Herbert Hackerstock Wakes Up on the Old Farm
It is four o’clock in the morning. Herbert Hackerstock wakes up and doesn’t know where he is. At first. One hand rests on his chest. The other is at his side, palm-down, and when he clenches it into a fist, he grabs a couple of wet, rotten straws of hay. Then he remembers that he got out of bed hours before, and dressed himself in brown trousers, a blue shirt, brown socks, and brown boots. Then he left his home.
Outside, he was alone under a clear, starry sky. He walked over the hillsides while everyone around him slept. He visited the neighbors’ cows. He visited the pigs and the horses. Then he walked to the place where he isn’t supposed to go – he can only go there at night, when no one else is around.
He walked down the over-grown dirt driveway and entered The Old House. The door no longer locks, and the windows are all broken. The only furniture left is a two-legged table in the kitchen and a bookcase without any shelves. The inside smells like mud and the woods after it rains. Herbert ascended the stairs to The Bedroom, with its torn and faded wallpaper, which, if one looks carefully, appears to have a pattern of teddy bears and trains. There is a mattress in the middle of the floor with a large, brown stain. He stood in The Room, as he often does, for a long time, unmoving, touching nothing. Afterward, he walked downstairs and outside, across the old yard to The Barn, with its caved-in roof and black-stained walls from The Big Fire. He climbed the soggy, broken ladder to The Loft. The decaying board sagged under his weight as he stretched out and fell asleep.
When he awoke, he forgot for a moment, as he always does, that he wasn’t home in bed. When he remembered, he climbed down the ladder as fast as he could, tripping over missing rungs. He walked home as the starlings began to call out to the first light of the sun.
Herbert Hackerstock Cooks Breakfast
Herbert gets confused sometimes about what to have for breakfast. In the old days, it was easy, because all there was to eat were bits of pig. Pig jowls, pig ankles, pig ears, pig brains, etc. There are still bits of pig, but now they come in plastic and are called by strange names, like “ham” and “bacon.” These aren’t like the bits of pig on the Old Farm. They’re salty and slimy and they smell funny.
One morning, a while ago, Herbert killed the Olsons’ cat and prepared it just like a turkey – he plucked out the fur and roasted it on a spit. Six-year-old Emily Olson had named the cat Captain Danger, but the name didn’t suit him. Captain Danger was timid, especially for a cat. He’d allowed Herbert to pick him up, his legs dangling loosely as Herbert took him into the house and laid him on the chopping block, where the cat meowed ineffectively.
The Olsons thought Captain Danger had run away or been hit by a truck, though Mr. Olson always silently wondered about Herbert. When he was a little boy, Mr. Olson had shot a squirrel with his BB gun. He remembered vividly how he’d stood over the injured, twisting squirrel, tears pouring down his cheeks.
“You have to kill it, now,” Herbert, then in his twenties, had told the young Mr. Olson, handing him a large, sharp-edged rock. “You have to kill it to end its suffering.”
Though he hadn’t wanted to, at nine years of age, he was an obedient child. He’d killed the squirrel, then looked up into Herbert’s smiling face.
“Very good,” Herbert said, “He’s happy now. He’s with God.”
Mr. Olson never forgot that afternoon, nor what his father had said when he went home and told him the story of how Herbert Hackerstock made him kill a squirrel: “Poor Bert meant well,” Old Mr. Olson had said, ruffling his son’s hair. “Poor old Bert. He’d never hurt a fly.”
Herbert Hackerstock Walks Down to the Pebble Beach
After Herbert eats his breakfast, he walks toward town, stopping at the beach along the way. The day is overcast, and the place where the ocean meets the horizon is barely visible.
Herbert looks into the water. Shadows of fish dart in the sea pool, upsetting pebbles and clots of algae. Herbert whispers, “Slither, slither, slither,” then seems to become preoccupied with his tongue, waggling it in and out of his mouth as he says, “Slis-slis-slis-slis-slissssth.”
The waves bring in dirty white foam. Some of it looks yellow and goopy, like globs of puss. Herbert smiles down at the foam with heavy-lidded eyes. He twitches, then looks around. Smiling bigger, he puts a finger to his lips: “Shhh,” he tells the gloopy foam.
