By Edele Winnie
Sheila found the shrunken head after her aunt passed away. The poor old woman had been a miserable crank pot. Even though Sheila was young, she had done her best to make Auntie comfortable in these last months, but the shrivelled old woman had only been angry and full of complaints. Her habits were extremely odd- she hoarded empty tin cans and set out hundreds and hundreds of unbaited but ready to snap mouse traps. As far as Sheila could tell there were no mice in the house.
When it was announced from the hospital that Auntie had passed, Sheila got to work. She’d bundled her short dark hair under a kerchief and rolled up her sleeves.
There had to be thousands of empty tin cans in the house and Auntie had removed all the labels. Sheila loaded them into boxes and dragged them outside. She didn’t know if the recycle truck would take so many. It would probably require more than one truck.
At first the cans had seemed fairly new- still shiny. But deeper into the piles and stacks the empty cans were rusted and discoloured. At the very centre the cans were blackened with mould or age or something. In the centre of the blackest cans she found the head.
At first she thought it was just another large blackened can for the head was small and dark, cantaloupe ball sized. But when she picked it up it felt different -softer. She’d dropped it quickly, stifled a wretch and shook her gloved hands in disgust. A head! With closed eyelids, a pushed up little nose and an angelic smile.
She stumbled dizzily away from her find and staggered outside for some air. She sucked in the freshness desperately and the dizziness slowly faded. A head? What was it doing in her aunt’s house? Auntie’d never been married, never had children. She didn’t collect curios. And why was it buried under the cans?
Sheila shook her hands out, wishing she could shake the willies away. With a grim, determined frown she returned to put the head in a garbage bag; first that and then she’d figure out what to do with it. But the head was not there. Yet she was certain she hadn’t moved it. There was no sign of it amongst the blackened and rusting cans. She kicked a can in frustration. From the other room came a shout and squeal and the sound of a dozen mousetraps being set off.
Sheila froze. A droplet of sudden sweat streaked down her face and into her dust mask. It couldn’t be the head, she thought. It was a mouse, or a rat. A house breaking possum. These thoughts gave her feet courage. She made it to the doorway. From there she could see the head, mousetraps snagged to its short dark hair, it’s eyes blinking, the whites standing out against the blackness. The eyes shifted and looked right at her. She spasmed in horror, ending down on her knees. The head’s mouth opened. The teeth were yellowy grey.
“Get me out of here.” The head snarled. With a grunt it tried to roll but the attached traps impeded. “Get me out!” It shrieked.
Sheila shuddered and almost passed out.
“Stop kneeling there and do something.” The head hollered at her.
She backed out the door and tripped on some tin cans, crashing backwards. Her mouth was open but nothing was coming out- she felt like she was choking on a scream too scared to sound. She gasped at the air, drowning.
“Help me woman!” The head screeched.
There was cooking oil in the kitchen. Sheila’s hands shook as she sloshed it onto the floors and walls. She stayed out of the room where the head was, but she could still here it screaming.
“I know what you’re doing!” It howled.
Sheila dropped a match and ran.
When the firefighters finally arrived the home was burning passionately. They treated Sheila for shock.
By the time Sheila was allowed to go home her hands had stopped shaking. Like her Aunt, she lived alone in an old farm house. She turned the TV on for company and threw a frozen entree in to the microwave. The house had never seemed colder, the shadows never so dark. Sheila began to brush her hair, something she’d done as a child to banish her fears. The repetitive brushing movement and the feel of it moving though her hair was comforting. She was about to put the brush away when there was a knock at the door. Sheila’s hands began to shake again. This is silly, she thought. I’m in my own house. Whatever that thing had been- it was destroyed now. She’d almost convinced herself that she’d imagined the whole thing. Knocks at the door sounded again. Sheila went to answer it, ignoring her still shaking hands.
She peaked out through the curtain and stopped dead. It was her auntie. Her recently deceased auntie, except she looked very alive on the front porch, knocking. Sheila froze. Her sort of dead aunt continued to knock. Apparently she wasn’t going away. Sheila felt like she’d been hit in the face. She felt like she was moving in slow motion. Her teeth were chattering. She unlocked the door and pulled it open.
Scowling auntie pushed past her without saying anything and went to the kitchen.
Sheila padded after her, like a child. “Auntie?” She asked. “Auntie… you’re all right?”
The old woman had opened the cupboard and was gathering all of the canned food she could find. She turned and scowled at Sheila. “You burned my house!” She rasped. “Burned it to the ground.” She took a can to the electric opener and opened it. She dumped the contents into the garbage and peeled the label off. She dropped it onto the floor and began the process with another can.
“No.” Sheila said, realizing what her aunt was doing. “No. Stop.”
“You have taken my home.” Auntie snarled. “I will live here now.”
“Okay, okay, just not the cans. Don’t make the piles of cans.”
Auntie continued to open and dump, open and dump. “There is no choice.” She explained, oddly calm. “He wants them.”
Sheila didn’t say who because she already knew.
“When there is enough cans, he will come.” Her aunt continued. “It has to be done.”
She grabbed her aunt’s boney arms, preventing her from opening the next can. The flesh was so disturbingly cool, it made Sheila shiver. But she did not let go.
Her aunt actually smiled and nodded her head. “He will come. It has to be done.”
“Auntie you died.” Sheila said, still holding on, staring deep into the withered brown eyes.
The old woman held her stare. “He doesn’t let me die.” She said back. Slowly she pulled her arms away from her niece and returned to the can opener.
Sheila staggered out of the kitchen, and collapsed on the couch in the living room. She grabbed onto her own short brown hair and pulled, until the pain forced tears. This couldn’t be happening- it just couldn’t.
The can opener sounds continued, along with the vomit like emptying of the can’s contents. And then, worst of all, her old zombie Auntie began to sing. It sounded like some Michael Jackson song. Sheila rubbed her eyes, but it was no dream.
Abruptly the singing and other sounds stopped. The quiet grew thick and mucky. Sheila drifted to the kitchen door. Auntie twisted convulsively by the pile of cans, like she had taken some kind of terrible poison. There was a crack like a tree branch breaking and Auntie stopped thrashing. The pile of cans rattled and something small and dark rolled out. The eyes opened, flashing white. A yellowy gray smile.
“Wassup?” The head said. “I’m thirsty.”