I am out with the dogs, waiting for their noses to get tired. My eyes rest on the tree line over O’Keefe’s house, toward the east. There is birdsong and the constant hum of traffic from I80. Then from a dark, dusty corner of my brain someone whispers: If there was a sudden, huge flash in the east that would mean that New York City was gone. How will I get to the boys? Duncan lives outside of Boston. My brain begins to think of how to get him to head west to Grandma’s, how to get Conor to head south. Likely cell phones wouldn’t work. Then my brain adds: they should just head north to Canada, forgetting me, the dogs, the cats, and poor Rich, who by now is burning in Staten Island where he drives every day to work. It is frightening how quickly I triage the horror, and move on to the mundane bits.
My Mom thought movies were tools of the Devil. At the best, they were a waste of precious time that could be better spent working or learning; at the worst, they filled heads with scary nonsense.
She was, as always, half right.
“The Wizard of Oz” used to air once a year on television. “You’ll just have bad dreams,” Mom would tell me. “You’ll be too scared,” my sisters said, “just like last year.” It didn’t matter. I was going to watch it this time, from start to finish, from Danny Kaye standing on the rainbow explaining why part of the movie was black and white, through Almira Gulch on the bicycle, past the tornado, the shoes, the monkeys. This time I would make it.
But then, as the tornado blew Dorothy away, and Almira turned into the witch, I would run crying into the kitchen to hide my face in Mom’s lap.
My great-grandfather lived upstairs from us when I was young. He had sold the house and land to my parents with the caveat that he be cared for, and have his own space, until death. While he was alive, I barely ventured into his rooms, mostly because they smelled bad. Mom cleaned for him, but he was not particular about hygiene.
He died at age 96; I was 12. My parents renovated the upstairs with a vengeance, and my sisters and I now had the luxury of private bedrooms. Cheri slept in the large room, Cindy (away at college) had the small room at the top of the stairs, and I was given Grampa’s room.
Nothing remained of the old man. New paneling, carpeting, windows, and doors. In the cold, dark hours, I listened to the groaning house, the slow footsteps, and his sighs. I kept the covers over my head until dawn.
Old battlefields perplex me. These sacred spots exist just because humans butchered each other, row after row of men slaughtered, often for no reason on random land that did not matter. And now phalanxes of tour buses clog the parking lots. The visitors claim that they are there to learn something about war, but I doubt they will grasp anything of the actual experience – the stench, the confusion, the blindness, the despair.
Antietam’s ghosts, however, I understand. Soldiers who vanish, a reek of gunpowder, a Gaelic refrain from the Irish brigade. Some of the dead never entirely left the field, and now roam through the environs of Sharpsburg at will. You couldn’t pay me to walk alone through the alleyways, or cross Burnside’s bridge. And nothing could induce me to linger in the Bloody Lane.
I wonder if the human species will survive our embrace of technology; will we master it or continue the decline toward idiocy and servitude? This week, I’m betting on that sweet, slippery slope.
Until I watched a TED talk, I didn’t know about YouTube videos that show hands opening prize eggs. That’s all. Big human fingers unwrapping candy eggs with prizes in them. I not only didn’t know about the videos, somehow I also didn’t know about the damn eggs. But millions of children watch hours of these videos, one after another. There are thousands of them. Mind you, there’s nothing going on in any of them but prizes being displayed. No plots, no characters, no new information, no new neurons sparking in these wee brains. What a brave new world!
Behold the tech way to raise idiots. Cue the end credits.
I shouldn’t look at old ghost pictures, but I do. An extra arm among friends, a face peering over the shoulder of a long-dead school chum, a shadowy billow of gown on a stairway. I click through the slide show on MSN with glee. And then this “boy” apparates:
A reality check: this photo is a hoax. The Amityville ghost story has been pretty thoroughly debunked. This photo, from 1976, likely shows a man who worked on the team that captured the image. But reality isn’t involved with my reaction to this photo. Ghosts are all about seeing faces that shouldn’t be there. Looking out rain-streaked windows and seeing another looking in. Turning a corner in the dark and running into a cold pool of otherness. Whispers, thuds, and slow moans. The hollow eyes of this face are everything I am afraid of in the dark.
Pan watched ghosts climb up and down our stairs in the apartment on North Avenue. Religious folk might have talked of angels. We didn’t.
