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There is nothing in the dark that isn’t there when the lights are on. ~ Rod Serling
I have wondered through the years, if that little shack is still standing… and if that "entity" is still there… whatever it was that lived there back then. I’ve thought about it often. It wasn’t the kind of thing that one easily forgets. I’ve wondered if something like that continues to exist… to reside in a place like that. And why would it choose to stay there now?
Now that, seemingly, it has driven off all the domestic life that was the essence of the ranch, and now that the feral nature of the land has once again dominated the ground surface, why would even such a one want to remain in that place?
The place to which I refer is the skeletal remains of a ranch in south Texas, which used to be my home. We didn’t own any of it. My father was a laborer there. I never realized it when I was child, at the time that this story occurred, but we were quite poor.
The owner and his wife lived in a huge, white, L-shaped ranch house, with more rooms than they could ever have used. A porch ran the length of the house, with steps that descended into a backyard of plush greenery, moisture, and shade. And a white picket fence contained that oasis of lawn grass and abundance.
The environment that surrounded all of us who lived there seemed to be in a constant state of encroachment. It had to be staved off… the grass burrs, the cacti, the thorny brush, and then the vermin that came with it. When it wasn’t winter, the weather was hot and dry and dusty. If it rained, it would feel good while it lasted, but then the wetness would turn into steam, a humidity that could all but suffocate a person.
The laborers… ranch-hands like my father and the transient, illegal Mexicans, whom we called mojados (wetbacks) because they presumably had swum across the river… we lived in shacks, out in the thickness of that scraggly and unrelenting environment.
There were four of them on the property, arranged in a diamond order, the farthest points being roughly about a hundred yards apart, with three of them being accessible by a dirt road, which could become quite problematic after a rain.
Two of the shacks, the slightly bigger ones, had been made with three rooms, the others simply being halved into two… all simple structures, built on concrete slabs, with no insulation, no inner walls or ceilings, and all topped with tin roofing. Electricity had been added later, using external conduits for the wiring, and allowing light fixtures and a few outlets to all but the one little shack that sat away from the road.
I could not have been older than six or seven when we moved from one shack, the middle one along the road, to the one further up the road. Someone had moved out of there recently. It was the other shack with three rooms, just like the one we were moving out of, with one major difference.
All the shacks, except the little two-roomer away from the road, had a singular water source, a pipe that came from the windmill, which was over by the ranch house, about 200 yards away. It didn’t happen often, but if there was a freeze, we sometimes had to wait a half-day or so to get our water back.
The shack from which we were moving had a faucet mounted on a pipe that rose about three or four feet straight up out of the ground, about 20 feet away from the back door. The shack to which we were moving had a pipe that rose up right alongside one of the walls, on which a short piece of pipe had been mounted cross-wise, with one end going into the wall… so that there was a faucet outside… and one inside!
The two smaller shacks had housed the illegal Mexicans, who were hired often to do the tedious and grueling work of uprooting brush and cacti. If the need arose, the digging of new holes and the moving of outhouses also fell on them.
The one little shack away from the road, the one with no water and no electricity, did not have any signs of ever having had an outhouse, either. At some point, it had become a place for storing baled hay.
Over the years, a couple of other families moved in and out of the other three-room shack. And the Mexicans came and went… but nobody ever stayed… except us. That day would come eventually.
Almost every day, in my youth, I would go into the feral world of brush and trees, to explore, to hunt, and to learn. Almost everywhere I traipsed, I had to stay on the footpaths, which had been created by the cattle and the sheep that ran loose on the property. At a very early age, I learned to hunt and kill and to provide food for the family, and I became closely familiar with a myriad of small creatures.
Very often, I chose to follow a circular route that led me home by way of the little shack, which continued to be full of hay for a while. The hay invited some creatures to seek habitat there… once in a while, a skunk, a raccoon, a possum, or a rattlesnake… but mostly and mainly, mice and rats.
There finally came a time when all the hay was taken from the little shack, and I began to spend a great deal of time there. I was a little older by then.
Sanctuary of Solitude
I had found a couple of little fossils among the river rocks that had been used on the railroad, which ran alongside the property. And looking for more, I developed an interest in rocks, and that led to a rock collection, which required space.
I had also acquired a second-hand chemistry set, and with that came a sense of also needing some privacy. With my rocks and my plant and insect samples, my reading, writing, and drawing, and my ‘laboratory work’, that little shack, obscured in the brush and tall grass, became a sanctuary of solitude.
