Haunting the Widow

When he doesn’t show up for the noon meal—and he is never late—Esther Bauer pulls on an old pair of boots to go look for her husband. She cooked panhass, a German-Dutch dish that began, weeks before, as a boiled hog’s head. Later, she took the pork scraps and trimmings and combined them with cornmeal and spices, using her meat grinder to turn everything into a mush, which she formed into loaves, covered snugly in plastic wrap and foil, and stuck in the basement freezer.  Last night, she took out the panhass to thaw, and, close to noon today, sliced the loaf and pan-fried the slices until crispy. All this work—his favorite meal, not hers—and she doesn’t want it to go to waste. She trudges around the farm searching for him, starting with the machine shed, where he has been working on a tractor. Finally, she reaches the shed housing the sows and their piglets, where she can see in the attached pigpen several sows huddled in the far end. They are grunting, excited, knocking against one another. The sows surround her husband’s body. They are eating him.

She screams, grabs a nearby shovel, and swings at the pigs wildly. They protest, squealing and grunting, reluctantly moving away from his body. She grabs his feet and, with a strength that she didn’t know she possessed, drags his body to the gate, pulls his body through, then shuts the gate.

Most of the right side of his face is gone. Desperately, she feels his wrist for a pulse. Nothing. She unzips his coveralls partway, rips open his shirt, and bends over his chest to listen to his heart. Again, nothing. She dares to look at his face again, pictures the panhass when she poured it into the pan, then crawls a little ways away and throws up.

She stands, sways for only a moment, and runs to the house to call the doctor. Because they’re on a party line, within minutes, neighbors arrive, long before the doctor, two neighbors he hated and who hated him right back. They examine him briefly, their expressions as objective as those of scientists.

“Can’t do a thing, he’s dead,” Davey Schrank declares with satisfaction.

The doctor tells her that her husband experienced a massive heart attack—that he didn’t suffer—meaning, he was dead when the pigs decided to make a meal of him. Undoubtedly, the doctor says it as a kindness, true or not.

Feeling numb, Esther finds herself planning a funeral, although she doesn’t go through it alone. Her grown son and daughter and her mother-in-law, also a widow, help her make decisions about a time and day for the funeral, what he should wear, and whether the casket should be open or closed (“Definitely closed,” says the mortician, who adds, “I can’t create miracles”). Neighbors who hated her husband but like her drop off casseroles and desserts, their names written on the sides of the dishes.  Her children return the dishes for her, with the thank-you notes she has written. This way, she can avoid the morbid questions about the way he died.

Then, she sets to work changing the life she has lived for thirty years. She will not farm. Her son, Jim, who stays on for a few weeks after the funeral, agrees that this is best. On the advice of a local banker, she rents most of the land to other farmers and hires a farmhand to take care of everything else. She is astonished at the huge sums of money that have to be shifted around. Even though she will eventually make a decent living this way, things will be tight for a while.

Then, it’s time for Jim to return to Chicago. The morning that he leaves, the cushion of safety that she has felt in the house because of Jim’s gentle, protective presence grows thin. Esther gets busy. With the TV on for background noise, she dusts, vacuums, and washes clothes. Before her daughter, Maggie, returned to her teaching job in western Nebraska, she kindly washed all of her father’s dirty clothes—which stank of pig manure and pesticides—but when Esther pulls her own clothes out of the dryer that morning, she finds a pair of his underwear, once white and now a dingy grey. She always folded his clothes and left them on top of the dryer, intending to take them upstairs later to put away, but, inevitably, he got to them first, grabbing his clothes right off the dryer and dressing in the entry way. Sighing, she folds the underwear and leaves them on top of the dryer.

