Harold Winstanley opened his eyes, abruptly---unsure if he'd been asleep or not. Was he still asleep now, and dreaming? It was so dark that he couldn't tell if his eyes had really opened. Gradually he was able to make out the luminous hands of his ancient beside clock; two dim green glows, like the eyes of an ailing but malevolent goblin. Ten past two, on a cold March night on the Massachusetts coast. But nothing at all to suggest what might have woke him up.
He lay tensely where he was, snuggled up alone in his big old colonial bed, holding his breath and listening. There was the wind, of course, rattling and chattering at the window, but out on the Spithead peninsula, where your bedroom is separated from the shores of Nova Scotia by nothing but hundreds of miles of dark and merciless sea, the wind was a fact of life. Persistent and mournful even in spring.
He listened with the acuteness of someone who was still desperately unused to being left alone at night; with the same hypersensitive ears as a wife left at home while her husband goes away on a business trip. And when the wind suddenly rose, and worried around the house, and then just as suddenly died down again, his hearbeats rose, pounded, and died down with it.
The window rattled, fell silent, then rattled again.
Then he heard it, and even though it was almost inaudible, even though he probably perceived it more through his teeth and more through his nerve-endings than he did through his ears, he recognized it at once as the sound that had woken him up, and his senses prickled like static electricity. Plaintive and monotonous, creakkkk-squik, creakkkk-squik, creakkk-squik, the chains of his garden swing.
He stared into the darkness, eyes wide. The goblin-eyes of his clock stared back at him, and the more he stared the less they looked like his bedroom clock. He defied them to move, defied them to wink at him. But outside in the garden, on and on, there was that creakkkk-squik, creakkkk-squik, creakkkk-squik. And the eyes refused to wink.
It's only the wind, Harold thought to himself. It must be. The same wind that's been rattling his window all night. The same wind that's been having such breathy conversations with itself down his bedroom chimney. But he had to admit to himself that he'd never known the wind to blow his swing before; not even on a gusty night like this, when he could clearly hear the seething, disturbed sleep of the North Atlantic Ocean as it pounded a mile-and-a-half away; and the garden gates of Ol' Spithead Village banged as always in intermittent applause. The swing was too heavy, a high-backed chair carved out of solid American Hop Hornbeam, suspended by iron chains. The only way that it could possibly creak was if somebody were to swing in it, steady and high.
Creakkkk-squik, creakkkk-squik, creakkkk-squik, over and over; sometimes muffled by the wind, and the background roar of the sea, but continuing without a single break in rhythm while the clock hands moved through five whole minutes and the goblin seemed to incline his head.
This is madness, he told himself. There's nobody out there, at twenty after two in the morning, swinging. This must be the depressive neurosis Dr. Lockwood was trying to tell him about; a chance in perception, a shift in mental balance. It happens to almost everybody when they lose somebody they love very much. Dr. Lockwood said that he would probably experience it quite often: the unnerving sensation that Nancy was still with him; that she was still alive after all. Lockwood had gone through similar delusions himself, after his own wife died. The doctor had glimpsed her in supermarkets turning around the end of an aisle and out of sight, heard her mixing pastry in the kitchen, and hurried to open the kitchen door, only to find that the room was quite empty, that the bowls and spoons remained spotless and unused. This must be the same creaking he thought he was hearing. Real enough, in its way, but actually a sympathetic hallucination caused by the emotional after-effects of a sudden bereavement.
And yet: creakkkk-squik, creakkkkk-squik, creakkkk-squik, on and on, and somehow the longer it went on the harder it became to believe that it was nothing more than his mind playing tricks on his ears.
You're a rational adult man, Harold told himself. Why the hell should you climb out of a warm comfortable bed on a night like this, just to go to the window and watch your own garden-swing blowing backwards and forwards in a March gale?
Yet---what if there is somebody out there. What if there is somebody swinging, the way Nancy always used to, hands held high to grip the chains, head leaning back against the seat, eyes closed? Well, what if there is? That's nothing to be scared of.
You really think there's somebody out there? You really believe that somebody took the trouble to climb over your backyard palings and stumble their way through 80 feet of unkempt orchard, just to sit on your rusty old garden-swing? On a black windy night, cold as a witch's nipple, with the thermometer down to zero?
