“There was a old woman who swallowed a fly…”
“Aw C’mon Grannie,” My eight year old grandaughter, Amy, protested. “Tell us a REAL story!” We made stubborn eye contact, my ancient eyes drilling into her brilliant, young blue ones.
She began to giggle.
“You were just teasing us, weren’t you, Grannie?”
Of course I was. I told her so.
Okay, a real story, my dear? For you and your brother, Mark, aged ten, who doesn’t really believe in ghosts, or spooks, or magic because you are far too old and sophisticated?
All right, here we go.
It was 1940, when I was about twenty, and I hadn’t met your grandfather yet. That was five years in the future, and the idea of romance was some dreamy sort of thing like the dime movies I liked to watch with my best friend, Ellie Stuart on the weekends after a long week of teacher’s college.
No, dears, I never became a teacher. But that was pretty much all that there was for us women at the time. Teacher, secretary or wife/mother. At the time, my heart wished for more, but I could not tell you what that “more” was.
Late in May, Ellie got an invitation from Sollie Handersham, an ancient relative, to go to a small town in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, called Sperryville and spend the summer with her. She could also bring a guest. Ellie chose me.
Craving adventure, I leaped at the chance. I didn’t know the adventure I would get.
We got off the train in Culpepper, a bustling little city which had roots back to Virginia’s pre-colonial days. Ellie, having gotten a substantial check from her relative to cover all the travel expenses, splurged on a cab, a bright yellow job that was comfortable and smelled slightly of cigars.
We gossiped and giggled all the way, commenting on a few deer and what we thought was the departing end of a black bear just before we got to Sperryville.
The town, if you could call it that, consisted of a gas station, a small library, an antique store, and a small church. A few houses on Lee Highway. We were told most of the small town was tucked away off the main drag and included a few restaurants and a school plus a few more churches.
The taxi driver stopped at Sollie Handersham’s. Ellie tipped the cabbie generously, and getting a smile and wink for her troubles, the taxi-man sped off. I turned back and looked at the house, and wondered if this was best idea of a summer vacation site.
The house was old, made of brick and peeling, painted cement. It was federal fashion, going up two straight stories and ending with an adequate roof and chimneys on either side. There was no porch, only a dusty drive between the house and it’s two columns. I didn’t want to hurt my friend, so I kept my concerns to myself.
Turns out, I needn’t have.
“Well, THIS is a trash heap!” Ellie said, making one of her faces that usually reduced me to helpless guffaws. But then, the door opened, and our comments ceased.
The lady who greeted us was not ancient at all. Sollie Handersham was young, lithe, and beautiful. Perfectly and gracefully figured with alabaster skin and a swan’s long neck. She was like a work of art. You have to forgive me, children, but we gawky girls, we just stared.
We had to be mistaken. This couldn’t be the relative, who sounded, over the phone like she was in her eighties!
She spoke and we got the shock of our lives. She WAS the ancient relative. Or, what Ellie thought was going to be an ancient relative. But, actually, as we later recalled, the connection on the phone was poor the day we were invited, and there was a bit of a raspy note in Sollie’s voice, in person. Easy to make such a mistake.
“Girls, we will have an absolutely splendid summer!” She called out, beckoning us into the home. “What would you like to do first? Go canoeing? Swim at the springs? I know–why don’t we go on a picnic at the Rappahannock River?”
We thought everything sounded wonderful, but we were hungry, so we chose the picnic. Sollie called once, and a bent, tired-looking woman came out. “Yes Ma’m?” She asked, peering at us in a way that seemed a bit suspicious.
“The girls and I want to lunch by the river. Fix us something nice, okay, Dottie?”
Dottie, quite a misnomer for such a wretched and worn out looking figure opened her mouth once, but a stern look from Sollie closed it. She turned and slowly began to walk back inside.
“She’s old.” Sollie said, as if she needed to explain. “They sometimes get stuck in their ways.”
“Has she worked here long?” I asked, politely.
“Oh, no, actually.” Sollie said, her eyes dancing with an amusement we couldn’t quite figure out. “She came here after I invited you girls. Not sure where she came from, just showed up at my door. She needed a place to stay, and so she works for room and board. I have had a lot of household help like that over the years.”
This comment struck me as odd. Sollie, beautiful, youthful, might be in her late twenties at the outside. Why did she talk as if she had lived ages?
Dottie brought us our lunch, and handed the basket to Sollie. “Follow me, girls!” She chimed. “Dottie, please bring in the girls’ luggage and put their things away in their rooms.”
Dottie went to do this, but as Sollie turned around, grabbed my elbow and hissed, slightly “Be careful. Be careful.”
The picnic by the river was wonderful, the food perfect, and after a time, both Ellie and I were sleepy. I noted that Sollie didn’t eat anything at all. She had begged off, claiming to have had a large breakfast. Ellie and I napped on pillows that were among the things that Dottie had sent with us. It was a sleep deepened by soft breezes that tickled our cheeks, and made deeper still by wildlife and the river’s sounds. I’m not sure how long we slept.
