Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Word Doll

Every morning I take the back way to town, a fifteen mile drive on narrow two lane roads that cut through oceans of corn. The cracked and patched asphalt is lined on either side by telephone poles shrinking into the distance. Sometimes I pass a hawk perched on a fence post. Every few miles there’s a farm house, mostly old, like ours. In the winter, the wind is fierce, whipping across the barren fields, and I have to work to keep the car in its lane, but in summer, after I get my cigarettes in town and stop at the diner for a cup of coffee and a glance at the newspaper, I drive home and go out back under the apple trees, sit at a little table, and write stories. Sunlight filters down through the branches, and there’s always a breeze blowing across the fields that finds me there. Sometimes the stories flow and I don’t notice the birds at the feeders, the jingle of the dog’s collar, or the bees in the garden just beyond the orchard; and when they don’t, I stare out into the sea of green and daydream into its depths.

In late September, on a Monday’s journey to town, I passed this old place at a bend in the road, like I’d passed it every morning. It was a Queen Anne Victorian with a wraparound screened porch, painted blue and white. The house was in good shape, but the barn out back was shedding shingles, and the paint had weathered off its splintered boards. I’d often seen chickens bobbing around on the property, and a rooster—at times dangerously close to the road. There were blackberry bushes tangled in a low wall on either side of the entrance to the gravel drive. As I rolled past, I noticed something partially covered by those bushes. It looked like a sign of some kind, but it was faded and I was going too fast to catch a good glance.

On the way back from town I forgot to slow down and look, but the following day I woke up with the thought that I should stop and investigate. Nine times out of ten, I could drive to town and back and never pass another car, and that day was no exception. I slowed as I got close to the place, and right across from the sign, I stopped and studied it—about two by three foot, made of tin, fading white with black letters. It was attached to a short rusted post. The berry bushes had grown up and partially over it, but now that I’d stopped I could make out its message. It said—WORD DOLL MUSEUM—and beneath that—Open 10 to 5 Monday thru Friday.

The next morning I got up and instead of driving to town, I took a shower and put on a white shirt and dress pants. I took a cup of coffee out under the apple trees. Instead of writing, I sat there, smoking and wondering into the heart of the corn field what the hell a Word Doll was. At 10:30, I got in the car and drove toward town. The sun was strong and the sky was clear blue. The corn had begun to brown, it being summer’s end. At the bend in the road, without hesitating, I pulled into the driveway of the Victorian. The chickens were in a clutch over by the corner of the house. The place was still. I didn’t hear any television or radio playing. I walked slowly to the porch door, scuffing the gravel in the drive in order to let anybody listening know I was there. The screen door was unlatched. I opened it and called in, “Hello?”

There was no reply, so I entered, the screen door banging shut behind me, and walked to the main door of the house. I knuckle rapped the glass three times and then folded my arms and waited. The lilacs bordering the porch gave off a strong scent, and a wind chime in the corner over an old rocker pinged in the breeze sifting through the screen. I was about to give up and leave, when the door pulled back. There was a thin old woman, a little bent, with a cloud of white hair and big glasses. She wore a loose, button up dress, yellow with white flowers.

“What do ya want?” she asked.

“I’m here for the Word Doll Museum,” I said.

My pronouncement seemed to momentarily stun her. She reached up and gently grabbed the door jamb. “Are you kidding?” she asked and smiled.

“Should I be?” I said.

Her demeanor instantly changed. I could see her relax. “Hold on,” she said, “I have to get the keys. Meet me over by the barn.”

I left the porch and the chickens followed me. The entire gray structure of the barn, like some weary pachyderm, was actually listing more than a few degrees to the south, something I’d not noticed from the road. The door was hanging on by only the top hinge. The lady came out the back of the house and walked with the help of a three pronged cane over the lumpy ground of the yard. As she drew closer, she said, “Where you from?”

“Not far. I pass your place on the way to town every morning, and I saw the sign the other day.”

“My name is Beverly Gearing,” she said and held out her hand.

I took it in mine and we shook. “I’m Jeff Ford,” I told her.

