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A late night phone call brings more bad news: Phil's ...
A late night phone call brings more bad news: Phil's sister has died, leaving her ten-year-old daughter Betsy an orphan and naming Phil as guardian. It seems like a bad time to bring a child into this unhappy house, but Phil had always promised he'd take care of Betsy - and now she's all the family he has left.
What he can't know is that Betsy is a very special child. She has the ability to sense the powerful emotions of the past, to hear the voices of the dead, and to see the uncanny powers that are closing in around this house.
Coastal southern California is a semiarid land crosshatched with mountain chains, narrow valleys, and dry riverbeds. The upper reaches of its steeply sloped canyons are nearly impenetrable—its sunny broken rises blanketed with greasewood and sumac and mesquite, dense miserly plants that survive eight or ten rainless months each year. The shady slopes, turned away from the sun, are covered with oak and fern, and at higher elevations maple and big cone pine. On the flats and along streambeds grow sycamore and alder, their roots sunk deep into the loamy alluvial soil. In rare decades when one drought year follows another, stands of alder along dry creeks wither and die as groundwater falls away deeper and deeper into the earth.
But this parched landscape is largely a surface phenomenon, for beneath its plains and arroyos and rocky gullies lie vast aquifers of water-bearing rock. Unceasing and invisible cataracts flow beneath the dry beds of intermittent streams, and where strata of granite and basalt lie close to the surface, the water above is forced upward until it lies in quiet, leafy pools in the shaded canyons, even in the driest years. Elsewhere, almost as a counterpoint to these solitary pools, creek water tumbling down rock-strewn beds might vanish suddenly into the ground as if into a chasm, and within a few short yards, what had been a flowing stream over mossy stones and boulders is a desert of dry sand and rock, littered with broken limbs and fallen leaves, its scoured stones bleached white in the sun.
And then with winter rains the groundwater rises again, anddry springs bubble to life. In the wet years, once in a decade or two, long-vanished waterfalls abruptly reappear, coursing down sheer canyon walls and feeding creeks and streams that have grown overnight into deep torrents of rushing water. In the otherwise silent darkness of the canyons, one's sleep is troubled by the water-muffled clatter of heavy boulders shifting and rolling in swollen streams. Unwary canyon residents awaken to find themselves hopelessly stranded: crossings washed out, footbridges undermined, narrow hillside roads swept utterly away, paths blocked by fallen trees.
And even on the plains below the mountains and in the hollows of grassy foothills, shallow, spring-fed pools arise in once-dry meadows, and water seeps into long-abandoned farmhouse wells like the revived ghosts of lost and despaired-of memories....
Phil Ainsworth developed photographs in the darkroom at the back of the house. It was late early spring, and outside in the darkness it was raining. He often worked at night, especially on nights when his sleep was troubled, and he had a premonition that this would be that kind of night. He could hear the occasional rising of the wind like a drawn-out sigh, and the sound of the rain rose and fell, beating insistently against the windows and then diminishing to a blurry rush. He found the rain comforting. There was an element of isolation in it that he liked, although it made photographic travel into the back country difficult and sometimes impossible, especially during winters such as this one, when the rains were more or less continual.
That was really the only problem with the rain—that it impeded travel on unpaved country roads. His roof didn't leak, the property drained well, and even if the power went out and didn't come back on for a month, he had enough firewood for heat and enough oil lamps to brighten any room in the house. He wasn't a hermit, but he had found it increasingly easy to live alone, out here on the edge of things—a way to stay out of emotional debt, looking out at the world through a veil of rain. Living alone, his needs were so few that he was almost never interrupted. The world was less necessary to him, and the result was that he had become equally unnecessary, which suited him.
He looked around the darkroom, which was almost cozy in the amber glow of the safelight. The long stainless steel counter and sink, the rows of chemical bottles, the enlarger, the drying racks, and the rest of the equipment and cabinets that crowded the narrow room were sepia-toned in the perpetual semidarkness, where there was no difference between noon and midnight. He had built his own drying racks out of wood and screen, and right now those racks were layered with photos of Irvine Park, a nearby regional county park, which, in this rainy winter, was cut by the waters of Santiago Creek, the same creek that ran along the back of Phil's property. As the storm fronts moved through coastal southern California, the cloudy skies over the park and the deep shadows of its wooded hillsides kept so constantly changing that the landscape seemed almost alive with darkness and light and the on and off haze of rain.
Yesterday he had spent a moodily lonesome day out there in the park, from dawn until sunset, wandering along the mesas and through the dense foliage of the arroyo, shooting black and white film, mostly of cloud formations and flowing creek water and the slow, ghostly dance of shadow beneath the oaks and sycamores and willow. He had planned on going back earlier today, but the renewed rain kept him home.
He picked up his mug from the top of the paper safe and drank cold coffee, thought about putting on a fresh pot, and immediately abandoned the idea. He realized he was worn out, but what he wanted was sleep, and not a second wind. It was usually time to pack it in when none of his work looked any good to him, and he had pretty clearly reached that point tonight. He looked at the last print that had come out of the chemicals—a vast sky with clouds and shafts of sunlight like the end of the world above an enormous heavy-limbed oak silhouetted against the gray horizon. It was starkly spectacular, but there was something about the tone of the photo that bothered him....
