The farmer and his wife had been trying to have a baby for almost a year, without any luck, before they began to worry that they couldn’t. She was made to drink a tea made from red clover, bury a chicken egg in the fireplace, and told both to ensure and abstain from having orgasms. They made love in lurid, obscure positions, and used drops of snake oil in almost all of their cooking. Still, with the exception of a four-week span that ended in miscarriage, she bled month after month.
The farmer was a tall, wiry man, strong in the hands and shoulders. He owned only a single book, a King James Bible bound in cowhide and from which he read aloud nightly, expecting his wife to sit by and listen, for she herself could not read. He was a full decade and a half older than she, a small and demure woman, the way he thought a woman ought to be. She had mud-colored hair that rested at the small of her back. The possibility of infertility was a great embarrassment to the farmer. It made him self-conscious about his age and virility next to his younger spouse.
The evening of the second miscarriage, the farmer stepped out on the porch and stood with his thumbs in the straps of his overalls, looking over the fields. The cows and the goats stood on the hilltop, grazing or lying down. The corn was high and rustled dryly in the wind. He breathed through his nose and puffed on a long pipe that had once been his father’s, and wondered what his own son might be like, if he was ever to be. His eyes were tired. The sun was low and red on the hills.
When they finally conceived it was almost winter. The wife’s belly grew. She was sick often, and experienced pain in her belly and back almost daily. Her hair thinned. After only five months, she was told to remain in bed for the rest of the pregnancy. The farmer wondered if she would survive it.
But then, on a hot June day, almost two years after they had begun to try, the wife gave birth to a boy in their own home. They named him after the farmer’s grandfather. He was healthy aside from a thin ridge of coarse white hair that grew along his spine, starting at the base of his neck. They shaved it off, and then the farmer was able, for the first time, to hold his son.
He looked at him proudly, and recognized his own knobby chin, the high, hard forehead. The boy didn’t cry, but looked up at his father and around at the world with bright, curious eyes that were all his mother’s. This child would grow into a strong and capable man, the farmer was sure of that.
They doted after him. A miracle. The wife nursed him and would look at him with nothing but wonder in her eyes. The man took him for walks about the property, showing him the fields that would always belong to their family, he and his son and then his son after that. As he talked he mutely fingered the white stubble on the boy’s back.
As the boy aged, the hair on his spine grew back thicker and thicker. Eventually, after it started growing back two and then three times a day, they stopped trying to shave it off. The doctors didn’t know what to make of it. Aside from his external appearance, they said, he seemed like a perfectly healthy boy.
The boy grew. He became a toddler. He was a difficult, argumentative child. As soon as he seemed able to he began to defy his parents. He threw violent tantrums and broke whatever was put in front of him. The wife, especially, looked exhausted. The farmer hit him regularly with his belt, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. The boy had no friends. They felt guilty, reasoning that whatever sickness was lurking inside him must have come from somewhere within their own selves. The farmer barely slept anymore, wondering if the boy was his fault.
On the first day of fall, they went to sell their goods in the Dushore market. It was more than three miles from their farm to Dushore, and they traveled there only occasionally. Aside from the weekly church service, it was the only time any of them left the farm. The farmer took his son, who was just three now, and his wife stayed at the home. The air was still warm, but hard-edged, and smelled of the coming cold. The farmer looked off down the road. His eyes were deep and dark. Then he turned to regard his son.
The boy sat the bench beside him, his whole body jostling as the horses trotted. He was starting to grow long hairs beneath his chin, just a few, but enough to be noticed. The farmer thought they gave him the appearance of an elderly Chinese man, but had never said so. The boy crossed his feet beneath him, and the farmer caught sight of the shapeless leather shoes he wore. In the last months, the arches of his feet had begun to flatten and then widen, painfully. The boy would sit cross-legged on the floor, holding his feet and howling. They’d become so swollen and disfigured the farmer’s wife had been forced to fashion him a few pairs of leather shoes that would stretch enough to fit. They were ugly, but they did the job. The boy’s walk was even different now. He walked queerly, on the tips of his toes, as if he were a newborn deer. The farmer sighed and looked back down the road.
The market was already alive with noise when they arrived in town. They tied the horses to a hitching post and went about setting up their supplies. Goat’s milk, eggs, and several blocks of soft cheeses made with thyme and rosemary. The farmer unfurled a white linen sheet in a motion that sounded like a thunderclap, and let it gently settle over the table where he smoothed out the creases with his wide hands. Then the boy helped him set out the crates of goods one by one. When he thought his father wasn’t looking, he took a long swig from one of the milk tins and received a cuff on the ear. He cried. Without saying anything, the farmer put his arm around his son’s shoulders and eventually he quieted.
