As he walked up Harvest Mills, Harold was tempted to stop off at Tracker Miller's house and play a few hands of cards with him and old Andy Curtis. He'd been neglecting his neighbors ever since Nancy was killed, and if he was going to continue to live there, well, he should visit them more often.401Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡr1fgrFmbdI
But even as he approached Tracker's front fence, he knew that he was only making excuses for himself. Visiting Tracker would be nothing more than a way of deferring his return to Harvest Mills Cottage, and to whatever fears were hidden behind its doors. Visiting Tracker would be cowardice: letting the whispers and the voices and the strange movements scare him away from his own home.
He hesitated, though, and looked in at Tracker's parlor window, where he could just see the back of Andy Curtis's head as he dealt out the cards, and the lamplit table, and the beer-bottles, and the sudden blue drift of smoke from Tracker's cigar. He hoisted his sacks of groceries a little higher, and took in a deep breath, and carried on up the hill.
Harvest Mills cottage was in total darkness when he approached, even though he was sure that he'd left the front porch light on to guide him home. The gale blew around the house and rustled its creepers like hair, and the two shuttered upstairs windows looked like tightly-closed eyes. A house that was keeping its secrets to itself. In the far distance Harold could hear the endless dejected grumbling of the North Atlantic surf.
He put down his sacks of groceries, took out his keys, and opened the front door. Inside, it was warm and calm, and he could see the dancing light from the living-room fire reflected on the ceiling. He brought in his bags and shut the door after him. Maybe the house wasn't really haunted after all? Had the creaking of that swing last night simply put him on edge, and given him a temporary attack of mild hysteria?
Nevertheless, once he'd stacked away the groceries and the liquor, and switched on the oven for his lasagna dinner, he went all the way around the house, upstairs and down, looking into every room, opening up every closet, kneeling down and peering under every bed. He just wanted to know when he sat down and ate his meal tonight that there wasn't anything hiding in the cottage that might come down and catch him unawares.
He watched television for an hour or so, although reception was below par due to the weather. He watched Sanford & Son, M.A.S.H and even Trapper John, M.D. Then he cleared up the remains of his meal, poured himself a large whiskey, and went into the library. He wanted to take a look at that painting that Michael Trotter had made an ass of himself over in Salem, and see if maybe he could identify the ship in it.401Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡlU9loY724R
It was naggingly cold in the library. Usually it was one of the warmest rooms in the house. It wasn't worth laying a fresh log fire; but he switched on the electric heater fan. After just a few seconds, though, the heater abruptly short-circuited, crackled sparks, whirred, and died. There was a smell of burnt plastic and electricity. Outside, creepers tapped against the window; a soft and complex pattern, like unremembered spirits seeking access.
He picked up the painting, still in its wrapper, and selected one or two books from the shelves that he thought might help him discover what the ship might be. Nelson's Salem Marine; Olcott's Merchant Vessels of Massachusetts 1650-1850; and, just out of inspiration, Great Men of Old Salem Town, by Ogletree. He remembered that many of the leading commercial ships and political figures in Old Salem used to own private ships, and Ogletree's book might have some clues about the one in the picture.
By the time he was ready to depart the library, it was so cold in there that he could actually see his breath. The barometer must be dropping like a stone, he thought to himself. Yet, in the hallway, it was as warm as it had been before, and the barometer pointed to the optimistic side of Unsettled. He looked back at the library, wondering if there was something wrong with it. Rising damp, maybe. A freak draft down the chimney. And again he thought he could hear---what was it, breathing? Whispering? He froze where he was, unsure if he should go back and face whatever might be in there; or if he should carry on with what he was doing with as much apparent unconcern as he could. Maybe if you believed in ghosts, that gave them even more power to manifest themselves. Maybe if you didn't believe in them, they'd get weak, dispirited, and eventually go away.
Whispering. Cold, soft, persistent whispering; like someone relating a very long and very unpleasant story."
"All right!" Harold shouted. "All right, that's it!" and hurtled open the library door. It shuddered on its hinges, and then creaked to rest. The library, of course, was deserted. Only the creepers tapping at the windows. Only the wind, and the occasional spatter of rain. His breath smoked, and he couldn't help thinking of all those creepy movies like The Exorcist where the presence of an evil demon is betrayed by a steep and sudden drop in temperature.
"Okay," he said, trying to sound like a tough guy who's decided to be merciful and not pulverize the sarcastic barfly who's been making lewd comments about his wife. He reached out for the library door handle and firmly closed the room behind him. Back in the hallway, he said to himself, "It's nothing. Nothing! No ghosts. No vampires. No demons. Nothing."
