It was an old, black, shell of a house. It was a house that had lived too long. It was a house where the floors groaned in pain at night, where the windows shuddered at the gentlest touch of the wind, where door latches suddenly gave up their grip and let the night come sniffing in to paw at your eyes and wake you to the other silences that lay around you.
It was never warm there. In the winter, old Heinz kept a fire going in the fireplace in the old sitting room... but the logs were scrawny and the draft was bad, and the flames seemed to begrudge us their warmth. We shivered all through the days and we were glad when night came so we could escape to the meager comfort of the drafty bedrooms. In the summer, there was a dampness about the place... an unhealthy clamminess drifted from the walls and stirred uneasily among the ancient smells of decay.
Old Heinz was an immigrant, from the Rhineland sometime in the early 1870s. He was an old man, but he never appeared old and you might have taken him for a vigorous man of sixty. His hair and his scraggly moustache were jet black, I suspect he dyed them regularly. His blue eyes seemed as keen as those of a boy of eighteen.
Heinz had never been away from the house for a single night, he used to say, from the day he bought it and moved into it in 1888. It was already an old house then, sixty years ago. I spent some very dreary days and nights in that house because I couldn't afford a better place to live.
That first night I moved in, Heinz and I sat alongside the fireplace. I remember he'd asked me to share a bottle of wine with him. We sat in front of the stingy little fire. There was a kerosene lamp on the table and Heinz was in his old black coat with the sleeves that were too short.
"You like the wine then, Jessie?" Heinz asked me.
"Yeah," I replied. "Very much. Very much."
He chuckled. "I have not much left. This is from before the war when it was easier to get, you see."
"You shouldn't be so generous with it," I cautioned him.
"Good wine always tastes better when with a friend you drink it," he explained. "A little more?"
"Not for a moment, thanks." I leaned forward and held my hands up to the fire.
"To sit by the fire and look down into the coals and see images of the scenes past," Heinz mused. "And to drink wine and see the images grow clearer. Ah, 'tis good in the old age."
"You've lived here alone for a long time?" I asked.
"Ja," he said. "A long time. Long, long time. I'm used to it. Used to the lights. And the little fire. And the silences."
"Yes," I replied thoughtfully. I could feel the silences.
Then through the silence I heard a little small sound, the sound of a child's voice singing. It was so faint that at first I thought I was imagining it, but I began to make out the words and recognized the song:
Sur le pont d'Avignon
L'on y danse, l'on y danse
Sur le pont d'Avignon
L'on y danse tous en rond
"Listen!" I urged Heinz. And as I said that the singing stopped. "Heinz, I thought I heard someone singing."
"So?" Heinz dismissed me.
"Did you hear anything?"
Old Heinz sighed. "It is Clarissa. My daughter. My wife was French, she taught Clarissa that song."
"I didn't know you had a daughter," I exclaimed. "I haven't seen her around."
"You will forgive me, Jesse. She's a child. I do not wish you to be bothered."
"She wouldn't bother me," I assured him. "I like children. I've got a little sister back home. Miriam. She's eleven."
"Clarissa is older."
"Oh? I've a picture of Miriam here." I dug the little photo out of my wallet and passed it to him.
"She's very pretty," Heinz observed with a twinge of sadness, handing it back to me. "I have no picture of Clarissa."
"That's too bad," I lamented.
I drank the last of the wine with the old man, and then it was time for bed. I climbed the creaking stairs to the dreary little room, carrying a kerosene lamp in one hand and casting fabulous shadows on the peeling wallpaper. The ancient, plush-covered rocking chair nodded away at me as I entered the room -- as if a startled occupant had suddenly deserted it at the sound of my footsteps on the stairs. A cold spring rain drenching the windowpanes, and the beams and rafters of the old house murmured complaints.
The pleasant, musty fumes of the wine I had drunk kept sleep away for a while after I'd blown out the lamp. The melody of that children's song flowed again across my mind as I lay there.
My thoughts wandered to the lonely child that dwelt in the ancient house, and I wondered at the child's age. Somewhere, in the back of my drowsy mind, I seemed to remember that Heinz had told me his wife Helena had died the year of the San Francisco earthquake. That would be 1906. That would be forty-two years ago. By the sound of her voice, this was a child of perhaps twelve years.
I must have been mistaken. I was merely sleepy. The wine. The rain. The dark.
In the morning, Heinz was working in his garden when the early sun made the old house seem a little more cheerful, a little more livable. There was a tinge of green through the gray of the fields that surround the house, and Heinz told me he'd seen a robin.
I stood and watched him a long time. I don't think he noticed how my eyes wandered to the windows of the old house searching for a flash of color that might be a child's hair-ribbon, or how I listened for the sound of the young voice singing.
