a short story by Joshua Ellis
The iterating of these lines brings gold;
The framing of this circle on the ground
Brings whirlwinds, tempests, thunder, and lightning.
There’s nothing strange about an axe with bloodstains in the barn
‘Cause there’s always some killing you got to do around the farm.
* * *
“There’s a demon in y’alls’s barn,” said Betsy as I came up the road.
I was all dirty from bringing in the pigs, and I washed my hands under the faucet next to the door — if I came in the house with my hands all dirty, Momma was like to throw a fit, even if I didn’t touch nothing.
“You hear me?” Betsy demanded. She was eleven going on twelve, and I was fourteen, almost grown up; I wouldn’t have ever talked to her except she lived down the road, and she was bossy, always putting her hands on her hips and yelling at me for getting up to dickens, like she was my momma or my boss or something. Like she was doing now. She pushed her glasses up her nose. They were too big for her, and made her look like a little blonde owl.
I finished up and looked at her. “I heard you,” I said. I decided to humor her. “What did it look like?”
She shrugged. “Like one a them out of your book,” she said. I winced. Right before Halloween I’d taken one of Daddy’s books out of his library and shown it to her, to scare her, like. Her momma’d come to the house and had a talk with Daddy, said Betsy’d been pissing the bed.
I thought he was gonna whip the hell out of me, but he just sat me down and told me I couldn’t ever tell nobody about the library, or any of the old family stuff. “People wouldn’t understand,” he said. “Wasn’t too long ago they was burning folks up North for being witches.”
“We ain’t witches,” I said, and he laughed. “I know that, boy,” he said, “but most folk can’t tell no difference. They wouldn’t understand, like me being friends with Jim Cowan.”
I thought it was over after that, but now here was little Betsy pushing up her owl glasses and standing in my dooryard talking about demons. Momma told me once that some mistakes you keep paying for long after you think you ought to be done paying, and I guessed this was the sort of thing she was talking about.
I looked up to the house, nervously. Daddy was inside with his best friend, Mr. Cowan, listening to the President on the radio talking about something he called a “New Deal”. I could hear Daddy laughing in there, but it didn’t sound like he thought it was funny.
“New Deal my ass,” he said to Mr. Cowan. “Ain’t never been no new deal for the working man. Always been the same Old Deal.”
“Shit,” Mr. Cowan said, only it was more like sheeeeit. “At least y’all got an old deal. Us niggers ain’t never had no kind of deal at all.” My daddy cracked up hard at that, and then Mr. Cowan started laughing too.
Mr. Cowan taught down at the Negro school on the other side of town. I think he was their only teacher. Daddy said he was a king hell piano player too; he played at church Sunday night, but Fridays and Saturdays he’d go down to the roadhouse down by the highway and play all night. I asked Daddy once if we could go see him, if he was so good, but Daddy said no. I asked him if he was ashamed to be seen with a nigger, and that was the only time he ever laid a hand on me. He slapped me hard across the face, but a second later his face was all sad. I was more shocked than anything.
“I’m sorry, boy,” he said. “I didn’t mean to do that. But I don’t ever wanna hear you call anybody that, you hear? It ain’t right. Mr. Cowan’s as good as you or me, and maybe better than me, come to think of it.”
“Then why can’t we go down and hear him play?” I asked.
Daddy smiled, but it was all tight on his face. “Because you know and I know there ain’t nothing wrong with it,” he said, “but if somebody like them McCormicks saw us, they’d cause trouble.”
“Trouble for us?” I asked him. He nodded. “For us, but more for Jim,” he said. “And I ain’t gonna bring that down on nobody if I ain’t got no reason to.”
I could hear the clink of beer bottles inside, which was good; it meant nobody was paying attention to what I was doing…and nobody was gonna hear Betsy babblin’ about demons.
“Ain’t no damn demon in my barn,” I said to her. “Now run on home.” Her eyes opened wide; behind those glasses of hers, it looked like two moons rising. “There is too a demon,” she said, “and I’m gonna tell your momma you was swearin’.” She made like she was gonna run up to my porch, and I ran forward to intercept her.
“Alright, shut up,” I said. “Ain’t you a baby?”
“Come and see,” she said, and she actually grabbed my hand and started dragging me along. So I went and saw.
