Dear Ms Hallorann,
I hope this letter finds you well and speedily. I know that these days trans-Atlantic post is not the fastest way to communicate, but I think you already understand why this manner of correspondence is necessary. The modern Internet is frighteningly adept at saving and spreading information, and I find paper letters to be more secure.
I have my assistant to thank for setting up our correspondence. You will have to forgive her. She is very protective of me and my health, but when I heard what had happened to your friend I could not ignore your efforts to get in touch with me.
When you wish to reply, simply mail your return letter in the envelope provided.
I think first it is prudent to issue a “disclaimer,” as it were: my mother, rest her soul, made it her life’s mission to escape from her family. She left the estate and came to England, and even attempted to change her name, although persistent and increasingly strange errors in the bureaucratic process prevented that from ever going through. She never would have told me about her branch of the family, if I had not had that fateful dream one night about my uncle, Castile Madigan, reaching out to me from beyond the grave.
My poor mother. She spent her life divorcing me from my roots, and as soon as she was dead I turned around and came running back. I did not have the means to return to the States, but I reached for my sad family every way I could—including our ill-fated project together to research the history of the estate.
It is only recently that I have learned why my mother was so adamant that I never express curiosity about the Madigans, and I feel I should issue that same warning to you.
Our family is cursed. It is something like a virulent disease, and it spreads through knowledge of itself: the more you know of it, the greater your own danger. It is insidious and possessive: it does not relinquish its victims, once it has tasted them. I believe you are correct in your fear that your friend Mr Farrow is in grave, grave danger—he has drawn the attention of my family’s affliction and I do not think that time or distance will let him escape it.
Now that we have begun corresponding, I must warn you—though I’m sure you have already deduced—that you are exposing yourself to this danger as well. You have opened a door, Ms Hallorann, and you must be prepared for what may crawl through it.
Now that we have done away with formalities and warnings and disclaimers, I will tell you, in plainest terms, what I know.
It begins and ends with the woods. The Madigan Estate is situated in one of those Appalachian mountain coves famous for their biodiversity, and in particular for their trees. Poplar, pine, maple, birch, beech, oak, holly, ash. I’m sure the woods in the Madigan cove were beautiful before we came.
My great-grandfather, John Madigan, cut down a great many trees to build the estate. He was a whaler who grew rich on oil and ambergris and retired inland. That is all I know about him, and it’s nothing you don’t already know as well. He had a contentious relationship with the woods and the water—raging at one and in terror of the other, or so my mother told me once.
So he cut down the trees. It was an old-growth section of forest, one of the few that had not been ravaged already by industry, and that cove in particular had a stand of poplar trees some five-hundred years old or more. He built his house with their bones and there on that soil, instead of their seedlings, grew our family.
Us. The Madigans.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought that old trees have souls. Have you seen photographs of the monsters they felled, back when old growth was common? Like whales, almost. Long and old and sad. To cut that sort of tree is a crime, one that reaches back and back through ages, and forward again through a bloodline.
I believe that is the root, so to speak, of our curse. And oh, my great-grandfather, he tried to appease them. The gardens on the Madigan Estate were a wonder to behold. The trees grew swiftly, but wrong. They came up out of the ground white and brittle, as if they were dead even though they grew and budded year after year.
They were not like the old trees. These trees were Madigan offspring and they had something of our hunger in them, our sin. They had come, first to haunt us, then to claim us. There was not a Madigan, except for my mother, who did not die on that land and rot in its soil. My great-grandfather, my grandfather and his siblings and his wife, my uncle and his cousins, all of them were claimed by the woods, in the end.
Woods should not be greedy. These are. I don’t know what sort of rot is running through them, if it is vengeance for my great-grandfather’s crime or if it was there before, dormant in the soil, held down by the roots of those cathedral-pillar poplars.
If I had to guess, I would guess it was released by my great-grandfather, and not created by him. Humans are rarely architects of the natural world. We are more parasites, or pawns.
In any case, the greedy woods are growing and there are no old-growth trees left to hold them down. They spread with roots we cannot see, and latch, like ticks, to what they wish to claim. Even now they reach for your friend, Mr Farrow. Even now they reach for me.
Watch out for yourself, Ms Hallorann.
What is a forest? Life upon death upon death upon death. Each layer buries the last, but only one layer is life.
It is much the same with history.
Until next time,
I am yours, regretfully,
Jane Flora Madigan