I knew the way to Grandpa’s by heart.
An hour up the highway, another on small country roads; when you start seeing signs for the Native American reservation off to the right and some for the nearest town on the left, you’ve got exactly twenty minutes left, and then it’s just past the same three billboards for anti-abortion, a missing person, and a divorce attorney that hadn’t been changed out in at least five years.
The edge of Grandpa’s property, a massive farm that seemed almost endless when I was young, was marked by a fence with a bright pink corner post. On the days he knew I’d be visiting, he’d tie a balloon to it and we’d ride out to get it on his tractor after saying our hellos and then continue on to visit the pigs and the goats and the cows. He only kept a few of each, mostly for my benefit, and they were all fat and happy and friendly.
His “real moneymaker” was his corn, acres and acres of it that ran out behind his house. I wasn’t allowed to play in the corn fields unsupervised, he and my parents thought it was too dangerous and that I could get lost or hurt among the stalks, but that didn’t bother me too much. I much preferred to spend time with my favorite goat, Sally Mae, a young white doe who would chase me around and gently headbutt me for chin scritches and carrots.
I didn’t even mind that he only had an old TV with only five channels. There was always something to do outside, a chore to be done, somewhere to explore, an animal to play with, that I could keep myself busy from morning until night.
Grandpa loved having me (I liked to think I was his favorite out if all seven grandkids) and I loved going, so when my dad had a big conference out of town that he wanted Mom to go with him on, it was a no brainer where I’d end up.
“You’re going to be good for Gramps, right, Hazel?” Dad asked, glancing at me in the rear view mirror as we passed the pink post with a foil “Welcome!” balloon waving above it.
“Yup!” I agreed readily.
“What do you think you guys are gonna get up to this weekend?” Mom half turned in her seat towards me with a smile.
“I’m gonna play with Sally Mae and go down to the creek and help milk the cows and pet the pigs and-”
My “to do” list took us all the way to Grandpa’s front door, where he met us with a broad grin and a big hug for each.
“Thanks again, Pop,” Dad said, “you’re sure you don’t mind? Keeping an eight year old entertained on your own for four days can be tough.”
“I’m up for it,” Grandpa assured him. “We’ll have lots to keep us busy, right, Hazelnut?”
I nodded enthusiastically as I hauled my little suitcase up the porch steps. I was already ready for my parents to be on their way so I could start living the farm life. Mom chased me up and scooped into a tight embrace, which I returned shortly before wriggling for freedom. My parents had never left me for so long and, now that it was time to say goodbye, it was obvious they were having second thoughts.
“She’ll be fine,” Grandpa laughed, “we both will be! But if she doesn’t behave, I’ll just drop her in the middle of the cornfield, no muss, no fuss.”
After they’d finally left, I dumped my things inside and grabbed Grandpa’s offered hand to head out to the tractor.
Once we retrieved the balloon and I had its ribbon tied securely around my wrist, we zoomed (as well as one can zoom on a tractor, anyway) over to the pig pen, where he let me throw some feed into the trough. When the pair of pigs, Gretel and Fat Babs, came trundling over, I crouched between them and stroked their sides while they munched. The rotund sows leaned into my hands with satisfied snorts.
Afterwards, we stopped by the cow and goat enclosure, which was just a large fenced in area where the seven of them could roam free. As soon as she heard the tractor approaching, Sally Mae came bounding towards the gate, bleating loudly and tossing her head. I barely made it in before she was bomping against me and nuzzling her face into my stomach.
We stayed out for much of the afternoon, tending first to the animals and then picking through the ever-expanding vegetable garden for supper. He’d bought some fried chicken to go with it and we sat on the back porch to eat while the sun set on a fiery horizon.
“What did you bring to read tonight?” Grandpa asked after we’d settled inside for the night.
He was in his recliner with his feet propped up and a crossword puzzle book in his lap. We both knew he’d only get about three words in before his eyes would droop shut and he’d start snoring, something I liked to tease him about.
“It’s about kids who live in an old boxcar ‘cos they don’t have parents,” I said from my place curled up on the couch.
“Yeah, it’s for school, they make us read books over summer, but I like it.”
“Good, good,” he mumbled, his pencil scratching across the page of of his crossword.
It was quiet out on my grandpa’s farm, especially at night. I was used to hearing cars going by, dogs barking, neighbors outside, all the sounds of suburbia, but out there, there was nothing but insect songs, the occasion call of one of the farm animals, and the wind. It could be a little unnerving at times if I focused too much on it, but when I was awake in the living room with Grandpa nearby, surrounded by soft lamp light, I found it peaceful.
Grandpa had just dozed off and I had tucked myself comfortably under a blanket, my book propped up against my bent knees, when the pigs started to scream.
