Monthly Archives: October 2013

The magic of a witch

This is not a scary story, not a ghost story. It is a childhood memory, one that reminds me that there is magic in the world whether we feel it, or not.

For me, Halloween has always been a night of mystery, of potential, of being close to the unknown. It’s thrilling to run about the streets in the gloaming as the wind kicks crisp leaves around ankles; to terrorize the neighbors, threatening malice if not bribed with sweets. It’s exhilarating to step from one’s skin into the guise of someone or something else entirely for an evening, to be a monster or a fairy, a cowboy, an alien, an old hobo who rides the rails. The sense of fear that permeates the lanes, created by bony tree fingers grasping at the clouded moon and the knowledge that the long, dark winter is just days away, the self-manufactured fear among mobs of kids, a feeling that seeps and creeps from all the other little souls in the streets, is tempered by the familiarity of glowing jack-o-lanterns on porches, childrens’ delighted screams and laughter drifting on the breeze, the smell of mouldering leaves underfoot. It’s one last night to be free before hunkering down to early nights, cold days, and darkness.

And there is magic.

My ninth Halloween, I think I was a fairy, was crisp but not snowy. We didn’t have to wear our winter coats over our flimsy costumes as long as we layered up underneath. We ran in packs from door to door. I was old enough to be on my own with my friends, instead of with my mother and siblings. We were wild children, hooting and hollering, running across dead lawns, rushing through the crackling leaves piled in gutters. The moon was full, the wind blowing spirit clouds across the sky. We were free, we were wraiths of the night, and we were full of candy-powered mischief.

I remember a house where there was a Halloween party and the man who opened the door was dressed as a gorilla. We shrieked in delighted fright and he gave us all dollar bills. Some houses had only glowing porch lights for decoration and others had coffins in the yard and scarecrows on the stoop who jumped out at you while horror music played. I remember old women (probably my current age) handing out popcorn balls and caramel apples and we could eat those treats without fear of razor blades or poison. I remember stumbling back into my house as the streets began to sink into quiet, Smarties wrappers and broken leaves skittering alone down the sidewalks. I remember my arms dragging under the weight of my loot sack. I remember washing my face and putting on my pajamas, then crawling into bed, happy and soul-filled. I remember seeing the lights upstairs go out, of knowing I was the only one still awake in my house and that is when the most magical thing that has ever happened to me occurred. The moon was shining through the high window above me, illuminating the  whole room. I stood up on my bed and climbed atop the headboard in order to pull myself up to the window sill to see the luminous body filling the sky, looking down at me. It was so bright, so white, so large. In that moment, the silhouette of a witch on a broomstick, picture-perfect, flew across the face of the moon. I waited for her to pass by again, but she didn’t, and I let go the windowsill to fall backward onto my bed while giggling with the most effusive glee I’ve ever felt, replete with the knowledge that everything I believed about this day was true, all true.

I have looked for that witch every Halloween since and while I’ve never seen her again, I know she is there. For her, for the children who keep the magic of the day alive in their hearts, and for the memory of my own childhood, I heartily embrace the traditions of All Hallow’s Eve. Because, one day, I will see that witch again and I will shriek with glee and be thankful that there is still such wild wonderfulness left in our world.

Happy Halloween, my friends. Even if you do not celebrate this day, I hope you enjoy the spirit of autumn, of readying for a long sleep, of changes. Stay warm, stay safe, and look for magic everywhere you go.

Used with partial permission, courtesy of The Cutest Blog On the Block (http://anostalgichalloween.blogspot.com/)

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Filed under Adventures, In my backyard, My Opinions on STUFF, White trash childhood

Hangman, hangman, slack up your rope

All Hallows Eve, it is so close. I have shivers.

Let me share them with you.

Here is my last ghost story for the season and a song to keep you company as you read.

After our mother remarried, we all moved to a new house. I was a surly, hateful, bitter teenager and, as a result, I spent all my free hours locked in my bedroom, reading fantasy novels and staring at the mountains beyond my window.