A neat tiger cat with white paws and fluffy white patches on her belly and face, she wasn’t given to excessive bouts of fantasy. She hunted insects with a passion, and while in Micronesia, she learned how to separate a gecko from its tail and how to lazily observe the ants in their endless work. When we moved her to our two story apartment on the Northside of Pittsburgh, she alone became the Watcher of the Stairs.
Her eyes widened, the pupils expanding, and her small head slowly lifted as something moved up the stairs. Then she waited until, pupils again growing, something moved down the stairs. She did this for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. Then sweet kitty took a nap.
Too late for ice caps and glaciers. Penguins. Polar bears. Little brown bats. Bananas. Coral reefs. Rhinos of all colors. Elephants. Monarch butterflies. Luna moths. Lemurs. Temperate zones. Avocados. Mollusks. Large predators. Amphibians. Instead, the deserts flow into jungles, jellyfish swarm, the red tides clot with dying fish, the plastic ocean swirls, and fires birth tornados.
This is the Elegiac Period: the point in the grand time scale of our Earth when every other creature turns to lamentation and woe. The songs of the whales must be full of sorrow. I know the trees feel it. Our woods seems full of ghostly whispers now, and the crows’ conversations have a sense of urgency.
The Second Coming threatened my adolescence. Every week, the news sent the Evangelicals on a tizzy about the End Times. War between Israel and Egypt – Get right with God! Floods, Typhoons, Earthquakes – Christ is coming! Evil nations with atom bombs – Armageddon!
I walked home from school alone, as all kids did in those days. One autumn, newspapers reported a rash of UFO sightings in our county. I started home at dusk, as the full moon lit up the scuttling clouds, and November leaves rattled behind me. I did not dare to look up, partly out of fear that I might see a blinking UFO hovering near, and partly because this sky was exactly the type pictured in images of Christ’s return. Both options meant that I would lose my beloved Earth. I kept my eyes firmly on the ground in front of me, and walked faster.
I tell myself that it’s a part of the crazy hormonal storm of menopause, without even checking to make sure I have that fact right. It could have been true of only the beginning stages, which are definitely behind me now. And if that is the case, then these moments when I reach for a familiar word and fumble around searching for it in the dusty corners of my mind, well they would then be serious. And what would become of me?
I use words to define myself. They are my only bit of magic, my only alchemy, my music, my artifice, my mask for presenting the best me, the me I want you to see. Without them, an echoing black chamber, a scraped out pumpkin head, a grotesque figure on a bridge screaming with no sound.
In conversations, I sputter and choke. Will I learn to speak less, argue less, be less?
I watched the small strokes cascade through my father, robbing him in small nibbles of speech, of control over his mouth, of the strength of his grip. I watched the horror and fear grow in his eyes, as I sat in the hospital room with him, while my mother talked with the doctor in the hall. Dad had gone off Coumadin recently, thanks to uncontrolled hematomas, but now the little machine of his artificial heart valve was throwing out clots, and each one was causing tiny strokes in his brain. They could do nothing to stop this, without causing massive bleeding. He was unable to tell us anything clearly from that point on, but during the weeks he lingered, when he was lucid, his eyes raged at us.
In my list of fearful ways to leave this world, having your abilities stripped away by strokes sits near the top.
There was a creature in the old campy sci-fi series Lost In Space that terrified me. I don’t remember anything of the plot surrounding it, but this alien had no features on its black, faceted face, and it walked with a swaying side-to-side gait, much like Frankenstein’s monster did in old movies. My sister, Cheri, who was always ready to exploit a weakness to her advantage, found that she could easily reduce me to a blubbering, wailing mess by just walking about our dark bedroom, shuffling side to side, and saying nothing at all. Eventually I would scream for our mother, who was better than any old robot for dispelling aliens and monsters alike. Cheri would quietly sit up in bed, as the door opened, rubbing her eyes and mumbling, “I don’t know what’s got into her, Mom. Maybe too much TV?” I howled.
There’s always the possibility of someone looking in. Yet I don’t cover most of the windows in my house with curtains. I’m just not a curtain kind of person. We live hemmed in by trees with no nearby houses situated so other people can easily see through our windows. Plus I am convinced you’d have to be pretty desperate to enjoy watching the Kim-and-Rich show, given how much effort it would take to climb up the hemlocks.