They laid out samples of the cheese for folks to try, for the farmer’s goats were some of the finest in the area, and the cheese they produced was rich and flavorful. They sold out of it quickly.
Late in the afternoon, when the sun was beginning to approach the trees, the farmer began to pack up their stand. Only a few tins of milk and a single crate of eggs were left. It had been a good day. He set the tins and the crate in the cart and wrapped them in the linen sheet and then he hitched up the horses. He went to lift his son onto the bench but when he turned around the boy wasn’t there. There was a moment of blind panic until he saw him.
The boy was sitting on the ground on the other side of the market, holding something in his lap. There was a circle of people beginning to form around him, pointing and whispering to one another. The farmer bounded over, elbowing his way through, and it wasn’t until he was standing over him that he saw what the folks were so interested in.
The boy had managed to catch a small bird, and as he held it close he was picking out small clumps of feathers. The bird was frantically struggling to get away, but the boy had his knees up and had pinned it securely against his stomach. Little uneven patches of pink showed through its feathers. Pinpricks of bright blood. The farmer smacked the bird out of his son’s grip. It wobbled in the dust and eventually righted itself, but it was obvious that something in it could never be put right again.
The farmer yanked the boy up roughly by the wrist and marched toward the cart. The boy’s gait was queer and slow next to his father’s.
Someone said something and the crowd laughed. The farmer let go of his son’s hand and singled out the man who had spoken.
What did you say? the farmer demanded.
The man smirked. I said he looks like a little goat, your son there.
The farmer snorted through his nose, like a bull. He started to walk away but had only gotten one step when he thought better of it. He spun and punched the man just below the eye. The man staggered for a moment and then he sank sideways to the ground. His eye was immediately dark and distended.
The farmer lifted his son and carried him to the cart as the crowd rushed in to help the man. Several people shook their heads as they watched the farmer and his strange boy go, and all the while the little bird nearby was still flapping its bald wings and wheeling counterclockwise, trying but unable to lift itself off the ground.
They stopped going into town. White hair grew up the boy’s arms and back. Soon he had a full goatee of pale stringy hair that grew like a spike beneath his chin.
The farmer sat in his chair, the Bible in his lap. His wife came in from the kitchen drying her hands on a rag. The boy was playing in another room.
I think I know what’s happening, the farmer said.
His wife hurried into the room. What? Her voice was excited, but low.
After we were in town, with the bird, it got worse, then it seemed to slow down, until…
But then the hair on his face got worse.
Until he hit you, remember? That happened the night he hit you.
I don’t understand.
It’s not an even or regular thing. It’s happening in spurts, and I think they line up with how far away he is from this. He held up the Bible.
The wife covered her mouth. Don’t say that.
It makes sense. The worse he behaves, the faster it happens.
Like God’s punishing him? But he’s just a boy.
I don’t know that it’s a punishment so much as an indication of the condition of his soul, his spiritual life. It’s like a scale. The more he sins, the faster he turns into this…thing.
Well, how do we stop it?
I don’t know, the farmer said. But I aim to try.
Just then the boy walked in. The farmer picked up his Bible and began to read, while the boy played on the floor. Once, the boy had been expected to sit and listen with his mother, but from an early age he had resisted, crying and yelling and purposefully hitting his head against the wall until his parents allowed him to play again. Now, as the farmer read scripture to his wife, the boy smashed toy cars into one another loudly, accompanied by a variety of graphic sound effects.
The mother prayed for his soul. The father watched him with unease.
It was afternoon. The sun was high and hot but there was a cool wind blowing that made it pleasant to be out of doors. The mother sat on the porch, mending the family’s clothes.
The boy was to be found in the field behind the house, where he was picking up fist-sized stones and throwing them as far as he could into the woods. Every so often, as one of them thunked through the leaves, birds sprung up in a cloud. He saw his father coming out of the corner of his eye. The farmer didn’t say anything, just squatted nearby with his forearms resting on his knees, watching him, so the boy didn’t stop throwing. He had launched four more rocks high into the trees before his father spoke.
Father. Another stone skittered through the woods, making a sound like a live animal.
Can I speak with you?
The farmer rubbed his mouth. Your mother and I think we may know why this is happening to you.
