Fort George Island: Neff House Witch Project

by Tim Gilmore, 10/21/2012

“Nobody,” he said. “Nobody talks about it.”

He had walked all over the island, and he had thought he knew the place before. He had, after all, hopped that foreboding National Park Service fence that surrounded the Kingsley Plantation when he was a teenager. He and his friends had wandered around in the slave cabins in the middle of night.

And he knew the tabby house built for the slave mistress. He knew the Ribault Clubhouse, built for Northeastern bluebloods in the 1920s. He had known kids who’d set fires in the clubhouse and smoked a lot of dope inside, before the place had been refurbished and become a favorite spot for weddings.

But he hadn’t known this house was here. He was looking for the perfect site to film his short movie. He knew he wanted to do it on the island. Fort George Island had always been haunted. Everyone said so. Of course they were mainly talking about the plantation and the slave cabins. Of all the island keys that bordered the St. Johns River on its way into the Atlantic Ocean, Fort George Island was the one with the stories and the haunted places.

Then he walked off the hiking trail past a No Trespassing sign. He was walking an old dirt road that dipped through narrow ravine and rose up small hills. The sun came through two trees that framed a house in the near distance. When he got closer, he could tell the corner of the house was a brick tower at least three, maybe four stories tall. The sun glinted off the conical roof like a diamond.

When he got closer, he saw the windows were boarded up. A curved iron railing semicircled a balcony over an address above the door. The address said, “01.” He thought it might be missing some numbers. He also thought the road had no name. What was the house address here on this road with no name? Just 01? As though it were the only house or the first house in the world.

He circled the house, looking for a way inside. He wanted to stand on that balcony. He wanted to be in that tower. He imagined stairs inside, spiraling three and a half stories upward, nestled against the interior round brick wall. He pictured walking up the spiral in the dark, cursing himself for not having a flashlight, unable to see that what awaited him at the top was the body of a woman hanging there.

This was the place he had to make the movie. He’d asked young people he knew who lived in the area about other buildings on the island, but no one had spoken of this place. He felt like that made the house his, as though it had been waiting for him, and maybe it was what he had been waiting for.

Since he was a little boy, he had thought some purpose was waiting for him, that he was destined to some cause. He always knew it had something to do with beauty and mystery and wonder.

He circled the house like he imagined the staircase circling the inside of the tower, but he could find no way inside the house.

Then he noticed the highest windows in the tower were not boarded up. He imagined seeing a face there, pale green, long lank black hair, and he almost thought he saw it. Sometimes he wasn’t sure if what he saw was what he saw or what he wanted people to see in the movies he would make.

There were unboarded second-story windows in the back of the house too, embedded in the cross-timbering of the Tudor Revival style of architecture that had been popular in Florida in the 1920s. He knew some Tudor Revival style houses in Riverside and Springfield also, and he’d always felt ambivalent about them. The half-timbering on these houses wasn’t functional, of course, the way it was centuries ago in Tudor England. It was merely decorative. If the houses had

still been new, he had thought he’d find them silly, but when buildings acquire age, they acquire the fact of having already been there. They become less questionable. They become imbued with all the life that’s been lived in them, so that questioning the house is no more an option than questioning the lives already lived.

Still, this house had presence. It had presence like no other Tudor Revival house he had ever seen. It seemed to have been here before it was here. It seemed it must have built itself. The house was probably entirely apathetic to whether anyone lived in it or not. Then again, with no one living in the house, it deteriorated. Surely the house knew it needed fresh life.

He came back around to the front of the tower and looked up at the third-story window. He could see cobwebs on the other side, even from down on the ground. It wasn’t hard at all to see a face partly buried in the cobwebs. Greenish pale.

And then prepositions shifted in his head. He placed his own lank black and purple hair behind his ears. There was another tower.

There was another tower, and it shifted prepositions in his head.

In / above.

If he could not get in the house, he could get above the house, because there was another tower. Standing up from the bluff that dropped into the ravine, an old observation tower rose higher than the house.

This tower was rickety and rusted. Its iron frame shook when he placed his hand on it, and the wooden plank steps from the ground to just greater than his height had been torn away.

