I pass under the words “GOETHE FAMILY ESTATE” and grapple with a queer feeling of unease. The archway is flanked by faceless statues, their features worn smooth by wind and rain. The path to my right leads down the hill, past rows of uniform headstones, to the old convent. Ahead of me stands the Goethe Manor House.
The convent was closed decades ago, and the Goethe House has been abandoned for over a century. The only building on the estate that is still occupied is half a mile away; the former Catholic girls’ school, now converted to a nursing home for ailing and aging nuns.
The breeze lifts the hair from the back of my neck. I hug my jacket tighter around me and walk straight.
I cannot place the source of my discomfort. Graveyards hold no dread for me and I have spent much time inside crumbling buildings. Perhaps it is the trees that grow alongside the path, brought from far away places and replanted at the Goethe family’s command. Perhaps I can sense they do not belong.
The Goethe House looms larger as I approach. It is made of a yellow stucco that looks out of place in the gray light of the Pennsylvania autumn sun. It looks tired, with peeling paint and sinking edges, but, strangely, all the windows are intact.
I lean down to inspect a monarch drinking from a thistle that pushed its way up through a crack in the stone walkway. It is late in the season to see one and the unexpected beauty makes me smile. I hear my grandmother’s voice. Butterflies are pretty, but moths are special. They carry souls to the moon.
But what happens when a moth gets trapped inside? I had asked her.
Then the soul is trapped too. Why do you think so many houses are haunted?
The insect flutters upwards and drifts past a second story window. A pale face peers from it, watching me from a room I know is empty. I raise my hand to the girl in greeting when bony fingers wrap around my wrist and whip me around.
An ancient nun drags my face closer to hers. A few, solitary teeth jut from her gums like crumbling gravestones in a forgotten cemetery and her breath is sharp and sour. “It consumed the Sisters who walked without feet,” she spits, her eyes boring into mine, as if she could burrow her thoughts into my head by the force of her stare. Her rheumy eyes fill with tears. “Don’t let me die here,” she weeps as two women appear by her side to pry her clenched fingers from my arm. “Not here, not here.”
One of the nurses leads the old nun away, patting her back and murmuring in soothing tones. The taller one remains and fusses over my wrist.
“I’m awfully sorry about that. Did she hurt you?”
“I’m fine,” I assure her. “I apologize if I did something to disturb her.”
“No, no. Sister Agnes is… not well. She was pulling one of her weekly runners.” She twists my wrist this way and that.
“If I may ask, who are the Sisters who walk without feet?”
She shrugs. “The babblings of dementia.” When she is satisfied my arm is still in working order, she steps back. “I’m supposed to tell you not to be so close to the house. You can walk around the estate. It’s pretty this time of year. It’s just that house is not structurally safe.”
I nod in acquiescence, looking at the crack that runs from the base of the house all the way up the three floors.
The nurse shivers. “This place gives me the willies.” Her voice drops to a whisper. “Supposedly, before the convent was closed, two separate nuns tried to burn it down.”
The eastern wall bows out slightly. Someday it will split open like an overripe carcass.
The nurse claps her hands together. The noise bounces off the house walls. “Whelp, I better get back before I get in more trouble,” she grimaces. “Sister Agnes is old, but gosh, she’s fast.”
I wave at her as she trudges across the field towards the nursing home. Before heading towards the old convent building, I look again at the second story window. It’s empty.
It doesn’t matter; I’ll find her when I return tonight.
This will not be my first ghost encounter, nor my hundredth, yet that strange, foreboding feeling still clung to me as I hurried past the trees, their silhouettes made monstrous in the moonlight. It dogged me as I completed the pedestrian portion of communing with the spirits, the breaking and entering part. I successfully jimmied the lock to the heavy oak doors at the front of the Goethe House and slipped inside.
I now find myself standing in the atrium, the yellow-green of the walls faintly visible in the moonlight. It reminds me of a summer sky before a tornado.
The moon is bright tonight, and my nighttime vision has always been excellent. I creep deeper into the house. It has been gutted, all the furniture and paintings having been removed years ago. Dust blankets every surface like a layer of snow. The air is stale and dry.
“Hello,” I say softly to the little girl at the top of the grand staircase. “I’m here to set you free.”
I would estimate she is about seven. She is wearing a white dress, frothy with lace, and her blonde hair is the disagreeable kind that hangs limp and refuses to hold a curl. The room is dark but she herself has a pulsating glow. She is pouting.
“Hello,” I whisper again. “I’m here to free you if you can take me to your wings.” I pick my way across the squeaking floorboards. I put my right foot down and the board underneath splits. My foot goes through the hole and I pitch forward. I land hard and grunt as the air is pushed from my body. I can feel the splintered edges rake against my ankle. I’m sure it has drawn blood. Wincing, I gingerly extract my foot from the hole. I turn on my flashlight and the girl vanishes. I turn it off and she is waiting at the top of the stairs. I sigh and continue towards the stairs in the dark. I prod each board thoroughly with my shoe before transferring my weight.
I reach the banister and the moon better lights my way. “Show me where your wings are,” I say. The girl spins and rushes down a hallway. I follow.
She reaches the third door on the left and passes through it. I catch up and twist the doorknob. The door swings inward and I enter. Aside from a brick fireplace, the room is empty. I limp to the window. I can see the spot in which I stood this afternoon.