* * *
The barn was older than our house; it was already there when my great-granddaddy bought our land right after the War ended — the Union War, not the one Daddy fought in over in Europe. I think the barn was why he bought the land; it was weird looking, not a normal big square barn but in this strange shape. It had five sides, or maybe six, I could never keep in my head which: it seemed like every time I counted it was different, but I wasn’t sure. It was made out of some kind of weird wood that was nearly black and looked like some kind of stone, and it didn’t hold a coat of paint worth a damn. Daddy had tried to paint it red a couple of times — he called it “protective camouflage” — but every time he did, he’d come out the next day and all the paint would be puddled up on the ground like it had dripped off during the night. After a while he’d stopped trying. He seemed to think it was funny. But he never kept the animals in it at all — he built a whole pen for the pigs and the cows that was all the way on the other side of the house from the barn, which was about a quarter-mile down a trail from our yard. It didn’t make any sense to me.
It was just starting to get dark around that time, and the barn cast a long shadow across the fields. It made me feel weird, like I didn’t want to walk inside it…but I could see, even in the dim light, that the big double doors were open. Not all the way, but more open than they ought to be.
“Were you playing in there?” I asked Betsy. “Goddamnit, girl, don’t be doing that. My daddy’ll tan your hide and mine too if he catches you in there. It’s dangerous.”
But she was shaking her head, and didn’t even call me out for cussing. “I was just walkin’ by,” she said, “and them doors came open, and I heard somebody inside. They was calling my name. I thought it might be your daddy, so I went and poked my head in.”
“And what did you see?”
“Something real bad,” she said, and took my hand again.
It seemed like it was twenty degrees colder in the shadow of the barn, but I put my big boy face on and went to the doors. Betsy stood twenty feet away, looking like she was going to run. I peeked my head inside.
The demon was sitting in the middle of the pile of hay at the far side of the barn. It looked kind of like somebody had taken a man and skinned him up for meat, but there was other stuff done to it too, like some kind of scientist had been doing an experiment. It was rubbing its pecker, but kinda bored like.
It grinned when it saw me.
You’d think I would’ve screamed and run away then, but I didn’t. I hadn’t ever seen anything like that demon before, but I’d seen plenty of other peculiar stuff. You couldn’t help it, being part of my family.
I tensed up, ready to grab Betsy and run if it moved, but it didn’t do anything, just looked at me and grinned and stroked that big old hog-leg it had.
“What you want?” I called to it, trying to sound tough. I didn’t feel tough.
It didn’t say anything.
“You ain’t got no business here,” I told it, “and you better get the hell out of here before I call my Daddy. He’ll come down here and kick your ass for you.”
It smiled even wider. “By a strange coincidence,” it said, “your daddy is exactly who I want to see.” It sounded like one of them rich people from up North who pretend like they’re from England when they talk, but when it said daddy its voice went into a deep drawl, like it was making fun of me.
“Then why the hell you hidin’ out in the barn?” I asked it. “He doesn’t ever come down here. Ain’t even no cows in here.”
“I cannot traverse the boundaries of the circle,” it said.
I frowned. “You mean the barn?” I said. “Barn’s ain’t no circle. It has fi–six–a bunch of sides on it. What are you, a dummy?”
“Bravado,” it said. “Perhaps I’ll rape you before I eat you, so you learn something. The term ‘circle’ is symbolic. Go get your father.”
“Oh, I’ll go get him,” I said, “and he’s gonna come back here and whip the shit out of you. I might help him.”
“We’ll see,” the demon said. “Go now. I’m almost finished here,” and it started jerking itself harder.
I wrenched up my face in disgust and closed the door. Betsy stared at me.
“You was talking to it?” she whispered. “What’d it say?”
“Nothing,” I told her. “I got to go get my Daddy.” I hunkered down a bit, so my face was in front of hers. “Listen, Betsy,” I said, “you gotta swear to me you ain’t gonna tell nobody about this. Not even your momma or your daddy, okay?”
She whimpered, like a puppy. There were tears dripping down off her glasses. “It talked to me, too,” she said. “It said bad stuff. Dirty stuff. I was scared.”
I put my arms around her. “Don’t you worry,” I said, “it can’t come out of there.”
I shrugged. “I dunno. But it can’t. And I’m gonna fix this. You believe that?”
She nodded and sniffed, but she didn’t look sure. I tousled her head.
“It’s alright,” I said. “You just run along home, now.”
“Where you goin?” she asked me. I smiled at her.
“I’m gonna go get my Daddy,” I said.
* * *
“Boy, are you having fun with me?”
