The Maid from the Ash:
A Life in Pictures
by Gwendolyn Kiste
|Illustration by Luke Spooner|
The Maid from the Ash: A Life in Pictures
Museum of Postmodern Art
Thank you for joining us at the opening of The Maid from the Ash: A Life in Pictures. This program will guide you through each of our eighteen exhibits. For the sake of other visitors in the museum as well as for your own safety, we caution against any use of photography, flash or otherwise. During the installation of this collection, we learned too well that some of the photographs prefer if you don’t stare too long. So please keep this in mind and do be courteous during your stay with us.
Exhibit 1: “The Maid from the Ash” (Polaroid Instant, Forensic photographer)
This is the first known image of the Maid from the Ash, taken the day she was discovered at a ramshackle abode in rural Pennsylvania. In the picture, two uniformed men escort her away after a fire, but she drags her feet and stares back at the place she called home. Due to the widespread commotion of the police and fire trucks, nearly everything in the picture is blurred. Only her eyes, eternally gazing heavenward, are in sharp focus.
It started with a 911 call. A hiker reported smoke coming from an area of the forest believed to be uninhabited. Emergency services arrived at the scene of a two-story shack surrounded in a ring of flames. Not until they extinguished the blaze, a feat that took nearly an hour, did they find the girl sitting on the front porch, her dark eyes the color of dusk. While the grass and surrounding property were scorched to the salt, she and the house were untouched except for the ash.
“She wasn’t scared,” said the sheriff, retired by the time we interviewed him. “She wasn’t anything at all. Just stone-still and serene, like a body preserved in a morgue.”
In a melee that appeared to annoy the girl, the paramedics checked her vitals (heart rate 80, blood pressure 90/60) as officials all agreed the house had no business in that location, that no one had applied for the requisite building permits, that nobody—not even a park ranger—frequented that area, which was inaccessible besides a dirt path that flooded six months of the year.
When they asked the girl why she was there, she shrugged and said, “It’s my home.”
But it wasn’t much to speak of. The forensics team described it as “a lopsided sepulcher.”
The house—if you could call it that—was spackled together with lark feathers and sinewy thatch and ancient birch faded to a silvery gray. Not one nail or proper board on the whole property, wrote one of the Philadelphia-based investigators called in after the fire. Certainly not a place fit for a young girl.
The team’s initial tests uncovered higher-than-normal calcium deposits in the walls, leading to early rumors that the house was constructed of human bones, but further examination all but proved the structure was banal in origin.
(The fire itself was later determined to be the result of heat lightning, which dovetailed with the girl’s own crude description of “a great fire from the sky.”)
This photograph, circulated by the police in hopes of uncovering the girl’s identity, appeared in the local newspaper and quickly went viral, eventually gracing numerous national magazine covers with the headline, Who is this Maid from the Ash? Issues that featured the photograph performed unexpectedly well, thanks to eager readers determined to solve the mystery themselves.
Still, even with the assistance of enthusiastic housewives and sleuthing college students, they never found her parents or learned anything else about the girl. According to all extant records (the sheriff’s office suffered an inexplicable basement fire six months before the debut of this exhibition, so files are limited), no official search was ever conducted to locate her family members. Likewise, she never asked for them or mentioned their names.
“It was as if,” the sheriff said, “she was born from those flames.”
Exhibit 2: “Day in Court” (Cell phone snapshot, posted on the Gabby Gossipmonger website)
In this blurry image taken on a 2009-model flip phone, the girl is seen exiting the courthouse after the judge’s ruling on her emancipation status. Despite the image’s pixilated quality and the crowd of hundreds surrounding her with cameras, she is easy to spot, off to the left side of the frame, her hair a mussed curtain across her eyes.
No certificate of live birth could be located for the girl, so after the fire, the police took her to a local physician who determined she was no more than sixteen. This prompted juvenile services to enter an official case file under the name of Jane Doe. (The aforementioned doctor would not respond to requests on precisely how he made that determination of age, nor would he release any of her medical records for this installation.)
At her hearing, the judge had to demand order six times to quiet the packed courtroom. By this point, the public couldn’t get enough of the Maid from the Ash. A crowdfunding page was set up in her honor (donations peaked at $415,674, though whether or not those monies were ultimately sent to the girl is unclear), and in a recent online search, we located more than two-hundred fan pages on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media set up in her honor, most of which have long since been abandoned.
