Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
 
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The Lincoln Homestead


by Robert Pettus




Lincoln Park road curved back and forth as the dainty maroon Toyota Scion revved exhaustedly up and down each winding hill. Its little engine was working hard. At the top of every slope, Raymond threw the car into neutral to see if it could descend the hill, build momentum, and scale the next without putting it back into drive. He had been successful a couple times, but not often enough to relieve the small car of its monotonous, Sisyphus-struggle.

“This road is giving me a headache,” said Jane from the passenger seat.

She had the window down, stretching her arm outside, catching the wind as the Scion sped down the hill.

“We’re almost there,” said Raymond, “The park is just up around the bend. Look! You can already see Mordecai Lincoln’s house from here. He was Abe’s uncle; a real badass, apparently. He built that house himself! Called it the Lincoln Homestead. That’s how the park got its name.”

The house came into full view after rounding the next serpentine bend in the road. It was an emotionless house: two stories, covered in cracked white paint. Perfectly symmetrical rectangular windows lining its front on either side of a pale green front-door. A chalky brick chimney rose up from the left side of the house; smoke billowed from its top:

 “That’s good!” said Raymond, “They’re already here! I was hoping we wouldn’t be the first to arrive.”

“The family reunion is here?” said Jane, “Why are we having it here? It looks so… antique!”

Raymond shuffled uncomfortably, glancing away from Jane, out the driver’s side window toward the distant rolling hills of the Bluegrass:

“It is old! That’s the point! Our venerable family is gathering in this historic landmark! This symbol of local pride! It adds some prestige to the whole thing, don’t you think?”

“I guess,” responded Jane, wiping nervous sweat from her hands onto her long pleated skirt.

* * *

Raymond pulled hurriedly into the gravel parking lot. Weeds and grass grew through the dusty gravel; dandelion seeds floated apathetically to the trees after being crushed by the Scion’s swerving wheels.

Raymond stopped the car, excitedly threw it into park, hopped out, and rushed over to open the door for Jane. He then squatted, almost butler-like, and motioned toward the antique front door:

“Let’s go; let’s go, my queen! They’ve probably already got dinner ready for us!”

Jane, attempting to look unsure, reluctantly exited the vehicle. She grinned at Raymond’s display of comic cordiality, unsuccessfully suppressing a sheepish giggle.

“This way, my lady!” Raymond croaked in his most theatric guttural voice.

The door was locked, but noise was coming from inside. Raymond continued tugging at the knob:

“This old thing hardly ever works!”

He continued wiggling it aggressively. A voice came from inside.

“Hold on, now; hold your damn horses! I’m coming!”

A moment later the lock unlatched and the door swung open. Jane briefly felt a cool, magnetic pull from inside, ruffling her skirt and causing her to stutter step in her heels.  Inside the door stood a smiling, middle-aged woman. She spread her arms wide:

“Well, hello!” she exclaimed, “We’ve been waiting anxiously for you two!”

“Hey, mom,” said Raymond, stepping inside and giving his mother a hug. She squeezed him tightly and continued talking:

“The venison roast is still in the stove; it needs a bit more time. Your brother braised it with some of his PBR concoction; that crazy man! It should be good, though; he salted it down well enough. The taters, carrots, and biscuits are done, though, so we’ll be eating soon enough. We’ve got fried frog legs, too! We’ll be well fed! Completely comatose after dinner! It’s wonderful to see you two!”

She then stepped forward to embrace Jane. After releasing, she gripped each of Jane’s shoulders and looked her in the eye, smiling wide; her porcelain teeth contrasting with her tanned, aging skin:

“I’m just overjoyed my sweet Raymond found someone as special as you! I was worried he’d never be able to do it!”

She laughed and smiled ironically, looking in Raymond’s direction. His face reddened as he averted his eyes toward the ground. He then looked up:

“Jane, this is my mother: Constance, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Of course I’d noticed!” said Jane, “You’ve shown me so many photos! You think I wouldn’t notice your own mother when I saw her?”

