Maggie pondered. Over the weeks come months, Maggie had become an ‘A’ grade ponderer. If Bruce Springsteen had of released the album ‘Born to Ponder’ instead of ‘Born to Run’, she would have been the only thing on the record sleeve.
Lying prostrate upon her hospital bed, Maggie waded through her mind and thought processes. Lingering over moments of nostalgia, casting her mind to her future, then sending it back to her unbendable past.
A recollection that had had her thinking, moreso than anything else, was the silent voice of Death. The message she had left her with prior to her departure from beside her hospital bed.
‘Maggie, when someone dies in their dreams or nightmares, they truly die in life. When someone dies in the moment, when you are living in and looking out through the eyes of another, in the same way that you felt the pain of the man gored by a kangaroo, you die. I granted you life, because my girl, I am Death, and your life is mine to do what I choose with, and I chose for you to live, and I choose not to see you again until you expire in old age. But, should you squander it, I will take it without so much as a blink.’
‘So what does that truly mean?’ Maggie thought to herself late one night. ‘Why would someone say something like that?’
‘If I die in my sleep, I truly die in life? Or if I die in a day-dream, or my entering into the stories from ‘Misanthrope’, I actually am dead? How could that even be possible?’ was to become an internal debate she could never vocalise to another. ‘Am I truly sane enough to believe I even heard the old woman?’ was the next trial for examination. ‘She hadn’t even opened her mouth when she said it, so, did she really say it, or did I just believe she did?’
‘But, when I’m in the story, I feel and see and breathe it. It is no different in sensation, therefore as recognised awareness, that I hear, see, feel, and smell. Right here. Right now.’
Many days later she would cast her mind back to the confusion laden questions.
‘Maybe I can die as she put it to me. Maybe she can take my life in the blink of an eye; a flutter of the heart perhaps? But, if I’m locked up in here, with this steel cage bolted into my head, where is the line between squandering life and embellishing it? How am I to take advantage of a situation beyond my control? Am I in a situation beyond my control?’ it was then that her Mother began to read.
“This one is called ‘The Old Man Of Yerecoin’ dear. Have you ever heard of ‘Yerecoin’, Maggie?”
“Yes, I’ve been there quite a few times. It isn’t a particularly large place, but all of the people I have met there are lovely.”
“That’s nice to know dear, where is it exactly?”
“You head about six or seven kilometres north up the Great Northern Highway from New Norcia, turn east down Glentromie – Yerecoin Road, and follow it for sixteen or seventeen kilometres. Cross the tracks, and there you are.”
“Hmmmmmm, okay. I can’t picture it, anyway dear, here we go.”
“The old man of Yerecoin refused to have visitors into his home; he had never had a wife, and subsequently, no children to carry on his name. The house itself, a rude creation of mismatched materials, yet oddly pleasing to the eye, located fairly near the well Yerecoin derives its name from, had been erected prior to the primary schools’ establishment in the late 1920’s; the old man had been the sole occupant for as long as the house had stood.
Precisely when the man died, is fairly vague. He was at a point in his life where age had led to frailty, and frailty had led to employability. From there, his life slowed, as it does with most, and he spent his final days reclusively. Occasionally he would be seen in his garden, keeping the earth in the pores of his hands as he had always done. But now, after sitting possibly for months, as he was located in the Autumn and the Summer prior had been cruel, his decomposing corpse was found seated in an old chair on his enclosed back veranda. With no known family, nor next of kin, combined with the lack of any form of a will, the local Shire Council some two years later, cleaned up, repaired and eventually sold his house, donating the proceeds, still in pounds and shillings, to Yerecoin for the benefit of the school. And that was the last anyone thought of the old man.
Having moved into the odd little house with her young children, her husband a railway worker, and away more often than not, Mrs. S. found her new home somehow ‘unsettling’ for no apparent reason. When speaking of this to the other ladies of the area, mostly in light hearted tones, she found that no one took her particularly seriously. After a time, no more than a month beyond first announcing to any that would listen, she stopped talking on the subject altogether, putting it down to her being in a new place, combined a regular lack of husband.
