Barnaby stroked through the water the best he could with his heavy arms and fatigued legs. Running in terror most of the night had taken its toll but the desperation to find Victoria pushed him. He had an overwhelming urge to care for her even though she was already dead. The sight of her standing on the darkening beach, alone and crying, hurt him and he felt the need to somehow save her. When the water became too shallow to swim, he stood and waded the remaining way in and then staggered along the shore in his sopping wet clothes.
She had at least a ten minute head start on him and he had no way of finding her other than to call out her name which he hesitated in doing. He did not want to bring undesired attention to his presence from less hospitable spirits. He wandered through the dark on the path which wasn’t a path at all but mostly a familiar and easy way to get to and from the beach. It changed in appearance each time he tread upon it as time advanced forward.
“Victoria,” he whispered in the dark. He heard nothing. “Victoria,” he tried a little louder. No sound but the light, annoying buzz of mosquitoes in his ear. He trotted a few steps to get away from them and heard the sudden burst of footsteps running from him through the woods.
“Victoria?” he called a little louder but when she didn’t stop or answer, he ran after her. He could not see her well, but he could hear her frantic rustling in the dark. His pursuit must terrify her, he thought and as he continued to chase her, he considered stopping. Clearly she ran from him and he did not wish to scare her further but he couldn’t let her go; he had to console her misery. He couldn’t leave the woods knowing a little girl remained trapped inside, terrified and alone.
He struggled in his run and it didn’t take long before he had to stop and rest. The swim across the creek and his wet clothes proved to be an exhausting adversary. He leaned against a tree and could hear the rustling of her feet fade into the distance. He wanted to keep up with her, but physically couldn’t, even though she was a small child, so he decided to walk the rest of the way and hoped to find her once more. Perhaps she returned to her house; the last place with any good memories she could remember.
He trudged through the woods not possessing much energy or patience to tip-toe from tree to tree. He was on a mission and maybe for the first time that evening, self-preservation did not propel him more than a grim eagerness to help the little girl.
He stopped periodically to catch his breath and listen for any sounds of her running, but he heard nothing. The woods were still….for now.
He removed his shirt and twisted it to remove the excess water. He would have done the same with his pants but he felt as though something always watched and he didn’t want to get caught in a predicament where he had to suddenly run through the woods in only his underwear.
He picked up a stick, not for defense as it would do very little against musket balls and sabers, but to knock down unseen spider webs standing in his path.
He wished he had brought along a granola bar or a bottle of water. His stomach growled and his mouth felt like it had been sopped up with a paper towel. His wet pants began to chafe the inside of his legs. His feet squished out water through his shoes with each step. He may have considered himself to be in a miserable state if he had time to think it over but finding Victoria preoccupied him.
The clearing to her house came into view. He paused on the fringe of the woods before entering, listened and looked for any sign of her but saw none. Next to the edge grew a small patch of daffodils which normally grew in the spring but Barnaby could tell by the high degree of heat and strong presence of mosquitoes, that spring had ended months earlier. The daffodils should no longer be growing and he speculated whether they remained alive just so Victoria could pick them.
He stepped into the open and listened. At first he did not hear anything but as his ears grew more adjusted to the quiet as one’s eyes do with the dark, he heard the faint crying of a small child. He walked to the front of the house and heard her cries grew louder. He tip toed to the corner and peered into the yard. Victoria knelt in front of the house, holding a withered daffodil and wept. She very much appeared as a lost child in a crowded mall who had lost her parents; fearful and all alone. Her long hair covered her face and scraped the ground.
Barnaby contemplated how to approach her. He couldn’t simply walk up to her. She would run away screaming and the last thing he wished was to add to her desperation. He turned and jogged back to the woods to where the daffodils grew. He picked the two healthiest flowers for her then trotted back to the house. He poked his head around the corner again. She still cried.
A subtle way to approach was not possible so he stepped out from the corner into the front yard and held out the flowers before him. She did not see him at first so he cleared his throat to gain her attention. She jumped to her feet and turned to run but when she caught a glimpse of the flowers she faltered. “Charley?” she asked.
“No, my name is Barnaby but I knew Charley,” Barnaby replied. “I knew he would want you to have these flowers.”
She didn’t answer and stared cautiously at Barnaby while he eased towards her. Feeling like a predator quietly stalking his prey, Barnaby stopped advancing and knelt down to appear less intimidating. He held the flowers out for her to receive.
“I just picked them from behind the house. I would like you to have them if they will cheer you up. I am a friend, a good guy,” Barnaby explained. “I don’t want to scare you. I want to help you if I can.”
