The Back Yard
by Gracie Motley
|Table of Contents|
part 1 of 4
For the house to be so small, the back yard was vast, almost half an acre large. It extended from a small patio crowded up against the house and lay in a perfect square. Thick grass covered it, punctuated with clumps of dandelions and wild, tough weeds that thrived in spite of all attempts to poison them. A medium-sized elm tree sheltered the patio, and closer to the back fence, a young cedar had sprung up overnight, out of nowhere. When it rained, which was often, the center of the yard became a swamp, a standing pool six inches deep, which drew the mosquitoes like pollen drew bees.
The family made many attempts to grow things around the edges of the little swamp, on the higher ground. At first, by the back fence behind the elderly clothesline, there was a vegetable plot where tomatoes, turnips, and green beans struggled to live. When that failed, they let the youngest daughter plant morning glories and zinnias on the south side of the patio behind the barbecue pit where they would get the best sun and where the morning glories had an aging trellis to climb up. This lasted for three seasons until the weeds won the war and overcame the flowers.
Along the northern fence were two plum trees that grew as they wished, and gave a meager yearly harvest of pale green plums, which the birds made more of than the family did. Honeysuckle, the youngest daughter’s favorite, grew in bushy clumps along all the fences, and gave a sweet scent to the almost-wild yard in the springs and summers.
The back yard was haunted. Only the youngest brother and sister knew it, and they only whispered of it among themselves, never to the two older boys or the adults. They knew very well that any mention of the ghosts would get them only ridicule from their brothers, scorn from their mother, and perhaps a good whipping with a switch snapped off the elm from their father. So they kept their silence, except for those times in the evenings after dinner when their parents collapsed in front of the television and the brothers were squabbling in the tiny attic room they shared. In those times, they often tiptoed out the back door and sat on the steps with the back gate open, the light of the carport behind them tethering them to the house, and kept watch.
The yard stretched before them as they sat vigil this night, black and empty, the trees and bushes rippling in the warm summer breeze. The moon was dark, and there was only the light from the kitchen window now, a wan square of yellow that lay flat and unknowing beside the house.
“Katie saw them once,” the girl, Lola, said, her chin resting in her hands, elbows propped on knobby knees. The boy, Jubal, glanced aside at her, and she sensed a shiver run through him.
“Don’t talk about her,” he said, and then, “What did she say about it?"
Lola chewed a hangnail, speaking out the side of her mouth.
“You remember when I was six, before Katie... before... you remember the night she woke up screaming bloody murder and got everybody so upset?”
Jubal nodded and did not speak.
“The next day after it was all over, and Mama and Daddy were at work, Katie and me were in the bedroom by ourselves, and she told me what scared her. She said she woke up to go to the bathroom. She sat up in the bed and the wind was blowing the curtains, so she held the curtain open to get some fresh air. She looked out the window and... and... she saw them.”
The boy’s breath stopped, his heart thumped. He looked out at the darkness, at the waiting shadows, picturing what his sister Katie, the oldest of them, had witnessed that night. He made himself take a breath.
“Go on,” he whispered.
“She said they were tall and dark, just a part of the night that moved,” she said softly. “There were two of them. She thought they were robbers, or bums that got into the yard through the side gate. She didn’t make any noise, but they saw her anyway. When they did see her, they came up the yard right at her. She said they moved like the wind, quick, and without any feet. Then she was screaming, and they were gone like a puff of smoke, and the lights came on, and Mama and Daddy were in there with us raising hell.”
“Don’t say hell,” the boy said. “I saw them, too. Not that night, but later, after Katie died.”
“Don’t say died,” the girl said. “When was that? When you saw them?”
“About a month after Katie... passed away. I couldn’t sleep one night, and I was just looking out the window, thinking about her. Then I saw something move, out there by the back fence. It looked like they were digging in the old vegetable patch. They didn’t see me, and I watched them for a few minutes. After a while it looked like they found something in the ground, and they bent over whatever it was. They... they looked like animals eating something they hunted.”
He shuddered, put his arm protectively around his little sister, who was silent.
“The next day, I went out there to the vegetable patch, and the ground was all turned up, so I knew right then I wasn’t dreaming or making it up in my head. Then Daddy caught me there and blamed me for digging up the yard. ‘That’s why nothing ever grew right back here,’ he told me. He whipped me good for that, even though I didn’t do anything. And that’s partly why I’m the one who has to mow the grass now.”
“I remember that day,” the girl said. “I felt so bad for you. Now I feel worse, knowing what made it happen. And you couldn’t tell him the truth, or he’d have whipped you worse.”
She looked out at the far edge of the yard, at the rear fence, and thought she saw something shift beneath the bushes. Her brother’s arm stiffened around her shoulders, and she knew he had seen it too.
