I think I should tell this story the way I remember experiencing it. I’m not a religious person, despite my fundamentalist upbringing. I fell away from the faith long ago, but I believe in evil. You can’t understand a person till you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. The miles I’ve walked in mine have been littered with paranormalities. The demon in the woodshed has been a part of me for as far back as I can remember.
My name is Brent. I was born in 1970. My mother was an addict and I was an accident. I never knew my dad and don’t feel any particular interest in tracking down who he was. I was raised by my mother’s parents in Mooresville, Indiana, about 10 miles southwest of Indianapolis. I don’t remember seeing my mom more than three times before she died. Her body was discovered in a dumpster in Las Vegas in 1979. There was so much coke in her system that they didn’t know if she’d crawled into the dumpster herself, had been thrown in by someone who feared they would be blamed for her overdose, or if she’d been murdered by a dealer or angry trick.
My grandparents received the call about her death while we were at the kitchen table eating dinner. It didn’t bother me at the time. I was never attached to her, but I was saddened nevertheless because it was the first time I’d ever seen my grandma cry: I’ll tell you in a moment about the second and last time. But first I need to elaborate on the special bond that my grandmother and I shared.
The night we learned of my mother’s death, my grandmother came to me and sat on the edge of my bed. She brushed her fingers through my hair and said to me: “This wasn’t your fault. You know that, don’t you? Your mother was a troubled person. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that deep down she loved you, because I don’t know that she did and I wouldn’t want you to think you were being lied to. I want you to be able to trust adults. Your grandfather and I love you very much. Don’t ever feel that you are an unwelcome or unwanted burden in this house, because it’s not true…Not true at all.”
I’ve often wondered if I would’ve been a different person if she’d never told me that. I think I might have. All it took was that one act of spontaneous kindness. She gave me a sense of worth and planted in me a capacity for love. If I were still a Christian, I’d say she had a special place reserved for her in Heaven.
My grandpa was a corn farmer. He had a red barn and owned his own combine machine. The barn had a silo attached to it. The barn stood about two hundred feet from the house near the cornfield. We had a woodshed just out back.
Every so often, the Baptist Preacher, Wylie Thurgood, would organize a Sunday school outing for the boys. We would go to Grandpa’s shed for a sermon on the evils of witchcraft. We’d gather together in the close heat of the woodshed with the june bugs carrying on outside. As he talked, we’d contemplate this gruesome relic of the town’s mythic past. The demon hung on a hook in the farthest corner of the shed and was hidden behind a ratty gold curtain on a rod that was fixed diagonally in front of it. The demon was wrapped in burlap and looked like a scarecrow with its arms to its side. Wooden crosses—smooth crosses, not like Catholic ones with Christs nailed on them—were hung all over the burlap. The walls of the shed behind the curtain were papered over by gaudy pictures: Bible scenes clipped from Christian books and magazines, reproductions of famous paintings of Jesus. There were also curled and yellowing newspaper clippings: pup-tent revivals, alleged exorcisms. The air was heavy with the stench of cedar chips and mothballs. A few years ago I toured a voodoo shrine in New Orleans and was struck by the similarities. But there were no candles in the woodshed. No lighting at all for that matter.
“Now I want you kids to mark this well.” Pastor Thurgood would say. He always pronounced “kids” in a Hoosier drawl, so that it sounded like keeds. “Look at that black claw of a hand!” He pointed to the only part of the demon we could see protruding from the folds of the burlap. It looked like a charred humanoid hand with long, tapering fingers spread wide. “This demon was summoned by a witch—a regular Jezebel that shared her table with the priests of Baal. You don’t go playing with witchcraft. Open the wrong doors, you won’t be able to close them again. I’d like to thank Deacon Porter for acting as guardian over this abomination, and for providing us with a venue for this moralizing lesson and proof that monsters walk among us in this world.”
When I was little the preacher’s words affected me deeply—scared me to death. I believed all that stuff. I kept my distance from the woodshed. Grandpa kept the door sealed with three padlocks.
In the autumn, I liked to play with my action figures out in the naked cornfields with my best friend Dwight. We’d pretend all the rotting cobs and withered husks were the wrecks of tanks or spaceships. The packed dirt and dead shoots sticking out of the ground made the dead field look like the scorched surface of an alien planet or some fantasy wasteland, like in the comic-books and novels we’d been reading, or in the role-playing games that I’d been hearing about, and which interested me immensely.
