Old Mr. Thistle
by Emma Jochum
Ma always warned the boys n’ me to stay away from that old torn up shack in the woods just outsida town. John Thistle lived there an’ he didn’t care to speak to nobody. Pa said he was the groundskeeper to the churchyard which Pa figured suited him just fine as Pa figured Mr. Thistle wasn’t one for socializin’. I guess I figured the same thing. Tendin’ the garden of the dead don’t call for many social pleasantries. He musta been a mean ol’ root though, as no one in town had anythin’ good to say about him. That is, if ‘in they had anythin’ to say at all.
Whenever our games got too close to the edge of town, people always said plenty though, “Don’t be botherin’ any man who don’t want to be bothered”, “Ol’ Thistle doesn’t take too kindly to anyone let alone noisy children”, and “Johnny Thistle likes to keep to himself, best ya’ll respect that.”
What frustrated us to no end was that no one, top ‘er bottom of town, would tell us why. This got some of us, not all mind you, thinkin’ ‘what’s so special about Old Mr. Thistle?’ None of us could rightly recall ever seeing Mr. Thistle in daylight or any other time. We asked our parents about it an’ they didn’t say anythin’ different. Mr. Thistle was a quiet man who liked his quiet churchyard and privacy.
Shoot, the way ev’ryone talked about him you’d think that there were no Mr. Thistle. He was like a sharp gust, ev’ryone felt it, but no one seen it. Mighty suspicious soundin’ on our end, so one day we decided; we were gonna meet this mysterious Mr. Thistle.
As dumb as it seemed, we chose to call on Ol’ Mr. Thistle at night. Any of the well-meaning neighbors woulda caught us going up to his shack in broad daylight, so we figured under cover of darkness would be best. We told our parents we were goin’ out to the field to catch fireflies an’ set off for Mr. Thistle’s.
The boys talked a big game all the way down the road right up ‘til we reached his lane. The bets on who walk knock on the door, should we poke’m with a stick to make sure he was real, was he a zombie or a vampire, all stopped. The shack of Old Mr. Thistle bent and swayed in the air, lettin’ out creaks and moans that shook us stupid. What kinda state coulda building be in to move like that with the wind? Leave it to Mr. Thistle to live in a place just as perplexin’ as he.
No lights were on inside, that we could see, and our eyes drifted down the overgrown path to the churchyard. Was he there now? Was he diggin’ graves? Was he dancin’ with the spirits? Was he summonin’ them? Was he out huntin’ for blood?
It didn’t take long for the boys to loose their nerve and start makin’ excuses about gettin’ back home. Bunch of yellow, no-good cowards I called them. They needn’t know I was scared too. But I didn’t waste a good lie on my parents an’ the lord without somethin’ to show for it. Since they were a bunch of chicken good-for-nothin’s, I told them that I would go knock on Ol’ Thistle’s door and show them who was bravest. I straightened my shirt, an’ held my head up as I pushed open his crooked picket gate, an’ walked as best as I could so as not to trip an’ show the boys I was just as scared as them. But I figured, it was more’n they were gonna do.
The wind seemed to pick up more an’ more as I got closer to his door. The floorboards on his porch almost broke ‘neath my feet as I stepped on them. Did he ever use his porch? Ma always said I didn’t weigh much more than a bird and a song. I hardly thought my body could make sucha force on the ancient wood, but I didn’t take two steps before a deafenin’ crack pierced the night an’ my foot fell through the porch. Ev’rythin’ seemed to freeze as a white-hot pain ran up my leg and I tumbled down to the floor.
When I opened my eyes, I could see clouds through a rusted tin porch roof, an’ somethin’ cold ‘n wet was running down my leg. Once I was able to make myself sit up, I found that my left leg had gone clean through the floorboards and was stuck. I whipped my head ‘round to the fence to get one’a the boys to help me, but they were gone.
I closed my eyes and tried to breathe calmly. Panickin’ an’ cryin’ wasn’t going to do me a lick a good, no matter how scared I was. I clutched my leg and began to try and twist it loose, but ev’ry which way I turned just shot more and more needles through. Then a cold, soft hand grabbed my right arm an’ pulled me clean upright out the floor. It hurt so much I screamed, then it all went black.
I woke up in a’ old chair next to a fire that didn’t seem to give off any heat. It didn’t really give off any light either as I couldn’t make head or tail of my surroundin’s. What I did see, was a figure sittin’ across from me, away from the fire.
With whatever bravery I had left, I managed out, “Are…Are you Johnny Thistle?”
It coulda’ been the light from the fire, or the pain in my head, but I couldn’t seem to match his voice with his body. It came from his direction, I guess. “Thank you.”
“For what?” His voice had an echo, like it was off a recordin’ or something. Maybe it was just this old shack.
“For helpin’ me out the porch.”
