She grew up in Newman Castle during the gilded age and close to Bellevue, a flourishing town in the region of Norfolk Island. Elevated pines and manicured shrubs covered the well-groomed lawn with a beautiful garden to the north.
Stone steps and low walls terraced the hillside with an arch of roses that bloomed at the entrance to the garden.
In the middle were a few stone benches and a fountain that bemoaned better days. The stone had burst in a few places with moss twisting through its crevices that whispered a tale of melancholy.
On the edge of the terrace was a statue of a woman sitting on a throne-style chair. It was quite elegant though the head was missing. One hand grasped a set of scales while the other lay with its palm down on the armrest.
She once asked her father what had happened to the statue’s head. Father replied, “Her features are indescribable, so a face is not necessary. Go play now, Hannah, but don’t touch her. The statue is very old.”
She often wondered about the regal, but headless woman. She must be quite beautiful as she imagined a magical princess with long flowing hair and a majestic wreath encircling her forehead.
As summer approached, Hannah skipped down the stone path and explored the garden with its array of blossoms and butterflies. She enjoyed the tranquil setting of the hinterland that danced to the melody of a sprightly summer day.
In the evening, she caught fireflies and put them carefully in a glass jar. The faint glow was bright enough to light her way up the old stone steps before setting them free.
One night as she was drifting off to sleep, there was a noise in the corridor. She lit a lantern and quietly tiptoed over to the door. As she softly opened it, there was a flash and a shadow gliding swiftly down the hallway. “Father?”
Father clumsily opened his door. “Yes, dear?”
“I heard a noise, Father, and thought I saw someone in the corridor.”
He sleepily shook his head. “You must have been dreaming. Go back to sleep.”
“Yes, Father.” She closed the door and with the lantern lit, fell asleep to silence.
The next day she escaped to the garden with a pair of binoculars. Her favorite scene was the bluebirds that hovered near the raspberry bushes in the early morning hours.
Gently, she set the sight, quickly combing the area with the lens, and spotted movement behind the statue.
Slowly, she lowered the binoculars and stared at the configuration, waiting for the apparition to appear. “It’s probably the gardener,” she thought.
After a few moments of silence, she approached the faceless statue and surveyed behind it. Beneath her was a trail that led to an opening into Ashburn Forest.
There were wild tales of dark secrets that ghosted its borders, but Father said that through superstitious spectacles, a person could be driven to madness. “Pay no attention to such tales,” he said, “but I fear you may lose your way so do not explore there.”
Hannah stared into the darkness, remembering her father’s words but drawn to the forbidden entrance. It reminded her of the castle with secret passages where she spent many winter days exploring its corridors.
She happily frightened many housemaids while appearing suddenly during their daily tasks. “Miss Hannah, you frightened me! Go now, or I will send for your father to give you a switch!” Ms. Hawthorne was the catty head housekeeper who Hannah avoided after that.
Her thoughts turned back toward the trail. Who was making this path and why were they pacing back and forth between the forest and the garden?
Was there a vagabond or some uncouth character that lived within its swallows? Never mind the fact that she might get lost. Oh no, she wasn’t afraid of that as long as she stayed close to the entrance.
Cautiously, she walked the route surveying the forest for any rustling sounds that might warn of ogres or unkept transients. She could hear Ms. Hawthorne screaming, “Come away from there now!”
She turned and looked toward the castle and nervously laughed, “That mean old lady can’t see me this far away.”
The entrance was solemn and peaceful as she peered inside. “Hello?” Two squirrels frolicked up a nearby tree and Hannah grabbed her chest and laughed. “Father was right. A person’s imagination can cause all kinds of madness.”
She walked a little further and turned to view the opening. It would be foolish if she lost her way. Father would send a search party and after finding her, the switch would come out. She gently rubbed her bottom at the thought of getting lost.
Turning back toward the trail, she spotted a hollow tree. It was quite tall and broke off midway, perhaps due to lightning or a violent storm. Did an animal live inside? Amid the dark opening were little flicks of light. Curiously, she left the path to investigate.
Faint lights grew brighter as she reached the old trunk. Cautiously, she peered inside and withdrew a firefly. How was this possible? It was too early in the day for fireflies.
She stepped inside the old tree and sat down. The fireflies hovered above her and flew in circles. It was mesmerizing as she watched in amazement at the near-perfect concentricity of their flight.
