Metaphysical Times

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by Rhian Ellis

The letters came, and the letters came, and then they stopped. The last came in the autumn, with the falling leaves and the clotting sky, but through the long grayness of winter there was nothing.

Ruth continued to write even though it felt as though she was dropping her pages into a bottomless well. She asked questions that were never answered and told stories that seemed unheard. She wrote faster and more frantically as the snow blew into the city and hid the dirt and the trash and the broken things. She imagined her sister in her little house, out there in the wilderness, burning logs and nursing babies and what else? What did she do? Life was so different out there, so hard to imagine. Her sister was baking bread, perhaps, washing little napkins for the babies, sleeping with her husband, the fierce-browed man with the combed-back hair. Did she read? Her sister’s eyes were never good and reading exhausted her. Perhaps that’s why the letters stopped. In the dull light of winter, writing letters might have been too difficult. Or it could have been something simpler. Maybe there was no more ink.

And then a letter came, on the same rough paper, written with the same too-sharp pen that scratched. But the hand was unfamiliar. And inside, the letter was hard to read and cramped and was almost like the writing of a child. Perhaps it was the writing of a child.

Sister Ruth-- I hayte that I am the barer of the world’s moust dreaded newes but the truth is that our dearr Jane is dead and so are the chyldren tifuss came to our small house and we coud not stop it. First the older chyld then Jane then the baby went to the arms of Jesuss. Wheeler is the only chyld left and I am left too tho to what purpose I

The letter ended there without a closing but no ending was needed. Everything had been said.

In the city Ruth gave piano lessons and taught French and worked sometimes as a governess. In recent years, she could not find as much work and she had had to move into a boarding house filled with rough women and unmarried girls who worked as maids and cooks. The boarding house was drafty and the chilblains on her hands made it difficult to play the piano. She kept rats and vermin out of her room by stuffing cracks with rags soaked in poison, and the smell of it made her feel sick almost all of the time. Though it was still early spring, and the roads were still mud and ice, she made the decision to leave, to join the fierce-browed man and the one remaining child in Jane’s house. It was not a difficult decision.



She sold a hat and some trinkets to the pawnbroker in the next street, and with that money she bought passage on a wagon that would leave in a week. There was enough money left over to buy what she needed to make several bottles of her tincture, the one she had used to treat ailing women in her boarding house. It cured cough; it cured problems of the female sort; it had even cured typhus. She needed turpentine, a bit of rum, some opium and some sheep sorrel. Those were the things she had to buy. Other ingredients could be taken from cupboards and drawers. When she had it mixed she filled several small bottles and tucked them into her pockets. One of the bottles hung on a chain and this she put around her neck and hid under her dress. Then she packed her clothes, her books, the things that their parents had left: a clock, some knives, a silver bowl, two pewter mugs. Then she went back to the pawnbroker and sold the clock. She didn’t need to know the time.

The man who drove the wagon was named Stout. He had a boy of about twelve he called Amon. The oxen were named Freda and Cora. The dog that rode with them was called Tooth. Two young men traveling with them were Axel and Hans. They were Swedish boys. Most of the wagon was filled with sacks of grain and barrels of whale oil and a box of guns and ammunition. The grain sacks made an almost comfortable seat. The whale oil smelled horribly of fish.

The morning they left the city was clear and blue and cool. The sky still spun with stars. Ruth had brought all the bedding she could from the boarding house because the wagon was open and because she would never see the landlady again so it did not matter what she stole. She wrapped a kerchief around her head and two blankets around that and pulled a quilt on top of herself. The others made do with their leather coats and a single blanket. The dog curled up at Ruth’s feet, entirely hidden beneath the quilt except for its snout. When Ruth put her hand down to feel the animal’s warm breath, it licked her fingers.

The oxen blew and staggered with the weight of the wagon and the wheels turned reluctantly, creaking and complaining even when the road was smooth. At other times the wagon jolted painfully. Ruth would have gotten out and walked if not for the mud, but the mud did not intimidate the boy Amon or the Swedish men, who jumped out and walked ahead for an hour or two at a time. When they disappeared into the trees she worried about them, and she felt a mysterious relief when their two blond heads and one red one came back into view.

