A VOICE IN THE ATTIC
There was an old farmhouse that, until it was torn down a few years ago, stood in the middle of a three-acre plot of land in Afton, Wyoming. At the time, the land belonged to my wife's grandparents, who had purchased the otherwise barren expanse in the spring of 1982 with the intent of building a home on the northwest edge of the property closest to the main road. The home was built, the perimeter fenced, and the rest of the land kept for the horses they owned. After toying with the idea of renovating the sixty- year-old farmhouse and turning it into a guest cottage, they decided against it and now only used it for additional storage space.
In the summer of 1997, my wife and I received an invitation from her grandparents to spend a few days at their home, and so we packed our overnight bags and made the three-hour drive from our home in Utah, looking forward to a weekend spent taking in the rustic scenery and relaxing.
For the record, I have always had a fascination with the paranormal, but my interests have been rooted in its more mundane aspects: horror movies, scary novels, and the occasional worthwhile TV documentary. My wife Jane, on the other hand, has always been a more willing participant in the pursuit of such topics and, as a result of her forays into the world of "ghost hunting", boasts a collection of self-taken spirit photographs to complement her library archives of EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) audio recordings. The phenomena of ghost photography--a pursuit that's been around since the invention of the camera itself- -is something that, to my practical and reasoning mind, can often be dismissed as nothing more than double-exposure, the reflection of light, or water spots on a camera lens. What really captured my imagination, however, were the audio recordings. Some of the anomalies that I have heard on these tapes could easily be written off using more earthbound than otherworldly explanations, yet there are some that even a rational mind must admit are beyond the scope of common experience and understanding. In any case, beyond having heard or read about such occurrences, I had never had a personal experience with the paranormal. Not until the weekend that we spent at my wife's grandparents' home, in July of 1997.
We arrived in Afton late on a Friday evening, and after a few cups of coffee and conversation with the grandparents, we decided to turn in. Laying awake in bed talking, not quite able to sleep just yet, our conversation turned to the old farmhouse that stood about fifty yards off the south side of the house. This was my first visit here, and I was as much enticed by the farmhouse's seemingly ancient, decrepit beauty as I was impressed by its subtle yet unmistakable air of foreboding. I mentioned to Jane how creepy it had looked to me under the light of the full moon as we approached the house, and how perfect a setting it seemed for the types of hauntings I was ever so fond of reading about on dark wintry nights. I asked her what it was like inside. She responded by telling me she didn't know, she had never been inside. I found this strange, what with my wife's seemingly voracious appetite for all things frightening, not to mention the inner fortitude she'd always displayed in braving cemeteries at night armed only with flashlight, tape recorder, and loaded Nikon. Her answer was simple: "Grandpa's never let me inside. He's afraid the roof might cave in on me." With that, my curiosity was assuaged. But at breakfast the next morning, the germ of a notion that I'd planted in her head was alive and kicking and she broached the subject with her grandfather.
"It's a dangerous place, there's bats in the attic and I don't want you poking around in there," was all he would say when asked about it, attempting to turn the conversation from the subject at hand by asking if we wanted to ride the horses after breakfast. You have to know my wife the way I know her to understand that this would not satiate her curiosity, and you also have to know how persistent she can be to understand my mild shock when she simply let the subject lie.
An hour after breakfast, strolling out toward the horse stable for a midmorning ride, she turned to me with a mischievous gleam and informed me that we would be "investigating the old farmhouse" just as soon as Grandpa headed into town for groceries. I took this about as well as someone who's been informed of impending oral surgery, but I also knew better than to resist her will or let her go alone. The last thing I wanted on this quiet weekend was an upset wife or--far less--an injured one, so I acquiesced.
The sun was straight overhead and beating down hot as we approached the doorway of the old farmhouse with nothing but our wits in tow. I hesitated at the entrance, casting a glance over my shoulder to ensure no lectures about venturing into unsound structures would be delivered over dinner that night, but Jane walked straight in like a woman with a mission. I followed her inside, nearly tripping over a horse saddle that had been left just inside the doorway. The doorless entryway opened up to a fairly large room crowded with old cardboard boxes, and a large worktable stacked with bridles and old horse saddles. To the right, there was yet another doorway that led into a much smaller room (a bedroom, I supposed). The way into this room was made impenetrable by more stacks of boxes and crates. Off to the left, I saw an even smaller doorway that exposed a rickety flight of stairs leading, presumably, to the attic above.