Raymond’s face flushed even more crimson. Jane looked from him back over to his mother. Constance’s eyes were an enchanting juniper green. They were vacuous, but also beautiful – entirely absorbing. She blinked and looked away. Jane did the same.

“Okay, okay!” Constance said finally, gesturing both Raymond and Jane into the house, “It’s eating time! Let’s not let the food get cold! Those damn vegetables can’t sit for more than a few minutes without losing their heat!”

The front door of the Mordecai Lincoln house opened into a creaking foyer. No piece of the old hardwood flooring was entirely stable. Jane buckled and twisted with each step. She briefly extended her arms, to help with balance, before realizing what she was doing and folding them back to her waist in embarrassment.

In the living room was a large rectangular dining table covered in a perfect white cloth. Two oversized candelabras sat in the middle of the table. Ornate, maroon cushioned chairs lined each side, with a green one at the table’s southerly head.

A golden Victorian chandelier hung from the ceiling. It caught Jane’s eye:

“That doesn’t look like something you would see in an old Lincoln cabin!” she said.

“You’re right, you’re right!” responded Constance, “It is a bit strange. You know, Thomas and Nancy Hanks, Abraham’s parents; they lived just down the road from here. Their cabin is much more modest. It’s the old log-style – Lincoln logs, as people say. But Mordecai, based on what we know, was much more successful than they were, at least in terms of cash-money! Maybe he put it there! He and Thomas were brothers; they had a strong family bond, you can tell. But Mordecai, he was a huntsman, a storyteller, and a business man. He also had a strong comedic sense! So it’s understandable that he would have a bit of flair about him, don’t you think? He was an interesting fellow.”

            Jane continued staring at the chandelier and the line of regal chairs. They looked a bit out of place in this rural antebellum cabin. That chandelier, as old as it may well be, wasn’t old enough to be in a cabin owned by Mordecai Lincoln. Jane, who considered herself an astute student of history, knew that. She didn’t want to break the news to Constance, though. Raymond noticed the curiosity in her gaze:

            “Let’s go get some food!” he said, “The venison has to be done by now, and you’ve got to try some of my Uncle Julian’s frog legs! They’re delicious, and fresh! He gigs them at the pond just down the road.”

            “Okay, okay!” responded Jane, “I’m sure it will all be wonderful! I’ve never eaten a frog before, though. I can’t help but think it will be slimy.”

            “Aw, hell no it’s not! It tastes just like chicken! Chicken marinated in a little bit of pond water! Seasoned with moss! Gamey, aquatic, mossy chicken!”

Jane wasn’t sure if she liked the sound of that.

* * *

The table was set, and everyone sat down with their heaping plates. Raymond and Jane sat next to each other on the side of the table furthest from the foyer. Raymond’s uncle, Julian, and his wife, Annabelle, sat on the southerly side of the table, nearest the foyer and the front door. Constance sat at the southerly side of the table’s head. The northerly head of the table was empty, though a plate of food lay there piping.

“Was that plate prepared for someone?” Jane asked Raymond.

“Oh, yes!” He replied, “That seat is for my grandfather, Jonas. He hasn’t come downstairs, yet. He’s probably napping.”

“Napping?” said Jane, “Didn’t your family only rent this old house for the day, from the state park?”

“Yes, yeah; that’s true!” responded Raymond, “But my Grandpa Jonas knows this house very well. He’s lived in Abry his entire life, and he’s been coming to this house since he was born. It’s a special place for him. It feels like home. There’s a spare bedroom upstairs, where he likes to snooze. He likes how the sun shines through the old windows, heats his body, and wakes him up, and he likes how the bed and the floor creak as he moves around. He says it sounds like the voices of some of his old friends. He’s quite an elderly man.”

As if on cue, Jane heard the creak of someone limping down the stairs. Each step groaned under the weight of Grandpa Jonas. Jane kept looking for him, but couldn’t get a clear view until he had nearly fully descended the stairs. He was a small, decrepit old man. He looked, Jane remembered thinking, about to wither away. Maybe he would blow out of his beloved windows with the next gust of wind, flying up into the sun with the dandelions.

His knees caught while making the last step from the stairwell onto the wooden floor of the foyer:

Gahh!” He said, clutching at the railing of the stair to keep himself from falling.