The hearing, which permitted bystanders direct access to the girl for the first time, proved irresistible. Dozens camped out at every motel, spare room, and rest stop in the Central Valley.
“It’s not every day you have a chance to make a difference like this,” said one Missouri housewife who had towed her three children to the courtroom that day. “We need to help this poor, young creature.”
At the girl’s request, the court was ruling that day on whether or not she was fit to take care of herself. But the judge had apparently made his ruling long in advance.
“Why in the world at the age of sixteen should we allow you to live on your own?” he asked, glowering at her over the edges of his little square glasses.
“Because I want to be on my own,” she said. “I can cook and clean and forage. I survived just fine by myself.”
“Until the fire. You nearly died.”
The girl shook her head. “The house wouldn’t let anything hurt me.”
“Houses can’t help you, dear,” the judge said, and the crowd chortled in agreement. “We have to give you somewhere to belong.”
“What if I don’t belong with you?” she said, but her words were lost among the crashing of a gavel and the screech-owl cries of a crowd certain they’d done the right thing.
Exhibit 3: “The Maid from the Ash: One Year Later” (Print article, The Observer News Gazette)
A human-interest piece documenting the girl’s progress, released on the anniversary of the fire. Accompanying the article are three black-and-white photographs of her sitting with her latest family, the Whitcombs. Her new mother and father are all dazzling smiles, but the girl has no expression at all. She simply sits at the far edge of the room on a three-legged ottoman, her lips twisted to one side and her eyes set on the ceiling, studying something that isn’t there.
By now, the girl was on her third family. She had fled the previous two placements in Pennsylvania, and during one escape, she’d made it as far as the county line near her former home before the police caught her. When they demanded to know why she ran, all she said was she had somewhere to be.
In an attempt to curb further flights, juvenile services moved her to upstate New York, several day’s walk from her property. At the time of this article’s release, she had a new hometown of Ogdensburg and a new name: ‘Flannery.’
“It was important to call her something,” her latest mom Jeanette is quoted as saying. “She needed to feel like a whole person, a real person.”
The reporter asked the girl if she liked her new moniker, but Flannery only shrugged.
“It’s as good as any other,” she said.
Her new parents blathered on about school supplies and school clothes and Flannery’s new private school, all while repeating that the public had not forgotten the Maid from the Ash.
“Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t come up to the door, sometimes whole families, eager for a photograph with her,” said her father, who the reporter described with words like loquacious and beaming. (However, we found him to be neither—he refused to participate in this exhibit in any way, having relocated to Utah following his divorce from Jeanette last year).
“And she photographs so well,” Jeanette said, smiling incandescently (again, the reporter’s word of choice). “Everybody tells us how beautiful she is.”
Exhibit 4: “A New Beginning” (Webcam image from the Whitcombs’ computer)
Flannery stands against a blank wall in an unfurnished bedroom, her hands clasped in front of her, her eyes lined in liquid green. This was her debut post to social media, and by the end of her first week online, she boasted over 50,000 followers, a number that at the height of her popularity would top out at 10 million.
This image appeared two weeks after the previous article hit newsstands, and curiosity about the Maid from the Ash surged once again. Given her previous reticence, the precise reason why Flannery became interested in an online presence is unknown, and debate exists on whether she wanted this image taken or if the Whitcombs cajoled her into it.
In our interview, Jeanette insisted the idea was all Flannery’s. “She wanted to meet other people. I think she hoped that one day, she might find someone like her.”
And though it probably wasn’t who she intended, she did find plenty of people. In her first month online, Flannery uploaded twenty-five more photos (all of which were eventually deleted along with this one, printed here as a screencap). After every new post, the comments and likes poured in.
“Everybody just adored our little girl,” Jeanette said brightly.
