Betsy by Susan Buffum
It was another gloomy, rainy afternoon trapped in the house with three rambunctious, bored children. I sighed deeply as I turned from the open kitchen door where I had been staring past the back porch out into the muddy yard. Three faces stared back at me from the kitchen table where boxes of crayons spilled in colorful log jams across the scrubbed oak. Various pieces of paper depicted a drooping rose with bleeding thorns, the product of thirteen year old Caroline’s imagination, a dragon that was either yawning or roaring, I really couldn’t tell which, half crumpled up in front of nine-year old Henry, and a cheerful yellow sunshine with a black eye before six-year old Penny. “What happened to the sun?” I asked.
“A cloud bumped into it,” she replied.
“Clouds are nowhere near the sun,” Caroline said with contempt for his sister’s lack of knowledge about astronomy and the heavens evident in her tone.
I’d had about enough of her surly attitude this summer. “Take the kids down to the cellar and let them play in the dirt for awhile.” I saw her face morph into disbelief and then shift toward outrage. “I want to sweep and mop the floors before I have to start dinner. Go on. All three of you. Go play downstairs.”
“Oh, boy!” This was Henry, already out of his chair and twisting the balky, round, ceramic doorknob. “C’mon! Stupid door!”
“You have to turn it the other way,” Caroline said, pushing back her chair and getting to her feet. “Moron.”
“That’s enough of that!” I snapped. As she opened her mouth to talk back I narrowed my eyes, employing my mother’s evil eye on her. I couldn’t count the number of times my mother had shot me that dead-eye stare when I had been Caroline’s age. It was enough so that I had become an accomplished mimic of it the moment pre-adolescent attitude had begun to show its ugly face like a mask superimposed over my daughter’s lovely face.
“Come on, Penny. Mom’s got her bitch on. Time to descend into the dark, dank dungeon to dig in the dirt. Let’s tunnel out while the prison matron’s mopping the floors. She’ll never miss us, you know. Maybe she’s hoping we’ll escape.”
Henry had already clattered down the stairs. Caroline was at the head of the stairs. Penny had stopped and was looking back over her shoulder at me, her eyes wide and a little apprehensive, as if she thought I wanted her out of my life. “My shoes are going to get muddy,” she said as she turned back to Caroline.
“Yeah, well, we’ll take them off and hang them around your neck and you can run barefoot through the mud.”
“Is there really a tunnel?’ she asked as they began going down the stairs.
“Yeah, I started digging it when I was your age, the first time she sent me down to the cellar to get rid of me for a few hours so she could do whatever- like ride her broom around the house without anyone seeing her.”
I frowned as I swung the door shut. Part of the cellar had a concrete floor, but toward the front of the house the floor was still dirt. Caroline had loved to dig in the dirt while I did laundry when she was younger. Now it was Henry who did the excavating. Penny liked to dig divots in the dirt and play with marbles, trying to roll all the red ones into one hollow, all the blue into another shallow bowl in the dirt, and the yellow in another. Caroline would sprawl in a folding mesh beach chair and read a book, or text her friends on her cellphone.
I had about an hour to do some cleaning. I glanced at the clock, noted that it was quarter past one, opened the closet and got out the broom and dust pan. Cat and dog fur accumulated like miniature tumbleweeds, rolling lazily along the hardwood floors of the old mansion. It was a futile chore chasing them and gathering them in a dust pan. They would reform in a matter of hours, or so it seemed. I would have just enough time to mop the floors before they were once again littered with fur.
Captain, our dog, was asleep on the front porch. He’d been run ragged by Henry and Penny this morning. They’d chased him up the front staircase, through the upstairs rooms, down the back staircase, his claws scrabbling on the linoleum in the kitchen before he regained his footing and fled down the hallway toward the front of the house so they could complete another circuit— dog barking, kids shrieking, Caroline yelling for everyone to shut up already! I’d taken three aspirin and then picked up the pieces of a broken vase in the dining room.
Thunder boomed as I mopped the hallway, bright flashes of light preceding each loud rumble. The storm was close, only a few seconds between flash and boom. The lights I had on so I could see if I’d missed any spots had flickered, dimmed and then flared brightly. I thought for sure there would be a thundering of sneaker clad feet on the wooden stairs and a tangle of children pushing through the door into the kitchen, but that had not happened.
