Estimated reading time — 25 minutes
Written in the Style of M.R. James
By J. Bailey-Hartsel
Some time ago, I was asked by several former colleagues to tell them a ghost story. We had gathered for an evening of socializing, a small group of academics from my department at a small but formerly respectable liberal arts university in West Central Wisconsin. As such evenings go when a group of academics cluster around a table for a satisfying meal, we had been drinking wine and discussing the sad state of affairs in contemporary trends in education, literature and film. I will spare you the details of the conversation – people in my profession seem to feel they need to use all the words they know in the course of conversation, and department meetings with those of my ilk can run far longer than is truly necessary.
Suffice to say for the purposes of what I am about to relate to you, eventually the conversation took a darker turn – perhaps due to the season, as we were approaching the end of October. An associate professor I knew slightly began to bemoan the dearth of truly frightening narratives that had been a hallmark of the Romantic period. There were no longer Gothic tales regaling the reader of “things that go bump in the night”; no gloomy mysteries, no startling specters, no malicious supernatural forces imposing themselves upon sympathetic characters naïve in the darker dealings of death (as are all we the living truly naïve of such things).
I had been silent for some time (an unusual thing for an academic, but then I was known by my colleagues to be a person of quieter contemplations), when our newly elected Chair of the department asked me whether I knew of any truly frightening stories. In fact, I did, and due to perhaps one half glass of cabernet sauvignon too many, dared to say as much. All eyes turned to me.
“Tell us,” urged the bombastic professor to my right, a gentleman of considerable letters from an East Coast Ivy League college. “Is someone writing frightening fiction that I have not yet heard about?” His tone indicated that he found this fact rather difficult to believe. If that indeed was the case, he would be further disbelieving of the tale I could relate to the roundtable of academics before me.
“Not written,” I said slowly, tracing the rim of my wine glass with the tip of my finger, “something that was related to me this summer whilst on vacation.”
“Oh my,” chortled the Ivy Leaguer, “a real ghost story?” He glanced about the table, looking for matched reactions to my admission, and several faculty members, though not all, joined in with his forced mirth. For my part, I half-smiled and replied, “but aren’t all stories somewhat real? Certainly authors of such tales have some autobiographical reason to engage in such wild narratives.”
“Indeed,” replied the Chair, smiling at me in an encouraging way. “I’m very interested to hear what you have to say.” And so I told them, as I am about to tell you, the story of two naïve characters and their dogs.
I had returned to this beach on Wisconsin’s only peninsula for nearly 20 years. I rent the larger of three cottages on a quiet, narrow, lake side road each season in August. The cottage is simple and self-catering, and despite the sand carried in inevitably from the beach, is always clean and comfortable. However, last summer the cabin I normally rented was undergoing renovations to the roof and was unavailable for renting. In lieu of staying in the cottage I’d grown to love for it’s solitude, I opted to rent the smallest of the three for my fortnight stay.
The Firefly (for that was the name of the cabin) had always been visible to me from the west side of my usual rental. A one room cottage with a tiny kitchen and even tinier lavatory, it was nonetheless a pleasant place with a comfortable double bed, a picnic table in lieu of a dining table, and a small, working stone fireplace for colder nights. The décor was as rustic as the cottage. The furniture sported faded plaids, the windows red and white gingham check curtains and old photographs of the lake adorned the walls. One piece, however, stood out from the rest; the wall opposite the view of Lake Michigan held a round, convex and grotesquely ornate mirror, far too ripe with gilded vines and three chubby cherubs holding bows and arrows. The mirror hung from a ribbon of faded red velvet ribbon tied in a bow which draped either side of the glass, which was dark in places where the silver had warped and worn off the back. The owner, in handing me the key, stood to look at it with me.
“It’s ghastly, isn’t it?” she remarked, without a smile on her face. “We don’t know how it got here. A woman renting the cottage during my father’s time found it in the storm cellar, apparently.” Then she turned to me with a curious expression on her face and asked, “… do you like ghost stories?”
I was startled by the question which arose seemingly from nowhere, but replied that in my profession I could never turn down a good story, ghost stories (usually quite disappointing) notwithstanding. I retrieved a bottle of wine and we sat at the small picnic table, where she told me the following tale.
