In the backwoods of Pennsylvania, there was an old farmhouse built in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Its kitchen was equipped with a wood stove that also served to heat most of the house. A staircase in a front corner of the living area led to the bedrooms upstairs. An unpaved rocky dirt road that ran past farmer’s fields wound through the woods that hid the house from the public. Beside the house was a large well-tended garden patch. Behind the house was a shed where the garden tools were stored.
There was no electricity or phone at the house. The water was drawn from the well by an old-fashioned hand-pump into a cast iron sink. A second hand-pump served the old white cast iron bathtub on the second floor. During the cold winters, the windows were covered with heavy quilts to retain the heat. Firewood for the winter was stored in a room just off the kitchen. Very little work got done during the bitter days of Winter.
The house had a single occupant, a woman named Clara Rinker. Clara lived off the grid her entire life. She only rarely left her house except to trade her excess garden bounty for eggs or butter. On occasion a lost chicken wandered into her realm. Most of what she caught for food were either rabbits or groundhogs. Every so often, she found something larger, a loose pig or a deer, that would last for several weeks.
One warm spring day, Clara noticed some movement inside her shed. Something skittered behind the wheelbarrow as she was returning the hoe after weeding the garden. Several days later, her curiosity piqued, she decided to investigate. She started by putting a pie tin of dinner scraps just inside the shed door. By morning, the tin was empty.
The next evening, Clara left the shed door slightly ajar and the pie tin just outside. The following morning when she checked, the pie tin was empty and the shed door was closed. Suspecting that the closed door meant an animal outside the shed was availing itself of the food, she made a point of latching the door closed when she left the tin of food just outside.
The following morning, the scraps had been eaten. The shed door was closed, but it had been unlatched. Determined to lure the critter out far enough to catch a look at it, Clara left the door closed and set the pie tin down halfway to the back porch. She sat by a back window and waited. Eventually, she fell asleep. In the morning, she could see that the pie tin had been emptied.
That evening, Clara left the tin at the bottom of the steps and went to bed. She awoke in the early morning hours to the sound of the pie tin clanging against the paving stone at the bottom of the porch steps. By the time she arrived at a window, the critter had finished. She caught sight of the shed door closing behind it.
Determined to keep the critter out long enough to catch a glimpse of it, Clara placed the food inside a small can, then placed a second can over it. When she awoke in the morning, the cans remained undisturbed on her back porch. By noon, she was concerned and went outside to look at them. The scraps had been eaten by the critter and the cans had been put back together.
That evening, Clara devised a more elaborate nest of cans. When she awoke the next morning, the cans were all lined up according to size. The pie tin had been moved along as each can was dumped into it until it reached the far edge of the porch.
It dawned on Clara that the critter wasn’t keeping to a schedule, but she had been. She decided to vary her daily chores hoping to surprise the critter. One hot summer day, she noticed her garden starting to wilt and spent the greater part of the day hauling water from her kitchen out to the thirsty vegetables. She sat down to rest and fell asleep.
When Clara woke in the morning, the pan full of scraps sat empty on the kitchen table. Beside it was a pile of fresh picked vegetables from her garden and a single egg resting atop the heap. Her cast iron pan was already heating on the stove and her butter dish had been set out. Clara moved the egg to the pie tin and the vegetables to the sink. She managed to turn the egg and a few vegetables into a reasonable breakfast. The rest of the day was spent hiding from the heat while letting the fire die down in the stove.
Awakened from a midday nap by noises in her kitchen, Clara slowly crept toward the room to investigate. She covered her mouth to stifle a gasp at what she saw. A three-foot-tall, blue-skinned reptile was busy cooking a freshly caught rabbit, some potatoes, and freshly picked garden vegetables. It reminded her of the gecko from the television ads except that it worked in complete silence save the occasional clamor of a pot or pan.
Clara watched as the critter deftly carved up the rabbit and plated the food before gesturing for her to sit down and eat. Although it didn’t speak, it behaved in a manner that Clara considered to be remarkably civilized. She watched it as closely as it watched her eat their dinner. It seemed dismayed that she didn’t’ swallow the bones, but resumed eating without further interruption.
Clara observed, mouth agape, as it swallowed the bones she had left on her plate before licking the plates and forks clean of any scraps still clinging to them. After it made itself scarce, Clara washed the dishes with a little detergent and hot water. After putting them away, she went about her evening chores then settled in for the night.
As Clara dressed for bed, she thought about how easily the critter had entered her house. She went to each door of the house and turned the key in the lock. She wedged the windows shut and took the time to secure the cellar door from the inside. And as a final precaution, she even locked her bedroom door.
