by Spencer Allen
We’d lived on Dad’s farm all my life, though my first seven years were spent in the old blue house down the gravel road. As the farm prospered, we built a new house next to the main road, which was eventually paved and sold over to new constructions and a trailer park a quarter-mile away. Now the dying farmhouse just rusts and rots. For a while the deer hunters in our family used it as a cabin, but anymore it’s just an abandoned skeleton from my early childhood.
The catfish pond lay fifty yards behind the old house, which meant that to find it from our new home we had to trudge through the high weeds of the cow pasture and through a small arm of woods that stretched up from the valley. A modest pond, it sat inconspicuously under the shadow of a few old Chinese elms. The weeds grew high, hiding the barbed wire fence Dad put up to keep the cows from falling in, which had apparently happened more than once before he took the initiative.
This pond is where I learned about death.
Beyond the pond, a field of timothy hay spread over several acres of Dad’s land. Standing by the water, it is impossible to see where the large field ends, and it appears to be a never-ending ocean of waving green. And then an ocean of waving brown later in the season.
Dad never tended to the pond much after the move, except to drive down and throw some feed in every other day. It was my favorite thing to do, sometimes. He’d grab a large stick and beat on the five-gallon plastic bucket. Thud, thud when he had just refilled it. Thong, thong when the bucket was nearly emptied. This would call the catfish to the edge, where he and I would fill our fists with little brown balls of feed and toss them to the tiny slit mouths opening in the water.
But like I said, he didn’t tend to it more than that – never kept a variety of fish in the pond, so the catfish eventually ate or crowded everything else out. The aggressive younger ones snatched all of Dad’s food until the older, bigger cats disappeared. And what was left wasn’t even worth fishing for. So the only time we made it down was to feed, and eventually that became my job when I was old enough to drive the four-wheeler by myself.
I did get into frogging a bit when I was ten. If nothing else, the pond was home to some decent-sized bullfrogs. My little sister Sarah hated the thought of eating them, and I think that spurred me on more than anything. I had a good catch one night, but not enough to feed all of us, even if Sarah didn’t eat any.
“I’m going out again tonight,” I told Dad as we ate supper in the dusty evening glow pouring in through the patio door. “I’ll get enough for our whole supper tomorrow.”
He smiled and nodded. “I’m hungry already. You better come back with a sack full.”
“Can I go frogg’n?” My six-year-old brother Taylor asked. He asked this every time I went – becoming an adventurer already.
“There’s not enough for both of you,” Mom said. “Maybe next spring.” When he started whining, Mom made up some other, equally pitiful excuse. Her real fear was that Taylor would fall in the water, and I wouldn’t be strong enough to pull his squirrelly body out.
I whispered that we’d go camping together in the fall, and that calmed him some.
“I’m eating grilled cheese,” Sarah muttered. “Catch all the frogs and eat them now so we can be rid of ‘em.” She was doodling on a notebook and held it up for me to see a hastily scribbled frowning face, its slobbering tongue bidding me good-riddance. Blonde and blue, she looked more like our mom. I was dark, like Dad, with his strong nose and chin.
When the sun had dropped, I took the flashlight and the burlap bag, which was still damp from the night before. My gig lay across the patio table on the deck. Unlatching the gate at the back of our yard, I kick-started the four-wheeler and took it down the path to the pond, going slowly because the bumps and dips took me by surprise in the dark, as much as I knew the way. Sarah’s silhouette pressed against the glass, watching me go.
Stopping the rumbling four-wheeler at the edge of the small stretch of woods, I wanted to avoid scaring the frogs back into the water. A cool night, the air smelled moist. I hoped the heavy clouds would hold back until I had gone home. Something in the woods, probably a deer, darted deep into the tangled black when snapped a branch as I stumbled in.