Grabbing the pail, I hauled it out onto the back porch and flung the gray water with its clots of fur and who knew what that the mop had picked up, into the yard. I left the pail on the porch beside the mop I’d propped up against the back wall of the house. Rain was coming down hard. The yard was full of muddy puddles. The carriage house was a dull gray blur in the distance. I tried to remember if I’d left the chicken coop door propped open with the rock or not. I gnawed my lip, worried that I’d find dead chickens floating around in the puddles behind the carriage house. That had happened to me when Joe and I had first moved into this house. I’d had the chickens, the remnants of a high school science project on incubation of various kinds of eggs. I’d had duck, goose, and chicken eggs. It was a horrible project. Some of my chicks hadn’t survived. I’d been mortified, and saddened by the loss of my little chicks, one of them only partially emerged from its shell, still slimy when it had just keeled over dead. I’d tried to revive it, breaking it out of its cracked shell, rubbing it with a paper towel, but it was too fragile. I’d burst into tears and eventually been led to the nurse’s office where my mother was summoned to come and collect me and my project that had been removed from the gymnasium.
I’d raised the chickens, the ducks and the goose that had survived. I’d incubated more eggs and not lost any chicks. I’d had thirty five chickens and the goose when I married Joe. He’d built me the chicken coop and fenced in an area where they could waddle around and scratch to their heart’s content. The goose had gotten itself run over chasing the chimney sweep’s truck. We’d had a chimney fire. The fire department had put it out and told us to have the chimneys cleaned before we tried to have any more fires in the fireplaces.
I looked up at the black clouds, squinting as another bright flash of lightning streaked down from the sky, hunched my shoulders at the loud crack of thunder that immediately followed. It made the porch floor thrum beneath my feet. Quickly, I turned and went back inside, pushing the door shut, as if wood and glass could protect us from Mother Nature’s savage fury.
I crossed the kitchen and wrestled the cellar door open, making a mental note to remind Joe to tighten the doorknob, or just replace the whole thing with a new knob. This was ridiculous having to fight it every time I had to run downstairs. I listened but didn’t hear any voices. “Kids! You can come up now! I’m done cleaning!”
Hearing no response, I rolled my eyes and descended the stairs. If they were playing and Caroline was on her phone they might not be able to hear me. “Hey, guys!” I made my way past dark shadowy rooms- the laundry room, the canned goods room, the workshop, the storage room- toward the front of the house. Ahead of me I could see the overhead bare bulbs that illuminated the cast iron boiler and the hot water tank. Beyond these mechanical monsters lay the dirt floored portion of the cellar at the front of the house.
Coming around the boiler I saw the three of them huddled around a fairly deep hole in the floor. “What are you three up to?” I asked, a little disturbed by the fact that they had quite a hole going. Were they actually trying to tunnel out? Was I that difficult to live with when I wanted to get housework done? “Hey!” All three of them jumped. Caroline looked up, directly at me, Henry and Penny craning their heads around to stare at me as if I was a ghost. “What are you doing?”
“We found something,” Caroline replied. “I don’t know what it is. It’s like a metal trunk and there’s a doll of some sort inside. You can see her through the window in the top of the trunk.”
“She’s a pretty dolly,” Penny murmured. “Can I play with her? Can you get her out for me?”
“Let me see.” I crossed from the cement to the dirt and made my way past the shallow, scooped out bowls in the dirt where the various marbles sat. Henry had worked on grading some roads. There were trucks and cars scattered about. Two hand held gardening shovels lay near the hole. One beside Caroline and the other near Henry’s knee. I reached Henry and peered over his shoulder down into the hole. “What in the world is that?’ I wondered aloud. “Henry, go get the flashlight from the laundry room.”
“It’s dark in there,” he replied.
I hurried to the laundry room and got the flashlight myself. Back at the hole, I switched it on and shone the light down onto the metal trunk. The beam struck the thick glassine window and I gasped as a sweet little face was illuminated. The dolls eyes were closed. The little rosebud lips were pursed in a little pout. The doll had plump cheeks and delicate ears. Her wig was blonde ringlets, possibly made from human hair. It was shinier and finer than mohair. The high collar of a white dress framed her lower face. “She’s a lovely doll,” I said. “But, who in the world buries a doll in the cellar as if they’re burying a real toddler.”
“I just need to dig a little more and we should be able to get the trunk out of the hole,” Caroline said, leaning down and using the shovel to scoop away more dirt. The metal trunk was about two and a half feet under the dirt floor. “This trunk is really very ornate,” she said. “But it looks heavy. I don’t know if I’ll be able to lift it out by myself. Can you help, Mom?”
Gone was all the sullen surliness she had exhibited earlier. This discovery of an antique doll buried in an ornate metal box in the cellar had transformed her into a suburban archaeologist. “I can help you,” Henry said.
“I don’t want you getting hurt,” I told him.
“Can I sleep with the baby doll?” Penny asked. “Her name’s Elizabeth. I’m going to call her Betsy for short and sing lullabies to her and rock her to sleep every night like you rocked me when I was a baby.”
