Outside the stars were fading and the sky was slowly rosying at the edges when we found the skeleton. At first it was visible only as a clutch of white daggers, thickly clotted with spiderwebs, compressed between the plaster wall and the heavy wooden timbers. I don’t know what I expected it to be. Some old kitchen utensils, maybe, like the silver spoon I’d found beneath the back step, its bowl wrenched backwards so far that it nearly touched the handle. Maybe a part of me intuited what it was but kept the knowledge veiled from conscious thought, sensing that if I knew, I never would have done what I did next.
I reached in, my sleeve snagging on the ragged plaster of the mutilated wall where it had given way against the pressure of my chair when I leaned back too far from the table. The object that I retrieved elicited a strangled cry from Joanna. Worried with dust and eaten away in dozens of pocks, it was nonetheless identifiable as a bone to anyone with even the shallowest acquaintance with anatomy.
I had more than that: a drowsily remembered semester of biological anthropology compressed beneath a decade’s worth of things-that-were-more-important, but it was something; I was able to distinguish it as a femur. I pointed out to Joanna its proximal and distal ends. She was not amused.
Later she would explain, her thready voice apologetic: “I thought it was a baby.”
It was not. I fished out the pelvis next, and was able to explain to Joanna, through the mask of her interlaced fingers, that although I couldn’t say exactly what species the tiny bones were, they did not belong to a biped.
“Bipeds have wide, bowl-like pelvises, with a laterally rotated iliac blade that frees the gluteal muscles for locomotion. See how long the ilia and sacrum are? This creature would have never walked upright. And you can forget fitting a human neonate skull through that pelvic inlet.”
Perhaps I remembered more than I thought.
Despite my reassurances, Joanna’s breath remained quickened, her color blanched until Ammi Wheeler—the sheriff and, coincidentally, our closest neighbor—had been summoned, and shuffled over the wide kitchen floorboards in his worn duck boots, and sanctified my verdict. By then I had spread out the entire set of remains, minus the tiny bits that vaporized into dust between my fingers, in (what I believed was) anatomical order on a stretch of paper towels at the foot of the stairs.
“No, they’re not human, Jo,” he called in the direction of the sitting room, where Joanna had retreated into the gauzy atmosphere of the air purifier, folded into her wheelchair with her legs drawn up to her chest and her chin resting on her knees.
I had hardly an instant to inwardly congratulate myself on the accuracy of my assessment when Ammi shouted, “They’re cat!”
The word punctured the satisfied bubble of morbid curiosity that I had been nurturing for the last half hour. I repeated it hesitantly.
“Yep, that’s right,” Ammi said. “I’m guessing late seventeenth century—from the age of your house, Jo! They would have put the cat in there when the walls were built.”
“Alive?” I asked.
“Oh, no, it would have been dead already. Don’t worry about it. It was just a superstition. To ward off spirits and demons. I found one of them in my old barn, myself. And a pair of shoes beneath the floor of the pantry. Shoes served the same purpose.”
Joanna murmured a response, something that neither of us could hear. Her voice was fraying in the way it typically did when she was stressed or tired, and she asked me to take her upstairs. Ammi helped me to maneuver her small bird-like limbs into the seat of the stair climber, then remained behind as I accompanied her to her bedroom.
“He didn’t take off his shoes before he came into the house,” she said as I drew the coverlet up around her neck.
“No, I’m sorry. I forgot to tell him.”
“Could you wash the floors and run the air purifier in the kitchen after he leaves?”
“I know that you like to write in the morning, but it won’t take very long and it will keep the particles from settling. The last time that happened I couldn’t go into the kitchen for a month.”
“I said it was no problem.”
I left her that way, with the tiny darts of my words prickling the air between us. She sighed and turned her head on the pillow, the pleat in her brow above her eyes silently registering the hardened frustration of dealing with someone who would never understand.
I returned to the kitchen, where Ammi was waiting, and offered to make breakfast. He was about seventy, his face leathered to a smooth brown consistency by years of exposure, his head completely bald, but sprouting little gray sprigs of hair from his long-lobed ears. I had known he would be awake when I called because I had seen him in the early hours, before the sun rose, on those nights when Joanna woke up frequently and called me into her bedroom to adjust her pillow or dispense a handful of pills from their container, since her fingers were too weak to grasp the lid. As she sank into a fitful sleep, I’d look out her window, past the long snaking vein of the old stone wall that divided the Wheelers’ property from hers, and see Ammi rambling between outbuildings on the farm, a strange hybrid creature, combining the slouched posture of his accumulated decades with the bouncing gait and brisk energy of a much younger man. His customary schedule seemed to begin between four and five, when the glass of the windowpanes in Joanna’s house was still furred with frost.
He brightened at my offer. “I’d love some eggs and bacon if you have them.”
“We don’t, sorry. Joanna’s vegan.”
I realized only as I said it that it was unlikely Ammi had ever heard the word vegan before, but he skirted the issue politely, and asked for toast.
“Joanna doesn’t eat gluten.”
“How’s this, why don’t you cook up whatever you’ve got? I’m sure it will be a treat.”
I steamed brown rice, boiled lentils, and stir-fried kale in avocado oil. Ammi watched from the table with polite interest and a mild flicker of surprise, and smiled broadly when I served him the steaming bowl.
“That looks wonderful. Thank you, Alice.”
“I’m sorry if it’s a bit unconventional,” I said as I sat down with my own portion on the other side of the table. “Joanna’s afraid of cross-contamination so I eat the same diet as she does. Once or twice a week when I’m in the village I get myself a big slice of lemon meringue pie at Miss Veronica’s. I have to shower afterward so that Joanna doesn’t get exposed to the diner fumes, but it’s worth it.”