She still said nothing but she did not run away either which Barnaby felt encouraging.
He turned and looked at her home. A few of the windows had holes or missing panes. The front porch lacked a board leading to the door and the weather had disintegrated most of the paint. Barnaby wondered if its ruinous state made her cry considering this was not the house she remembered.
“Do you want to go inside?” he asked
She nodded and wiped away a few tears.
“But you are afraid to?” he guessed.
She nodded again and looked as though she might once more come undone.
“I will go in with you if you want. I will look inside to make sure it is okay. Don’t cry. Everything will be all right. Is there something inside you need?”
She nodded again without a word.
“What do you need?” Barnaby asked seizing on the opportunity to gain her trust. “Maybe I can find it for you.”
“I need my mommy,” she replied gently.
Barnaby’s shoulders sagged. He couldn’t hide his disappointment. He felt so badly for the child. Her mother clearly no longer lived in the house. What happened to her he had no idea. Perhaps she moved away heartbroken by the death of her child. Barnaby knew how grief stricken he would be if he had children and they were to die and he could remember the many nights he cried beneath his covers because he did not get to see his mother. He now felt an even greater connection to Victoria as he knew how lonely and terrified she must feel without her mom.
He didn’t know how to help her. How could he explain to this sweet, lonely little child that her mother had gone away? What excuse could he provide as to why her mother left? Could he tell her she was dead?
“I don’t think your mommy is here anymore, honey. I don’t think anyone lives here. Do you know why no one lives here?” He spoke with a sympathetic pain in his voice.
The little girl shook her head and covered her face as she began to cry again.
Barnaby wanted to rush and hold her but considered how she would react to his embrace so he restrained himself. He didn’t know how to console the child with words only as he always consoled his wife with an embrace. She cried and cried in anguish so finally he made up a story.
“Your mommy sent me to get you,” he assured her.
She uncovered her eyes, brushed the tear soaked hair from her face, and inhaled a gulp of sniffly air through her nose.
“That’s how I knew where to find you. She said you would be here waiting for me.”
“Where is she?” Her voice trembled.
“Your mommy had to go to heaven to be with God but she wants you to be there with her.”
She took her brown shirt sleeve and wiped it across her eyes. “Is that where my daddy is and Charley?”
“I’m not sure honey. I haven’t talked to your daddy but I don’t think Charley is there right now.”
“I saw you and Charley in the water. I saw him get hurt.”
Barnaby nodded and guessed Charley’s death caused her crying earlier when he saw her across the creek.
“I’m sorry you had to see that. I wanted to help Charley like I want to help you.” He looked down at the flowers and presented them to her again. “Charley did tell me you liked flowers so I picked these for you.”
She took a small step toward him.
“I promise I will take care of you. I will keep you safe.”.
She ran over and grabbed the flowers and pulled them to her nose. Barnaby beamed and tried to look her over but she unexpectedly jumped to him and wrapped her little arms around his neck. Her hug stunned him but he embraced her with equal enthusiasm as though she belonged to him and he didn’t let go. She laid her head on his shoulder like an infant and he lifted her into the air and swayed her back and forth the way his mother once did for him. He pressed his head to hers and smelled her soiled hair. Though a ghost, she smelled and felt very much alive. She also experienced all the fears and terrors a normal seven year old would if left behind in the woods alone amongst terrible and treacherous villains. She had experienced two centuries of frightfulness. How many times as a ghost did she cry as she watched Charley die on the beach? How abandoned did she feel when everyone around her died and all that remained were the ominous lights of greedy men as they dug for their treasure and the terrifying wail of the storm woman? Did Victoria wander her house even after her mother moved away or past on from old age? Barnaby was the first real person in over two hundred years to offer comfort and protection to her. For the first time in a long while, she felt she could take a break from worrying about herself and allow someone to worry about her as most children are allowed.
“My name is Barnaby,” he reminded her with a whisper.
“I’m Victoria,” she whispered back.
“Are you okay now?”
“Okay,” he smiled and carried her over to the porch and sat down with her in his lap. She laid her head on his chest and they continued to rock back and forth for a long time under the moon. Barnaby feared other ghosts might arrive but he would not let his impatience get the better of him. Victoria would come first and so they remained there for many minutes while he comforted her.
“Do you like the flowers?” he asked.
“You know I have two boys around your age. How old are you?”
“Seven?” he asked pretending to be astounded. “Well you are mighty brave for a seven year old! I think you might be braver than I am.”
“Did you ever lose your mom?”
Barnaby nodded. “Yes, but I got her back.”
“Do you think I will get my mommy back?”
