The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

  For a minute she stood very still with her eyes closed, trying to remember precisely the secret garden so that she might go into the summer house correctly in the mist. I must not fall down, she thought, because I shall not be able to get up again; if I fall down it will really be quite serious; I would have to call for help.

  “Fancy,” she called, “Fancy!”

  Moving blindly, trying, although she could not, to watch her feet, trying not to stumble, she moved carefully and with extreme slowness around the summer house, remembering distinctly the pillars, the dark bushes on all sides, the four poplars around, the two low marble steps. If I sit in the summer house in the secret garden, she was telling herself reassuringly, if I go into the summer house from the secret garden, if I go into the summer house through the secret garden, I need only take four steps across the marble floor, four small steps across the marble floor and from the other side of the summer house I can look out over the long lawn and up the far lawn and past the pool and I will see the sundial and then the house. If I get into the summer house even the mist cannot stop me from seeing the house, and I can go down the two low marble steps on the other side and out onto the lovely long lawn and go straight, right down the middle of the lawn, even through mist, past the sundial, and go to the house.

  Fancy, she realized, had probably gone that way already. Fancy was almost surely halfway home.

  She stumbled, and put out her hand to catch herself against the marble pillar, but the mist cleared briefly and she saw that she had caught hold of the long marble thigh of a statue; standing soberly on his pedestal, the tall still creature looked down on her tenderly. The marble was warm, and Aunt Fanny drew her hand back and screamed “Fancy, Fancy!” There was no answer, and she turned and ran madly, putting her feet down on flowers and catching herself against ornamental bushes; “Fancy!” she screamed, taking hold of an outstretched marble hand beside her, “Fancy!” stopping just short of a yearning marble embrace, “Fancy!” and turned away crazily from a marble mouth reaching for her throat.

  “Aunt Fanny?”

  “Fancy! Where are you?”

  “In the house.”

  “Please come back, Fancy; please come back.” She was by a marble bench. Its back and sides were stained and uncared-for; there was a crack running clearly down one leg, there were dead leaves lying along the seat and heaped in the corners. Thankfully Aunt Fanny sat down; the bench was warm, and she moved, huddling herself together, sitting only on the edge of the bench. This is unspeakable, she thought; am I in the family graveyard? Why is this happening?

  Unexpectedly, she thought of Essex—the path gets narrower all the time, she told herself—and was reassured. He will laugh at me, she thought; I must control myself. She forced herself to sit up primly on the edge of the marble bench, repressing firmly the nausea she felt at its warm pressure, and she smoothed the black linen of her dress across her lap, and tucked in her hair, which had somehow come loose, and crossed her ankles decently, and took her black-edged handkerchief from her bosom and dried her eyes and wiped away the dampness and grime from her face. Now, she thought; I may go mad, but at least I look like a lady.

  A certain unfamiliar humor had come upon her with the thought of Essex; if he were here, she reflected, we would be sitting together on this marble bench and no one could see us in the mist. We would be in a deeply hidden garden—she could catch, now, the heavy sweetness of roses—and on a fair low seat, the marble warm beneath our hands. Distantly, she heard the music of a fountain, the touch of water upon itself, the low murmur of the fall. It came, perhaps, through the lifted curved hands of a marble nymph, running down her arms and over her shoulders and breast and clothing her in water falling softly, falling on and on. Then it might overflow one wide pool and fall on, down, into the reaching stone arms of a satyr who pushed upward to catch both hands full of water and let it fall gently against the arched backs and lifted heads of the dolphins who held him. Then, past the frozen dolphins, across the wide pool and on, down and down, into a great cup held by two maidens, overflowing the cup, going always past their stone smiling faces, their hard curls, on down and down over rocks and marble lilies, under and around marble fish and between the long legs of stone birds, necks always bent, heads always turned curiously. Far, far beyond, in a long sweet movement from the high curved hands of the nymph past the satyr, over the dolphins, between the maidens, leaving behind the lilies and the rocks and the fish and the birds, the moving water must be caught and imprisoned at last in a final narrowing agonizing eddy, twisted and trapped and forced down, pushed underground to run secretly and flow, perhaps, into the ornamental pool before the house, colored blue, and moving only faintly under the wind.

