SEMIOTICS V

[Transcript of a call from Lucien Farrow in White Oak, North Carolina to Jane Madigan in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England.]


[REDACTED]: Madigan residence.


LUCIEN FARROW: Can I speak with Jane Madigan, please?


[REDACTED]: How did you get this number?


FARROW: Do you know Quinn Hallorann? I think you’ve been working with her on a project.


[REDACTED]: Oh, God, it’s one of you lot. Look, I’ve already told your supervisor that he can contact us via email if he has any further questions about permissions regarding the estate. Mrs. Madigan is not available at all hours of the day to answer probing questions from strangers about her private family history.


FARROW: I wouldn’t bother you if it wasn’t urgent. [pause] My son is missing.


[REDACTED] [caustically]: Have you tried phoning the police for help, rather than an elderly woman a thousand miles away from you?


FARROW: Do you think the Madigan estate is haunted?


[The person at the other end of the line hangs up. Transcript shows a space of three minutes before Lucien Farrow calls again.]


JANE MADIGAN: This is Jane Madigan. Good evening, Mr. Farrow.


FARROW: I don’t think I introduced mys —


MADIGAN: You said your son is missing. It was easy to guess. Are you Benjamin’s father?


FARROW: Yes.


MADIGAN: Where are you calling from, Mr. Farrow?


FARROW: White Oak.


MADIGAN: I thought so, from the poor reception. When did your son vanish?


FARROW: At … at the end of May. Why, do you [cough] do you know something?


MADIGAN: Not nearly enough, I’m afraid. But the end of May is just about when the state of North Carolina withdrew their offer on the grounds.


FARROW: [long pause] Why is that relevant?


MADIGAN: Only in how strange it was. They had been clamoring to buy my family’s estate for years. They wanted to make it part of the surrounding national forest. I finally accepted an offer, under an agreement that enough time be allowed for some research into my family, only to have them cancel it without warning or explanation only a few months later.


FARROW: Why do you think that has something to do with my son?


MADIGAN: Mr. Farrow, are you familiar with the concept of memetics?


[There is a long silence on Lucien Farrow’s end of the line, broken by a faint sigh and a sound like he is changing the phone from one hand to the other.]


FARROW: I think so.


MADIGAN: I see. [pause] You have been speaking to people in White Oak about this, have you?


FARROW: Yes.


MADIGAN: Then we’re on the same page, Mr. Farrow. Secrets can spread like a virus. In this case it is more like a virus which spreads through knowledge of itself. Best not to look at it directly, to decrease your chances of transmission.


FARROW: It isn’t me I’m worried about.


MADIGAN: You’re taking all of this very well. Where is the skepticism, Mr. Farrow?


FARROW: [short laugh] Skepticism won’t get my kid back. Can you help me?


MADIGAN: I have never been to the estate myself. I was born in Philadelphia, and my mother came to England when I was only two. She never spoke of the estate — in fact, I only learned of its existence after her death, when it was listed in her will as part of my inheritance. Imagine that! A girl of nineteen learning she’s inherited a mansion. A ruined mansion, at that.


FARROW: Must have been a shock.


MADIGAN: And a disappointment, to learn all I had really inherited were the bones of an estate. Just a moldering ruin, really. I was so angry with my mother that I didn’t even go to the states to see it. I let it sit and rot for years. It was only when the state of North Carolina began contacting me with increasingly exorbitant offers that I started to wonder. My mother had not left me much money, you see. I was inclined to sell, but there was a part of me — an insistent part — that wondered about my roots. I wanted to learn about the family tree my mother had clipped herself from. I had no relatives that I knew of. Who was my grandfather? My grandmother? Did I have any cousins, any uncles, any aunts? My mother never said. I never even knew my father.


FARROW: Ehm. That must have been hard for you. But why are you telling me this?


MADIGAN: Because knowledge can kill, Mr. Farrow. This knowledge can kill. I’m telling you what I told Mr. Zbreski, the curator, when I contacted the museum in St. Petersburg about their little project on defunct American dynasties. It is also what I told your son’s friend, Quinn, when she took charge of the project and sent your son to investigate the estate. I also told them I had agreed to sell the estate to the government. In the interest of preserving history, they agreed to work with me. It seemed like an excellent arrangement. I would be rid of a parcel of land I didn’t want in exchange for a tidy sum, I would learn my own family history, and a museum would gain a valuable exhibit. I do love museums. I try to support them whenever I can.