The telephone rang, a startling intrusion on a night like this. He glanced at the clock. It was late enough so that the call was either a wrong number or bad news, so he let the answering machine in the kitchen pick it up, only half listening while he looked for a different filter to darken the image. A man's voice spoke, and Phil stopped to listen, holding his breath, recalling the man's name at the same moment that his mind took in the message: that Phil's sister, Marianne, was dead of a stroke.
He pushed through the darkroom door, went out through the workroom and into the kitchen, grabbing the phone and switching off the recorder.
"Yeah," Phil said.
"Mr. Ainsworth? George Benner. Sorry to be calling so late."
"I'm a night owl," Phil said, his heart hammering. The wind blew rain against the kitchen windows. He saw that water was pooled up on one of the sills, and he had the strangely foolish impulse to find a towel in order to wipe it off. Marianne was his twin sister, his only living relative aside from her daughter Betsy, who was ten. He sat down in the kitchen chair and leaned against the table to steady himself. "You said a stroke?"
"Yes. I apologize for being blunt, but I assumed it would be worse to be timid, under the circumstances. I knew you'd want to know as soon as possible."
Phil nodded his head, realized what he was doing, and asked, "When?"
"This afternoon. I just heard, though. I didn't think it could wait until morning."
"Of course not," Phil said, having to think hard in order to come up with the words. He felt empty-headed and slow. "Thanks for calling."
"I felt I had to," Benner said. "Especially in light of Marianne's will. I don't know how you feel about the will, but since it names you as Betsy's guardian, I thought you'd want to fly out here as soon as possible."
"Yeah," Phil said. "In the morning." He realized with a vague dread and guilt that the news of Marianne's death didn't surprise him. She had been taking antidepressants off and on for years. "This wasn't ..."
"Suicide?" Benner asked. There had been no hesitation, which was troubling.
"Apparently there's no real indication of that. They're calling it a simple stroke, which isn't remarkable, given her medical history. Her condition might have been aggravated by medication, but there's no reason to suppose it was suicide."
Lightning flashed out in the night, illuminating the rain-streaked window glass, but it seemed like a long time before he heard a distant rumble of thunder. The assurance struck him as unconvincing. "Where was Betsy when it happened?" he asked.
"At a friend's house, apparently."
"A neighbor's with her now. Hannah. Darwin ...?"
"I know her," Phil said.
"Even so, the sooner you can get a flight out here, the better. It would be good for Betsy to be on something like solid ground again."
A minute later, after Phil had hung up the phone, he stood for a time in the kitchen, watching the rain slant past the window, illuminated by the yellow bulb of the back porch lamp. His mind was agitated but empty. He was struck with the futile desire to tell someone else, to talk to someone, but he could think of no one, and it was too late at night anyway to start making phone calls. Abruptly he thought of his father, a man whom he had never even known. There was some chance that his father was alive somewhere in the world ... but then there had always been that chance, and Phil had never pursued it, and neither had Marianne.
Had he seen Marianne's death coming? The antidepressants she had taken in the years following her husband's death hadn't helped her much. Phil hadn't been able to help much, either. Because Marianne lived in Austin and he lived in California, he had been comfortably far removed from his sister's troubles, although there was no comfort in that now.
Just last year, when Marianne and Betsy had come out to California for a visit, and Phil had agreed to let Marianne put his name in the will, his sister had seemed optimistic for the first time in years: Betsy was playing the piano and pitching softball. Marianne had a new job. Things were looking up for them. Still, she had seemed distracted by the idea of planning for Betsy. She'd had a horror of Betsy's living with strangers, of the government deciding Betsy's fate, and Phil was happy enough to be named her potential guardian, although he hadn't really thought it would matter anyway. It had seemed to him to be a formality, the kind of thing a single mother would do as a matter of course, and so he had agreed to it without thinking about it for more than fifteen seconds. Now, in an instant, everything had changed.
He opened the white pages, picked up the receiver, punched in the number of Southwest Airlines, and booked an early-morning flight into Austin. When he walked back into the darkroom it was only to turn out the light. He looked at the photo on the top rack again. It needed something human, he saw now, something to balance the dark enormity of the cloudy sky and the morbid age of the drooping oaks.
The priest stood in the shadow of the old water tower and garden shed, watching the house through the rain. Vines overhung the narrow wooden roof of the latticework shed, and the musty smell of sodden leaves and wet earth rose on the air around him. Inside the house, some fifty feet away across the lawn, a light shone from the second story. It was impossible that anyone within could see anything out in the darkness, and unless the priest was immensely mistaken about the man who owned the house, there was no reason to believe that he would suspect prowlers on a rainy night like this. The priest wondered why the man was so apparently restless: he had moved from room to room for the last hour, turning lights on and off, as if he were searching for some lost thing. I hope he finds it, the priest thought, turning his attention once again to the stone-walled well that he had come to observe.
