Gagged In The Barn by Beth Ann Wenger

You’re not on the party list, but you came anyway. Something drew you here, but you don’t know—or aren’t saying—what. Possibility compels us all.

In big block letters Henry Alan Albright painted his initials on the back wall of our hayloft in 1856. After that he left the property without a trace, or so we were told when we bought the place. It doesn’t really matter now. It’s so far in the past. But we do like to have our fun, especially with our guests.

If you spend your evenings out in the barn with nothing but fields around you and only the moon to give you light, cold and sticky cooked spaghetti could pass as human intestines when it plops into your hands. And you could easily confuse peeled grapes for eyeballs and hard kernels of field corn for teeth even when your mind knows better.   

You should come play with us, meet Henry.

Our neighbors at the next farm over—a nice, God-loving family—were all the talk when we moved in. They had just slaughtered one of their steers–for food, of course. That 1,100-pound beast provided enough meat to feed the family for an entire year, but that’s not what people were squawking about. It’s what those folks did with the head that got everyone in a stir. They sliced it clean off the body and mounted it on their gatepost like a totem, with its big glassy eyes wide open and staring at you as you walked in or drove by. Said it was to ward off the devil. They were certain he—or it—was lingering about, threatening to spoil the crops and who knows what else. That was years ago, and you can still see the bloodstains on that old wood post if you look hard enough. 

It’s been more than 150 years since Henry Alan Albright made his mark here on our land, so trace or no trace, in one way or another he’s gone. Or should be. 

Curiosity really gets you when you live in a place as old as ours. We went down to the courthouse and the historical society a few times, spent hours thumbing through stacks of paper files and old ledgers and newspapers to find something—anything—about Henry and his connection to the farm. There was nothing but a birth certificate that mentioned Henry specifically. Funny what you find when you’re looking for something else though. Instead of anything about Henry, we found a clip about our house. 

On September 13, 1856, a man was murdered in the downstairs parlor after a social dance held in an upstairs room. And as best I can figure, that upstairs room is what is now my bedroom. It doesn’t make for the best sleeping. Nor does this: The murdered man was a friend of the owner here and came from a nearby farm with his wife. The suspect fled and disappeared before anyone could get a good look at him. A manhunt began immediately and went on for several days, but they didn’t find him. The wife became so bereft she never recovered and eventually lost her mind.

Our neighbors, the ones with the gatepost dribbled in cow blood, have lived on their land for generations. They have ancestors who danced in our house and climbed on horseback to go searching for a killer. When we told them about the article we found, they told us a different story. Henry Alan Albright, they said, was the wife’s lover and was found hiding in our barn. The guys who found him skinned Henry alive and saved bits and pieces of him in a chest in our hayloft. Our neighbors said they thought the chest was still there, but we had lived on the farm for a few years by then and had never seen it. Even so, we went looking for it, in case it had been right under our noses all that time. That’s when we discovered the hidden door in the back side of the cow stall that led to a small cellar with a dirt floor and no windows. The room was empty except for a small pile of dirt in the far left corner. In the pile was a man’s scrunched-up work shirt and an antique green bottle of tonic, emptied. Did these belong to Henry Alan Albright? we wondered aloud, half joking. No one will ever know, and no one will ever know what else we found in the barn that day. 

Still, everyone who comes here gets sucked in by the history and doesn’t think they can be spooked. 

I see you’re one of them. 

I invite you to spend a night or two. Bear witness to the truth. You may stay in the barn, if you dare, although I don’t recommend it. It’s cold, dusty and covered in cobwebs, and that one bare bulb that hangs from the ceiling is better at casting shadows than creating light. 

But I can tell you’re not afraid, so go on then, just take a blanket or two and maybe a flashlight.… Oh, and watch out for the children. They’re up there now, blindfolded, fumbling over Henry Alan Albright’s remains. Listen: you can hear them shriek and squeal. 

Beth Ann Wenger weaves together fact and fiction from her home just outside Washington, DC. Decades ago, she lived in rural Pennsylvania, where shadows of branches from an old Catalpa crawled across her bedroom like giant claws when someone drove down the road late at night.