I nearly dropped my book and Grandpa rocked forward in his chair, his eyes snapping open. The pencil he’d been holding slipped from his hand and rolled across the floor. I looked to him, my jaw clenched tight with surprise, uncertainty, fear.
“It’s ok, Hazelnut,” he said, pushing himself quickly to his feet. “Probably a coyote sniffing around and scaring the girls. Nothing to worry about.”
But he didn’t seem entirely convinced of that himself. In all my visits to Grandpa’s, I’d never heard Gretel and Fat Babs make that kind of noise, loud, harsh squeals that cut through the evening air, and nothing about it sounded right or normal.
I followed close at Grandpa’s heels when he hurried out of the room and went to his office, where he kept a shotgun, ammunition, and a flashlight in his closet.
“A-are you gonna shoot it?” I asked shakily.
“Maybe,” he said grimly.
The shells loaded with loud clicks into the belly of the gun.
“You stay inside.”
“No!” I cried, desperate not to be left alone while the pigs were shrieking so frantically.
Grandpa looked like he wanted to argue, but the loud bellow of one of the cows cut him off. Like the pigs, she sounded panicked, and as soon as she cried out, the other two joined in. He told me to stay put again and headed towards the door in long strides. I’d never seen that stony look on his face before and I hesitated a moment, just long enough for one of the pigs to scream again, before chasing after him.
“Grandpa!” I shouted.
“I told you to stay inside!”
He glanced over his shoulder at me, grit his teeth, and nodded. “Stay close behind me.”
We followed the squeals to the pig pen. Grandpa had handed the flashlight to me and I shined it around, looking for the girls. Usually they would have come up to meet us when Grandpa whistled sharply, but there was no familiar tromp of hooves over dirt.
The flashlight’s beam finally fell across them in the middle of their pen. Fat Babs had her teeth buried in Gretel’s ear and she was squealing and pulling and trying to buck. Gretel was bowed slightly and tearing chunks of flesh from Babs’ neck. Both were already bloodied from multiple bite wounds and gouges, their mouths lined with thick, red foam, their eyes rolling wildly.
Grandpa shouted their names, but neither even looked at us; they just kept attacking each other and making the most awful sounds. He grabbed me by my upper arm and dragged me away, towards the cow and goat enclosure, where more bellows and shrieks and moans tore through the night.
Lady, my grandpa’s oldest and favored cow, was on her side by the gate, her legs kicking feebly while two goats rammed into her body over and over again. Off to our side, another goat released an agonized bleat. I found her quickly with the flashlight.
Sally Mae was pinned beneath the trampling hooves of a second cow, who kicked and stomped madly at the smaller animal. I screamed and grabbed at Grandpa.
“She’s killing Sally!” I cried.
Before he could do anything, the cow reared back as far as she could and brought her hooves down onto Sally Mae’s head with a ringing crunch. Blood poured from the poor goat’s nose and ears and she writhed upon the ground until the cow did it again and a third time, and then Sally Mae laid still.
I turned with an anguished cry and took a few steps away. My ears rang with the sound of the hysterical animals and tears spilled in hot streaks down my face. I lifted the flashlight again, trying to find my way home. I just wanted to get inside, I just wanted the noise to stop!
Something moved in the darkness a few feet ahead of me, just beyond the reach of my light, and I froze.
I didn’t know if he’d seen it, too, but he grabbed me around my waist and hoisted me up against his side and he started to sprint as fast as he could manage back towards the house. We passed the pig pen again, where I caught sight of Gretel standing over Fat Babs, rooting through her spilled innards.
The back door was in sight. We just had to cross through the vegetable garden and we’d be behind the safety of locked doors.
My grip on the flashlight slipped slightly as I was jostled about and it angled downwards, illuminating the ground in front of us, and I screamed again.
Arms, human arms, at least a dozen of them, were reaching up from between plants on either side of the path leading to the door. They waved jerkily, their fingers clenching and then unclenching, as if they were grasping at something.
When the light fell on them, they all turned and stretched towards us.
“No,”Grandpa breathed the single word in disbelief.
He stumbled backwards and we both fell hard to the ground. I yelped and the flashlight bounced from my hand and landed beside me, pointed towards Grandpa. He had gone so white, so haggard, and his eyes were locked on those reaching arms.
Gradually, through the haze of terror and confusion, I realized that there was a figure standing behind my grandfather. It looked like a man, but taller than any I had ever seen, and so muscular and broad. When it took a step towards Grandpa, who was still unaware, and moved more into the light, I realized that the head sitting atop its neck was not human, but that of a great brown bear with one eye scarred shut.
I knew I should have been afraid, that I should have warned my grandpa, that I should have responded in some way, but when I looked into the face of that creature, all I felt was an odd sense of complete peace.
