Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
I was a beautiful young woman once, full of love and life. My lily-white skin was soft and warm, my belly swollen with new life, and my hand held by my husband, Edward. Edward was a good man. We married young, in the spring, when the air was heavy with the scent of the blossoming trees and the ground damp with dew. I remember how he smiled when he lifted my veil, as if seeing me for the first time. His eyes were soft and blue, crinkling at the sides as he told me he loved me. Who could have known this man would become my curse? This kind, gentle man, whose love gave me such life that I might live forever.
The winter came and my belly bulged with the fruit of our love. The chilled winds forced me to keep inside, and the maids tended to my every need. Many days I spent sewing by the fire, softly singing songs without meaning for hours on end.
And then, one night, I felt it.
The pain was immense, as if I was been torn from the inside out. I screamed for my maids, and one cradled my arm and attempted to lead me to my chamber. Another ran for Edward and he came crashing through the door, his manner wild with fear and excitement. He took my other arm and I was brought moaning up the stairs, wailing and huffing with excursion. When finally I was safe in my bed, the doctor came. He went about his way, and ordered me to push and breathe while Edward held my hand, both of us soaked with sweat. Suddenly, the doctor paused. He spoke quietly to the midwife and she ushered Edward out the room. He protested madly, shouting over her shoulder; “I am with you, Joanna!”
I smiled through the rat tails of my sodden hair and calmed him, “Do not fear for me, Edward. I will be safe here”. My voice, though torn with pain, sounded surprisingly calm. He looked back at me desperately, and the door was closed in front of him.
That was the last time I truly saw Edward. The doctor told me I was bleeding too heavily and he couldn’t stop it. I cried, “My baby! Is my baby going to live?” but for all my life I cannot remember if he answered me. In that instant, the world seemed to go numb. The pain was remained, but dulled, like a blunted knife.The room seemed to drift into grey before my eyes. I could see the doctor lifting up my child in a blood-soaked blanket, but all I could hear was the colossal ringing in my ears, and I did not know if the infant cried. The darkness closed in from the corners of my eyes, as if I were falling down an endless hole, and finally, enveloped me completely.
Yet, I did not truly leave. I was new, risen from my body and standing in the corner of my room. For a while all was silent but for the ringing, although the light had come back to me. I saw the doctor open the door and speak to Edward, and I saw him fall to his knees and scream in pain. I saw the maids gasp and cover their mouths, and the midwife rocking my baby in her arms, humming softly, her eyes red and stinging. And I saw my body, stretched out on that bloody bed, my eyes still open and looking straight at me. I tried to touch my hand, but my fingers passed straight through. We looked at each other for a while, as if I hoped my body would blink and sit up. Yet I lay there, stoic, stubbornly deceased, and I felt as though I grew thinner, as if I was completely drained of everything.
Then, all sound gushed back and awoke me from my stupor; Edward’s howling sobs, the weeping of the maids, and the screams of my baby. I went to the midwife, although she did not see me. In her plump arms, he seemed so small. He too was covered in blood, but he was so alive. His cries were the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and amidst all the loss in my home, new life graced us.
For a while, Edward did not look at our child. He allowed the maids to change my bedsheets, then placed me amongst new ones as if I were asleep. He laid beside me and embraced me all night, his tears soaking my cold, dead skin. It was as if he was trying to warm me, to bring me back to life. How I wanted to embrace him back, to tell him I was still with him, but there seemed no way. So I laid on the other side of my corpse, resting upon myself and watching darling Edward sleep, wishing with all my heart to come back to him. But I could only watch.
Eventually, the undertakers came to collect my body. Edward did not fight them, but sat and watched them with eyes sunk and dead with grief. He and I stood together at the window as we watched the cart take me away, and I held his hand. Although my ghostly fingers could hold no earthly thing, he seemed to feel me, and he looked at his hand for a long time, then up at my face, or where my face would have been. He tightened his grip on thin air, yet I felt we were together, across the worlds of life and death, and I could almost feel the warmth of his hand on mine.