The cottages I had rented for nearly two decades were built near the turn of the century by the current owner’s grandfather and father. As a child, the woman’s father told her the cottages were built on top of an Indian burial site. She had grown up happily in the cottage that stood before a dense wood, had learned to swim in the lake, ride a bicycle on the narrow lane that separated the cottages from beach. Her father rented the two other cottages – the one in which I usually passed two weeks in August, and the other in which the owner and I were sitting. One year, when she was sixteen, a woman, newly widowed, came to spend a quite few weeks by the lake to calm and ready herself for a life alone. She brought with her as company her small dog – a Pekinese or some such thing – named Francesca. The dog was affectionate and adored her mistress, who in turn bestowed such fondness upon the tiny creature it was obvious that she had never had children of her own. To occupy her mind, she had determined to teach her small companion to swim in the lake. It was her to leash Francesca and draw her out further and further into the waters, until finally, with patience, the tiny dog would paddle happily around with her owner.
On her second night in the cottage, the sky broke open with incredible power, and the storm forced her to retreat to a small storm cellar which one accessed through at the back of the house with her dog. Whilst waiting out the storm with Francesca panting softly on her knees and only a kerosene lamp for light, the woman took stock of her surroundings. The cellar was dank and smelled of lake and must. Cobwebs hung thickly from the beams across the ceiling. Along with the old chair in which she sat, there were shelves stacked against one wall, a crate full of old, dusty children’s books and an item wrapped in a moth-eaten blanket leaning against the wall behind the stairs upon which she had descended. The woman set the dog on the dirt floor and more than the sake of boredom than curiosity, began to unwrap the dusty, decaying blanket using only two delicate fingertips. Outside, the storm gained strength and howled against the horizontal storm doors overhead. In the cellar, Francesca began to bark furiously as the blanket dropped away to reveal the same grossly overwrought mirror hanging now in the small cottage I’d rented.
Perhaps owing to the tastes of the time, or perhaps revealing a lapse of taste on the part of the widow, she opted to bring the mirror above ground and into the cottage once the storm had carried itself away. She retrieved a long red velvet ribbon from her cases, secured it to the mirror and hung the thing exactly where it still remains to this day. No dared move it following the events of that long ago August, and so it has been allowed to offend those with more tasteful sensibilities unabated; but since that fateful summer the mirror has apparently reflected nothing more than a strangely warped and blotchy view the rest of the cottage and the parcel of beach that can be seen through the building’s large front windows.
The owner of the cottages fell silent for a bit, until, thinking she’d lost her train of thought, I prompted her to continue. “If you’re suggesting that the mirror played some part in a tragedy,” I said at length, “I can hardly accept this on faith. It isn’t pleasant to look at, certainly, but that does not incriminate the object as having committed some sort of crime.”
The woman looked at me with some surprise. “Oh, it isn’t the mirror itself that is the issue,” she said slowly, as if explaining her story to a child, “It’s what appeared in the mirror that caused the – shall we say, “event”? – to occur.” Then she lapsed again into silence, glancing at the mirror from the corners of her eyes.
“And what precisely did the mirror reflect?” I asked more out of courtesy than curiosity. It was getting late and I had yet to have eaten my midday meal, and was anxious that she complete her story in a timely matter so that I could boil myself an egg or two and have my evening meal in comfortable solitude.
“Well, that’s just it,” the woman responded. “It didn’t reflect anything. It… well, it created an image, if you will. An image of a young man and a dog, walking in from the lake. My great-uncle, to be precise. Or at least, that’s what we were led to understand. It was, however, quite impossible that his image should appear. He and his dog drowned just after the turn of the century when he was just sixteen years old. They both died. Out there.” She turned and nodded toward the lake. “Just off the end of the canal where the lighthouse now stands. His little skiff went down in a storm.”
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand – how could this woman assume it was your great uncle she’d seen? It could have been anyone, with any dog. Or her own imagination.”
“No, no,” the woman said, and reached across the table and laid her hand on my arm, looking intently into my eyes. “No, she saw him. She described both him and the dog precisely – my father showed her a photograph and she nearly fainted. No, it was him. Come back from the other side some forty years after his death with his dog at his side.”
