At 11, I was tall and skinny, with a crew cut and horn rimmed glasses. I was the oldest of seven brothers and sisters and a model of obedience. Our parents were highly overprotective and very successful at preventing any of their children from having any knowledge of evil in the world.
My father was an elementary school teacher, and for many years, on the day after school was out, father and mother packed all seven of us and necessary belongings, into our wood paneled station wagon and drove to a farm in Beach Lake, Pennsylvania, for a vacation.
Judging by the two barns on the property and all the old farm equipment laying around, it must have once been a very busy farm. The business was run by a widow who lived in the main house. She had a son, Tom, who was in his forties and unmarried, who also lived in the main house. He had a day job somewhere but also did any labor that was required on the cabins or farm. The farm had only about a dozen cows and perhaps two horses. Tom was also a hunter, for deer and small game, and he had several hunting dogs that lived in kennels next to one of the barns.
We went there year after year for vacation, and I became friends with an older boy, Joseph, whose family also went there on vacation every year. This was in Amish country, but the owners were not Amish or even Mennonite. Joseph told me that Tom's father had been very strict with Tom. He said that his father was a Foot Washing Baptist. Joseph told me that a few times, when they were staying there, Tom had gone out at night and came home drunk in the wee hours of the morning. Joseph said that when this happened and after Tom was in his bedroom in the big house, his father used to beat the hell out of him and it could be heard for a mile around.
Across the field from where we stayed was the big red barn, which was where the horses and cows were stalled, where the bales of hay were stored, and the tractor and tools kept. I understood that the big barn was a place for adults only, and not for play. From experience, I knew that it was the kind of place where, if I showed the slightest inclination to go in there, I would be sternly reprimanded. My elders always feared that either I would break something or get hurt. As a boy who liked to imagine adventures, I had a burning desire explore it. So one, hot afternoon when everyone else was down at the lake and after I made sure that no one was looking, I quickly ran to the barn, pulled open the huge wooden door, and slipped inside.
It smelled of hay and cows. It was cooler than outside. The only light came from a window opening in the loft upstairs plus what filtered in through the cracks in the walls and roof. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.
I walked around the perimeter marveling at the tools and old artifacts that I found. I looked at a pitchfork that was so completely rusted, I wondered why they still kept it.
Next, I climbed the stairs to the loft. It was a great place for a kid to hide or hang out. I lay down on the hay and closed my eyes for a while. I relaxed peacefully while listening to the murmurings, rustling wings and chirps of the swallows that frolicked among the rafters and eves.
But after a few minutes, I sensed the presence of another, and I opened my eyes. A girl with blue eyes and corn-silk hair was looking down at me. She was wearing a white cotton dress with blue designs that ran vertically. I felt too rested to be startled, and I just looked back at her.
“I’m Jennifer,” she said. “I was killed with a pitchfork.”
“What did you say?”
“I am 9 years old, and I was killed in 1888.”
“This is 1966,” I said.
“What’s your name?” she said.
She lay down next to me and rested her head on my shoulder. She spoke desperately, with words that collided into each. “I was playing in the barn, and Johnny and some other teenage boys came in and barred the door.” She then turned, resting her body on my side and whispered the rest to me. It was her secret, and I was to tell no one. I felt her breath on my cheek and her hair on my face.
Then she said out loud, “I said I was going to tell,” and then she shouted, “And then he got mad and grabbed the pitchfork. He stabbed my eyes! He stabbed my pee-pee place! He stabbed me over and over again, seven times!”
Neither of us spoke for a long while. Slowly, she relaxed and became as peaceful as I had been, before her appearance. I enjoyed her closeness and the feeling of her hand on my chest. Our mouths were so close that we were breathing each other’s breath. After a while, she kissed my lips softly, and I experienced a startling, inexplicable transformation of consciousness. We had become one being. Then, with our lips still touching, she breathed in and exhaled. She breathed in my soul and I, hers.
I lay in silence for some time, in awe of what had just happened. But, suddenly, in a rapid shift, her whole body tensed like a cornered animal, and her face turned mean. She cried, “You don’t belong here.” I felt terrified, cold, and alone, and in thought-numbed terror I jumped up, ran down the ladder and out the barn in a terrified sprint into the blinding sunlight and all the way to the lake.
That was more than forty summers ago. Ever since that afternoon, I have had Jennifer’s soul inside me. For those of you that know me, if you have ever seen a sad look on my face, now you know why. So many times since then, especially before important times in my life, like my wedding, the birth of my children, funerals, or after any time of stress, I have been almost overcome by the sudden scared and lonely feeling of being in that dark, empty barn again, at which time, it has taken all of the strength that a human can muster to resist the impulse to run, run, run away.