Real ghosts don’t lift the rag-covered tables of spiritualists. They don’t bend to our will or fill the misty crystal balls of the charlatan mediums who travel in gypsy carts wearing big hoop earrings and embroidered turbans. They don’t rattle chains in the attic or rearrange furniture in the basement. The spirits haunt us in much more subtle ways, making their presence known in a sudden frost, lacing across a window pane on a sweltering afternoon in July or a wafting of lilacs and lavender on an icy January morning. They are the soft moans in the night that mingle with the creaks and groans of house floorboards, the whisper at the base of your neck, beckoning you out into the night without a lantern to guide you.
A moan followed by shrieks and howls of laughter woke me the night I first saw the Sutherland sisters. Back then, there were still seven of them, all living at the Old Miller Place, a failing chicken farm with nothing but a few rusted coops, a weathered barn, and a three-room shanty. I woke violently and held in a scream. The moaning had been from my younger sister Faith, who tossed in her trundle bed, unused to the silent cold of our new home. The shrieks and giggles were coming from outside, however, and I padded over to the window to seek out the source of the noise, wincing as my feet hit the frigid floorboards.
It was late March, and our home in West Virginia had seen the warmth of spring for nearly a month. Now, in Upstate New York, snow still covered the ground in dull graying drifts and the sun might not appear for several more weeks.
A cloud passed from before the moon, and in the light, I could make out seven figures clad in ragged night dresses, laughing and screeching as they scampered down the icy lane. As I watched, each girl in succession unbound her hair, letting long locks blow about wildly in the winter wind. As the gust of wind subsided, each girl’s hair settled onto the snow and as they ran, they looked like seven brides dashing to marriage with seven long cathedral veils trailing out behind them.
I was transfixed, my fingers gripping the window sill. One by one, they stole into the church, where my father was to begin as minister the following Sunday. I cracked open the window to better hear their words, but the wind whistled in, stinging my eyes, and Faith moaned again, stirring beneath her heavy buffalo blankets. I shut the window and pressed my nose to the glass.
The smallest girl paused before entering the building. The stars seemed to flicker as she gazed up at my window. She couldn’t have been much younger than me, maybe eight or nine years to my eleven, but standing in the cold in nothing but a her worn nightdress as the moonlight shone on her small round face, she seemed like a changeling from one of the fairy stories Mother forbade us from reading. As this thought passed through my mind, another gale of wind whipped through the girl’s thick dark hair, encircling her small frame like a dust storm. When it settled, she smoothed back her tresses and grinned up at me wickedly, teeth glinting in the pale light. With a quick wave of her fingers, she suddenly disappeared into the chapel.
Within a few moments, notes from the church’s pipe organ crashed through the wind, and I could even hear a chorus of voices joining in strains of music.
“What on God’s green earth is that?” from the other room, my mother’s sharp voice cut through my reverie.
I hopped back into bed and saw Faith, eyes wide and knuckles white as they clung to the edge of her blanket. “That’ll be the Reverend Sutherland’s brood,” my father sighed.
“Reverend indeed,” Mother sniffed. The only thing sweet about my mother was the lemon verbena perfume she always wore, and even that had a sharp sour note to it.
“Ida, hush. The children,” Father soothed.
“As if they haven’t already woken? All this racket in the middle of the night.”
“I was warned of this,” Father breathed again. “I’ll speak to Sutherland after the Sabbath’s ended.”
“Goblins and witches every one of them,” Mother snarled. Though I never contradicted her out loud, my mother and I disagreed on almost every subject. On this point, though, I was fairly sure she might be right.
“They’ve had a hard time of it,” Father replied. From my bed, I could picture him stroking her hair the way he always did when she worked herself into a state.
I reached down to do the same for Faith, who was now glancing nervously toward the window and trembling under her heavy blankets. When my hand passed over her forehead, she mewled a little, almost like a baby kitten, and I realized that, though afraid, she was only half-awake and would probably not even remember this incident when morning came.
Faith climbed up from the trundle bed to join me, the way she used to in the two years after she moved from her crib to our shared bedroom. She was six now and reverted back to a habit I hadn’t seen her take up for three years. She stuck her thumb in her mouth. I wanted to shout at her for acting like a baby at a moment when I felt small and vulnerable and needed comfort myself. Instead, I batted it away, whispering, “A great girl like you,” in gentle laughing admonishment.
Faith poked my stomach with her chubby fingers, “You were just as frightened as me, Anna Louise.” She giggled and snuggled her head next to mine, falling asleep as soon as the organ ceased its tune. I could not rest for several hours, imagining the seven girls returning home like a coven of witches, carried on the wind by their long locks, leaving not even a trace of footprints behind them.