As Caroline exposed more of the box it struck me that it was tapered. A little quiver of unease rippled through me as the last few inches of the box were exposed. I shown the light along the length of it and said, “Caroline, stop.” She was leaning down into the hole. She tilted her head back to look up at me. “I think we should just leave this where it is.” I knew what this was. My mind was reeling, trying to find a rationale, an explanation for a tiny child to have been buried in the cellar like this. I didn’t recall there having been any sort of marker in the dirt. If there had been one, it was long gone.
I shone the beam of the flashlight around, along the base of the stone foundation. There were some loose stones leaning against the wall here and there that I had assumed were just stones the masons had brought in while constructing the foundation and left there when finished, not wanting to haul them back out. None of them appeared to be grave marker size or shape.
“Mom,” Caroline said, a quaver in her voice. It drew my attention back to her, and the hole. “Um…I don’t think this is a doll,” she said. She was sitting back on her heels and her face was ashen pale. There was something in her eyes I had never seen before- shock and fear. “I think this is…”
“A very pretty dolly,” Penny chimed in. “Her name is Elizabeth, like I already told you. She told me so.” I looked down at my six-year old. “She wants me to play with her.”
“Penny, we need to go upstairs now,” I said. She shook her head. “Henry, Caroline, let’s go. Right now.” I grasped Penny’s hand. She tried to shake it loose, resisting my trying to pull her away from the open grave, from the well-preserved remains of a child of about two and a half years of age, no more than three. “I’d like you to help me bake some cookies before Daddy gets home,” I said to get her moving. She loved cookies.
“Can Betsy help?” she queried.
“Yes, of course,” I replied, agreeable to anything she asked as long as it got her moving away from the grave.
Caroline turned off the lights behind us as I herded the two younger children ahead of me to the open wooden stairs leading up to the kitchen. “Let’s go, guys. Upstairs!” Henry clattered up. Penny was slower to climb the stairs.
“Do you want me to carry you?” she asked.
“What?” Why would she ask me that?
“Not you, Mommy. I was talking to Betsy. She hurt her leg.”
“Mom…” Caroline said from behind me. “Can we just get upstairs? I don’t feel so good. I’m cold.” She was close behind me and I felt her shivering.
“Come on, Penny.” I urge her up the stairs, Caroline right on my heels. As we passed through the open doorway into the kitchen Henry swung the door shut. It didn’t latch and slowly swung open. “Close the door!”
“All right!” he replied, pushing the door shut. This time it latched.
I got Henry’s and Penny’s hands washed. Caroline cleaned up at the kitchen sink. She had the kettle on the stove for tea when I came back with Penny. Henry was already back at the kitchen table, already working on another picture. The kitchen felt cold. I turned on the oven and went into the pantry to gather the ingredients for the cookies.
Soon, the kitchen felt warmer. The water boiled. Caroline fixed a cup of tea for herself and one for me. Penny, who normally loved to help me make cookies, wasn’t inclined to help this afternoon. She quietly sat in the Boston rocker near the huge brick fireplace and rocked, singing to herself. I thought she might be coming down with a summer virus. I gave her some apple juice and she smiled up at me.
Soon we had dozens of cookies cooling on the counter. I had managed to clean a chicken to roast while Caroline had dropped cookie dough on the trays and handled the baking. Henry was entertaining himself with his drawings. Penny had finished her juice and appeared to be napping in the chair. It didn’t look very comfortable.
The storm had passed but it was still gray and gloomy out. Henry went upstairs to his room to watch a movie. Caroline had finished cleaning up the baking trays, bowls, measuring cups, and spoons. I had scrubbed potatoes and put them in the oven with the chicken. I would wash the green beans and cook them when Joe got home. By the time he’d changed his clothes and visited with the kids for a few minutes, dinner would be ready.
Penny was still snoozing in the rocker. I set the table in the dining room, then I returned to the kitchen, bent down and scooped her up in my arms. Her eyes opened partway and she murmured something. “Shh, you can nap until Daddy gets home.” I carried her to the informal parlor that we used as the family room and laid her on the loveseat, covering her with an afghan my grandmother had crocheted for me when I was a teenager.
I straightened up the room even though I knew it would be a jumble again after dinner. As I sat in a wingchair looking through one of a dozen magazines that had accumulated on the end table, I realized that neither the dog nor the cat had reappeared. Both of them were afraid of thunderstorms and had most likely hidden in their usual places. They were probably upstairs with Henry and Caroline, I figured.