“I’ve got you, dad!” said Uncle Julian, unseating himself from the table and running amiably over to Jonas. After helping him up, he darted to the closet next to the front door and grabbed a cane:

“Here you go, gramps! You need to remember this old thing next time you go upstairs to take a nap! It’s not safe coming down the stairs by yourself like that; get one of us to help you!”

Awh, shut the hell up!” said Jonas, “I’m fine on my own. You just saw me walk all the way down by myself, didn’t you? What’s that tell you? I’m good!”

Grandpa Jonas, now wielding his twisted red oak walking cane, limped grouchily over to his seat at the northerly head of the table.

            “Everyone is finally here!” said Constance, “Now we can eat!”

* * *

            Jane picked at her food. The green beans looked good. They were boiled with lots of salt, pepper, butter, and bacon. The mashed potatoes also looked completely edible – filled with butter, and topped with cheddar cheese and more bacon. Not the healthiest of meals, but certainly hearty. Jane couldn’t deny her excitement. The venison she was a little unsure of, though. She’d never eaten a wild animal, but she thought she could handle it. The frog legs, however, were an entirely different story. She kept thinking of ways she could dismiss herself from trying them. While she continued plotting, Raymond chimed in:

            “Don’t be shy, now!” he said, “Go on and eat it up! Hey! Why don’t you try one of my Uncle Julian’s frog legs first! They’re the best part; you’re going to love them!”

            Jane continued picking around her plate, the floral designs in the hilt of her silverware periodically, unintentionally, clinking against her nearby glass of sweet tea. She kept thinking of what to say. Abruptly, another voice came from across the table:

            “Hell yeah!” said Uncle Julian, “Try one of my frog legs first! You won’t regret it!

Here,” he continued, “this is the best part!”

            He then snapped the leg off at the knee, handing the calf meat over to Jane:

            “Go on! Try it out! It’s best with a little spice!”

            He then handed her a bottle of Louisiana Hot Sauce. Unwillingly, she sprinkled it lightly onto the amphibian meat. Knowing no other course of action, she bit into the frog leg – grease dripping down her chin as she chewed.

She loved it:

            “Well, this is delicious!” she said, “You catch these things just over at that mossy old pond?”

            “Hell yeah I do!” said Julian, “Big sons ‘a bitches! We take the boat out, early morning, and catch shit loads of them! You can take some home with you if you want!”

            Jane greedily devoured the rest.

            “All right, all right!” came a voice from the head of the table. It was Constance: “Don’t start digging in until we’ve said grace! You two boys know better than that!”

            Uncle Julian and Raymond both shrank embarrassed back into their maroon cushioned chairs. Constance continued:

            Bless us, oh Lord, and these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, though Christ, our Lord, Amen.

            She then continued:

“And thank you so much, my sweet lord Jesus, for bringing us this beautiful young woman, Jane. My son Raymond says she is absolutely perfect, and as far as I can tell, that claim holds true. Thank you. And thank you for giving us the sacrifices we must make. Life is difficult, and so is Your Love. Thank you. Amen. Now go on, everybody: dig in!”

            The green beans and mashed potatoes were as good as Jane had expected. She devoured them, along with the rest of her frog legs, in quick fashion. Raymond did the same. The venison, though she was afraid of it, was nearly as delicious as the frog. She cleaned her plate, as did everyone else. She tried unsuccessfully to avoid shrinking back into her chair. Raymond looked as if he were about to fall asleep. Jane’s eyelids also became heavy; she slouched into her soft chair and drifted unavoidably into childlike, deep comfort. She closed her eyes.

            Eventually, the voice of Constance alerted everyone. Though Jane could – through only a dazed, muffled voice – hear, she couldn’t move:

            “Okay!” Constance began, “You all know what comes next! She’s damn near passed out; let’s go ahead and get on with it!”

            Jane, delirious and confused, stared at Raymond’s mother. What was the meaning of what she just said?

            Before getting close to discovering an answer, Jane involuntarily shrank further into her chair, falling deeply asleep.