In those early weeks, fans reached out repeatedly to Flannery, and while she was never gushing, she did respond to many of their questions. An example of such an exchange—this time during an Ask-Me-Anything chat—is archived below.
ashfan4E: hi, flannery! so great to meet you! i’ve been following you since the beginning! super glad you’ve got a family now. and a name! WOOT! do you like your new home?
flimflan: I guess it’s okay, but I liked my old house better. I can’t wait to turn eighteen so I can go back there.
teamflannery: OMG SO AMAZIN TO TALK WITH U, FLANNERY! I’M UR BIGGEST FAN!!! SO I’VE GOT A QUESTION FOR U! IF U COULD HAVE ONE THING IN THE WORLD, WHAT WOULD BE UR WISH???
flimflan: To return home.
teamflannery: BUT THERES NO POWER OR COMPUTER THERE, RIGHT?!?!?!?! HOW WOULD U TALK WITH US?
ashfan4E: yeah, we totally cant live without you! so... what’s your second greatest wish? ;)
flimflan: That people would stop carving off pieces of my house. It makes my chest ache every time they do.
“She would invent the strangest tales,” Jeanette said when we asked about the last comment. “Carving off pieces of the house? We never told her that, and she hadn’t been back there since they rescued her. Why would she say such a thing?”
Exhibit 5: “The House that Flannery Built” (Digital photograph for a college student’s senior project, taken approximately the same timeframe as Flannery’s Ask-Me-Anything chat)
The colorless house stands sullenly in the shadows of dusk. In the thirteen months since the fire, the property remained more or less the same (the scorched grounds never grew back), but the ring around the house seemingly protected it from decay. However, if you examine the image closely—we’ve provided a magnifying glass—you might notice what look like small notches on the corners of the house where it appears as if fingers dug out bits of the feather and birch.
In the year after the fire, police chased away scores of fans who made their macabre pilgrimages to the property. After he noticed trails of shredded wood along the foundation, the sheriff questioned one of the girls he caught there.
“This is a holy place for us,” she said to him, fumbling with her oversized bag. “But we would never take anything as a souvenir. Never.”
“There wasn’t much we could do to stop them,” the sheriff told us. “The house legally belonged to nobody. It would be like telling a kid not to carve their initials into a tree trunk. You can try, but it’s almost impossible to enforce.”
The most intrepid fans would stay on site overnight. No one, however, ever made it the whole evening inside the house. Instead, they would turn up at the sheriff’s office at three in the morning to report a distant weeping in the walls. When we inquired about the wails, the sheriff waved us off. He claimed he investigated multiple times and could attribute it only to the wind.
“The woods are a haunted place at night,” he said. “People think they can hear God himself speaking.”
Exhibit 6: “Test Shots” (Twenty-five slide photos of Flannery, the best images marked with red grease pencil)
In her first semiprofessional photographs, Flannery wears a carnation pink dress that is too loose around the waist and too tight around the shoulders, giving the illusion that her body is convex, the inverse of an hourglass. She doesn’t smile in the images, and her eyes are obscured by a blur the photographer could never explain.
(Special Note: Please ignore the significant charring around the edges of the slides. This damage was due to a projector overheating when we were reviewing the images prior to this installation.)
After the success of her social media posts, a fashion photographer in Albany contacted the Whitcombs about submitting pictures of Flannery to major modeling agencies in New York.
Little is known about this particular shoot, and even the photographer, who has since given up his camera and is now an accountant in Florida, had almost no insight.
She didn’t say much, he recently recalled via email. But she didn’t have time to talk. Her parents were always hovering on set and offering “helpful” suggestions. Once, when they were out of the room for a smoke break, she did mention to me how she was counting the days until she turned eighteen and could escape.
“Modeling was a great way for her to meet people,” Jeanette said. “And remember: that’s what she wanted. It was always her choice.”
Within two weeks of the shoot, Ionize Modeling Agency contacted the Whitcombs and signed Flannery that day. She started work within the month.
I felt bad for the kid, the former photographer wrote in closing. She’d been through enough, and I’ve always wondered if my photographs only made it worse. But I was trying to help, you know? I thought it would make her happy. How was I supposed to know it would turn out this way?
Exhibit 7: “Haute” (Tear sheet from Fashion Heir Magazine, taken by photographer Ray Hendrickson)
A stone-faced Flannery glides down the runway in a floor-length dress constructed of peacock feathers. (Our apologies about the condition of this exhibit; we believe the heavy wrinkling is from water or possibly heat damage.)
Following a series of promotional jobs—including an all-night appearance at Times Square that sent twenty-seven of her overzealous, dehydrated fans to the hospital—Flannery made her runway debut at Fashion Week. This was perhaps her happiest since the fire, not because of the job, but because of the date. The next week, she was turning eighteen—or what the court had ruled was her eighteenth birthday.