You do not need to be afraid. I felt more than heard something in my head. A voice, a thought, I wasn’t sure. It was like nothing I’d ever known. You are an innocent.
I wanted to tell it that Grandpa was an innocent, too, but I was unable to speak.
It reached out its large hands and plucked Grandpa off the ground as if he weighed nothing. He let out a strangled yell as he was tossed into the vegetable garden, into those waiting arms. I just sat there and watched, with that same feeling of peace, as the filthy hands closed around Grandpa’s body and began to pull and pull and pull, until the soil started to swallow him up along with all of his screams.
The creature stood and watched until Grandpa and the arms had vanished and then, as suddenly as it appeared, it turned and walked back into the darkness.
The moment it was gone, so too was the calm that had blanketed my body and mind.
The 911 operator could barely understand me when I finally got my legs to work again and made it to the house phone. I was sobbing and hysterical and mostly all I could say was, “Grandpa’s in the ground!”
Cops and firefighters and paramedics filled the front yard. They had thought that my grandfather might have had a heart attack or a stroke and I was too young to know how to explain it properly. It took some time to make them understand that I meant what I said: Grandpa was in the ground.
They dug up the freshly tilled earth of the garden where I had last seen my grandfather. They had to go down almost six feet. They found his body, covered in deep fingernail scratches, his limbs nearly torn off at the sockets, buried amongst six others in a mass grave.
I knew the way to Grandpa’s by heart.
An hour up the highway, another on small country roads; and then you start seeing signs for the Native American reservation off to the right. A reservation that nine women had gone missing from in ten years.
A reservation that had been ignored when it sought help from the local police department after the first two women vanished while hitchhiking down those small country roads.
A reservation that had been ignored by the media when its council asked for coverage detailing the disappearances.
And then it’s just past the same three billboards, one for a missing person; a Native American woman named Dana Young. She was 21 when she left home to catch a ride into the city after her mom couldn’t give her a lift. Her family and friends searched for years, without much, if any, real help from surrounding authorities, and, every year, they paid to keep that billboard up in the hopes someone would see it and recognize Dana.
They didn’t know that she was just twenty minutes up the road.
They didn’t know she was lying beneath a vegetable garden that expanded six times over.
They didn’t know the friendly old man, whose house they had stopped at with fliers and who smiled sympathetically at them and who promised to call if he saw or heard anything, was the same one who had taken her.
Two of the women were never found, but jewelry belonging to them, a wedding ring and a necklace, was discovered in my grandfather’s safe. They were the first two to go missing.
The ninth and final woman, who had disappeared only three days prior to my visit to Grandpa’s and who received nothing more than a small blurb in the local paper, was found clinging to life in a cellar dug beneath the old barn behind the cornfield that Grandpa never let anyone near. He had said it was unsafe, that it was where he stored his old tools and machinery and he didn’t want someone walking in and hurting themselves.
No one had ever questioned him.
The woman, Pauline Smith, had carved a single word into the wooden beam she’d been shackled to using only her fingernails and blood.
The cops didn’t know what it meant, nor did they care much. They were too busy being baffled over Grandpa’s death and my version of events that led up to it. That was their biggest concern.
Not why those women had been murdered.
Not why no one had investigated more.
Not why nothing had been done by anyone off of the reservation.
Only the strange way my grandpa and all of his farm animals had died.
I had nightmares for years afterwards of the screams I’d heard, of the waving arms sticking up out of the ground, of my grandfather, the murderer who had fed me vegetables grown from the bodies of his victims.
I never had nightmares about the bear-headed man, though. I only ever saw him when my dreams grew too dark and I was so afraid that my own heartbeat pounding against my ribs threatened to wake me. He would appear to me then, just on the edge of my vision, and I would hear those same words I’d heard that night and I would feel the same peace.
You do not need to be afraid. You are an innocent.
It was many years before I was able to look back at that night, at those deaths, and start to piece together what I had seen. I had to dig deep, to go through tons of old articles, to re-read all the horrible things about Grandpa that I’d been trying to forget, before I found the answer in a single word that a desperate woman had broken her nails off to spell out in wood.
There wasn’t much information, but enough.
It was a name, one that belonged to a being that seemed almost lost in the internet age. From what little I could find, there was debate over exactly what Airsekui had originally been, a god of fire or a god of war, but his later place in his pantheon was clear: he had been a great spirit, one that was called upon in times of peril.
Pauline Smith, knowing that she was part of an often overlooked and ignored group, had had faith. Not in the police or the authorities who tossed those files containing the smiling photos and details of others like her aside. Not in the media, who gave her a single paragraph at the bottom of a newspaper page. Not in a billboard, that hundreds of people drove by every day without ever really seeing.
She had had faith in something greater, and she had cried out.
And he had listened.