Ammi nodded as though this were the most normal thing in the world. I smiled at him as though to acknowledge that it was not. It was a form of communication that I had quickly learned during my brief encounters in the compact universe of Alden, Massachusetts. Joanna, her sister Charlotte, and Dr. Skey, the physician who came three times a week to deliver Joanna’s infusions, all operated within the same register of devout acceptance. Those external to this circle spoke a different language, one of polite confusion and taut silences as they blindly navigated a subject whose nature and dimensions they couldn’t quite fathom. Ammi’s wife Kate, his brother Nathan who lived in the village, and Tess, the waitress at Miss Veronica’s who had gone to high school with Joanna and Charlotte, all respected the sanctity of the elephant in the room, always stopping short of bumping into it.
I could tell that Ammi was the kind of man who didn’t recognize elephants, but he was unencumbered by malice and the grasping curiosity of the gossip. It was for this reason that I felt secure in answering his question truthfully, as he asked it in hushed tones over the bowl that he continuously stirred with his spoon, without taking a bite.
“Alice, this thing that Jo’s got—is it real, or is it one of those things that’s all in the head?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
When Ammi left I spent several empty minutes watching his stooped figure in its tattered coat shrink into the distance, across Joanna’s field and into his, and toward the apple orchard. He finally disappeared into the vault of trees, a jot of brown clawed into nothingness inside a snarl of naked limbs.
I rinsed the dishes before loading them into the dishwasher, cleaned the counters and the table, filled a bucket with hot water and soap, and got down on my hands and knees to scour the floors where Ammi’s boots had defiled them. I had scrubbed that same stretch of dark, old wood so many times that the intricate geography of its grain, swirling voluptuously around black islands of knots, was practically branded into my memory. As the floor dried I used a damp towel to trap the invisible dust particles that had wormed their way into the crevices of the wainscoting and the molding that bracketed the fireplace. From Ammi I knew that the fireplace, its mantle, and the wooden pilasters that braced it on both sides were later additions, an eighteenth-century façade that concealed the original hearth. When I was at his house, he had shown me what it would have looked like: a yawning stone chasm in the wall that was big enough for the both of us to walk into, fitted with an iron crane that could be used to suspend a massive cauldron over the flames, and a small vaulted opening in one side that fed into an oven for baking bread and pies.
Although Ammi’s house was roughly contemporary with Joanna’s and had a similar look, with its sloped saltbox profile, narrow windows, and sagging clapboards, it was vastly different on the inside. Joanna’s house was all clean lines, a rigid geometry of sharp angles and sanitized appliances, stripped down to its bones, with no porous surfaces, no wall hangings, no rugs, and no books—while Ammi’s was freighted with the spoils of its accumulated years, its many niches and nooks and small narrow hallways packed with things. Joanna’s house had been in her family for generations; it had looked much like Ammi’s once, Charlotte had told me, before Joanna got sick, and moved back from Boston, and had the house transformed into her own personal incubator. Charlotte had hired people to put the family heirlooms in storage, to strip the wallpaper and apply coats of hypo-allergenic paint, to refinish the floors, and to install the stair climber and the hospital bed.
There would be another set of workers coming in a few hours, to fix the hole in the wall before more of the poisons inside the house leaked into the atmosphere. In anticipation I went up to the second floor, took the ladder from the closet, and climbed into the attic to retrieve the extra can of special paint.
The attic had been stripped and cleaned along with the rest of the house, tested for mold and asbestos, and left bare aside from some hardware and tools and the collection of documents from Joanna’s doctoral dissertation, hermetically sealed in plastic containers. For this reason I was surprised, when I knelt down beneath the sagging eaves, to find a wisp of paper beside the can, crinkled and curled as a dead autumn leaf, and shivering gently in the phantom breeze that whistled through the warped planks of the ceiling.
I picked it up and unfurled it. Tiny flakes of it sheared away as I did so, falling silently to the floor. It was only a fragment, the top of a page with its bottom half torn away. A few crabbed lines snaked across it, occupying its full width and breadth. I held it up to catch the filament of light that teased through the small window in the center of the gable, and read:
Yesterday she laye in Bed, unable to move her Limbs, protesting that she felt as tho a crushing weight was upon them. To Day she says she is cut with knives and struck with innumerable pins. Some times the pain causes her to Sweat, while other times she comes all over Colde and stiff as a frozen thing. She says she is Choaked, her speech fails and
I searched for the other half of the page, but there was nothing; even the narrowest and most unreachable corners of the attic, where the pitched roof met the floorboards, were empty. I took the paper to my room and didn’t tell Joanna about it, not feeling keen to pull the trigger on what inevitably would become a week-long debridement of the house to ensure that the cleaners hadn’t left any other ancient and doubtlessly poisonous ephemera floating around. I didn’t tell Ammi about it, either, though I was sure his interest would be piqued by the antiquity and the mystery of it. Just as my own hand had scrabbled blindly into the cramped pockets of the attic, the words on the page had wormed themselves into some remote corner inside of me, and I needed time to consider the repercussions of what they had loosened.
That night, I sat with the curl of paper on one side of my desk and my laptop, beaming out the serene white rectangle of an empty document, on the other. Night was advancing, not only earlier but seemingly at an accelerated pace. Its shadows seeped over the hills, through the thistly scrub of the orchard, and settled in the basin of the long sloping field. I shifted restlessly in my chair as I gazed out of the window. An uncomfortable and hauntingly familiar feeling was pitching around inside of me, hooking its ballast into disparate corners of my body. It finally settled in my stomach, where it peeled the lid off an ancient and irreparable black hole.
Without thinking, my body moved through a sequence of mechanical movements, dumbly retrieving the phone, punching the numbers, and raising it to my ear. My sister’s reedy voice droned back at me across a hundred miles of wobbly current.
