The sunrays were so intense they stung the farmer’s eyes, and for moments the daylight was as blinding as pitch black. Long sleeves and a wide brim hat shielded his skin from the brutal sun, growing wet and sticky with sweat by noon. Looking out on land this flat and remote, the farmer felt abandoned and isolated. Nobody to threaten him, nobody to aid him. He toiled alone.
The farmer caught sight of nothing but his home, which was really a large gardening shed, and land that disappeared beyond the horizon, dipped beneath the curvature of the planet. That and haze from suffocating heat that had lingered for days.
Only a week ago, the farmer had collapsed from a heat stroke, later waking up face down in the dirt, stinging with sunburn. He was naked with no memory of removing his clothes. Delirious ramblings had wheezed out through his cracked lips. He used his remaining strength to crawl to the water pump to avoid death. Never again. Never again would he allow that to happen, and he wouldn’t begin farming without being fully hydrated and protected from the sun.
He wiped sweat from his brow and pondered how farming provided a precarious kind of freedom that only seemed glamorous until you tasted it. Until he actually started farming, he couldn’t fathom the crushing hardship of watching his plants wither. Now it’s all he knew. These barley-living plants haunted him night and day.
Dull. That’s what his crops were. Dull green, bordering on brown colored, languishing in the hardening dirt. A few were bright green though, managing to look healthy. He felt a kinship with the vibrant hue, as if nature noticed and appreciated his hard work.
He crouched down to hold one of the few green leaves between his fingers, the reedy texture, so different from the unhealthy flaky crackle of the other plants, could be felt through his thick gardening gloves. The farmer tugged upwards a little on the stem and saw…white. White. That shouldn’t be. He wasn’t growing anything white. He yanked a little harder, lifting up the plant to reveal that the stem and roots were made of something round with firm turgor pressure. This was soft, fresh bone.
When he pressed a finger on the surface he created an indent that popped back into position. He pulled the plant all the way out of the ground to come face to face with a human-like skull, with the start of a spine growing at the base, three vertebrae long. People were forming under the soil.
He plopped the skull in his hand, brushed off dirt around the eye sockets and teeth, and swished his own tongue around his gums, as if he too had dirt in his mouth. Squeezing the skull again, his stomach churned as he watched the skull squish in his hand. The farmer shut his eyes and shuddered.
Underneath his boots could be others. This field, that he thought held feeble produce, may very well contain hundreds of corpses forming in the earth, ready to be born in graves. Questions swirled in his mind, too quickly for his attention to seize just one, and he became dizzy with dread.
One question finally settled in the forefront of his mind. Not how this happened, or why, but what would these appear as when ripe in the autumn. Skeletons need skin, and there was no guarantee the bones would grow an outer layer of human flesh. Or that the bodies would be adorned by nature with human souls.
The farmer grabbed the nearest leaves and pulled again, revealing a second skull. Then a third. After ten different samples from random spots in the field he feared this was the entirety of the farm. His knees buckled and his body lowered until he stopped himself from sitting on the ground, disgusted by the thought of brushing up against the crowns of these crops.
While the farmer had slept these past summer nights, an evil something must have floated over his farm —his livelihood— and tainted it with a touch of grotesque ingenuity, warping the terrain he thought he had understood so well. That had to be the origin of this nightmare. The farmer slowly stumbled away from the plants, as if the dozens of heads would worm their way out to writhe and mew the second the air hit their faces, biting through his boots in a confused, newborn-like anguish.
Possible that this was another heat stroke, another assault on his mind from the unforgiving sun and he simply needed shelter. His home was a hundred yards away. So he walked, then jogged, then ran, putting as much distance between himself and the macabre roots as he could.
At the water pump, through slurps of water, he found no clarity as to what was happening. He turned his back on the skulls he had unearthed, still resting right where he left them. After more sips of water, he marched up to his shed, went inside and shut the door behind him.
Finally in shade, he bowed his head, took long, deep breaths, and listened to his speeding heartbeat begin to slow. When he looked back up he gasped, his heart once again pounding in his chest. He saw, through the window, a crowd of people, maybe twenty, walking to his shed. In the heat they undulated like a mirage. They were not. They were very much real, and getting closer.