  Roses, she thought: I would like to give Essex a rose. She put her head gently back against the marble bench, tears on her cheeks, and listened to the drops of water singing as they went down the fountain (“Frances, I have waited for you so long . . .” “Impatient, Essex?” “Impatient? Say rather mad . . . burning . . .”). She stirred, and smiled, and lifted her hand in tender protest, and looked upon the marble jeering face of a fiend, set into a shrine beside the bench, roses growing low against his head, dead petals caught between his thrusting teeth.

  “Fancy,” she called, screaming, “Fancy, Fancy!”

  The moving water in the fountain called “Fancy, Fancy” faintly, and the tortured marble face was warm.

  “Aunt Fanny?”

  “Please help me. Please come; please hurry!”

  “I’m in the house.”


  “I’m coming. I’m holding out my hand. It’s all right, Aunt Fanny, I’m right here.”

  And Aunt Fanny, turning, took hold of Fancy’s hand, and it was warm marble; far away, she heard Fancy’s mocking laughter and her voice singing.


  Somehow, sobbing, Aunt Fanny came through the mist and into the summer house and in four wide steps was running down the lawn toward the sundial in the darkness, and then she heard a voice. It was huge, not Fancy at all, echoing and sounding around and in and out of her head: FRANCES HALLORAN, it came to her, FRANCES, FRANCES HALLORAN. Twisting as she ran, moving wildly, she put out her hands; FRANCES HALLORAN, the voice went on, FRANCES.

  FRANCES HALLORAN: she was gasping dreadfully for breath, one shoe lost and the grass unexpectedly wet under her stocking: FRANCES HALLORAN, and then she stopped absolutely. There was something there in the darkness hard by the sundial, not a statue, not Essex: “Who?” Aunt Fanny said, cold.

  “Frances Halloran—” Remotely.

  This was fear so complete that Aunt Fanny, once Frances Halloran, stood with nothing but ice to clothe her; was there something there? Something? Then she thought with what seemed shocking clarity: it is worse if it is not there; somehow it must be real because if it is not real it is in my own head; unable to move, Aunt Fanny thought: It is real.


  Aunt Fanny moved one hand, blindly. “Father?” she said, without sound. “Father?”

  “Frances, there is danger. Go back to the house. Tell them, in the house, tell them, in the house, tell them that there is danger. Tell them in the house that in the house it is safe. The father will watch the house, but there is danger. Tell them.”

  Am I hearing this? Aunt Fanny thought lucidly, and then, fumbling, “Father?”

  “The father comes to his child and says gently that within himself there is no fear; the father comes to his child. Tell them in the house that there is danger.”

  “Danger? Father?”

  “From the sky and from the ground and from the sea there is danger; tell them in the house. There will be black fire and red water and the earth turning and screaming; this will come.”


  “The father comes to his children and tells them there is danger. There is danger. Within the
father there is no fear; the father comes to his children. Tell them in the house.”


  “When the sky is fair again the children will be safe; the father comes to his children who will be saved. Tell them in the house that they will be saved. Do not let them leave the house; say to them: Do not fear, the father will guard the children. Go into your father’s house and say these things. Tell them there is danger.”

  Aunt Fanny, formerly Frances Halloran, put her hand down onto the sundial and found it warm. “Father?” she said into the sudden bright sunlight, but there was nothing there. “You were never so kind to me before,” said Aunt Fanny brokenly.

  Then, screaming for Essex, she fled, and crashed against the terrace door and wildly pounded it open, to stop in complete silence, staring madly at the astonished faces around the breakfast table, eyes wide, mouths open, regarding her.

