I was making supper when I heard Albert’s dogs yapping in the yard. I figured it was another fox, or maybe a skunk this time. Ever since the dry spring led into an even drier summer, wild animals had been hanging around the yard, trying to steal cat food from the barn. I felt sorry for the poor creatures, but I knew we couldn’t go wasting expensive cat food. Albert barely tolerated spending any money on my cats, but at least they did some work around the place, keeping mice out of the granaries. Wild animals did nothing but scare the chickens, so Albert usually took his gun after them as soon as they came on the yard. But he was out in the field again today, so I was on my own.
I stepped out on the porch to see what I was up against. The dogs were barking in the direction of the trees. As usual, they paid no attention to me. Albert was their master, and I was just that woman who came to live with him. I couldn’t make anything out with the naked eye, so I grabbed my binoculars. Then I did see something: an old man, standing stock-still among the trees. He was wearing a faded cowboy hat, a red checked shirt almost worn through, and some dirty overalls. There was a box in front of him, the big, cardboard kind they hand out at the grocery store. At first, I wanted to run inside and hide, but I knew what my husband expected of me. I put on my bravest face and went over to talk to the stranger. “This farm is private property,” I said, just like Albert had taught me. “What are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”
The man tipped his hat to me. I could tell he tried to smile, but he didn‘t quite make it. He spoke in a low, mumbling voice, and his words came out hoarsely, like it had been a long time since he’d tried to talk to anyone. “I’m just passing through, Ma’am, and I got tired of hauling around this box. I need to rest up for a while, and then I’ll be on my way.”
I stepped over closer to him and looked in the box. Instead of the clothes and things I’d expected to see, the box was full of candy wrappers, bottle caps, and old, dried leaves. “I don’t see why you want that box anyway,” I said to him. “There’s nothing in it that you need.”
“I have to carry this box, Ma’am,” he said. “It’s almost like a part of me. I’ve been dragging around boxes like this one for almost five years.”
I was sure then that he was crazy, and I didn’t want to get into an argument with him. “I’ll bring you some water, and you can rest a while. But you have to leave before my husband gets home. He’s not the kind of guy you want to mess with.” He looked at me like he understood.
After I brought him the jug of water, I got back to my cooking. I was behind schedule, and that meant I was missing my program! I turned on the radio, and Martha Bohlsen’s friendly voice came over the air. I knew she was just a woman at a radio station in Omaha, Nebraska, but sometimes I thought of Martha as my only woman friend. I’d been so lonely for other women since I came out here to the farm. The only ones I got to see now were Albert’s sisters, and they were worse than he was, with their sanctimonious looks. Just because I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks didn’t make me a bad person, but all they ever did was ask me if I’d been saved. I wanted to say I once thought I’d been saved by their brother, but I always held my tongue.
That day Martha’s topic was pickling. As she described how to choose the best ingredients, my mouth started watering for a fresh, cool cucumber, but then I remembered there weren’t any around. The vines had dried up and blown away long before, along with almost everything else in the garden. The only things we had left were our sad-looking crop of corn and our huge flock of chickens. At this rate, Albert didn’t think we’d harvest enough grain to feed them the next winter, so he was trying to butcher most of them now while they were still nice and fat. After three years on the farm, it still made me feel a little queasy to eat an animal that I’d known, but at least we had plenty. I’d had a pot of chicken soup going all afternoon, and I mixed up a batch of johnnycake to go with it.
I was setting the table when Albert came in from cultivating corn. Even a town girl like me knew it was pointless this year, but he still kept doing it every day, just because he didn’t have anything else to do. Albert was never very sociable, but he usually said something to let me know when he came inside. Today, he walked right through the kitchen and into the bathroom to wash up without saying a word, letting me know that he was mad about something.
When he came back, he had plenty to say. “Clara,” he said in that falsely level voice he only used when he was trying to keep from exploding, “who is that man sitting on our porch?”
Like always with Albert, I was so flustered I couldn’t think straight. “What man are you talking about, Albert?” I asked innocently.
