The Sights and Sounds
In their area of choosing, the O’Malley’s ran across the planted fields and simple home of their neighbors, an aged couple whose family had tended the land since the generation of their grandparents. With no children of their own, the couple, Lewis and Bryna Mills, had long since imagined the land returning to nature after age took the better of them. When the O’Malley’s arrived to greet them, however, they were more than happy and certainly open to sharing the land.
With a generous distance apart from the Mills’ home for the sake of privacy, the O’Malley’s settled down and splayed out their belongings. It would be several months, William figured, before a proper dwelling could be constructed. Nevertheless, he got to work without delay. The days were spent felling the trees for lumber and clearing and flattening the land for what would become their dwelling and homestead. Jane aided the Mills’ in their garden, learning the ways of planting and preening while they watched over the children. The nights under the covering of the cart reminded them of how distant and isolated they were, but that their life was likely on the turn for the better.
Little Marie began to react well to the new surroundings and fresh air and seemed to be growing the day, her appetite better than ever before. She even began to sleep perfectly well with no coughing and without tricks to aid in her drifting off. James, her elder brother, however, was not at ease in the vast darkness and loneliness.
“Mama,” he spoke up one night, packed in with his parents and sister under the canvas. “I can’t sleep with the sounds of grating and chirping.”
“Those are the crickets, love,” Jane explained, “They sleep when we are awake, and wake when we sleep.”
“What for? And when they can’t see in the dark?”
“They call them ‘nocturnal,’ and I’m sure they have ways of sensing their surroundings,” she explained, “Surely it is preferable to the sound of the mice in the walls of the high rise?”
“The mice musa’ been looking for food, though,” James said back, unsure, “what sort of thing do these things get from making a buncha’ racket all night long?”
“Hmm,” Jane hummed, wondering the same thing, but deciding not to say so aloud.
“They’re talkin’ to each other,” William spoke up, rolling over under the coverings to face his son. “Like the people on the street on market day.”
A nod of agreement came from Jane, who stroked James’ chest to comfort him. “Yes, so let’s try not to be rude and eavesdrop on them.”
“It sounds like…” James pondered aloud, rolling on his stomach to better look out into the darkness, “they’re screaming, afraid of the dark.”
“Let’s show the little bugs, then, that there is nothing to be afraid of,” Jane spoke softly.
With those words on his mind, James rolled back to his side and eventually drifted off without another word. That would not be the end of his worries, however.
The summer months in that part of the country often brought heavy rains. One night after a day of rolling, dark clouds the downpour came. The taut canvas covering the wagon was thoroughly waxed, protecting the family from the weather, but the pounding of the heavy drops on the covering and the leaves of the trees outside was alien and disturbing to the boy. He awoke to the repetitive din.
The overcast sky that remained from the day erased all of the normal shine of the stars from the sky, draining the land of any of the remaining light. Even after blinking furiously to allow his eyes to focus on the darkness, not even his hand would appear before him. The drip-dropping and pitter-pattering grew louder as he pushed aside the flaps of the canvas covering in their cramped sleeping establishment. Just as young James considered pulling back inside and returning to the warmth of his father’s and mother’s sides, a sole light caught his eye.
The orb was of a fuzzy glow, floating above the ground, seeming to dart behind the trunks of the trees, disappearing for fractions of seconds. James yelped and pulled back inside, his hands fumbling about for his father’s chest.
“Something is out there, papa-“
In the boy’s distress, little Marie awoke. William, suspecting the attack of a wild animal, jolted up and pushed aside the canvas and looked out. There was no light, and no sound apart from that of the precipitation. “What is it, boy?”
“Nobody would be out in this weather.”
“Not a person.”
“You must have been dreaming,” William said with a sigh. In the dark, Jane stirred, listening to the exchange while rocking Marie back to sleep on her chest.
The next day, when the weather remained with no signs that it would cease, the family headed to the old couple’s home. They were allowed inside to escape the damp and to be allowed space to spread out.
“James says he saw a light last night,” William joked with Lewis. “You weren’t perhaps out in the dark and rain?”
Lewis took the words with a stern face. “No, sir. Perhaps what he saw was a wisp.”
By this time, the boy had taken to the conversation among the adults. “A wisp?”
“Perhaps we shouldn’t with the talk of frightening things,” William sighed, “The boy already has enough trouble sleeping.”
Lewis crossed his arms and drummed his fingers. He glanced at the boy’s still engaged look. “A floatin’ light, perhaps, did ya’ see?”
“A will-o-the-wisp, they call it.”
“Yeah,” Jane prodded, “the family maid used ta’ tell us stories about boggarts and witches and wisps and fairies, Lewis. Folk tales. Boy, there is nothing but crickets and toads and owls that dare come out around these parts in the depth of the night. Nothing a bit dangerous. You’ve told me that, right, William?”
Lewis sighed and continued, a serious tone to his voice. “She do be right, the wisp is not a dangerous thing, at least if you dun’ follow it.”
“Don’t follow it?”
“Where’s it go?”
Lewis leaned back and held a hand to his wrinkled chin. “Well, they say the wisps are the spirits of people who lost the path, never returned home. Some say they lead others to the same fate, lead them off the path to the bogs and then disappear, leaving them stranded.”
“That’s quite enough.” Jane finally caved, standing with Marie in her arms. “The boy has an active enough imagination. Everyone knows that the good Lord would never let a soul suffer here on Earth. Send em’ up high or down low if they did somethin’ deservin’. Speaking of which, do ya’ have the Bible about? We’ll read a few verses, calm your mind.”
“Ah, yes, it’s about here somewhere.”