Mrs. Hess’s house sat on a little rise just to the south of Glacier creek. It was the last house on the left at the end of a narrow unpaved road that had been oiled so many times it was shiny and smooth in the sunshine.. A white picket fence enclosed the yard and an arched lath trellis spanned over the gate. The house was painted bright red with white trim and it had an inviting eye appeal. If a Hobbit had a real house, it would have looked like that house.
Mrs. Hess was the last of an almost forgotten generation. It was the late 70’s when I came to know her, and she was probably in her early 90s, which would have made her birthday in the 1880’s, perhaps even before Montana was a state. We used to ride our bikes down that little road and park them in rows against the rusted sheep wire that fenced off the end of the street, before hopping the fence to fish in Glacier creek. We’d cross a little meadow, lush green and dotted with thousands of bright yellow buttercups and then drop down off sharp cut banks to the creek.The stream was glass clear and so cold that any body part submerged would instantly feel like a pincushion, thousands of nerve ends firing sharp little stabs against the cold. We would fish and skip rocks and look for Native American artifacts. When the great Flathead tribe had inhabited the valley before being forced to relocate, they used the creek banks as a place to build sweat lodges. They would sit and steam in the lodges constructed from buffalo hides and willow, and then plunge into the icy water to cleanse themselves. Each year the creek would carve through fresh soil and expose layers of ash and pieces of bone and other evidence of civilization. That’s how I came to know Mrs. Hess. Often she was out in her yard working. Even in her advanced age she was sharp and quite aware. She couldn’t have been five feet tall or more than 85 pounds. She wore flowered dresses that were faded and worn thin and she always had a sheer scarf wrapped around her head and tied under her chin. She used to call to us, “Be careful, that water is swift and it’ll take you.”
One late fall day I got the idea that I’d like to make some extra money. I was always trying to hustle a few dollars mowing lawns or weeding gardens or doing just about anything. Mrs. Hess was so old I figured she must need help doing something. I knocked on her door one day and asked her if she needed any chores done. She smiled and pinched her chin, and said she was going to be out of town for a week, but when she got back home there were a few things she needed done. “Why don’t you come back here a week from Monday and I’ll put you to work.”
That Monday after school I went home and changed my clothes and rode my bike across town to Mrs. Hess’s house. The days were already getting much shorter than they had been only a week before and the sun wasn’t far from the tall snow capped peaks to the west of town by the time I got there. Mrs. Hess stood in the black soil of her little garden patch and I could see that she had piled up the skeletons of all the dead plants she’d grown into the middle of the plot. She was dressed the same way she had in summer except she had a heavy dark blue shawl over her shoulders and she wore a pair of white gardening gloves. When she saw me she crossed the yard and stepped up onto a narrow little sidewalk that ran to her front door. “You made it. Isn’t it a little chilly riding that bike in this weather?” I was a kid and weather wasn’t a focal point of my thought pattern yet. We played football in two feet of snow with no jackets, and swam in the river on the first day that crested 60 degrees. I reached up and touched a frozen cheek, “A little bit.” I answered. She took her gloves off and laid them on the front porch. “Follow me.” We walked around the corner of the house and followed a path of smooth dirt beaten into the grass from thousands of trips in the exact same line. We walked to a ramshackle three sided building that at one time had been painted the same red as the house, but was now very chipped and faded. The north and west and east sides had walls, but the south was open. One side of the building was about half filled with split and neatly stacked wood. The other side had about three cords of wood blocks in the round that still needed to be split. In the doorway of the shack was a massive and gnarled block of wood that served as the chopping block. A rusty splitting maul and wedge leaned against it, and an ax was stuck at an angle into the top. “I’m sure you can see what needs to be done. I want the rounds split into four or five pieces and stacked neatly on the other side. When you finish, put all the little splinters into this pail,” she touched a rusty metal five gallon can with her toe, “ and save them for kindling. I hope you’ve split cord wood before?” I told her that I had, told her that my dad was a logger and brought home big loads for the house that needed to be split all the time. “Well that’s good.” She tightened the knot of the scarf under her chin and squinted her pale eyes against the late afternoon sun as it approached the mountains. “It’s gonna be dark soon, you be careful and let me know when you’re leaving so I can keep track of your time. I’m going to make a little supper now.” She turned and walked back to the house, one hand holding the knot under her chin, and the other on top of her head as if she were keeping the scarf from blowing away.
The evening was so quiet and still that I could hear the cold rush of the stream below, and the cackling call of a Magpie far to the west and hidden from view. Each time I split a block, I could hear it echo off the flat of her house for a fraction of a second, and I was aware of just how loud my labored breathing was.
