by Jon Krampner
“Life was splendid and gay, until it turned into a pageant of death…”
When Annie started coughing and wheezing, Oliver and I took her to the best children’s doctor in New Haven. “It’s too late,” Dr. Johnson said bluntly. “It’s a bad case of the croup and she’s going to die.” Two weeks later, she did. I don’t know how I would have borne the loss without my husband’s strength. But then he fell ill from typhoid fever, becoming increasingly sallow and listless, until, several weeks after the assassination of President Garfield, he died as well. I was wealthy beyond measure, but all alone in the world.
Why had this evil befallen me, I wondered. Burdened by care and sadness, I went to Boston and consulted with Madame Proznorsky, a psychic highly recommended by several members of my country club. In the chilly, dark séance room, she stared into her crystal ball and told me the spirits of those killed by rifles that Oliver’s company had manufactured were the reason he and Annie were taken, in vengeance of their deaths.
For me to avoid the same fate Madame Proznorsky said I had to go to the western shore, build a great villa, and never stop building. Were I to do this, the vengeful spirits, according to her, would be confounded.
The western shore? Oliver and I had often summered in our cottage on the north shore of Long Island Sound, as did many in our set. The Sound ended at New York City, but I never thought of it as the western shore.
“No,” Madame Proznorsky said. “You must go to California.”
“But that is so far,” I said. “Couldn’t I go someplace a little closer, like New Jersey?”
“California,” Madame Proznorsky said severely in her mittel-European accent. “The spirits say California.” She laid an atlas upon the table and opened a yellowed page to the Golden State. An inner light from the crystal ball illuminated her portly frame in a shimmering green brocaded gown, thinning reddish hair pulled back in a bun, Roman nose and wrinkled porcelain skin. This mysterious woman closed her eyes and raised her head, listening to the commands of beings I could neither see nor hear. Her right hand, directed by unseen agency, settled on San Jose. And just like that, my course was set.
I journeyed across the country in my private club car, its steel and hardwood frame jostling on the rails and occasionally shaking me roughly and upsetting my teacup. I gave repeated instructions to the young porter to tell the engineer to drive more sedately, but regardless, several of my imported French gowns were tea-stained by the time the train arrived in San Francisco.
As the scenery from my train window changed from grassy plains to soaring peaks to parched desert, I thought about my student days at Yale. I had met Oliver at a winter cotillion. It was not long until our splendid marriage ceremony at the Taft Hotel was covered by even the New York papers. Life was splendid and gay, until it turned into a pageant of death.
One time I had visited Oliver’s corner office at the factory, only to see a desperate woman pleading with him. In her early 30s, she was shabbily dressed, careworn and aged beyond her years. “My husband was killed by a robber using one of your guns, Mr. Winchester. I have four children. What am I to do?” I could hear her screaming.
“Madame, I am not the one who shot your husband,” Oliver replied stoically, idly stroking his mutton-chop whiskers and looking distractedly at a stack of papers on his desk. I will never forget how she looked at me as the guards dragged her off, her wild, accusing eyes driven mad by grief! “You,” she screamed at me. “You still have your husband, while mine has been taken from me!” She spat at my feet, and I recoiled. Had the guards not held her firmly, she would have set upon me like a hellcat.
In San Francisco, I hired a coach and told the driver to head south to San Jose. “Where in San Jose, ma’am?” he asked. “I do not know,” I said. “Just take me there.” He scratched his head and raised his eyebrows in a way I would later see among my workmen when they thought I wasn’t looking. But having untold wealth means people accede to your wishes, no matter how touched they think you are.
Although our carriage had set out in the early morning, we were still driving aimlessly at sunset. The teamster, an ill-mannered boor given to whipping his horse excessively, was growing impatient. But I had to find the right spot, the one foretold in Madame Proznorsky’s prophecy. Thankfully, as twilight fell, I found it.
The eight-room farmhouse among the San Jose apricot orchards reminded me of the summer cottage Oliver and I had had on the north shore of the Sound. The sunset evoked the early evenings there, when we were returning from a post-supper walk, and I was wheeling Annie in her carriage. Then as now, wisps of golden cirrus glistened atop the cloud-mottled sky, the yellows and oranges of the higher clouds shading into deep orange and purple closer to the horizon.
“I love you so dearly,” Oliver said, “and we shall be together forever.” “Forever?” I had asked shyly, knowing how life sometimes confounds our plans. “Forever,” he replied in solemn assurance and my heart swelled with joy. The farmhouse’s silhouette against the sunset was like that of our cottage. I paid a great deal to get those farmers out, but the spirits wanted me to build there, and so I did.
Who shall the architect be, my foreman, Mr. Hansen, asked the first time we met. “None save myself,” I replied. In the years to come, he would learn to better conceal his bemusement than he did that bright spring morning with cool moist breezes wafting in from the Pacific and the scent of apricot blossoms in the air. But in those early days, Mr. Hansen did not yet know my grand design and his eyebrows went up like those of my New Haven society friends when I had told them I was westward bound.
Madame Proznorsky said that if I built constantly, ever expanding the house, that would baffle the vengeful spirits who sought to retaliate against me, as they had against Oliver and Annie. And my home, she said, must be an endless series of traps to ensnare the evil spirits seeking me out. “That will cost a lot of money,” Mr. Hansen said. “Money’s no object,” I replied, “my salvation is.”
“I want a staircase that goes to the ceiling and then abruptly halts,” I said, sketching my design on a napkin.
“But Mrs. W,” Hansen had replied, “even if that is done with the aim of perplexing the spirits, will they not simply float through the ceiling and continue on their way?”
