The winter night lay through the house with a falling-snow silence, silence snowing into every room, drifting over tables and floors, and banking up the stairwell.

Then the pounding started again. And then:

A sound of soft crying.


“Someone in the house.”

“Lotte, do you think? The front door’s unlocked.”

“She’d have knocked. Can’t be Lotte.”

“She’s the only one it could be. She phoned.”

They both glanced at the phone. If you lifted the receiver, you heard a winter stillness. The phones were dead. They had died days ago with the riots in the nearest towns and cities. Now, in the receiver, you heard only your own heart-beat. “Can you put me up?” Lone had cried from six hundred miles away. “Just overnight?”

But before they could answer her, the phone had filled itself with long miles of silence.

“Lotte is coming. She sounded hysterical. That might be her,” said Martha Webb.

“No,” said Robert. “I heard that crying other nights, too. Dear God.”

They lay in the cold room in this farmhouse back in the Massachusetts wilderness, back from the main roads, away from the towns, near a bleak river and a black forest. It was the frozen middle of December. The white smell of snow cut the air.

They arose. With an oil lamp lit, they sat on the edge of the bed as if dangling their legs over a precipice.

“There’s no one downstairs, there can’t be.”

“Whoever it is sounds frightened.”

“We’re all frightened, damn it. That’s why we came out here, to be away from cities, riots, all that damned foolishness. No more wiretaps, arrests, taxes, neurotics. Now when we find it at last, people call and upset us. And tonight this, Christ!” He glanced at his wife. “You afraid?”

“I don’t know. I don’t believe in ghosts. This is 1999; I’m sane. Or like to think I am. Where’s your gun?”

“We won’t need it. Don’t ask me why, but we won’t.” They picked up their oil lamps. In another month the small power plant would be finished in the white barns behind the house and there’d be power to spare, but now they haunted the farm, coming and going with dim lamps or candles.

They stood at the stairwell, both thirty-three, both immensely practical.

The crying, the sadness, and the plea came from below in the winter rooms.

“She sounds so damned sad,” said Robert. “God, I’m sorry for her, but don’t even know who it is. Come on.”

They went downstairs.

As if hearing their footsteps, the crying grew louder. There was a dull thudding against a hidden panel somewhere.

“The Witch Door!” said Martha Webb at last.

“Can’t be.”


They stood in the long hall looking at that place under the stairs, where the panels trembled faintly. But now the cries faded, as if the crier was exhausted, or something had diverted her, or perhaps their voices had startled her and she was listening for them to speak again. Now the winter-night house was silent and the man and wife waited with the oil lamps quietly fuming in their hands.

Robert Webb stepped to the Witch Door and touched it, probing for the hidden button, the secret spring. “There can’t be anyone in there,” he said. “My God, we’ve been here six months, and that’s just a cubby. Isn’t that what the Realtor said when he sold the place? No one could hide in there and us not know it. We-“


They listened.


“She’s gone, it’s gone, whatever it was, hell, that door hasn’t been opened in our lifetime. Everyone’s forgotten where the spring is that unlocks it. I don’t think there is a door, only a loose panel, and rats’ nests, that’s all. The walls, scratching. Why not?” He turned to look at his wife, who was staring at the hidden place.

“Silly,” she said. “Good Lord, rats don’t cry. That was a voice, asking to be saved. Lotte, I thought. But now I know it wasn’t she, but someone else in as much trouble.”

Martha Webb reached out and trembled her fingertips along the beveled edge of ancient maple. “Can’t we open it?”

“With a crowbar and hammer, tomorrow.”

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Categories: Bradbury, Ray