The morning following the storm, the widow awakened to the sounds of workmen in the yard. She dressed lightly in her swimming gear, preparing for a humid summer day and anticipating the cool waters of a lake reflecting a passively blue sky up to the horizon. She wandered outside with her usual morning cup of Earl Grey to survey the damage. Branches lay strewn across the grounds of the small cabin, and the workmen were busy at work dismembering the desiccated trunk of a long-dead blue spruce that had fallen dangerously close to the Firefly’s front door.
As she stepped daintily around the fallen bracken strewn across the small grass yard, the workmen glanced appreciatively at the woman carrying her small dog in her arms. She was comely for her age, with soft, lightly lined pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes that belied her Scandinavian roots. A tall and gracile woman, she carried herself with refinement and innate dignity but also with an openness of expression that indicated a woman who may have become used to the finer things of life without losing an instinctive gentleness of spirit that was the hallmark of her personality.
The foreman of the crew at work pushed his slouchy hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead with a red neckerchief. He held out a hand to help the lovely woman step over a fallen branch. “Mind the undertow, Ma’am,” he offered gallantly as she glided toward the beach with Francesca. “The lake is always a bit rough following a storm.” She smiled at him beautifully and thanked him with a slight and endearing nod, and continued on her way.
The beach grass swayed benignly against her ankles as she made her way through a soft dune to the rain-mottled beach, Francesca trotting happily beside her. They paused, the woman looking daintily away, whilst Francesca completed her morning business, then continued to the lake. The water lapped delicately at her feet whilst Francesca lapped delicately at the water. The lake beckoned, promising cool weightlessness, a floating and forgiving weightlessness free of the crashing weather from the night before. She moved further out into the waves which swayed against her ankles, then her calves, her knees and her finely muscled upper legs. Francesca, holding tightly at the far end of her leash, whimpered anxiously and paced back and forth with taught nervousness, wanting to be closer to her mistress but showing a marked resistance to the waters which seemed to draw the woman further and further out. The little dog sat on her haunches and panted as the woman, turning her back to the lake, pulled finally against the long lead. Francesca rose slightly, setting her surprisingly strong hind legs in resistance to the tugs. The widow tugged harder. Francesca resisted further, twisting her little neck and head against the pressure of her collar and.
“Come on, Francesca,” the woman called in deliberate soothing tones, assuring the small creature that all was well. The water swelled against the back of her thighs, forcing her to take a small and involuntary step back toward the beach. The leash loosened slightly and the little dog sat back down, her pink tongue pulsing with her pants. “’Cesca!” the woman finally called in sharper tones which were styled with the intention of a command which was not to be ignored. “Come!” The little dog clutched the beach sand deeper with damp paws and stood suddenly, barking madly. “Come here!” the woman ordered again, and was about to pull the leash far more firmly when suddenly a rogue wave which had been rising steadily behind her struck fast against the beautiful woman’s finely sculpted back and powerfully pushed her off her feet, forcing the breath out of her.
Francesca, the beach, the dune grass, the sky, the clouds, and the workers in the small yard disappeared suddenly as the widow was thrown forward and thrust beneath the waves of the first watery onslaught. The sounds of birds, the breeze, the workers dispatching the fallen branches and the small dog barking its warning were replaced with the muffled, subsurface roar of Lake Michigan recovering from the previous evenings severe storm.
Her footing gone, the woman suddenly found the sand floor of the lake beneath her hands and clutched at it helplessly before her body acted of its own accord. Her arms pushed firmly against the sand beneath her hands and tried to force her body upwards toward sunlight and air. Her face broke the surface and she managed one grateful gasp that partially filled her lungs. Her feet scrambled against the sand beneath her and she fought for her footing before the second wave suddenly crashed overhead and forced her back down beneath the waters.
Then, the undertow found her. She felt herself pushed forward and then sucked backwards with sudden force. The water seethed against her ears, filled her nose and then tossed her helplessly upward. Briefly, she saw the sky. She saw a confused blur of normal life continuing without her – workers hacking away at fallen limbs, birds calling sweetly, the breeze blowing her dog’s furious barking back toward her cottage – before another wave tossed her hopelessly forward, under and then back toward the lake’s distant horizon once again.
