By Jay Seate
During the Civil War, federal troops came upon a vacated rebel encampment in Virginia. The Rebs had left little behind except for a rather persuasive calling card — a severed head jammed onto the point of a fence post. Three letters — SPY — were scribbled on a scrap of paper and tacked beneath the obscenity. It had reminded one man in the regiment of something he had read in a history book — heads stuck on pikes along London Bridge during rebellious times. To come across such an extreme display of barbarism during this war was rare, but it had made its point to the Union soldiers.
The conflagration had progressed far beyond a nation of innocence, or honor among gentlemen. Gallantry no longer had a place amidst the carnage. In a downpour of anger, it had long since crossed societal rules and boundaries even for war. Dead men were on fields of battle with limbs splayed like broken puppets, left to rot. Following the tempest, the better angels of the nation’s psyche would never completely regain control. In the midst of the thousands of discarded dead, the grisly event concerning the supposed spy would have been forgotten if not for the incident that followed, for it was at that place where Anna Rose came for the head of her husband.
A young lad toting salted pork and biscuits from his mother’s kitchen to soldiers was the first to see the form of a young woman. Beneath the soft light of the cirrus moon she wore a long cloak, and her feet floated inches above the trampled road. The lad could not have guessed what she sought. She silently crossed the army encampment. Battle hardened men became speechless at the sight of the woman wordlessly gliding past the campfires, her face and hands washed to the shade of ivory. Some of the men followed the specter to the spot beyond the camp where her mission became apparent.
The head still rested on the fencepost as no soldier wanted to touch the foul thing. The woman produced a tapestry bag from the dark expanse of her cloak. While the uniformed onlookers watched in disbelief, the woman pulled the head from the post and plopped it into the bag as if it were a large cantaloupe. She did not go back the way she had come, but rather, disappeared into a stand of nearby trees not to be seen again that night or any other.
In a small Pennsylvania town the following day, a neighbor to Anna Rose Freeman came to pay her respects. Legend has it that Anna Rose had been seen staring out one of her windows for days, pining away for her Jonathan. She would occasionally whirl about the veranda as if dancing with him. After the news of her husband’s demise, Anna Rose disappeared, a vigil no longer necessary. The neighbor found the poor soul stretched across her bed as dead as Jonathan. Knowing her beloved husband and she were never to be reunited in a loving embrace, she’d committed suicide with the use of poison. Although her mortal saga ended sadly, Jonathan had returned to his Pennsylvania home from a faraway battlefield in one manner. His decomposing head rested upon the bed next to Anna Rose’s corpse.
This tale had been running through the little town of Coventry for almost a hundred and fifty years before I heard it, but once heard it clung to me like something not easily scraped off. Old-timers were not shy about repeating the tale, embellishing it with each telling. Its impact was huge because I had become the most recent owner of the property on which Jonathan and Anna Rose’s old house once stood. My presence seemed to reenergize the legend. Small towns, I’d found, had a penchant for whatever melodrama and mystery they could extract from life.
Then things began to happen, things that led me to believe Anna Rose’s ghost was more than a fanciful Civil War story. The house I’d purchased was old. There were times when beams and boards would creak and moan without the wind’s encouragement. Not a sign of anything sinister; old floors often creaked and heating pipes groaned, but given the little town’s penchant for tall tales, it all resulted in more food for an active mind.
At night, in the dark, I listened to haunting sounds, not sure whether they were merely the howling of the wind through the tree branches or something more … the moaning of restless souls perhaps, those unfortunates with unfinished business that keeps their presence anchored to earth. I told myself my observations were nothing more than a nonsensical reaction to stories of Anna Rose and Jonathan’s head and could account for nothing other than to scare the bejesus out of me. But there were also times when an unknown force within the house I now own seemed to take hold. I have found little in life more frightening than when the beams and boards not only creak, but become at odds with their structural integrity.