* * *

            Jane awoke with a cramp running down her back. She squirmed to alleviate it, instinctively pushed her back against the surface of where she lie, her neck thrusting, as if she were exercising, upward into the air. It caught on a thick, allergenic substance, which scratched perversely against her skin. She unleashed an involuntary, guttural scream and fell back down. She was lying in the middle of the dinner table, strapped down with a thick, hempen rope. The many pointed elbows of the overhead chandelier stared ominously into her eyes.

            “Wha… what?” She screamed, “What’s going on?”

            Raymond approached, standing at the side of the table and rubbing her hand affectionately:

            “I’m sorry, my sweet Jane! I really am! I love you; truly, I do! I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone like I love you. But I can’t let love disrupt tradition. That’s what mom told me. That’s what uncle Julian has always told me. You can’t let love get in the way of your heritage. Tradition is important! Culture and history are important! Family is important! I’m so sorry, my lovely Jane.”

            Jane struggled with her bindings. It was no use. Her arms and legs were strapped tightly against the table. The rope’s thistles scratched against her legs, up her body, all the way to her neck. She continued flailing. The table groaned and creaked against her weight. It buckled and nearly collapsed.

            “Now, now; don’t go and break our table!” Constance said from across the room, leaning casually against the wall, “You know, this table is an antique! It’s an important part of the Lincoln Heritage here in Abry! You can’t go breaking it! There would be hell to pay!”

            She chuckled sarcastically, as if she had just said something hysterical. Uncle Julian, finally realizing that a joke was made, joined her in laughter. He then elbowed Raymond, signaling him to join in. Raymond looked horrified. His face was red with either embarrassment, anger, or some combination of both. He opened his mouth and immediately closed it back; his bleach white teeth clenched into a frenzied laugh. His eyes were manic, darting back and forth chaotically.

            After a time, Grandpa Jonas lifted his cane and, using it as a gavel, knocked hard on the table:

            “Hey!” he shouted, “Hey! Stop fucking around and get the job done. I haven’t got all night! I didn’t come down here to sit and watch you all act like goddamn lunatics! Get on with it!”

Constance, staring angrily at her father, responded:

            “All right, old man; all right! You know, I’ve been waiting for your ancient ass to croak for far too many years. Is it ever going to happen? You’re mostly useless as it is; there’s no sense having you as the head of the household anymore.”

            “Well, I still am!” shouted Grandpa Jonas, “And there’s nothing you can do about it! You better do as you’re told and finish this business!”

            “All right!” said Constance, “Don’t get your smelly old undies in a bunch! We’ll take care of it!”

            Constance looked back down at Jane, then over to Raymond, then again at Jane:

            “You know,” she began, “I really didn’t think my wonderful son Raymond would ever be able to bring anyone back home. It normally takes men in our family quite a while, as it is, but Raymond was just taking so long! The men in our family, they aren’t very competent individuals, as I’m sure you well know! Hell, look at these three!”

            Constance gestured to Raymond, Jonas, and Julian:

            “They’re not good for much of anything! And they know they aren’t! Julian think it’s heroic that he can go shove a clothes hanger through a paralyzed frog! And my precious father, here… Well, it’s only a matter of time before we don’t have to deal with him anymore, thankfully.

            But I’m getting off topic.” She continued, “What was I saying? Oh, yes! I never thought my Raymond would bring back a lady! Much less one as pretty as you! I finally have a reason to be proud of the men in my family! Thank you for finally giving me that, Raymond!”

            Raymond’s face further reddened. He unveiled a quivering, spasmodic grin, as if, though he wasn’t proud of the happiness he felt at his mother’s approval, he couldn’t help but be elated by it. He stepped away from the table and shrank against the wall, involuntarily using the crimson satin curtains of the front windows as a shield against reality. He was unsuccessful at suppressing a manic giggle, which, though soft, still rang out through the temporarily quiet dining area.

*  *  *

            Jane once more flailed against her bindings. She was quickly losing strength. The weight of fear and anxiety were causing her to feel incredibly weak, as if she may pass out at any moment.