In a confused moment, the undertow felt like fingers clutching her ankles, her calves, her waist, her shoulders. Safety was either above her or beneath her – she couldn’t be sure. The strains of surface waters moving in opposite directions of the deep beneath it tossed her like a small stone. She felt the pressure of the lake pushing against her chest, filling her ears and nostrils. She felt the air moving upwards and out of her mouth, and the metallic taste of lake water and fish moved with oily slowness against her tongue. She struggled for what felt like an endlessly long moment against the waves, struggling to get footing against sand which slid infuriatingly away from her toes with every second that passed.
Suddenly, fingers stronger than the undertow that sought to draw her out to see grasped her upper arms. She felt hands beneath her arms and arms encircling her waist. She felt herself drawn suddenly and sharply forward and up as two men drew her up out of the water and her lungs burned as oxygen flooded her body. Lunging forward, the two workers who had finally turned at the furious sounds of barking and had seen her struggles dragged the widow out of the lake and up into calmer and shallower waters. All three fell against the shore gasping and crawling toward the other workers who had dropped their axes and saws rushed forward to help them all out of the lake.
On her knees, her hands gratefully gripping solid land, the woman vomited weak streams of lake water which ran from her lungs and up her throat to pour out her mouth and nose onto the wet sands beneath her. The widow was distantly aware of shouting, calling, asking her questions. She felt the warm, soft tongue of Francesca against her face, and pulled the trembling dog close in her arms, the damp leash tangling around her wrists and the dog’s fur hot against her hands. Opening her eyes finally, still panting and coughing for plentiful air, she looked up at the beach, the trees blowing in the summer breeze, the workers still rushing forward to help, the clouds like soft white sleep against the sky, and then blissful darkness.
The widow spent the rest of that day lying in beautifully artistic repose against soft pillows in her cottage’s double feather bed, Francesca sleeping peacefully curled beneath her mistresses’ right arm. She was gloriously pale, which only served to accent the blue of her eyes and dusky pink lips. She was a gracious and elegant invalid, nearly regal in the way she received visitors who either expressed sincere regrets and brought nourishing soups, or visitors who merely wanted to take some small part in the near-drama that had occurred just off the beach on the small, private road that shared a narrow and sandy earthly space with Lake Michigan.
Once the respectable time for sick-bed visits to occur had ended, the woman rose slowly, disturbing (however stylishly) her small dog’s slumber, and went to survey the damage to her beautiful face and her long, blonde hair which had curled prettily from the lake waters and the day’s humidity. She stood before the grotesque mirror she had retrieved from the storm cellar and slowly wound her hair into a soft coif atop the crown of her finely formed head. She glanced away for a moment to locate several bobby-pins, and when she looked up again she gasped in astonishment, her eyes wide and frightened. There, in the mirror, were two shadowy and indistinct figures moving forward from what appeared to be some distance like mirages that appear above hot sands, their outlines shimmered slightly at the edges, making them appear as ghastly shape shifters must to superstitious people who believed in things such as vampyres and werewolves, ghosts and daemons. The first figure was human in form, the second much shorter, reaching only to its companion’s waist (if such atrocities sported waists) and appeared to be crawling on all fours.
Alarmed, she spun round, one hand still securing her hair atop her head, the other holding out a u-shaped bobby-pin as if it were an effective weapon against anything other than stray locks.
There was nothing behind her. Slowly, her breath and body trembling, she turned back to the mirror and saw her own eyes staring back at her in wild alarm. And there, on the right hand side of the glass, was simply reflected the candlelight room, the front windows framing an evening sky, the lake beyond washing purple in the dying light of day.
With shaking fingers, she bravely arranged her hair with careful precision, smoothed her lace robe and pinched her cheeks to bring color to her face all whilst staring wide-eyed at her reflection in the fearsome mirror. The candlelight played garishly upon the surface of the gild covering the leaves and figures on the overwrought frame. The cherubs appeared to smirk with mordant humor, pointing poison-tipped arrows into the glasses’ depths and aimed directly at her heart. She backed slowly away from the mirror, the candlelight forming attractive hollows in her face, making her cheekbones stand out and her startled blue eyes to spark in the fading light. Francesca whined for attention and dinner, breaking the woman’s fascination with the mirror and gave her something else to focus on besides her strange hallucination. Nonetheless, when she went to bed that night she sat with her back against the headboard, her knees and blankets drawn up, her little dog cuddled protectively in her arms. She sat as such for hours until the extraordinarily stressful day finally exhausted her once again, and she slept fitfully until dawn.
