Carolyn Steele Agosta
The Subject was Magic
Updated: Mar 20
Part 1 of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions
The attic was light and airy, despite its age, with windows front and back and not more than a reasonable coating of dust. Discarded furniture going back three and four generations lined the walls, while a variety of trunks, chests and boxes filled the center. It was a fairly thoughtful collection of antiques and Vonna Spencer could sense a controlled excitement in the dealer’s demeanor.
“You’ve got some nice pieces, Miss Vonna,” he said. “Why are you getting rid of them now? You aren’t moving away, are you?”
Vonna had known Drew Wilkes since he was nine years old, peddling Boy Scout popcorn and PTA candy at her door. “No,” she said, “not at all. But I just think it’s time to clean this stuff out. I don’t want to leave a mess for somebody else to deal with someday. And, you know, maybe earn some extra cash for having fun! Start a new phase in my life.”
She showed him various pieces of furniture that went back to her great-grandparents, Lucite purses that had belonged to her grandmother, her parents’ old cameras and movie projector, and toys she and her brother had collected in the late fifties and early sixties. “I’m pretty sure that the most recent items up here are my old LPs – the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens. The records are pretty well worn, but the album covers are in good shape.”
Drew prowled the room, always politely asking before he opened a dresser drawer or lifted the lid on a trunk. She liked his manners. He had a good little business there in Painter’s Creek, and a nice family. He was the kind of fellow who came to mind when you thought of a ‘good steward’. She might possibly have big plans for him, but he didn’t know about that yet.
His eye was caught by the old wardrobe standing in the corner. It was massive. Rather shabby. “Oh, that one’s probably not for sale,” she said, putting out a hand to stop him but she was too late. He’d already opened it. A powerful scent of mothballs burst forth. He began coughing and turned away. “Sorry,” he said, “I get too eager.” He made as if to close the doors but then he suddenly backed away. “Oh, my gosh! Holy smoke! What the hell?!”
Vonna stared at him as he slammed the doors shut and took several steps back. He coughed some more, covering his mouth and looking desperate. “Good golly, Miss Vonna! Do you have a ghost living up here? That was the damnedest thing!” He backed up some more, edging out of the room. “I’m sorry, but can we go downstairs?”
She followed him down to the kitchen, where he opened the back door and took several breaths of air. “I’ve never – didn’t you feel it? Sent a cold shiver right down my back. That was the weirdest thing I ever – really? You didn’t feel it?”
“No,” she said. “Didn’t notice anything unusual. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yes. I’m sorry. I’m so embarrassed, but that was just so weird.” He looked really shook up. Gradually he pulled himself together and, apologizing again, said he had to leave. He nearly stumbled in his haste to cross the back porch and climb into his truck, and if he didn’t leave a cloud of dust behind, it was only because a light rain had begun to fall.
She climbed back up to the attic and looked around. Everything seemed normal. The air was still, the dust undisturbed, not a sound to hear. She opened the wardrobe and stared at the contents. Old clothes, mostly. She stood facing it for a few minutes and finally, in a loud, clear voice, said, “That wasn’t funny!”
Vonna needed someone to talk with who wouldn’t think she’d gone mental. That meant Oliver, her cousin, but he could be difficult. She finally got him to agree to meet with her, but it had to be on his terms. Somewhere out in public, where they could be seen but not heard, and far from both their homes. This left them sitting on a park bench on a cold January day, a good hour’s drive away.
He sat huddled in his heavy coat, a knit hat jammed down over his ears, with sunglasses keeping him aloof. He didn’t meet her gaze.
“Look,” she said, “I’m not trying to strong-arm you into anything, I just need a sounding board. Who else can I talk to about this?” He grunted and she continued. “You know I turned seventy last month.”
“Well, it freaks me out. I feel like time is slipping away and there’s no one else to deal with this. Who am I going to leave everything to? You don’t want it.”
“You don’t want me to leave it to Antonia.”
“Nope. Leave her out of it.”
“So, what can I do?” She told him of the fiasco in the attic and ended with, “That plan sure went down the drain. Drew won’t set foot in the house.”
“What can I say? You’re an idiot.” Oliver sighed and removed his sunglasses, shoving them into his breast pocket and staring across the park. “What did you think would happen?”
“Well, not that. I mean, Old Whosit has been dormant for years. I thought maybe he’d…you know…given up the ghost.”
Oliver snorted. “So, so funny. It is to laugh. What are you going to do now?”