It's possible. Admit it, it's possible. Somebody might've been walking back up Harvest Mills from the village, stoned maybe, or even just playful, or maybe pensive, or depressed? And maybe they just caught sight of the swing and maybe they just decided it would be fun to try it, and damn the wind, and the cold, and the chance of getting caught.372Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡW4zufAxUjQ
The trouble was, Harold thought to himself, who was that somebody? There was only one more house on Harvest Mills before it zigzagged down to the Salem Harbor shoreline. The track was stony and broken and almost impossible to follow in the daytime, let alone at night. And what was more, that last house was almost empty in the winter, or so he and his late spouse had been told.
It could have been Guillermo Clayborne, the old hermit in the wide-brimmed caballero hat who lived in that run-down sea-cottage close to Angel Point Cemetery. Sometimes he passed this way, singing and hopping; and once he had confided to Nancy that he could catch sea-bass just by whistling to them. Lillibulero, he said, that's what they liked. He could juggle, too, with clasp knives.
But then he thought: Guillermo's an eccentric, sure. But he's old, too. Sixty-eight, if he's a day. And what's a 68-year-old man doing on my swing, at well past 2:00 in the morning, on a night like this?
Harold made up his mind to ignore the creaking and go back to sleep. He bundled the soft hand-stitched comforter around his ears, burrowed down into the bed, closed his eyes, and breathed with exaggerated deepness. If Nancy had still been there, she probably would have teased him into going to take a look out of the window. But he was tired. He hadn't been able to get more than four or five hours a night since the accident, often less, and tomorrow he had to be up early for a breakfast-time meeting with Nancy's father; and then he had to go to Pinewood Square to Shouse's, where they were putting up a collection of maritime prints and paintings, rare ones, worth bidding for.
He managed to keep his eyes shut for something like a whole minute. Then he opened them again and the goblin eyes were still watching him. And from the garden, no matter how forcefully he muffled his ears, that continual creakkk-squik, creakkkk-squik, creakkkk-squik.
And then----God, he could swear it, someone singing. Faintly, in a high-pitched voice, blown by the wind; so indistinct that it could have been nothing more than the draft blowing across the top of the chimney-stacks. But singing, all the same. A woman's voice, clear and particularly mournful.
He scrambled out of bed so fast that he banged his knee on the mahogany bedside table, and sent the clock tumbling and ringing across the floor. He was too scared to get up slowly: it had to be a kamikaze charge or nothing at all. He dragged the comforter along with him, wrapping it around his waist, and stumbled to the window breathless and blind.
It was so damned dark out there that he could barely see anything at all. The very faintest distinction in tone between hills and sky. The shadowy thrashing of the trees as the wind ruthlessly bowed them down, and bowed them down again. He stared and listened, feeling ridiculous and heroic at the same time. He pressed the palm of his hand against the windowpane, to stop it from rattling. But the creaking of the garden-swing seemed to have died away, and there was nobody swinging, nobody that he could hear.
And yet that tune seemed to echo in his head, that odd mournful tune. It reminded him of the sea-chanty that old Johnny Rode had been singing the very first time they came across him, as he walked up Harvest Mills.
"O the men they sail from Ol' Spithead
To fish the savage waters.
But the fish they catch are naught but bones
With hearts crush'd in their jaws."
Harold had later found it written down in Sea Chanties of Old Salem, by Thaddeus Bromley; but unlike almost all the other chanties in the book, there was no explanation of what it meant, or whether it had any foundation in genuine local lore. It was simply subtitled "A Curiositie." But who had been singing "a curiositie" outside his cottage, so late at night; and why? There couldn't have been more than twelve people in Ol' Spithead who knew that song.
Nancy had always said the song sounded "wickedly sad."
He waited by the window until his shoulders began to feel cold. His eyes became slowly accustomed to the darkness, and he could distinctly make out the black rocky reaches of Ol' Spithead Neck, limned by the Atlantic surf. He took his hand away from the window-pane, and it was chilled and clammy. His handprint stayed on the glass for a moment, a ghostly greeting, and then faded away.
