Friday, January 15, 2010

Henry Barlow's Ghosts

I met Maggie Farnsworth before I left for the war. She was a few years younger than me, fifteen at the time, and a beautiful girl—her hair always held waves, her eyes a powerful green like the darkest buds in spring. She had a laugh that some might have seen as too bold in a girl, a great, romping laugh that could break through the most serious façade. Sometimes, she fell down laughing so hard. We met at a barn dance the summer I left for the army; she’d just moved to town with her folks.

I stole a kiss the last night, hungry for more. Maggie said she’d wait.

Perryville happened. Tim died in front of me, possibly killed by my own bullet. Another hot bit of lead tore my face apart, and I lay in the hellish forest with other dying men for days. When I could sit up, when I could write a letter, I sent one to Maggie. She replied that “the grace of providence” spared me, for her. Those words squeezed my heart.

But it wasn’t the grace of providence. No, hell played a cold joke by sparing me.

I came home after the war, scarred and much older. Maggie had grown, too, blossomed into a vibrant, beautiful woman of eighteen. Her eyes still cooled like a summer pond, her hair still invited me in with its dusky folds. We married and headed west, away from home and memories of dead friends.

We pushed on to Nebraska, outside of Omaha. I purchased a stake of land, a mule. We carved a dugout from the prairie, and lived underground like rabbits. The dugout always reeked of the earth, but when I held Maggie close, when I felt her smooth skin, pressed my face into her waves of hair, and slipped inside those green eyes, I forgot myself.

After a few years, we built a small house. I bought a few more acres and hired a short, angular man named Stephan Wolzyck to help out. Times were still hard, but it was an honest struggle.

The prairie had its own beauty—rolling grass in every direction, few trees, and few reminders of my hellish week among the dying. The wind would whisper across the vast plain and push waves of green and gold along with it. We worked; we ground our fingers into the soil and prayed for a return. Maggie lost the last traces of the girl I’d met at those barn dances in her face, but her eyes always held magic.

“I’m going to have a baby,” she whispered to me one night.

They came the next week. Stephan’s brothers.

There wasn’t much law out on the frontier then. Indians skirmished with settlers, and some men found it easier to take and destroy than work their own hands in the earth. Rumors burned around our neighbors about a band of outlaws raiding isolated farmsteads. Reluctantly, I bought a gun.

They came when I was in the field. Stephan had headed to the house for water from our pump. I heard Maggie’s scream, and it sliced into my heart like a dagger of ice. I dropped the plow handles and ran over the clods of newly-turned earth. She howled with pain—a mournful, aching sound I hadn’t heard the likes of since the war. My rifle was at the side of the dugout—we still used it for the animals. I grabbed it and crept around.

She lay on the ground with a dark stain between her legs. Blood. Three men stood over her, all rough and dark, spotted with filth and dirt, the last still pulling on his trousers. It was Stephan Wolzyck.

God, what they’d done.

“Get away from her,” I said. My hands shook as they lifted the rifle. Maggie’s head raised a little, and I caught a flicker of green eyes behind the tears. Her hair hung in limp, wet strands on either side of her face. With her lips pinched in a sob, she shook her head slowly.

“Just having fun, buddy.” Stephan stepped closer to me. He smiled, showing his fouled teeth, the yellow wrinkles of his eyes. Pointing his weasel’s nose. “She been wanting it. Making eyes at me. Your whore here screams awfully loud—”

I shot him. The lead jumped from my gun with a deafening crash, a roar of thunder across the empty prairie. The man spun backwards—in my memory, his fall takes a full minute. The birds overhead slowed to watch. The other men lifted their guns. I heard two more shots: the first went through Maggie’s throat, the second tore into my chest. There were more bullets, two more that punctured my body, but I didn’t hear them. One of the men stood over me and spat on my face—I remember the warm spittle sliding down my cheek, working over the grooves of my scar.

I lay for an eternity, surely dead I thought, but then another thought forced me from the ground.

Maggie.

I struggled to my side, burning with pain. My blood mingled with the dust to make an obscene mixture of mud as my hands clutched at the ground and pulled my body forward. God, the smell of that mud. She was dead of course, her housedress blackened around the violation in her white throat. Her eyes lay open, but empty of the vibrant shine they once held. I remember touching her arm, how her skin was still warm.

(from Loathsome, Dark, and Deep)

15 comments:

mylefteye said...

*gives a low whistle* That's mighty powerful stuff, Aaron.

Alan W. Davidson said...

Thanks for sharing that excerpt from 'Loathesome'. If the rest continues with the same tone and intensity, I belive you have a winner. Excellent piece of writing!

Jamie Eyberg said...

Talk about setting a mood. Well done. Well done.

Martin Turton said...

Nice excerpt--I was disappointed when it finished, always a good sign. You seen the review of Dark Glass at Tangent yet? I'd say that was a thumbs up for "Dancing Lessons" Congrats!

Aaron Polson said...

Michael - Thanks. I always feel a little blown down after reading this part of the book.

Alan - There are ups and downs, but the last 1/3 of the book is killer.

Jamie - Thanks -

Martin - Wow. I hadn't seen that review, but I'm humbled.

Jeremy D Brooks said...

Man. That's really good, Aaron. Thanks

Cate Gardner said...

I've been resisting reading this for hours, trying to get my own stuff done, but the title kept swirling around my head until I could resist no more and then I discover it's from Loathsome... Lovely way to end the working week. :D

Aaron Polson said...

Jeremy - My pleasure.

Cate - Obviously it is a flashback. Maggie haunts Barlow throughout the book, and he finally tells one of the other men about her (hence this chapter). I feel sad every time I read it, like I wrote to Michael.

katey said...

Man, what an elegant way you have with brutality. (Now THAT is a compliment!) This line about did me in for some reason: "The birds overhead slowed to watch."

Aaron Polson said...

Katey - When I sell this book, I'd like to "blurb" you on the cover: "what an elegant way [he has] with brutality".

katey said...

Haha oh dear, I would've said something more clever if I knew. ...who am I kidding? That's all I got!

Also, you probably saw this alread, but Joshua Palmatier digs your story. I need it!

(Also, sorry if the link is wonky, he's jpsorrow on livejournal. For some reason I can never copy and paste in your little comment window.)

K.C. Shaw said...

Whoa. Damn. You are a powerful writer; I already knew that, of course, but this is proof for everyone to read.

If you don't get an agent for this one, we're all doomed.

Aaron Polson said...

Katey - You're loaded with cleverness. Dark Glass has had a number of + reviews of late. Sweet.

K.C. - If we're all doomed, it will still be one heck of a party. ;)

Danielle Ferries said...

Thanks for sharing, Aaron. Intense and devastating. Well done.

Demon Hunter said...

My heart raced as I read it. Bravo. :-D