I recently moved back home after being away from upstate New York for a few years. Driving through town with the U-Haul in tow, there was this odd sensation of my adult self-arriving to visit the younger me. Rolling past the High School. The ice cream place with the brightly colored picnic tables. A friend’s house. Hidden places that still contained echoes of the innocent, over-confidence of that age.
As I dispelled the ghosts of the past, the idea struck me that there was no way my teenage self could have known about the changes that come with the steady passing of time. One thing I am not is a dreamer. I have always believed in facing the facts, even when it meant making decisions that took my life into directions I hadn’t anticipated. Distant memories aside, the reality these days is that I’m up at dawn with a toddler while playing a temporary support role to my husband’s career. A few years away from the job market means my degree and employment possibilities are fading fast in the rearview mirror. And all the while I’m despairing that the furniture we moved down here with barely fills up half the rooms in this old farmhouse. The truth is, I simply can’t afford not to approach life from a practical point of view …
… so I’m not sure what I saw that day. I can’t even begin to explain it, but I also can’t stop thinking about it. A challenge to my steadfast and determined grasp on reality. I was stacking dishes in the kitchen sink when I turned toward the pantry. Appearing out of nowhere was the outline of a young woman. Her shadowy figure was hazy and suspended in mid-air. She was dressed in a simple calico dress with an apron, holding a basket of brightly colored flowers. I stood motionless as my mind tried to process what I was seeing. I looked away for an instant and then she was gone.
My friend Tricia has the gift of always being able to find the humor in any situation. Monday, when she brought her daughter over to play with Cody I decided to run it past her.
“What? Standing in your laundry room?” she asked, simultaneously intrigued and cynical. Tricia and I had been in high school together and recently reconnected. She had married into a family of rather uptight republicans and was heavily pregnant with a little boy.
“Yup, right there in front of that window.” I laughed and pointed toward the laundry room door and the as-yet uncurtained window that looked out onto the backyard. “She was standing about a foot off the ground, kind of hazy, wearing an old-fashioned type of dress. And she was holding a basket. Just holding a basket and looking at us.”
“You and Cody?” Tricia looked at me, sipping her decaf.
“Yes. As a matter of fact, that’s why I thought I wasn’t just seeing things.” I sat down, adding a teaspoon of sugar to my steaming tea and glaring across at her. “Cody looked right at her and pointed. I mean he could have been pointing at a bird out in the yard or something. The laundry room used to be the mudroom and pantry when this was an actual farmhouse. Anyway, I turned away for a minute and then she wasn’t there. Gave me the chills.”
“What did Myles have to say about it.”
“You know him, he only half hears anything that isn’t about the courses he’s teaching or phone messages about his research. He shrugged it off and said what I needed to hear to ease my mind about being nuts.” I laughed. “Anyway, that was like a month ago and nothing else odd has happened since. I washed the windows and polished the wood frame thinking it was a play of the light and shadows or something.” Thinking to myself that I knew it wasn’t.
“Well, you know as well as I do this house has changed ownership more often than most around here, but all I’ve ever heard were complaints about the roofing, the drafty fireplaces, and you guys installing a new boiler. Certainly nothing cool or interesting like unavenged murders or buried treasure.” She lifted Katie up and placed a hat on her sparsely haired head. “Maybe she was a ghost showing up to warn Myles that his ‘Beantown’ beauty used to chase after anything that couldn’t out run her.”
“You’re just wicked” We both laughed, thinking the same thing; that if anyone had told us when we were in high school that in twelve years we’d both still be here, they would’ve gotten clocked.
The women stopped what they were doing to listen. At first they heard a gruff hollering sound, then impatient shouting mixed with some hesitant arguing, and finally a burst of panicked voices all screaming at once.
Then, the unmistakable sound of frightened animals.
“Grab the kettle and the buckets from under the porch” Ma was already out the door, lifting her skirts as she ran towards the barn, her elbows pumping side to side. Sylvia was the oldest so she told the other three to start filling the buckets from the kitchen pump while she ran towards the hen house. The hazy, light-gray smoke that drifted upward was being followed fast by billowing, dark clouds containing flashes of orange flame.
Throwing open the fence, Sylvia could see the wooden feed barrel and egg baskets already blazing. The fire must have started on the other side of the south wall of the coop because the only way out for the hens was through the front door she was unlatching. They quickly scattered in every direction. Looking through the wall she could see her husband pitching burning hay out into the yard and the others trying to beat down flames that had gripped the structure beams.
Sylvia joined her sisters, filling buckets from the pump in the center of the yard and then running to the barn as fast as they could. The men had used the trough water on the floor and they were fighting the flames that were steadily burning higher and higher, out of reach. The buckets being emptied on the flames caused the scorched wood to steam and sizzle, but the mid-summer air was dry and the fire was burning fast and hot.
Her father shouted to the others to start opening up the pens. Bruce was able to lead the three horses out in to the yard and Sylvia took the reins of the nearest one to help get them in the corral.
“ You ok, Sylvie?”
“I’m fine.” I said. “If it’s hopeless, Pa’s gonna want to move the cattle next. Go help him and the boys. Start with the heifers.”
Suddenly, Sylvia froze … Benjamin! He had wanted to play in the hen house while Bruce was helping Pa reshape the plow furrows. The smithing fire was a safe distance from the barn but on such a dry day some sparks must’ve caught. Where did he get to? He wasn’t underfoot when they were running back and forth to the house. She turned in time to see that the same thought had struck Bruce. To Sylvia’s horror, he was looking upward toward the loft where the walls and bales of hay were caught up in a white hot blaze.
