The Fever

She’s never sure if what she remembers is what really happened, or if the memory of what happened thickened over time, like a sharply-spiced roux, into History Enhanced.

The recipe is simple:

1) Sift the facts;

2) Blend with a child’s fevered dreams;

3) Steep for several years;

4) On each anniversary add a heart full of grief and stir;

5) Wait until the middle of a sleepless night then

6) Taste;

7) Swallow;

8) Vomit;

9) Remember.

On the twenty-first of April around three-thirty in the morning, an unhappy father gently picks up his sleeping daughter from her bed and carries her into the sewing room. He lays her on the love-seat beside the Singer, but she’s awake by now and asks him what’s happening. In a soft whisper that smells faintly of cigarettes and peppermint he tells her to close her eyes and go back to sleep. On leaving the room, he takes the lattice-backed chair with him, the chair her mother sits in when working on a new dress or a new set of drapes or a pair of hand-embroidered tea-towels for a neighbor’s daughter’s wedding shower. He closes the sewing-room door and props the chair against it, tucking it firmly under the doorknob to prevent his daughter from leaving. He tip-toes down the stairs and out to the toolshed, where he lifts the hammer from its hook on the wall. From another hook he removes a skein of rope.

Awake and curious, the child rises from the love-seat and tries to open the door. Upon realizing that she’s shut inside, she calls out for the father, softly at first but louder the second time, and perhaps that second cry is what wakes the mother. The unhappy father is back in the house by now, climbing the stairs when the unhappy mother emerges from the bedroom. He bounds up the remaining steps and strikes the mother in the left temple with the blunt end of the hammer-head. The mother cries out as she falls, and hearing this the girl in the sewing room drops to her knees and peers through the keyhole. This is her perspective of all that follows.

The unhappy father pounds his wife’s head five more times with the hammer, shouting the word “enough” with each blow. The sleepy little brother, awakened by the commotion, toddles out of the bedroom he shares with his sister and seeing the father striking the mother begins to wail. The father turns, readjusts the hammer, then swings and, catching the boy under the jaw with the claw-end, lifts him several inches off the floor before ripping the hammer-head loose. The sleepy little brother falls out of view at this point; all the daughter can see is the dark fountain spouting then diminishing. The father turns back to his wife and pounds and pounds until he grows exhausted. When he drops the hammer the daughter hears the dull thump of it hitting the carpet; he then uncoils the rope, ties one end around the railing at the top of the stairs, and loops the other end into a noose. He takes his time fashioning this, tying it and retying it until he is satisfied with the result. “Daddy?” the little girl calls and he answers, “I’ll be right with you, honey.” He sounds as cheery he always does, as if he is looking forward to spending a few happy minutes with his favorite child. He slips the noose around his neck and steps over the railing, holding onto the baluster to prevent himself from falling too soon. When he’s ready he releases his grip and the child sees the rope snap tight.

Once the sun rises she thinks to open the window and step out onto the back-porch roof then clamber down the morning glory trellis. She walks down the lane barefoot, a long chilly half-mile to the nearest neighbor, whose daughter is getting married soon.

Time softens the past, she’s told as she grows. But this never seems like the past to her, certainly not a distant one; its aftermath is forever present as if the events unfolded but moments before, and remembering is like gazing through a keyhole into an adjoining room.

THE STORY:

2021. Joanna and Bud Vance have recently purchased the farm known locally as Calvary Acres. She’s an architect, he’s a contractor, and they plan to develop the land into a kind of Utopian Community for the 21st century. They reside in the single brand-new state-of-the-art house on the property; so far none of the other (half-constructed) houses have sold, and they and their two children live alone in a modern-day ghost town seven miles from Saint Nick.

Life is a struggle, and their marriage is under considerable strain. Their son Donny is entering puberty, and becoming disturbingly rebellious, threatening violence. Their six-year-old daughter Beth has started to lie, and to swear, and to see things that no-one else believes in.

Then one afternoon, returning home after a walk through their property, Joanna spies a strange figure standing in her attic window, looking down at her. A woman from another time. A woman named Hannah Calvary—Joanna comes to learn—whose husband will one day kill her.

1894. Hannah and John Calvary farm their forty acres seven miles from the small village of Saint Nicholas, Minnesota. Life is hard, and their marriage is strained. The religious, Norwegian community around them views them as “different”. They are not Scandinavian. They do not go to church. They are people not to be trusted, people with secrets.

But everyone here has secrets. Everyone here has come to start a new life. And someone among them is murdering their children. Someone has caught what Hannah refers to as “The Fever”.

In the last year-and-a-half six local boys and girls have disappeared. So far only seven-year-old Alice Rudolph has been found, her throat cut, lying at the bottom of a well.

When the body of a seventh child is found on the Calvary property with his throat cut, suspicion falls on John. Hannah is desperate to prove his innocence.

But the suspicions of John’s guilt are not without cause. He drinks. He beats his wife. He’s killed before.

Then one night, lost in reverie after one of her husband’s drunken attacks, Hannah looks out her attic window to see a strange woman in her front yard, a woman from another time, a woman—Hannah comes to believe—in danger of becoming a victim of The Fever.

Hannah tries to warn Joanna: your husband wants to kill you.

Joanna tries to warn Hannah: your husband wants to kill you.

THE BACKSTORY: I love The Turn of the Screw. I love The Haunting of Hill House. I wanted to write a book in which Henry James meets Shirley Jackson. I wanted to write a story in which – not only does the past haunt the future – but the future haunts the past.