© James J. Doyle 2012
Should I tell this story?
Will it be too scary, too sad?
Is it more than a story?
* * *
Mary was visiting her mother, Ms. Christine.
The two had spent the day working in the garden, cleaning the house and baking buchta, their special poppy seed coffee cake.
After supper, sitting at the kitchen table, they caught up. Just weeks before, Mary and Jim had become engaged. Mary would be the last of the seven sisters to marry.
Ms. Christine held her daughter’s hands and asked whether Mary had found her Jim, the one she had been waiting for.
Tired from a good first day together, Mary kissed her mom goodnight and walked down the long hallway to her bedroom.
* * *
Unpacking, Mary lifted a blouse from her bag and opened the closet door for a hanger. Reaching up, she noticed a box on the shelf. The cardboard was old and faded. She didn’t remember having ever seen that box.
Staring at the shelf, Mary recalled their late-night adventures in that old closet.
The walk-through closet connected the two back bedrooms and was the sisters’ secret space. In the dark, they gathered under the hanging clothes, where no one could see them and they were sure their parents couldn’t hear them.
Whispering, the seven sisters told stories and played games. Hide-and-seek was a favorite. Even though the space was not large, they seemed to lose each other.
Mary remembered being by herself, listening and waiting to be found.
Later, back in a tight circle on the floor, the girls giggled, hugged and chanted “Haunted Closet, Haunted Closet,” but their joking tone was not about being frightened, it was about being warm and comforted. Eventually, they yawned together and crawled off to their beds.
In the morning, Mary often woke with a new idea. Jumping up, she’d rush out to start the activity. It happened to each of them.
Laughing, Mary thought of C. S. Lewis’ book, “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,” that she had just read to Katelyn and Finley. Mary and her sisters had not walked through that old closet into another land with snow, a fawn and a light post, but at night when they all gathered there, the closet changed. It was bigger, safer and mysterious in a way that it wasn’t during the day.
Mary shook herself out of the reverie and realized that she held the box.
Well, she thought, I might as well open you.
Slowly lifting the fragile lid, Mary pushed the yellowed tissues aside.
In the closet light, the shoes sparkled ruby bright.
You are beautiful, Mary thought. Where did you come from?
Carefully tucking the tissue around the shoes, she closed the box and placed it back on the shelf.
In the morning, I’ll ask Mom.
Mary closed the closet door and slid into bed.
* * *
“Mom, I found a pair of red shoes in the closet last night.”
Sitting down at the breakfast table, Mary realized she’d intended to bring the box with her.
Across the table, Ms. Christine smiled and blew gently on her too-hot coffee, focusing on the swirling pattern in the cup.
“Your Aunt Eleanor brought them by. El found them when she was cleaning and thought they belonged here. I haven’t seen those shoes since I was a girl. I put them in the storage building with the other old stuff.” She stopped and looked over at Mary. “You say you found them in your closet?”
“I don’t remember putting them there.”
“Whose shoes are they?”
Ms. Christine set the cup down and took a deep breath.
“Marie, her name was Marie. That’s your name, Mary, in the Czech language. When I was a child, I saw a picture. She was young, smiling and very beautiful, and she was standing with a handsome young man.”
“Was she wearing the shoes?”
“No, Mary, she never wore those shoes.”
Ms. Christine looked out the window and began. “My Daddy told me the story. It was billed as the monster wreck, the greatest of all time train wreck spectacles. The railroad had two big steam engines they couldn’t use. They set those two huge trains on a single track to run at each other at top speed. The event was staged in a town they named Crush, not far from here.”
“Was the town really called ‘Crush’?”
“Crush was the name of the agent for the railroad who organized the event, so they called the temporary ‘city’ by that name. It’s not there anymore. It only existed for a day. Daddy said over 40,000 people attended. They came from all over. No admission was charged and train fares to the crash site were at reduced rates.”
“It was well planned but wasn’t it dangerous?”
“Very. No one realized until later how dangerous. They built the grandstands close to the track for a better view. The crowds pushed even closer. As the steam engines raced for the head-on collision, everyone stood and cheered. The explosion was deafening. Both boilers exploded. Fire spurted from the wrecked engines. Metal and parts flew into the air and crashed down onto the crowd.”
“It sounds horrible. What happened to the people?”
