Urn and Willow
A Novel by Scott Thomas, 2012
Mr. Woodbridge’s Visit
All across Amesborough families huddled in dim parlors, owl-eyed by fires as autumn winds rushed and rasped and made windows tremble in their frames. The hour was late, and while most of the inhabitants should have been tucked under covers dreaming, this was not the case. Fathers, mothers, children, and hirelings waited, fidgeting, saying little or talking inexhaustibly for the sake of distraction. Such was the situation in the humble Browne house, in the eastern part of town where the trees were all but bare and the chill hand of the season held sway.
Abner Browne, lean, white-capped and weathered, was the oldest person in the house. He occupied the comfiest chair and sat with a blanket over his legs, his feet near the logs. His two grandchildren, a boy of ten and a girl of twelve, were close on low stools.
“Whereupon I said to Barrows, ‘It can’t be much farther beyond that hill –” the old man was telling a story that all the other Brownes in the room were familiar with, a tale which under other circumstances would have been welcomed like a comfortably worn piece of clothing. But tonight his words were little more than a drone in preoccupied minds.
Abner’s son, Tristam, who had proven successful as a joiner and owned the building the family occupied, was at the window with one of the curtains pulled slightly from the panes so that he could peer out. His body was pressed to the wall, off to the side, as if he expected a rhinoceros to come bursting through at any moment.
His wife Ann, who sat close to the blaze across from her father-in-law, watched Tristam intently, her face tight. Neglected knitting sat in her lap, the wrinkles in her bunched apron like black spoons. She observed her husband as he squinted and craned and as he let the curtain drop back in place before returning quietly to his own chair. He lighted, seeming to give ear to his father’s tale, but was up and back at the window after a moment.
Abner Browne broke off from his telling and scowled. “You’ll have a path worn in the floor afore the night is through, Tristam.”
“Would you have me sit and do nothing?” Tristam countered, not so respectful of his father as was usually the case.
“What more is there to do, son? If he comes, he comes.”
Olive, the girl, face awash in firelight, looked up, her voice a tremble. “Do you think he shall come here, Grandfather?”
The old man gave her a small, almost sad smile. “I can no more say if it should or should not rain, though my bones tell me that at times.”
“Do your bones tell anything of Mr. Woodbridge?”
Abner chuckled. “Nothing, alas.”
Olive, looking very serious said, “I wish him to visit the Bixbys, they being such an unfriendly lot.”
Ann, the woman of the house, spoke up, “Don’t wish such a thing upon a soul, Olive.”
Ordinarily the children would be off to their beds on the second floor by that hour, but Ann wanted them in her sight, considering the circumstances.
“Mother?” It was the boy Timothy who spoke this time, the fern-green of his eyes subdued by the parlor’s gloom. “May I have Phineas in the house?”
“No, you may not.”
Phineas was the barn cat and the dearest creature in the world to Timothy. Ann like her mother before her did not care for cats in the house.
“May I then go to see that he is well?”
The woman straightened. “You may certainly not!”
The boy’s father looked away from the window long enough to mutter, “No one goes outside this night.”
Timothy turned his face back to the fire to conceal moist eyes.
Abner, the patriarch, offered what he thought was reassurance, “You mustn’t worry yourself, Timothy, it not being animals that Woodbridge is after.”
Olive, speaking to her brother’s concern, countered, “But Mister Woodbridge once kicked a dog to death.”
The grandfather perked. “Did he then?”
Timothy swiveled back around on his stool and spoke excitedly, “Yes –he killed Calvin Moore’s dog, which would be the reason the Moore boys did nothing when Mister Woodbridge went into the river.”
Old Abner thought on that a moment, then mused, “He was a foul character to be sure, but to let a man drown for the sake of having killed a dog…”
Tristam was staring out the window. The pane closest to his face was fogged from close breath and squeaked when he rubbed it with a hand. Outside there was wind and moonlight, the moonlight applied in daubs and slashes on the canvas of a black New England night. The trees and hills, even the passing road, looked unfamiliar, sparingly defined as they were. The Bixby’s roof, a little down the way, was not much more than a silvery smudge behind the dark veins of a bald maple.
Abner finished his story but no one seemed to notice. He yawned, sipped some mint tea, and was about to launch into another reminiscence when his son cried out from the window.
“There! I see him –Woodbridge!”
All of those sitting around the hearth launched up from their seats and clamored for the window, even old Abner, who forsaking his cane moved faster than anyone had seen him move in years. The curtains were wrenched aside and a flock of faces pressed up to the panes expecting to see a tall shadowy man in a windy coat walking along the road amongst the winging leaves.
“I see nothing,” Abner whined.
“There, there!” Tristam pointed. “Haste! Away from the windows or he should see us!”