All the men were bearded and wore identical clothes: white shirts, black pants, and suspenders. The women wore plain dresses with muted colors. They had the same grim expression he possessed in the morning when he began the laborious duties for the day.
These could be the monsters who contaminated his farm with evil for their own, unknown purpose. These could also be helpful strangers, Good Samaritans who have come to aid him. Either way, they were coming to his shed. Escape was impossible. The farmer straightened his back, clenched his hands into fists, and stepped outside to face them.
The horde of people dropped to the ground in terror. Some cried out. Some turned away. Each one cowered at the sight of him, swung their arms up and covered their ears, hands pressed so tight their arms trembled.
“How?” one of the women cried, “how did the mandrake get himself out?”
“Cover your ears!” yelled a man.
The crowd slowly backed away, but the farmer walked after them and they froze. He opened his mouth, but no words came out, just garbled gibberish. He hadn’t spoken to a person since… since… he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember seeing a person before, or what exactly it was that he thought was growing on his farm, or how long he’d been there. Really nothing before the heat stroke when he woke up in a daze.
The farmer wanted to talk to the terrified people but more disjointed grunts came out, his face twisted in frustration. He locked eyes with the husband and wife who led the group.
“You woke up too early,” the husband said, not taking his hands away from his ears. “You’re a mandrake. We grow you and collect your roots. You… you weren’t supposed to wake up yet.”
The farmer looked down and slowly pulled one glove off, peeking at his skin. Brown and course, not soft like the flesh on these frightened faces. Last week there was no heat stroke, that was his birth. All thoughts after that were wishful thinking. Born to be uprooted, killed before a chance to scream. A life seconds long. He was the evil something.
The wife turned to the crowd. “It thinks it’s people.”
But I am. I’m a farmer.
“It thinks it lives in the tool shed.”
I do. This is my home.
The husband eyed the mandrake. “Can it understand us?”
Stop calling me ‘it’! The mandrake tried to respond but only muttered incoherent murmurs.
Again, everyone pressed their hands to their ears. The wife whispered to her husband, “if it screams…”
The wife didn’t need to finish, the mandrake understood. His screams killed. He covered his bare hand again, and pressed his gloved palms up to his forehead, shaking, now feeling stems where his hair should be.
The husband pulled a knife out from his pocket.
What are you doing? Don’t hurt me!
The husband crept closer, pointing his blade at the mandrake’s throat.
Should I scream?
Other members of the crowd took out weapons.
Don’t make me scream!
The wife clasped her hands together. “Kill it!”
The mandrake tilted his head back, filled his lungs with air and emitted a piercing cry. The echo of his own scream reverberated for miles as bodies struck the ground.
Logan McConnell is a health care worker. He is a lifelong reader and new to writing fiction. He has upcoming short stories for the webzines Schlock! and Yellow Mama. He is influenced by the works of Mary Shelley, Octavia E. Butler, and Thomas Ligotti. He currently lives with his boyfriend in Tennessee. To keep up with Logan, follow him on Twitter.
We loved SHOULD I SCREAM? and had to know more about the story and its creator. So, we asked Logan McConnell some quick questions to learn more about his writing and creative process.
TDS: What was your inspiration for writing this piece?
Logan McConnell: Skulls. I was coming up with ideas for a story premise, and the image of a skull popped into my head. I knew I wanted a story where multiple skulls were featured.
TDS: What was the writing process you used when creating this story?
Logan McConnell: I came up with the first half of this story spontaneously, but I didn’t know the ending when I started Should I Scream? When I got half-way through, I took a break and spent hours thinking of the most obvious/likely endings, then ruling them out. I wanted something unexpected, and eventually came up with an ending I liked.
TDS: Who influenced you as a writer?
Logan McConnell: Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladamir Nabokov are my two favorite authors. I discovered them in high school and have been reading them ever since. They aren’t horror writers, but they do explore the darker side of human nature using creative narratives.
As far as horror influences, I would list Mary Shelly and Thomas Ligotti. I think Shelly tapped into the relationship of man/monster really well in her writing, and I admire Ligotti’s creative out-of-the-box thinking in crafting stories.
What do you think of Logan McConnell’s story? Let us know in the comments below. And… If you want to learn more about Logan’s writing process and other works, be sure to come back to The Dark Forest on April 16 at 11:00 AM (EST) to read a more extensive interview with him.
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