Visitors from the Other Side: The Secret Diary of Sara Harrison Shea
January 29, 1908
The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old.
It was the spring before Papa sent Auntie away—before we lost my brother, Jacob. My sister, Constance, had married the fall before and moved to Graniteville.
I was up exploring in the woods, near the Devil’s Hand, where Papa had forbidden us to play. The trees were leafing out, making a lush green canopy overhead. The sun had warmed the soil, giving the damp woods a rich, loamy smell. Here and there beneath the beech, sugar maple, and birch trees were spring flowers: trilliums, trout lilies, and my favorite, jack- in-the-pulpit, a funny little flower with a secret: if you lift the striped hood, you’ll find the preacher underneath. Auntie had shown me this, and taught me that you could dig up the tubers and cook them like turnips. I had just found one and was pulling back the hood, looking for the tiny figure underneath, when I heard footsteps, slow and steady, moving my way. Heavy feet dragging through the dry leaves, stumbling on roots. I wanted to run, but froze with panic, having squatted down low behind a rock just as a figure moved into the clearing.
I recognized her at once—Hester Jameson.
She’d died two weeks before from typhoid fever. I had attended her funeral with Papa and Jacob, seen her laid to rest in the cemetery behind the church up by Cranberry Meadow. Everyone from school was there, all in Sunday best.
Hester’s father, Erwin, ran Jameson’s Tack and Feed Shop. He wore a black coat with frayed sleeves, and his nose was red and running. Beside him stood his wife, Cora Jameson, a heavyset woman who had a seamstress shop in town. Mrs. Jameson sobbed into a lace handkerchief, her whole body heaving and trembling.
I had been to funerals before, but never for someone my own age. Usually it was the very old or the very young. I couldn’t take my eyes off the casket, just the right size for a girl like me. I stared at the plain wooden box until I grew dizzy, wondering what it might feel like to be laid out inside. Papa must have noticed, because he took my hand and gave it a squeeze, pulled me a little closer to him.
Reverend Ayers, a young man then, said Hester was with the angels. Our old preacher, Reverend Phelps, was stooped over, half deaf, and none of what he said made any sense—it was all frightening metaphors about sin and salvation. But when Reverend Ayers with his sparkling blue eyes spoke, it felt as if he said each word right to me.
“I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”
For the first time, I understood the word of God, because Reverend Ayers spoke it. His voice, all the girls said, could soothe the Devil himself.
A red-winged blackbird cried out conk-a- reee from a nearby hazel bush. He puffed up his red shoulders and sang over and over, as loud as he could, his call almost hypnotic; even Reverend Ayers paused to look.
Mrs. Jameson dropped to her knees, keening. Mr. Jameson tried to pull her up, but did not have the strength.
I stood right beside Papa, clutching his hand, as dirt was shoveled down on the coffin of poor Hester Jameson. Hester had a crooked front tooth, but a beautifully delicate face. She had been the best in our class at arithmetic. Once, for my birthday, she gave me a note with a flower pressed inside. A violet it was, dried out and perfectly preserved. May your day be as special as you are, she’d written in perfect cursive. I tucked it into my Bible, where it stayed for years, until it either disintegrated or fell out, I cannot recall.
Now, two weeks after her very own funeral, Hester’s sleeper caught sight of me there in the woods, crouching behind the rock. I shall never forget the look in her eyes—the frightened half- recognition of someone waking from a horrible dream.
I had heard about sleepers; there was even a game we played in the schoolyard in which one child would be laid out dead in a circle of violets and forget- me-nots. Then someone would lean down and whisper magic words in the dead girl’s ear, and she would rise and chase all the other children. The first one she caught would be the next to die.
I think I may have even played this game once with Hester Jameson.