Out beyond the big house with its massive Greek columns, behind the brick kitchen, farther than the vegetable garden, below the slave quarters, past the new barn and the fallow lower fields, on the other side of the stacked stone wall, across a muddy lane, along a creek sat the old cabin—the first home place, now abandoned.
Long after everything but the big house had been torn down and replaced with suburban McMansions and the grand home converted into a community clubhouse with a small café and changing rooms for the pool put in out where the kitchen had once been, the old cabin still sat under tall trees, hidden behind a privet hedge that had long gone feral, along what was now called a service road, though it seemed to serve no purpose but to get muddy in the spring and cracked and hard like concrete in late August.
The cabin was small. A six-foot-tall man could lie down on the wooden floor, put his feet against the back wall, and his fingers would have easily reached the front door. He could have touched both walls in the other direction in this manner, as well. There had been plans to add another room, but an unexpected inheritance had made the big house possible just as the family was outgrowing this one. And that was the end of the family’s time in the cabin.
The cabin had two windows, their ancient glass panes wavy but intact. This, also, may have been due to the privet. No errant balls or stones could hit the cabin with enough velocity to break the glass.
In the far, dark corner of the cabin stood an old pie safe, one with tin sides and doors decorated with hex symbols. Surely, though, this piece of furniture must have been a later addition. Why would the family have left something so sturdy and useful behind? Even if they could not have used it, might it not have found a purpose among others on the farm? But if not the family, who would have left it there? The dust was no help. It covered everything in the cabin to the same depth, making the pie safe look contemporary with the window panes.
It’s what was in the pie safe that is of interest, though. Here on the top shelf was a small, ancient doll, its head carved from a wooden block, horsehair escaping its body at the seams. Next to the doll was a half-moon of teeth, laid out according to some secret sacred geometry. The third item was a blue ribbon with an unrecognizable medal at its end. Strangely, though the medal was covered with corrosion, the ribbon still looked as fresh as the day it was made.
The whole of the second shelf was taken up by a crocheted baby blanket, as if someone once set an infant on the shelf, carefully and snuggly wrapped in this afghan, and the baby had long turned to dust, leaving only the blanket behind. Who would have dared move the folded edges of the blanket aside to see what bones may have remained?
On the bottom shelf, there was a big quart jar of marbles, most with the slight dimple that suggested their origin, and a Matchbox Mustang, from a year when they were square and ugly. The only other thing on the shelf was a man’s heart, which had left a dark stain on the wood beneath it. It seemed as if you might, if you touched it, have felt the faint ghost of its beating.
There was a new style over the old stone wall, the wood still fresh and yellow, waiting on someone to purchase the homeowners association–approved specific shade of white, an antique color with hints of yellow and gray in the undertones, picked to match the columns on the big house. There was a plan to dig out a section of the creek to make an “old-fashioned” swimming hole for the community’s residents. It might have needed to be fenced off—codes and all—but the HOA was sure such fencing could be done in a discreet and charming manner.
The swimming hole was planned for the portion of the creek that ran right behind the cabin. Times are different now, it’s true. Some things they used to tear down as a matter of course, they preserve now. But look at this floor! Here, by the door, a board is missing, and this one, right where you’d think to step to bridge the gap, is too weak to hold most people. Generations of swallows have nested in the rafters, using that hole right at the roof’s peak as an entrance. Mice and raccoons and sometimes foxes have taken refuge under the house. Their fleas leap and test all fresh flesh that enters.
This is a place too tempting for children and too dangerous for them. And even if they made it safely across the hazards of the floor, even if the fleas didn’t bother them, even if the birds were away, what of the old pie safe? What mother would want her sweet cherub to come home with those teeth or that Matchbox car, his hands stained from holding this heart?
No, once they learn the cabin still stands, once they cut back the privet for a better look, it’ll be lucky if they just knock the cabin down. More likely, after they open the pie safe, they will burn it to the ground.
One cold morning, when the moon still hangs in the blushing sky, when the mist rolls down out of the hills and flows along the old dirt lane, we may see a breeze catch the fog and toss it swirling up into the vague outline of a man. The eye begs to make order out of chaos and will suggest a human form even in the most inhuman shapes, it’s true. But look here as his knee bends the crease in his gray pants. Look at how his gloved hands tug at his frock coat, as if he has been sitting while traveling and is finally able to adjust his clothing. He checks his top hat next.
Is he going someplace dressed so formally? Just returning? Do the joggers up in the neighborhood see him? Only the sad boy—a discomfort to his parents—in the upstairs window of that far house seems to notice, his mouth a knot of surprise and fear. He does not look away, though. Some part of him suspects he’ll never see the likes of this man again. Not in this life.
Wherever the well-dressed man’s final destination, the old cabin appears to be a necessary stop for him. He climbs the two stone steps to the door, opens it as if it never groans against all other efforts to enter, and navigates across the floor with the assurance of someone who does not fear falling.