            She revolted against her body’s plan to close itself off from its unfortunate cornered predicament, again struggling aggressively against the rope. It was no use; the rope was too tight. The table, however, was losing its stability. Its legs slipped – against the grain – along the splintery wooden floor, this time crashing hard to the ground. The ropes in the process flailed in the air, like the tumultuous limbs of a kraken, before falling with a thud back down near Jane’s wide-eyed, now animalistic face.

            Her eyes darted back and forth involuntarily. She arose more quickly than she thought possible, bounding from the floor like a gladiator:

            Haaaaaaaah!” she screamed, swiping with her nails through the air – spittle covering her chin – as her captors surrounded her.

            Her screams evoked from within Raymond another psychotic, immature giggle, as he further shrank from view, now rolling himself into the curtains. As the thick fabric further engulfed him, his cackles became increasingly muffled.

            Jane continued slashing and kicking, looking around for something to use as a weapon. In her search, she spotted Grandpa Jonas, sitting pathetically in the wheel-chair set out for him at the table. She darted squirrel-like over and grabbed the musky, spongy handles of the chair. She pushed its bottom with her leg, and – using nearly all of her force – somehow lifted the front of the chair into the air, completely raising and then stomping it back down on the ground.

            Hey!” Yelled Grandpa Jonas, “Cut that the hell out! You let go of me, you little bitch!”

            With Grandpa Jonas in tow, Jane backed out of the room, moving quickly through the kitchen toward the back door.

            “Now where the hell do you think you’re going with him?” said Constance, still leaning comfortably against the wall:

“He’s not going to get you anywhere. He’s not going to help you escape; that ship has sailed. Hell, there wasn’t any ship in the first place! Only ship there was may have been Raymond’s little Scion, and I had Julian remove the battery from that piece of shit not long after you passed out. You’re toast. Toast as hell!”

            Jane continued her retreat. When she felt the edge of the door graze against her back, she clenched Grandpa Jonas’s neck in her nails and looked as menacingly as possible back over to Constance:

            “I’ll do it!” she said, “I’ll kill this old fucker! You let me go or else I’ll fucking do it!”

            “I already told you, honey,” Constance responded, “I don’t give a single little shit-biscuit about that old geezer. He may be my father, but it’s his time to go. It’s time for me to lead. I’m not aware if Raymond ever informed you about the history or culture of this family; I’d hope he didn’t! If he did, then surely you wouldn’t be here now, unless you were completely bat-shit. Hell, you do look a little crazed. Anyway, this family has a very specific, much respected cultural tradition. Some may call it a bit brutal; a bit tribalistic, but we know it’s civilized. It’s true civility! Grandpa Jonas here knows that more than anyone. He knows the process. He’s participated in it plenty of times himself, back when he wasn’t a fragile, decrepit old bastard! So go ahead! If you want to do it; do it! I need it to happen relatively soon, anyway. Isn’t that right, dad? You’ve worn out your welcome in this family, and you know it! It’s time for you to move on to whatever comes next. You don’t need to worry! I’m sure our ancient, ancestral family forces will welcome you peaceably, whether they hold any respect for you or not.”

            Jane stared wildly at Constance. Her plan was foiled, she knew. Constance didn’t care a bit about Grandpa Jonas, and if Constance didn’t care, then no one cared. She continued backing against the door, pressing herself against its faded green wood:

            “You’re lying!” she said, “You care about this old man more than you care about your own life! You’re his daughter! He raised you!”

            Jane looked down and saw a conspiring grin spread across Grandpa Jonas’s face. She reached, with her right hand, behind herself and grabbed the handle of the door.

            “If you want to save him, you have to let me go!”

            “Didn’t I just tell you,” Constance responded, “that I don’t have the slightest care for that old…”

            Before Constance could finish, Jane twisted open the door, let go of Grandpa Jonas’s chair, turned, and sprinted into the back yard. She made it to the end of the property in only a couple of seconds—it wasn’t very big—and dove, absolutely void of thought or precision, headfirst over the four foot, barbed wire fence, into a neighboring cow field. While hurdling the barrier, her calf caught on the barbs, slicing open her left leg.

