How To Scare Children: An Instruction Manual

It’s been so quiet since grandma left, so quiet now you can hear the house talk, in the prattling of pipes and somber groans of wood, the unnerving incoherence of a drugged and mumbling schizophrenic. The loss, the abandonment, is palpable. The leaves outside are sick-yellow, charred red, sifting through the soft sunlight of late October. But it’s also a kind of relief as well. Like the calm and mysterious aftermath of a murder scene, after all the bodies have been removed.

Grandma’s rocking chair, with it’s precarious lean to the left, sits in unmoving bereavement on the front porch, or maybe rocks ever so slightly in the breeze. It’s a chill gray day, cool but not cold, with little cyclones of dead leaves skittering across the yard under the fat, moss-trunked oaks. These oaks have been here long before the house itself, back before the two great wars, saplings from the turn of the 20th century. They all lean towards the house, which is built on the side of a ridge, and year by year grow heavier with time, aching with a century’s growth, perhaps only one more big storm away from crashing down. But it’s an empty house now.

They had to take grandma away because she’d lost her mind finally, her blood choking through a decaying brain, a dementia like a flickering dying bulb. She kept falling too, and no one could stop her from walking down the steps to the basement, where she thought some strange woman had moved in. She was convinced. She said this woman was the devil’s whore, but was sometimes nice and came upstairs to have coffee and chat. But at the drop of a hat, the coarse-skinned woman would turn on her, shout obscenities, then laugh, threaten her with kitchen knives, long razors, shards of broken tiffany glass. When asked what the woman’s name was, she could not remember, grew angry at anyone who questioned her veracity. But she was covered in bruises, shallow slow-healing cuts on many places on her body. All self-inflicted, according to her doctor, either from accident, or delusional violence. When your mind goes, the first available victim for revenge is the body.


Looks like the rain will hold off for this final October evening. Dusk is approaching and already a costumed cluster of various sized children are meandering from one house to another. Our porch light is on. Old habits. The smallest one is hard to contain, dressed as some blood-lusting fairy-like being (no doubt some accidently morbid homespun creation). She keeps whirlwinding off towards the street, or suddenly stops and bends over to examine some anonymous and now exposed insect or floral specimen. The way she abruptly just stomps on ants is hardly menacing, quite cute in fact. An older one, holding a wild-bristled broom and wearing a deformed black witches hat, shouts her name fiercely each time, and this seems to reel her in a bit, yet within minutes she’s wandering off again, crushing the dead leaves with cruel and innocent curiosity, or eyeing grandma’s rocker, or past that, something in the window perhaps. At us? If she could but see. Two or three times she looks over, the young are so perceptive, sad that she will lose it all in a year or two. That special awareness.

So many things still remain, but it’s only been a few weeks since grandma left us. Most of the furniture is here still. The dogpiss sofa, the television set, the white ceramic cat with the coal eyes, which you had begun to think alive, and feared it would scratch you to death in your sleep. Eat your blind eye.  That owl-shaped clock is still ticking away, slacking off long seconds, drunk on your sudden dissappearance. It’s not really owl-shaped, not sure why I thought of it that way. It’s pretty plain actually, 1950s era, manual, wind-up. It’s all as if we were expecting you back.


The young witch is calling the little girl’s name, pitched with fear, incipient hysteria. Apparently the little girl has run off. For a brief moment the sky was streaks of black and orange light, halloween colors, a false break in the gloom before night fell. Now it’s night and the streetlights form amphitheatres of dull orange-green in the trees behind the houses. Our yard’s trees are filled with moonglow leaves, flickering sliver.  Somnolent crickets chirp a post-summer lament, a lassitude of notes, melancholy memory crumbling, dissolving into sedate eternity. She’s becoming more and more frantic, looking behind every shrub or fat oak trunk, in the narrow corners between houses, in the piles of brown leaves. Why just minutes ago she was just over there… The young witch is crying, swirling in chaotic spirals, as if she were no longer in control of her own motion and now possessed by some dervish presence. The neighbors have come out on their porches, watch with bleak half-concern. Feeling the tug of televisions perhaps, or dinner growing cold. It’s Halloween you know, and people have been known to cut loose. She screams the name of the child once more, and then dissappears down the hill, looking elsewhere. The door to our house is cracked open, if she had only been more attentive. Perhaps the child wandered in after all.


Ah, here she is. Down in the basement, sitting calmly in the old schoolhouse chair, the desktop still covered in scales of yellow paint. Playing a little cruel Halloween game of hide and seek from her older sister. Her left hand has a long sharpened pencil poised over what looks like a crumpled sheet of workbook paper. She hasn’t moved from that position in what seems years, doll-like, waiting for some playful child to come and move her limbs with imaginative purpose. Like we all feel like sometimes, puppets with absconded masters, gathering mold and dust, all grandmas gone now in the echo of centuries down an endless corridor of faceless timeless photographs. Family to no one.

I should say they’ll find her eventually. I certainly hope so. I’m just playing with you, you know. This really is just a doll, a little raggedy ann number from the 1930s, one of our grandma’s toys she’d keep all these years. In the end, before they took her from us, she was once again that little girl, only this time haunted with rage and satanic visions, fear of great gaps opening up with no notice, playing violently with her dolls. Tearing them into shreds, ripping their limbs off with red-eyed tears one minute, sadistic laughter the next. That’s the grandma we miss.

In the dim yellow light of the basement (the source coming from a single overhead bulb somewhere deep in the cold clutter, the detritus of our shattered family) that crumpled piece of paper looks more like the stained cloth face of the doll has come clean from the head. A flimsy mask to scare your little sister with. Didn’t she die in her sleep and you grew up thinking it was your fault somehow?Did she come back, in your senile awareness of the supernatural, and laugh at your disease, at nature’s cruel revenge? Of course it was just us– we can be little devils you know. This empty house of decaying memories, and left-behind photographs of dead time: your brain, our home.


We hear the creaking of footsteps above, in the middle floor of the house, the one that opens out onto the porch and out to the driveway, see the flashing blue lights coming through a small grime-covered window way off in the jaundiced distance. My eyes are ticking like an owl clock.

Maybe grandma’s come back–


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