There were times, however, when my west-facing room became too hot, too stifling, and I had to escape. I would run from the house, down the back slope, through the field and marsh, to the source of the spring. Two giant, old, whispery cottonwoods, one standing-but-hunched, the other lying down, stretched along the earth, grew in the meadow beside the water. I would climb into the boughs of these trees and stay for hours, reading, watching songbirds and deer, field mice and hawks, butterflies and mosquitoes. I would perch until the sun faded from the sky and the glow worms pulsed from stalks of summer grass. In the winter, the meadow was quiet, blanketed in snow, the spring frozen except for where it bubbled up at the center. On those cold, silent days, I could nestle into the hollows of the cottonwood roots, pretending to be the only soul in the world.

My family rarely explored the stream, the marsh, and the spring where the cottonwoods grew. Had I not been such a sullen, reclusive child, I probably would have known there was something they were all avoiding in our big backyard.

There were two ghosts that roamed those waterways, one hateful, the other peaceful.

Chris and Noelle had complained of hauntings, of scary things, feelings of terror, cold spots, voices, and other such occurances ever since we’d moved into the house. I complained of whiny siblings. They were scared to go near the cottonwoods. I hung out there all the time. My mom felt things, too. I rolled my eyes. I figured I had an ally in my stepdad, Jim, and I probably did until he met one of the ghosts.

Late one afternoon, on almost-summer day, my family went walking through the back fields. When they returned, it was with a story. Chris, Noelle, and Alex were freaked out, the latter on the verge of tears. Mom was obviously discomfited and even Jim was rattled. It took awhile before I could get their chain of events to go in order, to form a coherant tale. From what I could tell, it went something like this:

They’d been walking near the stream that ran through the field during the wet months and were headed for the cottonwoods, not for any particular reason, it’s just where their meandering was taking them. The closer they got, however, the stranger they felt. There was anxiousness then terror in the air. Mom felt anger and hatred. The kids were scared. Their fear fed whatever was running along the stream and it reflected it right back, coming at them in garbled sounds and hissing voices. Even Jim felt it. They fled the area but despite their haste to return to safety, Jim distinctly heard someone, a man, whisper in his ear. The man said, “Hancock” and that was all.

Of course, I’d missed the whole thing, having been shut away in my room at the time.

It doesn’t end there, though.

Jim saw Hancock once more while looking out toward the back field. His vision shifted and he saw an older man, Native American, standing by the back fence with a young boy. The man wore a hat, maybe a John Bull or gaucho, and a brown vest. Jim knew the man was Hancock. He also understood that Hancock had been hung by the neck until dead.

Native American

No, this isn’t Hancock. But he does have a hat.

When my mom began to ask some of the old timers about Hancock, one man, Native American, himself, said the name sounded familiar. As it happens, local legend has it that the two cottonwoods by the spring used to be hangin’ trees. Rustlers, horse thieves, and indians were strung from the branches, or so it’s told. Hancock may have been one of them. However, he was not vindictive; he was not the one who harassed my mom, Chris, Noelle, and Alex. He only made himself known to Jim, perhaps as one man of of the house to another?

No, the vengeful spirit flowed with the water. During spring runoff and summer rainstorms, the spirit was violent. It terrorized my family, scaring the kids and following my mom from home to work and back. It knocked things over, it yelled, it shot out bursts of fear so strong, its victims would be left rattled and scared. My mom worked across town in a plant nursery situated near some picturesque ponds, small bodies of water filled with ducks and muskrats and that were fed by the stream that ran through our back field. The angry creature would pester my mom when she’d be out feeding the chickens. Then she’d go to work and shortly after, the ghost would show up there, too, making a ruckus and being a nuisance, causing more trouble than it ever did at home.

The entity finally got so out of hand that Mom had to do something about it. After peace had been restored, however, it seemed Hancock was no longer needed because he has not been seen nor heard since.

