"The Stairway Ghost" (Part I)--Lisl
Generations perhaps dilute elements in family lines and in our case there was no exception. My mother’s mother enthusiastically brought from Scotland endless stories of people roaming the earth long after their demise—hauntings that frightened my mother, Hannah, to no end. I heard many tales from the time of earliest childhood but despite Mother’s belief that I, as a boy, enjoyed being frightened, the reality was I simply didn’t believe them.
When I was thirteen we went to live with Grandmother for about a year’s time in her old, largish house, a misshapen oddity of many nooks, crannies, corners and shadows. Mother’s old bedroom, which I slept in, had been mostly redecorated but there remained a few items from the past: a prairie doll whose dress had once been matched to the material on a lampshade, many old books, and a hodgepodge of ridiculous small items she had saved from different places she had lived. A soft toy—a wee mouse—made me shiver largely because it ought to have been tossed long ago. The room had a somewhat musty smell to it what with stale air trapped within its walls, I suppose, its owner being long gone.
Just adjacent to the door was a stairwell: I had seen the maid descending earlier in the day, which struck me as odd given there was a hallway above meant for her to use. Assuming she snuck through this way for its easy access to the kitchen, I let it lead me late the first night when I wanted something to drink.
It was a very long stairway, the steps narrow towards the top, widening as one descended and opened up to the lobby sort of area below. Having arrived at the bedroom from the opposite direction, I was puzzled as to this result and thought it strangely fortuitous to see the maid once more at the top of the stairs, though wondered how I had missed her minutes before.
Running back up to greet her, I was surprised to find her gone. “My” bedroom’s closed north door sat at the start of a dead end, so there was nowhere for her to have gone. Bleary eyed, I started towards the staircase again when I heard a muffled cry and repeated, clackety banging, like shoes hitting against stairs as one fell down them—at least that is what I thought had happened. I ran to help the girl only to see an empty staircase.
I couldn’t help but remember Mother’s story of Grandmother being pushed down these very stairs, by an unseen hand that had to have belonged to the ghost of these stairs, the woman seen so many times walking up and down. But she wore an old-fashioned ankle-length dress, so the woman I saw couldn’t have been the same, though as I thought more on it I could no longer picture in my mind what she had been wearing. Strangely, I had assumed her to be the maid, perhaps from the earnestly reluctant expression on her face, the sort seemingly stamped on to people who have lived a lifetime of taking orders and having little say.
Curious as to how this horrific racket had not awoken the house, I chalked it up to the faraway other bedrooms and thick walls. It was an older estate and, as Mother was fond of repeating, “New houses are cheaply made with thin walls and fake tiling.”
A short while later, having achieved my goal, I walked out of the kitchen and through a hallway to cross the formal living room. Something gave me pause and I looked out the window to a street wet from the earlier thunderstorm, scanning the piles of wet leaves giving a fiery cover to the front lawn. Straight away I sensed someone sitting on the sofa directly behind me. There wasn’t enough light for me to employ a reflection in the window, but I knew someone was there.
For the first time my skin crawled; I knew it was neither Mother nor Grandmother, and secure in the knowledge that none of my various relatives had arrived later, I stood, deciding what to do. I had never experienced such an intense feeling even after years of Mother’s own recollections of this house, and decided to take charge. I turned quickly, expecting to see a menacing person, though there was none. But I knew someone had been there, watching. It annoyed me that someone should play such games and I called out a demand for whoever was there to show himself. No one came.
“I beg your pardon—there is no maid?”
“Of course not, why would I have need of a maid for the small part of the house I continue to use?”
I had to close my jaw consciously, for I knew very well I was not in the habit of hallucinating or making up stories. No one accused me of lying, so I was relieved at this, but thought it strange Grandmother didn’t question me further as to why I asked about a maid I might have seen—as if she had no need of any answer. Mother merely pursed her lips.
I determined then and there I was going to get to the bottom of what has been going on in this house since my mother was a small girl, and over time came up against a number of inexplicable occurrences, despite their sometimes contradictory natures. Mother, for example, used to sit at the top of the stairs because she refused to go into her room at night until her sister, who shared it with her, also retired for the evening. And yet there was supposedly some aggressive ghost inhabiting the stairway? How would a young girl terrified of apparitions manage to wait in an area known for a violent presence?
As it turned out Grandmother’s days tended to be long and full, and the activities she planned and chores and projects she had me help with when school was out contributed to excellent sleep at night. Nevertheless one evening about a month into our stay I woke in the middle of the night; seeing the clock I knew it to be Mother’s time of the night right before what she called her “second sleep.” So it was unsurprising to hear murmuring in the night, and I pondered that she and Grandmother were having tea.
As I lay in the darkness the moonlight began to spill into the window and I saw the outline of Mother’s cedar tree outside, its coniferous branches reaching out in the night in dark outline against the light in the sky. It was so beautiful that it took me a full few moments to recognize a shape near the window, that of a woman also looking out. She turned, as if sensing I saw her, and put her finger to her lips to quieten me.
