The Haunting of
Death was never of God’s fashioning;
not for his pleasure does life cease to be; …
Think not that mortality bears sway on earth;
no end nor term is fixed to a life well lived.
Book of Wisdom, 1:13, 15 (Knox)
The world can come to an end in many ways. For some, it ended when the tension in the South China Sea turned into a violent military confrontation. Economies collapsed and the web and the GPS became tightly controlled military assets. For many more, and with far greater finality, it ended when a volcano blew up in Central Java, destroying the most densely populated island on Earth and plunging the world into a sustained and freezing winter. For me, the end was more mundane. My parents were killed in a car crash, a simple overload on the traffic control mainframe, and I was sent to live with my only surviving relative: an elderly great aunt whom I hardly knew.
You may think that talk of the world ending is being overly dramatic but, for me, it was just the plain truth. I went from living in a high rise, inner city apartment block; where my life was filled with crowds, fast food, and a constant stream of electronic entertainment; to a place that seemed like the ultimate anachronism: a place marooned out of time.
My aunt lived on an old farm, close to the sea. The farm house had been built in the nineteenth century in imitation of some minor Scottish castle. It was a rambling place of crumbling stone and cracked plaster, with ornamental towers and arched doorways. The kind of place that history buffs get all excited about – mainly because they don’t have to live there. I went from crowds of friends to – what? Sheep? Maybe. Seagulls? Perhaps, but certainly not people. All in all, I might as well have walked through the back of a wardrobe and into Narnia.
My great aunt, essentially, lived alone. Apart from her, and the sheep, the only other inhabitants of the farm were Craig Brown and his son who helped look after the farm, but they were only there when needed and even then, only in daylight hours. They never went anywhere near the house and they were never on the property after dark.
This always seemed strange to me. I mean, he basically ran the farm. Yet if my aunt wanted to talk to him, she had to go out to the paddock. He wouldn’t come to the house. Also, there are things that a farmer often has to do at night, and sometimes these are urgent, but even these, he would leave till morning. It was strange because in most respects he was a good man and a good farmer. A man of few words and long silences but a good farmer. I asked him about this once.
“Too many ghosts,” he grunted. I thought he was joking but he was deadly serious as he turned to me and said, “Now listen. You have nothing to do with anything that should be dead and gone but isn’t. It doesn’t matter what it looks like or what it says, it isn’t human anymore. It’s dangerous. Stay as far away as you can. That old house is full of things that have no right to be here, that no rational person would want to know about. If I were you, I’d leave for the city. There’s nothing there as bad as what might happen to you here.”
Apart from thinking that Mr. Brown was really weird and probably stupid, I thought nothing more about it. I had all the arrogance of the city and to me, it was just more dumb country superstition. Anyway, that he thought the house full of dead things seemed appropriate to me. At that time, the whole world seemed as dead to me as my parents. It was as if I had died with them. In my dreams, all I could see were their broken bodies lying on the road. During the day, it was as if something was broken inside of me. I walked through the funeral and the days after it in a kind of trance. I came to the farm knowing the world as nothing but grey and empty. Nothing mattered, nothing was real. Nothing but those bodies lying, broken, on the road.
If my great aunt understood any of this, she didn’t let on. She was a small bird-like woman with bright eyes and quick movements. Her hair was long and grey and normally tied back in a pony tail that reached to her waist. She was okay, I guess, for an old lady, and she came from a much more relaxed time: a time when little notice was taken of convention or manners.
As soon as we met she said, “Call me Florence. I don’t want any of the great aunt stuff.” I obliged but not out of affection. It was more that ‘Great Aunt Florence’ just took too long to say.
I don’t want to appear ungrateful but, well, I was ungrateful. Let’s face it. I hated the whole thing; being dragged from the city, from my friends. Most of all, I hated being an orphan. I hated being shunted around like a charity case that no one knew what to do with.
So, even though the farm was obviously better than any of the alternatives open to me and, if I had been able to see things honestly, it actually had a lot going for it, it took me a long time to accept that this was now my future. The house itself was huge. Florence and I lived in only in one small part, in would once have been the servant’s quarters. These were at the rear of the north wing of the house and centred on the kitchen and the old servant’s dining room. The rest of the house was left closed. Not locked up exactly, just not used. There was room after room full of dust and fading memories.
Also, much as I wanted to dislike her – no, that’s too mild. Much as I wanted to hate her, much as I wanted to her to be a really awful person, Florence was actually quite pleasant company, for an old lady of course, and I was eventually glad that she had taken me in. She didn’t have to and it must have been almost as great a wrench for her, suddenly having a teenage boy around the place, as it was for me. Come to think of it, it was probably worse for her. It upset the pattern of many years of living alone.
This isn’t to suggest that we got along just fine without any problems. We didn’t. We had some explosive fights, especially in the beginning when we were just getting to know each other. They were usually over some job or bit of study that I was meant to be doing. These would normally end with me standing up and yelling and Florence calmly insisting that I follow her instructions. Florence usually got her way although there were times when I simply stormed off to my room and refused to do anything. Childish, I know, but, as you may have noticed, I was a bit emotional at the time.
Left to myself, I think I would have just curled up into a little ball and nursed my pain: lying in the dark and alternating between anger, despair and not giving a toss about anything. Florence, however, was very firm. She was not going to let me lie about feeling sorry for myself. She was also not going a race around looking after me, so she made it clear that I had to learn to look after myself. She was soon teaching me how to use her old washing machine and how to cook on her ancient stove.
Eventually we learned to rub along together and the all-out yelling matches became rare. Every Sunday we climbed into her car and headed off to mass, in the plain, wooden church in town. I just sat there, more out of politeness than conviction, and let the words wash over me. I felt nothing. As I said, it was as if everything, including my faith, had died in me, along with my parents.
The web connection at the farm was a bit flaky but it was adequate. It wasn’t like the old days anyway. Since the trouble in the South China Sea, the military had taken strict control of the internet. As a distance student, I was allowed only one hour’s access a day and then only to specified, educational sites. All my learning modules were stored locally, however, so I could access them, just like in the city. That meant that my schooling didn’t change much. In the old days, when school was still taught face to face, this would’ve been a big problem but now it was just me running the modules in a different place. Entertainment bandwidth was so restricted as to be almost non-existent.
All of this meant that I ended up spending a lot more time on my own and outdoors than I would’ve in the city. The house’s garden was a mess. It had once been a very formal affair with teams of gardeners, no doubt, to maintain it, but over the years it had been let run wild. It was still full of echoes of its past grandeur, like the imported and ornamental trees. There were oaks and various sorts of conifers as well as more exotic things whose names I didn’t know. These trees, however, were only relics of a more ordered time. Roses grew, wild and dangerous, in the understory. There were giant rhododendrons, bougainvillea, agapanthus, palms and a profusion of different types of fern; all without any sense of plan or order. All the formal structure of the garden had been lost in a chaos of growth.
Exploring the garden now was like exploring a ruined city buried in the jungle. Every now and then, you would beat your way through the rhododendrons to find some hidden stone steps leading nowhere or to a disused fountain, full of green water and bugs. Statues of gods and goddesses would suddenly appear as you turned onto a hidden and unexpected pathway and all the time the wind from the sea would whisper in the trees; whisper secret things, of lost dreams and forgotten hope, of how easy it is to die.
I guess it was a sad sort of place. How could it be otherwise? But that suited me. In fact, I think it was actually good for me, because, unlike my own, the garden’s sadness was a gentle sort of sadness. One that attested to the power of time to heal. One that acted to sooth the sharp soreness of my own grief.
Back in the house, my bedroom wasn’t that big. In fact, it was small. As I said, we were living in what used to be the servant’s quarters. It was okay though. Its small size made it feel snug and safe, like a hidey hole that I could crawl into and disappear. If that sounds a bit gloomy, well, as you may already have worked out, that was my state of mind. Not only had I just lost both my parents but I was now in a place that was radically different from anything I had ever known before. I needed a place I could call my own.; that I could wrap around me; where I could find sanctuary.
I felt alone and lost in the world. All the foundations of my life, all my plans for the future, had been stripped away by one stupid computer glitch, in one crazy collision of metal, road, and soft human flesh. I was sure that there was no one in the world more miserable than me.
About a month after I arrived, I was lying in my bed one night, with the full moon creeping through the cracks in the curtains, and the same useless thoughts running through my head. What if I had been with them? What if I had asked them not to go? At the time, I had actually been happy to see them go out for the night so that I could have the time to myself. Now, I could only think that maybe if I had delayed them, even for a few seconds, even just taken a bit more time over saying goodbye, they might not have died.
It was then that I heard the sound of someone playing the piano. I knew it was somebody playing and not a recording because, although they were good, they would make the occasional mistake and go back and play that piece again. I didn’t know who could possibly be playing a piano that I didn’t even know we had. Florence had never shown any sign of musical talent or even interest. Who was the pianist and where had they come from? I also didn’t know where they were. A piano is a hard thing to hide and I had not seen a piano anywhere in the house, although I had actually only visited a small part of it. But these were mysteries that, at that moment, I didn’t care about. I just wanted the forgetfulness of the sleep that wouldn’t come because somewhere in the house, someone was playing the piano, playing the piano in the middle of the night!
