I apologize for the length of this account – I have tried to preserve the sense of my memory as well as present the factual details as sparingly as possible without destroying their effect.
In editing, I’ve gone through and omitted from this story all the names of localities for the sake of not embarrassing small communities by re-associating them with painful events from their past. To give you some sense of the geography where they occurred, the events described below took place in a rural community between Lima, Ohio, and Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Growing up as I did in a cozy college town in central Ohio, my childhood visits to my grandmother’s home in the country were always a mixed blessing for me. She lived in a small, one-story home along a country road nestled amongst the farms of western Ohio. While I loved visiting my grandmother, the openness of the country and its seemingly endless fields had a way of making me feel isolated, especially in the autumn months. During the summer, the tall, fern-green stalks of corn and the steamy soil gave the area an inviting vibrancy that helped fill this emptiness. The fall was much bleaker. Once the crops were harvested and the leaves had fallen off of the trees, the region took on an air of rot. That the remnants of the harvested stalks would dry and fade to the point where they finally resembled bleached bones did little to dispel this.
One October, I headed up with my mom and dad for a visit. Of course, as someone who’s always had an over-active imagination, the fact that the trip to her house was intermittently dotted with abandoned cemeteries did nothing to help my uneasiness. Apparently family plots, they would consist of a handful of sandstone grave markers eroding like wet sugar cubes into the tangled grass. There was also the occasional ruined church amongst the stones. Unfortunately for me, besides these sightings and the unending farmland, there wasn’t much to break up the drive – reading in the car has always made me sick. Naturally, I was relieved when I felt the tires shift onto the rumbling gravel that covered my grandma’s driveway.
After stretching my legs from the trip I walked over to give my grandmother – a short, blue-haired woman of about 70 at the time – a hug. We followed her into the house for dinner. My grandmother was an amazing cook and I always made sure my mom got her recipes (that WWII generation really knew how to throw a stick of butter into mash potatoes in a way that would blow your mind). There wasn’t much to do at her house after dinner, so I volunteered to burn her trash. Now solidly in my tweens, I could be trusted with such responsibilities and took full advantage, since, like most boys that age, I fancied myself a bit of a pyro-expert.
As I dragged the bag of garbage out of the house, I noticed that it was already getting dark and gray flannel clouds had silently filled the sky. Having visited the area enough to know that rain was probably coming soon, I hurriedly dragged the bag to the metal drum my grandma used for burning trash and lawn waste. It was at the back corner of the lot, where the edges of her grass, faded and gloomy with the fall, met the ragged dirt of the fields. I threw the bag in and lit it in a few places. I watched it for a while before the rain began to come down sprinkling. Deciding that the rain would be enough to keep the fire from spreading out of control, I went inside to the sound of rumbling thunder in the distance.
Knowing that it was getting late, I began to get anxious with the thought of going to bed. I never slept well at my grandma’s. As I said, I had an active imagination and even in my secure, suburban bedroom on the second floor of our home, I’d frequently had nightmares about what could be outside my home while I was in bed. My grandmother’s entire home was a single story. What was worse was that I usually slept in the ‘breezeway,’ which I later discerned wasn’t strictly a breezeway, but was more of a living room space between the garage and the house. It separated from the house where my parents and grandmother step by a short flight of stairs and a door. There were three other doors, one leading to the garage one to the front door, and another leading to the back lawns. The room also had windows on every side except where it bordered the garage. Other than the couch I slept on and a sink, there was nothing else in the room. I always felt very alone and isolated sleeping in there.
I laid in bed for a couple of hours and listened to it rain outside. After a while, I heard a train rumble by on the track across the street from the front lawn. I got off the couch and walked over to the window to watch it go by. The rattling single-pane windows were flimsy – like there was nothing separating you from the night. After the last car disappeared, I stood there looking out the window for a bit. At this point it dawned on me that the rain had stopped. I was somewhat upset with myself, since I had missed my best chance of having that soothing sound lull me to sleep. However, I could still hear the rumbles and flashes of a storm and hoped that it was another one moving in and not just the last one growing more distant. As my eyes continued to adjust, I noticed something flicker in the grass at the right side of my vision. Clearly, the fire hadn’t gone out in the back of the lawn and I went to the rear breezeway window to check on it.
