She was a mysterious woman that sparked my curiosity. It is not that I was interested in her in ‘that way’, as I am far too old and she far too young. It is just that when I go for my nightly walk, I see her at the same place on the very small balcony that juts out of a dark old two-storey house. Where she is standing used to be called a ‘widow’s walk’, an old-fashioned term that readily conjures up a story. It is rather like ‘widow’s peak’, a vee-shaped hairline (think Dracula or the Joker), suggestive of a widow’s black hood of mourning. It was once thought to be a bad omen of possible early widowhood. She has a well-defined widow’s peak, her hair long and black.
She grasps tightly the white picket fence that serves as the safety barrier on the widow’s walk, and she leans ever so slightly forward. I have seen her many a time doing just that. I suppose she sees me too. I want to wave to her, or call out ‘good evening’, as I do to several people that I regularly see on my walk, but with her I think it would be kind of a violation. So I do and say nothing, outside of looking up at her as I pass by.
She Becomes More Mysterious
She would become more mysterious. One night, just after I looked up and saw her, I stopped to tie up a shoe. Otherwise, I would surely fall. It had happened before on my walk. Hearing her laugh might be a good thing, but the bad would outweigh the good. As usual, it took several tries, like I was a toddler again. When I stood up, I looked again, and she had disappeared. She had not done that before. Why now?
The next evening I bent down a bit, but kept an eye her way. After a few minutes fake fumbling, I saw her just disappear. No turning around or walking, just disappearing.
It would happen again. I was driving in the early evening, back from one of those long afternoon extending to evening meetings of the Senior Centre Planning Committee in which people who like to talk without much bother for significance of content just went on and on. The only thoughts in my head were to get home quickly and drink the meeting out of my mind. The widow’s walk was nowhere near my conscious thoughts.
But, as I approached her place, out of habit I glanced to the house and saw her. She looked out far beyond any physical object, and somewhere south of the sky. I saw enough of her face to spot an intensity that gripped her expression like a fist.
I pulled over to the side of the road, next to the house after hers. By the time I got out of the car and had taken a few quick but soft steps towards the house, she had disappeared again. I stopped and started to notice a few things that together made a curious picture. The lights were never on. No car was ever parked in the unpaved driveway. The grass was not cut, and there no curtains covered the windows. And there was a motley collection of flyers on the front stoop.
The next day added another element to my revelations of the night before. I was walking to my favourite doughnut shop for a medium coffee, regular, and a blueberry muffin. Before I got there, I noticed for the first time a large real estate office, with windowed displays of houses in the area. It included the house with the widow’s walk. I burst in through the door, slightly startling the formally-dressed people working there. I asked about the house, suggesting that I wished to have a tour of it. A young man with a crisp gray suit and a colourful tie joked, “It’s haunted, you know.” He was glared quiet by the others. I was told that if I came back that afternoon, my wish would be granted.
We rode in the agent’s car to the house. I stared up at the widow’s walk when we turned into the short, dirt driveway. I saw nothing of the lady.
When we got inside, I started to ask about the owners of the house. What I was hoping for, I guess, was a tale of a widow’s woe, something that could spark the sad light in an Irish song. But that’s not what I got.
There was a long history of one family ownership, the O’Briens (at least the name was Irish) – ending with the last one, an old woman who had been living in a seniors residence for the last few years, a reason for selling the house. There were a few possessions there, but no pictures of the family. I saw nothing of the woman on the widow’s walk. That night, however, was different.
That night I was quicker to sleep than I thought I would be. A good indicator of that was that I was still completely dressed as I lay on top of my bed. What happened next was a feeling more than a thought. I was being drawn out of sleep into another state, neither complete wakefulness or sleep. There was motion, but no clear vision. There was sound with nothing distinct for me to identify it with.
Clarity came with over time, and travel. And there I was, standing in front of the house, looking up at the widow’s walk. The door was unlocked. No choice directed me to going through and up the stairs to the room, and out onto the widow’s walk. I stood alone, but not for long. I heard a voice that sung with no words, but with power enough to draw me slightly forward, so that I stood at the edge of the walk, hands grasping the white pickets.