For the first day out of Albany they passed neat farms and small villages. They stopped to take on more cargo and another passenger. This passenger was an old man who did not tell anyone his name, but who talked so loudly and so pointlessly that Ruth wished he would die. She occupied her mind for an hour or two about how this might happen, how the old man’s death could be brought about, but before she solved this puzzle he jumped off the wagon and scampered with his bag across a field newly sprouting with wheat. The silence he left behind him was as sweet as his death would have been. Almost as sweet.

Somehow, in spite of the jolting and jerking, Ruth slept. She slept sitting up with her bedclothes wrapped around her and the Swedish boys speaking quietly in their strange tongue. In a half dream she imagined she understood the slurry of consonants and bent vowels and that they were describing new kinds of animals that lived in the west. These animals were soft and round and had fur in a rainbow of colors. In her dream they were called fevercats. If you put your mouth to the mouth of a fevercat, it would take away your illnesses, and all the illnesses that were hiding inside you, and your nervousness and madness as well. They worked better than any tincture.

When she woke the clean and pretty farms were gone. The road had narrowed and they were in the woods. Before it was a road it was an Indian path, said Stout. And before that, it was a path that angels used. Here, too, the land became hilly. For hours the wagon would follow a small creek or gully, and then it would climb a hill and the rolling land would spread itself before them. There were so many trees. Ruth could not have imagined so many trees existed. And she thought about how in each tree was a squirrel, or perhaps two or three squirrels, and the idea of so many squirrels with their chattering teeth and glass-bead eyes made Ruth’s arms and neck prickle with goosebumps.

The first few nights there were inns to stay in and taverns to find a meal and a drink. These establishments were hidden in the woods and Stout would announce their arrival far in advance; even he was not sure where they were, and the wagonload of passengers leaned forward in their agonized longing to stop and to rest. The men would usually sleep in a barn with the animals, but Ruth was allowed to sleep inside, next to the fire.

The land grew strange. They passed through a field made of white rocks, some of which were standing up like men. The trees along the road were colossal, with shiny bark like copper or as white as paper or rough and wrinkled like skin. Sometimes flocks of pigeons passed overhead and blocked out the sun, leaving everyone in the wagon sticky and smelling of shit. The sound they made, the cooing and the chipping and the feather-sound of wings, was frightening; it was a sound that could take you over, it could swallow you. When the pigeons came, the oxen stopped and everyone in the wagon hid their faces in their hands until it was over.

The passengers in the wagon, noted Ruth, had broken into factions. The boy Amon and the Swedish men were one; Ruth and the dog were another. Stout and the oxen were the third. The younger men were like a small army, in that they ate most of the food and made almost all of the noise. They prodded and smacked each other. Stout spoke mostly to the animals. Ruth, wrapped in her bedclothes, rarely moving, never speaking, felt invisible to everyone except for the dog. Tooth slapped his tail against the bags of grain when she reached down and touched his fur.

Then Amon decided she was a witch. Once when they stopped to rest, Ruth had gone into the woods and found some mushrooms, purple deceivers and turkey tail and scarlet cups. She also found dozens of the brown horn-shaped mushrooms called miracles, which she cut up and cooked in a tin mug. She offered these to the others but they refused them.

“Are you going to poison us, witch?” said the boy. Ruth didn’t answer. It didn’t matter if the boy thought she was a witch; maybe she was one. She felt like one.

She ate the brown mushrooms herself, and wrapped the others carefully in paper and put them into her bag.

The next day, Amon said to no one in particular, but making sure that Ruth could hear, “We should kill the witch before she kills us.”

“Keep quiet,” said his father. “No one is going to be killed here.”

Amon stared at Ruth, as if he could shoot arrows from his eyes. At last Ruth spoke.

“If I wanted to kill you, I would have killed you miles ago,” she said. “I would have poisoned you, or tricked you into drowning in a well, or just made your heart stop. Perhaps I would have turned your tongue into a giant worm that would strangle you. The devil will take you all if I ask him.”

The boy turned away and did not speak to her again.

