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Christmas Ghost Story

Old Cahawba

On a displaced house.


“Picture a room.”

Teresa made a face and shifted her weight to the armrest of the wingback she sat in across from Paul. David and Sandy were watching her from the couch. Her brother, Dominic, was in the matching chair to her right. He had his nose buried in a well-thumbed copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse that he’d picked up off of Paul’s coffee table. He didn’t appear to be paying too much attention to the game.

Teresa hesitated. “What sort of a room? Is it supposed to be big? Is there any furniture in it?”

“We’ll get to some of those details later, but for now you’re just supposed to picture a room in your mind,” Paul answered. “Don’t try to get too creative. Just tell me the first thing that pops into your head. What do the walls and floors look like? Tell me how big it is.”

Teresa closed her eyes and a scene appeared before her. She described it to Paul. “I’m in a high-ceilinged room in an old house of some sort. The floor is made of thick, well-worn pine boards. The walls are white and there’s nothing on them.”

Paul wrote this down on a notebook resting on his leg. “Good. Are there any decorations in the room? Is there a rug or anything like that?”

Teresa thought for a moment. “No rugs. There’s a kind of old-fashioned crown moulding along the walls at the top. The ceiling is maybe about twelve feet high. Right above me, at the center of the ceiling, is one of those ornate plaster medallions, but there’s no chandelier or light hanging from it. It looks like there’s some sort of pineapple motif around it. The windows . . .”

“Hang on,” Paul interrupted her. “We’ll get to that in a sec.” He continued to make notes for a moment and then flipped a couple pages in a book he had tucked by his side. “Now, the book says, ‘Inside the room there is a single window. Describe its size and shape. Is it opened or closed? What scene, if any, do you see outside?’”

I didn’t go back to visit Old Cahawba for a couple of years after Teresa disappeared. The thought of the place brought back too many memories of that day. But eventually it came to be the only place on God’s green earth where I could feel close to her again. There was no grave for her anywhere, and, in truth, I still nurtured some hope that she would return, unharmed.

Our parents first took us out to Old Cahawba one fall weekend when we were seven. It was only about an hour’s drive from our home in Montgomery, but it was tucked away in rural obscurity. No interstate passed anywhere near Old Cahawba, and the nearest city of any size, Selma, had been left to decline and languish, like so much of the rural south that had never been able to transition from an agriculture-based economy to something more modern and financially sustainable. We followed old Highway 80 west by Lowndesboro, past farmland and woods, and through Selma over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where we turned off the main road deeper into Alabama’s forgotten hinterland. The day was unseasonably warm, and I remember our parents had allowed us to roll down our windows for the last stretch of the drive. My father had to stop a couple of times to double-check his notes for the final turnoff.

Old Cahawba itself was mostly gone. It was once the state capital but had been demoted to the county seat when the capital was moved to Tuscaloosa. Not long after that, it received a second, mortal blow when the town was almost completely abandoned after flooding had convinced the county government to move the county seat to nearby Selma. That was sometime just after the Civil War. The population soon followed, going so far as to uproot and move many of the houses and other semi-permanent fixtures with them. Only a handful of buildings had remained, at least for a while. Some eventually burned down, while others were left to rot. After the war, freedmen for a time had attempted to establish a community of sorts there, clearing the remaining lots into acreage for planting and grazing. The half-destroyed old courthouse became an important, informal meeting place for freedman political aspirants. But eventually the freedmen left too.

Old Cahawba was finally converted into a park and archeological site managed by the state. The original street grid was maintained in the red dirt, and the sites of prominent family homes, the school, and the old church were marked by placards for visitors. As you walked the dirt roads, following a map picked up at the visitor’s center, you could see the outline of the foundations or chimney stacks rising lonely from the grass among the intruding pecan and oak trees, laden with Spanish moss, which now grew indiscriminately among the ruins of the town.

It had become, quite literally, a city of the dead. Its only remaining residents were interred either at one of the two cemeteries on the southern outskirts of the old town—conveniently named the “old” and the “new” cemeteries—or at the slave cemetery to the north. When the living citizens of the town had moved to Selma or Montgomery after the war, sometimes taking their physical homes and all their property along with them, they did not disturb the dead, but left them to remain where they were. The cemeteries were maintained, for a while, but they too were mostly abandoned to decay until the state park service took the time to maintain the grounds decades later.