“Let’s go watch the television,” she said, and they got up and hurried inside, shutting the door firmly against the darkness.
* * *
Her children were a burden. There were too many of them. It was better now that Katie was gone, less mouths to put bread in, but it was worse, too. Now she had no one but herself to look after the two youngest ones, born ten months apart, who were always off by themselves whispering about God knows what. Her husband was no help either. He couldn’t control the oldest boys and he never noticed the youngest children. Now and again, he’d look up, get mad, and give somebody a whipping, but then he’d sink back into that diabetic body of his and just kind of disappear. So after fifteen years of marriage, when she thought her childrearing should have been easing up and coming to its natural end, he was just another baby to look after.
This was not what she had wanted for herself. She had been a right pretty girl, and all the boys had run after her, even a couple whose families had money. All of them, even this one she married, had promised her the moon, had said they’d take care of everything. All she, Brenda, would have to do, they all said, was sit there and look pretty-and, of course, keep their manly natures satisfied. She had figured it was a fair trade, and she deserved to be cared for, after the family she had to grow up in. But it was her fault, in a way, for judging poorly and picking the wrong man.
She should have known he wouldn’t amount to much. Kenny, her husband, was just a car salesman, and she could have, should have, had the owner of the car lot. And he wasn’t even that good at selling the cars. Why, after Katie came along, she even had to go out and get a job herself to make ends meet. He told her it was just for a little while until they could get on their feet. Thirteen years later, she was still working, the front desk manager at the Rodeway Inn over by the Interstate. It wasn’t much, it didn’t pay too well, but she got to meet the businessmen who stopped for the night on the way to their meetings in one place or another. They told her she was still pretty, even after birthing five children. They told her she still looked like she was in her mid-twenties, even though she was closer to forty now.
Sometimes, if those men were lonesome, they would tip her a few dollars to pay a “courtesy visit” to their rooms at the end of her shift. It made her feel young, and it made her feel pampered, the way Kenny should be treating her. The money she earned from that, she felt entitled to. She pocketed it for herself and kept it separate from the household pot. She was on salary pay, so she could tell him that she had to work overtime without overtime pay, and he never questioned her about it.
She would come home late after those visits, and if her luck held (she was always lucky on those days), the kids would already be in their rooms, if not asleep, Kenny would be snoring in front of the television, and she wouldn’t have to look at any of them. She would park the car and go out in the back yard to smoke a cigarette.
Tonight was one of those “courtesy visit” nights. She went into the back yard and lit her cigarette, sitting on the side of the brick barbecue pit. She watched the smoke from the cigarette curl up into the air and fade to nothing against the dark sky, and listened to the quiet of the yard. There was a tiny summer breeze, just enough to make the leaves rustle in the elm tree and the bushes. She smelled the honeysuckle and thought of Lola, who loved it.
That girl was just downright odd. She saw things funny. Like when she had that pitiful excuse for a flower garden and swore the flowers had fairies in them. Or after Katie had died, and Lola, every single day for a month, had said Katie was talking to her in her dreams, until her daddy had heard enough of that and whipped her for saying such nonsense. She had only been six at the time, was only eight now, but really. Where did she get such ideas? Nobody else on either side of the family ever thought about voodoo like that. And on top of all that, the girl was afraid of this yard. She wouldn’t come out here without Jubal, and wouldn’t step foot in the yard after dark. It was as if she thought there was a boogey man out here, though she had never said anything like that.
The elm tree whispered beside the patio, and she saw the leaves fluttering against the dark sky. There was nothing scary about this yard. It was relaxing out here when the rest of them were all in the house. She took a long drag from the cigarette, feeling the smoke singe her throat and lungs, and took pleasure in it.
A twig snapped in the bushes by the back fence, and the sudden noise startled her in the quiet. Just a stray cat, she thought. She turned her head toward the sound and saw a phosphorescent glint of eyes in the underbrush. The cat growled at something; the growl escalated into a shriek and a flatulent hiss, and it took off, rustling bushes behind it.
She heard all this, seeing nothing for the dark, even though she kept her face turned toward the sound. Then she did see something.
The blackness under the bushes seemed to gather and spread from the hedge in a pool along the ground. Out of that pool, a shape blacker than the night arose until it was tall as a man.
She sat staring at it, unthinking. The cigarette, unfiltered, burned down until it scorched her fingers; she turned to stub it out and threw the butt into the barbecue pit. When she looked at the back fence again, there was only the hedge, the darkness, the perfume of the honeysuckle, and the breeze moving softly against her skin. There was nothing there.
“I’m tired,” she commented to the night, and went inside to get ready for bed.
Copyright © 2005 by Gracie Motley