Screams in the night
I’d known about Jack Stucky all my life, but I’d never seen him. I’d hunted pheasants on land bordering Jack’s many times. My grandfather respected other people’s property rights and never hunted land without permission, but he was not above boosting me over a fence to retrieve a bird that had fallen onto land posted “no trespassing” if the situation called for it. The time it happened on Jack Stucky’s place, however, we left the bird where it lay and walked on.
“Don’t go onto Jack’s land, Boy. He’s not right. I ain’t seen him since before you was born, but I don’t speck he’s no better’n he ever was.”
Jack was a hermit, and that fascinated us kids. He lived in the woods, forty acres thick with trees, vines, and creepers, on an oiled road a few miles outside my hometown. He owned six-hundred-forty acres, a square mile, the vast majority of which was in fallow, overgrown farmland. But Jack didn’t farm. Nobody was really sure what Jack did, except just stay out there in his shack, sunk back in the deep dense tangle of vines, creepers and overgrowth that covered the forty acre piece he lived on, completely out of sight but never out of mind. All of us wanted to know what was in there but, as curious as we were, we kept out.
We’d heard the screams.
I was about nine the first time I heard them, camping on the riverbank for a little night catfishing with a buddy, about a half-mile from Jack’s place. We were fireside, pounding down some Pork n’ Beans a couple of hours after dark, when a desolate shriek came wafting on the wind. It continued for some time before tailing off, a long drawn-out howl that made the hair on my arms stand up. It was no bobcat, and it scared the warmth right out of us. We huddled, big-eyed by the fire, throwing on more wood and turning up the lantern. The aftermath of the scream thickened the darkness, making the night close in around us. The blackness towered overhead, pressing on us with its massive weight, pushing us lower into the earth. We were bone cold from that scream, frightened to the core. Several times through the long night it came again, a soulless wail shattering the stillness, devastating in its despair. I have never greeted a more welcome dawn.
At home later that morning I asked my grandfather about the screams. According to him Jack had a sister.
“She was a real educated woman, Boy. Taught school out in one a them big colleges in New York or someplace like that. Back afore the war she lost her mind and ol’ Jack went out there and brung her home. She lives in that shack with him. I ain’t never seen her, he keeps her inside. Used to be she yelled an’ hollered quite a bit…but not so much anymore, ‘cept after dark.”
A year or two later I was riding my bike past Jack’s place when it threw the chain and I crashed in the ditch. I was sitting in the dirt, contemplating my crippled bicycle, when a voice cut into my thoughts.
“It won’t roll lak thet.”
I jumped to my feet and whirled around. There, standing behind me on the other side of the fence, was Jack Stucky. He was tall and stick thin in filthy bib overalls and a tattered shirt, leaning on a shovel. Bloodshot eyes regarded me from under the brim of an old slouch hat.
“Whose kin be ye?” he asked. His voice was raspy and gurgled like the sound you don’t want to hear coming from the bottom of a well.
“Frank White is my grandpa,” I stammered.
“Ain’t seen ol’ Hanky fer a spell. Tell him he kin hunt that south field this yar if’n he wonts to. Lotsa birds.” He set some pliers on a fencepost. “Yer gonner need these hyar, if’n yer gonner git thet thang ta roll. Put ‘em back on the post whan yer done. I gotter git back to ma diggin’.” He limped away, using his shovel for a staff.
I related the incident to my grandfather, who was surprised Jack was going to let us hunt his land.
“He ain’t let nobody hunt since his sister come on the place. Come pheasant season, Boy, we are gonna have a time! That land ain’t been hunted in twenty years. We can leave the guns at home and take the minnow net.”
It was nearly the truth. The field was so birdy that fall that our dog just didn’t know what to do. Within thirty minutes we each had our limit of surprised pheasants who’d suddenly lost a lifetime of security. We were in an overgrown pasture behind Jack’s shack, walking back to the road, when the dog ambled over to the fence and wouldn’t come when we called him. We went over to where he stood, tail wagging, his head through the woven wire. There, on the other side of the fence, was a low mound of black dirt with a crude wooden cross at one end. Cut into the crossbar at the head of that grave was one word….SISTER. The screams had finally stopped.
I don’t know what ever became of Jack Stucky. He was still living out in those woods when I left the community. But I wonder sometimes, after all those years he cared for that poor troubled soul who was once his sister, if the screams ever stopped for him.