I had not moved but an eyelash in the time I had awoken, and yet this woman somehow knew I was awake and seeing her. This was absurd! I sat up, my attempt being to shake out the sleep from my brain and catch the person sneaking into this room, or at least recognize a dream when I see one. However, when I switched on the light, of course no one was there.
As I allowed myself to drift onto the pillow I heard once more the forgotten murmurs, which lulled me into sleep.
Over the course of time I became a little angry: I went looking for phantasms and saw nearly nothing, but seemed to dream a lot of them. What could at all possibly be real yet disappeared upon further examination is what perturbed me, and then is when the activity stepped itself up a notch.
The light in my bedroom began to play up despite several months of being in perfect order. Sometimes clothing in the room’s only closet was heard to move; that is to say, the sound of hangers being pushed along a rod made itself clear. When I looked, the clothes were always parted down the middle, as if someone had inserted both arms and swiftly opened them wide.
Frequently a breeze would pass through the room, not unlike that brought in when someone steps inside from the cold. A strong scent began to filter through the room, a flowery sort of perfume that seemed to have come from another time. Occasionally I would hear a woman’s long sigh, and sometimes watch as a depression appeared on the bed, as if some unseen person had just at that moment sat upon it.
Soon after I began to hear rapping on the wall across the room, a wall which Mother had said divided the bedroom and another area my father had referred to as the “attic,” despite it being on the same level as the bedroom. On that side of the wall was virtually another century: no lighting or even walls or floorboard, one had to step over rafters to advance through the area, eventually reaching to above the stairs. I was sure I would find my culprit here and several times sat watch to catch the person playing tricks on us.
I later realized this area ran the length of the entire house, or at least that crazy segment of it, and thought about the passageways in a house we had lived in when I was smaller. With a friend I used to sneak through it to peep in the keyholes of other parties’ sitting rooms, as it too ran the length of the entire structure in which our apartment was housed. However, recalling one story Mother had also told of a servant peeping through the keyhole where his master and the devil played cards only to have his eye struck out, I determined it prudent to cease this activity.
But here would be no keyholes, only a wall dividing larger rooms, the back ones being the perfect hiding places for my uncles to have played tricks on Mother as she sat reading or hiding or what it was she did to escape the torment. Really, I thought to them, a half smile playing on my lips as I contemplated their wickedness, you were persistent, weren’t you?
The first night I brought through with me a torch, mirror, bottle of water and a paperback to pass the time. After awhile I thought I might have brought a pillow, so sleepy did it make me, and indeed my eyes began to be heavy. At this point I was next to the room actually across from mine, though inaccessible by the formerly shared hallway. I’d had to climb over an arched area directly above the staircase, so close I heard the tread of some restless night person.
Happening to glance down where I had set my items, I could see the clear reflection of a face in the mirror. I held my breath, awaiting discovery but the person appeared unaware of my presence, even when I slowly picked up the mirror framing its face. Watching in awe I saw that he—for I could clearly make out this figure was male—was not bothering to glance my way as he was conversing with another. I heard a sharp gasp to my left and when I looked, there too was another eavesdropper! In her instance she appeared to detect what the pair were saying; for me it was once more just murmurings. Despite this, the lone figure, the same woman from my room some weeks prior, looked to me and once more put her finger to her lips, then turned her attention to the conversation some meters away from us, which only she could understand.
It was all rather curious and I reflected upon Mother’s fear and how intense it had, by her own admission, been. I was unafraid, but at that moment I admitted to myself that for some time now I had believed the beings wandering this house were not amongst the living. My mother had been right, and my heart sank in pity when I realized how it must have been for her to grow up, terrified, amongst all of this, knowing few others were also aware.
The two gentlemen continued to converse on what must have been a serious and very important topic, for they never once evidenced awareness of either my presence or the ghost’s, and after having witnessed this several times—always being warned to be silent—I crept away, wondering if they ever would hear me.
The attic continued on, as I say, for the length of this side of the entire house, though the ghostly activity seemed to be concentrated in that stairway area—on and above it, in the attic, and as well in the bedroom I guested in. Mother must surely have known this for she steadfastly refused to visit me here and she slept elsewhere. Like her mother before her, she housed her child in a haunted set of rooms, though in this case the child was more curious than afraid.
On some evenings in my secret reading spot I distinctly felt as if someone were looking over my shoulder at the book I held; the sensation I received was curious but unable to decipher what I had. Sometimes I would hear a soft tread on the stairs directly below me, and occasionally the clackety sounds of fast or falling feet. After having heard it numerous times it dawned on me that the exactness of the sounds gave the impression of a re-enactment.
I did sit on a number of occasions at the top of the stairs, trying to channel, absurd as it may sound, what Mother had been feeling when she sat there as a little girl, too frightened to go into her own bedroom. Though she had told me many of the stories, I didn’t know them all, and I wondered that this mystery, admittedly with a different angle now, might never be solved if I didn’t know all the details. We were only meant to stay here for a year while my father was in the Army, and time was running out…
Lisl is a contributor to Alaska Women Speak and Naming the Goddess. She can also be found at before the second sleep. If you would like Lisl to review your book, please see our submissions tab above.