When we woke, Sollie wasn’t there. Alarmed at first, I jumped up, and looked around. From a distance, we saw Dottie coming, each step seeming painful, and forced. Ellie looked and said, under her breath, “I hope I never get that old.”
I elbowed her, and soon, Dottie was there. “The Missus had some things to do, and didn’t want to wake you. Which of you are her family?” She asked, her voice cracking with her advanced age.
“Me!” Ellie said, enthusiastically. “I think this will be a wonderful summer! Picnics and walks, and all the cute animals all around…..
“Well, just watch your step, that’s what I’d say,” Dottie said, then suddenly looked frightened. “I was young once, too.”
Just then, Sollie came down the path looking very put out. “Dottie! I told you not to disturb them! Whatever have you been saying to them? Not silly gossip, I hope?”
Dottie shook her head. “No Ma’m. Not silly gossip. Just checking on them since they don’t know their way around here. There are bear and foxes and who knows what else in these parts.”
“Indeed.” Sollie said, her frown diminishing somewhat. “Indeed. Well, girls how about a dinner out in Culpepper and a nice trip to the cinema? A new Clark Gable film is out, I believe!”
Ellie had sworn to me more than once, that her express ambition was to someday move to Hollywood and marry Clark Gable, so I could tell, without looking at her face that she was sold on the idea. We walked down the path back to the house, and found that our appointed bedrooms were comfortable, smelled sweet and had furniture that was nicer than what we had expected from looking at the outside of the house.
We enjoyed our movie, but during it, I noted something strange. Sollie wasn’t really interested in the film as much as she was the young ladies walking in and out of the theatre. She would try to catch their eyes. When she did, the girls would stop, confused, sway a bit, then break eye contact and continue on their way.
Ellie noticed none of it. She talked all the way back to Sollie’s house about her love of Clark Gable. I sourly reminded her that he was married to Carole Lombard, and unless she wanted to be a home-wrecker, her dreams of being Mrs. Gable were in vain. My attempts to rain on her parade were ignored, except by Sollie, driving in the large dark Studebaker that she owned.
“Dreams are good, Helen,” Sollie said to me. “Reality can be so unpleasant. Life is meant to be drank like a draught of tonic.” She made a sound as if sucking the last drop of a delicious soda down. “Like that. Drain it completely. Live like it never ends.”
We got in our respective beds soon after getting home, tired from the journey. Again, sleep was sound, except for a strange dream. I was walking in the house, exploring, looking around. I heard a gasping sound, and turned in the direction of it. I saw Dottie standing, staring at something, her arms out as if in defense. Then slowly, sinking, turning to ashes until there were only a few grains of sand on the floor.
I heard a loud clanging sound, and woke up, but I was not in my bed. I was somehow in the room of the dream. In that room, sat Sollie, but she didn’t see me, or at least I didn’t think that she did. She was in a cane rocker, going slowly back and forth, drinking deeply from what appeared to be a beaker like the ones we girls used in chemistry class.
For some reason, I was very frightened. As quietly as I could, I left the room, and looked around, tiptoeing, looking for my room. Just as I got to what I thought was the door a hand clamped down on my shoulder. I turned, a scream in my throat.
Sollie put a finger to her lips. “Helen, my dear. Don’t wake Ellie. Whatever are you doing out here? Ah, were you looking for the lavatory? Let me show you.”
She led me, holding my hand, not giving me much of a choice about where we were going. My voice was stopped in my throat, not daring to dispute her.
“Helen, here you are. Let me turn on the light for you.” Sollie pulled a string over my head and the light flashed on. I saw a claw foot china tub, toilet, and a sink. Also a large oval mirror right in front of me. In the mirror I saw the frightened, pale version of myself, and Sollie behind me. Our eyes locked momentarily.
Why did I think she looked as if she were….hungry?
By force, I broke the eye-contact, and found my voice. “Thank you, Sollie. Now I know where it is.” I walked in, and closed the door and locked it quickly behind me. After a decent time, I timorously opened the door, afraid that she might still be standing there, but she was not.
The next day, Ellie and I looked around for Dottie, but she was no where in sight. Sollie had set out sweet rolls, various fruit and cold, delicious milk for our breakfast. Forgetting the strange night, I dug in, as did Ellie. I noticed, however, that Ellie did not seem to be feeling well.
When I asked, she shrugged. “I hope I don’t have a cold or something coming on. I just feel like all my strength is out of me. Like someone popped a balloon.”
Sollie came in, just then, and busied herself with spreading butter on a croissant. As she daintily ate it, I looked at her in amazement. She seemed different this morning. Still beautiful, still radiant, still lithe, only more so. Like she had been to a spa and had a treatment of some sort. Maybe five years younger than the day before.
In the weeks that followed, I wanted to ask about Dottie a dozen times. However, each day was full of fun activities, horseback riding several times a week, mining for semi-precious stones one day, climbing the nearby mountains the next.
Everyone knew Sollie in Sperryville. It was clear that Sollie was loved in this community and everyone seemed to admire her. There was no worries with Dottie being gone. In fact, no one in the town seemed to notice.
A new woman, equally as aged and slow-moving was doing chores for room and board, soon after, named Kimberly. Then, Kimberly was gone, and there was an Adela. By July there had been six women to tend us, clean house and do whatever Sollie wanted. Ellie and I questioned it in private. Was she raiding nursing homes for cheap help?