I should have let the thing drop. If the old man felt that children should be kept away from adults, that was his privilege. Although I was often lonely for other company than the old man, I was a dweller in his house and subject to his wishes.
I could understand Heinz, I thought. He obviously had a great respect for a man's work -- I was writing a book on mathematical theories. Heinz must've felt I must not be disturbed. I could stay in my room day and night with my slide rules and my profile paper and my broken flower pot full of sharpened pencils, and I was not to be disturbed.
How many times I wished for the happy sound of my little sister Miriam's laughter. How many times I found myself listening for the lilt of the little girl's song that she used to sing... and that Clarissa sang, too.
Heinz mentioned Clarissa occasionally. One time in particular concerned me.
"I sometimes wish that I could have sent Clarissa to school," Heinz confided to me.
"It's too bad you didn't," I replied. "Children are supposed to go to school. I'm surprised the school authorities haven't been to see you about sending her."
Old Heinz looked nervous. "The police?"
"Oh, no," I assured him. "Not the police. But there are laws about schools. You might find yourself in trouble if they discover you have a daughter of school age."
"They will come here?" he asked apprehensively.
"Well, if they find out."
"Jesse! You will not tell!"
"Now look here, Heinz," I insisted. "You're not being fair to the child. Hasn't she EVER been to school?"
"I teach her a little."
"Well, Heinz, it's none of my business - but you're doing her a very serious harm."
"No, no," he begged. "Listen, Jesse. You don't tell anybody about her?"
"I don't know, Heinz. If they come and ask me..."
"Jesse!" Heinz pleaded. "Listen. I - I tell you something. Clarissa - can't go to school. She - she's not well."
"Oh, I'm sorry," I replied sympathetically. "Look, would you like it if I gave her a little of my time and taught her some of the basics?"
"No, no, no, please!" he implored me. "Don't."
"Well, I'd be glad to."
"No!" he insisted.
"Have it your way," I sighed. "I don't mean to intrude on your affairs, but after all, a child..."
"I'm sorry, Jesse. I thank you, but no."
"All right," I conceded. "Forget it." But I couldn't forget it.
A kindly old man. A sick child who had never seen the inside of a schoolroom, alone with a father born eighty-six years ago. In an ancient, moldering house. In a house that had lived too long.
Alone at night in the darkness with the house grumbling and complaining around me, I thought about the plight of the child. Sometimes I could hear her song far away somewhere in the dank recesses of that crumbling house.
My thoughts revolved around this mystery. Heinz said she was not well. Heinz would not allow her to appear. Was Clarissa some misshapen monster-child that she must be pent up and never see the sun? I detest mysteries of that kind. I love the good clean mysteries of logarithm and antilogarithm, of calculus and the grand old theorems devised by the ancients. The mysteries of the human mind and of human behavior are alien to me.
My thoughts crept further and further away from my work as doubt and speculation about the child laid hold of my mind. In the night I often heard her sobs, sometimes close outside my door... and yet whenever I opened the door there was nothing.
Old Heinz grew more and more taciturn. He never spoke of his daughter. He seemed to avoid me by day and to disappear by night.
The summer came. Then the fall. And winter.
My book was going badly. My thoughts wandered. I must leave this place, I thought -- or put this mystery to rest.
Again I asked the old man if there was something I might do for this pathetic child, for this invisible, haunting voice.
"No, Jesse," Heinz insisted. "There is nothing you could do."
"But Christmas is coming, Heinz! What can I get her for a Christmas present?"
"No Weihnachten, Jesse! My Helena. She died on the eve of Christmas."
"But, Heinz... you owe it to the child."
"No! Let us not speak of it again."
To me, the thought of Christmas passing by this child was unspeakable. I had little money and there was so little I could do. I did come into the town and I found a toy for her that I could afford: a little woolly white lamb with black buttons for eyes and a blue silk ribbon about its neck, and a little blue flower in its mouth. I hung a little card about its neck that said "Merry Christmas to Clarissa."
On Christmas Eve, Heinz and I shared the last bottle of the old wine before the miserly little fire. I gave him one of the handkerchiefs my little sister Miriam had sent me, and he gave me an old stone mug with a heavy pewter top that he said came from Heidelberg. We regretted that there was no creamy Pilsner Urquell to drink from it, and we wished each other a happy Christmas.
That night, I was awakened by a tiny sound. I lay awake, silently, for a moment. And there was another sound, a hesitant little footstep. A rustling at the dresser drawer across the room from me. I listened.
"Is that you, Clarissa?" I asked gently. I heard quiet footsteps. "Do you like it?"
She giggled happily in reply.