He and I started talking about those games while we were gathering up our action figures one day, storing them away in our snazzy plastic carrying-cases. He told me his mom wouldn’t let him get any role-playing games or buy those multifaceted dice that went with them because Pastor Thurgood said those kinds of games were the devil’s playthings.
“I know,” I said. “Grandma says the same. Feels like everything’s fire and brimstone with Pastor Thurgood. You ever notice that when us boys have Sunday school class in Grandpa’s woodshed, no one ever talks about how the demon got here in the first place and who the Jezebel was that called him up?”
“Well,” Dwight said and looked down at his sneakers. “I heard some stuff and I don’t know if it’s true. But mom and dad was talkin’ and I heard ‘em say it was Pastor Thurgood’s daughter that was the witch. There’s lots of old folks in town who remember when the demon was runnin’ loose, killin’ people, eatin’ up livestock and everything else. I think it even killed a kid or somethin’. They say his daughter ain’t allowed to leave the house. She ain’t never been to church—ever. They say she had inner-course or intra-course with it.”
“Well. . .that’s strange,” I said. I wasn’t exactly sure what intercouse was, but I didn’t want Dwight to know that. “I’ve heard some of that. But to tell the truth, I’m tired of going to church and listenin’ to all that holy-rolling bullshit.” I said, sullen and upset.
“You better watch your mouth, Brent.”
I was a shy and reflective boy and the prospect of playing a fantasy roleplaying game, where I could act out the role of a warrior or spell-caster had really appealed to me at the time. But it was starting to look like, even if I somehow managed to get a hold of such a game and kept it as a secret from my grandparents, I wouldn’t have anyone else to play it with so there was no sense looking into it.
My childhood wasn’t all country and I was never mistreated. I was whipped as a boy and deserved it each time. My grandparents gave me leeway to do pretty much what I wanted. Grandpa never even so much as asked me to help him in the cornfield. He hired other people to do that. I tried helping once during harvest time and he told me I was as useless as tits on a boar, and probably wouldn’t be good for anything but college or an office job. It was around this time that I started to think that my future lay outside of Mooreseville. But I was grounded enough to realize that I’d need to be “grown up” in order to make it on my own.
Dwight was lucky. His parents were rich—at least in my eyes they were. He had a video game console and more than ten cartridges for it. He’d hook it up to the TV and we’d play games while listening to rock music (we hated country). His parents would go into Indianapolis to shop at the mall or attend festivals, and I’d sometimes tag along.
My grandparents’ house was furnished with well water, electricity and gas, but no air-conditioning. Central air was mostly used in the cities and suburbs; and my grandparents hated the loud rattling noises that window ACs generated. Plus, Grandma read in a magazine that air-conditioners caused tuberculosis and pneumonia. So during the heat of the summer we’d literally chip off ice-cubes from a block in the freezer, wrap them in washcloths and wipe them across our brows to keep cool in the house; and we’d use box-fans at night to circulate the air. When it got up to the 90s, I’d toss and turn in my sweat until midnight.
Once during tornado season—I was in middle-school—a howling wind blew a tree branch into the kitchen window and cracked the glass. Grandpa went to the woodshed to get some plywood to hammer over the window until the storm had passed and he could repair it. When he got back in the house, we heard the woodshed door fly open and bang against the side of the shed. He’d forgotten to close the door and secure it with the padlocks.
“Goddammit!” He said, “Brent, go shut and lock the woodshed door.”
I ran outside. The wind was howling. You can tell—at least, I can—when there’s actually a tornado coming because of the sound. This storm wasn’t making that sound, so I knew it was just gusty and would blow over. When I got to the shed and looked in, I gasped. The curtain rod had fallen down and the demon was barely hanging from the hook. It was leaning forward at an angle and the exposed arm was fully stretched out in a “Ta-da!” kind of gesture. The burlap covering was so far back in its mouth that it looked like it’d sucked it in.
“Shit!” Grandpa said. He was at the door. “Go back inside and hammer up that plywood against the window. I’ll fix this.”
I did as he said.