For the next hour and a half I worked steadily. I split two or three blocks, then hauled them in and stacked them. The shack smelled like turpentine and moth balls, and as the long shadows of the mountains moved across the valley floor, swallowing everything, I didn’t like being in there. I was still young and somewhat nervous, if not downright afraid of the dark. About 20 minutes before it was too dark to work, I heard the front door of the house open and the gentle “clink” of something porcelain or glass being put down on the cement front porch. When the door went closed again a yellow square of light came on through what seemed like what was probably the kitchen. A few seconds later, cats, which had been unseen the entire time I had been there, seemed to materialize out of the shadows like living beings made of mist. They slunk across the yard and leaped effortlessly onto the porch and sat in perfect balls shoulder to shoulder and ate whatever she’d left for them in the bowl.
I gathered all the little splinters and put them into the old can and placed the ax and maul back where I’d found them. It was that strange time of night where if you’re outside it’s still relatively light, but if you enter a house it instantly looks midnight black outside. I brushed myself off and knocked on the front door. I could hear a chair squeak inside and a moment later Mrs. Hess came around the corner and opened the door. “Come on in, I almost forgot about you, it got so dark.” I really didn’t want to go in, but I wasn’t going to refuse the offer from such a nice person as Mrs. Hess. “You must be freezing out there, why don’t you come and stand by the stove for a few minutes and warm yourself.” I had been right with my guess that the room I was seeing from outside was the kitchen. The room could easily have been taken straight from the 1930’s. The floor was a checkerboard black and light jade green linoleum, and the countertops and cupboards were similar tones of green with black pull handles and knobs. There was a beautiful and ornately carved oak china cabinet against one wall, that had curved glass doors protecting stacks of delicate plates, and cups that hung from hooks. Against the western wall was a massive wood stove. It had a black flat top and a warming oven header, and the body was porcelain and that same light jade tone, the doors were also porcelain, but a creamy off white. She pulled a little chrome legged stool up by the stove and told me to sit, I did. She took a small dish from the cabinet and put it onto the counter and then took the lid off of a cookie jar that looked like a chubby lady in a big puffy light blue dress. It was cleverly designed because the lady’s crooked arm was the handle. “Chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin?” I told her chocolate chip and she laughed a quick little laugh like a chicken might if it could. “I like the oatmeal, but I’ve never met another who’s chosen them over the chocolate chip.” She put a pile of them onto the plate and handed them to me, and I wondered if she always had fresh cookies sitting around ready for guests. Without asking me she took a mug that hung from a peg and put a couple scoops of chocolate powder into it, then she took a black cast iron teapot with a stainless coil for a handle and poured boiling water into the cup, before stirring it with a spoon that was laid on a spoon rest. “That’ll warm you.” She settled in at the kitchen table, which had chrome legs and a chrome edge that ran around the top that framed a black and white formica top, it was ill fitting in all the green of the room. She had a solitaire hand laid out and about half played and there was a delicate white tea cup with the string of a tea bag hanging from it. In the middle of the table was a bowl that looked like it had been hand carved from a single piece of wood. The bowl held a pair of wire rimmed reading glasses, a box cutter knife, a half dozen pens and pencils, and a pocket notebook. She took the notebook out and flipped it open and grabbed a pencil. “Now you’re going to have to forgive me, but I’ve forgotten your name…my memory isn’t what it once was, but then it’s never been that good.” She laughed again. I told her my name was Todd and that I had 2 ½ hours in. She dabbed the pencil against her tongue and wrote my name, but I could see she wrote it with only one D, I didn’t correct her. Then she wrote 3 hours down, I didn’t correct her.
She folded the notebook and put it and the pencil back into the bowl. She crossed her legs and held one hand with the other in her lap. She seemed relaxed, and a sort of kindness almost emanated from her. I had worked for many elderly people and a lot of them had a lonely desperation, they would do almost anything to delay a departure, but Mrs. Hess wasn’t like that. She was content to have me there, but there was no nervous energy to have me stay.
“You know I’m old enough to remember that when Mr. Hess, he was my husband, and I bought this place there wasn’t much around. The house was all by itself and it seemed fairly new at the time. It was built in 1911. Now…I know that seems like a long time ago to you, and well, I guess it was a long time ago now, but it doesn’t seem that long ago to me. Someday you’ll understand what I mean.” She chuckled again, her laugh was so genuine. “When we bought the place there was no yard, no pasture, no fences or outbuildings, the house stood here like a sore thumb. All those big trees you see out there now were about as big around as a silver dollar when we moved in. Mr Hess and I built up everything you see…” She took a sip of tea and looked out the window to another time and place. “...we did it all.” I chewed away at the cookies and washed them down with sips of hot chocolate. She asked me a lot of questions about my life. Was I from Montana, did I have brothers and sisters, did I like sports, how long had my family been in town. I answered each question and she watched me closely and listened intently as I answered. A lull of quiet fell over the kitchen and I became acutely aware of the sounds I made as I chewed and drank. I could hear the sharp snap of the fire in the wood cookstove and if I angled my eyes just right I could see flickering orange light through a slim crack in the firebox door.