I gave up trying to sleep. Instead, I just lay there and listened to the music, hoping that it might chase away the pain. It was a sad tune that they were playing, with the notes falling like tears and rising, only to stop and fall again before their resolution, like sobs breaking from a wounded heart. The notes rose and fell, like waves breaking on a beach. Rising now and now falling away. They were building slowly into a crescendo but eventually the build-up broke into silence and in that silence, I found the sleep I needed.
The next morning, I asked Florence, “Who was that playing the piano last night?”
She stopped what she was doing and stared fixedly out the window. For a long time, she didn’t reply. She didn’t even move. Eventually she said, in a strange, flat voice, “So, you heard the piano?”
“Yes,” I said, puzzled at her reaction.
“Don’t you pay any attention to that piano. That’s nothing to do with you. I would forget about it,” she said firmly, suddenly busying herself with some dishes. “I’ll ask Mr. Brown to show you around the farm today. You are the last of the Rileys and one day, when I die, all this will come to you to do with as you please. Until that time, however, you need to learn what we do here.”
“I only asked who was playing,” I said. “Who are they? Where do they live?” Florence was standing still and stiff, starring out the window with some dishes still in her hand. “I didn’t even know we had a piano.”
“Just drop it!” she said angrily. “I told you, forget all about the piano player!”
Now, I’m as sensitive to emotional cues as the next guy and it was so clear to me that this was a touchy subject so, despite my curiosity, I didn’t pursue it. I didn’t want a fight. We had already had a few of those, and I had always come off second best, although it did, however, make me wonder why someone playing the piano was such a big deal.
I saw her in the moonlight,
In the starlight,
In the drawing room,
On the piano, softly playing.
As it turned out, what we did on the farm was raise sheep for their meat. This mostly consisted of ensuring they had enough food, good shelter from the vicious winds that came in from the Southern Ocean, had all the water they needed, as well as medical checks and care. Basically, it was our job to make sure that they lived in some sort of sheep paradise until … well, you know. Anyway, the busy time of the year was lambing season and that wasn’t for a while yet, so the farm introduction didn’t take that long, although it took a lot longer than it strictly needed to. Conversations with Mr. Brown were generally composed of short, to the point, sentences interspersed with long silences. Anyway, I soon had time on my hands and, as you might expect, I set out to explore the house. Somewhere there was a piano and I was going to find it, whatever Florence said. Somewhere there was a night time pianist and I was going to find out who they were.
You might wonder why I didn’t just let it be, like Florence had suggested. Well, I couldn’t. My life was uncertain enough as it was without weird mysteries like this. If there was another person, somehow, living in this house, why wouldn’t Florence talk about them? Why wasn’t I introduced? Whatever uncertain foundations for my life that I had managed to re-establish were in danger of being stripped away. There was a terrifying possibility that everything I knew about the Florence and the farm was false. I could feel all the anxiety I felt after my parent’s death coming back. I was nervous and jumpy and my mind kept going back to the night of my parent’s death. I needed to know what was going on.
It was late afternoon when I started my search. I started from the main entrance hall and checked all the rooms in sequence. Past the formal reception rooms, a sitting room and an elaborate dining room, I found a very large room with a parquetry floor and mirrors on the walls. It must once have been a ball room or something similar. In the south-eastern corner of this room there were a set of double doors. These were locked. This was strange. As I said, most of the house was unused but not locked up. In fact, in all my search of the house, these were the only locked doors.
I found a lot of interesting things in my search; like a room full of books covered in dust and cobwebs and a circular room at the base of a tower with a set of spiral stairs leading up to the next floor and down to the cellar. These couldn’t be accessed from any other part of the house and I made a resolution to come back and explore them later on. However, the music of the piano had sounded too clear to have come from some tower or cellar. So, for the moment, I kept searching. The upper floors of the house were mostly bedrooms of various sizes and not very interesting. Although one room had French windows that opened onto a balcony that had such a spectacular view across the garden to the sea that I wondered, not for the first time, why Florence and I were living in the cramped servant’s quarters when we could be living in rooms like this. Nowhere, however, did I find a piano. It had to be behind the locked doors.
At dinner that night I asked Florence why those doors, and only those doors, were locked. Once again, she was evasive and avoided answering the question. She kept trying to talk about sheep. When I persisted in asking what was behind the doors, she got angry.
“Don’t you go around, worrying about old rooms,” she said. “You just do your chores and make sure you get all your study modules finished. You have an approved assessment period coming up and you still haven’t read all your assigned texts. How can you hope to progress if you waste your time chasing around empty rooms? I said forget about the piano and I meant it. Just drop it! Do you hear? Just drop it!”
I nodded meekly but her anger only added to the mystery and, far from putting me off, it made me even more determined to find out about the piano and the pianist – and about what was behind those locked doors.
That night I was lying in bed reading one of my study texts, an old and very long book about an attempt to destroy an evil ring, when it started again. Somewhere in the house, someone was playing the piano. It was the same sad, really sad, music as the night before with the notes again falling like tears and rising as suddenly as the broken sobs of grief.
This time, however, I didn’t stay in bed and I didn’t take the time to listen. I got up, wrapped my dressing gown around me and set off. I was going to find the piano player and I knew where to look. Fortunately, the full moon meant that it was bright enough for me to see my way without turning on any lights. I didn’t want to anyone to know I was up and looking for them and I didn’t want Florence to know that I was disobeying her order. I made my way through the empty house to the ballroom. The double doors in the south-east corner were now open and the music was clearly coming from the room beyond them. I crept carefully towards the open doors, trying to be as silent as I could.
There was a large room on the other side of the doors. It was comfortably furnished with soft chairs and was clearly meant as a retreat from the more hectic and formal activities of the ball room and reception areas: what used to be known as a drawing room. The room was flooded with moonlight from the bay window that occupied the whole eastern wall and this reflected brightly off the silver serving dishes on the sideboard.
In the bay window itself, there was a small grand piano on which a girl, who appeared to be about my own age, was playing. She was very pale and dressed in what looked like a white night dress. Her hair shone silver in the moonlight. As quietly as I could, I entered the room, sat on one of the chairs and listened to her play.
She played well but both her style and the music she had chosen filled the room with an almost overwhelming sadness. It was as if the piano itself was weeping. She played on and on and I sat and listened for a long time, silenced and kept still by the very sadness of the music. It called to my own heart; sadness calling to sadness. Eventually, as the moon rose to the top of the bay window and the moonlight started to fade in the room, she paused in her playing. I started to clap.
“That was really good,” I said.
She turned and looked at me, almost in panic. Then she got up and without saying a word, ran towards one corner of the bay window.
“Hey” I called. “Wait! I didn’t mean to scare you.” I got up and made my way through the room in the fading moonlight but by the time I had got to the piano she was gone and in the darkening room, I couldn’t see where. I stood and starred at the corner of the bay window where she had appeared to go. There didn’t seem to be any door, nor even an opening window. It just looked like a solid wall.
I wasn’t worried at the time, mind you; just puzzled. I had seen her get up and go and yet I couldn’t see anywhere she could’ve gone. The room was becoming quite dark by now, so I shrugged my shoulders and turned away. I couldn’t solve this puzzle in the dark but I made a solemn promise to return in the day and figure it out. As I left the room, I jammed a chair in the open doorway to try and make sure it stayed open.
After a quick breakfast the next morning, I went straight to the drawing room, to find where the girl had gone. I didn’t discuss my plans with Florence. I vividly remembered her hostility to the subject of the music and figured that the girl and the piano were things she really didn’t want to talk about. If I wanted to find out why, I would have to do it on my own.
My chair had kept the doors open and that morning, I easily got into the room. In the daylight, it looked as if this room had not been used for a very long time. Everything was coated in a thick layer of dust and the silverware, which had seemed brightly polished the night before, was tarnished black. I couldn’t reconcile the room as I saw it now with the room as I has seen it last night. I walked slowly over to the piano. It too was covered in dust, the ivory keys yellowed with age. There was no sign that it had been played recently. I spread my fingers to carefully play a chord. An awful, discordant clang assaulted my ears. The piano had clearly not been tuned for many, many years and it was now unplayable. Yet last night I had heard the girl playing it beautifully. I tried another chord and got the same result. I shook my head, unable to figure out what was going on.
I went over to the wall where the girl had apparently disappeared. There was no door, but there was a section of wooden panelling that didn’t quite match the rest of the room and when I tapped on it, it had a hollow sound that the walls elsewhere didn’t have. I pushed on it and I prodded it. I searched it carefully, trying to find some hidden catch or pressure point that would open it up. I found nothing. I stared at it in frustration until I heard Florence calling me. It would have to wait. I had lesson modules to complete and more about the care of sheep to learn. I did, however, leave the door to the room propped open.
A mist was she, a shadow
And the moonlight
And the starlight
Passed through her.
A month passed before I heard the music again. It was an eventful month. Florence had successfully argued that, as a remote area student, I should be allocated social bandwidth specifically to message my old friends in the city. At first this was great but over time it became more and more frustrating. It was never enough. Always, I was looking to the clock. Always, I was wanting longer. There was also another deeper problem. Each conversation made it ever more obvious how far apart our different lives were leading us.
