Tara Myrold is my cousin. Her mother is my mother's sister. I haven't known her very long, because she and her parents used to live far away in Cleveland. Sometimes my mother would show me a picture of her, but she lived a day and a half's drive away, so I was never allowed to visit her.
A few years ago, we received a letter from Uncle Tony - his real name is Anton - saying they were coming to live with us in Cape Cod. Another picture of Tara was included and Mom let me have it. She said I should play a lot with Tara when she got here.
I held the photograph between two fingers and looked at it. I didn't think Tara was ugly or anything, just weird. She wore glasses and her hair was very thin, like she was already balding. She didn't smile and her blouse was crooked. I got the impression she didn't notice the photographer or the camera. Actually, it kind of looked as though she didn't really know what a photographer was. Her eyes didn't show up in the picture, because the light reflected off her glasses. Tara's face was in the picture but her thoughts were far away. That I could see clearly. I was nine then and I assumed Tara didn't have any thoughts.
I sniffed the picture. The paper smelled like washrooms and cigarettes. Tara seemed very dirty to me. She wore ugly red clothes and the strap of her undershirt showed on her shoulder. I could see that she rarely washed. I could also see that she sniffed instead of blowing her nose, because her face looked swollen. I put the picture between the wall and the cupboard in the garage and thought: I'll never play with Tara Myrold.
Dad didn't want Uncle Tony and Aunt Tanja to live with us either. He always said, "Anton is crazy," and actually meant "Tanja is crazy," but he didn't want to hurt Mom's feelings. Mom's sister really was a little crazy. The whole family knew that. Sometimes she had to go to an institution because she was having a bad time, and sometimes she was at home.
"Their apartment in Cleveland is far too small. They only have one bedroom and a small kitchen. Tony says they can hear everything the neighbours say. And Tara wants to live by the ocean. If only they had more room, it would be easier for Aunt Tanja to go through her difficult times, " said Mom.
"What do you mean 'difficult times?'" I asked.
"Times when she cries a lot, or forgets to cook dinner, or forgets to pick up Tara after school." I imagined how such times could be fun. Then I could do something on my own. Maybe I'd get a bicycle and ride back and forth to school by myself. I thought about the photograph of Tara. Maybe that one had been taken during a difficult time when Aunt Tanja was always crying, forgetting to wash Tara's clothes, give her a handkerchief or wake her up in the morning.
Mom was irritated with Dad, because he had made that crack about Uncle Tony. "Anton is not crazy!" she said. "And don't say those things when that child is around." I had to go to bed, and before I fell asleep, I kind of liked that they were coming: Uncle Tony who might be crazy and Aunt Tanja who was most definitely crazy and forgot things. Only Tara didn't appeal to me. I wished her mother would forget to bring her to Cape Cod.
Cape Cod is a long peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean. Our house is there, on the outskirts of a city called Truro, on the edge of the sand dunes. If you look through our kitchen window you only see dunes and, in the distance, almost at the ocean, a big, ramshackle house where no one has lived for a long time. No one wants to live there, supposedly because it is too far from the city or because the foundation is loose. But everyone knows there is another reason.
On a cold day in the fall, when the house was still empty, I went there with my friend David. David was the only kid my age who lived at the beach. All the other kids from school lived in Truro. I didn't have anyone to play with except him.
"I know a hole where we can get through," he said. I was scared, because even standing outside you could hear a lot of tapping and ticking noises underneath the roof. David talked about how Goody Hallett, the witch who rides on the back of whales, had lived there.
"Don't be scared," he said. "Goody Hallett was swallowed by a whale. The whale hunters found her red shoes in the stomach of a sperm whale. She is dead now."
I was only eight then and still very superstitious. I asked myself whether the witch hadn't just left her shoes behind in the stomach of a sperm whale and escaped through the spout hole.
Afraid of being left alone, I also went inside, through the hole in the blue front door. We climbed underneath a carving of the tail of a mermaid with ugly warts and a hooked nose.
"Her name is Siren," said David, and he put his hand on the gigantic tail fin.
"How do you know that?"
"It says underneath." He pointed to some elegantly carved letters in the wood. I didn't look at them closely, though. I wanted to get through the hall to the dining room as quickly as possible. There was a tall door with dull glass and a gilded knob. It was ajar and creaked a little when David pushed it open.
In Goody Hallett's house, each day was like Christmas. The sturdy table in the dining room was set for at least thirteen people. There were menu cards with German Christmas designs and streamers hanging down from the ceiling. There was a tree with ornaments as big as melons. Withered branches decked with faded red ribbons hung on the wall. Grey wreathes, with acorns and walnut shells glued on, hung from the doors. Underneath the chairs was a wine red carpet, the same red as the napkins on the plates. I knew that the napkins were much redder than they looked. You could tell by the edges that the dust had turned them ashy pale. The backs were still deep red. The flowers in the small vases stood there, brown and frail, with their little heads bent down.
"Sit wherever you want," David whispered. I didn't sit down, because the chairs were much too high and covered with dust. I looked at the candlesticks. They were coated with congealed wax. Big drops of candle wax had also fallen on the rug.
"They didn't even blow out the candles when they left," I said, more to myself than to David. David stood on the other side of the room at the big windows looking out over the ocean.
"Anna, come here," he called. The sudden sound of his voice scared me. I rushed over so that he wouldn't call a second time.