I turn on my flashlight and crawl around on the floor but can find no dead moths. I search in the corners and under flaps of sagging wallpaper but come up empty handed. My hip clicks and my ankle is throbbing. I sit against a wall, massage my knees, then turn off my flashlight. “Where are your wings?” I call out.
She appears next to the fireplace and extends a finger. I frown. “I already looked at the fireplace,” I tell her. She stamps a scrawny leg, making no sound and disturbing no dust. She jabs her finger insistently. I scoot towards the fireplace and follow the line of her arm to a black brick. Her otherworldly shine makes it easy for me to see that the brick is not mortared in place, but rather juts out. The brick is rough against my finger pads as I shimmy it back and forth until it is loose enough to remove.
Behind the brick I find a small box tied with twine.
I look at the girl. She is across the room now, near the window, with her head cocked to one side. I take the box from the recess and blow off a thick layer of dust, then untie the twine. I unlatch the box and lift the lid.
Inside is a dead, black moth. I can’t imagine how it got caught here.
Not caught, I think. Entombed.
I think of that yellow-green sky.
I lift the box toward the girl. “These are your wings?”
She nods, her eyes big and mournful. I can easily imagine her sitting dejectedly in front of a mirror as her mother pulls at her wilted hair, trying to make it presentable. I wonder who she was and what happened to her. She is just a child, trapped alone in this comfortless house for a century. I have helped countless other like her.
I offer her a smile. “We’ll take it outside and set you free.” Her timid smile meets mine.
I am about to close the box when I see the wings of the moth flutter. It is almost imperceptible, perhaps a mere trick of the light or my breath disturbing the paper light corpse. Then it shivers again.
I had wiped dust from the box. It had been undisturbed for many, many years. And yet the moth had moved.
My eyes slide sideways. I can see the girl on the edge of my vision. Her face. There is something about her face. Something… trembly, like her skin is about to slip off.
I snap my gaze to her. She looks normal, as normal as a ghost can look. Still…
“These are your wings?” My tone is soothing, loving. She nods emphatically and runs into the hallway, beckoning me to follow.
I hesitate, then shine my flashlight on the box. The moth is grotesque and disfigured: it has eight legs when it should have six; its wings are hard and shiny, its body too long. Is it even a moth?
It consumed the Sisters who walked without feet was what Sister Agnes said. The Sisters who walked without feet…
I had walked the grounds this afternoon, walked through the empty convent and the servants’ quarters, stood outside the former girl’s school, now a nursing home. I would expect a place this old, a place with this much history, to be teeming with tethered spirits. And yet, I found only one.
A cold fist clenches around my heart. I turn off my flashlight. She stands in the center of the room.
“Did you eat them?” I ask quietly. “The others?”
She is trembling, struggling. Her face wobbles.
Then she slumps. Her arms droop and the glow goes out. Dark spots bloom on her face, spreading, taking the place of her eyes and her mouth. They are made of black liquid, of smoke, of nothing. Her eyes are gaping wounds of darkness, her mouth a black maw. It’s like she bleeding shadows. She is still wearing that frilly, white dress.
It drifts toward me.
My heart batters against my ribs. It's a ghost, it floated through a door, it couldn't move the brick, it can't touch me. It can't touch me.
It tugs on my hand. I feel its fingers.
Flesh, it can touch.
My leg feels warm. I realize I have wet myself.
I smile at the creature and close the box. “Alright, let us set you free.”
I make my way back down the hallway and begin my descent down the staircase, slowly, slowly. In one hand I hold the box with its soul, and in the other is my flashlight. I cannot set it free. I must give no indication that I want to flee, no indication.
Fire. The nuns tried to burn the house down.
It is beside me, in front of me, behind me. It appears and vanishes, circling me, assessing me. Tears leak from my eyes. I cannot tell if my heart is racing or if it has stopped altogether.
Maybe, maybe I can set the house on fire. I can get outside, get outside without the moth, I can hear it fluttering inside the box, it wants to get out-
I smile tenderly into the darkness. I know it is watching me though it has no eyes. “Let’s set you free.”
I latch the box shut, retie the twine.
I’ll watch as flames devour the house, devour the thing inside, I’ll laugh in the light of the hungry blaze-
The girl is in front of me. It touches my hand.
It knows it knowsitknowsit-
I blind it with the flashlight, shining the brightness at its grotesque face-
Nothing happens. It doesn’t vanish. It’s not frightened by the light. It was toying with me before, like a cat with a mouse.
I scream and hurl the box into the depths of the dark house. I race toward the gap in the doors, toward the tendrils of moonlight peeking through, toward safety and-
My foot hits the edge of the hole in the floor. My heel dangles over nothing. I almost regain my balance-
Tiny, delicate fingers wrap around my ankle and yank.
I hear a snap. I crumple. I try to pull my leg from the hole, but I nearly pass out from the pain. My leg feels wet, so wet, and I know I am bleeding profusely. I scream for help, scream as loudly as I as I can, but only my ears can hear it.
I’m dizzy. I taste copper. I try to crawl towards the door, but the jagged pieces of wood trap my leg. Trap me.
My flashlight has rolled out of reach. The bulb flickers. Flickers. Goes out.
In the darkness, I hear the fluttering of wings beating against a box.
It stands over me, toying. Waiting. It only eats the dead.
No moth will carry my soul to the moon.