Here’s what I suspect: While Hancock gave the impression of having been hanged, he didn’t seem angry. It was more like he was waiting. I think he may have been connected to the other ghost, the one who caused so much turmoil for my family. Maybe the other ghost was Hancock’s anger, having separated itself from him somehow. Maybe it was someone else who’d met their demise on the hangin’ tree. Whatever the case, Hancock stuck close to home; he kept to the field, to the cottonwoods, to our yard. He didn’t travel far and he didn’t threaten anyone. Maybe he’s the reason the other spirit couldn’t do much more than be a scary nuisance around the yard. Maybe he was watching out for my family.

We’ll never know. Both ghosts are gone, as is the field. It’s now a neighborhood. I don’t even know if the cottonwoods still live. I do know, however, that there will come a day when the field once again floods and those houses will have very wet basements. And perhaps an angry ghost.

Angry spirit

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Filed under Adventures, In my backyard, My journey to writerhood

Only the creepers

We have a running joke in my family: Our women can attract any man they want…as long as he’s a weasel or creeper. In my mom’s case, he doesn’t even have to be alive.

When I told my mom I was posting ghost stories all month, she was interested. Why wouldn’t she be? She is a witch, after all, and she has seen a spirit or two (well, ok, a lot) in her day. I told her that I was short a scary tale so she gave me one I’d never heard before. It goes like this:

The yellow brick ranch-style house where my grandfather saw the ghost of a miner was quite haunted, it would seem. ZZ knew it, my aunt knew it, and my mother knew it. They all ran into spirits of one type or another during their years there. It was an evil spirit, though, that haunted my mom.

Mom is certainly not afraid of ghosts but she is aware of them and they do follow her around, bugging her, giving her icky feelings, creeping her out because that’s the type of energy she attracts. Similarly, questionable men have always been interested in her; same principle, just one set of jerks is alive and the other, dead. (I just called my dad, Jim, icky. Sorry about that! You’re totally not! Well, not anymore, at least)

My grandparents left the yellow rancher for something smaller and more manageable, handing the house over to my growing family. Noelle had just been born and our little cabin on Yampa Street was  too small to accommodate everyone. I was thrilled to move into ZZ & Poppop’s house; I loved that place. My mom, though, not so much. The malevolent spirit she’d felt when we’d lived there earlier was still there, still mad, still giving off bad vibes. And you know what really got it riled up? Noelle. After Noelle came along, my mom experienced more harassment from that malicious entity than ever before. I’m going to call it The Menace. You know, like The Phantom Menace, only far scarier.

When Noelle was brand new to this world,  ZZ & Poppop came to stay, to help out with the new baby, I assume. One afternoon, Mom was in her room folding laundry while tiny Noelle napped in her bassinet. Dad and Poppop were in the living room, watching a game, Chris and I were probably outside, and ZZ was downstairs in the guest room. Mom felt someone watching her and assumed it was a family member come to check on her but when she looked at the doorway, it was empty. She went back to folding but she knew someone was there, someone who was angry, someone who started breathing heavily. Her discomfort grew and became sharp, panicky, and then she heard a voice, a deep, growling voice, a voice completely unfamiliar and terrifying. She didn’t understand what it was saying nor did she wait to find out; instead, she ran from the room, horror-stricken, through the living room and down the stairs to her own mother. ZZ knew something was wrong immediately and when Mom told her what had happened, ZZ yelled, “YOU LEFT THE BABY ALONE WITH IT?” Both women raced back upstairs, full-tilt, expecting the worst. When they ran into the room, Noelle was sleeping soundly and The Menace, hovering in the room, winked out.

Dead

Perhaps this is what The Menace had planned?

It didn’t go away, though.

There was no shower in the upstairs bathroom, only a tub. There was, however,  a 3/4 bathroom in the basement so when someone wanted to shower, they went down there. Unfortunately, that bathroom was made of concrete, mold, and spiders. It was dark, dank, and creepy; even I hated it and I am rarely afraid of a room (unless it’s poorly decorated).

Bathroom

This bathroom is far less terrifying than the one in the basement.

