In the late 1970s, when I was nine, my Mom and I moved to a large, square farmhouse in rural southwestern Wisconsin. I don't know the age of the house, but it was probably constructed in the early 20th century.
The house was plain, almost severe, on the outside but there were some nice details inside: mainly the antique push-button light switches and the classy woodwork--the baseboards were high and the door frames were nicely shaped. The windows, which were tall and narrow, had wide sills, and the staircase had a somewhat ornate wooden bannister.
The pantry was particularly nifty: it was large, with a window and huge cupboards on either side. We put the best dishes in the cabinets on one side and used the other for pantry-type food, canned goods and such. The pantry also had a potato bin, and numerous drawers with porcelain pull- handles that were perfect for storing spices and the like.
Mom and I moved into the house first, as renters. She was seeing a fellow from the area, and they were soon to be married. The guy is a pleasant, warm person, a big man--six feet tall and over two hundred pounds. He would often visit us for dinner and stay to watch movies and talk and be with my mom.
One afternoon I headed right for the pantry after getting off the school bus--a bowl of cereal was on my mind, a snack before digging into homework. Just as I was walking from the old pantry toward the kitchen table with the box of cereal, I heard dishes "clinking" together gently on the enclosed back porch. Curious, as I didn't think Mom was home, I set the cereal on the table and opened the door to the porch. I expected to find Mom out there unpacking something, although I thought we had finished all the unpacking by that time. When I opened the door, nothing was there except an old heater and a pair of rubber farm boots. No boxes, no dishes, just the cheerful afternoon sunshine coming in from the west window. I wrote it off as my imagination--figured it was just due to not being used to the noises in the new house--and went back to the kitchen.
Later that month, right before the end of the school year, I was sitting at the kitchen table doing homework and Mom was there, washing dishes or putting away groceries. The light fixture above me suddenly dropped from the high ceiling onto the table, scattering a few dead bugs and some dust onto my homework and startling us both. After we'd recovered from the surprise we inspected the fixture, and found nothing wrong with it--additionally, the fixture was glass and although it fell six feet or so directly onto the table, did not crack or shatter. We cleaned the glass shade and carefully screwed it back into place--we had no more trouble with the light after that.
A week or so later, I was again sitting at the kitchen table and heard Mom's boyfriend walking to the back porch. Since there was no sidewalk and it was raining a fair amount that spring, we'd placed a couple long, wide boards leading from the gravel drive to the back porch to avoid walking in the mud. Someone walking along the "boardwalk" made a very distinctive bumping sound. That afternoon I heard the bumping of the boards. We were expecting Bruce--Mom was upstairs finishing a bath, and I ran to the foot of the stairs and hollered "Bruce is here!" then ran to the back door to greet him. I opened the door, and no one was there! Confused, I checked the drive--his red TransAm was not there. Nobody was there but Mom and me. By this time Mom was coming down the stairs putting her hair in a towel, and asked what was going on. I told her about hearing the footsteps and that it sounded just like Bruce coming to the door . . . she just raised her eyebrows and said "Hmm," and that was that. Bruce showed up as expected, about twenty minutes later.
We often had the sensation of being watched from the east windows in the kitchen, as if someone was standing outside by the old lilac bush, peering through the windows. Mom and I talked about this some time later, after we'd moved out of the house--she and I both had the idea that what- or whoever it was was definitely standing outside the house, not in the kitchen itself.
We also heard footsteps inside the house--Mom told me one day, after I got home from playing with friends who lived down the country block, that she had been in the bathtub and thought she heard Bruce walk up the wooden staircase and stop directly outside the bathroom door. She called "Hello!" and there was no answer--it wouldn't be unlike Bruce to play a small prank, but after she called a few times and still heard no answer, even though she sensed someone outside the door, Mom got somewhat anxious. She got out of the tub and put on her robe, and went carefully to the door--listened and heard nothing. She opened the door and there was no one there.
Anyone walking on the upper landing or retreating down the stairs would have made distinctly audible sounds; the floors were wooden, and not carpeted. My mom is very level-headed, although she does have an imagination--she thought it through and was sure she heard footsteps. She heard them clearly and didn't think anything was strange until she opened the door and found an empty house. I finally mentioned to her the noises I'd heard on the back porch, that it sounded like someone stacking plates--I thought it would be okay to tell Mom about that, since she'd been hearing noises, too--she said "Wow!" and told me that a former owner of the house had mentioned that the back porch was once used as a summer kitchen. Apparently the former lady of the house had been working out there when I came home from school!
After these experiences we started to talk with each other about the house as if it were haunted. We continued to hear the footsteps up the stairs, which sounded like those of a large man wearing boots--they would always stop at the top of the staircase, right outside the bathroom. As far as I know they always went up, and never came down. These happenings filled me with a sort of fascination; although it was eerie I wasn't scared most of the time, because Mom was so open about it; she'd not make fun of me if I were to get frightened or ask about a noise, or mention that I liked certain parts of the house less than others.
