photo of Elizabeth Engstrom by Mary Bartnikowski

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Here is a short dark fantasy story for your personal enjoyment. Please honor all copyright laws. This story is an excerpt from Liz’s new book, The Northwoods Chronicles.

The Bog Pole

Kimberly paced her little living room, biting the flesh around her thumbnail. Every once in a while she’d pause and look down at the body of her husband, prison-thin, in new jeans and white T-shirt, with her brand new Gingher sewing shears protruding primly from his right eye. She wanted to kick him, he made her so mad, but that would be useless. She didn’t want to touch him. Ever again.

So she paced, and waited for Natasha. This was the second time today she’d paced, waiting for someone to show up, and she was damn tired of it. First, it was waiting for Cousins to arrive on the Greyhound. She must have burned up a million calories pacing that one off. She didn’t want him back. It had been ten years, she’d carved out a nice little life for herself in White Pines Junction and if there were going to be any changes in the way she lived, it wasn’t going to be with a drunken, ex-con idiot at her side. But she didn’t know how to tell him that. He’d been gone ten years, and had written her faithfully every month, long letters, pining for her and his life in the northwoods.

And he finally did arrive, swinging down from that bus with a light step, and a much older face. He grabbed her up like they do in the movies, and swung her around and said, “You and me babe,” then gave her a hard kiss on the mouth that bruised her lips. He had only a little carry on, like a vinyl gym bag, which he threw in the back seat of the car. He took the keys from her hand, and jumped into the driver’s seat. “Point me the way.”

Against her will, she directed him to her little lakeside cottage, the one she had worked hard to buy and pay for, no thanks to him. On the way home he declared his intentions: A thick steak, a cold beer and a good fuck. In that order. Well, he could get the first two at Margie’s if he brought his own beer, but the rest of it would be over her dead body.

Or his, as it turned out.

As it turned out, he didn’t want just one cold beer, he wanted a whole bottle of Jack Daniel’s. And then he didn’t want anything to eat, he just wanted her. She dodged him until he grabbed her, boozy prison breath in her face, and with desperate strength she never knew she had, she fought her way over to her sewing table, pulled on the fabric that was draped over it, until those gleaming silver plated Ginghers fell right into her hand. The next few minutes were blurred in her memory, but she remembered not being able to breathe, and him saying something about “this is the way it’s done around here, and if you don’t fight, you won’t get hurt.” She swung her arm just as he turned her over and leaned back, and instead of getting him in the back, like she thought she would, those scissors went right into his eye.

God.

She kicked him off of her, stood up, hiccuped a few times, quietly shrieked a few times, stomped and paced and freaked out for a moment, had a deep swig of that Jack herself, took a deep breath, straightened her clothes, and then sat down to contemplate her next move.

All her options were ugly. She could see nothing but going to prison herself for the rest of her life, writing long letters back to Natasha every month, pining for her little lakefront cottage. So she called Natasha, asked her to come over, “It’s very important,” she said, then began to pace again, waiting.

“Jesus God!” Natasha’s hand covered her mouth, her eyes wide. “What the fuck?”

“I know, I know,” Kimberly said, and she wanted nothing more than to put her arms around Natasha and comfort her, which would be comforting. But that was not to be. No arms around Natasha, not after all these years, and not for all the years to come. “Can you help me? I don’t know what to do.”

Natasha surveyed the scene, then went directly for the bottle on the coffee table. She took a swig, passed the bottle back to Kimberly, then sat down on the sofa. “Jesus,” she said. “You’ve got to call Sheriff Withens.”

“I’ll go to prison.”

“Self defense. You got bruises?”

Kimberly shrugged. “Isn’t there another way?”

“Like what? Bury him in the garden? Make fertilizer for your bamboo plants? Listen, Kim, nobody is going to have a hard time believing this was self-defense. Nobody liked Cousins, especially not Sheriff Withens.”

“You’re the only one who knew he was coming home.”

