Windows of Stone
We visited the old stone house on a sunny day at the end of autumn. The weeds had grown long in what was left of the yard and my skirt swished through the stalks catching now and then on burrs and thistles. I was wearing an authentic skirt from 1905, fitting for the film we were about to shoot.
My daughter was about 14 months old. We were there to re-enact the story of the house.
From the highway, the house had looked beautiful and solid in the morning light but as we got closer it was apparent that all that was left was a shell. The door frames were rotted and peeling, the wooden floors thick with dirt and remnants of cobwebs hung from the rafters like lace. All of the windows were broken or missing. All except the windows on the south side. Those had all been filled in with stone, for good reason.
The story went that the house was once owned by a young family. They were new to the area and excited to put down roots. The kitchen window looked out over the train tracks. The woman liked to look at the train rushing by. Perhaps she dreamed of climbing aboard and going on an adventure. Her husband was only too happy to oblige her. They had a young daughter just over a year and a half old and life was good.
One day the young mother was rinsing linens in a washbasin just outside the back door. Her little daughter was contentedly trying to ‘help’ by shelling peas. A difficult task for tiny fingers. But she was determined. “I’ll be right back,” said the woman, and she went inside to leave the basket on the counter. She’d hang the linens to dry on the clothes horse when the little girl went down for her nap.
The woman felt the rumble of the train in the floorboards beneath her feet. She’d pick up the baby and go to wave at the engineer. Or if it was a passenger train, to all of the travellers on their way to the city. She was about to step back outside when something caught her eye. A flash of white. Likely a bird but she glanced out the window to be sure, hoping it wasn’t a deer or some other poor creature caught on the train tracks.
What she saw was a horror she would never forget. A jagged scream tore itself from her throat. The baby was on the tracks toddling in front of the rushing locomotive, her white dress standing out in the sun. She was smiling, unaware of the beast huffing behind her, bellowing steam and about to devour her whole. That was the last time the young mother saw her baby girl alive.
She couldn’t bear to look out the windows after that. ‘Never again,’ she told her husband. He covered the windows on that side of the house one stone at a time.
We were there to re-live those moments. The tracks were no longer in use. But as I stood in the derelict house in my antique skirt, pretending to hold a basket of linen and watched my baby girl totter down the tracks, I felt sick to my stomach. She was never in danger. Her father was right beside her, just outside camera range, but the story had become all too real. As soon as they had the shot I snatched my baby up and clung to her. Two mothers, two daughters, separated by time with only the love for our babies in common.
We went to a cemetery afterward to film the scene of the mother at her daughter’s grave. I wandered through the rows until I found a child’s headstone. I knelt in front of it and the tears flowed easily. I wondered if time had played one of her cruel tricks and if the tears I was crying were even my own or that of a young mother who never recovered.
I never saw the film. A copy was promised to me but never appeared. It’s just as well.
The house still stands, and where the light shone through, there is nothing but stones.