“This is my first fashion show,” she said to the reporters before the event, “and it will be my last too. So enjoy it now!”
She was unaware of the Whitcombs’ recent (and unusually private) conversations with the court.
“Unfortunately, she wasn’t making enough progress,” Jeanette told us. “She was still such a restless girl. And withdrawn too. At night, she would murmur in her sleep that the wolves were at the door. How could we abandon her in that condition?” Jeanette shook her head. “I couldn’t fail her like that.”
To ensure Flannery’s safety, the court ruled that the Whitcombs could continue their conservatorship of her for an indefinite period.
“Or until she was better,” Jeanette repeated three times in our interview with her. “We only wanted her to get better.”
Just before the show, the press heard a single scream backstage, presumed to be Flannery learning of her parents’ subterfuge, though this was never confirmed.
After the event, no one saw her leave, but the following morning, during a lightning storm, she crawled out her second-story bedroom window. It was too far for her to reach the wilds of Pennsylvania, but that didn’t matter. She ran. For a hundred miles, through thickets and along back roads, she ran. They found her two days later tangled in briars, unconscious and barefoot and hypothermic. Her recovery took almost six weeks.
During her convalescence, one fan asked how she was doing. Flannery was very clear on her intentions:
flimflan: I don’t care what they do to me. I won’t ever stop trying to get home.
Exhibit 8: “Everything to Dust” (Blurry Smartphone Image, Anonymous fan)
Flannery’s property at dusk. The house is gone, and in its wake, all that’s left is a pile of rubble.
The fans knew what they needed to do.
“It was in her best interest,” said the individual who submitted this picture. “As long as that house was standing, it would always torture her. We had no choice. We had to set her free.”
At first, the flash mob tried to burn it, but their matches flitted out, leaving behind only a lonesome stench of sulfur. So they opted instead for their old standby: they disassembled the house, piece by consecrated piece. With over one hundred people gathered there, it took less than an hour.
Exhibit 9: “The Cover” (Film Stock, Fashion Heir Magazine)
An extreme close-up of Flannery’s face. Her cheeks smolder with a preternatural rosiness, and black tears from her dark eye makeup drip down to the curve of her jaw.
That same afternoon, Flannery was on set in New York for a cover shoot, working with Ray Hendrickson, the same photographer who had taken her picture at the fashion show (he had specifically requested to work with her again). At the moment her house was turned to sawdust (approximately 1:57 p.m. Eastern Standard Time), Flannery let out a banshee-wail and collapsed in her locked dressing room. When they broke down the door, they found her curled in the corner, covered in angry red scratch marks, and repeating one word over and over: wolves. Her injuries were later attributed to the sharp edges of her acrylic nails that the makeup artist applied earlier in the day, although the depth and shape were not consistent.
Jeanette begged them to curtail the shoot (“Under those circumstances, no normal person would have made her continue”), but Ray insisted on taking just a few images.
“He claimed her pain was too beautiful to waste,” Jeanette said.
So they swathed Flannery’s skin in pancake foundation to conceal her wounds, and they shoved her beneath the blaring lights.
And without a word, she posed for them, her figure almost liquid, almost unreal against the flimsy paper backdrop. She moved with purpose, with a clarity all the previous photos lacked. Like an angel, some said at the time. Like a demon, some say now.
Although we don’t recommend it, if you look closely, they say you can see a ring of flames in her eyes, but Jeanette assured us that it was only a trick of the light.
Exhibit 10: “Real Me” (B&W self-portrait, posted to social media)
Flannery stands alone in a field, dressed in a tight sheathe. Her eyes are not turned upward, and she’s not edging bashfully to one side. Instead, she’s in the center of the frame, and she’s staring straight into the camera. Into you.
Following the destruction of her house, Flannery vanished from public view for almost six months. The Whitcombs said she needed time to recuperate (“She didn’t stop crying for weeks,” Jeanette confided), but other reports suggested Flannery was perhaps not such a delicate hothouse flower. Among conspiracy theorists is the claim that she spent her sabbatical in deep meditation, not leaving her bedroom for weeks at a time, sleeping and eating and living in the dark.
When at last she reemerged, it was with this picture captioned, “Real Me” (hence the title of this exhibit). Nobody knew where the photograph was taken or with what camera, but overnight, it became her most liked image—and perhaps her most controversial.
