[I wanted to write another ghost story this year for Halloween, but I put it off until two days ago. I'm violating a whole slew of writer's taboos by posting this (i.e., just finished it, haven't let anyone read it, don't have any distance from it), but what the heck, it's Halloween! Turn down the lights and enjoy---if you dare.]
SILENCE IN A FIELD OF YELLOW
by A. S. Peterson
It was not the madness that killed my father, as his doctor had feared it would. Nor was it the accumulation of eighty-nine winters that had withered his bones and left him hollow, disconsolate, and unkind. Nor was it either the breaking of his brittle neck or the discharged shotgun found in the hall. And neither was the odd grey powder in which he was found dusted any true indicator of the nature of his alarming decease. Should the suspicion have crossed your mind, neither did I put an end to him myself, though I certainly tried and many would have turned a blind eye had I succeeded. No, I maintain that all these particulars—the madness, the rifle, the neck twisted strangely backward, the powder, his age—all these are merely the circumstance and aspect of his repose upon the final moments of his wicked life.
It’s no use to doubt me. I was there. I saw what happened. What killed Aloysius Baxter was the ghost.
If you are to understand all these things, you should first understand that my father was not always the villain you know him to be. Indeed, though he was always suspicious and mistrustful, I have fond memories of him that reach back as far as I can remember, and they progress evenly until the summer of my sixteenth year and the events of that time with which you are no doubt familiar. In my youth, though he was already troubled and bent by arthritis, he was well-mannered and kind. There was no sign of madness then, and though he questioned the motives of everyone around him, it was no more than was expected of a shrewd businessman. I think there was no doubt of his love for either my mother or myself, and by any accounting, he did well enough in his work with Gimble & Baxter to provide a handsome life for us.
I’m often asked about the nature of our family’s relationship with Tom Gimble before the falling out. To the best of my memory he was a man who gave only the kindest of compliments and adorations. I can call to mind not a single incident of his acting in a way inappropriate to our family, though it is certain that he did call more frequently than any of my father’s other friends. It’s well known that Tom and my father had been schoolmates and had traveled abroad together as young men. They shared, I think, a deep bond as only men who have passed through youth together can, and it is therefore no surprise that Tom was often a guest at mealtime. It came as very much a surprise, however, when he arrived on our doorstep that summer evening and the gunshots began.
The knock came during dinner. My mother and father exchanged a look that seemed curious to me, though I could not have said why, then my father rose and walked down the entry hall and answered the door. I heard the door swing open, and I heard the creak of the porch planks as the caller (I did not yet know who) shifted his weight from leg to leg. My mother tightened her lips, straightened her yellow dress, and followed after my father. I sat alone and contemplated my cold chicken in silence.
When, in the many years since, I have had occasion to recall that night, the detail that strikes me as the most shocking is the lack of voices. It has always seemed to me that the eruption and progression of something so violent and hateful would rightly be set to an accompaniment of screams, howls perhaps, sobs, or at the very least some explosion of maddened laughter. But there was none of that. There was only silence, and more silence, punctuated at either end by the sharp report of gunshot.
I sat in that terrible silence, ears ringing, and to this day even the merest scent of gunpowder recalls to me the taste of cold, salty chicken. I was frozen to my chair as that uncanny and absolute quiet settled around me. And when, after an unmeasured span of time, my father’s shape reappeared in the kitchen doorway, I did not immediately recognize it. It seemed that in the time since he had walked away from our family dinner, the arthritis had wrenched his entire form into something other than the man I had known. His left shoulder rode up near his ear and his right arm swung slowly from side to side like a leg of mutton hung in the market. He leaned against the doorframe and spat out a tooth. A thin dribble of blood spilled from his lower lip. He slumped to the floor and passed into a daze from which I could not stir him.
Mrs. Clumsly, our neighbor, fetched the police, and the rest you will know from the trial that followed. How Tom Gimble was revealed to have conducted adulterous affairs with my mother, and how, having been scorned, he came to the house that night to murder my father and mother both, shooting my mother to death in the entry hall before turning the gun on my father, who wrestled with him and seized the gun and shot Tom Gimble through the chest. All this passed in the eerie silence of mortal strife as I sat slack-jawed over cold chicken, listening to what I now recognize as the first moment of my mother’s unbearable absence.