Looking through the back window, it quickly became apparent that there had been more unburnt refuse in the drum than I had thought, and the glow of the fire was casting spots of faint orange light along the lawn and fields. The light was reaching far into the night in that flat, dark country, and I noted with some dismay that the storm appeared to be moving south. As I watched the faint flashes of lightning exploding on the horizon, my eyes shifted back to the fields behind my grandmother’s house. There was something moving on the edge of the light. My eyes were fairly well adjusted to the night at this point and I gradually made it out: it was the form of a woman dancing in the field. Her movements weren’t frantic – they were closer to the way a ballerina moves: slowly dipping the torso, lifting the leg gracefully, bowing the arms over her head, and so on. I stood there, petrified in silence. Her mere presence and peculiar movement would have been enough to frighten me. However, a distant flash of lightning consumed the entire field in a moment of pale white light, revealing that she was also completely naked.
My hands gripped the windowsill. She slowly danced along the edges of the fire’s orange light, never stepping more than a foot or an arm directly into it. It made me even more uncomfortable when I noticed that she was facing the house and appeared to be closer than she was when I’d first seen her. There had only been the one lightning flash to illuminate the entire field, so it was difficult to tell at first, but as she drew nearer to the window from which I was watching, I saw that her skin was incredibly wrinkled. Despite the grace and effortlessness of her movements, her skin appeared to be ancient as it sagged off of her limbs. Gradually, she quit edging around the borders of the light and reversed her dance movements back into the darkness. I pulled myself away from the window and buried my face in the couch. I spent the rest of the night trying to convince myself that it was a trick of shadows.
I didn’t get a wink of sleep that night and crashed around 6 or 7 am when the sun came up. Even though I hadn’t called for them the night before, my family knew how hard it was for me to sleep at my grandmother’s and let me sleep in for a while. I was eventually woken up by my father, who informed me that my grandma’s ladder was broken and we would need to go borrow one from my uncle Harley (who was actually my great uncle, though I never referred to him as such). I smiled and rolled off the couch. I always enjoyed seeing my uncle Harley and was quick to get ready to go despite my lack of sleep.
I recall being quiet on the ride over to Harley’s farm. Looking out onto the fields, I realized even if footprints had been left by the woman in the wet dirt, they would be nearly impossible to find in such a large field with so much debris left over from the harvest. Undecided as to whether that made me feel better or worse, I continued to watch the ruins of the cornstalks fly by along the roadside until the buildings of my uncle’s farm began to come into view.
My uncle Harley was a pig farmer and to this day it makes me smile when people invoke the profession derisively. My uncle was a successful businessman and farmer, owning a large factory-style farm. Though he didn’t do any of the processing on site, he did own several large feed silos next to the long, metal barns which held the pig pens. My uncle was a self-made man and veteran of both WWII and Korea, and reminded me a bit of Clint Eastwood. The man was tall and powerful, even in his advanced age. And despite his stoic demeanor, he had surprisingly sharp sense of humor. I could see him waving to us as we turned into his driveway.
As I got out of the car, I noticed how strong the stench of the pigs was. It was a smell I was used to, and the surrounding area fairly permeated of it, along with the other scents that colored the air in farm country. I actually grew to be somewhat fond of the smell from a distance, as weird as that sounds, but it was overpowering up close. I flashed my uncle a smile but covered my nose with my shirt as soon as he and my dad turned away from me towards the work shed where my uncle kept his ladders.
I went over to a tire swing hanging from a tree on the opposite side of his house and, more importantly, upwind of the barns. When my uncle came back around the house with my dad carrying the ladder under one arm, I was standing on the swing, with one foot in the tire and my hands grasping the rope connecting it to the tree. “You keep swinging around like that, you’re just going to stir up the smell,” he yelled to me as I hopped off the swing. I was mildly embarrassed that he had keyed in on my distaste for the smell, but felt better when he conceded that the rain had made it worse than usual.
We stayed a bit after picking up the ladder, but my dad wanted to get back to my grandma’s before dark. We were only going to be there for the weekend and he wanted to make sure we finished the work. When we got back, my dad had me hold the ladder as he scooped brown muck out of the gutter. I was so lost in thought looking out into the fields that I nearly dropped the ladder after a piece of the muck falling shocked me back to reality. I was only able to offer a feeble apology afterward as my mind was still on the previous night and the faded orange on the horizon that indicated that night was coming.
Not wanting to give my parents a reason to doubt my maturity (or sanity), I didn’t tell them about the night before. The reward for my bravery was another night in the breezeway. Unlike the night before, this one was completely cloudless, with a bright moon casting pale rays through the windows. I didn’t figure I was in for much sleep and just laid on my back in the couch, staring at the ceiling. I could hardly believe it when I heard the grandfather clock’s ‘Westminster Chimes’ from across the house, followed by the bells denoting the hour. How clearly those low tones made their way through the air made me realize how silent the night had been and let me know that it was already two in the morning. The drowsy formation of this thought was shattered by another sound, a faint sound: rustling from outside.