“I’ve looked online. If I do nothing, if I don’t write a Will, the property goes to the state after I die, and they can sell it or whatever. But what do I do about the barn? And the cottages? Those are my friends living there. They’ll be at the mercy of whatever the state decides. I worry about them.”
“They’re grown-ups. They’re not your responsibility.” Oliver turned and finally looked her in the eyes. “They’re not. If you had stopped meddling years ago…”
“I don’t meddle. I . . . assist.” At his skeptical expression, she plunged on. “What else was I supposed to do with the Gift?”
Again, he snorted. “Gift! You mean Curse. I’ve never understood why you didn’t just get away years ago. Get the heck out of Dodge.”
“Mom didn’t. Grandma didn’t. Look, when life hands you the gift of Magic, you have to deal with it. I’ve done the best I could, tried to figure out what was right. It’s not like I got an instruction manual. I don’t know what happens next. If I die, does all the magic die with me? Does everything revert back to what it was? As far as I know, the Gift has always gone from mother to daughter, but if there’s no daughter, does it jump to some adjacent female? Like your Antonia?”
“Don’t even suggest it.” He grew cold and still, like a huge rock. A boulder. “Don’t even . . .” He stood up and put his sunglasses back on. “I knew this was a mistake. I knew you’d bring that up. Let’s get this straight – you are not to contact Antonia in any way, shape or form. Got it? None of your Jedi mind tricks! This is not what I want for my daughter.”
Man, he was a hard ass nowadays. They’d been close, once. “What if it’s beyond my control?” she asked.
“Almost everything in life is beyond our control, when you come down to it, but do not contact her. If you think the Gift is all that great, then let it do its own thing and just stand back. Don’t meddle. With any luck, it will just die out on its own. Don’t worry about what will happen after you’re gone. You won’t even know, probably. Then again, maybe you will.” He leaned down toward her, face to face but still obscured through his sunglasses. “Or is that what worries you? That you’ll be up there in the attic with Old Whosit, a helpless witness to whatever comes? Floating around in there until the state comes along and tears the place down? I pity you. At least I know that when I’m done here on earth, I’m done on earth.” And with that, he turned and walked away.
She felt cold to the bone by the time she got home, no matter that she’d had the car heater on high. Vonna went into the house, made a cup of coffee, and sat at the kitchen table to write a little list. She was hell-on-wheels with lists.
1. Talk with a lawyer to determine my options for the property, considering I have no direct heirs.
2. Do a personal check-in with all the tenants and see who needs a tune-up.
3. Have a little talk with Drew Wilkes, poor guy.
4. Have a bigger talk with Old Whosit.
5. Buy bread and eggs.
Taking the list with her over to the big mirror, knowing she was a fool for even trying, Vonna stared at her reflection and gave herself a pep talk. “You can do this. There are answers to every problem. You have a responsibility here.” Hopefully, she waited to feel the magic, that sense of confidence and determination she was able to conjure up in other people.
But no. It never worked on herself. All she felt was an urge to run, run, run away. She stared at the mirror for a few seconds more and then added to her list.
6. Also glass cleaner.
The next day, she began working on the list. Did some research online about real estate law and estate matters, made an appointment with a lawyer. Stopped over at Drew’s place.
“You know that attic is very drafty,” she told him. “You just caught some cold air down your collar.”
“I suppose,” Drew said. “But I swear, I felt very unwelcome in that space.” He glanced around his antiques store, still clearly disturbed by the memory.
Vonna touched him on the arm, and he turned to meet her gaze. “Ghosts don’t exist. You got spooked, but it wasn’t real.”
He blinked. “I know. Ghosts don’t exist.” Unhappily, he swallowed and added, “It wasn’t real.” That said, he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “I really am interested in your stuff. Not that wardrobe, boy, but everything else. I’ll get a couple of guys to handle moving it all to my warehouse.”
She nodded and they agreed on a price. He promised to turn over any family papers or photographs that he came across and Vonna was able to walk away, knowing that one big headache was done. The attic would be cleaned out. She’d deal with Old Whosit, somehow. They had a long history.
As for the tenants, that would take longer. The family property which she had inherited had once been a farm. The old farmhouse remained, but no crops had been grown in many years. More than sixty years ago, when she was just a kid, the electric company had built a dam across the river to create hydroelectric power, and nearly half the acreage was flooded. Now it was a lakefront property, and over the years, six cottages had been built. She had tenants for all of them and, as well, a commercial building up by the highway. It had once been a general store and bait shop, now it was a specialty restaurant, run by a husband-and-wife team.
