It was a dark and stormy night--no, no, that's so not right. Besides, it had stopped snowing days ago and the hoarfrost clinging to the trees stood stark against the clear blue sky. Mid afternoon shouts of romping children squealed in through the crack I'd allowed with the open door to relieve some of the baking heat, and I peered into the stove at my rosemary bread. Nearly done.
But the house was slightly dark, which I found odd, given the southern exposure that generally lights up the rooms and, one might think, contribute to the heat even this far from the kitchen. Peering outside I scanned the skies for clouds, chalking it up to time of day and knowing night would soon have us in its grips, not so long after dinner. Running upstairs for a jumper I swerved to avoid something Adam had left there. I’ll have to discuss this with him later—again.
Still surprisingly early when I tucked him into his bed later, I decided to read, something I hadn’t had heaps of time to do lately, given the circumstances. Very satisfying it was to sit down in a tidy room; my mind felt a bit more at ease for it hadn’t since some weeks—the room as well as my mind, that is. Mad, jagged piles of mail and papers threatening to overwhelm me at any given point had been stuck in a corner, sewing projects piled up, notices from school: all hinted to me with their glaring reminders of unpaid bills, necessary mending, unfinished applications, attorney appointments and job interviews to prepare for, re-furbishing plans to attend to—and the wee one needs boots! I drew in a breath and then just as quickly shushed myself: not tonight. I needed to take advantage of the calm and orderliness of my surroundings, for I am one, unfortunately, with poor filters and have always found it difficult to ignore disorder around me; my mind senses it too keenly and itself feels cluttered and distracted.
The soft thud of the heavy book on the carpet must have been what woke me. Still stretched across the sofa, I groggily scanned the room, indulging once more in the lovely order finally achieved, and remained seated. The pleasure of not jumping up for some demand or another washed over me and even my face seemed to blush. I glanced at an empty corner, which I’d designated as the spot for the suit of armour I’d had my eye on; it would fit nicely with the décor I’d spent months gathering. My home was comfortable and inviting, and I felt pleased.
Long ago I had dreamt I was sitting on a sofa, elbows leaning on knees, when I became aware of a tiny form at the door frame peeking round the corner and, elbows remaining on knees, opened my arms to invite the small, sneaky being to me for a hug despite the late hour. It was perhaps this recall, an immediate indicator then that the child I carried was a little boy, that told me now the sensation I felt of someone creeping down the stairs behind me was this boy child, six years later acting out the dream I’d had of him, even if not precisely in the same way.
Having moved lazily from my groggy state and now sitting up so the stairs were to my right, I was surprised to see nobody there. A soft feeling, however, had spread across the room, and slowly I felt the movement of others as they gathered nearby, watching me as I unseeingly watched them, breathless, and quietly astounded at my lack of terror. Some I felt were people I recognized; the identity of others I could not say. In the corner stood a very still and tall someone, watching me quietly, as if he were assessing me, or perhaps my world. Oddly my first articulated thought was of the suit of armour and how impossible it was for him to remain because of this; I knew he smiled from one corner of his mouth and laughed ever so softly, as if he were benignly amused at my acquired dilemma. I looked back to the others and heard their reassurances that all was well; they can no longer be harmed and the time for mourning them has passed.
The time is past? How do you – I stopped, tickled by a breath near my face, the breath of the first someone to lean down to the level of my seated position, as he looked directly at me. That is, we were face to face; though I could not see him, I knew I was looking squarely into the face of someone long late. I tried to say the words in my mind, to create a greater sense of reality, that I was not imagining or making this up and even if I could not see, I was indeed staring directly past some breach between two worlds. My heart beating only somewhat stronger, perhaps because I continued on some level to tell myself this was not happening, I searched the space before me for his face, for something visual, anything to help me reach across to him, for I felt I must see him, had to communicate with him; the devastation of not doing would be great.
It must have been relief that came with the breath finally escaping from my lips, though it also seemed to solidify some separation, and this being was no more, at least not in front of me as only moments before. The feeling of grief took me by surprise, like a storm that breaks without warning and, as the rush around my ears and self that engulfed me dissipated, I collapsed onto the sofa. All the gathered company had disappeared, excepting the mysterious man who outrageously stood in the way of “my” suit of armour; I was alone. I could hear Adam’s soft, rhythmic breathing coming from his room upstairs, and I wept.
