A house unlived in week after week, month after month, takes on an uneasy presence; like a life-sized scary dollhouse. Furniture, candlesticks, curtains, rugs, clothes and other objects remain behind like weeping abandoned children. Decorations and heirlooms will be neat, save a gathering of dust that clings to itself like spider webs. Yet, unmoving objects perfectly placed, seldom stay that way. Time moves faster in the dark. Quicker still in absolute quiet. Stillness is a midnight thief that sometimes robs years, even from that which was never born. If an old rocking chair could begin creaking back and forth on its own, and scream out-loud at 3 o'clock in the morning, it would do so.
A home is not a home without stirring: Without a dog barking and wagging his tale joyously, running and back and forth in front of the window when that car pulls in the driveway. Without cats and children and noise. Homes take on a funny smell when living things do not live there. As a buyer and auctioneer of estates, I've smelled that queer smell many times in my life. "It's rotting food," people tell me when I try to describe the odor. "Or stale soap or a rug or floor that needs cleaning." It is not. Anyone who has smelled the smell of a lonely house will tell you that the scent is distinct and similar at the same time. Similar to every other house like it, where giggles and falling-in-love tears and bedtime stories have long gone away. Leaving only objects: still and cold and frightened.
My buddy and auction business partner, Carl Hotkowski and I were contacted to sell the contents of a large 18th century homestead in Northwest Connecticut; the proceeds going to charity according to the written instructions of the deceased preacher and wife who long resided there. An attractive lawyer, who attended one of our Antique Talk's in Litchfield, hired our firm. "I trust you guys," she said. "I want you to appraise everything and photograph all the antiques in the house as they stand. For insurance and estate purposes."
We started with the living room, doing a little dusting and vacuuming. Making our way methodically from room to room, we took pictures with a digital camera. We photographed the major antiques individually and lower -valued items in room settings. I brought along several high-density flashcards, knowing we'd have to take lots of pictures in such an antique-packed house. Around 11 AM, Carl suggested we hit the attic. "Before it gets too hot up there!" he said.
As is true in many old homes, the attic stairs were long, cliff-steep and narrow. The steps were made for feet half the sneaker-length of my size twelve. A light bulb screwed into a porcelain ceiling lamp-when I pulled on the dangling chain, the attic was a bit of a disappointment. Antique dealers, being part dreamers, assume every old attic is packed with 18th century furniture and museum quality collectibles. They seldom are. Dim sunlight angled in from two windows. There was a hornets' nest, about 30 banana boxes packed with old religious texts , an early 20th century maple school desk-similar to one that appears in every old attic we visit, clothes, a few pieces of low grade Victorian furniture and a 19th century room-size Heriz in bad condition. We had to move the books to photograph and roll up the Persian rug. Ughhh! It took half an hour.
Repositioning those boxes …that's when I noticed something was bothering my business partner. He kept looking from side to side. Rubbing his eyes. His face turned a bit peaked. "What's wrong?" I asked. Kind of a tough guy, little bothers Carl and nothing scares him-except that attic. He complained about feeling a strange "presence." A few minutes later, he asked me, "Did you see that?" "See what?" I said. Try as did, I was unable to see or feel any spirits or white glowing orbs or ghosts of any kind floating around in that tall ceiling loft . Carl did. Saying that he didn't enjoy working up there would be more sarcasm than truth. My friend always works fast and efficiently: Never any more so, however, than he did in that late morning. We were downstairs and I had a sandwich and ice cold Coke in front of me in an hour.
A week or so later, Hotkowski & Mattox were hard at work preparing for what was to be a $325,000 sale-a boomer for a country auction. I was delighted our photos were coming out so beautifully. We could use them in our ads, I thought. Then, I downloaded the first photo of the attic. "Must have spilled water or something on the camera lens," I said to myself. Several varying-sized glowing white translucent circular balls of light had ruined the shot. "Distortion," I muttered. The next attic shot had the same "orbs" on it, but they were distributed differently throughout the picture; like the water spots on the lens had moved. Strange, I thought. When a different pattern of "light-balls" appeared on every consecutive attic photograph, each stranger than the one before it, I recalled Carl's uneasiness working up there. Those balls on my computer screen were almost identical to what he described seeing. All the attic shots had that varying type of "distortion." All others displayed no tribulations. Even the shots I examined very carefully: pictures taken after we had finished up in the attic. Whatever it was that had caused such an unusual "light" distortion in my camera had evidently cleared itself up after lunch.
When I emailed the attic ghostly images to Carl he was not surprised. "Told you so," he said. I knew he was masking high spirits and anxious to show Judy, his wife, the pictures.
I heard that a happy family is living in that old house now. If I meet them, I don't think I'll mention what my buddy saw and experienced in that attic. And I'll say nothing about those strange images on my computer screen. Maybe restless spirits go back to resting when a house finds a happy family to warm its hearth. Maybe not. Anyhow, some things are best not spoken of. Best left alone. Especially, when it comes to shadowy antique attics long unvisited, and eerie Halloween weekends.