It was a pounding on a door, a furious, frantic, insistent pounding, born of hysteria and fear and a great desire to be heard, to be freed, to be let loose, to escape. It was a wrenching at hidden paneling, it was a hollow knocking, a rapping, a testing, a clawing. It was a scratching at hollow boards, a ripping at bedded nails. It was a muffled shouting, demanding, a call to be noticed, followed by silence.
The silence was the most empty and terrible of all.
Robert and Martha Webb sat up in their bed.
“Did you hear it?”
Now, whatever it was that had pounded and rapped and wrenched and clawed had drawn into silence. Listening to hear if the cries and drumming had summoned help.
The winter night lay through the house, silence snowing into every room, drifting over tables and floors, banking up the stairwell.
Then the pounding started again. And then a sound of soft crying.
“Someone’s in the house.”
“Lotte, do you think? The front door’s unlocked.”
“She would have knocked.”
“She’s the only one it could be. She phoned.”
They both glanced at the phone. It was dead. All the phones had died days ago with the riots in the towns and cities. Now in the receiver you heard only your own heartbeat. “Can you put me up?” Lotte had cried, from 600 miles away in the last phone call, just overnight?”
But before they could answer her, the phone had filled itself with long miles of silence.
“That might be her!” said Martha Webb.
“No,” said Robert Webb. “Dear God.”
They lay in their cold room in this farmhouse in the Massachusetts wilderness, back from the main roads, away from the towns, near a bleak river and a black forest. It was the frozen middle of December. The white smell of snow cut the air.
They arose. With an oil lamp lit they sat on the edge of the bed as if dangling their legs over a precipice.
“Whoever it is sounds frightened.”
“We’re all frightened, damn it. That’s why we came out here, to be away from cities, riots, all that damned foolishness. Now when we find peace at last, people call and upset us. And tonight, this. Christ!” He glanced at his wife. “You afraid?”
“I don’t know. I don’t believe in ghosts. I’m sane. Or like to think I am. Where’s your gun?”
“We won’t need it. Don’t ask me why, but we won’t.”
They picked up the oil lamp. In another month the small power plant in the white barn behind the house would be finished and there would be power to spare. But now they came and went with dim lamps or candles.
They stood at the stairwell. The crying, the sadness and the plea came from below.
“She sounds so damned sad,” said Robert. “God, I’m sorry for her, whoever she is. Come on.”
They went downstairs.
As if someone had heard their footsteps, the crying grew louder. There was a dull thudding against a panel somewhere.
“The witch door,” said Martha, at last.
They stood in the long hall looking at the place under the stairs where the panels trembled faintly. But now the cries faded, as if the crier were exhausted, or as if something had diverted her. Or perhaps their voices had startled her and she was listening for them to speak again. Now the house was silent and the man and woman waited, with the oil lamp quietly fuming in their hands.
Robert stepped to the witch door and touched it, probing for the hidden button, the secret spring. “There can’t be anyone in there,” he said. “My God, we’ve been here six months, and that’s just a cubby, isn’t that what the real estate agent said? No one could hide in there and we’d not know it. We ____ ”
“She’s gone, it’s gone, whatever it was, hell, that door hasn’t been opened in our lifetimes. Everyone’s forgotten where the spring is that unlocks it. I don’t think there is a door, only a loose panel and rats’ nests, that’s all. The walls, scratching. Why not?” He turned to look at his wife, who was staring at the panel.
“Rats don’t cry,” she said. “That was a voice, asking to be saved. Lotte, I thought. Now I know it wasn’t Lotte, but someone else in trouble.”
Martha reached out and trembled her fingertips along the beveled edge of ancient maple. “Can’t we open it?” “With a crowbar and hammer, first thing tomorrow’.”
“Don’t ‘Oh Robert’ me, I’m tired.”
“You can’t leave her in there to ____ ”
“She’s quiet now”. Christ, I’m exhausted. I’ll come down at the crack of dawn and knock the damned thing apart, OK?”
“All right,” she said, and tears came to her eyes.
“Women,” said Robert. “Oh my God, you and Lotte, Lotte and you. If she gets here, if she makes it, I’ll have a houseful of lunatics.”
“Sure, but she should keep her mouth shut. It doesn’t pay now to say you’re socialist. Democrat, libertarian, pro-life, abortionist, Sinn Fein, fascist. Commie, any damn thing. The towns are bombed out. People are looking for scapegoats and Lotte shoots from the hip, gets herself smeared and now!, hell, she’s on the run.”
“They’ll jail her if they catch her. Or kill her, yes, kill her. We’re lucky to be here with food. Thank God we planned ahead, we saw it coming, the starvation, the massacres. We helped ourselves. Now we’ll help Lotte if she makes it through.”