My mother’s favorite ghost was the lady who floated down the stairs as she sat knitting. Always some ‘Lady,’ I scorned when I heard her stories. Grey, green, betrayed, sorrowful, unimaginative, why do they have to be here at all? Of course she recognized my disdain for the fear it was, and frequently scolded me for what she designated as my lack of discipline. She came from a misty land filled with ghosts and though she chided me—So do you! You have this ability as well, though you refuse to work to develop or understand it. It is easier for you to be afraid—she was wrong. She told stories of her premonitions and ghostly encounters in her own childhood, but even my father seemed not to spend much time giving these tales any credence. I supposed then that I was like him, and wanted no part of it all. Still, there were unnerving, eerie parts of our house: the back storage room, staircase and my bedroom were all areas that alarmed me owing to the unsettling events that occurred there, and I avoided them like the plague.
It was a gigantic show, of course. Though I never engaged these apparitions or presences alone, I liked listening to her stories and after some time openly allowed her to tell them, even reveled in their brashness and chill-inducing breathlessness. There was the man in the kitchen who apparently, she concluded, must dislike dirty floors because every single time she dropped something—which she always asserted was actually pushed from her hand; she felt the force—she ended up realizing how dirty the floor was and she might as well clean the whole thing. Nothing ever “fell” from her hands when she stood on a floor immaculate. Someone else disliked loud noises, the explanation she conjured up whenever my brother complained of his stereo being turned off. I myself heard coughing and speech at night on the other side of my bedroom wall, in what my mother called the “loft” despite its adjacent location.
One day I returned from school to find her closest friend waiting for me. My mother, she related, had been papering the wall on the stairway, fell all the way down and broke her arm. Pushed, really she said in a whisper. She says in no uncertain terms that she felt a hand give her a good shove and down she went. Apart from wondering how it got to be called a “good” shove, I later wondered that my mother had to have missed some serious pre-considerations when she failed to reckon on the danger of climbing a stepladder at the top of a staircase. My siblings mocked my common sense at every turn, but even I would not have engaged in such reckless behavior.
In reality, I believed her. I lost no love for this particular staircase and sprinted up or down whenever I had to pass through its hair-raising effect. More than once I had encountered something myself there, though it puzzled my mother why I sat at the top of it at bedtime. The truth is I refused to go upstairs to the bedroom I shared with my sister until she came as well—the stairs were the less frightful as our room clearly had some manifestation, as evidenced by my chronic nightmares, voices and the sensation of someone being in there. As the time Nadia came upstairs was generally much later than my bedtime I tended to be chronically tired at school. Once I fell asleep sitting at the top of the stairs and hit the door jam with such force I developed a cartoonish bump on my forehead. I also fell several times though it was not until someone pushed a glass of water out of my hands as I was about to descend did I actually ever feel anything. There was definitely a push.
So it was I surprised myself by being unafraid one evening as I stood by the washing machine and the lights flickered on and off. Indeed it was with great relief that I looked up at them because just several nights before my visitor had appeared to me in a dream, perhaps in response to my request. Having recalled my mother’s advice to ask apparitions who they are or what they need (Are you bloody kidding me? had been my response), but not being quite ready to accept a verbal reply should it come, I did in fact speak aloud, carefully choosing my words to form statements and no questions. Briefly I expressed my disappointment, explaining my shameful cowardice, and asked him to return in a way that could facilitate communication without fear breaking us apart. I expected that nothing would happen.
Ordinarily I would have dismissed such an encounter as did in fact occur save for the utter vivid reality of it all. Very rarely have I had a dream in which I was so aware as I was in this one, and never before did I know I was in an altered state as I carried on a conversation with someone. Yet there I was, fast asleep when he appeared at my bedside, at first standing some distance away, and I swiftly sat up. He began to speak and came closer, sinking to his knees in much the same way as I had been taught to do for the comfort of small children. His facial expression was very earnest and he spoke to me as if it were of great import that I hear what he had to say. For all his intensity, he was also very kind and soft-spoken. I was so awake, so very, very awake, and yet I slept.
It was perhaps after some time I began to tire, and this may have lessened my ability to absorb the notion of speaking to someone from the next world. I found myself easing off the elbow holding up my head and backing onto my pillow, which in turn may have further increased my unease. Suddenly I felt it was unnatural to be engaged as I was, and a shock of alarm shot through me. My companion’s expression became inquisitive, then anxious when I said, “I am sorry, so very sorry but this is a bit much for me.” Immediately he backed away, apologizing as he did, and my regret was swift to arrive, for I could see the upset written clearly on his face. How I longed to turn back time but for mere seconds! Alas, it was too late and once more I found myself, face wet with tears, wondering how it is this could happen and why did I care so much about these encounters.
