At Herbert’s, I was never allowed to touch anything, ever. I never did. Herbert lived with his mother. She always sat in the corner of the living room and made noises that one comes to associate with very old people. I never went near her, ever.
My mother died. So did Herbert’s. Mine did not die before I had followed in her footsteps at a very early age and become “one of them”; an antiques dealer. I was old enough to drive by myself before she died. Before her death, we were dealers together. I continued to go to the little home between the road and the railroad after she died. A decade had passed so the road went sixty-five and the railroad went seventy. The little red home between them shook from these speeds. Herbert, who now lived alone, guarded its contents from this shuddering.
I got to know Herbert very well. I was more meticulous than my mother; I priced everything he found. He didn’t mind, he was a dealer. We would joke about the stuff, the deals, the people, the trade, the train crashing by as we loaded a pair of Windsor armchairs “untouched”. Herbert was very adept as a Maine picker, “in a home”. A picker is the soul who goes to the private home and buys the “things” that become “rare antiques”, usually a half mile later. I am a picker too. My mother taught me how to be one. She learned from my grandmother. Herbert learned from his mother, the one who made the noises.
Herbert’s house, the red house, was very rural so had no electricity and no plumbing. He didn’t care. “THEY” had bought it for a “place” in the summer. It is between Gilead, Maine and the New Hampshire line. Its red and still there, with everything still thundering by. Herbert had relatives who hated him and the house. They wouldn’t stay there because they “had to shit in the outhouse”, his words. They would drop by to wish he would die so they could do whatever with his dead-man’s assets. We would joke about this and look at the outhouse. It tilted backward, the result of the thundering traffic. Herbert and his mother had bought the poorly situated home for “the stencils”; Mose Eaton stencils, upon the walls, a “New England Decorative Art”. We always looked at those too, but not as hard as the other “things” he’d “found”.
I would “buy” and leave and then come again and “buy” some more. He would “find” more, pulling into desperate Maine farmer’s yards and dickering the old crows “out” of their “things”. A table, a lamp, a brass something. Some “china” or “glass”. Always the “china”. Herbert liked the “china”. I bought the “china”. Other dealers, older and jealous of my negotiations with Herbert would suggest that I could buy from him because “he wants to get into your pants”. I spent a lot of time with Herbert and china and I never sensed any of that. Eventually I did so much “summer” business with Herbert, he suggested I start coming “to the coast” in the other seasons and “buy” from his “house”. Since his mother had died, he’d “decided to sell” “some things”. I got directions immediately.
By the time I had these directions my Father had died and my mother was so sick from cancer that she could no longer “hit the road”. When I would return “home”, (a variable as my parents declined and died) I would show her what “I got” “that day”. A day was often a week for I was older and ... “on my own”. Being on my own as an antiques dealer was very exciting and profitable. I could “go anywhere” “I want”.
Before everyone died and from whenI still held my mother’s hand, I learned a great deal about how to “buy and sell” “things”. There’s a certain etiquette, often affected, in “handling” antiques and rare books. It’s a dealerly mannerism. These physical actions extend to similar and directly related verbal mannerisms. The two merge to form a perfect whole that experienced dealers engage with relish AND consider a signal to remove all boundaries of the “normal people” and... head into a sort of deep space of “being a dealer”. One’s gestures (physical and verbal) very promptly convey to the experienced dealer just “how long” one has “been in the trade”. This is probably the most important thing I learned while holding my mother’s hand. It was very difficult to understand WHAT a piece of furniture was but... it is unforgettable to be beside someone who somehow negotiates an old women who looks like a witch to allow my mother to take everything off the top of a table, put those things on the floor, turn this table upside down, stare at it while the witch stares too and then quietly utter a number that was in fact an amount of money. Further, to then have my hand released and no attention thereafter paid to me, see a large wad of money pulled from a crevasse of my mother’s clothes, see the eyes of the witch watch that operation precisely, see the designated number be turned from that money and this money pass to the witch and watch this money disappear into the black crevasse of her clothes left a violent image in the mind of my youth. This was a “real”. The only further thing I’ve ever learned about this “real” is that there is, much to my perpetual surprise, a very large percentage of people who “don’t know” “about this”.
All that latter discovery ever does is make the hand holding era of my life more vibrant. It is only now, fifty years later, that I understand the magic of my position. My mother, with proper dealer etiquette, did not care that I was privy to these transactions, but I understand THAT very well too (she wished I was NOT there but only because to have a kid with you is... a pain in the ass).