“No, Daddy,” I said. He and Mr. Cowan sat at the Formica kitchen table, both of them eyeing me like I was a prize turkey. “I swear to God, it’s true. That’s what it…he…said. Said to come get you.”
Daddy looked at Mr. Cowan. “Whatcha reckon, Jim?” he said.
Mr. Cowan rubbed his middle finger on his forehead, which I’d noticed he always did when anybody asked him something he had to think about. “It doesn’t sound like nothing I’m familiar with,” he said. “Nothing Christian. Maybe hermetic?”
Daddy seemed to think about it. “Could be,” he said.
“But why the hell is it in your damn barn?” Mr. Cowan said. “You been doin anything out there?”
Daddy leaned back in his chair and half-smiled. “What do you mean, exactly, by ‘doin anything’?” he asked.
Mr. Cowan gave him the same look, I figured, that he gave kids in his class who were getting sassy. “You know exactly what the hell I mean, Darius Harkness,” he said, “and don’t you go bein all coy on me. This shit is serious.”
Daddy sighed. “Alright,” he said. “Maybe I was going through the Libris Infernium. Maybe I was trying out some stuff. Nothing big.”
“Big enough,” said Mr. Cowan. “You summoned this, this whatever-the-hell-it-is, and it got pulled into the nearest circle of protection. Which, in this county, is that ugly goddamn barn of yours.”
He and Daddy looked at one another for a long minute, their faces stony and serious. Then they both started laughing, fit to beat the band. Daddy was howling and gasping for breath, so hard he slid off his chair and onto the floor.
“Oh, what the hell you two up to?” Momma called from the basement. She was down there putting up cans in the pickle cellar. She came up the stairs, wiping the dust off her hands onto her apron. Momma was nearly as tall as Daddy; he said it was because she was a big ol’ Nordic frost giant by way of Fort Worth, Texas, and she said he ought to know better than to say a woman was a big ol’ anything. She came into the kitchen and stood towering over him, and put her hands on her hips, the way little Betsy did.
“Well, honey,” Daddy said, still chuckling, “looks like I got some uninvited company up to the barn.” He looked at Mr. Cowan, and then they were both off again, Mr. Cowan’s big white teeth shining in his brown face as he slapped the table with his hand.
Momma groaned. “Goddamnit,” she said. She leaned over and whacked Daddy on his head and shoulders with her palm. He just kept laughing. “You ain’t got the sense God gave a gopher, Darius Harkness,” she said. “You ever think about what could happen to your family, you pulling this foolishness? You ever think about that?”
“Aw, hell, honey,” Daddy said, trying to pull himself to his feet. “It’s stuck in the damn barn. It can’t even walk through the doors.”
“But he can,” Momma said, pointing at me. “You ever think about what woulda happened if he’d gone playing down there?”
“Aw, Momma,” I said, “I don’t play no more.”
“You keep your trap shut,” she said to me, her lips tight, her eyes squinted down to slits. She turned back to Daddy. “If anything had happened to him–”
“Nothing happened, baby, and nothing ever would. He ain’t stupid. He knows better than to go fucking around in that barn–”
“Don’t you curse in front of the boy, Darius,” Momma said, and whacked him again, but this only had the effect of getting him laughing all over again. “The two of you better quit braying like a couple of goddamn donkeys and go down there and take care of this, you hear me? I ain’t kidding with you. Now, you hear me? Right now.”
“Y-yes, mother,” Daddy said, trying to contain his laughter. “Better see what we got in the library,” he said, and he and Mr. Cowan went into the library.
You wouldn’t expect, looking at our house from the outside, that it contained an actual library; we weren’t rich folk by any means, and even though Momma worked real hard to keep the place clean and looking respectable, the fact was that we lived in a broken-down old farmhouse with windows that didn’t close all the way and floorboards that you could see through into the basement, if you laid down on em and peeked your eye through.
I’d never quite figured out exactly how we did have a library, really. I’d walked around outside and looked at the house, and then walked inside and looked into the library, which was a largish room with a high ceiling, and I couldn’t exactly understand where it actually went, within the walls. It didn’t have any windows, which was weird, since it was — I was pretty sure — on the outside of the house. It just had shelves on every wall, nearly to the ceiling, and in the middle a table made of thick old oak planks that looked like something out of one of Daddy’s old pulp books about pirates. I wasn’t allowed in the library when Daddy wasn’t in it; Momma wouldn’t go in there at all, not even to clean things, though it never seemed dirty.