He picked up the watercolor and the books once again, and carried them through to the living room, where he spread them all out on the rug in front of the fire. He unwrapped the painting, and held it up so that he could look at it closely. The firelight played patters across it, so that it almost seemed as if the painted area were moving.
It was strange to think that this same sheet of handmade paper had been pinned to an easel over 290 years ago, only 1/4 miles or so away from Harvest Mills Cottage, and that an unknown artist had recreated in paints a day that had really passed; a day when men in frock coats had walked on beside the harbor, and Salem had been alive with horses and carts and people in Puritan clothes. He touched the surface of it with his fingertips. It was, in many ways, a crude painting. The perspective and the coloring were unforgivable amateurish. Yet there was some quality about it which seemed to bring it to life, as if it had been painted for a heartfelt reason. As if the artist had wanted more than anything to bring that long-lost day to life, and to show the people who were to be his descendants what Salem Bay had actually looked like, in every detail.
He could now understand why the Peabody Museum people were so interested in it. Every tree had been carefully recorded; it was even possible to make out the winding curve of Harvest Mills Cottage; a tiny lopsided dwelling with a tall chimney and weather-boarded sides.
Now he examined the ship on the other side of the bay. It was a three-masted schooner, conventionally-rigged, although there was one distinctive feature which he hadn't noticed when he had looked at the picture earlier: two large flags flying from the stern-castle, one above the other, one of which appeared to be a red cross on a black background, and the other one of which was clearly meant to be the colors of the ship's owner.
Pouring himself some more whiskey, he looked into Olcott's book on merchant ships, and discovered that "it was the custom of some Salem dignitaries to fly on their ships two flags; one to denote their ownership and the other to celebrate the voyage on which they were engaged, especially if it was expected to be significant and profitable."
At the back of the book, he found a chart of owner's flags, though they were printed in black-and-white, and it was hard to distinguish between the various designs of strips and crosses and stars. There were two which seemed to be vaguely similar to the owner's flag on the ship in my picture, and so I cross-referred to Nelson's Salem Marine.
One of them was obviously hopeless: the flag of Caleb Fentby, Esq., who was said to have run one of the first ferries from Salem to Ol' Spithead Neck. But the other belonged to Ahab Marsh, a wealthy merchant who had escaped from England in 1670 because of his extreme religious views, and who had quickly established in Salem one of the largest fleets of merchantmen and fishing-vessels on the east coast of the colonies.
The text said, "Little is known today about Marsh's fleet, although it probably numbered four 100-ft. merchantmen and numerous smaller vessels. Although tiny by modern standards, a 100-foot ship was the biggest that Salem's harbor could comfortably accommodate, since it had a 9-ft. tidal range, and ships which had sailed quite easily into harbor when the tide was high would settle into the mud when the tide ebbed again. The names of only two of Marsh's vessels have survived to the present day: The Gifted Lady and the George Badger. A scrimshaw rendition of the Gifted Lady made in about 1712 by one of her retired crewmen shows her as a three-masted schooner flying a palm-tree flag to indicate that she usually traded in the West Indies. No known illustration of the George Badger exists, although it can fairly be assumed that she was a similar vessel."
He turned to Great Men of Old Salem Town and read all that he could about Ahab Marsh. A vigorous and firebreathing forerunner to Eli Cruise, Marsh had obviously been feared and respected as much for his Puritanical religious fervor as he was for his sea-trading. Marsh had apparently shaken the community's souls as well as their pockets. One contemporary account said that "Mr. Marshe firmlie believes in the existence on Earth bothe of Angelles & deamones, and is forthright in saying thus; for if a manne is to believe in the Lord & His hostes, says Marshe, so must he believe with equalle certaintie in Satan and his miniones." Marsh had therefore made Salem into one of the busiest and richest seaports on the eastern seaboard, and earned himself the distinction of being America's first-ever millionaire.
Harold was about to put the books away, satisfied at least that he could now sell the painting either to the Peabody or to one of his regular customers with the catch-all caption, "Thought to be a rare depiction of one of the merchant ships of Ahab Mars," when it occurred to him to look up the name of George Badger. It was a curious name, but there was something about it that rang very distinct bells. Maybe it was something that Nancy had once said, or one of our customers. He thumbed through Great Men of Old Salem Town again until he found it.
The entry was a tantalizingly short twelve-liner.