Teresa and I were immediately captivated by the place. Just past a roundabout marking the old center of the town there is a bluff overlooking the Alabama River, not far from its conjunction with the smaller Cahaba River, flowing southeast from its headwaters near Birmingham. From the bluff, you could watch the barges and river traffic navigate the Alabama River’s amply maintained shipping lanes lying deep in the valley formed by its steep riprap-fortified banks. The Cahaba was a different river system altogether. Its frequently shallow, variable flow made navigation impracticable, even for light, shallow-bottomed vessels. Intermittent rocky shoals prevented any serious attempts at dredging or channel deepening. And so it remained largely untouched for the two-hundred-odd miles it flowed from Birmingham to where it joined its larger brother here at this juncture, a refuge of sorts for rare or endangered flora and fauna that sheltered in its pools or along its banks.

The bluff where we stood had itself once been an Indian mound, well before the town of Old Cahawba had been founded. Our parents laid out a picnic beneath the outstretched arms of an oak tree. From there we could admire the vacant ghost town behind us or the river in front of us. Teresa and I finished eating much sooner than our parents did, grew restless, and began to wander the open space on the bluff, adjacent to the river. Despite our father’s protests, Teresa had taken off her shoes and went barefoot for the rest of the visit. Our mother joked that Teresa, in her white cotton ankle-length dress, looked like she might have been a little girl living in Old Cahawba before the war, sent out to gather eggs from the henhouse.

On the far edge of the clearing, through the bare branches and Spanish moss, we could see three exposed-brick columns standing alone among the scrub brush—all that remained of the Crocheron House. I learned much later that the family had once owned a line of steamships that had traversed the Alabama River out into the Gulf of Mexico. Closer to where we stood was a roped-off area marked by a placard describing the site of an old cotton warehouse that had been converted into an overcrowded prisoner-of-war camp during the war. The prison had been given the name “Castle Morgan.” Originally designed to hold some four hundred or so prisoners, it eventually housed up to three thousand. One hundred forty-seven grave markers at the “old” cemetery mark the resting places of the unfortunate souls who died in confinement. No trace of the structure remained, other than a vaguely rectangular depression in the ground that was noticeable only if you were looking for it.

Teresa loved the place, and we would continue to visit Old Cahawba regularly, for a while with our parents but then just the two of us alone or with friends as we grew older. It was on one of the first trips we took alone together that we discovered, just north of town, along the preserved dirt road labeled Oak Street, the most striking structure still standing. There along the road, at the end of the bluff not far from a bend in the Alabama River, stood the remains of the Collier House’s slave quarters. The slave quarter house itself was of a recognizable antebellum colonial style set well off the road, behind where the grand Collier House itself once stood. A pair of magnolia trees were in bloom just to the left of the house as we gazed at it from the road. Makeshift columns had been installed on the otherwise plain façade of the building when it had been converted to a private farmstead after the war. A balcony of some sort had likewise been extended out from the second floor to the columns, perhaps accessible from one of the upper-floor windows. The “big house”—as it once was called—itself had been moved brick by brick to Montgomery. There was barely a trace of it now in the grass stretched out between us and the former slave quarters.

We quietly approached the house across the now-vacant lot and made our way up the steps. A few skinks resting on the warm, white brick retreated into the ivy as we drew near. I followed Teresa. The door was locked and the windows were all boarded up. The faint scent of mildew and decay reached our noses as we attempted to peek into the dark interior through the gaps in the boards. We followed the sides of the house towards the back and noted that all the windows along the sides of the house were boarded up too. The boards on only one window, high up on the second floor, appeared to be loose, but there was no obvious way to access the window without a ladder. The backdoor and cellar entrances were likewise boarded shut. A heavy, rusted chain was wrapped through the cellar doors as an added precaution.

Teresa first spotted the well on the opposite side of the house. A steel wellhead column stood in the middle of a low brickwork basin. As we got closer, we could see that water was still running from the wellhead into the basin. Water ran out of the back of the basin in a rivulet running away from the house into the woods. Teresa ran her hand over the wellhead, which had been shaped into a kind of grinning humanoid dog face. The number 1852 was stamped along its side.

