Authors: Melissa Sanders-Self
Tags: #Contemporary, #Fantasy, #Ghost, #Historical, #Horror, #USA
Her best known eccentricity was her habit of filling with Spirit at our Sunday sermons. We recalled together how tolerant
was the resignation on the Reverend Johnston’s sturdy face when Old Kate shook the church, falling to her voluminous knees,
wailing, “He is in me! Jesus, the Spirit of the Lord is in me!” Isolated titters of laughter from members of our congregation
were usually hidden by the thunder of her declaration and by those who supported her religious impulses and called encouragement
to her, “Praise the Lord, Kate! O praise the Lord!” The most humorous part came after the Spirit in her waned, and the sermon
was accomplished and we were released outside. All across the church lawn groups of children gathered, laughing, pretending
to be Kate Batts filling up with Spirit. Boys rolled on the ground and wailed and though their mothers called “Stop being
silly!” from behind their gloves, no one was overly concerned, as it was all in fun. It was a happy memory Mother had conjured
We adjourned to the parlor, and Father sat at his desk and drank from his flask for somewhat longer than usual, while John
Jr. stoked the fire too much, his nervousness as apparent as the bright sparks shooting up the chimney. Richard and Joel sat
either side of Drewry on the bench, and Mother had me sit before her on the rug, so my hair could be brushed and braided anew.
Father settled himself in his chair and read slowly.
“If ye love me, keep my commandments. I be in my Father and ye in me, and I in you.”
Richard and Joel giggled and made faces, as though they would fill with Spirit, and Mother smiled, indulging them, using her
fingers to pick out a knot at the base of my neck.
“He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me; and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father.”
I listened, heartened by Father’s reading.
“God loves me, doesn’t he?” I asked Mother later, when she came to see me settled in my bed.
“God loves us all,” she answered with certainty and waited at my bedside until I breathed regularly with sleep.
I awoke in the dark to the distinct sounds of lips, smacking near my ear, and from the foot of my bed came a gulping sound,
as if some human being were gasping for air. I was terrified and paralyzed with fear, and abruptly my quilt was ripped off
my body and my braid twisted from behind and pulled so hard my head was raised with a painful jerk off the bed. I feared it
would be pulled off my shoulders, so violent was the force. I screamed, and heard both Richard and Joel in their bedroom screaming
too. The gulping grew louder, a sound like someone taking too much liquid in their mouth, being forced to swallow. It sounded
oddly familiar, and I knew I had heard it before but I knew not where or when. John Jr. came running, with his candle lit,
and Drewry too came running, but only to light his candle and return to the little boys. With light, all our screaming ceased,
for we saw nothing apart from our selves and our things in our rooms.
“Brother, it touched me! It hurt me!” I gasped, reaching out for John Jr’s. hand. I pulled him to sit close beside me on the
“What touched you? What was it? Why were you gulping like that?” John Jr. drew his eyebrows together in inquiry, inspecting
“I was not!”
“I heard the same in our room.” Drewry and the boys arrived, with Drew talking. “It was as if a person was swallowing too
great an amount, and choking with the effort.” His description agreed with mine. Behind him in the darkened hall the gulping
came again. It was evil and it was at my door.
“Keep lit the candle! Get the lamps!” I cried, as Richard and Joel took my quilt up off the floor. I held my hand to the back
of my head and felt where my hair had been pulled. The pain was gone, but I was certain it had happened. “It is something
unnatural here with us.” I spoke aloud my fear.
“How say you, darling daughter?” Father asked, arriving at my door with Mother behind him, both in their nightclothes, each
carrying an unlit lamp in one hand and a candle in the other.
“It ripped the quilt from off my bed and pulled my hair so hard I screamed in pain, not only fear.” I was upset.
Mother sat beside me, put her arm around my shoulders, and pulled me close. The gulping sound continued, accompanied by a
raspy chorus of choking, and we all froze, listening to the grotesque smacking of lips, considering our situation.
“Jack, we must light every lamp and you must lead us all in prayer,” Mother whispered, not frightened so much as greatly concerned.
“Let us move downstairs and see if we are still disturbed.” Father turned and led the way. The gulping noise faded in and
out in time to the flickering light of our candles in the hall. John Jr. displayed great courage walking toward it, with us
as witnesses, and when his candle reached the boys’ room, the noise did cease. We went quickly down the stairs, bumping against
one another as we struggled to stay near.
The lamps were lit and set on the desk and on the side table in the parlor, then Father built the fire up into flames. We
joined hands in a circle, standing on the parlor rug and Father began our prayer.
“Dear God, who art in Heaven …”
From upstairs came a frightening crash and thud, as though our wardrobes and chests were thrown to the floor. John Jr. dropped
my hand, thinking he would investigate the noise.
“Stay here,” Father ordered, and he continued to pray, “O Lord, deliver us from evil, for we are among the righteous.” The
sound of our beds being ripped apart was joined by the noise of a metal chain dragging what I thought might be a large stone
or some other unfathomably heavy object across the floor above our heads. I was deeply afraid and I was not the only one.