The next morning dawned clean, cool and damp. The Widow woke as the very fingertips of light found their way from the horizon across the lake, along the beach and up across to smudge themselves along the woman’s face. She could hear the faint “shush” of a gentle surf at a distance, and turned on her side restlessly before finally opening her eyes. Accustomed as she was to having Francesca curled in upon herself atop a tufted, violet-velvet pillow the Widow kept on the mattress next to her, she was startled to find the dog’s cushion empty. She raised herself on one elbow.
“’Cesca?” She waited. There were no sounds of tiny nails scrabbling along the cabin’s wood floor, no soft jingle of the dog’s nametag playing against her collar hook. “Francesca!” the Widow called out rather more loudly than she expected to, and she sat up fully in bed, slightly wild-eyed, the fears of the evening before still gripping her imagination.
A soft, groaning exhale came from low beneath the foot of the bed. Gathering the skirts of her white cotton nightgown around her legs, the Widow crept slowly forward on the mattress on all fours, trembling, and then cautiously peered over the bed’s edge. Her mind manufactured all sundry of horrible sights – Francesca bloody and mauled, Francesca fighting for her breath, Francesca in the grips of some wild animal that had found its way in during the night – in all scenarios, Francesca at the foot of the bed, fighting for her life.
But there Francesca sat quite still and upright on the floor between the bed and the fireplace, staring fixedly up at the gaudy gilt mirror. “Bad girl,” the Widow exhaled without any heat nor anger. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?” Francesca didn’t seem to hear her at all, in fact, but sat rigid, slightly shaking with some sort of internal intensity, her little eyes fixed on the mirror over the fireplace mantel.
With growing apprehension, the Widow found herself raising her eyes to the mirror.
The glass glowed with the reflective glory of a beautiful dawn. The sun, giant on the horizon, burned brilliantly, throwing up flames of orange, red and gold toward the sky and across the lake to the beach. The waters of Lake Michigan lay quietly in its bed this fine morning and blushed softly with the mirrored magnificence of the sunrise, as if embarrassed by its behavior of the previous day. A bevy of early morning fishing boats seeking the best catches steamed out from the canal and passed by as shadows all along the horizon. In the middle distance, an early morning swimmer emerged slowly from the waves toward shore. A soft breeze tossed the dune grasses gently, shaking early day dew from the blades of green and amber, and drawing brief but diamond sparkling sun showers from the leaves of Quaking Aspens.
Daybreak has a magical ability to chase away night terrors. All things that habitually skulked through the dark of night vanished in the face of the sun. The Widow stood transfixed at the mirror, watching life resume its business with seemingly no sense of any scars of fright one may have incurred the night before. It calmed her, filled with both hope and a sense of wellbeing that comes when a dark fear goes unrealized and renders itself ridiculous in the light of day. She stood next to her dog, both gazing at the mirror, watching the swimmer emerge slowly from the surf. Backlit by the light, the silhouetted swimmer appeared to be towing something at the end of a rope. The closer it came to shore, the more it became obvious the swimmer was a boy or a young girl, thin and athletic in outline, the rope a tight line between it’s hand and whatever was tethered to it. Enthralled by the idyll before her, the Widow watched the reflection of boats passing peacefully into the distance as the sun rose higher, the light now touching the horizon with the briefest of kisses. The swimmer had won the shore, and paused on the beach to allow what was now obviously a dog to vigorously shake the waters from its fur.
Francesca growled softly, her brown eyes wide, her body trembling with stress. The Widow, too engaged in the pastoral before her to notice, followed the swimmer’s ascent from the water to the beach, from the beach through the dune grasses, past the Quaking Aspens and toward the road. The little dog’s growls became low yips which quickly turned to a salvo of frantic yelping. The dog then leaped to its feet to brace herself against the ferocity of her own barking.