The electricity went out. We sat around the kitchen table later that night with a pair of fat scented candles as our sole means of illumination. We ate cold-cut sandwiches with mayonnaise and mustard. Grandma brought a tupperware container full of snickerdoodles she’d made and put it in the middle of the table for dessert.
“I don’t know why you bother to keep that Halloween scarecrow out in the shed,” she said. “All them crosses and images all over it seems sacrilegious.”
“Sometimes people have to see evil up front, face-to-face, to knock sense into their heads. If we don’t have fear, we won’t fear God. Everyone, except apparently you, remembers the days when that thing threatened well-nigh the whole town.”
“Never came after me,” Grandma said and winked at me.
“That’s because you’re so pure and sweet.”
“Is that it?” she smiled. “I just don’t see why Wylie Thurgood doesn’t keep it at church, if he’s so determined to use it as a moral to adorn a sermon.”
“It would defile the church and its grounds. . .No, it stays where it is. That’s all there is to it.”
My bedroom upstairs looked out onto the backyard. It rained that night but there was no more wind or thunder. We only used nightlights in the upstairs bathroom and in the downstairs kitchen. I woke at about 2 o’clock in the morning because I thought I heard the woodshed door fly open with a bang. I stared wide-eyed in the dark. I tried to think if I’d dreamt the sound. Maybe it was Grandpa. Maybe it hadn’t been secured tight enough, or had been wrenched from its hinges.
I went to the window, but I didn’t touch the shade. I didn’t want anyone outside to see the shade disturbed. I looked through the narrow gap between sash and shade. It was still raining and the moon wasn’t visible. Since there was no light on in my room, no one would be able to see me from outside—at least that’s what I thought. I could make out that the woodshed door was still shut. I was about to turn from the window, when I thought I saw a figure next to the bushes by the shed. It seemed to notice me looking at it, and bent down behind the bushes to hide.
“Grandpa!” I screamed and ran to my grandparents’ room.
“What the Hell is wrong?” I heard him say as his feet hit the floor.
“There’s someone outside next to the woodshed!”
He went to the closet and removed his pistol. I heard him click off the safety. He descended the steps in his pajama bottoms, naked from the waist up. He grabbed a flashlight by the door, and went out into the rain, yelling and cussing. I ran back up to my room and raised the sash.
Long story short, there was nothing there. I saw the beam of his flashlight sweeping everywhere, including the bushes. He walked around the shed. Nothing. When he came back in the house, he was livid and told me to get to bed and stop crying like a goddamned girl.
The Sunday school presentations stopped after that. Grandpa tore down the rod and pictures. He double wrapped the demon in the sackcloth and gold curtain, but left it on the hook. It wasn’t long before junk got piled up in front of it and the spiders began spinning webs over it.
Now is as good a place as any to share with you how my attitude toward the demon in the woodshed began to change. Have you ever heard of the Fiji Mermaid? Back in the 19th century P. T. Barnum stitched a mummified monkey’s head and torso to the dried-out bottom of a fish and displayed it as a sideshow exhibit. I began to wonder if the demon in the woodshed wasn’t a similar hybrid: part papier-mâché, part taxidermied animal. Maybe it hadn’t been summoned by a witch. Maybe it was the act of creating it—this pious hoax, this “moral to adorn a sermon”—that had brought this something into the world. I began to feel that whatever the demon in the woodshed was it had nothing to do with God, the Bible, or Christianity.
I stopped going to church. This didn’t please my grandparents, but they didn’t argue with me. My grandmother was disappointed. My grandfather didn’t talk about it.
A few years later I was in highschool. I was on the chess team and participated in track and field. I started dating girls and hanging out with my friends on Friday nights at the ice-cream stand near the hardware store. I told my grandpa I wanted a car. “Yeah, well, people in Hell want ice-water. If you want a car, I recommend you get a job and buy one yourself.”
He and I hadn’t exactly fallen out, but we’d most certainly drifted apart.
One day my friends asked whatever happened to the Sunday school homilies Pastor Thurgood delivered at Deacon Porter’s shed.
“I guess I outgrew them and Grandpa didn’t see any reason to host them anymore.”
“What about the town demon? Is he still in your woodshed?”
“I doubt it...He’s probably hanging out with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny—and with Jesus for that matter.”
I laughed. Some of my friends laughed, but not all.