“Oh, you know, that old man. The one with the huge box.” His voice got louder and louder as he spoke, and his face was starting to turn red.
“Him?” I tried to sound confident, but instead it came out as a wail. “Is he still here? I told him he had to leave before you got home.”
Now he was really angry. “So you did know about him? Remember what I told you to do when strangers come here, Clara. Make them go away.” He pounded the table with each word to emphasize his point. “How many times do I have to tell you? Sometimes it’s like talking to a brick wall.”
As usual, I tried to defend myself. “I tried to make him go away, but he scared me. I was afraid to talk to him anymore, so I came in here and tried to forget about him. I really try to do what you tell me, but you don’t realize–”
Albert cut me off. “It’s not worth talking about anymore. Let’s go out there and get rid of him before supper. There’s no way I’m letting him stay here tonight.”
The man was sitting on the porch steps, staring at the horizon. At that moment, he looked like the most innocent man I’d ever met. It seemed ludicrous that he could cause so much trouble.
“All right, mister, you’ve been sitting here long enough already. Time to move on.” Albert sounded like a policeman on one of those TV shows he always watched.
“I’m not going anywhere,” the old man grunted, crossing his arms and setting his jaw. Inside I felt a secret glee that he was able to resist Albert so easily. Maybe my bossy husband had finally met his match.
“Well. I guess I’ll have to help you gather your things,” Albert said in his most gallant style. He lifted the box off the bottom step and started to carry it away. When I saw what happened next, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, for Albert had picked up more than just the box: the little man was being dragged right along with it by his right foot, leaving a trail like a snake’s in the gravel behind him. Albert finally gave up and threw the box down on the ground. He spent a long time trying to figure out how the man was hooked to the box, walking in circles around it and studying it from every direction. “How’d you do that?” he finally demanded of the little man.
“It’s my box,” the man said matter-of-factly. “It goes wherever I go. It’s been stuck to my foot for the last 5 years.”
“Go on,” Albert said. “How’d you really do that?”
The old man thought a while, and then he got a mischievous glint in his eyes. “The compelling force of the Holy Ghost,” he said, putting on a thick accent like one of those TV preachers.
I knew he was just making that up, but Albert wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and even though we didn’t go to church on Sundays, he always got a little bit scared when people started talking about the power of God. After that, he practically begged the man to come in the house and spend the night with us. I didn’t understand how he could maneuver that box around the good furniture, and the man must have been thinking the same thing, because he insisted on staying outside. He didn’t object to a great big bowl of my soup, though. He set to it like one of my cats lapping up chicken grease. I got the idea he hadn’t had his stomach filled for a long, long time.
I couldn’t let that poor man spend the whole night outside, so I offered to let him bed down in the barn. It was dark, dusty, and full of cats, but it was better than nothing. It took a while of convincing, but he finally agreed to that much of a roof over his head.
Next morning, Albert was out driving his tractor before I woke up, leaving me all alone with the stranger again. I made an extra helping of oatmeal and took some out to the barn for him. I was just stooping through the door when he yelled, “No! Stay outside! Leave it on the ground, and I’ll come get it later.” I felt a little bit miffed, but I did what he said.
After I ate my breakfast, it was time to feed the cats. (I knew that, as always, Albert had already fed the dogs and chickens. Like most things around the farm, feeding the animals he cared about was his job, because he never could trust me to get anything right.) I got some of the leftover chicken broth, poured it over a small amount of cat food, and took it out to the barn just like I always did. But as I ducked my head through the doorway, I remembered the man in there and how he had yelled at me before. This time I knocked on the door frame. “Yes?” he snapped.
“Excuse me, but I’m here to feed the cats,” I said, trying to sound normal.
“I don’t think you have to worry about them anymore,” he replied.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He waited a minute before answering. “I don’t know how to say this, Ma’am, but they’re all dead.”
I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. “What did it?” I asked. “A fox, or a raccoon, or–”
“It was me. I killed them.” He seemed almost embarrassed. “Uh, don’t worry about it. I’ll bury them, OK?”
