“It is reported that a house owned by Adolph Wollmer, situated one half mile south of Tess’s Corner in the town of Muskego, Waukesha County, is haunted. It is perfectly quiet around the house until the dread hour of night approaches when it is suddenly illuminated . . . Distinct sounds of footsteps are heard pacing the floors, and doors [swing] . . . to and fro . . . yet no object is perceptible. This scene is of very short duration, lasting one or two minutes only, and is repeated several times during the early morning hours.”
– February 5, 1886, Badger State Banner, as quoted in the book Wisconsin Death Trip
I knocked on the door of the big, dark house. It had steep steps up to the front, but no porch to sit on in the summer, like ours had. Wasn’t summer now, anyway.
The door knocker was shaped like a bear, turning to look at you, jaws open and snarling. It was heavy.
I waited. I watched my breath make warm puffs, watched the puffs lose heart and vanish in the cold air. February is the worst month, at least in Wisconsin, and I’ve never been anywhere else. It’s the shortest month, but it feels like the longest, ‘cause it’s been cold so long, and it’s so long to go before even a hint of spring and warm. And the snow isn’t pretty anymore, in February, only gray slush, all icy-dirty, with horse dung on the roads.
The door swung open to a teenage girl. She wasn’t a maid, for she wore a long green silk dress with dark flowers, banded at the ribs and falling in pretty cascades. I wish my mama still wore pretty dresses like that.
“Yes?” she said, looking sharp at me, but not too sharp.
“I read your house is haunted,” I said. “I read it in the paper. I’m good at talking to spirits, I am. Ma says I am. So I came to see if I could help.”
And that was partly true, about why I came. The other part, I just wanted to see people. I just wanted something to do in the long February, to get me out of the house, where it’s so lonely since Caroline died, since my mother stopped coming out of her room, since my father began staying at the bank till I am asleep and leaving before I wake.
Of course Caroline always wants to play. And I love her, and I’m glad for her. But sometimes I am lonely for a living friend.
The green-dress girl stood staring at me for a length of time, like deciding something. Then she said, “Well, come in, if you’re coming in, it’s far too cold to leave the door open.”
I was glad to be in the warmth of inside, for I had hitched a ride part way with the milk wagon, but mostly walked the seven miles to get here.
I was glad of the warmth, but at first the inside wasn’t glad or friendly. It was dark, dark all over, with the gaslights timid and dim against the dark wood.
The one bit that seemed like light, more real than the gaslight or the frosty window, was all the paintings on the walls. The walls were hung all over with great strange paintings, mostly of ships. They loomed out of the darkness, these paintings, glowing gold or silver-gray.
“Wait here,” said the girl, pointing to a bench by the stairs.
I sat and tried to warm my toes by rocking them back and forth to crack the ice on my leather boots. Across from me was a framed photograph of a man with an old-fashioned necktie and eyes pale as glass.
The wind rose up, snapping and gnashing outside the door, and I thought, I made it just in time. That’s a blizzard-sound.
“You’re getting water on our floor,” said a voice above me. I looked up. On the stairs behind me, about halfway up, sat a boy about my age. He wore a dark wool suit, three silver buttons, a little dark tie, and short pants and high stockings. His leather boots were polished and supple, not like mine.
“Well where should I sit, then?” I asked. “The girl said to sit here.”
“That’s my sister Tillie,” said the boy. “Sit by the fire in the next room, and I’ll sit with you, and your boots will dry.”
As I arranged my boots before the fire, in my much more comfortable chair, he spoke again: “What’s you’re name?”
He was in the chair across from me, sitting importantly, like a man already for all he was but my size. His face was pale and his eyes were big and dark as if something had just shocked him terribly, but his voice was calm.
“Abigail,” I said.
“Eddie,” he said, and we sat in silence, but for the restless, rising wind outside.
Now a woman came, out of the kitchen, perhaps, as she was a bit floury, and wiping her hands on a floury cloth. She was pretty, curly dark hair loosening around her ears, and her bodice was tight and red beneath a white apron, the skirt falling in swags and folds to the floor beneath it. She smiled. “Well, my girl,” she began.