She scurries down to the basement, turns on the radio, and gets out her paint supplies to return to working on a painting that she started a month ago. She is painting in oils, even though they might give her a migraine later. One sometimes has to make sacrifices for art. She loves the richness of an oil painting, its depth. Although she hasn’t given away any of her artwork, it might be time. Her husband is no longer here to object to her giving her artwork away, to spending money on art supplies, to having a hobby that has nothing to do with being a farm wife. He allowed it, grudgingly, after the children grew up and moved away, but he resented, despite their growing income, every penny spent, until she calmly pulled out a phone bill and identified all his late-night calls to a woman who lived in Onawa. After a lot of blustering and sulking, he stopped saying anything about her painting.

The natural light is fading, the darkness of late autumn taking over. She turns off the radio, cleans her paintbrushes, puts everything away, and goes upstairs to fix a baloney sandwich. Then, knowing she still has work to do, she runs up to the second floor.

She opens the linen closet and pulls out a new set of bed sheets she purchased on sale a few months back. She replaces the sheets in their bedroom, throwing out the old ones, never once feeling guilt at the wastefulness. On top of the sheets, she lays the old-fashioned 5-ring quilt her grandmother made, that he would not allow on the bed, saying it smelled like an old woman. She then removes his things from the room: a pile of farming magazines, a chipped bowl in which he dropped his keys, wallet, and coins from his pockets, sometimes a screw from a piece of machinery.

The alarm clock woke him when he didn’t wake on his own, which was almost never. He’d often wake at two or three a.m., grumbling about the pigs, how he’d better take care of that sow, that fucking sow—before she rolled over on her piglets or ate them—or whatever it was that was plaguing him—the cattle, the corn, the soybeans, the machinery. He’d get up, loud and swearing, his voice echoing all over the house. He’d be angry that she didn’t fret as he did, that she didn’t do the work alongside him as his mother had done with his father. The children were so used to his angry grumblings that they slept through it. Not so, her. She’d get up with him to make him coffee, even breakfast—his favorite, scrambled eggs and ham, with strong, black coffee—anything to make it seem as if she were doing her part. Occasionally, she went outside with him—but the terrible allergies and headaches she suffered would make dealing with the animals, the dust, and the pesticides a torment, would often incapacitate her with a migraine headache for hours afterward. Her headaches angered him, too. Why he had to have a wife like her—she was useless!—she might as well be a town wife, he sneered. The meals she cooked, the clothes washing, cleaning, sewing, caring for their children—all of that was useless compared to what he did. So, of course, whenever he needed her to pick up a piece of equipment or supplies, she dropped whatever she was doing and drove to town or up to Sioux City to get what he needed. It was the least she could do.

Occasionally, she’d have to stop him from doing something . . . bad. He was constantly at war with neighbors over fences, animals, this or that, sometimes threatening to sue them. No neighbor liked him, except for Old Jason Uhl, who lived by himself and welcomed the younger farmer’s help. Naturally, her husband never helped anyone without a motive. He was eying Old Jason’s farmland, intending to buy it from him eventually. But he hated the rest of his neighbors and criticized how they ran their farms, with Esther saying nothing. The day, however, that he talked about filling a syringe with his own piss and injecting it into his neighbor’s watermelons, Esther got in his way, saying firmly, “You cannot do that.” When she got like this, he backed down.

For the first time since his death, she dares to look at their wedding picture on the wall, taken several months after their shotgun wedding, after their son was born. Her mother insisted on this “wedding” photograph and even paid for the photographer. Esther borrowed a wedding dress from a cousin, although he purchased a suit, the same suit he was buried in. She looks pretty, if a little tired; she had been up the night before with their colicky baby son. Her husband wears a big, fake smile. In this moment, it seems as if he is looking right at her. Staring back, daring him to speak, she says, “I’m done with you.”

She changes into a warm flannel nightgown and thick socks, as the only heat is on first floor. She kneels on the rug by the bed and prays a quick prayer. Then, she lies down in her marriage bed. The yard light cast odd shadows in the room, but she is used to that. Closing her eyes, she falls asleep immediately.