When I held the warm hand I knew it was warm because that was the only thing that was warm. Everything else was dark, dirty and cold. The more dark, dirty and cold it was the ...more my mother bought. And the warmer the hand was. I was disinclined to release the hand on the earliest travels with my mother. Later, as my experience grew to a familiar association with the dark, damp and dirty, I would dare to let go. This was, cautiously, because I had seen something ...I was interested in. It was a vague off in the dark, damp and dirty but... I had to see “it”. No one ever stopped me. After the preliminaries of my independent movements in these dark and dirties, I became a sort of bird dog for my mother, moving ahead and to the side in the darkness flushing out ... antiques. My mother would chatter away with a witch or warlock, as is the proper dealerly way. These people were always witches and warlocks. My mother seem to prefer the oldest, darkest and dirtiest dwelling spaces and, as any young person knows, that where witches live. Right?
So I perpetually found myself holding the warm hand of my mother in a very haunted space. I didn’t realize that these spaces were the home of the haunted until I was old enough to be instructed that literature has found these spaces to be where the blood... runs cold. My blood was always warm. My mother’s blood always seemed to be hot. Now I understand it was hot because SHE was HOT. Any dealer’s blood is hot when doing what we were doing.
The ceilings of the spaces were always either very low... or very... very high. The higher they were, the darker it was up there and the paint was always pealing. Today, when I “visit” a “restored” Victorian mansion, I always notice that the ceiling is “perfect”. This does nothing for me except make me long for a very distant past when I would look up from the warm hand of my mother to see the scaling darkness way above me. Below the exfoliation of the ceiling my eye always found giant dark heavy “drapes”. They didn’t look like “drapes” to me. Nor would they to you. They looked like something that would smother me before I could “ever” get disentangled from “it”. Everyone always called them “drapes” though; “the drapes” to be exact. I avoided them for they were “creepy”.
Beyond the ceiling and drapes, carefully denoted by me attached to the warm hand, was the rest of the space and this was generally an extensive series of rooms on two or three floors that had words like “the parlor”, “the sitting room” “the front stairs”, “the guest room”, “to the maid’s” and... “to the attic”. Each of these spaces had “things” in them and we would always dwell on these things. It is important to remind a lay reader that a picker rarely make one visit to these old homes. For myself and with my mother, we would often visit them “every year” until, of course, the people “died” and the home was “cleaned out”, preferably by “us”. The parlor would have a table under (as far as I was concerned) the drapes. And a sofa no one dared sit on. The paintings on the walls were always very large and of Jesus or a ship. My mother never tried to buy Jesus but always tried to buy ships. Holding onto the warm hand I always grew excited when I was released because we bought “a ship”. I like paintings of ships too.
A bedroom always had a dresser. The drawers in the dresser often had “some of mother’s things”. Sometimes we could buy some of these things. I always noticed that my mother could always recall something particularly interesting in one of these drawer that we had NOT been “able to buy” and that she always managed to mention that specific item each time we were “there”. Often, I recall, she’d mention the item twice on the visit. The first mention of it was before we went into the house. Usually it was a “Maybe we can get the little miniature (painted portrait preferably in it’s original frame) today.” sort of utterance that only makes fundamental sense to me in hindsight. These utterances were a verbalization to herself but I learned quite a bit from them.
Did you ever hold on to the warm hand of your mother while she purchased old “things” from a witch in a haunted house? I doubt it. I wish I could meet people who did this but... I never do. Actually, every now and then, I meet someone who seems to have done something like this but... . But either the house was too clean and not haunted or... they didn’t “know” “what they were doing”.
This last is an unpleasant problem. My mother didn’t know what she was doing for during this era of interest in decorative arts the trickle of information proving good from bad was decidedly hearsay. Today we actually know too much. The too much that we now know makes those who “seem to have done something like this” really look perfection.
Today, “knowledge” of decorative arts (and rare books for that matter) defines and defies my visits to Herbert and haunted houses. “It is” and “is worth” are specific forms of expertise I garner daily from my clients. Like a ruler slapped by a teacher on my knuckles I am suppose to winch with pain and return to a trail of ordered commerce? No thank you. Shouldn’t one be ashamed if it was true that all of these “things” that my mother “found” while I held her hand were only “yours” in a collection because ...you bought them? Have you ever found “something good” that was qualified by a giant darkness around it that had to have something else in it? Have you ever had the moment between the silent direction of attention toward that darkness and one’s advancement into that black where the only sound is the rattling breath of the witch behind you?
