The Waltz: A Short Story from Long Ago
Here’s a ghost story I wrote as a college student years ago (dare I admit decades ago?) for a creative writing class assignment. I found it in a box of old papers as I was cleaning a closet, and I thought you might enjoy it. I no longer write ghost stories but I thought it was a fun read and an interesting foreshadow of my present passion for historical fiction. And it earned me an A grade, back in the day, banged out on an IBM Selectric. (If you don’t know what that is, children, ask your elders.) I’ve left it unchanged except for switching the color of the Union soldier’s uniform from gray to blue, because, duh. So here you go.
by Jennifer Lamont Leo (a.k.a. “Jenny Lamont, Creative Writing 212”)
The letters are the first to ignite, hissing and whispering in the hot glow, and then the trunks of clothing. There go my gowns, the jade velvet I wore at Christmastime, the cream lace with the rosebud sash. Pity they can’t be saved. I did so love them. How gracefully the flames lick at the rafters, the tragic beams.
If I must be confined somewhere, I suppose there are worse places than this attic in the house on Cherry Street. Sometimes on fine afternoons the sunlight filters through the willow in the yard and creates an intricate dappled pattern on the wooden floor. It’s quite pretty, really.
We like to dance among the dapples, my soldier and I. As though at a ball, we dip and spin and twirl, until the sun sinks lower in the sky and the dappled dance floor disappears. I dispatch my soldier to fetch me a glass of punch, and I fan myself while I wait for his return. Darkness falls. I wait. Sometimes as the hall clock strikes the early morning hours I roam the attic, softly calling his name, but it’s no use. Across the cool gray meadow of memory the cannons thunder, and I remember. My soldier won’t be calling again. Not again, that is, until some other fine afternoon, when next we waltz.
It’s a curious game, the waltz with my soldier, but I find it amusing. There’s not much amusement in this attic, in this house on Cherry Street. The attic is my prison; in the attic I must stay, waiting for my soldier.
The Channings live downstairs. Elizabeth Channing is my relation; a great-great-grandniece on my brother Robert’s side. A grainy photograph of Robert hangs in the library. Robert, proud in his blue uniform, trying earnestly to look more mature than his eighteen years would allow. Will they rescue it from the fire? The photograph. Will they awaken in time to carry it to safety?
The Channings seldom come up to the attic anymore, especially now that they’re getting up in years. There was a time when children would come up to the attic on rainy days to root around in dusty trunks and play dress-up in my gowns. On occasion they would happen upon my portrait, wrapped in yellowed newspapers, and would whisper to each other the story of mad Charlotte who died of a broken heart., for the love of a Union soldier. I would hover quietly and listen, as one does upon hearing one’s name mentioned in conversation. The children ordinarily gave no recognition of my presence. However, as the shadows grew longer and the stories grew bolder, they would shift nad squirm a bit and mention dinner. They would then scramble down the stairs, complaining of a sudden chill. I was always sorry to seethem go. So seldom did I have companions in my lonely attic. Yet I could not force them to stay and I could not join them. In the attic I must stay, waiting for my soldier.
The letters are here, all of them. I am surprised that they were never burned, burned in grief, burned in rage. With rage my father denounced the Union cause, with rage he banished my soldier from my life. With grief I read that last letter, postmarked from some small Pennsylvania town, splotched with rain and tears. Yet with what strange dispassion did I watch them cut the rope from the attic rafter and bear my body away.
It is the letters that bind me here, bidding me forever to repeat the waltz, the waiting, the grief born of lines penned by a faraway soldier. Letters of hope and love, passion and pain, life and death. The letters are my chains. They keep the story alive; they keep me alive. The letters must go, so that I, too, may go.
It is all quite simple, really. A stray spark from a sputtering lamp, a warm dry gust, an attic fire in an old house, ordinary and everyday. No one need ever know. The letters are the first to ignite. The flames dance across rafters and down walls, down to where the Channings sleep in the carved oak bed.
Amid the shower of sparks I stretch the length of my being up to the night sky, reaching for the one who beckons me to come join the waltz.