I accompanied my mother to reside at my grandfather’s secluded house in the country, where she tended to the snappy old dog in his decrepitude. A miserable sod he was, but Mother said, “Grandfather wasn’t always so cantankerous.” Perhaps it boded true because Mother tended to him with loving devotion.
“Disposition,” she said. “Has a lot to do with what we keep and what we let go.”
“Grandfather surrounds himself with a lot of things,” I said.
“It’s not about possessions, dear.”
The bizarre nature of the thought confounded me until other more phantastic happenings usurped it. This story is of that strange season in my life.
Mother was far too busy caring for grandfather to have any concern for my whereabouts or welfare. Having seen eight summers, I was old enough to help with some cooking and cleaning but was otherwise free to roam like a curious kitten. I wished grandfather had a tame cat, but only feral felines inhabited his decaying farm. I couldn’t get close to them, try as I might.
Uncle William, who lived with Grandfather, said, “While you’re out roaming, May, stay away from the barn.” He spoke slowly with thick words that tripped and tumbled off his tongue. “It’s falling down and not safe.”
It surprised me that Uncle roused to offer advice. His only contribution to the household was chopping wood and stoking the stove. Uncle William usually remained in the shadows at the back of the kitchen, silently sitting or reclining on a cot under which many brown bottles collected.
One day I tried to peek at the bottles that he called dead soldiers. Uncle touched my shoulder, shook his head, smiled, and winked. His eyes were a deep amber honey and transmitted a depth of sadness that made me ache. A lump came to my throat to see tears dampen his curling lashes, and I curtsied.
Whatever possessed me?
When I asked about Uncle’s collection of bottles, Mother cautioned, “Uncle is suffering from good and bad days. Leave him be and keep quiet when you’re inside. Now out you go.” She lifted her apron and made shooing motions with the ruffled bluebell patterned skirt.
I escaped the silent vault of the house as often as possible. It was lonely with no companion. But sometimes I heard whispers in the wind. The murmurs jingled like a child’s voice.
Chiming laughter and nursery rhyme came to me on currents of air, muffled by the apple orchard’s boughs and leaves. Straining to catch the sound, I could almost make out the rhyme’s words.
My search for the source of the music bore no fruit. Did my desire for a friend supply me with an imaginary playmate? I had heard of children having such. However, I was far too old for that and not addled. No, the wind whispered words. My body shivered all over as I heeded the dulcet harmony. The blond hair on my arms stood to attention.
I heard it, not clear as a bell, nor every syllable. Perhaps I provided some of my own words, but there was definitely a song in the sweet apple-blossomed breeze.
What’s that? Hush May, hush, hearken.
As I stood still listening, the song wisped by like a flock of swallows. The voice sweet as an angel choir sang the quatrain.
Ring a Ring O’ Roses. A pocket full of posies. Husha! Husha! We all fall down.
How far can words travel?
The faint fragile melody faded, and I heeded a call from close by—Mother summoning me for supper. Reluctantly, I entered the confinement of the dismal dwelling.
The tune no longer sent shivers up my spine, having heard the child’s sing-song nursery rhyme in its entirety. What did make me quake and quiver were the sounds at bedtime. These noises weren’t like blooms on the breeze but were dark, devilish reverberations. Night in the gloom of the house terrified me, fed my fear. Ghoulish moans and groans echoed in the hall, a band from hell unleashed. Would I be swallowed whole?
More horrifying than the house itself was Grandfather, who sat in his ornately carved chair at the table’s head. The ruby ring on his skeletal finger clattered as he grasped a glass. His face, skull-like, gave way to a bald head. Eyes deep, dark hollows, adorned with ferocious grey brows, constantly scanned his surroundings like some ancient wolf. A blessing to sit beside my mother at the other end of the table, away from him. It was that time of the day I had her attention.
After supper, Grandfather wanted Mother to assist his walking efforts. His legs, not much thicker than a cane used for herding animals, were unsteady. One evening this weakness caused him to tumble over on top of her. Their arms and legs splayed on the floor in every direction of the compass.
Uncle was no help, his face a blank mask, as he languished on the cot as if tethered.
I was afraid for my mother, as she scrambled to escape. I rushed to help, hoping I could assist her without touching the old man’s wrinkled skin or long grey beard.
“Stay away, May. You might get hurt,” Mother said.
“What about you?”
She struggled out from under and said, “Stay still, Father. I’ll help you up.”
