Buna

Copyright © Joseph Hvezda. All rights reserved.

It’s easy to see why autumn has always been considered to be an eerie time of the year; when it seems much easier to believe in the supernatural, and to believe in scary stories.

It’s always been my favorite time of the year, and yet I dread it as well. The dread is an underlying feeling, a feeling of anticipation, of waiting for something that never seems to come. I feel like I’m on the verge of discovering something profound about myself, but that fulfillment never comes.

I blame it all on my Great Grandmother.

I and my siblings never knew any of our immediate grandparents. My Great grandmother, my father’s grandmother, was a looming figure that appeared every October to spend time with us children. She would stay with us until early November when my parents would return from a trip they would take every year, and then she would be gone, often in the night. We children would emerge from our night of sleep to find that our parents had returned and Buna, as we called her, had gone without a word of good-bye.

That was always a morning of mixed feelings for me, though my sisters took it harder than I ever did. Something about Buna bothered me. She was never mean, or cruel, or anything of the sort, but she was odd. She was an old crone of a woman, it would be impossible for me to tell you how old she was.

To me as a child, she was just a really old person. She often told us stories of herself as a young woman, and in those tales one got the impression that she was a beauty beyond measure. Even my father, in the very few times he mentioned her, would refer to her that way, as a young beauty.

Buna loved Halloween like no other Holiday, and she would allow us children that one night in her care to stay up as long as we could. The latest any of us were able to keep our eyes open was a little past two, and that was me. As the oldest I always felt it was incumbent upon me to stay alert while the younger kids were awake.

At sundown on Halloween every year, Buna would light candles everywhere and turn off the electric lights. By blazing candlelight she would serve a great feast that she seemed to have conjured from nothing. It would be waiting for us when we returned from our trick or treating runs with bags full of sweet treasure. We would sit at the table piled high with seasonal fare, a veritable cornucopia of delicious food.  At that time, Buna would begin to speak.

She told us stories that started harmlessly enough. At dinner she told tales of our ancient family, of our ancestors and deeds they had done, lives they had lived, adventures they had survived, or not. After dinner, and as the clock would approach midnight, the saga would get darker and spookier.

The transition from a table full of food to being gathered around the fire pit in the back yard always seemed non-existent to all of us kids. One moment we would be sitting inside at the feast, and then we would all be sitting outside around a fire that was roaring and crackling in the pit of large stones. Buna would be seated on an upturned wooden stump that was kept for that very purpose; firelight dancing on her over-large nose, ears, and scraggly hair as she told us stories about ghosts, witches, werewolves, vampires and many other stories of the night that chilled our bones and made us huddle together.

Around us, invisible past the edges of the firelight and throughout the house were the decorations that Buna would festoon our entire home with. Ghouls and ghosts, witches on brooms, fake gravestones, jack-o-lanterns and an endless array of other decorations in celebration of Buna’s favorite holiday.

For added effect, I assume, Buna always kept one of her favorite Halloween decorations next to her as she told her tales, and she never told the same story twice. Through the entire night Buna never left her stump. She regaled us with an endless yarn of adventure, suspense, and mystery, stories that flowed together, becoming one long narrative. The entire time her wizened old hand would rest upon a candle-wax covered replica of a human skull, the inside of which was lit with a single, flickering candle. It presided over the scene with its slightly disturbing, toothy, hollow-eyed grin.

Buna would sometimes refer to the skull as her dear, departed Mother from whom she inherited her love of Halloween and all its trappings.

It was all very frightening, but at the same time I feel like it was the best time of my life. It all ended the year that my brother died.

Nick got very sick soon after Buna left that November. My parents seemed to squabble a lot for most of the year after that, I didn’t really understand why. I was just twelve. From what I could gather, my mother had never felt comfortable around Buna, but she had tolerated her for my father’s sake. I don’t think that she ever felt like Buna would do us harm, or else they never would have left us with her at all. But for some reason that year was different.

My brother recovered from his illness, but for most of the next year he would seem to get better and then he would be sick again. My parents took him to doctors, but none of them seemed to be able to pin down a diagnosis.

As autumn approached, it seemed that Buna was in touch with my parents. From the snatches of conversation, more like arguments that I heard from my parents, Buna seemed to think that she could help my brother Nick. Dad was willing to try, but Mom was adamant that it was futile, and possibly dangerous.

As October approached, the spats between my parents became more intense and the doctor visits more frequent, but Nick just continued his downward spiral. For the first time that I ever remembered, Buna did not come in the beginning of October. My sisters and I kept our eyes peeled for her, but she did not come the second week, or the third, and when all Hallows eve arrived and she still had not come, we knew that she would not be with us that year.