The problem with returning years later to the place where you grew up is that you’re a different person after being in other places. The combination of having oblivious, trusting parents and going to high school in a college town had led me to raise some hell once upon a time. I took off right after graduation, though, determined to get serious for a change and to be thankful that my A-minus average had been accepted at MIT. Myles landing a teaching position here was pure luck, but a bit of a relief given the competitiveness of academia. And with a three-year-old in tow, finding a house just outside of town was a blessing too. But this is just temporary, I kept telling myself. That’s the only reason I actually agreed to live in the old Crickler place.
Even before the beds were made I was tearing bubble wrap from the computer components and getting the offices set up. His and hers. One advantage to a drafty old farmhouse is the infinite number of rooms. I pushed to the back of my mind the idea I’d had when I’d gotten pregnant, that I’d start a web design business and be a stay-at-home-mom. Never mind the competition of other designers, some half my age. As it turns out potential clients are simply downloading the software and designing their own sites. So what if the degree on the wall was the end of a chapter. One thing I knew for sure is I had to get creative and find an income – soon, so we could buy a house in the village or maybe even build a place.
Sunday afternoons are the one day when Myles and Cody are awake at the same time. They were playing on the living room floor while I was in the cellar stowing away boxes and plastic storage containers. It was true what Tricia said. The Crickler’s had lived here for generations, building the farmhouse in the late 1800’s and through the years adding electric lighting, indoor plumbing, and heating. The basement foundation looked solid but it consisted of quarry stone and cement mixed more than a century ago. Many of the previous owners were frightened away by the cost of expensive renovations.
Looking around, I had the thought that some of the dusty old lanterns, frames, bottles, and unrecognizable contraptions might be salvaged and brought to the Antique Keep on Route 45. My rational, busy mind was focusing on a list of tools, tarnish removers and hardware I’d need to repair some of the items, but I had to admit it was in the back of my mind to look for the basket I’d seen her holding. How is it that I can recall it in so much detail? The handle and ends were solid, like wood or metal, and the front and back were some sort of mesh. An egg basket? Was she a farm wife who had lived here? Was she looking for something lost or left behind? I guess I’d read somewhere that ghosts do that. Anyway, there was nothing like that down here and the only other sounds in the house were of small metal cars being thrown around on the smooth plank floors above my head.
A fear like nothing she’d ever known suddenly numbed her brain as she ran towards the men. Bruce thought she was running into the fire and caught her by the waist as her arms flailed. Sylvia was trying to call to the others to climb the loft and look for Ben. The only one who seemed to hear her was her father. He looked at her with his hand cupping his ear, and she shouted as the fire roared. He looked up at the blazing loft, but then turned toward the milking pens where the boys were freeing up the livestock. For the rest of her days, Sylvia wondered whether he had understood her or not.
“C’mon,” Bruce yelled.
He grabbed her hand and they ran past what was left of the hen house. The back doors of the barn were open too, and the air flowed in from both directions feeding the flames that were quickly climbing towards the roof. From the front of the barn it had looked as if the entire loft was engulfed in flames, but this side wasn’t. Bruce pushed Sylvia backward as he looked for a ladder. He jumped up getting a foothold on the window frame and pulled himself onto the loft.
Sylvia could hear him calling Benjamin’s name, but it sounded so far away. And as she stood back and looked around her it was as if the roaring of the fire wasn’t a noise at all but a wordless expression of rage and destruction that Sylvia could feel in the core of her chest. Burned roof tiles began to fill the air with sparks of miniature fires that landed and caught hold on the wood floor. Through the front door, Sylvia could see the frightened cattle being herded away from the barn, and she hoped her brothers were out from under the beams that were beginning to buckle as the fire chewed through.
Sylvia yelled for Bruce but she couldn’t see him anywhere. She stood back, trying to see further up into the loft, and then she caught sight of him. He was walking toward her, carrying what looked like a burning pile of empty feed sacks in his arms. He was cradling the mass of flames close to his chest, and his face had such a look of pain that for a minute Sylvia didn’t understand what he was doing. Her mind screamed for him to drop the bundle before he got hurt and keep looking for their son. Then she realized what was happening. He fell to his knees near the edge of the loft and lowered his head to Benjamin’s body as his own clothing started to burn. Sylvia screamed in horror but there was no time to react as the floor of the loft gave way and her husband and son fell through, down into the equipment room.
Covered with Cheerios, Cody fell asleep in the car on the way home from the hardware store. Later that afternoon, the kitchen was such a disaster that I’d ordered a pizza and left a message for Myles.
I had taken apart three lanterns, some parts were in the oven covered with oven cleaner and the globes were soaking in the sink. I was breaking apart the brittle glass from the frames I was going to sand down, refinish, and have fitted with mirrors. While I was waiting for coats of varnish to dry I started reading the ads in the newspapers that were spread out on the kitchen table. The Real Estate section had houses for sale, lots for sale, names and numbers of home builders, a listing of open houses and estate sales scheduled for the weekend.
Thinking it couldn’t hurt to take a drive with Cody in the beautiful fall weather and visit some of the addresses, I turned to grab a bottled water from the fridge. Seeing movement out of the corner of my eye, I stepped back against the counter just as the small container of lighter fluid lifted up in the air, tipping to spill liquid on the table, and then slowly set itself back down. In a sudden flash of light, the spilled fluid burst into flame.
I screamed, flipping the lid off the water and poured it on the flames. What the hell? I looked around desperately for what caused the fire; there were flammables but no matches, no lighters, nothing … not even an over heated light bulb. Then, looking down, I noticed a perfect circle burned through the Real Estate ads that I’d been reading just a minute before.
