June 18th, 1908
Poor Aline has been frightened for a fortnight. She will not venture near the forest, nor approach the White Oaks by the schoolyard, where we would often climb to see the sea when we were young. What has gotten into her? I had thought absently, not comprehending Aline’s pale-lipped fear.
It was foolish of me to dismiss her. A child’s fear, no matter how unfounded and illogical it may be, is no less terrifying than the most reasonable fear of any adult. Even more terrible it would be, I suppose, because it arises from a very different kind of place.
Aline’s fear was such as this. Her dear cheeks were weak and trembling as she told me all, her voice very careful as if she was unspooling a delicate thread or untangling a cat’s whiskers from the garden weeds.
It had been a fortnight ago that Aline had walked to school through the forest, a slight shortcut that would make mother red in the face if she knew. But Aline had been late for arithmetic and Miss Riversmith was always scolding the poor thing. So through the trees little Aline walked, and it was silent, so silent, she said, that her heart’s beat seemed to become that of the whole wood. It was then that Aline passed the bend at Old Orchard and lost her wits from fright.
Old Orchard is a barren place, a bend in the forest path that passes just before White Orchard Farm, where Charles Gray and his family had once lived. The town doesn’t talk about that farm anymore, but there are those still alive who have loose tongues and the stories they tell have become quite a legend. The Tellgood girl has spoken once or twice of the Gray father, Charles, who had made a deal with the devil. Only, when the time came to repay his debt, Gray refused most profusely and the devil, not one to be humiliated, turned Gray and his wife, and all his five children, into cats.
It was a fantastic story, to be sure—but hardly believable in the twentieth century. What had he made the deal for? I asked the Tellgood girl. Her mouth flopped open and closed like a pair of fish gills.
All that can be confirmed (by my investigation) is that there had been a family by the name of Gray that lived at White Orchard Farm, and they had mysteriously gone away without a word to anyone in town.
After not seeing the Grays in mass for many weeks, Pastor Williams had gone to the farm to inquire as to their absences and their well-beings and to ask how the children would learn of the Lord their savior if not by attending mass? (Pastor Williams told me this story himself, although I suspect a few embellishments were made).
Of course, the Pastor never found the Gray family; he found seven gray cats. Two full grown felines and five kittens of various size and age. So where had the Gray family got off to? For surely they were not those seven cats, who had been chased into the forest and are said to still live there, somewhere amongst the trees. The only explanation anyone could think for the disappearance was a fantastical story of wickedness and superstition.
And I may have erred by telling this story to Aline.