Part 1- The Calm
They say that it is only when faced with great adversity that we discover who we really are—not the person that we want to be, not the one that we envision in our mind’s eye, but the person that we have truly become.
That’s what I was after: a great challenge by which I may test myself and discover my identity. This search of self was the whole reason I moved to the desolate Saskatchewan prairies in the first place.
I was after adventure. I wanted the thrill of the unknown, the trepidation that comes with knowing you are lost, and the relief of finding your way again. I hoped to find myself within the wide-open plains, the endless expanse of blue sky overhead, and the golden fields dancing in the gentle breeze.
It’s ironic then, that it was on these desolate Saskatchewan prairies that I truly lost myself.
Golden sunlight streams through the windows of our simple homestead, bathing the worn kitchen table in its warm glow. I sit here now, my husband Walter positioned across from me, just finishing lunch. He pushes his chair back from the table and stretches his arms high above his head. “There’s a storm comin’,” he tells me, shaking his arms out, “I can feel it in my bones.”
I glance out the window, squinting in the sunlight. The sky outside is pale and blue—not a single cloud in sight. I sigh. Walter’s bones have never been good at predicting the weather. “I think you might just be right, Walter.”
He laughs and rises from his chair. “That’d be the first.” He rounds the table and kisses me on the cheek. “I’ve gotta go now. Hog’s ain’t gonna feed themselves!”
Just like that, he’s gone, and I’m left alone with my thoughts. Guilt creeps into my heart. Why did I lie to Walter? We’ve been praying for rain for months now, something to wet the arid ground, yet nothing comes.
I clear the table, placing the soiled plates and utensils in the washbasin.
I shouldn’t get his hopes up like that. It breaks my heart to see him in despair, to see the light fade from his eyes when another day passes without a drop of rain to soften the parched soil. What is there for me to gain by raising within him a false sense of optimism? Am I really so cruel?
Who am I?
I’m starting to fear the answer.
I was born and raised in a crowded city spanning many square kilometres, but despite its massive size, it was never big enough for me. It couldn’t contain my imagination. I was always running around, moving from one small exploit to the next—I drove my mother mad. But even these excursions couldn’t satisfy my hunger for adventure.
I got into trouble often. My teachers would scold me on my behaviour, saying that it was improper for a lady to act in such ways. What did I care? I never wanted to be ladylike. That’s not who I am. But when I voiced these thoughts to one of my teachers, she raised the question, “Who are you, then?”
I didn’t have an answer.
Years passed, and I never found the answer to that question. I realized finally that the answer must not lie within city limits. That’s why, when my older brother decided to move to the prairies and take up farming, I decided to go too. Perhaps there I would find what I was looking for.
We packed our bags and moved to a small farming community in southern Saskatchewan. It was a quaint town, and the people were very friendly. I thought to myself, I could get used to this. And I did.
Shortly after moving to Saskatchewan, I met a polite young farmer named Walter. Walter was all smiles and had the brightest blue eyes I’d ever seen… It didn’t take long for me to fall in love. Before I knew it, I was married and living out on a homestead many kilometres away from civilisation. I told myself that this was alright, that I could live the life of a housewife.
My heart yearned for adventure, but there was never any time. Farming was difficult, and Walter was rarely around. I had to keep myself busy. I spent most of my time wandering the halls of the house, searching my soul for the answer to a question I feared I’d never find.
Who am I?
“You’re Elizabeth.” Walter would always say whenever I posed the question. This answer never satisfied me. Was I really only a name?
A strange knocking at the door, a wet slapping sound, breaks me from my reverie. I leave the washbasin and start cautiously towards the door. Walter wouldn’t have finished the chores so quickly, and he definitely wouldn’t be making such a queer racket. Slowly, I pull the haggard curtain from the window above the sink and peek outside. I wish I hadn’t.
Several creatures, about the size of a large sow, slither around the front yard, pulling themselves forward on two wiry arms. Their jet-black bodies glisten with moister in the afternoon sun and leave trails of inky sludge in their wakes.
My stomach clenches and bile rises in my throat. I swallow it down as I let the curtain fall back into place, heart beating rapidly in my chest. What are those things? Perchance they are demons sent from the deepest pits of Hell to punish Walter and me for missing church this week. We forsook our God and therefore have forsaken ourselves, left to ruin by the wrath of demonic hell-spawn.
