Aunt Polly had been dead for three years. Leaves covered the pathway to her door. Weeds and grasses overtook her flower garden, boards rotted outside, paint flaked off, windows were broken in and the tattered remains of her blue ruffled curtains flapped briskly in the breeze.
“It was on such a night as this one,” said my brother, Barkley Miller, “that Carter Steele was riding his horse down that dirt road next to her property when he thought he heard Aunt Polly in her kitchen call his name as she used to do when he was little. He swore to me that the house lit up and that the graveyard, which was not far down that road, released the dead. His dog yelped home with his tail between his legs faster than Carter did; they both cleared the four-foot rail fence at the same time, with Carter yelling at the top of his lungs, ‘Don’t git me!’ ‘Aunt Polly, don’t git me!’ ”
Jessie Wilkins and Sam Hawkins looked at each other in wide-eyed wonder as Barkley scuffled up a dust storm in the middle of the country road, trying to impress them with his story. They were so deeply involved in their conversation all of them passed by Jeb Taylor’s fenced-in pumpkin patch without even realizing it, never stealing one pumpkin to take home for their Moms to make pies. I listened to Barkley as he rambled on about their plans for this Halloween miffed because he ignored me, his little sister.
We walked fast, but it was still cold. If I’d been left outside in the horse trough all night, I’d been frozen over by morning. Before I’d finished my chores, Jessie found me milking and surprised me good by saying he liked my red braids. I was doing fine until then, but when he said that I stopped paying attention to what I was doing, and the cow stepped back in the bucket, and turned the milk all over me. I rushed upstairs and had to put on my new petticoat, because the old one was soaked. I didn’t want to wear my new petticoat but this night it was the only useful thing I could think to do. It was my only other petticoat and Barkley needed me to wear it. There’d be no suspicion if I wore it. Barkley said so.
“But we’re not afraid, are we Sam and Jessie?” said Barkley, carefully looking for any indication of fear in their eyes. Satisfied that they’d follow him, he picked up a partially rotted apple with pride at his skill of domination and hurled it victoriously over the barbed wire fence into the wasted corn shocks standing in the field. The chores were finished. We left our home and walked along the dirt road following Barkley.
After a few miles, we saw Aunt Polly’s house in the distance. A shutter, almost torn off its hinges, was hitting against one side of the house as a black cat came hissing out the dark hole of the old potato cellar.
“Are you sure we won’t get blamed for this?” Jessie, who was ten, sputtered out as he crossed himself on the forehead with his religious finger like a good Catholic.
“Blamed?” said Barkley, who was only a year older than Jessie. “Not us.” Barkley thought for a moment and ran his fingers through his tangled brown hair to get it out of his eyes; then he squared his shoulders, and spoke out confidently with his booming voice. “The whole town will be talking about this for years,” he said “If you die, you can’t come back if you go to Hell; and you don’t want to come back if you go to Heaven.”
The way Barkley described things, he could have been some crooked politician, or Reverend Smithe. Jessie was not completely convinced, but he stopped talking about TROUBLE. He took out his little bottle of water he carried in his back pocket next to his slingshot and had a sip. When his throat was dry, he told me water helped his breathing.
Jessie looked suspiciously at the black cat slinking down the road, heading away from Aunt Polly’s house at a fast pace. He wanted to go with it, but he dared not. None of us wanted to make Barkley mad. If he became mad, he wouldn’t speak to us for weeks. Without his imagination, we wouldn’t have anything but chores, school, and books. In a country town like ours, boredom was worse that dying.
Sam rubbed his jeans nervously. The cold didn’t seem to bother him. He didn’t have a coat on. I guessed he must have on his long Johns. I couldn’t see his clothes in the dark, but I knew they were dirty. I could smell them. Sam never washed anything, except for what he wore on Sundays. He had to go to church every Sunday morning because his Grandma said that no boy ever got to Heaven unless he went to church.
I remember one night at Sam’s Protestant church we prayed Sam in. I watched Barkley stick a tack on the seat next to him where he knew Sam would sit. Sam dropped himself down on it the very moment that Reverend Smithe was saving souls. Sam jumped up quickly as high as I ever seen any critter jump, and with tears in his eyes as big as apple seeds, he bellowed out with a tremendous moan, “Oh, my God.” They said then and there on that day he got religion. I don’t believe in them sort of things and neither does Barkley, but it stands to reason that Reverend Smithe should know.
Tonight we planned to scare those Errey kids good when they were returning home from the church carnival. It let out around 9:00 p.m. We knew they would be coming this way because it was the only way to and from town that they could take. Everyone either walked to church, rode horses or took their wagons. Since the Errey kids didn’t have their own horses, and their parents never went to church, we knew that they would be walking home alone.