As she passed by me toward the ramshackle barn, she said, “So, Mr. Ford, what’s your interest in Word Dolls?”

“I don’t know anything about them.”

“Well, that’s okay,” she said, and opened the broken door.

I followed her inside. She shuffled over the hay strewn floor. Swifts flew back and forth in the rafters and the holes in the roof allowed sunbeams to cut the shadows. On one side of the barn were animal stalls, all empty, and on the other there was a wall of implements and tools and a small room built within the greater structure. Over the door to it was a wooden sign with the words Word Doll Museum burned in script and shellacked. She fished in the pocket of her dress and eventually came out with the key. Opening the door, she flipped on a light switch, and then stepped aside, allowing me to enter first. The room was painted light blue. There was a window on each wall that looked out at nothing but bare plywood, and inside, window boxes fixed up with plastic flowers.

“Have a seat,” she said, and I sat in a chair at the card table at the center of the room. She worked her way to the other chair at the table and half sat / half fell backward into it. Once she was settled, she took a pack of Marlboros out of her pocket and a black lighter. She leaned forward on the table with one arm. “Word Dolls,” she said.

I nodded.

“You’re the first person to ask about the museum in about twenty years.” She laughed and I saw she was missing a tooth on the upper right side.

“You can hardly see your sign from the road,” I said.

“The sign’s a last resort,” she said. “I have a permanent spot in the What’s Happening section of three of the local papers. In January, I send them enough to run the ads for a year. Still, no one pays attention.”

“I’m guessing most people don’t know what a word doll is.”

“I know,” she said and lit the cigarette she held. She took a drag and then pointed with it at the left wall, where there were three beige file cabinets. The middle one had a golden laughing Buddha statue on it. “What’s in those nine drawers over there is all that remains of the history of Word Dolls. This is the largest repository of material evidence of the existence of the tradition. When I’m gone, knowledge of it will have been pretty much erased from history. You live long enough, Mr. Ford, you might be the last person on earth to ever think of Word Dolls.”

“I might be,” I said, “but I don’t know what they are.”

Beverly put her cig out in a half cup of coffee that looked like it had been on the table for a week. “I want you to know something before I start,” she said. “This is serious to me. I have a doctorate in anthropology from OSU, class of ’63.”

“Yes, m’am,” I said. “I seriously want to know.”

She sat quiet for a moment, eyes half shut, before taking a deep breath. “A ‘Word Doll’ is the same thing as a ‘Field Friend,’ they’re interchangeable. Their existence is very brief measured in anthropological time and also very localized. Only in the area that’s now roughly defined by our county border was this ritual observed. It sprang up in the mid-nineteenth century and for the time in which it ran its course affected no more than fifty or sixty families at the most. No one’s certain of its origin. Some women I interviewed back when I was in graduate school, they were all in their eighties and nineties then, swore the phenomenon was something brought over from Europe. So I asked, where in Europe? But none could say. Others told me it originated with a woman named Mary Elder, back in the 1830’s. She was also known as ‘The Widow,’ and I have a picture of her in the cabinet, but her candidacy for the creation of the tradition is called into question by a number of factors.

“Anyway, back in the day, I’m talking the mid-1800s on, in rural areas like this, kids, when they reached a certain age, were sent out to participate in the fall harvest. By about age six or seven, they were initiated into the hard work of the fields during that season of long hours well into the night. It was a difficult adjustment for them. There are a lot of writings from the time where farmers or their wives complain about the wayward nature of their children, their inability to focus through the hours of toil. Training a kid to endure a harvest season with no real prior experience appears to have been a common problem. So, to offset that, someone came up with the idea of the Word Doll. The idea in a nutshell, is to allow the child to escape into her imagination, while her physical body stays on the task at hand.