No, the rational part of me says, that cannot be it. Our God is merciful. He would understand why we were absent from church, that our only horse had taken ill and left us without a means of travel to reach the town so far away. Moreover, we prayed to Him that day begging for his forgiveness. He would not be so petty as to reject us. From where, then, have these creatures come? And why?
The wet slapping at the door continues, growing louder and more forceful at each hit. The worn wooden door rattles in its frame. They’re trying to break in. Without a second thought, I move to form a barricade, shoving the chairs, the table, anything I can find in front of the door. That done, I rush across to the kitchen in search of a weapon.
A thunderous cracking splits the air, and I whirl towards it. The upper half of the door lies in splinters, creatures slinking in through the new opening. I have no time to think. I grab the object closest to me—a cast-iron pan—and hurl it at the demons. The pan smacks into the foremost creature and bounces harmlessly to the floor. The creature continues towards me, undeterred. In a flurry, I throw anything I can find at the intruders—plates, bowls, pots and pans, utensils. The demons’ approach slows, but they carry on nonetheless.
I reach behind me for another weapon, but all my search turns up is a small sack of salt. The creatures are barely a metre or two away from me now. The leading demon rears back, revealing row upon row of sharp teeth. It makes a weird sucking noise, gnashing its teeth as its arms strain to reach me. Sweat dampens my brow and I press myself back against the counter, trying to get as far from the creatures as possible. The closest demon’s body tenses, and I know I have no other options left. I throw the sack at the creatures, its contents spilling all over as it flies. The demons scream as the crystals assault their skin, burning at the contact. An acrid stench permeates the air, filling my nose, my lungs. It’s nauseating. I cover my nose and mouth with my hand and dash past the flailing creatures, their shrill shrieks piercing the air.
I make for the bedroom, slamming the door shut behind me once I’m safely inside. The air in here is cleaner, less putrid, and I uncover my face. I have a chance to breathe now, a chance to think. I need to find Walter. He should still be in the barn. Does he know what’s happening?
The slapping noise is back. The demons are trying to break into the bedroom. I have nowhere else to go. My only option is the window.
I grab a lantern from the nightstand and hurl it through the window. The glass is old and thin and shatters easily, littering the ground outside with hundreds of translucent shards. I push the nightstand under the windowsill and use it as a step, clambering up and onto the window’s frame. Behind me, the bedroom door swings open, slamming into the wall with a thunderous smack. I glance behind me and see the creatures slinking closer, rearing, teeth bared and making that strange sucking noise. Hurriedly, I leap from the window to the hard ground outside, glass crunching beneath my feet as I land. After quick consideration, I bend over and pick up a large glass shard, holding it carefully in my hand so as not to cut myself. I straighten and take off at a run, but something stops my advance, jerking me backwards. I throw a glance behind me. A fragment of glass stubbornly attached to the window frame catches at my long skirts, effectively halting my escape. I take up my skirts with my free hand, and yank with all my might. My muscles strain and the skirt rips free, leaving behind a sizable strip of fabric. I stumble as my skirts tear, but keep my feet. The demons are at the window now, clambering noisily up the wooden frame. I turn tail and flee towards the barn.
As I draw closer to the barn, I realize that I cannot hear the pigs squealing. Something is terribly wrong. Heart beating so violently I fear it may break through my chest, I push the heavyset door open and slip inside.
The smell is overwhelming, that acrid stench burning my lungs as I breathe. My stomach convulses, and I struggle to keep from vomiting. I pull the shawl from my head and tie it around my mouth and nose, trying to block out the worst of the stench.
The demons have been here. Fearing the worst, I press forward, glass shard raised defensively in front of me.
It’s too quiet. My footsteps echo hollowly as I walk. The barn is dark, and I strain my eyes, searching for the spare lantern. My foot collides with something solid, and I trip. I catch myself on what I think is a wooden shelf, knocking something to the floor in the process. It lands with a metallic clang. Hoping for the best, I kneel down and reach for the object. My hand contacts a cool, smooth surface: the lantern. I pick it up and replace it on the shelf. I lay the glass shard next to it, and then blindly search the shelf for matches. I find them easily and strike one, using it to light the lantern. The flame sends shadows dancing across the walls. I shove the matches in one of the pockets of my skirt, thankful that I had the forethought to sew them on the previous day. I grasp the glass shard in one hand and the lantern in the other, then turn and take in my surroundings.
A scream tears from my throat.
Before me, the ground is littered with the scattered carcases of a dozen or so slaughtered pigs. Their eyes bulge in their sockets, staring lifelessly at nothing. Their stomachs are slashed open lengthwise, organs spilling out on the floor. And the blood. Oh, the blood. It covers everything, turning the dirt floor to mud and staining the walls dark red.