Broken from her reverie, the Widow turned her head to frown at the little dog for the briefest of moments, annoyed that her pygmy companion had broken her blissful morning reverie. Then, turning instinctively back toward the mirror in which lay a likeness of peace and tranquility, she felt her breath stop in her throat and her heart leap violently. Reflected in the mirror was the front room of the cabin, framing within it the door to the place. Just outside the door on the stone step, both dripping with lake water, were the shadowy figures of a young man and his dog. Staring in horror, knowing somewhere deep in her bones that there was no way the early swimmer could have breached the distance between shore and door in a mere moment, she watched in horror as the boy raised a spectral hand to knock and acquire entrance into the cabin. Reeling about in fear and confusion, Francesca’s warning barks echoing in her ears, the woman’s gaze swung to the front door.
There was no one there. Just the empty front step, beyond that the tiny road, the dune grasses, the Quaking Aspens, the beach, the lake, the fading glory of a dying dawn that heralds the burning promise of a bright day, and the fishing boats slipping into invisibility beyond the horizon as if they had never existed.
Bending down with trembling hands the Widow pulled Francesca up into her arms and backed away around the edge of the bed, away from both the mirror and front door, and, sitting suddenly on the wooden floor, pushed herself against a far wall, between the bed and the dresser, her breath scraping as best it could from beneath her pounding heart. Francesca squirmed frantically in her mistress’ arms, pushing with whatever might a small dog has against the Widow’s chest and belly to be free. Finally freeing herself, the dog ran back around the end of the bed to stand and savagely snarl and bark at the mirror.
From her place on the floor, the woman stared in abject terror up at the ghastly mirror, grabbing with some vague but irrational instinct at her bedsheets. The shawl she wore to warm her shoulders when she read at night propped up against bed pillows fell with a soft, silky hiss into her lap. It had been a wedding gift from her husband, a man she had not truly loved but had endlessly respected. He’d proven himself a good man and a decent husband, had provided for her and had indulged his beautiful young wife with both wisdom and whim. The memory of him, coming unbidden, gave her some brief relief from her terror. Grasping her shawl with sudden firm resolute, the Widow forced herself to her feet and raced across the short distance from bed to wall to fling the shawl over the face of the mirror.
The small cabin was filled with a sudden, soft silence. Francesca, her barking instantly stopped with the veiling of the mirror, sat down once again with her tiny ears pricked and her small head cocked to one side as she gazed up at the Widow. Beyond the silence of her immediate surroundings, she heard once again the gentle passes of waves moving back and forth upon the shore and the rustle of leaves in the gentle breeze. She stood, panting, one place delicate hand pressed against her breast to stop the pounding of her heart, and waited for her mind to calm itself. She was only certain of one thing; she had to get out of the cabin and away from the veiled mirror. Perhaps another cabin in the small resort stood empty. Perhaps she could rapidly pack and leave her vacation early. Perhaps… perhaps….
First things first. She and Francesca needed to flee the small bungalow. The back door of the cabin through which she had escaped with Francesca the night of the storm was not reflected in the mirror, and therefore she considered it “safe.” She could dress, leash the dog, and escape quickly out that door without any fear of passing before the fireplace or the veiled mirror suspended above it.
Crawling on her hands and knees, she crept from her place beside the bed and into the small kitchen, then reached up, unlatched and opened the inner door, then hesitated. Francesca had run off twice before since the Widow had owned her, and both occasions had been heart-rendering until the little dog was back in her arms. Knowing the dog would run out at any opportunity afforded it, the Widow allowed the screen door to remain latched at the last moment. She then turned about, still on all fours, and crawled back to the comparative safety of the narrow space between bed and dresser.
Rising slowly, shakily, she yanked open drawers and dove her hands into the dresser, dressing herself hurriedly and with much less care than she generally prepared herself for any given day. She donned a top that didn’t quite match the skirt she’d yanked from a drawer. She buttoned the blouse rapidly, wrongly, and found herself nearly rending buttons from the cotton fabric in trying to get the thing on correctly. Finally, she drew on slippers rather than her shoes which were lying further away, and reached behind herself for Francesca’s leash, which she every night she hung on a peg near the top of the bed.
