THE SHADOW BABIES
In this cold house on a graceful, desolate street there were three rocking chairs,
by Anna Vaught
Where three tiny forms sat formally, just so and waiting.
The chairs had black frames, rush seats; they were immaculate, still and unweighted down. No one, she said, was to rush at or hassle these chairs and they sat silent with their lovely occupants: three still infants. At least that was what I thought when I first looked in the formal front room. It was a shock, as I walked in with a clutch of young hot-blooded and real children of my own, lowering our voices as I'd trained them to do, in these parts, on Sundays, especially.
Here was me. Getting used to motherhood. Travelling alone. No mother of my own and a childhood that was rearing its head and causing commotion as I came to terms with wrongs I could not right but only release to the elements as I loved my own darlings. A graceful, desolate street: I needed straightforward, not a chilling oxymoron, but there was no way out because I'd said I'd come and had to be kind. To understand a new life of which I was now part.
Rocking chairs. Well, everyone in the South has rocking chairs, don't they? Out on the porch, in the parlour; they're a staple. But in the miniaturised form, I found, they held a terror for me. I couldn't help it. The chair anyway – rock, thump, rock, thump - is a classic horror trope, it was almost funny. But the notion of something small, sentient and evil (my imagination travelled fast) occupying it was appalling. I realised my chest was tight and that I was stammering hello and saying how nice the porch was, with its swing seat and graceful ferns.
At the time, my two eldest were tiny and the house I went into – we will say it was in Dalton, Georgia so I can't quite be tracked down by a sawdust brain or porcelain face – now I thought it could be a kind of home. But I'd been wrong. I'd been raised with death all around me, gasping and screeching; sometimes laughing. But I was not afraid, because in its eyes was also love and the pain of living with it gifted me imagination and purpose. But as I entered this house, I felt a different thing. Something deathly, yes, but not something kind. Instead, a breath around me that said here was danger; a tomb – but a living one. Even now, I cannot quite explain all this, but I think it's a nexus of hostility and vengeance that smiles and makes tea and kills you slowly. Kills you with grace and good manners. There is nothing more terrifying than knowing you are unsafe because there is no love for you. Oh no no no.
And don't you ever catch things at the corner of your eye? Things moving which shouldn't? A grimace from an inanimate or a spark of light from a cold dark thing? That too.
But I had to go into this house, though I felt its wrongness as the screen door opened.
'Welcome,' she said. Closely followed by, to the two small children, 'I know you won't touch anything unless I give you permission.' Her eyes flamed and a look slid to the three rocking chairs with their settled occupants. She was the Keeper of the House. And do you know, that in the rush and timetable of your daily life, you're on a veneer and that's all. In my experience, I've found that a dull horror has broken in, now and then. Where a smiling face cracked its plaster behind closed doors; where a pretty house gave way to a mausoleum because the living had been so disappointing. That's what happened here and yet… knowing all this, understanding its logic, I was still afraid, and remain so, of the impact of the Keeper of the House and of the occupants of those rockers.
The still infants had ivory skin, long real hair, a flush on their cheeks and sawtooth eyelashes. They wore Sunday best, little aprons and one had white gloves, like a proper altar child. Or, I thought, like a cold blooded murderer-babe who'd trot an innocent before her and sacrifice it, say a little prayer and tweak the florals in the aisle, like a good, good girl. Sit back down, hands in lap.
'Ugh,' said the boy. The real boy. 'Those dolls are creepy. I hate them.'
'Shhh,' I said. 'They are special and you mustn't go nearer.' But I hated them too.
The three infants in the rocking chairs looked on. I looked at them. What if I were to shake them, what would happen then? Why even think this, a grown woman? Well, I know. Their solid eyelids would slap back and forth, their real hair would be coarse tendrils over my arms and the pins in their Sunday best would scratch and scrape. Oh, the hair. My imagination ran wild. There was a family not far away, gravestones in the front garden, touched by the Spanish moss from the Live Oaks. Ramshackle old place; every Southern cliché an outsider could hurl at it. They said, the Best Ladies of the town, that the old Mother there had sold her hair before she went under the red earth, to pay for her coffin, because impoverished. I remembered that now; half shudder, half laugh, remembering, too, Faulkner's Cash holding up the box he was working on so his dying mother, Addie Bundren, could see it and approve it, as she lay dying. In this town, with the house and the rocking chairs for the bloodless infants, people whispered – and that's how I heard the story about the hair selling.
A silent tea. Still thinking about selling your hair, gargantuan plaits, and assessing your coffin. We were making table conversation, with the children kicking each other and trying to not to show the pain. Then nighttime, when in Georgia the wind swoops in across the screened porch before the storm. It's like a scream. At home (I so wanted that now), the cree of the curlew would be looming loud against the upping air and the movement, the shivering all around, but it was good. The place meant you well. I once found the face of a doll amongst the sea glass and the cowries and I hurled it back into the sea. The kelp and wrack battened down on it, while the spume breathed, 'Gone'.