Ann narrowed her eyes and cupped her hands around her face, spotting the thing her husband had indicated. She stepped back abruptly and glared. “That is a bush, Tristam. You’ve given the lot of us a terrible fright all for the sake of a bush.”
Tristam stammered. “A bush? But, I –”
Ann, her children, and father-in-law shuffled back to the fireplace, grumbling.
Tristam took another look and cursed himself. Certainly, with breath on the glass and a heart in the ears and leaves flying wildly in the night’s ungenerous illumination a man might imagine strange things. Still he felt a fool. For all his watching he hadn’t noticed the bush until the wind and moonlight caught it just right. It was perched on the opposite side of the road, its limbs, more than half-stripped of their leaves, thrashing in the wind.
Ann, with hands on hips and a tremble in her voice, said, “Four years now he’s been coming back. One would think we’d have sense enough to move to some other town and be done with worrying over who will be next, who’s door he’ll come knocking at.”
To which Tristam said, “I’ll not be chased off by that — that thing.”
Fed up with the whole event, Abner rose from his chair and announced, “Woodbridge or no Woodbridge, I’m off to bed. I’ll have some sleep, even if it be my last!”
* * *
The moon glided patiently, noiselessly toward the west, high above the fields and shedding trees, high above dispersing chimney smoke and the little roofs of Amesborough. The shifting of frosty light rearranged the shadows on the road and all around the Browne house, a circumstances stance which tormented poor Tristam who time and time again mistakenly perceived menacing shapes as the shifting of the light brought this or that harmless object into partial definition. Bushes became lurching figures with tattered arms, tree trunks mocked the stoic, silhouetted semblance of horrid old Woodbridge. Tristam saw these threats in increasing numbers as the hours passed, as sleep and agitation wrestled for ownership of his mind.
The house was no longer filled with voices since Abner and the children had gone upstairs to bed, Ann having resigned to allowing the exhausted younglings to move out of her sight. The wind made an effort to fill the space the family’s conversations had occupied, humming in the chimney, huffing across the windows, hissing where drafts found ingress. The only human intonations belonged to Tristam and Ann, and their interchanges were quiet and infrequent.
Ann wondered, “Why does he not simply kill off all in the village at once, rather than claim only one soul a year, if he so hates the folk of Amesborough?”
To which Tristam said, “Who can know the ways of the unhappy dead?”
They did not speak again for some time. Ann stayed close to the fireplace, which provided the only light in the humble parlor, as Tristam skulked from darkened room to darkened room listening for anything out of the ordinary, peering through one window then another. He moved deliberately as if fearful that a heavy step would be heard beyond the walls of the house and draw the attention of an unwelcome visitor. This made it all the more startling to Ann when he charged into the family parlor with wild eyes and a flintlock pistol in hand.
“Did you not hear it?” he sputtered.
Ann looked as if the air had been sucked from her lungs. “Hear what?”
“A noise… a thump… a door…”
“I heard nothing, Tristam, and what good do you suppose a gun will prove against a dead man?”
Tristam did not speculate or answer that particular inquiry. Rushing to the windows at the front of the house, he said, “It’s Woodbridge, I tell you. I heard him!”
Wind hummed and huffed and hissed as the man pushed his body up against the wall, staying clear of the window. He clicked back the cock of the gun, and just as he peeked around the curtain he heard a scream come flying on the wind.
Ann flinched, then shot up from her chair and was at the window in a flash, pulling the hangings aside to look out. Another shriek came, a cry of despair more than terror. Tragic howling rode on the leaf-winged wind.
Tristam and Ann turned to stare at each other, the tension that had held their faces tight for so many hours lifting from their features. They smiled great smiles and spoke simultaneously…
They shared a sigh. Woodbridge had visited the Bixby house just down the road. It was over, the long horrible waiting was over. Only after a moment of almost giddy alleviation could they grant any empathy for the neighbors who had just lost a family member.
“An awful thing,” Ann noted.
The words were hardly out of the woman’s mouth when the sound of the side door banging open shook the room. Tristam barked out a terrified sound that wasn’t even a word and charged into the kitchen with his weapon thrust out. Wind had flung the door wide and a figure was stepping into the house. The pistol bellowed bellowed and flashed.
A small person stood there dazed, a dark, wet hole in the nightshirt. Timothy had sneaked downstairs and out to the barn to make sure that Phineas the cat was safe. The boy wobbled for a moment and then fell backward off the stoop.
Tristam and Ann stared in disbelief. They rushed through the room and then through the doorway and knelt by the body. Their cries rang out, joining those from the Bixby house, rising in a chorus of pitiful wailing that sailed into the windy leaves and blue moonlight of a chill October night.
-End of Part 1-
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