So Halloween is a short time off and since it's my absolute favorite holiday of the year, I thought I'd do something special.
From now until October 26th I'll be posting one or two chapters of a brand new novella I wrote earlier this summer. If all goes according to plan I'll release the complete story as an ebook on the 27th.
So stay tuned to the blog and keep up with the eerie goings on in a little town called Rath a long time ago...
The Exorcism of Sara May
Stories always begin somewhere. And I suppose if I had to say what led to Sara May’s exorcism in the spring of thirty-six, it would have to be the night when Ellis Wilmer’s prize goat gave birth to a kid with two heads.
Now for those of you who didn’t grow up in a rural area, or have a short understanding of farm vocabulary, the goat didn’t give birth to a human child. A kid is what you call a baby goat, one of the many things I learned early in life what with being a country veterinarian’s only son.
My father went to veterinary college in a time when most kids his age never walked out of a high school holding a diploma. First in his family to graduate both high school and college, there was some resentment, but more pride floating around when he opened his practice right out of our farmhouse on Secondary Road. Not that there was a sign stating what road we lived on. In the little northern Minnesota town of Rath there were only two roads: County Road 7 that ran past the post office and Nimble’s Store—the only two prominent businesses—and Secondary, which jutted off to the side like a narrow afterthought.
Now Nimble’s was where most days you could find the elderly men of town gathered, either under the awning in the shade if it was summer or in a half circle around the glowing woodstove if it was winter and most likely below zero. A bottle or two of whiskey was almost always circulating their number since the shadow of prohibition was still fading and Arthur Nimble invariably kept several cases of booze on hand now out in the open.
Secondary Road ran on for several miles before petering out in a stand of marsh and swampland that butted up to the fields most made their livings from at the time. Our farm was near the very end of Secondary, right-hand side, and a considerable jog down a lane my grandfather had cut by hand with a simple axe some sixty years prior when Rath was only a gathering of farmers living in proximity, possibly for safety out of fear of a rogue Chippewa attack.
Our home was a simple one story, three bedrooms, bath, kitchen, and living room. We’d only gotten indoor plumbing when I was ten and I still used the outside toilet most of the time. Old habits die hard they say.
Typically our house was a home, in which I mean to say it was full of love, laughter, and the smell of my mother’s baking bread that she made from scratch every week. The only time it became a house was when my brother Danny’s bedroom door would open in a draft as it was sometimes prone to do. My mother would see it wide open and I’d catch a glimpse of his little bed still made, and my father would close the door gently and stand by it for a time. Danny caught a fever when he’d been only four, something my father thought was harmless, as did the doctor visiting from Arbor township some thirty miles to the south when he’d stopped through on his monthly rounds. But it hadn’t been. The fever took Danny in the middle of the night while my mother rocked him in her chair that she’d hauled into his room and taken to sleeping in since he’d fallen ill. The sound she made is something I can still hear. It echoes in my mind to this day some seventy years hence.
You can see things in people’s eyes sometimes if they don’t hide it, and most can’t hide everything all the time. You catch glimpses of a void there, not a color, mind you, but more of a change in the depth. When someone pulls through something terrible, it plumbs them like a well digger pounding his sand point down into the earth. That deep place is hollow and empty but for what they keep there, for it is always too painful a thing to be brought into the light.
In nineteen thirty-six most had the beginnings of that deep look in their eyes. The depression hadn’t released its stranglehold on the country, hadn’t followed through on any of the promises the politicians made. I had just turned fourteen in March, and even with the inexperience of my youth I could hear a hint of desperation whenever we’d catch a speech being made over the radio in our living room. Truth be told I felt sorry for the people in charge then. I imagined they were like the captain of a ship that had an irreparable hole in the hull and was sinking faster than the crew could bail it out. To me it sounded like they were just wondering when the water would slip over their heads.
But as much as I pitied the politicians and the people of Rath, who at times went hungry and were lean in both pocket and cheek, I can’t deny I was happy. You see, being a country boy and growing up having a vast forest as your playground, a dirt road that never seemed to end if you wanted to walk it with a friend, or maybe an ice-cold pop on Nimble’s porch on a hot day was just too much to be unhappy with.
And it didn’t hurt that I was in love.
I know what you’ll say to yourselves. Love isn’t love at fourteen. It’s infatuation at best. Someone the mind can’t let go of no matter how tired you are at night. Well, I’ll tell you love is love. When your body tingles the moment you see the person you’ve been thinking of, even if you’d seen them an hour before, that’s love. When you lose train of thought so much you walk right past your own driveway more than once on account of recalling a word they said to you, that’s love.