Joe arrived home at five thirty, stuck his head in to say hello then went upstairs to change and get ready for dinner. I glanced at Penny who was still asleep, then went to wash the beans and put them on to cook. Captain, I saw was in his dog bed beside the pantry door. He did not lift his head, but his eyes tracked me as I moved about the kitchen. “What’s the matter with you, fella. The storm’s over. I don’t think there’s another one coming through.”
When he came back downstairs, Joe carved the chicken I had taken out of the oven. He told me Caroline and Henry would be down in a minute, they were hungry. “So, what exactly did they unearth in the cellar?’ he asked. “Henry said it was a doll in a metal box. Caroline didn’t want to talk about it. Is she feeling all right?”
“And why’s Penny sleeping? Are the girls sick? A bunch of people have miserable summer colds, and two were out today with a stomach virus thing that’s also been going around. It’s just a twenty-four hour bug. Mike had it last week.”
“That’s probably what it is, one or the other. Penny probably caught it at dance class. They all grab onto the bar. If someone sneezed on it or didn’t wash their hands…” I shook my head. “I’ll go roust Penny. She should have a bite to eat, then a bath and maybe to bed early tonight if she’s not feeling well.”
“Hey,” Caroline said as she came into the kitchen. “You want me to do anything?”
“You can open a can of cranberry sauce. Is Henry downstairs?”
“He’s coming,” she replied, and then added, “Roxie is acting weird.”
“Like she’s really spooked. She’s hiding in my closet. I can’t get her to come out.”
“That was a pretty bad storm we had. She’s probably still just rattled from the thunder earlier. She’ll come out soon enough, as soon as she smells this chicken.” I continued to the family room and gently roused Penny who opened her eyes and smiled at me. “Time for dinner, sleepyhead,” I said.
She sat up. As she slid off the loveseat she stumbled. “Ow! My leg hurts!”
“Did it fall asleep. You were zonked out there, kiddo. Give it a minute to wake up.” I lifted her up and carried her to the lav before carrying her to the dining room. Joe was already seated at the table. He cocked a brow at me. “Her leg fell asleep.” I settled her into her chair, looked the table over and was satisfied that everything was ready before sitting down.
“Is Dad going to go and cover that thing up?” Caroline asked as she tackled her baked potato, her attention focused there.
“What thing? The doll in the packing case or whatever it is?” Joe asked.
“It’s weird,” Henry said as he stuffed about a dozen green beans into his mouth.
“Don’t take such big mouthfuls,” I warned.
“It’s not a doll,” Caroline muttered. I shot her a warning glance. She gave me a look in return. I nodded toward Henry and Penny. She made a face, but didn’t say anything more except, “Can you pass me the cranberry sauce?”
“Mommy, can I share my chicken with Betsy? She’s hungry.”
I turned my head and looked at Penny. She was looking at me. Obviously she still believed the toddler in the casket was a doll in a metal box. “Sure. She’s probably hungry,” I replied.
“She’s starving!” Penny said, turning the other way. “You’ll have to share from my plate because Mommy didn’t give you one. She probably forgot.”
Joe looked from Penny to me with a quizzical expression. “Just eat your dinner. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Okay then. So, what else did you guys do today?”
The rest of the dinner conversation was normal. Penny continued to pretend that she had the doll sitting beside her. It was a little strange, but I didn’t want to try to explain to her that there was no doll. She was a child with a vivid imagination. If she wanted an invisible playmate, she could play with Betsy. No harm in that. Caroline had had an invisible friend when she was young, maybe a year or two younger than Penny was now, but kids developed at their own pace. Maybe Penny was just missing her school friends. In a few months she’d be starting first grade and this would all be water under the bridge as real friends replaced her invisible friend.
Caroline took Penny upstairs to give her a bath after dinner. Henry played a computer game in the family room while Joe helped me put away the leftovers, rinse the dishes, and load them into the dishwasher. “Okay, exactly what is it that’s downstairs that I need to deal with?” he asked.
“Joe, I think it’s an antique metal casket of some sort with a window in it. Through the window you can see…” I tried to suppress a shudder, but it rippled through me as if my body was being rocked by a seismic shockwave.
“Jesus,” he said quietly. “Are you trying to tell me there’s a dead body in the cellar? In some sort of a casket?” I nodded, unable to speak at the moment. Something had gripped my chest and was squeezing it. I didn’t know what it was, but abruptly I burst into tears. “What’s the matter? It’s not like any of us killed someone and buried them in the cellar! You said it looks old.”
“It’s just…oh, Joe! She was a beautiful little girl! She looks like she’s only sleeping! She’s just…she’s perfectly preserved! It’s like she might just open her eyes and smile at you at any moment!”
“Maybe I should call the police?”