I took my frustration out on the garden, trying to bring some sort of order to the wilderness. My greatest achievement was to clear the old stone path down to the beach. This was a private beach, accessible only through our property. It was a broad, curving stretch of white sand, bounded to the north and south by tall cliffs of dark stone. There was a reef offshore where the swell from the Southern Ocean often broke with thunder and fury. By the time it got to the beach, however, the ocean swell had been reduced to, at most, a gentle shore break.
If you wanted an exciting surf beach, you would have to go somewhere else: the rocks were too dangerous and the beach was too gentle. Still, it was a great place just to sit sometimes, when you needed a bit of quiet, a bit of time to sort things through.
It was again around the time of the full moon when I next heard the music. I was exhausted from a day of hand feeding sheep and pruning azaleas and I was fast asleep when the music invaded my dreams with its gentle melancholy. I dreamt that I was standing at my parents’ grave. The sun was setting and it was growing darker. That’s it. Nothing else happened. It just got darker and the music filled the world. By the time I had dragged myself awake, I could recognise the closing bars of the piece I had heard before.
I jumped out of bed and ran towards the piano room. The music finished as I was crossing the ball room and by the time I got to the drawing room, there was no trace of the girl, except perhaps for a flash of sliver/white near the false panelling. I ran over to the panelling and again, in the fading moonlight, searched all around for some sort of catch or opening. There was nothing. There was no door, I would have thought that the silver-white flash had just been my imagination except that I knew that someone had been playing the piano, that they weren’t there, and that they certainly hadn’t gone out the way I came in.
I beat my fist against the panel in frustration but it remained, stubbornly, just a panel and it was clear that there was nothing else I could do that night, so I went back to bed. I didn’t sleep well, however. All night, the music kept playing in my head and a pale girl in a white nightgown kept wandering through my dreams.
After breakfast the next day, I went down to the garden shed and took out a small crow bar and a hammer. I then went back to the drawing room, determined to find out what was behind the false panel.
In the end the panel came away fairly easily, even if I did make a fair bit of noise getting it off, and there was a door behind it. This still didn’t solve the mystery, however. I couldn’t see any way that the panel could have been removed quickly, quietly and without tools, as the girl must’ve done. Also, the door behind the panel had a rusted latch and was clogged with dirt and debris. It didn’t look as if it had been used for many, many years.
I pushed the door. It didn’t move. I forced the rusted latch and pushed hard. Something broke with a splintering sound and the door squealed open, the rusted hinges resisting every move. Behind the door was a small reading room. One whole wall was French windows reaching high to the ceiling and facing east to catch the morning sun, although these were now so covered in dirt and moss that they hardly let in any light at all. If the drawing room had been dusty and disused, this one took it to a whole new level. Not only was the whole room covered in a thick layer of dust but long cobwebs were strung, like weird Christmas decorations, across every wall, even hanging from the furniture. It was clear that no one had been in this room for a very long time. I stared at the room in disbelief. This couldn’t be where the girl had gone and yet it was. It had to be. I started to doubt myself. Perhaps the girl and the piano had been a dream. Maybe, in my overly emotional state, I was starting to imagine things, starting to see what wasn’t there. This might sound reasonable but I knew I hadn’t been dreaming and I found it impossible to believe that I was going mad. No, this was just a puzzle. A puzzle that I needed to solve.
Apart from some bookcases along the wall, the only furniture was a small wooden table and an old cane chair. A book lay open on the table. I picked it up and blew the dust off its yellowing pages. It was a book of poetry. The poem on the facing page was headed XXIII and read:
Is it indeed so? If I lay here dead
Wouldst thou miss any life in losing mine?
And would the sun for thee more coldly shine,
Because of grave-damps falling round my head …
This was getting a bit gloomy and morbid, so I skipped to the end. It didn’t get any better:
As brighter ladies do not count it strange
For love, to give up acres and degree,
I yield the grave for thy sake, and exchange
My near, sweet view of heaven, for earth with thee.
It was a gloomy poem, I thought, and one that well matched the room. I looked at the book’s cover and, while I hadn’t recognised the poem, I did recognise the title. It was ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ by Elizabeth Browning. I had had to study it in English earlier in the year. The module had gone on and on about how historically important Elizabeth was as a poet, about how she had blazed a trail for women even though she was married to the even more famous Robert Browning. Strangely though, the module had contained very little of her actual poetry. I thought I could see why.
I was shocked, however, when I turned to the title page. I checked the dates again and checked to see if I had missed anything. I hadn’t. This was a first edition. This book, lying untended in this cobwebbed room, was probably worth thousands, tens of thousands, of dollars.
“You Know, you’re probably the first person to enter this room for well over a hundred and fifty years.” I turned to find Florence standing in the doorway and looking at me with a hard to read expression. Annoyed, certainly, but more sad than angry. “It was walled up after she died, died there in that chair while reading that book. It was left just the way it was on that night all those years ago – until now, that is.”
“After who died?” I asked, taking a step backwards from the chair.
“Sarah, of course,” Florence replied. “This was her favourite room. Her mother couldn’t cope, not with losing her husband and her daughter so close together. She just walled up the room and sold the house. That’s how we came to own it. Your great, great, great, great, great grandfather took the opportunity to buy the place at a bargain price. He left this room alone, however, as did every succeeding generation – until now.”
I put the book down, feeling a bit guilty. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know it was even here. I certainly didn’t know it was some sort of shrine to a dead girl. I was just looking for the piano player. I know she came this way …” Florence was still looking at me with that strange expression, as if I was missing something obvious and she was waiting for me to catch on.
“What?” I asked. She raised her eyebrows and it suddenly dawned on me what she was hinting at. “No! No! No!” I said. “There’s no way the dead girl is the piano player. That’s just stupid. The dead are gone, just … gone. There’s no such thing as ghosts!”
Florence gave only the slightest hint of a smile. “Life and death may be a good deal more complicated than you imagine,” she said. “Young Sarah was, by all accounts, a lovely girl; quiet, gentle and a very good young pianist. The piano in the drawing room was bought for her. Her father doted on her. She was the joy of his life. She was never strong, however, and when she was about your age she developed serious lung problems, probably the first stages of TB. Can you imagine how her parents must’ve felt? The fear that would’ve gripped their hearts? In those days, medicine was primitive and that disease, consumption they called it, was most often a death sentence.”
“Look, I’m sure this is a sad and tragic story,” I said angrily, “and I’m sorry she died young but people die all the time: in war, from disease, from natural disasters … in road accidents. They die and they’re gone. They don’t come back!”
Florence continued on as if she hadn’t heard me. “It was a winter day. Sarah was ill, as she often was, and she was sitting in this room to catch the morning sun. She asked her father for some trinket or other, or perhaps it was for some sweet. I really don’t know. Anyway, her father rode off to get it from the town. It was a foolish thing to do. The town was miles away and there was a storm coming. His horse was a fine animal, fast, but high spirited and skittish –“
I could see where this was going. “Let me guess.” I interrupted. “He didn’t make it home.”
“No,” Florence said. “He didn’t. There was no bridge over Kelly’s Creek back then and his body was found caught in some tree branches downstream from the creek crossing. They thought at the time that his horse must’ve panicked crossing the creek; maybe something floating in the flood or maybe just the force of the flood itself. We’ll never know. Anyway, he was thrown and he died. In the middle of the storm, the panicked horse made its own way home without its rider.”
I watched Florence in silence for a moment while she collected her thoughts. I thought I could see where this was going.
“Sarah blamed herself?” I suggested.
“Yes, she did,” Florence confirmed. “Already weak with fever, when the search parties started to come back without finding him, she became distressed beyond reason. She ran out into the tail end of the storm to find him. Still dressed in her nightgown and screaming over and over again for her father.”
“So, she also died in the storm?” I asked.
“No, no,” Florence said. “Although, it’s a wonder that she didn’t. She must’ve become lost and disoriented. They found her down on the beach a little later, sobbing uncontrollably. The storm had passed and the night had turned clear and cold and she was soaking wet from the rain. You can guess what happened next.”
“She caught pneumonia and died,” I said.
“Yes. It was quick. She died less than a week later, still grieving the death of her father. She died sitting in that chair.” She pointed to the cane chair. “Wrapped up in blankets and watching the full moon rise over the sea.”
“While reading some very gloomy poetry,” I said.
Florence shrugged. “Who could blame her? The last active thing she did was play out her grief and her guilt on the piano. According to the story, she played music so sad that no one who heard it could ever forget it. They say she plays it still, every full moon. Unlike many such stories, this one is true. You know it’s true because you’ve heard her play. Why couldn’t you leave it alone? This is dangerous. People have been lost to that music.”
I wasn’t buying it. In fact, I was getting annoyed by the whole silly story. “Is that why the doors were locked?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Always, at the full moon. Always, until now, that is. Just as, since that day, no one has ever entered this room – until now.”
I dropped the book back on the small table. “Nice story,” I said tersely, “but I don’t believe in ghosts. The dead are gone. You put them in the ground and they rot away. They don’t come back.” I pushed past her into the drawing room and out into the garden.