I had a ten-speed bike and rode it all over town. It was a bright Sunday in the middle of summer. Everyone else was at church. I had a mind to peddle up the hill behind the high-school stadium and down the two-mile stretch of gravel road that led to Pastor Thurgood’s house, on the off chance that I might catch a glimpse of his witch daughter who hadn’t been seen in years.
I propped my bike against a maple tree and went into the woods that surrounded his house. I trod carefully to avoid the poison ivy, since I was in shorts. I heard a woman’s voice humming what sounded like a Janis Joplin tune.
The house was one of those sturdy two-story frontier homes from the middle of the 19th century. I had somehow ended up at the back of it. There was a deck shoulder high that you had to go up steps to get to. A heavyset woman with long greasy hair was sitting with a basket in her lap, snapping green beans. Two baskets were at her feet.
I craned my neck to get a good look at her. She wasn’t deformed or anything. I don’t remember making a noise, but the lady stopped humming, lifted her head and turned directly to me.
“Get outta here!” she said and waved her hand at me. Then, all at once, she froze, as if in the grip of a sudden terror. Her eyes remained fixed on me, but they widened. She rose from the chair and the basket fell from her lap. Without a word, she
ran inside the house and the screen door slammed shut behind her.
I remember being surprised and feeling a cold chill run up my spine. I wheeled around, thinking maybe she’d seen something behind me. There was no one there. But I heard a faint sound, like tinkling bells. I looked up. There were three sets of wind-chimes tied to a thick oak branch, and it was only at that moment that the breeze stirred them. My gaze followed the branch to where it met the trunk. I hadn’t noticed it before, but there was a slight black strip in the bark, stretching from the branch down to the earth, as if it’d been stricken by a bolt of lightning. Even the ground on which I stood was scorched. It looked like the remains of a campfire.
I ran off, grabbed my bike and pedaled as fast as I could back down the hill and into town. Maybe she was crazy. What if she’d come back outside with a shotgun and started firing? I wondered if I’d broken the law by going right up to the pastor’s house. I didn’t want to get arrested or expelled from school. I wanted to keep my record clean.
The next day, which was a Monday, I went into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of milk. The phone rang. I picked it up. Grandma answered it simultaneously upstairs. I heard a woman’s voice whimpering.
“Is this Mrs. Porter?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Mrs. Porter. I’m Cindy Thurgood, Pastor Thurgood’s daughter.”
“I have to tell you something.”
Neither of them knew I was on the line, but then I saw Grandpa coming up the path to the house and knew I’d better hang up the phone or I might get in trouble. I gently hung the receiver back onto the cradle.
Grandpa went to the sink and washed his hands. I asked him if he was going back out to the field this afternoon, but before he could answer, there was a choking cry from upstairs. Grandpa ran up the steps and I followed. Grandma was collapsed on the bed writhing as if in agony. The phone lay on the floor and I could hear the busy signal.
I was about to go into the room to pick up the phone when Grandpa shoved me out of the room and slammed the door shut.
I went downstairs and sat at the kitchen table. I sat there till dusk. I heard the steps creaking. Both Grandma and Grandpa came downstairs. She wouldn’t look at me. She sat down at the kitchen table, dumb and haggard.
“I was going to make fried chicken,” she said. “But it’s too late for that now.”
“There’s honey ham from the other night,” Grandpa said. “We’ll just eat some of that. And there’s german potato salad from the deli in the fridge.”
A chair scraped from the table. Grandma rose and went back upstairs.
I slept later than usual the following day. When I came downstairs, there was an ambulance outside, but none of the lights were on. I’d heard no sirens. Grandpa was at the kitchen table, sitting with one hand on his cheek and the other holding a pen, as the EMT turned page after page on a clipboard and pointed to the line where he needed to sign.
She had died sometime in the course of the night.
“Her old heart just gave out,” Grandpa said. But later that afternoon he sighed and remarked, “I don’t know. . .I almost wonder if it wasn’t that thing out in the woodshed that did it.”
I went upstairs and into my grandparents’ room. I lifted the lid of my grandmother’s jewelry box and removed the brooch she wore every Sunday to church. Then I went out to the barn, sat on a haystack and sobbed. I didn’t want my grandfather to see me. She’d been very dear to me. The brooch was an old cameo (probably her mother’s). It depicted a woman kneeling by a child’s grave. An angel hovers over the woman, consoling her. I still have it. It’s on my bed-stand. I miss her so much.