Whatever grief I suffered for my bereavement was redoubled by my father’s gradual mortification. The trial weighed upon him heavily as he was made again and again to relive the night of my mother’s murder. Wherever he went, people scorned him and spat at him and called him “murderer,” for Tom Gimble was well liked and was thought above reproach and people did not believe that things had happened as my father told. The purchase of an expensive piano within a month of my mother’s death (apparently paid for with insurance money) did nothing to improve his standing, especially given that the purchase was made on the very day of what would have been their seventeenth wedding anniversary. People scowled, considering the indulgence a depraved insult to her memory.
My father was charged, as you know, but not convicted. I believed in him when so many of his friends turned away and hoped, at the time, that his exoneration would restore him, as well as his reputation. It did not. By rapid descent he became a man wholly other than himself. Violence had been no part of him before, but its sudden eruption in his life seemed to have overtaken and mastered him. He was like a man who is strong and youthful and healthy all his life until a plague comes upon him and consumes him and leaves behind a sallow creature given to fits of coughing and fever. The man that my mother’s murder left behind was one of irrational outbursts, increasingly spiteful in both speech and deed.
By the time of my eighteenth year, I scarcely recognized him. The trial and his anguish had bent him into a knot of flesh, a knot that seemed always pulled on by some outside force drawing him tighter, gnarling him more surely into something inhuman and wretched. And the physical disfigurement he endured, was reflected two-fold in his mind. Whatever kindness had been in him drained away. If he spoke, it was to pronounce displeasure, or to strike out in anger or accusation. I am ashamed to say that he struck me, though only once. We quarreled over a petty thing, as fathers and nearly grown sons often do; he demanded that I keep to my piano lessons, but I had no talent for it and refused. He would abide no argument, and it ended when he blackened my eye with his fist.
You might expect that he would have then awakened to the terrible thing he had done, having struck his only child in anger, but in his rage he would have struck again had I not fled to prevent it. I ran from the house. I ran from my father, and he chased me only with curses and threats. I did not return for forty years.
I found my way to another city and another people and I set about the work of scouring my past away, wanting nothing of it and no one to remain. The spectre of the past, however, is a long-lived and treacherous shade; in time, he stretches forth and bends us all to his will. And so it was that when I returned at last to my father’s house, it was not with any gladness or sentiment. It was in answer to a letter received from a Dr. Wiltson, upon whose care my father’s wellbeing had apparently fallen.
Dear Mr. Baxter:
It is with dire concern that I write. Your father, Aloysius Baxter, is unaware of this correspondence and it would be best, I believe, if it were kept so. I beg that you will take these words under your sincerest consideration and answer in whatever way seems best.
You are unaware perhaps that your father has been under my care these last seven years. He is afflicted with a peculiar mania that I have been able scarcely to control and not at all to cure. He raves of visions. He lives in terror of the dead, saying that each night they walk the halls, seeking, he claims, his end. This new mania has added to his previous nature of disagreeability, and I now fear that he has become a danger both to himself and others.
As you well know, your father enjoys little love here. He has chased away and terrified every nurse for hire, and he endeavors to drive everyone to histrionics by incessantly banging at his piano. Lately he has taken to sitting his porch chair each evening with shotgun at hand and threatens anyone passing near. I fear that the end of the story will be either the death of an innocent pedestrian, or the commission of your father into an institution that will not be to his liking and out of which he will never again emerge.
Therefore, in hope of forestalling that undesirable end, I entreat you to return and see what comfort and care you may be able to offer. It may be that the years between you have mended old wounds and left open the hope of reconciliation. But if no reconciliation is possible, at least consider that your father’s health flags with each passing day. Even in the best possible diagnosis, I guess that his madness will allow no more than months left to him. Should you come to his aid, I do not think you will be long required, and you will be present at the end in order to settle his matters of estate.
I pray you will come.
With Grave Concern,
Dr. Albert Wiltson
As I stepped off the train and saw the old town for the first time in so many years, I found it necessary to combat a rising sense of odium. When I left as a young man, hounded by my father’s curses, I had thought never to return. I despised the townsfolk, who I believed had unjustly decried my father and heaped insult and suspicion upon our grief. Certainly, I hated Tom Gimble for taking my mother away, but it was Aloysius Baxter that I blamed for denying me a father. He collapsed beneath grief and scorn when he should have risen up emboldened by it. He should have been my protector—our protector. But in my mind he had become as monstrous in his self-destruction as Tom Gimble had been with his shotgun. Thus did these loathings comingle within me as I stepped from the passenger car to greet Dr. Wiltson.
