One evening after supper, my sister Rose announced that she had spoken with the man who had died in the cellar.
We’d recently moved into an old farmhouse in the village where my father had grown up. The twins, Rose and Eliza, had protested the move upstate. They cried to depart the bustle of Brooklyn, but my father insisted. He said that modern life was growing too fast around him. He refused to get a telephone, saying it was unnatural to have the disembodied voice of someone far away crackle to life in your parlor. He didn’t see the point when letters and telegrams were well enough. I suspected the move had as much to do with my mother’s death as it did with the changing world. Our old house was a constant reminder of her: the cream wallpaper she chose, her lace curtains, her porcelain figurines on the mantle. I suspected the pain of these daily reminders was too much for my father.
When my sister announced that she had spoken with a dead man, my aunt’s fork froze midway to her mouth, a roasted potato poised at the end of it. My father carefully folded his napkin, leaning in.
‘Rose, whatever do you mean?’ my aunt asked. I could see a look of fear pass across her eyes. She was a superstitious woman. Once we heard a dog barking all night long and the next morning she told me that someone in the village would die soon. I had seen her throw salt over her shoulder after she’d spilled some in the kitchen while making bread. She’d also told us that our new home was rumored to be haunted.
Rose continued. ‘I saw the old man who used to own this house. He was standing at the edge of my bed.’ Her voice shook and her eyes were fixed ahead, as if she was seeing the specter now over my aunt’s right shoulder.
‘I saw him too,’ Eliza chimed in. ‘He was carrying a hoe and wearing a blue cap.’
My aunt looked over at my father. ‘Frederick always wore a blue cap,’ she whispered. Then she looked at me. I could tell that she wanted a comforting voice to say that this was all malarkey. They were just silly children. I said nothing. Rose and Eliza made outrageous claims all the time. When they were six, they insisted they’d discovered a fairy ring in our backyard and asked me for raisins as an offering to the fairy queen. Though they were thirteen now, they’d never lost their taste for the fantastical.
‘The old farmer told us he was unhappy that we live here now,’ Rose continued. ‘He said that this was his house.’
Just then, we heard a crack. It sounded like the snap of a twig underfoot. Rose shut her eyes and looked like she was squeezing every muscle in her body. I instinctively stood, worried she was unwell.
Eliza held out a hand to stop me. ‘Don’t!’ she cried. ‘It’s him. He is speaking through her.’
‘Who?’ cried my aunt.
‘The farmer. Mr. McCray,’ Eliza said.
My aunt had known the old man. She told us that he had been a solitary person, never invited others up to his property, and one day he was found dead in the cellar, presumably of a failed heart. He was said to haunt the house, chasing away new occupants. Now she looked frantically around the room for him, as though he might materialize at any moment in one of the darkened corners. The candles sputtered in the center of our table. Rose kept her eyes closed.
‘Frederick, is that you?’ my aunt whispered.
‘Is that you?’ Eliza repeated.
‘Can you hear me?’
‘Can you hear her?’ Eliza asked.
My dad remained inscrutable, but never took his eyes off the twins.
Every time my aunt called his name, Eliza repeated it and the soft cracking sound came as a kind of response. I looked around for what might be causing the sound. Could it be an animal outside? I could see none on the front lawn.
Or could the twins have hidden something small and wooden beneath the table, or under their skirts, to emit the sound? But why do such a thing? To frighten my poor aunt into hysterics?
‘If you are truly the spirit of Frederick, how many apple trees did you plant in the fruit garden?’ my aunt asked.
Eliza repeated her question and then came the reply.
Crack. Crack. Crack.
My aunt’s eyes grew wide.
‘Three. Yes. Is it really you?’ my aunt asked the air. ‘Do you want us to leave? Make one noise for ‘yes’. Two for ‘no.’’
‘Dear God,’ my aunt whispered.
Then Rose collapsed onto the dining room table, panting, her cheek against the wood. She gasped for air as if she was emerging from underwater. My father carried her dutifully up to her bedroom and my aunt placed cool rags on her forehead.