But sometimes I’d sneak in by myself when Daddy was in town or away on business — like the time I took that book to show Betsy — and whenever I did, I always had this weird feeling like I wasn’t really still in the house at all, or even Callum County — like I was in some kind of other place completely. Like I went in there once in the middle of July, and the whole time I was in there I could hear the wind howling outside like there was some kind of blizzard out there.
At least, I think it was the wind.
Daddy threw the doors open and went inside with Mr. Cowan, and I followed them. Daddy went to the shelf to the left of the door and started walking sideways like a crab, hunched down, running his finger across the spines of the books as he went.
“Dee and Kelly?” he said to Mr. Cowan, who was looking at the books on the right side of the door. Mr. Cowan laughed. “Them old frauds?” he said. “Not for this.”
Daddy kept looking, occasionally pulling a book from the shelves and tucking it under his arm. When he had five or six of them, he took them to the big table and plonked them down. Mr. Cowan brought a couple of his own books over, and they started poring over them.
This got real boring after a while, so I started wandering around, looking at the books myself. Most of them didn’t even seem to be in English. I wished I spoke Latin, but we weren’t Catholics or anything. (We didn’t go to church at all, actually, and when I asked Daddy what kind of people we were if we weren’t Catholics or Baptists or Lutherans, he laughed and told me he guessed we were Democrats.) If we had been Catholics, I might have been able to tell you what De Vermis Mysteriis was. The Mysterious Vermin, I guessed.
Finally, Daddy called me over. “Was this what you saw, boy?” he asked me, and held up a big book whose pages were yellowed with age. There was a woodcut in it, and I peered at it.
“I think so,” I said. “Only he ain’t got his pecker out in this one.”
Daddy and Mr. Cowan looked at each other, and Mr. Cowan whistled. “Sheeeit, boy,” he said to Daddy. “Looks like you hooked yourself one big goddamn catfish.”
Daddy closed the book and put it back on the pile. “Well, I guess we better go throw his ass back in the river. You got your shotgun?”
“I wanna go with you!” I said.
“Absolutely not,” Daddy said. “Your mother’d skin me and hang my hide on the wall for company to look at.”
“Aw, Daddy, come on, please?” I said. “How am I supposed to learn nothin if you won’t let me watch?”
“I don’t think your momma wants you learnin nothin,” Daddy said, but he looked at Mr. Cowan, who shrugged. “It ain’t really like the boy got much choice in the matter, is it?” he said. “Might as well start now, when you still got an eye on him, than later, when you don’t.”
Daddy looked at him, then back at me, for a long minute. Finally he nodded. “Alright,” he said, “but don’t let your momma see.”
He and Mr. Cowan swept out of the room, and I followed them. I realized nobody’d put the books back on the shelves, and I opened my mouth to say something, but then I heard a noise behind me.
When I turned around, the table was empty. I guess somebody put the books away.
* * *
It was full dark by then, and Daddy grabbed his Ray-O-Vac flashlight and his shotgun from out of the hall closet. Mr. Cowan had an electric lantern, and he picked up the machete Daddy used to cut the weeds in the fall.
My heart dropped about a hundred feet when we got outside and Momma was standing in the dooryard, but then I realized she’d taken off her apron and her sun dress and put on the overalls she kept for gardening, and tied up her hair with a length of rawhide. And she had Daddy’s Sears & Roebuck axe in her hand, which she was swinging around a little, like she was testing the heft of it.
“Hell you think you’re doing?” Daddy asked her.
“You think I’m letting you two idiots take my only boy down there without me, you must be drunk or stupid,” Momma said.
They stared at each other.
“Goddamn, that’s why I love you, woman,” Daddy said with a grin, and started off down the path to the barn. After a second, Mr. Cowan shook his head and followed. I looked at Momma, and flicked her hand at me.
“Well?” she said. “You’re the big demon hunter now, boy, get your ass moving.”
She followed me and I followed them, and five minutes later we were at the barn.
Even from outside, that demon sounded as pissed off as a prize bull with his nuts cut off. We could hear him banging around inside and throwing things around. Occasionally he’d let out this sound like a pig getting its throat cut. And he kept shouting something. It took me a second to recognize the sound of my own name.
“Harknesssssss!” it shrieked.
“God in Heaven,” Mr. Cowan said.
“For your sake, I damn sure hope so,” said Daddy, and he opened the barn doors.