In her dream, she is making an apple pie, starting with the crust. It is one thing she and her husband can agree on: apple is the best. But she can’t seem to move fast enough, peeling and slicing the apples with agonizing slowness. He is going to be mad if this pie isn’t ready soon. Suddenly, the buzzer on the stove goes off, telling her that the pie is done. She freezes, knife still in hand over the unfinished pie.

She awakes, groaning, to the alarm clock buzzing. Criminy, can’t he turn it off? Then, she really wakes and sits up. Fumbling, she turns on the bedside lamp. Sure enough, her husband’s alarm clock is buzzing; she flips the switch to turn it off. Hadn’t she put the clock away? She must have forgotten, and not only that, she must have accidentally turned it on.

As luck would have it, now she has to pee. She gets up, puts on slippers, and pads down the stairs, clinging to the wall. How many years, afraid of the children falling, had she begged him to put in an arm rail? First thing, she is going to have a handyman do that so she doesn’t have to fear for her life every time she takes the stairs.

After visiting the bathroom, she goes to the kitchen for a drink of water. She pauses, looking at the dryer, its top surface white and smooth. Why does that strike her as odd? Then, she sucks in her breath, reviewing her day quickly. She left his underwear there, on top of the dryer, and now they are gone. They haven’t fallen on the floor either.

It’s only a pair of underwear. Even so, she finds herself grabbing a coat from the closet, putting on boots, snatching up keys, getting in the car, and driving down the gravel road. She doesn’t know where she is headed, just away from the house, from him. It is only when she stops outside the town of Schleswig that she realizes she is wearing her husband’s good coat, the one that does not reek of manure but still smells like his sour sweat. Despite the cold, she jerks off the coat and, opening the car door, throws it into the ditch. She takes several calming breaths.

She grabs a blanket from the trunk and gets in the back seat, wrapping the blanket around her. She is still cold but so tired that she falls asleep. Only when a persistent knocking stirs her does she snap awake, her eyes staring at the back of the seat and then shifting to the car door window, where a man peers in at her. She sits up quickly, not taking her eyes off him, but no longer panicking. It is Schleswig’s night watchman, Frank Schreiber, his red beard visible even in the weak, early-morning light.

She opens the car door and gets out, using the blanket still wrapped around her to cover her pajamas. “Good morning, Mr. Schreiber,” she says cautiously.

“Good morning—Mrs. Bauer, isn’t it?” He stars at her, blue eyes sincere with concern. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” She tries to laugh, but it comes out only as a choked sound. “I got a little spooked in the house by myself. Decided to go for a drive, pulled over when I got too tired.”

“I see.” He pauses, searching for words. “Sorry about your husband—I was out of town, so I didn’t learn about it until I caught up on the obits in the paper.”

She nods, not wanting to stay on that topic. “Yes—well—I should probably get home. I’m sorry if I alarmed you.” She pulls her keys from a pocket in her flannel gown.

“No worries,” he says, clearly relieved. “You take care of yourself, Mrs. B.”

“I’ll do that.” She gets in her car, starts it, and drives away slowly, smiling apologetically at him—just the right kind of smile for this awkward situation—so that he can be reassured. Even so, she knows the tale of her sleeping in her car will spread.

When she pulls into the driveway, she sits there for several minutes, studying the house. She will not let him defeat her.

Determinedly, she gets out of the car and goes inside. She walks around with a large garbage sack, grabbing items that he claimed as his, and throwing them into the sack. Finally, she makes her way to the bedroom. Wasting no time, she grabs the alarm clock from the bedside table, takes it downstairs to the basement, and smashes it with a hammer. She adds the pieces to the garbage bag and heads outside to the metal trash can near the end of their lane. She throws the bag in and sets it on fire. Folding her arms around herself, she smiles grimly. Fire is purifying.

She spends the rest of the day cleaning and moving furniture around. The house feels different, more hers now.

As she works, the phone calls come, first, her daughter, Maggie, who has heard from an old friend in Schleswig. “Mom, why were you sleeping in your car? People are talking.”