When it came to Anna Rose, my mind had fallen into a morass of apprehension. Sometimes when we come upon something that is too frightening to handle, we do our best to pretend our eyes are merely playing tricks even if we know better. My first sighting of her was just before twilight near a gate that separates my property from the street. The eerie tales left no doubt in my mind as to who she was. A knot of disquiet twisted inside of me as I observed her from my living room window, still and alone, staring at the house. She stood rigid and motionless, her head titled slightly like a woman lost in thought. I couldn’t distinguish her age other than the fact that she was a relatively young woman, one who had not lived long enough to become old and gray-haired. She stood too far away to discern details, but she wore the same garment at each successive viewing — a dark cloak placed over her shoulders covering all else. And there was something more. She carried a large tapestry bag, large enough to hold…
It was then I knew any rational view of the world must be given up. How many dead might wander the earth searching for resolution before letting go of the world? A visible spirit hovering in this world, delaying eternal rest, required investigation. I took it upon myself to research the true history of my property in the county’s Hall of Records. I found that Jonathan Freeman had indeed been a Union soldier who was probably executed as a spy by Southern troops. An obituary revealed Anna Rose had married Jonathan only a year before her death. His bride was known for her “gift of the spirit,” what might be called precognition today. Little more was said or written in existing archives other than the fact that she had indeed committed suicide, convinced her husband would never come home to her. It wasn’t much information, but enough to feel some empathy for her if not pity. I had hoped to find pictures of the star-crossed Mr. and Mrs. Freeman, but short of that, there was one helpful item amongst the remnants — a photograph of the original house. Traditional for its time, it was a two-story, white-washed clapboard with a long porch and large windows, and bore no similarity to the house I now occupied.
Unfortunately, the picture was without writing or dates, but a man and a woman stood on the porch in posed American Gothic positions common to that of early photography. The man wore a dark suit, while the woman was clad in a white dress and gloves that came above her elbows — a wedding day photo, perhaps? Could it have been the Freeman’s, a man with a new house and a new bride to live in it? The couple were little more than specs as the photographer’s intent was to capture the structure rather than its inhabitants. I asked for a magnifying glass in hopes of identification. It told me only that the twosome was in the prime of life and that the woman could very well have been the long departed Anna Rose. Curiously, I felt like an intruder into the domestic tranquility of the couple and, as silly as it may seem, that my intrusion might even anger Anna Rose. I nervously put the picture back where I had found it and tried to shake the feeling I had stumbled into the Freeman’s private lives at a time before the Civil War was raging, a time before Jonathan left and Anna Rose began her sorrowful vigil.
Not ready to give up my quest, I did more than look through musty small town records. Unable to dispel my curiosity, I sought Anna Rose Freeman’s burial site. The old cemetery rested on the side of a hill too steep to farm. There was a pleasant view of the isolated town below with its many church steeples rising above the elms and the oaks. If Robert E. Lee had chosen to march on Coventry with his boys in butternut, this would have been the high ground from which the Yanks could have formed a skirmish line and made their stand. There were no fences or signs to sequester the graveyard from the outside world. All that remained among a few empty beer cans, coated candy wrappers that would last until the Second Coming, and weeds were a hundred or so old stones to mark locations of final repose. Some were for the sons of Coventry who had left to fight in the Civil War, but most were for ordinary villagers. A few names struck a familiar chord as families often stayed in an area for generations, but whoever tended the graves of these souls must have been long dead. Maybe superstition played a role given Anna’s legend, for I also knew most of the locals had little to do except repeat gossip, even if it was one-hundred and fifty years old.
Anna Rose’s headstone was simple with no ostentatious words of scripture or poetic sentiment, just her name and dates of birth and death, and one curious engraving. Seek no longer the beloved, it read, so forlorn, so sad and final those words and dates, nothing more to come, nothing more to add. I knew there were secrets buried beneath the stone as I looked at the patch of unkempt earth in front of it. I couldn’t keep from asking myself the obvious question. “Did they bury Jonathan’s head with Anna Rose?”
