Thy Sister’s Keeper

Thy Sister’s Keeper

By Stephen O’Connor

It was back in ’92. While I attended UMASS, Lowell, working toward a degree in English, I had a job working for the Massachusetts Guardian Security Services. Armed with my radio and Maglight Tactical Flashlight, I would prowl the darkened alleys and hollow hearts of vacant mill buildings, where sluggish canals still ran like clogged arteries beneath the worn floorboards of the basement, oily with drippings from long-vanished machines. The Boott Mills, named for Kirk Boott, one of the city’s founders, was my primary responsibility. “One hundred foot of John Street” was the curious address for the extensive quadrangular complex. Anyone who says that he can roam, without some trepidation, the winding stairs and vast empty silent floors where once sat row upon row of shuttling power looms with their churning belts; that he is not troubled by the darkness outside the beam of the flashlight, or by the dim moonlight that sometimes pales the endless rows of windows, is either a liar or a better man than I am.

Old Sullivan from County Donegal had done the job for years, but as he neared retirement, he was transferred to a post that did not require him to mount so many flights of stairs. He took me on a tour and explained my duties. “Look for vagrants, signs of squatters. Check the thermometers that are taped to the support columns in the different rooms on every floor. Make a note of the readings. If the temperature is slipping below 32 degrees, radio the property management. Can’t let the water protection units freeze, you see. Sure, this whole place could go the way of many old mills before it.”

I kept asking him about the strange sounds that distracted me from his explanations, “What was that?”

“Rats, Frankie. They run the place.”

I shivered in the cold darkness, following as, haltingly, he ascended the stairs to the fifth floor. “Worn by the feet of the mill girls as they answered the bell, as far back as 1835,” he said, “when as they say, cotton was king.” Surprised by a sudden rushing clamor, I shot my flashlight beam wildly into the black void above us. “Pigeons,” he muttered. The floorboards beneath our feet were covered with their droppings.

It was a creepy place, even with the calm Sullivan, but soon I was on my own. I became accustomed to the scurrying of rats. Joe Gamari, who did the daily rounds, was fond of leaving dead ones on the stairs for me. There were other things I did not grow accustomed to, such as the feeling that I was not alone in that old mill, that amid the scratching of rats or the clamor of wings or the sound of a siren passing in the night outside, I heard something else: whispers, sighs, and sometimes distant laughter, as if there were a radio on in another room. Every sound echoed in those spaces, but my flashlight showed nothing anywhere but rows of columns standing amid the barren plain of the floor.

How I looked forward to the dawn, when I would hurry away, traversing the courtyard under the brooding windows of the mills and cross the canal bridge, heading to the Paradise Diner, where Arthur and his wife would be unloading their station wagon of fresh bread direct from the Middle East Bread Company. The mysterious sounds and eerie stillness of the previous night would take flight as I sat at the counter drinking a coffee, watching Arthur prepare my Boott Mill Sandwich, smiling at the word spelled out across the back of his belt: DELICIOUS. I’d arranged my classes for the afternoon so I could go home and sleep for five hours or so.

I was able to do my job and banish my fears, or at least quell them, for a while. One night in mid-October, I had a particularly apprehensive feeling as I approached the Boott Mills. The bell tower, with its cotton bobbin weathervane, was silhouetted against charging ragged moonlit clouds. I thought of the old Creedence song, “Bad Moon on the Rise,” and tried to shake the feeling. Surely, if Old Sullivan could do this job for so many years, so could I.

I passed the grim wasteway and turned the key in the padlock of the first gate. The heavy chain fell clanking against the bars, and I entered and turned to relock the gate. The basement, empty. No signs of break-ins or squatters. My footsteps resounded on the stairs. A dead rat hung from the door latch on the first floor. “Very funny, Joe.”

The night was chilly, but not near freezing. Still, they wanted me to check the temperatures for “data collection.” It was their way of making certain that I checked every room on each floor because there were no key stations in the mills. My footsteps seemed to fracture some skein of silence as I made my lonely rounds. Descending the stairs toward the third floor, I heard movement behind me. It was neither rat nor pigeon, but a hurried footfall and something like the rustle of fabric, the swish of a long skirt. I spun, flashing a stream of light into vacancy. The sound had been loud enough and distinct enough to suspend any courageous thoughts I had of charging back the way I had come, as if I might locate some reassuring source. It had been directly behind me. As I stood, frozen in that spot, I heard a voice, the light voice of a young girl, which seemed to come from the darkness of the stairwell above me. Some old song reached me from the vaulting dark above me.                

Pray what do you want with us, sir,
With us sir,
With a ransom-tansom-tay?

I felt someone, I should say something, at my side, and I heard, close to my left ear, a sound like a breath exhaled, and in that breath, the words, “What do you want?” I ran.

Outside by the gate, I invented temperature readings, and waited nervously for dawn, when finally I crossed the courtyard toward the bridge, feeling as if a thousand eyes watched me from the dark windows of the mills that surrounded me. The next day was Saturday, and I went to see Old Sullivan, who I knew lived above Gormley’s Diner. He answered the door in slippers, his company pants, and suspenders over a tee shirt. He took one look at my face and said, “So you’ve seen them?”

