In Shelby County, Alabama, the weather has thawed somewhat after the harsh winter. Most farmers heave a sigh of relief at the approach of spring. Some of the livestock would soon be free to roam and graze as the grasses become juicy again. A few brick buildings—semi-detached bungalows—dot the landscape, consisting of mostly grass with a tan appearance as a result of winter. There are also some trees: cypress, junipers, and Japanese cedars, along with some fruit trees like pears, plums, peaches, and apples. They fill the air with their rich smells.

A man in his early fifties comes out of a brown pick-up van and closes the door with a soft click. He is tall, about six-foot-three, with lines on a face used to being outdoors and doing honest, hard work. Josiah Gates is an African-American and a retired logger with the Shelby Forest Park. He moves wearily to the trunk to get out some bags of feed for the chickens.

“Welcome home, Dad,” a girl in her late teens says as she moves to assist him with the bags. She looks athletic and is five-foot-nine, with hair braided cornrow style. She looks attractive in her worn blue jeans and faded yellow cotton T-shirt, with the words “Alabama is Fun” written in green, on it. She smiles as she carries the bags, one in each hand, with ease. “And how is my baby girl doing today?” Mr. Gates asks in reply with an indulgent grin. “Oh, I’m good, Dad,” Ella replies with a smile. He is proud of his daughter who has been such a big help to him. She eagerly does the home chores and helps out at the farm, too. She looks more like her mother each day, God rest her soul. His wife had died from acute pneumonia, which had gotten out of hand five years ago.

He follows his daughter into their modest single-story farmhouse after they had dropped off the bags of feed in the farm supplies store. He smiles as he inhales the smell of a mixture of spices coming from the kitchen. Ella gives a small laugh at this and says, “That’s broiled chicken with some wild rice and vegetables, just the way you like it.” Her father removes his hat, tossing it on a coat tree. “It smells heavenly, just as your ma used to prepare it. Should taste nice, too,” he adds with a wink. He is dreading the day she would leave home. She would be going to college in the fall, and he would be left alone in the farmhouse. He may have to rent out the two unoccupied rooms upstairs, free to any nice couple he could find that would help out in the farm, as well as do some house chores. This would also provide him with some company, too.

As they sit down to dinner later, father and daughter discuss their day. This is usually a favorite time for both of them. They discuss the general goings on in Shelby County. Some of these stories are hilarious, while others are run-of-the-mill, like Mr. Worthington, who lives just a quarter of a mile west of them, who has just purchased two thoroughbreds. He’s a grouch with an equally grouchy wife who seems to find something wrong with each day. If you met Mrs. Worthington and asked her about the weather, she would give a small sniff of disdain and say, “Don’t even go there. My arthritis gets worse each day and the weather is not helping it any.” She gives this same reply about the weather if asked at any point in time. It’s a common joke around the community, where everyone virtually knows about everybody’s business. The Worthingtons’ two kids, a boy and a girl, now adults, are married with their own families.

As Ella does the dishes after dinner, she thinks about her admission to Jefferson State Community College. She frowns slightly at the thought of leaving her poor dad and moving off to college. He would feel so lonely staying here by himself. She briefly toys with the idea of putting off going to college until next year, perhaps. Heaving a sigh, she knows that her father would not hear of it. Drying the last of the dishes and putting it away, she stretches out her hand to turn off the light switch, but her hand freezes in mid-air as she sees a yellow light appear suddenly in the distance, cutting through the inky blackness of the night. It was all she could do to hold back a small scream. Is the Dillards’ house on fire? she thinks wildly. However, the light disappears the next instant, causing her to blink rapidly. The sudden disappearance of the light was as startling as its appearance in the first place. It also eliminates the possibility of a fire. Thinking perhaps that she had imagined the whole thing, she raises her hand once more to turn off the light switch and the yellow light appears at the same spot again. “Jeez,” she says aloud, “What could be happening over at the Dillards’ place?” A continuous stretch of grassland and a few trees lie between their building and Mr Dillard’s, and there’s no access road to the house since the place is overrun with weeds. So, what is actually happening over at the Dillards’ farmhouse?


Mr. Dillard was both a draughtsman and a farmer and had lived at the farm with his son, who had later followed in his footsteps to become a draughtsman. He had lost his wife to leukemia when his son was a toddler. His sister, a spinster, had come to the rescue and had been a huge help in raising his son and taking care of the farmhouse as well. He had a fruit orchard, consisting of peach and plums, which covered three acres, with a few hired hands who helped out in tending it. His sister had eventually moved out to the next town when his son gained admission to college. He had fallen on hard times some years later, as most of his fruits were attacked by some rare fungi. He passed on two years ago from a coronary. One of the farmhands had found him lying face down on the veranda of his home. His son, Emmanuel, now married, lives in Abbeville with his family and has no interest in farming. Thus the place is ill-kept and run down. Rumor had it that no one wants to buy the farm as the place could be cursed, especially with the strange disease that affected the fruit orchard.