“Whoever came up with it really could have been a psychologist. They attached a ritual to it, which was a smart way to embed the thing into the local culture. So, in September, usually around the equinox, if you were one of those kids who was to be sent out in the fields for the first time come harvest, you could expect a visit from the doll maker. The doll maker came at night, right after everyone was in bed, carrying a lantern and wearing a mask. As far as I can tell, the doll makers were usually women in disguise. There’d be a knock at the door, three times and then three times again. The parents would get up and answer the call. When the child was finally ushered into the dark room and seated next to the fireplace, the doll maker was already there in her own seat that faced his. Her hands were reportedly blue, and bejeweled with chains and a large ring, its carnelian etched to show an angel in flight. She was wrapped in black velvet with a hood sewn into it to cover her head. And the mask, the mask was a story unto itself.

“By all accounts, that mask was dug up on one of the local farms. It had deep set eyes, a crooked nose, and a large oval mouth opening bordered by sharp teeth. It was an old Iroquois False Face mask, and could have been in the ground a hundred years before it was plowed up. It was made of basswood and had rotted at the edges. One of the farmers painted it white. I suppose you’re starting to see that the whole community was in on this?”

“Everybody but the kids,” I said.

“Oh, the tenacity with which the secrets of the doll maker were kept from the young ones then far exceeds what’s now done in the name of Santa Claus.”

“So they wanted to scare the kids?”

“Not so much scare them as put them in a state of awe. Remember, the promise was that the doll maker was coming to them with a gift. The competing qualities of her aspect and her purpose no doubt caused a heightened sense of tension.”

“Do you know anything about the False Face mask?”

“The False Face was a society of the Iroquois tribes. Their rituals dealt with healing. There were two ways to join the society—if you were cured by them, or if you dreamed you should join them. It doesn’t really have any bearing on the word doll tradition. Just an artifact that was appropriated by another culture and put to another purpose.”

“Okay, the kid is sitting there next to the fireplace with the doll maker . . .”

“Well, the parents leave the room. Then, as I was told by those surviving members of the ritual back in my graduate days, the doll maker tells the child not to be afraid. She’s going to make the child a doll to take into the fields with him or her, a companion to play with in the imagination while the hard work goes on. The doll maker cups her hands in front of her like this.” Beverly demonstrated. “And then leans over so the mouth of the mask is right over her palms. You see?” she said, and showed me.

“The voice was a kind of harsh whisper that none of my interview subjects could hear well or follow completely. The words poured out of the doll maker’s mouth into the cupped hands. One woman told me a string of words she remembered her whole long life that came from behind the mask. Hold on, let me see if I can get this right.”

While Beverly thought, I took out my cigarettes and held them up for her to see. “Okay?” I asked. She nodded. I lit up and drew the coffee cup closer to use as an ash tray. She held her hands up and snapped her fingers. “Oh, yes. I used to have this memorized so good. It’s like a poem. My mind is scattered by age,” she said, and smiled.

She was still for a second. Her eyes shifted and she stared hard at me. “The green sea, the deep down below the sweep of rolling waves, whales and long eight eight-legged pudding heads with eyes over which the great ship glides, and Captain Moss spinning the wheel . . . That’s the part she remembered, but she said the whole, what was called, ‘talking out of the doll,’ went on for some time. The average I got was about fifteen minutes. When the doll maker spoke the last word, she rubbed her hands together vigorously and then reached over and covered the child’s ears with them.”

“You mean as if the words were going inside the kid’s head?” I asked.

“I suppose, but from that night on, the child had, in his or her imagination, this word doll that had a name and a form and a little bit of history. The more the child played with it during work, the clearer it became, till it had the same detail as dreams or memories. Word Dolls all had a one-syllable name attached to whatever its profession was. So you had like, Captain Moss, Hunter Brot, Milker May, Teacher Poll. The woman who was given the Captain told me she’d never seen the ocean, but had heard about it from elders and travelers passing through the area. She said the Captain turned out to be a man of high adventure. She followed him on his voyages through her childhood, into adulthood, and then old age. Another interviewee said he’d been gifted Clerk Fick, but that as he followed the days of Clerk Fick while toiling in the fields, the doll slowly became a glamorous woman, Dancer Hence. He hadn’t thought of her in years, he said. ‘She’s still with me, but I put her away when I left the farm.’”

