Every day at 3:47 pm, the ghost boy emerges from the shadowy hall and runs across the front room. He hides behind the olive curtain. He is naked and covered in a thin layer of chalk, and when he runs he leaves a cloud of it in his wake, which settles on the carpet against the dying bands of daylight before vanishing completely into the ulterior world from whence it came. The ghost boy’s feet remain visible beneath the curtain until 5:29. And then there is no sign of him anywhere in the house again until well after midnight, when he can be heard whimpering in the gallery, having discovered once more that his godmother is dead. Although the boy’s routine is predictable to the minute and he has yet to deviate from it, despite whatever may be happening around him, he still startles me sometimes. He runs quickly, out from thin air. And then he waits behind the curtain, which is also frightening. I like to read in the front room because the light is nice and there is an apple tree at the window. Mr. Yelin has hung a giant mirror on the wall opposite the apples that stretches from floor to ceiling. When I sit in the armchair and read I can see myself, the apples, the sun, and the ghost boy’s chalky feet all in the mirror. I can watch his feet grow thin and watery in the waning light. I have found it is better to be in the company of the ghost boy from 3:47 to 5:29 than to be elsewhere in the house, even though he is frightening. I have found that the memory of his presence there behind the curtain is more frightening from a distance than when I can sit near him and watch his feet slowly disappear and not move at all in the process. Mr. Yelin did not give me a heads up about the ghost boy when I took the housekeeping job. When I brought it up to him over the phone he acted very sorry, saying that he simply had not known how to tell me. Who is the boy, I had wanted to know. How long has he been here, and why does he do the things he does? Mr. Yelin did not have much to offer. In the seventies, the woman who had owned the house worked with a medium to make contact with the boy. They learned that he was in deep grief over the death of his godmother, as his own parents had been distant and cold. He was seven years old and his name started with the letter E. Mr. Yelin had nothing else concrete to say about the boy though he spent a lot of time free associating on the subject of apparitions, the purpose of which, I gleaned, was to assure me of my safety in the house. He asked me if I was going to quit and I managed to act in just the right way so that in the end I had secured a raise from 110 to 150 a day.
There is not much to do in Mr. Yelin’s house. I am responsible for taking in the mail, watering the houseplants, feeding the aquarium (the fish itself is presumably alive though I have yet to see it), filling the birdfeeders, and acting as liaison to the various men who come to work on the exterior portion of the property. I am also here to answer the call of anyone hoping to see the mobile glass aviary which once occupied the high-ceilinged gallery on the main floor. Mr. Yelin was its curator and architect, and I have been told it was once a popular tourist attraction for birders, historians, and artists alike. Twenty years ago, the aviary was disassembled. The colorful, delicate, glass birds were cut down off their wires, boxed up and stored away. But, Mr. Yelin has expressed concern, some of the pamphlets, papers, books, and websites which advertised the aviary are still in circulation. The marketing, he said, was robust, both locally and internationally, and when the gallery closed there was no way of cleaning it up entirely. “Someone will come to the door, looking for the Mobile Glass Aviary, holding some old clipping that boasts of the light-catching colors, the view of the river, the anatomical accuracy of each crystal bird, the masterful way in which the birds were hung and positioned to fill the space and mimic true flight patterns...And they will be very disappointed to hear that the birds have been taken down. They will not want to believe it. They will point to the clipping that says the gallery is open from 12 to 5, Wednesday through Sunday and ask, isn’t this the correct address, the home of Mr. Yelin, the artist? They may be hard of hearing. They are often very old, though not always. You will have to tell them again and again very slowly and gently until they comprehend. And then you should offer them a tour of the garden instead, saying that the view of the river in the distance is still very much intact. Someone will come. It happens more often than you’d think.” The more I talk with Mr. Yelin the more I think that this was his primary purpose for hiring me, despite the fact that I have been living here for three months, and I am still waiting for such a moment. I have had to tell him many times now that no, no one has come looking for the mobile glass aviary. Each report is more painful than the last. I do not yet have the heart to ask him permission to leave the house from the hours of 12 to 5, Wednesday through Sunday. Of course, I have and will continue to do so without his knowing, but I think it would be good for him to fully let go of that illusion. I have not asked Mr. Yelin why the aviary was taken down. I wonder if it has something to do with the ghost boy. His routine, as I have observed it, would not have interfered with the gallery during the hours it was open to the public. In the night, however, the ghost boy does go there to cry over his godmother’s death. He goes to a spot in the middle of the floor, off center to the right, to bury his head in his hands and cry. I have seen him there, in a puddle of his misery. He is pale and murky in the moonlight that comes through the tall windows. There are no birds above him now. There is nothing at all in the gallery.
