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My earliest memories always include Kate. With three years between us, there must have been a time when she was a toddling child still in infant's clothes and I was an independent youngster, but I do not remember this. There must have been a period, especially when we lived in Ontario, during which I played with my sister Elizabeth's children and left little Kate behind, but I do not recall it. As long as I can remember, we were together, friends and sisters, inseparable companions. Later, we would come to be known as the Fox Sisters, named by the newspapers as a single entity. We grew up together and yet alone, separated from our siblings by over fourteen years and allowed to run wild and free by parents astonished to have produced a second batch of offspring.
We were a mischievous pair, playing tricks on each other, on the neighbor children, and on our parents. Household objects such as my father's spectacles and my mother's hairbrush were always going astray. After a suitable period, Kate would discover the missing objects and be praised for her cleverness. Feeling a bit jealous, I once asked Kate peevishly if the next time she stole some object she couldn't let me be the one to find it. She stared at me silently for a moment, her violet eyes steady upon me, and then replied, "Just because I find them doesn't mean I stole them."
A fine thing to say to her companion in devilment! I tied the string to the apple with my own hands when her six-year-old fingers were too clumsy to secure the knots. We used to drop the apple out of bed and let it thump on the floor, then draw it quickly back into bed when my mother tried to find the source of the noise.This was a great game, and after several repetitions my mother would mutter superstitiously about spirits and devils. Kate always wanted to push the boundaries of common sense, dropping the apple when our mother was close enough to see.
"We shall be caught," I whispered nervously.
"No, we shan't," she murmured back.
And we never were. My mother never could see anything but good in us. I believe she must have used up the sharpest of her mothering instincts on my siblings, and by the time we came to her, she was weary.
At the age of sixteen, my mother had married a young blacksmith who worked on the banks of the newly constructed Erie Canal, and by seventeen she was mother to a baby daughter, my sister Leah. Two more daughters followed, Maria and Elizabeth, and then my brother David, all in the span of seven years. While David was still a small child, my mother left my father because he was prone to drinking and gambling the family's money away. She took the children and moved in with her sister, thirty miles away in Rochester, New York.
I am not supposed to know very much about these events, which took place long before I was born. But I have had ample opportunity to hear my older sisters talk about their life without a father and the hardships they endured in those times. I know it was partly to escape poverty that Leah ran away to marry Bowman Fish when she was only fourteen years old . . . not that it did her any good.
After a period of time, my father presented himself at the door in Rochester, hat in hand, a changed man. He had given up drink and was now a devout Methodist, serious in his religious duties and ready to resume his role as husband and father to the Fox family. My mother must have been impressed by the change, because she allowed him to move the entire family, except Leah, to a farm in Canada.
By the time I was born, David was the only child still living at home. Elizabeth had married a Canadian man, and Maria had moved back to live with our Aunt Catherine in Rochester, where she was engaged to a young man named Stephen Smith. My parents already had grandchildren when I came along, and they seemed even more surprised by Kate, who arrived almost three years later. Sometimes my father would squint at us through his spectacles as if he were a little confused about who we were and how we came to be living in his house.
We spent our earliest childhood years on the farm in Ontario, and when that venture failed, my father moved us back to Rochester. We spent some years there, with my father trying to make a living as a blacksmith. David eventually married and moved to Wayne County, near the town of Hydesville. He spoke to my father about a tract of land near his peppermint farm, and my father decided to build a house there. The year was 1848.
I was not happy about leaving the cheerful and bustling city of Rochester for the dreary, vacant countryside of Wayne County. I had just turned fourteen, and I thought that being banished to "frontiersland" would be the end of my life.
To make matters worse, the rooms that my family rented in Rochester had become unavailable due to the owner, Mr. Isaac Post, selling the house. It became necessary to move out of our lodgings before the new home was built, so my father rented a small house within the town limits of Hydesville.