Now, with the creatures nearby and their Keeper wishing harm to us but never, ever expressing so – it's not done; it isn't mannerly speaking so plainly of bad emotions – my instinct was to take my two small children and pelt out into the Georgia night. But where? And I wasn't sure it was an emergency, so how could I run to the kindness of strangers?
But I sensed my children felt disgust and annoyance, not fear: they were a comfort to me.
Now, across a dark ocean with its flashes of iceberg, the storm took up more, doors rattled and the Keeper of the House – mother, I supposed, of the bloodless infants – put the patchwork comforters around them, and against the rattles: 'I don't care for draughts.' But the fire was not lit. Why? Perhaps because you wouldn't want to desiccate the skin of the dolls, old as time, with hair aeons old, from the old lady who'd breathed her last not far away in The Hollows. She'd rolled over and died in her saggy bed near-bald, because she'd sold her hair to pay for a box and so that some pretty little people could be crowned up right. And a careful little girl, as the Keeper of the House was then, could cradle them and sing and spit if another came near.
'The dolls are looking at me,' said the younger boy.
'Don't be stupid,' said the older one: 'But they are weird.'
I looked then, properly. Saw that their clothes were perfect, little hands in laps; a frill here and there, at collar, gussied up so it undulated just right under their chins. And when I looked again, I saw they were part of a tableau, for between their chairs, as if the dolls were to get down and play, were hairless teddy bears, a russet wooden train and then, for reasons I could not understand, an antique croquet mallet, no hoops or balls. Why? So they could attack us, then sit back down; they were bloodless so who could suspect? Or just to show how beautiful it all was. Should be? Childhood, when expressed properly, prettily and silently? Bloodlessly.
We talked sotto voce and unnaturally about school and manners; walks and reading; church and how life is better for good little boys who know right from wrong, and then went gratefully to lie in the high old beds. But here was no close and holy darkness, for the youngest could not resist: back he went to the rocking chairs, took the croquet mallet and hit each infant, cracked it soundly on each nasty little head. I ran, fearing terrible things. He'd not hit them hard, but to a small child, it was natural inclination and, also, revenge on the horrid little creatures.
Silence. Back to bed, children. But no. She had been instantly alert.
The wailing started and we ran toward it: 'He hit my dolls! He hit them! Oh oh oh!' Stammering sorry, all fled to the high beds and the boys drifted off, not proud exactly but, I sensed, vindicated. Children have a natural sense of justice and that some hauntings are good; some bad. And, as I said, I was more scared than they were. I'm a little ashamed to admit that.
I stayed awake for hours, listening to the muffled doors and the quavering: 'Oh oh oh. Momma's here now. It's okay. The boy was nasty, wasn't he? Shhh. Shhh. My sweet babies. It's okay now. Momma's here.'
I've seen many things. Been touched by them, even. Felt an insubstantial hand on my shoulder, a whisper of old times, fancied I saw a ripple in the earth when I prayed at fresh graves; at twilight, above the sea, I go alone to visit my Dead Dears and croon to them of paths on the headland, memories in sea caves and the plight of the blackberry harvest this year. I feel them around me, in the half-light, and their presence is good and there's that beautiful susurration, 'Do not be afraid!' - 'Noli Timere' from the schooled ones and a bit of 'Paid af ogni' from the proper Welsh. That's a good haunting and it's my family. But those bloodless infants, out there across the sea, they care nothing for the living and, I swear, if they could speak, would tell you that they seek only the protection of the Keeper of the House and to sit, for eternity, undefiled in their Sunday best. And they do not care who is unloved or damned to Hell along the way.
I have to go back to this house. Some day soon. The two small boys are big now, but they remember it; the very oddness: the silence of the house. But now I have another one, too: a small child. And I've noticed that The Keeper of the House is more interested in the littlest one; the ps and qs and malleable boy. Like I said, I have to go back and have to be sympathetic, but he's not leaving my side for a whispered conversation or to play by the doll tableau. I don't know what fear might take hold or could be whispered. And you don't know hard a bloodless infant can kick when it's strong from getting all the love.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Vaught is a novelist, poet, essayist, reviewer and editor. She is also a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor to young people, mental health campaigner, volunteer and mum to a large brood. Her books, for Patrician Press, are Killing Hapless Ally, a semi-autobiographical novel (2016) and novella, The Life of Almost (2018, published this autumn). For the same press she has co-edited the anthology My Europe (2018) and is editing Tempest, an anthology of writings about dystopias (2019). Anna's novel Saving Lucia, about Violet Gibson, the Irish aristocrat who shot Mussolini, and Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, will be published by Bluemoose in 2020. She is currently writing her fourth novel, a Southern Gothic called The Hollows and contributing to, among others, Litro, Review31, Visual Verse, Losslit, Writers and Artists and Contemporary Small Press. Two of her flash fictions will appear in The Shadow Booth: Vol. 2. Her poetry is published by Patrician and Emma presses. Anna is a lover and champion of the independent presses of the British Isles!
Photo: NikiSublime (Flickr)