The old woman stands on the hilltop, just on the edge of the woods, well hidden from the farmhouse below. Two men and a woman are getting out of a car that has a sign for Jack Lingo Realty painted on the side. The old woman has seen plenty of Realtors in her time. She doesn’t know this one, but she remembers his pa, old Jack Lingo, and his pa, Edward, and the one afore him, back and back through the years to the first Lingo ever to settle in this valley and take up the buying and selling of houses.
Though young Lingo doesn’t know it, Auntie is helping him sell that house to the man and the woman in the only way she knows—muttering and humming and moving her hands this way and that way, weaving spells in the air, sending messages as she’s always done. Messages that make folks need things not worth needing. Dangerous things. Things they regret getting.
You might wonder why Auntie wants this man and woman to buy the house. Truth to tell, she doesn’t give a hoot about them. They’re ignorant fools, but they have something she wants, and she aims to get it. It’s almost time for the change, and they’ve come on schedule, just as she’d known they would.
“New for old,” she chants to herself. “Strong for weak, healthy for sickly, pretty for ugly.”
When the man and the woman follow young Lingo into the old Estes house, Auntie sways back and forth, grinning and rubbing her dry, bony hands together. Her skirt blows in the wind, and long strands of white hair whip around her face. With a little hop and a jig, she turns to something hidden in the trees behind her. “Won’t be long now, my boy. We’ll get rid of the old pet and get us a new one to raise up.”
Though he stays out of sight, her companion makes a noise like a hog when it’s hungry—a squealing sort of snort that might be a laugh, or it might be something else altogether.
Auntie gazes down at the rundown farmhouse and outbuildings, the overgrown fields, the woods creeping closer year by year. From the hill, she can see the missing shingles in the roof, the warped boards riddled with termites and dry rot, the cracks in the chimney.
Almost fifty years have passed since the Estes family left the place. Nobody has lived there since then. Local folk avoid the place. They scare their children with stories about the girl, the one before her, and the one before her, back and back to the very first girl. Fear keeps them out of the woods and away from the cabin on Brewster’s Hill. Those children know all about Auntie and her companion.
But newcomers always show up, city people who’ve never heard the stories. If the valley folk try to warn them, they scoff and laugh and call the stories superstitious nonsense. They come from places where lights burn all night. They don’t heed the dark and what hides there.
It all works to Auntie’s advantage.
Down below, a door opens, and Auntie watches young Lingo lead the man and woman outside. Even though they speak softly, Auntie hears every word. They aim to buy that tumbledown wreck of a house, fix it up, and live there with their children, a boy and a girl, they tell him. It’s just what they want—a chance to get away from their old life and start anew in the country. They’ll get some chickens, they say, a couple of goats, maybe even a cow or a sheep. They’ll plant a garden, grow their own food.
The man and the woman get into the Realtor’s car, laughing, excited. Auntie spits into the dirt. Fools. They’ll find out soon enough.
She listens to the car’s engine until she can’t hear it anymore. Then she snaps her fingers and does another jig. “It’s falling into place just like I predicted, dear boy, but don’t you say a word to her back at the cottage. She ain’t to know till it happens.”
Her companion snorts and squeals, and the two of them disappear into the dark woods.
It was a long drive from Fairfield, Connecticut, to Woodville, West Virginia—two days, with an overnight stay in Maryland. My sister, Erica, and I were sick of the back seat, sick of each other, and mad at our parents for making us leave our home, our school, and our friends.
Had they asked us how we felt about moving? Of course not. They’ve never been the kind of parents who ask if you want to drink your milk from the red glass or the blue glass. They just hand you a glass, and that’s that. Milk tastes the same whether the glass is blue or red or purple.
Going to West Virginia was a big thing, something we should have had a say in, but no. They left us with a neighbor, drove down there, found a house they liked, and bought it. Just like that.
They were the grownups, the adults, the parents. They were in charge. They made the decisions.
In all fairness, they had a reason for what they did. Dad worked for a big corporation. He earned a big salary. We had a big house, two big cars, and all sorts of other big stuff—expensive stuff. Erica and I went to private school. Mom didn’t work. She was what’s called a soccer mom, driving me and Erica and our friends to games and clubs and the country club pool. She and Dad played golf. They were planning to buy a sailboat.
But then the recession came along, and the big corporation started laying people off. Dad was one of them. He thought he’d find another job fast, but he didn’t. A year went by. One of our big cars was repossessed. Erica and I went to public school. We gave up the country club. There was no more talk about sailboats.
The bank started sending letters. Credit card companies called. Dad and Mom were maxed out financially. The mortgage company threatened foreclosure.
So we had to sell the house. I can understand that. But why did we have to move to West Virginia? It was cheaper to live there, Dad said. Erica and I would love it. So much space—woods and fields and mountains. He took to singing “Country Roads,” an old John Denver song about West Virginia, putting lots of emphasis on “Almost heaven, West Virginia.” He also informed us that the license plates said “Wild, Wonderful.”
So here we were, on an interstate highway, with nothing to see but mountains and woods, wild but not wonderful, in my opinion. It was like being in a foreign country. How would I ever get used to all the nature surrounding us?
Beside me, Erica was talking to the doll Mom had given her—not because it was her birthday or anything, but because she was so unhappy about leaving Fairfield.
That’s rewarding bad behavior, if you ask me. I was just as unhappy as my sister, but since I didn’t cry myself to sleep and mope in my room and refuse to eat, all I got was a pair of binoculars and Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of North America. Dad thought I might like to identify the birds we were sure to see when we went hiking. Well, maybe I would, but still, that doll was ten times more expensive than my binocula...