Excerpt from "The Wretched Afterlife of Odetta Koop"

Lazarus Beachy dies on the last day of September. The miniature forest of elm trees surrounding his friend Grover Solomon Yoder's house—a three-story monolith that old timers in New Canaan, Iowa still refer to as "the Academy"—succumbed to Dutch elm disease in the preceding summer. Their bare branches writhe at the sky in crooked fans, gray and dead as stone. Lazarus thinks they look like props in an old horror movie, and Grover Solomon has to take his word for it. Horror movies are as forbidden in the Yoder household as Laz's deck of burlesque playing cards. Grover Solomon doesn't have the stomach for horror movies anyway. He is already scared most of the time.

He is scared right now, in fact. He huddles amid the clutter of the third floor while Laz searches for a new place to play Show Me, a card game of Laz's own invention. The cedar closet where they normally play is torn up for what Grover Solomon's father generously calls "renovations."

The fourth of seven brothers who all make their living at carpentry in the way of their risen Lord, Ethyl Yoder suffers the threefold malaise of having what many consider to be a woman's name, being a true middle child, and, worst of all, possessing no natural talent as a woodworker. His left thumbnail grows in a dented and warped claw from being whacked repeatedly with a hammer over the years, occasionally blackening and falling off to regrow even harder and more stunted than before. He has joked that if his aim doesn't improve, someday his nail will be so hard he'll be able to open soup cans with it. Grover Solomon's father has little more skill in humor than in carpentry.

But like his own stubborn thumbnail, Ethyl Yoder has a Puritan's work ethic, and he has become a serviceable carpenter through an admirable combination of practice and willpower. He can build a spice rack that does not lean on its braces, and by God he can replace the paneling in a cedar closet. So what if the cuts he makes do not align precisely to the slope of the ceiling? The closet is oddly shaped and tragically off-square to begin with.

In the meantime Grover Solomon and Laz must find somewhere else to play their favorite game, and the hunt has led them to the third floor. Everything up here is redolent of disuse, if not outright decay. Once while reading a National Geographic magazine at the library, Grover Solomon came across the term "elephant graveyard," and immediately thought of the third floor of his house: a grim, dusty space with his father's leaning, jutting creations scattered about like elephant bones. The boys are surrounded by boxes of old clothes, books, and Ethyl Yoder's unsalvageable woodworking projects. They stand side by side before a closed half-size door that Laz believes will serve their purposes very well if they can open it. The door matches perfectly the huge walnut doors on second, but in miniature. An ancient padlock hangs in an assembly that connects the door to its frame.

In the days of the school, this floor functioned as Odetta Koop's private residence. That might be why she's still here now. Invisible, she slouches behind the boys. She stands six and a half feet tall—larger in death than she ever was in life—and she is blind. When she died the mortician stitched her eyelids shut, as was the custom at that time. But he did it poorly. The man was a drunk, a worse undertaker than Ethyl Yoder is a carpenter, and the stitches meander across her eyelids in a row of uneven black X's. Normally—if anything about the situation in which Odetta Koop finds herself can be considered "normal"—such a disfigurement would not carry over from body to spirit. But Odetta, like the doomed king Oedipus before her, has chosen blindness. She has, as the expression goes, seen enough.

She can still smell, however. She noses at the air the way a prowling cat might scent out a nest of baby rabbits. Hot, stinking vitality bakes off of the boys like heat shimmers from desert sand. Her gorge would rise at it, had she but a gorge and bile to fill it.

The boys are going to play their disgusting card game again, and they are going to play it in the small room behind the half-door. In the later days of the academy, her students called that room the Cave. They thought she didn't know, but she knew everything that happened in her school. Undoubtedly the students would have been surprised to learn that she approved of their nickname for the room. But approve she did, and heartily. Did she not teach Plato's Allegory of the Cave in her theology lessons?

"Let's just go outside," says Grover Solomon, trying to sound nonchalant. If Laz hears any fear in his voice, it will only make the game more fun. Laz is not cruel, but he thinks scary things are fun rather than, well, scary. Moreover Laz is wearing jeans today despite the unseasonable heat, which can only mean one thing. Short pants will not hide his current crop of bruises. Grover Solomon knows too well that the more bruises his friend has, the more eager he is to misbehave.

Laz waves him off, as Grover Solomon knew he would. "Outside? Puh-leez. It's hotter than a pig's a-hall out there."

Grover Solomon thinks the real swear is "a-hole," but he finds the image of a pig's bottom extending inward like a long, broiling hallway evocatively repellant. He also elects not to point out that it is just as hot up here on the un-air-conditioned third floor as it is outside. What would be the point?

Laz rummages in his pocket. "Besides, lookie what I found in your mom's underwear drawer."