Groping his way back across the bedroom, he found the wallswitch and turned on the light. The room was the same as always. The big wooden early-American bed, with its puffy duck-down pillows; the carved double-fronted wardrobe; the wooden wedding-chest. On top of the bureau on the other side of the room was a small oval mirror in which he could just see the pale blur of his own face.
He wondered if it would be an admission that he was going to pieces if he went downstairs and poured himself a drink. He picked up the royal blue bathrobe he'd dropped on the floor when he went to be last night, and tugged it on.
The house had been so silent since Nancy had gone. He had never realized how much noise, how much aura, a living person truly gives off; even when they're asleep. When Nancy had been alive, she'd filled the house with her warmth and her character and her actual breathing. Now, no matter which room he looked into, there was nothing but coldness and silence. Rocking-chairs that never rocked. Drapes that were never drawn unless he drew them himself. An oven which was never lit unless he went into the kitchen and lit it himself for one of his own solitary meals.
Nobody to talk to: nobody to even smile at when he didn't feel like speaking. And the enormous incomprehensible thought that he would never see her again, not ever.
It had been a month. A month and two days, and a handful of hours. He was over the self-pity. He thought he was over the self-pity. He was surely over the crying, although you can't lose someone like Nancy without being susceptible for the rest of your life to unexpected tears. Dr. Lockwood had warned Harold that it would happen occasionally, and it did: He would be sitting at an auction, ready to bid for some special piece of maritime memorabilia which I particularly wanted to acquire for the shop; and he would suddenly find that tears were sliding down his cheeks, and he would have to excuse himself and retreat to the men's room and blow his nose frequently.
"Damn spring colds," he would say to the attendant.
And the attendant would look at him and know just what was wrong because there is an unadmitted kinship between all the closely-bereaved, a feeling that they can never share with anybody else because it would sound too much as if they were being morbidly sorry for themselves. And yet, dammit, he was.
He went into the low-beamed living room, opened up the sideboard, and took stock of what liquor he had left. Half a mouthful of Chivas Regal; a teacupful of gin. A bottle of sweet sherry to which Nancy had taken a fancy when she was first pregnant. He decided on tea instead. He almost always drank tea when he woke up unexpectedly in the middle of the night. Bohea, no milk, no sugar. A taste he'd acquired from the people of Salem.
He was turning the key in the sideboard when he heard the kitchen door close. Not slam, as though it had been blown by the wind, but close, on its antique latch. He froze where he was, breath caught, heart beating, and listened. There was no other sound, just the wind blowing; but he was sure that he could sense a presence, a feeling that there was someone else in the house. After one month on his own, one month of total silence, he'd become alert to every little fidget, every little squeak, every little scurry of mice; and the larger vibrations of human beings. Human beings resonate, like cellos.
He was sure there was someone there, in the kitchen. There was somebody there, but strangely there was no warmth, and none of the usual friendly noises of humanity. He crossed the brown shag carpet as silent as he could, and went to the fireplace, still ashy and glowing from yesterday evening's logs. He picked up the long brass poker, with its heavy seahorse head, and hefted it in his hand.
In the hallway, his bare feet made a squeaking sound on the waxed pottery tiles. The long-case Tompion clock which Nancy's parents had given them for a wedding-present ticked deeply and thoughtfully inside its crotch-mahogany torso. He reached the kitchen door, and listened for the slightest creak, the slightest breath, the slightest frisson of material against wood.
Nothing. Just the clock, measuring out the rest of his life. Just the wind, which would blow across Ol' Spithead Neck long after he'd left there. Even the sea seemed to have been calmed.
"Is anybody there?" he called, in a voice that started off loud and ended up strangled. And waited, for somebody---or nobody---to answer.
Was that singing? Distant and faraway singing?
"O the men they sail from Ol' Spithead
To fish the savage waters.......
Or was it nothing more than the draft, sucking at the bottom of the garden door?
At last, he eased open the latch that secured the kitchen door, hesitated, and then pushed the door inwards. No groaning, no squeaking----he'd oiled the hinges himself. He took one step, then another, then patted his hand a little to frantically against the wall in search of the light switch. The fluorescent light flickered, paused, then blinked on. He reared up the poker in front of him in nervous reaction, and then he realized that the old-style kitchen was empty, and he lowered it again.