The woods scared me more than I wanted to admit. Part of the reason I went was to force myself past the fear, so I could be like Dad, who didn’t seem afraid of anything. Still, the quiet was louder than any noise I could make. I kept waiting for eyes, big “bulbous” eyes, as Tolkien described them in the Mirkwood Forest. The moon seemed all chopped to bits through the thin branches and leaves of the treetops. There were shadows even in the dark, and I held my gig like a spear, ready to impale anything that jumped at me as I crossed. My little brother Taylor and I had found a dead dog decaying alongside our road a month back. The flies swarmed on the sticky black-red of its face, landing on its exposed eyeball, and on the permanent snarl of death. As I passed through the woods, this is what I imagined jumping at me from the brush – an animal as decayed as this dog, the flies swarming around its patchy body as it bit into me again and again.
This is when I saw the woman standing at the pond.
The moon was to her face, so her body was just a dark shape beneath the touch of the elm tree’s lowest limb. I froze, my heart pounding, and clung to a trunk. Something crawled across my fingers and down my arm, but I was too scared to shake it. Too scared that I would make a noise, and the woman would turn and see me watching her. Her eyes would glow. I knew that she was a devil, and that her glowing yellow eyes would paralyze me in her stare. Come here, she would say as her face became a decaying dog. Come here and let me hold you. Taste you.
Then I saw the farmhouse, its window dark and the English Ivy nearly overtaking one entire side of it. With deep breaths, I rationalized as much of the fear away as I could. She was homeless, probably, living in our old farmhouse without realizing that sometimes little boys wandered down here to spear frogs.
Her gray hair glistened in the moonlight and the wind flirted with her long, silk gown – much too nice of a gown for a homeless woman. Though my heart was pounding, she was an old woman, and I had a gig. I wanted to be able to return to the house and tell my dad I had handled the situation. Wanted him to see me as an adult, so I could be in the loft with him this fall, not rolling bales out in the fields with my little cousins.
“Hey,” I called, stepping from the woods. She heard me and turned, her face still a shadow. Fingering the flashlight, I let the beam dangle at my feet as I walked close, but not too near. “You’re on our property, you know. Need to get outta here.”
“I’m going back to get my dad. You’d better be gone outta here ‘fore we get back. Understand? You don’t want my dad down here.”
Then she held her arms out to me.
I did the only thing that made sense then. I lifted the flashlight and let the light fall on her face. It was my grandma, her pale skin untouched by make-up. Her eyes, gray. She looked asleep, save that she was standing upright next to the pond.
Screaming, I turned and ran through the woods toward where I had parked the four-wheeler, stumbling more than once on some vine or rock I could not see with my dancing flashlight. I kept expecting to feel Grandma’s wrinkled hands grab me from behind and pull me into the dark, where the last thing I would hear would be the flies swarming and feeding and buzzing.
When I returned to the house, my father was on the deck. He was smoking, which he rarely did anymore. I threw gravel against the propane tank as I roared onto our drive, forgetting to lock the gate after me. The cool wind and fierce ride had done more to calm my nerves than I realized, and as I jogged up the deck, into my dad’s somber stare, I knew what he was going to tell me.
“Aunt Judy just called,” he told me.
A stood there, trembling.
“Your grandma –” Then he just nodded and flicked his cigarette over the railing. “I expect you’ll help me carry the casket.”
“Yes sir.” I wanted to be a man now, but my eyes were wet and I couldn’t help it. I could see Mom on the phone, her forehead in her hand. Her head shaking slowly. Taylor, on her lap, didn’t understand death yet, and played with the phone cord, wrapping it around his finger.
I don’t know whether the pond was meant to be a gift or a curse to me. I don’t know what I did to deserve either, but Grandma was not the first to wait for me there. Over the years, everyone I knew stopped there when they died. Great aunts and uncles I barely knew. Friends of our family. Even Ms. Thomas, my sixth grade teacher, whose boyfriend killed her with a car iron when she tried to leave him. For a while I thought it was a patch of heaven by that pond, or maybe limbo. Once I tried to bring Sarah down with me after our priest had a heart attack, but there were only dragonflies and little catfish mouths that opened in the water when she beat on the bucket.