Drewry and John Jr. had their faces set in stoic imitation of our Father, but Richard and Joel had quivering chins, and even
Mother bore an expression of dismay.
“Jack,” she looked to him across the circle, “we must repent our sins.”
“Who here has sinned?” Father glared at us and I felt unable to speak, so tight was my chest with fear, but Joel squeezed
“I have sinned,” he cried through tears. “I stole a carrot from Mother’s garden and fed it to the horse!”
“The Lord forgives you,” thundered Father and I did wonder how he knew, but the sin was trivial enough, it could not warrant
such persecution of us all.
“I have sinned.” Mother did not raise her voice, and I strained to hear her over the pounding destruction taking place above
our heads. “I have sinned, for I have not trusted you and your wisdom in every moment, dear God. You must know what forces
you have sent among us. I renew my covenant of trust in you, Father, though these horrid and unnatural events wreak havoc
with my faith.” We heard a clattering of stones cascading down our steps, so many and of such various sizes it was as if the
Red River bottom accosted us.
“Look!” Drewry ran and grabbed a stone and brought it back to Father. “It is a rock, exactly as it sounded.” Drewry’s simple
observation was accurate and terrifying, for if the rocks were actual and they obviously were, what would remain of our splintered
“I have also sinned.” Father took the rock into his hand and cast it down hard, in anger, against the floor. “Yea, I have
sinned no more than most men! Why, God, do you inflict this trial on our good family?” To our surprise, the disturbance precipitously
ceased. We sat a moment in silent shock, then I began to cry with relief, and I had to strain to listen while Mother continued
“Father, forgive us and hear our promise unto you; we will forsake you not, and our faith shall be firm in adherence.”
No one wished to return upstairs and Mother and Father did not request that we do so. They retired to their bed and squeezed
Joel and Richard in with them, while Drewry, John Jr. and I made do with quilts on chairs before the hearth. The lamps burned
without wavering, and the hissing of the fire was the only sound for the rest of the night.
The next day was a Sunday and at dawn, though the whole family was weak and fragile with no sleep, Father woke us.
“Get dressed, for we are going to church. I have been to your rooms and all is intact.”
We made a path in the rocks piled on the stairs and went to dress. My room was not the heap of wreckage I expected, instead
all was normal, except my bed was unmade and missing the quilts I’d left downstairs. From my window I saw the new day, and
though the sun glinted under the clouds, there was the promise of it in the sky. I changed from my night-clothes into a cotton
petticoat and my pokeberry-dyed church dress. The light of day made the dark experience of the night before more difficult
to understand. How could it be that we should suffer so, and yet arise with our environment undisturbed and as it always had
I heard the sound of many steps in the downstairs hallway and I peeked out to see Father instructing Dean and Chloe in removing
the rocks from the steps. A tight feeling of fear grew in my stomach, and I hoped Dean and Chloe could finish the task before
we returned from church, as I could not stand the sight of those rocks. They were a too vivid reminder we were experiencing
something very much out of the ordinary in our house. I hoped Father would tell the Reverend Johnston of our troubles, and
I thought it would be a great relief for me to inform Thenny of my suffering, but at breakfast Father squashed that plan,
reminding all of us we must keep a vow of silence regarding the dreadful disturbances.
“Tell no one,” Father ordered, giving each of us his strictest gaze, insuring we would be circumspect.
We rode in our black buggy down the Adams―Cedar Hill high road, past Kate Batts’s house to Jesse and Martha’s homestead. We
picked them up on Sundays, for Mother enjoyed the opportunity to converse with the newlyweds. Without permission to speak
of the one thing on my mind, I found I could not speak of anything at all, and I paid no attention to the idle chitchat that
passed between Martha and Mother, though I did notice Martha did most of the talking, describing in detail a problem she was
having germinating peas.
At church, I found the sermon not particularly inspiring or relevant to our troubles. The Reverend read of Jacob and Esau,
emphasizing how Jacob fooled his father, but not God. I prayed silently while he spoke, hoping in His own house I might have
better success with my prayers and pleas for the Lord to pity us and put an end to our misfortune. When the sermon was over
and we were released out-of-doors, Thenny tried to speak to me.
“What is the matter, Betsy Bell? Are you ill? Why was your family absent from lessons all this week?”
I only shrugged and I could not form a proper aspect to reply to her queries regarding my welfare, and the Reverend’s talk
of fooling people but not God made me feel guilty. I thought to tell her I was a young woman now, though the blood had nearly
finished, but it was not the time.
ill!” Thenny was irritated with me, I know, for she shot an injured expression sharp as a whittled arrow at me before running
off without a backward glance to join our friend Becky Porter, who was talking with Ephraim Polk and Mary Batts beside the
church steps. She said something to them about me, for they all looked in my direction, but then Father returned to our buggy
and our silent family climbed inside.