The day darkened. I shivered as the breeze ruffled my hair and whispered against my exposed skin. It grew stronger, flapping the collar of my windbreaker and the legs of my slacks. The trees swayed gracefully like dark ballerinas moving to a rhythm only they could hear. It occurred to me that all of us, the living and the dead, had shared the same wind, trees, and the elements of nature. We came from the same earth and our roots always reached down into it.
I wondered why Anna Rose had returned as I looked at the patch of unkempt earth in front of her stone. Why wasn’t she settled in her grave? What had awakened her from eternal slumber? I looked down at the village once more. The size had changed little in the last century and a half according to population records. It wasn’t hard to envision the day Anna Rose was laid to rest just six feet below where I stood. I closed my eyes for a moment and the horror of the inside of a coffin was vivid in every detail. I imagined her lying within the oblong box, hands placed together as if in prayer, but her rest being something other than peaceful. The feeling of melancholy dissolved as an uneasy feeling of being watched by eyes piercing through time and space overtook me, eyes commanding me to take action.
My mind had fallen into a morass of grief, desolation, and worst of all, apprehension. It seemed as if the ground began to stir and tremble as my imagination went into overdrive. I would have sworn it pulsed like the retinue of beating hearts beneath my feet. I couldn’t bear to look at Anna Rose’s grave any longer for fear it was she who watched, the one who wanted … what?
I had to move before I became rooted to the ground with the weight of fear, or worse, drop dead on the very spot where Anna Rose’s earthly remains lay a mere few feet below. If not for the sloppy conditions from heavy rains, I might have run from the cemetery all the way back to the relative safety of my house and locked all the doors like a hunted man attempting to burn this preoccupation from his brain before it exploded. That would not solve the issue that plagued me, however. I vowed to end any further research about this enigmatic couple. I lived on the land once belonging to two people who had entered into local folklore and that should be that.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of the matter. The inscription on Anna Rose’s tombstone had gotten into my head like a lyric of music that goes around and around until you think you’re going to go crazy with it. Many believed that ghosts sit on your bed at night and stand behind you in the mirror. My most believable research concerning the supernatural had described them as merely ectoplasm with no knowledge of space or time. It sounded harmless enough, but my ghost didn’t feel detached. Further, I read that a spirit could sometimes move from place to place as well as create physical manifestations of its emotions, possibly malevolent ones. Additionally, there were cases where an entity could command a psychic force over people or objects. That seemed to fit not only the legend, but also the apparitions I had experienced.
The next time I saw Anna Rose, I retrieved my binoculars for a closer look, but by the time I returned to the window, she was, of course, gone. I could have alerted the authorities, that all-purpose concept of power and control, but I knew even they could not help in this instance. I wondered if anyone in neighboring houses might have seen her, but she would surely have vanished before action could be taken. Was she meant for my eyes only? The moment that thought crossed my mind, I felt as if the ectoplasm of a restless spirit seeking stability had passed right through me. Was I seeing and feeling things others couldn’t?
With each sighting, the figure edged ever closer up the drive that leads to my house. The third time she appeared, I decided to confront the trespasser. I opened my front door, bounded down my steps, and trotted toward the solemn figure. I looked away for a moment, just a moment, to make sure the path before me had no obstacles. And when I looked up, I stared, open-mouthed for she had vanished once again.
The incidents affected me profoundly, forcing me to think about my own mortality. I had never been concerned about the existence of an afterlife.
Now, when I seemed to be … haunted.
It was clear this phantom either belonged among the restless dead, or I was loosing my mind, now cluttered with long dead history. Although my sanity might be in question, I was also angry that a manifestation would play such a coy game with my senses and make me feel the fool. At this point, I made a concerted effort to block out this nimbus of unreality that surrounded me. But then I would see her again. As such occasions can induce a habit to the mind; I finally expected to see her.
