“A Ghost Story”
(The Story Behind the Story)
Fact: I do not believe in ghosts.
Fact: I have seen one.
Fact: Three times.
I live in an old house in a historic village. The property is small, a little over an acre. It includes a wheelwright’s shop, a blacksmith’s forge and a fast-running stream. The house sits on the southwest corner of an early crossroad opposite an unrestored 18th-century inn and tavern. A Revolutionary War cemetery and its contemporary church are around the bend and up the hill. There is a strong sense of history in this narrow valley.
My buildings have been neglected for many years and are in need of repair. I help as walls are opened to allow access to electric wires and plumbing; bare-bones bathrooms and a primitive kitchen are replaced; closets and bookshelves are built. However, demolition reveals no secrets, unearths no souvenirs of past occupants. The only known memories are those which have been embedded by the current residents.
Time passes, and as I retire one night, I note the date: April 18, 1993. I awaken suddenly from a deep sleep. I immediately notice the lack of light coming in through the window which is opposite the foot of the bed. I turn to look at the two windows on the side wall. Moonbeams filter in through nearby tree branches and dapple the bedclothes. I return my glance to the east-facing window. The frame and panes are obliterated by what I perceive as, for lack of a better description, an undulating, opaque blob. I tell myself I am dreaming. I close my eyes and do not open them until morning when I have but a vague memory of the specter.
I throw myself into the transformation of my new home and forget about the apparent hallucination until the night of June 6, when I am again aroused from my slumber. This time, the apparition materializes on the wall beside my bed. I am alert and I make note of its particulars: two-dimensional; dense; impenetrable; stationary mass with agitated, quivering edges; approximately five feet in height, three feet in width; non-threatening. I date the big-box-home-goods-store receipt on which I have written my observations and place it on the bedside table. I wonder if I am having a brain glitch. Nevertheless, I turn out the light and fall into a dreamless sleep.
Upon awakening, I see the list. I pick it up, read the words and am relieved to find my intellect remains unimpaired. I discount the brain glitch. In the past, I have experienced what I call “receptions”. These precognitive happenings have been of minor import and I have looked on them as electrical impulses received from a simpatico sender. My interaction with the amorphous mass is different. I am dealing with an intangible substance with unproven communication skills. I decide the house, with its presumed residue of aspirations, dreams, and disappointments, is the catalyst and I want to know more.
The exterior of the building yields the first clue. It is a three-story house with two front doors. Centered between four windows on the third floor, and over the space between the doors, is a datestone which reads: “W and P H, 1867”. The inscription has piqued my curiosity in the past and now the possibility that the spirit of my opaque visitor is somehow connected to my home leads me to the local historical society.
Working backwards from the current date, I uncover the history of the old house. The two previous owners had rotated renters through the property (with one man temporarily housing his mistress there–my first possible troubled soul). Prior to the landlords, seemingly happy families were in residence, all but one utilizing the blacksmith shop for their livelihood. I trace the inhabitants back to 1849 when William and Phebe purchased the acre and a quarter lot with its original log cabin. Following a fire, they replaced the charred remains with the current building (ergo, the datestone; also, the possibility of clandestine activity suggests another restless psyche).
Hopscotching over several short-term owners, I find the perfect candidate for my nebulous illusion: an itinerant blacksmith, a likeable ne’er-do-well who drank, fought and worked hard when he needed money. He married the daughter of a well-to-do farmer and purchased the village smithy with the expectation of paying for it with his wife’s inheritance. Newspaper articles and his personal confession tell the story of a man who overextended his credit, lost everything, and in desperation, committed a senseless murder. He was found guilty, sentenced to death on April 18, 1818, and hung on June 6, one-hundred-and-seventy-five years to the day before each of the two appearances of the mysterious mirage. I am fascinated.
I determine to write a biography of this ordinary early nineteenth-century man and his downfall. I have the outline of his life and anticipate an easy task of filling in the blanks which, with the exception of information on his early years, I am able to accomplish. I begin to write. Unfortunately, the story is boring and I choose not to offend his descendants by embellishing his tale. I am forced to abandon my original idea.
However, my inconsequential hero has staked a place in my consciousness so I retain the skeleton of his story, change names and descriptions and let my imagination run wild. I try to channel John Irving and take my thoughts past the outermost boundaries of reality and into the realm of incredulity. I question my ability to ignore convention and publicly acknowledge the extent of my mental creativity. I admit my cowardice as I cringe over my flights of fancy. I temper them and attack my new project with a little less enthusiasm and vigor.
I immerse myself in early nineteenth-century history and culture. My characters create themselves and take over my story. My hero charts his own path and leaves behind the simple man whose real-life story spawned his development. Minor auxiliary characters become viable players and influence the fate of my protagonist. At one point, I write a short segment in which he spends a single night in a utopian community. Never deigning to ask permission, my main man takes up residence.