It is not only the breathing that one hears. It is also the shuffling of the shoes on the floor. One cannot see the witch’s feet but one hears them move in the same shoes she’s worn for fifty years... or longer. They ...slid, sort of. A subtle clomp comes to the ear too for they are too loose on her feet and... she would rather not be wearing them anyway.
How do I know that she would rather not wear them? Because she takes them off when we go up the attic stairs. At the top of these stairs she pushes the rat trap away with these feet. The feet are encased in stockings. They are not the stockings a women buys today. They are stocking so thick that they hide her skin and the swelling of her lower leg above the ankle. They hang in wrinkles on these ankles for they are “pinned-up” as opposed to attached to a garter belt, that forsaken decades ago. The dead in the trap is “new”. It is a rat but not an urban rat. It is a wood rat, “coming in” for “the winter”. Her toes move the full trap toward the top of the stairs while her eyes inspect the bait on the other traps. I am inspecting the rest of the dark space while she tends the traps. My mother’s hand is warm, perhaps hot.
Trunks, boxes, chairs and barrels. The one window beyond these whistles with both light and wind. The glass rattles, particularly the oldest panes that my expertise now denotes quickly for they are aquamarine in color and swirl to create a distortion of the village street outside. The leaves from the trees outside patter against the house while the branches that release them rake the exterior wall of the attic.
Before this scratching sound my mother and I push forward in the dim light. The barrels seem to interest my mother more then the trunks. I notice that the lids to these trunks are not secured and in a few incidence a dark (black) cloth extrudes from the incompletely closed lid. Today I recognize these symbols as indicating the ...trunks... “have been gone through” meaning searched for treasure by far more recently then the day they were “put there”. My mother knew what she was doing.
The barrels are not lined along the wall, but scattered amongst the desolated debris. There is a path to the rattling window and it’s offer of light “to see”. My mother’s hand releases me and me eyes are even with the top of a barrel. It is full to this top with “things” wrapped in old newspaper. My mother picks up a package of this paper, carefully (I now understand) selecting a larger one to side step the nuisance of merely unwrapping an old drinking glass.
Even then I already knew that the barrels had only glass and china in them. They always have only glass and china in them when they are full of things wrapped in old newspaper ...in an attic. Further, I’d seen plenty of barrels just like them at Herbert’s. Herbert and his mother bought this sort of barrel for years in addition to filling their own barrels. He would never let us “go through” his barrels but he would occasionally remove a decisively selected package from a barrel far off in the little red house, unwrap it and... sell the ceramic treasure the package contained ...to us. I knew that the barrel my mother reached into had only glass and china in it but I knew it was... old glass and china.
My mother’s interest was in... very old... glass and china. Evidently she did not find that for she demanded more then a polite share of information from the witch as to “where these were from” referring to all the barrels. The witch told how her mother had packed them “up” when she was a little girl. My mother unwrapped a second package from a second barrel. This she re-wrapped with rather rapid motions and without raising it above the top of the barrel. Her far hand pushed this package down into the barrel and seemed to cover it while her near hand fluttered for mine. I gave it to her. The talk continued. The barrels came from the witch’s house; not this house, but the house where she “grew up”. My mother seem to know about this house and was contented with that information. She seemed to be looking at all of the barrels now and turning them in her mind. Barrels in attic, particularly full barrels, were difficult for my mother to move “out”. I knew this because I had been released from her hold at other haunted houses while she had to move a barrel “out”. Here there were more then one barrel.
At a number that was not concise to my hearing my mother bought the barrels. I didn’t hear the number and I didn’t see the exchange that turned that number into money. Nor did I hear the conversation that allowed my mother to “get” a “hired man”; a “Mr. McMullen” “if he isn’t drunk”. Mr. McMullen lived with his family above the drug store up the street. If he wasn’t drunk. “Johnny” always needed money and people like my mother and the witch always used Johnny for doing things like moving barrels full of old glass and china out of attics and always paid him “a little bit”. They always called him Mr. McMullen to each other but always “Johnny” to Johnny. Mr. McMullen was very nice to me if he wasn’t drunk. I never was allowed to say anything to Mr. McMullen if he was drunk. Sometimes we would see Mr. McMullen and my mother would say that he was drunk. Most of the time that was when he was lying down on a bench in the shade next to the fountain in the park by the Inn. To me it looked like he was just asleep but my mother always said he was drunk.