I don’t think, I just run. I race for the door but slip on the slick floor. I smack into the ground, losing my grip on the lantern. It clangs to the ground, the small flame extinguishing in the process. The glass shard cuts painfully into my hand, and I drop it as well. Blood wells from the wound on my hand. My eyes sting, but I fight the tears away. Now is not the time for weakness. I have to find Walter.
I push the pain from my mind and climb to my feet. I’m covered in the sticky, bloody mud now, and I try not to think of it. I move to recover the fallen lantern, hoping that it is unbroken. I cautiously start forward, arms outstretched and feet dragging along the floor. My eyes haven’t adjusted to the darkness yet, and I’m walking blind. I hear a strange sucking noise: the demons. It’s faint now, but it gradually grows louder as it nears. I swallow the lump in my throat and hasten my search.
My foot collides with something. It moves slightly. The lantern? I kneel down and feel for the object with my hand. It’s cold and covered in coarse hair. Not the lantern, then. One of the pigs, maybe? I strain my eyes, trying to make out the object. I see a faint outline. It’s too big to be a hog. In fact, it resembles more of a…
No no no.
Hastily, I reach into my pocket and pull out a match. I try to strike it, but my fingers fumble and I drop it. I reach for another one, this time successfully managing to light it. The tiny flame casts the area in dull illumination. My breath catches in my throat.
He is prone on the ground, unmoving. In one hand, he still grasps an old pitchfork. The collar of his shirt is soaked through with dark blood. Tentatively, I roll him onto his back. I gasp, my hand going to my mouth. His eyes are wide and blank, his mouth open in a silent scream. His throat has been torn almost completely out, and I can see muscle and bone. His shirt and his skin are stained with blood.
My body goes numb. The match falls to the ground, still lit. I no longer feel the throbbing in my hand. I no longer feel anything. Somehow, this numbness hurts more than any pain.
My heart thuds dully in my chest. I feel hollow. Empty.
Hesitantly, I reach out and cradle his face in my hand. His cheek is cool and rough with stubble. I withdraw my hand sharply, as though burned. My hand is shaking. I ball it into a fist.
My cheeks are damp. I hadn’t realized I was crying. I wipe the tears away with the heels of my hands, spreading mud and blood across my face in the process, but I don’t care.
The sucking noise is louder now. It echoes throughout the barn, drilling into my ears, drumming against my brain. I tear my gaze from Walter’s lifeless body and see the demons silhouetted against the light of the open barn door. I wrench the pitchfork from Walter’s grasp as they amble closer. I clench my jaw.
Their arms stretch towards me.
I feel the blood rushing through my veins.
Their jaws snap. Their teeth gnash and grind.
My heart is consumed by a red-hot rage.
I tense my muscles as the foremost demon lunges for me. With an angry war cry, I run the demon through with my pitchfork. It shrieks, the sound painfully piercing my eardrums. I grit my teeth and slam the still-skewered creature to the ground. I pull the pitchfork free and spear the hell-spawn again and again and again until its screams finally die out, until it lies motionless in the mud. I withdraw the pitchfork and fix the other demons with an icy glare. “Who’s next?”
Another creature leaps at me. I swing the pitchfork as hard as I can. It catches the demon in the side and sends it flying into a pile of old straw, scattering hay all over the floor and onto the still flickering match. Instantly, the straw ignites, and the hellish creature releases an ear-splitting screech as the flames reach it, consuming its flesh and burning it away to nothing.
There are only two left now. I readjust my grip on the pitchfork. One hell-spawn hurdles towards me, and I stab the pitchfork forward. It pierces through the demon’s mouth and out the back of its body as it cries out in pain and frustration. With a grunt, I slam the creature to the floor and try to withdraw my pitchfork. My muscles strain, but the pitchfork doesn’t budge. I grit my teeth and yank with all my might. The wooden shaft creaks and then splinters in two with a violent crack, and I’m sent tumbling to the floor, landing hard on my rear. Half of the pitchfork remains impaled in the demon’s body. It flails weakly on the floor, its screams dissolving into gurgles as obsidian blood floods its mouth.
One more to go. The final creature approaches me, slinking along the floor at a sluggish pace. I raise the splintered shaft defensively in front of me, but my hands shake. The red-hot has dissipated, replaced only by pure fear.
