This story is by Karen Clemens and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Farm was built by a Finnish couple at the turn of the last century. Upon their deaths, their five children inherited equally and squabbled over the Farm’s ownership. It sat on a slight hill, a three-story house arrested in time; all its books and furnishings dated back to the 1930s. It rose over hay fields bordered by an electric fence, a copse of fir trees, and a dirt lane leading to the main road. A winding staircase led to six bedrooms on the upper story. All Tamara’s cousins agreed, Uncle George’s room was haunted and not to be entered. However, it beckoned from the end of the hallway whenever they played on the second floor landing.
Tamara’s dad introduced her to Uncle George on her first visit to the Farm. They were both shy; she waved hello and he nodded back to her from where he worked the vegetable garden next to the driveway. When Uncle George died, the garden reverted to field as Tamara’s grandparents, who held squatter’s rights to the Farm, were too busy to keep it up. They already had jobs: smoking (she a cigarette in a Bakelite holder, he a pipe and the occasional cigar), drinking (coffee to start, Pepsi highballs as the day went on), harvesting (seed from bent grass, trees from the copse), and leasing their fields (occasionally, to owners of cattle or horses for grazing). They brought forth bacon and eggs from a wood-burning stove in the morning, pies in the afternoon, clam fritters in the evening. They met their responsibilities from a nine-foot-square kitchen table covered in the detritus of their industry: ashtrays, newspapers, old issues of Argosy magazine, and most memorably, the shot glass with a flamenco dancer painted on it. Tamara thrilled each time she looked inside to see the dancer’s naked bottom.
As a teenaged military brat relocating to the Pacific Northwest, Tamara was anxious all summer about where she would be living and going to school in the fall. It depended on where her dad could find a job, either in Oregon or in Washington. In the meantime, Tamara and her family lived at the Farm while her dad looked for work. Nine of her cousins lived nearby. They visited the Farm frequently and became, if not friends, at least familiars. They were country people. She felt vastly superior to them.
One day one of those cousins talked about the child who had drowned.
“He was your dad’s younger brother,” Vicky said, looking at Tamara.
“Yeah, and our mom’s. This isn’t even your story to tell,” said Lynne, another of the cousins.
“Then you tell it,” huffed Vicky, the older of the two.
“All I know is he was very young, maybe three,” Lynne said. “He fell into the slough, near the bridge.”
To Tamara, the bare bones of this story begged many questions. “What did he do,” she asked, “just wander away from the house?”
Vicky started to say something, but stopped.
“I don’t know. No one talks about it,” said Lynne as her sister Kim nodded.
Instinctively, understanding it as the proper response to such a sad story, Tamara felt sorry for the little boy who’d drowned, for her dad who’d lost a brother, and for her grandparents who’d lost a child. No wonder they didn’t talk about it, and how cruel it would be to ask. No one she’d ever known had died, but she knew for certain that death was not to be bandied about in polite conversation.
The girl cousins spent the night that night, all six of them in the big upstairs bedroom, tucked under sun-dried sheets and chenille bedspreads. They were quiet for a while, with the lights out and mosquitos sneaking in through holes in the window screens. Then there was a long spell of talking and laughing that ended in whispers about the child who drowned.
What was his name? They didn’t know, and it didn’t matter, really. It was the fact of him. He had probably looked like Tamara’s dad or his sister Ethel when they were young: big square head, white blond hair, happy smile for the camera. And he had drowned. In the slough, which snaked lazy through the lower fields a good five minutes’ walk from the Farm.
The next morning, Tamara dressed before anyone else was awake and, careful not to let the screen door slam, slipped out of the kitchen to find the path to the slough. Her walk ended in the middle of the wooden bridge that arched over it. She stared down into the slough’s depths, trying to see the bottom. Hadn’t anyone been watching him? He had a mom and a dad, her grandparents. She knew they had bad habits but still thought of them as responsible adults. Where had they been? He had an older sister and a brother. When it happened, was her dad off in the fields, shooting small birds with his beebee gun? Was her aunt in the living room, finishing her first ABC embroidery sampler, the one that hung on a wall in the big bedroom? No one had cared. Below her the water swirled, then cleared to reveal in blurred reflection her own round face and white blond hair.
In her righteousness, Tamara knew someone was responsible and produced a tear of mourning before she walked back to the Farm and sat down in the kitchen. Her cousins weren’t up yet. No one was except her grandmother.
Smoking her first cigarette of the day, her grandma turned sausage at the stove. Watching her grandma’s back, Tamara snatched the shot glass and hid it in her sweatshirt pocket. She planned to hang onto it until she could throw it away where it would never be found.
After breakfast, she explored the bookshelves in the living room and saw an old tome called Eugenics for a Better World. She found diagrams of sex parts and pictures of deformed children. She ripped a page out for later study, folding it into her sweatshirt pocket just as her grandpa came into the room.
Later that morning, in a game of hide and seek, Tamara dared her youngest brother, an innocent of seven, to hide in a closet. Then she locked the door. He tried to get out while she stood by and listened. Then he started to cry. She let him out but begged him not to tell anyone. Nearby, she heard her cousin Jamie snigger. “I’m telling your dad,” he called out as he ran downstairs.
She followed Jamie into the living room and found him talking to her dad, who’d been reading the want ads. He’d told. Tamara cried with shame and said she was sorry. Her dad just looked at her, then told them both to go away. The rest of the day, Tamara listened to the rain beat against the windows of the Farm and waited for her dad’s scolding.
However, when he sat next to her on the back porch after dinner, he told her about his little brother. Phillip was his name. He had been only five years old when he drowned in the slough while Uncle George was supposed to be keeping an eye on him. Her grandparents, her dad’s parents, were both bitter and matter of fact: Uncle George, the bachelor brother who lived at the Farm with them until he died, had been to blame.
That evening Tamara returned to the slough. It was brown and swollen with rain. She rubbed the shot glass in her pocket as she mused about her day and the acts for which she was ashamed. She decided the Farm was evil. It clung to the siblings, who suffered the poverty its equal division visited upon them. It clung to their children. It clung hardest to those it loved most. Perhaps Phillip was one so loved. As she imagined his end, the shot glass slipped from her fingers and fell into the slough.
She ran down the bridge to the slough’s banks and spied the shot glass, which bobbed steadily toward her, the dancer’s yellow skirts and nude backside twirling in the current. She grasped it in her hand but lost her balance and fell into the dirty water.
Tamara had never learned to swim. The water rushed faster than she’d expected and she could not save herself. When her cousins discovered her body downstream the next morning, her fingers still clenched the shot glass. Later, her dad found the soaked page of the eugenics book still in her sweatshirt pocket and hid it away.