In the fall of 1866 I moved to a small town to work as a school teacher. I had inquired at length regarding housing, but there was only one home available. It was much larger than my need required, but cheaper than anything I had expected to find.
I took a tour of the house before I purchased it. It was mostly built of solid stone and stood like a castle on the outskirts of town. The inside of the home was neatly furnished, though it had been vacant nearly a year, and I perceived that both the carpet and the paint were relatively new. The latter of these was most incredible. Every wall of the home had been painted a bright and sickly orange. I inquired about the singular color of walls and was told that the man who had lived there previously had survived a house fire in 1865 that all but ruined the interior of the home.
The man had repaired the home, but the loss of so much of his ancestral legacy was too much for him to bear, and the general consensus was that he had gone insane. Racked with the feelings of guilt, he had painted the walls with fire to remind him of his failure. His sickness had gradually spread throughout his body, and the man died a few months afterwards.
These circumstances may have been alarming to most, but I am not a superstitious person, and, being the daughter of a wealthy businessman, I know a good deal when I see one. I purchased the home and moved in immediately.
As I have said, this move took place in the fall of the year, but I remember my first year in that house as usually cold. Whether this is due to atmospheric or mental conditions I cannot say, but the first night I spent in the home was, without a doubt, unusually cold. I moved my things into the large bedroom on the second floor, stoked the fire in the parlor downstairs, made sure the windows and doors were securely latched, and went to bed.
I do not know what awoke me that night. At first I thought it was the heat. Somehow the house had become unbearably hot, and I thought I must have fed the fire too much – until I perceived the window. The window in my apartment had been flung wide open, and the shutters clattered softly in the chill breeze. I had no idea how it had gotten open, but I resolved to leave it so and check on the fire – when I distinctly heard the distressed cry of a baby.
As I have already said, I am not a superstitious person. I have never been afraid of whip ‘o wills or ghosts or anything of the kind, but I admit that on that night in that strange and isolated house the sound of a baby crying nearly turned my blood to ice. At first I tried to go back to sleep, to hide under my covers, to pretend that I was only dreaming, that I had heard nothing. But there it was again, unmistakable and shrill: the desperate wailing of a child!
My heart pounded against my ribs as if it had gone mad, and it nearly burst at the sound of pounding on the door of my house. Immediately I sprang out of bed and lit a candle with shaking, sweaty hands. I opened the door of my room and peered tentatively down the orange hallway. The house was silent for a moment, and then the wailing commenced again, and the pounding on the door grew frantic.
I raced to the parlor leaving wet footprints on the stone floor, and as I moved the light of the candle danced on the orange walls of the house as if they were in flames. I stopped for a moment despite the crying of the child and the pounding on the door to assure myself that it was not. I smelled no smoke, but the hose was growing intensely hot. I knew not what to do, so I rushed to the parlor and threw open the door.
There, on the large rug before the blazing hearth, sat the ghostly form of an infant. I froze in terror, and the candle I was holding clattered to the ground and went out. The specter apparently heard the noise, for it turned and looked at me with tear-filled, vacant eyes. It ceased its crying – and then the banging on the door commenced again. The child started and leaned forward, placing its small hands on the floor and crying bitterly again as it began to crawl toward me. Having arrived at my feet, it reached up and pulled imploringly on my night gown.
By this time my initial alarm had somewhat lessened and was replaced almost entirely by those feelings of motherly compassion that had first induced my to become a teacher. With a lump in my throat I bent toward the poor creature and lifted it from the ground. Its crying lessened considerably, and the relative silence granted me clarity of mind. The infant, who could not have been more than ten months old, was shaking and rubbing its eyes. I held it close to my breast and tried to sooth it, but the banging at the door redoubled its cries. The flames seemed to shoot out of the hearth and dance upon the bright walls of the parlor as the banging continued.
It may seem odd that I had not as yet opened the door, but the whole of this experience had taken place within a matter of merely one or two minutes, and, not being familiar with the lore of supernatural phenomena, I had no idea how to proceed. I began rocking the child gently in my arms. I wiped my perspiring forehead and reached out with trembling fingers to wipe the tears from the small, round cheeks of the baby. I would have covered the apparition in a blanket, but the room was so warm now that I could barely stand it. The heat and the light of the fire on the walls was very unsettling, and I had to continually remind myself that the house was not burning.
I looked down at the child began to panic: I was alone in a fiery haunted house holding a ghost in my arms. I began to sing a lullaby, as much to calm the baby as myself. The silence of the house enshrouded the two of us as I sang, and the effect gave me goosebumps despite the uncomfortable heat.
Lullaby, lullaby my little one,
Lullaby my child so –
The banging at the door began again suddenly in a crazed and deafening roar that seemed to shake the very foundations of the house. The child burst into piteous screaming, and I shook with fear. It seemed that whatever was knocking the door would not be appeased until I opened it, so I stepped hesitantly toward the door and flung it open. I fully intended to tell whatever demon entreated entrance that he could not take the child – but I found there no demon. On the step of the doorway stood the specter of a deranged woman. The sight of her grizzled hair and tear-streaked face was nearly too much for me, and I almost fainted on the spot, but the child in my arms recalled me from the brink of unconsciousness.
The child stirred and reached toward the woman with small, grasping hands.
“Ma-ma, ma-ma” the infant said as it sobbed.
Beginning to understand, I slowly lifted the baby to her with my heart pounding in my ears. Her hands took the infant gently and with all the purpose of a ritual. She gazed into its eyes through tears.
“James…” she said in a voice that sounded far away.
Then mother and child disappeared slowly into the night like a wisp of smoke. Inside, the fire had gone out, and the house was as cold as death. I re-stoked the fire and sat before it all night, reliving the incredible again and again. I have had many years of good sleep in the house since then, but that night I did not sleep at all.
The next day I spoke to the man I had purchased the house from and told him in confidence of the incident. His face was pale and his hands shook by the end of my tale, and he immediately vowed to give me a full refund should I ask it of him. I asked him what was the matter and then learned the tale of the house in its entirety.
A man had lived there with his wife and child and had enlisted to fight for the Republic in 1864. He had been on his way home from the war early in the Spring of 1865 when the first floor of the house caught fire. The mother could not get to her child, who stayed in a crib in the warmest room of the house: the parlor. She opened the window of her room and leaped to the ground. She ran to the front door of the burning house, but she could not get it open. She wildly pounded and threw herself against it – but the door would not budge. The child perished in the fire, and townsfolk said the mother had died of grief on the doorstep.
When the man arrived home he found that everything he loved in life had been taken away from him. He went mad and rebuilt the home, but he muttered always of the intense heat and of the wailing of a child in the night that would not let him sleep. In his madness he had the walls of the home painted orange to remind him of what had happened to his family. His insanity consumed him, and he died that same year.
I am not a superstitious person, and I have never been one to believe in ghost stories. It may sound strange when I confess that I was skeptical of this account despite its coinciding so well with my own experience. It would take something else to convince me that what I had seen was not the merely a dream.
“What was the child’s name?” I asked him. “The one that died in the fire.”
“James,” he replied.
I’ve tried many times to paint the walls of that house, but every time I do the color inexplicably fades to the color of flames overnight; and I will swear to my dying day that on still, quiet nights I can hear through the walls orange walls of the home the faint and joyous laughter of a disembodied mother and her infant child.