“Many were hurt badly. Some didn’t make it.” Ms Christine’s tone was thoughtful and sad. “In the picture, they were such a good-looking couple. Marie and her fiancé were killed instantly. They were to be married the next week. The red shoes were her wedding shoes.”
Mother and daughter sat quietly for a long time, each lost in her own thoughts.
Finally Mary asked, “What should I do with the shoes?”
“I don’t know, Mary. Leave them for now. There may be a reason you found them.”
* * *
Sleepily, Mary peeked at the bed-side clock.
It was 2 o’clock in the morning.
Pushing her head back into the pillow, she again heard something.
Yawning, she slid her legs over the side of the bed, stood and walked to the door. Opening it, she leaned against the frame, her eyes half open.
Down the hallway, a shadow swirled and glided in circles and spirals.
A pretty face smiled back.
The girl stood still and lowered her eyes. Mary did too. Both of them were in their bare feet. It made Mary smile.
She looked up as the girl began to dance again. The pretty young lady held her arms out and around as if embracing a partner, but she danced alone. The figure turned, dipped and moved farther away. Fading, the dancer threw a sad glance back at Mary, bowed down to her feet and was gone.
Mary blinked and rubbed her eyes.
Did she see. . . ?
Was that. . .?
Mary turned, stumbled back to bed and fell sound asleep.
* * *
“So, you think it was Marie?”
“I don’t know. She was young and beautiful, she kept looking at her feet, and I did find the shoes, Marie’s shoes.”
Jim was quiet on the line. Mary seldom called him at work, especially when she was able to take a chunk of time to be with her mom.
“Tell me again about the shoes.”
“Aunt El dropped them by and Mom put them in the storage building, but I found them in the closet.”
“Your mother probably put them in the closet and in all the excitement of your visit forgot.”
“But I saw something in the hallway.”
“It could have been a dream. I’m sure you were tired, and the story of the train wreck had to be emotionally draining.” Jim paused. “Finding the shoes in the closet may help. You’ve told me stories how you and your sisters had new ideas after your adventures in that space.”
“It is a special place.”
“I know it is, Mary, and I think it may be a source of memories that can help. And, if something kind and benevolent is there, well, it never hurts to have a little extra help.”
“You’re making fun.”
“I trust you and I know you are trying to figure this out. Sometimes, I think that when people die violently with things unfinished in their lives, other people see things, dream things, feel things, things that may need to be done. I don’t know how this works or why, but people feel something needs to be done.”
“That’s how I feel. I just don’t know what to do.”
“You will, Mary, you’ll know what to do.”
Mary changed the subject.
“You’re coming down Saturday to drive us to the cemetery? Mom loves the tradition of decorating the family graves.”
“I’ll be there and I won’t forget the flowers we picked out. They’ll look glorious.”
“Thanks, Jim, for the flowers. And for listening.”
“Can’t wait to see you.”
* * *
“You can turn in here,” Ms. Christine said from the backseat.
Jim guided the car into a parking spot near the family plots.
People were everywhere, cleaning the graves of their relatives and pulling the grass the small groundskeeping staff fought to keep back. They talked across to each other and arranged their flowers. The cemetery was already blanketed with bright blooms of every size, shape and color.
Opening the doors for the women, Jim helped Ms. Christine out of the car. He and Mary gathered the bags of flowers.
Next to the stone memorials for Ms. Christine’s mom and dad, they set the bags down. Jim moved off to explore the nearby headstones, allowing the ladies to spend time together decorating the graves.
After a while, Jim called, “Who’s here?”
They walked over. Jim was staring at a small flat headstone. He pulled some grass around the edges and pushed the dirt away with his hand.
“It says Marie. I can’t read the last name.”
“It’s my maiden name,” Ms. Christine said. “This is my great aunt.”
Mary touched her mother’s shoulder.
“Is this Marie?”
“Yes, Mary, this is Marie’s grave.”
“Jim,” Mary said, “can you bring me that bag with the box inside?’
“Sure.” He walked over, grabbed the bag, returned and set it beside his fiancé.
Mary knelt, lifted the box and opened it.
She placed the red shoes on the grave.
“This is where you belong.”
* * *
Mary was talking with her mom on the phone, which she did regularly. It had been a while since they discovered Marie’s grave and left the shoes.