As I was trying to make sense of this, I suddenly heard a slamming noise from one of the upstairs bedrooms. Thinking Cody had fallen out of his new bed, I ran upstairs but he was sound asleep against the plastic guard rail. The only thing I couldn’t understand was that the window I was sure I’d left open a couple of inches was now closed. The noise I’d heard hadn’t exactly sounded like a window slamming, but I looked closely at the glass, pushing the frame up only to feel the resistance as I lowered it down.
Drawing the curtains closed, I noticed a small piece of metal, a coin, sitting on the window sill. Weird that I hadn’t seen that before. I jumped again as thunder crashed loudly overhead and the rain started, a sudden downpour that spattered loudly against the side of the house.
Pa sat on the porch with a bottle, watching the boys shovel around the timber looking to salvage plow parts and metal tools. Sylvia’s sisters stayed up in their room and her mother sat with her on the opposite end of the porch, quietly holding her hand.
“I said the elm. The elm next. Too dry for the spruce. Think ever thins a goddam game.” Pa mumbled and dozed in his chair.
“He’s been careful for years now, investing in the farm,” Ma said, “He’s gonna owe but not that much. Not so much that we won’t be able to get started again. Just take time’s all. Just lost a little bit of time.”
Sylvia heard her but didn’t respond. She’d lost everything. Her insides felt like that smoldering ruin, as if the fire had burned through her eyes into her chest filling her up with an explosion of heat that hollowed her insides. She felt like her life was over.
He stayed drunk for the next few days, sometimes wandering out to see what the boys had found. They were the ones who had dug the graves. The reverend said a few words, stayed for pie and coffee and that was that. Sylvia had cried the whole day through, feeling empty and alone, inconsolable. She couldn’t imagine just going on with life as if nothing had happened. Where could she go? She didn’t have a teaching certificate. They didn’t have any far off relatives she could either visit or live with. There was no choice. She had to stay with Ma and Pa and work the farm. She would help rebuild the hen house and sell the eggs to their regular customers again, as usual.
With these thoughts came a spark of anger. What a useless loss she had suffered. Bruce was a good man. They’d agreed to stay on with Pa for a year or two and save for a place of their own. Half the cattle had belonged to Bruce, though she doubted that Pa would do anything about that fact as far as she was concerned. Sylvia had some money of her own, just no place to go. So, she’d stay. She’d stay and watch Pa as he struggled with the loss of his precious barn. She’d listen to him rant and holler at no one in particular that fate had dealt him such a harsh blow. And she’d try not to think about the home she had wanted to build or the small life that was suddenly ended.
“Well, let me think a minute. In the seventies it was a dairy. Milk, eggs, apples, and blackberries. It wasn’t until the forties that the younger generation started planting.” Mrs. Biddle was tallying up estimates on a pad of paper. “You know, there’s a hand-carved dining table and a hutch in the pantry that I could take right off your hands.”
I was at the Antique Keep with the items from the basement that I’d reconditioned. I was also looking at shelves of baskets, not sure what I was looking for but not seeing anything that looked even the slightest bit haunted. “Uh, that hutch is bolted to the wall, I believe.” I didn’t mention that the kitchen table she was referring to now inexplicably had a plate sized scorch mark and would soon be kindling. “Wait. What? You mean the eighteen–seventies? I thought the house was built at the turn of the century.”
“Oh no, sometime in the 1850’s. Matter of fact, the first Crickler had a contract with the Union Army. The generations after that got the orchards going. The family was never wealthy but they kept up with the times in a steady way, modernizing the house and farm.” As she answered the phone, I looked at what she’d added up. The prices seemed fair but I was really just breaking even after what I’d spent on hardware. I listened as she talked with a customer about a text message she’d received. She was a funny old bird. There was an antique cash register on the counter, but on the table against the wall sat a laptop, another computer showing the home page for the Antique Keep’s website, a laser printer, and a credit card swipe machine. Obviously, Mrs. Biddle believed in keeping up with the times as well.
Now I was off to the village. The picture frames I’d redesigned into mirrors no longer looked like antiques so Mrs. Biddle suggested I try the consignment shop on Main Street. The young guy behind the counter stood up from the textbook he was reading and took the mirrors into a back room. While I looked around I noticed that some of the shelves contained the same items that were in the Antique Keep, but they looked new, like they’d never been used in a practical way. I walked toward the back of the store, trying to eavesdrop. Then I saw it. Sitting among the antique crockery and tin coffee pots was a basket that looked identical to the ethereal one the young woman had been holding. The handle and sides were made of wood and there was mesh wire on the front and back, only this one had a small wooden basket that fit perfectly down inside of it.
As I cashed out the kid glared at me, disinterested, and wrote up the consignment contract. After the cost of the basket, I had just enough left for a mocha latte to take to the park. I thought I’d relax for a minute and get a jolt of caffeine while simultaneously ensuring that Cody would be down for a nap this afternoon.
I needed to do some more online research about the coin. The information I’d found this morning had to be wrong. Roughly the size of a dime, the gold coin was dated 1878 and had a picture of an Indian woman on one side and on the other side a ribbon surrounding the “1 dollar” engraving. Although an expert would have to determine the grading, it was supposedly worth anywhere from $800 – $1,200. I couldn’t begin to understand how it had found its way onto Cody’s windowsill.
What I had to do was to think like a ghost … or in other words, think about the unexplainable things that have been happening as if they weren’t just freak occurrences but were somehow logically connected. So, if the real estate ads burst into flames right in front of me, and then Cody’s window was closed against a sudden storm, I thought it was probably safe to conclude that we weren’t in any immediate danger from whatever seemed to be happening around us on an unearthly realm or on some other celestial plane. Did she, whoever “she” was, not want us to leave?