I spent the afternoon wildly attacking some blackberry bushes. I was angry, furious. It wasn’t a rational anger. It was something that came from deep in my gut and expanded to fill my chest, until I thought I would explode with anger. My head was full of all those images I had tried so hard to forget: images of my Mum and Dad lying, broken, on a hospital trolley or cold and stiff at the funeral director’s parlour; images of two coffins being lowered into the grave and of a sad priest who didn’t know what to say and who at least had the sense to say nothing.
I don’t know why, I still didn’t believe in ghosts and I should’ve been able to just laugh it off, but the thought of some dead girl coming back to play the piano just filled me with a wild rage. The blackberries took the brunt of it, my scythe cutting through them as if it were death’s own.
In the end, I had to stop. I was exhausted, my hands were red raw, and my arms and legs were laced with cuts from the blackberry’s thorns. Even then, I didn’t go back to the house. Instead, I stumbled down to the beach and just sat there, looking out at the waves. I didn’t know if I was still angry. I didn’t really know what I was feeling. Then, suddenly, I was crying, crying like a little child. I wanted to call out to my mother but I knew she couldn’t come. I was alone. The dead don’t come back.
Even after I had cried myself out, I just sat there. All that anger was now replaced by a dull, dead feeling. The sun began to set behind me and the afternoon turned into evening. A chill crept into the still air and the moon began to rise over the sea in front of me. Still, I just sat there.
I don’t know how, but at some point I became aware that I was not alone. I turned to see her standing there, about twenty meters further down the beach. She was facing out to sea and the wind seemed to blow her thin nightgown around her, even though the night was still. The moon shone silver bright on her hair and tears glistened on her cheeks. She was beautiful but her beauty had a weird translucent quality. I mean that literally. I could kind of make out the shapes, like faint shadows, of the beach and cliffs behind her. Although, as the moonlight got brighter, she seemed to become more solid. She always remained, however, pale and silver in the moonlight.
It was strange but, at first, I didn’t feel scared. There was a ghost, an impossible thing, standing there, being blown by a wind I didn’t feel, and yet I wasn’t scared. It may be that I was so emotionally drained that I was now unable to feel anything at all. It may also be that she seemed to be about my age, that she was beautiful, and she didn’t seem even vaguely scary. She just seemed sad. Did I mention that she was beautiful?
It’s more likely, however, that I wasn’t afraid simply because I couldn’t process her presence, even though I could see her. I couldn’t feel scared because my mind wouldn’t accept that she was possible.
When she started to turn towards me, however, I started to feel, not fear exactly, but a sort of deep, urgent dread, rising in my chest. It was worse than fear. It was like a panic deep in the centre of my being. I wanted to run but I was frozen in place. My heart was racing as her moonlight bright eyes turned to look directly at me and she let out a wail that would’ve done justice to the best movie special effects guys.
“Nooo!” she cried, her cry rising in pitch and volume until it was a skull shattering scream. My fear was gone. I could think of nothing but that sound reverberating in my head and I had to clamp my hands over my ears and was bent double in pain.
Then she was simply gone and I was left looking at a few wisps of silver mist, slowly dissipating in the moonlight. Up at the house, I could faintly hear the sound of a piano weeping into the quiet night.
From her eyes came tears, gently flowing
They caught the moonlight, the starlight
And their light flowed softly
Down her cheek.
I didn’t sleep well for the rest of that night, although I tried. I kept tossing and turning, shifting in and out of half sleep and waking dreams. All the time, Sarah’s music kept playing in my head, like some stupid pop tune that you can’t get rid of. I had seen a ghost! Not some dark movement out of the corner of my eye, not some vague bright patch in a photo, but a real ghost. My mind kept coming back to that and then reeling away. I couldn’t accept it and yet I had to. I had seen her and I was pretty sure she had seen me.
As I came, dishevelled and bleary eyed, to breakfast the next morning, I said to Florence, “Tell me about Sarah. If I’m going to live in a haunted house, I at least need to know about the ghost.”
Florence gave a quiet shrug and busied herself with the teapot. “There’s not much more I can tell you. Very few people ever see her. Occasionally a figure will be spotted down on the beach as the full moon is rising. The music is heard more often. That’s why the drawing room was kept locked up. No one dared to touch the ‘haunted’ piano or even sit in the same room. Again, the music isn’t heard by everyone and it hasn’t been heard by anyone for a long time now. Something has changed.” She looked at me curiously. “I think maybe it’s you. I think your coming has triggered something, some sort of awakening. Somehow, you have a role to play in Sarah’s story. Somehow, you call to her and she to you.” She shook her head. “That’s not a good thing; not for you, at least. As I said, bad things happen to people who hear that music. On her part, however…Why do you hear her? There must be some connection. She must need you for something.”
I frowned into my cup of tea. “I doubt it,” I said. “At least, I don’t think she agrees with you. Last night, when she saw me, all she did was scream – very loudly. Then … she ran away, back to the house.”
Florence smiled. “Well, that makes a nice change,” she said. “The ghost running away, screaming, from the mortal.”
I didn’t feel like laughing and, anyway, it wasn’t funny. “She only appears at the full moon?” I asked.
Florence nodded. “Yes, a day or two either side, although sometimes she apparently turns up during a bad thunderstorm. They’re the times related to her death.” She was quiet for a long time then; sitting still, as if in deep thought. Eventually she said, “Sarah is trapped John, trapped by the fear and guilt of her death. According to the story, she was always a timid child and now that very timidity traps her in this unnatural way. She needs to be free but she’s tied down by the events surrounding her death and the role she played in them. She needs help. Perhaps that’s where you come in?”
This was all very interesting but I didn’t see what it had to do with me. It all happened long, long before I was born. “Don’t know what I can do,” I said. “Sounds to me like you need a priest.”
“Sarah isn’t some demon to be exorcised,” Florence said angrily. “She’s a sad, lost soul who needs our prayers.” She calmed down very quickly and looked at me sternly. “You need to be careful, John. Sarah is trapped in a time of pain and despair. I’m sure it’s lonely in there but you really don’t want to join her. Men have been trapped by far less, believe me. Pray for her, certainly, but have nothing else to do with her. Do you hear me? Avoid the places where she is likely to appear. Interactions between ghosts and the living rarely turn out well for the living.”
I shrugged. “Still sounds like a priest job to me,” I said.
I sat and finished my breakfast in silence. I hadn’t prayed since the night my parents had died. That night came back to me then, as vividly as a movie. Our priest had come to the house. He sat with me and asked if I wanted him to pray with me.
“I can’t,” I said, stiff with shock. “I’m sorry Father, but I just can’t.”
“Don’t worry, son” he’d replied. “We’ll pray for you. We’ll say all your prayers for you. That’s what the church is for.” That memory brought unwanted tears to my eyes and I hurriedly left the breakfast table.
The next month passed quickly. I did my study modules. I worked around the farm and the garden. I even chatted with my old friends. I never mentioned Sarah and I really did try not to think about her, but, in truth, she was never far from my thoughts, and in my quiet moments I would hear her music playing in my head: beautiful and sad.
As the time for the full moon came round again, I came to a decision that terrified me: I would try to meet Sarah again and I would try to talk with her. Every time I thought of this, I panicked but the thought wouldn’t go away. After all, I reasoned, she was dead, so who better to ask about the dead? This was a decision that had seemed easy and logical at the start but the closer the full moon came, the harder I had to work to keep my fear in check. I debated with myself whether to meet her on the beach or in the drawing room. In the end, I decided on the beach, since in the drawing room I would have to interrupt her playing and I didn’t think I could be that brave.
So it was, that for two nights before the night of the full moon, I sat on the beach and watched the moon rise. On the first evening she didn’t show up and I didn’t know if I was disappointed or relived. On the second night, however, she was there, at first as a translucent shadow but growing more solid as the moonlight grew stronger.
It was a cold night, with a strong southerly wind blowing scudding clouds across a moon bright sky. She stood there facing the moon with her night gown blowing around her in the wrong direction for the wind. I was sitting close to where she appeared and she turned to look at me but didn’t say anything. All month long I had been working out what I was going to say. Every time the music played in my head I was reminded of the questions I desperately wanted to ask but, now that I came to it, I couldn’t find the words. Indeed, I was shaking with the effort it took not to turn and run.
Eventually, she was the one who broke the silence. “Aren’t you going to scream or run away?” she asked. Her voice sounded distant, as if she were much further away than she appeared to be. I can’t even swear that it was a real sound, one that I heard with my ears, but I had no doubt that it was her voice and that these were her words.
“No,” I said, shaking my head and struggling to keep my voice under control. “I’m not afraid of you.” That was a lie and, since my voice was high and shaking, not a very convincing one. “I’m sorry for you.” That was the truth. “We have something in common, you and I. You mourn the death of your father and I mourn the death of my parents.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t your fault that your parents died,” she said flatly.
