Three Ghost Stories

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Occasionally, always in the evening, my cat will turn her head and stare at something I can’t see. She will follow this invisible entity with her eyes as it moves, apparently, along the wall just below the ceiling. She does not seem alarmed by what she perceives, just keenly interested. After a moment or two, she will blink and look away, settle back into my lap. Whether the object of her attention disappears or she simply grows bored with it, I will never know.

Two of my previous cats displayed this same behavior, and several people have told me that every now and then their cats are likewise enthralled. “It’s their eyes,” a friend says, “those elliptical pupils. Their eyes absorb light and then reflect it—like headlights on a road sign. Cats see a whole world we don’t.” I have no idea what my cat sees in the dark; I only know that sometimes, in my living room at night, we are not alone.

A couple years ago I met a woman at a party, a grief counselor named Anne. I liked her calm, her attentiveness; I thought she was probably very good at what she did. We fell into an easy friendship, and one day over lunch I mentioned my cat and her odd way of peering at the ceiling. Anne picked up her sandwich. “They’re out there, alright.”

“Who?”

“Ghosts,” she said, “spirits. Whatever you want to call them.”

I took a swallow of my drink, studied her a moment. “You seem pretty definite about that.”

“It was the kids,” she said, looking up at me. “When I started counseling kids, I learned a lot. You wouldn’t believe how many children see ghosts.”

I stopped chewing. “You mean like the movie? Like ‘I see dead people’?”

“Something like that,” said Anne, nodding. “They see their relatives—grandmothers, brothers, fathers. People who have died recently.”

“Wow,” I murmured. “They must be terrified.”

“That’s the thing. Most of them aren’t afraid. They’re not really haunted, these kids. It’s more like they’re…visited.” She paused, considered. “It sounds like their parents, grandparents, whatever, just sort of appear and hang out for a while.” Her eyes widened. “It’s like the kids don’t know that this isn’t supposed to happen, so it does. They allow it.”

“How old are these kids?”

“Six, seven, eight. I’ve talked with four-year-olds who’ve seen ghosts.”

I paused, reflecting on this possibility, and then my mind snapped shut. “Lots of kids have imaginary friends. Don’t you think they might be imagining their relatives, willing them to be?”

Anne nodded. “Some of them, maybe. But Jean, the consistency is amazing. I’ve asked these kids the same questions on different days and they’ve answered exactly the same way. Their recall blows me away.”

“What about your adult clients? Do they ever see spirits?”

“Rarely. In eight years I’ve spoken with just three.”

“I wonder why it’s so common with children.”

“I’ve wondered about that too,” Anne said. “I think it’s because they’re closer to their time of birth. Closer to creation.” She paused, considered. “They really do live in a whole different world. They don’t understand how things work so everything amazes them.”

“Or terrifies them,” I add, thinking of my own childhood.

Anne shrugged. “Well that’s true, but trust me, they’re a lot more afraid of real people than they are of ghosts.”

I have heard—I suppose we all have—a few stories about unexplained encounters: sounds or feelings or visions beyond the margins of daily life. I remember an especially convincing account told to me by a math professor. We were sitting at her kitchen table while our spouses chatted outside. The house we were in had once been inhabited by my partner’s grandparents, and the property held many happy memories for her. This teacher—her name was Elizabeth—told me that she and her husband loved the house and were delighted we had come for a visit. I asked if she any children, and she said no, conceding that it was a big house for just the two of them, especially since her father had died. “He lived with us for several years—he died four months ago.” I expressed my sympathy and she smiled. “Well, we had a nice goodbye.”

I looked at her quizzically and she folded her arms on the table and told me something that made me stop breathing. For three nights after his death, she said, her father had visited her. They had sat at this table—he in the chair I was in—and talked about life, about things they had not shared or explained or apologized for before his death. She said it was the sweetest time, the easiest time, they had ever spent together. After three nights, she went on, everything they needed to say had been said; they both knew it. “He didn’t come back after that,” she finished, looking up from the table.

I couldn’t understand. “You talked? Like we’re talking?”

“No. Not like that. We talked without speaking.”

“Where was your husband?”

“He’s a dispatcher,” Elizabeth said. “He works nights.”

I must have looked dubious because she gave a shrug and said, “You’re not the first person who thinks I’m crazy.” She paused, regarded me straight on. “What can I tell you? It happened. You can believe it or not.”

That’s the thing with ghost stories, isn’t it? The listener knows they are not true, the speaker knows they are.

