This is the story I’m told and this is the story I’m telling you:
Obviously I get out of the place alive. And by now you must be wondering if I was force-fed crops or even just ate something out there all on my own. If you’re a naturally suspicious person, you’re starting to question the validity of my story. That makes sense, of course. I’m just glad you didn’t get your suspiciousness from Carpenter’s Farm.
Here’s the rest of it, and bear with me, this is not easy:
I wake in a room that’s bigger than I thought it was the first time I saw it. I might be excused for gauging it wrong then as I’d just come through the shadows congregated at the end of a hall and saw my friend Morris watering the head of an old man.
I see The Farmer right away. He’s standing at a table, his back to me, he’s working with his hands. Color rises from in front of him and I think he’s separating twined traits less than ten feet from where I lay.
We’re not alone, as Morris stands facing what I believe is the way in and out of here, that passage of shadows.
The three of us are not alone either, as Baum is in the far corner over my shoulder, sitting at a bad angle, his face half to the wall.
I need to go. That much I can comprehend. I’ve read somewhere that some people react to horrific scenarios with a whole presence of mind. And while I’m certainly not doing that, I am able to think.
For starters: if all of Ever’s story is to be trusted (and what else do I have at this point?), then it’s not because of any crops that I feel the way I do. I didn’t laugh, I didn’t get tired. I was knocked out, evidenced by a throbbing at the side of my head.
I don’t move.
I’m on a wood table. I’m looking to Morris who is looking into those shadows. I see a chair in the center of the room. The Farmer is at the table, working, the sound of dry sticks snapping apart alternating with the sound of something like jelly hitting the floor. I’m looking to Baum again.
I wanna say Morris’s name. Say hey, Morris, friend, we need get the fuck out of this room. If we want to live, we need to do it right now.
But I don’t think The Farmer knows I’m awake.
Whatever presence of mind I have is evaporating. I’m getting cold. Scared. Fast. The reality of the situation is striking me, brutal, and I am sure now that, yes, I’ve woken before they expected me to.
The Farmer extends his right arm, the fabric of his work shirt stretched tight.
I don’t move.
He stretches his fingers, makes a fist, stretches them again.
Sounds like twigs tested.
I look to Morris.
I don’t move.
The Farmer brings his hands in front of him and cracks his knuckles.
Sounds like a shovel in dry dirt.
A door opens downstairs.
The voices of my friends rise like heat. Tracy’s in particular. Yet, in here, she sounds both near and far. Echo? Delay? That’s not quite it. I can hear her beside me and downstairs at once.
The Farmer cocks an ear to the shadows.
Baum doesn’t stir.
“Sure, why not, it’s the only one we haven’t played.”
Then Rodney is talking about needing to use the bathroom.
Someone is running water.
“Okay. But let’s be quick about it. Dinner soon.”
I look to The Farmer. To Morris. To Baum.
I don’t move.
There are no windows in this room. No doors.
“It’s the only game I’m any good at,” Connie says.
When do I sit up? When do I make a run for it?
The holes in my face hurt.
The Farmer bends his neck right, then left.
Morris turns to face him and I close my eyes.
“In the living room,” Karen says. She’s right next to me. She’s downstairs. “Where else?”
“All the house is a stage,” Oliver says.
I hear the chair in this room slide across the floor and I’m readying myself because I have no choice. This is it. Whatever The Farmer has planned for me, this is when he carries it out. I make fists of my hands. I’m not ready. I’m ready. I’m not.
Someone sits in the chair. It creaks.
“The fire’s going,” Rodney says. Beside me. Downstairs.
I hear water slosh.
I open my eyes.
Because I have to. And if it means the old man will smother me with his dirty hands, so be it. Then I die in an impossible room on an impossible farm.
But neither he nor Morris is facing me.
I sit up.
Quiet. Trying so hard not to make a sound as Morris lifts the watering can chest high and looks inside, makes sure it’s full.
The Farmer isn’t wearing his hat.
I see the dry dirt there. I see it running down his head and neck and vanishing into the folds of his collar.
I swing my legs over the side of the table.
Because maybe he needs it. The water. And without it…
My feet touch the floor and Morris looks to me. The Farmer still faces the table and Morris’s brow scrunches, confused.