The doctor graciously drove me to the house and thanked me many times over for my willingness to assist. He entrusted me with a vial of opiate and encouraged me to apply it to my father’s tongue whenever his ravings seized him. This, he said, would soothe his mind and allow him to rest. I gave Dr. Wiltson my best assurances and bid him a good day, then walked for the first time in more than forty years up to the door of my youth and rapped upon it thrice.
The following days were not the burden I had expected. Upon seeing my father again, I confess I was moved to a pity that I had not foreseen. If he was knotted and bent before, then he was a cruel, mangled, heap of a man now. His spine was bent into a hook-like shape that settled his head low on his chest as his crooked shoulders rose high above it. There was nothing in his face that remained recognizably my father. His teeth were long-since departed and his cancerous gums smelt and oozed. His beard had grown in all directions and was matted and crusted with filth. One eye had swollen shut with some undescribed malady and the other bulged, red and trembling, in its socket. For all his ugliness, though, he was marked by suffering rather than hatred. In response, my own spirit was moved to empathy rather than revulsion.
Whether he recognized me, I do not know, but in the weeks that followed he did, at times, pass into moments of near lucidity in which he seemingly became untwisted in his mind and looked out of his ruined body with a hopeful kindness that I’d not seen since before the awful silence and the gunshots.
He did rave. Make you no mistake. His madness seemed to come upon him most especially at night. He would permit no open door after nightfall, not to closet, to pantry, to bedroom, or to bath, and he often cast mistrustful glances up the attic stair. He regularly slunk to the piano in the parlor and banged at it, creating a maddening cacophony that I could rarely tolerate. He grumbled and shouted and cursed the shadows. If I questioned him on his inconsolable mood he became even more dark and surly and muttered that the dead would not leave him be. At times, he even seemed to speak to them directly. “It’s her, it’s her!” he wailed once while looking morbidly toward the entry hall. I asked him whom he spoke of but he gave no reply.
He also had the habit of going each evening at dusk to the porch and there would sit with his shotgun if permitted. One of my first lessons upon arrival, however, had been to secure the shotgun out of his reach. This was met with a rage of anger until I provided him with a common broomstick, and on any given evening he took it in hand, took up his guard on the porch, and threatened with it any approaching person.
Though the doctor had given me the vial of opiate for use at need, I found it unnecessary. My father’s ravings were predictable. As all madnesses are, his was an affliction of patterns and morbid cycles. His mind had become trapped in a circular path and was no longer able to find its way free. The ravings came first at dusk when he repaired to the porch, and at regular intervals during the night, and at the opening of any door in darkness. The parlor door I bolted shut to prevent him access to the accursed piano. Once I had learned these basic preventatives and recurrences, my life with him became almost mundane. I learned to deal with his outbursts much as one deals with any common unpleasancy. One does what must be done.
So did we continue, and so in the weeks that followed did I begin to feel an even greater measure of pity for him. My nascent compassion may even have grown into something like love or at the least may have opened a crack through which reconciliation could root and grow, had I not ventured that late-October day beyond the attic door.
The occasion arose when it became clear to me what the doctor meant when he said that the madness would not allow my father more than a few more months. In the short time that I had cared for him, his decline was easily noticeable. The few words he spoke became more and more slurred. He slept longer and awoke weaker. His skin took on an almost translucent quality that gave me the unsettling impression that he was only a thin membrane away from falling apart into all of his constituent pieces. He was a bubble only a pinprick from bursting. I came to think that the doctor had been too generous in his estimate. It was plain to me that my father’s days were short indeed, and it was this that put me in mind to arrange the matters of his estate.