But if I think about it, in the dark of night, when I am crossing a brightly lit room, there’s always the possibility that I will turn to a window and see a pale face looking in. That thought gives me shivers, and I find it so difficult to turn my head, to raise my eyes, to the dark glass rectangles rimming our home. If I don’t look, then I can continue believing that no one is there.
We have started to talk about buying a gun and learning how to shoot. This doesn’t sound strange given that we are Americans, and everyone knows Americans love firearms. I am the daughter of a hunter; guns were in my childhood home, venison was on the table, and a stray bullet (from a careless hunter) once broke our screen door sending my father into a rage. But guns never had a place in the Hannigan/Lilley household; we didn’t feel the need to own one, even when we lived in the Northside of Pittsburgh, even when a rock broke our window, even when someone vandalized our apartment.
What changed? An awareness that we can no longer trust about 40% of the population. I don’t know who these people are, but they do not agree with me on fundamental values, their leader espouses violence, and they are armed.
My husband saw a long-haired ghost in our Bellevue house three times. I never did. The first time, he came upon the specter in our basement. He said the spirit had long blond hair and was draped in white. Did it have feet? He doesn’t know, so it might have ended in Casper’s wispy curlicue. The second time, the ghost was looking in through the dining room window while Rich fed Duncan dinner. Did Duncan see the ghost? No, because he was strapped into the high chair. And the last time, the most dubious time, Rich was working in the yard when an ice cream truck came careening down the road. He swears that the driver beeped and waved, long white-blond hair blowing in the breeze. I was willing to believe the first two sightings, but the last has always been a stretch for me.
When I worked at Pittsburgh airport, another gate agent told us that his family had inherited a ghost, one that followed them from one house to another. This was a matter-of-fact sort of guy, the kind that would scoff at any perceived hyperbole, so it caught me by surprise. At first his ghost had been a commonplace poltergeist, moving objects and slamming doors. When the family moved to a new house, they assumed the pranks would end. Instead, things took a turn for the worst. The pranks intensified and centered on the two youngest children. The gate agent described watching scratches form on the skin of his kids’ arms, etched by invisible fingers. There were cold places now in their home, and no one felt safe. He told this all while eating his dinner in the breakroom. Then he went to work a flight.
Ghosts only live in the high places on Pohnpei, so people must live in the lower lands. That’s a simple fact that only haoles would be stupid enough to ignore. Then the Arthur’s built The Village Hotel on a lovely bit of mountain, with stunning views of the lagoon and Sokehs Rock. I knew Mary and Peter from New Zealand who worked at The Village. Ghosts put toothbrushes in toilets, ran showers in unoccupied rooms, and appeared at the end of dark walkways. Ghosts made the hotel workers become creative liars to the guests: “Oh dear, the maid must have been clumsy! Have a nice new toothbrush!” Once after Mary lost her wallet in Kolonia, miles away from the hotel, she went to her cabin. She opened her closet door, and the wallet dropped in front of her eyes from nowhere. The ghosts had retrieved it for her.
We rented a large farmhouse on Canandaigua Lake in May 2017 for Duncan’s college graduation from Hobart. Stan and Pam came in from Kansas; Charlie, Kat and baby Owen flew in from North Carolina. My family drove up from Wellsville. The old house had an original core with an addition containing several bedrooms. We had a lovely get-together, full of cheer and good food and conversation, and no one mentioned any creepy details.
Kat said, “Did you know that house was haunted?” Turns out that she had seen a strange old woman in the room where the baby slept but decided to keep quiet about it. “I didn’t want to freak you out.” Charlie confirmed it months later. He had seen the stranger as well, just for an instant, in Owen’s room. The wee boy did not sleep well on that vacation. Now we know why.
The dogs have taken to needing a middle-of-the-night trip outside. I pull a jacket over my pajamas, slip my feet into my Dad’s Bean boots, and stumble outside to stand at the edge of a very dark woods with two easily distracted hounds. Our outside flood lights barely illuminate areas close to the house; the dogs prefer to do their business in the dimmer places. It’s the season of dry leaves, and fitful winds. We are down to just a few night singing bugs.
I try to block scary images, concentrate on getting dogs to task, when they suddenly freeze, noses up. Rufus’s fur bristles. We three run, me barely holding on to the leashes, into the garage.
