There are ghosts in this house. Yes, more than one, I think. Of course, I don’t believe in ghosts—except that I can hear them.
Every house emits noises, especially late at night. Or, perhaps, it speaks during the daylight hours, only to be drowned out by the drone of traffic, lawn mowers, barking dogs, and telephones. In any case, either I have raccoons in the attic or something else is knocking about the kitchen late at night—and during the day. Is it the refrigerator, one of those newfangled stainless-steel jobs with an icemaker and an electronic control system that looks like something off an old Star Trek set? It makes noises—but then there’s that knocking sound, like someone with a cane, tap, tap, tapping in the restless night.
Of course I don’t believe in ghosts, but then there’s the low undertone of voices that might only be the wind, or the house breathing. Yet at times it sounds like the echo of conversations best forgotten, held, I imagine, under this very roof. The low murmur rises and falls, occasionally erupting in a cry of . . . anger? Pain? More like surprise.
There’s that knocking again . . .
My side gate wails. No matter how much I oil the hinge, it continues to moan in such a mournful tone that one is almost moved to tears. Some tragedy played out on that spot—from the sound of it, a case of love unrequited. Who went out that gate and never looked back?
It started a few weeks after we moved in. Just an occasional knock in the kitchen, late at night. Soon it was every night, and that wasn’t the only auditory evidence of a ghostly presence. I live out in the country; the nearest neighbor is a hike down the road. The sound of a voice suddenly raised has often sent me to the kitchen door, looking out into an empty road. At first I thought it was the horses. On a summer day with the window open, I can hear them whinnying as they cavort in the fields across the way. Except it didn’t sound like any horse I have ever heard: This was a human voice, and yet . . .
Every house makes noises. It emits sounds—not in any communicative sense, but rather like snoring. The older the house, the louder the snores. However, quite apart from this noisy machinery—the whirring appliances, the vibrating air ducts, the whooshing wall heater, the shuddering pipes—there is something else here. A presence, one that sometimes speaks—and, today, made an appearance. Or, more accurately, two.
I’ve been working hard getting the garden in shape and ready for spring. At the far eastern and southeastern end of my property I’ve installed an elaborate series of bluestone walkways interspersed with native California wildflowers. I was adding the finishing touches on this little tableau, laying down stone borders and leveling out the soil into neat little terraces, when I felt eyes on my back. I turned and saw a man in black overalls standing in the easement, looking like a scarecrow. I tried to make out his face, but couldn’t.
Leaning on my shovel to get a closer look, I blinked—and his black overalls dissolved into the trunk of the apple tree. I rubbed my eyes, took a swig of water, and went back to work. I must be crazy, I thought; to think that I seriously . . .
I looked back over my shoulder, and, sure enough, there he was again, a lithe figure in black overalls leaning back on his heels, a light-tan bandanna hung loose around his neck. He seemed just to be standing there as I worked—and I couldn’t help but feel he was looking on approvingly. And then he was gone again, as if he’d heard my thoughts and gone off in a snit and a puff of smoke. Or maybe, I thought, it was dust in the wind.
I have thoroughly researched the history of this house: I know the names of all but one of the past owners. Thanks to my regular receipt of the Brent and Becky’s Bulbs catalog, I knew who had planted the luxuriantly frilled white irises and the mauve tulips with golden star-like centers. I’ve reconstructed how he put together the garden, at least in part, from his posts on internet gardening forums. He knew all the Latin names, this guy, and he was an artist: Once an acrobat of some note, although hardly famous, and a member of some kind of avant-garde dance company. Now in his 50’s, he moved away in 2006, went north to Washington state, and finally landed in St. Louis. Yes, Google knows all, sees all!
As I was writing this piece, I googled his name again, out of some perverse impulse—perhaps to find some new link to the past of this house I had renovated but not exorcized. The very first entry was something I had never seen before: His obituary.
He died on October 27, 2010, at age 53.
There’s that knock again . . .