“I wouldn’t thank me yet.” Was all he said.
My eyes were strainin’ from tryin’ to make out his features, so I settled on lookin’ at the unhelpful fire.
After a few minutes of silence, an’ me distractin’ myself from the pain in my head, I tried to make conversation again. “I’m sorry ‘bout your floor. I don’t get an allowance, but I can do chores to pay for it.”
“Never mind it.”
“I can help out in the churchyard.”
“That’s my business and no one else’s” His reply came sharply but his figure never moved an inch.
“I’m sorry the boys an’ I disturbed you. We know you don’t much care for being social.”
“Is that what they say about me?” He chuckled and I saw him move for the first time. Somethin’ just wasn’t right about him, but my head was fuzzy anyhow.
“Yeah. Ma and Pa say you don’t like people.”
“Oh, I like people very much.” He reached into his front pocket and pulled out a black pipe an’ a pouch of tobacco.
“Then how come’s it we don’t see you in town?”
“Don’t have much of a need to go.”
“Not even to buy food from the General?”
“The Lord provides.” I heard him chuckle again, as if I were stupid not to know.
“Then why don’t we see you in church?” I had him there.
“Not my business.” He finished preparin’ his pipe an’ reached back into his pocket, pullin’ out a match.
“How come’s that?”
“Mind if I ask what you and those other troublemakers were doing at my house?” He lit his pipe, an’ for the flash of a second, I swear I saw his face.
“We were curious. No one talks about you ‘cept to tell us to stay away.”
Again, that same chuckle, it was quiet, but somehow it rattled the walls. “And did I satisfy?”
“I don’t rightly know.” For some reason, I was starting to tremble. My gut began to twist, and I felt sick. “I suppose I can say you’re not a zombie.”
He laughed so hard I thought the shack was gonna fall in on itself. I shoulda found it funny with him, but nothin’ about his laugh eased me. I only felt more an’ more like I was out of place. Like I didn’t belong where he was, or he didn’t belong where I was. I quickly tried to plot my escape from Old Mr. Thistle.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but I reckon it’s late an’ I should probably get home. I’m gonna hear it from Ma as it is with my leg being hurt an’ all.” I stood up from my chair, waitin’ for the worst, but to my surprise, the pain never came.
Come to think of it, I hadn’t felt pain in my leg once since I woke up, just the stabbin’ in my head.
Mr. Thistle seemed to know I was confused about my leg, an’ rose from his chair. He was much taller than I expected. “Never mind that now, you go ahead on home.”
He pointed his pipe towards a door on the wall opposite the fire I hadn’t noticed ‘til now. He walked past me an’ I felt a shiver go with him.
Away from the fireplace, I could make out even less. It was as if a six-foot shadow held the door open for me. I slowly walked towards the door, an’ the freedom beyond, once again tryin’ my best not to show how terrified I was.
“The boys will never believe this.” I joked as I tried to boost myself up.
“I think they will.” Mr. Thistle said, matter-of-factly. “Mind your step.”
“I’m sorry again, ‘bout the floor.” I looked back up at his shadow as I passed though the door to the porch. “You sure there’s no way I can pay you back?”
“You already have.” I saw a shrouded hand wave me goodbye. “Just do me a favor: You and those boys just mind your business to keep out of mine.”
I didn’t try to comprehend what he meant, I just crossed the creaky porch as carefully as I could, avoiding the large hole I had made.
As I stepped off the porch, I made myself turn to say my goodbyes, but the door was already closed. Again, I heard the creaks and cracks of the shack bendin’ in the warm summer air. He musta shut the door when I wasn’t lookin’. My head throbbed less an’ less as I wandered down the street back to town. There was no tellin’ how late it was or how long I had been at Ol’ Mr. Thistle’s. I was met at my door by a blinding light, an’ Ma screamin’ outta sick an’ worry. ‘Where had I been?’, ‘They boys have been back for hours!’, ‘You grey my hairs daily!’ But she suddenly stopped. I thought she finally noticed my leg, but this was the first I was seein’ it in the light. My jeans were ripped an’ covered in blood, but there was no cut nor gash to be seen. I was shocked when she grabbed my arm instead an’ screamed.
I looked over to my right arm an’ saw it. A black handprint wrapped ‘round my skinny arm where he had pulled me out. Ma dropped to her knees an’ began to shake me, askin’ what happened an’ where I went. I couldn’t respond. The words I was always good at failed me. All I could do was look down the street towards the woods at the edge of town. I was taken right to the tub, an’ ne’er even put up my usual fight. I just knew I wanted that handprint gone. But no matter how much Ma scrubbed an’ scrubbed, that soot-colored handprint never came off. Even to this day, with my greying hair an’ fadin’ eyes, it remains as black an’ as sharp as the day I met Old Mr. Thistle.