[Lucien Farrow sighs and changes hands again.]


FARROW: All right. Where does Ben come into this? Where are … I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m kind of in a hurry.


MADIGAN: I’ve just repeated to you what I told Mr. Zbreski and Mrs. Hallorann, in its entirety. Now, with your permission, I will tell you what I did not tell them.


[There is silence at the other end of the line. Jane Madigan waits for assent.]


FARROW: Okay.


MADIGAN: When I was a girl, I had terrible nightmares. Dreams drenched in salt water and blood. Some of them recurred on an almost nightly basis — there was one about a hand, growing from the earth, that I dreaded most. Another about branches growing through my skin. When I complained about them to my mother, she dismissed them. She told me to stop telling stories and not to bother her with my dreams again.


I was afraid to sleep at night. When I did drift off, even my dream-self would try to claw itself awake. One night — I still remember the details of the dream — I was lost in a labyrinth of ruined hallways, filling slowly with seawater. Every door opened to a blank wall. I was going to drown, and I could not find the way out.


At last I spied a light in the distance, but before I could run toward it, a hand erupted from the water and seized my ankle. It was a hand made of twisted driftwood, the same hand that grew from the earth in my other dreams. It began to drag me under, and I was seized with a terror I had never known before. A part of me knew this was no simple dream. If I vanished beneath the water, I would not wake up.


I pried at the hand, but its grip was unrelenting. I screamed. I cried. “Let me go,” I begged.


And then, Mr. Farrow, it spoke. It asked me for my name. It’s difficult for me to explain the voice I heard — rough and desperate, a man’s voice, I thought, but not one I had ever heard before. “Tell me your name,” it said.


And I told it I was Jane Madigan, and do you know what?


It let go at once. I ran for my life, and burst through the light at the end of the hall, and I awoke in my own bed. For days after that, I could not shake the feeling of being watched, that something was observing me, that it wanted to know me. Gradually my fear gave way to curiosity. One night I closed my eyes and found myself back in those endless hallways as they filled with water. This time, however, I was lucid. I commanded the water to stop rising, and it did. And when the hand came out of the water to grab me, I was ready for it.


“Tell me your name,” it said.


“I told you already, I’m Jane,” I replied. “What’s your name?”


And it said, “Castile.” The waters parted and I saw a face. He was the spitting image of my mother, if she had been a man, even though his cheeks were hollow with death and his eyes were black instead of blue. I knew he was family.


“What do you want?” I asked him. And do you know what he replied?


FARROW: What?


MADIGAN: He replied, “Forget me.” He let go and sank back into the water, and I awoke in my bed again. Of course, I could not forget him. For the first time in years I went to my mother and asked her if she knew someone named Castile.


Maybe, if she had dismissed it as she did my other dreams, I would have forgotten him. Instead, the look of terror on her face burned his importance into me. She had never laid a hand on me before, but she gave me a thrashing, Mr. Farrow, for “telling stories again.” The beating was enough to keep me from confiding in her again. I did not have the dream of the water in the corridors again. I never heard his voice after that, though I did remember him. The memory of Castile was like an itch in the back of my mind, one that clung to me like a burr as I grew into a woman. In time I came to think of it as a particularly vivid dream, a strange occurrence from my childhood. Until, that is, long after her death, I finally looked more carefully at the documents describing the estate she had left me in her will.


His name was there, of course. Castile Madigan was a real man. He was my mother’s brother, and my uncle. That was when I decided to pursue my family history in earnest.


FARROW: So you dreamed about this uncle of yours when you were a child, but you didn’t know he existed.


MADIGAN: Pursuing a dream is not a very scientific activity, so I omitted it when I contacted the museum. But yes. It was because of Castile. Mr. Farrow, you asked if the Madigan estate is haunted. Here is my answer.


I do not think the estate is haunted.


I think it is alive.