.
She looked away as if my gaze was the brilliant light of the sun, an indication that she understood. As her eyes rested on the wagon behind me, she pulled her hand away and brought it to her mouth. “Oh, Pike. I’m so sorry.”
I lifted my hat and rubbed my sleeve across my forehead before putting it back on. “Let’s not make a fuss in front of Maddie.”
At the mention of her name, Madeline ran to me and threw her arms as far around me as eight-year-old arms could reach. “I missed you so much, Pike.” Her clear blue eyes beamed up at me. “Al said you brought me something special.”
“Did he, now?” I cocked my head to the side, pretending I couldn’t remember.
She jumped up and down, yanking my arm excitedly. “Yes!” She stopped abruptly and thought for a moment. “But if you didn’t, it’s okay. I’m just happy to see you.”
“Well if that ain’t the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is,” Al chimed in. “Go on Pike, quit messing around.”
Madeline’s eyes widened at the promise of a gift. I was glad Al had thought to get something for her. Hopefully, it would be enough to distract her from the rest of the cargo.
I reached under the bench and retrieved a white box tied with twine. She immediately grabbed it and sat on the ground to work out the knots. When she opened the box, the lid slid from her fingers.
“Oh!” She gasped as she ran her finger over the cheek of a porcelain doll. The doll’s satiny red dress fluffed out as Maddie carefully lifted her from the bed of tissue paper. “I’ve never seen anything so pretty in all my life. Ain’t she pretty, Miss Ellie?”
Ellie leaned over as if to examine the doll. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen prettier.” She straightened up and turned to Mae. “Mamma, why don’t you take Maddie inside and make some lemonade? The rest of us will be in shortly.” Ellie held Mae’s gaze long enough to indicate she needed to keep Madeline busy for the moment.
Mae gave a short nod. “Come along, child. While I’m juicin’, you can think of a name for your new playmate.”
Maddie followed her into the house, all the while straightening the doll’s dress and smoothing her auburn curls. The distraction temporarily delayed the unpleasant conversation that would surely come later, when she realized Pa and James Jr. didn’t make it home.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Ellie went to work. “Lloyd, grab a couple men and place the bodies in the barn with the others.”
“Others?” Al said.
“A lot’s happened while you were away.” She shifted her ears to highlight that the help was listening, then waved her hands over her head. “All the rest of you, back to work. Lots to do before supper’s ready.”
The group thinned as everyone returned to their respective duties. Ellie started across the yard, following the procession of caskets. I quickly stepped to catch up with her.
“Wait a minute. There’s another body in the back of the wagon.” I jerked my chin, nodding to the form wrapped in the blanket. “We found him up by the road, a wounded soldier.”
“There’s been a lot of those around here lately.” Ellie straightened her apron and wrapped her arms around her body like she was chilled, despite the oppressive humidity.
“Corpses. It seems like every time you turn around, dead bodies are falling out of the trees, or showing up under them.” She made the sign of the cross and then wrapped her fingers around the amulet hanging from her neck.
We reached the barn door and the men had rested the pine boxes on the ground.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Pike, Mr. Al, we can’t go any further,” Lloyd said as he backed away, his eyes wide like he’d seen a ghost.
“What’s wrong with them?” I motioned to the farm hands and peered into the barn, where the soft glow of a lantern shed light on four newly crafted coffins.
Ellie’s voice was low. “It ain’t right, the way these bodies came to us.”
“What do you mean, ‘it ain’t right’?”
Ellie leaned in as she eyed the other men, making sure they couldn’t hear us. “Pike, we’ve already buried these bodies once.”
My head jerked up, surprise covering my face, like I’d eaten something sour and wasn’t expecting it. “How can you be sure?”
“I remember every one of them. We found these and other soldiers in the woods and buried them. Then they show up again this morning, scattered in the corn field. There’s talk of voodoo curses and menacing omens.”
I shook my head. “More likely it’s grave robbers or wild animals. Al and I can take them in, if someone will bring the last body from the wagon.”
Ellie grazed her fingers over Pa’s lid. “It doesn’t seem fair, to bury a father and a brother, after losing your mother. They treated me kindly. They were like kin to me.”
I thought of growing up with Ellie on the farm. We learned to read together down by the creek; only my spoiled wretched soul took the privilege for granted and her thirst for knowledge put her in danger. She smiled and, even with the musk of corpses staining the air, I felt like everything was going to be all right.
We maneuvered Pa’s box through the door and into the dim cavern where we used to play as children. A slight breeze wisped a few strands of hay out of the loft. It was emptier than the bale-filled hideout I remembered, and the walls seemed to be laced with an extra thick layer of dust.
After we placed Pa with the others, we returned for James Jr. and Red.
“Now I know why they call it deadweight,” Al said as he rested Red’s torso on the cold dirt of the floor. He removed a handkerchief from inside his gray jacket and wiped his brow as he glanced over the other coffins. “I wonder what happened to them.”
Lloyd was standing in the doorway, watching us carefully, but not stepping foot into the barn. “I’ll make another pine box in the morning.”
“That would be nice, Lloyd. Thank you.” I took one final look over the dead, and noticed the soldier’s hand had slipped out from the blanket, again. As I tucked it back against the body, it jerked out of my hand and thumped the corner of Pa’s coffin before falling to the ground.
Al slapped my back, and I jumped. “The dead got you spooked, big brother? I don’t know about you, but I need a drink. You want to hit The Admiral’s tonight? I’m sure there’s lots of folks who will be happy to see that we’re home.”
“No, I’ll stay with Ellie and Madeline. But go on. I’m sure you’ll make enough trouble for the both of us.”
Everyone deals with grief in their own way—another lesson I learned from the battlefield. A chill went down my spine as I wondered if the hand really moved or if I’d just imagined it. I made sure the barn doors were shut and completely secured. The air was still and silent again, wrapping the farm in its heavy burial shroud.
Stay tuned! Episode 3 posts Friday, October 3, 2014.