Faced with a need for information on these idealistic organizations, I turn first to the local Free Love Valley, a loosely organized group of farmers and their wives who followed the dictates of Theophilus Ransom Gates and participated in bizarre sexual rituals and unconventional pairings. However, I want more than irresponsible sexual laxity so I read up on other mid-nineteenth century communes. There are many groups, religious and secular, whose members bonded together to create self-contained, economically autonomous, intellectually and philosophically compatible societies. They range from the hard-working, serious-minded residents of the Amana Colonies and the celibate Shakers, to the long-lived Oneida Community which combined the industriousness of the former with the radical religious philosophy and unorthodox moral code preached by John Humphrey Noyes. I end my research with the Transcendentalist residents of George Ripley’s Brook Farm, as chronicled by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although the ideas of Reverend Noyes establish themselves as the primary DNA in the intellectual genetic code of my imagined commune, my characters rebel against his dictum of controlled group marriage in favor of the unrestrained sexual freedom promulgated by Theophilus Gates. I find I am treading water in a previously unknown world of mid-nineteenth century social experimentation.
My days are spent in front of the computer. The phone goes unanswered; emails are ignored; appointments, missed. Invented characters replace flesh-and-blood family and friends. I soldier on. The blob is long forgotten, until one day, I recognize this is no longer simply a story. It is a reincarnation and I begin to wonder: “Of what?” Is my work motivated by the rebirth of long-dead individuals or is it a subconscious exploration of unresolved social issues and adulterated mores?
My subplots address present-day concerns which have passed forward through the history of life on earth: power struggles, torture, sex, discrimination have plagued humanity since the beginning of time, while the rationalization of sin has accompanied the civilization of man. I worry. Do these issues overshadow the storyline of my novel? I admit to the similarities between today and yesteryear and decide they have become primary stimuli to the development of my basic plot.
I explore the themes of vicious, slanderous, political campaigning; abuse of power by religious and secular father figures; social matters such as women’s rights and abortion; racial, economic, physical and mental discrimination which dominate the headlines of our newspapers today. I plumb the same issues which existed almost two hundred years ago when Andrew Jackson battled John Quincy Adams for the Presidency of the United States; charismatic, radical preachers proselytized extreme philosophical and moral changes; lunatic asylums utilized tortuous cures, and nascent support groups formed to publicize injustices and promote equality. My characters respond to the challenges as I continue to work on my story. I wonder if the anonymous phantom really is the spirit of my ordinary man eternally trapped in time and if his essence will be transformed by the new life I am giving him.
The last months of 1993 pass, taking with them the next four years. I anticipate the dates of April 18 and June 6, 1998, as the one-hundred-and-eightieth anniversaries of the conviction and hanging approach. I am disappointed, yet relieved, when the undulating black form does not appear on the first date. I want to believe I am saving the wandering soul from purgatory by bringing change to his previous temporal manifestation.
On the evening of June 6, I handwrite the title, “Reverberation, The Novel”, and add my name to the final proof of my book. I sign and date the cover letter, place it on the corner of the desk and go to my bedroom. I pause in front of the wall where I last viewed my nocturnal visitor. Then, I walk to the east-facing window and glance down at the stream below, at the hemlocks which line the bank, the rocks which fill the creek bed. A breeze ruffles the fine-needled branches of the graceful evergreens and a leaf rides the wind toward the glass which separates us. I rub my eyes as I turn back to the wall.
I consciously stare at the empty space and concentrate with all my energy as I attempt to summon the spirit. Ever so slowly, the painted surface starts to vibrate. The vision begins as before, as an amorphous, opaque abstraction. This time, however, the undulating edges take on the outline of a man’s body. A bit of color tinges the image and fills in the ill-defined shape. I watch as a broad-brimmed black hat materializes atop a featureless head. A faded green coat, ochre-colored nankeen pantaloons, coarse stockings and crude leather moccasins cover the pulsating apparition. I hold out my hand. For a brief moment, individualized characteristics fill in the facial blanks. I notice the mouth. It is twisted into a sardonic smile. The ghostly persona trembles and slowly fades. The encounter is over.
My positive thoughts of saving a troubled soul vanish when I realize what I have done. By rewriting the history of my hero, I have removed his tags. His biography has been overwritten and his original existence, deleted. By signing off on my manuscript, I may have saved my hero from purgatory, but at the same time, I have also condemned him to something much worse: I have consigned his immortal reality to oblivion.
I leave the bedroom, appalled by the knowledge that the mysterious phantasm has guided my work, and peripherally, my life, since I moved into this house. I fear the impact his altered saga will have on my own written and life stories. I am not an innately superstitious person, but as I approach my office, I cross my fingers for luck and chant aloud: “I do not believe in ghosts. I do not believe in ghosts. I do not….”
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