Beverly grabbed her cane and slowly stood. She walked to the files, bent over and opened the second drawer down on the left hand side. Reaching in, she drew out an armful of stuff. I asked her if she needed help. “Please,” she said. I went over to her and the first thing she handed me was the white False Face mask. After that, she gave me a rusted sickle with a wooden handle. “Okay,” she said. She closed the drawer with the end of her cane and we started back.

“I can’t believe you’ve got the mask,” I said, laying it down. I put the sickle next to it.

She sat and shoved her pile onto the table. “The mask came easy. A lot of this stuff I really had to dig for.” Pulling an old book out of the pile, she opened it, turned a few pages, and took out a large rectangle of cardboard. She turned it over and laid it in front of me. It was the picture of a woman in a high collared black dress. Her hair was parted in the middle and pulled severely back. Her glasses were circular. She wore a righteous expression.

“The Widow?” I asked.

Beverly nodded and said, “That’s a daguerreotype, not a photograph. From the 1850s. She looks like a pill, doesn’t she? I used to have it in plastic, but I’ve slacked off over the years as far as preserving all this. I resigned myself to its eventual demise when I finally resigned myself to my own.”

“It’s a remarkable story and archive,” I said.

“My husband built me this place to house it. He was very supportive, and as long as he lived, that kept me going with it. His family farmed all the acreage around here at one point.”

“You got a PhD in Anthropology at OSU and then married a farmer?”

“I know,” she said and laughed wistfully. “It was true love, but I still had it in my mind to be the next Margaret Mead. I knew I wasn’t going to make it to Samoa any time soon, so I looked closer to home and found this.” She moved her shaking hands over the things on the table.

We passed an hour with her reading me parts of her interviews, journal entries from dirty old leather-bound diaries, all of which attested to the strength of the image of the word doll, a doll that grew as you did, could speak to you in your mind, lead you to places you’d never been. The strangest particulars surfaced. One woman, thirty years old at the time, wrote in her diary that in all the years she’d played with Cook Gray, she’d never seen him naked, but she knew without looking that he only had one testicle. His best dish was roasted possum with cabbage, and she often used his recipes in cooking for her family. One interviewee said that her word doll was Deacon Tru, and that her husband’s had begun as Builder Cy but somehow transformed into Barkeep Jon, and was subsequently the ruination of their love. Among the papers was a letter detailing a farmer’s thirty-year argument with his field friend. After he retired, he said he realized that fight had been the one thing that kept him going through thick and thin.”

Eventually, Beverly ran out of steam. She lit a cigarette and eased back in her chair. “It’s completely mad,” she said, flicked her ash on the floor and smiled.

“What about this?” I asked and lifted the sickle off the table.

She blinked, pursed her lips and said, “Mower Manc, that was the end of the whole shebang.”

“The end of the ritual?”

She nodded. “In the early 1880s, word dolls were still part of the local culture. Who knows how much longer they would have carried on, with the twentieth century coming full speed ahead. But in that last year, somewhere around midsummer, a fire started in the minister’s barn one night. The place burned to the ground, and the minister’s wife’s buggy horse died in the flames. Every one suspected this boy, Evron Simms, who’d been caught lighting fires before. The minister, knowing the boy’s parents well, decided not to pursue punishment for the crime. Come the equinox, only a week later, Evron was due a visit from the doll maker and the doll maker came.

“Some of the folks I interviewed in the sixties knew this boy, grew up with him. He’d told more than one of them that his field friend was Mower Manc, a straw hat brim covering his eyes, a laborers shirt and suspenders, calloused hands, and a large sickle. In other words, the doll maker made Evron a word doll whose very job was to toil in the fields. That doll maker, I discovered, was none other than the minister’s wife. You can’t be sure that her choice for him was malicious, or that he didn’t change the aspect of what was initially given to him, but if she did knowingly make his only plaything in the fields work itself, that would be hard-hearted.”

I looked down at the sickle and said, “This doesn’t sound like it’s gonna end well.”