I also don’t know where they went after we finished saying good-bye, but I liked to picture them turning and floating through the field of timothy, where heaven would be waiting on the other side.
None of them spoke. If there were final wishes or unresolved conflicts, they were lost on me. But when I would talk, sometimes spending hours on a large rock, wiping tears and saying good-bye, a nod or soft smile let me know they heard. I never came near enough to touch, except once, though all of them reached to me, wanting me to pull into their embrace. Whatever they were – ghosts, spirits, angels – I didn’t want to touch them and made this clear by turning my eyes down to the water.
If I looked at their sad eyes after refusing the embrace, I knew I’d be cursing myself with the image for the rest of my life.
Then Sarah died.
This happened when she was sixteen and I was twenty. After telling Mom and Dad that she was staying the weekend with her best friend, she sneaked her sleeping bag into the car and met her boyfriend for a camping trip with his buddies.
We had grown close through the teenage years. Maturing past brother-sister rivalry, I took on a very protective role. If I’d known her boyfriend asked her to go camping with him, I probably would have clocked the guy myself. Sarah loved it. She loved teasing me about becoming Dad so early in life or mocking me playfully as I tried telling her to watch her crazy driving or to stay away from alcohol when they were on the river. She didn’t understand, of course, how afraid I was that I might have to walk down to the pond some day, and say good-bye.
She died late that Friday night, when her group was circled around a campfire toasting marshmallows and playing a version of truth or dare that I don’t even want to know about. Sarah stumbled into the woods, and I can just imagine the catcalls her boyfriend and the others would have been yelling after her. I can picture her flipping them off with a smile as she drifted down a path.
Most of this is speculation, of course. Maybe there wasn’t truth or dare or marshmallows. But there was a den of hibernating rattlesnakes, and when her foot slipped into it, even the newborns broke her skin. Her boyfriend came running just in time to see her collapse in the dirt. I hope he never forgives himself.
By late afternoon Tuesday, we had just come back from the funeral. Mom busied herself with laying out dishes from church as I took a walk to the pond. I was dating Angie by then, but I told her I needed to be alone. They should eat without me, I assured her. I would be back before dark.
It had been a long walk through the pasture and woods, but I needed time to think about what I would say to her.
She was beautiful at the water’s edge, so natural, as if she were just feeding the catfish for Dad (a job she shared with Taylor when I moved out of the house). Her clothes, jean shorts, and a T-shirt had been the same that she wore camping.
The red and yellow evening spread across the water’s surface. It looked like something an artist would have painted from memory, after glorifying it in his own mind. The moldy smell of the small pond filled the air, tinted with something sweet that Sarah had worn for her boyfriend. The timothy had just been cut and lay below us in windrows that should have been turned two days ago.
“Sarah,” I said. “It was beautiful. Everything was beautiful.” I never knew how to begin these conversations but over time decided that the dead would want to know how their funeral had gone. “Dad cried. He stepped out of the room so none of us would see, but I know he was crying.”
She smiled and nodded. Her blonde hair had grown long, and she often wore it loose, dangling down below her shoulders. It tossed in the wind. That’s how I knew that, if I dared, I could touch her. I could have touched all of them – held them one last time before leaving them there.
“They put you in the dress you wore to my graduation – the blue one with the maroon flowers. I think that was the worst part for me, seeing you in that dress. I’ll think about it whenever I look at my graduation picture.”
I started to cry then. “Father read –” I stumbled over the words, stood, and kicked through the weeds, rubbing the wet away from me eyes. Then I realized how selfish it was. These were my final moments with Sarah, a gift that only I seemed to be given, and I was wasting it away with pride.
“Father read a very nice gospel.” I swallowed, continued. “It was from John, I think. ‘In my father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so . . .’” I couldn’t finish; the words came out marbled and broken.
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you myself, so that where I am you also may be.