For some reason that scared me.

For the first time I could remember, the house was not festooned with decorations. The only thing that we had was a half-hearted jack-o-lantern that leered in a sloppy way at the ground. My father had bought a pumpkin and tried his best to carve it with the three of us that weren’t sick, but the result was just a sad-looking hollow gourd that conveyed nothing of the Halloween spirit that Buna so treasured.

That frightened me a little as well. And it unsettled my sisters. It was unsettling enough that Nick lay sick in bed, pale and drawn as my mother hovered over him constantly. But the bare house was more unsettling. We felt as though we weren’t properly prepared. Prepared for what, we had no idea.

The houses around us that usually paled in comparison to our own house’s Halloween decorations seemed resplendently decorated now, even as cheap and tawdry as those same attempts to display Halloween spirit with the same decorations had seemed just the year before.

The street itself was drab and gray. My father did his best to keep our spirits up, but even the neighborhood seemed to sense something was amiss. Our Halloween costumes that year were sad. Little more than sheets and patchwork attempts with pieces of previous years costumes. And the take at the end of the evening was sparse and pathetic.

There was no feast when we got home, only Mom sitting by Nick’s bedside and dad at her side seeming wan, pale and deflated. The fighting had long since stopped and been replaced by hopeless waiting. Mom had put her foot down. Buna would no longer cast her shadow on our doorway.

We kids were shuffled off to bed unceremoniously. There would be no ringing in of the midnight hour as there had been ever since I could remember; no staying awake around a fire until our eyes unwillingly closed. No suspenseful tales of adventure with the ghostly hand of an old crone resting upon a wax-covered skull as children delighted in scary stories.

And yet, right after midnight, I came awake. A cold chill made its way throughout my body. I shivered uncontrollably beneath my blanket and then heard the most frightening thing I think that I had ever heard in my life.

My Mother was crying.

My mother crying was not the most frightening thing; I had heard that before, though it did carry with it a bad omen on this particular night. No, the most frightening sound was one that that I couldn’t even fathom at first; that I couldn’t quite identify. When I finally thought I knew what it was, it disturbed me so much that I couldn’t fall back to sleep for pretending to myself that it was not real.

My Father was crying, too.

We never saw Nick again, or Buna for that matter. Autumn became for me and for my sisters as well, a hollow time. The romantic in me still loves the beauty and the aromas that come with the season, the anticipation of family gathering and of the winter holidays coming. But there was something profound missing. We lost something valuable. Not just Nick or the deep family history that Buna conveyed to us; but I felt like we had been left open to other, intangible things. Things that I could never identify or fully realize, but I always feel vulnerable and unprotected, especially as the end of October approaches.

I don’t know what happened to Buna or when she passed away. My parents stayed together and life after that became kind of superficial and plastic. There was a cookie-cutter, suburban feel to life and we fell into the same shallow groove as so many other people do in this modern day world.

We couldn’t really afford to move from the house where Nick had passed, but it was completely made over. By the time that the road I grew up on, a neighborhood that had been a just small farming community, became another suburban outpost; our house had been completely transformed. It was no longer the house where we sat out in the backyard with our Buna around a stone fire pit telling ghost stories, or the house that was lit only with candlelight every Halloween night. It blazed with electric lights and cheap plastic forever after.

More importantly, it no longer resembled the house that Nick had died in. The back yard was now a patio with a colorful garden and a gazebo that I helped my father build. The rooms were all painted in sunny yellows and filled with plastic flowers and artificial light, even though the curtains and shades were often drawn shut. It was as though my parents had become afraid of the dark and the outside world. There were always lights burning.

I don’t think that my mother ever recovered from losing Nick. She became very wooden after he died. She no longer cried, but she no longer laughed very much, either, and never from the belly. Dad did everything he could to make life right again, but mom remained kind of a robot.

All of us children went on to schools and careers. My sisters married and had children of their own. In my own way, though, I never got over my brothers loss. I seemed to have inherited some of Nick’s sensitivity and while I had a good career, I was never really able to settle down. I always felt too… unprotected, or vulnerable. To what, I still didn’t know.

I suppose it was inevitable that Mom passed away relatively young. As much as anything else I think that she passed from a lifelong depression, and she may have actually been looking forward to going. I got the call from my father one evening in late September. He needed me to come back to our home, to our hometown, and help him with everything. I was across the country at the time, but I was between consulting jobs with nothing on the immediate horizon. I could work from anywhere. I flew home right away.

I expected Dad to be depressed and laden with burden, but when I saw him it seemed as though a load had been lifted from his shoulders. He stood straighter and grinned easier, like whatever had kept him from smiling and enjoying life was gone now.