“Nor was it your fault that your father died,” I replied. “He was the one who decided to ride into an oncoming storm on a skittish horse. You didn’t force him.” I stood up and took a step towards her. She backed away. “Sarah, I have a question I need to ask you.” This was what had been plaguing me all month, yet now that I came to it, I realised that I was more afraid of the answer than I was of her. “What happens to you when you die?” She glared at me and turned away. “No, please!” I said. “Don’t go away. I need to know. My parents were killed in an accident and I need to know what happened to them. Please!”
She turned to face me again. “Were they good people?” she asked.
“Yes, I think so,” I said.
“Then I don’t know what happened to them,” she said. “I only know what happened to me. I’m trapped in my failure, doomed to forever live over the time of my death. Pray that this did not happen to them.”
“How can I know?” I pleaded.
“Have faith,” she replied, turning away. “Have faith and pray. I don’t know what happens to good people. They move on and I’m trapped.” She started to walk away, towards the house, fading to shadow and mist as she went. I raced back up the beach to the house, with the first notes of the piano echoing across the garden. She was sitting at the piano, still playing, when I entered the drawing room. I stopped at the door and listened, the deep sadness of the music reaching into my heart. The notes began to fade and Sarah became less substantial as the moon rose above the drawing room windows and the moonlight began to dim. She got up and glanced at me before running to the reading room. I followed her.
She was sitting on the cane chair when I got there, the moonlight still filling the room. “I cannot help you,” she said as I entered. “I don’t know what happens to people when they die. I only know it didn’t happen to me.” She turned to look at me, her eyes growing darker in the fading moonlight. “I’m sorry…” she said, as the moon passed above the reading room windows and the moonlight, and Sarah, faded from the room.
The next night I sat and waited in the drawing room. After the moon light flooded in through the windows, the first notes of the piano started and slowly Sarah seemed to condense from the moonlight and take form. There, in the moonlight filled room, I listened as she played her sorrow and her pain, the music crying into the night. Once again I listened and heard the notes rising in hope only to fall to ever greater depths. Rising again only in a kind of expectant hopelessness. My eyes filled with tears as the music called to my own grief and the moonlight shone brightly through the tears on Sara’s cheeks as she played. Her ghostly tears flowed freely – as did my real, salty ones.
As she ended her playing, she didn’t run immediately to the reading room as she normally did. She stood and turned to look at me and I looked at her. She was beautiful but becoming translucent in the fading moonlight. Her tears glistened on her cheeks even as the light passed through her. There, in the drawing room, we shared what we had in common; the almost unbearable pain of grief.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“John,” I replied. “John Riley. I live here now.”
She held out her hand to me as she faded, almost as if she were asking me to take it. “Don’t become like me, John.” A distant echo of her voice sounded in my head. “Don’t become trapped in the past, in pain …” The moon had passed well beyond the drawing room windows, the light faded, and she was gone.
Softly she played her sorrow,
Gently she played her anguish,
Softly she played,
Gently she played,
I didn’t sleep at all that night and arrived haggard and washed out at breakfast.
“You look like some sorry thing the cat dragged in,” Florence said. “You were up listening to her last night, weren’t you,” she challenged. There was no point in denying it. I nodded briefly. “Leave it alone,” she said sternly. “Just leave it alone. It’s not healthy for the living to be too concerned with the dead.”
I gave a grim smile. “I live in a haunted house where, every month, a ghost plays beautifully on a broken piano in a deserted room and you expect me to just ignore it?”
Florence paused and then she sighed. “No, I suppose I can’t really expect it but I do, most strongly, advise it. Leave the dead with the dead. They don’t need sleep. They don’t need to pass exams. You do.” She put a plate of bacon and eggs in front of me. “Eat up. You have a lot of revision to do today, or have you forgotten the physics test due next week?”
“No, I haven’t forgotten,” I mumbled as I reached for the pepper.
“Seriously,” Florence said. “Leave it alone. I know she was a beautiful girl and what happened to her was tragic, but leave it be. We can’t change the past and it wouldn’t do to waste your life obsessed with things best forgotten.”
“Okay,” I said, as I started to cut up my bacon, but I knew that I would be back in the drawing room that night. Even though she was dead, Sarah was beautiful; she was talented; and she was in trouble. I knew I couldn’t turn away. I had to at least try and help her.
All that day, I struggled with my physics revision. Lack of sleep meant that my head felt like it was full of cotton wool. I found myself staring at the same sentence for a long time, trying to read it again and again, without any of its meaning sinking in. At both lunch and dinner, I sat quietly and ate with disinterest. Florence didn’t say anything but I could feel her eyes constantly on me. I did really try to study after dinner but it was no good. Eventually, in the first dark of evening, with the west painted red and gold by the setting sun, I gave up and wandered down to the beach. There I sat, waiting for the moon to rise. The evening was clear and still, with neither cloud nor wind, and I sat for a long time with no sound other than the surf breaking on the reef and cry of the seagulls finding a place to roost for the night.
The moon rose slowly and was shining brilliantly when I heard her voice, still distant and strangely disembodied, “You are here again. I cannot help you. Why do you haunt me this way?” I turned to see her sitting beside me on the sand, her hair blowing in a wind only she could feel.
“Sarah,” I said as softly and as gently as I could, “I’m not here to ask for your help, not any more. You can’t help me. Okay, but maybe I can help you. It just feels wrong to me to see you suffer in this way. This can’t be right, you being trapped like this. Maybe, if I can convince you that it wasn’t your fault, you could be free.” I looked at her hopefully, but she kept starring out to sea, her eyes fixed on the rising moon: tears slowly making their way down her cheek.
“It was just a sad, sad accident,” I said earnestly and forcefully. “You did nothing wrong. Can’t you see that? Can’t you see that and be free?”
She was silent for a long time and I was afraid she was going to disappear off to the house and start playing. Eventually she said, “But I was in the wrong. The accident that killed Pappa wasn’t really my fault, true, but I died trapped in grief and despair. I twisted the love I had so that what should have set me free, bound me instead. John, I’m dead. I can’t help myself but you still live. For you, grief can still grow into a loving remembrance, despair can give way to hope. Do not follow me, John. Live! Live and love! It would be better, for you, if you didn’t continue to haunt me.”
Then she was gone and a few moments later I heard the first notes from the piano drifting across the garden and the sand dunes. I ran up to the house as fast as I could, the music echoing in my head, but by the time I got there the Last echoes of the music were fading as the moon passed above the grimy windows. The door to the reading room was open and I ran across as quietly as I could. Here the moonlight was still shinning directly through the tall windows and she was there, sitting in the chair, pale and beautiful.
“Sarah,” I said softly. “Your father’s death was an accident. It wasn’t your fault. Can’t you just let it go? Let it go and perhaps you can be free.”
She turned to look at me and I looked into her eyes; pale and misty; full of moonlight and loss; full of hopelessness and an endless despair, My blood ran cold. A shiver ran down my back and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It was like looking into a bottomless well of grief and sadness. For a moment, all I could think of was that despair. Nothing else mattered. It was like falling into darkness. I stumbled backwards, my heart racing. For the first time, I truly understood why people are afraid of ghosts. Then the moon passed from view and she was gone. The next night, the moon was well past full. The beach was empty and the piano was silent.
I sat on the step of the reading room, staring at the empty chair in the fading moonlight, the sad and familiar music playing, over and over, in my head. It was strange but, as I sat there, I realised that things weren’t working out at all as Florence and Sarah feared. I wasn’t becoming more and more lost in past sadness with Sarah. Rather, Sarah was freeing me from the past sadness I was already trapped in. For the last month, I had no longer been consumed by my own grief. It was still there, like a persistent tune playing in the background. Yet the time had also been taken up with my concern for Sarah. It was strange. Can you love a ghost? I don’t know but she was beautiful and sad and I wanted desperately to help her.
I slept that night with the sound of her music still playing in my head. It was a constant refrain in my dreams; dreams in which my Mum and Dad were, somehow, standing awash with moonlight; standing on a beach with a piano playing by itself on the sand.
“She’s a lovely girl,” my Mum kept saying, over and over. “She’s a lovely girl. You should help her. I know you can.”
“No I can’t!” I yelled. “I can’t! She’s dead! She’s dead!”
Then Mr. Brown was there, his voice booming across the beach. “Whatever it once was, it isn’t that now. It’s not human, not human…”
“Just make sure you respect her and do the right thing,” my Dad was saying. “Stand by her and be her friend. You can do that, can’t you? Can’t you?”
“No I can’t!” I kept yelling. “I can’t! She’s dead! She’s dead!”
Above it all, Mr. Brown was calling to me, louder and louder, “Stay away! It’s dangerous, dangerous I tell you! Stay away!” While all the time the piano was playing the same, sad music, also slowly growing louder. It all built up; the music, Mr. Brown, even the soft voices of my parents; until it was a kind of scream inside my head.
I clapped my hands over my ears and yelled, “I can’t! I can’t! She’s dead! She’s dead!”
I woke, sitting up in bed and starring wildly into the dark, the last vestiges of my scream dying on my lips. I was shaking and my pyjamas were damp with sweat. I lay back down in bed but sleep wouldn’t come. The thoughts, sounds and images of the dream kept running, uselessly, through my head. It was early morning before I fell into a kind of fitful doze.