“I don’t know what to do! I mean, who buries their child in the cellar like this? She must have been there since shortly after this house was built.”
“I’m going to go down and take a look.”
“Take the flashlight.”
He went downstairs after a brief struggle with the doorknob. I finished cleaning up and was sitting at the kitchen table when he came back upstairs. “That is remarkable. It’s unbelievable! You’re right, the poor little thing does look like she’s sleeping.”
“So, what are we going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Caroline’s very upset. She hasn’t been herself since she realized what it was they’d found.”
“How about Henry?”
“He still thinks it’s a doll. It was interesting to dig up, but he doesn’t have much interest in dolls. Penny, on the other hand, has named the doll Elizabeth and calls her Betsy. That’s who she was sharing her dinner with tonight.” I shook my head. “How on earth do I explain to a six year old that she and her brother and sister dug up a dead child in a casket in the cellar? How is she going to grasp that? She’s never seen a dead body. I doubt she’s ever even thought about anything dying. We haven’t lost any pets or family members. You buried the chickens we’ve lost before she’s seen them. How in the world do I tell her the doll is a dead little girl? Don’t you think that will haunt her for the rest of her life?”
He paced the kitchen for a few minutes but ended up nodding. “Yeah, it probably will. It’s kind of a weird first exposure to death for a little girl.” Captain had gotten up to eat and was now at the back door. Joe let him out. “So…on the one hand we have a dead body in our basement that’s probably been buried there since the mid-eighteen hundreds. We should probably inform the police that the kids dug it up while playing. At the very least someone should take custody of the thing. Maybe the Historical Society can figure out who the little girl is. Maybe the town can bury her in the cemetery or something. I mean, she’s not related to us or anything. She’s just been buried in our cellar for like a hundred sixty something years. We shouldn’t have to pay to have her buried properly, right?”
“I don’t know, Joe! This is way outside of my limited experience with dead bodies.”
“All right. Let’s just leave her alone for tonight and deal with it tomorrow.”
Caroline came into the kitchen with a tense looking Roxie clinging to her. “The cat’s still freaked out. She won’t go into Penny’s room. I brought her downstairs to eat.” She tried to set the cat down, but Roxie wouldn’t let go of her. “Dad, can you help me?”
Joe managed to get one paw loose, but as soon as he started to free another paw the one he’d just loosened would grab his shirt and not let go. “What the hell is wrong with this cat?” he cried, exasperated.
Somehow, between Caroline and I, we got the cat loose from Joe’s shirt. Roxie hissed and tried to bite my wrist. I dropped her from hip height and she bolted from the kitchen. “Penny’s acting weird, too,” Caroline said.
“Her invisible friend?” Caroline rolled her eyes, made a face. “Did you have to give her a bath, too?”
“Oh, yeah. Try giving a bath to an invisible little girl.”
“It’s a phase. She’ll outgrow it. You had an invisible friend when you were little. Don’t you remember Holly Day?”
“No,” she said, but in the way she said it I could tell that she did remember, or hearing the name she’d christened her invisible friend had sparked a vague memory. “I need to call Jennifer. Penny’s having a tea party in her room with Betsy and her stuffed animals.” She started to leave the kitchen, but reappeared in the doorway. “Oh, and what’s with her leg? She’s limping.”
“I don’t know. I thought it had fallen asleep. Did she fall in the cellar or anything?” Caroline shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe she just got a Charley horse. You know how painful a leg cramp can be. I’ll give her leg a little massage before I tuck her in.” Caroline vanished down the hallway. We heard her running up the main staircase.
“Just keep the kids upstairs tomorrow. Don’t let them go down in the cellar. I’ll call Bob and see what he says.” Bob was his friend from high school who was not a lieutenant in the police department.
I put some steaks in to marinade and then went up the back staircase to Penny’s room. She was sitting on her bed turning the pages of a picture book, telling the story I told her whenever I read this particular book to her. “Bedtime, kiddo,” I said.
“In a minute, Mommy. I’m telling Betsy a bedtime story.”
“Well, Betsy should get some sleep, too.” Her eyes met mine, a plea in their depths. “All right. Finish up. I’ll just put the tea things away.”
“Can’t they stay on the table tonight? Maybe she’ll get hungry and thirsty and want to eat some more while I’m sleeping.”
“All right. Fine. Hurry up.” I walked to the tall windows and looked outside. It was dark for nine o’clock, the yard below in deep shadow. As I raised my eyes, I caught the reflection of Penny sitting on her bed across the room, head bent over the storybook as she continued telling the story she knew by heart. It startled me when I thought I saw a pale reflection of a second little girl with light blonde hair, head bent over the book. The image was brief, the two blonde heads seeming to merge into one as I spun around, fully expecting to see a ghost child on the bed with Penny, but there was only my little girl sitting there.