"Look at this cigar," he said and pointed to a long, charred sausage that had kept the shape of a cigar.
"They left in a hurry. No one knows why or where to. It was all because of little Filip's disappearance."
I'd often heard that story about Filip at school. Filip was a toddler from Truro a long time ago. On a warm day, he'd disappeared from the beach. Some said they had seen him walk to this house. After that, he'd vanished without a trace.
"Goody Hallett turned Filip into stone," said David in a solemn voice. "Come with me."
He led me to a plaster statue on the floor against the wall. It was a stark naked, chubby boy with fat little fingers and arms stretched out slightly, as if he expected applause.
"Was this ever a real?" I asked, reaching out my hand to touch it. David pushed my arm away roughly.
"Absolutely. My dad knew the baby. He had curly hair and looked just like this child."
"Isn't this an angel?" I asked while I looked at the two severed stumps that protruded from the child's shoulders. I could tell by the pieces of plaster on the floor that they had been wings.
"Of course not, stupid. It wasn't an angel. It was a normal boy just like all the boys in town. The witch turned him into stone. She turns anything she likes into stone. She can turn your legs into stone so you can't walk anymore. Or your arms if you touch something." He pointed at my arms. I was scared and wanted to go home.
"Have you seen this?" David asked, trying to distract me. He pointed at the presents underneath the Christmas tree. There were at least six or seven, all wrapped in colourful paper and different in size.
"Oh!" I said excitedly. "Should we open them, David?"
He shook his head. "Each time I come here, I want to open them. But my dad told me not to touch anything in this house. If we do, our hands will turn to stone."
I looked at my hands as though they weren't mine. The wind blew stronger now and the wood creaked upstairs. "Let's go," I said. As we left, I noticed that the mermaid on the blue door had more warts on her face than before.
Mom could tell I had been in the beach house by the dust on my coat. She started to beat my coat with the clothes brush, hard enough for me to feel the wooden handle.
"Don't go there, Anna. That's private property."
"Does Goody Hallett really exist?" I asked, crying because she was hurting me.
"No, witches don't exist. And certainly not Goody Hallett. People only tell those stories to scare each other." I knew she was lying. I went upstairs and played haunted house with my dollhouse.
"Tonight we'll ask Dad," I said to Smart Doll, who was angry because no one told her the truth.
That night, at the dinner table, I asked Dad to tell me everything, including the creepy parts.
"Did you know little Filip, Dad?"
"Which little Filip?"
"Little Filip who turned into stone because he touched something in Goody Hallett's house."
He smiled. "Do they still tell those stories at school?" He looked at Mom and said, "They told those in my time. And, of course, we were all terrified."
"Dad, why is it always Christmas at Goody Hallett's?"
"No one knows, sweetheart. Very rich people used to live there. One Christmas Eve, they all left. No one knows where they went."
"Why didn't they take the stone Filip?"
Dad looked at Mom. She nodded. "Might as well tell her the whole story now," she said while I shifted to the edge of my seat. Dad quickly put another bite of cabbage in his mouth, swallowed and took off his glasses.
"People mix together two different stories," he said. "One is a whaler's folktale. Witches don't exist, so little girls don't have to worry about them. The other one is about a little boy who went to play in the dunes one day in the fall, and then disappeared. It took a long time for the police to find any traces. But, in the end, the people who lived in the beach house became suspects. Then, the day before Christmas, I think in 1957, the child's body was found buried in the dunes."
"Was he still alive?" I asked, barely able to breathe.
"No. The police proved that the young son who lived in the beach house had killed the child."
I looked at my plate and felt a piece of cabbage rising slowly in my throat. "Why killed?" I mumbled.
"Oh, he was a strange boy. He molested little Filip andů" Suddenly Mom clacked her tongue. She pushed her glass back and forth on the table top, looking at Dad.
"What does 'molested' mean?" I asked. I could feel something was wrong.
"It means to hurt," Mom said quickly, so that I knew she wasn't telling the whole truth.
While I lay in bed that night, I began to suspect that "molested" meant the same thing as "turned to stone." Goody Hallett now seemed terrifying and I swore I'd never enter her house again.
Throughout the next fall and winter, David kept begging me to go with him.
"You'll get four pieces of chalk if you come with me," he said.
I knew he didn't dare go alone, because I had told him Dad had said that the little boy really had turned to stone, and that Goody Hallett returns each year to celebrate Christmas.
David taunted, "You always show when she comes, because her voice sounds like a storm wind. 'She is the demon of screaming,' Thom Klika always says. She screams like a steamer when it storms. At night, you can see her coming across the ocean from afar. She rides on the back of a whale and her lantern hangs on the whale's tail. That's how she deceives the fishermen with her light. When a boat goes missing, it's her fault."
"But didn't you say she was swallowed by a whale?" I asked. He smiled mysteriously, but didn't answer. I was still young then and fell for everything he said. In the mean time, I got to know the beach house much better, because Uncle Tony and Aunt Tanja went to live there. Now I know witches don't exist. Even when people look like witches, it doesn't mean they are. Yet, I still don't feel entirely safe in that house. So Goody Hallett didn't live there, but maybe an angry old woman who locked children in her cellar, or handed out deadly poisonous candy, did. Something about that house still gives me that feeling, especially after Tara entrusted me with what happened to her between those walls.
Translation Ria Bluemer