“I’m feeling anxious for some reason.”
“For some reason? Didn’t I tell you this would happen?” I could practically see the curl in Natalie’s mouth, half concerned, half pleased at her own vindication.
“But it’s been fine.”
“How’s the patient?”
“Her name is Joanna. She’s fine. She just needs a lot of attention—a bit more than the ad said. I haven’t had a lot of time for writing so far, but her sister says she’s worse when the seasons are changing, so maybe it’ll get better when winter comes.”
“Does she talk about her work at all?”
“Not really. She doesn’t even keep copies of her books in the house. I had to read them at the library because she’s sensitive to the dust and the acids in the paper.”
There was a short breach in the conversation, during which I heard the distinct sounds of a pot lid being raised and replaced, the silvery clatter of cutlery, and rambling between, the clipped syllables of my niece’s prattling speech. “What’s the disease that she has again?” Natalie finally asked.
I took a deep breath, readying myself to recite the catalog, but my sister interrupted.
“Ally, I told you that it wouldn’t be good for you to be isolated up in that weird town, in that creepy old house. Why don’t you come back to the city?”
“I can’t afford it. Here I have a paycheck plus free room and board, and time to write.”
“I thought you didn’t have time to write.”
A few minutes later, after saying goodbye, I got up and walked around the room, circuiting the queen-size bed with its rigid cap of hypoallergenic white blankets, the lumbering brown dresser, and the desk and black Windsor chair, poised expectantly, like the tableau in a historical museum, as if to say, Miss Dickinson has only stepped away for a moment. I went into the bathroom, the only one in the house left with its claw-footed tub, and for a few moments studied myself in the antique mirror, my skin gilded beneath its lattice of patination.
Why do I get like this? I asked, as though the answer was there, swimming in the shadowy canyons behind my dully lit figure. Like I’m walking on a knife’s edge. Like every second is a separate island that I’m hopping between, hoping I don’t get caught in the black mire around them. Feeling like time is a stretch of ground that I just have to get across, as fast as I can so that I can outrun the thing that’s looming behind me. What thing? The ominous portent. The meteor. I don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. I just know that it’s always out there somewhere, hurtling between opposite ends of the universe, waiting to cycle back again.
I wobbled to my desk, sat down, and closed the laptop. I uncurled the paper and read it once again. She says she is Choaked, her speech fails … At that moment, with nearly cinematic precision, I heard Joanna calling weakly from the other room, her voice distorted by the aberrant acoustics of the house, so that it seemed both far away and menacingly close.
“I feel like you’re angry with me.”
“Why would I be angry with you?” I avoided Joanna’s gaze as I rearranged the corners of the coverlet where they had been knocked loose by a violent spasm in her legs. I wasn’t so much trying to avoid looking at her as I was trying to avoid distraction—I still felt as though I lacked control over my body, jerkily puppeteering it through the necessary motions as though it belonged to someone else.
“I don’t know why, I just sense it. Like you’re starting to resent me. It happened with Molly and April, and now you.”
I stood upright and finally met her eye to eye. I had never heard the names of Joanna’s former aides. Both of them, Charlotte had told me, had been Joanna’s friends before she had fallen ill. Perhaps I was about to learn why this time they had chosen to seek out a stranger, recruited from an advertisement sent through the alumni network of our shared alma mater. Joanna and I were, in fact, contemporaries at the university—she had graduated two years ahead of me—though we had never met during our time there.
“I’m not angry with you, and I don’t resent you. I’m sorry if I came across that way. I’m just tired.”
“It’s the house, isn’t it?” said Joanna, laying back against the pillow, her head rolling heavily on her wasted neck. “I know how you feel. A lot has accumulated in this house—particles, effluvia, negative energy. It’s impossible to fully get rid of it. Most of it is in the walls—it wouldn’t surprise me if there were more skeletons in there. Of course, it harms me the most, because of my illness; it really is the worst place for me. But it could probably affect you too.”
“Then why did you come here?” I asked, as I plumped the pillows behind her back.
“I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” said Joanna, pausing as she was wracked with a bout of coughing. “I obviously can’t work. I ran out of my own money a long time ago. The infusions, the herbalists, the cleaners, you—that’s all from Irwin, but don’t get the idea that he’s happy about paying for it.” Irwin was Charlotte’s husband, an attorney, with whom she shared a large modern house in the neighboring town, nearly an hour’s drive away.
“Charlie wanted me to live with them,” Joanna continued, in between short, ragged gasps, “but they have the children, and of course I couldn’t be around the dogs or the products and the food that they use. For a year they paid for an apartment for me in Boston so that I could see the specialists there, but they couldn’t do anything for me. They said my problem is psychological. But I told them, I know in every cell of my body, it’s not psychological. It’s real.”
I stopped in the middle of rearranging the pill bottles on the bedside table. The woozy, sickly feeling circulating through my veins was momentarily relieved, flushed out by a fresh surge of energy.
“Just because something is psychological doesn’t mean it’s not real,” I said.
She shook her head. “You don’t get it, Alice. Those doctors thought I was crazy. All except for Dr. Skey. That’s another reason why it was important for me to be here.”