“Hold on,” she said, and put her hand out like a traffic cop to stop me. “Harvest starts, and Evron’s sent out into the fields with that sickle you see there, and is given a huge plot of hay to cut. By many accounts, he immediately set to work and worked with a kind of ferocity that made him seem possessed. By sunset, the field was mown, and the boy had a violet pallor, froth at the corners of his mouth. Even his father, a severe man, worried about what he’d witnessed. He wrote, ‘I never thought I’d see an instance where a boy could work too hard, but today I seen it. My own Evron. I should be proud, but the sight of it wasn’t a prideful thing. I’d describe it more as frightful.’

“People passed by the farm frequently after that first harvest, to catch a glimpse of the boy mowing hay. They noticed that he had taken to wearing a broad brimmed straw hat to block the sun. When the minister passed away, among his papers was a sermon he’d written about the boy’s mowing. It’s a very elegant document for what’s there, predictably linking Evron’s sickle with the scythe of Death, but half way down the page, the minister runs out of words. There are marks on the paper then, circles and crosses and a simple sun. At the bottom he writes—Elegast.”

“What was that?” I asked, unsure I’d heard correctly.

“Elegast, an entity from the folklore of the Dutch Low Countries. A supernatural creature, like the field and forest in human form. Only the minister made that connection, though, whereas most of the local folks were convinced Evron was just touched in the head. Three years at the harvest, and his look became more distant, his words fewer and fewer. When not working, he’d sit perfectly still, eyes closed, and sniff at the wind. During the following winter, he was working on a hay wagon, changing one of the tin-covered wooden wheels when the axle splintered and the cart fell and broke his left leg. That’s when the real trouble started.”

“Because he couldn’t work?” I asked.

“Exactly. They had to tie him down to keep him from tending to the horses and cows, or shoveling the snow off the path, or keeping a low fire going in the barn during the frozen nights. He struggled to get free. The local doctor prescribed laudanum and told him if he didn’t stay put and let the break mend, he’d never make it back out into the field. So they kept him in a stupor for months. Meanwhile, that winter of 1883, a stranger was spotted by more than a few folks, usually off at a distance, limping across the stubbled, misty fields, carrying a sickle and wearing a broad brimmed straw hat. They swore it was Evron, but on the few occasions someone got close to this mysterious figure, it proved to be that of a wasted and grisly old man.

“One day Evron’s father saw the old man moving across the distant landscape, and he saddled a horse and rode out to meet him. In his diary he reports, ‘I confronted the grim old fellow and told him he trod upon my field. He wore no coat, though the wind was bitter, but only the summer clothes of a day laborer. I asked what it was he was looking for. He yelled at me in a harsh voice, “Work. I want work.” I reminded him it was the dead of winter. He stalked away, dragging his bad leg. By then, a fierce snow had begun to fall, and in a moment I lost sight of him.’”

“You’ve got an incredible memory,” I told her.

“I’ve been waiting to tell somebody all of this for forty years,” she said. “I’ll jump ahead. I know I’ve kept you too long already.”

“Take your time.”

“To make a long story shorter, the minister’s wife was found one afternoon, not but a few days later, hacked to pieces in a church pew. Nobody had a doubt but that it was the stranger. A posse was formed and the men went out into the fields on horseback searching for him. At night they carried torches. Always they would glimpse him in the distance across the vast acreage of a barren field, but when they arrived at that spot, he’d be gone. Still, he struck twice more. A fifteen year-old girl, who lived two miles down the road from the Simms’ place. Her body was found in a horse trough, neck cut so bad that when they lifted her out of her frozen blood, her head fell off. Then a farmer slashed to ribbons, his body still upright in the seat of his buckboard, leaving a long trail of red in his wake as the horses stepped smartly through the snow.

“The younger boys called the killer Mower Manc, after Evron’s field friend. Everyone saw the connection, but it was impossible to blame the killings on the boy. He was in a perpetual daze at home, fastened to his bed. All through the rest of that winter and into the spring, they chased the illusive figure. Sometimes he’d disappear for months, and then there’d be a sighting of him. Once the crops were put in and the corn and wheat came up at the end of the spring, it got still more difficult to track him. Someone would see him cross the dirt road, and then he’d plunge into a corn field and vanish.