“It’s still cool,” she said, holding her hand under the running water. “It would probably be safe to drink.” She reached into the water in the basin as she knelt beside it. “It’s not deep. I can see all the way to the bottom.” A few tarnished coins could be seen scattered among the cracked, mossy brickwork in the basin. We sat there for a few minutes, admiring the house, the basin, and the peaceful stillness of the mild spring air.

“There was a garden here,” she said. “Look.” She was pointing to a cluster of white blossoms in some bushes not far from the well. “Those are Cherokee roses,” she explained. “They aren’t native.” She walked over to the bush, plucked one, and stuck it in her hair. Teresa spotted other non-native plants around Old Cahawba too. She had an eye for growing things. There was old-fashioned spirea clustered along the roadway and on the edges of clear-cut lots, perhaps once part of hedges or borders. Mock orange trees. Daffodils. Paperwhites. Chinaberry and mulberry trees. In the “new” graveyard on the south side of town, Teresa spotted a pear tree.

Teresa felt a closeness to that landscape that went beyond her fondness for the dirt roads, the empty lots, and the secrets hidden in the stones and flowers scattered in the grass. “When I close my eyes, I can sometimes hear the sounds of the life of the town around me,” she said as we sat by the stone marker at the center of town. “A door. Maybe laundry flapping in the breeze on a clothesline. The soft sounds of a conversation lifted on the wind and carried through an open kitchen window. And when I open my eyes—sometimes just for a fraction of a moment—I can see the houses again along the road, just like they used to be.” She nodded towards the tumbling brick columns that remained from the Crocheron House. “Over there. By the house. There used to be a fence there. And a porch on the other side of the house. I could see it all so clearly, but just for a moment.” She turned and looked in my direction and smiled. “Do you believe me?”

“I see a tall wood-framed window. It’s closed. It has those cross-pieces that divide it into panes. I don’t know what those are called. The glass is sort of wavy, like you can tell it’s old. Can the window have curtains?”

“I don’t see why not. What do they look like?”

“They’re just bare white, gauzy muslin-like curtains that you can see through. They’re hanging from a brass bar over the window and they’re parted and held back by simple curtain holders. I can see outside too. There’s still some daylight but the sun is starting to set, so the light has that golden afternoon quality.”

Paul continued to write. “Okay. So what do you see out the window?” David and Sandy were now both leaning forward as she spoke. Dominic held a finger in the book resting in his lap. He was leaning on his fist and listening to Teresa while looking just past her towards the dying embers in the fireplace.

Teresa continued. “There’s a field and a dirt road. I think I’m maybe on the second floor. Across the road I see some trees. In the distance off to the left, I can just see what looks like a river. It’s a little ways off and maybe down the hill from where I am.”

Paul nodded as he wrote. “Mmhm. This is good. Is there anything else?”

It was in the “new” cemetery not a year before her disappearance that things began to turn more sinister. We must have been the first visitors there on the Monday morning of Labor Day weekend. The morning’s silvery light was filtering through the trees along the river to our left as we approached the graveyard. We knew almost immediately that something was wrong. The wrought-iron gate at the entrance was off its hinges and lying in the grass. The low fence on the right side had likewise been bent back violently inward. Clearly someone had rammed the gate with a car or truck. We quickened our pace. As we got closer, we could see thick tire tracks in the soft red earth that veered off from the main entrance toward the center of the cemetery. The damage was extensive. Whoever had forced his way into the cemetery had driven across the graves and had flattened several of the tombstones. Only a few graves individually enclosed in their own wrought-iron fencing were spared. Broken tombstones and cracked grave markers were all around us, strewn about under the cypress and magnolia trees. As we surveyed the carnage in disbelief, I lost track of Teresa for a moment. Then I saw her standing a few feet away from one of the few above-ground tombs, her hand raised to her mouth in shock. I followed the line of her wide eyes to the tomb. Its lid lay broken in half by its side. As I got closer, I could see that someone had bashed open a hole in the surface of the old wooden coffin inside. In the pale morning light, I could just make out what appeared to be the mortal remains of its occupant lying in the dim shadow of the coffin’s interior.

