“It’s a hatbox, Honey, older women, like Grandma Kelly, used to keep their good hats in them so they wouldn’t get crushed in closets."
“There’s a dress in it.” Ellen jumped back and forth a bit impatiently. “A beautiful dress. Can I get it? Huh? Please, Mother . . . It’s so beautiful. It’s the beautiful-est dress I ever saw.”
“Most beautiful, Honey” I corrected absently inspecting an antique brass cricket on a picnic table covered with aged bric-a-brac.
“Moth – er . . . will you look, please?”
I reluctantly tore my gaze from the antiques on the table. Ellen carefully set the dusty round box on the picnic table’s bench seat -- at my knee -- and rocked off the tight fitting lid. A pleasant lavender aroma wafted up to my nostrils. Smoothing back layers of creamy yellowed tissue paper, I pulled out a pretty, old-fashioned red velvet dress from another era. Cream colored lace as dainty as spun silk graced the collar and cuffs, while a jaunty red velvet ruffle encircled the hem like a boa.
Knowing the pitfalls of neighborhood yard sales, I carefully inspected every inch of that dress looking for flaws, moth holes, tears, stains, etc. The dress seemed to be in great shape for a garment of such obvious age. I held it up against Ellen’s front, and it looked like a good fit.
“Is there a price on it,” I asked, suspecting the cost would be beyond our current yard sale budget. “It probably belonged to Miss Sara, or Miss Amy -- years ago. It looks like it was never worn.”
Ellen searched the box for a price and found a little $1.00 sticker stamped on the bottom of the hatbox.
“Well, the price is right,” I smiled and peeled a dollar bill from my yard sale wad; usually Ellen didn’t placate this easily at yard sales. She grinned back and scampered off with the money to pay for her treasure.
The pretty dress in its mustard colored hatbox received an honored spot in Ellen’s room. Many times over the next several weeks, I noticed her stroking the soft folds of the dress, murmuring to it like it was a doll or a puppy.
My mother stopped by for tea on the day when Ellen first wore the dress. I watched the color drain from Mom’s face when Ellen approached her wearing the red dress. I heard her tea cup smash to the floor and witnessed Grandma Kelly retreating into a corner of the kitchen whispering, “Polly? Polly? It can’t be!”
“Mom,” I shouted. “Mom, what’s wrong?”
Ellen stood before my mother with a little smirk on her face . . . for a moment, in that dress, it didn’t even look like my Ellen. Her hair looked darker, curlier, her eyes seemed larger, wider.
“Yes, Mother.” She turned toward me and I saw that of course it was my Ellen . . . The light must have been playing tricks.
“Go play in your room, Honey, Grandma Kelly’s a little upset. Maybe you should put the new dress back in its pretty box so you don’t get it dirty.”
Grandma Kelly clutched at her bosom and watched the child leave the room. “That dress,” she whispered. “Where’d you get that dress?”
“After the two old Chase sisters, Miss Sara, and Miss Amy died this summer, the town held a huge yard sale to pay up the taxes on their old house. Ellen found that dress in the Chase house . . . she really loves it.”
“Get rid of it,” my mother hissed. “They buried Polly in that dress.”
“Polly Chase was Miss Sara and Miss Amy’s younger sister. Polly was born wrong . . . she liked to hurt people. They said whenever she stamped her little feet -- people were apt to get hurt . . . or even die. The townsfolk said she killed her own mother. I’ve always thought that was why Miss Sara and Miss Amy never got married. Never wanted to have children. I think they were afraid after Polly. Such a pretty little thing . . . no one would have ever known . . .”
My mother told the story and my mind watched the pretty little girl in the red velvet dress shove an attractive dark-haired woman into the broken boards of an old well behind the Chase house.
Unable to tear my mind away, I watched as the little girl picked up her skipping rope and bounced down the garden path singing a little jingle:
“Polly, Polly Red Dress, she’s so sweet
Polly, Polly Red Dress stamps her feet
Polly pushed her mother and knocked her down the well.
Polly knows a secret but no one’s gonna tell!”
I’d forgotten that jingle. Throughout my childhood we sang that little tune while skipping rope, playing hopscotch, and countless other childhood pastimes. I’d never even thought about it. It was just one of those old jingles . . .
“What happened to Polly?” I whispered.
“Auto accident,” Mom said. “Polly and her father both died. Whole town turned out for the funeral. She had that dress on in the casket . . . I SAW her. Creepy little smirk on her face even after she was dead.”
I reached out and grasped my mother’s cold shaking hand. “You’re upset, I said. Let me make you a fresh cup of tea.”
As I plugged my old teapot into the outlet, I didn’t notice the worn electrical cord. Death enveloped me almost painlessly as the current surged through my body. Death took my mother, also – still clutching my hand. Death turned us into two lifeless husks on the cold kitchen linoleum.
From her room, my daughter skipped rope and sang a silly little jingle:
“Ellen, Ellen Red Dress, she’s so sweet
Ellen, Ellen Red Dress, stamps her feet
Ellen cut the wires and watched her mother fry.
Ellen knows a secret, more are gonna die.”