BY MICHAEL JOLL
Copyright is held by the author.
WILMA WATCHED helplessly as the long, thin tendrils drifted westward towards her on the slight breeze. The vines met, entwining, forming a moving, pale green mat of ground-hugging chlorine gas. Blindness and death slipped snake-silent into the trench she shared unseen with crouching, cowering, praying, suffocating men. The gas insinuated her nose, clutched her throat, seared the moist tissue and infused her lungs, its grip seeking to snuff the life from her like it had Carl’s great uncle, Private Joseph Redekopp, at Ypres almost a hundred years ago.
Joseph’s creased face in the sepia photograph on the mantle vanished as Wilma awoke with her chest constricted. Gasping for air in the still of a humid early August night, the rank sweat of fear mingling with heat sweat seeped into her cotton nightdress. Panic. Asthma attack: She could scarcely breathe with the elephant crushing her chest. She reached for her puffer on her night stand and inhaled, holding her breath until she believed her lungs would burst. She exhaled, took a second puff, holding it in until the corset binding her torso began to release its stranglehold. Her panic slowly subsided, dissolving as the asthma medication did its work. She was not going to suffocate, not this time.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, over Goderich way she reckoned. Maybe closer. Listowel. It will be here soon, she told herself and hoped it would not damage the cereal crops. She opened her eyes, staring at the bedroom ceiling. A tiny breath of air swayed the sheers covering her open window, barely movement enough to catch her eye in the darkness. The wind gusted and the sheers billowed. Moonlight and sheet lightning flickered off her dressing table mirror, casting distorted shadows across the wallpaper.
Wilma closed her eyes, willing herself to relax, letting the asthma medication do its work but still she held he puffer tightly in her grasp in case she needed a third dose. She kicked the sheets down around her ankles, letting the light breeze cool her slight body while she listened to the sounds of the gathering storm.
“Carl,” she whispered as her hand reached out across the empty half of their bed, the only bed that either had ever shared, now too big for one person. More than anything she needed her husband to assure her that all was well, but the sheet was cool to her touch. Carl was no longer there. Dear Carl; her husband for nearly 45 years, no more beside her. It had been that way for almost six years, ever since the accident that she was sure was no accident, no matter what the others said, had claimed his life.
All the Redekopps had raised barns since they were barely old enough to walk, without ever so much as a misstep. To reshingle the roof of the farmhouse was an elementary task hardly worthy of Carl’s skill, but it needed to be done. As she left for the Co-op in St. Jacob’s that afternoon she called out of the truck window, “Be sure you’re careful, Carl.” He waved back from the foot of the ladder with a bundle of shingles over his shoulder and said something that she could not quite hear as she accelerated away towards the road.
On her return from her trip a couple of hours later she found the chickens out of their coop, milling about on the driveway. She drove carefully through them, scattering the squawking grey-brown clouds. She found Carl’s body alongside the fallen ladder on the patch of grass in front of their living room window. A bundle of shingles lay scattered on the ground close by and their boar snorted contentedly as it nuzzled Carl’s body.
Wilma screamed. The boar looked up and eyed her, grunted, then continued his search for a meal of human flesh. She ran up the step, pushed open the front door and tripped over the body of their lifeless lab-collie mix sprawled on the floor with its side ripped open. Wilma screamed again, turned her head to block out the sight and stumbled across the living room. With trembling hands, in Carl’s desk drawer she found the key to the gun cabinet, unlocked the cabinet next to the fireplace and loaded the 12 gauge with two shells from the box in Carl’s desk.
She stepped outside with ice in her heart, took aim and squeezed both triggers. The recoil flung her onto her back but the boar lay dead. Dazed, she glanced up and saw the gate to the pig’s sty swinging on its hinges. They never left the gate open. The boar never left his sty; they brought the sows to him. Moreover, the chickens never left their enclosure except to make an appearance at the table for Sunday dinner.
Wilma voiced her suspicions to the police officer and again at the inquest but the coroner returned a finding of accidental death. At Carl’s funeral, her friends and neighbours gathered around her and comforted her, pledging their support but her heart kept asking, “Which of you killed him? Why?”
Her thoughts about the strange circumstances of her husband’s death Wilma kept to herself. She carried on working the farm with help from the sons of her nearest neighbour, Carl’s cousin Rudi. Although it cut into her savings and the farm income, she paid them for their work and with cheerful good humour they took on the backbreaking jobs that she could no longer manage. But costly machinery repairs that Carl used to do himself she now had to pay for. A grass fire destroyed the drive shed. When the tractor mysteriously would not start right before ploughing time she had to leave fallow 20 prime acres that she could not reach before heavy autumn rains made ploughing impossible. The year after Carl died, for the first time the farm operated at a loss and she was ashamed when word got out.
Rudi offered to buy the farm but Wilma refused outright to sell. “You know Carl inherited the farm,” she told him. “It’s the best acreage for miles around, and I’ll work it until the day I join him in the churchyard. Everyone knows we’ve no children and just about everyone knows the church and its charities are the sole beneficiaries of my will. The church will auction off the farm when my time comes.” It was what she and Carl had decided, decades before and she wasn’t about to change her mind or her will. “And,” she warned Rudi darkly, “Heed the 10th commandment: Thou shalt not covet.” Rudi had brought the matter up a couple of times since, the last time right after the tractor broke down but her answer was the same: Thou shalt not covet. Wilma Redekopp was 97 pounds of calloused hands and wiry stubbornness.