“Everybody was so glad to have her back,” the sheriff said, “that we didn’t want to bring it up.”
What they chose not to discuss at the time was the effect of this particular picture. In the weeks after the image materialized, thousands of fans reported a rash of headaches, nausea, and blurred vision as well as complaints about the inexplicable scents of campfire and earth in their homes. If you examine this exhibit too long even now, the room might suddenly smell of flames and sorrow and childhoods lost long ago.
So perhaps it’s best to move along.
Exhibit 11: “The Stew of My Blood, Bone, and Heart” (Twelve self-portraits, first appeared in Conway’s Haute Style)
In a dim room, Flannery poses in a black dress and a flowing black veil. In the first picture, she stands against the far wall, no more than a tiny inkblot. But as the images progress, she creeps closer to the camera until in the final picture, her face fills up the whole frame, and all you can discern is a single eye, draped in gauzy chiffon, watching you.
This strange photo collection appeared in the offices of Conway’s Haute Style one morning, bearing no address of any sort. The envelope was inscribed with a simple note: For Your Consideration.
Upon the pictures’ release, critics vacillated wildly in their critiques, with some calling the series “overwrought” and “childish” while others gleefully christened Flannery “the Cindy Sherman of the macabre.” Even Conway’s was initially skeptical.
“We weren’t in the habit of publishing such crude selfies,” the senior editor told us, as she sipped chocolat chaud as thick as mud at a mostly abandoned Madison Avenue cafe. “But something made us change our minds. She made us change our minds.”
Of course, now it’s easy to understand the appeal.
(WARNING: We would prefer if you proceeded now to the next exhibit. Even among those with no preexisting conditions, these pictures bring considerable risk; for example, several otherwise healthy college interns became light-headed during this installation and could not continue with us despite their best intentions.)
We know you’re still here. We wish you weren’t.
For the strong-stomached, please inhale once, and a perfume of wintergreen will make your eyes heavy and your skin buzz. The room might spin for an instant, and your head might loll like a useless ragdoll.
Inhale twice, and every sinew in your body will hang heavy on your bones, as the air twists with the scent of rotten thorn apple. You might not have realized you knew what thorn apple smelled like, but now you’ll never forget it again.
We don’t recommend inhaling a third time. Instead, please move on to the video room located to your right.
Exhibit 12: “A Maid Looks Back” (Footage on loan from the Smithsonian)
A never-before-screened documentary featuring Flannery. The interviewer is Ray Hendrickson, who had been desperate to work with her again after their cover shoot. This documentary was his brainchild, since it provided him an intimate opportunity to speak with her.
The running time is a full hour, and we understand that given the recent harsh weather, you might want to be home before dark, so we’ve included the transcript of our favorite scene below.
Flannery: Rather rude, don’t you think? Destroying a person’s home? I can’t fathom anything so devilish as that.
Ray (from behind the camera): I guess. But you were about to tell me about that day the police found you.
Flannery (smiles to herself): Yes, I was, wasn’t I? (She twists her lips to one side.) I wasn’t ready for them. What happened with the fire proved that. I was young, and the young are always such fools. If I’d been ready enough, I would have hidden.
Ray: And how would you have done that?
Flannery: Maybe I would have disguised myself as a great elm or been as invisible as the wind. (She hesitates.) But I wasn’t strong then. I was trying to be strong, but I failed.
Ray: And now? Are you stronger now?
(Flannery says nothing. She merely shifts her eyes upward and smiles to herself again, as the camera dissolves to black.)
Exhibit 13: “From the Char-Black Ash” (Smartphone picture, Courtesy of the sheriff)
An image of the grounds where the house once stood, one year after its destruction. While the police received no reports of vandalism on the property, and Flannery was nowhere near the area, the house is no longer a heap of shredded rubble. Instead, there is a vague outline of a mud foundation, and pale tree limbs pile in the place where the porch once stood. The grass remains scorched in a ring, and when compared to the previous images of the property, you will notice that the decomposing land casts a wider girth, spreading beyond the initial border of the fire to the edges of the frame and beyond. This blight, however, does not touch the renewed framework of the house.
In the weeks after this photograph was taken, the rubble grew several feet higher.