Hydesville wasn't much of a town, as far as I was concerned, and this wasn't much of a house. Its best feature was a south-facing parlor with several windows to brighten the room with the afternoon sun. The kitchen, however, was dark and dreary. The house's single bedroom received sunlight at dawn, but no other time. There was a buttery off the kitchen, and a cobwebbed attic over the back half of the house. The absolutely most horrible part of the house was the cellar.
Kate and I explored it, while Father and David moved furniture above us. Foul water squelched around our shoes, bubbling up from the damp earth floor. The wood beams supporting earthen walls leaned inwards at an alarming angle, giving us the unsettling impression of imminent collapse.
"It smells like an open grave," I stated in disgust.
"To be sure," answered Kate, "and there lies the corpse." She pointed at the darkest corner of the cellar where I could dimly make out a mound of loose earth piled carelessly against a crooked wall.
"What are you girls doing down there?"
The voice made us jump and clutch each other, even though it was clearly recognizable as my father's mild tone. We turned and saw him leaning in through the doorway, peering at us in the dim light.
I opened my mouth, ready to burst out with fresh complaints about moving into a house built over a pauper's cemetery. But Kate took my hand firmly and spoke before me. "We were just curious, father. It is terribly damp down here! We shall come up before we catch a chill." She led me toward the stairs, and I followed silently, without voicing my complaints about the cellar or ever once mentioning our notion of it being a grave.
Hydesville was less a town than a cluster of houses and farms that had grown up around a tavern, which later closed down and left the townfolk around it wondering why they had come. My mother, I know, was relieved to see the boarded doors on the old Hyde's Tavern. Better a husband who fell to his knees twice a day in prayer than one who drank and gambled away the rent money.
There was a school just up the street, which Kate and I both attended. My father promised me, however, that I could be finished with Arithmetic and the dreaded Spelling just as soon as the new house was completed. In the meantime, there was not enough housework to keep both my mother and me busy, so off to the tolls of the school bell I went.
We had lived in the Hydesville house less than two weeks when a letter from my sister Leah arrived, telling us to expect her daughter to arrive by canal boat within a few days. Lizzie was coming "to lend us a hand." Only Leah could imagine that feeding and housing another person under our present circumstances would be a help. Especially Lizzie, a great big horse of a girl with the brains of a cow and the liveliness of a fencepost.
Leah obviously needed to be rid of Lizzie for her own purposes. Perhaps she wanted to put a boarder in the girl's room to make extra money. Leah held piano lessons and rented rooms, but seemed to be in an endless state of acquiring funds. Whenever she could prevail upon my parents to feed, clothe, and shelter her daughter, she did so.
Anticipating Lizzie's arrival did not improve my outlook on the house, Hydesville, or the dismal end of my former life. Kate and I moaned and took fits, but Lizzie was already on her way and our mother actually looked forward to her arrival. Honestly, I cannot tell why, unless it was simply that she was the eldest grandchild and the daughter of her precious Leah. Lizzie was dull, slow, and unattractive. She did not resemble my sister, who was pretty and bold and the center of any gathering of people. I never met Mr. Bowman Fish, who ran off to marry a rich widow when Lizzie was only a baby, but I imagine that he must have resembled his own name and passed those features on to his daughter.
"Lizzie Fish is a stinky old cod," Kate chanted out of the hearing of our parents.
"Face like a path where the oxen trod," I rejoined, turning the jump rope, which we had tied to a tree.
"Screwed up little eyes and pale, thin hair . . . "
"For a penny and a half I would push her down the stair."
"How many steps did Lizzie fall down?"
"One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . six . . . "
My seventeen-year-old niece Lizzie was the least important person in this entire story-and also the most important. She was the reason for everything that was to come: the rapping, the lecture halls, the spirit circles, and the messages from the dead.
Kate and I did not like Lizzie. We did not look forward to her arrival, and we resented sharing our bed with her.
Everything that happened-everything-was originally just a plan to scare Lizzie and make her go home.