Dear Alice

Jack Biggs

Dear Alice, 

Before you berate me, I have no idea why I left the rope by that hole.  

Perhaps even then I’d held out hope that my Janey would climb back from the underworld in a bizarre rural production of Orpheus & Eurydice. Perhaps I just hoped the horse would stumble in the hole, get tangled, and die.  

In any case, I wonder if I might ask your advice. Seeing as you are the foremost authority on strange things emerging from holes in the ground—and also not so real as to be concerned for my state of mind—you seemed the logical choice. If I’m being honest, I would much rather have fallen into Wonderland, as you did, than this hell I find myself in, no matter your two cents.  

I first found the hole in the lower field as I was helping the professor set up for his latest field trip. It wasn’t much to look at then, just a shallow dip where the grass had been ripped up. Being of sounder mind than I, the professor ventured the opinion it was the horse simply having found the ground there worth digging the last time I let it out to graze.  

There wasn’t much point in explaining again to him that, whatever it was that till lurked in the east paddock, it was most certainly not a horse. Never mind the whole box of evidence I’ve collected over the last three years, who would believe the traumatic ramblings of an old widow over the well-meaning logic of the pre-eminent professor? I wonder, Alice, what might have happened to Janey had she shared my dread that night the horse appeared. Had I not provoked it in trying to protect her.  

It was a deer at first, or so we thought. With eyes that stared a bit too far and knees that bent too much for what they should. It was the composition of bad memory and a haunted imagining of a deer’s likeness, without the right bones beneath its dappled hide. Oh, Alice, if only we had run.  

We’d had deer before, and none looked like that. It wasn’t hungry, like the one that starved after its jaw was broken on the road. It wasn’t sick, like the one who’d eaten a toad in the grass. It wasn’t angry, like the one whose dead fawn we had to disentangle from the neighbour’s electric fence. It was calculating. Copying. Learning.  

It learned too much from us. I hated horses; Janey loved them. I was terrified; Janey wasn’t. I got to safety in one piece, and it ripped Janey apart. 

We don’t get deer anymore. We don’t get toads, or rabbits, or foxes. The neighbours’ sheep and horses stay well away. And I never open the paddock gate.  

The salient point is this: there is something very, very wrong on this farm.  

When I returned to the lower field that first afternoon with more buckets for the professor, the hole was bigger. Much deeper, I think, but only a little wider. He denies digging it, of course. In fact, he left in a hurry soon after. Usually, he would’ve stayed in the spare room the night before a field trip, making sure nothing was hurt by the traps. At the time, I thought he was trying to spook me into retiring. Now, I wonder if he saw something down there… 

At dawn, I went back down to the lower field. Never mind putting boots on against the frost or stopping to let the chickens out; I had to see if it was still there. More importantly to see if, just as in my dream, something had crawled out of it.  

Not only was the hole still there, it was now considerably deeper. I should have dropped a load of concrete down it, not that rope. But morbid curiosity got the better of me—I’m sure you’re familiar with that particular poison. I turned a few cameras around to watch the hole as I secured the end with a heavy stone.  

Many of the students remarked on the presence and depth of the hole when they saw it. But none of them dared to probe any deeper. No doubt the professor had already warned them of snakes and asking questions of their mad old host. As the sunlight and the field trip ended for the day, I began to believe there really was nothing to it.  

As you are still reading, Alice, and as my account doesn’t stop here, I’m sure you’ve gathered that peace didn’t last. Quite by mistake, I’d left the chickens’ grain bucket on the back porch. This year marks my sixty-eighth year on the farm. I don’t have to tell you strange noises rarely wake me enough to do anything about them, if at all. So it didn’t occur to me what I’d heard was the sound of something eating.  

When I went to let the chickens out in the morning, I found the lid of the bucket some distance from the stance, warped and chewed on. A small spill of grain was stuck in the grooves of the deck, and there was a dead crow at the top of the stairs. No ants or flies strayed anywhere near it, which should have been warning enough. Instead of heeding it, I merely grabbed a broom and swept the crow swiftly off the stairs. Down the gravel drive and out the gate, I chased it onto the road.  

“Crows carry disease”, my mother always said, “and you must never touch dead crows.”  

I felt rather guilty, sweeping it into the road like that, trying to make it someone else’s problem. But the council is much better equipped for diseased birds, and I did have my chicken concern to be, well, concerned with. Now, my only concern is that they’re properly destroyed. 

That all of this could have a reasonable explanation never even got a look-in. This farm wouldn’t be so kind to me. I went straight for the hole. When I got there, the grass looked poisoned, all foul and blackened for ten paces in any direction. The cameras were gone, of course. Deep gashes were worn into the surrounding earth, and the rope was coiled very neatly beside the hole, along with something else.  