I hold a finger to my lips, but I know Morris isn’t Morris, isn’t seeing this the way I’m seeing this, isn’t seeing that he’s a part of anything wrong.
I’m across the room before he can speak. I’m taking the can, cracking him across the jaw with it.
Water splashes and my friend wobbles, uses the table for balance. But I’m not watching him.
The Farmer is turning, or trying to, slowly, the sound of dry bark breaking underfoot.
The fire crackles below and the sound is in here, too.
Morris falls, knocked out, and I’m still not looking at him.
The Farmer is facing me, his eyes on mine, then on the can. I’m rooted to the spot. Can barely move. I imagine him moving scythe quick, suddenly upon me, my throat in his hands. But he isn’t moving any more than I am.
I don’t think he can.
“Morris,” I say. But Morris is out.
I dump the rest of the water.
The Farmer looks to the ground and the sound of his eyes is shifting sand.
I inch closer to him, then hurry past, kneeling beside Baum.
My eyes on The Farmer I tap my friend on the shoulder. But it’s not a shoulder. It’s sacks of something. Weeds. Baum’s head rolls from the pile and plunks against the bare feet of The Farmer.
The Farmer looks my way, slowly, the sound of a tree dying.
Breathless, I’m up, shaking, stepping toward him again, feeling his hands upon my face, feeling him dragging me up the path.
But it’s not happening.
The Farmer, I think, needs water.
I’m at Morris before I can talk myself out of passing The Farmer again.
I won’t look at Baum’s head.
I can’t think about Baum.
I’m hardly thinking at all.
Only moving, dragging Morris with one hand, the other still holding the can. Like this can, this fuckin watering can, might be my way out of this house.
“Come on,” I say to Morris, my eyes on the old man in the chair.
I set down the can. Kick it behind me into the shadows.
I’m dragging Morris with both hands now, half of me in those same shadows. The vision of The Farmer in that chair, watching me, becomes framed by the blackness, his eyes never leaving mine, the room growing smaller, the black frame larger, me and Morris deeper now, the others downstairs, talking about games, “Motivation,” Connie says, and I know the game, and I know the rules, as The Farmer grows smaller without moving, the vision of him like a wallet-sized photo now, him in that chair, his hat on the ground, a head at his dirty feet, his eyes still upon mine, me still imagining him leaping, suddenly, erupting from the chair, grabbing me by the holes in my face, pulling me back into that room, clubbing me, feeding me, changing me. But no, he’s not moving, and I can’t stop, absolutely cannot stop, dragging Morris into the hall now, as the darkness swallows the sight of that uncanny room, and I pray the man is stuck that way forever, unable to move, only clumps of dirt now, in the shape of a man, incapacitated, without water. I’ve got Morris fully into the hall, far from the shadows, that darkness like breath, got him into the second bedroom I come to, the one with the second door, and I’m quietly setting him there on the floor, telling him I’m sorry, seeing by the window that it is night, night on the farm, as I’m leaving the room, not taking my eyes from those shadows at the end of the hall, thinking I can still see The Farmer watching, can still see the shape of him in the blackness there, sitting, watching me, as I reach the top of the stairs and hear Oliver start talking below:
“What’s my motivation?” he asks.
They’re playing Motivation. A game I helped create.
His voice is only downstairs now. He talks with the confidence of one who does not know that the man who protects him is unable to do so right now.
“What’s my motivation…” he repeats.
Those are the rules. You wonder it aloud twice, the audience gives you a character, a scenario, and you find your motivation on your own.
I eye the stairs. How loud are they? Do they creak? Will Oliver hear me coming and if he does, what then? Is her armed? Are any of them? Will they protect him like the old man did? Will they stop me from bashing Oliver’s face into the hearth? Is this my plan? What if Tracy doesn’t want to leave? Should I leave by the window up here? Come back with the police?
Never come back at all?
“You’re a troubled young man,” Tracy says. “You’re on a bus leaving New York City. What’s your motivation?”
The first stair looks particularly weak. The wood is worn in the middle.
I lift my boot to take the first step but I bring it back.
“Okay,” Oliver says. “I got it.”
“Awesome,” Rodney says.
“I love you guys,” Connie says.
They all laugh and with that as cover I take the step after all.
It creaks. And the creak dies just before their laughter does.