One night I wasn't feeling well; I had a slight fever and went to bed rather early. Mom and Bruce were downstairs in the living room, the "good" room, the only one in the entire house where I felt relaxed and safe other than the pantry. We said good-nights and I headed up to my room. After what seemed like quite a while, I had been sound asleep, I awakened to see Mom coming through the door. The light from the hallway made her a silhouette to my sleepy eyes. She came to the bed and made sure I was tucked in--her hands brought the covers up under my chin and touched my cheek, and then she went out. I remember thinking "thanks," but felt too sleepy to say anything. I mentioned it to Mom the next morning--she gave me a strange look and denied coming upstairs the night before. Only recently, in the past year or so, did she confess to me that she had been worried about me that night as I was not well, and had started to go up the stairs to check on me--upon reaching the staircase she felt something up there that made her too uneasy to continue, so she went back down. We speculated that she may have somehow "projected" herself upstairs to check on me as she was worried, but some sort of forbidding presence was keeping her from climbing the stairs.
We soon started hearing a second set of footsteps, lighter and quicker than those of the booted man. Thus it may have been "the lady" of the house checking on me; perhaps she who made the pantry and the "good room" feel safe, the lady who was on the porch stacking invisible plates.
Soon before we moved out of the house (not because of its unseen occupants) I began having vivid, violent nightmares, many of them centering around car accidents and racing cars. I suspect some of that may have had to do with anxiety associated with changes in our family situation, or living near the highway and hearing the occasional car passing while I slept, but these dreams scared me like no others I'd ever had. I finally started sleeping on the couch in the "good room" now and then, when the dreams got too bad. It just seemed calmer and more comforting in the living room, so that's where I'd go when I couldn't "talk myself" back to sleep upstairs.
When my Mom and Bruce got married in 1977 we moved down the road to another farm. Due to a series of unusual and convoluted economic deals associated with trying to keep the farm going, they ended up purchasing the plain old farmhouse years later. By the time my folks purchased the house, I was an art student in college.
The summer of my sophomore year I came home from school for vacation. My folks offered an upstairs room in the house as an art studio, if I wanted to use it. Thinking about our previous experiences in the house, I wrote off some of my memories to vivid childhood senses and imagination. I decided it would be cool to have my own room to draw and write in.
One afternoon Mom dropped me off at the house and I chose a room, the one upstairs overlooking the highway through a west window. My folks had been making minor improvements to the house, cleaning and painting and such. No major construction jobs were underway that I was aware of.
I painted the walls and ceiling of the bedroom white, working with the window open and the cassette player blasting Tom Waits and Kate Bush. I decided that even though the floor was rough, it would be neat to leave it plain, but make a simple design in the middle. I closed the door and marked off the floor--I ended up making a circle in the center of the room and painting the rest of it a neutral light gray--in the center circle I started to add an abstract floral motif, leaving bare wood showing where the petals and leaves were. While I was working the light dimmed; the afternoon sun was sinking and I could see its light behind me, shining warmly through the window. It was August, warm and humid. Working away on the floral pattern, I began to feel uneasy--I started to think about the house, but pushed away such thoughts as heebie-jeebies from old memories, and kept painting. Pretty soon I noticed that there were goose-bumps on my arms, even though I could plainly see that there was a balmy August night coming on outside. I started to get a panicky feeling but tried to laugh it off, and kept painting. Leaning over to rinse my brush, I noticed something odd. What I was seeing there in the room made no sense: the only light in the room was the sinking sun, behind me; it was enough to paint by, but fading--my shadow spread across the floor in front of me toward the closed door. There was a small space under the door, and in that space I could see a dark, substantial shadow cast FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR, opposing the direction of the natural light behind me. Seeing this, I blinked a few times...it remained; there was a suggestion of two feet behind the door, as if someone was standing there, and the shadow seemed to solidify as I watched. I tried to calm down and keep painting, but it didn't work. I reached such a state of discomfort that I could not bring myself to approach the door, yet felt that I must leave the house immediately. I tossed my good brush in the jar of water and left it there, went to the open window, and sat on the sill with my legs on the outer wall of the house...if I stretched way out, my toes could just reach the corner of the roof of the ground-floor summer kitchen. I eased down to that roof and then jumped to the soft grass below. Still feeling hounded, I ran down the county road about a quarter mile before it felt okay to stop. All the while I felt silly. I'm not the type of person that minds staying alone; on the contrary, I'm a bit of a loner, happy to sit and read, or draw and listen to music--it doesn't distress me to be by myself. That time, though, I HAD to leave the house.
I walked the rest of the mile and a half or so to where my folks were living at the time, and sheepishly told my Mom that I'd left the house and walked home. I asked if she'd go back with me to lock the doors, which I'd left unlocked upon my unusual departure. Mom didn't laugh, and said she surely would accompany me. We drove her truck back to the old house and checked the doors, made sure they would lock when we closed up--then I remembered my brush, sitting upstairs in the jar of water. I take good care of my art materials and as Mom was with me, I felt like we could brave the walk upstairs to rescue one of my best brushes. As we climbed the steps, upstairs felt okay again, but we found the door to my room standing open!
That was one of the last times I was in the house, as my parents did not keep it for long and moved on. I often wonder about what I saw and felt in the upstairs room--was someone or something upset that I was altering the room, even by painting it? Did I lure something there unwittingly by painting a pattern in such a configuration, at such a time? Or was I simply there to witness something that was already in the house? It seems like the dark thing outside the door was different than the man we usually sensed, who was noisy but non threatening. I had heard nothing to signal the shadow's approach--no footsteps, boards creaking; nothing of the sort, but the sensation of menace was unmistakable.