20/1/2021: President Trump has granted a full pardon to Clarence Olin Freeman. Mr. Freeman was convicted in 1965 for operating an illegal whiskey still. He received 9 months imprisonment and 5 years’ probation. He died in 2019.
The fly screen was swinging on rusted hinges. The house, long abandoned and silent, was typical of the area and would not have attracted attention in the road. It was built in the colonial style, two floors, white gables and the warped floorboards on the porch flowed like waves.
Steve stepped carefully up the decayed steps, selected the longest key from a bunch that flowered around a ring and slid it into the front door lock. It was stiff and wouldn’t turn. He put his weight onto it and added more pressure. The shaft snapped, the door yielded and Steve stumbled into the darkened hall. A pile of post lay scattered on worn lino and dry leaves followed him as though they were seeking refuge from the cold outside. He closed the door and allowed himself a moment to take in the surroundings.
He was now the owner of this suburban house in Wellford, South Carolina, having bought it at an on-line auction. It had seemed rather cheap and unloved but he saw a potential, especially for his growing family. He wanted to savour this first moment alone; the first steps in his new life.
The open rooms on either side of the hall were lit by a dim winter sunlight that pushed through the thin drapes, throwing low shadows over the dusty floor. Furniture, covered in sheets formed curvaceous shapes and a piano, undressed, had been pushed to the side. In the corners spiders hung in webs, not moving, but watching and waiting for their prey.
The house smelt of cold and dampness. He felt a draft and wondered where it was coming from and noticed a door behind the stairs that swayed as if an invisible hand pushed and pulled it like a fan. He opened the door and felt a rush of cold air and made his way slowly down the worn wooden steps to the cellar. At the bottom he felt for a switch, his hand exploring and brushing against a rough wall and then with a click a single bulb illuminated a set that Steve had only seen in his chemistry lessons many years ago at high school.
A large dulled-red copper whiskey still sat in the centre of a heavy table that was draped with cobwebs, covered with flies that lay trapped like black diamonds, frozen in the weave. Rubber tubes, orange and brittle had perished like dead snakes and were attached to coils of pipes waiting for the hot liquor to run gurgling through them. They reached up to the low ceiling like tendrils, dry and parched. Cardboard boxes with corked bottles were stacked neatly along the sides of the room. They had started to split and broken glass lay like a twinkling carpet on the floor.
Steve wanted to touch everything and feel the shapes, slide the tubes onto male ends and awaken the still from its long sleep, to hear again the crack of metal as a fire spat underneath forcing steam through twisted pipes and then he would watch as the whiskey, translucent drop by drop pinged into clear jars. He wondered what it would smell like, perhaps like wheat or barley, warm and thick. He imagined the first time he would put his finger into the cool liquid and lick off the rough moonshine. It would taste of earth and have a bite that would make bile rise in his throat.
He skipped up the stairs and knew that his house with its dead and now forgiven secrets would live again. He wrenched the curtains down, breaking the silence and banishing ghosts and all the while spiders raced up trembling webs to hide and watch him, waiting for their prey.