Muscadine grape vines wrapped up the rusted iron. He grabbed the handrail and placed a foot high up on the vertical parallel rails that would have held the first

dozen steps. He pulled and hopped, and he stood on the first step. He looked straight up into rotten boards and iron crossbars and grape vines and the crooked branches of the old oaks growing up from the sandy scrub. He couldn’t see the top of the tower, but that didn’t stop him from seeing the top of the tower. He couldn’t see it, but he could see the woman hanging there.

He climbed and he climbed and he came to the shaking wooden platform at the top. He looked over at the house and he looked out across the canopy of treetops.

The house just stood there. Like some wild thing. The way the wild doesn’t care if you’re there. If it needs to eat you, it will eat you, but chances are, it will just ignore you, and both are the same to the wild. Both are the same to wild houses in hills.

He looked down at the three stories underneath their pitched roof. He looked down at the chimney that rose just taller than the conical witch-hat roof of the tower at the corner of the house.

There were people who wanted to make this house a bed-and-breakfast. They dreamed of tea and scones and a proprietress with a British accent. Certainly not Cockney, although that had become fashionable, but the lilt of an Irish brogue would do. When couples got married over in the Ribault Clubhouse, their families could keep board in the bed-and-breakfast.

He didn’t know about cozy-tea B-and-B plans, but he knew he was meant for something. He thought this house was supposed to have fallen into its present disrepair. It was supposed to be uninhabited. It was waiting for him, as he had waited for the house.

Did the house know it was waiting? If the house were wild, then it wouldn’t care about more than its hierarchy, its food source, and its reproductive possibilities. So that was it. He was both its food source and its reproductive plans. He would let the house consume him if the house would let him make of it his art. His movie would be their child. And if hierarchy were invoked here too, then if the house would grant itself to him for his film, then he would let the house be master.

Then he didn’t know if he were seeing what was real or if he were watching his own film. First, he saw the woman hanging in the tower of the house across from him. Then he saw the vulture spreading its wings on the dead branch of an old oak tree. He saw the woman hanging and the vulture extending its wings, but he also saw the woman hanging atop the observation tower.

Yet the top of that tower he had no vantage point to see, because he was standing at the top of that tower. But the vulture decided things. The house tower stood across from the observation tower. The woman hanging in the tower of the house stood across from the woman hanging in the iron and rotten wooden tower.

The towers joined in some strange mirroring, and everything felt so lonely. These towers were so alone, and the bodies that hung therein just hung and hung with no one to cut them down, no one to know who they were, no one to eulogize them or watch their movies. Because the woman in the observation tower was not a woman at all.

A board broke at the top, and his leg slipped through. The force of his body following his leg broke the next three boards at one blow, but his head caught in a pinch between an iron rail and a rotten plank. His arms became useless as they grasped at his head.

He saw the tree where the vulture spread its wings like a totem pole. The vulture was his totem.  He always believed he was destined to some cause. He had thought it had something to do with beauty and mystery and wonder.

He saw the brick tower at the corner of the house where the woman hung pale and green with her wings spread like she was a totem pole. She was his totem. She had always believed she was destined to mystery and wonder.

Then after circling the house, the three kids crawled up the broken bricks and rocks to the top of the small hill from which rose an observation tower. The bottom of the stairs was gone. They would have to boost each other up, and the last one would have to climb up the side rail to the first available step.

They had read that this house was haunted. They had surfed some web site called jaxpsychogeo, and found the story about the hanging body at the Neff House. The Neff House wasn’t in any of the published city histories. None of the Florida ghost sites mentioned it. It wasn’t even listed in Wayne Wood’s encyclopedic Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage.

It had been built in the late 1920s, but the first owners, the people who built the house, lived in it no longer than a year before the financial crash forced them to give it up. A contractor who still lives nearby got married here in the late 1970s. He claims he’s seen ghosts here, but he won’t be specific. He says he found something that fell from space, maybe behind the house, maybe in the green-grown swimming pool, but he’ll only say it was silver and the government took it away. A wing had been added to the house in the 1960s, but in trying to restore the original structure, the park service dismantled the wing, which had leaked heavily into and rotted the original house.

The kids had read something about a young filmmaker. He had wandered the island from slave cabins to blueblood clubhouse, but when he had come to the Neff House, he knew this was the place where his story was fated to unfold.