The interior was fairly well-lit by the large cracked picture window that had at some point (and for reasons I never discovered) been painted over but was now badly peeling. The first thing I noticed was how the previous occupants had apparently plastered draft-holes in the walls with what appeared to be old newspaper. Closer inspection proved my initial assumption to be true, and I discovered the dates on the newspapers went as far back as the early 1930s.
Jane, now also having discovered the aged newspaper that crammed the draft-holes in the walls, was attempting to flatten out a large torn portion of a strip of newspaper that announced the destruction of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst in 1937. She called me over and we stood there marveling at it. I was mid-sentence, decrying the use of such a historical headline as hole-fodder, when we heard the thump overhead. In retrospect I wish we'd had a video- camera to record my reaction to this sound, because I nearly jumped out of my skin and my motions, although betrayed by my desire to remain cool in the situation, displayed a willingness to race headlong out the entryway of that place. But my legs and feet, loyal to my inner workings, took only a single step before falling into compliance.
Heads now turned upward to the blackened wood overhead, I started to mutter "Did you hear that" when Jane cut me off with a swatting of her arm and a sharp "Shhhhh!" Dead silence ensued for the next thirty seconds as we stood there, frozen, until I finally spoke again in a whisper. "Could be the bats your grandfather warned us about, let's go." But she would not be moved, her will would not be shaken. I was about to fire off some crack about the woes of having a ghostbuster for a wife when it came again, this time more distinct, not directly overhead but further toward the back of the structure, as of something in the far corner of the attic above our heads. Bats fly, I thought to myself, they don't walk and they certainly don't lay heavy footfalls in their wake. Immediately our heads turned toward the doorway to our left, the doorway leading to the short flight of steps into the attic. I asked her if she thought it could be a cat, or a bat finally given up the ghost of hanging upside down from a rafter in 100 degree temperature, but the silence of her response only served to shake me up all the more when it came a third time, actually loosening dirt from the rafters and punctuated by what I can only describe as a dragging shuffle on the floorboards overhead.
That was enough for me. I took hold of Jane's arm and gave a firm tug. "Let's go." But I know my wife, and I ought to have known better than that. Eyes still fixed on the first three steps leading up to the attic, head cocked sideways in an almost comical manner straining to hear, she whispered: "It sounds like there's someone up there." Now, I don't know about most people, but I don't do well with declarations such as those, under circumstances such as these. Anything bearing an even remote similarity to the typical fright-fest dialogue of "They're coming to get you" or (heaven forbid) "They're here" and I'm a running fool with feet flying out ahead of me like a leaper over hot coals. But I suppose that I would willingly trade bearing sole witness to any of those proclamations in exchange for what we heard next, which is something that my rational mind still grapples with, something that if I live to be 100 I will never, ever forget. The voice was soft, and low, muffled by the rafters and the overhead floorboards that separated us from the attic, and it called the words: "David, is that you?"
One moment we were in that dark, stuffy farmhouse, the next we were out in the bright sunlight with the breeze blowing in our faces as we stepped lively through the tall grass back toward the main house. It was that quick, that synchronous. At a moment when I must have realized that whatever courage I had would hold up no further and decided it was better to run than stand, Jane had also reached her threshold of tolerance and we both got the hell out of there. One very important fact--and I state this for the record--my name is not David, nor is her grandfather named David, nor do either of us know anyone by that name; strange as it may seem, the name being such a common one. What's even stranger is that you might think, once away from whatever danger we may have been in or imagined we were in, within the safety of sunlight and the dependabilities of the concrete world, we would have felt a rush of exhilaration or adrenaline--but it was quite the opposite. You'd think that we would have found ourselves a safe space somewhere and sat talking about what we had heard, or what we thought we had heard, but we didn't. We simply turned heels quickly, left, and not another mention of the experience was had that day until we found ourselves in bed again late that night, unable to sleep and unable to forget.
