A Ming and a Prayer

Frankie Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Grandpa said Mister Frankie was always right about everything, so I figured I could do this thing.

* * *

By Lad Moore

From a distance, the Ming House was almost obscured. Wisteria vines had encircled it three layers deep, their tentacles winding through broken panes then retreating back outside in search of sunlight. The vines resembled the arms of an octopus, but not yet revealing if its once-gentle caress had now become the grasp of a constrictor.

The porch, unpainted and un-repaired for decades, sagged to the earth on one end, making the whole structure appear to be on incline—like a carnival fun-house. The clapboard siding had long since given up its whitewash except at the roofline where eaves had protected it from generations of rain and wind. The same overhang gave residence to years of wasp nests that dotted it like pimples on a powdered face. My friends would never venture even as close as the curb; insisting, as with most other old houses, that it was haunted by the owner.

Grown-up Northsiders claimed that Mr Ming had simply moved away when his business closed after the Great Depression and the lean years that followed. They said he moved to Dallas to live with an old maid sister—a sister he oddly called Aunt Dora. He never came back, just opened the place to its star boarders—pigeons, field mice, rat snakes, and maybe the odd hobo on overnight leave from the nearby Texas & Pacific tracks.

But my friends would have nothing of it. “Ming stayed around to get even with the bankers who abandoned him and took his store,” they claimed. “By count, four banker men met death at his hands, each having been strangled with piano wire, their heads sorely chopped off. And he kept them heads in a steamer trunk. Bet it’s still there.”

“Who said?” I asked.

My friend Benny Smitherman ventured that the details of the murders could be read in “them annals” they keep at the old Carnegie Library. “I seen the papers, and my dad read the foul accounts to me when we had scary-story hour on Friday nights after the boxing matches went off TV.”

“Old Ming haunts and soils that place,” Benny continued, “He got away clean because when they electrocuted him he didn’t die. The law says if you survive the volts, you are a free man; you can’t be fried twice for the same crime. So he roams that house dragging an old leg chain as a souvenir—‘the unchained butcher’ he’s called. He never so much as lights a candle at night. His green-marble eyes can see in blackness. His hair is a white shock of wheat—like that of a Cap’n fresh off’n the sea. Just last week the paperboy said he saw Ming in the upstairs window making a choking gesture. He’s in there, there’s no doubt. Bet you a dollar.”

I doubted the tale, but there was an eerie coincidence. The Flash Gordon serials at the Saturday matinee featured a character also named Ming, archenemy to the rocket ship hero. That Ming was a dweller of darkness too, and he cultivated some evil friends known as the Clay Men. Ming was a horrid sort who wore a black cape with a funnel neckline. His Clay Men would ooze out of the cave walls and do whatever bidding he asked of them.

My grandpa scoffed at the very idea of murders. For that matter, he said to heck with the boys’ further claims that Ming House was protected by demons just because it sat directly across from Greenwood Cemetery. It’s true that Greenwood was a cemetery long in neglect of care because no one claimed responsibility for it. Graves of sunken earth and tumbled tombstones spoke ill of the reverence it should hold. Over time, vandals roamed it freely, stealing the rusted iron fences and ornamental gates that once encircled many of the graves. Three years back a tornado skipped through the grounds, and the downed trees and debris still block many of the narrow aisles, preventing much of any access to the site. Almost no one visits the graves there anyway. Many are unmarked and rarely if ever do the tombs get adorned with holiday flowers. I’ve walked the area more often than any of my friends, searching out the giant black and yellow grasshoppers that favor the place. Even with my tame cemetery experiences, I would never venture into that place at night. I remember reading somewhere that “Graveyards are safe in sunlight, but haints lift up after dark.”  That quote rings louder than anything President Frankie Roosevelt might have said when he was out politicking.

The sun was half-mast to the horizon. My friends and I sat across the street from Ming House, lined against the perfumed privet hedges that were the border to property owned by the Baptist College. Four crows perched to our right on the cemetery fence, barking their protest to the coming darkness that marked the end of their feeding day. Crow bellies are never full. They will eat both flesh and greenery; and they will chase away any other critter to lay claim to the food, even fighting off their own kind. I have to admit I didn’t like the crows being there.