He smiles as he touches the door of the pie safe, reminded of something private he shared, but his face falls when he sees the contents of the safe, a story in a language only he can read. There is the doll she brought with her from Virginia. It sat on her tiny lap across the mountains and through the gap. She held it in her arms and comforted it when she, herself, was afraid of death. She came to believe it was very lucky, and she never would have willingly left it behind.
Here are her father’s teeth, the guardians of the tongue that lashed her when she announced her love for the fancy-dressed man. After her father beat her into promising that she would marry only who her father named, there had been an incident, an accident of sorts, which left her father unable to name anyone at all.
Which suited our dandy man just fine, for he had no name.
“I promise to buy you a bunch of blue ribbons. I promise to buy you a bunch of blue ribbons.”
“What color blue?”
“What’s this medal for?”
“It was due me. I promise to buy you a bunch of blue ribbons to tie up your bonney brown hair.”
And here is the blanket that wrapped their first child, who took two breaths and died, nameless. The top-hatted man knows if the afghan is empty. And though he seems to want to touch it, to pick it up, to rub his cheek against it, he does not. Instead, he closes his eyes and for a moment dreams that the child lived. She was never the same after that, and though they had talked often of a large family, he could only bring himself to put her through it once more.
When he felt assured that both she and the second child would live, he left his new family. Surely her brother, who had inherited so well so recently, would take care of her and her daughter.
Our dandy opens the jar full of marbles and pulls one out. Testing its weight in his hand, he has the overwhelming sensation that this had been done before, that some young boy with his same raven-dark hair had often held these marbles in this same manner, knew each one’s size and weight and how it rolled when struck by a shooter.
So his daughter had grown and had children of her own.
And the Matchbox car could only mean a descendant further down the line. Would that child still look something like him? Was there still something wild in the family, some unworldly strain? Or had all trace of him faded from the world?
Here, here is his own heart, which he cut out and left with her when he could bear his love for her no longer. Should he take it back? It appears to still be in working order. He still felt the ache of its absence and so he knows it would fit once more in his chest.
And yet, retrieving it would be a lie of sorts, a claim that his heart was no longer hers. When, even now, he would dig her up and knock her bones together to hear some sound of her. He would drape himself in her jerkied flesh and run his tongue along the curve of her skull, dirt and putrid rot no concern to him. He would howl until every coyote for sixty miles cried with him. And he would sing the song that could bring her back.
Except he promised her he would not. Promised her that he would let her live and die and stay dead as an ordinary woman. And he, so in love, agreed. And he, so in love, still, abides by that promise.
There is no saving the cabin. Men wrap the feral privet in chains and drag each bush from the ground by truck. The arching trees, children of those that fell to make the cabin, succumb to chainsaws in an afternoon. One is left to serve as a bench for the bathers who will need to rest when the swimming hole is complete, and when it falls, the weight of it hitting the ground breaks the windows in the cabin.
The cabin comes down with a nudge from a Bobcat, crumples to the ground like a woman in grief. A handful of marbles roll toward the creek and rest now, presumably, at the bottom of the swimming hole. The other things—the rest of the story of their life—end up in a dumpster and then in a landfill.
Only a handful of summers go by before the dapper man returns, rolling out of the early morning mist like a dream half-remembered. He smiles to himself as he strolls down the lane until he fails to reach the cabin.
And now he does howl, cries like a dog left behind. He stands waist-deep in the swimming hole that occupies the place where his heart used to rest, flailing his arms until the water foams around him. The boy who saw him once before is grown now. The young man sees him from his parents’ kitchen window and the young man shakes his parents awake, begs them to flee with him, and, when they will not deign to even humor him, he leaves them behind and drives to Kentucky.
The police will question him, after they pull the six boys from the swimming hole, their blue bodies lifeless, black fingerprint bruises at their ankles. But he is, indeed, back at school and has been for days when the incident occurs. The terrible accident. He will say he saw a man, impossibly thin, impossibly tall, as graceful as a dancer. Had he seen him before? And what had he noticed about him then?
“He terrified me,” he will say. “I thought he was a ghost or a demon or something.” But his cheeks will flush.
Out beyond the big house with its massive Greek columns, behind the pool, farther than the tennis courts, past the library, beyond the far cul-de-sac, below the rose garden, on the other side of the stacked stone wall, across a muddy service road, along a creek, near the abandoned swimming hole sits a fat log.
On the log sits a thin man who has no heart. Next to him sits a young man whose curiosity has overcome his fear. The past is gone and irretrievable. When the young man offers him his hand, he takes it. When the man in formal attire asks his name, he tells it. When the mist finally clears, they are gone.
Betsy Phillips is the author of A City of Ghosts. She’s published stories in Apex Magazine and Qarrtsiluni. She’s working on a fictional occult history of Nashville, involving a werewolf, an unambitious devil, and the people they bother.