It also does not surprise Grover Solomon that Laz has been digging in his mother's dresser. Grover Solomon has caught him there before, and when he asked why, Laz only gaped at him. "Are you kidding? Your mom's got the best under-things. All that slippery cloth in one place, it's like dipping your hands into the very clouds of paradise. If the drawer was a little bigger I'd go swimming in it."

Laz draws out the thing he discovered in the underwear drawer. It is a black iron key as big around as Grover Solomon's pinky. Grover Solomon has never seen this key before, yet there is no question it will fit the lock on the half-door. The lock and key are so old and huge that they look like they were drawn for a cartoon about castles and dungeons.

Like everything else in this house, the padlock has a face. Rounded bolt heads for eyes and a gaping keyhole for a mouth. Grover Solomon has thought before that if he stuck his finger in there he would not feel old, rusty tumblers, but sharp iron teeth. He would just have time to register their ancient points before they chomped together, taking off the end of his finger all the way to the first knuckle.

Laz turns to the door and rams the key into the big padlock. Grover Solomon has time to hope that there really are teeth inside the lock and that they will bite off the key rather than grant him and Laz entrance to the old forbidden room—Grover Solomon will not realize until he is an adult just how often he applied that word, "forbidden," to objects, places, and behaviors during his childhood—but the key turns smoothly. The lock clicks free, and Laz tugs it out of the assembly with some effort.

"Gall-damn, this thing weighs more than a jar of lead pennies. Catch!"

He tosses the padlock to Grover Solomon, who leaps backward to avoid it and crashes into one of his father's homemade sawhorses. The rough end of a two-by-four pokes him between the shoulder blades hard enough to leave a rectangular patch of red, raw skin through his t-shirt. The lock thunks to the floor with the key sticking out of it. The locking bar juts up at an angle like a cocked, disapproving eyebrow.

Laz lays a hand on the doorknob and grins back over his shoulder at Grover Solomon. He is straight-backed and handsome, delighted to be breaking a new rule. You would never know to look at him now how it feels to wear jeans over the welts that crisscross the backs of his knees in purple stripes. On the other hand, his grin suggests that the bruises never reach the deepest part of him. That even if Lazarus Beachy knew these were the last moments he had to live, he would believe his life had been a fine thing worth the living.

The knob twists with a squeal of old springs and Laz yanks open the door. Both boys peer inside, their faces twin masks of eagerness and dread. The room is windowless, about eight feet deep with a peaked, triangular ceiling like that of a pup tent. Suspended from the ceiling on heavy duty sewing thread are dozens of strips of paper about one inch wide and eight to ten inches long, curled and brittle and yellow with age. They papers rustle with the opening of the door like the feathers of some ancient hen whose coop has been disturbed for the first time in a century.

Laz fumbles in one of his other pockets and pulls out a cigarette lighter. He flicks the spark wheel with a practiced motion of his thumb—Grover Solomon suspects that Laz sometimes smokes his father's cigarettes—and steps through the door, hunched over with the lighter held out ahead of him like a torch. In the flickering yellow light, Grover Solomon sees writing on the slips of paper. He cannot make out any words from here.

Fully inside the room, Laz cocks his head and squints at one of the papers. His grin, which has faded slightly, returns. "Well shut my mouth and paint me red. Get a load of this, Grover Solomon. They're Bible verses. 'For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour.'" He giggles. "I know how to possess my vessel, all right."

He moves to the next one. "'Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanliness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.'"

And the next. "'Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them, in like manner giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.'"

He turns back to Grover Solomon, more pleased with himself than ever, light flickering across his delighted features. This is how he will return to Grover Solomon in dreams, grinning endlessly in the play of shadow and flame.

"Well I don't know about you, buddy, but this place seems perfect to play Show Me. I'm just sorry we didn't find it sooner."

Grover Solomon hears two familiar—terribly familiar—thudding footsteps behind him before he is knocked aside by something like wind. The side of his head collides with another of his father's angular wooden creations. Tiny blue sparks explode across his vision and dance there like electric midges. He will have a black eye for the next week.

He has no way of knowing that this is one of only two occasions in his life when he will be physically touched by Odetta Koop, and the next time will be much worse.

He regains his feet and staggers toward the half-door.

Laz's voice drifts out through the doorway, "Grover Solomon? What happened out there? You trip over your own shoes aga—"

His voice is cut off by the sharp slam of the door. Grover Solomon reaches it a moment later and wraps both hands around the knob. It rattles in his grip but does not turn. Smoke begins to curl out from under the doorway, caressing the toes of Grover Solomon's sneakers in soft, coy tendrils. The metal doorknob feels too warm. Yet he does not let go, not even when the heat begins to sear his palms.

He hears screaming now. It is coming from behind the door. It is coming from him.

It is coming from the house.

About the Author

André Swartley

André Swartley is the award-winning author of four novels, most recently The Wretched Afterlife of Odetta Koop. He founded the indie press Workplay Publishing, which has published nearly 20 books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry since 2009. He currently teaches ESL and Creative Writing at Hesston College.