Her doubts about Carl’s death remained. “All these little things that keep going wrong, they can’t all be bad luck, can they?” she asked Rudi during a break at the Christmas euchre tournament.
“No such thing as luck,” he told her as they took their places back at the card table. “It’s God’s will, a test of faith.”
“It’s more than a run of bad luck,” she muttered under her breath as Rudi turned his attention to his cards. “God’s will be damned!” Wilma fanned her cards and covered her mouth, consumed with guilt at her blasphemy.
The memories melted in the warm night until she no longer recognized them. A breeze drifted through the sheers into her bedroom, cooling her hot body. She closed her eyes. Drowsy again, sleep coming. The gas had not killed her, not like Joseph, not this time. “Thank you, Lord for sparing my life once more,” she whispered. Silently, she began to recite the Lord’s Prayer.
A noise broke through her drowsiness; a noise so faint that she could not identify it, but definitely one that did not belong in the farmhouse. Nor outside. Inside, she was sure, downstairs, a piece of furniture moving, perhaps a chair scraping across the pine floor of the living room. She held her breath, alert, her eyes wide open as fear preyed on her imagination, listening, hoping, praying that it was nothing.
She checked the clock on the night stand: 4:18 a.m. Too early for Rudi’s sons to start the daily chores, she reasoned and they never came into the house anyway unless she invited them in for a glass of lemonade or a can of pop.
She heard the noise again: Was it a faint footfall, a scuff, something being moved a fraction of an inch? Could it be the bones of the house? No, she was sure it wasn’t the bones. It had to be somebody, a person making the noise, an intruder.
The smell of fear flooded her armpits again, invading her nostrils as she craned her head to see who might at any second to enter her bedroom.
Silence… Then thunder, close this time, masking the soft scuffing. The rumble died away. A creak… The stairs? A mouse? There are plenty of mice around the farm. No; it has to be a human, she reasoned, though it brought no comfort. Choking stomach acid lurched into her throat. “Don’t panic,” she told herself. “Don’t cough. Breathe naturally.”
She reached slowly for the phone beside the clock and picked the handset carefully from the cradle. “Don’t make a sound.” She put the handset to her ear. No dial tone. She pressed the cradle softly, twice. Nothing but unbroken silence…
Another creak: It had to be the second step from the bottom of the flight leading to her bedroom, the one that always creaked underfoot. Thunder rumbled almost overhead as the phone slipped from her fingers onto the bedside mat. Its muffled crash startled her. Fear renewed its grip on her chest, squeezed and paralyzed her body. The asthma returned. She dared not take a third puff. Whoever was in the house might see her move and know she was awake. She gripped her inhaler and slipped her hand under her body where her murderer would not see it. She screwed her eyelids tight. Blind panic and the asthma forced her mouth open. She took a breath and tried to scream but no sound came.
The constriction in her chest would not let her exhale. The nightmare pale green tendrils of chlorine gas had found her lungs. This, she knew with absolute certainty, was her time to die, alone and terrified, at one with Carl and poor Joseph in his trench, flailing, twitching, then still. She wet herself, the warm and comforting fluid soaking through her nightdress into her mattress.
Her bedroom door cracked open. She lay rigid, feigning sleep, praying that whoever it was would leave without killing her. “Please God,” she begged silently, “make him go away before he smells my fear and knows I’m awake. Please… Please…
“Dear God, let me live to die in peace, not murdered like my Carl.”
Thunder crashed directly overhead. A fork of lightning lit the bedroom with intense, stark white light, forcing her eyes open for a split second but she could not make out distinctly the face of the man looming over her. She thought she caught a glimpse of red under the ball cap. A hint, no more. Rudi had red hair. So did his sons. All the Redekopps had red hair, she knew, as far back as Uncle Joseph’s time and probably beyond. Carl had called red hair the family curse but in the utter blackness that followed the blinding flash she could not absolutely swear on the bible that the hair was red.
The intruder turned and tiptoed away. The second to bottom tread of the stairs creaked. Did he see my eyes open, she wondered? When she heard a muffled curse as the intruder bumped into Carl’s old Lazy-Boy, she knew he hadn’t. Above the storm she heard a different, unnatural sound: The front door closing with a click. The intruder was gone. “Thank you, Lord, for sparing my life,” she mouthed. She grabbed her inhaler and sucked on it.
The wind picked up, catching the screen door, banging it hard against the frame, again and again as the thunderstorm crashed about her, hurling sheets of rain across the fields of wheat and barley, flattening the ripening harvest in its fury.
The elephant eased its weight on her chest. She breathed more easily. Wilma’s scream ended in a long, ululating wail carried away on the wind. She slid from her bed and crawled to the bedroom door.
When the brothers found the truck parked in the driveway but no sign of Wilma they went home and told their father. Rudi found Wilma that afternoon squatting in her foul, sodden nightdress with her eyes screwed shut, slowly rocking back and forth beneath a row of frocks hanging neatly from the rack above her in her clothes closet, whimpering. In her hands she clutched Carl’s loaded shotgun.
Wilma never left the psychiatric hospital. Rudi’s sons bought the farm when the church sold it at auction, “To keep it in the family,” they explained. “It’s what our father would have wanted.” Folk around St. Jacob’s nodded their approval and figured they paid a fair price for it, considering.