A New Ghost
They had only found the key that morning. Until then, Alice had had to stand in the garden to peer into the wide windows of the summer room that jutted out into the broad, shaded lawn behind the house: almost a hundred steps, through the thick lily of the valley, from end to end, more window than walls, filled with delicate furniture, mysterious rugs, an upright piano.
Tilde had shaken the water out of a vase of rotting white roses and the key, bleeding rust, dropped into the sink along with the sour water and faded petals, apparently forgotten years ago by some other servant, and unseen when the vase was filled, weeks ago, in a rush to keep the flowers fresh. It wasn’t much of an event: the rented house was already far too big for Alice’s small family, and Alice’s mother had no intention of making any new decisions about what was to be done with the summer room, or of bullying any of the servants into carrying them out. The key’s recovery only meant, so far as everyone else was concerned, that Fritz would not have to pull one of the windows off its hinges and help Tilde through it again next spring, when they opened the house for the next family.
Alice had simply retrieved the key from the kitchen drawer where Tilde dropped it, after dipping it in lemon juice to arrest the rust, among the clean linen, soft and pale from a thousand washings.
The door opened easily under her hand, but so silently that it seemed to be keeping its own secrets. Inside, Alice locked it again, from within, and pocketed the key.
The room, which sat a right angle to the bulk of the house, ran down almost a hundred feet to a pair of french doors which opened onto a small span of lawn bounded by the tangled hedge of lilacs that bordered the entire property, their feet lost in glossy myrtle. To the left, through the enormous windows that took up most of the face of that wall, the garden fell down the shallow hill into the shade of the great oak tree that dominated the wider lawn. To the right, a windowless wall separated her from the kitchen, the garden room, the old carriage house, before the rest of the house dropped away completely and the long room continued to make its way out into the lawn alone.
A series of rich rugs covered all but glimpses of the gray stone below them: wine red, woven like a rose window; shimmering gold, with tiny animals of the hunt bleeding under jewel-like trees; a mournful unicorn on midnight blue; interlocking orange, green, and black diamonds; a lush medieval eden. A woman in white, with a thick waist and wistful face, painted life-size, gazed down from the wall over the piano. On either side, also caught for eternity in paint, peasants gathered pale sheaves of wheat, a black horse and carriage made their way down a gaslit street.
The furniture stood in even groups of chaises, couches, lamps and low tables, with the exception of a pair of fragile round-backed chairs, upholstered in dark pink brocade, which had been turned, on one of the room’s last days, to watch something on the shadowy lawn.
The voice was friendly, with a hint of embarrassment, as if the boy had been caught sleeping in the parlor by an arriving guest. “Hello?” it said: more question than welcome.
“Who’s there?” she demanded.
No one answered.
She turned around quickly, then ran back to the door and shook it. The lock still held fast.
She narrowed her eyes, scanning the room’s length, but could see nothing but the specks of dust that glimmered dumbly in the noonday sun. She waited for a moment, listening beyond the door for movement in the hall. Then she flung the bolt and slipped out.
Teddy and Bridget were sunk so deep in the lounges on the vast screened porch next door that she could barely see their faces from the door, just the flounce of Bridget’s skirt, which she had curled into so that only her pink and pearl toes showed, and the long, careless lines of her older brother Teddy’s legs, in gray and white striped slacks. Neither of them really stirred when Alice arrived. Bridget was Alice’s age: thirteen, and Teddy three years older than them, all trapped for the first time that summer in the country where, as Teddy liked to say, when the sun came up people thought something had happened.
“Could this afternoon be any longer?” Bridget asked, muffled slightly by the great cushions. “Every time you think a minute has passed, time stops again.”
Teddy raised his mop of dark gold hair and glanced appraisingly at Alice’s bare legs, her waist, her neck.
Steadying herself with one of the dusty chains that fastened it to the ceiling, Alice sat down on the wooden porch swing, and decided not to tell them.
All the birds seemed to wake at once the next morning, a sudden burst of singing, arguments, and gossip in the early gloom. Alice stood at her tall window, breathing in the strong scent of the lily of the valley that threatened to choke out the garden two stories below, still invisible in the darkness. After a while, the gathering light picked out the long gray spine of the summerhouse, like a ship breaking out of the mist.