I have been reading Mr. Yelin’s self-published autobiography, which I found on a shelf in the front room. It describes the mobile glass aviary, how the idea was born and how it all came together. The story is told out of order. The first part of the book is about the mobile glass aviary itself, how the birds were mounted and arranged with wires and metal beams. How it was the first of its kind. A short chapter is dedicated to each species of bird represented in the collection, describing their personal, historical, and ecological significance. Then there are several tedious chapters about the glassblowing workshop in Albany responsible for crafting the birds—conversations between Mr. Yelin, ornithologists, and the glassmiths, full of technical jargon. Now I am reading about the gallery and the house which holds it. I am reading it with the hopes of learning something about the ghost boy. I wonder if Mr. Yelin knew about the boy before he bought the house. I wonder if the ghost boy was the reason he was able to afford such a large estate on the bank of the river. There has not been a chapter about funding yet, nor any personal details which suggest where Mr. Yelin got his money. We are getting very close to the discovery of the house, however: “I spent years searching for the perfect container, one with light enough to make each bird shine and ceilings high enough to hold still the spiraling flights of swallows and the breathless dives of osprey alike. I imagined the Arlington Conservatory, the pride of my hometown—its cathedral-like rafters, the Islamic tiling in the atrium, the thin niches where torches of warm light were mounted. I had dreams of the architect of that conservatory, a man whose name I had forgotten yet whose piercing Norwegian gaze, as it had been framed and mounted above the front desk of the building, remained etched in my memory. I had dreams in which he would lead me through a dense pine forest and into a clearing populated with birds. There were slight variations on the dream each time I had it. One time, the birds came to me, flying out from the tops of the trees to land on my head and shoulders, as if I were Snow White—” The boy darts across the room from the hall.
He is already hidden when I look up, but the air is still in motion. The chalk lands in eddies on the rug. Then it is gone, and the room is still. I must stare in the mirror at the boy’s feet beneath the curtain for a minute, maybe longer, until I feel safe enough to look away. I adjust my position in the chair and look out the window at the apple tree, heavy with spoiled fruit. Gazing out, I am just able to glimpse the sleeve of a man walking toward the front door of Mr. Yelin’s house, though I wait for the doorbell to rise and answer the call. The man has a brown, weathered face and is wearing a black, glistening parka. I had not noticed the mist before. It is a wet, fall day, and the leaves on the ground are pressed and fragrant. The man on Mr. Yelin’s step searches his pocket then pulls out a damp, folded paper. For a moment I think he is one of them. I straighten myself up and recall my responsibilities. They will not want to believe it. You will have to tell them again and again very slowly. But quickly I am let down. The paper is not an advertisement for the Mobile Glass Aviary. It is some kind of work contract. The man is not a native English speaker and relies on the contract to corroborate his sparse explanation of who he is and why he has come to the door. There is something wrong with the koi pond. He wants me to follow him to the garden and see for myself so that I may relay the information to Mr. Yelin. We cut across the lawn and traverse a rotting wood chip pile on the side of the house to meet up with the trail which tours the garden. In a back corner of the garden, beneath a circle of orange maple trees, there is a koi pond which has held no koi in it for years. It has, however, attracted a snapping turtle, come up from the marsh. There is another man standing at the pond looking into the water. He and the man in the parka have been tasked with removing the snapping turtle. I recognized the man at the pond. His name is Jacob. He does many things around the house for Mr. Yelin. When he sees me and the man in the parka he whistles. “She’s hiding,” says Jacob. “You really scared her away.” “Man,” says the other, approaching the water, “I don’t know why you’re blaming me when you were just gonna stare.” Jacob is holding a metal fishing net at his side. It does not look sufficient to capture a snapping turtle. I walk closer and peer into the pond myself. The water is black and misty where the raindrops fall. There are mosses growing on the border rocks and orange leaves clumped within their crevices. The turtle, I think, must be cowering under one of these rocky shelves. The man in the parka throws something into the pond and the surface ripples. A toad makes its presence known by jumping from one crag to another. “What should I tell Mr. Yelin?” I ask. “Ah, tell him to call animal control if he really wants it out. I’m not crawling in a pond with no snapping turtle,” says Jacob. Back in the front room, I try phoning Mr. Yelin. He does not pick up, and I do not leave a message. I will tell him it was an accidental dial. I see no reason for concern over the turtle. I can think of no good reason why it shouldn’t live in the desolate koi pond, and I cannot imagine that it poses a real threat to anyone’s safety. I will tell the men that I have informed Mr. Yelin, and they will not be surprised at his failure to follow through on calling a professional, as he failed to call the tree removal service and wasp control service. He likes to know that he has a staff of people on hand for general upkeep and minor repairs around the property, but, ultimately, he does not care much for the state of the gardens. He really only cares for the visitors who are supposed to come looking for the aviary.
I begin to read the book again, feeling somewhat hopeless about it. I know in my heart that there will be no mention of the ghost boy in its pages, or anything satisfying as to an explanation of why the aviary was taken apart just ten years after its completion. I recline in the chair and let the book fall to the floor with a muffled thump. To my horror, I notice that a corner of it has fallen directly into the ghost boy’s left foot, the impact of which ripples slowly through the folds of the curtain. There is something fluid about the spot where the two forms, book and foot, converge. I stand up and walk to the olive drape behind which the ghost boy stands, has been standing since 3:47, and will be standing until 5:29. And then I do something which surprises me. I move the curtain aside. Really, I sweep it aside in one, swift motion as if trying to catch the ghost in some shameful act. It takes my eyes a moment to adjust to the influx of additional light. When they finally do, I see him for the first time. The ghost boy looks nothing like I had expected him to look. It had not occurred to me that I had never really seen his face, and that to see it would shatter an image of him I kept in my mind and had not realized was completely imagined. The thing I was looking at was round and dark and cavernous like the moon, unlike any face I had ever seen. I had swallowed a shout of terror upon the revelation, and now let out a long, thinned exhalation of it. I cannot remember what exactly I had been expecting to see behind the curtain, but this was not it at all.