His office was at the back of the house and there I began. I found a formidable cache of money in the safe, which lifted my spirits. I read through his ledgers and investigated his files and tried as best I could to determine whether or not there were debts to settle. I found little enough, but as I traced his scant business back through the years, I eventually began to come upon various receipts and ledger entries written in the name of Gimble & Baxter. The appearance of the Gimble name in print sent a shudder through me. After the murder and trial, it had taken years, no doubt, to excise the Gimble name from the company’s files and interactions, and I became fascinated by tracing its path through my father’s business dealings. At length, I came to entries made soon after the date of my mother’s death, but the ledger ended, and there were no earlier records at hand. I searched the office, hoping to find his older archives but there were none. I searched the closets also and found nothing. If there were any further files to be inspected, they would be in the attic.
In childhood I feared the place for its dark corners and its cobwebs and its remoteness from the warmth and life of the house, and as I climbed the stairs, I chided myself for silliness when remnants of those old feelings tickled my neck. I pushed open the small door and ducked inside. The space was low and musty and I saw at once that the furniture and effects consigned to its shadows were the things of my mother. Dresses hung from rafter hooks. A box of sewing needles and yarn sat pitifully in a corner. Her mahogany vanity stood in another corner, its mirror shattered.
At the sight of these things, these relics, the spectre of years gone by stretched forth. With the curling of his icy finger he coaxed memories from my head and seemed to reform them in actual, physical matter for me to see and hold and inspect. The mirror upon the vanity, though broken, seemed to me as new and whole as it had been when my mother sat before it to pin up her hair. Her dresses, stored in rows, moth-eaten and brittle, were to my eyes imbued with an eerie vibrancy, and though I knew they hung listlessly, winds of memory blew across them and set them dancing. Then I forced myself to shut my eyes against these visions and tried to slow my breathing and my heartbeat. When I opened my eyes again, the comforting reality of shadow had once more anchored the world.
I set about my business and in little time located the remainder of my father’s archives. There was only one ledger I had any interest in, and once I discovered it, I traced my father’s affairs back through time until finally I came to the days preceding my mother’s death. The pages often contained candid and friendly notes, evidently written by both my father and Tom Gimble. They had been good friends and so this came as no surprise, but it filled me with a morbid fascination. I was hungry to read them all, as if they might provide me with some lost insight into the nature of the man who had so irreversibly turned the course of our lives.
On December 22nd of one year was written: “Christmas – Gimble’s house this year.”
On February 3rd of another year was scrawled “Cards tonight?” an evident suggestion by Tom Gimble himself.
My eyes were, of course, eventually drawn to the terrible day of the silence and the shots. There was no message on it. I felt a strange sense of relief for no reason I could have explained. But then I saw that on the day previous, there was a brief note in my father’s hand. It said, “Come for dinner. Opossum in the hedge. Bring shotgun.”
As I stared at it, a feeling came over me like a cold hand run up my back. In all the trial and all the recounting my father had ever given of the murder, there had never been any mention of Tom Gimble having been invited for dinner. Such a tiny bit of information, but incongruent enough to unsettled me.
I closed the ledger and rummaged through the rest of the box but found nothing of interest. I intended to leave, but the pull of memory was too strong. Perhaps if I had left the attic then my father would still be alive. But then again, perhaps it’s best that I stayed, best that I was drawn toward those rows and rows of dresses so long unworn and neatly hung. I ran my hand across them and tiny eruptions of dust flew into the light. The dresses rippled and swayed in concert like a drawn curtain. I kneaded the sleeve of one in my hand, to feel of its texture, and it disintegrated like powder in my fingers. Many were so old and ill-kept that the slightest distress unmade them. Once disturbed they rained to the floor in pieces. And then I came to the yellow one. The yellow one with the white daisy print that she’d worn when she walked through the kitchen door, and out of time, and into the awful silence that awaited her. There was a hole in the bodice nearly an inch across and I could see that it had been washed, and washed, and washed, again and again, all in an attempt to remove the stain around that hole, that terrible gaping emptiness in the field of lively yellow. Along with the blood, the dye had been scoured out of it and the yellow had faded nearly to grey, but there was no erasing the hole. It stared at me, and I stared back, into its abyssal eye, an eye filled with all the nothingness that the shotgun blast had left inside of me. But then I saw beyond it.
Through the hole in the dress I saw against the wall a decrepit basket filled with letters. I slid the dress away from me, but before I could reach for the basket, the howling began—an inhuman sound, a desperate groan, as of unendurable suffering voiced into a wordless utterance. I turned and beheld my father’s ragged shape thrust into the tiny attic door. His face had twisted into a fist of wrinkled features and his mouth formed an almost perfect circle out of which issued the wailing, keening, cry of a man given over to torment.