The sun was finally gone and with light becoming scarce, we began to talk back and forth in whispers. It just seemed the natural thing to do under the circumstances. We were there to scout for any sign of Ming. It was just us four cub reporters, looking for a story long just rumored. 

Nightfall also ended all street traffic. By now, everyone in town except the four of us had sat down to dinner, with Lassie on the television in the next room. We were alone, and just a silhouette of the house was visible across from us. It was unnervingly still and quiet. I had expected crickets would be serenading the few lightning bugs that usually speckled the sky, but nothing stirred. I could smell the house. An old house holds the fragrances of past life, and couples them with rotting wood long exposed to elements. It is a sweet smell, certainly not an odor that an evil old man who never bathed would emit. 

Another hour passed and still nothing moved. One by one the boys began to desert me for home, certain of a scolding and a cold supper. Now alone, I walked across the street and stopped at the rotting picket fence, its gate long collapsed. The sidewalk beneath me had been pushed up toward vertical by the massive magnolia tree roots underneath. I touched the rusty gate hinge, and it swung away with a squeak. It was darker in the house than out, so I could see all the way to the back door, like looking through a dimly lit tunnel. I was studying the house when I thought I heard a creak—like the groan of a stressed timber. Maybe the fingers of the wisteria had tightened their grip. Then the air turned noticeably cooler. I headed for home, looking behind me every ten steps or so to appease the hair that bristled on my neck. 

We came back to that spot four consecutive nights. Nothing was ever any different, and such a constant state soon emboldens the spirit. With my friends looking on, I crossed the street again and again, each time venturing a bit farther up the sidewalk. I finally reached the porch and with great trepidation, reached out and touched a wooden column with my finger. It reassured me to have touched Ming House and not have immediately been disemboweled by demon Clay Men slinging rusty scythes.

I heard a noise from behind. My friends were running off in the direction of Hendry’s Grocery two blocks away. Hendry’s was like the hub of a spoked wheel, a central spot where each of us met and later split off in different directions home.

My attention returned to the task. There were rusty cans and broken bottles on the porch, evidence of some traffic. Having reached the threshold of the steps, I decided that tonight’s achievement was conquest enough for now. Like a crab, I backed down the sidewalk toward the gate, not wanting to turn my eyes away from the house. At the street, I headed home. None of my friends were waiting for me at Hendry’s.

Benny Smitherman claimed that since we last met, he had been elected Chieftain of our group. I hadn’t even seen so much as a ballot. He said that it was the will of the group that I lead them in solving once and for all the question of Ming House. In honor of my bravery thus far it was suggested that an assault on the house next Friday the Thirteenth would further enhance the adventure and give us unequivocal credibility with the public. Further, we would all sneak out and meet at Hendry’s just before midnight. In so doing, we were flaunting all the traditional curses at once. The News Messenger headline would read:

“Local Youths Debunk the Legend of Ming House. Governor to Award Medals of Valor for Un-Haunting Premises.” 

“I ain’t going inside alone,” I said. “I might fall through some planks.” 

“We’re with you. It’ll take all of us to stand proper guard.”

It was misting on the night of Friday the Thirteenth at eleven-thirty. Parents sleep especially well in gentle rain, so slipping out through the bedroom window was easier than anticipated. At Hendry’s, I saw only Jimmy and Nels. Benny was missing. “Where’s the Chief? I asked. 

Jimmy answered, “He saw a double feature this afternoon. A Roy Rogers and Nellybelle one, and a scary movie called The Thing. I bet he’s under his cozy covers dreaming about that luscious Dale Evans.”

We waited several minutes longer for Benny, then walked on to Ming House. Each of us brought flashlights with fresh batteries. I checked the pocket watch that Grandpa had given me. It was one minute before midnight. The mist looked like smoke drifting through the flashlight beams as we blanketed the house with light. Leading the way as assigned, I was first to place a foot on the porch. It gave a bit under my weight but did not break. I stepped up to the screen door and peeled it back. The front door was slightly ajar, and its hinges squealed as I pushed it farther open. I looked behind me. Jimmy and Nels had linked their arms together. I put the flashlight under my chin so they could see my grin. They immediately separated. 