Feeling safe in her own home, Clara slept well. She woke up when the light filtered through her curtains. After getting dressed, she went to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. It was a simple meal of a fried egg on buttered toast. She washed it down with a cup of black coffee. As she was putting away the breakfast dishes, someone began pounding on the door. She grabbed a fire poker and went to see who it was.
Standing on her porch was a four-foot-tall brown rabbit with a dead stag draped across its back. “Can’t bring that thing in here. Have to hand it first, bleed it out.” The rabbit dropped the deer on the porch and shrugged. “Lemme git some rope.” Clara closed the door and rummaged around in a cupboard before finally emerging on the porch. She wrapped the rope around the deer’s hind legs before gesturing for some help.
The rabbit picked up the carcass and hoisted it up hind quarters first toward the porch rafter. Clara reached up and tied the other end of the rope to the deer’s legs. She went inside briefly and brought out a knife, deftly slitting the deer’s throat. She turned to the rabbit and stared it down. It shifted its weight from one foot to another. “Are you a friend of the critter who lives in my shed?” It shook its head. Cocking her head to the side and wiping the bloody blade on her apron, she sighed. “Are you the critter who lives in my shed?”
The rabbit bounced up and down clapping its paws together. “Now, how can that be? The critter in my shed was a big blue gecko. You’re a big brown bunny. You expect me to believe that yesterday you were a lizard?” The bunny nodded, its ears bouncing back and forth with each move of its head. “If you come back tomorrow looking like that,” she pointed the knife at the stag, “you’ll end up exactly like that. You hear?” She waggled the knife blade in front of the rabbit’s face. It hopped back to avoid getting stuck.
Clara walked back into the house and stuck the knife back into the drawer. Before she could sit down and catch her breath, there was a gentle knock at the door. “Go away!” The knock persisted. “I said go away.” The knock was a little louder. “Fine. Come in.” The rabbit came through the door carrying an armful of deer entrails. It dropped the organs in the sink and set about preparing them for the midday meal. Clara watched as the bunny deftly sliced and fried the liver with some onions from the garden. It cleaned the kidneys and heart, carefully wrapping them for the icebox. Upon discovering that an icebox was a luxury that Clara didn’t have, the bunny placed the heart and kidneys inside the oven to slow roast for dinner.
Clara was grateful that she had been spared the rest of the internal organs, especially the intestines. Presumably, those bits of offal had been eaten raw by the bunny prior to its knocks on the door. While Clara cleaned up the dishes from lunch, the bunny licked itself clean. It ran outside to the garden and began pulling carrots out of the ground. By the time it came back in side, it had a dozen carrots, a half-dozen potatoes, some green onions, and a couple of summer squash tucked inside a small makeshift basket fashioned from some vine and twigs.
Clara sat back in a chair and watched the rabbit bustle about in the kitchen preparing the vegetables for the evening meal. She thought of offering to help, but it wasn’t every day that someone else cooked for her. And it was even rarer to see a giant rabbit peel several potatoes. The rabbit managed to dirty every cast iron skillet in her kitchen preparing the potatoes, carrots, and summer squash to have with the roasted hart heart and kidneys.
The rabbit took great care to emulate Clara’s table manners. She was impressed by its effort to act more human, but she still couldn’t look past its appearance. No matter how civilized it ate, no matter how well-mannered it behaved at the table, it was still a big brown bunny.
While Clara cleared away the dishes from the table, the bunny sorted through the knife drawer for a large knife. Her back tensed as she heard the knives clatter about. A tingle ran up and down her spine. Her jaw clenched. After she heard the door slam shut, she let out a sigh of relief. She could hear it grunt as it hacked away at the deer carcass. She wondered if there would be any venison left for the next evening’s meal.
In the morning, while making breakfast, Clara could hear activity out in the shed. Curious to see what new form her visitor had taken on, she left her breakfast dishes unwashed in the sink and wandered out back. The shed door was open and the rump of a large black furry creature could be seen sticking out of the opening. She walked up to the beast and tapped it on its hind quarters. “What are you looking for? Maybe I can help.”
The large black bear backed out of the shed and rose up on its hind legs. It let out a large roar, but before it could attack, Clara was pulled to safety and hustled down the cellar steps. Her rescuer quickly barred the doors from inside to keep the attacking bear out. “That was a bear? A real live bear? I mean, not that you are alive, but that wasn’t you?”
“Yes,” a male voice replied. “We should be safe in here.”
“But what if the bear gets in the house? I left the door open.”