I couldn’t stand to be there another moment. I turned and ran as fast as I could, spilling the cat food over the ground and all over myself. I never would have believed that man could hurt my kitties. Even Albert had never done anything like that, though he had often threatened it. He hated the way the cats rubbed against his legs while he was trying to walk across the yard. He blamed me for making them too friendly, and I guess it was true. But they had been the only happy faces I could talk to since we got married, and now they were gone forever.
By the time I got up on the porch, I was crying. Then I heard a little sound that made me look down. There was Snowball, the slyest mouser I had! I picked her up and crooned into her ear. “Snowball, you smart kitty, you must have gone hunting last night, and the bad man didn’t get you.” I hugged and kissed her. Then, although I knew Albert might call me on the carpet for it, I let her come into the house with me. I wanted her in a place where that crazy man could never find her.
By noontime when Albert came home for his fried chicken dinner, I’d rehearsed what I wanted to say about a million times in my head. I knew I had to be firm with him, and tell him exactly what I wanted him to do with that terrible man. I knew I shouldn’t show any signs of emotion, so Albert could have no way to blame me for anything. I knew all that, but as soon as he came in the door, I burst into tears. “That horrible man killed my cats,” I sobbed.
“How do you know that?” Albert demanded cynically.
“He told me so,” I wailed.
“Clara, you’ve got to be reasonable about this and quit acting so emotional. That fellow is a man of God. He wouldn’t harm any of His creatures. Did you actually see any bodies?”
I shook my head.
“So how do you know he was telling the truth? He was probably pulling your leg.” Albert sat down at the table to eat, and as he did so, Snowball jumped out of the box under the table that I had fixed for her. I tried to catch her before Albert saw her, but as usual, she made a beeline for his legs. I knew I was in for it then.
“Clara, what’s my number one rule for this house?” Albert demanded.
“No animals inside,” I said weakly.
“So what’s this cat of yours doing here?”
I knew it was no use to try to explain. “I’ll put her outside right now,” I said hurriedly, but my gesture of obedience came too late for Albert’s liking. He got up from the table and slapped me in the face. Then he sat back down and finished his meal in cold silence.
As soon as he left, my fury came back from the place it had been hiding. I knew I had to do something to make myself feel better. Albert was a lost cause, but the stranger might listen to me. After finding Snowball and putting her back in the safety of the house, I marched out to the barn to confront the box man for once and for all.
“I realize you can’t take back what you’ve done,” I said to him from the doorway, “but at least you could tell me why you did it. What made you want to murder my cats?”
He looked very surprised. “Murder your cats? What are you talking about? I didn’t murder them!”
I couldn’t let him get away with such an outrageous statement. “You told me yourself not three hours ago that you did. You stood right there and told me that you had killed them.”
“Sure, I killed them, but I didn’t murder them. You’re making it sound like I did it on purpose.”
“What on earth are you talking about? How could you accidentally kill all six of my cats?” I didn’t think it was wise to let him know that Snowball was still alive.
“Let’s both go outside,” he said calmly, “and I’ll try to explain it all to you.” I wasn’t sure if I should do what he said, but he seemed so friendly that I finally agreed. He motioned me towards the old haystack right outside the barn. I crawled up there easily, and he followed in his slow, awkward way. Finally he was seated securely, though he made a strange picture with his legs dangling over the edge and the box dangling off of his foot, bottle caps and candy wrappers slowly tipping out as he moved.
Out in the sunlight, we had the chance to see each other clearly for the first time. His face was old and windburned, yet it had a certain peace about it. In a way, he reminded me of my grandpa, the one person who had always been kind to me before he died so many years before.
“What happened to you?” he asked, pointing at my face.
My hand flew up to cover the red mark that Albert’s slap had left there. “Oh. I had an accident with a flyswatter,” I said casually. He gave me a look that made me think he didn’t believe my story, but at least it stopped him from asking any more questions.