She brought up the topic gently, almost as if expecting me to stammer out a request to close the subject and leave it that way, but I found that once removed from the situation I was able to confront it with a little more ease. I told her what I thought I'd heard, and danced around a million different possible explanations for what it could have been- -everything from fillings in our teeth picking up a nearby radio station, to an old phonograph player that could have been stored up there and could have fallen over after fifty years and scratched out a snippet of song whose lyrics we mistakenly took to be some ghostly voice from beyond. I figured it was much easier to believe either of those scenarios than to consider any otherworldly possibility, but the explanation that occurred to Jane as we lay there in bed, sleepless, was a bit more frightening than any. "Maybe there's someone living up there that my grandparents don't know about," she said, and a look of startled concern came over her face.
The idea sent shivers up and down my spine, offering up images of escaped mental patients creeping onto unsuspecting people's properties in the dead of night clad in flowing hospital gowns, and it alarmed me to the point where I actually got out of bed, stood at the window looking out onto the property offering a clear view of the moonwashed farmhouse, and actually considered either going out there with a baseball bat in hand or calling the local police to check it out. But we could have been mistaken in what we heard, there could have been a rational explanation, and the last thing I wanted to do (apart from admitting to her grandfather that we had betrayed his wishes to keep out) was call the police to investigate the overactive imaginings of a young married couple. They'd probably ask us to provide urine samples for our troubles, and that was one place I didn't want to go.
So we determined that at daybreak, we would go out to investigate yet again. This time as we approached the farmhouse--not having mentioned our concerns to her grandparents for fear of causing probable undue worry--I was armed with a short-handled shovel I'd found lying on the grass and Jane, not entirely convinced the sounds had come from any earthly emanations, with a long-handled flashlight and the mini-cassette recorder she rarely left home without.
Our second entrance in as many days through the doorway of the farmhouse proved to be a lot more ordinary than my imagination had fancied it might be, and the notion that someone may have actually taken up residence in that ramshackle pile of sticks was quickly put to rest on second look at the conditions of the old house, and the likeliness that anyone attempting to climb up the flight of stairs leading to the attic would most likely crash through the rotted wood and break a leg, or worse. We stood listening in silence for what seemed like an eternity but what was most likely a few minutes. Nothing, no sounds except for the occasional crack of the old blackened wood settling. We decided that since we had come this far, we were damned if we were going to leave without a good and thorough search and so we set about the task of figuring out a way to ascend the steps leading to the attic.
I'd spotted a fairly fresh plank of wood about six feet long, two feet wide, and three inches thick, lying in the yard of the farmhouse as we approached, so I came up with the idea that perhaps we could lay the plank lengthwise across the top of the steps and crawl our way up. Jane's first attempt at laying any weight on the board caused a groan of the old woodwork underneath so severe that I insisted on attempting to reinforce it from below with several odd-length two-by-fours I'd also spotted in the yard outside. (We worked quietly in the light of early dawn, aware that to be caught rooting around like children in the old farmhouse against her grandfather's wishes would earn us a severe talking-to.)
Finally, after about half an hour, we had constructed our ascension ramp and, after another five minutes quietly arguing over who should be the first to go, I was shuffling up the length of the plank on my hands and knees, shovel at the ready. Jane's insistence that she should be the first to go was quietly overruled by my proclamations that if there actually were some crazy person living in the attic, the person with a weapon of defense ought to be the first to check it out. She finally consented--grudgingly so, for I have married a woman with the courage of two men--and with only a fleeting hesitation I was up and on my way. By this time the sun had emerged and the sunlight cast through the holes in the roof was good enough so that I could see everything before me. As I stood on the floorboards of the attic, determining if they were in well enough shape to sustain my body weight, I scanned the large area before me, shovel at the ready, probably looking like some deranged baseball player or a character in an old Sam Raimi flick. Strange how the fear which had gripped me the day before had now been swept away, and in its place something much stronger, borne most likely from the instinct to fight rather than flee, or the inexplicable instinct of territoriality over a place I'd never even been before.
