Authors: Melissa Sanders-Self
Tags: #Contemporary, #Fantasy, #Ghost, #Historical, #Horror, #USA
“This is most unusual.” She stood frowning with concern and the light of Father’s flickering candle accentuated a dark shadow
on her forehead.
“Indeed.” Father exchanged a glance with her, then looked away, into the empty raging night.
“Let us pray,” Mother cleared her throat and spoke with her usual composure. “Let us entreat God, with all His wisdom, to
allow us to discover the origin of these strange noises.”
We joined hands around my bed and bowed our heads beneath the sound of beating wings. Mother led a prayer but I could not
focus on her words for I felt my head would soon split from the pressure of the noise. The sound grew louder, then louder
still, and Richard and Joel woke up and came in crying.
“It’s all right, boys,” Mother tried to reassure them. “Hold hands and join us in silent prayer.” Joel squeezed my fingers
tight as the thick log walls of my room began to tremble and the house began to shake. What was happening? What were we to
do? We prayed. Only when we had burned three candles down and the gray light of dawn graced the edges of the sky, only then
did the striking wings and rumbling cease.
Mid-morning we gathered at the breakfast table. School was not a question, as all of us were tired and distraught.
“The Reverend Johnston will visit us today and I shall make inquiries, but I forbid all of you to speak a word of these disturbances.”
Father looked first at me, then to my brothers, making certain we understood the serious nature of his directive. It was easily
conveyed, for though we often saw him stern, he rarely was this somber. John Jr., Drewry, Richard, Joel and I avoided speaking
to each other, since all we wished to speak of were the possible causes of the disturbance. Our house thundered an unusual
When the Reverend arrived, I made it my business to trail behind him and Father, as they took their walk out on our lands.
The day was lovely and the air buzzed with the flitting wings of hummingbirds drawing nectar from the fruit tree blossoms.
White butterflies flew out of the new grasses as the men took the back path through the orchard down the hill to the stream.
I followed at a good distance, excited to see the young corn stalks uncrooking their new green necks when we crossed the flat
field at the foot of the orchard.
“ ’Tis a good and loving God who sends such a spring to Adams!” the Reverend called loudly to my father, apparently hoping
conversation would slow his pace, for the Reverend was stout and wheezed slightly when he walked. His long silver hair lay
over his collar, splayed out by his black top hat. I saw it glinting in the sun before I slipped behind a tree.
“We must give thanks at every step for our blessed fortune,” Father answered and they carried on awhile in silence winding
down the path through the woods until they reached the stream where the air grew full of rambunctious water song. They stopped
at a small clearing of sandy beach, where a little waterfall the length of Father’s boots rushed over gray stones into a shoal.
I hid behind a large boulder on the bank above them and I was able to hear their every word.
“Pray, Reverend, what do you recall of the great earth movements felt throughout this part of Tennessee in recent years?”
“I recall an angry God reminding us we are as nothing to the force of His will and nature.” The Reverend bent and cast a stone
into the stream with unusual playfulness for a man of his years. “I recall the tremors of the ground moved the souls of many,
and attendance in the house of the Lord was greatly increased!” He laughed, watching the ripples he’d made in the water with
“Have you felt any such earth movements of late?” Father did not respond to his humor and appeared deeply preoccupied with
unspoken concerns. He bent and cast his own stone, only it hit another rock and bounced to the other side of the stream.
“No,” the Reverend turned to him, “have you, Jack?”
“I have felt something.” Father nodded, and I wondered if the Reverend could see as I could, even from my distance, Father’s
reluctance to discuss the matter.
“Describe it.” The Reverend waited.
“It was a rumbling, and shaking, and trembling of the house.”
“A rolling of the ground, a tremor of sorts?”
“Something like that, yes.”
I wondered why Father did not more accurately convey our experience.
“This was yesterday?”
“It was.” Father bent at the knees and picked up another stone, casting it expertly to the center of the stream.
“Well.” The Reverend moved his hands to his hips and flapped the tails of his jacket out sideways, appearing deep in thought.
“I have just come from town where I paid a visit to Thorn’s country store. There were several folks gathered there sharing
pipes with Thorn and sampling the hyson skin and bohea tea he has recently carted in from Nashville. No one mentioned an earth
movement and I do believe if anyone had felt such a thing I would be among the first to hear of it.” He rolled his heels deeper
in the sand, contemplating my father’s face, but Father kept his eyes on the ripples his stone had made in the stream.
“Well, you are the first of whom I have inquired and I consider my original question now moot with your gracious reply.” He
stood again, showing his white teeth in a smile, appearing satisfied, but I was much dismayed, for the Reverend clearly could
shed no light on what the disturbance in our home might be.
“Say, Jack, you have a sinkhole near the cold storehouse on your land, do you not?”
“We do,” Father nodded.
“Well, might your rumbling be the ground settling around your sinkhole now that spring has thawed the frozen earth?”
“A good suggestion, Reverend. I will look there for an answer if we experience such rumbling again.”
I thought of the place he mentioned where the ground curved down to make a grass lake of sorts by the entrance to our cold
storehouse. How could a sinkhole be related to the flapping wings of invisible birds, or a tapping at the window glass? What
could it have to do with the shaking of log walls? I laid my cheek against the smooth boulder that hid me well, and shut my
eyes, tired and deeply concerned. I allowed the men to move away without me, continuing their stroll along the stream. They
were clearly finished discussing the only subject I was interested in.