I woke, later that morning, washed out and emotionally drained. I didn’t understand any of this but I couldn’t shake these thoughts and images. It wasn’t that long ago that I would have laughed at anybody who believed in ghosts. But then, it also wasn’t that long ago that I had a mother and a father and a future that made some kind of sense.
Florence was very quiet over breakfast, waiting for me to speak, I guess. I didn’t oblige her beyond the functional and superficial. Not because I was being nasty but because I genuinely couldn’t think of anything sensible to say. How could I speak, over bacon and eggs, of something that was so emotional and personal and yet, at the same time, such a tangled mess of mystery, of the unknown, and the impossible?
The rest of my day was pretty normal. I did my study modules all morning and I was happy with my physics revision progress. I took a break about midday to help distribute some hay to the sheep. I also took a quick walk around the garden, just to clear my head. Florence served me lunch in the old kitchen as usual.
“You know, I think if we pruned that old apple tree down in the south corner, we might even get some apples,” I said.
Florence raised an eyebrow. “Oh, so we have decided to speak, have we?” she said. I didn’t bite, so she continued. “Yes, I think that would be a good idea. There’s that apricot tree that’s gone wild as well. You could also have a go at that.” She looked at me sternly. “Only after your physics exam though. Your parents would want me to keep you to your studies.” I nodded. That much, at least, I knew was true.
The afternoon was quiet. I spent most of it studying: learning the Krebs Cycle and watching explanations of simultaneous equations. I took a break before dinner and wandered through the old house, not looking for anything in particular – just looking.
That night at dinner, I asked Florence why we didn’t make more use of the rest of the house, why we lived in the cramped servant’s quarters when there was a whole house full of large, gracious rooms lying empty. She looked at me and shook her head with a kind of sadness.
“This is an old house,” she said, “and it’s full of memories, some of them older than the house itself. Sarah isn’t the only strange thing to walk about at night. It’s best to leave well enough alone.”
I looked at her in surprise. “Do you mean that there’re more ghosts?” I asked. “Exactly how haunted is this place? Maybe we really should ask father Madigan out here.”
She ignored me. “Still, I think it would be a good idea to bring the garden back to some sort of order. I don’t think you could get into too much trouble there.” I stared at her and started to ask my question again but she quickly began talking about where in the garden I should start. So I gave up. When Florence changes a subject, it tends to stay changed. We spent the rest of dinner talking about improvements that could be made to the garden. The house could wait till later.
After dinner, I went down to the beach and watched the moon rise over the sea. It was well past its peak by now and, of course, she didn’t appear, yet still I sat there. A north wind was blowing and the swell from the Southern Ocean was crashing like thunder on the reef. There was a storm coming.
“She’s a lovely girl,” I whispered to the moon, “and it wasn’t her fault. She shouldn’t be trapped like this.” The moon made no response.
And in the moonlight,
And in the starlight,
Sarah’s next appearance wasn’t due for another twenty six days, when the next full moon was due. I can’t say that I just put it out of my mind. That would’ve been impossible. The whole thing kept on playing in the back of my head. Questions without answers, over and over again, like the notes of the piano, always seeking resolution and never finding it. Still, I got on with my life. I did my study and I worked a bit on the farm. I pruned the fruit trees and tried to bring some order to the garden, so that a walk there became less and less like an expedition to a wild, jungle wilderness. I still chatted to my old city friends on social media, although we now had less and less in common and I’m afraid I grossed them out with a few of the details of farm life that I probably should’ve kept to myself. I wondered what their reaction would’ve been if I’d mentioned Sarah.
I sat my Physics exam in the kitchen one Thursday. It was okay, neither as simple as I had hoped nor as difficult as I had feared. Like a lot of my exams, it was somewhere in the middle. Florence was convinced, and said so loudly and repeatedly, that I could’ve done much better if only I would stop thinking about Sarah and concentrate on my school. Maybe she was right. We’ll never know because that, of course, was impossible.
I still thought a lot about my parents too. Sometimes, the familiar sadness would just overwhelm me, like a wave. It could be anytime, day or night. I could be doing anything, from studying French verbs to herding sheep, and some memory would pop into my head, apparently out of nowhere. Then it would all be back again and I would be crying openly and wanting to scream my anger at heaven.
The dark despair of the early days was gone, though. Because of Sarah, I now knew that death wasn’t the end. Rather, it was the beginning of something else, something new; or at least it was meant to be. I was also pretty sure that my parents wouldn’t get themselves stuck like Sarah. They were both good people and way too sensible. I also knew they would trust me enough to let me get on with my own life.
Getting on with life suddenly became a very full occupation. Not only did I have a rolling schedule of exams, but now it was also lambing season and the music of Sarah’s piano was replaced by the bleating of the ewes as they gave birth. Lambing was a busy and fascinating time, although, if I were to be honest, I found some of the things we had to do disgusting, especially when a lamb got stuck. When I say we, I mean mostly Mr. Brown, although I did sometimes have to hold the sheep’s head while he did what had to be done at the other end. Good and necessary work, but disgusting none the less.
It was during one of these sessions with a troublesome ewe that I again asked Mr. Brown why he never came up to the house.
“I told you, too many ghosts,” he grunted as the lamb finally slipped out and fell to the ground.
“You mean Sarah?” I asked.
“Well, I’m not on first name terms, myself,” he answered. “but yes, her.” The lamb and the ewe were now bleating to each other and the lamb was already struggling to stand on shaking legs. I let go of the ewe’s head as she turned to tend the lamb.
Mr. Brown was taking no notice of the lamb. He was looking at me and frowning. “I’ve heard people say she was pretty and I’s guess her shade is also but boy, you listen to me. The girl is dead and gone. Whatever you might see up at the house, it isn’t a girl. It’s something unnatural. It’s something dangerous…”
“How?” I asked. “How can a ghost hurt anyone? They’re not material –“
“It’s not your body they hurt,” he interrupted. “It’s your soul. That’s what they’re after. They want to take your soul and leave you trapped in the darkness.”
I snorted in disgust. “That’s just silly,” I said. “Why would a girl like Sarah want my soul?”
“It’s not a girl!” he said loudly and angrily. “Whatever it once was, whoever it once was, it’s not that now. It’s a ghost and it’s nothing any living person should have any truck with.”
“Have you ever even seen her?” I yelled back.
“No,” he yelled. The he calmed down and answered softly, “but I heard her once. Let me tell you, I dropped everything, bolted back to the truck, and high tailed it outta there. Never been back after dark since. You’d do well to do the same. Don’t you have friends in the city?” He stalked back to his truck and I followed. I never mentioned the subject with him again.
I didn’t buy any of that ghosts steal your soul stuff, although I’d be lying if I said that the thought didn’t nag at me a little, especially when I remembered that feeling I had when looking into her eyes. I didn’t dwell on it though. I deliberately turned away and busied myself with task. It was a thought and a memory that I didn’t want to have.
I took some time that month to clean up the drawing room, I even polished the silver. I washed down the windows and I vacuumed and dusted the reading room. I had to use a small battery unit since there were no power points in that part of the house. I don’t know why I did this. I wasn’t even sure that Sarah perceived the modern house rather than the one she had died in. Still, it felt like I was doing something for her and perhaps the gesture, if not the thing itself, would ease her sorrow. That was what I wanted to do now. To ease Sarah’s sorrow. The more I thought about it, the more unjust it seemed that she should be stuck, doing the same sad things, over and over and over again. More and more, I wanted to help her.
Cleaned up, both rooms were changed into bright, pleasant places, with the morning sun streaming through the windows and a view across the spring garden to the sea. Florence tolerated my cleaning activities but started to make pointed remarks about me, maybe, tidying up my own room which, I have to admit, was a bit of a mess.
As often happens when you’re busy, the month passed quickly. Towards the end, Florence kept loading me with jobs that needed, at least in her mind, to be done immediately. I think…No, I know, that she was trying to distract me from Sarah’s imminent return. It didn’t work.
A change came through the next day and we were buffeted by strong southerly winds which brought with them squally showers. That evening, clouds covered the rising moon and the showers had given way to rain. I didn’t go down to the beach but waited in the drawing room, unsure of whether Sarah would turn up, given that the moon was obscured. I was not unprepared, however. I brought in some candles and lit them rather than wait in the dark and I also set my phone to record and left it on the piano. I wanted a recording of Sarah and her music.
I waited for what seemed like a long time. Then the piano started to play. At first, apparently, by itself. Then Sarah seemed to condense from the dark, seated at the piano. The strange thing was, even given that really everything at that moment was strange, she still looked as though she was bathed in bright moonlight. She seemed to shine in the candlelit room. I didn’t make a noise. I just sat there and listened. I let her music and her sadness wash over me and through me, acting like a balm to my own grief. I seemed to find a resonance there, as if, in my pain, I was not alone. Misery loves company, I guess. I sat and I listened, until the music stopped and her bright moonlight figure ran to the reading room. I followed. Again, stopping at the doorway and sitting on the step.
She was sitting in her chair and again reading her poetry, her moonlight bright figure the only effective illumination in the darkened room.
She looked up at me and asked, “Only sitting?” I nodded and she said, “Thank you,” so softly that it might have been nothing more than a breath of wind. Her eyes turned back to her book and I couldn’t help but wonder if, after a hundred and fifty odd years, she wouldn’t be sick of it by now.