The single tiny bookshelf in the summer house held no mysteries, only a few oversized books with tinted plans for gardens, dating from the last century, a Bible, a privately-published book of poetry. One of the end tables had a faux drawer: a finely-wrought handle that didn’t actually open anything. The next held odds and ends that might all have been hastily stashed there by guilty guests: a long piece of lavender thread, the corner of an envelope, a dry leaf, only half-turned red. The desk by the back entrance had simply been decoration: all the cubbyholes and drawers were empty, except for one in which she found a duplicate of the key from the kitchen.
It was as she was comparing the two in the palm of her hand that Tilde managed to cross half the yard, her arms full of peonies from the cutting garden, without Alice catching her. But the peonies had put Tilde at a disadvantage. With one glance, Alice saw that she hadn’t been caught yet, and in the next moment she lay flat on her belly between a pair of sea-green divans, her face buried in the pattern of bold arabic diamonds, as if, under trial, that might make her harder to identify.
After a moment, a light hand touched her shoulder.
“Are you all right?” the boy asked. “I’m sorry.”
Alice rolled over, striking her thigh on his shin as he scrambled to get clear of her. She scooted back against the window-wall and drew her knees up to her chest, even in her haste taking care to remain below Tilde’s line of vision.
“Who’s there?” she hissed.
The voice answered from a few feet away, between the divan and the rose marble coffee table, where no one was standing.
“I live here,” it said.
Alice listened fiercely, determined not to miss the sound of a step in any direction. All she caught was silence. “How long have you been here?” she asked, so he would speak again.
“An hour or so,” he answered. Alice was surprised to realize that, even without seeing his face, she could tell that he was lying.
“Where were you before that?” she challenged.
“Outside. I found a necklace in the grass.”
Against her will, she believed that.
“I put it in that drawer,” he added.
“It’s hidden,” he said. “In the side of the table.”
Alice ran her fingers deftly along the curve he indicated, a long arc of dark polished wood that supported the pink marble, and felt the lip of the drawer, invisible from above.
“Can’t you open it?” she asked.
He didn’t answer.
She pulled the small compartment out. On the old piece of green felt inside, a diamond necklace sparkled: two delicate strands of silver or platinum, weighed down by half-a-dozen diamond teardrops.
"You can have it,” he said.
The shadow of the tree grew solid and began to creep across the yard as the sun dropped into the western lilacs. As it disappeared behind the long hedge, she went to the door to go to supper, but then remembered, and turned back. “What’s your name?” she whispered.
There was a long silence. She actually reached our her hand to make sure he was still there, her fingers brushing a rough jacket, a patch of warm skin.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Tilde,” Alice commanded. “You’ve been here forever.”
Tilde rinsed the final pot, and pulled a fresh towel from the linen drawer. The key, which Alice had replaced a few hours before, dropped gently onto the remaining pile.
“Did any other children ever live here?” Alice asked.
“What kind of a question is that?” Tilde said.
“A boy,” Alice insisted, struggling to keep up with Fritz’s strides as he crossed the wide yard, steering a wheelbarrow filled with broken bricks. “About my age?”
Fritz grinned at her, teasing. “Wouldn’t you rather hear about the ones around here today?”
He could remember some things in great detail: the bone-handled knife he’d buried between the roots of the old redbud tree that had been half-sheared away by a lightning strike that spring, which flowers would be coming out after the lilies died down, which of the roads beyond the lilacs led away to which towns, that he would be fifteen in the fall. At night sometimes he walked out to the garden, or roamed along the edge of the lawn.
And he remembered how to play the piano. That was how she spent the last week of June afternoons: lying flat on her belly between the wings of a sea green divan, as if avoiding enemy fire, in order to escape Tilde’s watchful eyes, and listening as the notes drifted down the long room, blurred in the sunlight, changed into incomplete dreams, and then turned back again.
When he was tired of playing, he’d make the curtains dance, or turn the pages of the garden books for her, or make small coins appear and disappear in his invisible hand.
“You hand must be real then,” she reasoned sleepily as dusk was falling. The coin reappeared, the famous man rolling, upside down, from side to side, on his head. “I wonder if I could see you in the dark.”