So, this morning before we left the house I had placed today’s paper on the kitchen table, opened to the real estate section. I’d circled an ad for a house on Parkview Lane, 3,500 square feet, three bedrooms and baths, a country kitchen, and a screened in porch. Nice, actually. I called the real estate agent and loudly set up an appointment, which I then canceled while Cody and I were driving the see Mrs. Biddle. Strange behavior for a grown woman, I know, and this probably isn’t the way it works in the supernatural world, whatever that is. It was the only idea I had, though. I was just going to wait and see if she called the bluff.
I helped get Myles out the door the next morning and then stumbled down to the kitchen, hoping to enjoy the quiet before Cody woke up. The mid-September weather had chilled the house. With flannel pants tucked into my wool socks, I pulled my hair up into a bun and went into the pantry to find a box of tea. Suddenly, I felt a sharp, shooting pain on the bottom of my right foot as I instinctively lifted it off the floor. Limping to the bench under the window, I twisted my ankle around and found a piece of thick, clear glass lodged deep in my heel. I pulled it out carefully and removed my sock to find a clean cut about an inch long but with surprisingly little blood. Looking up, I saw that the floor was littered with shards of heavy glass. The light bulb and glass domed fixture overhead weren’t shattered. I carefully swept up the pieces, placing them in a box to be recycled. What had broken? Scanning the shelves I saw the usual stock up of canned goods, boxes of tissue, laundry detergent. I turned around and tried the door knob but found the back door securely locked. Myles would have mentioned breaking something and anyway he was running so late this morning he’d gone from the bedroom to the front door planning to get coffee on the way to school.
The realization that there wasn’t an easy explanation for this caused a sudden chill up my spine. Was “she” doing this? I was standing in the very place where I’d seen her that day. I turned toward the kitchen and noticed that on the shelf near the door was the bottom half of a broken glass. I looked closer at it’s jagged, splintered edges and it seemed to be some sort of canning jar. I tipped it toward me and saw that along with slivers of glass it contained two gold coins. I held my breath and set it back down.
I limped into the kitchen and for a minute just listened to the silence. I tossed the coins down on the table so they’d clink and spin loudly, echoing through the quiet house. I felt angry, frightened, and exhilarated all at the same time.
So … coins and broken glass. There was just no way I could be imagining this. As I sat thinking, I watched the pale steam from my mug of tea rise in curling loops and disappear into thin air. How exactly do you talk with a ghost? Buy a Ouija board? Hire a psychic? I needed a game plan. And I knew I had to do this alone or risk sounding like a raving lunatic.
She’d cleaned up the kitchen after dinner so Ma could sit with the girls and sew. The boys had headed out to the yard. They were sleeping close to the herd until the new barn could be blocked in. Pa joined them sometimes and other times he just slept on the porch where he’d set his bottle down. He was worried about money since he had to go to town to order lumber for the new barn from the man he still owed for the one that burned. The farm was making money, though, and everyone knew it. Pa’d had local customers and a government contract too, for milk and eggs, and Ma’s blackberry jam was sold year-round at the grocery store in town. Tonight he hadn’t come down for dinner so Sylvia had set out a plate.
Halfway up the stairs she could hear him snoring. He’d had a bad afternoon. His boots were next to the bed, covered with mud and grass from his walk through the family plot. Sylvia looked at him collapsed on the bed. It struck her how weak he was behaving. She set his plate on the bedside table, screwed the cap on the whiskey and set it on his dresser across the room. Hopefully he’d wake up and find the plate first.
The heat of the day had evaporated that morning’s rain. With a cool evening breeze stirring, Sylvia thought of visiting the graves herself. She stopped in her room to put on her walking shoes, and wrapped a shawl around her shoulders. For now the room was just hers but she’d eventually ask one of her sisters to share with her again. Walking quietly through the house, she slipped past the screen door and onto the path toward the grave sites, turning away from the wide open space where the barn used to be.
Along the pathway Sylvia picked some chicory, purple aster, queen anne’s lace, and some chamomile to place on Benjamin’s grave. He had loved to search the fields through the spring and summer so he could sit on grandma’s lap and listen to the names of the flowers. The sun was setting behind her. As she stood in front of her husband’s and son’s graves, her shadow lay in the length between them, as if they were together as a family again.
Turning toward the house she noticed Pa’s coin box laying in the grass. What was that doing out here? When he made his collection rounds at the end of each week he placed the iou’s and paper money with the record keeping and kept all the coins together in an oil cloth sack in this box. He was probably so drunk he didn’t know what he was doing. Weak old fool. Pa’d be angry as hell if it turned up lost. He’d be set back another half-year of earnings.
Pressing the lid down tight, Sylvia carried the box under her shawl and began to walk farther east and then south towards the blackberry garden …
Later that afternoon, I drove home from the city with mixed feelings, trying to think of a reasonable explanation for the $5,300 dollars in my purse. After finding the coins in the laundry room, I had gotten myself and Cody dressed and dropped him off at Tricia’s. I started at the bookstore, stopping at a cafe for an espresso while I looked up the approximate values of the three coins. The ones from the laundry room were larger than the one from Cody’s window. One was from 1857 and featured “lady liberty,” and the other was a twenty dollar Double Eagle gold coin, also from 1857. All three were well used and a little worn looking but the border markings, the date, and the smaller details of the figures were still visible. When I asked the dealer for estimates, he told me there was a pretty good market for civil war era coins.
Mrs. Biddle had said something about how the original Crickler family had sold milk and eggs to Union soldiers. If these coins were from those years, who had collected them and why were they appearing around the house now? And how? I’m home during the day and when I’m running errands the house is locked up tight. Did I really believe they just floated out from whatever hiding place they’d been in for the past century and a half? I couldn’t understand what any of this was supposed to mean. Dozens of people had lived in the house through the years.