He nodded. Mother hauled Grandfather to his feet, and they continued this unsteady parade around the kitchen. He finally became weary, and I was ever so thankful when he sat on his throne at the head of the table, waiting for Mother to bring him eggnog.
Her head tipped toward me as she lay the drink before Grandfather. “Time for bed, May,” she said.
Terror gripped me, and I planned to ask her to settle me in bed, though I knew she was exhausted. Her eyes were dark ringed, and she hadn’t smiled for days, not her usual smile with her fine, straight teeth showing. Her lips were a taut tired thread. Still, I longed for her shelter.
With a voice from the depths of nowhere, Uncle spoke, “She is such a good lass, going to bed on her own.”
Grandfather growled, “Not like your trollop’s child.”
Startled, I stepped back. Mother sighed loudly, bowed her head, and gazed down at her tightly clasped hands.
I stood at the side of the room, utterly confused. How could Uncle not see my grandfather collapse on my mother but notice I took myself to bed? Grandfather hardly ever spoke, so why bother now? Trollop? I knew not what that meant and what child?
Uncle turned away, drained one of the brown bottles and slid it under the cot.
“Off you go now, darling,” Mother said as her hand caressed my back then gave a gentle nudge, guiding me on my way.
Reluctantly in tiny steps, I left the bright kitchen to enter the bleak hall where oak panelling absorbed any trace of light. A faint aroma hung in the air from the neatsfoot-oil Mother and I used to clean the woodwork. In the daylight, with her at my side, nothing was terrifying. The nefarious creatures were nocturnal.
Alone at this sombre hour, with the sky turning from cobalt-blue to black and the moon on the rise, my hands shook, as my teeth chattered. The dimly lit flight of steps curved into darkness at the landing. Their slats squeaked and groaned when trod upon, and this filled my lonely soul with dread. Surely, something evil lingered under the stairs, in these desolate hours of darkness, waiting to ensnare me.
No doubt, demonic trolls breathing sulphur, with jaws of jagged teeth and a taste for children’s bones lurked deep in the dim shadows. The kind of creature against which even the brothers Grimm would clamp their books shut, with a thunderous thud.
The devil and all the departed who followed him cried out for my blood. I could hear them in the gormless groans of the staircase, throbbing beneath me. Still, if I took a deep breath and ran up the timber steps two at a time while they keened, the ruler of darkness nor his banshees could reach me, wail as they might.
When had I last said a prayer? Never mind, I’d hold my breath, and I was faster than his minions.
I whimpered then wailed as I ascended the dark tunnel, the fiend and his wraiths on my tail. The flight of steps hollered a hellion blast of their own design, and I shrieked to the wooden walls and fled. The sound trailed behind and echoed in that narrow chamber, filling my mind with fearful apparitions, phantoms, and ghosts. My blood curdled, and in my head, an anvil’s hammer pounded. I howled. The thick walls held the noise prisoner. No sound escaped—no help approached.
I breached the boundaries of this dastardly climb, rising to the moonlit hall above. I roared the last battle cry to my reflection in the mirror at the end of the passage. My eyes were round moons of misery, and my mouth a hollow cavern. I quaked in horror as I raced to my room. Slamming the door behind me, I leapt into bed and concealed my head with blankets. The devil couldn’t swallow me whole if I were beneath the quilt.
Finally, a breath. Through all the outcries, exclamations, and yelling, I hadn’t breathed. My bargain with the devil—if I took no breath while escaping—he couldn’t claim my soul.
Slowly I began to peel the protective cover from my face, and a sweet echo drifted in the room with the scent of blossoms.
“Husha! Husha!” belled out into the room.
Had I heard that?
I peeked out with one eye exposed and saw a shadow at the window. A girl about my age in a bluebell dress stood partly concealed behind the sheer lace curtains. She approached, smiled, and disappeared as I heard ‘Husha!’ one last time. She was gone from my vision but left peace in her place.
Safe in my bed, with no devil in sight, I breathed without dread— the day was won.
From whence came this nursery rhyme girl? Where did she go? These questions arose, but exhaustion overtook my tired body, causing me to fall into a gentle sleep.
The next morning, I took a piece of toast for breakfast and followed the narrow winding path to the orchard.
Walking past the barn, I heard a cry. Not of a child, more likely a cat, but certainly it was no gentle mew. This was the howl of an animal in distress.
