Steven knew he should not be out at night alone. He had been told repeatedly to stay inside with the doors locked after dark. But when the moonlight beckoned outside his bedroom window, it was more than he could resist.
He made his way down the hill behind the house and into the corn field. The moon went behind a cloud and the long rows of corn were darkened. The nights were beginning to cool; a small breeze moved the leaves of the drying corn. He stopped to listen to the rustling of leaves–to inhale the dry, dusty stalks. Despite the night’s chill the dirt was warm under his bare feet. He pulled the drying silk from an ear of corn.
Suddenly there was a larger rustling of corn a few feet from Steven. Something big was moving through the field. It couldn’t be a person–people tended to stay in rows. This thing was bending the tassels of corn as it moved cross-ways through the patch. Steven became alarmed. It wasn’t more than thirty feet away now.
“Who’s there?” he said.
No answer, but the thing stopped.
Who’s there, I said!”
No answer, and still nothing moved. Steven thought he could hear a great breathing sound, but he couldn’t be sure. Was it the wind?
“I have a gun!”
It was a lie, but Steven hoped that whoever was there would not know that. He waited a moment, but still nothing moved nor made a sound. He began to back quietly out of the corn patch, keeping his eyes fixed on the spot where the stalks had moved.
As he neared the edge of the patch, the thing began to move again. It was coming directly toward the boy, and it was crashing through stalks in a way that left no doubt as to its size. Steven heard a deep snort–like an angry bull–and he turned to run back up the hill. Adrenaline gave him wings.
As he reached the house, he turned to look back down the hill. But whatever had moved through the corn did not leave the field. He stood just inside the back door and watched for several minutes, then went inside. He locked the back door and rechecked the front door, then sneaked back into bed.
The next morning was Saturday. After a quick breakfast, Steven waved to his parents, who were sitting under the large maple tree, breaking green beans. His mom would spend the day canning.
“I’m going to check the pumpkins,” he yelled to them.
“Bring a couple of small ones back if they are ripe,” said his mom. “I’ll make us a pie for Sunday.”
Steven headed for the corn field, scanning the dirt in the field for signs of the thing he had heard the night before. He walked cautiously into the rows until he was far enough that he should have seen tracks. Nothing. Not a track anywhere in the dry dirt, and no broken stalks. He walked ten, then twenty rows in every direction. Still no tracks, and no bent or broken corn stalks.
Did I imagine it? he said to himself. No way. I know there was something there. I was wide awake.
But Steven could find no evidence that anyone or any thing had been in the patch with him the night before, though he did see his own bare footprints. It was on his mind the entire time he picked his way through the pumpkins, none of which seemed to have been disturbed. All was as it should be. In fact, there were no other tracks at all, which was odd. Normally there would be a few deer and raccoon tracks. The corn field appeared completely unmolested.
He found two nice pumpkins small enough to carry and headed home. Though he had heard no sounds in the corn, he couldn’t shake a feeling that he was being watched. Even though it was broad daylight he got goose bumps. He hurried home.
Steven’s grandma had walked over to help with the canning. She broke beans under the maple while his mother baked pies. Steven sat down beside her and picked up a handful of beans.
“Grandma, can I ask you something?”
“Anything sweetheart,” said Grandma.
“What kind of big animals live around here?”
“You mean livestock, Son?”
“Maybe,” said the boy. “I mean, what kind of animals would be in the corn field at night?”
Grandma looked up from her apron of beans, and squinted her eyes at Steven. “Don’t tell me you’ve been in the corn field at night?” she said.
“Just last night is all. And grandma, I heard something moving in the corn–it sounded really big and it kind of snorted. But when I went back today for pumpkins I didn’t see any tracks. What do you think it was? And how could it not leave any tracks?”
“Now you listen to me, boy,” said grandma. “You stay out of that patch at night. You stay inside with the doors locked. Little boys don’t have any business wandering around a farm at night. Especially not this time of year. Do you hear me talking to you?”
Grandma twitched her face, then spoke, “It was probably a horse got loose or something. But mind me, and mind your parents. Stay out of the fields at night. Now I need to get these beans in to your mom,” she said. She took a pan of broken beans and headed for the kitchen.
Steven sat and finished breaking the remaining beans, then took them in the house. As he neared the kitchen he heard his mom and grandma talking. Grandma sounded agitated.
“You need to keep that boy in the house at night. He has no business traipsing around the farm after dark. Things could happen to him,” said grandma.
“Well, what would you do?” said his mom. “We’ve done everything but tie him down. The boy loves walking through the fields at night–always has. What’s so wrong with it?”
“All I can tell you, Mary, is that things happen. Kids can get hurt. What kind of mother lets her little boy wander around out in the dark at night? Why are we even arguing about this? I’ll speak to his father, but I’ll say it again. Keep the boy inside at night.”
Later that evening, Steven’s father came into his room.
“I don’t want you going outside at night, Son,” he said. “I’ve told you before but now I have to insist. It isn’t safe to wander around a farm at night, especially in the corn fields.”
“What is it, Poppa?” said Steven. “What’s in the corn fields?”
“Alligators and hippopotamuses,” said his father, grinning. He grabbed Steven’s side and tickled until the boy squealed with laughter.
“Oh Poppa, we don’t have those around here,” he said.