No longer were there sporadic reports of an unknown individual weeping. Instead, police fielded at least a dozen calls a week from hikers in the nearby forest who claimed to hear a gentle thrum rising from the ground, as though a sleeping child was singing or murmuring to herself.
“We could never locate the source,” the sheriff said. “We wanted to believe it was just the wind spooking city folk who didn’t know what to expect out there.”
It is also worth noting that this was the first season the crops in surrounding areas withered on the vine or refused to ripen altogether. As you now know, it was not the last.
Exhibit 14: “From Tears to True Love: Ash Maid Meets Her Match!” (Photocopy of two-page tabloid spread)
An article about Flannery’s love life, accompanied by four full-color photographs. In each one, she’s smiling next to Ray.
After the documentary, Ray repeatedly contacted the Whitcombs until they agreed to allow him to take Flannery to dinner.
“He was such a huge fan of hers,” Jeanette said, smiling. “He had all her press clippings.”
(Perhaps in an attempt at diplomacy, Jeanette never used the words that some of Flannery’s fans chose to describe him, which included obsessed, creepy, and stalker-ish.)
At first, Flannery wasn’t too keen on dating, but Jeanette said she eventually thawed to the idea.
“When she learned he was from Pennsylvania too, that gave them something to talk about, especially with everything happening there at the time,” she said in reference to the dying crops in Clinton, Tioga, and Potter counties.
As one date gave way to dozens, it’s impossible to know how Flannery felt about this relationship—unless you think she’s speaking to you now. Take a moment to lean closer to this exhibit, and you might notice how her gaze slides slowly away from her beau, as she stares to the sky, her eyes as cold as the ancient dead. Then she’ll smile to herself, a specter of a grin, and you might think you’ve gone crazy.
(But don’t worry. You aren’t the only one who sees it.)
In all these photographs, the Whitcombs are in the background, chaperoning the young couple. At this point, despite having reached the age of twenty-one, Flannery remained under conservatorship. Technically, even now, she’s still under conservatorship. These days, though, there’s not much left to conserve.
Exhibit 15: “Something Borrowed” (Tear sheet from White Weddings Magazine; please note the sidebar titled “What to Do if Your Wedding Spot is in the New Dust Bowl”)
An aerial shot taken during Flannery’s wedding reception. She lingers alone in the center of the crowd, arrayed in her embroidered satin gown and a lace train that stalks a full ten-feet behind her, like a shackle or a leash. Beneath the incandescent glow of the white string lights, she could be a ghost hiding in plain sight.
After six months of dating, Flannery and Ray were married at a private estate in upstate New York. This is the sole photograph from the wedding that we could locate. At Flannery’s request, no cell phones or personal cameras were permitted at the ceremony, and her husband refused to release any images from his own collection.
“Those pictures are ours,” he said when we contacted him for this exhibition. “They’re not for prying eyes.”
Despite repeated phone calls and emails (and even one painfully thwarted house visit), that was the only quote we could glean from him. Since the wedding and the failed excursion that followed it, he quit the fashion industry and relocated to the hills of Oregon where even the trees are different enough not to remind him of her.
Exhibit 16: “Moon of Honey” (Image recovered from the memory card on Ray’s camera, donated to us by a magazine assistant who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of litigation)
Flannery stands among the Ringing Rocks of Pennsylvania, wearing a white cotton dress, and flashing a smile so bright it’s nearly blinding.
This is the last confirmed photograph of her.
Following the wedding, Flannery insisted on doing another photo shoot with her groom.
“She was ready to get back to work,” Jeanette confirmed.
For their first editorial together as husband and wife, Flannery requested to visit the area near her groom’s birthplace. It was the first time she’d returned to her home state since joining the Whitcombs in New York. The Pennsylvania Tourism Bureau, desperate for any and all attention since the farmland plight had overtaken a twenty-county radius, welcomed her with open arms. After all, the return of the Maid from the Ash—one of the state’s greatest exports—was a welcome occasion.
When we asked if they worried about Flannery being near her former property, Jeanette bloomed a hundred shades of red.
“Why should we have been concerned? There were thirty people on the set. Everyone was watching her, especially her husband. She had a new life. She was happy.”
“Besides,” Jeanette added, red splotches lingering on her cheeks, “the location was a four-hour drive away from where they found her. How could she possibly make it home on foot?”