Sara May Tandy was the most beautiful girl I’d ever laid eyes upon. We had shared a one-room schoolhouse for the better part of our lives, and I’d always thought she was pretty with her dark, curly hair and hazel eyes. But it was only after those magical things called hormones kicked in that I realized there were other sides of her I hadn’t seen before. Now don’t go throwing your mind in the gutter, when I say “sides” I’m not talking about her body, though I couldn’t completely ignore that either. The things I noticed applied more to the way she moved through the world. I’d never seen someone so quiet and serene. She made a hayfield in early autumn seem like a tempest by comparison. I guess it was her serenity that drew me to her. Simply put, I wanted to know what she was thinking.
Course I never could get up the courage to ask her. Even by sitting only a dozen feet from her, day in, day out for years on end, the fear still overshadowed the love. I suppose that’s the only difference between who I was before the spring of thirty-six and who I was after. After I would’ve died for her. And in that wet, wet spring, I nearly got the chance.
The call that would forever change my life came in on a Tuesday night, a school night since there were still three weeks left of the dastardly stuff before our group of seven children who lived in Rath would be set free for a glorious three months.
The phone line had been installed not long after our indoor plumbing and its jangling still made me jump whenever the handset began to vibrate in its cradle. When it rang on that Tuesday I was sound asleep in bed, a copy of Jack London’s Call Of The Wild open like a bird in flight on the wood table beside my covers. My eyes came open and a cold hand gripped and twisted my guts. Call it what you will, instinct, intuition, premonition, I don’t know. All I remember is that I awoke afraid. The phone shouldn’t have been ringing at that hour and I didn’t want my father to answer it. I heard my grandfather say once that all bad news arrives in the darkness, and now being almost as old as he was when he said it, I’d have to agree with him.
The ringing stopped and my father’s low voice floated to me from where the phone was mounted near the kitchen door. There was a long pause before he said something affirming and hung up. A light turned on and footsteps came down the short hall to my room. I nearly hid beneath the covers then. Not because I was afraid of my father, but because I knew what he would ask, I wouldn’t deny him, and it would lead to something awful.
His familiar shadow darkened my doorway, his voice reaching out like a soft touch.
“Lane? You awake, son?”
“Get dressed. There’s a call.”
Calls came in sometimes for a country veterinarian. Sometimes late at night. I knew this. I shouldn’t have been frightened. But I was.
My jeans and shirt were crumpled beside the bed. Wash day was tomorrow and these clothes, only one of three sets I owned, had started to smell. I pulled them on, searching for my socks for nearly a minute before finding them. In the kitchen our old kettle began a low whistling. By the time I entered the small room with the little table that could seat four but only ever sat three, the smell of coffee was strong in the air. My father stood at the counter beneath the only burning light.
He was forty-three then, a tall man some would call skinny, but those people had never seen him pull a breeched calf out of cow single handedly, or snap a solid chunk of oak clean in two with a twenty pound mall. The light picked out the gray hairs that had started turning up after Danny passed away, making him look like he’d been out in a snowstorm.
“Want a cup?” he asked without turning around. He’d never offered me coffee before, not even on the last late call we’d gone to earlier in the year.
“Sure. Thank you.”
“Small payment for coming out in the middle of the night.”
“Where we going?”
“Where are we going,” he corrected. “To the Wilmer farm. His goat’s giving birth and having trouble. Wear your rubber boots and get your gloves.”
I saw why we were wearing the knee-high boots when we stepped outside. It was raining again. A cold, insistent rain for early May. It came straight down soaking everything in sight beneath the yellow glow of our porch light.
We hurried through the downpour to my father’s twenty-eight, Ford Model A pickup. It was an indiscriminant color during the day, something between rust-brown and black. Tonight it was only a smear in the dark. The rain drummed on the metal over our heads and I was again thankful we had a vehicle, unlike several of the other families in the area who still relied on horse and wagon. We were not rich by any means, but being a veterinarian in a time when keeping your livestock healthy meant your family would eat for another season, meant we had some spoils that others did not.
The truck started with a short protest and the single windshield wiper thunked the moisture away. We rode in silence through the night, tires hopping and snapping water up from potholes, headlights cutting a swath through the rain no farther than ten yards.
My father handed me a porcelain cup, not one of mother’s good ones, and along with it a small thermos he never left the house without. I poured a healthy amount of coffee into my cup and did the same with the other he handed me. The smell of roasted beans filled the cab and for a moment everything felt normal and natural. I was on a ride with my father, safe beside him in our truck, and not even the inky depths outside the windows could change that fact. I sipped the coffee, only the second time ever tasting it, the first being when I was ten after having snuck a drink from his cup when he wasn’t looking. It was better than I remembered, less bitter with a hint of vanilla. My spirits rose further as he began to hum beside me, his eyes calm behind his glasses.