“Now that it‘s just the two of us,” the box man said, “I’ll tell you my tale of woe.” According to him, five years ago he had been a physics researcher at a university in Denver. Then came the night that he was working alone in the laboratory with an electromagnet when there was a lightning strike. The reaction it caused had left him with the lab’s trash box stuck to his foot, but that was only the visible change. The invisible change in him had been far worse. Now, whenever he touched a living being in an enclosed space, it died, something he’d learned the hard way when his labmates came to work the next morning. Since then, he’d lived a life on the run, trying to minimize the damage by staying outdoors as much as possible and avoiding human contact.
I was sure he’d been making the story up, because it sounded just like the beginning of all those superhero stories on TV, but I tried to be polite. “That’s a pretty incredible story,” I said, “but never mind that for now. Why don’t you tell me what you did with my cats?”
“Don’t you see? Your cats were too friendly,” he said with a wry smile. “They kept rubbing on my legs all night long. I tried to make them go away, but they kept coming back until they were all dead. I’m sorry, but there was nothing I could do about it.”
My patience was wearing thin. “You really make me mad,” I snapped. “Whether you did it on purpose or not, the fact is that you killed them. If you weren’t so old, I’d punch you right now.”
“Go on, hit me with your best shot,” he said tauntingly. “I can take it.”
That was it. I’d had enough of his attitude. I hauled off and gave him a good punch in the right arm, just the way I’d often dreamed of doing to Albert. I was surprised at how good it made me feel. But something else happened, too. At the moment my blow landed, the box dropped off of his foot and fell to the ground with a soft thump.
The change in the man was something to see. He straightened up from the slump he’d been in, and his face lit up like it was Christmas morning. “Thank you,” the man said sincerely. “I’ve been waiting so long for someone to do that. It feels really great to be free of that old box. And I bet you feel a lot better yourself.”
He was right, but I didn‘t want to admit it, so I changed the subject. “If you knew that was all that had to be done,” I asked, “why didn’t you have someone do it a long time ago?”
“Oh, I have many times,” he laughed. “But the effects only last for a couple of days, and then I pick up a new box from the ditch or something. Still I can get a lot farther down the road in the meantime. Thank you for what you did, and tell me if there’s anything I can do for you in return. I‘m guessing there‘s something around here you need taken care of.”
“The only things I need are things you can’t help me with,” I said sadly. “Like rain.”
“Oh, I can make it rain,” the man said matter-of-factly. “Why didn’t you say something before?”
I didn’t actually believe anyone could make it rain, at least not at first, but I figured I had nothing to lose, and the more I listened to him, the more I began to believe. The box man said it was very easy to do his rain-making ritual. We agreed on five o’clock as the time to begin; he said that late afternoon was “the optimal time for appropriate atmospheric conditions,” and for the first time I believed that maybe he had been a professor once.
I spent the rest of the day waiting for the big event, looking through closets for rain coats and four-buckle boots and umbrellas. I wondered if I should tell Albert about the coming rainstorm, but I decided not to. If he got caught in the rain out on his cabless tractor, he’d just have to deal with it.
Five o’clock rolled around, and I went out to the driveway to meet the box man as we had planned. The sky in the west was clear and bright, and there wasn‘t a cloud in sight. I felt a little foolish for believing that anyone could make it rain on a day like this, but it was my last hope. Believing in the box man was like believing in a better future to come.
Finally the man came out of the barn for the last time. It was still a little weird to see him walking normally. He had such a big stride, and he seemed so powerful. He looked younger somehow, too. Who could have predicted that I could make such a big difference for him, with one weak little punch in the arm? Just maybe he could make a difference for me, too, although it seemed impossible.
“I want you to know how much I’ve enjoyed talking to you, Ma’am,” he said when he reached me. “You might not understand it now, but I’m doing something very special for you today.” Before I could thank him, he turned away and went into the house.
He had barely gotten inside when I heard Albert’s tractor coming down the road. I wondered how he knew when to come, and then I realized it was supper time and I had nothing ready to feed him. He might understand about the box man and the rain, but I didn’t have much hope. He was never willing to believe any explanation I gave for anything.