Ella draws close the curtains, made of floral print material, and leaves the kitchen, switching off the light as she goes to join her father in the living room. She finds him watching his favorite TV show, The Parkers. Smiling, she sits on a sofa, momentarily forgetting about the mysterious light at the Dillards’ place. The episode currently running is about Nikki planning to go to Santa Monica College. This reminds them both of her leaving for college in the fall. “Ella, you should start making plans now on your enrollment at Jefferson’s this fall, so you don’t become overwhelmed by the preparations.” Sighing gently, Ella says, “I know, Dad. But I hate the thought of leaving you here all by yourself. How about I defer the…” Her father raises his hand, cutting her off in mid-sentence. “Don’t,” her father says. “I won’t hear of your deferring your admission on my account.” He goes further to explain his decision on renting the unoccupied rooms upstairs to a decent couple who would assist with the house chores, as well as help in tending the farm. “Oh,” Ella says with a slight smile. “Sounds great, Dad. But on one condition.” Her father raises his brow in a silent query. “That we check them out first, in case they’re serial killers?” Both of them burst out laughing at this. “Seriously, Dad, I wouldn’t want you to be in any danger with strangers roaming the house,” Ella says. Raising his hands in mock surrender, Mr. Gates gives a laugh, saying, “I see your point kid, and I totally agree. So, let’s finish watching the program. Shall we?” Ella gives a small nod at this, her attention turned once more to the screen.

Two hours later, after the Gates have turned in for the night, the poultry seems to come alive with a lot of clucking from the agitated birds, as if in protest against a presence they felt that did not belong there. The farmhouse seems so quiet except for these sounds. There is a deep breathing and a feeling of intense longing for something that should have been but wasn’t, that so builds up in the stranger standing a few feet from the poultry and gazing up at the Gate’s farmhouse. The stranger, who probably wasn’t, turns back on his feet, heading back towards the Dillards’ farmhouse. He almost gives a keening sound as a feeling of desolateness and loss intensifies within him. It’s about time I did something about it, the stranger who probably wasn’t thinks mournfully. He heads back to the ruin that was once a magnificent home. But it is a place to put up with in the meantime until he accomplishes what he has set out to do.

Upon getting to the Dillards’ old ruin, he opens the front door, which makes a creaking sound. He hears a faint rustle of a small animal moving into the bushes. A rodent, perhaps, he thinks as he lets himself into the house and closes the door. He lights a small lamp he had found in one of the cupboards upon his arrival here two days ago and rummages inside his backpack for canned soup. He feeds on just canned foods he had purchased a few days ago in town on his way here. Nothing much has changed in the community, apparently. A few shops had been given a new lift, though. A few new roads had been constructed and there are fewer deer trails. He had been around this area nearly a month ago to see things for himself. How elated he had felt to discover that the Dillards’ place was in ruins and with no occupants. He had casually asked a man he had met at the local bar about the Dillards, mentioning that he had been a laborer at the Dillards’ place many years ago. He hadn’t wanted to arouse any unnecessary curiosity and obviously his false claims must have worked, for the man with a listening ear, who was probably feeling so mellow from a few drinks, had divulged quite an earful, hence his moving out from an old inn he had been renting for about a month and arriving at the farmhouse a few days ago.

He heats up the soup using an old stove in the kitchen. He was lucky to find out that the stove still worked in spite of its rundown look, which goes with the condition of the building. He is now aware of the stories connected with the building, courtesy of the man at the bar. He wonders what else had happened in these parts after the ugly occurrence of nearly 15 years ago. But this is no time to brood about the past. What was done was done. No getting around that fact or overlooking it all together.

“I bet you are all comfy and cozy now, Josiah,” the man who was not a stranger says quietly. “But you’ve got me, Andy, to contend with.” Having made that cold declaration, the embittered man moves to where he kept his backpack and brings out a few pictures. He gives a dry, humorless chuckle as he looks at them. They’re smeared with dirt and crimped at the corners due to rough handling. He tries to smooth them out as he had done severally, but they remained the same; rough and unyielding, which aptly describes the person he had become. He takes a casual look at his face, reflected in the cracked mirror on an equally cracked wall. Rugged and tough, like his brother’s, only more creased and lined. He gives a small hiss as he searches in the dank cupboard for some pasta. He feels so hungry all of a sudden.