“The end,” she said, flipping the book shut. “Can you put this on the bookshelf for me, Mommy? My leg hurts.”
I replaced the book on the shelf as Penny laid back and got herself settled. She had on her Disney princess nightgown. “Which leg hurts?” I asked her as I came back and sat down on the side of her bed.
“This one,” she said, patting her left thigh.
“Did you have a muscle cramp? Were you sitting or kneeling funny in the cellar?” She shook her head to every question I asked. I examined her lower left leg and didn’t see anything wrong, but her skin felt rather cold to the touch. “Do you want a pair of socks? Are you cold?”
“I’m okay. Just tired. I want to go to sleep now.”
I pulled her nightgown down, then the covers up, tucking them under her chin. She gazed up into my eyes. “Love you, sweetie,” I said.
“Love you, too, Mommy.” I kissed her goodnight and started to rise. “Can you kiss Betsy goodnight, too? She misses her Mommy. She thinks you’re very nice. She’ll sleep better if you kiss her goodnight.”
“All right. Where is she? I can’t quite make her out against the pillow. “
Penny turned her head to the left. “She sleeps against the wall because she’s still little. I don’t want her to fall out of bed and get hurt again.”
“Is she hurt?” I asked, leaning over her to air kiss near her head on the pillow.
“Uh-huh. She has a sore leg, too. Remember? That’s why it took her so long to climb the stairs.”
“Oh, right. Sorry. I was thinking about the cookies and getting dinner started.”
“It’s okay. She knows you’re busy. ‘night!”
“Goodnight, baby. Love you. Sleep tight.” I walked to the door. My hand was on the switch when she reminded me to wish Betsy a goodnight. “Goodnight, Betsy. Sleep well. See you both in the morning.” I switched off the light and softly closed the door.
Joe was watching a baseball game. I made some popcorn for him and brought him a beer. Then I went back upstairs to get Henry into bed. “I forgot to put my trucks and stuff away,” he said as he climbed into bed.
“That’s all right.”
“I’ll put them away in the morning.”
I hesitated, then said, “It’s okay. I really don’t want you guys going downstairs tomorrow.”
“Why not?” he asked, ever inquisitive.
I had to think fast. “Remember how we got that snake in the cellar a couple of years ago after a big rainstorm?” His eyes widened as he remembered the king snake that had somehow come up through the drain in the floor. He’d nearly stepped on it as he was helping me with the laundry. He’d yelped. I’d looked to see what had startled him and screamed so loud my own ears had vibrated with the echo of that scream for minutes afterwards. “I want Daddy to check the cellar when he gets home from work tomorrow to make sure there are no snakes before you guys can go downstairs again.”
“Then can I go to Billy’s house and play? He’s got a new game.”
“I’ll call his mom in the morning and ask if the two of you can play together for a few hours.”
“If I like it, can you get it for me for my birthday?”
“We’ll see.” I kissed the top of his head. Tonight, he surprised me by throwing his arms around my neck, kissing my cheek. “I love you, Mom!” he said.
“Are you buttering me up for this new game?” I asked.
“No!” he replied, sounding insulted. “Can’t a guy tell his mom he loves her once in a while without her thinking he wants something, like Avengers of the Realm?” So, that was the name of the game he wanted. I didn’t need to be clobbered with a hint that huge a second time.
“It’s nice to hear. Thank you. Love you, too. Goodnight.”
I stuck my head around Caroline’s door. The bedside light was on. She was just lying in bed staring at the ceiling, lost in thought. “Can I come in?” Her eyes shifted to the doorway and she gave a slight nod. I stepped into her room and quietly closed the door. “Dad’s going to try to find out what we should do about this,” I said.
“It’s so weird to know there’s a dead baby in a coffin downstairs,” she said. “It’s creepy!” And then her eyes filled with tears and the tears began streaming down the sides of her face into her hair and ears. Her expression crumpled. I went to the bed and sat down. She sat up and I gathered her in my arms and held her. She was upset and frightened by the whole thing. “She looks so…so…like you could kiss her cheek and her eyes would flutter open and she’d smile sleepily at you!”
“Yes, she’s like a little sleeping beauty, only she’s long gone, Caroline. She’s not going to wake up.”
“How in the world can she possibly look like she just…like she…”
“Like she just slipped away from this world?” She nodded. “I don’t know. Maybe I can find out by searching this type of casket on the internet. I don’t know if they were embalming people back then or not. Her skin is so pale and perfect.”
“She’s so sweet and innocent looking, but still… look! I still have goose bumps! I still feel so cold, Mom! That cold followed me upstairs. I can’t shake it! That’s why I’m in bed. I just can’t get warm!”