I led Teresa, shaking and silent, back to the visitor’s center, where we waited a quarter of an hour for the park attendant to return from one of his rounds. We described what we had seen and, after giving a report to the police when they arrived, we drove back to Montgomery. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it, and we tried to reason our way through what must have happened. Our best guess was that a couple of bored teenagers were joyriding on the park grounds while the park was closed on Sunday and had let their most primal destructive urges get the better of them. There were no after-hours guards to stop them and no neighbors close enough to have heard anything. We were surprised that something like that hadn’t happened in the past. Only a few years before, a pair of college boys from one of the schools in Birmingham had been convicted for a spate of rural church-burnings. But our discovery of the desecration of the cemetery had an immediate and lasting impact on Teresa. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. As I look back after what happened later, I regret that I didn’t do more to console her.

It was still relatively early when we got back to Montgomery and I asked her to join me for lunch. She declined, and told me that she’d rather return to her apartment and lie down. We spoke occasionally in the weeks that followed. I should confess at this point that at the time I had begun dating a woman I had met at work. She worked for one of our clients, and I met her while visiting their office for a project I was supervising. The details don’t really matter. What’s important is that I was distracted by the novelty and excitement of this new relationship and lost touch with Teresa for a while. I should perhaps add that Teresa herself never really dated much. She had all the qualities that would normally be attractive to a man, but she was on more than one occasion described as “spooky.” It wasn’t unfair. And it wasn’t simply that she got lost in her thoughts, which she did frequently, or that she had unconventional interests in plants and anything remote or forgotten. There was a distracted and airy quality to her personality that suggested she lived in some liminal state just slightly beyond the norm of existence. And when you are a certain age, even modest deviations from convention can set you outside the pale of normal social life. None of this seemed to bother her too much. We had a handful of close friends in common that we had shared since grade school, which seemed to be enough for her. But her social isolation, and the circumstances of our birth—we were fraternal twins—also meant that we remained closer than most siblings even after we had left home for college in different cities.

Teresa closed her eyes again. She was still and silent. Even Dominic was now watching her in expectation. Teresa swallowed. “Yes,” she began,” I see . . . people. There are faces in the trees. Men, women, children. They’re silent. It looks like they are just . . . watching the house, waiting for something.”

Paul looked up from his notes. “Well, that’s not exactly what I expected. Very interesting. Give me a moment.” He took down a few more notes and then consulted the little book by his side. “Okay, this is important, so listen carefully. ‘Inside the room there is a box. The box can be of any shape or size. It can be made of any materials that occur to you.’ But just like the other questions, be honest about the first vision that forms in your mind. Where is the box located? Is it opened or closed?”

“Let me think.” Teresa leaned back in her chair. She saw her brother watching her. “Oh, now you’re interested in the game.” She smiled at him.

It was perhaps three months later that I received a fundraising letter from the Friends of Old Cahawba. They were mounting a campaign to raise money to restore the cemetery. I was happy to send them a donation; the letter, more importantly, also reminded me to check on Teresa. She sounded withdrawn on the phone but, after a brief hesitation, agreed to visit Old Cahawba with me. When I picked her up from her apartment, she looked wan and a bit feeble, like she was just getting over a cold or the flu. She admitted right away that she had lost her appetite and had been having trouble sleeping. Whatever forces had been working on her at Old Cahawba seemed to have followed her home. Sleep, when it came, was restless, and she was having bad dreams and other visions in the night. “I hardly feel rested when I get up in the morning,” she explained. “And I’m left feeling stretched too thin. It has been taking a lot of effort just to get through the day at the library.”

What ultimately followed was the most bizarre visit we ever had to Old Cahawba. It was the last one too. Teresa’s face, as we walked along Oak Street, remained gaunt but resolute, like she was determined to face some confrontation for which she had long been preparing herself. She would suddenly come to a stop in front of a vacant lot and just stare into the empty space in front of her with her hands in her pockets, sometimes mumbling to herself. I couldn’t make sense of much of anything I heard. This obviously slowed us down a good bit as we walked, but I gave her room and never tried to rush her along.

Eventually we approached the Collier House—or at least the place where the Collier House once stood—with the abandoned slave quarter house still standing in the back of the lot. She cut a hard right at the gate and made a long, sweeping arc around the property, looking inward at the vacant place where the big house once stood. When she reached the basin with its burbling wellhead, she sat and silently gazed into the water. I followed her and quietly sat down in the grass not far away. Eventually she noticed me, and she looked up with the most peculiar look on her face. “I can see their faces in the water.” I mumbled something reassuring, or at least I tried to, before helping her to her feet and leading her back to the car.