I have no idea what they sensed. I always look back at the woods as I lock the door, half expecting shades gliding like Ring Wraiths over the grass. I do not sleep.
I went to a beautiful well-designed children’s museum this weekend. Crowds of probably highly educated, relatively affluent couples were dragging their disgruntled children all over the place. “Look honey, there’s the red ant colonies! And the lunar lander! And bars of light to dance with!” I saw strollers that put Mercedes Benz to shame. The older children got to work pushing the buttons, twirling the dials, making balloons fly, dropping balls into contraptions. The place was a hive of activity. But I saw nothing of play. I think the ants would understand what I saw better than I did. Do this! Do that! Move fast! I’m afraid we’re raising something akin to worker bees, to drones. Little cogs to help the wheels turn. I watched kids run back and forth, and I despaired. The human race is doomed.
Rufus is afraid of his retractable leash’s black handle. When I reach to clip the leash to his collar, I hold the handle behind my back, so he is not reminded that it is part of the deal. When he sees it, he opens his eyes wider, and his ears flatten back against his head. He enjoys everything about a walk: the smells, the sounds, the rasping of his feet on the asphalt. But the leash handle ruins it all. So if I can, I let him off leash when we go outside alone.
“Run!” I whisper and he streamlines across the grass to the woods.
“Pee!” I yell, and then laugh, because he does.
Sometimes I yell, “Poop!” and then wonder what the neighbors think of our staccato conversation.
Rufus spins out of the woods, past me: “I’m headed out!”
“Inside!” I holler, and he circles back, rounding the herb garden, through the door.
For two years, I have found myself almost daily saying, “That’s the worst. That’s got to be the bottom.” And each time I was wrong. Today’s sure-fire, can’t-be-beat lowest of the lows: more bombs in the mail intended for enemies of the President while the President blames the media for causing hatred and division. I shiver to think what will pop up to surprise us tomorrow, if we have the ability to be really surprised any more. I’m also waiting for the bomb the police have not found yet, the one that will be waiting for someone, perhaps left on a door step, and a child will touch it. Yes, a child will reach to turn it over to see what it is, because that’s what children do. And the person who put the bomb together, who licked the stamps and typed the address, won’t give a damn about that collateral damage.
I will not come to your funeral. Your wake, for sure, but I’m not very good at funerals. You see, I manage stress with humor. The more stress, the more likely I will go full Jerry Lewis on you. Everything is fair game at a funeral.
Rich’s Uncle Wayne was a Freemason. This is only an important fact because it turns out that fellow masons will come to the visitation hours at the funeral home, and they will arrive with a certain amount of solemnity and pomp. Or at least they will in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. I was trying to behave myself, sitting on a couch in the side room, speaking quietly with my sister-in-law. Then these old men arrived in full regalia, banging on a gong, and calling out to their brother Wayne. I tried to be good; truly I did. The worn couch rocked and rattled from our gagged laughter.
If nature had only followed that plan, I would be saved so many phobias! Spiders, even very small ones, raise my blood pressure. Ticks, when I find them traipsing across my shins, cause real panic entirely divorced from the scary diseases they carry. Millipedes unnerve me more than any worm or snake. And do not, please, remind me of the rattling sound of the foot-long centipedes of Pohnpei as they scuttled across the living room floor. Too many hard-cased legs, too many tapping toes! I do not notice the extra legs on butterflies and moths, but then how can anything be seen when they unfurl their wings? I even enjoy them landing on my fingers, weightless. So perhaps they are the exception to my rule, allowed only because beauty excuses so very much.
I’ve begun to plan on not living so very long after all. It seems to be the best response to the whole world-going-to-shit phenomenon we’re actively promoting here in America. As a plan, it is remarkably adaptable to a multitude of scenarios. Dementia threatens? Cut to the end credits. Conservatives finally gut the social safety nets for senior citizens? Take the express lane out of here! Catastrophic climate change destabilizes the world? One less consumer of precious resources – you can give my allotment to some poor child who will inherit this wasteland, with my sincere apologies.
What is the death of one old woman in a world that did not mourn the passing of the Arctic bears? How can her life’s curtailment compare to the mass extinction and bleached, dead tombs of the Great Barrier Reef?