“Well, it’s simple, really,” Oliver says. “I’m on a bus and I’m traveling to Michigan because, like my best friends advised, the best thing for me is to get out of the city, to try something new. I’m scared shitless, of course, because I don’t know anybody, have never owned a house, have never handled any substantial amount of money. And I’m going to be alone. That’s big for anybody and proved to be really big for me. But it’s not the city I’m fleeing and it’s not my friends I’m leaving… my motivation is getting away from her.”
I bring my other boot to the step.
“You all know the feeling,” Oliver says. “You’ve all done the same. You’ve made decisions based entirely on heart and you’ve worried, at the time, if they were the right ones. It’s the reason you’re here. Right? Here you are, you’ve come out to see a friend. You are visiting a friend. How wonderful! How kind. The bonds between people are strong. The unseen is mightier than the seen. So you can understand how hard it was for me not to call her? Not to tell her that I had a whole house to myself in the middle of nowhere and that maybe… maybe we could try it again?”
Oliver is off-game. He’s long past explaining his character’s motivation.
He’s getting something off his chest.
This is good. I need him to keep talking.
My plan: I don’t know if I have one. I’m hardly thinking at all. But I have a vision of Oliver not having the time to get away. Of me reaching the bottom of the stairs and rushing him, grabbing him, knocking him out somehow. Maybe I’m emboldened by what I did to Morris. Maybe I’m operating entirely out of fear.
I’m thinking of Baum’s head. I’m not thinking of Baum’s head. I am.
“Well, she isn’t interested,” Oliver says. “Of course she isn’t. She tells me it’s a terrible idea. Calls us poison. And can you believe that? Two people who love each other as much as we do… poison? I’m upset. I call her again. She answers. This proves something to me. She doesn’t really think we were so bad after all. Or, perhaps, we don’t have to be, anyway, not with the right amount of change.”
I’m staring at the next step down. I’m trying to find the nerve.
The fire crackles. Oliver speaks:
“She isn’t as indifferent as she claimed!” His voice gets a little higher, a little louder. I lift my boot and lower it just he continues. “I know things were bad. Are you kidding me? I’m the one who moved out to a farm. But when you find yourself alone, removed from the city, even after only a few days, you start thinking you’ve changed. Really! You feel a little better, you’re breathing a little easier, you’ve broken the pattern. So, I invite her out, I tell her we don’t have to treat it like a second chance if she doesn’t want that. Just friends. Like you guys, visiting, just friends. But still, she refuses. I don’t know what to do. I feel helpless. I must have her here but she isn’t coming.” He laughs without mirth. He takes a sip of a drink. I hear the glass touch the mantel again. “Then I meet The Farmer.” He pauses. I pause. “I didn’t inherit this farm by some lucky providence keeping me away from Donna. I’d come into the exact and only means possible of getting her back.”
He stops talking before I think he’s going to and I have no choice but to finish the step I’ve already started to take.
The wood creaks.
Silence from the living room. What faces do they make?
Did they hear me?
“The Farmer changes everything,” Oliver says. “Everything. With his guidance I go from being an angry, inarticulate, lazy man to one who knows exactly what he wants and how to go about getting it. The two weeks I go without calling Donna are the longest two weeks I’ve gone since meeting her. It’s hard, guys, but now I have purpose.”
“Yeah,” Connie says.
“Yeah,” Rodney says.
Tracy says something and I miss it as I lower one boot down to the next step.
I have a vision of myself rushing the rest of the way, reaching out for Oliver, missing him just as he slips out the back doors.
Am I strong enough to win a fight with Oliver?
“So!” Oliver says. “That’s my motivation. Such things change with Time, of course. And what a change this was: two weeks of forgetting who I was while learning for the first time who I am. It’s overwhelming, yes, but it’s the most important two weeks of my life. It’s just me and The Farmer, out on the bricks, me watching him work out into the fields, him harvesting, bringing back bushels of traits, separating the pairs, teaching me what’s out there. And the whole time I’m considering, I’m thinking: what kind of man does she want? Who would not be poison for Donna? The opposite of the man I was seemed like a good start.”
I’m waiting for an interruption, something to give me cover. A noise from outside. Commentary from the others. Anything.
“I test,” Oliver says. “I experiment. I refine. And when I’m ready, I call her again.”
I step down just as Oliver snaps his fingers.
“What happened?” Karen asks.