Natasha raised an eyebrow and took another sip of Jack.

Kimberly took that as a good sign, and enthusiasm lit a fire in her. “We can do this, Nat. We’ll haul him out to the boat and row him out to that bog on the island. You know the one? We can push him down under. The turtles will eat him in a week, and nobody will ever know.”

“I’ve got to admit it has a touch of poetic justice.”

“Me rotting in prison does not.”

“I will not be an accomplice, Kimberly. If we do this, you have done it by yourself. You must respect me enough to never bring my name into this.”

“Okay.”

“We will never discuss it again. I’ll tell Mort we played cards.”

“Okay.”

“All right.” Natasha took a deep breath and another swig. “Jesus, I can’t believe we’re going to do this. Go get a sturdy bamboo pole and something to bind his wrists and heels.”

Kimberly ran out the kitchen door, and into the greenhouse, its moist, earthy smell like a perfume. She grew bamboo in this greenhouse; was up to two hundred and four varieties of the fascinating stuff. Alongside one edge was a drying rack, and she picked out a piece of timber bamboo that was about three inches in diameter and eight feet long. It should work perfectly.

She brought the pole into the living room, and saw that Natasha had pulled all the draperies and turned out the porch light. She’d salvaged the shears and was in the process of cutting Cousins’ pants off. Kimberly got a length of bulky-spun yarn from her basket and worked at tying his wrists together, and then his ankles. They threaded the pole between and hoisted him onto their shoulders like a hunted-down pig. Which he was. He was a pathetic figure, hanging naked between them, skinny ass and all.

They marched him through the kitchen door and down the path to the pier and swung him into the little boat Kimberly kept tied up there. She ran back up to the house, grabbed jackets for the two of them, then pulled the blanket out of the dog’s house and threw it over Cousins’ gleaming whiteness.

Kimberly started the little outboard, Natasha cast off the bowline and they headed across the lake.

Now that action was being taken, Kimberly felt calmer, although she was shivering inside her down coat. It was cool on the lake in the night, but not cold enough to make her shiver. Delayed nerves, she told herself, but it didn’t help. The trusty little outboard putted its way across the dark and silent lake and just as they reached the island, a big moon came up over the trees, and the world went black and silver.

The island was marshy, with no beach. Kimberly nosed the boat into the weeds, and Natasha jumped out with the bowline into water up to her knees. She tied the line to a tree stump. The boat wasn’t going anywhere. They ended up dumping Cousins out into the water and dragging him across the marsh, because the weight of him on their shoulders made them sink too deeply into the marsh to walk.

Kimberly and Natasha had discovered the bog on the island last summer when they were looking for a private place to sunbathe nude. They’d taken Kim’s boat out to this island, sure to be vacant, since all it really was was marsh. Not likely any families water-skiing from it, and no fishermen would come ashore there. The marsh solidified about fifty feet in, and there they put their towels and opened the wine and had themselves a fun day and an allover tan. Not that Natasha needed a tan, but she seemed to enjoy being naked as much as Kimberly enjoyed Natasha being naked. Anyway, as they were exploring the small island, they found a hole in the middle of it, and inside was a deep well of blackish-green slime. Stagnant bog. Natasha, who owned the motel with her husband, and heard all the fishing stories, said that the bog was thick and mucky. And when Kimberly thought of a place to stash Cousins’ body, she thought of thick and mucky. It was perfect.

Once they were again on solid footing, they threaded the pole through Cousins’ bound ankles and wrists, and hoisted him back up on their shoulders.

“Tell me again why he went to jail?” Natasha asked.

“Robbed the mini-mart and made his getaway on his snowmobile. Left tracks right to our apartment.”

“Too stupid to live.”

Kimberly agreed. She slowed down as they neared the bog. She could sense it. She could smell it. She did not want to fall into it. Natasha said it was like quicksand; the more you moved, the deeper it sucked you down. They lowered Cousins to the ground, then Natasha picked up the bamboo pole and probed the ground in front of them. But when they got to the bog, they could see it. It was dark black in the night, as if it sucked the struggling moonlight right down to be eaten by turtles, too.