And the broken glass … a ghostly warning?
With that possibility in mind, I decided to approach this from the opposite direction. I spent the evening measuring windows and room dimensions and then went online and ordered curtains and area rugs for the downstairs and for Cody’s room. If Myles questioned the expense, I’d just tell him that the money came from Mrs. Biddle.
That was two months ago. Myles actually didn’t question me about the new carpets and they were laid just in time. The cool fall temperatures in the northeast had been on a steady decline and there was snow in the forecast for the holiday weekend.
I’d been cutting, peeling, cooking, and baking apples for the past few days. The orchards hadn’t been cultivated for years, but despite growing out of control there were plenty of trees with ripe, unmarred fruit. I was at the sink, laughing to myself that the next time a mysterious coin showed up I was getting a dishwasher. I looked up and saw a large gray dog loping through the backyard. Grabbing the broom, I stepped out onto the back porch to scare him off but he seemed to be harmlessly making his way east in the direction of the neighboring farms. He wasn’t in much of a hurry, though, and had stopped in the thicket of overgrown brush and weeds near the edge of the road.
An hour later when we came back from the store he was still digging around, so I put Cody down for a nap, and shrugged on my coat and boots. Halfway across the yard I yelled, and as he looked up I swung the rake at him and he quickly trotted away. As I got closer, I saw he’d been nosing around a rabbit or groundhog den. A crumbling rock wall separated where I was standing from what used to be the blackberry grove farther south. The tree line that had concealed this area from the house had been recently cut away, but whoever was trying to tidy things up had stopped at that. I kicked around the dirt and stones and noticed something odd. There were chunks of cement hidden under the mix of dried grass and wildflowers. A creepy realization set in that these were broken gravestones. The old Crickler family burial ground.
I quickly went back to the house for gloves, a shovel, and Cody’s monitor. After an hour’s worth of digging, I had pieced together parts of about thirteen different gravestones. Mrs. Biddle had been right, the oldest ones were from the late 1850’s. Cody was starting to make noise so I quickly jotted down names, dates, and some personal sentiments that were still visible in the weathered, dark gray stones.
The oldest ones told the most interesting story…
Bruce Gettins, March 4, 1827 – July 24, 1858, “beloved husband”
Benjamin Gettins, September 12, 1852 – July 24, 1858, “precious son”
Sylvia Gettins, May 4, 1834 – July 12, 1862
Stanley Crickler, October 9, 1797 – August 8, 1858
Margaret Crickler, April 2, 1804 – May 31, 1875
Bonnie Crickler Tiller, December 1837 – November 3, 1905
Eliza Crickler, August 18, 1835 – January 13, 1899
Julia Crickler, March 14, 1839 – April 16, 1901
From what I could piece together, Stanley and Margaret had been the original Cricklers who built the farmhouse. They had three, possibly four daughters. It looked like Sylvia was in the same age range as the three other girls born in the 1830’s, so possibly she’d been a Crickler before marrying Bruce. What had happened on July 24 when five-year-old Benjamin died on the same day as his father? An accident on the farm? In the middle of July in the mid-1800’s, the most likely explanation was a fire. Then Stanley died less than a month later, possibly from his injuries? Sylvia was the oldest daughter and the first to pass away, less than four years after losing her husband and son. That left just Margaret and her three daughters. Two of them stayed single and Bonnie married but I didn’t find a gravestone for her husband.
Is the spirit of one of these women trying to get noticed?
She not only couldn’t tell anyone what she did, she had to make sure she was never found out. The boys hadn’t been too troubled by the loss. With Pa gone they liked having control of the farm and were more than willing to make a start from where they stood. They had the barn rebuilt by November of that year and so the steady routine of twice-daily milkings, running the livestock to graze, and harvesting grain, apples, and blackberries was keeping them busy. Although they’d have to wait until spring to restock the laying hens that had either wandered off or gotten snatched up after the fire, there was a quiet peace around the place that was keeping Sylvia from painfully mourning the loss of her small family. The boys were talking more about crop farming than Pa ever would’ve allowed and their optimism was reassuring, especially to Ma.
The loss of the money tin drove Pa to drink harder and was probably what caused him to be stabbed to death in Skipper’s Bar that night. Sylvia wasn’t sure how guilty she should feel about the matter. Of course it wasn’t directly her fault. Pa could’ve handled his problems sober, or been handier in a knife fight. She and her sisters and brothers were adults now and could manage the farm, and with a little more ease than if they had to run each and every idea past him. It was dead wrong, though, to wish another human being bodily harm, let alone to set in motion events that could cause someone else to stumble. She didn’t lie to herself that she missed Pa, but the fact was she had hidden the money tin which made him crazy-mad, so his drinking at the bar that night was practically inevitable.
Any guilt she felt was just a fraction of what she’d have to endure if the others knew. Sylvia’s own burden was difficult enough to bear; missing Bruce, knowing that his deep love for Benjamin was what kept him from saving himself that day. Her heart broke a little bit each morning when she’d wake up and welcome in the painful memories and dwell for just a few minutes on the “what if’s” … would Benjamin have liked school? Would he have made friends easily? Would he outgrow the mischievous streak that Bruce and she had disciplined him for but then laughed about together. Just a few minutes each morning to think about that bright little life. Sylvia didn’t try to avoid the pain because the memories of them were all she had left and she still considered herself a wife and mother. But she was maybe starting to feel older, quieter because of it. And a little less tolerant of the memory of Pa’s selfishness that had been worsening with age.