            She fell hard to the hard chalky summer dirt, momentarily shrieking in pain – blood staining the dry grass, mixing gravy-like with the dusty earth. With no time to lose, she scrambled up – limping against her injured leg – and continued her frantic sprint through the field toward a neighboring house.

It was an old-looking home, though not nearly as elderly as the Mordecai Lincoln residence. There was a man outside, in the massive, multi-acre front yard, cutting grass on a John-Deere zero-turn mower. As the mower bounded recklessly along the bumpy dry ground, he bounced rhythmically in time with its whir.

*  *  *

      Heyyyyyyy!” screamed Jane, “Ahhhhhhhhh! Heyyyyy!”

      She continued her mad dash toward the man on the mower, her now blood-stained skirt ruffling lifelessly in the stagnant air. The mower continued its bouncy trudge in her direction; she would reach it in a matter of seconds.      

            When she was at a distance of only about thirty feet, however, it stopped, wheeled around, and proceeded rapidly in the opposite direction, its shape shrinking and blurring into the pollinated, muggy climate.

            Defeated, but still persevering, Jane continued her trudge toward the man. It was no use. Her body had become too weak. She collapsed to the ground – sprawled out in the rigid, trampled dirt of the cow field. The cattle, like the man on the mower, gave her no mind. They continued eating, their mouths grinding grass in counter-clockwise fashion – the direction of the universe – content in their apathy.

That is, however, with the exception of one massive black bull. He trotted over to Jane in defense of his territory.

            Jane, losing blood more every minute, felt further weakened. Just before passing out, she noticed an aggressive nudge against her left temple. This awoke her, as she stared directly into the face of the bull. Only inches away, it bellowed directly into her face – stench and spittle spraying her all over.

            Jane jerked awake, and, however pathetically, scurried frantically away from the bull – an ever-growing, chaotic tendril of blood trailing her.

            The mower was making its way back toward her. She used the last of her energy to scream for it:

            Heyyyyy!” she once again belted. The bull, irritated by the roar of this intruder, gave a start.

            This time, the mower’s occupant gave notice. He shifted the controls and bounded quickly toward where she lay. The elder bull once again bellowed, this time backing up and scraping his hind legs into the dust, swirling up a cloud, preparing to charge.

            The mower approached. Jane lay silent, watching the bull and steadying herself for impact.

            The combined soundscape of the rumbling mower and the bellowing bull fused to create a terrifying, abysmal barrage. Jane flipped onto her belly, attempting to look as docile as possible while she awaited the arrival of the man on the mower.

            He inevitably arrived, though instead of immediately jumping out to help, and instead of chasing off the bull, he did neither. He didn’t even dismount the mower. He pulled it – ever so carefully – right over top of Jane’s pleading, outstretched hands, just to the point that – though still underneath the belly of the mower—still not yet being chopped to bony pieces by its circling blades. She felt their wind against her knuckles. Jane was stuck.

*  *  *

            The rider of the mower still didn’t dismount. The blades kept spinning, the warm gust from their fan creating a warm, breezy feeling of inevitable mutilation from within Jane’s twitching, sweaty fingers. She tried to quickly sweep her hands out from under the mower, and inevitably, without an apparent singular care for her wellbeing, the rider swerved over to again stay under them. The bull – as if by training – huffed and puffed in perpetuity.

            The rider was talking on the phone, though Jane – through the deafening whir of the fully throttled engine – couldn’t make out much of what he was saying.

            He eventually hung up, putting his phone back into his khaki work pants and glaring into Jane’s eyes.

            Nothing happened for some time after that. The blades spun. He had nothing to say.

* * *

            Jane felt a footprint on her right ass cheek. It pushed in, and then started wiggling around counter-clockwise. The throttle of the mower weakened. A voice came from behind:

            “Well, goddammit, Jane! I misread you! I thought you were going to be one of the easy ones! Seems like that isn’t the case, huh?”

            Constance walked around from behind Jane, to the front of the mower, and put her hand on the rider’s shoulder:

            “Thanks, there, Charlie! I can always count on you to help us out when one of my incompetent trio of men shit the bed! You can go on home now. I’ll send payment over directly, as is custom.”