I said nothing in reply, but finished what had to be done, exchanged a terse goodnight with Joanna, and retreated into my room. It was late, but I steeled myself against the urge to look at the clock at the corner of my computer screen, knowing that it could quickly become a compulsion—what time was it now? And now? Was it any closer to the unspeakable thing that is coming? I tapped out a few weary, meandering sentences that led nowhere, for which I blamed the computer. The keys of my own laptop, left at Natalie’s house in Providence, were velvety, burnished with the oils of my fingers—but I hadn’t been allowed to bring it, or any of my other possessions, to Joanna’s. Even my clothing was purchased for me, brand new. I hadn’t realized to what extent those things functioned as prostheses of my body, not simply tools but extensions of it, their surfaces warm and receptive to my touch. Now I sat inside a starchy envelope of all organic, all natural fibers, which grated on my skin and buckled awkwardly at the joints, with my hands contorted over cold and unfamiliar keys—it was no wonder that I was feeling out of sorts. Anxiety has the ability to work itself into a kind of knot, which eases only when you’ve maneuvered it and teased it and picked at it from all sides. I sensed that I had untangled something, and thus felt a degree of relief, as I closed the laptop and turned out the light. As I climbed into bed, I caught a glimpse of Ammi slipping down his front steps, his features shrouded in a white cloud of his own breath, a shovel hitched over his shoulder.
There was another knot that needed to be picked. The next day, spotting Charlotte’s blue station wagon parked in the driveway, I dressed quickly and slipped out the back door without speaking to anyone. I departed in my little gray Honda, its tires growling over the unpaved driveway, with the curled fragment of paper in an acid-free envelope on the passenger seat beside me.
It took more than an hour to get almost anywhere from Alden, and the Antiquarian Society was no exception. I arrived there just as the short hand of my watch was rounding ten, parking the car at the end of a long grassy lawn, starched by frost, that led up to the grand brick building. Inside, the ceilings were high and barrel-vaulted, the floors lushly pillowed with faded Oriental carpets, the air cold and still. The only sounds came from the occasional crackle of an ancient leaf turning, and the steady punctuation of laptop keys.
The neatly dressed young woman named Mallory who greeted me at the front desk took one look at the page as I shucked it from its envelope and led me, gesturing silently, into another, smaller room, curtained in shadow, which contained a row of small desks fitted with flexible lamps. She gestured again, and I pulled up a chair at the desk beside her, as she sat, and pulled on white cotton gloves, and spread the paper between her fingers.
“It’s seventeenth-century, most definitely,” she whispered to me, her words hanging pendulously in the breath of space between us. “The handwriting looks very familiar.” Then she craned her neck backward, toward the door, and in a barking voice that brusquely shattered the vitrified silence, yelled, “DENISE!”
Denise was a tall, slim woman with a cyclone of messy brown hair that was pinned haphazardly back from her face, and dark-rimmed glasses that sat crookedly on her small nose. She appeared in the threshold almost instantaneously, her arms nearly buckling beneath a load of books.
“Denise, tell me if this isn’t Merwin Otis. If this isn’t fucking Otis I’ll shoot myself.”
Denise came forward, and swinging the books into the inlet between her ribs and her hip, inserted her disheveled head between ours to stare down at the paper that Mallory held splayed between her fingers. I was washed by a warm tide of her scent as she did so, a blend of sweat and soap and mustiness that was somehow refreshing in its honesty, as accustomed as I was to the soured antiseptic smell of Joanna.
“It does look like Otis.”
“Didn’t I tell you? Where did you find this?” She barged on before I had a chance to answer. “Some old house up in Alden. What the fuck is Otis doing up there? Would you go get Dan? He’s going to get so hard when he sees this.”
I sat there dumbly as Dan, followed by Bill, Judy, Peter, and a gaggle of fidgety young interns, were paraded in succession through the tiny room to get a look at the page, passing magnifying glasses between them to study it more closely, discussing the texture of the paper and the consistency of the ink, noting the spelling and the slant of the words and the distinctive pitch of the writer’s ecstatic M’s. I waited, for what seemed like an hour, for the majority of them to decant from the room, before I ventured my sheepish question.
“Who’s Merwin Otis?”
Mallory and Denise shared a long, silent look before they both burst out laughing.
Mallory gripped me by the arm, having graduated from gestures to downright manhandling, and led me down a wanly lit hall to a small library, occupied by dense rows of shelves that were heavily burdened with large, dusty tomes. As we entered, she pointed above the door, to the large marble lintel engraved with the gold-painted words, MERWIN OTIS READING ROOM.
For the next few hours, I sank into a deep, syrupy spell, my mind buoyed on its slowly churning eddies to places my ordinary cares couldn’t reach. I let my phone vibrate in my pocket for ten minutes before I silenced it, not checking to see who had called. (I knew who had called.) By the time I left, the night was busily descending.
When I returned, Charlotte was in the kitchen, pacing from one corner to another, her stocking feet mutely thrumming the floorboards. She was at the far side of the room when I came in, and spun on her heels when she heard the door open.
“Where have you been?” she asked, racing toward me. “I’ve been waiting for hours. I had to call Irwin to leave work and pick up Fletcher and Tilley from school—I haven’t been able to leave Joanna. She’s having an episode. Where were you?”
I piped out the words that I had rehearsed on the way back in the car, realizing they sounded even more lame when pitched against Charlotte’s wall of justified fury.
“I was at the Antiquarian Society, doing research on this—this paper I found, and the house, and Merwin Otis. I’ve found some things that are very important—to you, and to Joanna—”
Charlotte waved her hand. “Never mind. Would you please just help me?”
A strange, tinny, almost electric vibration was ringing in the air, and grew in intensity as we approached Joanna’s room. I had felt it only once before, the first time that I witnessed an episode, and I had hoped never to experience it again. A sickly smell accompanied it, bilious and rotten and completely unlike the fussy ammoniac scents that typically clung to the interior of Joanna’s bedroom. Charlotte entered first, then motioned for me to follow her. The light from the room, pulsing through the doorway, formed a staticky corona around the outline of her figure. It was a strange light, silvered with sharp gray pinpricks, which I told myself were reflections from the snow that had begun to fall outside, the flakes thick and luminous against the burgeoning dark.