Vonna had hand-selected each of her tenants. They were friends, many of them long-time friends. Oliver accused her of meddling in their lives, but it was only for their own good. She had always felt that the Gift was a kind of sacred trust. The effects must be benign. Helpful, even. But what would happen if she wasn’t around anymore? Would the Gift wear off? She usually could count on seeing each of her tenants at frequent intervals, to check on how they were doing and give them a little ‘boost’ if necessary. Could they really get by without her help? Did they even need her? When was it time to let go of her responsibilities? Or maybe turning them loose was a part of her responsibilities. Like a parent releasing a child to make their own mistakes. Not using the Gift was a decision just as much as using it, and every decision had a consequence. Sometimes unintended.
She couldn’t sleep that night, tossing and turning with thoughts that would not settle down. This happened now and then, usually with a replaying of every embarrassing or upsetting moment she’d ever experienced, in excruciating detail. Why was it these tiny fragments of her life lingered, when the many good times evaporated without a trace? She turned to one side and remembered the night a policeman showed up at her door to tell her that her husband, Steve, had been killed in a motorcycle accident on a wet highway. She turned to the other side and it was that embarrassing moment at prom when she caught her heel on the hem of her dress and fell on the dance floor. With a groan she flopped over onto her stomach and closed her eyes and felt herself beginning to sink into oblivion when suddenly she was eight years old again and had her first experience of Old Whosit.
She wasn’t allowed to play in the attic. That was forbidden. But who could resist going up to peek at the necklaces of colored glass beads, or the old-fashioned china-head dolls? She was happily imagining herself as a princess in a tower, wrapped in Mom’s old crinoline, when she felt a presence behind her. She turned and saw no one, but that big old wardrobe in the corner seemed to emanate a disapproving air. She got up and went closer. The wood cabinet loomed over her, like a high-shouldered old man. She watched her fingers reach out and pull the doors open. Vonna couldn’t smell the mothballs in her dream, but she could remember the impact of the odor, the way it rocked her back on her heels, the way her gaze traveled up toward the highest shelves and then suddenly, the doors pulled themselves loose from her grasp and slammed shut. The effect was explosive. She ran downstairs and hurled herself into her mother’s lap.
“You weren’t supposed to be up there, Vonnie,” Mom had murmured, smoothing Vonna’s hair. They rocked together a moment in silence. “There are some things you’re too young to be doing.” Mom slid her hand along Vonna’s cheek and lifted her chin so they could meet eye to eye. “You don’t want to be up there anymore,” she said, and Vonna nodded, lost as always in her mother’s blue-eyed gaze.
She didn’t go up again, but she had nightmares about it for years. Those finally disappeared when she got married and moved with Steve into one of the cottages. A couple of years after he died, she gave up her cottage and moved back into the farmhouse to take care of Mom, and had run-ins with Old Whosit now and then. But she hadn’t dreamed of him in many years. She didn’t really appreciate dreaming about him now.
Only once had she and Mom ever spoken about the ghost. Or spirt, or whatever he was. “It doesn’t feel like it’s anyone I ever knew,” Mom said, tucked into bed for the evening. “If it was the spirit of my mom or dad, I think I’d know them, you know? But of course, this house is old, and the wardrobe might be even older. I know it was there when your Grandma was still alive, but she was always afraid of it too. I think it’s a He. Don’t you? Sometimes he seems like a grumpy old man and sometimes like a kid pulling pranks.”
“What do you think would happen if we ever emptied the wardrobe?” Vonna had asked, but her mother was drifting off to sleep by then and just shook her head. During Mom’s final days, she slept a lot.
So, Vonna never really investigated. She didn’t like knowing it was up there in the attic, but frankly, it was easier to ignore than to handle. She had enough to do already.
The day approached when the attic was to be emptied. Drew Wilkes arranged for a small moving van and a couple of helpers, so now she needed to have a word with Old Whosit. She fortified herself with two cups of coffee at breakfast and made the trek up the stairs. The day was overcast and very little sunshine came in the windows. The wardrobe stood silently in its corner, and she sensed cold displeasure.