He spoke nothing of this, of course. But that night, he went to the baby’s room, where the nurse sat and knitted beside him. He dismissed her, and he sat in her place. He looked at our child, then addressed the room as a whole. “Are you with me, Joanna?” he said.
“Yes!” I cried, but he could not hear me. He waited for an answer, and desperate, I tapped the mobile above the bed with the tips of my fingers. It rocked to and fro, and Edward saw it and knew it was me. The baby giggled at the knitted birds that moved with the mobile and held out chubby little hands to them.
Edward looked at our child with love, and spoke to me again.
“As long as you are with me, my darling, I am a blessed man. But heaven knows I miss you even though you are here.” He stroked the baby’s head. “He is all I have left of you know, my baby boy. He is the evidence of our union, and I haven’t even named him yet.” He let tears run down his face as the boy gripped his finger in his tiny palm. “Jonathan,” he whispered. “In memory of my Joanna.”
I smiled and stood beside him as he cradled our son, like some twisted family portrait. I placed my hand on his shoulder and we sang to him together, a folk song my mother had sung to me when I was a child, and Edward’s mother to him.
Sleep now, my love, for all the night
Slumbers soft until the light
Warms your heart and warms your mind
and teaches you wisdom, to love and be kind
Sleep now, my love,
for all the stars
Shimmer, watching from afar,
And angels will watch you and smile with delight As you sleep all through the night.
Edward slept in the chair that night, with Jonathan softly snuffling in his arms. In my new, spectral form, I could not sleep, but was content to watch my family, and stay with them.
Three years passed, and Jonathan grew into a beautiful young boy, with Edward’s bright blue eyes and my soft brown hair. The maids adored him, and Edward doted on him. We would sit together on the floor and play, and Jonathan seemed to feel my presence with him, just as Edward did. Sometimes a maid would happen upon Edward speaking to me and back away to gossip, but they did not bother us. We were the perfect family.
That winter, after his third birthday, Jonathan became terribly ill. His fever ran high and beads of sweat ran off his little head and Edward cried for him. The coughing was the worst part. I could not hold my baby in my arms and tell him it would all be alright, but only stand and watch as he coughed up blood and mucus. His plump little body became emaciated and his face sallowed with sickness. The doctor told Edward it was too late to save him, and all they could do was make his passing comfortable. He wept all night, holding my sweet baby’s hand, and when he cried, he called him Joanna.
I wondered if my baby would join me in the next life, and that I might finally be able to touch him. I had seen other spirits in this realm, the ghost of the gardener’s boy that was crushed by a falling tree, the spectre of the old man who had lived here before us and passed in his sleep, but not many. I had spoken to them once or twice, but one by one they left me. The old man was first, he moved on not a month after I had come to this world, and the gardener’s boy left when his father died, after a terrible force caused his heart to stop. I was alone on this side of reality.
I suppose it was selfish to wish this upon Edward, but it was such a lonely existence. I never wished for Jonathan’s death, but it came sure enough. He’d been sick for so long, it was almost a relief when he finally passed. I could see it in Edward’s eyes, behind the pain of his loss. He held my baby’s hand so tight it was almost impossible for the doctor to move him away, then he locked himself in our chamber, weeping uncontrollably.
I wept too. I had lost my only son. Never again would I see him laughing with Edward or squirming on the maid’s lap, and still he did not come to me in the next life. I waited for days, but he never appeared. I felt the pain of loss in full force, he was truly gone, snatched away from me forever. I screamed and howled, and the sorrow turned to fury, giving me the strength to fling vases from their places, smash mirrors and throw open doors in my mad search for my son. The maids were driven almost insane with fear and called for the priest to exorcise the house, but Edward would not allow him to take me away. We looked together, I in the spirit world and he in his dreams, and still there was no sign of Jonathan. Edward barely left his room, but sat in his bed and spoke to me, even when I was not in there with him. I suppose it brought him comfort not to be alone. But I was alone, and I was afraid of being so forever.