That night they took a meal with a family whose farm was nothing but stumps and whose cabin was made of logs chinked with mud. Ruth made herself a place on the floor of the cabin while the men slept outside with the animals. In the morning, as the wife of the house cooked a breakfast of cornmeal cakes and fat, Ruth went to the outhouse and saw that the wagon was gone: the wagon, the oxen, the men. Even the dog. They had left her here.

The man of the house directed her to town, which was five miles down a rutted road. She walked slowly, because her bag was heavy and because her blankets and quilts dragged in the mud. The sun was warmer than it had been and so she stopped and pushed her scarf back to let her hair out. Her hair had an animal smell from being wrapped up so long. It felt good to let the sun warm it.

The town had a tavern and a store and a post office called Arabia. She thought perhaps she should write to her brother-in-law and tell him that she would be delayed, but she didn’t know how long it would be and didn’t think it mattered anyway. At the store she bought a small round of salty cheese. She asked around but no one knew of any wagons or carriages going West. At least, none that would take her.

The man at the post office told her it would be another hundred miles or so to Shadikee. It wouldn’t be wise to walk it; there were wolves and bears and Indians, and sudden blizzards weren’t unknown this time of year. At the very least, he said, she should ride a horse or a donkey. But she didn’t have the money for a horse or a donkey. The idea actually made her laugh.


Ruth stayed in the town for a week, taking a room above the tavern to sleep in and helping with the cooking and cleaning in exchange for it. It was a small room with a tiny window, but the window had glass and it opened, so in the mornings the sun shined on where she lay and she listened to birds. The birds were like a restless crowd of people, squawking and murmuring and breaking into song.

She thought perhaps she could stay here, make a life at the Arabia tavern, but she thought of her sister’s husband and the boy, the boy Wheeler, who in her mind now—because she had never seen him or a picture of him—looked like Stout’s son Amon. They needed her. She could cook for them and if they got sick, she could give them her tincture. The man needed a wife; the boy a mother. She could be a mother, of sorts. It made her restless to think of them, the man and the boy, all alone in her sister’s house.

Before the trip she had imagined it would be an adventure. She would see things she had never seen before and have experiences she couldn’t imagine. But in fact the journey was less like an adventure than a terrible illness. Each morning she awoke—in the woods in a shallow bed she dug in the ground and lined with leaves, or, twice, in an abandoned cabin—and felt surprise that she was still alive. Her hair would have frost in it. She was so hungry that she no longer felt it in her stomach, but instead in the skin of her face, its tightness around the eyes. At one of the empty cabins, she noticed a place among the stumps and fallen branches where potato plants had grown. The plants had mostly turned yellow and black over the winter, but when Ruth dug with a stick into the cold soil, she found a dozen small potatoes shaped like fingers—Indian potatoes. She ate them raw and they were almost as good as apples.

When she slept she had strange dreams, and when she was awake she had strange daydreams. She dreamed of the fevercats again, and they pressed themselves against her mouth. She imagined she was a tiny little woman moving across the top of a vast mushroom. Whenever a carriage or wagon trundled by she hid in the woods, partly because she didn’t want to be seen, but also because she could never be sure it was real.

One night she found a dry place to sleep beneath a pine tree, on a thick mat of springy, golden needles. She slept so well that she didn’t dream; it was as if she had sunk deep into the earth and had become a part of it. But she awoke to the feeling of something cold and wet on her face. There was a snuffling sound and a tongue gently tasting her cheek. At first she didn’t open her eyes. She thought, If I am to be eaten, let me not see the face of the creature who will consume me. But the snuffling and the licking went on and on. A terrible smell, like rotting meat and shit, gusted from the unseen mouth. At last she looked and saw a golden snout with ivory teeth and a wide black face. The eyes were small and stupid. She supposed it was a bear. “Go on,” she told it. “You know full well I am poisonous.”


The bear reached a curious paw out
and scratched twice at her blankets.
Then it turned and lumbered off,
clearly having found her as
unpleasant as she found it.