"George Isaiah Badger, 1610(?)-1691. Fundamentalist preacher of Mill Pond, Salem, who enjoyed brief local celebrity in 1682 when he claimed to have had several face-to-face conversations with Satan, who had provided him with a list of all those souls in the Salem district who were surely damned, and to those whose 'inevitable incineration' Satan was looking forward to with 'relishe.' George Badger was a protégé and adviser to the wealthy Salem merchant Ahab Marsh (ibid.) and for some years was engaged with Marsh in trying to establish extreme fundamentalist principles in Salem's religious community. He died in mysterious circumstances in the spring of 1691, some say by the phenomenon of 'spontaneous explosion.' In Badger's honor, Marsh named his finest merchant vessel the George Badger, although it is interesting to note that all contemporary records of this ship were excised from every logbook, chart, account-ledger and broadsheet of the period, supposedly on Marsh's instruction."
It was then that he found what he'd been looking for. He traced the words with his finger as he read them quietly. He felt that heady surge of excitement that every antique dealer experiences when he discovers for sure that the goods he's bought are unique and valuable.
"George Badger's insignia was that of a red cross on a black field, to indicate the triumph of Jesus Christ over the powers of darkness. Contrarily, however, this insignia was adopted intermittently for several decades after his death by secret covens of 'witches' and practitioners in the black arts. The insignia was declared illegal in 1731 by Deputy Governor William Clark, presiding officer of the Court of Oyer and Terminer."
He laid the book flat on the floor and picked up the painting again. So this ship was the George Badger, a ship which had been named for a man who had claimed to have conversations with the Devil, and whose name had been expunged from every possible local record.
Dammit! No wonder Michael Trotter had been so desperate to acquire the painting for the Peabody. This could, quite simply, be the only pictorial record ever made of the George Badger. Or at least the only pictorial record that had survived through 290 years and a purge against knowledge of what she had looked like or where she had sailed.
The George Badger, with her forbidden banner of red and black, sailing out of Salem Harbor. Harold examined her closely, realizing that the artist had painted her in quite considerable detail, especially for a vessel that was so far away, and especially since dozens of ships must've sailed in and out of Salem every day.
Could it be that the artist had never intended to paint a straightforward landscape of the Ol' Spithead shoreline at all? Had he meant to paint nothing less than an historical record of the George Badger sailing away on a voyage of great importance. But where was she going? And why?
The log fire suddenly dropped, making his head jerk up in frightened reaction, and his hear pumped blood violently. The wind had calmed, and he could hear the rain falling more steadily now, rustling through the orchard and through the trees. He knelt on the rug, with his books all around him, listening, daring the house not to whisper, daring the doors not to open and close, daring the ghosts of three hundred years not to flow through the halls and down the stairs.
And in front of him, on its gray painted sea, the George Badger sailed on its unknown voyage, mysterious and indistinct against the Massachusetts treeline. He stared at it as he listened, and he heard himself whispering its name.
Silence for a while, except for the ashy crackling of the fire, and the soft sound of the rain. Then, barely audible, a noise whish he was so frightened to hear that he actually let out an odd grunt; the kind of mortally-despairing exclamation you sometimes hear from airplane passenger when their plane drops into an unexpected dive. He felt tingling cold, and he wasn't even sure that he would be able to run if he had to.
It was that damned garden-swing again. Regular and rhythmic, that same creakkkk-squik, creakkkk-squik, creakkkk-squik that Harold had heard the night before. There was no doubt about it!
He stood up and made his way jerkily across to the hallway. He had closed the library door and now it was open. The latch hadn't caught? No. He had closed it, and now it was open. Someone, something had opened it. The wind? No. Stop blaming the damn wind. The wind can rattle and shake and whisper and howl, but the wind can't open a latched door, and the wind can't change people's places in photographs, and the wind alone can't make that garden-swing go backwards and forwards. There's somebody out there, swinging. Face up to the goddamn fact that things are happening in this house and somebody's making them happen, human or inhuman. There's somebody out there swinging, for God's sake, so go and look. go and see for yourself what it is that's making you so frightened. Face up to it!
He limped across the kitchen as if he were injured, but it was just a combination of fright and pins-and-needles from kneeling on the living-room floor. He reached the rear door. Locked! He fumbled for the key on top of the icebox and dropped it on the floor. Deliberately? You dropped that deliberately. The real point is, you don't want to go out there. The real point is that you're scared shitless, just because some mischievous kid has trespassed into your orchard and swung on your stupid swing.