“I haven’t seen ‘them,’ but I’ve heard them. Jesus, Sullivan! What’s going on in there? Why didn’t you tell me? I ran out of there last night!”

“Well, not everyone hears them or sees them. You need some kind of…empathy. Coffee?”

“Yes, please.” He poured two coffees, took a bottle of Bushmill’s from the cupboard and fortified each with a shot. I didn’t object. I noticed that his apartment was full of books. “The long and the short of it is this,” he said as he set the coffees down. “An awful lot of young women came to this city long ago and slaved their youths away in those mills amid the deafening roar of the looms. They worked, they dreamed, they looked longingly out those windows past the river toward their homes in the countryside. They choked on cotton dust. Many were injured and some even died in there. One woman’s hair was caught in the belts, and she was hauled right up to the ceiling. Took her a while to die. The place consumed their lives, five days a week, twelve hours a day and half that again on Saturday. It was grueling, but you see they formed a strong bond with each other there, a sisterhood if you will, the way people do in very trying circumstances. Something so strong, it survived, somehow.”

I shook my head in confused disbelief, yet I knew that it was true. “What did you see, Sullivan?”

He shrugged. “Entities, I call them. Shadows of the past, I don’t know. Ghosts if you like. Donegal is full of them, Burt Castle, the rectory in Newtowncunningham, Drumbeg Manor. The first one I saw in the Boott was a very young girl, in skirt and apron, looking out the window toward the river. Such a sad look she had when she turned her gaze on me.”

“What did you do?”

The old man muttered something incomprehensible, in another language. “That’s what I said, for I grew up speaking Irish, and it sprang to my lips, you see?”

“It means?”

“Simply, ‘May your soul be on God’s right hand.’ And the girl, for she was more a girl than a woman, spoke. Her lips never moved, but I heard her voice plainly, and she was Irish too, and spoke in the old tongue. ‘And your soul, too, when you die,’ she said. Then I heard one of the other many sounds you hear there at night, rats probably. I turned for a second, and when I looked back, she was gone.”

“But there were others?”

“Oh yes, Frank. They are always there for those can see them. The ladies of the loom, as Lucy Larcom called them. I never breathed a word of it. People don’t understand.”

Before I left, he went and rummaged among piles of books and handed me several reprinted copies of an old literary magazine that was published by the mill girls, called The Lowell Offering, and a book of poems by Lucy Larcom. “Read those, and you’ll know them. They never harmed me, Frank. They’re not evil entities. And anyway, as Shakespeare’s prince said, they can’t ever harm your soul, which is a thing immortal, like themselves.”

I wasn’t sure if I was comforted or frightened by the old man’s words. “I don’t know if I can go back,” I said.

“It’s not a place for the faint-hearted.” The unspoken question that hung in the air was, “Are you faint-hearted, Frank?”

 

I girded my heart and returned, and having immersed myself, in what little free time I had, in the books Sullivan had given me, I did feel as if I knew or understood those presences that still inhabited the spinning rooms and carding rooms of the Boott Mills. I carried Lucy Larcom’s poems with me. As Halloween approached, I was more than usually jumpy in that ghost of a building. One night a sudden voice beside me nearly turned my heart sideways, but it was my radio. “Frank McClaren,” I said. “What’s up, Ken?”

“Frank, a body was just pulled out of the canal behind the Paradise over your way. Keep your eyes open for anything suspicious.”

“Foul play?”

“Waiting to hear. Maybe the cholesterol from the Boott Mill Sandwiches got to him.” Ken laughed. I didn’t. “Okay,” I said, “let me know what you hear.”

It was cold in the mills that night. Currents of even colder air seemed to flow about the dark chambers and along the quiet stairways. I wrote the temperature of the various rooms of the third floor in my notebook, 36 degrees, on average. As I thrust my notebook into a jacket pocket, my breath caught. A woman stood by a window in the dress of a factory girl of the 1840’s. The wan moonlight, or maybe it was an exterior light, fell over her face, from which her hair had been pulled back in a chignon. A wave of cold fear ran from the floor up my spine and caught my lungs in a tightening web as she fixed me with dark eyes that shone in that ashen face, and I sensed the question she seemed once again to project: “What do you want with us, Sir?” I cleared my parched throat and tried to remember Sullivan’s blessing, but my mind was blank.

Though not a religious man, I now quietly called on all the saints to help me stand my ground, repeating to myself over and over the words the old man had said: ‘They are not evil,’ and recalling that my soul was a thing immortal, like them. Other forms, less distinct, but no less real to me, now gathered around this proud entity. There was whispering among them, and one of them was sobbing while others tried to comfort her. I almost ran, but then I reached for the book in my jacket pocket. I shone the light on the page, afraid to look up, but feeling as I heard the young woman’s sobbing subside that something like peace had descended on us all as I read from the book:

All day she stands before her loom;
The flying shuttles come and go:
By grassy fields, and trees in bloom,
She sees the winding river flow:
And fancy’s shuttle flieth wide,
And faster than the waters glide.