Although it was the last thing that I would have wished to do, I looked down. There standing on the uncut lawn was the woman of the widow’s walk. The song stopped. She spoke, “And now for the emotions.” As she said the words, I sensed strong emotions – depression, hopelessness, a tunnel of feelings with no light at the end.
To my surprise, I found that I could speak, “How do you cope with them?”
“With a little help,” she spoke quietly, but standing suddenly by my side, her hands on top of mine. “So am I now the widow’s little helper?,” I said, not knowing why I could joke with all the currents of feeling that were running through my emotional circuits.
“So you know some of the old songs? she replied with a voice that smiled. “I like the Rolling Stones too. You must come visit me.” She then disappeared.
As I went back into the house, down the stairs and out the front door, I pondered what she had just said to me. What does visiting her mean? Does she want me to walk off the widow’s walk and join her in death? .
More research is necessary, I thought as I walked home. But what did that mean? I knew
The next day I went to the local library and discovered that it had digitally recorded all of the old copies of the newspapers. I could search them on-line, looking through the obituaries, hoping to find a young husband, “survived by” his youthful widow. I could do the research with coffee and a blueberry muffin by my side. Even so, the search dragged on. Three hours and twenty years more crawled than flew by.
I went to sleep that night certain that I would have dreams of obituaries, and see my name and date of death. Instead, again, I was whisked by mystical means to the widow’s walk, and felt her projected emotions.
She stared at me in silence. Then she whispered, “So when will you be visiting me?” and placed her hands, again, on mine. And then she disappeared as she had the night before. And I walked home in a somewhat stunned state as I had done the night before. Good for my fitness, but not good if the police started to notice me skulking down the streets of the night. I can imagine their response to my truth. Almost any lie would be better.
Another day, another search through the obituaries. It wasn’t long in the day before I found what I was looking for in a paper published on August 12, 1954: “Henry O’Brien, 24, died suddenly in family home. Survived by wife, Jeanine…” So the walk had a young widow. I need to find out more about this.
To think this over I went to my local doughnut shop, whose clientele averaged well over sixty. As I was sitting alone at my table, drinking my coffee, blueberry muffin in hand, I heard a conversation of some old men. Their volume was high as their hearing was low. They were talking about people they grew up with and what had happened to them. When I heard the name “Jeanine”, knowing that there would be few people of that name in town, I walked over and asked them if they knew the story of the widow O’Brien.
One of the old men pulled out a chair for me to sit on and said“That is a long, sad story. Do you really want to hear it?” I responded with a ‘yes’, which made him smile. The story began.
According to the story teller, Jeanine was “damn near the prettiest gal that ever grew up in these parts.” All the listeners nodded or remarked in agreement. It was the “damnedest thing” how her husband had died a week after they were married. He was painting the pickets of the fence of the widow’s walk, was reaching over to get a low spot on the outside, tipped over and fell to his death.”
“And what happened after that?” I asked a little too rapidly to be polite. “She never re-married.” The phrase was repeated around the table, as was his next phrase “Damned shame.”
The next comment took me by complete surprise: “She’s in the retirement home now.” He completed his thought with “and she cannot speak.” Heads nodded. I knew what I had to do next. I stood up, said “the next round is on me boys”, walked over to the cashier and gave her a 20 dollar bill, and left the doughnut shop, to the accompaniment of several waves from ‘the boys.’
I drove over to the seniors home, ran up to the front door, and asked the receptionist whether I could see Jeanine O’Brien. She tilted her head slightly as if to question my choice, but told me just to wait in the room that she pointed to, where a number of old people, and a few carers, uniformed or family, formed a quiet picture. The only sound that I could hear was of the television, tuned to some mindless reality show that those in the room, who had their own stark reality, were neither watching nor listening to.
I didn’t have to wait long. Jeanine was sitting in a wheelchair that was being pushed by a young lady in the uniform peculiar to that place. She directed me to a quiet corner where there was a chair in which I could sit. Despite the hard years that had passed since she was young, Jeanine still had signs of the beauty that I could recognize from seeing her so many times.
I leaned over and spoke softly into her left ear. “I guess I will be seeing you in our usual place tonight. I hope that you can stay long enough to tell me your story.” She took my right hand in her two hands, and squeezed it. I knew that I would buy the haunted house .