I’ve never heard Karen sound so rapt.
“She says yes,” Oliver says. “Yes, she’ll come see me. Yes, when she’s ready. In typical Donna fashion she tells me she can’t give me a specific date or time and that she’ll come when she’s ready. That’s all.”
I lower my other foot. I look back up the few steps I’ve taken. My head is level with the second floor and I see Morris, unconscious, on his side as I left him.
I’m not thinking about Baum.
“She shows up one evening. No warning. No call. There’s a knock at the door and I answer it, hoping it’s her but patient enough to wait until the time is right. I’m feeling different about it now. Right? I’ve worked on myself. I peer through the curtains and I see her. I wait a second before responding. Let her look at the porch, I’m thinking. Let her look at the house. Let her really understand that I’ve done right out here. I want her to think of this farm as a place she can call home.”
Another step down. I’m moving too fast. Getting impatient. He’s going to hear me and he’s going to rush out the back of the house and I won’t catch him and I won’t know what to do. I’ll grab Tracy and I’ll try to get her out of here but she won’t understand.
I remind myself that Oliver thinks he’s still protected by The Farmer.
I remind myself I don’t know the rules of this place at all.
Don’t try to understand it.
Get in and get out.
“I open the door,” he says. I move a step lower. “And she’s standing on the porch with a bag in one hand and she says, ‘What’s up, farmer?’” He pauses. So do I. “I don’t know that I can articulate how deeply I feel at this moment. It’s the only word that comes to mind: depth. As if, just by seeing Donna again, I’m no longer only a new man but now one that stretches through the floorboards I stand on, like I go far down into the earth, where it’s cold and then warm again, so warm. I’m rooted to the spot because there’s no amount of inner strength that grows out here that could bring me to step away from the sight of her. I cry because it’s all I can think to do and it’s so much better than speaking. And I know this now! You see? I know! What’s my motivation? This! This exact moment is my motivation. Donna is at the front door of my house. Donna has come from New York City and I feel whole again, I feel even newer than I did as I changed, by way of the crops, became the real me, for those two weeks. I know right away I’ll never forget the look of her with that bag in one hand, the look on her face, the way the moon lights up the drive behind her so that she’s perfectly framed and… and… and here! I reach out to take her in. Because there’s no other reason for her to be here other than she feels the same. Donna. My Donna. Returned. I am whole. And she sets the bag down on the porch and she says, ‘I thought we were going to try to be friends.’ And immediately, like that, all that depth, all those roots, came shrieking back up at me from the earth, all that dirt and the worms that fill it, it all comes rushing up into my stomach, my heart, my head and I say, ‘Oh, come on. You’re here.’ And she picks up her bag and she says, ‘No,’ and she leaves.”
I’m staring at the next step. It’s worn. I know it’s going to creak. I’m reminded of when I was a kid, sneaking up and down the stairs at home, knowing the best places to put my feet, knowing the quietest way about the house.
Above me, a creak.
I turn. I’m too low to see into that room anymore. Did the noise come from upstairs? Or was it made in the living room, Karen rising, Connie shifting, Oliver leaning toward his audience as he plays the game?
“She’s actually walking away, already down the steps, and I rush after her and I feel like, for a second, that I’m in New York again. That nothing The Farmer taught me has changed a thing. That I’m the same pathetic creature I was back when I lurked the city streets at night, drunk, angry, made out of my mind by Donna. But this time… I stop. Yes. I’m across the porch at the top of the steps and I stop myself from chasing her any farther. I watch her go and I don’t say a word. I allow the horror of this exit to wash over me. I see her swallowed by the night beyond the moonlight and I say to myself, Okay. This is what happened. This is how it is. And I turn around and I go back inside the house. My house. And I shut the door behind me.”
“Good for you!” Rodney says.
Then they’re all saying it.
I make it two steps lower as they do. I turn, see I’m about halfway. I look to where the hall wall begins, expecting a face of dirt to peer around its corner, to silently say, I made the sound up here. And I’m going to make many more.
I look to the bannisters. Could someone in the living room see my boots? Am I visible? How soon before I simply have no choice but to move, quick, no longer caring if I give him a head start?
“Then what?” Connie asks.
“What’s your motivation?” Tracy asks.
Because those are the rules and Oliver has long left them behind.