It wasn’t there.
Appalled, her breath escaped in one giant rush and, dizzy, she dropped instantly to her knees. Panting, her heart still throbbing painfully, she nervously looked beneath the bed only to find fine balls of dust and a pen that had dropped from the nightstand and rolled against the wall. She frantically searched beneath and behind the nightstand nearest her, then rose and frantically tore the blankets from the bed, sent clothes from dresser drawers flying, cast about helplessly on the floor beneath the dresser and under the blanket chest. Nothing. Raising herself to a kneeling position, she cast a furtive glance toward the mirror.
And there it was. In her haste to cover the damnable thing, she had somehow tangled the leash in her shawl and had tossed both over the glass one and one together. The braided leather leash drooped where it had caught about the head of a chuckling cherub near the top of the frame toward the fireplace beneath it, the silver clasp dangling over the edge of the mantel.
There were most like at least half a dozen ways the Widow could have retrieved her pet and carried both it and herself to safety, but a mind in turmoil is a labyrinth of intellectual failings and loss of common sense. At this moment, everything depended upon the braided leash capped with a silver clasp dangling from the veiled mirror. Even the shawl, the very thing which had brought memories of her husband which had allowed her the strength to place a flimsy silk barrier between herself and the loss of her very sanity would have to remain behind. All she wanted was safe escape for herself and Francesca. And she would do anything for the tiny dog that had taken the place of all the children she would never have.
With aching slowness, the Widow crawled round the end of the bed and approached the fireplace. Francesca danced backwards a few steps then lowered her front legs and raised her back end in the air, thinking play was in the offering. Ignoring her dog for the moment, the Widow raised her hand up to the mantel which thankfully, from her low vantage point, hid the mirror from her view. Her fingers, reaching, found the silver clasp and then gripped it firmly. With a thankful sigh, the Widow pulled on the clasp to bring the leash down to the floor. A blissful few inches of the leash slipped further into her grasp, the stopped. She tugged. The leash held tight, caught firmly by the frame as if some fat, gilded baby held it tight in its chubby little hand.
The Widow’s eyes filled with tears. Wiping angrily at them with her free hand, the woman gave a single firm tug to try and free the leash from the clutches of the frame. The mirror, in response, leant dangerously forward. To pull any harder would most likely mean pulling the entirety of the heavy monstrosity down upon her head. Suddenly sobbing, the Widow turned and leant her back against the stone side of the fireplace, and gave herself over to sorrow.
It was not an emotion she was unused to. It arose in her soul from loss – the loss of her father at an early age. The loss of her mother’s attentions and affection as she watched her drift further into the dark grief of her own widowhood. The loss of a much loved betrothed in the Great War. The loss of one child, then another, before she was informed of her inability to ever bear a son or a daughter to full term. All those losses leading to a hardness within her which then sought comfort in more concrete terms – she had found solace, finally, in the good reputation of her husband and the money and prestige they afforded her through what she’d always considered a loveless marriage. She’d learned to find peace in a doting husband besotted with the beautiful girl who had agreed to marry him. She acquired a bounty of beautiful clothes, expensive jewels, and enjoyed (as much as she was able) epically long journeys to Europe, extravagant meals boasting flesh of fowel and beast and bounties from the sea and prided herself in the beautifully turned-out Victorian home which boasted more bedrooms than it could ever fill. All of them cold comforts, now. Now, faced with the terror before her, the fear of the immediate loss of her mind drove her deeper into darkness where she feared she would meet the spectre of her own mother in her darkest days – unwashed and unchanged for days, hair disheveled, eyes wild and wide and at the same time sightless to what was directly before her, the images her mother saw coming only from deep within the dark void that comprised her grief.
The image of her own mother’s unspeakable grief internal torture brought within her some steel of reserve to save herself from any more loss. She would not lose Francesca. She would not lose her own mind. She would not lose her will to live. She reached behind herself and pressed her hands against the solid stone of the fireplace. Pushing herself thus to her feet, she stood for a moment, still, straight backed and stern, facing away from the thing of her dread until her tears stopped. Those that remained she uncharacteristically wiped away on the sleeves of her blouse. Then she turned with fierce determination to face the veiled mirror, and then moved with glycerine slowness to pull the leash down from its height.