I miss being scared on Halloween. We loved dressing up, choosing from our home-grown cache of costumes that we could make out of items we already owned. These were the years before everyone spent money on Halloween. Basically you could be a hobo, a gypsy, a ghost, a witch or old crone, maybe a clown or glamour girl, if you could find a wig. No Disney characters, or sly cultural statements. We didn’t plan for weeks; we just dived into our dress-up stash of old clothes and do-dads, and used our mother’s cast-off lipstick. Then we went out into the dark, where jack-o-lanterns winked, and the wind chased leaves after us. Dark houses sat like warnings between the friendlier porches. Never go there, never walk up the creaking steps, never ring that bell, because then anything could happen. Anything.
Twenty-six days of fear and loathing in 666 characters each day. I’ve run out of ideas. I googled “fear” and came up with a Reese Witherspoon movie and a factoid about there being only two innate fears for humans. Nothing there to generate any interest. Much of what I actually fear turns out to be pretty mundane. I fear being buried alive. I fear the idea of the grave and moldering away, yes the old feast-for-worms scenario. I fear losing my mind slowly, as well as the flipside of that – losing my ability to move while keeping my mind intact. I fear dying before my children. I fear that my degenerative discs and crushed nerves will eventually turn my life into hell. And I fear that nothing about me will matter in the end, that my words will falter, and no one will notice my absence. This changes nothing.
On a whim, we went looking for Weeping Angels* in the Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, on a perfect autumn afternoon. We didn’t find any. We made our pilgrimage to stand at Susan B. Anthony’s grave and then Frederick Douglass’s. I was ashamed that I arrived with no tokens, seeing their graves thoroughly bedecked.
The grounds were hilly, with paths curving up in wide arcs and huge shade trees everywhere. You could not detect the scale of the whole, only the little hollow you were caught in, so the grand scope of the dead** interred here was minimized. The lovely day, the golden light, a afternoon spent with my youngest son – we laughed among the gravestones and watchful mausoleums. Among the grand Victorians buried there in their stiff patriarchal lines, were shades of disapproval, I’m sure.
* If you don’t know about Weeping Angels, then you aren’t a Doctor Who fan. All you need to know about them is this: don’t blink when you are around statues that look like angels crying. I can’t begin to explain what a “quantum-locked humanoid” is, but these are pretty nasty creatures.
Our house is too small. Who will sleep where, and which son on the couch? One and a half bathrooms simply cannot accommodate eight adults and a toddler. Nothing can be done! Hope the well doesn’t go dry! Just the dogs take up half our chairs. There is cat hair everywhere, especially Opal’s gravity defying white poofs which can remain airborne for years. The to-do list from the summer was barely begun when the rains rolled in and the temperatures plummeted, so all I can see is what didn’t get finished. And because of our strange wet summer and fall, the leaves are only just beginning to litter the ground. When will we find the time to rake the sodden leaves, cut back the rank gardens, and plant the three bags of daffodil bulbs I had to buy? We have only three weeks, that’s all, before…
Orion sparkles at 3:30 a.m. above our tree line, the true harbinger of winter nights to come. I can see, even with tired eyes, the blur of the nebula decorating his sword. I scan the rest of the small crack of sky, and yes, the Pleiades are there, the fog of seven sisters. (Three were always enough; seven would require UN peacekeepers.) The Moon wanes in her last quarter, but sends a little light to help me watch the dog circle, circle, circle.
If our neighbor wakes and stumbles to his kitchen window, he will see our house ablaze with spotlights, and me, shivering in pajamas, on the shadowy hill begging a dog for speed. But he will miss the ancient sparks the sisters sent 442 years ago, falling on frosty ground, and the dazzling energies that marked the birth of stars in AD 674. I drown in ancient light.
I have a pumpkin to carve, bought on a whim at the Amish market. I didn’t check if it was the best one there; just grabbed it by the stem and put it on the checkout table with my dozen eggs and a bunch of kale. It is interesting that on this Halloween I just bought my pumpkin from young women dressed in black, young women who rarely smile at me, and who speak a language that I cannot understand. And yet, I am, by comparison, the witch.
Witches move always to the left, the way of the Devil. I’ll take the left fork always, especially if the right is righteous. Witches are tied to the natural world through familiars, animals/demons who speak with them. Ask my cats – they will tell you, we talk. Witches float, and I can avow that I do not sink easily. I will carve a good face for Samhain and watch the woods carefully.