As I remembered the last of the verse, Sarah raised her arms to me, inviting me to her. I realized that she – that all of them – had come for me, to take me back with them. They had come to lead me across the field of timothy.
As I sat there before her, listening to the wind rustle through the treetops and the splash of something in the water, I was not sure that I was ready to give it all up.
“Sarah –” Her moist eyes asked me to please come into her arms. “There’s so much here still. So much that I’ve promised. Angie –” But she stood there, her arms unfaltering. If this terrible moment was to end, it would have to be because I stood up and left.
There were still so many reasons for me to walk back up that pasture and begin to grieve. So many things tried to hold me back. Angie, waiting for me to take her into marriage and children. Mom and Dad, who needed me to take them into old age. Taylor most of all . . . but in the end there was simply Sarah – standing before me, asking her big brother to take her through the toughest journey yet.
When I slipped into her arms, I’m not sure what I expected. Something cold, perhaps. Something stiff and unnatural, scented with the heavy make-up of the dead. Maybe another smell underneath from the fluids they had used to fill her body.
Instead, it was simply the small warm girl I hadn’t seen in almost two weeks since I last came home to visit. She held me tightly, her moist cheek rubbing against my neck, tickles of her soft blonde brushing across my face.
I almost didn’t feel the first bite.
On my ankle, a sudden sharpness that made me jump from her. Sarah stepped toward me, her arms pleading. “Trent,” her lips asked without sound. I watched for a moment as the small red bites appeared over her legs. “Trent,” she asked again, this time with her soft blue eyes.
Swallowing, I stepped back into her. For every bite she had suffered that night, the stinging pain entered my legs and flashed through my body until there was a numbness so great I couldn’t even feel the ground under me. It felt as if we were floating, and I looked down, expecting to see Dad’s farm hundreds of feet below.
“This is almost over,” I whispered to her, my voice weak, but immediately I felt that I had lied. What if it was never over? What if this was Hell because I had crossed some supernatural line by touching her?
As her head fell back into a scream, I felt her very substance dissipating. My arms slowly lost purchase on her back until I stumbled forward – through her – and fell to the ground, my legs still throbbing from a pain that was, very quickly, fading away. I wouldn’t have noticed the pain anyway as I stared at my transformed little sister, whose brilliance increased until she was simply a blur of white and yellow and blue.
What remained was beautiful. Sarah, shed of her mortality, cast a radiant reflection on the calm of the pond.
“Thank you.” I felt her soft voice within me as she drifted from the pond, down the hill, and across the field of timothy.
She had not wanted to take me with her – I had misunderstood her plea. I don’t know what made me so unique, so susceptible them, but all of the dead had been coming to me to help them shed the last of their mortality. To rid them of the pain and horror of their final moments alive so they could pass into perfect tranquility.
Her brilliant glow melted into the setting sun, and after a moment’s prayer, I turned to go home. Then I saw that they had returned. All of them. Deep in the crowd of dead ambling toward the pond, I saw my grandma, her radiant smile full of the understanding and hope that I could now release them.
“I can’t do it again,” I cried. “It was too much.” The physical pain had not bothered me near as much as the knowledge of what Sarah had gone through in her final seconds alive. “I can’t do this for all of you.” Sobbing now, I couldn’t bear their desperate faces. Hundreds of humble smiles drifting up every side of the hill, coming from the woods and from across the gravel road for me to release them. “I can’t do this for all of you.”
Hundreds became thousands, now. Most of them strangers, here for the one who could send them home. Old men and young. Women, some holding their babies. Children, far too many children.
“I can’t do this,” I whimpered, stepping up to the first. My second-cousin Jeanie had died when her house burned to the ground. Slipping into her arms, I tried not to scream as invisible flames ate at my skin, which turned black and split apart in those seconds that I released her soul from this world.
I wondered how many more. Was there nobody else to help them? Would I be the one to release my mom and dad? Taylor? Mostly, though, I wondered if there would be anyone to come down to the pond when I, in turn, needed to cross the field of timothy.