Something brushed against her cheek, and then brushed it again.
“You’re talking about a ghost,” Teddy said, as if wondering why she still bothered trying to hide her thoughts from his extraordinary powers of perception.
Bridget had hit a birdie into the slow-moving water at the river’s edge earlier that morning. The little dam of twigs and sodden grass that had trapped it for the last hour was disintegrating, but none of them moved to retrieve it.
“They’re real all right,” he said. “But,” he added, with the easy scorn of a victor, “they’re dead.”
Alice didn’t answer.
When she looked back again, his handsome face, gazing out across the broad, shallow river, had lost its usual assurance. For a moment he looked to her the way her mother did, when she would pause sometimes in other countries, to wonder if she’d spoken the right words in a foreign language.
“Alice,” her mother said.
Alice froze in the shadows of the landing. The mirror before her reflected her mother’s figure, in a pale wrapper, at the head of the stairs.
“Is everything all right?” her mother asked.
“I wanted some water,” Alice said lamely.
Her face strangely unfamiliar in the mirror, her mother frowned at her, for lying.
The summerhouse was blue in the moonlight, the furniture silver from lack of light.
“I can’t stay long,” she said, before her eyes got used to the darkness.
The sound of his footsteps made her catch her breath.
“I can’t see you,” she said.
It was her first kiss.
Before she left, he made her open a window.
Upstairs, she stood beside her own, listening to the faint strains of the piano.
“You don’t remember anything else?”
His invisible finger traced one of the pale blue veins buried deep in her wrist. She caught after it, and missed.
“It’s hard to tell,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“What’s a memory, and what’s a dream. I see some things.”
“Like what?” she asked.
“A kite,” he said. “Lights on the river. Other things.”
“Like what?” she asked.
He kissed her again.
When she closed her eyes, she discovered to her delight, he could be with her anywhere: in the dining room, hands on her shoulders, behind her chair; whispering, kissing her eyelids as she fell asleep. Today, by the blinding river, she imagined he lay beside her, teasing her, as he often did, to guess what he would touch next: her hand, her neck.
“Alice?” Bridget asked, genuinely perplexed.
She opened her eyes.
Squinting against the overwhelming light, Teddy glared at her with deep mistrust.
She closed them again.
The dining room had, as her mother had counted aloud, in disbelief, that first day, eight doors: one to the kitchen, and one from; one to the pantry, and one from; one leading down into the cavernous cellar that seemed, on the one day Alice had dared to explore it, to sprawl out underground ever further than the walls of the house; one leading down the long hall past the staircase to the front door; one opening onto the drawing room; and one which led to the smallest room of the house. The little room was so narrow that there was only space for one window, which overlooked another scrap of the back garden, a room which had once, judging by the scarred black desk and the half-empty glass bookcases Alice discovered under the tarps, been used as an office, when people still lived in the house year-round.
The desk drawers were stuffed with old ledgers, papers, photographs, and so was the file cabinet to its left, so tall it came up to her chin. A pair of black-paper albums listed on one of the lowest bookshelves.
She pulled one out. Almost half the thick black pages had already been pulled free from the book’s spine. On them, a youg couple photographed each other in light so bright it erased everything but their mouths and their eyes, bought one of the original automobiles, visited the seaside. The other was even older, the skirts sweeping low, the streets that ran between the proud new houses still unpaved.
Outside, footsteps. In an instant, she had thrown up the tarp that hung over the desk, scrambled under it, let it fall back. She couldn’t see Tilde, just the thick panel of light that fell into the room when she opened the door, before she pulled it shut again, rattled the knob, and walked away.
Bridget was in the mood for secrets.
“And Landon Daniels,” she confessed. Then, dismissively, “but I don’t know that I’d call it a kiss.”
Alice struggled to seem interested, but Bridget wasn’t looking.
“Who have you kissed?” she asked the bright heads of the lily of the valley that seemed to march up endlessly up to their deaths at the hands of the dazzling band of windows that gleamed down without pity from the summer house.
When Alice didn’t answer, Bridget turned to her for what might have been the first time all morning, at first in annoyance, then with a certain kind of triumph, as the realization dawned.