The noise sent a chill down my spine and I immediately snapped up to see that the window over the sink was cracked open. My mom or grandma must’ve opened it for ventilation during the day. Doing my best not to look out the window and to stay beneath the window-line above which someone could see me, I rolled off the couch and hugged closely the sink. As my fingers crept up the wall, over the sill, and onto the window, I heard another rustle, louder, from the back yard. Out of my peripheral vision I saw movement and felt a tear of frustration and fear trace down my cheek. I pulled the window shut and, as I did so, looked out the window to my left into the back yard. The woman was there, standing not 15 feet from the house and staring at me through the window.
I was frozen, partly out of fear and partly out of a hope she didn’t see me. After all, I was closing a window on nearly the opposite side of the room in the dead of night. Her body was facing away from me, and the skin on her back was hanging like melted wax. Her head was turned looking over her left shoulder to face the house, to face me. Her arms were spread out at away from her body, and her palms were aimed in my direction. With the same grace that she had displayed the night before, she pivoted her body on one foot, turning to face the rear window. She slowly moved towards the house, her movements illuminated the moonlight. It was then that I realized yet another horrible thing about this woman: her skin wasn’t just baggy – it was jointed. She looked like a ragdoll that had been sewn together. It seemed like it was being held together from shedding in sections. The moon cast shadows over eye sockets which didn’t quiet seem to fit her face. As she crept closer, I noticed her lips looked thin and cracked and her breasts were dry and shriveled. Slowly she placed her hands on the frame of the window and I made out the glint of two eyes in the shadows of those ill-shaped sockets. They were peering right at me, with an intensity that cut right through the space between us.
The shock of her looking into the house was enough to turn the squeaks caught in my throat into screams. I flopped onto the floor and scrambled backwards against the front door. I could hear my parents stirring in the house and as their footsteps approached, the woman tilted her head back. Her face appeared to stretch into a howl, but it didn’t seem like she could move her lips very far apart. I couldn’t hear if she made a sound. She pirouetted and disappeared back into the night. I threw up into my lap as my parents came into the room.
The next morning, my parents didn’t prod me to talk about what I had seen the night before. I’d explained it to them in jabbering fashion the night before, after all. Eventually, I’d fallen asleep with my mom sitting up next to me. I had had a handful of night terrors when I was younger and my parents chalked up my experience to that category. I said nothing to dispute this. Even though I didn’t believe it, I hoped that I really had had a night terror and that maybe that would explain what I had seen.
My dad offered to let me stay at my grandmother’s as he returned the ladder he had borrowed from my uncle. Because I didn’t want my family to worry about my state, I insisted on accompanying him. Besides, I figured getting out would help calm me down. However, as we drove, I imagined her behind every tree we passed, lurking in every drainage ditch. For the most part, I just laid back with my seat reclined staring into nothing until we got to the farm.
By the time we got there, I was feeling a bit better. Still, I decided to stay in the car as my dad went with my uncle to return the ladder to its shed – I didn’t need the smell of those pigs upsetting my stomach further. As I was trying to put my thoughts elsewhere, I glanced into the rearview mirror and saw another vehicle coming down the driveway. It was a pickup. It pulled passed me towards the barn. As my uncle and dad came around the house, the truck stopped and the driver got out. I was relieved that my uncle didn’t appear concerned, but he did have a stern look on his face. He made a couple of steps towards the pickup and pointed the driver to the barn. The driver then walked over the barn, slid the door to the side, and picked up the leash to a pig that had been tied to one of the pens.
As he led the pig towards the pickup, my uncle and father kept walking towards the car. I opened the door to say hi.
“That’s Teddy,” my uncle said. “He has a small farm, maybe a dozen pigs. Usually, don’t sell single hogs and sows. Started doing it a while ago to help him get started and now it seems like he’s coming by once every few weeks.”
“What’s his problem?” my dad asked.
My uncle laughed: “With the pigs or with everything else? Not sure, in any case. He eats some, tries to breed others, I suppose. I don’t talk with him much, just sell him a pig every now and then. He says he butchers his own meat.”
My dad looked over in the man’s direction: “Is he trying to be self-sufficient?”
“I guess. I try not to talk to him too much. GODDAMNIT, TED!”