Looking back, I really think my mother refused to let dad be happy for any reason. Just like she refused to leave the house long after being able to afford moving away wasn’t an issue. No matter how different they made the house look, it was still the house where we lost Nick, and mom couldn’t bring herself to leave.

Dad and I spent the next month together after I returned. I got to know my nieces and nephews better. I got to know dad better as well. We became as close as we ever have. Dad no longer wanted to live in the house so he moved to a much smaller home with a large yard where he could garden a little and work on his projects.

Dad left the fate of the house to me, and since it seemed silly to live in a hotel room, I stayed in the house while we worked things out. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with it, but I felt like I should meet with my sisters first and have a family meeting.

We decided to wait until after the excitement of Halloween. Their kids loved the holiday and my sisters seemed to have inherited a love of it as well. That left me a little less than a week to myself, and I decided to explore the house I grew up in.

I initially thought that there wouldn’t actually be much exploring to do. The house was an older home, technically a one story home. It was an early architectural attempt at a basic floorplan that could be built quickly and easily. But before my family lived there, someone had added on to the original structure, making room for what had become a kitchen and a laundry room. Above that, they had built tall enough so that a room could be fashioned above the add-on.

The room had never been used for much except storage when I was a boy, it was too hot in the summer and too drafty in the winter. Along the road somewhere as we kids were growing, my father had put thicker insulation and drywall up, as well as a window air conditioner, which made the room bearable in the summer, but there was still something spooky about the room.

I was too attached to my own bedroom to move up there, and when Nick was still alive I loved sharing it with him, so the oldest sister, the third child, decided to brave the upstairs in order to have some privacy from the youngest sister, who stayed in the room that was connected to my parent’s bedroom.

That upper room was the first place I found myself exploring after we got dad moved to his new house, going through the items that our family had stored over the years. It took days. There were old toys, boxes of keepsakes of the kind that loving parents put together as their children grow up, an old black and white TV, and things like that. I found a few boxes of pictures and slides and lost myself for an entire afternoon looking at the amateur pictures my father had taken with his fancy 35mm camera he bought in Germany when he served in the army.

I decided I would take a few of the boxes downstairs, where I could spread things out and the air was less stale. One of the boxes was large and slightly wieldy, and as I negotiated the dark landing at the top of the stairway, I stumbled and fell against the wall. The wall gave way a little and I looked to see what the damage was.

It was too dark, so I took my box the rest of the way down the stairs and returned to the landing with a flashlight. There was a shoulder-shaped hole where I had fallen against the wall and shining the light into the hole, I could see what looked like a door.

I pulled the crumbling drywall away and it pulled larger pieces with it. I was looking at a door, but it didn’t have a handle. A vague memory was lurking inside of my mind, though, something barely remembered and still mostly hidden.

I retrieved a couple of tools from the basement and pulled the rest of the drywall away. It had been fastened to a framework of wooden studs that covered up a door with no handle, or even a hole or fastener for any kind of opener, and I couldn’t see any hinges, either.

The framework had been added on after contruction, so it wasn’t supporting anything. It had definitely been put there to cover the door, so I pulled the studs down and was left staring at a plain white door. I pushed at it, but it didn’t swing open.

The vague memory was still nagging at me as I contemplated the door and all of the sudden I remembered that there was an attic space above the original structure, something I had completely forgotten, and with good reason. Our parents never allowed us to go into that attic, telling us that it was too dangerous. They claimed that if we took a wrong step we could fall through the ceiling and down into the main part of the house.

I pushed at the knobless door again and I realized that it seemed to push in as a unit; that it didn’t swing from one side. I pushed my hand against the wood of the door and pushed sideways. The door didn’t move. I flipped my hand the other way and pushed.

The door slid easily on unseen rollers and opened to a dimly lit attic. I could see the rafters that held up the roof of the house; old dark beams, and the underside of the roof itself. The floor the attic was made up of tongue and groove planks, old, but solid. They formed a surface that went from one end of the attic to the other, but stopped short of covering the entirety of the support beams. Where the roof angled down too far, there was only pink insulation tufting up above the ceiling rafters of the main floor.

I had to step up to enter the attic and as I did, I immediately hit my head. I had been in the attic maybe once as a child- and been punished quite severely for it- but when I was a boy I could stand up straight. Now I had to stoop down in order to move through the space, but walk through it I did. I felt like I was drawn into the attic area, and into the past.