“You have been reading too many cheap ghost stories,” I told him. “The complexity of the house will throw off their sense of direction and purpose, and I shall evade them.”
Mr. Hansen was a large, dark-haired Irishman with a walrus mustache, hearty manner, and a crimson nose and complexion suggesting a fondness for alcohol. He was given to wearing brightly colored checked flannel shirts and brown corduroys and laughing easily – as did I when Oliver and Annie were among us. But his failure to understand my grand design was a constant source of vexation to him – and to me.
“These plans you present to me are -” he paused, looking for a euphemism for “mad” – “most unusual. Windows that open onto nothing save walls. A door that opens outward onto an eight-foot drop. Mrs. W, one of my workmen will break their leg if they forget which door they’re walking through!”
“Then let them not forget,” I said. “And that fateful doorway there leads to the séance room, which none among the living save I may enter.”
Mr. Hansen was not attuned to the ways of the spirit world as I was, and I had to be patient with him. But I had my limits. Once I overheard a worker say “That little lady in the veil is mad as a hatter.” The next day he was fired.
For years, workmen hammered, carpenters planned, teamsters hauled in supplies, and my architectural offering to the spirits grew upward and outward, to the consternation and amusement of local farmers. On my weekly séance night, I ascended to the bell tower and rang the bell thirteen times. Outside, in the cool, fresh air, countless stars sparkled on the dome of heaven and the air was rich with the fragrant oils and resins of the orchards. But within the musty halls, it was always the blackest of midnight.
When it was time for the séance, I wended my way through darkened maze-like halls I alone could negotiate without a map, holding a whale-oil lamp to illuminate my path. A shawl hand-knitted in Paris especially for me warded off the night chills. Shadows danced around me as I passed, the floorboards creaked. Finally, I arrived at the séance room at the heart of the house. I sensed the presence of others behind me, but did not look back as vengeful spirits might be lurking, hoping to ensnare my soul and send me to perdition. Back in New Haven, young couples were falling in love, women were rocking their babies and men were cheering on boxers at the prize fights, the air thick with cigar smoke and the smell of sweat and fear. But I was here alone, doing penance for the crimes of the Winchester family.
In the séance room, I lit the taper and stared into the crystal ball. It is custom to have those in attendance join hands, but only I was present, so this tradition was dispensed with. White and red men alike appeared in the crystal ball, their faces angry, imploring or resigned.
At the first séance in my new home, when it was vastly smaller, Oliver appeared.
“How are you, my dear?” he asked. “And how is Annie?”
“She’s dead,” I said, “dead like you, Oliver. Dead, for God’s sake, she’s dead!”
“That’s right,” he replied, his voice trailing off sadly. “How could I have forgotten?”
Seeing Oliver again was more than I could bear. I must have fainted, as the doctor at my bedside the next morning said Mr. Hansen had found me collapsed in the hallway just beyond the séance room.
Once, I did see Annie – I’m sure it was her – peeking out at me from behind the curtains, sad and alone, but afraid to come out.
“Don’t fear me, my dear,” I said, but as soon as I spoke, the little girl’s face disappeared and the curtains stopped rustling.
Sometimes Mr. Hansen would ask me why I didn’t return to New Haven, where my family and friends must miss me. “I have no earthly friends,” I would reply. “As for my family, it is their bloodstained legacy that has led me down the fog-shrouded path I am on.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” I asked Mr. Hansen. “Are you unhappy with the work I provide for you and your men?”
“Surely not, Mrs. W,” he said. “But this solitary life must be a burden to your spirit.”
“It is to placate the spirits that I chose it,” I replied.
The growth of my house continued apace. And yet the evil spirits afflicted me. One night, they negotiated the house’s tortuous passages and invaded my dreams, hollow-eyed, accusing, rotting wretches with bloodstained holes in their diaphanous forms, drifting through walls, floating toward me with angry, ghoulish smiles and shaking me violently.
I awoke and sat upright in terror. The entire bedroom shook, causing the chandelier to crash to the floor, making a crater in the floorboards. As the first rays of morning filtered in, I watched as the seven-story bell tower collapse in the courtyard. I rushed to the door and frantically turned the knob, but the solid oak door was twisted so badly that I was a prisoner in my own bedroom. Hours later, Mr. Hansen and his men broke down the door and freed me.
He said that much of San Francisco had been laid to waste by a monstrous earthquake and that which had not collapsed was now ablaze. He said this had to do with the shifting of the earth’s crust, but I knew better. The spirit world was angry with me and I knew at once I must redouble my building efforts to avoid a repetition of this dreadful incident.
Many years passed and as I aged my eyesight slowly dimmed. Not even all of the fireplaces in my house could keep the damp cold of the winter nights from penetrating my aging, arthritic bones. Then one spring morning, I was looking down on my bedroom. I saw myself lying still in bed, skin pale white while Mr. Hansen stood there with a doctor who said that I now, too, had crossed into the spirit world. But this foreign realm was not as I expected. I did not meet any of the spirits who vexed me. I was the only spirit to inhabit my sprawling tribute to the spirit world.
People came and visited my house to marvel at what I had wrought. Occasionally, one of them caught sight of me and shrunk away as if they had seen – well, ’tis no matter. It was my house, after all, and unlike me, they did not have to be here.
Jon Krampner is the author of “The Mazeroski Blues” (Across The Margin, June 21, 2016) and “The Provence Lane Haunting” (Eclipse Magazine), among other stories. He lives in Los Angeles and tweets at @pbj06.