He slips out of his shoes and shocks and steps into the water. Fishy shapes dart around him and he bends down, dipping his hands below the waves, pointing his bum at the sky. He feels the fishies slither, slither, slimy like the yellow stuff. Wet, like the red stuff.
Herbert Hackerstock Visits the Pub
Herbert Hackerstock walks up to the bar every day and asks for a tumbler of whiskey with water. He sits in a corner, where the bar curves around to meet the wall, and talks to himself or whoever wanders near enough for him to take notice.
He looks at a stack of napkins and says, “That buzzy blob can taste blue.”
He taps the side of his head with a bony finger and smiles knowingly, saying, “He was afraid of the kitchen floor this morning.”
Herbert makes the new female bartender nervous, the way he rambles on, gazing through her with a thousand-yard stare. She is one of the many new people in the growing town, the people who are not accustomed to Herbert and his strange ways. They did not grow up watching him talk to buildings and cackle into garbage bins.
When the bartender brings Herbert his tab, he hands her the money and laughs in a way that sounds like a creaky cellar door.
“You’ve got children hiding in your walls,” he tells her pleasantly, with that same knowing smile.
At night, after she closes down the bar, long after Herbert has left, she goes home to bed. There, she lies awake, thinking about the children in the walls, their hands poised to bang their palms against the wood and plaster.
Herbert Hackerstock Chops Down All the Trees
While walking home from the bar that evening, Herbert admires the wildflowers that grow in the roadside ditch. Uncharacteristically, he steps off the road into the deep furrow, the nadir of which is soggy with dew and old rainwater. He grumbles over his wet socks, but amuses himself with stomping the wildflowers flat. He thinks about the plants of the countryside; the photosynthesis machines – light goes in. They eat the light. This thought frightens Herbert and he stumbles out of the ditch back onto the road.
The sun is going down now. The plants will have nothing to eat. Again, Herbert is frightened. If the plants get hungry, what will they eat instead?
At times like these, when he is nervous, the word he’s supposed to remember is “paranoia.” It is “paranoia” that makes his heart beat quickly and his eyes dart back and forth, wondering about the plants. He is wondering about all the plants, now. The plants are out to get him.
It is paranoia that makes him stop suddenly. The idea that the plants will get him has taken hold, but he cannot remember how these thoughts began. He can’t remember exactly what he is afraid of.
There are trees lining this part of the road. They are freshly planted, and he feels they are watching him. How could trees be watching him. They are not real trees, he realizes. Someone has planted false trees – false trees to record people walking by. They record him.
This makes him angry. He knows exactly who has done this, but he will deal with Them later. Now, it is his duty to get rid of these awful trees.
Herbert knows where there is an axe – leaning against an old stump in the Brightlys’ yard nearby.
Herbert Hackerstock Meets Officer Harper
Herbert retrieves the Brightlys’ axe and, yelling wildly, attacks one of the thin, adolescent trees. In his madness, he chops it down quickly. Cars pass, their headlights shining in his eyes, and he screams at Them, waving the axe. They won’t frighten him away – he isn’t afraid of Them.
There’s a loud squealing noise, like the pigs used to make when he dragged them from the pen to the killing shed. Red and blue lights flash. He screams at Them to go away. They won’t stop him. He isn’t afraid.
The veterans tell the rookie to calm down – it’s just Herbert. He’s just confused. But the rookie points his gun and yells for Herbert to drop his weapon.
Captain Phillips holds up his hands, palms outward, and says, “It’s all right, Bert, it’s all right. It’s just us. It’s just Bill Phillips.”
Herbert screams, swinging the axe, and steps toward Captain Phillips.
Phillips yells at the rookie, “Stand down, Harper! Bert, look, it’s Billy. Billy, remember? You’re okay.”
Herbert pauses. It appears the clouds are lifting, but Harper is shaking in terror and still pointing the gun at Herbert’s head.
“Drop your weapon!” he yells once more.
Herbert looks at Harper, and his pupils constrict. He screams again, charging at Captain Phillips with his axe raised. Phillips cries out and Harper fires once. Herbert falls and is dead before his hits the ground. The axe head hits a rock with a heavy metallic ping. It flips end over end and lands in the ditch, sliding down into nadir and embedding itself in the saturated soil. The police borrow Mr. Brightly’s scythe so they can cut away the vegetation in the ditch and retrieve the axe for the evidence room.
Front page image by crustmania