The open door led into what was probably once the parlor. The room was empty, and the far end led into a hallway. I started through the doorway, shining the light on the floor beneath me, wary of broken boards. Suddenly I felt a tangle of cobwebs and began swatting at the strands. It felt like I had shoved my face into a boll of cotton candy but it was not at all sweet. I’m certain I felt a fat spider in my palm as I batted the air.

Some sort of howling creature dashed between my legs, brushing my calf. I turned quickly to see a yellow cat nearly airborne toward the door. Nels bolted, matching the shriek of the startled cat. The two of them never touched a plank as they sailed from the house. Jimmy stood there jerking his face back and forth as if caught between two equally bad alternatives. Fight-or-flight was written in his eyes. I raised my hand like a traffic cop.

“Just a cat!” I said. “Just a big yellow cat!”  The words were meant to both explain and comfort. The spider and the cat had been unnerving even to me, and I closed my eyes and began a quiet recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in my best Presbyterian dialect. The part about “Forgive us our trespasses” seemed to make a lot of sense at the moment. I added a sentence of my own on the end about keeping me safe from “whatever lurks in Ming House.” I figured God knew the house I was referring to and wouldn’t mind me adding a real short PS to his famous prayer.

It must have frightened Jimmy to death to see me mumbling that prayer with both my eyes tightly closed. His flashlight bounced on the floor as he did a u-turn—a pivot as impressive as a gymnast’s back flip. He was gone, and I figured he would quickly pass Nels and the cat in stride. 

The next room was like a foyer. To one side stood the sagging hulk of an old upright piano, its white ivory curling backward like the bark of a shag hickory. I decided that indeed, ignorance was bliss; it was not the time to check for missing piano wires. To my left was a steep staircase with no handrail. More spider webs there, and my flashlight caught one in its beam. The spider was gently raising then replacing two of his legs like a soldier marking time for his sergeant. He was black with yellow racing stripes. Doesn’t a black widow have red markings?

I heard a crash of some kind. There was a sudden swish and something hit the side of my face and ear. It was an owl, disturbed by my presence and in a predictably bad mood. I could feel the warmth of blood on my cheek. I wiped it with my hand and looked at it under the light. There was a smear of blood—not much, really—but tomorrow my face would bear a battle wound nonetheless.

I raked the cobweb away with a loose board and placed one foot on the first stair step. It creaked loudly. My flashlight was growing dim and by now, Jimmy’s would be giving out as well, still turned on and lying on the floor. I decided that getting this far into Ming House was accomplishment-complete. I would be the only one deserving of the Governor’s medal. 

Back into the street in the damp air, I turned around for one last look. The house had not given up any secrets. I figured there were none to give up, just as I suspected all along. I crawled back through my window and put my damp clothes on the footboard to dry. Grandma’s quilt was especially warm and welcome. I slept without dreaming.

For several days I had a swell time with my friends. I had poetic license and began to embellish everything about the night at Ming House. They hung on every word, but I don’t think they bought the part about finding a human-bone torso impaled on an old pike, and of course, I claimed my owl injury came from an ape-like man swinging an axe.

Three or four weeks went by. One Saturday we decided to meet at Hendry’s and go collect grasshoppers for old man Crain. He told us he would buy them, two for a nickel, for his trotlines. We took turns kicking a beer can up the street as we walked. As we got close to the cemetery, we stopped cold. Bulldozers were sitting at Ming House, having done their job of demolishing the place into a pile of gray rubble. On a flatbed truck sat the old piano, and beside it, lashed to the truck with ropes, was a leather-covered steamer trunk. 

* * * 

Story © Copyright 2010 by the author, Lad Moore. All rights reserved.

Image © Copyright by Dreamstime, rights acquired by royalty fee.

 ~~~

The author’s latest short story collection, “Riders of the Seven Hills” is now available at traditional booksellers along with his previous works, “Tailwind” and “Odie Dodie.

Signed copies may also be obtained at regular prices by contacting the author directly via  pogo@marshalltx.com


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