I looked away from my uncle and dad to see the man opening the hog’s throat with a long knife. He had his arm around its side as its legs kicked around like it was being electrocuted. I couldn’t believe how much blood spilled out of its neck and onto the ground.
“Didn’t I tell you not to do that here?!”
The man smiled weirdly at my uncle, and then slung the pig’s limp body into the bed of the truck. It was amazing how effortlessly he did it – the hog must’ve weighed a few hundred pounds. He pulled a tarp over the body before he closed the tailgate. The man turned and got into the driver-side of the car. Blood was dripping onto the ground from under the tailgate.
My uncle sighed and looked at the ground, visibly pissed: “He doesn’t have a proper trailer to move them around so sometimes he does that here to make it easier.” Smiling up at me he added: “Or sometimes he hogties them!”
I laughed. Even though it wasn’t a great joke (or even a joke at all, really, since I’m sure that’s exactly what he did), the way my uncle said it put a smile on my face. He pinched the bridge of his nose as the pickup drove by and waved with his other hand without looking at the man. The man barely looked at us, but I caught a glimpse of his eyes that made me shiver.
We left for home fairly soon after getting back to my grandmother’s, which was fine with me. I loved her, but I was ready to get out of there. I slept the whole ride home, and tried to put the whole experience out of mind as best as I could.
For years after that, I visited my grandma’s without incident. On one particular visit, I picked up the local paper while I was in town. On the front page was the face of the man I had seen at the farm that day – Teddy. The memory of that story and the realization that came with it chills me even now as I recollect it.
The man, who was apparently named Teddy Warden, had been in a car accident in his pickup. He was speeding through a stop sign on a country road in the early morning when a semi crushed in the passenger side of his truck. The pickup was sent spinning across the intersection and flipped into a drainage ditch. By the time the driver of the semi got out to check on the other vehicle, Warden had already crawled out of the cab and was tearing across the field. Perplexed, the driver continued towards the flipped pickup, then fled back to his semi to call for help. The tarp was draped out of the bed of the pickup, fully uncovering its spilled contents: corpses and parts of corpses were scattered into the mud.
Later that day, the sheriff’s office (with backup from a larger, nearby city’s police department) showed up at the man’s house. They reported an overpowering stench from outside the building. Opening the garage, they found the butchered and rotting skeletons of hogs. One hog was hanging upside-down, field dressed like a deer. They noted that it appeared as if he was slaughtering them and feeding them to the other pigs, as putrefying hog meat was found in the feed troughs.
The officers were met by an intensified smell inside the house. The building was completely unlit and I can only imagine how horrible it was for them to comb that house. The source of the smell wasn’t the pigs, or at least, wasn’t just the pigs. Hanging from the walls were remnants of human bodies, in various stages of decomposition. They weren’t just hung on the wall as trophies, either. The paper likely spared many of the details, but noted that there were several overturned skulls that appeared to be used as bowls. When the officers entered Warden’s room, they found him rocking in his bed, hands at his side. He had skulls on the bedposts. The floor was apparently littered with the remains of corpses, and even though he made no reported attempt to resist arrest, it was apparently difficult to get Warden out through the darkness and clutter. Warden only howled as they removed him from the house. The writer noted that his home’s distance from the road and Warden’s known habit of transporting butchered animals in his truck had kept the signs of his activities hidden.
As of the date of that paper’s printing, those involved had discerned that the body parts had come from at least 38 separate individuals, though they were still in the process of sorting and identifying the remains. Initially, this confused investigators. Such a high number of disappearances would have been noticed in such a small town. However, the answers to their questions quickly became apparent through examination of the corpses and interviews with Warden. Many of the bodies were ancient, nearly fully decomposed. The investigators surmised that they had been stolen from graves, a conclusion that was later confirmed by Warden. While a few were identified as thefts from more recent burials, the majority of the bodies had been stolen from the abandoned cemeteries that sit by the country roads, the disturbed earth obscured by the long grass. They will likely never discover the identities of many of these older corpses.
Though the thought of Warden quietly absconding in the dead of night to an abandoned graveyard and stealing the long-decomposing bodies interred therein is certainly chilling to me, the most unsettling part of the story involves how they found Warden in his house before they arrested him. When the officers discovered Warden in his bed, he was lying next to a “woman suit,” carefully sewn together from the skin of the fresher corpses he had exhumed. Through interviews, the police had discovered that Warden would wear the suit and prowl the fields at night, using the seclusion afforded by the darkness and remoteness to live out his fantasy. The realization washed over me. All those years ago, I had seen him. He and I, alone in the darkness, separated by a flimsy window and a little bit of space.