But as we rolled to a stop at the intersection of the two roads, the same disquiet from earlier blanketed me again. The sight of Nimble’s store as well as the post office so dark and foreboding was like another admonition. We turned right heading south and my father brought the truck up to twenty miles per hour. We were the only lights on the muddy road. Possibly it was partially due to the fact that with the large amounts of rain that spring, County Road 7 was washed out about twelve miles to the north. But in the back of my mind I thought it was because we were the last souls on Earth, trundling along towards something inevitable.
The Wilmer farm was a plot of two hundred acres of barley and hay. Ellis Wilmer and his son Gerald had served in the first World War, as had my father. Ellis had come home with a limp where a German bullet had lodged in his hip. What they could recover of Gerald came home in a pine box and was buried at the back of the property behind the house. I thought of poor Gerald, blown to pieces by a mortar round on a battlefield across the ocean, and wondered what they’d been able to find to put in the coffin.
A shiver went through me as my father guided the pickup onto a narrow dirt track marked only with a crooked mailbox. Soon our headlights picked out the twisted remains of a gate sloughed off to the side of the drive and beyond it the squat farmhouse that Ellis had shared with his wife Patricia until a terrible bout of pneumonia had put her in the ground beside her son two years prior.
Lights burned in the house’s windows as well as a kerosene lantern that hung from the great barn door off to the left where the darkness deepened. Ellis stood smoking one of his hand-rolled cigarettes on the lowest step of the porch, rainwater spilling off the brim of his leather hat.
We climbed from the truck, the cold rain embracing us immediately, and my father pulled his satchel from the rear of the bed. Ellis waited until we were within several feet before speaking.
“Thanks for coming so quick, David, much appreciated.”
“My pleasure, Ellis.”
“And you brought yer assistant I see.”
“Always good to have an extra set of hands.”
“Hello, Mr. Wilmer,” I said.
“How’s she fairing?” my father asked as we started for the partially lit barn.
“Josha’s not well. Thought she’d hold out ‘til tomorrow, but late this evening she laid down and wouldn’t get back up. Big kid is all I know. Might be breached, can’t tell.” Josha. There’d been talk around town of Ellis losing some of his grip after Patricia died. Some said he named each and every one of his animals, whether they were to be slaughtered or not. I guess now I knew the truth.
“We’ll get her through,” my father said, putting a hand on the older man’s shoulder.
The barn loomed, more of its shape becoming clearer. It rose and rose above us until I lost sight of its peak. I’d never noticed it being so large in the daytime. The smell of kerosene soaked the entryway as Ellis pulled the lantern from its hook and cranked the wick higher sending shadows skirting away. The front of the barn was storage, stacked high with several hand tools, feed, and empty gunny sacks. Beyond it were two alleys of wood stanchions, nearly all of them occupied.
There was an undercurrent of noise in the barn that ran just below the constant patter of rain on the roof. It was the sound of agitated animals: the scraping of a hoof, the bellow of a cow, the snapping nicker of a horse. All of it combined into something unearthly that raised the wetted hairs on the nape of my neck.
A glassy eye of a horse stared out between two wood slats as Ellis led us down the right alleyway, its owner huffing and grinding its teeth as we passed. The swaying light from the lantern twisted normal shapes into bent and broken things that skittered away in patched shadows, and the air over our heads was an abyss, the support beams and roof slats I knew were there, lost to us. Farther down the aisle, littered with hay and dried manure, was another soft glow. It came from a second kerosene lantern turned low that sat on an old wooden chair missing its back. When I saw what the light revealed, the muscles in my legs locked tight, refusing to move me closer.
Josha the goat was lying in the center of a mound of straw in an open space at the end of the alley. She was a large animal made only bigger by her pregnancy. My mind instantly conjured an image of a spider I’d accidently stepped on in our entry the day before, its abdomen swollen with eggs. I shook away the thought and followed my father closer to the prone animal.
“More light if you will, Ellis,” my father said as he knelt down. The wick flared white and broadened the circular glow.
Blood shone on the straw behind Josha’s hindquarters and she kicked feebly, letting out a sick bleat. One translucent hoof poked from her, a clear fluid matting the fine fur on the upper part of the leg.
“Shit. It’s breached,” my father said. “Water, I need water.”
“Here,” Ellis said, pulling a pail of clean water closer.
“Lane, hold the light over my shoulder.”
I took the free lantern from the nearby chair and did as he said. My father was talented. I’d seen him save many more animals than not, and at fourteen I considered him one of the most capable human beings in the world.
He dipped his right hand into the bucket of water and gently fed his fingers in beside the unmoving leg. His face remained placid but the muscles in his jaw tightened.
“Is it one or two?” Ellis asked, his voice quavering.
“Can’t be sure yet,” my father said, readjusting his position. Now his arm was gone halfway up to the elbow within the animal and Josha kicked her hind legs, flinging dust and straw into the air.
“Easy, girl,” I said, the calmness of my voice surprising me. For all the trepidation that hounded me since I’d woken, I was calm, the prior fear forgotten in lieu of the excitement of the life that would soon be in the room. Sound and sight became crystalline.