What concerned her now was the question of Judgment Day. Her fever had been worsening and the fatigue was so heavy that she could only sit at her window for an hour or two. The laudanum the doctor prescribed helped her rest but the coughing wasn’t getting any better. He told her when there was blood on her handkerchief then her time was getting near. Sylvia was worn down from living this difficult life. She wanted to calmly let go and be at rest. But would the good Lord ignore her suffering and send her to hell for hiding Pa’s coin box? Ma would say so, and the truth would be difficult for her brothers and sisters to accept. Sylvia knew they’d misunderstand, believing that the woman they thought she was could never do something so selfish or awful.
It wasn’t that simple, though, and nothing stays the same, especially people. Sylvia had learned that sometimes there just aren’t rational explanations for the things anger can make us do. Losing her husband and child and then having no choice but to go back to who she was in the years before? It wasn’t possible. She’d started a life of her own and then suffered a deeper loss than Ma and Pa ever had after the fire. She couldn’t leave, and staying was slowly making her disappear, turning her into a ghost, as if her body was just floating around, going through the motions of living.
Sylvia knew she didn’t have the strength to either retrieve the coin box or tell her family that she’d hidden it, but she needed somehow to make reparations for her intent to punish Pa for his selfishness. If he was wrong, that was a matter between him and his God. For her own peace of mind, she had to balance her thievery with some sort of right that would allow her to be free of him and his petty ways and be reassured of spending the afterlife with her husband and son.
Myles only had a few days off for the holidays. His family up north understood only too well how demanding it is to teach a full course load while working on a thesis. My brother was overseas collaborating on the latest video game his company was creating. So we went rustic, finding a tree on the property that fit the living room nicely, drinking spiked eggnog and enjoying a snowy Christmas morning with the fireplace blazing. After brunch, Cody fell asleep in a pile of wrapping paper.
I hadn’t really talked with Myles about searching through the Crickler family history. I told him about the gravestones, in a conversational way, and how Mrs. Biddle confirmed that there was a fire, as a matter of fact there were many fires in those years. Structures built with unpressurized wood, bales of hay cram-packed to the rafters, lanterns hanging on every cross beam …
And Myles was too distracted to notice what was going on around us. The picture frames tilted off center, cupboard doors silently opening or closing, objects moved from one place to another. It was almost comical when I heard the recliner slam closed for the second time as he got up to retrieve his reading glasses from across the room, swearing at himself. I was keeping a close eye on Cody as he was playing in the empty boxes his toys had been wrapped in.
The basket from the consignment shop was in the center of the kitchen table filled with evergreens and winter berries. I’d shown it to Mrs. Biddle and she agreed that it was an egg basket and that the smaller basket inside was for collecting small vegetables like green beans or plum tomatoes. Or blackberries, I thought to myself. She had a valuable suggestion, one that led to a goldmine of information. She explained that during those years the farming communities were organized around the church, and that older, established families often had a family bible which they’d read from and also use for record keeping of the births and deaths through the generations. Since she seemed to have the entire village wired I asked her if she could make some inquiries for me. Sure enough, the United Church of Christ on Old Quarry Road had many of them stored safely away and the pastor said she was welcome to take a look.
Just enough so she could reassure herself that she wasn’t taking the secret to her grave.
Benjamin’s favorite flower was the chamomile that Grandma made tea from. She grew them in the spice garden outside the kitchen door and the pretty yellow and white flowers grew wild around the blackberry grove. No one else was allowed to write in the bible, let alone draw pictures, but Sylvia lifted the heavy book from her bed table and opened to the family chart.
Pa had drawn in the black cross symbolizing that Bruce and Benjamin were deceased. Next to that, Sylvia carefully drew a chamomile flower and a small blossom. In the leaves of the flower she wrote: Romans 12:21
That evening, I drove to The United Church of Christ and was welcomed into the rectory by the young priest who had talked with Mrs. Biddle that afternoon. With an unmistakable note of pride in his voice he explained that this parish is the oldest in the county, dating back to the sixteenth century, and although the building itself had been rebuilt several times due to fires and weather damage, the records of its parishioners and a large collection of family bibles had been carefully preserved. I looked around again and observed remnants of the stoic, traditional past being surrounded on all sides by modern technology.
I had been able to scan several pages from the Crickler bible onto my laptop. Unfortunately, the only thing I found, besides the drawing of a daisy, was that after the July 28 fire, it wasn’t just the women left to manage the farm. There were birth and death records of two sons-in-law and their wives and children as well. That started me thinking about how full the house must have been. They would have shared rooms with each other growing up, and then in later years as they married they would have to swap around so that spouses had their own space together. So, the large room Cody is in probably wouldn’t have been a nursery back then.
I walked around the upstairs and tried to envision how it could accommodate three generations of a family comfortably. Probably, there would’ve been a crib in the parent’s room for a newborn and then a smaller room for young kids to share until they were old enough to be moved in with older brothers or sisters. Besides the large room Cody was in, the other bedrooms were roughly the same size. The upstairs bathroom, though, was actually quite large and could have been a small bedroom. It was positioned equidistant from both ends of the house, ironically convenient for either a nursery or a bathroom.
I started in Cody’s room. We’d put him in the room at the top of the stairs, the first door on the left. It was the largest and had bright, airy windows and light blue wallpaper, and had seemed to be the natural choice for a child’s room. I stood in the center of the room trying to discern what parts of the floor, walls, and ceiling were new and what had remained unchanged from the time the Crickler family had lived there. As I looked carefully at the woodwork around the closet door I found something unusual, a clue that could very well be a connection to the drawing next to Benjamin’s name in the Crickler family bible. The woodwork had been primed and painted a clean antique white before we moved in, so the tiny carving in the upper left-hand corner of the closet door was practically unnoticeable. This had to be significant because it was so out of place. It was clearly the same figure, though, a daisy flower with a smaller bud connected to it’s stem. Unlike the drawing from the Bible, the bottom of the stem on the carving had a small arrow pointing to the right. I opened the closet door and pushed the clothing aside, but the walls were painted the same antique white as the door frame. I turned on my flashlight and ran my hand along the paint but there were no markings of any kind, or if there were they’d been covered up long ago. There was no access to the attic and nothing unusual about the plank floors. I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to be looking for.