The sightings were usually as dusk approached, not the time of day I would have preferred to see an apparition nearing the house like some impoverished waif wanting to be taken in. Goosebumps rose on my arms as she came closer, the hood of her cloak now pulled over her head to mask her features, sending new chills to tickle the hair on my neck. I had decided Anna Rose must want her house back, or the place where it had stood, hers having been turned to rubble long ago. Could she have hoped to reunite with a complete Jonathan within? One hundred and fifty years was a large chunk of eternity to share with merely a head. Or could it have been more sinister than that? Judging by her hooded appearance that simulated The Grim Reaper himself, maybe she wanted someone to replace Jonathan, or the part of him she was not able to recapture. Could some malevolent force want to stretch forth its tentacles around me in a supernatural embrace? Could her goal be, God help me, possession?
I now considered it no coincidence that one hundred and fifty years had passed since the final date on her tombstone, the day Anna Rose took her life. In my research, I had discovered myself to be the only single man to own the property since before Anna Rose’s time. All of my suppositions were certainly fuel to feed the funny monkey in my brain, my anxiety working as a conduit. I didn’t envy the couple’s fate, but I envied the passion Anna Rose seemed to possess for I haven’t been very lucky at love, you see. My talent never quite equaled my aspirations, but that didn’t mean I was ready for a courtship with a ghost. Had the long-dead Anna Rose, still hungering from her loss, returned for me? Could the extraordinary gift of sight have somehow enabled her return when the situation was right?
At dusk and beyond, a strange mix of fear and curiosity held me to this place. In the hallway, a grandfather clock continued to tick away the passing moments with mechanical precision while all else seemed distorted. Then a bizarre thought came to me about the state of mind to which I had descended. I must have been attempting to give my house the characteristics of the one I had seen in the photograph. Better than to believe the house was truly organic, twisting and turning into shapes from the ancient past.
In the evenings I had become a receptacle of fear, starting at the slightest sound, glancing constantly into dark corners. Something seen, then unseen. There, then not there. As I sat at my desk thrumming my fingers, trying to distract myself with paperwork of some sort, a gust of wind rattled the windowpanes. The walls groaned. Every creak sounded like a footstep. My eyes traveled the room. I could almost hear a shuffling at the front door and see it cant slightly off plum before slowly opening. Anna Rose would stand at the threshold. If I closed my eyes for a moment, all would be well, like the rational ticking of the clock that now sounded a bit like nails being pounded into the lid of a coffin. But still, I wondered if a preordained dance summoned by a historical choreography kept me tied to a power that asserted itself from beyond the grave.
Then came the evening of actual contact. Thunder that sounded like a cannon volley rattled the rafters. Razorblades of lightning slashed into my bedroom, but it wasn’t the sound and fury that bothered me most. Wind was banging the gate where Anna Rose first appeared. A loose vine slapped against a drain pipe. The ground seemed to be trembling below me and the sky splitting overhead. I felt like a kid in a dark house on Halloween. I didn’t dare to look out the window for I feared the sight of something standing in the yard beside the shrubs, something near the house, or even peering through the window. I turned away and attempted to guide my thoughts in another direction. The patter of rain that might have lulled me to sleep failed to follow. I eventually succumbed to the lateness of the hour, but on a storm filled night, the boundary between dreams and reality can be porous. In a dream, cold lips brushed against my cheek and forehead. I gasped and opened my eyes. I was alone in a room that was as cold as the touch had been. I was convinced Anna Rose was about to take dramatic action for at the time of the most recent sighting, she was at the porch steps in possession of not only the cloth bag, but something else as well, something very sharp — a carving knife held in a clawed hand.
My fear was no longer abstract. It now had weight and substance. I could feel it with every nerve ending in my body. The next evening, the sun disappeared as if running away from the world, taking with it the light that didn’t want to be left behind. There was heaviness to the air that had nothing to do with the weather, a charged density. I tried to close my eyes and find some semblance of rest while the pounding of my heart seemed audible. I found myself in that dim zone between sleep and wakefulness. I sensed something extraordinary was about to happen. If I fell asleep, would I feel a hand on my shoulder?
The stillness of the house pressed around me. It was like the moment of silence that precedes a scream. Could this whole business conclude with my sanity slipping away? The fabric of my life was tearing apart like rotted silk and I powerless to stop it? The frightening word “possession” entered my mind again. I was neither a drinker nor a druggie, but this was one time I believed a drink or a hit would have calmed me. As it was, there seemed to exist unresolved information the living might inherit from the departed as I continued on a mind-bending ride to the edge of madness.