Her hand reached up through the center of the circle and the fireflies were undisturbed by the motion. It seemed as if the speed and repetition only increased and hypnotized her as she watched the display. Round and round they go.
The circles swirled faster and faster with a breeze that soon felt like a whirlwind. Dizzily, she felt the motion might suck the very life and breath from her body! She swooned in the madness and then darkness fell.
Miss Bobbie was an eccentric old lady who lived just past the city limits. Once a month, usually, she walked to town for supplies. Her hair was black and disheveled as she pulled the old wooden cart to the general store.
Occasionally, she stopped to pet the crow that sat on her shoulder.
Mothers grabbed their children and crossed the street when she approached. Some of the shopkeepers locked their doors.
She entered the general store and approached the glass showcase of rice and beans. The uncomfortable shopkeeper asked, “Would you like the usual, ma’am?” She nodded and he quickly loaded the cart.
“Anything else?” He asked. She pointed to the bird on her shoulder and then to a bag of oats and seeds. The shopkeeper obliged and she left the general store, slowly tugging the heavy cart behind her. The crow hopped on top, pecking the bag of oats, while she walked.
The bridge on the edge of town ran perpendicular to the city with rows of apple and cherry trees. Her steps were awkward as she pulled the decrepit cart over the wooden beams.
Suddenly, a group of children jumped out from behind the trees on the other side. “Hey, witch, what happened to your broomstick?” a boy called out. The other children were amused by his taunts and laughed.
The old woman pointed her long dirty fingernail in their direction. With a raspy voice, she shrilled, “Ku-Ku-.”
The boy said mockingly, “What’s wrong? Cu-Can’t you talk? Maybe a black cu-cat got your tongue.” He laughed and picked up an apple and threw it at her. The other children joined in, thrashing her with apples.
The attack left welts on Ms. Bobbie while one hit her forehead. She raised her arms for protection, but the barrage knocked her backward against the cart that tipped over from the weight. The crow squawked and flew toward the children before landing on a nearby branch.
The bird startled the children, and they ran off toward town. One girl still stood there with an apple in her hand. Ms. Bobbie stood up and the girl hesitated and then threw the apple
Instead of blocking it, the old woman caught it like an experienced athlete. Her eyes glowed like embers as she slowly bit into the red delicious apple while staring at the girl.
Frightened, the girl sprinted across the bridge and tripped, falling near the creek bed below. Her next glimpse was the fiery eyes that scorched two holes in her memory. She heard the trickling of water through the rocks beneath and then silence fell.
Hannah awoke and crawled out of the deciduous trunk, rubbing her forehead. From the position of the sun, it appeared to be noon, though she couldn’t be sure.
She felt light-headed and ached briefly from the cramped tree. Other than the dizzying fireflies, her memory was obscured. Where did the fireflies go? The tree was blackened and empty.
She ran back to the garden while a crow perched on the headless statue cawed, hopped a few steps, and flew away. Hannah decided not to say anything about the fireflies since she was forbidden to go there and skipped back to the castle for lunch.
The days and seasons passed, and Hannah grew into a lovely young woman. Her memory of the fireflies remained but the rest appeared foggy and disturbing.
She never told Father about her venture into the forest or the fireflies. He would never believe her anyway. He’d laugh and say, “Hannah, your mind was playing tricks on you. Think no more of it.”
She slipped into a sundress and walked down the stone steps to the garden. It was a lovely day, and a suitor from Bellevue would visit soon. His father was a rich industrialist in town though Hannah wasn’t impressed by the invitation.
The atmosphere was quiet and peaceful as she sat down on the stone bench watching the water trickle from the aged fountain. Why did Father keep that shabby birdbath? It looked more dilapidated over the years with its ever-widening crevices while moss blossomed like an overgrown carpet.
She looked over at the statue and grew agitated by the same pesky crow that appeared now and again. “Shoo!” She waved her arms and the crow never moved. She jumped up and raced toward the statue flailing her arms and the bird flew away.
Hannah spotted long fingernails on the statue’s hand that was positioned on the armrest. How strange since she visited the garden often and never noticed it before. The hideousness of the nails didn’t blend with the elegance of the statue.
Intrigued, she drew closer and could hear Father say, “Don’t touch it!” Of course not, but she wasn’t a child anymore, so he needn’t worry.