Next, the bathroom, the room in any house that usually gets renovated the most. Panels of sheetrock had been installed over the original plaster walls in this room, and they’d probably been painted over a few times. The flooring was practical linoleum and the bathroom fixtures had a brushed nickel finish that looked both old fashioned and updated at the same time. The woodwork had all been darkened with stain and sealed with a high gloss varnish. Then I found it. Another one. On the lower half of the linen closet door frame was a carving of a small daisy, and below that, hash lines with a number engraved next to each one. A child’s height chart maybe? Benjamin’s? Crouching down I could see the highest line had the number five carved next to it. According to the family bible, and his grave stone, he’d been five years and ten months old when he died.
The arrow at the base of the stem pointed to the right again. I stacked the towels on the sink behind me and removed each shelf from the one-inch strip of wood they were propped on. The strips of wood nailed into the drywall were easy enough to pry off. I carefully punctured the dry wall and started removing large chunks, placing them in the bath tub. I’d started with the wall on the left and immediately found what I think I was supposed to be looking for. I had no idea what it meant but I ran downstairs for my sketch book.
Sylvia left her room and walked down the hall, holding onto the railing as she slowly descended the stairs. She’d rinsed her handkerchief, put on clean nightclothes, and wrapped a shawl around her shoulders. She wanted to walk around the yard, on her own, one last time while she had the strength. Visit the hens. Bring some flowers from the blackberry garden to the graves.
It was Sunday. The quiet of the house was rare. The kitchen and pantry were in disarray with it being blackberry season. The hutch in the pantry was sitting open, ready for the dozens of brandy and jam jars that would be stored in the cupboards until they could be brought to town. She realized she’d have to wait on the back porch for awhile since the rain had been steady and the path to the graveyard would be too muddy just yet …
She brought a cup of tea to the porch and closed her eyes against the cloudy, gray world, reassuring herself that she’d done enough, more than anyone had a right to ask of her. And possibly most of her pain had been inside herself, the result of grief or self-pity or anger that she hadn’t been able to express, for her own reasons. Maybe the others were unaware, just accepting that her fate was one of loss and perseverance. The continuous patter of rain fell overhead, but behind her eyelids a bright, vivid flash of colorful light sparked and then faded and then illuminated her consciousness with warmth and peace. Sylvia sat, curled up in a chair facing the cemetery. She rested her arm on the railing, reaching out toward her son and husband, and her head slowly fell to the side.
I put the shelving and towels back in the closet and shut the door, making a mental note to think of an excuse to tell Myles if he asked about the exposed plaster. I had been excited at first, but when I copied the figure onto paper, it was just a grouping of lines, squares, and circles, and I couldn’t make any sense of it. It looked more like a drawing a five-year-old would have made. But there had to be a connection between the flower drawn in the Bible and the carvings around the house. And were there any other daisies to find? Maybe the figure I’d copied down was just one piece of a larger puzzle. Or possibly this is all just nonsense and I’m reading way too much into these bits of information from more than a century ago. But what about the ghost? I couldn’t get away from the feeling that she’s waiting for something, that she was never going to just leave. If Sylvia Crickler Gettins lost her husband and son when she was only 28 and then died four years later, wasn’t that the sort of experience that could leave a person with a restless spirit? Could she have killed herself out of grief or misery and the carvings were a sort of suicide note? In her weakened condition, she might have died of natural causes. Diseases like tuberculosis or scarlet fever were fatal in the 1850’s. What was she trying to say and to who? It seemed as if she was trying to communicate information that she’d had to keep secret from her immediate family.
There are numerous species of Chamomile that grow in the northeast; small, white pedaled flowers with a yellow center and thin, light green leaves. They’re from the Asteraceae family and some varieties grow wild while others are cultivated for medicinal use and for brewing herbal tea. I was guessing that this was the flower Sylvia had drawn. When we had first viewed the house in June, the border of the east side of the yard had been awash with a brightly colored chaos of swaying wildflowers.
Thanks to another advisory meeting, we’d had a late dinner. Myles and Cody were up in his room while I was at my laptop, finishing a glass of wine and determined to turn these vague bits of information into solid clues that were somehow connected. I powered down the computer and went into the kitchen, setting my glass on the table. As I turned to get the bottle of wine from the fridge, I noticed that the egg basket wasn’t on the table. I looked in the living room, then walked back through the kitchen and snapped on the pantry light. Sure enough, it was sitting on the hutch. What the heck? Had Myles placed it out of the way when he was carrying dishes in from the dining room? Looking around, there didn’t seem to be anything else out of place, so I picked up the basket and put it back on the kitchen table.
Wait a minute. I leaned against the sink and looked around. Assuming the ghost was Sylvia, what was she again trying to communicate about the pantry that I wasn’t picking up on? Her response to my first attempt at communication ended with a piece of glass in my heel. How could I tell her to just rest in peace and leave us alone? I sat down with my sketchbook and drew a larger version of her chamomile flower with the small blossom. I tore it from the pad and set it on the hutch. Then, getting a glass canning jar from the basement, I filled it with a hand full of Cody’s colored pencils and placed that next to the drawing. Making sure the back door was locked tight, I turned out the lights and went upstairs. I wasn’t halfway up, though, when I heard a scraping sound coming from the kitchen. I retraced my steps and flipped on the pantry light. The low bench under the window had been pulled away from the wall on one side, and the jar of colored pencils was set there.