The day after the funeral, Grandpa dug a pit a few yards from the woodshed, dragged the shrouded demon, covered in dust and cobwebs, outside and threw it into the pit. He poured kerosene on it, and, when the fire burned down, covered it with earth and tamped it down.
That night, I dreamt of the storm from years before. In my dream, the tree branch crashed again into the kitchen window. I woke with a start because something had in fact hit my bedroom window. There had been a loud thump. The glass didn’t break, but the sound had been reverberative.
I switched on the light and drew up the shade. It must’ve been a bird: there were feathers and a dirt smudge on the glass. But I got goosebumps looking at the smudge, because the way it was smeared across the glass made it look like the outlines of a hand.
“What was that?” Grandpa asked from the hall.
“I think a bird hit the window.”
“Did it break the glass?”
“I’ll take a look in the morning.”
I turned the lights off, but walked back to the window to examine the glass in the moonlight. The smudge didn’t look as much like a hand with the lights out. But when I looked beyond the smudge down at the woodshed, I saw that the woodshed door was wide open.
I heard Grandpa come into my room. He came up behind me and looked down at the woodshed. He saw what I saw. I detected tension in his voice.
“I guess I forgot to lock it up. I’ll do that tomorrow too.”
My grandfather died a year after I graduated from highschool. At the time I was a luggage slinger at Indianapolis International Airport. I was living with a roommate in a rental in Speedway, just off of Lynhurst Drive. I inherited my grandparents’ farm and all of his equipment. I settled the estate, sold everything and used the money to put myself through nursing school. I’ve never been rich, but I’ve never been in debt. My wife is also a nurse and we have two daughters.
I told my future wife about my upbringing early on in our relationship. We were on a date. I mentioned the demon in the woodshed and Pastor Thurgood’s sermons, but said nothing about the strange apparitions I thought I had seen. She rose from the table and went to the salad bar. When she returned, she sat in silence without touching her food.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “You know that I don’t believe in any of that stuff anymore. I’m pretty much an atheist, like you.”
“Brent. . .I’ve got to say that that’s one of the craziest and creepiest things I’ve ever heard of. I mean, didn’t you ever stop and ask yourself, ‘Is this normal’?”
I took a drink of my beer. “You grew up Catholic. And you told me about how when you were a girl, the pastor—”
“Yeah...The priest told you some story about how there once was a little girl who threw a communion wafer into a toilet and it started to bleed. And then you said that you used to go to a church camp every year in which they made you sleep one night in an open coffin so that you’d reflect on death. And then you Catholics believe in transubstantiation and worshiping the relics of saints and—”
“Catholics believe that,” she said. “I don’t. I did at one time, but not now. It’s irrational. It’s nonsensical. And I don’t want my kids exposed to it.”
“I know you don’t believe that stuff now. But you did. And it seems just as weird and creepy to me. You have to understand: this was all I knew. It was part of my upbringing. I just assumed other churches had their own variations on the theme—their own ‘demons in the woodshed’.”
I was working at the Franciscan Hospital in Plainfield in 1998 when the closing chapter of this story took place. We had a patient in 2C who wasn’t doing well: morbidly obese, diabetic, heart problems.
“Good afternoon,” I said, entering her room with a cart. I needed to hook you up to an IV. “Can I check your pulse?”
The patient was Cindy Thurgood. I hadn’t bothered to read the name when I started shift. She looked up at me and I could see that she was blind in one eye, probably macular degeneration from diabetes. She smiled when she saw me.
“I know you.” she said. “You’re Rosie Porter’s son.”
I hadn’t heard my mom’s name since I was a little boy. My arms fell to my side for a moment and I just looked at her.
“Yes.” I said. I felt queasy and went to the sink, as if to wash my hands, but I had gloves on, so I went back to my trolly. I reread her name.
“I remember you now.” I said. “That is, I remember who you are. We never formally met. You’re Pastor Thurgood’s daughter.” I tried to make small talk. “How’s your dad? Is he still with us?”
“No, he died three years ago.”
I think there was perspiration on my brow. I must have looked flushed. “I’m sorry. . .How did you recognize me?”
“Well, for one thing, you look the spittin’ image of your mom.”
