It was a dark and stormy Halloween night in 1984 when my husband lost his life in a fiery crash. A few months later, I sold our old brownstone in the city and moved out to the country with our children, Ellie, who was six, and Michael, who was seven. That is when I met, Miss Esther de’ Monde. I answered an ad she had placed in the newspaper. She had a cottage for rent on her property. The ad said, “Cottage for rent, families with young children welcome.” She lived in an old farmhouse that stood on acres of beautiful land. When I met her she told me that she had grown up on the farm. She had never married and after her parents had both passed away, she lived on the farm alone. It seemed like the perfect place for my children and I to start over.
It was late winter and the ground was still covered under deep snow. The children enjoyed building snowmen and igloos as they romped around on the vast property. They quickly became enamored with Esther, who warmed them after their outdoor playtime with home-made hot chocolate. My children had no qualms about letting me know that it tasted much better than the store-bought powdered cocoa with tiny stale marshmallows that I had often served for them in the past. As the seasons changed and spring took hold, there was a position opening at a local nursery. Esther offered to take care of the children when they came home from school each day so that I could return to work. But when I offered to pay her for her time, she refused, saying that enjoying time with my children was payment enough. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was, and how perfect the arrangement was for my children. They quickly came to love Esther as if she was their own grandmother.
When school ended for summer break, Esther offered once again to watch the children during the hours when I was at work. But again, she refused to take any payment for her time. The field upon which my children continued to enjoy playing, had turned into a thick blanket of green grass. However, there was one patch in the center of the field where no grass seemed to grow. As a favor to Esther, I decided to do what I could to bring life back to the barren spot. I bought some seed and a metal sprinkler and worked each day in an effort to bring the grass back to life. But in spite of all my efforts, the grass simply would not grow. By late summer, I had to give up and admit defeat, no grass would grow in that spot.
That September, the children returned to school. Ellie was now in first grade and Michael was in second. When October arrived with its cooler temperatures and shorter days, my children rejoiced in the return of Esther’s famous hot chocolate. Halloween was quickly approaching when the children relayed a story that Esther had told them about her childhood. When Esther was a girl, it had been a Halloween tradition to build a bonfire. She and her friend, Abigail, would build a fire in the yard. They would burn pieces of old furniture or household items that had broken or had been deemed useless by their parents and discarded over the past year. She and Abigail would dress in adult clothes and powder their hair till it was white. Then they would dance around the fire reciting spooky poems that they had learned in school. Esther told the children that every year, in honor of the remembrance of those days, she still kept the tradition alive, and she promised them that they could participate in this year’s bonfire.
October was the end of the seasonal work at the nursery. Once the pumpkins and bulbs for next spring’s flowers were sold, the shop was closed up for the winter. October 31st was a difficult day for me since it was the first anniversary of my husband’s death. But I didn’t want to spoil the holiday for the children and since the closest neighbor to the farm was a half-mile away, this would by the first Halloween that the children couldn’t go trick-or-treating. So I bought some candy on the way home and intended to treat them to a small Halloween party. That night I let myself into Esther’s house to gather my children as I had done countless times before. I could see Esther standing by her window, gazing out at the field between the house and the cottage. As I neared her she turned with a start. She said with a smile, “The children are enjoying the bonfire.” I lifted the curtains for a better look and saw them as they danced around the blaze. I realized that the fire was in the same patch of ground where the grass refused to grow. But something else was bothering me, there were three children dancing around the fire. “Did the children bring a friend home from school today?” I asked. “Oh, no, dear, that is my friend Abigail.” I thought I must have misunderstood her and so I repeated, “Abigail?” “Oh, yes, dear. I build the fire for her every year on Halloween night and she comes back to dance around it.” Astonished by this bizarre statement and wondering if Esther had had too much spiced cider, I continued, “Miss de’ Monde, I don’t understand. The children told me that Abigail was your friend when you were a little girl. That was many years ago, that child couldn’t possibly be the same girl.”
Esther looked at me and said, “Abigail and I built these bonfires every year when we were children. But in 1920, the bonfire got out of control.” She shook her head. “You see, Abigail was dressed as a grown-up and her clothes were too long for her. She tripped and fell into the fire. Poor dear, she was terribly burned and died a couple of days later. But I have never stopped building the fire on Halloween, and she has never stopped coming back to dance around it. And look at her, she is so happy to have your children to play with this year!” Horrified by what she was telling me, I ran from the house toward my children. But before I could reach them, I saw Abigail push Ellie into the fire and heard my children scream. To my amazement, the figure of a man appeared at the center of the fire. He quickly lifted Ellie into his arms and walked out to the safety of the cool grass beyond the blaze. He gently placed her down and turned to look in my direction. It was a very dark night, but by the light of the flame I could see his face well. I knew in an instant, that it was my husband. He nodded his head toward me as I stood there frozen in disbelief. With that he lifted Abigail into his arms, and cradling her little body, he walked back into the fire where they both disappeared. Immediately, my body was released from its frozen state and I ran to my children. Ellie was crying, but other than some ashes rubbed on her skin, she was remarkably unharmed. Michael looked at me and said, “Daddy saved Ellie.” “I know, sweetheart, I saw him, too.” “He took Abigail with him. She told us she was very lonely, but she won’t be lonely anymore. Daddy will take care of her now.”
That was many years ago, and Michael and Ellie have families of their own now. We left that night and never returned. But just the other day I received a letter from Esther’s lawyer. Esther passed away in her sleep. He said that she didn’t have any family of her own and that she had left the farm to me. She had just one request. Each year, on Halloween night, I should light a bonfire.