Opening the door to the cowshed, odours of old hay and dry manure greeted me, and from above in the mow, I heard the cat wailing. I climbed the rung ladder to the upper level, breathing heavily with each movement, holding tightly with my hands as the round rungs slipped on my smooth bottomed shoes. Uncle’s admonishment about the barn’s safety forgotten in my desire to comfort the cat, and there it was.
A small orange tabby cried, trapped between the boards in the haymow. What a racket. Part of the tiny animal’s head was through the space between two panels while the rest remained vice-like in the slats. The only solution was to shove the remainder of the creature’s body through to the manger and manure below. Besides, cats land on their feet.
I took a step closer and pushed the animal gently. My weight loosened the boards, and I tumbled down through the opening gap, along with the cat. Planks from the mow crashed beside us as they broke and splintered in a cloud of hay dust and twisted loosened bales. Thankfully, the piled straw mixed with manure made a soft if not so pleasant landing.
I opened my eyes to the gentle touch of the kitten licking my face and the song ‘Ring a Ring O’ Roses’ rising in the air with the dust motes. I could see the child clearly now as sunshine beamed through the shards of the broken window. She wore a dress in the same pattern as my mother’s apron, though not as faded. Her blonde hair hung in ringlets around a heart-shaped face. She and I were of a size. Would this girl be my salvation?
My head ached, and I couldn’t move my legs trapped under the wood, but I could talk.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Go to the house for help, Maria.” I wanted to know all about her but needed rescuing first. I didn’t mean to be sharp, but my legs hurt.
She ignored my plea, smiled sweetly, and sang some more, causing me to believe she was daft. How had she gotten into my bedroom last night? My eyelids drooped heavily, so I closed them to rest, while the kitten nestled in my arms.
I awoke to Uncle removing barn-boards from my legs. There was a tingling in my calves and thighs, and I wiggled my feet back and forth.
“Did she come and get you?” I asked.
“Your mother became worried when you missed lunch and asked me to look for you.” He lifted another board from my legs gently. “Who’d you think would get me?”
Uncle’s face, red from the exertion, went white. All the colour drained out of him. He pulled the last timber off, and after moving my limbs and finding nothing amiss, lifted me into his arms. Resting my head on his chest, the smell of something strong, like liniment, assailed me.
“Who is Maria?” I asked him, holding tight to the kitten, who cuddled in close.
Instead of returning to the house directly, he tramped way out past the apple orchard, to where there were tombstones in a family grave plot. I didn’t know how I missed the cemetery in my adventures, but hedges and shrubs well hid it.
He knelt carefully with the cat and me, still in his arms, beside a stone angel. A placard covered in moss but still legible read Maria McCracken, daughter of William and Lucy McCracken 1911-1919. The lichen felt cold and damp on my outstretched finger.
Maria’s bluebell apparition never shocked me, but my cheeks flamed, realizing I once had a cousin who died when my age. Stroking the velvet-soft kitten comforted me. It purred.
Uncle William gently caressed the marble angel’s face as if it were alive. “My daughter Maria and my wife, Lucy, succumbed to the Spanish flu. Lucy was so afraid for me, over there in the trenches.” His head hung, and his voice trembled. “In the end, I brought a ring for Lucy, a last name for Maria and the flu that sealed their fate home with me from the war.”
I couldn’t see Maria anywhere but heard ‘Husha!’ float by on a zephyr, and I knew he’d heard it too, at least he lifted his head.
I wondered if I’d ever see her again, now I knew the truth.
Tears ran down Uncle’s cheeks, and with the hand that wasn’t cradling my furry orange bundle, I wiped them off. He smiled at me, his face no longer an expressionless mask, and said, “You’ve got yourself a little purring pal there.” I rubbed Tyger’s face with my fingers and returned Uncle’s smile. Tyger because his roar would protect me at night.
Tyger, Tyger, save me in the night and bring me to the morning light.
With one arm, Uncle William held me so tightly to his chest that I could hear his heart thumping, like a big bass drum. The other arm straightened, and his hand pressed the ground firmly, as he rose from his kneeling position. Uncle bowed his head to the angel, turned, and strode home in long, purposeful strides, with Tyger and me cradled close.
Mary Daurio is a grandmother who likes to fiddle with words when she isn't playing her flute, walking the dog. She enjoys spending time with friends and family. Presently she is working on a short story compilation about her experiences as a Standardbred racehorse driver and attending Brock University taking Creative writing. Her work has appeared in print and online journals.