“I’m sure they are,” she says calmly. “I couldn’t sleep and went for a drive. When I got tired, I pulled over to take a little nap.” She doggedly repeats this story, call after call, until all of the locals, including the neighbors listening on the party line, are reassured. But, then, her mother-in-law calls.

“You couldn’t sleep?” her mother-in-law asks. Under the top layer of words, her mother-in-law is asking something else.

“Couldn’t sleep,” Esther echoes stubbornly.

An awkward silence falls, but then her mother-in-law changes the subject, to talk about the yarn colors she has chosen for a sweater she is knitting.

When she goes upstairs that night, Esther rejects the marriage bedroom and walks across the hall to Maggie’s room instead. The room is filled with bright pink and white décor, silly posters, and her daughter’s single-size bed. She takes the plastic dust cover off the bed, adds a warm blanket, and settles down under the covers, sighing. Closing her eyes, she drifts off.

She dreams of her mother. They are alone together in a forest, in the middle of a clearing. Her mother’s face is as young as hers. They rise in the air as naturally as if they are walking. Hovering in the air, they break off dead branches from the overhanging trees. It feels so satisfying to do this that she exclaims, “I must do this at home!” Her mother nods approvingly. They continue to break off branches until she notices the sunlight coming through. Looking down, she can see the contrast of the sheer sunbeams gleaming in the forest darkness. She is doing that, bringing that lovely light and warmth. Then, abruptly, she is alone, again on the ground floor of the forest. “Mom?” she says, but no one answers. She looks up and sees that night is coming on, the light fading, the air growing chillier. She wants to leave, but her feet won’t move. She reminds herself that Jesus liked the night; he prayed at night. She clasps her hands to pray but feels the cold creep up her arms, like icy tree vines, and so she wraps her arms around herself instead.

Then, the scene changes, and she is no longer in the forest.

A guest is staying in her house, in her old bedroom, a distant male cousin she’d had a crush on as a child, whom she’d only seen at family reunions. She is glad, then, that she has put on clean bedding, but she worries that perhaps she doesn’t have the makings for breakfast, as she should undoubtedly cook his favorite, scrambled eggs and ham, as well as coffee, strong and black, the way he likes it. Confused, she feels something intruding on the edge of her mind. She opens her eyes, surprised to find herself lying in her daughter’s bed. She frowns, her mind cloudy still, thinking about her guest. She hears him walking about in her old bedroom. He has a distinctive walk, a little heavy, angry, oddly familiar given that she hasn’t seen him in years. It sounds as if he is banging things about. Her mind races, as she wonders if she has done something to anger him. Maybe, the cold. She should have explained that they don’t have heat on the second floor.

She can, in fact, see her breath. Really, it’s much colder than usual. She sits up. She hears him tromp across the bedroom floor. Her breath hitches, as she tries to make sense of what she is hearing, the dream fully disconnected now, the dream guest gone, the world she knows now her daughter’s room and her old marriage room across the hall.

He shouts, but she can’t understand his words, only that they’re angry and loud. Her hand shaking, she pushes the button to turn on the light.  The light is not strong, making everything soft and shadowy. His shouts are thick vibrations in the cold air. What’s he saying? Fucking sow! Fucking sow!

She swings her legs out of the bed and stands, her feet icy in spite of her socks. Staring across the hall into her old bedroom, she sees nothing but the yard light shining through the window. She steps into the hallway and breathes in the shocking stench of pig manure, as strong as it was when her husband used to come into the house after working with the pigs. No, her mind rebels, that’s not possible. She cleaned and cleaned. How can the hall smell of manure?

Bracing herself, she walks across the hall to the doorway of the bedroom that she’d shared with him. Her fingers explore the wall until she finds the light switch and pushes the button. A dim light fills the room. Everything is completely silent now.

She stands in the doorway, studying the room. The wedding portrait on the wall is hanging at a crazy angle. She gasps, trying to make sense of it. Maybe, she bumped the painting when cleaning.  And the shouting—that could just be a vivid dream, from which she was slow to awaken. That could be. She is still clinging to these rationalizations when she looks closely at the bed. Her grandmother’s quilt is lying in a heap on the floor. She sees in the bed, a faint indentation, the outline of a body.