On hands and knees, he found the key. Stood up again, jostled it into the lock, unlocked it, turned the doorhandle.
What if it's her?
And waves of deadly cold went through him, as if buckets of ice-water were being poured over him in slowly, one after the other.
What if it's Nancy?
He didn't remember actually opened the door. He remembered feeling the rain prickling his face as he emerged from the kitchen porch. He remembered walking, stumbling through the weeds and the long grass, hurrying faster and faster, afraid to miss whoever it was that was swinging on the swing and yet even more scared that he might get there before they ran away.
He came around the apple tree, right next to the swing, and stopped dead. The rain-wet chair was swinging backwards and forwards, high and steady, all by itself. The chains went creakkk-squik, creakkk-squik, but the chair was empty.
He stared at it, breathing harshly. Alarmed, but strangely relieved . It's a natural phenomenon, he thought. Thank God for it. Science, not ghosts. Some kind of magnetic disturbance. Maybe the moon pulls chains at certain times of the year, the way it pulls the tide, and the momentum kind of builds up, like in Newton's Law---some kind of inertia or whatever. Maybe there's a magnetic lode underneath the local soil, and certain weather conditions charge it up, like electricity from thunderclouds. Or maybe some kind of highly localized wind starts it off, a katabatic wind down the side of the house that....
Then he saw it. A brief, bluish flicker of light, in the seat of the swing. No more than a half-seen flash of distant lightning, but enough to make him stare even harder at the swing-seat as it squeaked backwards and forwards. Then another flicker, slightly brighter than the first. He took a step away from the swing, two steps. The light flickered again and he could finally make something out....but he didn't like it.
It was like an image illuminated by camera flashbulbs, an image that was dazzling one instant and nothing but a retinal after-image the next. Half-formed, blurry, as if it were hologram transmitted from somewhere years ago and far away.
It was Nancy, and whenever the light flickered and he could see her, she was looking back at Harold. Her face was unmarked but odd, thinner somehow, as if her skull were elongated. She wasn't smiling. Her hair crackled as if it were blown by an electrical discharge rather than by the wind. She was wearing a white dress of some kind, a long white dress with wide sleeves, and sometimes she was there and sometimes not, but the swing kept on swinging, and the light flickered, and the chains went creakkkk-squik, creakkkk-squik, creakkkk-squik. And, God almighty, she was dead. She was dead and Harold could see her!
He opened his mouth, unable to speak at first. His face was wet with rain but his throat was dry and constricted. Nancy stared at him, unsmiling, and the flickers started to fade. Soon he could barely see her; only the glimpse of a pale white hand on the chain of the swing, the blur of the shoulder, the outline of flying hair.
"Nancy," he whispered. God, he was frightened. The swing started momentum. The chains suddenly stopped squeaking.401Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ7UbKPs51S6
"Nancy!" he shouted. And somehow for a moment, the fright of losing her again overcame the fright of seeing her. If she was really there, if by some ungodly miracle she was really trapped somewhere in purgatory, or the spirit world, if she hadn't yet died forever, then maybe....401Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡZ3XKsMBy0U
Harold didn't shout to Nancy again. He was about to, but something stopped him. The swing swung three or four more times, then came to a halt. He stood looking at it, and then slowly approached it, laying his hand on the wet wooden arm of the chair. There was nothing there, no sign that anyone had been sitting here at all. The two carved depressions in the seat were filled with rainwater.401Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡogLKEhsJST
"Nancy," he said under his breath, but no longer felt as if she were close. And he was no longer sure that he really wanted to call her. If she came back, what could she possibly come back to? Her body was crushed beyond repair, and one month decayed. There was no way that she could occupy her earthly self again. And did he really want her to occupy the cottage, and the garden, and him? She had lived, but she was dead now; and there is no one more unwelcome in the world of the living than the dead.401Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡDrG4E8HrHY
There was another reason he didn't call her. He remembered what Michael Trotter had said to him today, in Salem. "Did you know that Ol' Spithead was called Resurrection, up until 1703?"401Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡtLv9mbR6lm
Resurrection.401Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡphPWup4OuP
Drenched, and deeply disturbed, he walked back to the cottage. Before he went in, he looked up at the eyes of the bedroom windows. He thought he might have glimpsed a flicker of blue-white light there, but he was likely mistaken. Even nightmares have to end sometime.401Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡyYJjQkqqPn
The trouble was, he began to feel that his nightmare was just beginning.401Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ7FQbUQtu7sns 220.127.116.11da2