Apparently not. Because, as she was starting to fade, she looked directly at me and said:
“What can I give thee back, O liberal
And princely giver, who hast brought the gold
And purple of thine heart, unstained, untold
And laid them on the….”
She faded into the darkness, still speaking. I found out later that these were the first lines from sonnet number eight of Elizabeth Browning’s ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’. I guess that after a hundred and fifty years, while you might be sick of the poems, you would sure have them memorised pretty well.
I went back into the drawing room, retrieved my phone and checked the recording. There was nothing on it. The video just showed the empty room until I crossed over to the reading room. There was no sound other than my footsteps. I played it again and amped up the volume and still there was nothing except the soft sound of the wind around the house, my own breathing, and the distant sound of the surf breaking on the reef. Of Sarah’s music there was no trace. Again, I scanned forward until I heard the sound of my footsteps going to the reading room. Still, of Sarah there was no trace. This left me with a lot to think about. How could I see her if the camera couldn’t record her? How could I hear the music if my phone couldn’t record it? Did I really see her or hear the music or was it some sort of impression in my brain? Was she real or only in my mind? Was it even really music?
I shook my head and put all this to one side. It was too much to worry about tonight. I put out the candles and made my way back through the darkened house. I found Florence waiting for me in the kitchen. She was clearly not pleased.
“Give it up, John,” she said, her voice as sharp as steel. “Leave the dead with the dead. Don’t waste your life chasing after shadows and moonlight.”
“She needs help,” I said stubbornly.
“And how are you going to give it to her?” she replied. “What can you offer her that could set her free? What sort of relationship can you have with someone who died before your great grandfather was born?” She looked at me as if demanding an answer but I made no reply. She snorted in disgust. “It was a mistake to bring you here. You should be with people your own age – living people your own age. I’ve let you wallow in grief long enough. Pull yourself together or I’ll have to make other arrangements.” That didn’t sound good but I had too much going on to process it tonight, let alone argue about it.
“Okay,” I said. “Goodnight, Florence. See you in the morning.” I went to my room and fell into bed and into dreams; dreams full of music that only I could hear and cries for help that I couldn’t answer.
The next day I made myself busy around the farm and the garden, despite the persistent showers, and kept out of the way of Florence, except at meals. The subject of Sarah was not raised between us. That evening I again waited in the drawing room and sat and listened as Sarah played; grief calling to grief, tears to tears. When she had finished, I went over to the reading room and sat on the doorstep, as I had the night before.
She looked up at me and was silent for a while. Then she finished the sonnet she had started the night before.
“Ask God who knows, for frequent tears have run
The colours from my life, and left so dead
And pale a stuff, its use not fitly done
To give the same a pillow to thy head.
Go Farther! Let it serve to trample on.”
She was silent when she had finished, looking down and apparently reading her book again. Then she looked up and looked directly at me. I felt the same unsettling shock as I looked into her eyes.
“Go on, John Riley,” she said. “Go and live your life, find the one you love. Don’t get tangled in the darkness with me.” Then she faded and was gone.
Her sorrow was deep,
Her anguish great,
And I, sorrowing,
Called upon my God,
“Lord,” I cried,
“Release her from her suffering.”
With the full moon now well past and Sarah’s next scheduled appearance being another twenty six days away, things returned to normal between Florence and me. Whatever her ‘other arrangements’ were, they were not immediately apparent. I even toyed with the idea that she had given up.
After the lambing, things on the farm were pretty quiet. Mr. Brown and I went back to our normal short conversations and much longer silences. Each day we would take some extra hay around to the mother ewes and their lambs but that didn’t take too long. My studies were also winding down now as the long summer break approached. I had hoped that some of my old friends would come down from the city over the summer but they didn’t seem that keen. Florence blamed me and maybe she was right. I think that, maybe, my tales of sheep’s blood and afterbirth had put them off. On the other hand, it may well be that we were just drifting apart and, increasingly, had little to say to each other.
All of this meant that I spent a lot of time in the garden; pruning fruit trees and trying to get the vegetable and herb gardens back into production. I don’t really know why. It just seemed like the thing to do. All of this also meant that I spent a lot of time alone and that I would still get caught up in great waves of grief, imagining broken bodies lying on the side of the road, bleeding and in pain. It was something I couldn’t shake. It was just something I had no control over.
Strangely, often when the sadness had washed over me and was gone; when the tears had played themselves out and the anger had passed; I felt a weird closeness to my parents. I knew they were gone on to wherever they were meant to go and I knew they were good and loving people, so I wasn’t really worried about them. In fact, it was more likely that they were worried about me. I felt, at those times, that they were still with me, that death couldn’t, in fact, separate us. I know some of you will think that’s crazy but it was how I felt, how I still feel, and the feeling is precious to me.
I felt this closeness one morning, kneeling in one of the garden’s vegetable beds. I had been trying to plant some basil and I had remembered that Mum had grown some fresh herbs in a small flower pot on our apartment balcony. It was strange. All of a sudden, I missed her acutely, almost painfully, and at the same time I felt her close about me, closer, really, than she ever was when she was alive.
“Mum,” I whispered. Then I just started talking to her as if she were kneeling there beside me. “Mum, I don’t know what to do about Sarah. She needs help but I don’t know how to help her.” One by one, I planted the basil seedlings in the moist earth. “How can the living help the dead?” I sat back on my heels to rest and closed my eyes against the morning sun. A memory came to me then, clear and vivid; a memory from my early childhood. I was kneeling beside my bed in my old bedroom with my favourite stuffed toy lying against the pillow.
Mum was leading me in my prayers: “God bless Daddy,” she said. I repeated the words after her. “And God bless Mum…”
I opened my eyes. “And God bless Sarah,” I whispered to the garden earth.
It was hot all that week. Unusually hot for this early in the summer. We were caught in the tail end of a large blocking high which was sending hot, northerly winds from the desert our way. This couldn’t last. By the end of the week, a strong cold front slowly pushed the stubborn high eastwards, the wind strengthened, even as the low behind the front deepened. The coming storm would be as powerful as it was inevitable. Tall towers of cloud could be seen building on the horizon as the high slowly gave way.
The hot, north wind was gale force by late Friday afternoon. Then, in the early evening, it died away and the first rumblings of thunder could be heard. The whole of the west was a mass of cloud, still gleaming white and gold with the light of a sun that had already slipped below the horizon. The sky beneath them, however, was black and the thunder grew until it was like a constant, rolling, barrage of artillery.
The storm proper hit just after I had got into bed. The lightening bathed the house in sudden, electric brightness and the thunder shook even the stone walls of the old house. The rain cascaded from the sky as if it were a tropical downpour and the night dissolved into a sequence of brilliant light and deepest dark, of thunderous roar and momentary silence. It was in one of those moments of stillness that I heard it; the faint, distant sound of a piano.
I fell in my eagerness to get out of bed and ran through the storm shaken house to the drawing room, stumbling and colliding in the uncertain lighting.
It was dark when I got to the drawing room, so dark that I could only just make out the outline of the windows. The piano was, however, filling the room with music, with the deep roar of the thunder adding a wild and powerful baseline. Then there was a flash of lightning and the room was filled with an almost unbearable brightness. She was there at the piano, her hands chasing frantically across the keyboard. The music was different now, no longer weeping with sorrow. That night it was a scream of loss and pain, angry chords that matched the wildness of the storm. Sarah was different too: as wild and violent as the music she played.
I knew that music, not as a sound, but as a wound deep in my heart. I recognised it. I had felt nothing else in the days after my parents’ death. The room was again plunged into profound darkness. In that darkness I understood and understood completely: not just with my mind but with every part of my soul. It was in that pain that Sarah now had her being. She had died unable to let go of her terrible grief and now that grief bound her soul. I remembered my own grief, my own parents, and I remembered my prayer in the garden.
There, in the dark, with the storm raging about me, with the wild music of thunder and loss filling my ears, I did what I had not been able to do for a long, long time. I fell on my knees and I prayed.
“Lord, have mercy on her,” I cried into the violent night. The music stopped and in the next lightening flash I saw her; still sitting at the piano but now turned and looking at me. “Lord,” I said, “she must’ve loved greatly or she would not be in such pain. For the love that she had…” I paused. Then, looking directly at her, I took a deep breath and continued, “For the love that I have for her, from your own heart of love, Lord, have mercy on her. Let her go free.”
There was something like half a beat when the world seemed to shift. Then the storm was silent and the room was filled, impossibly, with moonlight. Sarah stood in front of me and held out her hand to help me up from my knees. Only it was a Sarah whose skin was fair but not deathly pale, whose hair was blonde rather than silver, and whose eyes were bright blue. A smile played around her lips as I stood up and she placed her finger to my lips to stop my questions.
“Hush,” she said. “Just accept this as a gift. It is a moment out of time, given to me to say thank you. I was dead and I couldn’t help myself but you, you saw my pain and your prayers have set me free.
“But you’re not dead now,” I said, looking with wonder at the warm and breathing young woman in front of me.