“Maybe and maybe not. Maybe just tigers and bears. But you stay indoors, you hear? And I’m warning you–I’ll be watching and listening, OK, bud?”
“I promise, Poppa,” said Steven. “I won’t go out at night until you tell me I can.”
But little boys don’t always keep their promises–not for long. A few nights later a thunderstorm approached. Steven watched the flashes of lightning and counted until the thunder boomed through the valley. He knew the storm was still several miles away.
If there was one thing Steven liked more than moonlit nights, it was thunderstorm nights. He loved watching the black clouds piling up in the west at sundown, the jagged flashes across the sky after dark, and rain that poured until each row of corn had its own stream. Already the tree frogs were crying for rain. They would stop their screeching buzz only when it thundered, then start right back up again louder than ever when it ended.
Steven lay in bed watching and listening to the storm. He could tell it was still a good ways off, and the more he watched the more he wanted to be out in it. “Just for a few minutes,” he told himself. “I’ll just go out until it starts to rain. Then I’ll come back in and no one has to know.”
As he left his room the wooden floor creaked. He froze in place, but saw no shadow under his parent’s bedroom door. They were still sleeping. He slipped through the house without turning on a light, and went quietly out the back door.
Once outside, he stretched his arms toward the sky and gave a little “woo hoo!” just as a huge jagged flash split the western sky. He could see huge roiling thunderclouds surrounding each bolt of lightning. It wouldn’t be long now, so he slipped through the dogwoods and down the hill toward the corn patch.
Already the stalks were being whipped about in the wind. Steven could follow the wind as it blew through the patch. All at once he noticed a frightening thing. One section of the corn was moving in the wrong direction. While most of the stalks were being blown west to east, one portion was moving east to west, and that section was rapidly approaching him.
Steven knew it was the same animal by the way the stalks gave way for it. And once again it was headed right for him, only faster this time. He wouldn’t have time to run. He ducked down and tried to hide behind a row of stalks just as the thing was upon him. The stalks burst open and there it was. Steven screamed.
“Stay down, Son!” He turned in time to see his father fire his shotgun–with a flash and boom to rival the thunder.
Steven heard a hideous squeal-roar and turned to see the thing disappear into nothingness. Huge raindrops began to pelt the corn, slowly at first, then the sky simply opened up.
Steven ran to his father, who shouldered the shotgun in one hand and cradled his Son in the other. Neither spoke as they climbed the hill back home.
Back in the house, as his father toweled him off, Steven spoke at last. “Poppa, what was that thing?”
“You saw it. What would you say it was?” his dad stopped toweling him and searched Steven’s face.
“I don’t know what it was, Poppa. I saw fur and teeth–and red eyes. I never saw one before. Did you kill it?”
“I can’t tell you what it was, or if it’s dead. I can only tell you what my grandpa told me,” said his father. “But I have to tell you this, first. No matter what you do, don’t tell anyone what you saw. They won’t believe you. They never have believed, not any of us. They will think you are crazy.”
“But can’t people see it for themselves, Poppa?” said the boy.
“No one has ever seen it but us. I mean our family, for some reason. And nobody knows why. Your great-grandpa, Leon Zollinger, called it a “Teufel”. Teufel vom Mais–Devil from the Corn. Your great-grandpa was the last Zollinger in his part of Germany. He moved here partly to get away from the thing.
But when grandpa Leon was married–with three children of his own–that thing came back one September. It nearly got your grandpa that year. It would have, too, but your grandpa’s four coon hounds got between him and the thing long enough for him to skedaddle. Your grandmother knows this story, but I don’t think she really believed it until she talked to you the other day.”
Steven leaned forward, his eyes big as saucers. “Keep going, Poppa. I want to hear it all.”
“I suppose you need to know,” said his father. “I’m sorry I never told you before, Son. I guess I didn’t want to believe it. I only half-believed anything grandpa told me. The old man loved his stories.” He paused and stared vacantly out at the storm, as if considering how much more to tell, then continued.
“For some reason this Teufel thing seems to skip a generation. I guess it always comes back. Seems so now, doesn’t it, Son? It hasn’t actually killed anyone, at least so far as we know. But I think it could, and so did your grandpa. He said it put the fear of God into him. You know, he never again allowed crops to be raised on this farm? None. We kept goats and cows so the pastures would be clipped right down to the ground.” He stopped and looked down.
“You think you’ll be able to sleep, Son?”
“I’m scared, Poppa.” said Steven. “What if I’m the one it really wants?”
“Steven, it has never been seen outside the corn patch, or even in daylight. Once we cut the corn down, you won’t have to worry about it again. We could move, but it wouldn’t do any good. It follows this family. It has for generations. Maybe one day we’ll figure out what to do about it. Maybe when you have grand-kids, huh?”
His father tucked him in and started to leave when Steven spoke. “Poppa, what are we going to tell mom?”
“We won’t tell her, Son. She wouldn’t believe it. She would think we were trying to put one over on her. In fact, we won’t ever mention this again. Deal?”
“OK, Poppa. I can keep a secret.”
“You might have to keep this secret a long time, Son,” said his father. “Good-night.”
Steven’s father went out the door, but he didn’t close it.
Steven lay awake until the last of the thunder faded away.
© Wade Kingston