As soon as he did it was silent, like somebody’d shut the door of a madhouse. I stood behind Daddy and Mr. Cowan and peered over their shoulders.
The demon was sitting in the middle of the barn’s floor with its legs crossed, like an Indian swami. It looked up, and I thought it was still grinning until Daddy put his flashlight on its face and I realized it hadn’t ever been grinning at all. It just didn’t have any lips.
“Harkness,” it said. “Harkness, your mother sucks cocks in Hell, Harknesssssssss.”
“Probably,” Daddy said. “She sure sucked enough of them on Earth, way I heard it.” Momma slapped him on his back from behind. “That ain’t no way to talk about your momma,” she said.
“How dare you?” the demon said. “How dare you summon me, like I was your dog? Do you know who I am?”
“I got a fair idea,” Daddy said. “I ain’t impressed.”
“You will be,” the demon said, licking the cauterized wounds around its mouth. “When I peel off your son’s face and use it as a condom while I sodomize your wife, you’ll be quite impressed, I think.”
“You hear the mouth on him?” Daddy said to Mr. Cowan. “Perverted sonofabitch, ain’t he?”
“Just do it,” Mr. Cowan said, “and quit fucking around.”
“Oh, alright,” Daddy said. “Priinceps gloriosissime cælestis militiæ–”
The demon reached a hand back between its legs, grunted, shit into its palm, and flung it at Daddy, who took it right across the face.
“You think you can dismiss me with that children’s nursery rhyme?” the demon said, sneering. “And I thought the Harkness family was possessed of power. How sweet it will be, when I drag your violated carcass down the road of razors that leads to the gates of Pandemonium, when I hang your head from a spike made from the penis of a blue whale for all to see, when I–”
“Enough, already, you’re giving me a goddamn headache,” said Daddy. He raised his shotgun.
“Oh, shit, cover your ears, baby,” Momma said, and she and I both did. Mr. Cowan winced and turned away.
Daddy pulled the trigger and half the demon’s head went spraying onto the wall of the barn. It stood there for a moment, its remaining eye wide in shock, and then it slowly spiraled and slid to the floor.
“Whew,” Daddy said. “It’s alright now.” He stepped into the barn and, after a moment, the rest of us followed him. We looked down at the dying creature, coughing blood all over its own face, or what remained of it.
“How…how did you…” it sputtered.
“You’re a plain goddamn fool,” Daddy said. “I invoked you into the material world. That makes you material too. What are you, stupid?”
“I told you my daddy was gonna whip your ass,” I said to the demon. “You shoulda listened to me.”
The demon looked up at me, into my face, and its eye focused on me. Its lips pulled back, and this time I could tell it was smiling.
“Guadalcanal,” it said. “Christmas. A bayonet in the throat. The last thing you’ll think of is Betsy and the baby.”
And then it fell back, and it was limp. A smell came up off of it like burnt sugar.
I looked at Daddy. “What the hell was it talking about?” I asked him. “Guadalupe? Was that what it said?”
He looked past me at Mr. Cowan, who shook his head just the tiniest bit, his eyes wide. Then he smiled and ruffled my hair.
“Nothing,” he said. “Not a goddamn thing. Let’s go get the shovels, Jim. I think there’s a hole needs digging, out back.”
“I’ll go make supper,” said Momma, but she had a strange cast to her eyes when she looked at me. “Why don’t you come back on up to the house and help me shell some peas. Maybe you…maybe you wanna invite that Betsy to come eat with us.”
“Sure, I guess,” I said. “She’s a pain, though. If it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t have gotten in this mess in the first place. And didn’t that nasty old thing say something about her anyway?”
“Did it?” Daddy said, staring at the shotgun as he ejected the spent shells and peered down the barrels. “I really didn’t notice.”
“You run along,” Momma said. “Be back in a half hour.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “See you later, Mr. Cowan.”
“I’ll–I’ll see you, boy,” Mr. Cowan said, but he didn’t turn around.
I ran out of the barn and back towards the road that led to Betsy’s house. I felt strangely proud, even though I hadn’t really done anything. For the first time, I felt like I was beginning to understand who I was, and what my place was in the universe.
I had my whole life ahead of me.
Wow. Just. Wow. I must have laughed most of my guts out reading this and then started wanting to howl at the Guadacanal line. This is the best short story I’ve read in years, and I can’t thank you enough for posting it.
You had me at Murder in the Red Barn, but I’m glad I stayed. Thanks for the story!
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