It wasn’t just a place where I played. It was a place where I learned to fantasize and to unleash my imagination. It was the place where I drew my first sketches and jotted down lines of ideas, which would become my first poems and stories. I suppose one could say it was the first place I ever became lost in thought.
And so it happened, on one of those lingering days of the autumn, when twilight creeps in, quietly and softly… and the shadows seem to have waited all afternoon, and then, they come out… all at once. And I didn’t notice.
What could it have been that so engrossed me that late afternoon? Among other literature, I had amassed a number of comic books of the science fiction and the western fiction genres. But I might have also been watching crystals grow, or studying the cells on a leaf through my little microscope, or making something foam, or creating blue or green fire.
I had lost track of time, and I had not noticed the dimming sunlight. Either I was deeply engrossed in some visual observation, or I was caught up in some line of thought that I couldn’t let go.
I heard a sound in the other room, and I looked up. There was a door there that usually hung ajar of its own inclination. And now, it swung quietly into a fully open position, and I stared into an abysmal darkness such as I have never known since or anywhere else. I sat there frozen… perhaps it was wonderment… perhaps it was fear.
I heard the sound again, some sort of scuffle, as if maybe, it was just some animal nosing around, just on the other side of the wall. The sound depicted it somehow to be a large animal, but in order to be in there, it would have had to have gone past me. And still seeing some daylight outside, I became spellbound with that eerie darkness, which now seemed to be filling the room in which I was sitting.
And then, there was a voice. It was much like a whisper, but uttered forcibly, so as to move the air in the room, “Salte de aquí! Ahora!” (Get out of here! Now!)
And I jumped up and ran. About thirty yards away and halfway home, I stopped and turned around. I wasn’t about to go back over there, but I had to rethink what I thought had just happened.
The voice I had heard, back there in the shack, had been right in the room with me, and something else had been in the other room. The voice had been some sort of warning, but I had no idea what it had been warning me about.
I told no one about my experience. My parents were used to seeing me in pensive moods. And now, being aware of my new ‘laboratory’, they were lenient about giving their ‘little professor’ space to ponder … albeit with amused looks on their faces.
And I was pensive that night, and I pondered all the next day, until I came home from school. I had been thinking about the many people who may have lived in those shacks, in the years before we came, perhaps when someone else had owned the property.
Things might have been so different then. Maybe all the shacks had been occupied once. Maybe there had been more children… and more people taking down the brush and cacti… so that they could all see one another.
But whoever lived in that little two-room shack would have had no water of their own. They would have had to go to their neighbors, perhaps forty yards away, to get water or to use an outhouse. And they would have had to use kerosene lanterns or candles for light in the dark, even when the others had electric lighting.
The wetbacks never had women or children with them. I tried to imagine what it might have been like… to travel furtively from a life of poverty into another country… and into another life of poverty… to perform backbreaking work in the hot sun all day for wages that should have embarrassed anyone. And then, they would have had to retire to a shack that promised nothing more than a bucket of tepid water for relief.
Did those men live tormented lives? Did they suffer in silence as they went to sleep, only to wake up and endure another day? Did anyone ever die in there… far from home and family… curled up in a fetal position… hiding his pain and his tears?
Confronting the Unknown
I returned to my place of solitude that following afternoon, while there was still plenty of daylight left. The door to the other room was in its usual position, two or three inches ajar, and I could see daylight in there, streaming in through the boards on the window and the other cracks. But it was not in boldness that I let myself into that room.
There was an overwhelming need for me to see for myself that there was nothing in there; and if there was, I felt that my state of nescience would protect me somehow. And so, I stood in the middle of that room and looked carefully into every corner.
My heart was pounding, I was shivering, and yet, something in me, my silent voice, was saying, “Show yourself… here and now, in the light… so you can see me… and I can see you.”
There was still plenty of straw on the floor. In fact, I had swept much of it in from the other room when I had cleaned up that space for myself. I looked for piles big enough for something to hide under and kicked them over… and I checked the window wells, where the sash weights would be (the cords having broken long ago) and rats liked to nest. I looked up at the roof and scanned for a bird’s nest or signs of bats.
The dust I had kicked up was catching the light that was streaming in through the cracks… golden beams of swirling light… enough light to let me see everything in the room.
I spoke softly, though I didn’t know where the words were coming from or if anyone or anything would hear me, “I’m not going to wait for you in the darkness, and I’m not going into the darkness to look for you. If we ever meet, it will be in the light.”
I backed out quietly, into ‘the lab’, and I stood there and watched the door settle into its normal position. And then I backed up all the way out of the shack.
And I decided not to go back in there for a couple of days. I was acting in accordance with feelings and some sense that I could not understand, but something outside of myself was telling me it was right. It was the right thing to do.