The next night we had two of my aunt’s friends over to witness this strange phenomenon and give their advice on it. They tittered with excitement as the twins prepared to speak with the ghost again. The twins joined hands and Rose called into the dark, ‘Mr. McCray, are you there? We wish to speak with you now.’ And this time Eliza bowed her head, closed her eyes and began to shake a little.
My aunt’s friends looked excitedly around the room for the origin of the sound, but there was none. It seemed to come out of the air. They leaned forward in their chairs, tentatively asking questions of the spirit, which Rose repeated.
‘Do you remember me?’
‘Did you ever forgive my husband for stealing from your cornfield?’
‘Do you really want the Rivers family to move out of your house?’
The women confirmed for my aunt that the twins seemed to be genuine mediums, those able to communicate with the deceased. They told her that we should also think about moving, as soon as possible.
Then, groups of ten began gathering in our parlor. My sisters would sit around a table with the others facing them on sofas and chairs like some theatrical production. People soon requested to speak with their own relatives. My sisters asked that the lights be dimmed before they began. The ghosts preferred it. The glow of gas lamps frightened them away.
My aunt obliged. She rushed around in the dark like a busy stagehand. I stood in the doorway and watched as one sobbing woman from the village asked questions of her recently departed husband.
‘Robert, are you there?’
‘Do you know who I am?’
‘Should I allow our daughter to marry the Hughes’ boy?’
The woman nodded solemnly, as if this was the answer she was expecting all along. She thanked the twins profusely. Rose and Eliza nodded slowly, sagely.
They started wearing billowy white dresses and their hair in thick plaits that dangled down their pinafores like dark rope. I must admit that watching them holding hands at the parlor table in that dimly lit room made my stomach feel hollow. As the cracking sound rang out through the room, each time like the tick of a strange clock, I did indulge myself by thinking: perhaps. Perhaps the barrier between this world and the next was thinner than I’d imagined. Perhaps it was thin as a bridal veil.
After all, mankind had produced marvels. We could capture the image of a person in a small box using light. You could hold their photograph in your hands, a shadow version of them on a scrap of paper. Who knew what was possible?
And some moments, in the haze of early morning, I felt as if I heard my mother entering the room. I could almost smell her soap – lavender – and feel the air ruffle like the feathers of a bird. Her presence felt as real as the iron bed frame, as the cool cotton of the pillow.
I allowed myself to wish that my sisters’ act could be true. That they could tap on the walls between life and death and someone in the adjoining room could tap back.
After a séance one evening – for that is what my Aunt called them, ‘séances’ – I knocked on my sisters’ door. I found them both in their beds, surprised to see me there, hovering in the doorway.
When they were little, we would often gather together before bed and my mother would tell us ghost stories. Tales of haunted cemeteries or phantom carriages that rattled down the countryside with no drivers. She even read to us from Irving’s Sleepy Hollow. I liked leaning back on my pillow and listening to her speak. I let my mind wander to frightening places, but felt safe with her poised at the edge of my bed.
After these bedtime stories, my sisters would sometimes tug at my quilt in the middle of the night, asking if they would crawl into bed with me because they were too scared to sleep in their own room. I would wrap them up until only their pale faces peaked out, glowing like small moons, and they fell asleep on either side of me. We slept with the candles burning to keep the spirits away.
But much time had passed since then.
‘What do you want?’ asked Rose.
‘I must ask you something,’ I said, sitting on her bed. I didn’t know quite how to begin. ‘Do you truly believe that you can communicate with spirits?’
I wasn’t sure what I wanted her to say. Part of me wanted her to admit their guilt like naughty children. Part of me prayed they would insist on their powers.
Rose narrowed her eyes. I heard Eliza suck in her breath.
‘If you are pretending, that is a cruel thing to do. You are allowing those people to believe that they are speaking with their loved ones. This is not some game.’
‘You’re just jealous,’ Rose said.
‘You’re jealous because you can’t do it too,’ Eliza supplied the rest.
