A VINE ON A HOUSE
by Ambrose Bierce
About three miles from the little town of Norton,
in Missouri, on the road leading to Maysville,
stands an old house that was last occupied by a
family named Harding. Since 1886 no one has lived
in it, nor is anyone likely to live in it again.
Time and the disfavor of persons dwelling thereabout
are converting it into a rather picturesque ruin.
An observer unacquainted with its history would
hardly put it into the category of "haunted houses,"
yet in all the region round such is its evil
reputation. Its windows are without glass, its
doorways without doors; there are wide breaches
in the shingle roof, and for lack of paint the
weatherboarding is a dun gray. But these unfailing
signs of the supernatural are partly concealed
and greatly softened by the abundant foliage of
a large vine overrunning the entire structure.
This vine--of a species which no botanist has
ever been able to name--has an important part
in the story of the house.
The Harding family consisted of Robert Harding,
his wife Matilda, Miss Julia Went, who was her
sister, and two young children. Robert Harding
was a silent, cold-mannered man who made no
friends in the neighborhood and apparently cared
to make none. He was about forty years old, frugal
and industrious, and made a living from the little
farm which is now overgrown with brush and brambles.
He and his sister-in-law were rather tabooed by
their neighbors, who seemed to think that they
were seen too frequently together--not entirely
their fault, for at these times they evidently
did not challenge observation. The moral code of
rural Missouri is stern and exacting.
Mrs. Harding was a gentle, sad-eyed woman, lacking
a left foot.
At some time in 1884 it became known that she
had gone to visit her mother in Iowa. That was
what her husband said in reply to inquiries, and
his manner of saying it did not encourage further
questioning. She never came back, and two years
later, without selling his farm or anything that
was his, or appointing an agent to look after
his interests, or removing his household goods,
Harding, with the rest of the family, left the
country. Nobody knew whither he went; nobody at
that time cared. Naturally, whatever was movable
about the place soon disappeared and the deserted
house became "haunted" in the manner of its kind.
One summer evening, four or five years later,
the Rev. J. Gruber, of Norton, and a Maysville
attorney named Hyatt met on horseback in front
of the Harding place. Having business matters
to discuss, they hitched their animals and going
to the house sat on the porch to talk. Some
humorous reference to the somber reputation of
the place was made and forgotten as soon as
uttered, and they talked of their business
affairs until it grew almost dark. The evening
was oppressively warm, the air stagnant.
Presently both men started from their seats in
surprise: a long vine that covered half the front
of the house and dangled its branches from the
edge of the porch above them was visibly and
audibly agitated, shaking violently in every
stem and leaf.
"We shall have a storm," Hyatt exclaimed.
Gruber said nothing, but silently directed the
other's attention to the foliage of adjacent trees,
which showed no movement; even the delicate tips
of the boughs silhouetted against the clear sky
were motionless. They hastily passed down the
steps to what had been a lawn and looked upward
at the vine, whose entire length was now visible.
It continued in violent agitation, yet they could
discern no disturbing cause.
"Let us leave," said the minister.
And leave they did. Forgetting that they had been
traveling in opposite directions, they rode away
together. They went to Norton, where they related
their strange experience to several discreet friends.
The next evening, at about the same hour, accompanied
by two others whose names are not recalled, they were
again on the porch of the Harding house, and again
the mysterious phenomenon occurred: the vine was
violently agitated while under the closest scrutiny
from root to tip, nor did their combined strength
applied to the trunk serve to still it. After an
hour's observation they retreated, no less wise,
it is thought, than when they had come.
No great time was required for these singular facts
to rouse the curiosity of the entire neighborhood.
By day and by night crowds of persons assembled at
the Harding house "seeking a sign." It does not
appear that any found it, yet so credible were the
witnesses mentioned that none doubted the reality
of the "manifestations" to which they testified.
By either a happy inspiration or some destructive
design, it was one day proposed--nobody appeared to
know from whom the suggestion came--to dig up the
vine, and after a good deal of debate this was done.
Nothing was found but the root, yet nothing could
have been more strange!
For five or six feet from the trunk, which had at
the surface of the ground a diameter of several
inches, it ran downward, single and straight,
into a loose, friable earth; then it divided and
subdivided into rootlets, fibers and filaments,
most curiously interwoven. When carefully freed
from soil they showed a singular formation. In
their ramifications and doublings back upon
themselves they made a compact network, having
in size and shape an amazing resemblance to the
human figure. Head, trunk and limbs were there;
even the fingers and toes were distinctly defined;
and many professed to see in the distribution
and arrangement of the fibers in the globular
mass representing the head a grotesque suggestion
of a face. The figure was horizontal; the smaller
roots had begun to unite at the breast.
In point of resemblance to the human form this
image was imperfect. At about ten inches from
one of the knees, the cilia forming that leg
had abruptly doubled backward and inward upon
their course of growth. The figure lacked the
There was but one inference--the obvious one;
but in the ensuing excitement as many courses
of action were proposed as there were incapable
counselors. The matter was settled by the sheriff
of the county, who as the lawful custodian of
the abandoned estate ordered the root replaced
and the excavation filled with the earth that
had been removed.
Later inquiry brought out only one fact of relevancy
and significance: Mrs. Harding had never visited
her relatives in Iowa, nor did they know that she
was supposed to have done so.
Of Robert Harding and the rest of his family
nothing is known. The house retains its evil
reputation, but the replanted vine is as orderly
and well-behaved a vegetable as a nervous person
could wish to sit under of a pleasant night,
when the katydids grate out their immemorial
revelation and the distant whippoorwill
signifies his notion of what ought to be done
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~