The Old Man
by aaron calvin

Grandmother was deathly afraid of Ouija boards. She warned us never to touch them, regaled us with stories of her and my great aunt messing around with the board, plainly laying out the messages relayed from spirits alleging to be dead relatives, deceased neighbors, and even former high school classmates, tragically cut down in their youth.

“There were also unspeakable things,” she said in the same voice she used when recalling that the price of gas was once a quarter. “Violence and cruelty you can’t unsee.”

We were conversing before the staid photograph portrait of a white-bearded man with stern eyes. It hung over a glass cabinet filled with porcelain knickknacks and arrowheads of various sizes tilled up when the land was still a working farm. The bearded man was my great-great-great-grandfather. He had settled the land, the very land we stood upon, grandmother told me, and was the only doctor for miles, back when the nearby town was just a post office. A few years after he arrived, the train built a stop there and the town grew prosperous. The train depot, and, of course, my great-great-great-grandfather were all gone and dead now, the town and the post office hanging on for dear life.

“It was a more violent time,” she said. “Anyway, we threw that Ouija board in the fire.” She left me to scatter pebbles of food for the barn cats and racoons on a baking sheet sitting out by the barn. The afternoon turned gray and soggy. I desperately searched the games closet for something that could promise even a little entertainment. Among decades-old trivial pursuit, incomplete Uno packs, and board games featuring unrecognizable cartoon characters, in the very back of the closet, I came upon it: A Ouija board. It was encased in brittle cardboard and lined with black soot, but the board itself was unworn.

I felt an exhilarating mixture of fear and excitement at the forbidden unknown rising up through my gut and radiating into my brain. I had no suitable adult partner for the board, but I did have my six-year-old sister. She was contentedly smashing her dolls into each other on the bedroom floor when I barged in with the board.

“I don’t want to talk to ghosts,” she declared. After I threw around some promises to join her with the dolls later, laced with some light threats of how I might punish her if she refused, she came around. Perhaps the ghosts would feel more at home in her undeveloped brain, I reasoned. She resisted understanding how the board worked even after I explained the process to her several times. It didn’t matter. Our time was limited. Soon grandma would return from the barn and discover us. We got on with it. I turned down the lights and lit some candles. Everyone knows you can’t commune with ghosts without the proper ambience.

“Oh spirits,” I said. “What do you want from us.”

I decided to let my sister take the lead, to see if she would cheat by exerting some conscious influence over the board. She coaxed the planchette along with my fingertips to spell out one word: H-E-L-P.

“That’s not funny,” I said. My sister said nothing. I asked the question again, but only to be met with more forceful movements of my sister’s fingers, emphatically arranging the letters once again: H-E-L-P.

I released the planchette and stood up. “What’s your problem, this isn’t a joke,” I said. But my sister said nothing, sitting cross-legged with her eyes closed, as though in a trance. I sat back down and returned my fingers to the board. “What do you want us to do?” I asked.

“W-I-L-L-O-W,” the board replied. There was one willow tree out in the pasture that I knew well. We called it The Old Man. Its limbs sagged. It was entirely dead and rotting in several sections. Grandmother spoke constantly of cutting it down, but never did.

“When?” I asked. In response, the planchette flew from our fingertips and broke against the closet door. My sister snapped from her trance and, startled, began to cry. I left her there on the floor, grabbed my raincoat, and flew out the back door, screen door banging behind me. As I rushed across the yard, I saw grandmother standing before the barn door silently. She looked tired and didn’t call out to me as I flew away from her.

As I crossed the empty pasture, I saw a cloud of gray figures standing before The Old Man. Though my vision was smudged by the rain, the tree appeared vibrant and erect. The closer I crept, the more defined the figures surrounding the tree became, turning from a mottled gray to softly pigmented. They were all wearing old-fashioned clothes like the kind they wore in historical villages. As their faces came into definition, I saw they were contorted into shapes like they were screaming or crying out, though they made no sounds. They were thronged around a Native American man, his skin clay colored in contrast to the radish pink faces around him. He wore a white dress shirt and his wide brown eyes wavered with fear. A woman was standing between the man and the crowd, crying out noiselessly. The woman looked just like me.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and jumped forward before turning back. It was grandmother. She pointed back towards the crowd, who I turned to see had parted. A man in a gray suit walked through them. Callously, as though pushing a branch from his path, he pushed the crying woman into the dirt. He turned to reveal a long white beard that grew down past his collar. It was my great-great-great-grandfather, the doctor. In his hands he held a rope knotted into a noose. He addressed the crowd, looked out across the field where grandmother and I stood, eyes blank and unseeing. Behind him, the Native American man looked out with eyes sharp and sorrowful.

I stood there, transfixed by the scene, its inevitable conclusion growing horribly clear. Grandmother turned and began walking back toward the house.

“What did I tell you?” she said. “Violence and cruelty.”

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