“Harvest time finally came, and Evron was allowed to return to the fields to mow. His leg was still tender, and there was a slight but noticeable limp, but the boy, sickle in hand, went out into the fields to cut wheat. His father, his mother, his sister, the doctor, and a neighboring farmer watched Evron walk into the wind-rippled amber expanse, and that was the last anyone ever saw of him. All they found was that sickle.” Beverly clasped her hands, set them in her lap, and sighed.

“He ran away,” I said.

“I suppose,” she said. “But all through the end of the nineteenth century, through the twentieth, and into the twenty-first up to today, folks have continued to farm this land. Geologists call it the Ohio Till Plain, one of the most fertile spots in the country. In all that time, every so often, someone peering from a second floor window of a farm house spots a strange figure in a distant field moving through the corn. A shadow with a hat. A loping scarecrow with a sickle. People nowadays refer to this phantom simply as The Mower. If you live here long enough, Mr. Ford, and you get to know the farmers well enough, you’ll hear someone speak of it. It’s said that certain nights in deep winter, below the howl of the wind, you can hear him weeping for want of work. If you wake on a cold morning and find your garage door open when it wasn’t the night before, it means The Mower has taken refuge from the cold in there.”

Beverly got up and took her papers and old diaries and daguerreotypes to the filing cabinet and put them away. I carried the false face and the sickle. She took the mask from me and stored it, but when I handed her the tool, she said, “No, you keep that.”

After all she’d told me, I wasn’t sure I wanted it, but eventually my sense of politeness kicked in and I thanked her. She walked with me to my car, and before I got in, we shook hands. “You’re the last one,” she said before I drove off. When I got home, I immediately looked around for a place to stow the sickle. Crazy as it was, I shoved it down into the big freezer in the garage underneath the layers of frozen vegetables from the garden. I figured I’d freeze the creep out of it.

The Word Doll Museum and old Beverly Gearing stuck with me for a week or so. I’d sit out under the apple trees and stare off into the corn to see if I could spot a shadowy figure passing amid the rows. Nothing. Just as it started to get too cold to sit out there, and Farmer Frank had the combine going, harvesting corn, I got an idea for a story about a religious painter who’s sent out by a prelate on a journey to find and paint a true portrait of the devil. It was a relatively long piece, and it consumed my imagination. By the time I finished a first draft, the fields were barren, and I was forced to move inside. The revisions on that story turned out to be extensive, and I didn’t finish it until the middle of winter.

The very night I was finally satisfied that the piece was ready to send out, the coldest night of the year, I had a dream of Mower Manc. In it, I got out of bed and went to the window. It was nighttime, and the light in the room was off. There was a full moon, though, and I saw, out in the barren field past the orchard and the garden, a figure moving through the snow, curved blade glinting as it swung like the pendulum of an old clock. Across that distance, I heard the weeping clear as a bell, and its anguish woke me.

When I went out to get my cigarettes the next morning, I came around the bend and saw the gray barn and home of the Word Doll Museum had, at some point since the day before, collapsed into a smoldering pile of rubble. Orange flames still darted from the charred wreckage, and smoke rolled across the yard and fields like a storm cloud come down to earth. I thought instantly of Beverly’s habit of flicking her cigarette ash on the floor of the place and just as quickly of Evron’s penchant for lighting fires. Then I saw her, on the snow covered lawn in front of the house, cane nowhere in sight, in a long blue nightgown and dirty pink slippers, white hair lurid in the wind. There was a cop car in the driveway, and the officer stood next to her with a pen and pad as if waiting to take down her statement. She was just staring into the distance, though, her grief-stricken expression pale and distorted like the False Face mask, and as I passed, I realized that what I was seeing was the end of it—a fellow doll maker, all out of words.

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Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford is the author of the novels The Physiognomy, Memoranda, The Beyond, The Shadow Year, The Girl in the Glass, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Cosmology of the Wider World and the short story collections The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, The Empire of Ice Cream, The Drowned Life, Crackpot Palace, and A Natural History of Hell. He is the author of 150 short stories that have appeared in numerous venues from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. He lives in Ohio and teaches part time at Ohio Wesleyan University.