What he hadn’t known was that the movie was confined to his head, and that he was not just the writer and director, but the movie’s only actor. He was destined for a masterpiece. He was to be a genius.

When the three kids came to the top of the observation tower, they found no boards that had broken away. The view was beautiful. They stood up above the house and looked over the oaks to the marsh, but the boards holding solid made them lose faith in the story.

They looked into surrounding trees. No vultures could be seen today. But Samantha pointed to the ground by an oak, and Blue and Sidney saw the peafowl there. Peacocks and peahens. There must have been a couple dozen. And all of them, every single one, standing about the old oak in an unconnected circle, were albino. The kids watched them for some time, they couldn’t have said how long, as though privileged to witness some ancient even prehistoric rite.

Finally someone broke her gaze, and she saw the body hanging.

Through the window near the top of the house tower, down from the top of the observation tower, through the cobwebs of years of accumulation, the kids discerned the face. Its features popped forward from the noose. Its skin was greenish pale. The hair that hung down was black and purple and long and lank.

Somehow the filmmaker had found his way inside. He had climbed the spiral steps against the interior of the round brick wall.

At the top he had written his movie, at the top he had directed his movie, and at the top he had starred in his movie. He had been born for greatness, but you had to come to this one isolated spot on earth to watch his movie, and it hadn’t been shot with any of the last several centuries’ technology. Instead of his whole career and artistic evolution, he had had one moment.

Samantha, Blue and Sidney watched his movie, but they wished he had given himself more time. There was clearly so much more to give. There was so much more he could have done than hung.

The albino peafowl broke their circle and descended slowly into the ravine. Then winds increased and blew fronds and limbs. The kids held onto the iron rails and faced the Neff House from the observation tower. They decided to make a movie here. Night would come soon. So would winter. It was much too late for grapes, though their vines covered the wooden steps. A broken rusted tricycle lay buried in leaves and dead trees-become-soil down the slope of a hill toward the marsh.

On the other side of the house from both of the towers, they found steep iron stairs that dropped precipitously into the ravine. The steps were frequently rusted through, with dark red holes whose edges flaked into the dark wet earth beneath.

Samantha stepped down onto the steps and her friends tried to pull her back. She wouldn’t let them detain her, and they wouldn’t come after her.

Down in the ravine, a large tree had broken the back of a metal-roofed shed and splintered its walls all across the ground. Palmettos and oak saplings grew up between the pieces. She wondered what she might find below that she couldn’t see from above.

Her friends yelled for her not to be stupid, to come back up. One iron step gave softly but quickly away beneath her foot. Its jagged edges encased her shoe without cutting her. She took a breath and kept on heading down.

She looked back up at the house. It looked more sinister than ever now. Though she couldn’t see the tower from this side and this angle, the broken windows in the broad façade looked sentient. The house, she felt, could see her descend into the ravine. The house was smarter than she and her friends. The house knew this landscape. It knew the secrets in the hills and the trees.

But now she thought what she saw wasn’t really what she saw. It was what the viewers of their movie would see. She thought about the filmmaker and wondered if the house had known him when it had first seen him. She wondered if the house had known her and her friends at first sight too.

Carefully, she eased her way down to the bottom of the steep and rusted stairs. A mighty live oak met her arrival at the floor of the ravine. She looked around, but from here, she couldn’t see the decimated shed.

She felt so far away from the world outside the island. She felt so far away from the world outside these hills and ravines. She felt so far away from the world away from the Neff House. She felt, in fact, like she was already in a movie.

She looked back up to the top of the rusted stairs. She couldn’t see her friends. She expected to see that body hanging once again, hanging now at the top of the stairs, as though a hanging body could follow her, as though a suicide could stalk her. For a second she thought she really did see it. And though she didn’t see it, she felt that body hanging back there in the tower.

Later she would have to explain to the police, to her family, to her friends’ families, to her friends, exactly when she had last seen Sidney and Blue. She didn’t know where they had gone. It was as though they’d disappeared into the landscape environing the house. She told no one about what they had seen, but when she went back later and looked toward the tower, the body no longer hung there.

The crooked trees guarded the hills and the hills guarded the crooked trees. She heard owls signaling by the marsh. The house and the hills and the trees all seemed to know things she could never know. It felt like a conspiracy.