Why what’s happening?
The boy made no indication that he had heard. He ducked his arm sideways and chucked a stone against the trunk of a pine.
I don’t know why, but things seem to happen after you’ve done something wrong. When you hit your mother or defy me. Do you understand?
You mean I’m bad?
No, of course not. You’re a good boy. But for some reason, this happens when you sin. You have to be extra good, you understand?
The boy nodded.
And I’d like you to sit with your mother when I read. The Good Book has lessons for all of us on how to live a noble, honorable life, okay?
The farmer smiled and ruffled his hair and walked up toward the house. The boy watched him go a little ways and then went back to throwing stones.
Years passed. The boy made a considerable effort to behave, but as an adolescent, his condition only grew worse. His feet had not only completely changed into hooves, they had recently developed a cleft down the center. He had a full white beard and the hair had spread all down his arms, everything except for the palms of his hands.
It’s happening faster, the farmer said one night. Have you noticed that?
I have, his wife answered.
The farmer sighed. He slipped the straps of his overalls over his shoulders and stepped out into just his long johns. He crawled beneath the covers.
Why’s he have to be this way? We were good. No reason we didn’t deserve a normal child, he said.
Don’t say that. He’s…
It’s true! He’s what? I love him, you know that, but that doesn’t make him normal. Whatever’s happening, it’s not normal. One look at the way folks react to him ought to tell you that.
What other folks think isn’t everything.
I know that.
The farmer turned to his side. He blew out the candle and they were in darkness.
Once, the boy was gone for an entire night. His parents searched the house, the barn, and the surrounding fields and forest, but they could find not a single sign of him. The mother sank to her knees. She cried and cried. They’ve taken him, she sobbed. They’ve taken him and they’ll kill him. The farmer took his gun and checked it. He had mounted his horse and was preparing to go into town when he saw his son stumble out from the edge of the woods.
They ran across the field and embraced him, checking to see if he was hurt. The farmer stopped. His expression changed. There was a strong reek of liquor. He grabbed his son’s face roughly and peered into his eyes, shaking him.
Where were you, huh? Just what in the hell were you doing?
What is it? the mother cried. She tugged at the farmer’s arm. Stop it. What is it?
The boy couldn’t stop laughing.
Where were you? The farmer’s hand came down hard across his son’s face, and the laughter stopped immediately. He stared straight at his father and the look on his face was replaced by something dark, something colder.
Look, the wife said.
The boy’s ears were now covered over with coarse short hair, and while he was gone the tips of them had grown to a point.
The farmer found a well-worn stack of photographs in a rubber band under the boy’s bed. He shuffled through them and found they were pictures of women in varying stages of undress. A week later the boy stayed out all night and came home drunk again. It was the final straw. Something had to be done. The farmer boiled with rage. His wife convinced him to allow the boy to sleep it off. They would address it in the morning.
There was already a fire going when the boy crept downstairs. The farmer stood beside the fireplace, smoking a pipe and looking at a picture of his father. His wife sat with her head in her hands. The boy took a step back upstairs but his father, without looking up, called for him to come and sit down. The boy did so, sighing impatiently.
The farmer looked at his son. The boy’s teeth were shovel-bent and his mouth protruded past his nose. There were two bone nubs poking through his hair and a ridge of coarse fur went down his forearms and hung from his elbows. He looked more like a goat now than a human, and the farmer wondered if, had he only seen him as a child, and then today, would he have been able to recognize his own son?
The boy was squirming under his father’s gaze and finally he snapped.
What? he barked.
The farmer set the picture down. He shook his head. Your mother and I, he started to say, but his voice broke. Your mother and I, we can’t sit back and watch you do this to yourself.
Is that what you call this? The farmer threw his hand out in frustration, indicating his son.
I’ve got it under control.
Drinking and cursing. Running away from your parents. I found these in your room. He produced the stack of photographs and held them up with two fingers. Disgusting.
You had no right to go through my things.
And you have no right to throw yourself to the dogs and expect us to sit by and watch. You were bought at a price. You have no idea how hard we tried to have you.
The mother sobbed.
I don’t care, the boy said. That was your choice. This is mine.
You don’t know what you’re doing.
Yes I do.
No. You don’t.
The boy stood up and glared at his father. Then he turned to the front door.
Where do you think you’re going?
Oh no you’re not.
The boy lunged. The farmer grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled him backwards. They grappled for a moment and then both went to the floor. The mother stood and covered her mouth.