“My motivation,” he says, “is to move on. To close not only the front door but any and all doors that would allow this pestilence to continue. And do you know what happens? Can you guess?”
“She comes back,” Karen says.
“Not ten minutes later there’s a knock at the door,” Oliver says.
“What’s your motivation?” Tracy presses.
“I wait. I consider. My motivation is to show her I can live without her. And I think I have succeeded. She now knows I won’t chase her if she leaves. So I answer the door. And there’s Donna, on the porch again. She says, ‘What the hell, Oliver? You were gonna let me walk all the way back to New York?’ And I know I got her. And I know she will be calling this place home. It’s only a matter of time before I show her what grows out here.”
I’m almost flat to the left wall now, trying to stay out of sight. I can see the open space before the front door. I’m searching for a weapon. Anything I can grab as I rush him.
“We struggle at first,” Oliver says. “Donna keeps asking me why I’m acting the way I’m acting and I keep telling her I’d changed. She gets angry every time I do something nice for her. I’m able to see how hurt she is, inside, how damaged this woman has always been. Why didn’t I see it before? I start thinking of The Farmer at every turn, haven’t seen him in days. I study Donna. I take notes. What grows out here that might change things for her, make her a happier person? I’m wasting time waiting for her come to a realization on her own: that she needs to change who she is. I’m wasting all this time thinking she’s going to ask me how I did it, how I changed, as I’m not taking any of her usual bait. I’m telling her I love her every time she says she hates me. I’m quiet as she yells. I sit still as she storms about the house. I walk from room to room to avoid serious confrontation. I’m telling her it’s okay, she’s just angry, not angry at me, that it’s her, her core, that’s doing this, nothing I’ve done or said. But nothing I’m doing or saying is getting through and she’s only getting more upset with me. The days are dragging into the nights and Donna sleeps downstairs, away from me, then comes up and snuggles beside me. It’s New York all over again only I’m not taking the bait! Because I’m not the kind of man who does that anymore. You see? And she doesn’t understand how someone could change so much, so entirely, and I can’t really blame her. She doesn’t know yet. She hasn’t seen beyond the willows and I’m thinking the time is coming when I’ll have to cut them down but I’m wasting so much time… waiting for her to come to this on her own. What’s my motivation, Tracy? I hated myself is my motivation. And I hated Donna and she hated herself and she hated me, too!”
I’m imagining Oliver and Donna up and down these very stairs, arguing like they did in the big city. It’s so easy to put an image to the story he tells. I can see her storming out the back door, storming back through the front. Can see him acting like he’s found some inner peace on his own, keeping the secret of the crops for as long as he can not because, as he says, he wants her to come to this on her own but because he wants to have something over her. The Oliver I know would do that.
I make it another step down.
“This all leads up to a night of absolute and utter darkness. The fire is on. Music plays. We’re both drinking but only Donna gets drunk. And I hear it in her voice right away, like a truck falling from the sky above the farmhouse, I hear the turn, hear her take the turn, as she’s going to come at me, there’s no denying that, and I can tell it’s going to be a bad one, the worst one since she’s arrived. It’s almost like her eyes go as black as her hair and she refuses to smile and I know that, in her inebriated state, her pickled mind, she absolutely believes the horrid nihilism that takes root, that has taken root, that took root a hundred times in New York and didn’t let up till morning. I see the snarl, not on her lips, but in her eyes, her lips as dull and flat as two dead earthworms upon her angering face. It starts small, as it always does, her asking me why I think I’m so smart and me saying now now, Donna, you’re just drinking, maybe let’s have some water and her shaking her head and saying you dumb motherfucker since when are you so smart and you’re going to tell me how the fuck you did this or I’m going to stick my fucking arm down your throat and pull it out of you. And I’m shaking my head, calm as a crop, and every time I inch away she inches closer until all I can see is her loveless lips and all I can smell is whiskey and she’s yelling at me, telling me I better fucking tell her how I became so smart, so calm, so above it all. And we’re on the couch, the couch right here, and I move away another inch and she moves closer and I move back and her face is getting not red but purple and she’s leaning into me and I say hey hey, it’s okay, and she shoves me. Easy at first. You know. Testing how far she can go. I’m not biting and so she’s trying a bigger worm. She shoves me, harder, and I move another two inches, and she shoves me, and I move, and she shoves, and I move, and she brings her hand back to hit me and The Farmer erupts from the kitchen and bashes her over the head with a shovel.”