The flickering lights brought me straightaway to recall of my mother’s guidance on the ghostly: they can be mischievous or simply want to say hello; electricity is a favorite medium for them to capture our attention: just acknowledge them and all will be fine. I smiled in relief, for I had spent some days being sorely disappointed and wondering if he would ever return.
As time went on I became somewhat accustomed to the lights—which had hitherto never shown any signs of faulty wiring—flickering at one turn and going completely off at the next. Of course the deeper suspicion that aging wires really was the only cause may have engendered acceptance, although the timing frequently puzzled me. One afternoon found me wrecked and with heaps of washing to do, when the lights went off and remained so. Astonishingly unafraid, I sighed deeply and waited. Still the lights failed to return. I became slightly impatient. Please turn the lights back on I bid in a somewhat testy voice. Without hesitation they returned, I resumed my work and went to my bed.
As months passed I continued to be aware that the male presence in the living room—in my suit of armour’s corner—had not taken his leave. Apart from the décor dilemma, this was not so much a cause for concern, although I did find it peculiar he remained. I sensed he watched me frequently, and as I came down the stairs and his position was directly opposite, often our eyes would lock, even though I could not see him. Sometimes I would stop, continuing the gaze, almost willing him to speak for I sensed a very strong personality, a dark and brooding one almost but again, not threatening to me. I thought if he ever spoke or appeared I might scream and leap from my skin, but this dance went on nonetheless. If I allowed myself to form actual words in my mind—He is watching me, for example—then I could sense his energy in a stronger form; many of the times he was somewhat amused with me, though I never could learn what I did to entertain him so. I wondered if he ever moved from his spot when I slept or left.
It is perhaps an indicator of how comfortable I was—or at least how edgy I was not, as “comfortable” may be taking things a bit too far—that one night I wished to take some tea in between my first and second sleep, though I felt slightly wary to go downstairs. I would have to walk through the spot where someone had taken to lingering: the bottom of the stairs, as if it were some transitional spot that somehow benefitted them and also lent credence to Adam’s firm insistence on that first night that he had not left anything there. Whether I was bothered by moving past here or not simply depended on the night, though I never detected any sort of pattern to be able to predict if I would or would not run screaming at last, betraying some terror occupying my inner being. It was just all too smooth.
On this night I felt the disquiet, though oddly enough I decided to go for my tea. I say I “decided,” though it was not so much a choice as that some force, my own or otherwise I do not know, propelled me to the kitchen. All the while I had instinctive rather than articulated thoughts of the weirdness I felt coming from downstairs, but moved as if I were a puppet, somehow controlled by someone else. I coached myself just to keep moving, whatever happened, to play at being calm, with the notion that only the appearance of fright could elicit anything horrid.
The kitchen felt very safe; I prepared my tea and moved through the dining room towards living room and the stairway. Walking through the same spot I had to get to the kitchen, this time I suddenly began to move as if I were in a film and progressed in slow motion. I strode directly into…something. Have you ever been walking through a neighborhood, perhaps very early in the morning and suddenly your face is enmeshed in a gigantic spider’s web? The sensation is somewhat equitable, as in you realize it and generally keep going, though the web stretches with you. In this instance I, too, moved on for I felt it crucial to continue unhindered and return to the safety of my room. But this whatever it was stretched as I went, elongating into a battle of wills as I determined that as slowly as I may be walking, not only will I get away from it but I will do so the victor. Within this slowed version of time I walked, tea in hand as it splattered and scalded my wrist, then leapt in tiny waves out of its cup and I could feel myself break free from the phantom I had just walked through and calmly proceeded to my room.
The lights continued to capture my attention, though not always in ways I favored. They came on at night when all were abed, and my spoken wishes began to be ignored. I became aware of another presence, that is, in addition to the two I already knew: I could sense their differences, perhaps in the same way mothers can discern those of their babies’ cries. It stood in my room at night near to the same spot my first visitor had, and it by turns frightened me as well as caused my temper to flare. On several occasions I woke in the night to catch it blowing in my face; twice it seemed to be sucking my breath away. I gagged and coughed to resume normal breathing and shooed it off.