Joanna lay sideways across her bed, her body contorted into an impossible arc, as though a single wire inside of her—running from her feet to her head—was being slowly pulled upward from its center. Her head lolled slackly across her chest, while her arms remained pinned at her sides, her legs cemented together. Her eyes were open, but clouded, unseeing; her tongue, grotesquely long, lapped at her chin like a blindly searching slug; while a succession of noises—halfway between syllable and sound—peeled out of her in a continuous drone. It wasn’t like a human voice; in fact, it seemed not to come from her larynx at all, but from somewhere deeper, vibrating upward from her diaphragm, forcing its guttural vibrations out through her throat.
“Joanna, I’m here,” said Charlotte, as she knelt beside the bed, her hand on her sister’s, trying to loosen the iron knot of her clenched fingers.
“It’s just like Merwin Otis wrote,” I said, as I inched cautiously toward the bed. “Her body’s turned around backward—like a hoop. And her tongue—stretched to a prodigious length—and the noise … the terrible noise …”
“Alice, please. Would you please get the oils—the marjoram and the bergamot?”
I retrieved the small blue bottles from the dresser and handed them to Charlotte, who uncapped them and held them one by one beneath Joanna’s nose. Her head bucked away from the smell as though magnetically repelled.
“Charlotte,” I said, on my knees now beside her, “did you know there was a possessed girl in this house?”
A stony look came over Charlotte’s face, and her hands, still struggling to hold Joanna’s, began to tremble.
“I don’t want to hear any stories. I don’t care what you found, Alice. I don’t want to hear it. If you’re not going to help, please go away.”
I looked at Joanna, whose muscles were beginning to slacken. Her tongue recoiled into her mouth, and the granite arch of her body gave way. Her eyes closed. She would sleep now, I knew, for hours, perhaps days. There would be much work to be done then, tracing back the trigger that had led to this episode and mitigating its effects. The whole house would need to be aerated and purified, and all of the food thrown away and replaced. Dr. Skey would be summoned, with his mobile laboratory of syringes and tubes and murky liquids in bottles; followed by the pungent cornucopias of Mrs. George, the herbalist, and Amy Wickham, who drove in from Worcester to practice reiki. Even after all of that, Joanna would lack the energy to sit up in bed or raise a fork to her mouth; she would have to be fed, and turned in bed, and bathed. She would shrink from all light and sound; the blackout curtains would be lowered, and Charlotte and I would tiptoe through the hallways, finely attuned to her groans of pain. Weeks might go by, and Joanna would still complain of sore throats, headaches, and a feeling of pins and needles all throughout her body. She would experience extremes in temperature, one moment shaking violently from cold, her fingertips turned blue; the next pickled in her own sweat, her skin scalding to the touch. When I was alone with her, she would tell me, I feel helpless. I don’t know what the point of living is anymore. She would ask if I thought she was pathetic.
No, I would say, I don’t think you’re pathetic, or crazy, or that it’s all in your head. Something is going on here, something vast and ancient that I am just beginning to understand. And it starts with a girl, in this very house, in the year 1685.
For the most part, that was what happened, but with one notable exception.
I couldn’t bring myself to tell Joanna what I had found at the Antiquarian Society. I could hardly tell her when she was sleeping or barely conscious, and I couldn’t tell her in her subsequent state of heightened sensitivity, when even the act of speaking to her in a voice above a whisper caused her to grimace. So instead, one morning, when the fringes of the sky were still loosely garlanded with stars, I tugged on my boots and swaddled myself into my coat, and went out the back door to look for Ammi Wheeler.
I found him at the property line, repairing a section of the stone wall. He spoke to me, as always, as though continuing an earlier conversation, stripped of the superfluous posturings of hello and goodbye and the hollow gesticulations of how-have-you-been.
“Kate didn’t want me to tell you,” he said, as he squatted down to retrieve a fieldstone from the ground. “She thought it might spook you.”
“Tell me what?”
“What they called it,” he said, heaving the stone into place, his words weaving between grunts of exertion.
He stood upright, and nodded towards Joanna’s house, visible from here as a slate-colored dab in the shallow depression where the field bottomed out, its double chimneys leaching curls of black smoke into the iridescent twilight.
“The Witch House,” Ammi said.
I followed him along the wall, where he stooped to fix other stones that had been worked asunder—and one that had been snapped in half—by the heaving of the ground in the frost. I had to practically jog, my boots crunching and creaking through the fresh layer of snow, to keep up with his long, even strides.
“Who called it that? When?”
“Oh, you know. I heard it when we moved here thirty years ago, and no doubt Jo’s mother heard it when she was growing up.”
“Did you know her? Joanna’s mother?”
“Peggy? Oh sure. I knew all of the Saltonstalls. Old family. Not many left. But I want to know,” he said, pausing for a moment to lean backward, grinding the kinks out of his back, “what you’ve found. Why don’t you come up to the house?”
In the Wheelers’ sprawling kitchen, beneath a gargantuan wooden timber that ran the length of the ceiling—“the summer beam,” Ammi called it—and in front of a pot-bellied stove, so hot that it crimped the air around it, I ate heaping slices of warm apple pie with Kate and Ammi. I felt like I had fallen into an old picture book, insinuated into a vision of New England life as it had never really existed, refracted through a lens of post-industrial nostalgia. There were no real witches in that dreamy world, only the shadows of them, cast long over hundreds of years, their substance faded and shriveled into fanciful stories and quaint superstitions. A horseshoe over the door. A pinch of spilled salt thrown over one’s left shoulder. A dropped fork, signaling the forthcoming arrival of an unexpected guest. Nothing as dark and terrifying as a possessed girl, the impossible angles of her twisted body rioting over the floor—the kind of urgent and unearthly threat that might lead someone to place a dead cat in the walls, to bury a horse skull beneath the threshold, or to bake cakes with the girl’s urine, to be fed to the family dog: supernatural countermeasures, effective but dangerous in their exploitation of the invisible world. All of these had happened in the Witch House of Alden.