She looked suddenly tired, as if the fear, the grief and the rage of a life tormented had made her incapable of feeling any of these emotions anymore.
“You came to my house once.” she said. “Not sure why you did.”
“Wow…” I tried to laugh. “How do you remember that? I was just a kid. I didn’t mean any harm. I felt bad for scaring you like that.”
“Scaring me? You didn’t scare me. . .It was the figure standing behind you that scared me.”
What she said made no sense. But it made my skin crawl. I prepared the IV and administered it. I’d hoped she would stop talking, but she went on.
“I have nobody left in this world. You’re the last thing I’m connected to. I’m dying. I know that. I have things I’d like you to fetch for me when I’m gone. They’re in my room. Go to my dresser and remove the bottom drawer. You’ll find what I’m talking about at the back. Bury those things for me—Pray over them. I have so much sin pressing down on me. It’s suffocating me.”
I heard everything she said but pretended not to. She was raving. I generally ignored patients when they started acting erratic and delusional. I was revolted by her. I wanted to get away. I hooked her up to the IV. Then I asked her in a bland voice if there was anything else she needed. She sensed I was agitated, and said, no, she was fine. But as I was leaving the room, I heard her say in a low voice, “I knew who you were, because the figure that was standing behind you that day is standing behind you now.”
I shut my eyes. I could’ve sworn I felt a faint breeze at the back of my neck. It made me feel nauseous. I walked out of the room. I went to my supervisor and told her that I didn’t want to attend to the patient in 2C anymore.
“Why?” she asked.
“She’s from Mooresville where I was born. There’s a history between us. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to attend to her.”
“I see. Not a problem.”
When I returned to work the following day, four of my colleagues were grouped around a monitor at the front desk.
“So fucking creepy!” Bailey said.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Oh my God, Brent!” said Jennifer. “I don’t think you want to see it.”
Bailey explained. The patient in 2C died last night. The staff was filling out paperwork because there were lawyers involved. The hospital wanted documentation that hourly checks had been made, adequate care had been provided, and no suspicious persons had entered or left the patient’s room in the course of the night.
“So,” Bailey said, “when you were on shift yesterday afternoon, the camera in the corridor captured you entering her room and coming out a few minutes later. But look at this.”
Bailey played the footage. I saw myself enter the room. Bailey fast-forwarded to the point when I exited and slowed it down. A shadowy form stepped out of the room behind me and seemed to turn and look at me. Then it vanished.
“I mean,” Bailey said, “It’s obviously something glitchy in the camera, but you gotta admit it’s freaky.”
My manager called me to her office just before lunch.
“Brent, this’ll be short. I need to talk to you about the patient in 2C. Of course, you have no legal obligation here and it’s completely up to you if you want to do this. When you left yesterday, she contacted her attorney. She mentioned you by name and asked if you specifically would be willing to help prepare the estate for auction. If you agree—and you’re only obliged to be at the house for one day—you’ll be paid $5,000. She said there were some private effects that you’d know how to dispose of.”
I was stunned. I sat looking at the floor-tiles for a solid minute. But I accepted the offer, and she relayed this to the attorney. I’m not ashamed to admit that I needed the money at that time.
My wife and I hadn’t yet had our two daughters. She agreed to come with me to Mooresville and planned to visit the antique shops and craft stores while I was at the house. I told her that there wasn’t a lot to see in Mooresville, and if she got bored, she could just come back to the house.
The gravel road had been paved over. I was the first to arrive and had no key to get in, but I expected the attorney to meet me within the hour. I told my wife to take the car and head back into town. I’d just wait outside.
I walked around the house. The yard hadn’t been mown in years. At the back I spotted the oak tree beneath which I had stood so many years ago. But the crazy thing was there was still a black streak running from the branch to the trunk. The ground was still scorched, as if it had only recently been on fire. How had the grass not grown back? All I could think of was that someone had intentionally, regularly, set fire to the tree and the ground in front of it—although that seemed a dangerous and foolish thing to make a ceremony of. There were still wind chimes in the branches.
I met Cindy Thurgood’s attorney out front. The auctioneer was with him. We set to work. We decided to start upstairs. The place was a peeling dump. She’d been a hoarder.
