By lex, on March 28th, 2004
Every other week or so, one of my two daughters will have some friend, or assortment of friends, over to the house for dinner and a sleep over. And if it is a friend who has not heard our ghost story, at some point during the evening meal, one of my daughters will look at me, a joyful kind of malice shining in her lovely, angelic eyes and ask, “tell the Story, Daddy. You know, the ghost story.
As ghost stories go, it is not so very frightful in itself. It does have one advantage over those told over scout campfires and sold in paperback novels –
It is entirely true. Which is strange, because I do not believe in ghosts, and have not, to my certain knowledge, ever seen one. For certain.
But on to the story:
My family and I were back in Virginia for our annual Christmas visit. That night we were dining at my sister’s house, a Cape Cod built on what had been the outer grounds of a still standing 18th century house. This older house had belonged to a wealthy merchant family with southern sympathies, and during the American Civil War (the war of northern aggression), the house and its lands had been expropriated by the federal government to serve as a hospital for gravely wounded soldiers, all of whom were in great suffering, many of whom would die there. And in that place, if no one else came to claim them, some were buried.
So as the evening meal wound down, we sat in that familiar glow of a reunited family, happy in each others’ company, well fed and deeply satisfied. All were there assembled, and I myself was at the head of the table, facing the hall, with the Hobbit on my right hand.
As I was talking to my niece, on my left, I suddenly noticed from the corner of my eye that someone was standing in the hallway, looking at us. I could feel the intensity of his regard. He was a large figure, shrouded in shadows. A man by size, but strangely clad in a large, two-piece cloak, the kind that Union soldiers would have been issued in garrison, but that southerners would have to do without. These impressions were formed almost instantly, and given texture by reflection, because I also instantly grew a bit alarmed as I realized that all the menfolk of that stature were already assembled at the table – there should have been no one else in the house.
And when I turned quickly to challenge this intruder, he was gone. Nothing at all there. My mouth still open with a peremptory question still unformed, opened a bit further due to dumb shock. It closed again, as I turned my head a bit to the side to try to determine what combination of light and shadows in the room across the hall could have formed this strange illusion, made stranger still by my realization that the form, as it had been recognized by my brain from that quick glance out of the corner of my eye, had been headless.
But nothing was in the opposite room that could have given suggestion to what I had glimpsed. Having broken off the discussion with my niece in mid sentence, I paused for a moment longer, saying not a word, while trying to make sense of what I had imagined. And in that moment of thoughtful reflection, the Hobbit turned to me and said, “I saw it too.”
“What did you see?” I asked.
“A large man, standing in the hallway, strangely dressed.”
Eyebrows were lifted around the table, questions were asked, and both the Hobbit and I related what we had seen. Being a sensible family, we turned it over in conversation for a while before assigning it to strange coincidence, and went back to our polite discourse. But it’s fair to say that we were all a bit unsettled, and all a bit thoughtful.
And that is where the ghost story ends. But this is why the girls always ask for it, when a new friend shows up at the house.
Having in my heart a streak of mischievousness, I stepped away from the somewhat freighted atmosphere at the dinner table in Virginia that night, in a way that I would do over and over again in succeeding years from a dinner table far removed in California, in a different but equally unsettled company. Making my excuses in Virginia and in California, I would proceed by various means unobserved to the back yard of the house, shrouded in darkness.
From that position I would slowly approach the window facing the dinner table from the outside and there, standing in absolute silence, I would place my face up against the glass. Where eventually, someone inside, having an unsettled imagination, and distracted by the strange patterns of reflections in the window, would catch a glimpse of something that almost looked, you know, like a head, and turn to make some sense of it. And my sister in Virginia, and my daughters’ friends in California, would focus, see my face there at the glass and SHRIEK aloud – usually causing everyone else at the table (even those in the know in California) to scream aloud as well, although not always at first knowing why. So it’s important to stay at the window, as those not in a position to observe directly recover their breath if not their composure, look around to see what had startled the first person, and see that face at the window. And then the SHRIEKS begin again, and sometimes there are girls under the table, and always there is much rejoicing after, when I walk smiling into the room.
And calls to do it again, daddy, please!
It’s the little things, sometimes.