All my friends were afraid of her. “Want to come to my house after school?” I would ask, and they would reply, “Will she be there?” Of course she would be, and so they would all decline, some with enough tact to provide an excuse—“I have too much homework”—while others simply shook their heads, saying, “She’s scary.”
But I wasn’t afraid of her. Sure, she was the oldest person I’d ever known, and at times I wondered how such an ancient-looking woman managed to stay alive, but to me the deep-set wrinkles were testaments to years of laughter at the childish antics of my brothers and I, and the permanently shadowed eyes, with swollen bags hanging sleepily beneath them, were the result of countless nights spent by our bedsides when we were sick. All in all, there was never a more loving, grandmotherly spirit than that which we’d found in our nanny, Annabel.
I never knew my real grandparents. All of them had died by the time I was old enough to remember. In fact, for a large part of my childhood I thought that Annabel was my grandmother, and it wasn’t until my parents overheard me call out “G’a’ma Ann’bel!” that my error was corrected. I remember that day vividly because of the grave sternness with which my parents told me that my grandmother was dead, and that Annabel was just a servant. Solemnity is always appropriate when speaking of death, but I felt that there was a darker meaning behind their words, although it would be many years before I was able to ascertain what it was.
There was one thing about Annabel that I didn’t notice until I was a teenager and my childish ignorance had worn off: Annabel never cried. Even when I or my brothers were gravely ill and our parents worried themselves sick over us, she would only sit by our beds and smile while attending to our needs. I suppose that’s why I found myself so deeply shaken by the strange sobs that drifted from my youngest brother’s bedroom one night.
A mild epidemic had been going around the schools, and the children were developing raging fevers. Most of them came through it all right, but there were a few deaths. We weren’t too worried, though, because all of the dead children had belonged to poor families, and our family was rich enough to afford the best doctors.
But that only served to amplify my shock when I peeked into my little brother’s room that night and found Annabel kneeling over his burning face, a strange, groaning wail flowing from the most mournfully gaping mouth I’d ever seen. Between each haunting and heart-wrenching cry she sobbed my brother’s name: “Jacob…oh Jacob…”
Then she looked up at me, she who had always smiled through our illnesses as though she knew everything would be alright, and I took a startled step back. Annabel looked older, if that was even possible. Her eyes had sunk into their dark sockets, and her cheeks seemed to have caved in on her mouth, causing her cheekbones to protrude grimly from her wrinkled skin. For the first time I saw what my friends had seen when they told me “She’s scary.”
“Jacob,” she whispered to me. “Jacob…” And then her head dropped once more over my brother, her long white hair falling to hide her face, and she continued to wail over his burning body.
No one in our family got any sleep that night. Annabel kept us up as her wails rose in both pitch and volume, interrupted with cries of “Jacob! Jacob!” All of us children were frightened, and one by one we trickled into my parents’ bedroom. They did their best to soothe and comfort us, but their ashen faces undermined their efforts.
In the early hours of the morning, while the dawn was still several hours off, Annabel’s weeping suddenly ceased. But silence did not reign then, because my father let out a sick groan and my mother fell to a barrage of choked sobs, burying her face in her hands.
It took my parents a while to pull themselves together enough to utter a strangled “Stay here” before leaving the bed to check on Jacob. But in my fear there was mixed a hint of sick curiosity, so I followed them out into the hall. Annabel greeted us at Jacob’s door, and while mother and father ignored her as they shuffled over the threshold, I was brought to a sudden, baffled halt by her smiling face. All traces of sorrow that had so violently wracked her visage earlier were gone. Now she only appeared tired as she hobbled past me down the hallway.
My parents seemed not to notice me as I peeked around the doorframe. Both of them were huddled low over my brother’s bed, their shoulders shuddering as pained sobs broke the unsettling silence of the sickroom. It was too much for me, and I quickly returned to where the rest of my siblings were curled up together in fear.
After the sun rose, mother and father came in to tell us some awful news. I had already guessed it as I lay on the bed, a cold hollow feeling creeping over me, but that did nothing to lessen the shock at seeing Jacob’s pale, empty body lying under the sheets.
It was my first funeral. It felt strange seeing my little brother all dressed up, tucked into his little casket as if it was his old bed. Afterward, the other mourners came to express their condolences. I paid no attention to them. My eyes were glued on Annabel, who to my surprise had not shed a single tear throughout the proceedings. For some reason this bothered me deeply, and throughout the rest of my adolescence I was never able to look at Annabel the same way again.
Years passed, and though they never completely wiped the memory from my mind, they did obscure it. I was an adult now. My brothers and sisters all had occupations of their own, and my parents were old and frail. Annabel, in spite of her long years, was still as lively as ever. I never trusted her anymore, though she gave me no reason not to. She cared for my mother and father, too decrepit now to take care of themselves, with as much tenderness and love as she’d displayed toward my siblings in the old days. But the hazy memories surrounding my little brother’s death still returned to haunt me from time to time in my dreams.
