As I sit here now beside my pond and watch the autumn fog dance along the water, and as the leaves whisper and chatter to one another as the wind lets them, I think of my wife, and how sorry I am I can’t live the rest of my days here like she wanted.
On our little 12-acre farm. Our little quiet heaven, or at least that’s what it was supposed to be.
But the land holds secrets.
I know now, without a lingering question in my heart, that Hell exists.
I wish that gave me comfort because that means that Diana is waiting for me at our next quiet little heaven, one that doesn’t mock the search for peace, but it doesn’t.
Once the sun winks its red eye closed and retires for the evening I’ll be gone from this place. But there are two things I need to do first, and one of them is to write this down before I put it behind me forever.
Although, a part deep inside of me, the part that can’t be lied to, knows that the curtain will never close on me again no matter where I go.
Knows that I’m forever and always awake.
Cancer took her last year. She was thirty-seven. There are a million words in me I could say about losing her. The shock, the denial, the hope, the hope lost, and the twinkle in her eyes that was lost with it.
The pain. Those nonsense last words. The last breath…
She’s gone now. That’s all that matters.
We’d bought a twelve-acre homestead in Southern Illinois to escape the city. The house had been built in 1898 as a colonial revival home and was more or less falling apart, but there was this secluded, rural charm about it. It sat on a strip of land several miles off of any main road, with fields used for harvesting corn nestling the house on either side and behind it was a fenced-in pasture that shot back into the woods, which was perfect for our two horses.
When we did the tour we sat on the porch and looked out at what might’ve been the most peaceful view we’d ever seen, with fields of wheat yawning and bowing in the wind like a sea of gold across from us. I could see in her eyes that she was in love, and so we made our minds up to make an offer right then and there.
During the final walkthrough, the sellers had forgotten they’d changed the locks (they were going through what was apparently a rough divorce) and our agent had to call the estranged wife in to give us access to the home.
She was amiable enough when she arrived and gave us a handful of apologies for not remembering to provide a new set of keys, but what struck me as odd, even then, was that she had seemed reluctant to step onto the property at all. She parked her car on the gravel road about one-hundred feet in front of the house and talked to us from there, and when she wasn’t sure which key it was on her keychain to hand to us, she looked disquieted. She walked briskly to the house and fumbled with her keys and the deadbolt until she finally found the right one, and opened the door without walking in, pulling her hand away from the doorknob like it was something hot to the touch.
She said something about needing to get some fresh air, told the agent to bring her keys after locking up, and then hurried back to her car.
I thought there may have just been bad memories of the marriage that she didn’t want to revisit, or that she maybe felt awkward, or that she was intruding. It all makes sense now.
We knew we had our work cut out for us from the beginning, and when we settled in it was one thing after another: leaking toilets, bad insulation, water damage — but we were happy. Diana got sick not long after, but I’m truly grateful for that short period of time when we would work on our old farmhouse, drink coffee and watch the sunrise from our front porch, taking in all of the life around us.
After she passed, her sister took her horses as agreed, as well as our two dogs temporarily. It wasn’t my original plan but I was taking everything pretty hard and just needed to be alone for a while; just needed some quiet, which I didn’t get anyway because of the damned wind, with its constant howling and moaning through the windows.
My drinking was bad. There are large gaps in my memory, especially right after. I drank from the bottle like the evening’s watery haze would drink me in return, hoping it would dissolve me into nothing.
One morning, I’d woken up to a massive hangover that felt like it couldn’t be cured by anything other than the sun and a walk, so I threw on some coveralls and went on into the woods behind the property. I’d known there was a stream or a creek of some kind that ran East through it, but the thorns and brush were so overgrown I couldn’t see through more than ten or so feet. There was a supposed path of some kind that led to the stream, and I thought if I could just push my way through enough, I’d eventually run into it.
It only took me about five minutes until an overgrown – but – manageable clearing revealed itself and led me to the small stream, a steady flow of water running through it. It was only about six or so inches deep but had carved its own winding path deep into the dirt over the years.
I followed, thinking I’d see the tracks of various animals nearby that came to drink from it, and I did. I continued on and in the water, I started seeing these broken fragments of bottles. They were old; very old; softened and smoothed by water and sediment and time. They were the kind of bottles you’d see on a movie set in some 19th-century period piece film, with deep brown and emerald glass with all of those gaudy, oblong angles, like some sort of snake oil elixir.