The shawl she had cast over it was billowing as curtains hung before an open window on a breezy day. From behind the blowing veil she could hear the surf Lake Michigan, louder than it should have been given her albeit short distance to the thing itself. She could smell the fishiness lakeness in the breeze as it blustered out from the mirror. She could feel its breath upon her face, feel it blow back the auburn curls of her hair. But steeled as she was against Loss, she nonetheless reached out away from her fear and sought to pull the leash from the mirror’s frame.
The breeze from the mirror lifted a corner of her shawl, and as she reached out toward the thing, she glimpsed for the merest moment a hand likewise reaching out for her. Before she could react, the hand left the confines of the mirror and reached into her reality, where it gripped her wrist firmly, then grappled hungrily for her forearm where it wrapped it’s fingers tightly about her flesh and bone like a person will apply a deathly grip even to its rescuer to save itself from drowning. Francesca barked before shrieking once in fear or pain (or both), and then all was silence save for the soft , motherly “shush” of waves upon sand.
I fell as silent as my colleagues gathered around the table with me. After a pause, my department chair asked, “…But is that all there is?” “Yes,” responded another colleague, “what happens next?” “Surely,” said another, “one cannot end a story there. What became of the woman? The mirror? The little dog, for God’s sake?”
“Ach,” said my bombastic male colleage, stabbing his fork into his dessert, “Chihuahas. If that’d been my dog, I’d have shot it in the pooper.”
“It wasn’t a Chihuaha,” someone corrected him, “it was a Pomeranian.” “No,” replied someone else, “a Toy Poodle.”
“Irrelevant!” my male colleague replied, downing the last quarter of his port in one gulp of gusto. “It was a dog. That is the fact. The type of dog is the fiction. All ghost stories contain more of the latter than the former.”
“But surely,” one of our newer faculty replied, “one must accept that all fiction contains within it at least kernels of reality. Should we not as academics at least consider that this story offered to us tonight,” here he nodded toward me, “carries with it at least the possibility of truth? Might it not be possible that things could happen?”
“Possible!” the bombastic male responded, “but not probable, my dear boy. You must learn that difference at once. Truth is not fiction, nor vice versa. Here are truths for you – dogs exist. Mirrors exist. Fragile females exist. Lake Michigan, most certainly, exists. The rest? …” and then he let his sentence trail off, waving his hand in the air as if he were shooing away at a noisome gnat.
After this brief exchange in relation to my tale, talk turned again to academia – to curriculums and assessments and quite dull things the likes of which I shall not bore you with here. I remained silent, drank my coffee and ate the remainder of a rather fine vanilla pumpkin custard that I had ordered for my own (shall we say “just”?) dessert.
Upon leaving, as I was buttoning my coat and chatting aimlessly with my Department Chair, she leaned forward suddenly and peered at my necklace. “Now, that’s a pretty thing,” she murmured. I wore a small, braided silver chain upon which hung a disk of beveled sterling with the initial “F” set in fine, pave diamonds. She took the disk between to fingers to admire it more closely.
“It was my great-aunt’s,” I told her, “left to me when she passed long before I was born. Her name was Finnula. I was named for her.” “Well,” my chair replied, tightening her scarf whilst staring at the pendant, “it’s beautiful. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.”
The first snow of the year had begun to fall whilst we were gathered at table. It’s not unusual for this part of the country to see frost and snow long before others ever do. I walked into the night and took a private moment at the corner to gather my thoughts. When it snows at night and one has the opportunity to look up at the sky from beneath a streetlight, it seems as though the sky does not exist and the snow falls from eternity itself. I thought about what I’d related at the table and also those things I did not relate. I thought about whether I regretted leaving out parts of the tale while embellishing other things to obscure what my colleagues considered, “Truth.”
Instinctively, from long practice, I gently took the pendant around my neck and set it inside my blouse, where it lay cold as ice, waiting to warm against my skin. My fingers slipped into the placket of my shirt, I traced the diamond “F” with my fingertip, glad I had not turned the pendant around. On the backside of the shiny silver disc is engraved in sweet scrollwork letters a single word: “Francesca.”
Credit: J. Bailey-Hartsel