The boy interrupted her. “Her name is Abigail, Ma. She’s come about the haunting.”
By the time I’d explained about the spirits and that, the wind made it hard to hear, and the window was all excited with whiteness. “Whatever your powers with spirits, sweet Abigail,” said Eddie’s mother, pushing her hair from her face with the back of her wrist, “you will surely spend the night tonight. Ach, your parents will be frantic.”
“I believe they won’t,” I said. “Since my twin died, they aren’t very noticing. Once last summer I made a camp near the river, to pretend to be the Roman army. I stayed for three days. And they said nothing when I came back.”
It had been Caroline’s idea, being the Romans. At night we looked at the million billion stars together and picked out the few constellations we knew, and then made our own.
“Child,” said the woman, and how her eyes changed, like my mama used to look at me when I was sick or hurt. “I am sorry you had such a loss, and that your parents . . . well, they must be grieving, too.”
“Thank you,” I said. “But Caroline stays with me, mostly. She makes the wind in the leaves or under the roof into words, or the kettle bubble is her laugh, like that.“
“And that’s how you contact spirits,” said Eddie.
“Yes,” I admitted. “It’s mostly only Caroline I contact. But she tells me things sometimes, about the others where she is.”
A great stamping came from the back of the house, and a teenage boy’s half-deep, shouting voice. “Alma wanted to stay out! She’s a fierce one, no mistake. You should have been a boy, Alma.“
“I wouldn’t want to be a dirty BOY, Rudy,” was the indignant reply, from a girl younger than me, I guessed.
Their mother was already hurrying back toward the voices, murmuring, “Ah, they’ll wake the baby!”
Soon she was calling us to supper, and there was roast chicken and lovely warm potatoes and turnips, and rolls fresh from the oven, and baked cinnamon apples for dessert. And the four older children laughed and talked and teased, and the mother corrected them kindly and laughing herself. And she let me help feed baby Clara with a spoon, and Clara laughed and grabbed my nose with her porridgey fingers.
As we all helped clatter the dishes clean, I thought, I love it here, and I do not want to leave. I love this whole houseful of family—except where is the father?
“My father won’t be coming home tonight, no more than you will,” said Eddie. I looked at him sharp, in case he read my mind, but I didn’t think so. He put down the dish he was wiping. “That means I can show you something. Follow me.”
As we climbed the stairs, I felt so happy. This family, warm and alive: my heart drank them up like water.
But then I heard a whisper in the whistling wind: It’s dangerous here, said Caroline.
“Why?” I whispered.
It’s dangerous here, she whistled more loudly. Oh Abbie! Go home! He’s mad!
“But who is?” I said, bewildered
Eddie turned around to look at me. His big, dark eyes. Then he turned around to climb on.
We came to a long hall with many doors, but Eddie said, “Higher.” The stairway became narrow and cramped, twisting around, then so low we had to duck our heads. Finally, we came to a door we had to kneel to go through.
And then we were in a room full of light.The high windows were blank with snow, but all over the room, on easels, leaning against the wall, were enormous paintings of light: summer light, gold and full of itself, yearning autumn light slanting away, spring all pink-fresh, like eyes just opened. And winter light, the paintings had that too, they showed how it hangs still and silver-gray around you like a heavy coat.
Eddie was looking at me.
“Did you make these?” I said.
“And the ones downstairs?”
“No. My grandfather painted those. He died before I was born.”
“Yours are as good or better,” I blurted. I am a blurter at times. “Yours should be hanging beside his.”
Eddie watched me with his big dark eyes, but something softer in them now. He said, “My father does not wish me to paint. I paint here in secret. Well: it is not so secret, for my mother knows, and I think Tillie suspects. But they do not tell.”
The canvases glowed around us like stolen pieces of days. “Why doesn’t he want you to paint?