As we turned off Oak Street towards the parking lot and away from the new cemetery, she said something else very strange. “Dom? When we were in the cemetery last time, with all the broken headstones. I saw my name. It was my name on one of them. I saw it.” As I turned my head to respond to her—and this is the part I never told anyone—it looked as if, for the briefest possible moment, she were transparent. The solidity of her green puffer jacket had given way to a sort of gossamer luminescence. It’s difficult even now for me to describe the experience adequately. Just on the other side of her was a bare oak tree, its branches stretching out into the white winter sky. Teresa’s hands were in her pockets and she was looking away from me up the road. In that instant, as I turned toward her, I could see—or at least I thought I could see—the trunk and one of its branches directly through her on the other side.

“Dominic simply has a principled objection to anything that could be described as fun,” Paul interjected. David and Sandy both laughed.

“Dominic wouldn’t even play charades with us in high school,” Sandy said. “He said it was too juvenile.” Everyone except Dominic laughed. “What sixteen-year-old even talks like that?”

“Well, I never tried to stop you or ruin your fun. So don’t let me stop you now,” Dominic responded. He resumed looking through the book in his lap. The others turned their attention back to Teresa.

“What I saw was not really a box, I guess. It’s sort of an ivory-and-wood lacquered chest. It’s resting just against one of the walls.”

“Can you open the box? Do you know what is inside?” Paul asked.

“Yes, I can open it, and I know what’s inside. It’s full of flowers. A bouquet of fresh-cut white lilies.”

“Now, there is one more thing in this room—a key,” Paul said. “Tell us what it looks like and what it’s for, if you know.”

“Oh, that’s easy. It’s a small silver key that unlocks the window. And I’m holding it in my hand. So what does it mean?” Teresa asked.

That was the last time I saw Teresa. She didn’t answer her phone when I called a couple of days later. I became progressively worried the following week when she didn’t come to her door. Her car was parked in the lot by her apartment building, and there was otherwise no sign of distress. No one at the library had seen or heard from her either. When we eventually called the police to open her door, we were already preparing ourselves for what we might find inside. The arrangement of her living room and kitchen was unremarkable. There was no sign that anything violent or traumatic had happened. Her things lay scattered and half-organized around the room, as was typical. We called her name in the still, slightly stale air that already hung about the place. There was no response. I turned into the hall and stepped towards her bedroom. The door was slightly ajar, and the light from her bedroom window illuminated the dust motes as they floated in the plane of light that cut adjacently across the darkened hall. I said her name again softly and then held my breath as I took another step and gently pushed her bedroom door inward. Her room was empty. Her bed was made and all of her things seemed to be in order. She was just gone. On her desk was nothing other than a small bouquet of dried flowers and an unfinished sketch of a magnolia tree.

Over the following weeks, there was an investigation and a search. We turned over every stone we could think of to find some clue as to what might have happened. We never found anything missing, nor did we find any note, journal, or other record that might have given us any other indication of where she might be. The search never really ended, of course. I’m still looking for her today. There were anonymous calls and emails from people who thought they might have seen her in Montgomery, Birmingham, Atlanta, or as far away as Boston. Most were well-meaning. We tried to track down each of these leads, but none of us ever believed Teresa would have run away. None of us believed for a minute she would have hurt herself either.

“Before I give away any of the explanations, I think someone else here should play along too.” Paul looked over at Dominic and smiled. “Hey, Dom. Why don’t you tell us what you see? It’s not really a game, you know. It’s different.”

Sandy made an exasperated noise. “I don’t think you’ll have much luck getting Dominic to play.”

“No, it’s okay.” Dominic said, setting the book he was holding back on the table in front of him. “I was listening and couldn’t help coming up with my own answers to Paul’s questions in my mind.”

“So tell us about your room, Dom,” Paul said.

Dominic leaned forward while the others looked in his direction. “The room I pictured was a kind of cell, like a monk’s cell perhaps. Or maybe a prison cell. The floor was bare and the walls were smooth stonework. There was a small arched window on one wall, too small to crawl through. It had no glass but was open to the night sky. It was so dark outside you couldn’t see anything except a few stars that momentarily appeared between the clouds. Next to a simple wooden bed stood a small desk with a chair. On top of the desk there was an oil lamp and a small metal box. The box is locked and—here’s the weird part—the key to the box is locked inside the box.”

