A hint of things to come
The house we lived in was an ill-kept, Upper Marlboro, Md. farmhouse with broken windows in the top floors, so much peeled paint that the house, originally painted in bright white, appeared grey from a distance. The winter wind blasted through cracks in the window sills and door jambs; fallen plaster left the slats in walls exposed.
This passage describes the vision the little girl in the family has that warns of things to come. It's a first draft, so it will be tighter when it's ready for the book, my second. The book, still untitled, recalls the poltergeist and other entities who revealed themselves to our family.
I want to see if this passage moves anyone to comment on similar experiences.
On the second floor, Kathi Sanders, just 8, sat under her blankets on her bed across the hall from Billy’s room. Her mother’s bedroom was below hers. The living room was under Billy’s. She was decorating the small table lamp that stood on her night table next to her bed. She would first patiently cut a photograph from a National Geographic, then arrange and paste it to the lampshade. The night was cold, the wind still, but she could see her breath as she concentrated with the scissors. Kathi had thick, black hair with natural curls that would cause a less-fortunate professional model to quit the business. She wore a sweater and long pants to keep warm.
Her room was a little girl’s room, belonging to a little girl who wanted to travel the world and see every animal in it. Her little art easel held an unfinished painting of a whale; a stuffed giraffe shared a shelf with porcelain cats, elephants, and of course, statues of horses--of all sizes and attitudes. Her bedroom door was closed. Billy was in his room, reading under the million layers of blankets he always used. His bedroom door also was closed.
As she hummed to herself and cut out a photo of a kangaroo in the Outback, she heard her name spoken.
Just a whisper, actually. “Kathi.”
“What?” she said, looking up from her task.
“Kathi,” someone whispered again.
“Who’s there? Billy, is that you?”
Kathi looked over at the window. She saw her own reflection and jumped a little.
“Billy!” she squealed. “Quit scaring me! Get away from my door!”
Billy heard Kathi say something in her room across the hall, but kept reading.
Her lamp blinked off, leaving Kathi in blackness. The lamp came back on.
Kathi’s skin crawled. Her stomach felt weak. She looked at her arms. Goose bumps.
“Muh ... muh ...” she stuttered, trying to form the word ”mom.”
The little girl’s eyes teared up. She turned slowly toward the wall next to her bed. There was a hole where the plaster had fallen away. Not a big hole, about the size of a 45 rpm record. But that’s where the voice was coming from. From inside the wall where the hole led inside the wall. Where there was no room for someone to be.
Kathi peered through the slats into the darkness inside the wall. She felt a blast of cold air and her head swam a bit. She felt her face being drawn forward by a gentle force, its strength growing, pulling her toward the darkness. She threw her little arms out to brace herself against the wall, but she fell forward into the black. Her room disappeared behind her, the light from her room hitting the inside of the wall high above her.
She was afraid, but calmed at the same time. She sensed she was in the hands of a presence, not unfriendly, but troubled. The gunmetal smell of winter, somehow an older smell than the air outside the bedroom she just left somewhere above her, was on the cold that rose to meet her as she floated downward. The darkness lifted slowly as she entered a grey gloom. And still she went lower, she had no idea where, and then there were the tops of trees, woods in the winter, she was above a cold, winter wood. Grey treetops as far as she could see, with the brown, leaf-covered forest floor rising gently to meet her.
She saw she was floating gently downward to a small house, more a shack really, on the forest floor. She came down, feet first, ever so nicely, past rising tree trunks of maple, oak, ash, beech, and tall holly. And just like that, she was standing in a winter wood, not a dozen paces from the shack with a bent wooden door. The windows were closed up with old newspaper and tar paper layered the roof. She heard children's voices and turned, seeing a path through the slumbering trees.
A small black girl, about Kathi's own age, and a black boy, maybe 5 years old, were dragging canvas sacks along the foot trail toward Kathi. They wore patched-up clothes, and each wore shoes that were torn and dirty. The little black girl wore a dress that needed mending; the boy's pants were old and beaten coveralls
Kathi didn't know these children, hadn't met any black children until moving to Upper Marlboro, but she sensed the girl was the entity that had been on her bed and how had lifted her long locks and giggled. The two were grunting with the strain, tugging very hard at the sacks, dragging them ever so slowly toward the shack.
Kathi walked toward them, greeting them with a "Hello there! Do you want some help?"
But the mystery children did not answer; indeed, they hadn't heard her. Kathi could only watch as the two dragged their loads past her. She left the sack on the ground off the porch and turned to the little boy. She took the boy's load from him and patted him kindly on the shoulder. "Wait here," she told him. "I'm going to open the door. Don't be afraid."
The boy, wiping his nose with his coat sleeve, nodded.
The girl walked up the two steps, crossed the small, creaky porch and pushed the door open. She returned to her little brother. He was crying.
"Now, don't be afraid, Nestor," she said, hugging him. "We are going to get daddy warm and he'll get better."
The girl had to use both hands to lift a piece of firewood from her sack. The little boy grabbed a small piece of wood from his load, struggling a bit as he climbed onto the porch.
Kathi followed the children through the shack's front door. The interior was poorly-lit. In one corner of the plywood floor she saw a small wood stove fashioned from a 55-gallon drum. A stovepipe ran from the top of the drum through a wide hole in the roof.