When I look back on it I honestly don't know what I was expecting to see up there in the attic--but whatever it may have been, whether flesh and bone or otherwise, there was nothing to be found. Only the time-ravaged, weather-worn leftovers of the previous tenants' storage, which amounted to nothing more than a severely rusted bedspring, an equally old mattress leaning askew against the near wall, a scattering of empty crates, and a decrepit rocking chair that sat in the farthest corner of the attic facing the wall.
I stood there staring at the back of that chair until Jane's voice, directly behind me, startled me out of my daze. "So much for your phonograph theory." I turned around to find that as I'd stood there taking an inventory of the space before me, she had made her way up the plank and into the attic with me. She was aiming the beam of her flashlight and scanning every inch of the attic space before us. I followed its movements and acknowledged the absence of any overturned phonograph player I dreamt may have been responsible for what we'd heard. "So much for our stranger in the attic theory," I added, motioning to the inch-thick layer of dust that covered every visible square foot of the floorboards. If anyone had been in the attic, it was a long, long time before we had ever arrived. I'm not sure how long we stood there, but it was long enough for the two of us to determine that our notions (my notions) of homeless squatters or escaped mental patients seeking shelter--or bats, for that matter-- were completely unfounded.
As we turned to begin our descent back down our makeshift ramp, Jane stopped and fished a blank cassette out of her pocket and inserted it into the recorder. I said something like "Hey, don't bother, we're leaving" but she informed me that she was going to leave the micro-cassette behind in RECORD mode. She set it down on one of the floorboards just inside the attic entryway. "Just to satisfy my curiosity," she said. And we left.
We never did fess up to what we had been up to that day, or the day previous, when having dinner with Jane's grandparents later that evening. Nor did we tell them about the sounds we'd heard, or the voice we thought we had heard. We were set to head back home early the following morning and we both agreed it was far better to exchange pleasantries on the final evening of our visit rather than to choke the air with questions about previous tenants, the history of the land, or the possibility of spirits that linger after death. According to Jane, things like that didn't go over too well with her grandfather, who was, she said--in his youth as well as in all the time that she had known him--more practical-minded and rational than I ever was. Coming from Jane, I took this as a compliment.
We realized that in order to retrieve the cassette recorder Jane had left behind, we would not only have to brave the rickety ramp of our invention once again, but we'd also have to make it out there early enough so that her grandparents wouldn't see us. We also decided that it would be best to take apart the makeshift ramp, lest proof of our actions be discovered. So we resolved to wake up half an hour before dawn and sneak out to the old farmhouse one last time.
When we got there, this time stepping our way through the dark with the aid of Jane's flashlight, everything was just as we'd left it. No signs of any ghostly disturbance, no violently overturned boxes, no footprints in the dust other than those we'd created ourselves. I cautiously but hurriedly crawled my way up the wooden plank, reached a hand into the darkness, and retrieved the cassette recorder which was in the exact place Jane had left it the day before. We quietly removed the reinforcement two-by-fours and set them on the wooden floor in a neat pile, followed by the six-foot plank itself, which came easily enough and which we leaned against the inside wall.
I was just setting about the task of patting the dust and dirt from my pants legs when it came again. The same sudden, sharp thump that we had heard two days prior. My first thought was that Jane must have heard something moving up there before the thump sounded, because when I looked at her, her head was already turned upwards and her eyes were fixed on the attic entrance directly above us. My eyes followed her stare and I looked up, but there was nothing discernible in the darkness beyond the threshold. This time it was Jane's turn to speak first, and she began to ask me if I'd heard it too but her words broke off when another thud, this time more jarring than the first, almost violent in its force, sent a fistful of dust shooting from the rafters. The horrible, sickening shuffling sound came next, and the image that entered my mind then was that of someone, or something, dragging itself across the floor almost directly over our heads, approaching the attic entry. This time there was no resistance, no arguments to be put up against turning tail and leaving that place behind us for good. In an instant the two of us were stumbling through the dark toward the front entrance and within five seconds we were back out into the cool predawn air. But in the cage of memory, instants can sometimes stretch the length of an eternity, and impressions can sometimes last a lifetime--for as we passed through the doorway of the old farmhouse for the last time, we heard the voice again, this time much closer, coming from atop the attic stairs where we had stood only seconds ago, this time much clearer-- raspy, nearly gravelly, calling after us. And the words it said were "David... I saw you!"