The garden door was still locked and bolted, and the key was still lying where he had left it on top of the softly-humming icebox. The polished Delft tiles behind the kitchen behind the kitchen range shone as blandly as ever, windmills and Dutch boys and tulips and clogs. The copper saucepans hung in mildly shining rows; and his soup-bowl from last-night's supper was still there, waiting to be washed.
Harold opened up cupboards, banged doors, made a lot of noise to reassure himself that he was really alone. He stared fiercely out of the window, into the absolute ebony blackness of the night, to frighten off anybody who might be lurking in the garden. But he saw nothing but the shadowy reflection of his own face, something that frightened him more than anything. Fear itself is frightening. To see yourself frightened, well, that's something worse!
He walked out of the kitchen and back into the hallway, and called out again, "Who's there? Is anybody there?" and again there was silence. But he had a curiously unsettled feeling that something or somebody was passing through the air, as if atmospheric molecules were being disturbed by unseen movements. There was a sensation of coldness, too: a sensation of loss and painful unhappiness. The same coldness you feel when you hear your own child crying in the night, a baby's dread of what the dark might bring.
He stood in the hallway, unsure of what to do or even how to feel. It was quite plain that there was nobody there; that apart from hi the house was empty. There was no physical evidence of any intruder. No doors were forced, no windows broken. Yet it was equally obvious that somehow the perspective of the house had been subtly altered. He felt as if he was now looking at the hallway from a new viewpoint, the right-hand picture of a stereoscopic photograph, rather than the left.
He went into the kitchen, hesitated and then decided to make himself a cup of tea. Maybe two aspirin would help, too. He went over to the stove where the tea kettle was standing, and to his alarm there was already a thin curl of steam rising out of the spout!
With his fingertips, he touched the kettle's lid. It was scalding hot! He stepped back from the kettle and frowned at it. His frowning reflection, ridiculously distorted, stared back at him from its stainless-steel sides. He knew that he'd been thinking of making tea, but had he actually switched on the kettle himself? Harold couldn't remember doing that. Yet the water had boiled, which usually took two to three minutes.
He must've done it himself. He was tired, nothing more. He reached up to the wall-cupboard to take himself down a cup and saucer. And as he did so he could hear it again----Harold was convinced he could hear it again---that faintest of singing. He paused, straining his ears, but it was gone. He took out the cup and saucer, and the little Spode teapot.
Maybe Nancy's sudden death had affected him more than he had realized. Maybe bereavement found ways of expressing itself in visions and mind-tricks. Hadn't Jung talked about a collective unconscious, a pool of dreams in which we all shared? Maybe if one soul was lost to that pool, it set up ripples that everybody could feel, especially those who were closest.
As the kettle continued to boil, slowly, its shiny surface began to mist over, as if the temperature in the kitchen had suddenly dropped. But it was a chilly night, and so it didn't surprise Harold much. He went across to the other side of the kitchen to fetch the old pewter tea-caddy. When he came back, however, for a few brief seconds, he was sure that he saw writing on the misted side of the kettle, as if somebody had quickly scrawled something there with his finger. At that instant, the mist faded away. But he peered at the kettle intently for a sign of what he'd seen, and after he'd filled up the teapot he turned it on again to see if the writing reappeared. There was a smear which might have been an "S" and another smear that might have been an "e," but that was it. He was probably going nuts. He took his tea into the living-room, and sat down by the still-warm fireplace, and sipped it, and tried to get his mind straight.
That couldn't have been writing. It couldn't have been anything else than greasy marks on the side of the kettle , where the condensation wouldn't cling. Harold didn't believe in Ouija boards or automatic writing, or "presences." He didn't believe in poltergeists and I didn't believe in any of that occult thought-transference stuff, psychokinetics, moving ashtrays around just by thinking about it, any of that. But then, people are entitled to believe in them if they wanted to. Maybe some people had actually witnessed that kind of thing. But Harold hadn't, and more than anything else he prayed that he wasn't going to.
He very much didn't want to think that Harvest Mills Cottage might possibly be haunted, especially by anyone he knew. Especially (God forbid) by Nancy.