Then a creak in a floorboard; Anna Rose was near. Was she lingering in the darkness by choice or by necessity? I awaited the sound of hinges squeaking or the click of a latch, assuming objects such as these were a hindrance. Or might it be a soft knock on the door to be followed by a presence looming up in the night like some fearful monster, casting a long shadow in the dimness of the moonlit room, if she could cast a shadow. And when it came, would I feel the coldness of dead lips on my flesh, or something more spectacular like clawed fingertips hooking into my flesh and pulling me into some unimaginable place? Would it be like a jolt from an electrical wire when she revealed the contents of her bag? I shoved a corner of my quilt into my mouth to keep from screaming.
As the night outside quieted, I believed I could actually hear the house breathe. In the dimness of the shadowed bedroom, I felt the air around me compress. If I’d entered Anna Rose’s coffin, the atmosphere couldn’t have been more oppressive. I was a puppet with Anna Rose pulling the strings. Was my fate to be determined by a woman who was both above the earth as well as below it? What could I do but lay still in the gloom, listening and hoping the horror would pass. Could I ever sleep again without taking action before something tore loose inside of me that could never be repaired? I’d developed the kind of fear you feel when a voice inside you whispers that evil is not only real, but nothing can save you from it. I had become like an addict who fears both dreams and reality, a slave to my perceptions.
My trusty clock stopped ticking so abruptly that its silence sliced through the room like a scythe. I knew I was irretrievably slipping into the abyss. If I succumbed to the inner darkness that beckoned me, all would be lost. It was at that moment when a strange notion engulfed me, one that couldn’t be banished. I wanted no more nights forfeited to the unknown. There was no remedy for this kind of fear except motion. I decided what I must do.
A week has passed since I waited for that knock or a kiss, or something far worse. And here I remain a century and a half after Anna Rose was laid to an uneasy rest, the most recent in a long line of caretakers on land sold many times over. But I am no longer considering giving up my domicile in the quaint little town of Coventry. The house seems to have righted itself, its angular verticality restored. The quandary over what would satisfy Anna Rose has been resolved in part. Even though the situation isn’t perfect, it appears that acquiring both me and my property has soothed the wandering wraith.
Before she had the opportunity to take control in whatever manner she chose with her tapestry bag and knife, I decided to remove the curtain of fear before me by paying another visit to the cemetery under the veil of darkness. My nocturnal labors took less time than I would have thought because rain had softened the ground part way. Under a moon emerging from behind clouds like a big, spying eye, I began to dig. In the gloom, the gravestones had become horizontal slats of shadow. I halfway expected to see Anna Rose’s spectral presence standing next to one of the tombstones observing my progress. The only sounds were that of a slight breeze and my labored breathing from the physical exertion I was unaccustomed to. The only time I wavered in my task was when my head disappeared beneath the ground’s surface and I could no longer watch for … whatever, as a cold moisture oozed up from the soil, seeping into my garments like a wet vapor. I wondered where the expression six feet under came from, definitely not from this cemetery above Coventry. I could swear I’d passed that depth a foot ago. Maybe those who buried Anna Rose thought she needed a few extra feet considering her unique circumstance. It wasn’t until the fresh pile of dirt made the hole seem another two feet deep when I finally heard the sound of my shovel splinter rotted wood. I worked quicker until the sought-after item was found. I crossed myself in spite of my heretofore agnosticism, just in case I had committed a sin against either the earth or spirits, or both.
I scraped away as much dirt as I could for fear the lid would totally collapse under my weight and make a mess of whatever was left of Anna Rose. I then knocked the corroded lock loose and opened the lid on creaky hinges that broke off after a mere foot of stress. Pushing the lid aside, I beheld what was left of Anna Rose, which wasn’t much. A gag reflex kicked in as I looked upon the fleshless, toothy grin and the hollowed-out eye sockets. Her apparition had certainly been more recognizable than her remains. Nature’s cleanup had performed its duty and fed on this death long ago. Her coffin and clothes had deteriorated to the point of near nonexistence. Her bones would have fallen apart if not for the few scraps of leathery skin remnants as brown and dry as a chamois. My imaginings about a claw hand and knife were dispelled, at least for the time being, now that her body was free to accompany her spirit.