Those Errey kids were cowards through and through. Even the simplest things at school would frighten them. It didn’t matter what it was, skinning a dead squirrel or dissecting a squirming worm. They would get all sweaty and turn green and tremble. Worse than that, sometimes they would cry like snot-nosed babies. We thought scaring them would be fun.
When we got to Aunt Polly’s house, Barkley walked up toward her porch nonchalantly, whistling and put both feet on it to prove that he wasn’t afraid, but his knees started shaking a little when he had taken a few of the planks down from around her window.
I looked away, and when I looked back, Barkley was gone. “He’s inside,” Sam whispered. Barkley opened the door for us from inside. We stared at each other with a knowing glance as if the walls had ears and went in cautiously. Sam’s blue eyes resembled his Grandpa’s. When he was scared, his hair stuck out and flopped everywhere like corn silks.
Barkley put his head out and yelled, “Come on in here, Jessie. Come on. Everything’s fine.” Then he added, as if to smear it in, “See how easy it was.” He looked at us with such a big smile of triumph on his face, we felt ashamed of ourselves for freezing with fright, but Aunt Polly’s ghost might have been prowling around on her property that night. Maybe she’d catch us there and send us straight to the graveyard to pick some flowers for her grave, her long bony fingers holding on to the first one of us she caught.
I was only eight, but I remember how I trembled breathlessly on the porch before I went inside. We crowded close together up those narrow, creaky stairs. I hoped Barkley could protect us.
“You guys, stop pushing me.” Barkley shouted as he thrust us backwards with his hips. We were moving up those stairs as slow as a cockroach when it thinks someone might be watching it. Barkley, stopping to push aside some cobwebs, looked straight down into Aunt Polly’s living room. White sheets covered up her dusty rose pattern on the couch and comfort chair. Aunt Polly’s stone-faced fireplace, which usually glowed with warmth this time of year, was cold. We gasped. By moonlight we saw something tall in the corner that seemed to be a man. Jessie was about to take aim with his slingshot when Barkley stopped him. “That’s only her grandfather clock, shrouded in white sheets,” Barkley remarked wiping the sweat off his forehead.
Except for the big screech owl, the crickets and the hanging tree, no one heard us. Fifty years ago Frank Harper, a practical joker, was hanged on that same tree for terrorizing Joe Mitchell to death one Halloween night. I reminded Barkley of that as we climbed the stairs, but he shut me up and told me we weren’t turning back.
We could easily see the road from Aunt Polly’s bedroom. While the boys were working, I uncovered her brass bed to see if her red and green quilt was still there. She’d completed it just before she died. It was spooky looking through her things. Her bedroom slippers were still there on her braided rug just the way she left them. I walked around her room, ignoring the boys as they had ignored me. On Aunt Polly’s dressing table is her white ceramic wash basin, and the pitcher she poured her water from when she was upstairs. There was still a little water in the pitcher, but it was almost gone.
“Here’s a pulley,” said Barkley as he handed one to Jessie and one to Sam. “You take yours over to the hanging tree, Sam, and attach it high above the road like we agreed so no one can see it.”
“And, Jessie, you take this pulley and stay here with me.” Barkley dismayed by Jessie’s fear, also was relieved to have his company. He told Jessie to attach the pulley to the windowsill on the right hand side where nobody could see it from the road.
Even though Sam was the oldest, he was not too happy to return down the staircase by himself and go past the grandfather clock. He talked to us all the way down, hoping we would come to his rescue if he stopped chattering and save him from Aunt Polly’s ghost (if she came); but we wouldn’t have done it, not for two hot biscuits with gravy on them.
After Barkley broke the last piece of glass free from the window frame, Jessie stood near the window. He took the pulley and anchored it with unsteady hands. Then he put the line through it, and dropped the other end to Sam.
No one was coming yet. Sam probably felt better being outside instead of running down those wretched stairs. He climbed the tree again to put his final efforts in place. Sam wanted to stay in the hanging tree by his pulley, but Barkley wouldn’t have it that way. Barkley always wanted to do things up big so people would talk about what happened for a long time, and wonder about it. But he didn’t want to get caught.
“Get back up here.” Barkley yelled down to Sam. I felt sorry for Sam in a way, but he had to stumble back up those squeaky steps anyway, alone. I could smell him coming.
Now the pulleys were secure and the fine line was secure, but WE didn’t feel very secure listening all night to the hooting owl and the sound of crickets. At that moment, I thought Jessie, Sam, and Barkley were the bravest boys I knew.
