When our mother died in that terrible spring, the one with the record level flooding, my sister Rosalie and I inherited our crazy aunt Esther from her.
Mother had warned us that the responsibility for Aunt Esther’s care would devolve upon my sister and me. She let us know that her older sister certainly had her “peculiarities.” She had wanted us to be familiarized with Aunt Esther’s crotchets before we began helping the octogenarian in the ways mother had outlined for us before she lost her bravely-fought battle with cancer.
Of course, we knew Aunt Esther. We had known her all our lives. It’s just that we rarely saw her, except at the occasional family gathering. So we didn’t really know her all that well, notwithstanding the blood relation. Truth be told, Esther had always been a bit of a recluse.
She lived in the house she had inherited from our maternal grandparents. All her life. Since she had had no children, she had no heirs, mother explained, so we would inherit the house upon Esther’s death. We didn’t have to do much by way of actual personal care. Mother had arranged for two neighborhood girls, Meg and Aurora, to act as personal care assistants (and also perform light housekeeping functions) in morning and evening shifts. We simply had to make sure the house bills and the girls were getting paid. We had to make sure the little bit of yard work (lawn mowing in summer, shoveling in winter) got done. This we could either do ourselves or delegate. And we had to be there for Aunt Esther when she called, which initially was not often.
Mother had made us promise not to send Esther to a nursing home unless it became “absolutely necessary.” She had told us that many people had insisted our aunt was suffering from dementia. But mother insisted that Esther always did just fine with a little bit of help. It couldn’t be real dementia, she promised. It was just the fogginess of age. We had nodded our acquiescence to this wish, just before mother died. So it was a sacred vow. We felt duty-bound to honor it. Rosalie and I would come to regret this. By the next summer, we become convinced that our mother could not possibly have had a real conception of how poor Esther’s mental faculties had become.
Both my sister and I began receiving barrages of phone calls from our frantic aunt, at all hours of the night. She would rant about “the creatures on the roof.” She insisted there were some unidentifiable little beasties scrambling over her roof at night. It had been going on for quite some time, years in fact, but she hadn’t trusted us enough to tell us. At first.
As soon as caregiver Megan went home, it would begin. The creatures would seek her roof then. And then she would make those terrified phone calls to us. Rosalie told her that it must be squirrels. Or some larger species of bird. Turkey vultures were known to perch on roofs in our area.
“They have huge claws to match their ridiculous wingspans,” Rosalie explained to her.
“No, no, no!” Esther would shout at us through her old landline (she didn’t even know what a cell phone was). “These are different things altogether! I’ve seen them more than once. In darkness, yes, but I saw their forms. They were little creatures, like little men, like children…but not quite that. Their faces are unformed. They can draw their faces with their fingers. I saw one of them do that once. Just drew itself a human face while I stared at it through a window. It gave itself a child’s face. A little girl’s face.”
We had gone through the mythological catalog together, Rosalie and I, to get a little humor out of the situation. Gremlins? Trolls? Elves? Evil sprites? What magical beings could crazy Aunt Esther be entertaining on her roof? Should we show her an encyclopedia of magical beings and ask her to select the critters that most resembled her nocturnal visitors? (We would never actually be so cruel.)
But Aunt Esther’s phone calls really began to get under my skin. I hate to confess that I went and talked to someone on my own. Without even consulting Rosalie. I sat down with a social worker and we had a serious discussion. It was decided that an evaluation should be done on our aunt. Her mental faculties should be checked and we could decide where to go from there.
Rosalie was angry at me for going behind her back on this, but I also sensed a bit of a relief. We knew something had to give. We were getting phone calls all night long from Aunt Esther. Almost every night. She had begged both of us to leave our homes and families and come over in the middle of the night. She wanted us to bring guns. To shoot the creatures off the roof! Imagine. Save that story up for the competency hearing, I thought.
“You don’t understand,” her frail voice would explain through the wires. “They come and steal your memory. When you sleep! Once I woke up and there were wires going into my head! Into my brain! Do you understand? They steal your memories. That’s why I am the way I am now. That’s why I forget things. If you would just kill them, I’d get better. They did the same thing to Norma across the street. She saw them on her roof too. And then she just lost her mind altogether. She’s in a home now. I told father when I was a child I heard them on the roof and he admitted to me he knew they existed.”
“Wait? Are you saying Grandpa Lutz saw these creatures, Esther?”
