Old houses are one of the themes of my life. Naturally, I’ve also developed a casual and cautious interest in ghost stories. I don’t believe in ghosts though.
When I gave tours at the historic house in Colorado, in the shadow of the tall sandstones full of rusted iron sediment, bleeding out, making the stones red, we talked about ghost stories very little. It was a happy place. The sacred grounds of many tribes. A place of water. A place of god where families had settled.
The only ghost story I heard was told to me by a woman I can’t remember. I think she had a long grey ponytail. But I don’t remember who she was.
There is something a bit unsettling about not being able to remember the face of a person who told you a ghost story. She must have been a volunteer.
She had been vacuuming the the second bedroom upstairs and felt a hand on her shoulder. I think that is how it went. She said it like a warning.
When I achieved some seniority in that job, I was always relieved when I could make someone else go and close shades in the second bedroom, with its strange and torturous-looking Murphy bed, all a mess of springs, and African and Indian memorabilia from the age of colonization. I remember the woman referred to whatever shoulder-patting thing she believed to inhabit that caramel-colored room as “them.”
I don’t believe in ghosts. I grew up in an academic, rational, Protestant home.
I wonder if I intentionally forgot the story. I had to walk through that house when it was dark a lot. It would be inconvenient to be afraid.
And I don’t believe in ghosts.
I like to hear about them though. Ghost stories are the very dark chocolate of tales to me. A little goes a long way and tastes bitter, but the older I get the more I like it.
Every year, about this time, my family drives up into the Colorado Rockies to see the fall leaves. We go through Victor, a ghost town. Spectral advertisements fade slowly into wisps of peeling paint on the sides of buildings, more than half of which are dark. A few businesses and a Museum of Mining are open, but I don’t know how they keep the lights on.
The Mining Museum, even on nice September Saturdays when your sweatshirt is tied around your waist most unflatteringly, is cold. So, the woman behind the counter selling postcards and souvenirs and potentially tickets is wearing one of those grey sweatshirts with wolves on it. She has long grey hair. Which is, perhaps, why I think the woman who felt the hand on her shoulder had a long grey ponytail. They may have blended in my mind.
I entered the Mining Museum and heard the last bit of a ghost story fade in the jangle of bells above my head. I wanted to hear from the beginning.
“Does this building have a ghost story?” I asked.
She was excited to tell me that the building had been a boarding house at one point with a staircase to an upper floor, now gone. She pointed to the high, white tin ceiling which, even in the dim light, looked like a Miss-Havisham-esque frosted cake.
Once at least, she had seen a young woman in a white dress descend.
That image was so striking in my mind that I cannot remember the rest of the story. I have some vague memory that there was a school teacher who never found love or lost it.
The next year, I wanted to hear the story again.
Perhaps she was not in the mood. Perhaps she sensed my tourist-y appetite that contained no genuine belief. I became a consumer of this real thing that belonged to her, that she belonged to. I made it a sideshow.
“Oh, you know, every building on the street has a story,” she said. I felt a door between us close.
For some reason, I brought up the mine.
Once glittering slopes are turned to chalky, grey mounds of desolation as the modern machinery chews through the mountain and spits it back out. Seeing it pierces me. I thought surely this was something I had in common with the residents of Victor, a mourning for the destruction of the environment.
She bristled when I brought it up. “It’s necessary,” she said. “That gold is mostly used to make pace-makers. People need gold because nobody is allergic to it. And it provides jobs.”
I walked out feeling more foreign than I have ever felt. I felt a little ghostly, a thing the land had rejected, prompted to roam. A thing in a place it no longer belongs. I had presumed to know. Another kind of consumption. An attitude of foreignness.
But haunting is not something that happens to people. It happens to places. It is an ache in the land, like the dry groan of a once broken bone in the first chill wind of autumn.
I don’t believe in ghosts. I do believe that wicked work cannot be hidden. I believe that the wind itself will give voice to ruined, gutted things. Places weep.
And brokenness gives birth to brokenness, hunger to hunger. The blood of Abel cried out to God. And the wail of mothers for their children pricked the ears of God from Goshen. And all the places where we have killed our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers, all the dark unholiness that is done, all the places we lay waste to. In a million small ways, I have participated in the desecration of bones and battlements, built my homes on graveyards and sacred, godly lands of other nations.
But people are dust. And land is dust. And “they” will come home to us, tapping us on the shoulder. Reminding us of the dust we cannot vacuum away.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.