They went back and dragged Cousins as near to the edge as either one of them wanted to step, and then Kimberly picked up the pole and began shoving his body closer.

“Want to say a few words?”

Count on Natasha to sense gravity in the absurd situation.

“We could have been a family, Cousins, if you’d have been a little smarter,” Kimberly said. “And it’s mostly my fault for making a bad choice. I wish you well on your journey through the afterlife, and God have mercy on all our souls.”

Natasha nodded. “Amen,” she said.

Kimberly pushed until Cousins began to disappear into the muck. The back of his head and his shoulders floated like polished ivory in the moonlight.

“Push him under the edge,” Natasha said. “His body has to go under the island.”

Together they maneuvered Cousins’ remains to the far side of the bog, and then poked at him until he completely disappeared under the grass.

When he was gone and didn’t come back up, Kimberly’s knees gave out and she sat down hard and began to cry.

“Do that at home,” Natasha said. “I’ve got to wash my clothes and get cleaned up before I go home to Mort. I smell like bog.”

Kimberly put her fears and broken heart and emotional exhaustion on hold for one last trip across the lake. She promised herself that once she got home, she could break down and it could last awhile.

But in the morning, she realized she had to act completely normal, so she got up, showered and dressed, and opened up the dress shop like she always did. Nothing had to look out of the ordinary.

She figured two weeks with the turtles and she’d be home free. If Cousins didn’t emerge within two weeks, if some fisherman needing an emergency field toilet didn’t come upon him within two weeks, she would be fine. It was going to be a long two weeks.

By the end of the day, she hardly believed it had happened. She had decent receipts with all the tourist ladies in town, keeping themselves busy spending money while their husbands spent their days on the water. She was dog tired by the time she locked the front door and turned the Open sign to Closed, and went about straightening the shop and doing the cash report. Just as she was ready to leave, there came a knock on the front door.

Sheriff Withens.

Panic welled up in her, but she smiled and waved, and gave him the “just a minute” hand sign. Then she made herself look busy for ten seconds while she got her breathing under control.

Relax. Relax.

She unlocked the front door and let the Sheriff in, an old, rugged man with a face she had grown to love over the years. She didn’t like the fact that he was suddenly the enemy. “Hi, Sheriff.”

“Kimberly,” he said gravely, and closed the door behind him. “How you doing?”

“Fine.”

“Had a good day?”

“Not bad. Why? What’s up?”

“You know Cousins has been paroled?”

Kimberly felt the blood drain from her face. She felt the Sheriff’s warm hand on her arm. She felt the floor rock gently beneath her feet.

“Come on, now, let’s sit down.” He led her to the chair designated for bored husbands.

“I guess I knew it was coming up,” Kimberly said. “Is he here?”

“The prison notified me that he was released yesterday. You haven’t heard from him?”

“No. But I suppose I shall.”

“You two haven’t been in communication?”

“He writes to me, but I don’t write back. I don’t want to have anything to do with him.”

“Is it his intention to come back here?”

“I think it is.”

“Well, I’ll be looking out after you, Kimberly. Don’t you worry about that. If you see him, you let me know, so I can keep an eye on him, okay?”

“I’m so sorry, Sheriff. I feel like I’ve brought bad blood to White Pines Junction.”

“Things happen, Kimberly. You were young then, very young. You were what, nineteen?”

Kimberly nodded.

“Nobody begrudges you a bad decision in your youth. Especially since you’ve turned out so good. Just keep in touch with me, okay?”

Kimberly nodded, feeling herself back on somewhat solid ground. “Thanks for coming by.”

She saw the sheriff out, locked the door, and decided to put the cash report off for another day. She went out the back way, locked it up and went home to the last of the Jack Daniel’s and a hard, dreamless sleep.