“Has Joe started to plow yet?” Mary asked. Joe is Mary’s brother and he is a farmer.
“Not yet,” Ms. Christine answered. “It’s still too hot and dry. He’s waiting for cooler weather.”
The line was silent for a couple seconds. “Mom? Are you there?”
“Mary, Joe was in town the other day and people are talking.”
“About what, Mom?”
“About the graveyard.”
“Really? What are they saying?”
“People say they see things at night. You know how the cemetery is right next to the main road. They stop and they say they see something.”
“Something?” Mary asked.
“Well, they say they see two shapes moving.”
“What does Joe say?”
“He says they have over-active imaginations. Everyone knows about the red shoes and Marie and the accident. I don’t know how. People talk. Someone said they were the shoes from the girl in the train accident. There’s a picture of the train crash over on the wall at the bakery. Joe says they want to see something so that they can say something.”
“What do they say?”
“They say they see two figures dancing and on the girl’s feet are shoes that sparkle like red stars twirling among the graves.”
Mary smiled into the phone and said slowly, “Jim and I will be down next weekend. Let’s visit Marie.”
“Yes, Mary,” her mother said. “That sounds like a good idea.”
* * *
The noon sky shone powder blue. A welcome cool drifted and lingered on their necks and arms. Overnight, the front had pushed down from the north bringing a brief rain and now a touch of change.
Mary and Christine stood beside Marie’s grave. Close by, Jim walked between the old markers.
“Mom, the shoes are gone.”
“Yes, Mary. It was after we talked. People noticed the shoes were missing. After that, Joe says they stopped seeing the lights. There hasn’t been a story since the shoes left.”
“I’m surprised anyone around here would take them.”
“After we talked on the phone, I got a call from one of the groundskeepers for the cemetery. He said they were cleaning the plots, trimming the grass and washing the old stones. It is difficult for the families to do the work and some money had been given for extra maintenance. The shoes may have been removed in the clean-up, but he didn’t mention any shoes and he did give other details. Apparently they uncovered some old markers.”
“Whose name is this?” Jim asked. He was kneeling on the ground.
The ladies walked over.
“I haven’t seen this one,” Ms. Christine said.
The small flat gravestone was old with age but newly cleaned and grass free.
“Look at the dates,” Jim said. “This last date, September 15, 1896, is the same as the last date on Marie’s grave.”
“Mom?” Mary asked.
“I can read the first name, Jakub. That was his name, Marie’s fiancé. If this is his marker, it’s been lost for a long time.”
Mary stepped close and hugged her Mom. “So, Marie has her shoes and now she’s found her Jakub.”
Ms. Christine nodded and smiled up at her daughter.
“What does Jakub mean in the Czech language?” Jim asked.
“Jim,” Christine answered. “It’s your name, Jim.”
“So Mary found her Jim,” Jim brightened and looked at the women. “I like it. Yes, definitely, it is a very good ending.”
At that, Jakub, I mean Jim, smiled at his Marie, I mean Mary.
And, she smiled back.
* * *
Mary decided to spend the night with Ms Christine.
Back at the house, she tucked her mom into bed and walked down the hall to her room.
Unpacking, Mary stepped into the closet to hang a shirt. There was the box. She assumed her Mom had put it back for safekeeping.
Still, she wondered.
Mary reached up, pulled out the shoe box and sat down on the bed.
Why was she so nervous?
Just open it!
She lifted the lid, placed it beside her and pushed the tissue aside.
Inside, there was one perfect bright red rose.
Lifting the rose, something fell into her lap.
She picked up an old-fashioned card.
On the card were two words.
Was this her Jim, thanking her?
Or, could it be someone or something else?
Mary looked over at the open door of the walk-through closet.
“Thank you, Old Haunted Closet,” she said. “Thank you for helping me bring Marie her shoes, helping Marie find her Jakub and helping me find my Jim. You may be a haunted closet, but you really aren’t that scary.”
And, you know what that closet did.
It slammed its door with a BANG so loud that Mary SCREAMED and started laughing so hard that Ms. Christine WOKE with a smile and fell back to sleep with happy thoughts of young girls giggling in a closet late at night thinking their parents couldn’t hear them.
Thank you, Old Haunted Closet.