The little girl, kneeling, opened the stove door. Kathi saw from where she stood that the fire had gone out. She watched the little girl stirred the coals as her little brother went outside to drag in another piece of wood.
Kathi heard someone cough. She turned toward the sound. An old man, ashen and thin, lay on a cot along the rear wall. A dirty, green wool blanket was pulled up to his chin. The mouth on his careworn face was open and his breathing shallow and ragged. Kathi walked over to the man. Up close he was not elderly as Kathi had first thought. He looked to be about Kathi's mother's age, maybe younger. But his sickness had held him like a vise for days, squeezing the breath and life out of him, moment by moment. Kathi, feeling the heat of fever pouring off him, tried to comfort him with words of hope. But he could not see her. He looked past her at the low ceiling, shaking his head and whispering prayers to his God. From her position by the dying man's bed, Kathi took in the rest of the room. There was a counter for preparing food and an icebox in another corner. A washbasin filled with filthy water stood in another. No plumbing was evident. There was no electricity; light from two flickering oil lamps pushed back the winter gloom inside the shack.
Kathi saw that the children had tossed some dirty bed sheets and blankets along the wall opposite the wood stove. A scream formed in her throat as she realized she was looking at blankets covering the body of a dead woman.
She was covered in blankets up to her neck. Her black hair was in spiky disarray. Her eyes were closed. The children had tucked two artificial flowers, orange plastic daylilies, beneath her chin. The mother had been beautiful, Kathi could see, but her thin frame was now empty, her body a still grouping of sticks. Kathi somehow understood that the wooden bed she'd spent her last hours upon had been burned to heat the shack. As had the rest of the humble furniture that was now gone--the wooden kitchen table, end tables, chairs, books, anything that could be burned to heat the shack. And now, the children, on their own, desperate to keep their dying father warm, were finding wood somewhere and dragging it some distance to the shack. And burning it to stay warm themselves.
Kathi's heart was heavy; she wept at the hopelessness of the children's fate. The little boy was quiet, purposeful in helping his sister, squatting as he arrived from outside with the last piece of split firewood. The little girl was doing all the talking as the boy, wide-eyed, bravely doing his sister's bidding.
"Can't you get anyone to come and help you?" Kathi asked the little girl through her tears. She took a step forward to help the girl lift a piece of wood into the sputtering fire, but the shack's front door flung open with a bang. Kathi halted in mid-step.
A white man, bigger than any man Kathi had ever seen, had burst into the cabin. He wore a warm winter coat, a red and black checked hunting cap and blue dungarees atop big mud boots. He was angry, breathing heavily, and squinting in the smoky gloom. When he saw that the children were loading his firewood into the stove, he exploded in a drunken rage.
"You little punks! That's my firewood! You thieving little bastards!"
The children stood up. The little girl stepped in front of her brother to protect him.
"Please, Mistah McTeague! My father is sick. We are so cold. We didn't want to bother you and once daddy is well we were going to bring you some more in."
The man grabbed the girl and scooped her up in his right arm. She kicked and struggled, but he held her firmly with his enormous forearm. McTeague reached down and grabbed the boy, tucking him under his left arm. The boy, not understanding, was complacent. The man carried the children over to the man on the cot, who was delirious and muttering what was happening.
"You raised your kids to be thieves, James," the white man told the dying man. "I told you when I hired you that the land down here is full of firewood, you don't need mine." McTeague swayed, exhaling sour mash whiskey. "Well, you ain't got long. Don't worry. I am going to teach your stealing offspring a lesson they'll never forget. You can gather them up in hell."
Kathi was frightened; yet she stepped forward, yelling at the man to let the children go. He could not hear her. He turned and walked out of the shack and down the footpath. Kathi followed behind the man, whose lumbering walk was unsteady, but still powerful. The faces of two children bounced with the big man's walk. The path in the woods reached the base of a tall hill. The hill was covered in tall, skeletal trees like the bottomland below. Kathi could see sky through the trees at the top of the hill. The vision, if that's what was happening, was certainly not a dream, Kathi knew. The world in which she now begged this angry man for mercy was real; the cold bit into her lungs as she breathed. Vaporous breaths emanated from the man, the children, and Kathi, just as it would in non-dream world.
"Please let them go, mister," Kathi pleaded to the tall's man's back. "They are just cold, you can't punish them for trying to save their father."
The man didn't hear her and leaned into the hill, walking up through the woods to the top. The forest ended at the top of the hill, replaced by a plateau, a flat barren field. Kathi was shocked to see the farmhouse where she had just been quietly playing in her bedroom. It was at the top of a grassy hill beyond the field. The white farmhouse was different, somehow. The paint! The house was newer, its white paint bright, its green shutters didn't show termite damage and weren't hanging off kilter. The large maple in the driveway was markedly shorter and smaller than it was before Kathi entered this time and place. The cellar doors on the back of the house were closed, spotless with new white paint. And that's where the man was headed, two black children under his arms, and Kathi knew fear as she'd never felt it before. She saw a thin white woman standing at a tall kitchen window overlooking the hill.
Uncompromising sorrow washed over Kathi. She halted her climb and stared through tears as the man neared the cellar doors.
The two children, one struggling to free herself from the man's grip, the other a calm little boy innocent to his fate, suddenly acknowledged Kathi. The little boy's eyes widened with surprise. The little girl, with her ponytails bouncing as she was carried along, spoke to Kathi:
"A bad man is coming for you, too."