I don’t move. I listen.
“She half-cries out and I’m staring at this horror, my hands up to block my own face and head, not understanding what I’m seeing, not even knowing he was there, as he grabs Donna by her hair, as she, still conscious, reaches up, and screams, ‘OLIVER! WHAT’S HAPPENING? OLIVER! HELP ME! OLIVER!’ And I’m shaking my head no, no to what I’m seeing, no to the depth I saw in The Farmer’s face, the same depth I felt at the farmhouse threshold when I first saw Donna on the porch, something horribly limitless in the face of The Farmer as he clubs Donna again and drags her over the back of the couch, the very couch you’re sitting on, and she thuds to the floor and he drags her into the kitchen and I hear the pantry door open and close and glass breaking within. Then Donna’s gurgling, moaning, fighting, her mouth full of whatever The Farmer’s shoving down her throat, could be anything, anything at all, and she’s trying to call out for me, I hear my name in broken pieces, fractals, the letters, the traits that make up my name, until she starts laughing. Oh, God, at first it sounds like a hyena in the pantry. A sad beast that doesn’t want to be laughing, but can’t stop, and can’t get the full laughter out for how many crops are blocking the way. I’m too afraid to get off the couch, I’m too scared to move. Donna’s horrid laughter becomes Donna’s sweet laughter and I rise after all, I say, ‘Dear?’ as she giggles with a mouthful of crops and I realize, I just know, that The Farmer is not and does not ever work at random, that he is sitting at his piano this minute, he is writing music, the score upon Donna’s body and mind, as he tunes Donna to a finer key, a better key, a happier Donna. And I’m standing about where I’m standing right now, and I start clapping. For The Farmer. For this performance of his, for understanding what she needed and for giving it to her, my Donna, whose laughter tails off and becomes the drifting unintelligible dream-like words of those falling into limitless, colorless sleep.”
Oliver claps. Now. And I make it two more steps before looking to the top again. Expecting that face of dirt. Imagining myself in that pantry. My own laughter. As the real me is stolen, smashed, broken upon the pantry floor.
“When she wakes, it’s exactly as the sun first shows. I was up all night, unable to sleep for the eagerness of learning what The Farmer had done, what music he’d played upon her person. She looks at the ceiling, then to me, I, who sit in the chair beside the bed and take her hand and say, ‘Good morning, my dear, my Donna, hello.’ And she looks at me like she might not know me, for the duration between blinks, a terrible, scary forever, and then? She smiles. And she says, ‘This place is gorgeous, Oliver. But I think we need to sweep up the attic and get a new bed for the bedroom at the end of the hall.’ I stare at her, stricken. And then I’m laughing, crying, holding her hand to my head and she’s sitting up and stroking my hair and saying, ‘What is it? What’s the matter, Oliver? Don’t worry. We’ll sweep the floors and change the beds.’ And I laugh and say, ‘Okay, whatever you think the place needs. Whatever you think we need, we’ll do it.’”
I can’t tell if I’m rooted to the step I’m on because I’m waiting for the right time to move or if I’m so unfathomably damaged by Oliver and Donna that I want to hear the rest of Oliver’s story.
“We play house after that. And it’s the most glorious months of our lives. We sit on the deck and watch the sun come up and then watch it go down, more than once without moving between. We clean up the house, fashion it in ways she likes. We joke and we make dinner and we listen to music and we dance and we sit on the couch for hours saying nothing at all. What’s my motivation? My motivation is this: these days, as Donna calls to me from the kitchen to show me a spider she found, one she asks me to name. My motivation is Donna standing in the back yard, watching the willows sway in the wind. My motivation is hearing her rearrange the furniture in the house, trim the bushes outside, sweep the dust in the attic. And the scant clouds that pass across her brow whenever she looks at the pantry door aren’t enough for me to worry. They do not blot out the sunshine of a drive to Bookman’s General, a hug from her in one of the aisles, Donna happy at last. Yet, no matter how many crops may grow out here, and no matter how many we eat, there has yet to be the trait that stops a man, any man, from ruining the perfections he’s unearthed.”
He breathes deep. I listen. I wait.