There came a day when she was too dizzy or dreamy to hide from passersby. In late morning two people—a man and a wife, it would seem—who were riding a huge black horse stopped for her. Ruth tried to tell them she was walking to Shadikee. The two of them picked her up somehow—later Ruth couldn’t figure out how such a thing had happened, but she did not remember climbing the horse herself—then the woman jumped on as well. The horse had no saddle, just a blanket. The woman wrapped a rope around Ruth and tied Ruth to her. The man walked along side. In this way they went to Shadikee, just three more miles down the rutted road.

For two days she slept at the house of the man and woman, who were, she discovered, a doctor and a midwife. They knew Jane and her family, but not well. The wife had helped deliver the younger children. They were surprised to hear that they were dead. The doctor thought that the illness that killed them must have been very swift, because he was not called. They hadn’t seen the husband in many months, but the doctor offered to take Ruth to the house when she was ready. In the meantime Ruth rested and ate and offered her pewter mugs in payment for their hospitality. The doctor and his wife refused them. They would not take a bottle of her tincture, either. In turn Ruth refused the ride to her sister’s house and instead set out again on foot, alone.

Jane’s house was an hour’s walk north of Shadikee village. It was a fine day and Ruth felt a certain amount of relief to be walking again, to be leaving the house where she did not feel entirely welcome. She took care to notice each thing she passed: a silvery brook beneath a wooden bridge, a lightning-struck tree, a dead goat crumpled in a ditch. It was the end of her journey and everything could be significant.
The doctor had told her to look for the cabin after a bend in the road, where she would see a zig-zag fence and then a path that led into the trees. She found the fence, which had mostly fallen after the winter and not yet repaired, but it took some time to discern the path, which now appeared to be little more than a deer trail: a narrow passage through fallen branches and brush, dense with the marks of deer hoov
es. She followed it through the uncut trees into a clearing where stood a small but well-made cabin, with smooth white mortar chinking the logs and a chimney made of cobbles.

She hadn’t taken more than a step or two into the clearing when she smelled it—the smell of death. Ruth stood in the clearing a long time, taking in lungfuls of the tainted air. She breathed it in deeply. Was it possible to get used to such a smell, to not smell it after a while, the way you could grow used to the stink of your own unwashed body?

Eventually she wrapped her kerchief around her mouth and nose and went to cabin door. Logs had been rolled up to the door to serve as steps; she saw by the split logs and planks lying around that someone had been getting ready to build something onto the house, probably a porch. She tried the latch but the door was fastened shut—probably held by a heavy bar on the other side.

The back door, to Ruth’s surprise, was not locked at all. But when she pushed the door open, she was immediately thrust back again by the odor of decay. It was such a terrible smell that she thought at first that she would have to burn the house down to get rid of it. How would she get inside, let alone stay inside? She propped the door open with a stick and sat in the sun for a while.

Then she stood back up, put the scarf to her face, and went into the house.

The cabin had only two windows, one at each end of the house, so it was dim and it took a moment to see anything. A table under the far window held a book and a smashed vase. The fireplace overflowed with ashes. In the corner was a bed.

It was an iron bedstead painted white and the bedclothes were in disarray. Was there a shape in it? There was. Ruth tiptoed across the floor, as if not to wake whoever was in the bed, though she knew that the person was not going to wake.

There was still flesh on the skull that lay on the pillow, though not very much. The eyes were holes and the mouth stretched open to reveal a shriveled tongue. The hair was black and filthy, no longer combed smoothly back as her sister had described in her letters. The rest of the body was beneath a quilt. For a moment Ruth considered pulling the quilt over the head, but then she thought there wasn’t much point in that, since she had already seen it and no one else was around. So much for the husband, she thought.
But where was the child?

A steep and narrow set of stairs ran up the wall to a loft beneath the eaves. Ruth climbed them carefully, one hand on the wall to steady herself. In the small attic were three or four small beds on the floor. Children’s clothes and a few rough toys were scattered around. Ruth prodded each bed with her foot, but there was no child in any of them. The attic was empty. Downstairs again, Ruth set about cleaning the place.