“I hope so honey. I’ll do what I can.” Barnaby frowned as he rocked her. He had no way of delivering on his promise and he would eventually have to leave Victoria as had everyone else. He couldn’t take her with him. She couldn’t leave the woods. Nothing inside could cross to the other side.
“Are you going to go in?”
“I can if you want me to. Do you want to go with me?”
“Do you want to see if your mommy is in there?”
“She isn’t,” she whimpered with certainty. “I remember seeing her leave.”
“You saw your mom leave?” he asked trying not to sound too surprised.
“Yes, my daddy and her left in a wagon. I remember my mommy being very sad when they left. She cried when they drove away. I ran after her and screamed but she couldn’t hear me and I couldn’t catch up to her. She turned around but I guess she couldn’t see me. She couldn’t see me at all before she left. I wanted them to come back but they didn’t. Then someone else came to the house and lived here and I knew I wouldn’t see my mommy again. The new people left too.”
Barnaby frowned at her pain. She was too young to experience such loss and abandonment. He could almost picture her sitting at the woods’ edge in her brown dress crying as her parents rode out of sight.
“Do you know why your mommy cried?” Barnaby asked.
“She didn’t want to leave this house.”
“Yes I’m sure she didn’t,” Barnaby answered warmly, “but also she did not want to leave you and the memories of you in this house. Her memories are how she kept you close to her heart and when she left, she felt like she was leaving the memory of you behind. This made her very sad. Your mother loved you very much and when she left I don’t think she knew you were still here.”
“Where did she think I was?” the little girl asked confused.
“Well do you remember the day Charley started fighting with the other soldier and Charley shot him?”
“Yes, I remember. Mr. Wilcox pointed his gun at me and told my mom she had to go into the woods or he would kill me.”
So that is what happened Barnaby thought. What kind of man could point a gun at a child?
“Charley got very angry at this didn’t he?”
“Yes. He pointed his gun at Mr. Wilcox and the two started yelling at each other. Mr. Wilcox said he was going to kill Charley too and I started to cry. I tried to run and when I did Mr. Wilcox tried to grab me but Charley shot him.”
Barnaby sighed with sympathy for the horrors the little girl witnessed. “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to see such things.”
“I ran out of the house and into the woods.”
“Do you remember what happened after that?”
“No. I didn’t run very far because Charley always told me to stay out of the woods because bad things were inside. I stopped and got scared and turned around to go back but then I heard more guns. I don’t remember anything else.”
Barnaby pursed his lips thinking of how best to explain a young, dead child’s situation to her. “Well sometimes things happen to people; bad things that make people very sad. Remember when you saw Charley get hurt on the beach? Charley had a bad thing happen to him.”
Victoria looked at him with puddle filled eyes and listened.
“When you ran into the woods, your mom thought something bad happened to you the same way something bad happened to Charley, and I think she thought you went to heaven too. When you came back she couldn’t see you anymore.”
“Why not?” Her voice still trembled at the thought of losing her mother two hundred years after it happened.
“Because when the bad thing occurred honey, part of you, the part your mom can see, stayed here and the part of you your mom can’t see, the part that was supposed to go to heaven, also stayed here. The part she could see was hurt very badly and your mommy realized you were hurt so bad that you had probably gone to see God. But the part of you your mommy thought went to Heaven stayed here, only your mommy can’t see that part of you. Most people can’t.”
“Why didn’t I go to heaven?” she asked like a child not invited to her best friend’s party.
“I’m not sure honey. Maybe God wanted you to watch over your mom even though she couldn’t see you.”
“Why can you see me?”
“Because now I think maybe God wants me to watch over you and in order to take care of you, I have to see you,” he replied with a comforting smile.
“Why aren’t you in heaven?”
“It’s not my time to go yet,” he replied with a smile. “I still have a wife at home who needs me and I think God has a few things for me to do before I go home to him.”
“Do I need to go with you?” she asked with a brightening face.
She had the same hopeful smile Charlie had when he too thought he might be leaving the woods. Barnaby would have taken her if he could. He couldn’t afford a child but he would make it work. He knew though she couldn’t leave the woods and why she and everyone else couldn’t, he had no clue. More troubling still was how to set her free.
“I think I need to stay here with you until we get you to your mommy!” he answered with a pounding doubt in his heart. He had no confidence he could do this and the more time he spent with Victoria the more difficult he knew it would be to leave her.
“Have you been inside since your mom and dad left?”
“A few times. The other people who lived here had a little boy and sometimes I would sneak into his room at night and play with his things. I cried when they left too. After they left no one came back. I think they were afraid of the woods. I didn’t go into the house anymore because I’m afraid of the dark.”