“Her name was Susanna Hazzard,” I told Ammi and Kate, as we concluded breakfast with steaming mugs of apple cider. “She was the daughter of a local magistrate, Eleazer Hazzard. In 1685, she was seventeen years old and living with her family in Joanna’s house. That fall, a comet passed over New England that could be seen for a week. Even at night, it lit up the sky like it was day. Shortly afterward, Susanna started having headaches and fevers. She felt alternately hot and cold, complained of the sensation of pins sticking into her body, and often felt so fatigued that she could hardly speak or get out of bed. Then she started having fits.”
“Like seizures?” asked Kate.
“Not quite. We tend to think of seventeenth-century people as ignorant and superstitious, but they did recognize epilepsy as a medical disorder—they called it the falling sickness. The Hazzards called the local doctor to examine Susanna, and he was shocked by her fits. They weren’t like seizures. Her spine would bend backward, to the point that it looked like it was broken in half. Her body emitted strange odors and sounds and she would groan and roar and even speak Latin. The doctor said she was possessed. And so Eleazer Hazzard wrote to Merwin Otis, a minister in Boston who was known for his knowledge of demonic afflictions. And he came to Alden, and recorded Susanna’s case in his diary. I found a page of that diary in Joanna’s attic. The rest of it is at the Antiquarian Society.”
Ammi and Kate exchanged warm, knowing smiles.
“I see, Alice,” said Ammi. “You think Joanna is possessed by a witch.”
“Yes! I mean no,” I said, scrambling to collect my words, “of course not. There were no witches then and there aren’t now. I just can’t deny how similar the symptoms are. There has to be some connection—some physical or mental disorder that they share. Maybe it’s the house. It could be environmental. I wish I could tell someone about it, but Joanna’s too sick and Charlotte doesn’t want to hear it.”
Kate nodded sympathetically. She was a small woman, with a round amiable face and bobbed gray hair, and she sat in perfect equilibrium to Ammi: both clad in loose brown fishermen sweaters, their bodies angled instinctively toward each other.
“You’ve made a fascinating discovery, Alice,” she said. “If Jo and Charlotte won’t listen to you, maybe you could try Norris Lufkin, the village historian. He might have some materials relating to the Hazzards and the house that could help you.”
I thanked her for her kind words and for the breakfast, though I departed feeling as though the true weight of what I had to say had failed to make an impact. The story of the possessed girl had worked its way into my gut and lodged there. I had to know what it all meant—and I was sure there was some meaning, some key of knowledge, which would force the jumbled fragments in my mind into an orderly arrangement.
The Alden Historical Society occupied a stone building, a former one-room schoolhouse, between the public library and the post office. Aside from the erection of utility poles and the paving of the three roads that met in the center of the village, forming a narrow triangle of open space between them, the center of Alden had been virtually unchanged since the nineteenth century—but walking through it was not like stepping back in time. The past as I envisioned it was inhabited—with clusters of cows grazing on the green, carriages and riders on horseback bustling through the streets, and people. There were no people in Alden. No one had shoveled the sidewalks, though it was early afternoon. The snow formed a pristine, unbroken sheet. A dense, clinging damp hung lowly over the village, stifling the sunlight and trapping the air inside. I imagined beads of condensation gathering on its inner surface, like the inside of a glass bowl. I felt as though I was breathing the same breath, over and over. The only movement that cracked the static field of my vision came from the three crows sitting side by side on the spire of the small white church, rustling and plumping their feathers in the cold.
Norris Lufkin was a small man with a close-trimmed cap of bristly black hair and a warm olive complexion that was slightly jaundiced in the flaxen light of the lamp on his antique desk. Like the other pieces in the room, the desk was representative of the kind of stout, oversized, solidly built furniture that you could imagine bobbing along the icy currents in the wreckage of the Titanic, perhaps burdened by a frozen passenger or two. There was a large drop-leaf table, a grandfather clock, and bookshelves—like those at the Antiquarian Society, encumbered by rows of books with splintered bindings and snakeskin pages, crinkled and desiccated and weightless to the touch.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said, and I paused in responding, half expecting him to add, for a hundred years.
Today my absence had been authorized by Charlotte, who had spent that morning sanitizing her two greasy little urchins in preparation for the quarterly visit to their aunt. By the time the three of them departed, Joanna would be too exhausted to move, signaling me to shuttle her upstairs and into bed, where she would expend the last of her energy in itemizing every object and surface that Fletcher and Tilley had touched, and securing my promise that I would throw away the cup that Fletcher had used after picking his nose. But that was hours away, and for now, I was firmly ensconced in the cold, clammy bubble hanging over Alden, my fingers teasing apart the leaves of an ancient ledger as though paring back the individual layers of an ancient epidermis.
“Make sure you read this one,” Norris would say, appearing seemingly from out of nowhere as I studied, and leave another book on the desk beside me before slipping back into the dimly lit recesses of the room.
Every word that I read served as a welcome distraction, but it was only a partial respite. That creeping dread, the sense of an accelerating countdown, the fear of dissolution—of atomizing, watching my body be chewed apart by invisible forces—lurked behind me. My right leg jogged beneath the desk so rapidly that it sent a continuous vibration humming up through the desk. Despite the cold, I felt sweat gather across my forehead.
