Chapter 1: The Seeker

We were on the earth together for thirteen years, but he died before I knew of his existence, nor did I learn of it for another five decades. Now he haunts me from the old red chair in my dining room.

It took me two years to find a written record of his death and as long pondering why I had become obsessed with William Henry Say. The vital statistics of his life built up an outline of a dossier, and a skeleton of WH, but I longed unaccountably for his story; he was gone but so real. I had dipped into tracing the history of my forbears, joining the thousands of curious seekers searching for something nebulous, in spite of the industry and passion with which we go after the census reports, the birth and death certificates. We know from the outset that these will not be enough to fill the hollow lurking somewhere within us. I don't mean that spare room in our mind, that repository full to bursting with the sorrow, regrets and guilt for which we provide asylum and whose door the inmates occasionally batter open in the dead of night to torment us --- the one that becomes more difficult to close with each passing year as it fills to a breaking point even as the inmates there sleep and dream. The ancestor search can slip easily over a line into addiction as seductive as the opium that produced Poe's Raven; and as readily might the Raven perch above our chamber door waiting to claim our soul.


For a moment, my heart raced when I saw a reflection of the old red wing chair in my bedroom mirror. The chair was, after all, fifty feet away in the dining room, blocked from view by two walls that stood between. The mirror framed the top half of the chair as if in anticipation of the occupant's imminent return. The circumscribed view of the empty chair so clearly suggested a presence that an unexpected shiver whispered zephyrs of fear and desire through me like mist rising from a swamp or a low meadow. For a second I willed someone to appear until I was overcome with a vertigo that forced me to reach out for the bureau to steady myself.
Regaining my balance, I realized that the reflection of the chair is entirely plausible since a hall mirror relays it to another over the bedroom dresser. Nevertheless, it is startling to see the old red chair facing one squarely; positioned so deliberately as voyeur or spy. I had been pleased with myself for choosing the spot where I hung the offending little mirror (now one of two in the hall); it slipped right into a niche to compliment an arrangement of prints on the hall wall. I did hesitate before hanging two mirrors in this passageway (a Chippendale glass hangs at the end of the hall over a lady’s writing desk); I knew I heard my old school nuns whispering something about unseemly vanity. Hall of mirrors I thought, amusing myself, ignoring the good sisters, no recall of that infamous Hall in Versailles, just the ring of a name. My two faces in this passage are not fooled however - - - that name rings out as softly as the whispering nuns from behind the spare room door of the mid-night taunting; peace is not optional. The terms of a treaty between the hopelessly outmoded lessons of my youth, etched into my soul, and the assaulting chaos of the everyday world, which I long to escape, press for a definition --- for new rules of engagement.


I know, of course, who it is---the intruder I mean. I know that I have conjured him and placed him there to look at him, to study him, but I can’t recall the moment of transition - - - when the one watching became the one watched; and yet that isn't what happened. The truth is we are watching each other; yet how bizarre, how far outside the realm of reality. Is it only the clinically insane who have such visions of truth? So be it then; if I am held captive in a web of paranoia I embrace the entanglement.


The old chair, with its new lease on life and purpose, was a bit of an oddity even when it was new thirty years ago. It’s a strict reproduction of an American Chippendale wing chair, Circe 1790-1810, with serpentine crest and wings. Its wings were designed to trap the heat from the master’s fireside in those early days, affording him some measure of comfort in a room where the ink might be frozen in the well on a nearby desk. The high back rises nearly a foot above a person’s head making it impossible to see if the chair is occupied when one approaches from behind. An overall pattern of what look like opposing pairs of tiny wings or crude Celtic crosses are created by a diagonal cross-hatching of ivory threads in the red ground. The chair is young as judged by wear, since its austere posture affords little comfort and it has been shunned over the years, even scoffed at occasionally.

In various moves over the years the chair has been threatened with abandonment, the dump often mentioned, but I have protected it. Rarely did I ever sit in it mind you. Its merits no longer hold sway in our modern age of central heating and comfort-comfort everywhere. Still I protect it. In spite of its drawbacks, though, it imposes somewhat regally wherever it is placed; it has presence, always stand-offish. It needs at least a modicum of its own space where it is not required to blend in. Why did I never guess how literally it would one day play its appointed role, which has always been simply to evoke the past ---the past we ignore at our peril?


The sense of being watched envelops like a fog. The chair in the mirror is upsetting and yet I will not move either. This bubbling cauldron of witches brew makes my head pound --- I long to see a face in the red chair through my mirror, yet the fear of that happening brings on the pounding pain and tears. They are all dead! How long can I look into mirrors? Can redemption be framed there?


Incredibly, some living family members deny his existence because no one ever told them the story. Nevertheless, the records are there and speak for themselves. Two years of looking for him in England, in the mines of Wales and the mills of Providence, in the draft registers and the lighthouses has awakened him. His name has been called by the ghosts of legions marching the moonlit Roman Road of antiquity through Arthur’s Kingdom of Wessex. It has echoed across the Atlantic from the hollow quarries of Wiltshire County to the dangerous shoals of Lake Champlain, and he has come. He has come to watch me, not to tell the truth or to justify, but to watch with that distant and amused hint of a smile that so intrigued and haunted others back then. Perhaps he mocks me---I don't know yet. Why come at all though unless he still harbors a spark of hope for an illusive forgiveness from the family.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the guiltiest of all?”

It all began two years ago when I took a rather sudden interest in my father’s family. I can’t remember what prompted me to subscribe to the ancestry website but once I took that first step and found my great grandparents in the 1900 Federal Census, I was hooked. The degree to which I immersed myself in history amounted to an epiphany. My frame of reference shifted like the tectonic plates in the earth creating an inner turmoil, a tension just short of obsession.

I traced the men in the Knight family line - the maiden names of the women are not listed in the census reports - back to 1810, to Wiltshire County, England, where I stalled at a dead end. That wasn’t bad for a novice in family tree building but there had to be a way to keep going, or rather to keep going backwards in time. The breakthrough came when I read an online question posted by a woman doing research into the same Knight family. She was also wandering around in 1810. I replied to her message and in a return email she introduced herself as my third cousin; our grandfathers were brothers. She had accumulated more information about the Knights and the families of their spouses, which she shared with me. I was ecstatic!


So began an odyssey. Bea emailed letters on pretty stationary accompanied by catchy or soothing tunes playing in the background. I was charmed; perhaps I had fallen under the spell of the Sirens. Attached to the letters were Family Group Sheets starting with my great grandfather Thomas Knight, his spouse, children and notes, which gathered references for all the official certificates and records of his existence. I was amazed and overwhelmed.

After several of these sheets had arrived a clear picture emerged, which showed that without exception the families were poor in Victorian England. Generations of men earned their living working in the stone quarries of Wiltshire County, the so-called West Country; Thomas Hardy’s setting for Tess and Far From the Madding Crowd. It was home to the village of Pickwick where Dickens wrote his Pickwick Papers and to Stonehenge. I fell in love with the story I couldn’t read, the one locked up in the names, dates, birth and death certificates.

© 2010 Ann Grenier


  1. Ann, thanks for your recent visit to my site. I just finished this first chapter, and think it is marvelous. I love the introspective querying over a family history. It is a thing I actually do about the various personages of my own past. So, this theme is of real interest to me. And your writing is wonderful. I will try to return here soon to pick up where I left off. So far, this has been a pleasant way to start my morning!

  2. Very atmospheric, reminds me a little of Sarah Waters, I loved the line, she was also wandering around in 1890! Lots of tension and mystery and a touch of menace!

  3. Thanks for reading, Niamh. I don't know Sarah Waters, I'll look her up.