There were just a few scattered fragments at first, but the further I trudged on, the more abundant the shards became until I came to the stream’s watershed, and just beyond that was an opening in the ground that looked like some sort of den, big enough to walk in if I crouched. There must’ve been a dozen or so broken bottles in front of it. It was like someone had dumped them in a hurry all at once, or had drunk them in unison and then smashed them for some reason.
Jutting out of the sand in the water, was a green bottle that seemed like it had remained intact over the years. It had two circular finger handles on either side of its neck and some kind of impressed label in the glass, but the letters were immersed and I couldn’t make them out.
I pulled it free and rinsed it in the water, and I was just able to make out the smoothed letters stamped into the glass: Arsenic.
Bottles of poison… but why? Why here? And how had this been here all these years without being found or picked up by hunters or one of the previous owners? I reached into my pocket to take a picture of the whole scene with my phone but realized I had forgotten it.
The hole bellowed at me as if commanding me to gaze into its swallowing darkness, and although I couldn’t see anything, I felt I was being watched from within it.
A coldness crawled up my spine. I shoved the bottle into the big front pocket of my coveralls and made my way back, not being able to help but check behind me several times along the way.
When I got back to the house, I poured myself a neat glass of whiskey. It was still early in the afternoon, but hunting for little treasures on the land was something Diana had loved to do, and so the thought of coming across such a strange find made the antique arsenic bottle quite heavy in my pocket. I thought I’d lighten it with bourbon.
I placed the old, green bottle on my coffee table and sat across from it on my couch, and I sipped my drink. I stared at it in my quiet, empty house, quiet save for the wind. I sipped again. It was so interesting. I thought deeply on how it got there; how it hadn’t been found in — well, I don’t know. One hundred-thirty years, maybe more? I knew arsenic had been used in tonics and pesticides before they knew how deadly it was, but it just seemed such a strange place for them to be.
I thought maybe the isolation and grief had made me paranoid. I sipped my drink again. I poured another glass, and then a few more. The room went orange as the low sun came through the glass and the wind howled through the poorly-sealed windows.
The old poison bottle had entranced me, and in staring at it I’d lost track of time. Things went soft around the edges and the whiskey numbed my tongue, glass after glass, but I remember at some point I’d imagined it had comforted me; spoken to me with silent words.
Drink it had said.
Drink it in.
And I did. It knew my pain and wanted it gone.
I sunk into the bottle and faded with the evening.
I awoke on the couch with a massive hangover, the bottle still staring. An empty one that had housed the whisky the night before now rested beside it.
I fumbled around in the medicine cabinet for some spare aspirin and forced them down with some water from the sink, and went to the front porch to sit in my favorite chair and catch some crisp morning air.
When I stepped outside, I noticed that the chair had been turned around, toward the windows, facing right into my living room where I had slept the night before.
It had been pulled close to the glass, almost like whoever was sitting in it wanted to be as close as possible to get a better view of the inside.
It had to have been me, I’d thought. But why the hell would I do that?
The wind had been howling and was known to blow things around, sometimes clear into the yard, but this chair was made out of cured oak and weighed thirty, maybe forty pounds. It didn’t seem likely to have moved it.
This heavy, floral smell clung to the wood, like some sort of gaudy lavender perfume you’d find buried in some box in your grandmother’s basement.
Not thinking of the absurdity of it, I went back inside and sniffed the mouth of the old bottle. Nothing but the remnant smell of water.
The pain from the hangover pulled the turned chair to the back of my mind. I had been in a drunken stupor and could’ve fumbled around out there, doing God knows what. I only managed to make it a few hours before heading to the liquor store to grab another bottle.
I sat back on my couch, across from the old green bottle and its drained companion from the night before, and I drank in silence, just like it wanted me to.
Sometime during the night, maybe eleven or so but It’s hard to say, I was very drunk, I was browsing my phone from my couch, and three soft knocks tapped at my door.
I didn’t see any car lights come down the gravel road that ran adjacent to my house. Maybe one of the neighbors needed something, I’d thought.
For reasons I can’t quite comprehend, I offered a consulting glance at the bottle on the table. It told me to answer in its wordless way, and I listened.
I got up and went for the door, flipping the light switch to the porch on and remembering there had been a short in the wires from mice or something. I opened it.