Clouds hid the moon, although now and then the clouds parted and the moon shone briefly. Tonight the priest was a student of the rain. He had made a study of rainfall over the seasons, and he had a particular knowledge of subterranean water, of intermittent streams and hillside springs, of dry wells and dry riverbeds and of all the high water years since the century had turned. Over the long years he had come to love the rain, and like a greedy man, he could never get enough of it, although that attitude was starting to look shameful to him now, since southern California would drown itself wholesale if the rains kept on like this. Already hillsides were sliding, and the Santa Ana River had twice gone over its banks despite Prado dam upriver, something it hadn't done in sixty years. There had been wild floods in the county in 1916 and '26 and '38, but the water that had poured over the banks of the Santa Ana River and Santiago Creek in those years had been the result of devastating, passing storms. The annual rainfall had not been particularly high. Then in 1940 there had been nearly thirty-three inches of fall and winter rain, the wettest season in southern California since 1884. This year might surpass it.
He watched the well through the curtain of rain off the shed roof, aware that his shoes and trousers were soaking wet. It was senseless to invite pneumonia, since he was probably too old to survive it, but he was compelled to stay here, to wait things out. There was something out of the ordinary in the atmosphere tonight, something in the music of the rain that recalled old memories, old dreams, something that kept him here waiting for the rising of the water in the well, which, in rare decades past, had occurred very nearly on the instant, like an Old Testament miracle.
And if he was right, if something were pending, then there were likely to be others besides himself haunting these old groves at night, keeping an eye on the weather, on the water rising in backyard rain gauges. He had waited long years for a night like this, perhaps for this very night. He closed his eyes now and pictured the rainwater sinking away through the sandy well bottom, allowing his mind to empty itself, to follow the water into the deep and quiet darkness to that deep place where all waters are one water, and where everything is still, and where it seemed to him that he could sense the drifting shadows of human memory pooling in lightless subterranean caverns. Time passed as he waited in that haunted darkness for someone to whisper his name, for a woman's upturned face to rise out of those depths like a pale, moonlit mask....
When the priest came to himself, the house was dark. He was rain-soaked and cold. One more minute, he told himself, more than ever certain that some revelation was near: the ghosts of days gone by, past time welling up, an overflow of spirits long sunken in the earth. The clouds parted, and for a moment the moon illuminated the rain-washed grove in the distance and cast the shadows of the berry vines across the fence and yard. And in that moment he was startled to see that the well was full, the water black and clear. He found that he was holding his breath, and he let it out now. He crossed himself and stepped out from under the shelter, bent over the rock wall, and submerged his arm in the cold water, all the way up to his shoulder, just to make sure that the apparent depth wasn't an illusion, a trick of the moon's reflection.
And then he saw that something lay in the weeds on the ground near the edge of the well, something that glowed faintly against the mossy stones. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a glove, and slipped it over his hand. He parted the weeds and found the object—what appeared to be a tiny glass paperweight, unnaturally heavy for its size. He took out a penlight and switched it on, shining the beam of light into its center. There was something frozen inside the oval of moonlit glass: a painting of a face, barely human in appearance, distorted as if from some strong and unpleasant emotion.
As if by reflex movement, he tossed the thing out into the center of the well where it sank, glowing a faint and misty green that dwindled in the black depths until it passed out of sight, and then, feeling bone weary and shivering in the damp night, he trudged tiredly back up toward the road.
Posted February 20, 2001
Like all books relying on nothing but twist this is a great book to read once, and once only. The plot was not to shaby, actualy quite orginal. This is a novel I read rapidly, spareing nothing to savor. i mean what choice did I have in the matter. The writer worte it to be a page burner. Unfortunatly all this hussleing to consitantly discover what happens next came to an abrunt hualt at the ending. It was like the writer just did'nt know what to add, but knowing there was something lacking, and simply siad to him self 'oh, forget it, just stop.' If it had a good ending I certaintly would have rated this book with 3 stars. Working with the notion of some description would do Blaylok a world of good, but I duebt that word description is in his vocabulary.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 22, 2000
Southern California is getting drenched. The rainy season only happens once every thirty years or so--at least the kind of endless downpour that fills all the low areas, rivers, and arroyos to overflowing. To most, it's a damn nuisance...as houses careen down mud-weakened cliffs and homes are rendered unlivable. But to a few, its arrival awakens a long-dormant power. A power once revered by ancient Spaniards and Native Americans. For one man in particular, though, it brings with its torrents a chance to finally find peace with his past and the gruesome death of his only daughter. That's not necessarily a good thing, considering that he's the one that killed her. James P. Blaylock has written a chillingly eerie, and truly awesome 21st century ghost story. As extraordinary events surround and consume seemingly ordinary people, the reader is swept away in a cascade of nearly unbearable suspense. To say more would be to reveal too much. It would be well worth your while to pick up this little gem of a book and devour it as soon as possible...that is, if you truly relish the thought of a great read consuming all of your attention!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.