I have to admit I was curious. I wanted to see if what she’d told me about the dresser was true. I was alone in her bedroom. The dresser was one of those elaborate turn-of-the-century walnut things with a mirror on top. I opened the bottom drawer. It was full of undergarments. I removed the entire drawer from its tracks and got down on my stomach. I strained my eyes, peering into the gap. Sure enough, there was something wrapped up in a brown paper packet and fastened to the side of the dresser with duct tape. I could hear the attorney and auctioneer in the preacher’s office—or what I assumed was his office—at the end of the hall.
I opened the parcel. An engagement ring fell out. I picked it up. There were two pictures in the packet. One was a studio photograph from a department store that looked to be from the late ‘60s. It showed what I presumed to be Cindy Thurgood as a young woman standing beside a black man in a suit. Both of them were smiling. The other was a picture of the black man alone, wearing a U.S. Army uniform. It appeared to be his graduation photo from basic training.
“Brent!” the attorney shouted. “Can you come in here please!”
I put the ring and pictures in my pocket. I wasn’t going to keep these things. I was going to do what Cindy Thurgood had asked me to do, bury them and say a prayer over them. Even if I were no longer a Christian, it would be the decent thing to do. And I would feel I’d fulfilled her dying wish, and could accept her money with a clear conscience.
I went into the office, which was cluttered with cardboard boxes, cheap file cabinets, official papers (tax forms, contracts, etc.), and old mimeographed copies of church programs. The auctioneer and the attorney had removed two large framed photographs from the closet.
“Do you know what this is?” the attorney asked. His face was white.
At first I couldn’t grasp what it was I was looking at. It was as though all the pieces of a pastoral jigsaw puzzle were falling into place of their own accord, but creating an image that bore no resemblance to the landscape pictured on the label.
“Oh God!” I cried. “Oh my God!” I sank to my knees.
When my wife came into the house an hour later she saw me crumpled in the office, tears streaming down my eyes.
“What’s wrong, Honey?” she asked.
“My grandaddy killed my grandma when she found out.” I don’t know why that was the first of the revelations I shared with her. The shock of what I had seen was too overwhelming. The auctioneer was outside smoking a cigarette. The attorney was on the telephone with the police.
There were two framed photographs—framed! What kind of sick mind would have them framed? And who had developed the pictures? Who had blown the images up to this size? The color was grainy and faded. They appeared to have been taken in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. One showed the same black man in uniform being lynched from the very same oak tree in the backyard that I had stood underneath as a boy when I had visited this house. My mother, a young woman, was laughing and pointing up at the victim. Cindy Thurgood, restrained by her father, was in a swoon of grief, her arms extended to her lover. The preacher’s eyes were baleful.
In the other photograph my grandfather, in coveralls, was setting the corpse on fire. He is turned to the camera, his face contorted in a rictus of gloating and maniacal hatred. In both photographs white-sheeted men cluster around the tree. They stand around the lynched corpse, their faces concealed beneath the hoods of the Ku-Klux-Klan. Only Cindy, my mother, my grandfather, and Pastor Thurgood are not wearing robes.
In the years since this discovery, it is the shrouded figures in the background who haunt me the most. Who were they? Who among my teachers, my coaches, the parents of my friends knew of this incident?—Who participated in it?
I conducted the police to the place where my grandfather had interred the remains of the demon in the woodshed. I was asked to give a statement. I told the female police officer more or less what I had told my wife years ago. She listened impassively, and hardly asked any questions. The case was quietly closed. I’ve never found out why. I was told that the man’s family was notified.
Not long ago, I revisited Pastor Thurgood’s house. A chain-link fence surrounds the property. Over twenty years have passed since Cindy Thurgood’s death, and the place still hasn’t been sold. The house is now dilapidated. The windows are broken, the front door hangs on one hinge. It looks like a cartoon version of a haunted house. I walked through the tall grass and weeds to the oak tree in the backyard. It is now thick with foliage. The bark is no longer black.
I don’t know why I was chosen—actually, I don’t even know if I was chosen to undergo these uncanny experiences. I don’t believe in God, or Heaven, or Hell. But I believe there are mysteries in this world that we are not meant to understand—mysteries that we are not capable of understanding. I really do believe there was something angry, something anguished clinging to the “demon” in the woodshed. I hope that whatever this something was is gone. I hope that it has found peace.