  “I want to tell you,” Aunt Fanny said and then—to the embarrassed surprise of everyone in the room, none of whom had ever had any occasion to believe that Aunt Fanny was capable of a single, definite, clear-cut, unembellished act—Aunt Fanny fainted.


  Essex carried Aunt Fanny into the drawing room, since it was the nearest place with a couch to put her on; Miss Ogilvie followed, panting, with a glass of water, Fancy tagged curiously, Maryjane brought two aspirin from the bottle she always carried in her pocket, and Mrs. Halloran, finishing her coffee without haste, came into the drawing room at last to find Aunt Fanny, surrounded, on the couch, turning and twisting her head and murmuring incoherently.

  “Chafe her wrists and loosen her stays,” Mrs. Halloran suggested, seating herself in an armchair from which she could observe Aunt Fanny, “burn a feather under her nose. Raise her feet. Please do not neglect any possible attention; I would not have Aunt Fanny think that we took her malaise lightly.”

  “Something has clearly frightened her out of her senses,” Miss Ogilvie said, more sharply than she customarily spoke to Mrs. Halloran.

  “A feat,” said Mrs. Halloran. “Incredible.”

  “It was my father,” Aunt Fanny said clearly. She sat up, resisting Miss Ogilvie and Maryjane, and looked directly at Mrs. Halloran. “My father was there,” she said.

  “I hope you gave him my dutiful regards,” Mrs. Halloran said.

  “By the sundial, waiting for me; he called me and called me.” Aunt Fanny began to cry. “You wicked wicked wicked girl,” she said to Fancy.

  “What did I do?” Fancy said, staring, and Maryjane put an arm around her daughter and said, “Now you just wait one little damn minute here.”

  “She ran away,” Aunt Fanny said, “and left me all alone and I was lost.”

  “Lost?” Mrs. Halloran said. “You have lived here for forty years, Aunt Fanny; what part of the place could lose you now?”

  “I never ran away,” Fancy said. “I did not.”

  “She did not,” Maryjane said.

  “She did so,” Aunt Fanny said. “There was a gardener on a ladder clipping the hedge and Fancy ran away.”

  Mrs. Halloran frowned. “When, Fanny?” she asked. “When did all this happen?”

  “Just now—this morning. It was just getting light.”

  “No,” Mrs. Halloran said. “There are no gardeners working on the hedges yet. Your brother wants me to speak to them today.”

  “On a ladder,” Aunt Fanny said.

  “Quite impossible,” Mrs. Halloran said. “You may very well have seen your father; I would not dream of disputing a private apparition. But you could not have seen a gardener trimming a hedge. Not here, not today.”

  “Fancy saw him,” Aunt Fanny said wildly.

  “I did not,” Fancy said. “I never saw anyone this morning except my mother and my grandmother and Miss Ogilvie and Essex—”

  “We went for a walk,” Aunt Fanny said.

  “I did not go for any walk,” Fancy said.

  “She has been with me since I woke up,” Maryjane said with finality.

  “The secret garden was changed, and it was dark and the mist—”

  “Aunt Fanny,” Essex said, bending over her sympathetically, “suppose you tell us just what happened. Slowly, and try not to cry.”

  “Essex,” said Aunt Fanny, crying.

  “She is hysterical,” said Mrs. Halloran. “Slap her quite firmly in the face.”

  “Please, Aunt Fanny. Tell us exactly.”

  Aunt Fanny caught her breath and accepted a handkerchief from Miss Ogilvie to wipe her eyes. Then, although her voice was trembling, she said, “I could not sleep. I thought I would go for a walk. It was very dark, and misty, but I knew the sun was going to rise soon. I met Fancy on the terrace—”

  “You did not.”

  “Fancy, why don’t you tell the truth? I’m not blaming you; Aunt Fanny loves you.”

  “But I didn’t.”

  “Go on, Aunt Fanny,” Essex said. “We’ll sort it all out later.”

  “We walked down the side path, toward the secret garden. Then we saw the gardener and Fancy said he looked funny.”