There stood a thin young woman, faintly bathed in what little light the only lamp in the living offered. It was hard to make out her features, but she looked like she might have been in her early to mid-twenties. Her hair was long and looked like it could’ve been a light brown, draping halfway down her back. She wore this white embroidered nightgown that might have been beautiful, except even in the timid light I could see dirt on it in several places.
The shadows hid much of her face, but even then she looked pallid, her eyes bringing about this astounded look on her face as if she were confused or lost.
I stood there with my drink in my hand, unsure of what to say or how to address such a strange and unexpected visitation in the middle of the night.
She said that she was sorry for disturbing me, but that she was looking for her dog. She said she lived about a mile down the road and had been hearing prairie wolves the past few nights, and her dog had run off into the woods and was nowhere to be found. She said she was getting very worried they might have tricked him into chasing after them.
I told her I hadn’t seen or heard of any coyotes and then asked her about the dog. She said he was a collie and his name was Copper. I looked down and noticed she didn’t have any shoes on and her feet were covered in mud.
“Did… you go running through the woods in a gown without shoes on to look for him?” I asked her.
She glanced down and studied her muddied feet with that same surprised look and said nothing.
I thought maybe she was drunk or medicated, but she looked harmless and the whiskey had always made me well-disposed. I told her to wait a moment and I’d go get a towel so she could wipe her feet off and could come inside and warm up for a moment. Then, we’d take a spotlight to go looking for him.
As I reached to close the door handle and grab a towel, I noticed her eyes, so dazed and cloudy and confused before, now sprung alive in the dark with a distilled intensity, focusing in on the green arsenic bottle that sat on my coffee table.
She took a single, eager step toward it, stopping just before my doorway. I held my hand out to halt her, a little startled by the approach but still attempting to be polite.
She gave a sheepish grin and shook her head, “I’m deeply sorry. The cold has made me too eager for warmth this evening,” she said.
It was so fast I could’ve easily missed it, but as she smiled I noticed the inside of her upper lip stuck to her teeth, lagging on one side before breaking free as if her mouth had been exceptionally dry. The flesh of her lips looked — harder than usual; stiffer, thin slivers of her dark gums revealing themselves. The whiskey had dulled my senses, but when she stepped in closer, I also noticed a lavender perfume smell on her and thought of the chair outside.
She could’ve just been dehydrated for all I knew, but the whole thing just felt off; felt wrong. I closed the door and caught her glance at the bottle with that same look again, unable to will her eyes from peering at it.
I stood there for a moment, hand still on the doorknob, and then flicked the deadbolt locked with careful fingers.
I thought about calling the police at that instant.
It was weird, sure, but I’d ran out after our dogs half-dressed, with no shoes on before when they chased deer or a passing car or something, so it wasn’t unthinkable.
But that smell. There was no mistaking it.
Behind me, I could feel the bottle was displeased.
Let her in.
I shook my head at it and then downed the rest of my drink. “No.”
“Pardon?” I could hear her say from the other side of the door.
“Actually, I’m very sorry, but it’s late. I can call someone for you if you like. I’ll keep an eye out for Copper and will take him to your house if he turns up. Which house did you say it was down the road again?”
There was a pause that felt like an eternity. “Oh,” she said, finally, not answering my question. “That’s a shame.”
She sounded disappointed. Not angry or insulted, just let down. I opened my mouth to apologize again, but the words never managed to crawl out of it.
The lamp’s dim light didn’t reach far enough to illuminate the porch through the windows, but in the darkness, I thought I could see the silhouette of a head tilt its way into view from the side of the windows the front door had been butted up against. The soft creaks of graceful bare feet on wooden steps groaned as she left the porch and she walked into the night without saying another word.
I grabbed my nine-millimeter and made my way around the other doors to double-check the locks. My mind was reeling; trying to process what had just happened. “Prarie wolves…” I said to myself as I poured more bourbon into my glass. Who calls them that these days?”
A part of me felt guilty. Maybe I’d just sent a poor girl with a missing dog back into the cold, but her mouth; that perfumed smell on her that saturated my chair the night before; how she looked at the green bottle on my table.
My heart pounded in my chest. I didn’t think she could pose any real physical threat to me, but I felt uneasy. Un-alone. I took another drink from the glass.
I pulled my phone out to call the police, trying my best to stay out of the line of sight of the front windows. Although I’d heard her walk off moments earlier, I couldn’t help but feel naked through the glass. I got ready to dial the local station’s number, but the old green bottle beckoned me over to it.