The drawing was gone.
I tried to get some sleep, thinking I’d work on this newest mystery in the daylight, but it was nearing three a.m. and my mind was spinning fast and beginning to ache. I quietly got out of bed, slipped on a pair of jeans, and cautiously walked downstairs. I felt around for the flashlight in the toolbox under the kitchen sink, not wanting to turn the lights on. As I stood and listened to the silent house, the shadows around me didn’t feel threatening. Actually, I felt calm, not as self-conscious in the dark. As a reasonably skeptical adult, I was aware of the fact that I couldn’t explain any of these actions without sounding like I should be heavily dosed with an anti-psychotic. This was real, though. I felt a connection. And I was compelled to understand why and how this woman, who was alive a century and a half ago, seemed to be trying to get my attention.
“Sylvia?” I whispered, clicking the flashlight on, “hey woman, whats up?”
Since Mrs. Biddle had been interested in the pantry hutch, it had probably been part of the original farmhouse. It was about six feet tall, made of some sort of hardwood, cherry or maple most likely, with wrought iron drawer handles and cupboard hinges. The back legs were secured to the floor by machine bolts, and I searched the toolbox for a wrench that would fit the hexagon face. It took me awhile to loosen the large screws, but as they lifted out of the floor the metal clamps attached to the legs came apart. I quietly slid the hutch away from the wall.
“What in the world are you doing down here?” Myles had been soundlessly standing in the doorway holding a sleeping Cody against his shoulder.
I screamed and fell backward, “Geez Myles! You scared the shit out of me.” Cody must have woken up and climbed in our bed. “Nothing. I couldn’t sleep … and I think we have mice. For the past few days, I’ve been hearing a scratching noise down here.”
“ At three-twenty in the morning you needed to start shoving furniture around? When was the last time you heard it?”
“A few minutes ago,” I lied. “You know I hate mice. They’re annoying as hell. I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a hole in the wall where they might be getting into the kitchen. With it so quiet I could hear scratching all the way up on the second floor.” Another lie. I stood up and carefully took Cody from him, “ I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“C’mon back to bed, hon. We’ll call an exterminator in the morning.”
In the daylight of the next morning, I had found the chamomile flower. It was carved on the inside the cupboard … with an arrow pointing to the left. I hadn’t managed much sleep, and after getting Myles off to work and Cody comfortable in front of the television, I sat down at the kitchen table and compared the two drawings – the one from the upstairs bathroom wall and the one on the back of the pantry cupboard. It looked like the same picture.
There was one difference between the two pictures. I checked again on the wall of the upstairs bathroom but it wasn’t there. An ‘X’ was carved into the hutch drawing, about midway up along the left edge. So, this was a map of the farm? It didn’t look like it anymore. There were too many lines and shapes which I assumed indicated the different barns, buildings, or gardens that existed in those years. If the large rectangle was the farmhouse, though, then this line running north to south could be the treeline that used to separate the family plot from the farm. The line perpendicular to the treeline could be the rock wall that stood between the graveyard and the blackberry grove, crumbling now but it would have been newly built during Sylvia’s lifetime. That would place the ‘X’ somewhere along the northeast wall of the blackberry grove. What could Sylvia have hidden from her family that she wanted eventually to be found?
I shoved the drawing aside as the rational side of my brain attempted to clear up the confusion. So, I’m supposed to believe that there’s a spirit presence in the house leaving me clues to something that was buried in the yard in the 1850’s? First of all, that sounds nuts. Second, it’s mid-January. True it hadn’t snowed lately but the ground would be frozen. Even if I did believe this was happening, there’s no way I could dig around a large area of the yard when I’m not sure what I’m looking for. Bones? Coins?
Maybe this is far enough for now. The yard looks nothing like it did over a century ago. And what if her other-worldly promptings are inaccurate and whatever she’d hidden so many years ago has already disintegrated or been dug up? When the ground thaws in the spring I could look for landmarks, possibly. Maybe have parts of the crumbling stone wall fixed. Laughing at myself, I folded up the drawings and placed them on the top shelf in the pantry. I’d had enough of the game for awhile and I was resigned to the fact that I’d just have to walk around the house closing up drawers and straightening pictures.
Stopping in front of the window where I’d first seen her, I pushed aside the curtains and my smile slowly faded. Then my breath stopped completely as I stared. I almost couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing.
She was beautiful. Her solid shape was colorful yet translucent, her long brown hair blowing in the same direction as the crisp autumn leaves drifting across the yard. It was Sylvia. It had to be. In one hand she held the very real drawing from my sketch pad, the one I’d set on the hutch last night. In the other hand, a bunch of chamomile flowers that appeared brightly colored but part of her shadowy figure. She was looking right at me, smiling and vibrant. All of a sudden, she let go of the picture of the chamomile flower. We both watched it float high in the air and then swoop downward, whirling and spinning eastward in the cold winter air.
She turned toward that direction herself, looking back at me and waving me toward her. And in the time it took to blink my eyes, she was gone. I could still see the drawing, though, pausing and rolling across the yard towards the blackberry grove. I bundled Cody up and we headed out into the fresh, cold winter day.
Romans 12:21, “be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”
At the very end of her short life, Sylvia asked a silent God for a clear conscience before passing on to whatever the afterlife had in store for her. Possibly, a quote about hope would have been more accurate, she thought at the end. Sylvia didn’t believe there was any real evil in the world, just centuries of misunderstanding because the light and dark fear each other. The fight for balance drives each backward to the miserable extremes. If we’re really alive, we don’t finish like we started. And when one becomes the other there’s freedom, an easing, and we’re suddenly grateful for the pathway through time we’ve been traveling on.