“Perhaps I should’ve eaten some apathy, maybe it would’ve stopped me. Donna is happy. And so am I. We walk the country roads and don’t speak for days, only smiling and holding hands. We make love in the many bedrooms, the attic, on the deck at night. But all the while I want so badly to show her what I’ve seen, to cut down the willows and reveal, for her, what I’ve revealed for you all. I mean, who could come to a place like this and keep quiet about its revelations? Who could inherit this farm and keep that hidden from the woman he loves? Turns out, not me. And the me I am is the me I’ve always wanted to be, so I can’t be upset with myself for showing her, for explaining, at last, what is in the jars on the shelves of the pantry she avoids. I sit her down at the kitchen table and I bring them out, one by one, explaining the same things I’ve shown you, the things The Farmer taught me, that this farm is not an aberration but a centerpiece, a crossroads, where all the pieces that make up a person go upon death, take root upon decay, and grow once more for those about to live. I see the change in her, of course, though I try to deny it. And by then, who would stop? Who could? I’d already opened the pantry, I’d already begun. And so Donna’s peace seems to rattle, as her questions grow colder, and I understand I’ve reminded her of a distant person, someone who she knew very well, someone who arrived at this house with a single bag in hand, unsure what she was going to find. I try to tell her that we are perfect but she can’t get past the fact that she’s not afraid of what has happened, losing this other girl. She repeats this often: I should be afraid. Why aren’t I afraid? We debate, we discuss, sometimes we come close to arguing, but it’s never like it was before and I believe I’ve done the right thing by showing her. By telling her the truth. And eventually, by cutting the willow trees down.”
The silence following this statement is so whole, so entire, I imagine they can hear me without me moving at all.
I hold my breath until Oliver speaks again.
“This crazy idea of hers, that she should be scared, it doesn’t go away. Now when we’re on the deck, Donna brings it up. ‘Shouldn’t I be afraid?’ she says. ‘Shouldn’t I be scared of this place?’ And I say, ‘No! Donna! We’ve made it to the other side! We were in Hell for a long time, together, but look, we’re no longer there.’ And she nods but she also looks to the willows, squinting, the willows all grown again, as if she can see through them, as if she wants to go out there and make sure she’s feeling the way she’s supposed to be feeling. I’m trying to leave it be, it’s the New Me to do so. But the New Donna simply won’t leave it alone. One night, in the kitchen, she points to the pantry and says, ‘Why don’t I care what happened to me?’ I’m at the stove, cooking dinner, and I have to say something because she’s beginning to sound like a skip and I say, ‘Because you must’ve eaten calm, or courage, or resolve, or apathy, or some perfect combination of them all that’s brought you to this point. You’re not afraid, Donna. Isn’t that nice?’ But I wonder if, for someone who has experienced despair their entire life, for those who live by its ceaseless, dark hum, I wonder if the absence of that sound is more distressing than its continuation. ‘Why don’t I care what I ate?’ She says. And she says. And she says. At the table, it comes up again. Until Donna is standing by the pantry, pointing at the pantry, all night, so that even when I tell her I have had enough, that I need to go to sleep, and I do, and I wake, alone, and I go back downstairs, I find Donna in the kitchen, still, that consternation on her face, her finger still pointing at the pantry door. And the first thing she says before good morning is, ‘Why aren’t I afraid?’ And this will not go away. Like a parasite in my paradise, this simply will not go away. I start looking for Donna all over the house and farm, always finding her inside the pantry. Sometimes the light is on, sometimes it’s not. Often she’s fingering the labels on the jars. ‘Why don’t these scare me?’ As if she’s maintained enough of her old self to recall how that woman would’ve responded to this idea, but not enough to allow that woman passage. Oh, guys. I try. I talk to her constantly about it until this conversation has fully eclipsed the arguments we once had and the bliss we shared for many days. Now? Now it’s only about how she isn’t supposed to be brave. She isn’t supposed to be okay. She spends day in and just outside the pantry. I only see The Farmer once during this period. I’m alone in our bedroom and I hear someone outside and I go to the window, thinking it’s Donna, no longer in the kitchen, no longer in the pantry, thank God, but it isn’t her. The Farmer is crawling lengthwise along the side of the barn and I step quick from the window and head downstairs. Donna is in the pantry, after all. ‘It’s night, dear,’ I say. But she doesn’t respond. She’s staring at a jar of concern and I fear she’s been staring at it for a long time. ‘What’s beyond those willow trees?’ she asks. ‘I showed you,’ I tell her. Because I had. ‘No,’ she says. ‘You said there were bad crops. But you didn’t say what they are.’ And now I’m stepping into the pantry and taking her by the arm and she says, ‘Why aren’t I afraid of you taking me by the arm?’ And I walk her upstairs and help her to bed and we sleep this way, together, for the first time in many nights.”