“His father went blind. They say that’s why he went blind, from all the painting. He went blind, and then he went mad, and then he died, when Father was Rudy’s age. And so he . . . ” he hesitated “. . . he is not a bad father, he is a kind father in many ways, but he forbids me to paint. He means it well,” he added, and his eyes clouded with so much pain then it was hard to see.
“It’s wrong and a shame,” I said.
A gas lamp on the stairwell sputtered and coughed, and I heard Caroline’s whisper: It’s something about the paintings.
Then we were called down for bed.
Their mother put Alma in with Tillie and let me have Alma’s room, apologizing it was so small. I said I loved it, so snug and pretty and well-arranged, and Alma, who had been looking rather cross and rebellious, smiled.
In the dark, I lay listening to laughing whispers down the hall, and doors opening and closing soft; and once something heavy fell and Tillie’s voice came floating out, “If I get up I’ll be cross, so don’t make me get up.” Then all was silent.
And I thought: I love it here. I love it more than at home with Caroline. It felt disloyal to think it, but think it I did. I didn’t want to know about hauntings and madness, I didn’t want to talk to spirits, not even my sister’s. I wanted to stay here in the arms of this kind mother, these happy children.
Abigail, Caroline whispered in the wind.
“Don’t,” I said, and pulled the covers over my ears.
Abigail! Her whistling, hissing voice held a curious hurt. Abigail? You don’t love them more than me?
I pretended I couldn’t hear her. Under the covers, my body settled and softened. I thought of the strange and lovely paintings above and below me, and then even those sank from my mind, and I fell asleep.
In my dream, my sister whispered my name in my ear, over and over, and I wished she wouldn’t. I could feel her cold, damp fingers pressed against my head as she whispered my name, over and over, Abigail, Abbie. Her voice sounded cold and damp as well, and the whisper came again, over and again, more urgently, every time, and then she was screaming, right in my ear, ABBIE! ABBIE! WATCH OUT!
I sat straight up, awake.
My room was full of a glowing yellow light, brighter than any gas lamp, bright as the brightest day.
But the house was silent. Even the blizzard seemed to have calmed.
I slipped to the floor in bare feet to see where the light came from. I pulled open my door and stepped out.
The whole hallway was full of the golden light, and the stairwell, too; it seemed the whole house was full.
Then, without warning, every door in the hallway swung open, swung wide. Then every door, all together, slammed shut, hard. Then they blew open again, as if from a blast of wind, and slammed shut together again. Then a third time—even my own door, which was torn from my fingers and banged shut, once, twice, again.
And now the wind howled and screamed outside like a patient at an asylum, and thunder cracked—thunder in a blizzard!
And out of the howling, my sister’s voice sang a terrible song: It is he! He does this! He calls for light! ‘Light!’ he screams, ‘Light! Give me light!’
And I knew that wasn’t Eddie, who now stood like the rest of the family in the hallway, staring wildly around. Below, something glass shattered, and I heard the mother scream.
“Tell me something more about him!” I called out to Caroline.
Curly hair, she sang with the wind, and low brows, but handsome, only his eyes are strange, pale as blue glass, and staring.
I thought of the photograph I had seen in the hall, and I shouted “Eddie! Come!” We stumbled down the stairway on cold bare feet.
Below stairs was as brightly lit as above, as if the the sun were inside with us, and the wind screamed in agony. Their mother crouched against the stairwell, bent over her baby, shielding her.
I pointed at the photograph, shouting over the wind. “Caroline! Is it him?”
It is! she howled among the snow-howls.
“That’s my grandfather, the one who was the painter,” Eddie shouted. He grabbed my arm. “What does your sister say?”
HE CALLS FOR LIGHTS! Caroline cried.
“But the lights are on, sir!” I called into the wild wind. “It is as bright as day in here!”
Now the wind stopped, like a caught breath. In the silence I saw Rudy and Tillie on the stairway, eyes enormous, Tillie with Alma pressed against her side.
Then the the thunder CRACKED, like the roof itself had split apart.