“That doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, Dom,” David said.

“It doesn’t have to make sense in any conventional fashion,” Paul explained. “The key to the box being locked inside the box itself is an interesting detail I haven’t heard before.”

“So now are you going to tell us what it all means?” Teresa asked.

I avoided returning to Old Cahawba for a long time—at least for a couple of years. I wanted to blame the park itself for her disappearance, as absurd as it seemed, and I had no desire whatsoever to see it again. But as time passed, the urge to return grew stronger, and I came to think of it as the only place where I might feel close to her once again. The time we spent there together had mostly been happy, and I chose to focus on those memories and the good times we spent there together rather than the strange and unpleasant events surrounding our final two outings. And, to be honest, there were obviously lingering questions about her disappearance. I nurtured a small hope that I might find some sort of answer behind the lee of broken wall or in the empty space of a grassy lot.

It was late spring, and the blossoms were already giving way to the vigorous green of summer. I watched a pair of bluebirds hunt over an open field, perching on the limb of a black oak tree as I rounded the corner towards the new cemetery. The park had made considerable progress in repairing the vandalism and thoughtless destruction Teresa and I had discovered on that penultimate trip to Old Cahawba. The wrought-iron fence and gate had been repaired and many of the headstones and grave markers appeared to have been cemented back in place. Several of the headstones were still disfigured or otherwise unrepaired, but the broken pieces appeared to have been cleared off to some other location. New iron fencing was being erected in rows to protect the graves. Almost instinctively, I began scanning the names and dates on the graves that were legible, remembering Teresa’s words as we left the park on that last day. I never saw her name on any of the stones. The idea was so fanciful, but I was determined to follow any blind alley that might lure me towards some new perspective on what might possibly have happened to her.

With that in mind, I followed Oak Street once again across the park with the river on my right, past the marker for Castle Morgan and the scattered remains of the Crocheron House, continuing on to the outskirts of the old town to the site of the Collier House and its slave quarters and wellhead. It occurred to me then as I approached the site that Teresa had become like one of these places marked on the visitor’s map of Old Cahawba. She was an affirmative absence in the world, labeled and marked in my mind by where she used to be—a vacant space in a grassy field, a negative presence only vaguely discernable, like the outline of an old foundation visible in the dry grass parched by the summer heat.

I walked up the steps of the slave quarter house like we had done years before, again scattering the skinks warming themselves on the bricks among the waxing ivy. I knew that in time the entire structure, if left unattended, would be consumed by kudzu, Virginia creeper, and poison ivy. Wisteria had already crept halfway up the backside of the house, its profuse, lilac-colored flowers hanging like bunches of ripe grapes on the vines. Maybe one day the house would just burn down. I circled the house again and noticed the plywood covering a back window had become detached from the brick frame on one side. I thought maybe I could just pull the plywood back far enough to wedge myself through and give it a try. I was immediately hit with the smell of mildew and decay as I tried to make enough room for my body. With one foot braced on the side of the house and my hands on the window frame I was just able to boost one knee up onto the window ledge. From there I awkwardly scrambled through the opening in the window and dropped onto the dusty interior floor. My right arm was scratched pretty badly. A thin rivulet of blood ran down my arm and dripped onto the floor. I fished the phone out of my pocket and switched on the light. The room was utterly bare, as was the adjoining room to my left. The house hadn’t been occupied in decades, and not a scrap of furniture remained inside. I worked my way through to the central living room on the main floor. Water stains and mildew covered the ceilings and ran down the walls. The dark wood floors were covered with a fine accumulation of dust. As I neared the front of the house, I angled my light towards a flight of stairs that ran along a wall up to the second floor. The upper half of the staircase had rotted out completely and was now lying in a heap along the wall. It too was covered in debris and dust. As I looked about the room, my footprints were the only ones visible. She hadn’t been here.

I don’t know what I was expecting to find. I blinked in the sunlight and stumbled towards the wellhead, where I sat for a moment to wash my arm. I saw nothing but my own reflection in the water. Whatever Teresa could see in the basin, in the empty fields, or among the tombstones was beyond me. I lay back in the grass and watched the clouds for a moment while fresh water continued to trickle out of the dog-faced wellhead into the basin below. Before long, I had drifted off to sleep.