Harold stayed in the living-room until the long-case clock in the hallway struck five, sleepless and unhappy and deeply disturbed. At last the North Atlantic dawn came austerely through the leaded windows, and dressed the living room in gray. the wind had died down now, to a chilly breeze, and he went out through the back door and took a barefoot walk in the dewy garden, dressed in nothing but his bathrobe and his old sheepskin jacket, and stood by the garden swing.
It must've been low-tied, because far out over the sands of Ol' Spithead Neck, the terns were already swooping down for clams. Their cries were like the cries of children. Off to the northwest, Harold could see the Snell Island Lighthouse, still winking. A cold photographic morning.
The Winstanleys' swing was more than seventy or eighty years old, constructed like an armchair, with a wide carved splat. On the cresting-rail was chiseled the face of the sun, Old Sol, and the words, "All, except their sun, is set," which Nancy had discovered was a quote from Byron. The chains of the swing were suspended from a kind of gallows; but this was hard to detect because whoever had built the swing all those yeas ago had planted a small apple-tree beside it, and now much of the swing was obscured with gnarled old fruit-branches, and in the summer the apple-blossoms showered around you when you were swinging, like snow.
Swinging (Nancy had said, as she swung and sang) was the pastime of fools and jesters, a kind of medieval madness not unlike the whirling of Dervishes. It reminded her of motely and mummers and pigs'-bladders on sticks, and she said that it had once been a way to conjure up imps and devils and hobgoblins. Harold remembered laughing at her, and as he stood there that early morning alone, he found his eyes following the arc in which she had once soared, although the swing itself now hung still, beaded with dew, unmoved by the breeze.
He thrust his hands into his jacket pockets. It looked as if it was it was going to be one of those clear, fresh Atlantic days, cold as hell, but bright. He pushed the swing a little so that the chains complained, but even when he pushed it harder, he couldn't reproduce the noise he had heard last night. To set up that distinctive creakkkk-squik, you had to sit right up on the swing, right up on that high-backed seat, and push yourself back, and up, and back, and up, until your toes were almost brushing the lower branches of the apple tree.
He walked down through the orchard, right to the end of his garden, and looked down the twisting slope of Harvest Mills toward Ol' Spithead Village. Two or three chimneys were already smoking, fishermen's houses, and the smoke was leaning off westwards, toward Salem, whose skyline was already becoming clearer across the harbor.
Slowly, Harold returned to the house, glancing from side to side for any signs of crushed grass, or footprints, or any sign that someone had visited his garden in the night; but there was none. He went back into the kitchen, leaving the door open and brewed himself another cup of Bohea, and ate three Nabisco Chips Ahoy cookies, feeling unreasonably guilty that this was his whole breakfast. Nancy had always insisted on cooking him bacon, or waffles, or shirred eggs. He took his cup of tea upstairs with him, and went to the bathroom to shave.
Harold and Nancy had fitted out the bathroom with a large Victorian basin they had rescued from a derelict house in Glenwood, and they had adorned it with huge brass faucets. Over the basin was an authentic barbershop mirror, surrounded by an oval frame of inlaid kingwood. He inspected himself in the glass and decided he didn't look too bad for a man who had been awake for most of the night---not just awake, but too scared to sleep. Then he turned on the faucets and filled up the basin with hot water.
It was only when he raised his head to start shaving that he saw the writing scrawled across the mirror. At least, it could have been writing; it might as easily have been nothing more than curving drips of moisture. He stared at it closely, frightened and fascinated, and he was sure that he could make out the letters S, V, E, but with indistinguishable letters in between.
S something V something-something E? What on earth could that mean? SAVE? SAVE ME?
He was suddenly sure that he caught the reflection of a movement, something white flickering past the open bathroom doorway behind me. He turned around and said, over-loudly, "Who's there?" and then he stalked on fright-stiffened legs out onto the landing, and looked down the dark curved staircase towards the hallway. Nobody there. No footsteps, no whispers, no mysteriously closed doors, nothing. Just a little Edward Hicks painting of a matelot, staring back at him in that bovine, placid way that all Edward Hicks people stare at patrons.
Nobody there. And yet, for the first time since she had died; for the first time in a whole month of loneliness and silent pain, he found himself whispering, "Nancy?"ns 22.214.171.124da2