And in that same instant, all at once, every painting on the walls crashed to the floor. The ones along the stairways hit the steps, bounced on their corners, and Rudy cried out and held his own arm. One nearly struck Eddie as it slammed down, but I pushed him out of the way.
Eddie’s mother, still shielding the baby, screamed “Children! Take cover!”
Now again the doors banged again in unison, once, twice, three times, and again the wind wailed.
“Caroline,” I cried above the moans, “how can we help him?”
EDDIE, Caroline howled.
All the eyes in the room widened, and the mother looked up, and I could see: they heard her.
Then, all in one gust: He wants Eddie to paint. That’s what he wants. He wants Eddie to paint for him.
A pause for the smallest of seconds. Then Eddie turned and ran up the stairs, past his huddling sisters and brother. We heard his feet thudding, flying.
And the light subsided, inside the house, from brilliant gold to softer white, to dim gray, to gone.
And at the same time, the wind outside subsided into softer sobs, then long sighs. Just before it faded altogether, I thought I heard the wind say, and not in my sister’s voice but in a man’s voice, older and sadder, Let him paint. Let him paint. Let him paint.
The next day, the father came home to find doors splintered and split and his own father’s paintings in broken frames leaning against walls every which way. I saw his wife pull him aside, and they spoke behind a closed door for a long time. I listened for any shouting, as at my house, but there was none. He came out, looking pale, and called for Eddie to join them.
And later, when Eddie emerged, he was smiling, and for the first time his eyes had lost their pained and haunted look.
The father leaned down to me. “Thank you for helping my family,” he said. “You have my gratitude, and if ever we can help you, we will. You have a second home here.” He glanced out the window, then smiled at me. “When I’m more certain that the calm weather will hold, I’lll horse up the sleigh and take you home.”
But I did not want to go home. After breakfast, as the others picked through the wreckage below, I ran to my room and said to Caroline: “I want to stay.”
You don’t love me any more, she hissed in the gaslight.
“I love you. I will never leave you. But I can’t have only you, it’s too lonely.”
I have no one but you, and it’s enough for me.
I was stubborn. “I’m going to ask to stay.” And I made my bed up as neatly as I could, and straightened my frock, and dabbed off the bit of turnip juice, and combed my hair, and started down the stairs.
The gas lamp spoke again. Wait, Caroline hissed. I will help. I will tell you a true thing that will happen, and when you tell Eddie, he will be so grateful, he will persuade them you must stay.
“Caroline!” I cried softly. “Thank you, beautiful sister.”
But when she told me the true thing to tell Eddie, my heart quailed. I wasn’t sure he would be so grateful. But Caroline promised, so I turned around and went back up the stairs, and burst into Eddie’s painting-place, and told him what Caroline had said.
His face went white, and he ran down to his parents. I followed partway and stood on the stairs to listen, but I heard almost nothing.
“Caroline?” I whispered. But she didn’t answer.
The father emerged with a new face, cold and stern. “We’ve had enough of your games, miss,” he said. “Snow or no, I’m taking you home, and you’re not to come back. You understand? Never. Put on your coat.”
All the long ride home, he said not a word. “Caroline?” I whispered into my wool scarf, so he couldn’t hear.
The wind breathed, It’s better this way. I love you more than they ever could.
So I never went back to the warm house with the laughter and the paintings of light. And I only saw Eddie one other time, almost two years later, when what Caroline had said came true. I ran most of the way there, to see if he saw now that it was no mean trick, it was true. To see if he would be my friend again.
The house was full of people. I searched through crowds of black silk and black wool to find him. “Eddie!” I cried when I saw him.
But his wet eyes went dark, and he pointed and shouted “Get out! Get her out! Get her and her ghost sister out!”
And a very large woman in rustling silks grabbed me hard by the arm and pulled me right out the front door. “How dare you, child,” she said, puffing. “How dare you come upset the boy on the day of his mother’s funeral!”
And she slammed the door against me.
I don’t know why he was so upset with us, I’ll never know why, I guess. Eddie’s mother did die. It’s not like Caroline wasn’t right.