“This place used to be where Indians camped long before us white folks came and drove them out, I mean that truly, this house and property sits right where they used to camp. Mr. Hess found all kinds of arrowheads, and grinding stones and all sorts of things around here while working the ground. Of course, they hadn’t been gone long when we first came here, so it shouldn’t be surprising.” She stood and opened a cabinet door and brought out a big gold embossed cigar box. She opened the lid and handed it to me. There were dozens of arrowheads, most of them made from shiny black obsidian, but a few unique ones. There were colorful handmade beads and flat dull red stones that had somehow had holes drilled through them. I looked through the artifacts, careful not to drop any. “Isn’t that something?” she asked. I told her it was incredible. She took the box back and closed it and put it back into the cabinet. “Now, you’re not gonna believe this, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. Ever since we first moved into this place Mr. Hess and I always got the feeling that those Indians left a little of themselves behind…” she chuckled that warm laugh again. “I’m not trying to say there’s ever, ever been anything…” she cleared her throat and began again, “...scary or frightening, nothing like that…” her voice trailed off. “...just a little strange.” I was totally bought in, the story she was telling me was completely in my wheelhouse of interest. She could tell that her story appealed to me. “Let me show you something else that you might find interesting.” From the same cabinet that she’d taken the arrowheads from, she took out a thick black book that had a cover made of some type of factory made fabric. It had been handled so much that the threads were white and their pattern visible. “Look at the old photos in there. Some of them were taken right here on this property.” I thumbed through the pages. Some of the photos were in the pages of the book, and some of them were loose. The loose photos were black and white, glossy, and had scalloped edges. The photo that stood out the most to me was about half way through the book. It showed a group of native American men standing around a very old, very dark, and very wrinkled chief who was seated in a high-backed chair. He had a full white feathered headdress on and held two pistols crossed over his chest almost like he was laying in a casket. The young native men around him all held rifles and were bare chested. One young warrior wore a crushed and dusty stove pipe hat like Abraham Lincoln had made famous. The most interesting aspect was that the mountains in the background were the same mountains I looked at every single day, and they were virtually unchanged from when the photo had been taken 100 years before. Mrs. Hess noticed that I was lingering on that photo. “That’s my favorite too. If it was light I could take you down by the stream and show you exactly where I believe that picture was taken. Of course it looks a little different now, some of the trees that were mature then are gone now, and some that were saplings then are very large.” I put the picture back and handed the book back to Mrs. Hess. She put it back in its place, and was walking back to her seat when she stopped and cocked her head to the side, almost as if she were listening for something in an upstairs room. She held a hand up to me gently and then slowly brought a finger to her lips, signaling me to be quiet. She stood frozen there for a few seconds and then smiled. “I think my visitors are here…” She sat, and I looked through the glass of the kitchen door that led out to the road. I saw nothing at all. I was starting to think she was having an old age delusion, and was about to leave, when there was a quick snap and the glass door to the hutch suddenly popped open. It shuddered as it swung open and I was confused. Mrs. Hess was in her chair and nowhere near the hutch. I looked at her to gauge her reaction. There was no surprise, no shock, and in fact she almost looked peaceful. “They rarely visit when a stranger is here.” There was a corkboard by the front door that had pictures and notes held by brass tacks. The whole board started to slowly swing back and forth. At first it was almost imperceptible, then more and more violently. It fell to the floor and envelopes and postcards and yellow post-it notes scattered. Now I was full on scared. It’s one thing to sit under a blanket with a flashlight and a group of friends telling scary stories, and wholly another to be right in the middle of a real life poltergeist phenomenon. Mrs. Hess kneeled and began gathering together the spill, and I helped her. She kept repeating, “My stars, what a mess this time.” She didn’t say it in anger or fear, but in frustration, as if it was something recurring. Almost on cue we both looked to her living room where a small floral Tiffany style lamp with a glass shade turned on and then off and then on again. That was followed immediately with a kind of hollow thumping sound, as if someone was tapping an empty wooden keg with a rubber mallet. From where I was crouched on the floor I handed Mrs. Hess what I’d collected. She was on her knees, sitting on her heels and she shook her head like she was very disappointed in what had transpired. “Usually it isn’t anything like this, these…visitors…make a light flicker or a floor creak, but nothing like this.” Because she displayed no fear, it somewhat calmed me, I was still more than ready to go. I told her my folks would be getting worried because of the dark, but as she said goodbye I knew that she knew the real reason I was leaving. She sighed deeply, “It was so nice visiting with you young man…I hope you can still come and do some work for me…” Her voice tailed off with uncertainty. I told her I would. I could see her black silhouette in the yellow light of the door as I walked across her yard scattering cats. I held myself back from sprinting, but once she’d closed the door I rode like the wind across town in the cold, still dark.
I kept my word, working on and off for Mrs. Hess for the next year or so…but I never entered that house again. I try to tell myself it was the dropping temperature outside, a bad electrical outlet, a weak nail that held the corkboard…that’s what I try to tell myself…