It ambles closer, its pace deliberate. The demon is taking its time, probably finding pleasure in the way my body trembles, in the way that the sweat pools on my brow. I wonder, can it sense my fear? Can it hear my heart, hammering away in my chest like a caged animal?
I swallow the lump in my throat and try to steady myself. I take deep, relaxing breaths, but my body and mind will not calm. They scream at me, Run! Get out of here! Don’t just stand there! Go!
But there’s something inside of me that keeps me rooted to the floor, something telling me that I can’t back down, that I must stand and fight.
My grip on the broken pitchfork tightens, my knuckles turning from red to white. I muster all of my courage and my strength, and with a mighty cry, I hurl the handle at the demon. The shaft spins through the air and smacks into its target. The devil-spawn shrieks, but it sounds less like a cry of pain than one of rage. It grinds its teeth together and slithers towards me, faster than before.
My courage is gone. I stagger away from the demon, walking backwards to put more distance between us, to give myself more time to think. I trip over something and crash to the ground, landing tailbone-first. Pain courses through my body, and I cry out. I see that it is the carcass of one of the hogs that I fell over, but the gruesome sight doesn’t nauseate me as it had before; I am too petrified to feel anything but fear.
The hell-spawn slips closer. It crawls over the motionless body of its fallen comrade as though it is nothing more than a stone in its path. Its jaws snap, and it reaches for me with clawed hands. I scramble backwards, narrowly avoiding its grasp. I clamber to my feet and run, just as the demon scales the hog carcass.
I don’t look behind me.
I just run.
Soon, I reach a dead end: the rear wall of the barn. I slam my palms against it in frustration. Where would I go now? A hellish devil-spawn blocked the barn’s only exit. I was out of options.
I’d have to face the demon head-on.
Mustering what courage I can, I turn and find myself staring into Hell. The flames had grown larger, stronger. They illuminate the whole barn now, the light dancing violently across the walls. The creature draws nearer, silhouetted against this fiery backdrop as though it was the devil himself—and maybe it was.
If I were to stand a chance against this demon, I’d have to make the first move. I regret discarding the glass shard now, and throwing the wooden shaft away so soon. All I had to defend myself now were my fists and my cunning. I only hope they are enough.
The hell-spawn stands before me, just metres away. The flames cast harsh shadows across its face—if I should even call it that—and I can see saliva dripping from its maw. I struggle not to lose my nerve.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” I mumble, balling my hands into fists, “I will fear no evil, for You are with me.”
The demon hisses, and my nerve is gone. I press myself against the wall, cowering as the hell-spawn grinds its teeth. My chest heaves. The scarf wrapped around my face is soaked in tears. “Stop.” I say, my voice trembling slightly, “Stop it.”
The sucking noise again. The demon inches forward. “Stop!” I scream. Sobs wrack my body. “Stop, stop! Please, just stop!”
Tears blur my gaze. I can’t make anything out clearly through the haze. I wipe at my eyes.
The demon leaps.
I throw my hands up.
My screams are drowned out by those of the demon.
My arms are submerged up to the elbow in the demon’s jaws, its teeth painfully puncturing my skin. The creature is mere centimetres from my face. I can make out the fine details of its ‘face’, the razor-sharp teeth, the lack of eyes. Gazing into its mouth, I notice the tissues within are bubbling. An overwhelming stench hits my nose, like the smell of burning flesh. It smells familiar, somehow.
The house. The salt.
It all makes sense. My hands were wet with tears when I threw them up. My tears must have contained just enough salt to incapacitate the demon.
The creature’s screams cease. Its arms are raised at its sides, shaking with spasms. Inky sludge drips from its mouth and trickles down my arms. It burns.
I lift my knee to my chest and kick out with my foot, sending the demon crashing to the floor and tearing free my arms. Deep red gashes line my skin, the blood running freely and mixing with the black goo. My arms feel like they are on fire.
Tears prick the backs of my eyes, and I bite my tongue to repress a whimper. I need to get out of here, need to bandage my arms, need to give myself time to think, to breathe. I push the pain from my mind and head for the door.
Only, I don’t know where that is anymore.
Red-orange flames engulf the barn, consuming everything in their path. Thick black smoke billows throughout; I can barely see a metre in front of me. I start in the direction I believe to be the correct way, narrowly avoiding the hungry blaze as I progress. My shawl prevents most of the smoke from entering my lungs, but it still stings my eyes, making them water. I press on, half blind and disoriented.