The reason I didn’t hear what my mother and the witch were saying was because I had been released again and this time I had noticed something that interested me sitting on top of a box up next to the window. It was a violin case, I was sure. The reason I was sure was because a girl in my class at school had suddenly started bringing a case that was the same shape as this one to school once a week and, after an appropriate period of mystery, had shown its contents to a small group of us who demand to know “what was in that”. My family was not very musical and I had never even seen, let alone touched, a “musical instrument”. So, when the girl laid the case on her desk and flipped the latches open, lifted the lid and revealed what was obviously a precious and fragile object shining as glazed wood and held firmly within this black box, it left a desperate appreciation for musical instruments with me. Beyond that classroom experience I had never had the opportunity to further this initial and single exposure to the mysterious “musical instrument”. Here appeared my first chance.
I proceeded up the trail to the window and the violin case resting on top of the box. It had to be a violin case because it was black and the same shape as the girl’s at school. Past that, it was different. This case was made of old wood. Her case was shiny black plastic rimmed with silver colored metal. This case was covered with dust. Her case was polished to a shiny mirror black. This case was closed by tiny brass hooks. Her case had big silver buckles. Still, it had to be a violin. My mother and the witch approached. I heard my mother saying something that included the word violin.
Before my hand dared, the witch’s hand extended to the brass hooks and they fell open. The same twisted fingers pushed the lid upward. I could see nothing else but this hand and its roots we call fingers. Then I saw something that is still undefined to me as either horror or love. Before my eyes appeared a red clothed doll wedged within the opening violin case. As the lid rose my heart rose too. My hand closed on the empty air where it had reached for my mother’s hand. This air was cold. The window rattled. The light from the window shifted. The doll was dead.
“This was my mother’s.” I heard the witch saying directly above me. I was motionless in a confusion of horror and awe. Either the doll was dead or... it was a dead person? I stammered in my mind while my eyes recorded the details. A white porcelain head with an even whiter face topped the red cloth figurine. Pink rouge touched the cold white porcelain cheeks. Real blond hair puffed above this ghost face in a disordered profusion that included bows tied from red ribbon. One eye was open, staring at the roof above me. The other eye was closed. “I won’t sell this.” I heard the witch continue to my mother. My mother said something but I didn’t hear it.
The witch’s hand and the fingers reappeared before me. They crossed the doll’s face and closed the open eye. Then they vanished. The eye stayed closed for an instant then popped back open, to stare at the roof again. I didn’t dare move. The witch’s hand came back across the face. This time it opened the closed eye and disappeared again. That eye held open for a long moment. It’s view was not parallel with it’s partner; it drifted to toward the nose. Then it snapped shut. I didn’t dare move.
My eye of horror moved down the figurine to see that the red was a dress beneath a red cloth. These, pulled and creased away from their original placements by decades of voyeurs who opened and closed the coffin, were further confused by holes and chewing from moths. Surrounding the red were equally distorted bundles of cloth, evidently once the doll’s other clothing; bundles of blues, blacks, white and more reds. Overall, the doll was hideously clean and perfect. No dirt ever penetrated the box and the only distortions were due to the folds of the cloth, the pressed fluffs of the hair and her ...eyes.
I felt myself leave my body, dizzy and light. I felt cold then I felt hot. The lid closed and the witch’s hand touched each brass hook. The coffin was closed and locked. The dead doll was gone. I felt my hand in my mother’s hand. I felt hot and then cold. The window rattled next to me. I looked at it. I looked back onto the violin case. The doll was gone. The lid of the case had finger prints in the dust on it’s top. The top of the case was black. I wanted the doll. I hated the doll. I loved the doll. I was scared to death of the doll. I looked at my mother. She was paying no attention to me and was saying something to the witch about getting Mr. McMullen. She released my hand and they walked away. I looked down at the black lid and then followed them. At head of the stairs I saw the dead rat in the trap. I looked back toward the window and could see the silhouette of the violin case resting on top of the box. Then my mother made me go down the stairs and ...we left.