For transport, I carefully wrapped her remains in a tarpaulin and tried to repair the disturbed earth from which one of its own had been taken. I was a few aches beyond bone tired, but my mind was racing. The hardest part had been the return trip with Anna Rose’s remains bumping around on the backseat of my car. “If I’ve overstepped my bounds by taking you, Anna, let the woman I’ve been seeing take the breath out of me for daring to help,” said a confused man trying to justify what he’d done. In the gray ghost of the approaching dawn, I couldn’t bear to look in the rearview mirror due to the lingering fear she might toss aside the canvas shroud and attempt to physically complete whatever her mission might have been. I had seen it happen in too many movies.
I realized few things in my life would ever be the same after that night in the graveyard. I had reached a border that would separate the future from everything that had gone before. My soul would never again belong to me alone. With my help, Anna Rose journeyed beyond the veil of death and into my living room, earthbound again in body, of sorts. It’s not as if she can have the joy of life, but she can at least sit near a window and survey the land she and Jonathan shared. With a little ingenuity using wire and superglue, she hangs together pretty well, and I found her a dress at Goodwill for modesty’s sake. Now I can talk to her every day about this, that, or the other. That is something at least — having the company of a man who is all in one piece.
Could she be grieving still, or do all one hundred and fifty year old corpses possess the same mournful, downcast countenance? I whistle a tune now and then thinking Anna Rose might appreciate music. Once, while in another room, I thought I heard her bones clacking around as if dancing. I ran in expecting to see the dress whirling about, but she was back at the window, Jonathan’s head still securely in her lap.
Oh yes, Jonathan’s head. It had been buried with her in a metal box, leaving it in somewhat better condition than she. It still had its hair. Even though his toothy leer can be offsetting, it seems only right it should rest in Anna Rose’s lap after she went to so much trouble to retrieve it.
If the Freeman’s remains should be discovered within the confines of our home, it will surely add a fresh chapter to the tale of restless spirits and give credence to the theory that the past is never completely dead.
Seek no longer the beloved.
The words ring hollow because the freeing of her earthly remains from the grave has not concluded Anna Rose’s search. The words “until death do us part” must not always apply. I am convinced she is beckoning for assistance in finding the rest of Jonathan. Unless there was a happy, heavenly reunion after death, which apparently wasn’t the case for Anna Rose, what must it be like to spend eternity with only part of a loved one? I believe she wants Jonathan to join her in a final dance to erase the horror of his demise at the hands of warring brutes. Although her eye sockets are as vacant as a parking lot after closing hours, I believe she can see. At times, I feel I could open the dress she’s wearing and witness the beating of her heart.
An image of an old kitchen preceding the one where I now stand sometimes overwhelms me. A woman in a bell-shaped skirt stands over a wood stove, the smell of bacon frying and chicory coffee brewing fills my nostrils. Anna Rose, preparing breakfast for… The vision and the aromas vanish as nearly as soon as they arrive. Now that I have permitted her access to the house, I anticipate continuing incidents until our destinies become clear.
Somewhere I read it wasn’t true that the insane thought themselves sane. They often do not fight their affliction because there are pleasures and beauty in madness. One thing for sure, I have developed new sensitivities. There have been sweet justifications in my actions. The clock still ticks away slices of time, but real time only matters to flesh and blood. Eventually, I will be informed how this reunion is to play out because I believe the cadaver of Anna Rose is very nearly ready to speak to me.
Jay Seate has written everything from humor to the erotic to the macabre, and is especially keen on stories that transcend genre pigeonholing. In addition to his novels and novellas, his short stories and memoirs appear in numerous magazines, newspapers, anthologies and webzines. Learn more about him and his publications at troyseateauthor.webs.com.