The Vennums were happy people. Landowners in Wisconsin, USA, they lived peacefully with their little girl Lurancy in a big house surrounded by a beautiful park. Thomas Vennum’s only worry was to see the price of corn fall. Julia Vennum’s only preoccupation was the success of her Sunday cake. They had no problems and were without any worries or metaphysical anguishes. As faithful parishioners of the Baptist Church, they sincerely believed that the Lord had conceived His Creation according to rules which excluded disorder and anything irrational. Their Pastor said so. In this limpid world, one and one made two, what was white could not be black and dead people had ceased living for good.
It is however, at the home of these good people, totally devoid of imagination, that one of the most fantastic stories of all time will unfold.
It began in 1877, when Lurancy, then aged thirteen, was suddenly afflicted with a curious ill: at certain moments she seemed to go to sleep, her body became rigid and she fell to the ground. During these attacks, which could last a few minutes or whole hours, she spoke strange words, described places that she had never visited and revealed secrets about the neighbouring farmers that Thomas and Julia Vennum, prudish and discrete, were embarrassed to learn.
Sometimes, Lurancy’s voice changed, took accents, and her parents had the impression that the neighbours that she evoked were speaking through her mouth.
These phenomena lasted a few weeks without the consulted doctors managing to agree on the origin of the strange ill with which the little girl was afflicted. One spoke of puberty crisis, another of overwork at school. As for a third, more imaginative, he claimed that it was a “state of cataleptic trance due to the sting of an unknown fly…”.
Then, one morning in February 1878, Lurancy rises, leaves her bedroom and goes into the kitchen where Mrs Vennum is preparing breakfast. For a moment, the little girl looks around her “as if she was trying to discover where she was”, then she says to her mother in a ceremonious tone:
“Good morning, Madam. Why am I here? Why didn’t I sleep at home?”
Julia bursts out laughing, tells her to stop playing and eat her breakfast, calling her by her name. Lurancy stiffens and says that her name isn’t Lurancy, but Mary…
Still thinking that her daughter has imagined one of those bizarre games that children sometimes invent, Mrs Vennum pours milk into a bowl filled with porridge and tells her to sit down and eat, calling her Mary this time.
As Lurancy doesn’t move, she looks up and is struck by her daughter’s fixed, shiny gaze.
“What’s the matter, Lurancy?”
“Not Lurancy, Madam; my name is Mary… Mary Roff, and I would like to go back home…”
This time, Julia becomes angry. Mary Roff was the name of a young girl who had died thirteen years before in Dixville, a neighbouring village, and she doesn’t like people joking about the deceased.
“I forbid you to tell such stupid stories. We shouldn’t laugh about certain things, you know we shouldn’t! You didn’t know Mary Roff, but you should respect her memory.”
“Her memory? But I’m not dead, Madam.”
Lurancy then approaches her mother and, in a firm tone never used by her before, repeats that her name is Mary Roff, that she doesn’t know why she is not at home and she wants to return to her parents.
As Julia is considering her in astonishment, she adds:
“You must recognize me, Mrs Vennum, you met me one day at Doctor Simmons’ place where I had gone to fetch a syrup. You had a white straw hat and I had a big blue bow in my hair. As it was undone, you tied it for me… We were in the window recess. I remember that at that moment, James Oliver passed by in the street on his horse…”
Julia sits down, unable to pronounce a word. All this is true. Fourteen years before, she had met young Mary Roff in Dr Simmons’ waiting-room and had retied the adolescent’s bow. A scene which had had no witnesses. She doesn’t even remember having mentioned it to her husband.
How could Lurancy know these details?
Julia thinks that her daughter is again traversing one of her strange attacks and decides to wait until it passes.
“Mr and Mrs Roff live more than five miles from here. My husband will go to let them know and they will come to fetch you. Meanwhile, eat your breakfast.”
The little girl docilely swallows her bowl of porridge and returns to her bedroom where she plunges into a book.
At midday, when Thomas returns home, Julia tearfully reports the extraordinary conversation that she had had with Lurancy. He remains silent for a moment, then decides to go to see her to see if the attack is over.
But when he enters the bedroom, Lurancy calls him “Sir” and asks him if he has been to see her “parents”…
So, he brings her back to the dining-room and they sit at the table. The meal is strange. Before her consternated parents, the little girl does not stop joyfully evoking memories of her childhood in Dixville…
After dessert, Thomas says to his wife:
“We’ll wait until this evening. If she is not better, I’ll go to see the Roffs…”
When he returns from work at the end of the afternoon, something new has happened: Lurancy-Mary had declared to Julia that she remembered dying thirteen years before. She had even spoken lengthily about her agony, going as far as reporting details about an incident which had unfolded in the mortuary chamber…
Thomas then took his horse and went to the Roffs’ place.
The Dixville farmers learned what was happening at the Vennum house with a mixture of astonishment and deep emotion. Then they asked some questions and Thomas reported as faithfully as possible all that Julia had told him. The parents listened quietly; but when he arrived at the incident of the mortuary chamber, Mrs Roff let out a cry:
“It is not possible, Sir, that Lurancy could have said that. At that moment, I was alone in the room next to my little Mary’s body…”
She has an attack of nerves and has to be carried to her bed.
To be continued.