‘I’m not jealous. You’re deceiving people,’ I said. ‘I don’t know how, but you’re tricking them.’
Rose stared down at her quilt.
‘It’s not a trick,’ said Eliza quietly.
‘It is. If you tell me the truth, I will not reveal your secret,’ I said. ‘Do you remember when I found you two drinking father’s port in the cellar? I did not tell a soul.’
‘It’s real,’ said Rose. ‘We’ve spoken with mother.’
The room tilted. I gripped the bedpost, like it was a ship and I could be thrown overboard at any moment.
Questions flooded me. What would I ask mother, if I could? Did she see how well I ran the household? Cooked for father? How I woke before sunrise to wade through mathematical equations? So next year I could apply to become a teacher?
But of course they hadn’t spoken to mother. Such things were impossible.
‘That’s foolishness,’ I said.
‘No it’s not,’ said Eliza, jumping out of bed. ‘We talked to her. You weren’t there. I heard her voice. It sounded like water pouring. I asked her if we should move back to New York City. She said yes.’
I paused. ‘Mother did not like New York. She thought it was hot and crowded. She would never want us to go back there.’
The twins glanced at each other. Eliza looked frightened.
‘Well, that’s what she told us,’ Rose said.
‘You two are liars. And you are deceiving those poor, grieving people downstairs. Do you understand that?’
‘Get out of our room, Anne,’ Rose cried and turned away from me, burying her face in her pillow.
I left without looking back at them. I leaned against their shut door and tried to hold back tears. Somewhere down the hall, the grandfather clock ticked into the silence.
The twins continued their act, attracting bigger crowds at county fairs and, soon, in a music hall in a nearby town. People started paying. By the height of it, they were earning so much that our family was able to move out of the farmhouse and into a larger home. My aunt had been requesting the move ever since that first night at the dinner table, and father finally consented. We got running bath taps and, eventually, a telephone.
The twins toured the state. The Rivers Sisters. Even the name seemed to have a supernatural hiss. As they grew into women, they became even lovelier. I saw pictures of them in the newspaper, round pale faces and thick dark hair, and I thought they looked like glamorous actresses. I suspected that half the reason people came along was just to stare at them, gripping hands, shaking, calling out people’s names in the dark.
The craze lasted a few years. Countless cities and people from across the country coming to New York to meet them. People who sought to speak once more with their dear departed grandmother or to hear from their wife who had perished in a railway accident.
I wanted no part of it. I took a teaching position in Boston at a boarding school and married a mathematics teacher. It was in a newspaper that I read the truth. Someone had discovered it was their joints cracking that made the sound. They cracked their knees and toes and, the article said, it was a skill that could be learned and replicated. I never knew that they could do such a thing, but they hid so much from me. Oddly, they admitted to the whole thing as soon as they were caught. As if they had been waiting for someone to discover them. As if they had never expected it to go on for this long.
My husband asked me if I had ever, for a single moment, believed that they were truly capable of speaking with the dead. He was a rational man and he asked me in jest, as if he already knew the answer.
‘Of course not,’ I said, dunking my hands, which were covered in flour from making bread, into a basin of cold water.
I did not tell him about that night when I confronted them in their room, how I had wanted to be convinced of their power. I did not tell my husband how the tin washbasin, the low wooden ceiling, the carefully tended fire, everything in our home sometimes felt dull and small. I did not tell him how when I woke early, before dawn, I often imagined mother to be standing at the foot of my bed. She wore a butter colored apron and she spoke my name in a voice like water pouring. In those moments before I was fully awake, the barrier between this world and the next was thin as a lace curtain. You could peel it back and look out onto the fields beyond.
Originally from Austin, Texas, Carly Brown is an award-winning writer and performer based in Edinburgh. She is the author of a bestselling picture book, I Love St Andrews, and a poetry pamphlet, Grown Up Poetry Needs to Leave Me Alone. In 2013, she was Scotland’s National Champion of Slam Poetry and 4th at the World Series of Slam Poetry in Paris. Visit her website here.
© 2019, Carly Brown