I called Natalie on the way home, walking quickly between threads of shadow as they stretched and weaved into each other and tightened into night. It was nearly a five mile journey along unlit roads through dense bands of forest, back to Joanna’s house.
“For the love of God, Ally, why are you walking alone?”
“This isn’t the city, Nat. There’s no one out here.”
“No one out there to see you slip and break your leg and die of hypothermia!”
I smiled to myself, detecting the echo of our mother’s grandiloquent hysteria in her words. I suppose there was a shade of me in there, too, in the warbling escalation in frequency at the end of her sentence. In noticing it, the course of my mind diverted toward Joanna, and how her voice wore thin the longer she spoke, as though every word had clawed its way out of her. Like all of my thoughts of Joanna, this one came accompanied with the one-two punch of reflexive irritation, followed immediately by a spike of guilt.
“I think Joanna’s right about me,” I said. “I am starting to resent her.”
“So why don’t you leave?”
“I made an agreement. Besides, I don’t think it’s her fault. I’m not even angry at her. I’m just angry, and she’s just—such an easy target. Like a receptacle for all of these thoughts I’ve had about myself, and why I’m terrible, and how I should do better.”
“Ally, you know what I always say. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re doing fine.”
But am I? The question stalked me for another two miles, along with its answer, the usual litany of offenses. Single woman. Useless degree. No career. Terminally neurotic. Former Child Prodigy, drearily scribbling out the lines to its depressing sequel, Inevitable Disappointment. In a small private school outside of Providence, there were a dozen teachers anticipating the day I would triumphantly return with arms full of Pulitzers and National Book Awards. They would be waiting forever.
Of course Joanna made a convenient vessel for my externalized self-hatred; she was me, hyperbolized—an even more brilliant virtuoso, struck down by an even more devastating ailment, one that she didn’t seem willing to fight but rather surrendered to, even welcomed, as though she had hollowed out her sickness and curled up inside of it. The contours of her life were exaggerated just enough to disguise how neatly they mapped onto my own; just enough so that I could hate her safely.
I came to a fork in the road and wavered. The footsteps I had been following had stopped abruptly, leaving nothing but a white plain of snow, still dully glowing though the sun was nearly set. I looked both ways and back toward the village, which was now far out of sight. I zigzagged for a moment, cutting a dazed, drunken path as I tried to decide which way to go. I felt the approach of the meteor, its diabolical airstream overtaking the atmosphere. I felt the distinct sensation of vertigo: the nauseous betrayal of gravity and the inversion of earthly dimensions. I don’t even remember turning right or left; I simply remember pushing onward, my frozen marionette’s body stiffly executing the instructions that I gave it, my leaden feet numbly scouring the hardened snow out from under me, the icy air abrading my throat and lungs with every breath.
There’s no such thing as witches or demons, I told myself. But in that moment, I wanted there to be. I wanted to pin the sensations of fear and dread to something tangible, to see it face to face, to watch it slither out from behind the trees and knock me down and dig its claws into me—so that I could do something, anything, in response. I could beat at it with my fists. I could hitch my knees up to my chest and push it off with my feet, like I had seen heroes do in movies. Or I could simply lie there and surrender, and let there be an end to it all.
I was anticipating it with a feeling that was not unlike pleasure, my chest humming, my blood beating the cold out of my cells. But then the path turned, and the clumsy angles of Joanna’s house, silhouetted against the milky snow, peeked out from behind the trees. My heart sank. I was saved.
I stumbled through the back door, removing my boots and shucking off my outer layers in the mud room before I came into the kitchen. The heat of the house enveloped me, and soon every molecule of my body was singing with tiny, aching tremors. I was wiping my nose with the back of my shirt when I noticed Joanna sitting at the table, her fingers twined around a cup of tea.
“Charlotte told me she doesn’t think she can bring the children here anymore,” she said forlornly. “It’s too much of an ordeal.”
“Oh,” I said softly, slowly lowering my arm from my face, “that’s terrible.” Then my whole body shuddered, and I collapsed into the chair.
“Are you all right, Alice?”
I waved away her concern. “I’m fine. I was just really cold.” I sighed, letting my arms and legs slacken, satisfied that I had pulled it off again—that I had dragged myself out of this latest disaster with no marks that anyone could see. No one would ever know that I had done anything but take a long walk on a frigid evening. I gave Joanna a reassuring smile. Then I dipped my head into my hands and began to sob.
Joanna rose from her seat, slowly, walked around the table, and sat down in the chair next to me. All the while, the porcelain mask of her face didn’t crack. She didn’t fluster or grow panicked, like I feared she would. She put a hand on my shoulder. Her touch was warm, alight with her own busy vibrations.
“I just feel on edge all of the time,” I said. “Like I can never fully relax. There’s always some part of me that’s clenched up. And I’m afraid if I let go I’ll completely lose control.”
For a moment, I thought I saw her as she once was, years ago—as she appeared on the inner flaps of her books. Her jawline had a soft curve to it, her skin shone with a ruddy luster, and her hair hung in loose, buoyant waves around her face. She had a broad and slightly crooked smile, which tilted upward toward her left cheek. One blink, and the vision dissipated, replaced by her pale and hollowed countenance. But she was still, very slightly, smiling.
“Let me make you some tea,” she said.
I felt vaguely disoriented as I sat at the table, watching Joanna pass smoothly through the rituals that I performed every morning, retrieving a bag of loose leaf tea from the cabinet and scooping it into the cup, filling the kettle and lighting the stove, while I sat immobilized at the table.
She returned to the table with the cup and saucer and placed it in front of me. As she lowered herself tenderly into her chair, I could see the pale fingers of exhaustion working at her face. How much of her precious energy had she expended in extending this tiny favor to me? A day’s worth? A week’s? For a moment I stared at her in complete awe, as though she had accomplished some superhuman feat. Before I could thank her, she spoke.