“Are you ready to go in now?”
“Can I hold your hand?”
He stood her up on the porch then took her warm little hand that felt very much alive and walked inside. The dark house smelled like the top of his father’s barn. Much of the furniture was gone but an old iron wood stove still remained. A few of the floor boards wobbled and creaked as they walked over them. They stood in what was probably a living room. Dust covered everything. In the back of the room he could see the small window through which he peered when he first came upon the house in the snow. To the left looked to be a small dining room and kitchen. In the right rear corner of the living room a set of steep steps led up to the second floor and to the right he saw a closed door, perhaps to a bedroom. The paint on it looked like broken glass.
“What did your dad do?” Barnaby asked.
“He had a store in town and then he joined the miltia?”
“The militia?” Barnaby asked clarifying her statement.
“Yes, that’s what I mean.”
Barnaby wondered if he was part of the group who ran the British away from this house and accidentally killed little Victoria. If so, where had he been for all those months the British lived in his home?
He wandered around the room looking for anything interesting and held her hand as he went.
“This is where Mr. Wilcox got shot.”
“Right here?” Barnaby looked around.
“Yes but he was looking that way.”
Barnaby turned and could almost picture Charley standing there. He looked at the floor half expecting to see a blood stain, but those boards were undoubtedly replaced a century ago at least. He decided to change the subject rather then have her relive painful memories.
“Is there anything you want to see?” he asked.
“I want to go upstairs.”
Barnaby walked to the bottom of the stairs and flipped the light switch on the wall but as he suspected, it did not work.
“Its pretty dark up there,” he said.
“Are you scared?”
“No, but it is going to be pretty hard to see anything. I don’t want you to be scared.”
“I won’t be if you don’t let go of my hand.”
He held her hand as they climbed the steep, wooden stairs into the small room above. The ceiling left only enough room for a young teen to stand and the sides sloped with the roof. Windows sat on the north side and on the east side facing the woods.
“Was this your room?” he whispered.
“Yes, but this is where the soldiers slept when they stayed with us. They all slept on the floor here.”
“Even Mr. Wilcox?” Barnaby asked surprised. He didn’t think an officer would sleep on the floor with his subordinates.
“No, he slept in my mommy’s room.”
Barnaby frowned wondering if perhaps Mr. Wilcox had taken advantage of too much. “Where did you sleep then if the soldiers were up here?”
“Usually downstairs by the fire.”
Barnaby moved to the window and looked out over the woods. In the distance he thought he saw a light but it disappeared.
“Before the soldiers came, I sat up here and would watch all sorts of lights in the woods.”
Barnaby looked down at her surprised. “You saw lights? Were you ever scared?”
“At first, but daddy told me the Lord protected us.”
“How long have you seen the lights?”
She thought about it for a moment. “I guess ever since I’ve lived here. I don’t go near the lights. I hide behind trees.”
“Why do you go into the woods Victoria?”
“I don’t know. I was lonely. I guess I wanted to find someone like you.”
Barnaby smiled. “I understand.” He looked out the window again for a sign of the light but saw none. “Do you want to go down to your mother’s room?”
“Yes please,” she took his hand with a smile.
He led her back down the steep stairs and held the railing with his left hand and her with his right.
Barnaby turned the doorknob slowly and peeked in. The room was as dark and empty as the upstairs. He gave the door a gentle nudge and it creaked open on its own.
“My mommy and daddy’s bed used to be right there,” she said pointing into the darkness. “Sometimes I would get into bed with them on really cold nights.”
Barnaby thought about doing the same thing when scared or did not feel well but when his father woke he made him sleep on the floor.
He knelt down next to her. “Victoria, I’m going to do whatever I can so you can see them again,” he explained trying to reassure her. “I’m just not sure where to begin. I thought maybe I would find a clue in this house but…”
“It’s okay. I didn’t think you could get me to heaven right away. I’m just happy you are here.”
Barnaby smiled. She had at least taken a little of the pressure off of him. “You are a remarkable little girl!”
“You know when I lost something my daddy would tell me to start from the beginning. I never knew what he meant but maybe it will help you.”
Barnaby looked towards the trees and sighed. He knew the beginning existed within the woods but the thought of re-entering sickened him. If he had not seen Victoria and felt the need to help her, he would now be speeding in his car, half-way home but presently he’d rather be no where than at this little girl’s side. “Well I guess it is worth a shot. You will have to come with me though. I don’t want to leave you behind here.”
She nodded her head vigorously, “I want to come with you! I don’t want to be here by myself.”
“Good!” he took her by the hand and wrapped his other around it. Let’s go find the beginning.”