Again, moronic curiosity won out over cautious dread. I leaned over the damaged grass as far as I dared for a closer look. On top of the rope was an enormous dead grasshopper. I found that fact almost more chilling than anything else. In the depths of winter, with insects scarce even for mice and toads, a fresh juicy grasshopper as long and fat as my middle finger was left utterly untouched.  

I knew it was the horse. How could it not be? But did horses eat barley and corn? Did horses eat unsuspecting farmers’ wives? One question was as mad as the other.  

I left the rope there, Alice. It was old anyway, I’d reasoned—not wanting to admit my terror. I didn’t touch the grain bucket either, not even to throw it out. Instead, I moved the chicken coop into the garage and kept the new sack inside the house where I could see it.  

In Janey’s words, it was a promise accidentally made. She always used to read me stories about fairies giving gifts and curses in equal measures all for the making and breaking of promises. She was a sweet thing, my Janey. Much too sweet for the likes of me, or for the fate that befell her.  

The back stairs held a very different thing on Saturday. Sitting bold as brass in the early morning sun was the pumpkin I’d meant to pick on Wednesday, exactly where the crow had been. I turned it over carefully and inspected it for any sign of wrongness. It looked like a pumpkin should, so I decided it was more likely the professor’s doing. My philosophy is never to waste what is given, even if the help isn’t wanted.  

No, was. Was my philosophy. Before the thing poisoned my own farm against me.  

I brought that pumpkin in, Alice. I roasted it, to burn out anything bad. Then, like a Trojan horse, I fed it to my beloved chickens. They’re not my chickens anymore. I even torched the coop, but there’s only so much badness you can burn out and I know that rot was meant for me. Thinking on it now, it still succeeded in fouling me. A farmer is nothing without her flock. I am nothing now.  

The stairs on Sunday offered up the glinting form of my favourite earrings, burgled some twenty years ago. There’s something to be said for this horse’s mouth, so I pocketed them like a gift. I didn’t try to catch a glimpse of the thing that night, nor any since. I don’t have the stomach or it—or is it the heart? 

The ensuing three days brought with them further strange delights to lull me into naivety. On Monday, an album of photos long-since ruined by damp. On Tuesday, a wallet once stolen as I waited for a bus, the first picture we dared to take of Janey and myself as a couple still nestled within it. On Wednesday, a coat I’d lost at a matinee performance of The Mouse Trap in 1976, pressed and carefully mended like it had only ever been at the cleaners. The locket I’d meant to give Janey as a promise of marriage was still wrapped in tissue paper in the breast pocket.  

That was when everything went wrong. My cardinal mistake, in that moment of opening the locket, was to think if the thing was bringing me back everything I’ve loved and lost…maybe, if I kept feeding it, eventually it would bring me Janey.  

Eight days from the hole’s first appearance, instead of the parade of lost things, I found a large piece of bark on my doorstep—ripped right from the tree, cambium and all. I knew at once from which one. The very same tall, twisted, rough thing I’d entrusted the bones of my wife to. It wept blood-like sap in a sickening, sticky pool around it, and on it were carved the thing’s demands.  

A home. A blanket. A companion. It’s cold out here.  

Please let me in.  

I love you too. 

I made the mistake of looking up. And that’s when I saw her, near the paddock.  

My Janey.  

But she’s not my Janey, Alice. My Janey doesn’t have shoulders that slope forward like that,  or mottled grey skin that moves over her inhuman architecture like rubber, or that many fingers to brush away the wrong-coloured hair from her black eyes. I can see them from here. Black as nothing on Earth, as if her beautiful green irises had simply been peeled away like fruit stickers from glass.  

I don’t know how long it’s been. Weeks, maybe. Each time I sleep, it moves closer, learns more, copies more. It’s weeping now, wailing, her stolen face contorted like a melting wax sculpture. Hers aren’t the right shape for words, not yet, but it won’t be long now.  

I never threw anything of Janey’s out. I left her jumper where it belongs on the back of her chair, and I pretend it still smells like her, that I remember what she looked like in it. I left her mug and spoon next to mine. I left her favourite book and her pillbox on the nightstand next to the glass I still fill alongside mine every night, and of course her refills are still in the drawer.  

I have enough of what she left behind to join her in the ground. So my final question to you is this, dear Alice—do you think I have enough time to die before whatever is wearing my wife’s skin learns how to open the door? 

Author: Jack is an emerging queer writer and digital artist. When not writing short horror stories, he can be found gently obsessing over his first novel, the art for which can be found on his Instagram (@jack.eli.fletcher).

Editors: Brock Scholte and Fernanda Bustos Venegas