"Good," I said. "Happy Christmas! I'm sorry that's all I could get you, but I hope you like it."
I felt the touch of a tiny hand on my shoulder. Lips brushed my cheek. And the door closed.
I knew at last that Clarissa was not a ghost but a living person. I felt more at peace with myself as I realized that this is what had been plucking at the corners of my mind. I was happy now that I knew she really lived, that I was not living in the midst of fantasy. I had wondered what Heinz would say. He was perfectly natural about it.
"It was good of you, Jesse. To find a gift for Clarissa."
"Did she like it?" I queried.
"Very much," he smiled. "She asked me to say 'Danke schön' to you."
"I'm glad. Tell her I say 'Bitte schön'. I wish I could've given her more."
"You're a kind person, Jesse. It is a very rich gift. Never has she had such a thing."
"Is she going to have Christmas dinner with us, Heinz?"
Heinz responded coolly and firmly: "No."
I had won a little victory in this conflict with the darkness, but I was to go no further. I asked Heinz about her - Heinz answered shortly. I suggested that a birthday gift might be in order, if I only knew her birthday. I proposed writing my sister and asking her for worn out storybooks that Clarissa might read even if she must stay aloof from the rest of the house. Heinz did not reply. Everything was as it had always been.
Then along came the late spring, when it was cold and windy again. The raw snow pelted against the windows and the whole house shivered. I heard her crying again in the night. There was a quality in her voice this time that brought me out of the bed and into the hall. I called in alarm: "Clarissa!"
The weeping stopped. There was no wind, only eerie silence. I stepped back into my room and lit the kerosene lamp. Then the wind and the weeping resumed, and as I stepped out again toward the hallway, Heinz confronted me.
"Sie, Jesse!" he stopped me.
"Can't you hear her?" I pleaded. "Something's wrong, she's sick."
"No!" Heinz shouted. "Go back to your room, Jesse!"
"Now, Heinz, listen to me! Something's awfully wrong with that child!"
"I'll take care of my own, mein herr! Please, now, in your room!"
He pushed me back with a force a man of his years shouldn't be capable of, and slammed the door. I reached for the door at once, but it was locked from the outside. I beat on it and stormed at it in the cold, but for once it held. Beyond the door I could hear Clarissa singing her song, and I could hear fear in her voice.
I screamed at Heinz, threatening every kind of vengeance on him, until at last I suddenly realized that I was being hysterically silly. I fell silent. In the silence, I could hear nothing but the moan of the wind around the rusty corners of the house, and the hiss of snowflakes against the window. I sat down -- shaken, bitter at myself for giving way to such an outburst over a child's crying in the night.
At last I lay down again. In the frosty silence of the early dawn, I fell asleep.
When I awoke, hours later, I found my door unlocked again. Heinz was not to be found -- not that day, nor the next. I trampled through the house, opening doors, calling him, calling Clarissa. There was not a sound to answer me.
I found a little wood and made a miserable fire. I suppose I ate, I don't remember any too well. At night I went to bed, to lie shivering for hours, straining my ears for a sound -- for the sound of a child's song, the sound of a father's footstep in the cold darkness.
Then it was morning, or nearly morning. Gray fingers of morning plucked at the frosty windows. I awoke to see Heinz standing beside my bed. In the two days he seemed to have aged twenty years. He was an old, old man.
He spoke to me: "Jesse, my friend. Jesse, I am dying."
"Why, Heinz!" I exclaimed in shock.
"Hear me," Heinz commanded softly, pulling something out of his pocket with apparent effort. "This is the key to Clarissa's room. You take it."
"Is she all right?" I asked apprehensively.
Heinz collapsed to the floor, and I knelt down next to him.
"Too late for me," Heinz whispered. "Go. Clarissa's room. Do what is to be done."
I lifted him to the bed. I bent over him. I listened for his heart. There was no sound. Heinz was dead.
In the little half-light, I found the kerosene lamp and I lit it. I took the key from the floor where he dropped it.
I found the room very easily, it was at the far end of the hall. I called out: "Clarissa? Clarissa?!" There was no answer, so I unlocked the door. Holding the light above my head, I walked over to the bed.
Lying on the bed, dressed in a pinafore that might have come out of a Tenniel drawing in Alice in Wonderland, clutching a little woolen lamb to her breast -- there lay a tiny, old, old woman with long white hair, braided into pig-tails. Clarissa. I knew then why I hadn't heard that little song for two days.
When the lamp dropped out of my hand and the flames started licking around the dry-as-dust draperies and the fragile old oak boards in the floor, I turned and went out of the house. What else was there to do? The house had lived too long. So had the father and daughter who dwelt there.