- What Looks Like Mad DisorderThe Sarah Winchester House
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Midnight, she knew, tasted of bitter water but smelled good as damp dirt. The dark hours had taught her that as she’d slid from room to room. A big house creates its own sink of nighttime silence, ponderous as weather; how quiet the place back east had been. But these rooms were noisy as she wanted, alive with the ring of dropped nails, chuffing saws. Hammers swung all night at her command.
She slept, if she slept, in a different bed every night, or else waited patiently at the little desk in the séance room. She [End Page 13] went over accounts and sketched plans for the next day, chewing on dried apricots grown in her own orchards. Tough little suns, flat and orange; they caught in her teeth. One night she drew a spider web on a sheet of paper. It would be a design for a stained-glass window.
She must have seen something she recognized in the spider. How every night she spins herself a home, and every dawn destroys it. How she anchors herself in a sturdy spot, reels out a loop, and adds the weight of her body. From this triangle, everything begins.
Once upon a time there lived a baby girl, the only child of parents rich beyond measure. But when she was just a few weeks old, that baby died. Some years later, her father died too, and her mother was left alone. The mother had been the hub of a small family and now was the center of nothing, drifting from room to room, eyes dimmed by grief, hands empty. Maybe she felt a curse had fallen upon her, and maybe one had.
So she went to the city, Boston, and found a soothsayer, who told her to move west, build a house, and never stop, lest the spirits that had taken her daughter and husband come for her. There were legions of those ghosts, the medium said, all the people killed by her husband’s guns. For this grieving woman was heir to the vast fortune of the Winchester Rifle Company. Sarah was her name, Sarah Pardee Winchester, and this was her house.
We’re standing in the courtyard, my husband David and I, waiting for our tour to start. The fountain beside us sparkles and spurts. We hear occasional honks from the traffic outside on Winchester Boulevard, and kids squealing as they horse around in the Victorian Gardens—it’s a busy place, and we squint in the sun, tickets in hand.
We’re between jobs, all our things stacked in a storage unit across the country in a new state, in a town called Apex. You have to go where the work is, people say. Well, we’ve done that, following jobs from Texas to Minnesota to North Carolina. Will one of us get a steady job when the academic hiring season starts up again next month? If not, what then? “We’ll get by,” David says, but right now, I can’t see how.
In the meantime, we’re taking a few days off, finagling flyer miles and a spot on our friends’ sofa into a California junket. When we started packing, we couldn’t find our suitcases—they were buried too deep in that storage unit. So we stuffed our clothes in a box that a coffee pot had come in, taped it shut, and heaved it onto the baggage belt. An awkward fix, but it would have to do.
The intercom crackles: Tour number seventy-one, prepare to depart from the side entrance. Twenty of us line up, a mixed bunch—retired couples, a father with two children, a boy in a zapata vive! T-shirt. Our guide, a stony-faced college student with her dark hair cut in sleek wings, lays down the law. “Keep up,” she says. “Stay with the group. If you get lost, you’ll have to find your own way out. Nobody will ever find you.”
With that, we step inside, through [End Page...