But it was Christmas Eve and Ms. Smith Jones shook off care and joined her children, their arms stretched out wide, spinning as the winter darkness slipped like a coat around the fleshy angles of the flat gray day. The headlights of the family car turned into the drive and soon the whole family tumbled into their new home, greeted by the aroma of turkey soup simmering in the kitchen and the sharp tang of applesauce that had over-boiled and burnt onto the back burner of the stove.
Ms. Smith-Jones gathered up her bundle of holly boughs still sitting on the old dining room table and moved it into the pantry to be distributed later around the house, not frantically, but joyously laid on sills and doorway, a new tradition for her family but an old, comforting one for the house—a meeting, yet again, of old and new. And the dog was fed, and the phones turned off, and the family ate turkey soup for supper with crusty bread in the old dining room by the fire’s glow.
Later, just as Ms. Smith Jones was carrying out a tray of festive dessert bowls filled with thick, golden applesauce served over vanilla ice cream, an unholy rap, rapping sounded at the single dining room window. The dog leapt up and began to bark and the whole family turned. In the night a face pressed against one of the antique windowpanes. Someone was outside in the storm! The unearthly vision lurched away and in the next moment there was such banging on the door as would wake the dead. The family tumbled toward the sound, hearts pounding. Who could be out in this weather on Christmas Eve? Later they all remembered the urgency of that hammering on the door, the panicked insistence that commanded a response.
Mr. Smith-Jones threw open the door to find a young woman who could not have been more than eighteen years old and who now stumbled in from the blinding storm. She was wrapped up in an oddment of woolen garments, her face hardly visible, but her manner instantly alarming them all as she raced to get inside, gripping a bundle of twigs wrapped up in an old burlap sack.
The visitor spoke not a word but rushed headlong into the warm dining room trailing a wake of cold air behind her. She went straight to the section of painted paneling on the far side of the fireplace and frantically ran her hand along the wood. In the next moment—they all heard it—there came the sound of a baby crying. The young woman heard it, too, and her features transformed into what could only be described as relief. Then she simply walked through the paneled wall. She was there one moment, and gone the next—straight through the wall! They heard the sound of footfalls as if someone was running up a staircase, and just as suddenly as it had begun, the crying stopped. And a sort of palpable wonderment settled on the Smith-Jones’ family as well, all of them standing agog at what they could not have possibly witnessed. The room was still and cold as winter when footfalls sounded again and the young woman flashed by carrying a different sort of bundle, hurriedly wrapped in a hand knitted shawl. As if she were racing time and fate, the young visitor leapt with her burden out of the wide open door and disappeared into the snow. Behind her trailed a chill more frigid than the coldest night and Ms. Smith-Jones grabbed for her children and held them close.
Even the dog was too startled to bark. The family looked at one another then down at the bone dry floor without a snowy footprint to be seen. Mr. Smith-Jones went to close the door and found it already fastened shut and latched by the dead bolt that he had locked himself when the family had come in for supper only an hour before. The fire, which a moment earlier had ceased to emit a single degree of warmth now poured out heat with instant result, which both comforted and disturbed everyone in turn.
Ms. Smith-Jones hurried into the pantry with her children in tow and gathered up the boughs of holly, heading first to the front door, then to every window and door throughout their new home. And when the family had laid holly at the last of the window sills they had one bough left and Ms. Smith Jones placed it along the floor where the bundled woman had not once, but twice, walked through the wall.
There was nothing for it but to light the tree and sing carols old and new and hang the stockings and watch the snow fall through the window and finally sleep, which was, for everyone, an uneasy affair with the children moving their beds onto the floor of their parents’ room. Only the dog seemed fully recovered from the unearthly visitation and was asleep in a moment. And later, at last, all stirring and checking and listening eased, and the last of the Smith-Joneses, Ms. Smith-Jones, fell fast asleep.
Christmas morning broke to a world of white and brilliant blue sky and the children leapt down the stairs by twos, and presents were opened and the Christmas breakfast was ravenously enjoyed as if not one of them had eaten for a week. In the lull that comes after the wrapping paper is smoothed out to be stored for another year, the family recalled the details of their Christmas Eve visitor. It was clear that by the morning the event was growing fuzzy in the children’s minds, as if it had all been a dream.
But a dream it had not been, and later, when Mr. Smith-Jones had joined the children outdoors to build a snow fort, Ms. Smith-Jones went to have a better look at the paneling on the far wall next to the old fireplace. She ran her hand along its honey smooth surface when, almost invisible to the eye, she felt the thin line of a doorway etched into the wood. A chill raced down her spine as her hand followed the seam, remembering that this was what she had observed the visitor doing, frantically, maniacally, before de-materializing through the wall. Her hand reached the old sconce, original to the house and built into the wall to hold a candle, when she discovered the hidden latch. Her heart almost stopped as she pulled down and the door swung to, revealing a little staircase leading up and around the rough outer stonework of the chimney
Even in the daylight it took every reserve of her courage to mount those stairs. She tread softly, reverently, pausing to listen until the staircase abruptly turned at the top and Ms. Smith-Jones found herself standing in a low-ceilinged little room. Light streaked through the closed wooden shutter of the single window. As her eyes adjusted she could see before her not the scene of horror she had imagined, but, somehow even more painful, the homey tableau of a cradle with mussed blankets, as if a mother had just lifted her infant from its bed; the warmest scene of humanity set in such a cold, cold frame. Beside the cradle, still as death, stood an old rocking chair and on a little table beside the chair, was placed a single candleholder with a stub of a candle ready to be relit. It was a room meant to be returned to by mother and child.
Ms. Smith-Jones moved to open the shutter and stumbled over a bundle on the floor. She froze, then steeled herself to look down, but it was only a sack of twigs. She reached for the shutter and opened it, and daylight flooded into every corner of the little room. The bundle at her feet was a newly cut thatch of holly. And on the window sill lay a single bough of holly, teeming with fresh red berries bright as Christmas on a clear, cold day.
For every Christmas Eve thereafter, even years past that first night and long after the children had grown and were returning now for the holidays with families of their own, the Smith-Joneses waited for the young woman with her bundle of holly to appear again. But she never, ever did. Mr. and Ms. Smith-Jones never breathed a word in the village about the secret room tucked in the chimney space above the painted-paneled dining room of the Old Webster Place.
Then at a Historical Society evening a few years later, where a presentation on the colonial architecture of the village was given, the Smith-Joneses heard an explanation of sorts that matched their own theory as to why such a room might have been built and kept hidden by the Webster family for all those long years. It was simple, really, like the laying of holly boughs on Christmas Eve above doors and along window sills to ward off roaming spirits. The room was built in a time of revolution to protect the family’s most precious possession: its own. And what of the ghostly young woman who rushed out into the storm with her own precious bundle? Even at the end of her long, long life, Ms. Smith-Jones was never able to judge the events of that singular Christmas Eve with any other word but love.