The day dawns bright and airy after the rain late last night. Ella gets out her bicycle from the shed and climbs onto it. She puts her helmet on, snapping it in place. Dad had left earlier to visit a friend of his who needed help fixing his washing machine. Her father is clever at fixing most appliances that break down for one reason or the other. He gets called out for these services at least once a week and gets paid for them, too. It was a shared joke between them that when he was a boy, he was called a tinkerman, because he always tinkered with broken0down home appliances he found and somehow gets them working again, then sold them afterwards. He had done this as a hobby and soon became popular enough that neighbors stopped frequently at his home to drop off their appliances that needed repairs. It got to a point that he had been provided a space to carry out these repairs in the tool shed by his father, who was proud of him, much to the chagrin of his elder brother. The tool shed had been where the poultry is now located.

As she rides off, Ella gives a quick look towards the Dillards’ farmhouse. She had been curious as to the light that shone mysteriously from the farmhouse last night. It was not any of her business, but the appearance of that light had given her the willies. She had thought about it as she prepared breakfast this morning and had wondered if perhaps Mr. Dillard’s son had come back. Perhaps he is trying to fix the place and move in there with his family. But she doubted if that was the case.

She pedals down the familiar road, passing a few farmhouses. She was going to the post office to pay some bills and post a few letters. She would like to go the library afterwards to borrow a few books and hopes to see Ms. Emerson there today. She is a library attendant in her mid- forties and also her mentor. She had hoped that she would accept her invitation to visit her at the farm, but she had declined each time she invited her. Her intention was to get her acquainted with her father, who seems to feel so lonely since her mother passed. Ms. Emerson had always come up with a clever excuse each time she broached the topic.

Ella had cleverly come up with a plan last year to get them to meet each other by asking her Dad to drop her off at the library. Then she had gone on to ask him to help her make a choice out of the collection of books she had asked Ms. Emerson to keep aside for her. They had both gone in, but unfortunately, her plans had gone awry, as Ms. Emerson was engaged in an intense but quiet conversation with a man. She had felt some disappointment at this. Ms. Emerson had smiled at both of them then, turning her attention towards them. She had given her the books and her father had helped her make a selection. Ms. Emerson had then walked the man towards the door where they exchanged some kisses on both cheeks before he left. She had not heard anything about the man since then and she hadn’t been bold to enough to ask Ms. Emerson about him, either.


The brown truck moves with a certain steadiness, as if automated, down the road, its driver giving a shake of the head to clear it of a few cobwebs that seem to have taken a strange hold of his brain. He feels a slight dampening of his palms that are resting on the steering as he cruises at an acceptable speed. He gives his head a gentle shake again and frowns as he relives what he felt was like some deja vu he had experienced some minutes ago.

He had decided to stop at the local pub to grab a case of root beer when he got into a conversation with the bartender, a friend of his. He had been in high spirits as he was generously compensated by his friend after fixing his washing machine. Concluding his hearty chat with the bartender, he had left the pub with the case of beer and had caught the profile of a man sitting at the far end of the room, his face partially hidden from him. He had felt a jolt that could be likened to one stepping on a rattler hidden under some leaves, but only to realize seconds later that it was barely alive, such was the gravity of his reaction. He had been awash with alternating feelings of heat and cold that left him drained. All these had happened in an instant, then he had smiled ruefully, chiding himself for acting like a scaredy cat. The person that he thought he had seen had died a long time ago. He couldn’t have come back from the dead to haunt him. He had then walked towards his vehicle in loping strides.

He helplessly allows his thoughts to stray towards memories that were best forgotten. Memories he thought he had gotten over but come once in a while to taunt and humiliate him. He had kept the ugly incident that happened many years ago from his dear wife, rest her soul. He hadn’t felt any need to burden her with what had happened just a year before he met her. She didn’t deserve to learn that she had married a coward who had failed in his duties as a man. He almost chokes up with emotion as he recalls the complacency with which he had dealt with his brother’s abduction and consequent demise. He feels that he doesn’t deserve to see the light of the day. Then the thoughts come rushing up to him like an express train and he is helpless at its onslaught, so gripped in its power, that he pulls over by the roadside to take a few deep breaths. He gives a huge sigh. Why did this have to happen now? he silently asks himself. Perhaps I may have to drink myself to sleep tonight. But he abandons such an idea. His daughter has such great faith in him and it would be totally insane to give her a reason to do otherwise. He starts his truck once more, pulling onto the road.


For all installments of “The Dillards’ Farmhouse,” click here.