“No, not any longer,” she said. “I have to go now John, but I want you to know that I will pray for you, just as you prayed for me. Know that death has no power over human love or friendship. I will always be close to you John. But you already know that, don’t you. You know that because you have felt your parents close to you and you must know that they pray for you. Goodbye, John, and thank you.”
Again, that strange half beat. I blinked and the room was plunged into darkness. The only sounds were the rain and the thunder. When next the lightening flashed, I was alone. I stood there for a long time, unsure of the reality that surrounded me. I stood there until the storm passed into the east, until the lightening no longer set the world ablaze, until the thunder growled away into the distance. The night was no longer black, but a deep grey, as I felt my way back to my bed. I didn’t turn on any lights, even when I could’ve. The artificial light would have been an intrusion into something sacred and precious. Sleep came quickly and dreamlessly. It was over. It was accomplished.
In the moonlight,
In the starlight,
She was gone.
The next morning I made my way to the drawing room before breakfast. It was strange to see it in the daylight, with the early morning sun streaming in through the bay windows. Outside, the sky was now a clear blue after the storm. I didn’t touch the piano but I made a promise to myself that it would be repaired and tuned, that the whole room would be kept clean and the silver polished. This was no longer a place bound by death. It should be filled with light and life: it should be lived in.
I went down into the reading room and it was unchanged from what it had been before, or almost unchanged. The book of poetry lay open at a different page, one unmarked by long exposure to the air. I picked it up. It was now open at sonnet number ten. There I read:
Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed
I stand transfigured, glorified aright,
There’s nothing low
In love, when love the lowest: meanest creatures
Who love God, God accepts while loving so.
I put the book down and as I was leaving, I whispered,” Farewell Sarah. May flights of angels wing thee to thy rest and may God hold thee close to His heart.”
Florence was waiting for me in the kitchen and when I made my way back there I could see her noting which part of the house I had come from. I hoped this wasn’t going to turn into another lecture. As it happened, it didn’t. She made no direct comment about Sarah or the drawing room.
Instead, she commented on the weather. “That was a real storm we had last night,” she said simply. “We don’t get too many like that, luckily.”
“No, it was pretty wild,” I agreed. “I’ll go and check on the sheep and the fences after breakfast.”
She nodded absently, picking up the teapot to pour herself a cup of tea. “Did you hear the piano last night?” she asked casually. “I thought you might have, a bit, in the storm. It could be the sort of time you might. But then I’m not sure.”
“It stopped,” I said shortly, not wanting to discuss Sarah.
“It stopped when the storm stopped?” she suggested.
“No, before that,” I said.
“I see,” she said, pausing for one long moment, still holding the teapot. Then she became brisk and business-like. “Well, that’s that then.”
She put the teapot down and smiled at me. Now, Florence is a good lady and I love her dearly, but she rarely smiles. So, that was a bit of a surprise and more than a little worrying.
“I need to go into town to get some things this morning,” she said. “You could come with me, if you like. After you’ve finished checking the farm, of course.” In all my time at the farm, I had not yet gone into town, except to go to mass on Sunday. This wasn’t a great lack in my life, since Cerberus isn’t much of a town. Apart from the church, it’s just a hotel and a few shops clustered at the top of a cliff and overlooking a small, natural harbour. Normally, I would probably have given it a miss but that morning I needed a distraction and, anyway, there was something curiously deliberate in Florence’s invitation.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll go and check for storm damage and get back to you.”
As it happened, we had been lucky in the storm. The sheep had all sought shelter in the trees that lined our fences and the only flooding was in a swampy area that we kept fenced off anyway. So it wasn’t much more than an hour later that I was sitting next to Florence in her old town car; a diesel hybrid that you had to drive yourself. I wondered how she still had a permit to operate it.
In town, Florence did most of her shopping in the General Store, where she clearly knew the old lady, who ran the place. They were obviously old friends. They chatted for about five minutes over every little thing Florence bought. I was rapidly deciding that going into town was a mistake. Watching sheep graze was way more interesting than this and, for those of you who haven’t done it, watching sheep graze isn’t great.
After she’d finished buying stuff, she and the store lady decided to leave the store in the care of her assistant and go and get a coffee. I was in luck, however. Florence had no intention of inviting me along.
“I wonder if Liz is around,” she said to the store lady. “I thought she might be able to show John around the town.” The store lady almost seemed to be expecting this question and I wondered if there wasn’t something more to this, something they had cooked up between them. It occurred to me that this might well be the ‘other arrangements’ that Florence had talked about.
Whatever, the store lady turned straightaway and called out, “Liz! Can you come down?” I heard footsteps on the stairs at the back of the store and then – Sarah walked into the room. She was dressed in a tee shirt and shorts rather than a long nightgown but it was as if Sarah had stepped through time into the twenty first century. Only, it wasn’t Sarah. This girl’s hair was darker and her eyes were brown. Her skin was lightly tanned and she was a little taller and heavier built. Still, the resemblance was close enough to leave me momentarily stunned. I don’t think I made a good first impression. In fact, I think she thought I was some sort of weirdo, standing there like a stunned mullet, because a shy smile played around the corners of her mouth, as if something had amused her and she was trying not to show it.
Florence introduced us. “Liz, this is John, my great nephew. He lives with me now. John, this is Elizabeth Carew. Sarah Carew, the girl I told you about, is her great, great, great, great grand aunt.” Liz rolled her eyes at this but Florence ignored her. “Liz, would you like to show John about the town?,” she asked. “He’s still new to the area.”
“Sure,” she said, shrugging casually. “It won’t take long. There’s not all that much to show.”
There wasn’t and it didn’t. There was the old hotel on a corner; some fast food places on another; the general store; the bakery; the old church; some houses, most of which were only used during the holidays; and that was about it. We ended up down at the harbour, walking out along the jetty. In a burst of uncharacteristic gallantry, I had bought us a couple of ice creams.
“So,” I said. “You’re related to the Carews who used to own our farm.”
She nodded. “Yeah, when Sarah and her dad died, my great, great something grandmother was already pregnant. She sold the farm and moved into town to live on the proceeds, not that she got that much for it.” She frowned at me as if expecting me to make restitution for my family’s meanness. I didn’t bite. “When he got old enough, her son; my great, great something grandfather; bought the general store and we’ve been there ever since. Although my family lives up in the city now. I’m just down here for the holidays.”
“So, you know about how Sarah and her dad died?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “The whole Sarah story is a big family legend. To tell you the truth, I’m a bit sick of hearing about it.”
“Well,” I said without thinking. “You do look a lot like her.”
“How do you know…” She stopped and looked at me, her eyes growing wide. “Oh my god! You’ve seen her! So it is true. She does haunt the old house.”
I looked out to sea to hide the tears that suddenly came, unwanted, to my eyes. “Not anymore,” I said.
Liz was quiet for a while then and I could feel her watching me closely as I continued to gaze out to sea. “There are some,” she said softly, “that are afraid of ghosts, even the ghost of a young girl. They say that they can steal your soul.”
“No,” I said, never once taking my eyes from the horizon. “That’s just silly. No ghost, or spirit or hobgoblin can take your soul.” I paused, and when I continued, my voice was high and breaking. “But sometimes a ghost can give it back to you.” I could feel Liz starring at the back of my head, not saying anything. Then she turned and started to walk down the jetty again, eating her ice cream. I quickly wiped the tears from my eyes and followed her.
“You must tell me about it sometime,” she said.
I did, but not there and not then. I told her about it in the drawing room one evening, when the room was flooded with moonlight.
I saw her, in the moonlight,
In the starlight,
In the drawing room.
On the piano, softly playing.
A mist was she, a shadow,
And the moonlight,
And the starlight,
Passed through her.
From her eyes came tears, gently flowing,
They caught the moonlight,
And their light flowed softly
Down her cheek.
Softly, she played her sorrow,
Gently, she played her anguish,
Softly she played,
Gently she played,
And in the moonlight,
And in the starlight, I listened.
Her sorrow was deep,
Her anguish great,
And I, sorrowing,
Called upon my God,
Lord, I cried,
Release her from her suffering.
In the moonlight,
In the starlight,
She was gone.
A boy lost in grief and an old farm house where a mysterious girl plays out her sorrow on the piano in the moonlight. Grief calls to grief and sorrow to sorrow. A haunting tale of love and death and isolation. Following the death of his parents in an automated traffic accident, John Riley is sent to live with his only surviving relative; an ageing great aunt who lives in an old and isolated farm house far from the city and all his social contacts. There he finds a mystery: a girl who plays the piano in a locked room by moonlight. He follows her to a secret room, an old book of poetry and the tale of a long past tragedy "My aunt lived on an old farm, close to the sea. The farm house had been built in the nineteenth century in imitation of some minor Scottish castle. It was a rambling place of crumbling stone and cracked plaster, with ornamental towers and arched doorways. The kind of place that history buffs get all excited about – mainly because they don’t have to live there. I went from crowds of friends to – what? Sheep? Maybe. Seagulls? Perhaps, but certainly not people. All in all, I might as well have walked through the back of a wardrobe and into Narnia." This story comes from a poem which in turn comes from a dream. I can still see Sarah, plain as moonlight, playing on her piano.