“Stay here. I’ll go upstairs and shut it.” A dimly lit form made its way over to a wooden ladder leading up from the cellar. It climbed the steps and pushed against the ceiling above it. Light flooded in on the figure of a well-built male human. His skin was ruddy and he had a mop of ginger on his head. She wandered over to the opened hatch and followed him up the ladder soon after hearing the door latch shut.
“Who are you?” She studied his dark red hair and ruddy complexion. “Where did you come from?” A swarm of questions filled her head as she stood staring at the stranger standing naked in her kitchen. Suddenly feeling embarrassed by her gawking, she rushed upstairs to find him some clothes. She dug out a pair of jeans and an old t-shirt that she thought would fit him and turned around to find him standing behind her. After settling from her brief start, she held out the clothes. “Here. These are for you. I think they’ll fit.”
He took the garments from her and examined them, seemingly confused by what to do with them. Clara took them back and gathered up the shirt. “Stick out your arms.” After he complied, she slipped the armholes over past each wrist. “Now, raise your arms over your head. Like this.” She stuck her arms straight up over her head and he mimic her. “Good. Now let me help you with that.” She stepped forward and pulled the shirt down over his head and torso.
“Now, for the pants.” Clara was perplexed. “I’m not sure how to get you into these.” He seemed to sense her dilemma and offered his own solution. She watched as he lay down on the floor and raised his legs high into the air. “Okay, we can work with that.” She slipped the jeans on over his legs and pulled it as far as she could. “Now, I need you to stand up.” When he complied, the jeans fell down to his knees and she had to pull them back up. She snapped the top button closed and carefully zipped the fly closed.
His eyes were the color of a green cats-eye marble, which was rather appropriate given how much they looked like cat eyes. She donned a wan smile before backing away. “You look presentable now. Except for your feet, but I don’t have any shoes that would fit you anyway.” He followed her back downstairs into the kitchen.
Most of the contents of the shed had been dragged out by the bear, which seemed to have wandered off while the two were upstairs. Several rakes, hoes, and other garden equipment lay about outside the shed. The small wheelbarrow lay on its side halfway through the open door. A clump of straw, twigs, and leaves had been deposited on the porch steps.
“I’ll help you clean up the mess.” The young man offered.
Clara accepted. “I’ve been meaning to clean out the shed, but I’d been putting it off.” By the time they were through, the shed was well-organized and there was room to stand inside it. It was also time to start cooking the evening meal. Her guest went down to the cellar and brought up a leg of venison that had been stripped of the hide and cut down to fit in the oven. Clara added some water and garlic cloves to the pan.
While the leg roasted, Clara opened a jar of peanut butter and made sandwiches for the two of them. She watched as her guest carefully sniffed at the offering before deciding that it was safe to consume. Not one to give up easily, Clara tried a different tack. “My name is Clara. What is your name?” He met her question with a blank stare. She pointed to her chest. “Clara.” She pointed at him. He cocked his head slightly. She patted her chest. “Clara.” She walked over to where he sat and patted his chest. He grabbed her wrist and twisted her hand away. “Ow! That hurts. I only want to know your name, what you call yourself, what others call you.”
He released her wrist and stood up. He poked her in the chest. “Clara.”
She smiled. “Yes, Clara.”
Smiling, he poked his chest. “Clara.”
She groaned. “No!” She turned and walked away. “You can’t be that stupid.” She turned again to face him and huffed. “Fine. If you won’t tell me your name, I’ll give you one.” She marched up to him. “Clara,” she said pointing to her chest. “Frank,” she said, repeating the name each time she stabbed him in the chest until he grabbed her wrist to stop her.
“Fine,” he interrupted. “I’ll be Frank.” She smiled at Frank and he released her wrist from his grip. She still had a lot of questions for Frank, but she felt less anxious now that he had a name, even if it was one that she gave him.
By the end of the month, Clara had gotten used to having Frank around. So much so that she almost forgot to tell him to hide when the truck drove up. It was Mr. Clive from the local welfare office. He had come to do his monthly check on Clara. He delivered some groceries – mostly canned goods, some seeds for her garden, some used clothing, and her prescription medication. He took the time to remind her that, come next month, she had an appointment with her doctor.
“Have you been taking your medicine? You seem a little more excited than normal.”
“I’m fine. I ran out of eggs and cheese. Did you bring me that pie you promised?”
“Yes, I did. It’s in the box with the cereal. You really should get electricity and a phone. What if something happened to you?”
“If something happened to me, who’d make the phone call. Better you find me dead. And bury me where I lay if you do.”
“Honestly, Clara. I don’t understand how you keep your sanity all the way out here alone.”
“Who says I’m alone? There’s all sorts of critters out here to keep me company.”