He turned to the stairs. “I’m dead on my feet. I’m tired of saving anyone. Even Lotte. But, hell, if she gets through the front door, she’s saved.”
They went up the stairs, the lamp advancing in an aura of a trembling white glow. The house was as silent as snow falling. “God,” he whispered to himself. “Damn, I don’t like women crying like that.”
It had sounded like the whole world crying, he thought The whole world dying, needing help and lonely. But what can you do? Live like this? Far off the main highway, away from all the stupidity and death? What can you do?
They left the lamp lit and drew the covers over their bodies and lay listening to the wind hit the house and creak the beams and parquetry.
A moment later there was a cry from downstairs, a splintering crash, the sound of a door flung wide, a bursting out of air, footsteps echoing in all the rooms, sobbing almost in exultation. Then the front door banged open, the winter wind blowing wildly in. while footsteps rapped across the front porch and were gone.
With the lamp, they ran downstairs. Wind smothered their faces as they turned toward the witch door, open wide, still on its hinges, then toward the front door where they held the lamp out upon a snowing white and darkness, with no moon. Snowflakes fell from the sky to the mattressed yard. “Gone,” she whispered.
“We’ll never know, unless she comes back.”
“She won’t. Look.”
They moved the lamplight toward the white earth and the tiny footprints going off, across the softness, toward the dark forest.
“It was a woman, then. But why?” “God knows. Why anything?”
They stood looking at the footprints a long while until, shivering, they moved back through the hall to the open witch door. They poked the lamp into the hollow under the stairs.
“Lord, it’s just a cell, hardly a closet, and look ____ ”
Inside were a small rocking chair, a braided rug, a used candle in a copper holder and an old, worn Bible. The place smelled of must and moss and dead flowers.
“Is this where they used to hide people?”
“Yes. A long time back they hid the women people called witches. Trials, witch trials. They hanged or burned some of them.”
“Yes, yes,” they both murmured, staring into the tiny cell.
“And the witches hid here while the hunters searched the house and gave up and left?”
“Yes, oh my God, yes,” he whispered. “Rob?”
She bent forward. Her face was pale as she stared at the small worn rocking chair and the faded Bible.
“Rob? How old? This house, how old?”
“Maybe 300 years.”
“Houses, old like this. All the years.
And more years and more after that. God, feel! If you put your hand in, yes? Would you feel it change? What if I sat in that rocking chair and shut the door, what? That woman, how long was she in there? From way, way back. Wouldn’t it be strange?”
“But if you wanted to run away badly enough, wished for it, prayed for it, and people ran after you and someone hid you in a place like this, a witch behind a door, and you heard the searchers run through the house, closer and closer, wouldn’t you want to get away? Anywhere? To another place? Why not another time? And then, in a house like this, a house so old nobody know’s, wouldn’t it be—if you wanted and asked for it enough—you could run to another time. Maybe,” she paused, “here?”
“No,” he said. “That’s stupid!”
But still, some quiet motion within the closeted space caused both, at almost the same instant, to hold their hands out in the air, curious, like people testing invisible waters. The air seemed to move one way and then another, now warm, now cold, with a pulsation of light and a sudden turning toward dark. All this they thought but could not say. There was weather here, now a quick touch of summer and then a winter cold, which could not be, of course, but there it was. Passing along their fingertips, but unseen by their eyes, a stream of shadows and sun ran as invisible as time itself, clear as crystal, but clouded by a shifting dark. Both felt that if they were to thrust their hands deep, they might be drawn in to drown in a storm of seasons within an incredibly small space. All this, too, they thought or almost felt but could not say.
They seized their frozen but sunburned hands back, to stare down and hold them against their breasts.
“Damn,” whispered Robert. “Oh damn!”
He backed off and went to open the front door again and look at the snowing night where the footprints had almost vanished.
“No,” he said. “No, no.”
Just then the yellow flash of headlights on the road braked in front of the house.
“Lotte!” cried Martha. “It must be! Lotte!”
The car lights went out. They ran to meet the running woman halfway up the front yard.
The woman, wild-eyed, hair wind-blown, threw herself at them.
“Martha, Bob! God, I thought I’d never find you! Lost! I’m being followed. Let’s get inside. Oh, I didn’t mean to get you up in the middle of the night. It’s good to see you! Jesus! Hide the car! Here are the keys!”
Robert ran to drive the car behind the house. When he came back around he saw that the heavy snowfall was already covering its tracks. Then the three of them were inside the house, talking, holding on to one another. Robert kept glancing at the front door.
“I can’t thank you enough,” cried Lotte, huddled in a chair. “You’re at risk! I won’t stay long, a few hours. Until it’s safe. Then ____ ”
“Stay as long as you want.”