“Look,” she said. “I don’t know if you can understand me, but tomorrow some men will be coming to cart away everything in here. Not you, but everything else.” She wondered if his ears were pricked, like a cautious fox. “I’ll be here to make sure you’re not disturbed. Once everything is gone, you can feel comfortable that no one will bother you. I want this to occur peacefully.” She couldn’t exactly stare eye-to-eye with a wardrobe, but she gave it her best. “You will please be quiet and calm.” There was no response, and she wasn’t even sure she wanted one, but struck by inspiration, she added in a gentle voice, “And maybe someday, you will allow me to search inside and discover what keeps you from your rest. If there’s anything in there to discover.” Maybe she was a fool for trying, but what else can you do with a difficult person? Just try your best to be understanding and gentle.
And if that didn’t work, she’d drag the filthy thing down to the yard and burn it like firewood.
The furniture removal went smoothly. She stationed herself protectively in front of the wardrobe and occasionally, casually, made calming comments whenever the moving men seemed to tense up. Afterward, she came up to speak her thanks to her resident ghost. “You and I haven’t always gotten along,” she said, hoping to placate him, “but there’s no reason for us to be enemies. I will respect your boundaries if you’ll respect mine.” Old Whosit made no response, so she just let him stew on that for a while. She swept the floor and gathered up some stray pieces of trash. As she turned to go, a sort of clatter rose up behind her and she turned to see the wardrobe vibrating, almost rattling. All her hair stood up on end and she froze in place, the broom in one hand, a dust pan in the other. The doors burst open and stuff on the shelves came leaping out, as if someone was pushing them from behind. A mesh bag of mothballs was the first thing to go. An old pair of shoes went sailing past her head, and a load of old coats and blankets slid off the shelves. There was a crash as a box of glassware fell on the floor. A sort of low moan began, and the wardrobe rocked side to side, as if putting up a terrible struggle.
“Stop it,” she yelled. “Alright, alright! I’ll leave you alone!” But she couldn’t move, couldn’t lift her feet. Suddenly the last of the items flew out of the wardrobe, to reveal one thing left behind.
An urn. A funerary urn. Someone’s mortal remains. Oh my gosh, she thought. No wonder.
The wardrobe settled down, having made its message clear. Vonna dropped what she was holding and, carefully stepping over all the things on the floor, approached the urn. It was metal, very plain, but an engraved brass plate had been attached to it. Theodore Stafford, it read. 1899-1918. Grandma’s brother. All Vonna knew was that several family members were wiped out by the big influenza pandemic after World War I. Both of her great-grandparents had died, and this brother. Was it possible he’d been cremated and then forgotten, somehow? Grandma herself would have been only eight years old at the time. “I’m so sorry,” she found herself saying aloud. “How terrible for you, to be forgotten.”
Cautiously, she touched the urn, picked it up, carried it out into the room. The wardrobe, empty now and spent of its violence, seemed resigned to fate. Vonna carefully carried the urn downstairs and set it on the dining room table. “I’ll see that you’re properly and respectfully handled,” she said. “I can have you buried near Great-Grandma’s grave.”
Ironic, she thought. How we fight and beat against what we fear, when if we would only slow down and wait, the answer we need might be on its way. By making the attic such an uncomfortable place, Theodore had prevented anyone from helping him. We can all be such fools, she thought.
A few days later, after the urn was placed to rest, Vonna received a visit from Drew Wilkes. “I found these photo albums,” he said, “and a lot of old family papers you’ll probably want. Some of them go pretty far back.” He placed a large carton on her table and glanced around the kitchen. “This is a nice old house, isn’t it? I didn’t really take time to appreciate it when I was here before. Look at the workmanship! They don’t build them like this anymore.”
Vonna looked around. The sun, coming through the window, cast a beam of light on a copper-bottom pan, making it shine like fire. “Yes, it’s a good old place,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder if I should move away, but on a day like this, I tend to think twice.”
I really shouldn’t use the Gift to coerce him, she thought. He’d be an excellent property manager, but Oliver’s probably right – I shouldn’t meddle in people’s lives. I shouldn’t urge them to do something just because it helps me out. I need to let them do their own thing.
She watched as Drew admired her 1930s Hoover cabinet and old wooden wall phone. He really was a nice young man. He’d make an excellent property manager and it wouldn’t take up much of his time. Maybe . . . maybe she could wean herself off the use of the Gift, bit by bit, instead of going cold turkey.
“Well, I’m sure you have thing to do today,” he said, and turned to leave. “You have a good day, now. You hear?”
“Drew,” she said, smiling and turning her bright blue eyes on him. “Stay for a cup of tea, won’t you? I have something I want to ask.”
By Carolyn Steele Agosta
This is the first story in a series titled Strangely Satisfying Obsessions. To read the others in the series, go here. Don't forget to sign up for email notifications of new episodes on my home page!