The barn creaks; the supports are compromised. Flaming debris falls from the roof in chunks, crashing to the ground. I gasp as a large piece of smouldering wood smashes to the floor in a spray of glowing orange embers, missing me by barely a hair’s width. Instinct takes over, and my panic response chooses ‘flight’. I gather up my skirts and leap over the wreckage, then take off at a sprint through the barn. Heat rolls off the flames in waves, and sweat pours from my body, my arms stinging fiercely as it enters my wounds. My chest heaves, and suddenly I feel as though the scarf is suffocating me.
Then I see it: the door. It’s only a few metres away, partially blocked by fallen rubble. Relief replaces panic as I bound across the threshold, the cool air hitting me like a wall. I tear the shawl from my face and greedily drink it in, filling my lungs with fresh air. The sun is blinding after being in the dim barn for so long. It hurts to keep my eyes open.
Squinting, I gaze across the way. The house is swarming with demons. I’ll need to find somewhere else to catch my breath and nurse the cuts on my arms. I remember a creek not too far from the farm. It flows through a bluff, so there’d be shelter as well as water to wash my wounds. I set off at a gallop.
The creek is shallow, and when I reach it, I immediately plunge into it. I gasp as the ice-cold water touches my skin. My cuts sting, but the burning in my arms fades. The water isn’t the cleanest, but I figure it’s better than nothing. Gently, I scrub away the grime that covers my skin. When that’s done, I climb out of the creek.
I crest the bank and take cover in the shade of the trees. I plop to the ground and lean my back against one of the thick wooden trunks, grateful to be off my feet. I then get to work bandaging my wounds. I take a kerchief from my pocket and wrap it snuggly around the gash on my hand. It isn’t very deep, and the bleeding is mostly stopped by now. My arms are another story. Fresh blood runs freely down my skin, leaving streaks of red across its pale surface. I don’t have any more kerchiefs on me, and even if I did, I don’t think they’d be of much help. What am I to use to bandage my arms?
My gaze settles on the hem of my tattered skirt. It would have to do. I reach over and grasp the already torn fabric in my hands, then tear long strips out of it. When I’m finished, the skirt is considerably shorter, reaching about my mid-shin. My ankles are showing. If Mother saw me now, she’d have a fit!
Delicately, I wrap the fabric strips around my arms. In no time, my blood soaks through them, and I add more dressings. The pain in my arms has died to a dull throb, and the burning sensation has all but disappeared. Sighing, I rest my head against the tree trunk and close my eyes.
A sense of weariness settles over me. My bones ache with tiredness and I am completely spent, physically, mentally, and emotionally. God, if you are above, I need you.
Just as I feared, He doesn’t answer me.
I’m starting to wonder if He ever will.
What am I to do now? Demonic hell-spawns are overrunning my home and my land, but there’s no one around who can help me. I have no weapons and no means by which I can attain some. Worst of all, Walter is…
A lump forms in my throat. I swallow it down as tears prick the backs of my eyes. I try to will them away. Now is not the time for crying. You need to stay strong.
But I don’t want to be strong. I’m tired of being strong.
I don’t want to be anything.
I just want…
Tears roll freely down my cheeks; I couldn’t stop them if I tried. My body is racked is ugly sobs, but I don’t care. I cry because I am distraught, because I am scared and tired and frustrated and so damn lonely I want to tear my heart out, and I cry because I am helpless to do anything about it. I scream until my throat is raw, until there is no breath left in my lungs to breathe. I slam my fists into the earth and kick at the dust—anything to make me feel something that isn’t this hollowness in my chest. Anything to chase the emptiness away.
I’m worn out. I hug my knees to my chest and lean my head against them, breathing deeply. Everything hurts. I can’t stand feeling this way. I can’t take living like this any longer.
A gentle breeze sweeps through, fluttering the leaves and caressing my cheek with its soft fingers. It almost feels like Walter.
I think about him now, about the way his eyes sparkled when he spoke of farming, or the way his nose twitched when he was confused. I think about the memories we made together, the times when we rode the cart out to the middle of nowhere and watched the stars fall down, and I’d rest my head in his arms as we wondered if things could ever be more beautiful than this. I think about the plans we made, of expanding the farm, of having children, of returning to the land from which our ancestors first came.
I think about the way his eyes stared lifelessly at the ceiling, about the way his blood stained his clothes.
I think about the moments we’ll never share, the time we’ll never get back.
I think about the dreams we’ve lost.
A solitary tear rolls down my cheek.
It was here, these desolate Saskatchewan prairies, that I truly lost myself.
And it’s here that I’ll take my life back.