With one finger, she gently touched the long fingernail. A burning sensation pulsated through her finger, and she pulled back quickly, cradling her hand. The vibration felt like a hot poker.
She soaked her hand in the fountain until the sensation ceased, but the throbbing returned later in the day. It was so disturbing, she retired early in the evening feeling worn and anxious.
The next morning, she awoke, and the pain had vanished. The fingernail was the color of ash and grew almost an inch overnight. Alarmed, she found a pair of clippers. No matter how many times she tried clipping the nail off, it was impenetrable.
Father knocked at the door. “Hannah? Are you coming down for breakfast?”
“I’ll be right there,” she replied and worriedly put on a pair of ballroom gloves and ran downstairs to the dining area.
Father noticed them right away. “Take off your gloves dear. I don’t know why you’re wearing them at this hour.”
“May I leave them on Father? My hands are sensitive from picking roses yesterday.”
“Oh, I suppose. How was your evening with Edward? He seemed like a nice chap.”
“Fine, Father.” She couldn’t remember much through the burning sensation that occupied most of her attention. Besides, there wasn’t much to tell outside of his green shirt and brown trousers that didn’t match.
“Father, I think I need to lie down. I’m not feeling very well.” The food left her nauseous.
“Should I call Dr. Payton?”
“No, Father, I’m just feeling a little under the weather, that’s all.” The last thing she wanted was a doctor probing her with questions about an ashen fingernail. She excused herself and went back to her room.
A few hours later, she woke up still feeling weak. Sluggishly, she pulled off the glove and all her nails were stone white and nearly as long as the first.
There was a knock at the door, this time from Ms. Hawthorne. “Lunch is ready, and you know I don’t take kindly to lateness.”
“I’m not hungry. Go away!” Footsteps pattered off into the distance while Hannah mimicked her tone. She slipped her hand back into the glove and sneaked past the dining area to the garden to find a pair of shears.
The garden was ominously quiet as she frantically searched for whatever she could find. She tried several pairs of shears to cut through the horrid nails but to no avail.
The pesky crow appeared again on top of the headless statue. Hannah screamed, “Get out of here!” before storming off toward the castle. The crow squawked in response, hopped a few steps, and flew away.
That night, she heard footsteps in the corridor again. The sound visited her often over the years, but she learned to ignore it for fear of waking up Father. Tonight, was different since she couldn’t go to sleep. Not a chance.
If she did, the other hand would probably be in the same condition by morning. The statue was obviously cursed. She didn’t know the extent of the curse but falling asleep was a terrible idea. Oh, why didn’t she listen to Father? She never should have touched that dreadful statue!
A full moon shone brightly into her room as she crept to the door without a lantern. Quietly, she opened the door a crack.
Immediately, she was struck by a pair of blazing eyes glaring back at her. She screamed but no sound fell from her lips. In shock, she stepped backward, lost her footing, and fainted.
The next morning, Ms. Hawthorne knocked at the door. “Hannah, you’re late for breakfast and Mr. Newman is growing agitated.” No answer.
“Miss Hannah?” She entered the room and screamed. “Mr. Newman, come quickly! Your daughter is deathly ill!”
Father ran into the room and found her lying on the floor with her hair blackened and disheveled. He pulled her into his arms and said, “Go find Dr. Payton, and be quick about it!” Ms. Hawthorne obeyed and ran down the hallway.
“My dear, wake up, please!” Father gently shook her, waiting for a response.
Hannah slowly opened her eyes though her vision had blurred.
“What’s wrong child? Your face looks ashen.”
Hannah tried but found herself unable to speak. Her voice was hoarse as she coughed to clear her throat. “Ku-Ku-.”
“What’s wrong, Hannah? Talk to me dear. Please, for God’s sake, tell me what’s wrong!”
Hannah weakly pulled off the gloves and showed Father her long fingernails. “Ku-Ku-.”
“I can’t understand you, darling!”
Once more, Hannah cried with a shrilled raspy voice, “Ku-Ku-Kaw-ma!” Her mind raced back to the fireflies and the statue. The meaning was clearer now, though the memories were muddled.
Outside in the garden, Karma, the headless statue winked as an ill-fated crow circled above and landed on its shoulder. “Caw! Caw!”