The attic was cluttered with things I didn’t remember, things I had no reference for. Old, antique items like furniture, plate ware, lamps with glass shades, old clocks, a couple of old travel chests, old dolls and toys I had never played with. I peered around everywhere with the flashlight and realized that there might be a fortune in antiques stuffed into the attic of the house. It was going to take forever to sort it all out.

There was light coming into the attic from under the eaves of the house and through a dusty, dank window at each end of the space. The bright sunlight that was shining outside was transformed into a dim, grey light that barely illuminated anything at all, so I kept my trusty flashlight handy.

Beyond where the door rolled back, there was a recessed area that seemed to lead in the direction of the room my sister had occupied as a girl. Some old beds and mattresses had been stacked on their sides, but the floor stayed solid so I pulled the old beds away. It went back into that darkest part of the attic, but I kept pulling things away, until the floor ended a couple of feet in.

I shined the flashlight along the floor and saw that there was a plank laid across the rafters and that it led to what looked like another door, only this door had a handle on it, and several old locks. I tugged at the door and at the locks, but they were solid, and wouldn’t be easy to break. The wall looked solid as well, and I couldn’t understand what might be behind it.

I ran back through the house to the basement. It felt odd for the sunlight to be so bright on the main floor.  I went into my father’s shop, where my memory was telling me about something that I couldn’t pin down as real, it felt like it was only from a dream; but buried amongst the junk of my fathers cluttered workshop was a plastic set of drawers. The kind of drawer set that people used to organize little things like small tools, nuts, bolts, sewing material and hobby items.

Sure enough, on an old desk that was covered with baskets full of scrap wood and old pipe parts was that little plastic drawer organizer. I went through the drawers one by one and on the bottom row I found what I was looking for. It was full of keys, old keys. The newest of them couldn’t have been much younger than me. I took the entire drawer with me, carrying it like something precious.

Back in the attic, I put the plastic drawer down and pulled out a few of the keys. The third key I tried unlocked the top lock, but it took another six keys before I struck gold and the bottom lock snapped open.

I shined my light into the dark space and what I saw disturbed me for a reason I couldn’t quite identify. It was one of the strangest things I had ever seen. Behind what had to be the long wall of my sister’s upstairs room was another room. It was long and unlit. The ceiling of the room was the roof of the house and it slanted from a spot where I could just barely stand all the way down to the eaves of the house for the whole length of the room.

There were old chests that lined the lowest part of the ceiling, and a bistro-sized table with two chairs set up against the wall that the room shared with my sister’s room. There was a bench with a hot plate and a basin that might have been used for washing. I looked back and I saw a really large chest standing next to the door I had entered through, large enough so that I could fit in it if I were crouching. Bedding covered a couple of the chests along the low part of the ceiling at the farthest reaches of the room, at the edge of the light cast by my flashlight..

I knelt down and opened one of the chests on the floor and despite the odd, disjointed reality of the experience; I was delighted with what I saw. It was full of the decorations that Buna had used to decorate for Halloween every year! I opened the chest next to it and there were the rest of her decorations. A treasure trove!

My light fell upon the large chest next to the door and I realized it was covered with locks of all sorts. A morbid fascination befell me and I retrieved my little plastic drawer of old keys and got to work. It took maybe tem minutes of trying keys, but finally I clicked the last lock and put down the key. A strange foreboding filled the pit of my stomach as I clicked the final hasp that would open the huge chest.

I had no idea what I would find, but my imagination ran wild. All of the sudden I didn’t want to open the chest. I hesitated and looked at the chest, resting on its side. The final hasp had stuck a little, and on its own it clicked open and the fastener that kept it closed sprang back- the lid seemed to push open to the side and my heart leapt into my throat as it bumped my foot.

What was I expecting? Maybe a chest full of antiques? Of Old dolls? Or a makeshift ossuary full of old bones? It’s hard to tell what had me momentarily frozen as impossible pictures scrolled through my head, but against my better judgment my shaking hand pulled at the open hasp as I pulled my foot away to reveal… nothing.

The chest was empty. In the dark as the lid had slowly opened, my imagination filled the chest with unlikely and fantastically morbid things; but in the light of my flashlight there was only the inside lining of an old, antique trunk; a beautiful, possibly incredibly valuable antique trunk in a state of perfect preservation, but empty. The door opening and bumping against my foot had only been gravity pulling at the lid as the chest lay on its side.

I shined the light around a bit more and the beam fell back to the two chests full of Buna’s old Halloween decorations. I got an idea and I moved immediately to put it into action. I gathered all of the decorations and boxes that filled the trunks and carried them all downstairs, it took several trips.

