The Root Cellar

by Max Firehammer

Zeke’s body isn’t in the root cellar anymore. The earth is all cracked open, leaving a long furrow in the middle of the floor, as if tilled by the plow. Nothing inside. Yawning like the toothless mouth of an infant.

My breath hitches in my chest as I look at that empty hole, standing down there in the dark with an armful of potatoes. I put him in the dirt last winter. The soil was hard then, and the shaft of the shovel bit blisters into my hands as I dug, watching his unmoving face all the while.

While he lived, Zeke was a spiteful old bastard, and neither man nor God could fault me for ending him. He could slice a fruit fly in two from across the room with a glance. Knock the legs out from under you with a word. I was half a child when we married, but each day I spent in his house aged me a year. He never looked at me except to command. Scrub this stain from my Sunday shirt. Go and milk the cows. Get me my supper ready.

One cold early morning, while he slept, I took the kitchen scissors and pushed them into the soft hollow just beneath his sternum, right through his baby blue bedsheets. I swaddled him in the bloody cotton, dragged him out of the house, and buried him before either of the farmhands woke.

Now though, I suspect one of them has found him. Jack or Isaac. Maybe both. Neither one of them far past boyhood. Sunburnt, gangling limbs and pale eyes and stringy hair.

They must’ve smelled something through the soil, dug him up, stashed the remains someplace, plotting blackmail. I ring the dinner bell, calling them up to the house. They come slow.

“Either of you been in the cellar lately?”


“No ma’am.”

They look at each other. I speak carefully, not letting on too much.

“Something was down there that isn’t anymore. What do you know about that?”

“Not a thing, ma’am,” Jack says.

“What was it?” Isaac asks, “Maybe we can help you look.” Neither of them knows anything. It shows on their faces.

“If you must know,” I say, “It was a bottle of hooch.”

“Mrs. Alice,” Jack laughs, “I hadn’t figured you for a drinker.”

“I use it for medicinal purposes.”

“Most likely some vagrant passed through and took it,” Isaac says, “We could stay up tonight and keep watch in case he comes back.”

“No need, gentlemen. I’ve got Zeke’s rifle. You can return to your work now.” I watch them saunter away. My heart feels like a frightened bird in a tiny cage. If I can’t find his body, sooner or later I will be found out, and everything will come tumbling down.

Perhaps somebody did come and take him. Otherwise, maybe coyotes found him, clawed him from his grave and dragged him away. No telling what they would want with him. By now, he can’t be more than leather and bones. I spend the rest of the day wandering the property, searching for my husband’s corpse. Along the barbed wire fences, through the tall grass, past the gnarled old chestnut tree. I do not find him.

After sending the hands home, I eat a bland meal and fall into a shallow and uneasy sleep. I wake to the sound of the cows. They’re bellowing, air raid siren panic screaming from their guts. Rifle in one hand, lantern in the other, I step outside in my nightgown.

The cattle have escaped the barn and are running in all directions like scattered billiard balls. Mindless, fleshy beasts taking staggering strides, snapping green stalks with their hooves, pink udders flapping beneath them. They wail over one another, the din carrying off into the night.

As I walk further away from the house, I see that one has fallen on her side. Something is hunched over her heaving body. Something thin and pale with rotted skin that drips like tallow. Against all instincts, I draw nearer. The thing has torn open the heifer’s neck with its teeth. Steam rises from the wound. Deep red flows onto the ground. It’s drinking from her. I’m close enough now to smell it. Wet earth and hot iron and spoiled fruit.


He whips his head around. In the lantern light, I see him. He wears a beard of scarlet where the blood has spilled down his chin. His lips have rotted away, and he grins with long, naked teeth. Bits of meat and gristle are sticking between them. His flesh oozes from his yellowed skull. With a voice like wind passing between dried-up blades of grass, he speaks.


There’s a deafening crack and a flash as I shoulder the gun and fire. The bullet zips through his neck. The hole sprays ichor. On all fours, he runs. Shambling away across the fields, out into the starlit black. I pray he will not return. Every night, I sit on the porch with his rifle and pray.

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