The corpse of her brother-in-law needed to be buried, of course, but she wasn’t about to walk into town again in order to find an undertaker or sexton. In the yard she found an axe, a hoe, and a small, rusted trowel, but nothing resembling a shovel. It occurred to her that it would be better to just burn the whole mess. She dragged the bed out to a spot at the edge of the woods and dumped the contents out. As the body fell, tangled in the quilt, pieces of paper—letters—fluttered to the ground. Ruth bent to look at them and saw that they were the letters she had sent to Jane.

Then Ruth gathered some dry twigs and some leaves. These she piled atop the corpse. She piled the letters, too. She found some sulfur matches and a flint in the tinderbox next to the fireplace, but it still took a long time to start anything like a fire. Once it was burning well, she got the bed back into the house and put her own bedclothes on it. Then she slept.

The sound of footsteps woke her. They were light steps, quick, and made a sound like bare feet brushing the plank floor. It was darker than pitch and she couldn’t see what was making the sounds.

“Are you the boy?” she asked into the darkness.

There was no answer but more footsteps, then the sound of the back door creaking shut.

In the morning Ruth knew she had to go into town for food. She could not see how anyone in this house had made a living. There was no barn, no animals, no fields. There was a garden with some rotten squash and a few weird, small onions. On the shelves in the cabin there were some empty jars and tins, but no food, not a crumb, not even tea or salt. If there was a well she couldn’t find it. They must have fetched water from the nearby creek. What had happened? Her sister seemed so happy. Ruth had envied her.

In Shadikee she thought, at first, that she would ask if anyone knew where Jane and the children were buried. Of course, she would not have to ask this if Jane’s husband were alive, so they would learn that he was not. If they knew he was dead, they might not let her stay. They might even kill her to get the cabin. It would be better, she decided, if the people of the town thought she was just a guest and that everything was fine. Perhaps they would leave her alone.

Ruth bought some tea and some cornmeal and some salted pork and a live hen in a basket. These she hauled back up the hill.

With a long stick she went through the woods by the cabin to look for the bodies. After the winter it would be hard to discern disturbances in the ground, but she hoped there would be stones, or crosses, or at the very least a mound. She did not find the bodies but she did find a dress, a summer dress made of striped wool in a color that might have been a pale violet or rose and white. It was soaked from the still-wet earth and flattened and almost lost beneath the leaves. Ruth brought it back to the house and spread it out in the yard. It looked about the size of Jane.

Perhaps it was not strange to find a dress of Jane’s in the woods. Perhaps her husband, deranged with grief, threw it there. But it seemed like a terrible waste.

Instead of sleeping that night, Ruth sat in the dark and waited for the child. She put a plate of food on the back step and left the door propped slightly open. This night there was a bit of a moon and just enough light to see the child’s shape, thin and bent as it snatched the food and shoved it into his mouth.

“Boy,” said Ruth. It slipped away.

When she finally lay down in the bed she couldn’t sleep for a long time. There was something odd about the house. It felt odd. It felt like a being. When she closed her eyes she had a sense of something huge bearing down on her, or hovering over her very close. It was like the bear-thing that tasted her in the wilderness, except when she opened her eyes she couldn’t see what it was. She could only feel it.

Was it the illness? Could an illness live after the people it killed had died?

Ruth felt under her dress and pulled out her bottle of tincture. She drank it all. It was delicious in its bitterness.

In the morning, when there was just a little bit more light, the footsteps came back, slipping and brushing the floor all around the edge of the cabin. Also fingers—the sound of fingers touching wood, tapping it. When the shape passed the far window, Ruth saw that it was a boy, a long-haired boy about ten years old.
She waited for it to come close to her. The fingers brushed the wall, the fireplace, the nearby window. The child was a foot or so from Ruth’s bed when Ruth reached out and grabbed it by the arm. It didn’t yell but it did squirm, but Ruth was stronger.

“Why didn’t you die?” she asked it.

It tried biting Ruth’s arm. She grabbed the hair and pulled its head back.

“Why didn’t it kill you?”

“He couldn’t find me.”



She thrust the child onto the bed and it lay there, quivering.

“I’m a witch, you know,” she said. And then she added, “If you stay here, I’ll give you more food.”