Taking inventory of my newly found treasure of an incredible array of amazing Halloween decorations, I got to decorating the house like Buna always had. I tried to all the things in the spots that my childhood memory told me they went, inside and outside. As I found places for everything, my memory became more clear and I moved things around, arranging them until they were just so.

Out back on the patio, I set up the wood for a fire to burn, and I even found an old stump next to the wood pile that I could place in the approximate spot that Buna used to sit and tell her amazing stories. On an upturned log I placed the old, candlewax-covered skull that Buna would rest her hand on for the entire night.

All in all it had been a productive day, I thought. I was ready for Halloween better than I ever had been, and I was fascinated with the decor that I had only seen as a child, things that as an adult I didn’t even recognize. I promised myself that I would do some research on them when I wasn’t too tired to keep my eyes open.

At the time, though, I needed some rest. The next day was Halloween day and I wanted to be rested up so that I could be prepared for my sisters when they brought the kids over and saw the surprises I had in store.

I slept like the dead. I didn’t open my eyes again until I was awoken by a loud ‘thunk’ somewhere in the house. I jumped up and looked around, finding nothing. I realized that I must have been dreaming. I often had those dreams where you think that you hear a real noise that wakes you, only to realize you were dreaming. I got to work preparing for the day.

After breakfast, I realized I had never shut the attic back up the night before, so I went back upstairs and closed the door to the secret room. I had closed the trunk as well, though I didn’t think that it was necessary to set all of those locks again, only to have to go through the same tedious routine of unlocking everything after the holiday. I cleaned up the mess I had made tearing apart the wall and closed the sliding attic door.

My sisters came over early in the day and we prepared the kids for an evening of trick-or-treating. We carved pumpkins and set out jack-o-lanterns. The sister that had lived in the upstairs room, Alli, had become quite a good artist and her carvings were magnificent.

My sisters were curious as to where I got all of the old decorations, so I told them about the previous day and my discoveries. I showed the older sister Alli the attic, but my younger sister Liz strangely refused to take a look, and we restricted the children from even climbing the stairs.

Alli was fascinated with everything, but we didn’t get much time to explore or reminisce, there was too much to do and kids to look after, not to mention the girl’s husbands. They had to be entertained. Alli took a good look at everything before we had to leave and then asked me if I had cleaned to room.

Of course I told her I hadn’t, that would have been the last thing on my mind. She lingered for a moment before she observed that she thought it was funny because she would have expected there to be a thick layer of dust everywhere after all that time.

It suddenly occurred to me that there wasn’t any dust on anything in the secret room at all, even though everything in the attic was covered with it. The observation sparked an odd feeling in the pit of my stomach, but it was quickly forgotten in the rest of the day’s chaos.

We prepared a feast for the family as closely resembling the feasts that Buna had served as we could. We gathered and ate after the kids returned with their booty, and then my sisters helped clean up before they went home with their families.

Afterwards I made sure all of the candles were lit and all of the electric lights in and around the house had been turned off. I sat outside on the patio, sipping hot cider while I waited for midnight to come. I threw a log on the fire occasionally and basked in the warmth of the flames on a chilly October night under a full moon.

The habits of a lifetime as an adult took over and I couldn’t seem to keep my eyes open. The fire burned low, but despite the chill I was determined to sit out until midnight came. So I pulled my hoodie up and hugged my jacket around me before I dozed off…

Sparks flew up from the fire as though another log had been thrown onto it. In a state of being semi-awake I rationalized that one of the logs must have fallen into the coals. I looked at the fire to try and confirm my theory, and it was burning quite merrily. My eyes were having a hard time focusing in the sudden flare of firelight, but as they finally did clear I realized that someone had joined me at my fire. A neighbor, I wondered?

As my eyes adjusted, I saw the outline of someone sitting on the stump on the other side of the fire.  The person was looking down at the ground and all I could see was some scraggly hair.

“Buna?” I asked out loud. It was all I could think of, though she had to have been long gone by then.

The face moved up to look at me and it wasn’t Buna, as I knew that it never could have been, but the face was just as impossible for me to process.

It was Nick.

Not as a little boy, no. It was Nick as a man. He had a beard and his hair was long, though not as scraggly as it had appeared at first. He stared at me from fathomless, dark eyes. His image seemed to waver as his gaze rested upon me. He raised a large, calloused hand and placed it on the skull that Buna always kept her hand on when she told us stories. His image solidified.

A chill shot up my spine. I was speechless. A smile crept across the face of my long lost brother and he quietly croaked “Marko. Good to see you.”

My vision blurred, and everything around me seemed to fade in and out of reality. I was finding it hard to breathe and I felt like I’d never be warm again.

“I-i-t can’t be” I stammered. “Nikolai?”

Then everything went black.

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