She had been a beautiful child. This fact alone made it all the more puzzling that there existed but one photograph of her, and that one in black and white.
She may be five in the picture, certainly not much older as she died before seven, of an accident I was told. And I shudder when I think that such a beautiful child could have died in that manner.
In the photo she is wearing a cotton dress, not an Easter dress adorned with frills, ruffles and ribbons, but a simple dress with a vague pattern one would be hard pressed to define as checks or stripes as they were faint and unremarkable.
She stands in a corner, nothing on the walls save blank expanse. As if the anonymous photographer wanted nothing to distract from the delicacy of her features, the fineness of her pale hair, as a ray of light plays across the tableau giving it a sparkling quality and her face an ethereal glow.
I barely recall her, as I was about the same age, maybe a bit older, and we had only visited Aunt Meg once. I have been told that I was quite smitten with her. And as I stared at her picture, some twenty-five years later, I found myself smitten again. I felt the remorse of having lost one I had hardly found.
Her’s a face I have seen many times, in dreams, and in nightmares, ones I cannot quite interpret.
In waking I will sometimes see her holding the hand of a mother or playing with other children in the park playground, on the swing set or slide. But it is never her; it is a phantom reflection of the image of the face in the photograph.
Her name was Marylin, or so I have been told.
I drove to Swallow Falls because I was the last relative of Aunt Meg and had been named, by her, to be executor of the estate. I had not been to the funeral, and was unaware of her death until the attorney called and notified me of my… responsibility.
I pled ignorance of such things, but she assured me there was little for me to do, that I would merely accompany her through the house to ensure that everything had been accounted for in the inventory of Aunt Meg’s personal property. It would be easy enough to verify the financial assets as they were greatly depleted over the years; Aunt Meg had become something of a recluse, infamous to the residents of Swallow Falls.
I arrived at the house before noon. It was a big house, Victorian, set on a hill overlooking the town proper, which nestled in a picturesque valley filled with oak, hickory and maple trees, now in the last stages of their fall display. The sky above was filled with bilious dark clouds, twisting in the most odd contortions from the wind.
Aunt Meg’s house was sadly in disrepair. I could imagine the town residents looking up and seeing it perched on the hill as if it were some ominous blight on the otherwise beautiful landscape.
Shutters hung at angles. The ornate railing about the front porch was marred by several broken spindles while missing a few others. The porch itself sagged in spots, at one end looking as if it just might collapse, and the roof was missing shingles, especially on the turreted cupola on the east side of the second floor. It was impossible to tell how long ago, if ever, the house had been painted and in what color it might have been, as there was not a trace, not a flake remaining, only dark grey, sometimes splintering, weathered wood.
Still, I could see appeal for those inclined to restore it. With money, and sweat equity, the house could be inviting, instead of the haunted manse that I remembered from my childhood, that impression amplified considerably by the passage of time.
I climbed the crumbling front steps, which led to a crumbling walkway, which led to the cracking wooden steps of the front porch. There was not another vehicle in sight, or another house, and as the chill autumn air blew through the trees, sending coveys of dead brown leaves into flight, I could not help but shiver, glad I was not meeting the attorney at night.
As I neared the porch steps, I saw the front wheel of a tricycle sticking out from a hole in the lattice work that closed in the area under the porch.
The tricycle was dark brown with rust, the rust spotted handlebars turned sideways, one tattered pink streamer writhed more than fluttered from the end of the now decaying plastic handle. Stubs of other pink streamers stuck out like the tips of box cutter blades beneath the twisting one.
Had that been her trike? Left there since the accident? The faithful hound keeping steadfast vigil for the master who would never return?
I did not like it here, and was desirous to abandon my role as executor. Let it all be sold with proceeds given to the state. I wanted nothing from an Aunt I barely knew nor who seemed much to care about contacting me while still living. I recall no communication between her and my mother, her sister. No phone calls, no correspondence, not even a “Merry Christmas” card, and yet they lived a mere 42 miles from one another. What had caused the rift between them? We had visited once, but never again.
Why should I participate in the grave inconvenience of settling her estate, cleaning up the untidy ends of her isolated and pathetic life, when she had not once sent me a card or birthday present?
As I turned to storm off, I was startled by the sudden screech of the front door opening. I turned, and was transfixed.
She was beautiful, stepping out from the doorway with a smile as radiant as her long golden hair, parted slightly to the side so that a whisp of bangs caressed her forehead and stroked her cheeks as she walked.
She appeared to be in her late twenties, wearing a dark grey woolen winter coat, with a fuzzy white scarf wrapped about her neck, accentuating the softness of her complexion. Her bright blue eyes mirrored the welcoming smile of her full red lips.
“You must be Peter,” she said, and I confess that even as she spoke that brief phrase, it seemed as if the music of her voice had somehow removed the chill from the autumn air.
“Yes,” I replied, too dumbstruck to say more.
