Though I was only eight, I had grown up among adults and listened to the conversation of enlightened men, so I had already formed a definite opinion about such matters as ghosts and fantômes. I did not believe a ghost was the supernatural apparition of a dead person, or the spiritual remains of a human being attached to the place of his death. I did not believe a white ghost indicated joy and success or that a black one augured ill fortune and maleficence. Even less did I think them sent by the devil to lure and trick us into perfidy. I believed such inexplicable occurrences to be the external manifestation of an internal terror in those who perceive it, evidence of a disordered and irrational mind. I had heard my uncle say so and I felt this explanation satisfied my own experience, which often dwelt on morbid scenes. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by stories of fantastical and supernatural coincidence and listened to them with a particular thrill. But I had never been visited by any disembodied spirit and secretly wanted to experience the frisson and test my reason before it. So when Marie-Thérèse asked if I believed in fantasmas, I nodded and asked, "Have you seen one?"
We were alone on stage, in an ancient, dark hall decorated with writhing airborne figures that rose about the proscenium and grinned out of the darkness. The adults had gone backstage to prepare for rehearsals, and the only sounds were the cries of infant Catherine and our own voices echoing in vast space around us. Marie-Therese did not answer but smiled and said, "Venga con me!" then led me into the wings.
She expertly passed through the machinery and properties that had accrued over fifteen years of performances. Bizarre suits of armor, masks and strange hats suggested characters that had been brought to life under the stage lights still slept in the wings awaiting their return to the spectator's applause, but now watched us warily. We slipped between stacked flats painted with a necromancer's cave, a roiling ocean, the flames of hell, a mystagogue's library. Banners and flags for countries and duchies that may never have existed outside the imagination hung limp and faded above us, punctuated with fantastically intricate horns and cornets, viols with massive fretboards and bellies like lutes, all suspended in the air, left there by a vanished band of aerial players. We came upon a smashed clavichord whose wiry guts lay tangled and threatening, splintered by some accident perhaps or by the composer whose ethereal compositions were lampooned by a rude hack pounding on its keys. I wanted to ask, but Marie-Thérèse moved so quickly and insistently, clinging to the enormous baby in her arms with alarming strength, maneuvering through narrow spaces like a possessed creature, that I could not take my eyes from her for more than an instant.
I wish I could here inventory everything we found: baskets of brocade; crates of stucco angels, their pink faces chipped and blackened; an impossibly elaborate mantlepiece carved with a twisted, interlocking design; collars and ruffs; a full-sized stuffed donkey with horrible bared teeth and gleaming patches of black, leathery skin where his dirty hair had been rubbed away; a gilt cage with a mute parrot; a brass door knocker as large as any door I had seen and a hideous bestial face gripping an iron ring in its teeth; a giant scalloped chariot that could have belonged to Aphrodite, complete with reined porpoises. We made so many changes of directions and sudden turns that I could never have found my way back to the stage and I began to worry that Marie-Thérèse did not really know where she was going. But at last we emerged from that grotesque forest and arrived at a little woodworker's shop where a lamp burned over a long bench against the wall and the floor was carpeted in soft shavings. Marie-Thérèse placed her sister in a cradle that rocked in the corner and covered her with a dirty quilt. The baby fell asleep instantly.
"Good, now I show you a thing..."
The walls of the shop were covered in wide planks but under the bench was a gap where the planks did not reach the floor. Marie Therese, whose dress was now covered in cobwebs and woodshavings, went on her knees and crawled into the black space. I hesitated, but her disembodied arm reappeared and gestured at me impatiently.
On the other side of the wall was what used to be a stone doorway, and a short passage that opened onto a narrow circular stairway that continued down into inky blackness and upward toward a cold light. Marie-Thérèse put her hand on a railing carved directly into the stone wall and smoothed by centuries of use and began to climb.
"Where are we going?"
"Our secret. We go up."
"Are there ghosts?"
"Shh. Don't say that word here. I show you."
We climbed around and around, the stairs lit by narrow slits in the stone wall; every fourth one gave out on blue sky and supplied all the light we needed to see our way, otherwise we might have broken our necks. By the time I thought I should be counting steps, or windows, we came to a wooden door on iron hinges. "You go first," Marie-Thérèse said, looking at me with interest.