“I weave, and weave, the livelong day:
The woof is strong, the warp is good:
I weave, to be my mother’s stay;
I weave, to win my daily food:
But ever as I weave,” saith she,
“The world of women haunteth me

So up and down before her loom
She paces on, and to and fro,
Till sunset fills the dusty room,
And makes the water redly glow,
As if the Merrimack’s calm flood
Were changed into a stream of blood.

Too soon fulfilled, and all too true
The words she murmured as she wrought:
But, weary weaver, not to you
Alone was war’s stern message brought:
“Woman!” it knelled from heart to heart,
“Thy sister’s keeper know thou art!”

Several things happened at once. As I neared the end of the reading, I heard applause, but the sound of it was closer than the “entities” had been. I saw that the space by the window where they had gathered was empty; a man was emerging from the shadows, smiling and clapping. “A rent-a-cop reciting poetry in my crib! Who invited you? When I come home, I clear the rent-a-cop scum from my house!” At the same time, my radio crackled, and I heard Ken’s voice. “Frank, that guy in the canal was stabbed to death. Keep your eyes open.”

I dropped the book and lifted the long flashlight in my right hand. I went for my radio with my left, but the man lunged, and the radio skittered across the floor. I saw him reach into his belt to draw what weapon I did not know. I swung the flashlight, but he ducked, and I felt a sharp sting in the arm and knew it was a knife and that I’d been cut. I dropped the flashlight and staggered backward, aware that he was drawing back to swing the knife again. I’ve been in my share of brawls in this city, but this was the first time the cold and fearful realization struck me with utter certainty: “This son of a bitch wants me dead.” And I ran for my life.

I ran toward a wrought iron gate that set off the old bursar’s office and a back stairway. It swung open as I approached. My hard breathing and the footsteps of my pursuer close behind were all that I could hear, but when I passed through the gate, I heard it slam shut behind me without my having touched it. There was no lock, yet the lunatic had stopped short, and I saw that he was unable to move it. The gate that had opened on quiet hinges for me had closed and was immovable for him! My fallen flashlight sent a beam across the floor like a single footlight on a barren stage. The madman was cursing and muttering as he tried to shake the gate free. I should have kept running, but something kept me there. He held the knife in his teeth and pulled at the gate with both hands. It did not even rattle; it was motionless. I smiled.

A shadow emerged from the surrounding darkness into the arc of light, a moving blot that crossed the floor directly toward the mad stranger. It was a rat, and the man jumped as it climbed his leg. The knife fell from his mouth and clattered on the floor. He shook his leg and swiped wildly at it. “Get away you little bastard!” Another rat ran toward him, then two more, and four; they rose from the floor and out of crevices in the wall; soon it seemed every rat in the silent mill complex was crawling over him. He danced screaming over the old floorboards under a dark squealing blanket. “The rats run this place,” I shouted to him. “You bloodthirsty prick.” I was not surprised when the gate opened easily under my hand. I picked up my flashlight, book and radio and notified Ken. “Third floor Boott Mills Number Four. Call LPD and an ambulance.”

“Roger that. What’s that sound, like screaming?” Ken asked.

“That’s a man screaming,” I said. “Make your calls.” I tied my jacket tightly around my wounded arm and sat in the window casement where the factory girls had been. The screaming stopped. I read Lucy Larcom while I waited.

9 Responses to Thy Sister’s Keeper

  1. David Daniel says:

    This is a hell of good classic ghost story in the tradition of M.R. James and Lord Dunsany. Steve O’Connor moves it along with all the appropriate notes–rats, apparitions, icy draughts–then grounds it in present day reality.

    And full of wonderful lines: “My footsteps seemed to fracture some skein of silence as I made my lonely rounds.” So many good ones.

    Thanks for the read.

  2. Malcolm Sharps says:

    Hardly misses a trick of the genre. Get the rats in early then bring them back later. It’s a genre you want to have fun with and the occasional in joke but you’ve got to get the background history authentic and O’is your man for that. Can’t wait for the film.

  3. Jerry Bisantz says:

    As usual, Mr O’Connor answers the bell with a whopper of a tale. Maybe he had a cold one at The Worthen and toasted Mr Poe before penning this classic. Nevertheless, glad I read it in the daytime!

  4. Anne barrett says:

    And though it was never part of his plan, Frankie never left his post as night watchman…that was a fun, creepy, thoughtful read…thank you Steve

  5. Jack Dacey says:

    Steve O’Connor weaves a fascinating tale, with delicious thrills that raise the hairs on the back of your neck. The feeling of being alone — or maybe not alone — in a cold, dark, shadowy place with immense empty spaces and unwelcome noises. Great atmosphere, enhanced by our knowledge that the location of this story is real, as is the historical background. All in all, a rattling good ghost story, set in a place that was made for one! Well done!

  6. Anne Whitaker says:

    I so enjoyed this tale! I found myself reading faster and faster as the tension mounted,but still savoring your words and phrases!

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