The child did not stay, but it came back, and each time it came back it stayed a little longer. It seemed to like it when Ruth wore Jane’s dress. She’d had to sew up all the holes and gashes but the cloth was still strong.

Over the summer Ruth grew vegetables and bought more hens. The hens lived in the house at night because the creatures that wanted to kill them could take apart any kind of fence or cage. They roosted on the backs of the chairs, leaving streaks of whitish shit all over them. At night they murmured and flapped. In the morning they hopped down one by one, like heavy things knocked to the floor. The child slept near them, on a cloth sack full of leaves. She told the child that it should sleep in the attic where there were beds but it refused to go up there.

“The cats live up there,” the child told her. “The cats that make you sick.”

“I thought so,” said Ruth. “Those are the fevercats. They can make you sick or make you well. I’m afraid they’ve taken possession of this house.”

The child just looked at her.

“Since I’m a witch,” she explained, “they can’t hurt me. I still don’t know why they haven’t killed you.

Maybe you’re a witch, too.”

The child was gone a day or two, and when it returned, it said to Ruth, “If you’re a witch, then bring them back.”


“Them,” said the child, waving his hand around the cabin.

“I can’t bring them back if I don’t know where they are.”

“I know where they are.”

So Ruth followed him.

They went into the woods, following a trail that was clear to Ruth now that she was on it, though she hadn’t found it before. The woods closed in rapidly, and the trees were huge, the branches meeting overhead. The way the light came through the leaves reminded Ruth of a green parasol she’d owned once, the way it gave a sickly, greenish cast to her skin.

The boy galloped down a steep slope to a narrow but fast-running creek. He drank from it, putting his face full in the rushing water, then sat back on his heels, waiting for Ruth as she picked her way more carefully down the slope. She drank, too, then they both followed the creek upstream, walking along the narrow dry space between the water and the mossy, crumbling shale wall of the gorge. Then the boy hopped across the creek and Ruth crossed, too, her boots filling with water and her skirts dragging in the current. It occurred to her that no one could carry a body this far along such a circuitous route. He was not taking her to a graveyard. Then, where?

She followed the boy up a kind of stairway made of roots and rocks, and when she reached flat ground again, found herself in a different kind of woods, this one much darker. These were pine trees, enormously tall, with thickly needled branches that blocked the daylight. Ahead of her, the boy’s narrow back flitted in and out of sight.

And then she stumbled

into a clearing and saw them.

They were just bones now, quite clean bones, still dressed though the clothes were torn and ragged. Each skeleton sat upright against its own tree, except for the baby, which lay on a blanket. Ruth stood frozen for a minute, then walked across the springy carpet of pine needles to the skeleton that must have been Jane. Her hands lay on her skirt, the fingers curled. Only a lock or two of her brown hair was left.

She turned away and counted them. Jane, the baby, two more children and another adult. A man, judging by the clothes. “Who’s that one?” she asked the boy.

“That’s Father,” he said.

So who, she thought, was in the bed?
The boy was anxious, running in circles, touching the top of each skull briefly as he passed them.

“One, two, three, four, five,” he murmured. “You can bring them back, can’t you?”

“Child, what happened here?”

“It was a picnic,” he said.

“A picnic.”

“He had a gun with a stabber on it. I ran away.” Ruth walked from skeleton to skeleton. The thing that was hiding in the tops of the trees sank down upon them.

“We need to leave here,” she said to the boy.

“Bring them back,” he said.

“Not now,” she said. “Come.”

The boy ran ahead so that she could barely keep up. She ran too and branches slapped her face until she bled.

By the time they reached the cabin it was raining. It was a hard rain, a summer afternoon rain, the kind that drenches the green things and cleans out the ditches and fills the earth to brimming. They sat in the doorway and watched the woods blur behind the sheets of rain.

“You killed him,” she said to the boy. “He was asleep and you killed him.”

“I’m going to hell,” the boy said.

“No,” said Ruth. “No, you’re not.”

She stood up and walked into the house. The boy followed her.

“My name is Wheeler,” he said.


Metaphysical Times
"Weird Issue"
Volume XIV number 1
Spring 2019


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