Many doctors came to see him, friends and even religious men, in the hopes of bringing him back to health. They told him “It does not do to dwell on dreams. We must all move on,” but my Edward refused. He expressed his fear to them, telling them I had stayed behind, but Jonathan had not returned to him. He asked if Jonathan was lost and afraid, or if it was I that was left behind. They only shook their heads at him. “Joanna isn’t here,” they would say, as I held his hand.
As my misery grew, I grew stronger with it. Rumour quickly spread around the town of hauntings in my home. The servants told their friends of things moving out of place, of doors opening and slamming shut of their own accord, candles blowing out without wind and my disembodied cries echoing throughout the house. One maid, a simple creature called Marianne, was dusting the mantelpiece one warm June night, and happened to glance into the mirror. Behind her, she saw my ghostly image, darkened with fury and loss, but when she turned, she could not see me. She quit that night. The cook was soon to follow, after I forced all the knives to hurl themselves at the wall near where he stood. I never intended to harm them, only to drive them away, so we could be alone, my husband and I. Those rumours they spread were toxic to him, and I knew that I must protect him. I had no idea that I was sealing my own fate.
A whole year passed, and every servant in the area refused to work for Edward in his haunted house. Jonathan still had not come home to me, so Edward and I would sit by the fire and wait, silently. With the meddlesome servants gone, I had no need to act out of fury, only to love my husband. He would read his books and I would sit in my chair and watch him, peaceful. When we were together, I felt safe once again, but when he slept, I felt fear and loneliness rush back to me like vomit rising in my throat, and once more I would tear the house apart and cry for Jonathan.
Edward hanged himself on the fifth anniversary of my death and Jonathan’s birth, from the chandelier in the dining room. I wonder if I truly tried to save him, or did I let him die so he could come to me. I can’t remember now, it has been so many years. No one had worked for my husband for such a long time, it was days before they found his corpse, rotting from the rafters.
Myth carried on our legacy for us. Many families moved in after Edward died, but none lasted very long. All left in a hurry, claiming of terrifying hauntings, of screaming and crying, of dark figures in the shadows. I was trapped in that house, and as my stories lived, so did I. Perhaps Edward and Jonathan were trapped there too – many families complained of hauntings I never performed, of a child laughing, of a man softly singing. Maybe they were with me, but inaccessible, or maybe the families had exaggerated their stories, but either way it drove me to anger. I wandered that house for hundreds of years trying to find my family, but I never saw them again.
I saw other spirits from time to time, as I had seen them before. I saw a little girl who had been run over by a cart, and a wife who had been beaten by her husband. I saw the gristly burns on the spectre of a baker who had died in a fire, and heard the crying of babies that were lost before they even learnt to talk. Some of them left much faster than others, as people began to forget them. The beaten wife disappeared one day, as her sister passed and her husband took a new wife to torment. The baker passed along with his wife, and the babies vanished when their mothers gave birth to new sons and daughters. But people did not forget me, in my haunted house all alone. My story was passed on from generation to generation, and my house became a cheap tourist attraction. Sometimes teenagers would break in through the servant’s quarters and dare each other to spend the night with me, or homeless men would take shelter from the wind and the rain.
They trapped me here, these stories. I realised soon I had sealed my fate, in my desperation to find my son and my husband, I had created a legend. People would always remember me, the mother who lost herself and her son, and who drove her husband to death. Other spirits only had to remain here while others grieved for them, but grieving for me ended with Edward. Nobody grieves for me now, but you never forgot me. And so we wander the house, together but apart, for perhaps an eternity, looking for each other and for our son. I grow tired of searching in vain, but I cannot cease to exist when others have cursed me to stay. Maybe Jonathan and Edward have moved on now, and it is only I that is stuck in this imitation-life. I might never know. All I want is to rest in peace with my family, but you keep me here, like an exhibit in some twisted zoo.
And so I cry here, alone forever, begging you to forget me.