“No. They’ll follow. In the cities, the fires, the murders, everyone starving, I stole gas. Do you have more? Enough to get me to Greenborough? I ____ ”
“Lotte?” said Robert.
“Yes?” Lotte stopped, breathless.
“Did you see anyone on your way up here? A woman? Running on the road?” “What? I was driving so fast. A woman? Yes! I almost hit her. Then, she was gone! Why?”
“Well ____ ’’
“She’s not dangerous?”
“It is all right my being here?”
“Yes, fine, fine. Sit down. We’ll fix some coffee.”
“Wait! I’ll check!” Before they could stop her Lotte ran to the front door, opened it a crack and peered out. They stood with her and saw distant headlights flourish over a low hill and dip into a valley. “They’re coming,” said Lotte. “They might search here.”
Martha and Robert glanced at each other. No, no, thought Robert. God, no! Preposterous, unimaginable. No, none of this! Get off, circumstance! Come back, Lotte, in ten years, five years, maybe a year, a month, a week. Even tomorrow! But don’t come with coincidence in each hand like idiot children and ask, only half an hour after one terror, one miracle, to test our disbelief! “What’s wrong?” said Lotte.
“I ____ ” said Robert.
“No place to hide me?”
“Yes,” he said. “We have a place.”
“Here.” He turned slowly away, stunned.
They walked down the hall to the halfopen paneling.
“This?” Lotte said. “Secret? Did you ____ ?”
“No, it’s been here since the house was built long ago.”
Lotte touched and moved the door on its hinges. “Does it work? Will they know where to look and find it?”
“No. It’s beautifully made. Shut, you can’t tell it’s there.”
Outside in the winter night cars rushed closer, their beams flashing up the road, across the house windows.
Lotte peered into the witch door as if down a deep, lonely well.
A filtering of dust moved about her. The small rocking chair trembled.
Moving in silently, Lotte touched the half-burned candle.
“Why, it’s still warm!”
Martha and Robert said nothing. They held on to the witch door, smelling the odor of warm tallow.
Lotte stood rigidly in the little space, bowing her head beneath the beamed ceiling.
A horn blew in the snowing night. Lotte took a deep breath and said, “Shut the door.”
They shut the witch door. There was no way to tell that a door was there.
They blew out the lamp and stood in the cold dark house, waiting.
The cars rushed down the road, their noise loud, and their yellow headlights bright in the falling snow. The wind stirred the footprints in the yard, one pair going out, another coming in, and they watched the tracks of Lotte’s car, fast vanishing, and at last, gone.
“Thank God,” whispered Martha.
The cars, honking, whipped around the last bend and down the hill and stopped, waiting, looking in at the dark house. Then, at last, they started up away into the snow and the hills.
Soon their lights were gone and the sound gone with them.
“We were lucky,” said Robert.
“But she’s not.”
“That woman, whoever she was, ran out of here. They’ll find her. Somebody’ll find her.”
“Christ, that’s right.”
“She has no ID, no proof of herself. She doesn’t know’ what has happened to her. When she tells them who she is and where she came from ____ ”
“God help her.”
They looked into the snowing night but saw nothing. Everything was still. “You can’t escape,” she said. “No matter what you do, you can’t escape.”
They moved away from the window and down the hall to the witch door and touched it.
“Lotte,” they called.
The witch door did not tremble or move.
“Lotte, you can come out now.”
There was no answer, not a breath nor a whisper.
Robert tapped the door. “Hey, in there.”
He knocked at the paneling, agitated.
“I’m trying, damn it!”
“Lotte, we’ll get you out, wait! Everything’s all right!”
He beat with both fists, cursing. Then he shouted, “Watch out,” took a step back, raised his leg and kicked once, twice, three times, vicious kicks at the paneling that crunched holes and crumbled wood into kindling. He reached in and yanked the entire paneling free. “Lotte!”
They leaned together into the small place under the stairs. The candle flickered on the small table. The Bible was gone. The small rocking chair moved quietly back and forth, in little arcs, and then stood still.
They stared at the empty room. The candle flickered.
“Lotte,” they said.
“You don’t believe?”
“I don’t know. Old houses are old . . . old.”
“You think Lotte . . . she ____?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know.”
“Then she’s safe at least, safe! Thank God!”
“Safe? Where’s she gone? You really think that? A woman in new clothes, with red lipstick, high heels, short skirt, perfume, plucked brows, diamond rings and pantyhose, safe? Safe!” he said, staring deep into the open frame of the witch door.
He drew a deep breath.
“A woman of that description who was lost in a town called Salem in the year 1692?”
He reached over and shut the splintered witch door.
They sat waiting by it for the rest of the long cold night.