We walked up the street to the drug store and the up the outside staircase attached to the side of the building. My mother knocked on the door at the top and was greeted by Mrs. McMullen who went off shouting for Mr. McMullen that “MRS. FREEMAN HAS WORK FOR YOU!”. A brief conference took place at the door and while Mr. McMullen got ready my mother handed Mrs. McMullen some money. Mr. McMullen was very cheerful and spoke pleasantly to me but I didn’t care to notice this for I was still trying my horror and knew that I was going back to it.
We went to the attic with the witch and while the three adults talked about the barrels I walked directly to the violin case. I didn’t dare touch it. I wanted to open it. I mean; I thought I wanted to open it. I knew that the doll was inside, that she was dressed in red, that one eye was open and that one eye was closed. I was sure of this. Yet I wanted to be sure of this. Somehow.
Mr. McMullen started to move a barrel and the witch cackled about removing the rat before he removed the barrels. My mother went past Mr. McMullen to another barrel. NOW was my chance.
The latches fell open, the lid lifted. The doll was still dead. One eye was open. One eye was closed. She was dressed in red. Her blond hair was tied with red bows and these were pressed upon her white porcelain face. The window rattled, light shifted and Mr. McMullen responded to a command from my mother that he “knew about that one too”. I closed the lid. I latched the hooks. I looked at top of the case. My finger prints were in the dust on it’s top. I touched the top again. I was sure the doll was inside, dressed in red, with one eye open and one eye closed. The open eye must be staring at the lid of the case I reasoned. Then I had to leave.
I didn’t even get a chance to stare back at the widow and the case this time. My mother hurried me down the stairs and we waited outside while Mr. McMullen brought out the barrels. There were six barrels. None of them would fit in our car but my mother had already arranged for Mr. McMullen to get his friend to deliver them in his truck. This man’s name was Carol. I though Carol was a girl’s name but this man was called that. My mother took Mr. McMullen aside and gave him some money. When she did this she said some sharp words to him that I now know were to the effect of not to spend the money on drink until after he’d delivered the barrels. This sort of arrangement with men such as Mr. McMullen is why, after my mother was dead, so many of these sort men continue to tell me what a fine woman she was; how they loved her; “a fine woman”.
While I stood in the yard, I stared at the house. It was a very big house. My eyes wandered up the front of the house. Each floor had four windows that faced me. The first floor had only three windows because the forth was the front door. Then I noticed that way at the top of the house was one window in the very center, just below the roof. THAT was the window in the attic. And BEHIND that window was the ...violin case. And IN the violin case was the doll, dressed in red, with one eye open and one eye closed. I stood staring at the window until my mother made me leave. I think I learned everything there is to learn about life while I stood there that day. I’ll never be sure of this and... I never saw the doll again.
When the barrels were in my Grandmother’s barn we; my Grandmother, Mother and I, took each piece of old glass and china out and unwrapped it. Understandably, the stuff was good. My mother took the package she hidden out first. It was a soft paste (“old paste”) pitcher in a gaudy floral pattern that they called either “King” or “Queen’s” “rose”. I don’t know what it was nor care but I do know now that it was big enough to be what they called it; a “cider pitcher” and the most people would “keep it”. We sold it.
My Grandmother announced that this “must be from the Harris Place”, evidently the original home of the mother of the witch. My mother and grandmother discussed this relationship, that home and how the witch had never married so and so but had inherited the house she lived in from him and that all of the “things” from her mother’s house had been moved there “from the farm” “when it sold”.
There were several tables full of dirty china in the barn before my Grandmother told how the witch’s mother had a sister who was killed when she was young. How a horse ran away with the buggy. How she fell from the buggy and died. My Grandmother said that the witch’s mother never got over the death of her sister. She told how at the sister’s funeral, the witch’s mother had taken the sister’s doll and made a dress just like the one the sister was dressed in for her burial. “It was a red dress and she made one for the doll just like it. Then she put the doll in a violin case and carried it in a wagon at the funeral, just like her sister’s coffin. The family had the doll forever; in the violin case. I saw it once; many years ago".
“We saw that doll today. She still has it. She won’t sell it.” I heard my mother say. Then she looked toward me to see if this talk had any effect on me. I didn’t respond in any way. Later that evening, when I was alone in my bed, I pondered the doll, the violin case and how the doll had one eye open and one eye closed. I stared at the ceiling of my room in my grandmother’s house. I did this with one eye open and one eye closed. I noticed the paint on the ceiling was peeling.