Nothing would console him. He ran to me and pulled at my arm, drawing me toward the door, away from the dresses and the shattered vanity. He raved. He thrashed. He howled and clawed at me. I acceded to his apparent wishes and withdrew from the attic and still he would not be comforted. At last, I saw no other course of action. I put the doctor’s opiate to use, and gradually my father slackened in his rage and fitfully slept.
When I was confident that his sleep would keep him, I slunk back to the attic and retrieved the basket. The letters within it were tattered and scored by repeated withdrawal and refolding, indicating to me that they had been read more than once and in all likelihood many times over. They were each addressed from Tom Gimble to my mother and sent to her at what appeared to be a postal box in her name. I reckoned quickly that they must bear some evidence of the adulterous affair that had predicated each of their deaths. The first few that I read confirmed my suspicion. One dated July 1st read:
“Received your message. Must forgo our rendezvous this week. Aloysius will be under foot, and I doubt I will be able to slip his watchful eye. -TG”
Another dated a few days later read:
“Have been shopping and have found something lovely that I think will suit you. I shall meet you at 3:00 on Tuesday if you are able to get away. -Tom”
There are two letters in particular that will, I hope, make clear my actions in the following hours. The first was postmarked two days before my mother’s murder. It stated simply and coldly:
“No need to worry. I questioned him today and the old fool doesn’t suspect a thing. We’ve hidden it all right under his nose!”
The letter showed evidence of having been wadded and crumpled into a ball, though it had since been smoothed out and replaced in its envelope. Given the date, it seemed certain to me that my father had discovered the letter and their relationship, and his discovery had set in motion the series of events that had led to Tom Gimble’s appearance on our doorstep with his shotgun. When I first read it, I imagined that I felt some of my father’s righteous rage at the discovery. And at once I understood the note written in the margin of the ledger. Come for dinner. Opossum in the hedge. Bring shotgun. My father had planned it. He had discovered them in their infidelity. His friend and his wife had conspired under his nose and mocked him, and he had designed for them a murderous retribution.
It was not Tom Gimble who had murdered my mother. It was him. Aloysius Baxter. My father. I closed my eyes and recalled again that terrible day. I saw it all so clearly. Tom at the door. My mother in the hall. My father calmly taking the gun from his hands. The first shot. The field of yellow stained in the silence. Tom Gimble trying to wrest the gun away and striking my father in the mouth. A second shot. The nothingness and the salty taste of cold fowl.
And then, so slyly, my father lied about it all. Even to me.
No wonder he raved of the dead in the halls. They stalked him. I have no doubt of it. Is there any more persistent haunting than that of undiscovered guilt? She stalked him every night of his life. And he deserved it. But even as such knowledge became real to me, I found myself almost able to forgive him. He had been betrayed, had he not? Which of us can know how civilly we may receive that sin, that most personal of treacheries? Perhaps my own reaction would not have been so different. And after all, had he not paid for his crimes in torment if not in prison?
But that was not the final letter. The last was dated the day of the shooting but was postmarked on the day following. Slipped into the evening post, I imagine, as Tom Gimble, gun in hand, came our way for dinner. Its content removed from me all thought of forgiveness. It struck in my heart a cold fire of anger and rage the like of which I had never met and could not contain. It awoke in me an engine of malevolent design that I hoped would call the long dead out of the past to draw justice forth from my father’s sickening reign of fallacy.
And so, while the opiate kept my father in his dreams, I plotted. I retrieved the shotgun, emptied its shells of shot, and reloaded them. I propped it by his bed, where it would be close at hand. I unbolted the parlor door and threw it wide. Then to the attic once again. I fetched a ball of yarn and strung it down from the attic to the lentel of the front door far below. Then I took, gently, the yellow dress on its hanger and hid myself behind the attic door to wait.
How can I describe this waiting? How can I describe the strange lightness of being that overcame me as I imagined the horror to come. How can I impart the odd joy I felt when I heard my father rousing in the room below? How fervidly did I anticipate the terror I would see in his eyes? Instead let me only say that there came a time when I knew for certain that some portion of my father’s madness had passed into me, whether by hereditary means or by some vector of contagion, I know not, but as I sat behind the attic door, I stroked her yellow dress and suppressed the almost unquenchable desire to laugh. My only wish was that his final sight should be of the thing that tormented him most.