The last story I will tell you concerns an artist friend of mine, a first-rate photographer. Before she began taking pictures, she worked as a forensic psychic for a police department in Chicago. I didn’t know what a forensic psychic was until she explained it to me. At first I thought she saw the future and could predict crimes, but she said no, she could not do that and she doubted anyone could. She told me that she had gone to crime scenes—always homicide—where, in her mind’s eye, she sometimes saw the violence that had taken place. “It had to be a recent crime,” she added.

I was impressed. “Did you actually solve cases?”

“Oh yes. Several. Not so much the crimes that had taken place outdoors—I was better at seeing things that had happened in a house or apartment. I saw the people that had been involved and the police used my descriptions to find them.”

“Wow,” I said. “What a talent.”

She frowned. “Well, I don’t know how much talent is involved. See, after something violent happens there is residual energy in the space. Like images left on the retina when you close your eyes. After a time, that energy goes away and the room is just a room—at least that’s how it was for me. That’s why I couldn’t do anything with cold cases.”

“Have you seen this kind of stuff all your life?”

“No, thank god. It started in my twenties. I’d see a broken window, or a smashed-up car, and I’d get this glimpse of the people who had been there, the victims and the bad guys. I started working with the police when I was thirty-four. I quit after three years.”

“Why?”

She gave me an incredulous look. “Are you kidding? It was awful, seeing those things. It was wrecking my life. That’s why I left Chicago and moved to the country. It’s a whole lot nicer here.”

There is a photo circulating on the internet, beach sand viewed through a 250x microscope. It’s a stunning surprise, all those bits of beauty beneath our feet—honeycombs of coral, tiny crosses of glass, sea shells almost too small to be. Who knew?

As I writer, I am always trying to get to the bottom of things, the hidden, ever-retreating truth. There’s so much going on that we can’t see. In their possibility, the stories I’ve been told haunt me. I’m not saying I believe them, I’m not saying I don’t. I’m just saying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Ants Know

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There are ants that tend to their injured
by licking their wounds,
slowly transferring their own health
into fallen soldiers,
sealing fresh lesions against lethal bacteria.
Who can say why a creature as small as an ant
with so many hardy brethren,
would bother to stop—an hour if need be—
and help a troop.
In that tiny helmet of a head
are there neurons of compassion, of pity,
or are these ministrations automatic, instinct,
like the urge to tunnel or serve a queen
(what is instinct anyway
but a word for what we can’t explain?).
Some ants will even evac a battered brother,
not the terminal—those who have lost too many limbs
to the brutal jaws of termites—
but the ones who, with proper attention,
may fight another day.
The medics sense the difference
and do what they can
before moving farther afield,
gifted with the knowing
there is not a moment to spare.

Excerpt from “Paradise”

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“Paradise” is included in my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS. Here’s a quick look at Max, the star of the story.

Anyone who’s ever owned a parrot will know why I cherish my newfound peace and quiet. Parrots scream at dawn and dusk (ancestral behavior they can’t help), and at intervals throughout the day just for the hell of it. I can’t tell you how many dreams I’ve been yanked out of, how much coffee or wine I’ve spilled on the carpet, all because of Max. And what really irked me was Kelly’s insistence that we never, NEVER startle him. Undue stress, she claimed, killed more pet birds than any other factor, and so we had to give a certain soft whistle—one high note, one low―every time we approached his room lest our sudden appearance disturb his reverie.

No captive bird has it better than Max. Back in Shelburne, in the farmhouse he shares with Kelly, Max has his own room, with jungle scenes painted on the walls and two large windows that give him a view of the dogwoods and the pond and the distant green mountains. He has a variety of free-standing perches to suit his rapidly shifting moods and a wire-mesh enclosure that takes up nearly a third of the room. Inside this cage are his stylish water and food bowls, several large branches from local trees and usually four or five toys Kelly finds at yard sales. These he bites or claws beyond recognition; if he is given something he can’t destroy he shoves it into a corner. Of course she must be careful about lead paints and glues. Captive birds are never far from peril. I learned that the first week I was there, when I heated up a pan to make an omelet and Kelly yanked it off the stove and doused it with water. Didn’t I know, she scolded, that the fumes from an over-hot Teflon pan could kill a parrot in minutes?

It was exhausting living with that bird, meeting his needs, second-guessing his wants. Kelly said I didn’t have the right attitude toward Max, which may have been true. I never did tell her what I really thought: that birds make lousy pets. Dogs and cats are pets. Everything else belongs in the sky or the water or the desert it came from. So right away I felt a little sorry for Max, even when I learned he was captive bred and able to fly, even when I told myself he was probably healthier and possibly happier living in his painted jungle, for what would he face in Guatemala but poachers and pythons and shrinking habitat? Even acknowledging their success―14 years of cohabitation―I couldn’t help seeing Max as a bird beguiled.