The morning dawned with a low dark ceiling of clouds and the scent of storm on the air. Kimberly had to turn extra lights on at the shop to make it look pleasant, but business was brisk, as it always is on a stormy day. Thoughts of Cousins were far away, as if it were all a dark fantasy. Life returned almost to normal, with few thoughts of him, and those that came were benign, like when he had been safely locked away.

The rain started as she ran for her car. The sky darkened to midnight prematurely, with a strange greenish cast to the horizon where the sun ought to be setting. Big storm, she thought. She went home, and laid out the candles, made a fire in the wood stove and put the tea kettle on it, then put on a sweatshirt and sweatpants and waited for the maelstrom. She wished she still had the dog. Someone to cuddle with on the couch.

Natasha.

Nope. Don’t even think about it.

She sipped her tea and listened to the wind beginning. The rain was blasting the north side of the house, and the wind was coming up hard.

The truth was, she would have left the northwoods years ago, right after Cousins went to prison, if it hadn’t been for Natasha, and the friendship she offered. Kimberly was in love with Natasha, enough so that she would never declare her feelings. Natasha would be horrified. And besides, she was a married woman. Kimberly tried to like men, but it just wasn’t her passion. Natasha was her passion, and if she couldn’t have her, then she would be content to be near her. Nothing thrilled Kimberly more than Natasha stopping in at the store, buying some outrageously New York item that Kimberly had ordered, knowing it would achieve perfection on Natasha’s tall, lean, ebony body.

But Kim had to be careful. She didn’t want to lose the friendship by taking an inappropriate step.

And Natasha had gone to the mat for her, too. Participated in Cousins’ removal. They were sealed together for eternity by that act, one that never be mentioned ever again.

Two weeks. Two weeks, less two days and she was home free.

The wind picked up and started throwing stuff around outside. Kimberly went to the window and checked on the greenhouse, but it was fine.

She grabbed a pillow and blanket and decided to sleep on the couch in front of the fire.

Bright morning sun shining through the living room windows woke Kimberly. Storm was over. She got up, stretched, put the kettle back on the stove, noted that the power had never gone off, strangely enough, then looked out the back door to check the greenhouse. What she saw made her knees go wobbly again.

The island. The bog island, the island with Cousins’ body buried deep within it, was outside. Her pier and the little boat tied to it had been pushed aside and washed up on the lawn, and the island had been blown up alongside of it.

This happens, she tried to tell herself. It was not Cousins coming back to haunt her. It was not. She had heard of these islands blowing about in windstorms. One time, an island blew across a channel inlet and fishermen had to be rescued by helicopter. That had been a big island; nobody knew it was a free floating thing until that storm. This was a smaller island, maybe fifty yards across, but big enough to house pine trees and bushes. Big enough to walk on. To tether your boat to, to sunbathe nude on, to bury one’s husband in. It had every right to be blown around the lake.

Cousins was not driving it. Cousins was dead.

Kimberly stuck her feet into gum boots and went outside. The earth had been turned in the storm. It still smelled a little wild.

The island had beached itself right at the edge of her lawn. She stepped right onto it from the yard, gushed around a few steps, and then found firm footing. She walked, with trepidation, toward the middle of the island, toward the bog.

And there he was, floating in the middle of the small, green-black pool of slime. The bamboo pole was still there, so with heaving gasps and sobs, Kimberly picked up the pole and shoved Cousins back under the grass. It took a long time to get him entirely underneath the island, as things were surely churned up under there, but eventually, it was done, and she was sweating and boggy and crying and a mess.

She didn’t even know if there were any turtles under there to do away with him any more. She ran, as fast as she could under the circumstances, back to the house, and against her will, dialed Natasha’s number.

“Kimberly, hi! Some storm, eh?”

“Natasha, the storm blew the island into my pier. It’s in my back yard!”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, and he was out! I had to push him back under with the pole.”

“We’re not talking about that, Kim.” Natasha’s voice was muffled as if she had turned away from Mort and held her hand over the phone. “Deal with it.”