“Will you tell me about the possessed girl?”
I nearly choked on my first sip of tea. After that afternoon’s research, I had nearly eliminated the possibility of relating what I had found to Charlotte or Joanna, certain that the full story of the Witch House was likely to begin and end in the intimate circle formed by Ammi, Kate, and myself. But she asked, so I told her—about seventeenth-century New England, and the Puritans, and the comet, which Merwin Otis had described in a widely circulated pamphlet as a forewarning of divine punishment: Such fearful Sights are Signs that flaming vengeance is kindled and burning in heaven against a sinful World. Inasmuch then as fearful Sights are Tokens of Gods anger, they are Presages of great Calamities. I told her about the strange behavior exhibited by seventeen-year-old Susanna Hazzard, and her parents’ efforts to help her, first by appealing to the doctor, and then to the minister.
“Merwin Otis lived with the Hazzards for three months, during which he took daily notes on Susanna’s condition. But the last few pages were ripped out of his diary—the librarian thinks one of his descendants did it, before donating the collections to the Antiquarian Society. Fortunately for me, the Alden Historical Society has its own records from that time—diaries and letters and court records. They tell how Merwin Otis convinced the Hazzards that in order to be saved, Susanna would have to name her tormentor. Susanna told him that she didn’t know who it was. In fact, the idea that it was a specific person—a witch—who was tormenting Susanna, never came up before Otis arrived. But Otis told Susanna that it was likely someone in the village, maybe even someone close to her. For several days Susanna denied it. But the situation got worse, and Susanna’s younger sisters began to show signs of possession, too. So Susanna told Merwin Otis that the witch was Rachel Walcott.”
“Who was Rachel Walcott?”
“Rachel was a young woman who had been orphaned in King Philip’s War ten years earlier, and had lived with the Hazzards ever since. She may have been distantly related to them, but as far as I can tell, she lived with them as a sort of—well, unofficially permanent servant. Without any close relatives or property, out here in Alden, she was unlikely to marry, which was her only prospect for starting her own life. She was a dependent and an outsider in her own home. She was also likely the only person Susanna knew outside of her own nuclear family. The Hazzards must have lodged a formal accusation, because the village magistrates—I’m sorry, what is this?” I stopped abruptly, motioning to the cup that I had just lowered from my face. “It’s wonderful.”
“It’s made from blackberry leaves. An old New England folk remedy from my great-grandmother.”
“A remedy for what?”
“For what ails you,” she said, tipping her shoulders upward with a playfulness that I had never seen in her before. “So the magistrates?”
“Oh yeah, the magistrates took her into custody, and there was a trial, during which Susanna and Merwin Otis testified, along with some other residents of Alden who said they had been afflicted. Rachel was accused of making cows’ milk run dry and causing a woman’s miscarriage. One person said he had seen her nursing a yellow bird from a teat between her fingers, another that she had appeared as a bird flying over his field, after which his corn rotted in the stalks. A few people described having dreams of Rachel, which was presented to the court as ‘spectral evidence.’”
“Christ. And all of this was used to convict her?”
I shook my head. “No. She was acquitted. And after that it was hard for me to track her. I know she didn’t go back to the Hazzards’. In one sketched map of the village from 1704, there’s an isolated structure near the river labeled ‘Goody Wall Cots House,’ though the illustration makes it look more like a hut. In 1731 she died and was buried in the village graveyard, but there’s no marker for her. Norris Lufkin thinks it’s likely she was buried in the area at the back that was reserved for paupers and suicides.”
Joanna shook her head. Aside from her fatigue, she seemed visibly disturbed. Her face had a strange, haphazard quality to it, as though it had been fractured and hurriedly put back together, leaving a few pieces in the wrong place.
“You know, Alice,” she said, looking away from me, “there’s something a doctor told me once. He said that he thought I had conversion disorder—the modern designation for what would have once been called hysteria. But he said he was hesitant to write that in my chart. Do you know why?”
I shook my head.
“Because once it’s made, conversion disorder is likely to be the last diagnosis a patient will ever have. No doctor who sees that patient in the future, regardless of what symptoms she has at that point, will ever consider an alternative explanation. Some labels are indelible.”
I nodded. I had seen the word hysteria sneaking across the pages I had read in my research, particularly those in nineteenth-century texts looking back on the witchcraft trials from a position of stolid post-Enlightenment rationality. Was hysteria the connecting joint between Susanna’s symptoms and Joanna’s? Or was it just another way of forcing a sense of order onto the disorderly, a structure onto an amorphous and incomprehensible phenomenon?
I considered asking Joanna about it, but she had begun to wilt into her chair, her arms folding into her body like wasted stems. I managed to get her upstairs and into her bed, where she remained for the rest of the week, unspeaking, while I kept the machinery of the house in working order. At times I felt more like the caretaker of a lighthouse than that of an invalid. I kept the beacon burning, I studied the weather patterns and the tides, but I was alone. I was no longer afraid—and somehow, that was unsettling.
Fear, for all its pains, can be a uniquely orienting experience. Everything is augmented, every particle of the air brought into crystalline focus inside the intimate anarchy of a panic attack. You only have one purpose, which is to get through it. The path ahead is linear and discrete. Then the panic dissipates, and the branches of the path splay apart in front of you. Liberated from the immediate, visceral, heart-pumping mission of survival, you are confronted with a different set of tasks and priorities. You come to know the creeping unease of simply not knowing what to do.
I stayed with Joanna through the winter, as I had promised, but I chose not to renew my tenure in the spring. The day that I left, I didn’t have a destination in mind. I had only one direction, onward, into the oblivion of what-was-to-come.