After some time the kitchen lights began to play havoc with my work, including just some days after installing fresh bulbs. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I lost my temper that day; with so much pressure bearing down on me related to being jobless and too many other stressors, I felt not the energy to play games with someone whose tricks were now becoming unfunny. Angrily I told it I had enough to do without chasing after its silliness and mean games. You are to leave this light alone, now.
At one point I consulted experts to have a look and offer advice. They explained the etiquette of communicating with the dead and showed me machinery designed to detect factors to eliminate the possibility of ghosts or enable an exchange. Results were rather inconclusive: while there was nothing really to confirm any sort of presence—and even I didn’t sense anything in the company of these ghost hunters—the male of the group claimed to have also walked smack into someone unseen, and several of us witnessed an India tin by some unseen force rattle and settle, as if it had been picked up and dropped straight down onto the counter. There were also those questions we asked yielding a fantastically lit-up monitor that went mad at particular enquiries. We discussed reasons why they might not show themselves: they may be gone or never have existed; annoyed or discomfited by my recent furniture shift; or not in favor of the newcomers’ arrival. We discussed a great deal, but nothing in either direction could ever really be ascertained. I questioned the entire experience, wondering if perhaps the strain of the past year was simply too much, and my own energy caused many of these occurrences.
Things then came to a head. I had taken practically to cowering under my covers at night, growing increasingly frustrated with a situation in which sleeping required a guard; I left the light on to disable the spectre’s ability to sneak up to me, and enabled my light sleeper mode—something I could do from the days when Adam was a sickly baby and I woke at the sound of his labored breathing.
On one particular evening I woke just as the creature made to come closer; my eyes opening sent a swoosh across the room and it reeling backwards. I sat up, throwing off the protective covers, vexation emboldening my anger, which outranked any fear I may have felt. I would not have tolerated any human intruder; why had I allowed this to go on for any supernatural one? This is my home and you are violating my good nature; I won’t have it any more. You are to leave at once! I felt its astonishment and a drawing back of breath, similar to that of an infant gathering steam for another good wail and knew it aimed to test my resolve. No! It’s enough! You snuck in here with others, but are unwelcome! Get out! I hissed these last words from my standing position in the middle of the bed as I watched its transparent form, a shape I could not quite define, rush from the room, an echo reverberating down the hallway as I knew it was gone. At the doorway stood someone else whose head turned as he observed the pathway of departure, and I felt also his somewhat surprise at this turn of events. But I was grievously exhausted and fell down to the bed, where I woke up next morning without having pulled up the covers.
Some weeks later, when it had been just over one year since the night when my living room was somehow opened to those who had passed, I sat with a pile of books, reading, skimming, trying to decide which one to indulge in. I happened to glance at the red book I’d been reading then, and a breeze blew in from the open window. Late morning, the sun was finally marking his appearance, with a break in the cold snap. We’d had a very rainy summer, often too miserable for the children to play outside, and hoped for a nicer one this year, though it was still some months away.
The chinook coming from the glacier blew in once more, this time capturing the leaves of Tagore, skimming through as if by some unseen hand looking for a particular page. The swirls indicated a midwinter relief, and I stood in the doorway to watch the magnifiscent sunrise, observing as if Aurora herself brushed broad crimson and saffron strokes across the sky just for me. Stretching, I captured some of the dust in my hands, releasing it to the air as I watched it dance away into time. Slightly chilled I turned back to my work, noticing as I sat once more that a passage had been chosen. Leaning down as I sipped my tea I read—
That traveller is no longer here, no longer here.
His beloved kept him not,
His realms released him,
Neither sea nor mountain could bar him.
Today his chariot
Travels at the beck of the night
To the song of the stars
Towards the gate of dawn.
I remain here weighted with memory:
He is free of burdens; he is no longer here.
Thank you for reading this account recording some of the events of this particular year. If you are not sufficiently creeped out, may we recommend this book:
A long-time fave!--with stories by such authors as Muriel Spark, Tim O'Brien, A.S. Byatt, Robertson Davies and Penelope Lively. If you'd like to win a copy, just comment below to get your name into the hat. Tell us your favorite ghost story or comment about the encounters in this post--or whatever you like! (Please be sure to leave a contact.) We shall draw a name on Halloween to determine the winner. Good luck!
Lisl can be found writing about ghosts and other topics on her blog before the second sleep.
Lisl can be found writing about ghosts and other topics on her blog before the second sleep.