“He’s in my back yard!” Kimberly heard a shred of hysteria in her voice and she didn’t want to let it get a handhold on her. She stopped and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”

“We’ll talk later, okay?” Natasha said.

“Yeah, okay.”

“Bye now.”

Kimberly hung up and looked out the window. She felt as though a demon had started to stalk her and she didn’t know what to do. Deal with it. Like Natasha said. Deal with it.

And deal with it she did. Every morning she had to poke him back under the bog. Every morning when she went out there, the island, like a huge white elephant, was there, and every morning, she found Cousins floating in the black goo. Every morning, like a mantra, she would pick up the bamboo pole and push him under. It was a chore she added to her daily routine, like watering the growing bamboo and ordering new stock for the shop.

But it took its toll.

Every day she was surprised, all over again to see the island outside, nudging her broken pier. Each day she walked down the lawn, stepped onto the reedy mass and walked through the swampy undergrowth, and each day she saw Cousins’ stark white shoulders floating still, like bleached bones on black macadam. Each day she picked up the bamboo pole and shoved him, each day with more and more vehemence, until his sorry carcass was out of sight. Then she’d slog home, more often crying than not, to her little cottage and her other life.

Why weren’t the turtles eating him? Or the crawdads? Why wasn’t he decomposing? Too ornery, she supposed. He probably tastes bad.

And then one day, at least three weeks after the storm, long after Cousins should have been completely recycled, Sheriff Withens paid another call on her at the store.

At closing, like before.

“See you’ve got yourself a permanent resident,” he said.

Kimberly, nerves strung to the shrieking point, reacted too fast. “Resident?”

“The island,” Sheriff Withens said. “You’ve got yourself some additional real estate there, free of charge.” He smiled, and Kimberly wasn’t sure if he was being nice or toying with her like a cat with a mouse.

“Wrecked my pier,” she said.

“Know what we call that island? Dead Man’s Float. It’s been around for a hundred years, probably. Broke off Castle Point long before my daddy used to take me fishing out on that lake. Sometimes it floats free, sometimes it takes up residence for a time, until another wind storm blows it off to a new locale.”

“Dead Man’s Float?” Kimberly divided store receipts into nonsensical piles and kept clipping them together with paper clips in nonsensical order.

“Don’t know how it got that name. Funny, how things are named around here. Anyway, you okay? Heard from Cousins?”

“Cousins? Is this a joke?” She’d had enough of the sheriff’s games. If he had something to say, he needed to come right out and say it.

“No, darlin’, not at all. I just figured he’d be coming up here to see you, is all. I’m wondering if it isn’t a little strange that he hasn’t showed.”

“He’s got no business with me. We’ve got nothing to do with each other. I never want to see him again and I think I made that quite clear to him, and to you. I’m not expecting to see him up here. I don’t want to see him up here, and if he comes up here, I will not see him.”

The sheriff cocked his head and looked at her.

“Is that clear?”
“Yes indeedy, Miss Kimberly. You’re doing okay, living out there by yourself?”

“Yes.”

“And the store?”

“Fine.”

“Keeping up with your, you know, your chores?”
“Okay.” She threw down her receipts in angry exasperation. “Okay! Come and look. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of it all. I’m sick of the work, I’m sick of the worry, I’m sick of… I’m just fucking sick and tired of it all!” She grabbed her jacket and headed out the back door. “C’mon, then,” she said to him, impatient, suddenly, to have the whole thing done with, get her butt in jail, and begin the rotting process. One of them was going to rot in jail. If it wasn’t going to be Cousins, then it might as well be her.

The sheriff followed her out, then got into his own car and they proceeded the half mile to her little house. She left the car door open when she got out, and kicked off her high heeled pumps halfway down the back lawn. She didn’t even stop to take off her panty hose or worry about her expensive dress. She didn’t look behind her to see if the sheriff was following. She just stomped down the lawn, stepped onto the island, and sloshed her way across it to the bog.