So it was that I awoke one night still believing myself to be caught in the throes of a nightmare as I listened to the wails echoing from the room down the hall. This belief was quickly dispelled as I sat up in my bed not to cries of “Jacob”, but “Phyllis…Phyllis.” My mother.
The obscuring fog of time was blown away as every chilling detail of Jacob’s death came rushing into my mind, and I jumped out of bed and rushed to my parents’ room. There I found Annabel, just like that night years ago, bent over my mother’s emaciated form. Beside her lay my father, William, his eyes bulging and dripping with moisture. “Please,” he said in his raspy voice. “Not her. Do not take her from me.”
But Annabel seemed not to hear. “Phyllis…oh, Phyllis!”
Horrified, I ran from the room, calling back over my shoulder to no one in particular ,“I’ll call for help.” As I rang up the doctor I kept trying to assure myself. With my parents’ failing health, we’d expected this for a long time. This shouldn’t have come as such a shock to us. Yet nothing felt right. Perhaps it was the nearly identical circumstances to Jacob’s passing.
The doctor said he would come as quickly as possible, but he was too late. My mother died even as I was speaking with him on the phone. I knew it before I’d hung up, for Annabel’s cries ceased with a disturbing suddenness.
Once more I was forced to attend the funeral of a loved one, and just like my first all those years ago, my eyes were glued on Annabel. It was exactly the same. She greeted the mourners with a kind smile and hovered close around my father to provide comfort. Just like with Jacob, she never wept.
It was strange to see my father sitting beside the casket without his wife clinging to his arm. My poor departed mother was replaced by the ancient nanny whom I’d come to look on with an attitude of dislike. All those years she’d spent raising us were overshadowed by the strangeness that surrounded her. My dislike now turned to loathing as I observed her wrinkled, bony hand caress my father’s slumped shoulder. Somehow, I linked in my head the deaths of Jacob and Mother to this wretched woman, and now to see her dare to touch my father who, on the night his world fell apart, had pleaded with her to spare my mother…
It was not my imagination. There was a link.
So it was a shock for me to see my father’s quivering hand reach up and grasp Annabel’s, squeezing it gently in a show of what I took to be gratitude. How could he stand her, I wondered? These thoughts plagued me every night for the next week, and with every dark dream I awoke with a greater weight on my chest, a feeling of wrongness about my childhood nanny. These feelings culminated on the seventh day after my mother’s funeral when once more I heard Annabel’s voice crying out from my father’s bedroom.
Dread enveloped me like a cold fist as I leapt from under the sheets and tore through the hall. I found, just as I’d anticipated, Annabel weeping over my father. Rage boiled up inside of me. A red haze clouded my vision, and perhaps my judgment. Snatching my father’s cane from the corner of the room, I advanced on Annabel, raising the stout rod as a feral snarl escaped my lips. “No! You’ll not take another!”
I wrenched the old woman away from the bed by the collar of her nightgown and threw her to the floor, bringing the cane to crack resonantly over her skull. Again and again I beat her, my arm flying up and down in a mad frenzy, and all the while she continued to weep, “William…William,” although her voice was barely more than a raspy whisper as I beat the life from her fragile body.
At last her dry lips stirred no more, and my trembling hand relinquished its death grip on my weapon. I fell shivering to my father’s side and whispered comfortingly to him, “It’s alright now. She won’t harm us anymore.”
But my father didn’t stir.
First I was shocked, then angry, but that quickly gave way to confusion. I had stopped her! Whatever dark act she was performing, I had interrupted it! How then was my father lying dead before me?
All through the night I stayed in that room, pondering my question, the lightless eyes of Annabel and my father demanding an answer from me that I couldn’t provide. Then, when the gray light of dawn found me still sitting between the corpses, I realized it. I’d been horribly wrong and allowed my paranoia to overcome my judgment. Annabel was no murderer, but she possessed that sixth sense that animals are said to have, an ability to know when death is imminent. She would grieve at the bedsides of those she loved, so that afterward she might put on a face of comfort for those who needed it.
And what had I done? In my fear and misunderstanding, I had murdered this kind, loving woman who’d cared for me as a child. My hands were stained with innocent blood.
With a cry of horror I fled the room, fled the house. I ran as far as I could, trying to escape the awful reality that snapped at my heels like a drooling hellhound. I kept going until my legs would support me no more, and collapsed in a soggy ditch. I had no clue and no care as to where I was. I was lost with no desire to be found, so there I lay until the sun set and darkness covered me like a blanket.
In spite of how things seemed, I knew I was not insane. I felt too much pain and regret to be mad. But this made what happened next all the more terrifying. Down the road I heard, clear as a bell, a long, mournful wail. I don’t know which was more chilling to my soul: that I knew the voice instantly, or that it was calling my name. Yet in spite of my fear I had neither the desire to flee nor the ability even had I wished it. My limbs were exhausted, and the damp cold of my ditch was seeping into them. The exhaustion spread to my head, and my eyes refused to stay open. Plunged into darkness, I could only listen to my name, cried over and over again in the distance. After a while even that began to fade, and as I slipped into unconsciousness, I knew wit icy certainty that I would never wake.