            The rider of the mower then backed away from Jane’s hands, turned, and bounded back toward his house, seemingly intent on cutting the rest of his clean, weedless grass.

            Constance stepped in front of Jane and kneeled to meet her eye. The bull – though still angry – stayed calm. Jane felt two more feet on her ass cheek. Two feet almost certainly from two different people – barring the possibility that an unknown trapeze artist dwelt within the Mordecai Lincoln House.

            Jane put her face in the dirt, caking herself in it, and screamed:

            “Ahhhhhhhhhhhh! Fuck all of you! Fuck you! Just let me go!”

            Dry dust filled her mouth. Her face, now lifted from the ground, was coated in the chalky paste of summer.

*  *  *

            “You know we can’t let you leave,” said Constance, “You play too big of a part in our family ritual! Grandpa Jonas, he’s old news! I know, that you know, that I already feel that way. But unfortunately, we can’t simply kick his worthless ass to the curb. Unfortunately, our family tradition doesn’t allow for that. Out tradition, as proud as it is, requires ritual! It requires ceremony! And you, my sweet little Jane, are going to help fulfill that ceremony. You are going to usher our well-worn, though still “revered”, Grandpa Jonas into his grave.”

            Jane struggled, thrashing around in the dirt:

            “You’re not going to kill me!”

            “You’re exactly right!” said Constance, “We’re not going to kill you! I said usher, not kill! You’re going to accompany Grandpa Jonas into his tomb, deep underneath these here hallowed grounds of the Lincoln family. You can stay alive for as long as you please! You’re only job is to take good care of our wonderful, outdated little Pharaoh as he crosses the big, muddy Styx!”

            Constance then, as carefully as a nurturing mother, folded an odorless, damp rag across Jane’s mouth and nose, pressing gently, though firmly.

* * *

            Jane awoke, once again bound, lying in a patch of tall hay near the bank of a full, though stagnant, cloudy river. She struggled, but this time it was no use; she was tied even tighter than before. She tried to roll away, down the hill and into the river, but as she began turning down the slope, a heavy boot stamped into her chest, crushing the wind from her breath:

            “You’re not going anywhere this time!” said Uncle Julian, without a hint of humor.

A serious look was spread across his face, as if he knew that if he made one more mistake, it could be his last. His ass was on the line. His boot stayed firm. Jane was completely immobile.

            With some strain, she lifted her head from the ground and looked forward. Constance and Raymond were near the river – where she had apparently been transported – unearthing a deep, manmade cavern from the side of its sloping bank. She looked for as long as she could, but eventually her neck tired and she fell back into the long, swaying hay. Insects buzzed all around. She looked to her left, through a jungle of grass, and spotted – in spite of its camouflage – a lone katydid. As if feeling her presence, it belted out its scraping song and flew freely into the air. Jane watched with jealousy.

            The boot continued pressing her down into the mud, which was plenty damp due to its proximity to the river. Uncle Julian kept staring relentlessly into Jane’s eyes, making sure to keep her firmly where she lie. She began feeling itchy. The dead, dry hay from the ground crept up her arms and along her back. She squirmed involuntarily. Uncle Julian pressed her back down, this time with more strength – her ribs bruising as she unleashed a croaking gasp in obvious pain.

            “You keeping her in check?” came a voice from the riverbank.

            It was Constance. Jane could feel her footsteps walking over to where she lie. The shadow of her arching shovel – briefly revealing itself in the blinding sun – cause Jane to wince in horror. She then felt it wedge in the dirt directly beside her skull; it’s rusty blade, though undoubtedly terrifying, still looking cool in contrast with the scorching sun bearing down on her face. She thought, only briefly, that pressing her face against its rusty surface might feel nice.

            The shadow of Constance appeared over her, followed by the triangular, intersecting twin towers of her legs:

            “Don’t you try anything,” she said, “We’re on to your tricks, now! You do anything stupid and it will only expedite your death. You may as well get down into the tomb! It’s cool down there, at least!”

