“Do I believe in ghosts?”‘ echoed Mr. Jensen, our village oracle and bootmaker. “Yes, I do. Listen, and I’ll tell you about one I saw the other night. It’s different from most ghost stories as it’s perfectly true.”
The conversation had moved beyond the hour when a shadow of indiscernible origin had passed across us. Up to this point we had struck upon several, all entirely wholesome, subjects to converse upon, that which were most prominent in our thoughts, but the appearance of the shadow had the effect of shifting the conversation to a far less familiar and, in hindsight, rather disquieting territory.
“You know Mr. Fullen, who lives over at the mill? Well, he wanted his new wellingtons badly; he must have ’em, for he was off to Nettleham market next morning early with a load of pigs. I worked at the boots till about eleven o’clock. The wife says, ‘Peter, you can’t go over to mill this night, it’s a raining cats and dogs and goodness knows what else…!’ I must go, Eliza; and away I goes, after I had put on my cloak. It was a long walk, and I often wished myself back again. I reached the mill at last, wet through to my skin. Mr. Fullen gave me a drop of something penetrating, and kept me yarning till it was after twelve. The night was then darker and thicker than when I left home, and big drops of rain were falling. I walked on quickly, trying hard not to think of something Mr. Fullen had been reading out of a local paper…”
Mr Jensen reached for his glass. His breathing had appeared to quicken at every word; now his lips waited for his lungs to regain composure.
“Terrible thing it was: a young woman what had gone mad, murdered her baby, and rushed through the streets of Marshbury and….”
I leaned forward in my chair and enquired after my companion: “Do you wish to continue, sir?”
Mr. Jensen took another sip and told me that he had no intentions of quitting though, he had to admit, his tale was a rather gruesome one.
“It was in her arms,” he continued, “the infant, that is.” “You see, she had lost her mind to such a degree that she had begun gnawing the skull of the child… and with the fingers and toes of the baby tied to her hair.”
“Good God,” I uttered, a deep disgust throttling my voice. “Such a thing—!”
“I couldn’t help but run, for I wanted to get past that place, you know it, where two men — one a suicide, the other a minister — are buried. There’s a blue flame can be seen there at times, among the twisted yews and big oaks, between the graves and Mr. Fullen’s. The rain had cleared off a good deal, but the night seemed to have got blacker, and there was a little lightning sometimes. The breeze moaned, and the loose bits of bark flapped about in the wind just like skinny figures cracking their fingers with joy at the chance of entrapping me. Fifty times I almost shrieked, for I fancied I saw the child-murderer dashing past the horrid yews.”
“There’s a fence running at the end of the timber in a line with the fence of the graves. I was nearing this fence when all at once I stood still without knowing that I did so. I stared and stopped breathing. I felt my hair gradually lifting my hat up; the perspiration ran off my forehead down my nose and cheeks; then my breath came in gasps; my teeth went chatter, chatter, chatter; my knees trembled; my eyes started.”
“There, right in front, leaning over the top rail of the fence was a white thing with flashing eyes and two long arms waving backwards and forwards; I could hear chump, chump, chump, as it sucked its lips in, and smacked its tongue against its toothless gums and the roof of its mouth. It began to advance slowly; off went my hat; my hair, I assure you, on my solemn oath, stood up straight, like one of those here bristles I use with the wax end. Thinks I, I’ll die hard, anyway; no Jensen ever gave in without a squeak for it! So I gradually stooped down, bending my shaking legs, and felt about for a stone; my fingers clutched a heap of leaves, then a bit of wood; I caught hold of anything without knowing what I was doing, and my eyes could not turn away from the horrid white thing coming closer and closer, about to seize me. Says I aloud! — I ain’t done nothing to you, whoever you are; I ain’t been a very wicked man; no wickeder than hundreds of others; I always ring the bell at church; why do you come for me? Still it came on and on, flashing its eyes, waving its skinny, shiny arms, sucking its lips and cheeks. At last I got a stone about the size of this ‘ere paste pot; I straightened my shaking legs, took a long breath, clenched my chattering teeth, and flung the stone with all my might at the hideous white object, and fell face downwards full length on the track.”
“After a brief moment, I lifted my eyes; the moon shone out, and, much to my relief, I saw that the thing had left me.”
Mr. Jensen paused and I took it that he had finished his tale. But there was more:—
“Then I began to hear a strange gurgling sound, right up close as if it was against my ear. Slowly, I turned my head and to my horror I felt the sensation of cold skin against my own.”
“No, although in a terrible way I wish it had been,” he said solemnly.
“What?— Who then?”
“The child,” he sighed. “There it was, against my head and shoulders. Breathing, panting like a newborn. But if it were not for the infant’s cry I might not have recognised it, for its face—”
At this his body crumpled, his frame dwarfed by its linen surrounds, and a cold silence fell upon us.
“Dear God, man, if even a word of this were true I should never close my eyes gain, nor pass by that accursed place. But, tell me, when did this manifestation leave you— how did you unshackle yourself from it?”
The man before me straightened his back, and stared.
“I did not,” he said.
Three simple words, each spoken with such abhorrence.
And, with this utterance, a terrible tension took hold of my throat and through dry lips I did say, “Such an image would surely stay a lifetime; one would be unable to erase it. You have my deepest—”
It was then that I noticed a certain dimming in the light, that drawn from the window, and observed that Mr. Jensen had begun to turn his head to the corner of the room, his face passing gently into shadow.
Following his line of sight, my eyes were directed to a small corner shelf, nestled below a poorly draped window, on which a glass jar had begun a sort of jittery dance towards the edge; and there I continue to gaze upon it until it had moved to the point of destruction, but all the while nudged so delicately, and watched it as it fell to the floor. And then, with the gentleness of a lullaby, there came a tiny clinking of glass as the remaining vessels, played upon by little fingers, one by one, were thrust out towards the edge of the shelf.