I would wait until the weekend, when I could come early. And I would stay there for as long as I liked… for what the daylight would allow.
Fear and Daring
That Friday afternoon, I was out in the woods, as usual, and as twilight loomed near, I found myself having to walk by the little shack. The footpath led no more than four feet from the backdoor, and the shadow from the shack was already stretched across it. When I was still about 20 yards from the shack, I considered finding another path. I was terrified of going near!
But something compelled me. Some sort of awareness in me told me that I should not let that fear control me, that I should face that fear and whatever it would reveal. With a rifle in my hand, which I reckoned to be useless, and tears welling up in my eyes, I raised up my head and I strode forward.
When I was near enough to touch the shack, I began to hear a moaning and panting coming from inside. It was inside that room, but it was growing in intensity, so that soon, it sounded as if the shack itself was breathing hoarsely. It seemed as if it was pumping itself up, and as I approached the back door, halfway along the side of the shack, the wall bulged out. And I let out a yell, as it pushed me off my feet.
I propped myself up on my elbows and saw the wall get sucked in and then back out again. It seemed to stretch itself further out and it writhed, as if it was trying to reach me. And then something inside began knocking loudly on the wall. And the knocking began to turn into laughter.
I got on my feet as hurriedly as I could, I grabbed the rifle, and I ran. And again, I stopped in the same spot as before and looked back. I could still hear a hissing, a gasping, wheezing sound, as when a person has breathing problems. And I thought I could see the shack breathing in and out. But I was terrified; I could have imagined anything.
I was at a point now that I really needed to confide in someone. The one person I was never too afraid, too embarrassed, or too self-absorbed to talk to was my older brother. And it occurred to me at that moment that, as far as I knew, he had never been in my ‘lab.’
That was very unusual. My brother and I were almost always together. Sometimes, our chores took us in different directions; but at times, it seemed as if our minds were linked somehow. I sensed that there must have been a reason for his absence in this. And so I decided, for the time being, to keep my troubles to myself.
That night, I lay awake for a long time, thinking about everything that had happened and the things I had seen. And I fell asleep, thinking and dreaming about those people I had imagined… in the shack.
Three men had lived there once. Two of them had been brothers. They had all slept on the floor in one room. The younger brother, the youngest of their family, had fallen ill. His breathing was strained and he was coughing excessively.
The older brother had to increase his effort in the field to make up for the other’s absence, and he asked the others to help out if they could. When the time came, everyone else left, but the two brothers could not.
The little brother passed away from his illness. The older brother could not return home and face his family. And with a sense of worthlessness and remorse, he took his life… or so, it was believed.
They had been illegal foreigner transients. And so their bodies were cremated in the same manner as the livestock, when they died from an illness.
On Saturday morning, when the daylight was as bright as it was going to get, I stepped into my 'laboratory' and began to look for things to do. I noticed that the door to the other room was fully closed, and I felt an urge to go push it open. And then, I felt a tingle in the nape of my neck and decided to ignore it… as well as I could.
In the leisurely moments that followed, I studied the carcass of a cicada and drew the lines from its wings unto paper for some future project. I read a Superman story… again… read about The Lone Ranger… again. I ate a snack. And I did other intriguing and absorbing activities; and when I felt done and ready to go, the sun was still very high in the sky.
I put some things away, as well as a little boy might. I was on my knees, beginning to stand, and I stopped when I saw the door glide open silently. There was no darkness in the other room.
In the heat of a Texas autumn, I suddenly felt a cold breeze brush past me. And then, I felt it again, and it swirled around me gently. It came to rest on my shoulders, like a cool, damp sheet. And I felt that coolness descend into my body. It was a wonderful moment of relief from the motionless air and the ceaseless heat.
And then, I heard that same voice. But it was soft and gentle. It was the little brother saying, ‘gracias’. And it was fading away… the cool sensation was fading away… there were two voices fading away… I could barely hear them.
The shack creaked like an old house does sometimes, and I saw the door settle into its lop-sided tendency. I thought I heard some sort of whimpering behind the wall… but I used to imagine so many things in those days.
On Sunday, I was in the ‘lab,’ looking over my little fossils, when my brother sauntered in. He handed me a bottle of cold orange soda, he sat on the wooden crate, which was my only furniture, and he looked around with a grin on his face, “So, this is where you been wasting all your time, huh?”
I stood up and looked around proudly, admiring my arrays of wonders on the floor and on the walls, took a gratifying, long drink… and I wondered where he’d gotten a cold soda.