My father dropped lower to the ground and issued a low grunt.
The kerosene sloshed in the lantern.
A horse whinnied.
Ellis groaned in the back of his throat.
The smell of blood and birth permeated the air.
“There,” my father said. And with that one word I knew he’d worked his magic. Two legs now extended from Josha, and with a gentle and steady pull, he drew the kid from her in a seamless slip of fluid.
What came out of the goat sapped all the strength from my hand and I dropped the lantern.
It fell at my feet and I knew in that moment I would be burned alive. The lantern would shatter and spray kerosene up my length, the dying flame igniting the liquid with a grace owned only by fire.
But the baby goat. It had two heads.
Four staring, white eyes. Lips bared over teeth.
The lantern clanged against the floor.
I held my breath, waiting for the pain.
I opened my eyes to see the lantern still whole at my feet, its light out, the top drizzling kerosene. I jerked it up from the ground, my entire body growing hot with shame.
“I’m sorry. Lost my grip.”
Ellis had stepped forward, bathing the squirming thing in the straw with light.
“God almighty,” he whispered.
The infant goat writhed in place. Its pale hoofs raked the floor. Its heads strained up from the dirt. It mewled out something barely resembling a goat’s bleat. Until then I’d never realized how serpent-like goat’s heads are. Looking back from the vantage of all the years, it makes perfect sense now. But then, staring at the thing on the floor of Ellis Wilmer’s barn with the steady rain thrumming down overhead and the darkness on all sides, I was stricken with amazed horror.
“Ellis, it’s an aberration,” my father said quietly. “It would be cruel to let it suffer. If it doesn’t die tonight it-”
My father’s calm words were lost in the screech of the two-headed infant as it kicked itself forward and clamped both mouths onto Josha’s right hind leg.
Ellis dropped his lantern with a curse and the dark rushed in.
Josha blatted, a deep and painful sound that vibrated in my chest. My father yelled something I couldn’t make out and bumped into me as he rose. There was another high-pitched shriek that was so unearthly it turned me toward the door, muscles twitching, ready to run. But what kept me from fleeing was my father’s voice yelling at Ellis, Matches, Ellis! Give me the matches!
The tang of kerosene was everywhere, and I knew Ellis hadn’t been so lucky when his lantern had fallen. Something brushed my legs and I shrank away, recalling how the two-headed beast’s teeth had glinted in the lamplight. Then a hand gripped my shoulder and I nearly screamed, but recognized its slender strength.
“Lane, hold the lantern steady,” my father said. I did, the trembling in my arms making the glass shade rattle in place. Something growled like a tomcat and there was a wet tearing sound followed by another anguished bleat from Josha.
A match popped alight, blazing like a miniature sun.
In the glow, the two-headed kid stood behind my father on its hind legs, mouths crimson and dripping.
I did scream then.
The wick caught and darkness shrank away, leaving the scene before us naked in the light.
Blood seeped in slow pumps from two ragged wounds shaped like half moons on the back of Josha’s leg. They looked like the craters a child might make in a ripe watermelon slice. Ellis was up against the nearest empty stall, eyes wild and rolling in his skull.
The infant goat was on its side, heaving laboring breaths in and out, mouths stained red, eyes milky. It kicked and some dark excrement shot from its back end, nearly spraying Ellis’s work boots. Ellis opened his mouth but he said nothing, his jaw bouncing as if hooked to an elastic band.
My father stared down at the thing on the floor for maybe two seconds before pacing to his satchel and pulling something from it. He returned, bent over the two-headed goat, and shot it between both sets of eyes with the .38 revolver in his hand.
The blasts were short and deafening, concise in their death punctuations. The kid flopped in the dirt, several short spasms running through its length before it laid still.
Silence rushed into the barn. Filled it up.
My father stood over the kid for a long moment before turning back to Ellis, who looked as if he were trying to shove himself through the gaps in the pen behind him.
“Ellis, Josha’s going to bleed out unless we get her somewhere I can stitch her shut. I need more light. Do you have room on your porch?”
Ellis took a moment to come back from wherever he was and pried his eyes away from the motionless thing on the ground.
“Y-yes. The porch’ll work.”
“Good, carry my satchel for me. Lane, take care of this,” my father said, bending low to scoop his arms beneath Josha. He stood, hoisting the animal’s considerable weight up with him. Josha blatted quietly.
“What do I do with it?” I asked. I was in shock. I knew it and was grateful for it.
“Throw it out behind the barn. Coyotes and wolves’ll take care of it. Come with me, Ellis.”
And with that he walked swiftly down the aisle with Ellis close behind, the older man carrying my father’s bag and moving as if he were in a dream. They melted into the darkness and I was alone with the blood and the two-headed corpse.