Oliver pauses. The silence is unbearable.
“The next morning I find her in the barn. Because in the barn is where The Farmer keeps the stuff that shouldn’t be in the house.”
I don’t care anymore. I can’t. I take two steps and am mercifully rewarded as neither creak. I’m close to the bottom. I could leap to it, turn, run for Oliver, grab him before he has a chance to defend himself, before he can flee. I can end this. I can do it.
I make to move but Oliver’s voice stops me.
“Fear,” he says. “She found the jars of fear. I can tell she’s changed right away. She must’ve gone through the entire cycle overnight. Alone. The jar is half empty and she’s standing by the worktables in the barn and I tell her it’s only me but she backs up and takes a handful more and stuffs her face with it. ‘I’m supposed to be afraid,’ she says but her words are mumbled and I’m crossing the barn to stop her from eating any more and she’s scratches me with her nails, scratches my arm, and I’m bleeding and I’m watching her take handfuls of pure fear and bringing them into the barn’s loft, her eyes wide, so scared of me, me who is trying to stop her from being afraid. ‘Donna!’ I say. ‘This is a mistake! We can fix this!’ And I’m climbing the loft ladder as she’s starting to laugh and starting to scream, telling me she’ll kill me if I get any closer and I do get closer and she scratches my face and kicks me in the throat and she’s afraid of things I can’t fathom, so afraid, already, and this only day one of what becomes an entire week in which Donna will eat nothing besides, nothing but fear.”
I make it another step.
“I try to bring other food. Even other crops. But I can’t get close to her. She’s an animal up there. A wolverine. All nails and survival and The Farmer isn’t coming like he did that day on the couch and I think it’s because he thinks she deserves this.”
He starts laughing.
I’m another step closer to the floor.
“It’s kinda funny, isn’t it? The idea that someone would choose that over what she had? It’s almost… it’s so ridiculous…”
He’s laughing loud enough for me to reach the first floor. I’m flat to the wall and I peer around the corner, prepared to rush him if he looks my way. But Oliver is doubled over, laughing like I’ve never heard from him before. The backs of the heads of my friends don’t move, they sit still on the couch. Watching.
“What’s my motivation?” Oliver manages to say. “What’s my motivation…”
He can barely talk and I step fully into the room. I look to the ceiling, listening for his protector. But no sound comes.
I understand what happened down here. But I don’t know who did it yet.
Oliver doesn’t look up when he says, “Who did this?” Laughing. “Who did this to me?” He’s trying to express anger, a sense of betrayal, but he’s unable to. He’s laughing like he’s high out of his mind and I see a glass of dark water on the fireplace’s mantel and I know one of my friends slipped him something. Something that grows here. Something of his own.
“Who did this?” Oliver suddenly snarls, on his knees now. He can’t stand up he’s laughing so hard.
“Olly?” Connie says.
She’s up but not quite going to him.
“I had me perfect…” he says.
And we all watch and listen as the laughter finally recedes, replaced by slurred phrases. The language of a man very close to sleep.
“I… had… me…”
I’m crossing the living room as Oliver falls to his side, rolls to his back, unable to keep his eyes open any longer.
Then he’s out.
I look to the mantel, to the glass.
When I look to my friends, they’re all facing me.
I look to Oliver. I didn’t do this. But I want to marry whoever did.
Tracy says, “Where’s The Farmer?”
And I see complete presence in her eyes.
“Oh my God,” I say. “You were acting.” Then, “I think he’s stuck, upstairs.”
“What’s going on?” Karen asks.
“We have to go now,” Tracy says.
And I smile, despite what I saw upstairs, despite the despair of this farm.
Tracy did this. Tracy put something in Oliver’s drink.
Tracy’s been acting since she called me from the barn.
The others look to her.
“What do you mean?” Rodney asks.
But Tracy’s eyes are on me and me alone.