I felt horrible thinking this of a woman who had been so kind and generous to us, but slowly, a creeping sensation of something not being quite right filled me more and more each day.
I had so many questions. Sollie was mentioned by Ellie’s mother as a great aunt, but she was too young to be a ‘great’ anything! It was all very curious. However, other concerns temporarily stopped this questioning. You see, I was very worried about Ellie.
Over time, Ellie seemed to continue to pale, become more listless, and less eager to go on our outings. But still, she would go, to please her great Aunt Sollie, who if anything, became more vigorous and vital, more youthful, if possible, strong as if she were an ancient goddess with never ending strength and immortality.
We were due to head back to Kentucky the last day of August. We sat on the swing out back of the home, and I was saddened about how sickly Ellie looked. I had asked Sollie to let a doctor see her, Sollie had agreed if she “didn’t get better.” That had been weeks ago. I thought it was time to ask again, but Ellie disagreed. “We’ll be home in two days. I’ll go to Doctor Schubert. He’s known me since I was a baby.”
I noted something odd that last week. The never-ending supply of old women, from wherever they came, seemed to dry up. There was no one to do our laundry, make our beds, cook our meals or iron our clothes. Sollie refused to allow us to pitch in. She did the work herself.
That week, I started to see it. Sollie’s youthful looks started to diminish, somehow. It wasn’t something you could see unless you explicitly were looking for it, and I wasn’t really. However, I had been so taken by her vitality, that I suppose I noticed when it started to ebb away.
Small threads of gray worked themselves into her bright auburn hair, small, then larger wrinkles framed her green eyes. When she would frown, her forehead seemed etched with time that hadn’t shown there just the day before.
The desire to go home early overtook me. Even if it was the last week, I wanted to go immediately. I didn’t care if it made Ellie mad with me. I packed my things, and walked down to the area where a bus stopped once a week. There would be one headed towards California, and all points between the next day.
I bought a ticket.
It was after dusk when I got back. No one seemed to notice that I was gone. I walked through the house, looking for Ellie. Could I convince her to come along with me?
The house was dark, not the slightest light on. I tried not to stumble.
I got to the room next to the lavatory, the room that I avoided because it was where I had awoken after the bad dream about Dottie early in the summer. It seemed a bad place, where bad things happened.
That night, though, I went there. I had to.
I heard Ellie’s voice. A low moan. A plea for mercy. Mercy that would not be given.
As I walked in, I saw my best friend, weak, sallow, aging rapidly before my eyes.
I saw Sollie with a strange beaker, pointed towards Ellie, a thin ray of light between the two of them.
“Ellie!” I cried!
Sollie jerked her head in my direction, dropping the beaker. Ellie turned to me and then, to my horror, turned to ash and scattered on the ground.
Sollie, radiant, beautiful and young stared at me with murderous rage. Killing fury.
“What have you done?” She cried out, pointing at the broken beaker on the floor. “How will I live?”
She flung herself at me, and two of us struggled. She had tremendous strength at first, and I felt that she would overcome me, do something as horrible to me as she had done to Ellie. “My meal, my meal!” She hissed. “I did not finish my meal!”
Suddenly, Sollie’s hold was loosening. I heard a rustling sound behind me, but dared not look. Her hands dropped away.
Sollie looked about early middle ages. Then maybe sixty, seventy. She then looked as old as the great aunt she’d been described as being.
“I knew when I was young, that I never wanted to get old.” She said. “I searched all over the world to find a way to keep youth. I chose young girls at first who were runaways, or down on their luck. I took from them what they would have wasted anyway. Was it so wrong? Look how loved I am, look how beautiful! It took years to put that beaker together, to put the right materials together, to say just the right spell…..I kept it like a treasure. But the young girls that I trapped no longer kept me young for long. I had to find someone….from my own bloodline. Slowly take her life force. Once it was completely done, I would be young forever. But you broke the beaker. You broke it….”
Before my astounded eyes, she aged further. Then crumpled in front of the cane chair, aged, wretched…and dead.
I turned as the rustling sound came again. Ellie had risen from the ashes. Her essence, in the beaker returned to her when it broke. The small bits that Sollie had drained from her over the summer could not be replaced, perhaps, but her life force could. Within minutes, Ellie stood, looking more like 40 than 20, but alive. My friend was alive!
We never notified the authorities–we just left. When an old body was found in Sollie’s home, aged beyond recognition, local police chalked it up to her taking in vagrants. They knew Sollie loved to travel, and often took off without telling anyone. They never thought to ask us what happened.
And until now, I never told.
However, I should say one thing.
I took the glass of the beaker and I carefully put it back together. Here and there, over the years, I would lock eyes with a person who I thought had a bit of vitality to spare. I don’t over-do it like the vain Sollie did. How would I explain un-ending youth to others?
So, a bit like a spider, I swallow a bit of someone’s life force now and again. It keeps me going, you might say.
As long as I have regular meals, I might live forever
In fact, I’m getting a bit hungry now.
Where are you going, children?