She backs out into the hallway, her hands trembling, her breaths puffing like tiny ghosts. In her haste to get downstairs, she trips and slides on the narrow steps, scraping the fingers of her right hand on the rough surface of the rail-less wall. She lands hard on her rump on the next-to-last step.

It could have been worse.  She doesn’t seem to be seriously hurt, although she’s going to have a sore bottom tomorrow. She rotates her right hand to study it. A few scrapes, is all. Standing up slowly, she feels achy and odd, as if all her bones have been shaken loose.

She doesn’t see the point of going back to bed. She doesn’t see the point of driving away in her car again either. Eventually, she’d have to come back. She heads to the kitchen to make a cup of tea—and, after bringing up paint supplies from the basement, works on a painting in the kitchen, the warmest room in the house. Deliberately, she paints a peaceful pastoral scene, hills, trees, soft sunlight, a cottage—nothing so different from what one might find in a department store when looking for art to match the décor. Generic, pleasant, nothing to disturb. She concentrates on the cottage, adding details—a quaint stone walk, a garden with bright flowers, smoke drifting from the chimney, a light in the window. Someone lives there, although she can’t quite picture who it might be. As she moves the brush across the canvas, tears blur her vision, but she fights them back, focusing fiercely on her fairytale cottage.

This is where her mother-in-law finds her at seven that morning, sitting next to the painting on the easel, her head on the kitchen table, asleep. After waking her, Opal makes Esther another cup of tea, and makes herself coffee. They sit together at the table in silence, sipping their drinks. The morning sun grows stronger, brightening the stand mixer and the sugar and flour canisters on the counter.

Finally, Opal lifts her dark eyes from her coffee and looks at her daughter-in-law.  “Esther, are you still not sleeping?”

Esther shakes her head, gesturing to the painting. “At least I’m being productive.”

They both smile. “It’s lovely,” Opal said. “Those are tulips, yes?”

Esther nods. “Like your garden. You can have this painting.”

After a few minutes of polite resistance to accepting the painting because it seems such a generous gift, her mother-in-law concedes. “Thank you. It will look good in my sewing room.”

Esther thinks ahead to what final touches she might make to the painting. She likes her mother-in-law and thinks of her as a fellow soldier in a long war with no winners. They both married young, and now are widows together.

Opal looks around the kitchen. “How many years ago I lived here. Remember when the kitchen door was over there?”

Esther nods. Remodeling the kitchen allowed them to put a full-size washer and dryer in the room. Opal had only ever had an old-fashioned wringer-style washing machine out on the enclosed porch and had hung up clothes to dry.

Opal says slowly, “In those years, when we went to town for groceries, even when I was worn-out from having babies—he would not let me go into the store. I would have to wait out in the car while he got the groceries because he didn’t want anyone to see me.“

Esther shakes her head. “That must have been inconvenient, not being able to pick out the groceries you needed.”

Opal smiles bitterly. “Or knowing that you couldn’t get sanitary napkins because he wouldn’t buy them. I just had to keep using rags.”

Esther doesn’t know what to say to that.

“Have I ever told you about my teeth?”

Esther shakes her head mutely, tightening her grip on her mug.

“He had to get false teeth, and he hated the fact that I didn’t need them,” her mother-in-law says. “My own teeth were perfectly fine, not a cavity, nothing. So he looked for a dentist who would yank out my teeth and replace them with false teeth. Dentist after dentist told him, no, they wouldn’t do it. I thought I was going to get to keep my teeth. Then, he found one over in Waverly that would do it . . . for a lot of money.”

Self-consciously, she puts her hand over her mouth. She sighs, reaches into her purse, pulls out her checkbook, and writes a check, signing her name with a flourish. “I know you don’t have much cash right now,” she says. “Here’s something to help you move. You need to get out of this house, get a fresh start.”