I stayed with her for a half an hour longer, searching my mind for subjects to steer her mind away from the casket and the child in the basement. Finally, she yawned and gave me a last hug, an unexpected kiss on the cheek because she had stopped kissing me when she was eleven and a half years old, before she lay back. “Why don’t we make Belgian waffles for breakfast tomorrow? Henry wants to visit Billy for a couple of hours. If Mrs. Knowles is willing to watch him for three hours maybe you, Penny, and I can run over to the mall. She needs a new bathing suit, and you can probably use a new one, too.” She’d been wanting a new swimsuit since last summer. “Sound good to you?”
“Sounds like a plan, Mom. Goodnight.”
I went back downstairs, washed the popcorn bowl, put the empty beer can on the back porch in the empty case for Joe to return to the package store when it was full. It would be sitting there for a while as he only had a beer occasionally. Going back inside, he said he was going to hit the shower, then watch the end of the game upstairs in the bedroom. I said I’d close up the house and meet him upstairs.
Going back out into the kitchen to secure the back door, I turned and heard the cellar door creak. The door stood ajar a couple of inches. I walked over and pushed it shut, jiggling the knob to make sure it had caught; making a mental note for Joe to get on the doorknob replacement project sooner rather than later. I switched off lights, called Captain, who had disappeared again. Joe had told me that he’d let the dog out again while I’d been upstairs putting the kids to bed. I shrugged. He’d be fine, wherever he was.
I found him as I entered the bedroom. Captain was lying on the rug beside the bed. “There you are. Sleeping with us tonight, fella?” I moved around the room, closing the drapes, turning on the TV, finding the game, switching on my bedside lamp, making sure the book I was reading was at hand. I went into my dressing room and changed into a pair of cotton short and a t-shirt. It was a little too chilly in the house tonight for a tank top. The lack of sunshine and all the gloom and rain had syphoned the warmth from every room in the house this afternoon.
Joe watched the game to the end, satisfied by the win. He slid down in the bed and was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. He hadn’t wanted to talk about the casket in the basement. I had to trust that he’d start finding out what we were supposed to do about it from work tomorrow, making a few phone calls in between seeing clients. I sighed, closed my book, leaned over and put it on the bedside table and then turned off the light.
Lying there in the darkness, my eyes adjusted so that I could make out the narrow strip of faint light coming through the space between the door and the frame. I’d left the door ajar a few inches tonight, not sure if I’d be needed during the night or not, and knowing if he got hungry or thirsty, Captain could wedge his snout into the gap and push the door open so he could go down to the kitchen for his snack.
My eyes were just about to drift shut when I saw a shadow in the gap. At first, I thought it was Captain. But, it was taller than Captain would be, though not as tall as Penny would be. My eyes strained to make out what it was that I was seeing. It was definitely child size. It wasn’t Roxie. I’d only be able to see the tip of her upright tail over Joe’s legs and hip if she was out there in the hallway. “Who’s out there?’ I asked in a hushed voice, thinking this was ridiculous. There couldn’t possibly be anyone there. I didn’t want to disturb Joe. He’d had a long day. “Who is it?”
My heart leapt. The voice was soft, plaintive, the voice of a very young child. It was not the voice of any of my children. Even when they were trying to play tricks on me, I recognized their disguised voices as being distinctly Caroline, Henry, or Penny. “Who are you?” I asked, my voice unsteady. Beside me, Joe stirred and murmured.
It’s me, Mama….Betsy.
I couldn’t help it, a sound erupted out of me, a sort of startled, strangled scream. Captain growled and then began to whine. Joe shot upright in bed beside me, instantly awake. “What the…” he started to say, but I grasped his upper arm and squeezed it hard. “Diane, what’s the matter?”
Across the room, the door creaked. Both of us looked toward the door and saw it slowly swinging inward. And there in the doorway was the form of a child looking like a shadow. As it stepped into the room from the hallway it took on a glowing appearance and more detail began to emerge. “Oh, my God,” I breathed as the child in the casket approached the side of the bed. Captain had crawled beneath the bed. I could feel him through the mattress, trembling against the box springs.
“Betsy?” It was Penny’s voice calling quietly from her room down the hall. “Betsy? Where’d you go?” I heard small bare feet padding along the carpet runner in the hall, the footsteps uneven. She was still limping. “Betsy?” The ghost turned and drifted out of the bedroom. “There you are! Are you thirsty? Hungry? I can get you a cookie. Come on.” Penny’s solid form passed by the doorway. She was heading toward the main staircase.