In the time it took to clear half the distance between the old farmhouse and the grandparents' home--a mere fifty yards--I had managed to regain most of my composure and had slowed my trot to a brisk walk, though still casting furtive glances over my shoulder, ensuring my rational self that all was good, all was well in the world, and that nothing had taken up chase. Crazy thought, I know, but it was one that occurred to me and I wouldn't be surprised if it had occurred to Jane as well, despite her outward calm demeanor.
Jane had stopped about ten feet short of her grandparents' back porch and was studying the micro-cassette recorder closely. "It was turned off," she said, "halfway through the tape. As if someone shut it off on purpose." I tried to reason that maybe the batteries had run out, but she quickly dispelled that notion when she pressed the REWIND button and it kicked immediately into life. It only took a few seconds for the tape to reach the start of the spool, and just as she was about to press the PLAY button, the back door of her grandparents' home swung open and Grandma Perkins was standing there in her morning robe. "What are you two doing up so early?" she asked. "Just saying goodbye to the horses," Jane replied in a calm fashion, and within seconds we were back inside the house where the smell of brewing coffee awaited us.
It wasn't until we had packed our bags, said our farewells, and hit the road once again--all the while eyeing the old farmhouse as we made our way down the long gravel driveway headed for the main road--that we were finally alone and able to listen to what it was that may have been recorded. I wasn't certain that anything would have come through on the tape, but I wanted to be able to listen without having to strain to hear over sound of the engine so as soon as we'd gone about a mile, I pulled the car off to the side of the road under the shade of a tree and shut the engine off. The first sound head on the tape were Jane's own words ("Just to satisfy my curiosity"), then the creaking and groaning of the floorboards and the racket of our footfalls as we made our way down the plank and exited the farmhouse. Five minutes of silence ensued, only the occasional sound of the old structure settling in on itself, then another five or six minutes, the rumble of a truck driving by in the distance, then more silence. Just as the tape was about to reach the point where it had mysteriously stopped on itself, I heard something.
On first impression it sounded like someone breathing in short, shallow breaths. I was opening my mouth to tell Jane to stop the tape, rewind it, I may have heard something, when I realized the sound was only getting louder. I could tell by the expression on Jane's face that I was not, in fact, hearing things. She was hearing it too. What came next, though, sent shivers down my spine and made the sounds we'd heard in the farmhouse--frightening and inexplicable though they were--seem like nothing more than a precursor. The breaths seemed to be getting louder, and although no sound of movement could be heard, I got the distinct impression that something was drawing nearer to the microphone. It frightened me to the core to think that the very cassette recorder Jane now held in trembling hands could have come so close to, or may even have been touched by, whatever it was that was causing that horrible sound. The breathing faded, almost abruptly, followed by approximately ten seconds of absolute silence (not even the sound of the wood settling or a car driving by in the distance). Then the singing began. It was quite unmistakably, and most distinctly, the voice of an old woman--perhaps in her eighties, perhaps older--and although I could not make out the words, she was singing something. A lullabye, perhaps? To this day I am not sure, even though we've listened to the tape hundreds of times since and have tried amplifying the sound through various means. It is certainly not a melody I, or Jane, or anyone else we've shared the recording with, are familiar with, but by the very nature of its ambiguity, it has become an oft- controversial conversation piece among friends with similar interests.
But it isn't that horrible breathing or the faint yet undeniable strain of song delivered by that mysterious voice that still, to this day, years after the experience, years after the old farmhouse was finally torn down, years after the grandparents sold the property and moved away, haunts my mind in the quiet dark before sleep overtakes me. Rather, it is the final two seconds of that recording that will always stay with me, and will always serve as proof to my mind that despite our best efforts to argue to the contrary, there are things that happen in this life that are beyond the bounds of rational explanation.
The singing voice stopped abruptly, as though perhaps startled by itself, and was replaced by a dry, hoarse giggle--a hideous, insane laughter--that erupted into a cackle just as an invisible finger reached out, brushed against the microphone, and pressed STOP.