A Website-Exclusive Halloween Special
Is the Haunting from Without Or Within?
For twelve years, I have taught at the Letworth Academy for Boys, where I once was a pupil. I have not set eyes on the estate where I was born since my father sent me to school. Now comes the day I receive a letter from Maud, my father’s only remaining servant.
Hasten home. Your father’s heart may give out any day.
I heed the dispatch and pray that my father has not waited too long to call for me.
His eyes are closed when I enter his chamber. “I don’t wish to disturb him,” I tell Maud.
“He’s not asleep. He only keeps his eyes closed most of the time because he has nothing to see. He’s been blind two years.”
I had no idea he was blind. Not wanting to startle him, I approach his bedside as I would cross a frozen pond at the end of winter. “Papa.”
“You’ll have to shout. He’s hard of hearing, too,” Maud advises.
“Papa.” My voice echoes. “It’s Edgar.”
Father turns toward the sound. “Brother?”
“Your son, Papa.”
"My poor boy, lost to me now, and it wasn’t his fault."
“Don’t trouble yourself, Papa. I’m here. It’s Edgar.”
I am here. And for a little while each time my father sleeps, I am free to roam the grand house, most of which hasn’t seen a living soul since my mother’s death. My only memory of her is from before she was taken to the asylum where she spent her final year.
She leans over a cradle. When she straightens, she looks at me. I can’t make out her features, yet I know it is my mother.
The face I recognize from her portrait seems out of place in my recollection. Her expression in the painting is placid, but, of course, it lacks the movement of a living expression. I cast my eyes down from it as I make my way from my father’s chamber to my mother’s old workshop, located across the garden and locked to me until this day. I have had a spare set of keys made. There’s nothing he can do to stop me now.
I feel a chill on the back of my neck, as if an icy hand propels me forward. A clump of dread congeals in my stomach. In my mind, I am already in the shop. There, I imagine finding the shattered remnants of porcelain rosy cheeks and glass eyes strewn across the floor. The structure must hold some reminder of her madness. Why else would I have been barred from it?
My hand trembles so that I must insert the key three times before it releases the shop’s lock. The door moans as I ease it open.
My eyes adjust to the darkness. I see no remnants of Mama’s work beneath my boots. It is as if she has just swept. But she couldn’t have. Neither could Papa. Maud must have a key to this place also.
I turn my attention to the walls. Their shelves are almost empty, except for two dolls: one made in the image of a small boy, the other molded and dressed as an infant. The boy has faded sandy hair and wears a familiar sailor suit. I recognize him from an old portrait that hung in my uncle’s house. Mother often saw me dressed this way. Happiness blossoms in my chest. She must have adored me. She made me into one of her little dolls. She immortalized me. My heart flutters, and I feel her absence more than ever before.
The little model is not only a testament of her love, but also of just how much I resembled her in my early years. I was a reproduction my father faced only when necessary and never with any warmth in his countenance. Mother’s people tolerated and whispered about me when they took me in during school holidays. They treated me as a living ghost, a poor substitute for their pride and joy.
I glance at the infant doll. If there are only two pieces of my mother’s work left on display, and one of them bears my image, the other may look like my sister. Might I see her face?
I lift the cradle from the shelf, and the doll from its cradle, resting the sculpted child in the crook of my arm. The doll’s mouth forms an O. Her head is turned toward me. She looks upon whoever holds her. From underneath a blanket, a lifelike fist rests at her side. I move to place my finger in its palm.
Of course, the fingers do not close around mine. They are cold porcelain. They transfer their iciness into my soul. Grief smothers my momentary happiness. The icy grip in my chest freezes and then thaws. Tears cascade for the sister, mother, and father I barely knew.
I rock the doll. The motion soothes me. Suddenly the doll blinks. Startled, I drop the doll. Hearing her shatter, I avert my gaze. Breath leaves me. I hear a pounding. Dashing out of the workshop and toward the main house, my boots match the rhythm of my heart. They carry me, stomping up the stairs. I throw open the door to the chamber where I’ve slept since returning. Fully clothed, I throw myself onto my bed, my heart still pounding. Hours later, hot tears and curses to heaven are overcome by sleep. Yet not before I think, “At least my father cannot go to the workshop now. At least he will never know what I’ve done.”
Weeks pass in which my father hovers between sensibility and insensibility, past and present, life and death. I am at his side one night. His lips move. Unable to make out the words, I lean closer.
“She’s gone to the angels. Must have been the rocking. He didn’t mean to be rough. It’s only a doll you have, darling. It only looks like the baby. The baby’s gone. Put the doll away, Love. Come to bed. Please.”
Jumping to my feet, I overturn the chair on which I’ve been sitting. I run for my room, panting, not daring to look behind me. Again, the mattress bounces as I fall forward onto it. I cover my head, afraid that if I turn toward the hall, I will see my mother floating toward me, her eyes glassy, her expression frozen as the doll to which she whimpers and sings an endless, hoarse lullaby. I fear that if I face the window, I will face her there as well. I close my eyes so tightly, my lids become a dark canvas. On it I see the moonless night outside. The same form I feared would enter from the hallway scurries by in my dream, her hair and nightdress whipping in the wind. She carries, not the completed porcelain tribute to my sister, but a basket. She extends her arm so that I may see the contents of the basket. Shards of blue eyes, of painted cheeks, of tiny toes and fingers.
I resist looking upon my mother’s blank eyes and gaping mouth, yet something about the image will not let me push it from my mind. Only near dawn do the horrific creations of my mind give way again to exhaustion and I fall deeper into sleep.
The nursemaid sleeps next to the nursery. I share quarters with the baby. I creep up to the cradle and begin to rock it. The sun comes in. Mama finds me. Her smile spreads across her face and reaches her eyes. Then she peers down at the baby.
Mama’s smile fades, twisting into a shrieking mask of horror.
Startled awake, I lurch to a sitting position. A hammer works on the inside of my rib cage. I am drenched with perspiration.
Three days later, I am at my father’s side again. A smile lights his features. His unfocused eyes sparkle. He tries to rise from bed and calls out to my mother. “There’s my Belle, bright and shining, her true self. She comes to take me with her." He reaches out before collapsing into the pillows. The light in his eyes dims and then fades. His lids close, and his breathing slows. It becomes raspy and ragged as another afternoon turns into evening. It halts, starts begins again, and then it ceases entirely.
I turn to Maud. "His ghosts have left him.” I say. “I wrestle with them alone now."
“Whatever do you mean?” Maud asks.
I tell her what I did, as a child and again as a man.
“Your father spoke the truth, you know, when you first returned. No matter how your sister died, it wasn’t your fault. You were scarcely more than a babe yourself. And you mightn’t have caused it at all. Some little ones go to sleep and never wake. She might have already slipped away by the time you rocked her. As for the doll, it always gave me the chills. Too much like life and yet too little. Some things an artist just can’t re-create. That never did sit well with your mother, even before all the sadness.”
Nodding to Maud, I stand. My intellect accepts her consolation, but my heart does not. Decades of hushed blame are not easily forgotten. Neither is the resulting estrangement. With determined speed, I arrange for my father’s burial. I pack my traveling case, taking nothing material from this house with me as I leave. I know I will never return. My time in this place has inflicted wounds enough. Why then, can I not resist looking back as the coach moves down the long drive? Noticing the movement of the draperies in my father’s window, I quite expect to catch sight of him with his arms about my mother as she holds a bundle. Instead, I stare at the dark panes. If the three of them have been reunited, it is not in this world. Once again, they are lost to me.