I waited patiently until he began at last to rave. His footsteps thundered around the house. I heard him enter the parlor. I heard the piano bench scrape the floor. He began to play. The music, if it can be called that, rose up to me in a torrent. A mad, dissonant clanging without melody or rhythm. The fury with which he pounded the keys nearly drowned the music itself, and above it all he howled like an animal.
I could contain myself no longer. I laughed madly. I stood and ripped the final letter from its envelope and read it aloud, loud enough that he would hear and know that his lies were at an end.
“Piano delivered in three weeks time, on your anniversary. Thanks to your discretion, he should find no record of the payment. Have told no one. May it bless you both. –Tom Gimble.”
There had never been an affair, do you see? My mother only intended a surprise anniversary gift and enlisted Tom Gimble to her aid. And my suspicious father had murdered her for it. How he must have howled when he opened the letter and knew the truth. The worst of it, though, was that he had kept her secret. He went on with his slander of her. He lied, and he lied, and he covered it up and let them all believe she was an adulteress. And they let him get away with it. Every day since, the guilt of it had eaten him and twisted him and yet still he had not admitted it, not to me, not to anyone.
The music blew out of the piano like clashing thunder. All he could do was to cover over the silence with his damnable music. Now let him feel the cold finger of justice. I stomped my foot on the floor and the music stopped abruptly.
“Father!” I cried. “She’s here!”
I heard the sound of the piano bench as it fell over. I heard the shuffle of his limping gait, his feet scraping across the parlor floor and into the hall.
“She’s here, father! Come and see!”
I heard a muffled cry from the foot of the stairs and I began to beat on the closed attic door. “She’s here, father! She’s come for you!” From below I heard him begin to howl again. I kicked open the attic door and hung the yellow dress on the yarn.
“She’s come for you, Aloysius Baxter!”
I loosed the dress and it began to float slowly down the stretched length of yarn, bobbing up and down so very gently, so very like a living woman—just precisely like a woman who had once walked innocently down the entry hall toward her husband. I saw horror in his eyes. His face turned red and then deepened to purple. The vein on his forehead stood out like a blister ready to burst. And just like he’d done so long ago, he raised the gun and he shot her. The report of the blast rang in my ears. I spat out the taste of cold, rancid meat. And then there was again the silence, just as deafening as I remembered it. It was a ravening, bright, inescapable silence that fell like a cold blanket and snapped the world into an unforeseen vibrancy. Under that drape of quietude I saw before me a radiant woman. She was in the vitality of her youth. Step by step, she descended the stairs in her yellow dress and extended her soft, delicate arms. I saw that the blasphemous hole in the field of daisy was mended. There was no trace either of it or of the oft-washed stain as she descended toward him.
My misshapen father began to ascend the stair, and his terror was transformed. As he took the first of the steps, it appeared to me that he was stretched and pulled upright and unknotted as he climbed to meet her. His mouth still gaped open as if to howl but whatever issued from it was overmastered by the silence—the crystalline, unbreakable silence that stretched on and on and covered us all in cool licks of its unassailable grace. I saw then a thing wholly unlooked for; a dim spark of kindness, long extinguished, rekindled within him and flared.
There came at the end a moment when it seemed to me that she met him and embraced a healthy man, upstanding and young, and he clung to her fiercely. And then, into the space between moments, she vanished. The unearthly quiet was swept away. My father teetered backward on the stair, and in the brief splinter of time before gravity claimed him, he looked my way and seemed, without any malice or doubt, to see me. Then he sagged, his eyes closed, and he fell in heavy crashes down the steps.
He came to rest on the floor, crooked limbs all akimbo, his neck wrenched strangely back as if to look upward once more to see, perhaps, a last glimpse of her aureate gold. The dress slid gently down the yarn and settled above him, then it disintegrated into a shower of grey woolen powder.
Though it is certain that I was touched by my father’s madness, neither do I doubt what I saw. And while I dwell now in the assurance of his murderous past, I can tell you that I have never again heard awfulness in silence. It comes to me now as strange blessing and rest. And neither I have seen in all the years since that night, any shade of yellow that does not justly dim before hers.