I flung the covers aside and was just getting out of bed when it occurred to me that she was limping, that she would have trouble on the stairs, especially in the dark. “No!” I cried. “Penny, wait! No!” My words were still rushing from my mouth as she cried out and I heard her tumble down the stairs. “Oh, my God! No! Penny!”
Joe was out of bed and pushed past me into the hallway, running to the light switch. I had just reached the head of the staircase when the overhead light came on and I caught sight of my little girl lying at the foot of the stairs, her lower legs propped up on the bottom stair, one arm twisted beneath her, the other flung out to one side, her neck at an impossible angle.
I screamed, then screamed again as I discerned a shadowy form leaning over Penny’s still body. The ghost child reached a hand down and took a pale hand in hers. I saw my child, her form translucent, rise from her physical body and knew…I knew in that moment that she was gone. “Don’t take her! Don’t take her from me!” I cried as I tried to get down the stairs to my baby, but Joe had grabbed me, spun me around and was pushing me toward Caroline who had come out into the hallway. “No! No! I need to go to her!” I cried. My little girl! My precious little girl!
It was twenty-one days later when we finally laid Penny to rest. A special permit had been obtained to inter the cast iron casket with the unknown female child in it with Penny’s little white casket. I felt numb due to medication, Joe supporting me as I tossed red and white roses and white lilies into the open grave. “Goodbye, baby,” I whispered, before dissolving into tears. Despite the medication, I was still weepy.
“It’s okay, Mom,” a devastated Caroline said, slipping her arm around my waist, leaning her head against my shoulder. “If that’s Elizabeth then Penny’s not alone. She’s got a friend with her, right? Penny’s not all alone, is she?”
A frisson of anger ran through me. If they’d never dug up the casket, if I had realized that my youngest child was sensitive to spirits, had been able to see and communicate with the ghost of the dead toddler, then maybe I could have figured out something to do that would have prevented this from happening. It was a thought cycle that kept repeating in my head. I had tried to talk to Joe about it, but he didn’t want to listen to me. He seemed sad and exasperated, exhausted and distant. I knew he must be grieving, but there is no grief as deep, as profound as a mother’s grief for their child. It was not possible to give birth to a child and not have a part of yourself still connected to that little person who had grown and developed inside your own body for nine months. If not a physical connection, then it was a psychological one, an emotional one…a spiritual one. I felt as if some part of me had been sheared away and I was bleeding from a wound nothing could staunch.
Caroline slowly turned me from the grave, and as she did, I saw through my tears two blurry forms, one head and shoulders shorter than the other. Both in white dresses. It pinched my heart. I didn’t want to blink, but could not stop myself. In that brief moment, they vanished, were no longer there when my eyes opened again. In less than a heartbeat they were gone. And while my mind tried to persuade me to turn and fling myself down into the grave and go with my child, I was steered toward the car by Caroline. Joe and Henry were waiting there, Henry looking stricken. Joe looking grim.
It was the sorrow in the depths of my husband’s eyes that pulled my mind and heart out of that grave behind me and back to the reality of the continuation of life after loss. Caroline let go of me to go around to the other side of the car to get in, telling her brother to get into the car and buckle his seat belt. I continued to look deeply into my husband’s eyes, and a moment later I was in his arms and we just clung to one another for a few minutes, until Henry knocked on the window and shouted through the safety glass that he was hungry, weren’t we going to go eat?
Joe opened the door and I slid into the passenger seat. As he walked around the front of the vehicle to get into the driver’s side, I glanced back at the grave, at the funeral director talking now to the man in denim coveralls who would be maneuvering the cement vault lid into the open grave and then using a small backhoe to scoop the soil back into the hole. The stone was already in place with Penny’s name carved into it. It was shaped like a sleeping cat, like Roxie. There was a marble rose between the cat’s paws.
I closed my eyes as Joe pulled slowly away, gravel crunching beneath the tires. The thought ran through my mind that tomorrow I would go down to the historical society, and maybe the library. Henry was going over to Billy’s again for the day. He’d been invited to spend the entire day and have dinner there before they’d bring him home. I would ask Caroline if she wanted to join me. I wanted to try to find out who Elizabeth had been. There had to be a record of her somewhere. Perhaps I would start with the house, who had built it, who had lived in it. There had to be some real estate and city listing records somewhere.
No matter how long it took, I would find the answer as to who Betsy was so that her name could be added to the stone beneath Penny’s. I would find her identity if it took me the rest of my life, because I did not want my child spending eternity with a little girl whose name I did not know.
Elizabeth…Betsy…Penny had given me a clue, a place to begin.
(Copyright by Susan Buffum, May 13, 2017 No part of this story can be reproduced without the permission of the author.)