“I am Evelyn, your Aunt’s attorney,” she said. I further confess that I have always found the pronunciation of “Aunt” as “Ahnt” to be annoyingly haughty, yet from her it seemed positively charming.
I stepped up to meet her, extending my hand, but she had turned and with a merry, “Well, then let’s get started,” had reentered the house.
I followed her in, but could see little. Though I had not stepped from brilliant sunshine, the interior was as dark as a tomb. I fumbled about for a light switch.
“It would not do you much good if you located the switch,” she said. “I was told the electricity has been switched off for decades. I believe she preferred it dark.”
“Have you a flashlight?” I asked.
“Alas, …” Her words trailed off as she patted her pockets.
“Well, perhaps in your car?”
“I was dropped off.”
“Then how am I to perform the inventory?”
“Just let your eyes become accustomed to the dark,” she said. “Close the door behind you to make it darker and speed up the process.”
I did as she instructed, and smiled slightly to myself. There are far worse things than being alone, in the dark, with an incredibly beautiful woman. I wondered and thrilled speculating how her musical voice would sound whispering close to my ear, her breath riffling across the tiny hairs.
“Why are you smiling?” she asked.
That surprised me. Her eyes were as keen as her voice lyrical. I turned to where I thought I was facing her and dimly could make out her pale grey form.
“Nostalgia. Remembering the last time I was here.”
“Oh, so you remember being here?”
“It was a long time ago, but yes I remember. I remember quite well actually.”
“What do you remember best?”
“… Hadn’t we better begin the inventory?”
“Your smile made me think you recalled a fond memory. As I have become more familiar with the place, I find it hard to imagine this house ever instilling fond memories. It seems to me to be a house filled with nothing but tragedy, sorrow and pain.”
I felt suddenly deflated, my shoulders hunched forward; the air had become oppressive.
As my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, I noticed stray rays from outside had shined through the beveled glass of the side door windows to create little diamonds of light on the far wall.
She walked through them, toward me, turning right to enter through the open sliding doors of the living room.
“This way,” she said. “Most of your Aunt’s earthly goods have been assembled in here.”
I followed her, and as I entered, she pulled aside the heavy drapes covering the room’s windows. It did little to add to the light, as the windows were speckled with the accumulated dirt of years.
I picked up the prepared inventory, and began comparing it with the items on display.
Aunt Meg’s possessions were limited: some vacation souvenirs from Atlantic City, Wildwood, New Jersey, Coney Island, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a pile of magazines, all of them quite old, Clown figurines, a ceramic ballerina as well as a cartoon-like bear cub sculpted from coal with one glued on clear resin eye inside of which a black paper pupil rocked back and forth when jostled. The other eye was missing.
I failed to see why any of the items would hold value enough to be catalogued. Thus it proceeded as we went from room to room where it seemed that only sadly out-of-date furniture remained.
When we came to Aunt Meg’s room upstairs, I saw the photograph. It sat in the middle of the otherwise barren dresser-top. The frame had not been allowed to gather dust. It was, in fact, the brightest item I had seen thus far. The dresser was opposite the foot of Aunt Meg’s bed and the photo could be seen from nearly every angle in the room.
“I understand that was her daughter,” Evelyn said.
“Yes.”
“She was a lovely child.”
“Very.”
“What happened to her?”
“… An accident, I was told.”
“An accident?” she said. “What sort of accident?”
“I really don’t know.”
“Why don’t you?”
“My mother never spoke of it.”
“And you didn’t ask?”
“… I suppose not,” I replied. “People sometimes find it difficult to speak of the dead.”
“I imagine so,” she said. “Still, I find it very curious.”
“Curious?”
She nodded and left the room. I followed.
We entered the next upstairs room, right beside my Aunt’s. Where the rest of the house was barren, cold and lifeless, this room appeared to be a carefully preserved museum. Ample light came through the sparkling windows revealing all that my Aunt had held dear.
The drastic change in atmosphere had a profound effect upon me, and I found it hard to remain in the room. But Evelyn was blocking my way, and asked, “Are you all right?”
“Something, … perhaps the air, or the drive; the road up here was quite windy, and I think I took it too fast. I feel … ill. Can we complete this at another time?”
“But this is the last of it,” she said. “Seems rather silly to have you come all the way back out here when we could be finished in fifteen minutes.”
I closed my eyes, and steadied myself. It had to be the air in this room. The other rooms had smelled of dust and mold. Here the air was fresh. Perhaps that was it. Not the air in this room, but the air in the others. The accumulated inhalations were now wreaking havoc on my system. The freshness of the air in this room had made me dizzy, akin to hyperventilating before plunging below the surface to see how long you can remain underwater.
Of course she was right. Complete the inventory, get the damn thing over with and never have to deal with it again. Never.