I was good for nothing the rest of the day, dreading the setting of the sun. I gathered warm eggs from the chicken coop for
Mother, and attempted a spell of mending in the afternoon, but I feared each stitch brought me closer to the evening and the
hours were not long enough, so soon was it time to gather for supper.
Our family joined hands around the table and bowed our heads to our wooden bowls. The steam off Chloe’s early spring pea soup
filled our noses as Father recited the usual prayer.
“O heavenly Father, dear Lord, we thank thee for thy gifts from Heaven and pray to serve with our souls, that they may be
ever worthy of your blessings.”
I prayed silently, Grant us an uneventful, quiet night of sleep, O Lord. I promise to be a better girl in every aspect, pleasing
to my father and mother, compassionate to my brothers, and a dedicated listener in church, please God.
“Amen,” we repeated, then sat in silence while Father sliced the biscuits in the basket.
“Children,” Mother waited until all our eyes were turned onto her face. “The prayers we say at table have more depth of meaning
than you may be aware.”
Joel shook his golden curls, anxious to get at his food.
“May we begin?” Drewry lifted his spoon in inquiry.
“Listen to your mother.” Father’s tone was sharp as his cutting knife.
“You may,” Mother answered, looking to Drewry, seeming somewhat distracted in her thoughts. She continued, “To be ‘ever worthy’
you must strive to put your faith in the Lord and know you will not be misguided. I wish each of you to remember this.” I
watched her competent fingers smoothing her napkin on her lap and I could tell she was concerned, and wished us to be brave.
For her sake, I did want to try, but it was difficult. Already I felt unbearably anxious and as the last light of day disappeared
from the windows, I found myself unable to lift my head and look at anyone. Chloe’s normally light biscuits went down my throat
like rocks, and I felt so tired I was barely able to raise my spoon to my mouth.
“Betsy dear, I believe you should retire.” Mother excused me from the Bible reading after supper and, exhausted, I went directly
to sleep in my own bed, only to be awakened in the middle of the night by Richard and Joel climbing on top of me, chattering.
“Sister, sister, there is a rat gnawing on our bedpost!”
“Quiet. Let me listen …” I cuddled them under my quilts and, stretching my ears into the darkness, I heard it too, faint but
distinct, the sound of an animal, gnawing wood. Joel began to cry.
“What’s the matter? Did it bite you?” I was relieved, thinking nothing of a rat at the bedpost compared to a flock of invisible
birds beating down the walls. A rat could not produce a shaking of our house. The sound stopped and I heard Drewry’s steps
before I saw the light of his candle in the hall.
“There is nothing there again!” He entered my room shaking his head in disbelief. “I was quite near to it, sister, and plainly
heard the gnashing of its teeth, but it took some time to catch a spark on my char cloth off the flint and steel in the dark.
When I lit the wick I was standing right beside where I heard the rat but I saw nothing there. Nothing scuttered under the
bed, nothing ran from the room. I saw no evidence of gnawing and the noise ceased with the light.” Drewry pushed away the
hair fallen on his forehead, struggling to make sense of his experience.
“But hear it now!” Richard cried and I realized the gnawing had started up again. The boys and I huddled close together on
my bed. With great courage, Drewry strode back to his room and when his footsteps ended, so the noise did stop. There was
silence across the upstairs.
“Betsy, bring your candle and come quick,” Drewry called and I did as he asked, repeating to myself, be brave, be strong and
trust the Lord will protect you from harm. Joel and Richard each clutched one side of my nightdress in their solid fists and
we made our way down the dark hall into their bedroom.
“Light it.” Drewry took my arm and passed the flame to my wick and we held both our candles aloft. We searched every nook
and corner, inspecting even the tiniest cracks in the plank floor, as if a rat could thin itself and slip between them, but
we saw nothing. We stayed close together, uncertain of what we might find, investigating each shadow with great trepidation.
Richard and Joel had a firm grip on our nightclothes and bumped against our backs as we moved along.
“Betsy, my neck’s gone prickly,” Drewry whispered in my ear.
“Shhh, the little ones are frightened enough,” I answered. Neither of us knew what to do next.
“What is this about?” John Jr. entered and the way our lights cast shadows on his long jaw reminded me with comfort how much
he did resemble Father. We told him of the gnawing sound.
“Retire to my room,” he insisted, but no sooner had we passed the landing and entered his dormer than the gnawing commenced
again and this time it was accompanied by the ear-splitting sound of wood cracking apart.
“It sounds as though my bedroom furniture is on its way to kindling!”
We raced across the hall to witness what could cause such destruction, but when our candles reached my door the noises ceased.
Everything was as it always was. My rocking chair sat unmoving by the open window, my wardrobe stood in its place against
the northern wall, my chamber pot was inconspicuous in the corner, and the china bowl of my washstand gleamed under our candle
flames by the doorway. Only my quilts had fallen to the floor. All was silent.
“Fetch the lamps from the parlor, Drewry.” John Jr. could even sound like Father when he gave commands and Drewry did respond,
setting off downstairs. I picked up the quilts and wrapped up Joel and Richard on my bed, trying to keep from shaking with
apprehension. I moved with caution, afraid the very bed stand might give way beneath us as we settled, for I had most certainly
heard the sound of furniture breaking coming from my room.