Spilled Milk: a tale of cheese and death for Halloween
This is my tale, strange but true, of a hideous secret buried in bucolic hills.
My father inherited a farm directly from his mother’s great aunt. Hassie Otis was a spinster, whose likeness still sits as a daguerreotype on the farmhouse’s decaying mantle. Hassie must have been unhappy during the sitting—her face is turned away from the artist, but her darkly deep-set eyes stare directly at you. By family lore, Hassie wore her spinster’s hat from cradle to grave, where she lays swaddled in gingham and linen, unsullied by man’s touch.
It’s a mystery why Hassie passed the Otis Creamery to my father, a boy of only ten when she died. They had met only once. By his account, that meeting was on an unbearably hot day when he visited the property after a two-day buggy ride from Harlem. My father admits he spent that day hiding from the gathered family who he instinctively disliked, searching for cool places to pass the afternoon in unchaperoned exploration. He found a cave by the river, and summoning courage he wandered in and discovered a solid wooden door. While preparing to breach the old door, Hassie’s shadow cut off the light and she grabbed him roughly, brought him back to the house, and set him to work mucking stalls in punishment.
Hassie died only two weeks later, and with her went the story of her farm. My grandparents were notified of my father’s inheritance by solicitors letter. My father came of age in 1915, and his strange inheritance passed to him with a share cropper leasing in place to pay the taxes on the farm, while he, to everyone’s great surprise turned out to be an apt student, and went on to practice medicine with great success. Because of this, I am fortunate to have funds in place to enjoy Hassie’s farm without encumbrance, and to spend my time searching out the farm’s history and secrets. Particularly, why had it gone the the county’s prize cheesemaker to disrepair so suddenly?
I was born in 1940 and spent many happy days tramping the fields with my father, foraging under shady groves of apple trees, and scooping tadpoles from the pond and guppies from the river. But in all the years we tramped together, we never found the cave with the door inside again.
Last evening was the fifth anniversary of my father’s death, and with fond memories I set forth to forage as I had with him so many times for the last of the season’s mushrooms, usually found on the far side of the stock pond. I scrambled up a slope made slippery by wet leaves, my stomach growling for the sautéed feast I’d have that evening. But as I stretched for the first huge cap, my knee gave way and down I tumbled, sliding helplessly.
Hours later I awoke, my left ankle jammed in agony between rocks on the water’s edge. I struggled, but was I was weak with hunger, cold, and pain. In desperation, I dusted off my foraged mushroom and ate it hungrily. Instantly my forehead grew prickly hot, my stomach churned, and I passed out again.
I awoke to a full moon shining over a strange shore. My head ached, and I struggled to focus my eyes on the opposite shore. A young woman dressed in a long skirt, stained at the hem, emerged from the tree line. Her eyes were wide and searching. In her hands she held a pail, and a pair of long white gloves, which she placed gently by the water. Within minutes a man appeared, carrying a bundle of cloth. With a cry, the young woman leapt into his arms as he dropped the bundle.
My terrible need to call for help was stifled by fear. Their tryst was desperate and erotic. I watched as they rocked in lover’s embrace.
The lovers were so intent on each other, they missed the arrival of another; a woman, her face white in the moon, with gunmetal hair. Rummaging through the cloth, the interloper extracted a heavy round of cheese, big as the moon overhead. The apparition turned her dark eyes to the lovers. She raised the tome high, and brought it down with deadly force on the man’s head. He pitched forward, knocking the young woman into the rocky pond. There was a second wet smack just before her body went limp. Milk spilled on the shore, brilliant in the moonlight. The man turned weakly to see his assailant, and the killer raised the cheese again and drove it into his face. His body followed his lover into the pond. The killer stood for a long while, watching the water. The woman from the daguerreotype on my mantle rewrapped the cheese, retrieved the gloves and kicked the milk pail into the pond. She returned to the woods without obvious regret.
I must have fainted, for the next thing I knew, it was a crisp fall morning, and my foot was free. Across the water a spray of brilliant white mushrooms fanned out where I had seen the milk spill. Chilled to the bone, I struggled home on my injured ankle.
Who would believe such a nightvision? This was a murder…a lovers triangle? Had the mushroom induced hallucinations? …had I seen a spray of white fungus, delirious, and conjured spilled milk?
I crept up to the attic where I kept memorabilia of the old Otis Creamery. In the cracked ledger are neat columns of dairy management; milkings, set times, number of cheeses made, weight at birth and aged, and prices earned from selling. The cheese maker’s name, Wilhem Demore, was inscribed on every page next to every make, and next to every sale was Hassie Otis’s signature. I had read this ledger many times, and wondered why it ended so suddenly on October 30, 1865. The book falls open to this last entry, marked as it is by a pair of long white gloves.
Photo by Robert Donovan.