Stop fighting him, she yelled to her son. Oh stop.
The boy grabbed his father’s wrist and bit it until he drew blood. The farmer howled and let go and the boy sprang to his feet just for a moment. He sprinted back toward the back door, through the living room, but as he passed his mother she reached out and grabbed him. He was caught off guard, and stopped struggling for a long moment, looking up at her with slowly registering shock. The mother bit her lip and refused to meet his gaze. When the boy began squirming again, the father was there to help restrain him.
They lifted and carried him upstairs together, the boy writhing like a cut wire and howling in what the farmer assumed were tongues. They dropped him on the floor of an extra, sparsely furnished room and bolted it shut from the outside with chains and locks the farmer had installed himself in the middle of the night. The boy threw his body against the door, screeching, but it held. The mother ran downstairs. The farmer leaned against the wall, his hands on his hips, breathing heavily.
The next day the farmer stood over the kitchen sink, watching his animals in the field. The sun was red on the hills. He drank from a glass of water. His wife sat at the table. Upstairs, the boy railed in fury, stomping and bellowing and running himself against the door. Pictures shifted and rattled on the walls.
For two days the boy’s rage seemed to know no exhaustion. He didn’t sleep. They slid plates of food under the door but immediately they could hear them clatter across the room. Then, on the third day, he stilled. There was no sound, only the ticking of a grandfather clock. The farmer looked at his wife and went upstairs to check on him.
The hallway upstairs was strangely quiet. The floorboards creaked under the farmer’s boots. He looked at the door at the end of the hall. He wondered if the boy had jumped out a window until he heard shifting on the other side. He eased himself down to his knees, his head against the floor, and peered through the crack beneath the door. The boy was sitting still in the middle of the floor. The farmer stood up.
A long pause. A sigh. Yes?
Is everything okay?
Yeah, I’m okay.
Are you hungry? Can I get you anything?
Just some water.
They removed the chains on the morning of the fourth day and opened the door, revealing a diminutive figure, his eyes sunken and dark. The boy stood uncertainly before the threshold, watching his parents. They motioned to him, smiling, and finally he came. The tiny family embracing in the creaky hallway, farmer and wife and their strange, bestial boy.
The farmer noticed a change in his son. It wasn’t physical, he still looked the same, but his behavior was different. He was quieter, more muted. He kept his head down as he went about his chores, but he still went about doing them. Chores he hadn’t even pretended to do for several years. Finally, the boy seemed to have realized the error of his ways and righted himself. Perhaps his quiet demeanor was owing to a gnawing sense of shame, the farmer thought.
The only solution was to keep going, to raise up a sense of normalcy in the family that had never really been there. The prodigal son was returned.
Sundays they held a church service in the living room of their home and the boy, for the first time since he was old enough to decide, attended. The farmer read from his leather bound Bible and they recited several prayers and catechisms he had memorized. Finally, they sang Be Thou My Vision and the boy tentatively sang along.
They watched for the beginning of physical change in their son. He was so devoted to acting with purity to be almost ascetic. He worked through the days, prayed with his father, and was in bed early. He asked to be locked in every night so as to avoid temptation. On Saturdays he fasted, and every Sunday he attended the makeshift church service with his parents. Eventually, he learned the songs and sang loudly and with zeal.
Still, weeks passed, and his appearance had not begun to improve.
The farmer found his son going into the chicken hutch one morning to collect eggs. It was just past dawn, and the fog was heavy over the fields. He watched the boy. More than a boy now. He moved more like a man but looked like something else entirely. The ears sticking up, his face hidden under all that hair. He shook his head and followed the boy inside.
His son looked up when he came in and nodded.
Good morning son.
They lay well?
Fair. Some laid, some didn’t.
The farmer nodded. He was silent while the boy finished going in a circle about the hutch, reaching beneath each chicken in turn with his gnarled hand-hoof and gingerly placing any eggs he found in the basket. When he was finished they went outside.
You know, the farmer said, I appreciate what you’ve been doing. The way you’ve been. You’ve really turned around.
The boy was quiet. He looked at the ground. His father continued.
I know we haven’t seen a physical difference yet, but we will. It’s starting. And either way, it’s made a world of difference to your mother and I. We’ve never been as proud of you as we are now. You see…
I can’t do it, the boy cut in.
The farmer blinked at him. What?
I can’t do this. Not forever. I’m not like you.