Drink it had said. And I did. I thumbed my phone back into my pocket and sunk back into the couch, and drank myself into an empty void.
Three empty bottles greeted me from the table in the morning, the newest member laying on its side.
I was on the floor.
Even with the throbbing headache, I thought of the strange woman, and how I managed to get drunk instead of calling the police. I looked around. The house was trashed. I hadn’t cleaned it in weeks; hadn’t even swept up the clumps of dog hair that accumulated in the corners of the rooms and under the furniture from months before.
And now my drinking had gotten so bad, I couldn’t even manage to call the police before blacking out.
Diana would’ve been heartbroken if she’d seen this. She hated my drinking. I let shame hit me like a puff of heavy smoke, and then I called the sheriff. As I dialed I could still feel that green arsenic bottle pulling my gaze toward it, weighing the room down from that coffee table and anchoring everything in place, drawing me in like a dancing fire in the dark.
The sheriff came by not long after and I told her what had happened the night before; that a strange young woman was knocking on my door in the middle of the night but hadn’t actually done anything illegal that I could be sure of, but that she might have been trespassing on my property the previous night and might have been on drugs.
I told the sheriff where the woman said she came from and asked her if she knew any of the homes along the road the woman had described to me. She said there was only one within a few miles on that particular stretch, but the house had been condemned twenty or so years.
She said drugs had gotten pretty bad in the neighboring town, and it was possible the problem had made its way to the more rural parts of the area.
She told me she would ask around in the area to see if any of the other homes experienced anything similar and then offered to check in throughout the night.
I told her it wasn’t necessary and that I had plenty of guns in the house to protect myself with if it came to that.
After the sheriff left, I uncorked my bottle and poured a glass. I just needed to take the edge off. When I looked over at the coffee table I noticed the antique bottle was gone.
Panicked, I searched the house for it for fifteen or so minutes before I realized I’d put it in my coat pocket before the sheriff came by earlier, just to keep it close.
A few hours later, as the sun was going down, I went around back near the gated strip that led to our pond and pasture that was butted up against the woods, where Diana’s horses used to be.
There had been some equipment I’d left out there for weeks and there was supposed to be a storm coming that evening, and so I’d wanted to move everything into the barn.
When I got back to the gate I noticed it had been opened, which was something I never did, even with the horses gone. In the fading light, I made out… footprints, along a thin beaten path that ran through the center of the strip where the horses used to walk up to get feed.
Bare footprints, from small bare feet. She had walked through the woods, through the pasture to come knocking on my door.
I thought I could make out at least two sets going both toward the house and then back down the path again, but with overcast blocking the moon and stars it was getting hard to see anything.
I followed the footprints two hundred or so yards until I could see them cut down into the pasture and to the gate that led into the woods.
It had also been left open. I reached for the old green bottle for comfort and realized I’d left it in the house.
I needed my gun. I needed my gun and I needed to call the sheriff, and I needed that god damned bottle.
I began making my way back to the house when I saw the woman, walking past the pond and the mausoleum where Diana rested, and heading toward the house. She would’ve been impossible to make out in the dark if it weren’t for that white gown.
I yelled out to her and started running before tripping over some broken wire fencing that was on the ground. She either ignored me or couldn’t hear my voice through the rustling corn, which had begun to move with the wind from the oncoming storm.
I was just too far away from her. She made her way to the house with this calm grace and then went around it to the front. I realized my gun had been on my table, in plain sight, and I hadn’t locked my door.
I’d been drinking until I was numb, just like that fucking bottle had told me to; made myself careless and stupid.
There were hammers and a machete in the barn, but it was in the opposite direction and by the time I grabbed one of them she could easily have been inside the house for a minute, maybe more. The best thing I could find on the way was a little trench shovel in the garden. I grabbed it.
When I got around to the front of the house, the door had been cracked half-open. She’d gone inside. The wind blew harder and began its howling, now carrying cold pellets of rain that stung as they hit my face.
My legs didn’t want to approach the house, but slowly, I did, that middle step to the porch creaking the loudest it ever had, even in the wind and the rain.
I pushed the door open further with the tip of the shovel. The whiskey bottles that had made themselves so comfortable next to the old green poison bottle were scattered about the floor, the green bottle gone. The gun was still sitting there, untouched. I grabbed it. I looked around for my phone but didn’t see it in sight.