I turned and rapidly ticked off the items on the list. A stuffed fur-covered pony on wheels with a bright red saddle and reins, some picture books, boxes of fingerpaints and watercolors, an assortment of dolls with various bits of clothing and matching shoes, a plethora of hair accessories and barrettes with stripes, stars, glitter, rhinestones, some with strands of faint blond hair clinging.
Hurry, get this over with, I told myself. I became convinced that I was coming down with something; I would certainly be missing work the next few days. Perhaps some draught of some calming liquid; I could pick it up in town. In Swallow Falls, yes.
Surely it was the oppressive air of the house to which my constitution was rebelling. Had fifteen minutes not passed?
I tore open the dresser drawers quickly counting and checking off fuzzy woolen socks, undergarments covered with prints of cartoon bears, birds and pandas. There were windmill covered flannel pajamas, and darling little pink nightgowns with raised embroidery. Turning to the closet I quickly checked off the coats, shoes, a variety of dresses until I came to the last dress.
It was the dress she wore in the photograph. In this light, I could clearly see that the dress contained a faint check pattern.
“I believe that’s it then,” she said.
I continued to stare at the dress.
“Satisfied everything’s accounted for?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then let’s head back.”
Gladly, I turned and left the closet. Eagerly, I followed her downstairs. Gratefully, I stepped out onto the front porch while she locked the door of the house behind me.
I stood for a moment, looking down into Swallow Falls. She came up beside me.
“I must say, it is good to get back outside,” she said. “I can completely understand how the air in there could have an effect like that upon you.”
“I’m … I’m O.K.,” I replied. “It was nothing. Guess I’m getting old.”
“Oh, look at that,” she said, “We finished much earlier than I thought we would. I should have known better. There really wasn’t much. Your Aunt seemed to have stopped acquiring at a certain point in her life.”
“I suppose so.”
“Her life ceased well before she died.”
I pulled my coat closer as a gust of wind blew across the porch.
“Anyway, my ride hasn’t shown up. Won’t for some time yet.”
“I’ll … I’ll give you a lift into town.”
“No, that’s too much trouble. If you turn that way you can go straight to the interstate and avoid town completely.”
“It’s no trouble, I assure you.”
“If you insist.”
She followed me to my car, parked by the crumbling stairs. The wind had picked up again, and the first smattering of rain began to randomly strike the gravel of the roadway and splat on the hood of my car.
I held the door for her and realized that I was overcoming my illness, for I once again began to smile over just how beautiful she was. After she sat in the passenger seat, she turned and caught my smile, which she returned, warming me from the inside.
As we drove back, I glanced over at her. In all this cold, the warmth she exuded glowed like a lantern in a window meant to guide a sea captain home.
“Better keep your eyes on the road,” she said with a smile.
I swerved. I’d forgotten that bend.
“You’re right,” I said, “This isn’t the best road to take your eyes from.”
“So true.”
“I even walked down it once,” I said.
“Really?”
“Yes, the one time I visited my Aunt Meg,” I said, smiling. “Funny, I hadn’t remembered it before, but my cousin Marylin and I walked down this road to go into town for candy. It was a big adventure, our mothers allowing us to do that.”
“Yes, mothers do worry about their children.”
“Do you have any?”
“No,” she replied, “I was never lucky enough to marry, have children.”
“Well, you’re young.”
“Yes.”
“You know,” I said cautiously, “I am suddenly very hungry. Would you like to have dinner with me?”
“That’s sweet,” she said, “But I don’t think I’d be very good company for that.”
“Why not?”
Avoiding my question, she asked, “Have you ever been forced to relive something again and again?”
“What do you mean?”
Her features hardened.
“Something you should have regretted, some act which caused others to suffer?”
“… No.”
All the softness had vanished from her lovely face.
“Perhaps attempting to force a kiss on someone, and when rebuffed, you pushed her, causing an … an accident?”
“What?”
“Always remember,” she whispered.
She grabbed the wheel and yanked. Before I could react the car had crashed through the guardrail and plummeted over the side of the hill. Spinning over and over, metal crunching and glass shattering. The door flew open, and I was flung from inside, airborne, flying uncontrollably, bouncing off jagged rocks, continuing to the craggy bottom. Experiencing the most excruciating pain I had ever known, bones cracked and splintered, and my rib cage collapsed.
I came to rest, sprawled broken on the wet rocks, dimly aware that in front of me was the cold crumpled body of the little girl in the photograph. Her neck twisted round, bent horribly at an impossible angle. A ray of sun poked through the clouds highlighting the gold of her hair, giving her face a fading ethereal glow. Her no longer brilliant blue eyes staring lifelessly at me.
Then I heard her musical voice, whispering in my ear, her breath blowing over the little hairs of my ear lobe, “We will spend time together. Again and again for eternity. I am Marylin.”
#
She had been a beautiful child. This fact alone made it all the more puzzling that there existed but one photograph of her, and that one in black and white.
She may be five in the picture, certainly not much older as she died before seven, of an accident I was told. And I shudder when I think that such a beautiful child could have died in that manner …
END