I sat down, straightened my skirt and relaxed on Aunt Polly’s rocking chair, the one she died in. It was comfortable, with red velvet cushions on its seat and its back. It had a curious design etched in the wood at the top. Aunt Polly had said it was made of the finest oak from another century. I know it was over a hundred years old, because she’d told me when she was alive. “People back then were smaller than today,” she said, “so my chair will fit a kid like you.” She always let me sit in it when I came over to visit. Barkley, Sam and Jessie were too busy to notice what I was doing, so I just kept on rocking.
Normally, Barkley wouldn’t have allowed me to come, but Mom told him he had to watch out for me tonight. So I ended up here watching the road with him. We waited semi-quiet like little hoodlums ready to pounce on our ignorant victims.
“Cindy Lou,” Barkley said breaking my thought, “you can give me your petticoat now.” He
looked at me as if he expected me to take it off out there. I excused myself, and pulled it off in the closet, and handed it to him. He attached it with a clothespin to the line and worked with it until it looked like Casper’s ghost.
I can still see those Errey kids coming down the road. They comforted themselves with songs while trying not to let their minds run away with fright at each shadow and sound.
Barkley waited until they got within range. Then he took the line and moved my petticoat half way across. It quivered and blew in the wind. He shook it a little more so the kids could get a good look at it. Their eyes must have bugged out. There was dead silence for about a minute. It was so still, if you had been in the graveyard at midnight, you could have heard Jessie’s asthma.
We went — WHOOOOOOOOOOO, — WHOOOOOOOOOOOO — WHOOOOOOOOOOO, making sounds like the owl did that kept us scared most of the night.
Suddenly those Errey kids screamed, “Lord, have mercy on us. It’s Aunt Polly’s ghost. Margaret threw her shirt up over her head and cleared a rail fence like a broad jumper, landing in Carter Steele’s plowed field, continuing to run in terror towards home as if her life depended on it; her brothers, Floyd and Elmoe, not far behind her.
As they ran, we called out after them — WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, — WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, the way Grandpa told us spooks moan until those kids were clean out of sight. They must have been so terrorized that the blood pounded through their veins like stampeded cattle. They never looked back.
Barkley, Sam and Jessie were covered with cobwebs they were laughing so hard.
We were beginning to feel at home in Aunt Polly’s bedroom, but something cracked on the stairs. The sound grew louder and louder.
“Maybe it’s the wind,” I whispered.
“Maybe it’s Aunt Polly’s ghost,” Barkley suggested, “and she’s come to get us.”
The boys jumped out the window, leaving me alone in Aunt Polly’s rocking chair. I stood up not knowing what to do, and shook with fear. I could feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck, the ones on my arms stood straight up like a porcupine’s quill, goose pimples formed on my skin and crawled. Maybe it was Aunt Polly. Maybe she was coming to get me, because I tampered with the things in her bedroom.
I couldn’t jump out from the window without my petticoat. Mom would get mad if I came home without my best petticoat. I ran over to the door and peered down the hall. The shadows became larger and larger as the noise grew louder and louder. Something was coming up the stairs.
Blackness danced on the walls like vampires reaching out to get me. I tripped over the rocking chair and fell. Something sided up to my leg and rubbed its body against mine. I screamed. My arm was bleeding. Quickly I got up and moved away from the creature toward the window. There I watched a black furry animal arching its back and moving closer.
My heart pounded rapidly. I wheeled the line in with shaking hands and undid my petticoat. I turned, and ran down the hallway, clutching my petticoat to my chest, panting in the struggle to get back outside. I was too afraid of heights to jump out of the window. The black cat’s eyes sparkled like demons in the dark. It followed me all the way down the steps until I kicked open the door and ran outside, The boys were waiting for me on the road, yelling “Cindy Lou Miller, you get down here right now.”
Barkley and his friends weren’t about to live this down. They were as cowardly as the Errey kids. I told Barkley I would keep their secret if he would take me on other adventures with him and his friends. This didn’t make Barkley happy, but I guessed he would recover or Mom would tan his hide.
I never told anyone what I saw in the shadows, but I was no longer afraid of Aunt Polly’s ghost. Not long after that, the people of Washington, Indiana, built a new road which by-passed Aunt Polly’s property. I used to go after school sometimes to play upstairs in her bedroom with my toys. The country folks were afraid of Aunt Polly’s ghost so they never went there or bothered me. I’d bring books from her library, and rock in her chair. I’d whisper to Aunt Polly from the cobwebs, “Some day this old house will be torn down by your daughter and a new one put in its place, but for now nobody owns it, except the black cat, the spiders and me.”
© Janet Marie Bingham – September 21, 1996
Janet Marie Bingham – I am inspired by trips I took with family when I was young. We traveled to the backwoods of Tennessee, Georgia, Indiana and Kentucky. I am part Blackfoot and Cherokee Indian so these stories take us back in time.
For more inspiring stories and poetry, please visit her website. http://isthereaplacecalledheaven.com/