“You haven’t kissed anybody,” she accused.
“I have,” Alice said.
“Then who is it?” Bridget demanded.
Alice frowned, blood rushing to her head.
“Who is it?” Bridget asked. “Alice. Who is it?”
Half a dozen of the late pink tulips from the garden lay in a heap on the sea green divan, breathing their last.
“How did you bring them inside?” Alice asked, reaching for them, then holding back with a sudden fear that they might come to pieces in her hands.
“They were so heavy,” he said.
With love’s appetite for sacrifice, she had resolved to read through every scrap in the filing cabinet, but she quickly discovered the system, and its complete lack of mystery: the owner of the drawers had had something to do with ships, filled with wool, passengers, stained glass, coal. The cabinet actually seemed to have been moved to the office whole, from the address to which most of the correspondence was directed, in a bustling port a few hours north. The top drawers were filled with cargo lists and related correspondence, some handwritten, some mimeographed, the drawers below it crammed with passenger manifests, see-through vellum receipts, nautical maps. The name that appeared most frequently was a Robert Kirke. The lists and loads seemed to get bigger as time passed. In the back of the bottom drawer, creating a strange gap between a pair of brittle files, she found a battered compass and sextant.
“Do you like the sea?” she asked.
“The sea?” he repeated, earnestly.
“Yes,” she said. “Gulls, and—ships.”
“I suppose,” he said, readily, and then fell silent, waiting for her explanation.
Leaning into the curve of his invisible arm, she caught for his hand, then closed her eyes against the fact that she couldn’t see it, as filled with shame as if she had really been lying.
The only photographs she found in the desk were of a woman: three of them, over the course of perhaps twenty years: the first, where she was nothing more than a pale, thin smudge on the steps of an enormous, sooty city house, the edges of the print dark and rounded from handling, some of the silver that marked the folds in her dress rubbed off; the next in her wedding finery, seated on what might have been the sea-green divan, her smile blurred by the long exposure, her steady eyes in perfect focus. The last was much later, her beauty changed, but not faded, taken from the side as she stared out a window into a world lost in soft focus, as if she were afraid to meet the camera’s gaze.
Another firework burst overhead, gold and red, the light fleeing in a thousand pieces over the black water.
Ahead of them in the pillow-stuffed rowboat Teddy laughed, a strange laugh, like a threat.
Beside her, Bridget was a fragrant shadow in the darkness, nothing but her voice familiar. “She didn’t care how long we’d rented,” she went on, referring to her mother. “She was going home first week in August.”
A new firework whistled, invisible, overhead.
“When are you leaving?” Bridget asked.
“Leaving?” Alice’s heart yanked violently against its anchor.
She stared at Bridget, breathless.
“Alice,” her mother said.
When her daughter didn’t answer, her mother gave Alice’s hair few more long, sure strokes, and then set the tortiseshell brush down on the dressing table.
“Goodnight, love,” she said.
One of the wardrobes in her mother’s suite was full of another woman’s things, Alice remembered her mother complaining.
The first she opened was full of silk and lace and furst that she knew well, but the clothes in the second were made for a woman not quite as tall, the fabrics faded somehow, despite the darkness they lived in. Alice opened all of the hatboxes, shook the old ostrich feathers out, checked every pocket. In the first drawer below the wardrobe she found a jewelry box, which opened after some coaxing. Inside it were a string of pearls, a peacock brooch, an assortment of rings and ear bobs: diamond, opal, emerald. The compartments were gray velvet. One of them pulled out. Below it was a photograph, face down, with faint writing on it that gave the impression of having been set down only by enormous effort: a pair of dates, fourteen years apart.
Feeling as though her blood had just burst into song, she turned it over.
A young, handsome boy stared back at her, dark hair combed straight back from his face, probably the instant before it was taken, his dark eyes alight with some hope or secret, his mouth struggling against a smile to set itself with the same resolve of other men he’d seen.
Across the bottom, someone else had written in thick pencil: “William, died in the garden.”
“William,” she said.
She stepped down the last few steps into the summer house, her hands reaching blindly for the ones that usually caught hers by then.
There was no answer.