William knew the voice in his head wasn’t real. The sing-song quality had faded to an echo, but the whispered words were still coherent, still luring him forward like they had years ago. Come here. Bring me the baby.
Moving through the dust, the attic looked the same as it did each night in his dreams. Its walls were darkened from filth and soot from the long-ago fire. William knew the floorboards he now stood on were compromised from years of exposure to the elements, but he didn’t care. He stared up through the charred holes in the roof, patches of a gray September sky visible overhead.
“It’s a miracle the fire did not swallow the plantation whole,” William’s great-aunt Sylvie told him on his last visit, her gnarled hands trembling ever-so-slightly over the worn armrests of her wheelchair. She no longer had the strength in her arthritic fingers to grip the wheels and steer the chair herself, so William pushed her to the little courtyard garden of the old-age home. “I remember that night like it was yesterday. I was so young. We danced and drank champagne until sunrise.”
William knew the story by heart. Sylvie had told him the story so many times as a child. “And the fire raged until morning,” William repeated. He liked that word, raged. It seemed to suit him. He often awoke at night in fits of rage himself, consumed with an artist’s desire to create. Clay had become his outlet . . . the sculpting of soft, cool mud into something beautiful. He had even had some commercial success at some of the smaller SoHo galleries. But he was never satisfied with his work.
“I wasn’t there when it began,” his great-aunt said, patting William’s hand and smiling at him through eyes partly blinded by cataracts. “I had gone into the city with Chester and Miriam. We often frequented the jazz bars that never closed. And when we came back, the fire was blazing in every window. There was glass everywhere. And such heat! Poor Philip had lost all control, and poor Elizabeth was nowhere to be found.”
“Tell me about Elizabeth,” William asked, even though he already knew the family legends. Elizabeth had been Sylvie’s second or third cousin, a distant relation to William himself. He knew how, at her parents’ behest, Elizabeth had agreed to marry a rich Atlanta banker named Philip who built the grand house for her as a wedding present. Philip had escorted Elizabeth to every event and party thrown by Atlanta’s social elite. According to Sylvie, Philip had taken to alcohol “like a child to a candy stick.” Elizabeth had been raised in a strict Catholic home where temperance and abstinence were preached regularly. “Had her parents known Philip’s true nature, I wonder if they would have pushed the marriage?” Sylvie told William. “But his money did the trick. As you know, our family never suffered during the Depression.”
Sylvie sat back against her chair and lifted her face to the afternoon sun. “We used to be the best of friends, Elizabeth and me,” she said wistfully. “We laughed and shared secrets on summer evenings as we sat on the galleries of my home. You know the galleries I speak of, William. You used to play Jacks on the very boards where Elizabeth and I once sat. But once Philip entered her life, it was as if a door closed on our relationship. He kept her behind lock and key, unless he was showing her off at one of his parties.
“She was such a beautiful child,” Sylvie continued. “No more than eighteen when she married Philip, and I was only two years younger than her, mind you. But she became more and more reclusive, withdrawing into herself,” Sylvie said, shaking her head.
William also knew Elizabeth’s fate.
“On the night of her twenty-first birthday, Philip hosted a large celebration in honor of his wife. She sat in the corner of that great parlor the whole night, dressed in beautiful silk and beads, her hair feathered away from her slender face. She was as unmoving as a statue, watching everyone do the Charleston and drink bootleg liquor. Philip never had a shortage. I saw Philip pull her from her seat once to dance with him, but she was liquid in his arms, moved by no will of her own. Her hands were draped over his shoulders, her face turned away from his, her feet barely touching the polished wood. I stopped to watch her, and when her face was turned toward me, her eyes were vacant. I tell you, William, there was no life left in that child.”
“What happened then?” William asked, even though he knew.
“I was told that after I left, Elizabeth slipped from the room unnoticed. Guests began to smell smoke, and as one man threw open the door to the cellar, clouds of black billowed into the parlor. Everyone ran from the house in a panic, breaking through windows and pushing so hard against doors they broke from their hinges. Philip ran through the house calling for Elizabeth, but he was finally forced into the open yard. The fire ate at the woodwork. It was still burning when we returned at dawn. There was something fierce and demanding about the fire, as if it savored the beauty and craft of the house.
Guests stood on the lawn, watching as the firemen battled the flames. Philip wandered through the throng searching for his wife. I ran to his side, but he looked right through me. There was a wild look in his eyes that I’ll never forget. The fire finally died in the early hours just after dawn, and in the pale, insubstantial light of morning, they found Elizabeth’s remains on the floor of the blackened cellar. She left behind a husband who blamed himself for her death. The papers reported suicide and arson. Philip disappeared one day, and no one ever saw or heard from him again. I may be almost 100, but I will never forget that night.”
Now, as William walked across the attic nearly 80 years later, he heard laughter rise up through the floorboards. He heard the clinking of glass and faint strains of music. He smelled the memory of smoke and heard the echo of screams. And he heard her voice, beckoning him, calling to him.
Come here. Bring me the baby.
Melissa Hunter is an author and blogger from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her articles have been published on Kveller.com and LiteraryMama.com. She is a contributing blogger to the Today Show parenting community, and her short stories have been published in the Jewish Literary Journal. She is currently writing a novel based on her grandmother’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor and the psychological impact this had on her life. When not writing, Melissa loves spending family time with her husband and two beautiful daughters. Connect with Melissa via her website, Facebook, and on Twitter as @cleancopywriter.