Esther stares at the check. “Do you think he will leave me alone then?”

Her mother-in-law shrugs. “When I was pregnant—maybe, eight months—with my last baby, and he wasn’t having anything to do with me then—for which I was grateful—I went out to gather the eggs and found him there, in the hen house, doing his business.” She adds, “He was small enough that this was possible. You don’t forget things like that. Those things haunt you.“

Esther doesn’t know what to say. Her mother-in-law has never talked so openly. It seems that her son’s death unlocked the door to talking about her husband.

Upstairs, something creaks. The house settling, perhaps. They both look at the ceiling, then at each other. Esther swallows. “I want to do that. I want—“ she manages—“to get away from here for good.”

“You should leave today,” her mother-in-law says. “We’ll get what you need and come back for the rest another day. We’ll ask neighbors to help.”

Upstairs, something screams.

The scream brings to mind the time their cats started disappearing from the yard, fewer and fewer of them running to her when she fed them left-overs, and then the night she had stepped out on the front porch with a plate of left-over stew and a mountain lion screamed, like nothing she’d ever heard before. The scream had come from under the porch, swallowing her ears and her heart. The scream from upstairs is like that: loud, angry, inhuman.

She looks at her mother-in-law, who sits frozen, a cup of coffee raised halfway to her lips. Abruptly, Opal sets the cup down. “This is my fault.“

“No,” Esther says gently. “It isn’t your fault.”

The old woman stands. “I’m going to fix this.”

“No, there’s no fixing—“ Esther pauses, glancing at the ceiling. A banging sound has started upstairs, loud and regular.

Opal walks toward the foot of the stairs. Esther gets up and follows. She stands beside her mother-in-law, looking up the long, narrow stairway.

“How many years,” the old woman says, “I walked up these stairs, dreading the moment I must lie down in that bed—and he would roll over and get on top of me. Grunting, like I was a sow to breed.”

She puts her foot on the first step, and her wrinkled hand slides on the wall.

Esther catches Opal before she can fall. “That’s not him,” she says gently.

Opal searches her daughter-in-law’s eyes. “I put you in this situation.”

“No, you didn’t.” Esther takes a deep breath. “I know what to do.”

She returns to the kitchen to grab her paint carousel and a couple of her biggest  brushes. Opal watches, eyebrows furrowed.

Esther returns to the bottom of the stairs. “Stay here.”

As she mounts the stairs, the loud banging stops. She hesitates but keeps going. The air grows colder, draftier. She reaches the top stair and moves into the hall, then turns to stand in the doorway of the bedroom. He is there, in the photograph on the wall, his hand like a vise on the sleeve of her wedding dress.

Quickly, she spreads white paint over his side of the photograph, paint that will stick to the photo’s slick surface. It is a relief to cover his suit, the jack o’ lantern grin and beady eyes, his hand on her arm. The air grows warmer, but she still feels a clinging presence. She stares at the photograph, studying her own, seventeen-year-old face and the wedding dress. Then, she begins painting over her old self. She saves the sad, storytelling eyes for last. When the paint dries, she will eventually paint something else on the surface, maybe a portrait of a woman in her forties, who is free.

She still feels a muted presence, but it’s weak, manageable. She grabs the paint carousel and brushes and leaves the room to return to her mother-in-law.

“I don’t need to go,” she reassures Opal. “He’s gone, more or less.”

After Opal leaves, Esther cleans up her brushes and puts away her paint things. She fixes herself a boiled egg and toast with tea. She finishes her meal, grabs a broom and sweeps up.

Afterwards, she leans on the broom, looking around. For the first time since his death, she feels lonely. Loneliness is clean, she thought, no haunting to stain it. She can find a way to live with that.

Photography Credit: Jason Rice

Michelle Rogge Gannon runs the writing center and teaches courses in English at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. She grew up in a small Iowa town and later spent several years in Minneapolis, always hoping for a glimpse of the elusive Prince. She loves reading and writing fiction.