I could hear her walking around upstairs, in what sounded like Diana’s office. I aimed my gun into the darkness toward the top of the stairs and yelled out to her: “Come out of there! I’ll fucking shoot you if I have to.”
The creaking floorboards stopped for a moment, and then she walked out onto the landing; an obscure phantom in the dark, except for the faint lunar glow of her gown; except for the whites in her confounded eyes.
She had the bottle in her hands and she seemed to be crying. Her hands were shaking. “… Don’t drop it,” I said lowly; eagerly.
She tilted the bottle up above her head and stuck her tongue in the opening of its neck, desperate for something that hadn’t been inside of it for well over a century.
Her tongue made this squelching noise as she did it, as if it were much, much too dry. She gave me a distraught look and cried harder.
The wind moaned through the windows; through the darkness of the house. I’d never felt more alone in my life.
“Why isn’t it working, Elijah?” She asked me from the top of the stairs. I didn’t know what to say, nor did I have any clue who Elijah was. The woman had clearly lost her mind. I had to make sure she put the bottle down before she broke it.
“Come on down. We’ll just talk about it.”
She cradled the bottle tighter, taking slow steps down the staircase and stopping at its base. “It didn’t work for me,” she said in the dark, sobbing as the words left her.
I lowered my gun and reached for the lamp on the island in the kitchen near the foot of the stairs, and for the first time, I truly saw her.
She wasn’t much more than an emaciated skeleton. Her skin was hardened and yellowed and pulled tight to her. She looked… she looked not much different than Diana did on her hospice bed just before the end. No doubt If I would’ve left her in her bed a few days after she’d passed away, they would’ve been hard to tell apart.
I should’ve been terrified and a part of me was, but she looked so helpless; so pitiful, like a child holding a teddy bear. This overwhelming sensation of sadness filled me.
“Why did it work for you and not me, Elijah?” She asked me again. I set my gun on the table.
I thought for a moment about whether or not to correct her on who I was, and decided it didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do.
I asked her what she meant. Her eyes sobered like she realized I wasn’t whoever this person was for a moment, and then she retreated.
“It calls to me, but why am I still here and you’re not?” I didn’t respond, but I felt her words. I’d felt them in me every day since Diana had gone.
“And the others?” She asked
I began crying with her.
“I’m so sorry.”
At this, she regarded me, then winced with a tender pain and looked away. She tried drinking from the bottle again in vain. I reached out and touched her arm gently to stop her. Her skin was cold and hard.
She sobered her gaze once more, and for a moment the faintest smile rose on her face, and then she retreated again for the last time, into whatever life she had known when she was still alive.
I guided her gently to the door, her bottle still cradled close to her, and stood in the doorway as she left. I wanted to hold onto it more than anything, but it didn’t belong to me.
I asked her, “Was there ever even a Copper at all?”
“Have you seen him?” She asked.
I shook my head. She turned and moved around the house. I walked into the yard and to the side and watched her go on, back through the pasture and into the woods, the rain and the wind blowing her hair and gown like wild rags. She never looked back once.
And then she was gone.
The next few days I did a deep dive into county records, trying to find anyone that ever owned a home in the area named Elijah, but nothing turned up. It was as if she – and whoever Elijah was – never existed at all.
I don’t know exactly what happened to her, but I feel like she was warning me in the only way she was capable, to avoid whatever Hell she had found herself in.
Every day I fight the urge to go back into those woods and see if that bottle is back where I found it. I catch myself walking towards the trees that lead to the stream; to that hole, and inevitably to that bottle.
But I don’t dare go in.
She’d no doubt come looking to reclaim it, like she’s likely done many times before. And if she didn’t, I don’t think I’ll be strong enough to part with it again.
Which is why I’m writing this. I said that I have two things to do before I leave, and writing this down had to come first so you might understand when the realtor tells you why there’s an abandoned mausoleum near the pond in the back pasture.
I can’t let Diana stay here. I’m taking her with me and reburying her closer to our hometown, near the place we first met.
Someday, I’ll revisit that place in the woods and see if I can do something; anything for the woman, but I’m not strong enough to face it. Not yet.
Even now, I can feel the pull of that bottle out in the stream, begging me to come back and take it. And even as I write this, I can feel I’m being watched from the treeline, and I’m getting this feeling that it isn’t her this time.
Credit: B.M. Drew
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