The sheriff was behind her, she could hear him.

The bog was empty. No body floating. No Cousins. No nothing, but the nice, long, straight piece of timber bamboo that had served her in this strange capacity since that first night.

“Almost forgot about this bog,” Sheriff Withens said behind her. “It moved here with the island intact, eh? Odd stuff, that.”

“He comes out of there every morning,” Kimberly said.

“He? He who?”

“Cousins.”

“Comes out of the bog?”

Kimberly nodded and then started to cry. “I poke him back under with that pole,” she said, and then collapsed against his ample chest and began to sob.

The sheriff put big arms around her and held her for a long moment. “What if I took over that chore for the next week or so?”

“Huh?” She swiped at her runny nose.

“Let’s you go into the house and get a nice cup of tea, Kimberly. I think I’ll call Doctor Sanborn and see if he can come by to see you. Meanwhile, don’t you come out here on this island until I tell you it’s okay. I’ll take care of poking Cousins back down under the bog.”

She nodded. It didn’t make any sense to her that the sheriff would help her hide the evidence of her murder, but what the hell. If he wanted to come out here and poke Cousins back down under every morning, it would be a big load off her shoulders.

She let the sheriff take her back home, and he put the tea kettle on while she sat on the sofa and listened to him talk on the telephone to Dr. Samborn’s wife. She felt such relief she could barely believe it. And she hadn’t said a word about Natasha. She’d go to jail by herself for this crime. When the sheriff left, she’d call Natasha and tell her that she was going to prison. Taking Cousins’ place.

But Natasha’s line was busy, so Kimberly just went to bed.

In the morning, the sheriff’s car pulled deep into the drive. He got out, wearing gum boots, opened the trunk and hauled a long bundle out, hoisted it on his shoulder, where it bent in a very convenient way, and then made his way down the lawn and onto the island. It was heavy, she could tell by the way he staggered under its weight.

She began to iron a blouse to wear to jail.

A half hour later, she heard the patrol car start up, and sure enough, Sheriff Withens drove off. She went to the shop and acted as if nothing was wrong.

The next morning was a repeat performance. And the next. And the next.

After about a week, the sheriff began to bring her a donut and coffee in the morning at the shop. She’d drink the coffee, and he’d eventually say, “You going to eat that?” eyeing the donut. She’d shake her head, and he’d take it off her hands. They wouldn’t say much, just stand around conspiratorially.

Another week went by, and every day the sheriff took a long wrapped bundle of something over his shoulder to the bog. And Kimberly began to relax.

And then there was another week of the sheriff’s early morning visits to the bog, empty-handed. And then no more visits by the sheriff.

Until one evening, when the sun set late and the fireflies came winking around. Kimberly was sitting on the back porch enjoying a late cup of coffee when the patrol car pulled into the drive. He waved to her, then went on down the lawn and onto the island.

She waited.

Twenty minutes later, he was back, the bamboo pole in his hand.

“Coffee, sheriff?” she asked once he got within range.

“Thanks, no, Miss Kimberly,” he said. “It’s too late. I’d be up all night.” He leaned the pole next to the porch, then climbed the stairs and sat next to her. “Storm coming,” he said. “Make sure you’ve got firewood and candles and fresh water.”

She nodded.

“Fine pole,” he said. “Where’d you get such a thing?”

She pointed at the greenhouse with her chin.

“I’ll be damned,” he said. “Well, it did the trick, that’s for sure. I was running out of places to store them, if you know what I mean.”

She didn’t know, and she didn’t ask.

“Guess I’ll be going on home now. I’ll bring you a donut now and then.”

“That’d be nice.”

The wind woke Kimberly at 3:46am. It was a strange wind out of the southeast. It rattled things in her house and greenhouse the way normal winds didn’t, and when a dark dawn came and she finally got out of bed, Dead Man’s Float was where it ought to be, out in the middle of the lake.


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