Things That Went Bump in the Night

A grieving mother hangs on for a haunting

| January-February 2011

  • bump-in-the-night

    Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch /

  • bump-in-the-night

When I was six or seven, I didn’t fear the monsters under the bed. My bogeyman was a book. Feeling a chill of fright if I so much as glanced at the worn gray-green binding, I knew the spot in my parents’ bookcase where it lay in wait. The volume was a 19th-century collection of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated with sentimental engravings. Many of the tales had a dark and creepy tinge, but one story in particular frightened me and caused my aversion to the entire book. It was about a mother, weeping at her boy’s graveside in the middle of the night, who sees a cloaked spectral figure:

“You wish to go down to your child! Do you dare to follow me? I am Death.” She assents, is enveloped in his mantle of darkness, and sinks down “deeper than the spade of the gravedigger can reach.” The name of the story is “The Child in the Grave.”

Thirty years later, on a hot Sunday in August 1986, sun floods our living room through a wall of windows. I am setting the table for brunch and waiting for the results of a blood test. In the yard I scan the redwood play structure with its yellow slide, the red trike parked on the brick patio, a child-size garden hoe and shovel propped against a post. I think I also see a ghostly form, a faint, ominous gray-green mist that flows and reconfigures itself, hovers, peers in the windows, tentatively touches the bell on the tricycle, sits on the swings.

My son, Zack, almost 4, is happily pushing small trains—his grand passion—along their wooden tracks in his bedroom when the grandparents arrive. Grandpa carries his instrument case and music. We are having our usual Sunday brunch with chamber music afterward—a trio, with Grandpa on flute, Grandma on the piano, my husband playing oboe. Zack likes to conduct the music with his dad’s baton or draw while I listen and wash the dishes.

Zack loves drawing as much as I do. Obsessed with trains, Zack drew train tracks at two and a half. Now, he draws and paints his stuffed panda, Bumby, and endless pictures of tracks and trains complete with cowcatchers, engineers, and spewing smoke. A special train, “For my Momma,” has pink hearts drifting out of the smokestack.

I do not tell my mother and father that we are waiting to hear whether their only grandchild has a deadly virus. I want them to have this last Sunday of music as usual.

1/21/2011 11:42:35 AM

How could you not cry reading this.

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