A life of holiness is never easy…
It’s an act to me. It doesn’t mean anything. And it’s too difficult. I can’t act one way when everything in my nature is pushing me in the opposite way.
It’s not your nature.
No, it is. I used to think maybe it wasn’t, but it is. I thought I was changing because of the way I was behaving, but I’ve always been this way, haven’t I?
The farmer was silent. He looked away.
That’s what I thought. This all started before I ever had a choice. I’m not in control of this. Whatever this animal is, it’s always been there, and now it’s just about out. I don’t know why, but that’s just the way it is. So you see Papa? I never had a choice.
No, it’s not the way you say. We can always change.
I’m not saying I won’t try. But I’m saying you’re asking me to fight my true nature, and I have nothing left to fight with.
You do. It’s…
I’m going into the house.
He walked away, a strange form ascending the hillside. His father called after him but he didn’t respond. A moment of frustration. He called again, saying that if the boy was so willing to give up he was no son of his. The figure paused, and then continued upward.
The next day the mother went to visit friends she had not seen in years. Since the boy had changed, it was as if a great weight had been lifted from her back. She had changed too. She left before noon, and told them she would be back by dinner time.
It was June, the month of the boy’s birth. The cows were made lazy by the heat, lying by in the fields swatting at flies with their tails. The goats bleated in the hold, and fattened bees droned amongst the flowers. The whole farm lay under a haze. It was a heat to distract and exhaust.
The farmer had milked the cows and goats by dawn light, and checked the hutch for eggs. He kissed his wife goodbye and set about inspecting the fields in the afternoon. The corn was beginning to grow. It would be time to harvest soon. He would be happy to have the boy’s help for that.
He spent an hour tending the fields, turning the soil in places and cutting down crops that had failed to grow in others. He carried a hand sickle with him, swinging it in a low arc to cut down stalks, then collecting them in a bundle that he threw over his shoulder. He thought about his son. Perhaps he had been too hard on him, not given him room to learn and grow on his own. His own father had been that way, strict to the point of overbearing, but the farmer had thrived in such an environment. He was strong. He was beginning to see how a weaker spirit, or one beset by circumstance, such as his son, might be crushed by it. He prayed, and resolved to talk to him that night.
Late in the afternoon, the farmer finished his work. He tied the bundle and slung it over his shoulder and stood looking over the fields, catching his breath. He passed a shirtsleeve over his sweaty brow. The sun was red on the hills.
When he stepped into the barn it took a long moment for his eyes to adjust. It was cool and dark. He saw dust motes floating in the slats of sunlight. He took one step further in and the first thing he noticed was the old sickle gone from the near wall. He hadn’t touched it in years. Then he saw a figure coming out of the darkness, holding it above his shoulder and crossing the floor quickly, with purpose.
The instrument came down with a hard thwack against the farmer’s midsection, knocking the air from his lungs and sending him sprawled across the dusty floor. It was dull after years of disuse, but its weight alone made it a formidable weapon. The farmer wheezed, laboring to draw a single breath. He tried to get up, and immediately felt the flat of the blade against the top of his neck. His skin went hot, and he thought he felt blood on his back. He rolled over, terrified, trying to hide his face behind his arms, and that was when he saw the boy, looking more like some half goat creature born out of old Christian nightmare than his son. He was holding the sickle back over his head and had nothing but fire and malevolence in his eyes.
The wife got home later than she expected. It was evening, and the sun had already begun to set. She noticed that the barn door had been left open, and that lights were on in the house, but there was no sign of her husband or son. She called their names but there was no response. She walked around and through the house but it was empty and silent.
When she came out she saw that one of the goats had gotten out of the hold. It was standing at the top of the hill, seeming to watch her. She didn’t recognize it, but she didn’t know many of the animals they owned, not like her husband. They stood facing one another for some time, the woman and the goat, until the sun had set almost completely and they were both reduced to shadows, darkened shapes. She started to go after it, to capture it, but then the goat turned and bounded away over the hill. She ran after it, but when she reached the top of the hill and looked over the fields, it was gone.
Tyler Russell lives in Central Pennsylvania with his wife, Cat, and their 4 children. He attempts to teach high school students English. His work has appeared in Apiary Magazine, Silver Blade, The Copperfield Review, A Time of Singing, and The Pennsylvania Gazette, among others, and was a nominee for the 2011 Rhysling Award. He can recite most of Frozen by heart, and thinks that the movie Gravity seems like a good way to die.
Photo Credit: Ryan Rickrode