  “I didn’t.”

  “You did, you bad wicked girl. And we came to the garden, but it was changed. Dirty. Horrible. I was lost, and I couldn’t find the way out, and Fancy ran away and I called her and called her and there were hundreds and hundreds of statues and they were warm.” Aunt Fanny shivered. “And I couldn’t find the summer house and I sat on a bench and thought about Essex and how he might help me—”

  “I am not sure how much of this nonsense I can hear,” Mrs. Halloran said.

  “—and then I found the summer house and started to run to the house but it was so dark and the mist was so thick and when I came to the sundial my father was there.”

  “I saw her running,” Miss Ogilvie said. “At the breakfast table, I glanced out and thought, ‘There comes Aunt Fanny, running down the lawn.’ I confess I was startled. But it was quite light.”

  “The sun has been shining brightly for two hours,” Essex said. “There is not a cloud in the sky.”

  “It was dark,” Aunt Fanny said.

  “I saw you quite clearly running down the lawn,” Miss Ogilvie said. “The sun was shining and I thought, ‘There comes Aunt Fanny, running down the lawn.’”

  “What did your father have to say?” Mrs. Halloran inquired curiously. “I hope he sent his best to the rest of us?”

  Aunt Fanny sat up suddenly, staring. “I forgot,” she said. “I forgot to tell you, all of you, and I was supposed to bring the message right back here.” She began to cry again. “He will be angry,” she said.

  “Well, tell us now,” Essex said. He glanced at Mrs. Halloran and said quietly, “I wonder if we should have a doctor?”

  “An alienist,” Mrs. Halloran said, and snorted. “Gardeners working before breakfast,” she said.

  “He said to tell you there was danger. He said—” Aunt Fanny, wringing her hands, tried to be exact, “—he said there was danger, but this house was safe. That he would protect us. He said it over and over again, that there was danger but this house was safe. He said we must stay in the house.”

  “Did he indeed?” Mrs. Halloran said, and Essex, looking over his shoulder, laughed at her.

  “He said fire would come, and he said it would be black fire. He said there was danger, and he would protect the house, and we are not to leave the house.”

  “Can you get a message back to him?” Mrs. Halloran inquired. “Because I would like you to tell him that, danger or no danger—”

  Miss Ogilvie screamed and scrambled up onto a chair. Maryjane clutched at Essex, and even Mrs. Halloran rose. A small brightly-banded snake was watching them from the fireplace, seemingly frozen with attention, and then, turning at once into liquid movement, slipped from the fireplace across the heavy carpet, within a foot of Mrs. Halloran
’s shoe, and, without hesitation, angled behind a bookcase and disappeared.

  “Good God,” Mrs. Halloran said. “Merciful God. Essex!”

  Essex disengaged himself from Maryjane with some difficulty and said, “Mrs. Halloran?”

  “What was that?”

  “A snake. It came out of the fireplace and went across the room and behind the bookcase.”

  “I know it was a snake, but—in my house?”

  “A snake, a snake,” cried Miss Ogilvie, clinging precariously to the back of the chair and seemingly determined to climb right on up the wall, “it will bite us; it was a snake, a snake!”

  “Blasphemy,” Essex said politely to Mrs. Halloran. “Sent, no doubt, by the noble ghost you were mocking. You should pay more attention to what you are saying.”

  “You did it,” Maryjane said violently to Mrs. Halloran, “you were making fun of Aunt Fanny’s father, but I think we’ve had a warning and believe you me I’m not going to need a second one, believe you me. I say I am going to stay right here in this house where it’s safe and no one, not even you, is going to kick me out of it to face the danger he said was coming, not out into any fire.” She clasped Fancy to her and her hands were shaking. “Fancy stays and I stay,” she said.

  “I will have this room fumigated,” Mrs. Halloran said.

  “You won’t find that snake,” Aunt Fanny said dreamily. “It was shining, full of light. You won’t ever find it.”

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