            Jane continued breathing heavily, involuntarily spitting and spewing all over herself. She struggled, which only won further piercing pressure in the ribs from the foot of Uncle Julian.

            “Hey!” he yelled, “I said don’t move! You move again and I’m crushing these fragile little ribs of yours! I’ll cave them in just like the cave that’s about to be your new home!”

            “He’s not wrong!” responded Constance, “Our family tradition says that I have to throw you in with old Grandpa Jonas, alive, so you can see to him into the afterlife – just like the old servants of the ancient world! Trust me, that’s what I want to do! I want to respect my heritage! But if you won’t allow me to do that, I’ll settle for throwing a dead bitch in there, too! So watch yourself!”

* * *

            Constance turned and walked off, pushing rhythmically with both hands through the long grass like a swimmer. The cavern had been nearly dug out; an old, rotting wooden door marked its entrance. Jane heard the sound of knuckles knocking on soft, brittle old wood:

            “I found it, mama!” yelled Raymond from his newly dug tunnel, “I found the old door! Let me yank it open and we can go ahead and escort Grandpa Jonas and Jane down in there!”

            “Good boy! My sweet, good boy!” responded Constance triumphantly, “Open it up and let’s finish this job!”

            Panicked, Jane began rolling around in the grass, making any attempt she thought possible at wrenching herself free of Uncle Julian’s suffocating boot.

            It was no use.

            Together, Raymond and Uncle Julian grabbed Jane’s legs, dragging her through the hay down into the cavern. Giving her one last look – Julian’s angry and Raymond’s sorry – they slammed shut the door.

It was damp. It looked to collapse at any moment. Water from the above, northwesterly river dripped like a silent doomsday clock down onto the muddy floor. Grandpa Jonas was already down there, waiting:

            “There’s not much anything else we can do, unfortunately, my dear Jane. This is what always happens. I did it myself, back in my younger years. I stuffed my poor father down here when it was his time to go. It’s the way of our family. I can’t do anything to help us. Best thing to do is accept it. Accept it, and die in peace.”

            Jane rolled around spasmodically in her bindings. Someone – either Raymond or Constance – had lit a torch in the corner of the muddy cavern.  Jane saw mud, water, and random antique items blurring everywhere: dark, faded shades swirling through her shadowy, flickering vision.

            She continued rolling and finally stopped, now lying on the opposite side from which she’d been brought in. A skeleton lay in the corner of the cavern:

            “Ah, there he is!” said Grandpa Jonas, “My old man! It’s good to know he’s down here with us. He’ll escort us to the river – into the afterlife! You’ll be well greeted there, being the loyal servant of the head of the household! You have no reason to worry! Mordecai, Abraham, and my father will welcome us gladly to their riverside table! We will dine on the finest of game! A crawfish broil!”

            Jane screamed. Time passed. Eventually, exhausted, she slept.

* * *

            Jane awoke in darkness. Nothing had changed. Grandpa Jonas, struggling with hunger, was fading:

            “Don’t mind me!” he said, “Just let me drift off! You do the same! Thanks for being my usher!”

            He dozed and dozed again, finally sleeping for good – never to wake. Jane also slept again. Her bindings, though now damp from constant exposure to the dark, moist cavern, still held strong. There was no hope of escape. Worms, slithering through the mud, squirmed around her.

            After some time – a couple of days as best she could guess – the mud walls of the tomb, as if in synch with her enfolding stomach, began caving in. The dead, rubber face of Grandpa Jonas – almost purposefully – glared with glee directly into her soul, welcoming her into her new, eternal home.

THE END


2023 Robert Pettus

Bio: Robert Pettus is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Previously, he taught for four years in a combination of rural Thailand and Moscow, Russia. He was most recently accepted for publication at Tall Tale TV, Kaidankai, The Corner Bar, A Thin Line of Anxiety, Schlock, Black Petals, Inscape Literary Journal of Morehead State University, Yellow Mama, Apocalypse-Confidential, Mystery Tribune, Blood Moon Rising, and The Green Shoes Sanctuary. The Lincoln Homestead is one of the stories he recently wrote.

E-mail: Robert Pettus

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