When I woke up, the sun was low in a clear sky, and the trees and fields around me were bathed in the honeyed light of the late afternoon. I stood and walked back around the former slave quarter house towards the road. As I looked across the field and the road toward the tree line in the distance, I was struck by a sudden sense of recognition. The scene before me was one I had seen before. It was only then that I remembered that evening at Paul’s house years ago when Teresa and I, along with David and Sandy, played a game with him during what must have been the Christmas break of our senior year in college while we were all back in Montgomery. He had asked her to picture a room and I seemed to remember that there had been a window and a box. She had described a scene just like what I saw before me. A field and a dirt road. The woods in the distance. The river off to the left and somewhere down from the bluff. I turned back around and looked at the structure behind me. Yes, the scene could have been seen from there, through one of those windows on the left. I turned back around. But I swore that the way she described it would have been closer to the road. It would have been from about where I then stood, in fact—from the second floor of the big house that once stood on this spot.

“So what does it all mean, Paul?”

“You must be Dominic.” A woman about my age stood in the doorway, smiling. “I’m Samantha. Peter told me you planned to stop by when you were in Montgomery today. Come on in.”

“Thanks so much. I appreciate y’all letting me look around the place.” I stepped through the doorway into the entryway and Samantha closed the door behind me. A grand staircase rose in front of me. A hall stretched towards the back of the house with rooms arranged along the sides.

“I just made some more coffee, if you’d like some,” she offered.

I nodded. “Thanks, that sounds good.”

“You picked a good time. Folks sometimes stop by unannounced wanting to look around, but we’re often just too busy during the week, and there’s not always someone here on Saturday. Thanks for calling us first to arrange something.” She handed me a Styrofoam cup. “Do you take sugar or creamer?”

“No, thanks.” I blew across the surface of the cup and gingerly took a sip. “So how long has the house been a law office?” I continued looking around the place as I stood in the foyer. The house appeared to have retained its original interior structure, but the rooms had been divided up into offices and conference rooms. The sitting room on my right looked like a reception area of some sort. What I could see was decorated with a mix of antique and contemporary furniture and art. A large abstract painting hung on an exposed-brick wall on the far side of the reception area.

“The firm has been in this space for probably twenty years or so. We took it over well before my time. It’s a registered historical home, so we’re limited with what we can do to the exterior, and we’ve tried to maintain the interior as much as we can. We respect its historical value and are happy to open our doors to the community. So did you say you’re with the Friends of Old Cahawba?”

“Yes, I’m a member,” I explained, “and I’ve had a longtime interest in the park.”

“Wonderful. I’ve never been out to the park myself, but I know the Collier House is one of the best preserved houses that was relocated to Montgomery after the war. But you probably know more about its history than I do. I’ll just be in my office if you need anything. Feel free to peek into the rooms if you’d like. We just ask that you not touch any of the files or personal belongings in the offices. Feel free to go upstairs too.” She turned and walked a few steps down the hall to her office and pulled the door half closed.

I took a turn about the hallway and peeked into a couple of the offices. Just off the hall to the left was a long executive conference room where the dining room once must have been. Along one wall there were framed black-and-white pictures that had been taken of the Collier House over the course of its history, including a photograph of the house as it stood at Old Cahawba before the move. The façade was recognizably the same, and I could see just to the right near the edge of the frame the familiar shape of the wellhead and basin. To the left where a magnolia tree now stands appeared to have once been the location of a coach house of some sort. The head of a horse could just been seen poking out of the doorway, the rest of its form engulfed in the shadows within. There was a shape of a face, familiar but obscured by the shadows, just visible peeping out from the blackness of a second-floor window.

When I climbed the stairs, I could see that the second floor had been divided into a half-dozen offices. There were two large offices on the front side of the house facing the road, mirror images of one another. I entered the one on my right. It was unmistakably similar to what Teresa had seen that night at Paul’s house—high ceilings rising from thick pine floors, crown moulding, a ceiling medallion decorated with an intricate pineapple design, and windows that would have looked out onto the dirt road that led from the river across the bluff into the old town. I approached the nearest window and ran my fingers along its frame. I looked up. For a moment as I held my breath, I saw the shape of a face in the window. The eyes that stared back at me were so much like my own.

Thomas Casey is an attorney who lives and works in Birmingham, Alabama.

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