Or so she thought, when, one night, in the darkest hours when the wind was whistling through the eve’s and beneath the doors, she was awakened by first a sound she had put down to one of the children having a nightmare, which on inspection she ascertained that indeed, they were not. Returning to her room, the squeaking of a poorly laid floorboard, combined with the absence of moon from without, had Mrs. S. second guessing herself, and her sanity. With one bare foot in her bedroom, the other still in the passage, the sound that had woken her returned causing her such alarm that she left the floor. Yet the sound did not stop; the low moaning noise rolled throughout the house, and a cold breeze on this relatively warm night moved her ankle length nightie against her. Darkness took on a different form for her, creeping into her nose and eyes and mouth, so much so that she felt she could taste it. Still standing in the same spot, the gentle breeze rose again, this time through her nightie, and against the alabaster skin of the pretty face, shifting her red hair over her eyes. Gooseflesh on her arms and neck prickled, and the moaning noise intensified, getting louder and louder, breaking its way through the darkness lodged within her ears, overcoming her as she had never felt such depths of fear before; and then the blood curdling moans stopped.
Forcing terror down to a place in her gut, she moved; slowly, shakily, with the sound of her heart loud between her shell like ears, she crept down the passage to the children’s room. It was then that she truly looked about herself. Standing in the middle of the hallway, blocking her path, was a tall black man, shackled wrist and ankle, long scraggly white beard to the middle of his chest, and the hair on his head as wild as the man himself. A head taller than her, she stopped in her tracks once more. Slowly he raised his eyes to hers. Lifted his hands high before him, and began to shake his chains. Rattling and clanking loudly, he slowly turned, showing her his immensely whip scarred back, a small hole puckered in the middle. Starting to moaning once more, his intensity increasing beyond that of earlier, he began a shuffling, hobbled step toward the back of the house. Following him past her children’s bedroom, she watched him disappear through the flyscreen of the back door, across the enclosed veranda beyond it, stopping on the very bottom step. Turning once more, he faced her, his shaking of his chains ceaselessly and loud. His moaning cry worse than any curlew, and louder than a train. Gasping, her fingers wrapping themselves in the cloth of her nightgown, she was transfixed by the horrid display of what was most definitely a ghost. Paying attention to where he stood on the bottom step, she screamed “GET AWAY!”. With that, he vanished.
Sprinting the eight yards back to the children’s room, she shook them awake with more force than was needed. Dragging them, dressing gowns sagging from half asleep hands, she hauled the groggy wee mites out of the front door, and across to the other side of the gravel road, the town’s main road, and set them down, looking for ant nests as she did.
When her husband arrived home a day and a half later, he encountered a tarpaulin stretched across a horizontal branch, held up at either end by freshly cut forks of ghost gum, the widow maker of Victoria Plains. Seated before a fire, cast iron camp oven suspended over mallee root coals, were his exhausted wife, and his smattering of children. Before he had the opportunity to open his question laden mouth, the tale of the ghost in the hall of the house was said to him in sharp quiet tones. It was then explained that it would be an exceptionally cold day in hell if he thought they were ever going to live in that ‘insert profanity’ house again. He then had a tin mug of scalding black tea thrust into his muscular, heavily calloused hand, and was told to sit, which he did.
A day or so passed, and after a calmer repeating of the yarn was told, combined with the knowledge of the unfortunate position that there was no way they could afford to move, he decided to spend a night in the house to see for himself this ‘phantom’ that had spooked his wife so badly. At exactly 4.16 the following morning, according to the clock Mrs. S. had produced from who knows where, he left via the front door quicker than Jesse Owens on a good day. Sighting confirmed, ‘yes there were bloody chains rattled!’, and ‘yes the phantom stopped on the bottom step of the back veranda!’
After a night of pretending to sleep, Mr. S., in the manliest of ways sat down beside the fire, and ladled the remains of the previous night’s stew onto a tin plate. He then tore the end from a two day old loaf of bread, and began to eat. Whilst chewing, wondering if he had just bitten into a shotgun pellet, he overheard two of his daughters talking from within the tent with gruesome relish. “I bet he’s buried under the back step!” said one. “No, I bet he was one of them murderers what speared people around here in the olden days!” said the other. Putting his plate down, he went to the side of the tent and extracted the long handled shovel hidden within its folds, and wandered back across the gravel track, and in through the front gate. He skirted around the side of the house, and landed at the rear step. Wedging the timber of the step from its grooves, he buried the head of the shovel into the earth and began to dig, stopping with a fright eight minutes later. The white of a leg bone, startling in the sun, lay in the pile of dirt to the left of the hole.
The Police dug the rest of the remains from the ground, with them were two sets of rusted shackles used by Police a century before, and in the rib cage, a misshapen lead ball, of the type rammed down the muzzle of a long out of date gun. Who the aboriginal chap had been, no one knew, but the stories at the bar of every pub in the region all came to the same point. It was little wonder that the old man of Yerecoin didn’t get visitors.”
Maggie didn’t move.
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