Some houses seem to want to hold their secrets.
The Wilde House, standing silent in its clearing in the woodlands on the eastern shore of Messaquamik Bay, Long Island, holds more secrets than most houses.
From the start, in 1682, when Jacob Wilde came across from England and first chose the rise of land above a small cove of the bay to build his house on, it was rumoured he was fleeing a dark scandal in his family. There were whispers he had killed his only brother in a rage, and so had fled to the Americas by way of doing penance. What the truth was, Jacob never said, and if the hands that laid the first square timbers of the Wilde House had indeed been stained by blood, the house stood stoic in that knowledge and concealed it.
Like most houses of its time and place, it started as a basic square with two large rooms—a ground-floor hall or “keeping room” and one great chamber on the floor above—and a stone fireplace on the eastern
wall. Beneath the rafters was a garret used for storage, and below the hall, reached by a trap door, was a cellar lined with dry-laid fieldstone.
In defiance of the rumours, or perhaps to show his soul was blameless, Jacob painted his house white. A pure and blinding white.
And yet the whispers held, and grew.
They grew when Jacob’s firstborn son, a boy he had named Samuel—for his brother, it was said—breathed only one brief hour and then no more, becoming the first Wilde to be buried in the private family graveyard at the forest’s edge, above the cove. They grew still more when Jacob’s barn was struck by lightning in a storm and burned until it scorched the ground. He built another in its place. And when the living children started coming—first two daughters, then a son he christened Reuben—Jacob took his tools in hand again and made his small house larger in the customary way, doubling its size with the addition of a second downstairs room and upstairs chamber on the east side of the great stone chimney stack, which now became the central warming heart of this expanded dwelling.
The house, for those few years, appeared content.
Until his younger daughter died of ague and his wife fell ill, and Jacob shuttered up the white house on the cove and moved his family west along the island to the settled farms at Newtown, where he deemed the air more healthful. Another son, named Zebulon, was born there. And in time, when Jacob died, the house at Newtown passing to the elder of his sons, it was this Zebulon who brought his wife, Patience, and their own two small boys back to Messaquamik Bay, and to the little wooded cove, and to the solid four-roomed house that had, for all those years between, stood silently amid the trees and waited.
It was not an easy homecoming. His first two children grew and thrived but three more sons were born and lost and buried in the private family graveyard, and through these years of tribulation Zebulon, a carpenter by trade, enlarged the house yet further, stubbornly improving it by building a lean-to along the back wall, thus creating a kitchen and pantry and one more small chamber downstairs, with a steeply sloped garret above.
At last another son was born, and lived. And then another. And a daughter, Lydia.
It seemed for a time that the Wilde House, at last, would know happiness. But there were locals who still nodded sagely and said there’d
been blood on the hands of the man who had built it, and blood would have blood, they warned. Blood would have blood.
In truth there were few who were truly surprised by what happened next; for in the mid-eighteenth century, with one war winding its way to a close and another about to begin, it was not such an uncommon thing to find families dividing and splintering under the strain. And if one of the bodies that found its way into the Wilde family graveyard was that of an outsider . . . well, there was violence that happened, sometimes.
It was then, in those years, that the light in the forest first started to shine.
Sailors on the ships that came to anchor off the cove in Messaquamik Bay would often claim they saw the light within the trees, much like a lantern swinging from an unseen hand. The British officers who occupied the Wilde House in the Revolution swore they’d seen it also, and a young spy for the Patriots had written in his journal of the light that seemed to guide him safely round the posted sentries and which, having seen it first at dusk, he’d fancied had been carried by a soldier in French uniform.
The British officers told other tales, of steps that trod the stairs by night, and doors that opened by themselves when no breeze blew to move them, but those tales were told with ale in hand, to test each other’s courage, and when they were gone the old house closed again upon its secrets.
As the years passed, its remote location and lack of amenities reduced it to a summer home for Zebulon’s descendants, who by then had relocated to the city of New York. In due time, one of these descendants—Lawrence Wilde, a poet of some reputation—chose to take the money he had earned through publication and invest it in what he desired to be a grand retreat, away from civilized distractions, so in 1854 he had the Wilde House enlarged a final time with a new Victorian addition that amounted to a second complete house, overlapping the footprint of the original and indeed attached to the first by means of opening up a part of the lean-to wall.
The house, in this condition, carried down the generations, and the light within the trees still beckoned to the ships offshore.
Who held the light, and why, and what that spirit’s purpose might be in the forest, no one knew, though locals often fell to speculating,
nodding just as sagely as their forebears had when telling stories of the secrets held within the Wilde House.
The house, when I first saw it, seemed intent on guarding what it knew within its walls as long as it stayed standing; but we all learned, by the end of it, that secrets aren’t such easy things to keep.