“Yes, they came for his sister back in those days. Don’t you remember? She lost her memory before she was forty. Don’t you remember what happened to your great aunt Melissa? They steal your memories to help them pass. They pretend they’re children. People even adopt them. I’m not the only one in this family who knows the secrets. I was taught as a child. They follow our family for some strange reason. For heaven’s sake, I’ve thought of burning the house down. I told Father he built the house too close to those woods. When Reuben was alive, he would keep a gun trained on the woods at night. He even killed a few of them. But they’d pick up their dead and run with them. You have no idea how fast they are. You don’t know these family stories. You see how close the woods are to the house. They come out of there at night. They live in the trees. They travel from the trees right onto the roof. They just sail right over…”
I had to hang up. It was making me nauseous to hear what an insane hell the poor woman lived in. Medication could help her. It could calm her down, even if it couldn’t restore her grip on reality. It was time to move on a new plan. Rosalie agreed. We had honored our promise to our mother. It was now “absolutely necessary” that Esther live in a structured, safe environment.
It was a little difficult legally, and emotionally difficult as well, but we did get Aunt Esther into a very nice nursing home. She had tried to fight us a little, at first, but ultimately she capitulated. She said she wanted to get away from the creatures. “Maybe I will get my mind back now,” she said, pitifully, as they took her away.
Rosalie and I were going through my Aunt’s things, preparing the house for an autumn sale, when we came upon something surprising. We hadn’t expected our Luddite aunt to own a digital camera, but there was a small one resting on the writing desk in her bedroom. Rosalie turned it on and showed me the photos our aunt had taken of the flowers in her garden. We both got a little teary-eyed at that. She had always loved her garden. It was still beautiful. I looked at this year’s sunflowers from her bedroom window. It could be a Monet postcard, that garden.
Rosalie made a strange sound then. A sort of raspy, choking sound that made me swivel around, fast.
“My God, please tell me what this is?” she whispered throatily.
When I looked at the sequence of photos which Rosalie had just thumbed through, I wondered briefly if we had been pranked for the strangest reality t.v. show ever. But I knew it really wasn’t so.
The photos which had caused Rosalie to choke were of Aunt Esther’s roof, clearly taken from the backyard of the house at night. The flash didn’t illuminate all that well, but one could see pale forms, pale bodies turning away, fleeing across the roof. These were bidpedal….things. The worst photo was the one where you could see the blurry outline of one of those things silhouetted against the window, inside the house.
Aunt Esther later made a miraculous recovery. She did not have dementia. She had suffered some memory loss, but her cognitive function overall was very good. We managed to get her upgraded to a very nice retirement community with the sale of her house. We found her demeanor changed with time, much better, although she still wanted to talk of her experience with the creatures. She told us that a few days before she had been forcibly removed from her home she had finally killed one of them (with a bronze bookend!) and had managed to hide it quickly under her bed before the others saw it and had a chance to collect its body on their retreat. She had buried it in her garden. She paid a neighbor boy five dollars to dig a hole. She told him it was for a dead pet. He never saw what she buried. She said it had “no face at all.”
We asked her why she didn’t tell us that. Why didn’t she call us over to show us the proof that she had been telling the truth all the time. Esther said she had become resigned to leaving the family home, that she was exhausted, and she hoped the things would leave her in peace, not follow her.
“Anyway,” she explained, “the corpse began to shrivel up immediately after death. By morning the thing had flattened out like an old balloon and looked more like a miniature scarecrow made of rags than any real creature. It looked nothing like it did when it was alive. Most people who would have looked at what I pulled out from under my bed the next morning would think it was just a pile of dirty old rags sewed together by a crazy old woman. So I just buried it.”
Rosalie and I still dare each other (three years later) to go over there and dig it up. Maybe science should have it. Wouldn’t DNA testing tell us much? If the thing even has DNA in it, that is. But the house has a new owner now. Should we have made full horrid “disclosure” before finalizing the sale?. Anyway, it would be awfully hard to explain to that family what we were doing in their backyard with a shovel.
Rosalie and I often wonder if she was right about how they move among us later, after they have absorbed enough faux human memories to pass as human children. And we often wonder what “lucky parents” are adopting these children who grew up in the cold, night trees?
Most of all, we wonder if Esther was right about these things having formed an attachment to our family. We wonder whether we will ever wake in the night to hear the sounds of those things coming for our memories. And neither one of us lives next to the woods. Nor will we ever. I promise you that.