Maybe he sensed my pity and resented it. Or maybe he didn’t like the texture of my hair or the way I smelled. Maybe my voiced irked him. Maybe I reminded him of someone else. Whatever his reason, Max didn’t like me, no matter how hard I tried to please him. You’re probably thinking he was jealous, that he wanted Kelly all to himself; I thought that too, at first. Then I noticed how he welcomed the arrival of our friends and how charmed he was by Suzanne, Kelly’s former live-in girlfriend. I tried not to take it personally, but that bird was so shrewd he had me worried.

 

Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/pokerbrit/9010421285/”>Steve Wilson – over 8 million views Thanks !!</a> via <a href=”http://foter.com/”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>CC BY</a>

 

Labors of Love

Recently I visited my sister Jill in coastal Alabama. I had not seen her well-ordered home in several years, and on that first morning, while everyone else was still sleeping, I padded through the kitchen, living area, office and screen room, studying the furniture and artwork, smiling over my sister’s choices. I was struck by the quiet beauty of her home, how perfectly it reflects her personality.

The same can be said about my other sisters. Joan lives in rural Georgia. Her yard is filled with flowers, fruit trees and vines, and an endless procession of herbs and vegetables, the bounty of which she brings into her house. Her counters, lavish with gifts from the garden, demonstrate her reverence for Mother Earth and the respect she gives all living things regardless of their performance. Jane wound up in a small Texas town. She also grows food in abundance, which she cans or freezes or gives away, but even larger than her garden is her wide-open heart. Her home is a refuge for strays cats, abandoned dogs and people who drop by for her wit and warmth. If it’s acceptance you want, you will find it at Jane’s.

I suppose my own property furnishes clues about me. I live in a tri-level home in the suburbs, a relatively stable environment with a tidy yard. I too have a vegetable garden—well, two raised beds—and shrubs and flowers that please me. Less forgiving than Joan, I cannot abide ruin and will readily replace the underachievers. As for my furnishings, they are on the spare side, a preference echoed in the sort of writing I favor: lean, direct, distilled.

While our habitats may differ, they all require one common element: care. We put effort into the spaces we live in.

Many animals take pains in this regard, and on a far grander scale, though what their homes say about them is anyone’s guess. Why, for instance, would a ten-inch wood rat build a stick nest more than three meters high? Even more perplexing is the décor. Again and again this creature will venture into attics or sheds or car engines, seizing whatever shiny treasures catch its eye. Also called a pack rat or trade rat, it will frequently drop the first item in favor of another. These objects offer no discernible benefit, and who can say why the rat insists on them, or why it needs such a massive home.

Male bowerbirds spend up to ten months a year constructing their elaborate nests. The type of bower depends on the species, but all are impressive, involving hundreds of carefully placed sticks. Following the construction phase, some of the males will use their beaks to paint the inside walls with plant juices. After this, the birds begin to decorate, gathering whatever strikes their fancy: moss, berries, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones. Manmade items are also employed: batteries, coins, nails, rifle shells, pieces of glass, strips of cellophane. Color is important. Some bowerbirds favor blue tones, while others prefer white or orange. Work is never quite finished; the birds spend weeks rearranging their riches and adding more. These sylvan palaces are designed to attract mates, but many never do, and you have to marvel at the undaunted losers whose labor and artistry go unappreciated, year after year.

And then there’s the octopus, one of earth’s most elusive and mysterious creatures. The octopus is a nocturnal animal and spends much of its life tucked inside a den. The den itself is small and not occupied for long, but for reasons no one can fathom the octopus is compelled to adorn its temporary front yard with a bewildering assortment of items, everything from lustrous shells to old boots—basically whatever has fallen to the sea floor. When a diver spots these odd collections, he knows there’s an octopus nearby. Considering how secretive these creatures are, their penchant for embellishment makes no sense.

Depending on your circumstances, you can live your whole life without much effort. Effort, like knowledge, is an option. If you have special skills or talents, no one will force you to use them. You can consider your home little more than a shelter and forgo any enhancements. We all die empty-handed anyway.

Despite evidence to the contrary, I think labor is always rewarded. Effort is a gift we offer ourselves. Every picture we hang, every seed we plant, every shelf we dust, is an expression of love, and the more we attend to, the richer our lives become. You can live without love of course, many people do. That’s the biggest mystery of all.
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Photo credit: 0ystercatcher / Source / CC BY-NC-SA