The photograph is the last item left in the shack. It hangs from a curved nail in the wall. There were many other nails, but the only evidence of their existence is a series of dark holes patterned along the walls like empty eyes staring, accusing. You ignore their accusations and rip the Polaroid from the wall.
It crinkles between your calloused fingers. The brittle photograph is a bouquet of stale whispers cracking from your grip. Telling a story that you can never say aloud. The shack, the one you’re standing in now, is the only thing in the photo. Its lopsided shape dominates the foreground. Willow branches edge the shack’s roof. A wreathe of hands clawing for attention.
The photograph bends. Snap. Pop. A whisper gives way. Floating into the air and spilling your secrets for the mockingbirds outside.
Granddaddy builds the shack the summer you are two. His hammering in the late afternoons lulls you to sleep. Each smack sweetens your slumber. You don’t know it then, but that sound, the finality of a force hitting home, will be your canary in a cage.
When he finishes, Granddaddy paints the shack a rose red, top to bottom. Four years later, the rose dies and turns to rust. The color of dried blood. The red splatters on the tin roof and the wooden steps are the scene of a crime.
There isn’t anything around the shack except a hedge of willow trees and a cotton patch. Lord knows why Granddaddy built the shack among a patch of specters reminding him and everyone else of suffering. The shack is a little crooked. Like a good breeze might knock it over. Maybe a scream. There are no windows. One door. One way in and, maybe, a way out. You aren’t allowed to enter the shack until you are 12. Inside, the walls pierce, puncture, and cut. Nails jut from the walls, holding hacksaws, blades, sickles, and a large pitchfork. Grotesque windchimes hang from the ceiling. All rusted hooks and spikes.
The first time you enter the shack, it’s so easy to lose yourself staring at the walls that you don’t notice how the shack seems smaller inside than it does out front. Or how your footsteps sound hollow. How it seems like there’s so much more below the floorboards. When Granddaddy moves aside, you see an opening in the floor then stairs descending from it. The stench of sweat and earth, of bodies cramped in a small space, wafts up to you. Then, muffled voices, weary and sluggish and beaten.
Granddaddy hands you a scythe and says that it’s time to learn how to cut out the worthy and leave the rest to burn. It’s time to learn how to harvest. Righteous judgement lies beneath the floor.
The curved blade sings the first time you slash it through the air. You spill your own blood the first few times. An accidental tithe. But soon you are steady, a reaper in your own right.
Granddaddy becomes your eager disciple when you turn 30. He drives more nails in the shack walls. He sharpens your tools. He marvels at how well you pierce, puncture, and cut. How well you break the living in half and separate the dead.
That’s not your life anymore.
The shack will be sold with the rest of the land. The new owner might raze it. They should. They have to. It holds too much history. Too many ghosts.
You slide the Polaroid into your pocket and leave. The willow trees rustle in the wind overhead, and the mockingbirds call from their branches. Their strange rasps sound like the screams of men.
DW McKinney is a writer and editor based in Nevada. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Narratively, Hobart Pulp, Barrelhouse, Mom Egg Review, wigleaf, and Hippocampus Magazine, among others. She is a nonfiction editor for Shenandoah and editor-at-large for Raising Mothers. Say hello at dwmckinney.com or on Twitter @thedwmckinney.