He parked the tractor and stormed over to me. “What are you doing standing in the middle of the road like that?” he barked. “It’s a miracle that I didn’t run over you.”
“The man told me I had to stand here,” I said weakly. “He’s going to make it rain.”
Albert looked genuinely surprised. “I don‘t see how that’s possible,” he said. “But then again, he does have the power of the Holy Ghost behind him.” He looked hopefully off to the west for a moment or two, and then his eyes narrowed again as something occurred to him. “By the way, I hope you let that cat out of the house by now. I can just imagine it crawling all over the food on the table.”
“Snowball!” I gasped. In my excitement over the idea of rain, I’d forgotten all about my little kitty. Now she was trapped in that house with the box man and as good as dead. “She’s still in there,” I said. “I’d better go after her.”
“No, I’ll go and make sure it’s done right,” Albert said. “It’ll give me a chance to talk to that man and find out how he does the things he does. It seems like he‘s been avoiding me all day.”
I wanted to point out to him that he hadn’t been home for more than 15 minutes that day, but I decided to hold my tongue.
Albert walked up to the screen door and opened it. Snowball streaked out as soon as he did, but he didn’t notice her and kept going. I went to tell him that she was safe, but I stopped when I got up on the porch. Albert and the box man were arguing. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but they both sounded pretty angry, and they both kept pointing at me.
I should have realized what was going to happen next, but I guess I wasn’t thinking too clearly. I’d been so worried about what Albert might do to the box man that I’d never stopped to ask myself what the box man might do to Albert. I soon found out.
By now, both of them were yelling as loud as they could. It looked like Albert was going to punch him in the face, but before he could, the box man reached out and put both hands on Albert’s shoulders. He held them there for a long time, and when he released them, Albert fell backward onto the floor and stayed there. I could tell right away that he was dead, as dead as my cats still out in the barn.
The box man came towards the door where I was still standing. I wanted to run and hide, but there was nowhere to go. I knew that as long as I stayed outside he couldn’t hurt me, so I stood my ground.
“I’ve got to be on my way, Ma’am,” he said when he got out on the porch. “Give me about five minutes to get away, and then call an ambulance and tell them your husband is having a heart attack. It’ll hold up in an autopsy; it always has before.” He flashed a brilliant smile, and then he was off, running across the fields to the east as fast as a deer.
I did like he said; I really had no choice. I acted concerned for the benefit of the ambulance crew and cried when they told me Albert was dead. They took his body away then, and I was alone. I was calling the first of Albert’s long list of relatives when I heard a gentle pattering on the kitchen window. Sure enough, it was rain.
It rained for the next four days, all through the funeral and the family gathering afterward. It was real hard to play the part of a grieving widow, and I could tell Albert’s relatives were just waiting for me to slip up and act like the gold digger they’d always thought I was. But I also knew he hadn’t left a will, and that meant the farm was definitely mine now. Let them think what they wanted; they’d never be able to prove I’d had anything to do with his death, because I hadn’t.
As the last car finally pulled out of the driveway, I got my chance to sit down and think about things for a while. The box man had told me that he was going to do something special for me. Had he planned to kill Albert all along? I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t really want to know. What was done was done, and whether he had been justified in what he did or not, I knew I would definitely be better off in the long run because of it. I thought that next spring I just might put the farm out for cash rent and move to a little house in town. Snowball could live there with me, and I could get a job someplace real classy, like a hair salon or a department store. I’d been so afraid of living alone before I met Albert, but the idea of it sounded real good to me now.
While I was thinking these things, I noticed that the rain had stopped, and in the east I saw a rainbow. To me, it looked a lot like the box man’s smile.
BIO: Marne Wilson now lives in Parkersburg, West Virginia, but she grew up on a farm in North Dakota. She previously worked as an academic librarian at Ohio University. Her poems have appeared in many literary journals, and her fiction has appeared in Luna Station Quarterly. She is the author of a poetry chapbook, The Bovine Daycare Center (Finishing Line, 2015). Learn more about her and her writing at marnegrinoldswilson.wordpress.com/.