Of the six assistants we interviewed who were on set, everyone agrees the day started out humdrum enough: Ray conducted a couple quick light tests before they commenced the photos. And that’s when it all goes gossamer.
Though nobody can remember quite what happened next, they all agree on this: with Flannery’s every smile, every tilt of her head, every toss of her hair, their vision blurred, and they found themselves fading out. They leaned against one another to catch their breath. Then the aromas of campfire and wintergreen and regret filled them like empty hourglasses, and they wilted, the same as the fallen wheat of Pennsylvania. Together, they curled in the laps of trees, and slept a sleep so deep and dreamless that it might as well have been the slumber of the long interred.
“She knew what she was doing,” said the assistant who donated this photograph. “She probably had it planned out from the first time she heard Ray was from Pennsylvania.”
Though the memory was filmy, the last thing anyone can remember seeing was Flannery with a grin on her face, her feet quivering off the ground.
“What a sacrilegious lie,” Jeanette said. “My girl wasn’t a witch.”
Perhaps she wasn’t, but what we do know is that by the time the crew stirred awake, their heads stuffed with gauze, dusk had ushered in a lightning storm, and Flannery was gone.
Exhibit 17: “Going Home” (Film Stock, Anonymous Photographer)
This is the only image in the collection that we cannot substantiate as Flannery. However, it was taken at sundown on the day of the failed photo shoot, and the figure in the image is wearing the same white cotton dress. Her back is turned to us, which makes her identity forever a mystery.
Though sharp at the edges, the center of the image is blurred, so that her dress and the slant of the fading afternoon light create the illusion that she is becoming one with the house.
A male hiker, who preferred not to be named, was photographing the wilting wildlife when Flannery materialized among a patch of weeds.
“Like she dropped straight from the sky,” he said with a laugh.
Over a ten-minute phone call with us, he explained how he didn’t recognize her.
“I don’t read magazines,” he said from his home in California. “That tabloid junk is the undoing of the world.”
Other than her entrance, nothing about their interaction was inexplicable.
“She just smiled at me,” he said. “Then she walked toward the house. The sight was so pretty and peaceful that I couldn’t help but take a photo of her to capture that moment.”
The property has been subsequently closed off due to the blight that’s overtaken all of Pennsylvania and spread due north into New York and beyond. But that day, the man said the forest was as beautiful as she was.
“No rot, at least nothing that could detract from her.”
He left before she came out again. “Something told me she would be okay, that she would be safe there.”
He hesitated on the phone, a wave of lonesome static crackling between us.
“She belonged there,” he said before abruptly ending the call.
Exhibit 18: “Epilogue” (Digital Photography, Original for this installation)
A recent image of the house. The Army Corps of Engineers has cordoned off the area with electric fencing, so the closest we were permitted was a quarter mile away. Even with a high caliber telephoto lens, the house remains obscured in shadows and strange angles. From this distance, it looks like a tower of thorns.
Flannery—or whatever name she prefers now—has not been spotted in over two years.
“We’re terrified she died in there,” Jeanette said to us, but her voice snapped apart as though she was more terrified her once-daughter didn’t die at all. (We recently attempted a follow-up interview with Jeanette, but her phone had been disconnected without notice.)
Unfortunately, with no sighting of Flannery and no access to her house, we couldn’t report much from the property. But one thing we noticed: the ground there no longer weeps or murmurs. Now it laughs without reservation, laughs with the echo of a voice you might recognize, a voice we wish we could forget.
In the sheriff’s last conversation with us (like many others in the region, he has since moved West with his family to escape the ever-growing decay), he shook his head when asked for any parting wisdom.
“Maybe I was wrong before,” he said. “Maybe she didn’t come from those flames. Maybe it was always the other way around.”
Thank you again for attending The Maid from the Ash: A Life in Pictures. On your way home, please take care in your travels. Given the unseasonably warm temperatures, meteorologists predict the recent heat lightning will continue throughout the evening, possibly bleeding into next week or even next month.
Or perhaps there will always be lightning now.
Gwendolyn Kiste is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens, from Trepidatio Publishing; And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, from JournalStone; and the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Shimmer, Interzone, and LampLight, among others. Her limited edition chapbook, The Invention of Ghosts, is forthcoming from Nightscape Press. Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. Find her online at gwendolynkiste.com