So Mom went to the basement bathroom to have a quick shower one evening. Spiders skittered across the cement floor and a draft wafted through the already-cold room. She felt…something. Someone. Someone was in the bathroom with her, rustling around, making noise. She figured it was Dad though when she called out, no one answered. But someone was there. She showered faster, wanting to get back upstairs, back up to the light and warmth, back to her family. The room slowly filled with condensation, water slid down the walls, the smell of mildew rose from behind warped wood paneling, and something was standing just beyond the shower curtain, getting more and more angry. Mom was rinsing her hair when the shower curtain came rushing in at her face, as if it had been violently punched. She jumped, scared, and flung aside the curtain.

The bathroom was empty.

She turned off the water, grabbed her towel and ran upstairs. When she found my dad on the couch, she yelled at him, “Why did you DO that?” and he looked from the TV to her. “DO what?” He wasn’t winded like someone who had just dashed up the stairs would have been. He’d obviously been sitting there for awhile. And all the kids were already in bed. There was no one else in the house. No one but The Menace.

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Filed under For my short story collection, My Dearly Beloveds

From far beneath our home

I have a story to tell. It’s not mine, it was given to me by my mother, about her father and a house we all shared.

My grandfather was a pragmatic man, often seen with a cigar in his mouth and a drink in his hand. His were not the ways of whimsy.

He had fought in World War II, running away to join the military when he was fifteen. He saw things, though I never knew what, and that made him tough, unflappable. When he returned Stateside, he met my grandmother and the two of them later married. They lived a nomadic life, running a restaurant in one town for a few years, a farm in another. My grandfather was always on the move, even after ensconcing his family in some house or another throughout the midwest. That was just his nature, I suppose, always trailing the Next Big Thing. That’s what brought him to Colorado.

When his first two grandchildren came along, my grandfather became “Poppop” and he settled a bit. By that time, he and ZZ  lived in a yellow brick rancher with my aunt and a pair of Siamese cats in Colorado Springs. My mom and I lived with them. As far as I remember, it was wonderful. I was close to my mom, my aunt and especially my grandmother and I sure did love my Poppop. I still remember his smell, even after all this time. Nonetheless, I intrinsically understood that Poppop, though a jokester, was not prone to flights of fancy. Nothing rattled him. He showed anger, but never fear, never worry. He had an explanation and a plan for everything. He was a solid, down-to-earth man.

Many Colorado towns are built over old mines. Miners would stake their claims, dig their holes, and once prosperity hit, a town would grow up, buildings rising from the rocky ground like weeds. As time passed, the mines shut down but the towns continued to grow and spread until they were over the top of these abandoned man-made tunnels in the earth. There are some years, especially in wet springs, when sidewalks, houses, entire streets will sink suddenly down a collapsed mineshaft.

And there are also nights when the souls of miners who perished under the earth, away from the sun, far from loved ones, resurface to find their ways home. Poppop met one of these miners.

Chelton road

Our story takes place in this neat, quiet neighborhood.

After ZZ & PopPop moved into the little yellow brick house, the women-folk of the family started feeling things: a malevolent presence, something bad. Poppop laughed at his wife and daughters, made fun of them, did not believe them, yet, still, they warned him: there was something not right in the house.

He was a land salesman at the time and early one morning, he was getting ready to go to work. He finished his bathroom ablations, smacking aftershave on his newly-smoothed cheeks, then he crossed the hallway and walked into the living room, no doubt thinking of the day before him. As he turned toward the kitchen where the coffee waited, he happened to glance to his right and saw someone sitting on the couch. Not someone who lived in his house, though. There was an old miner, sitting, waiting. He looked at my grandfather…and then he faded away.

Colorado miners

“Skip 750 ft. under ground in Colorado mine”
Are any of these men currently haunting people in their living rooms?

The man who felt no fear, who mocked his family for their otherworld sensitivities, who never ran away with his imagination had just seen a ghost and it freaked him out. He was so alarmed, he rushed to tell ZZ what had happened, admitting she’d been right, the house was haunted.  He was still visibly shaken or, as he may have put it, “scared shitless,” by the time my mom heard his tale. I imagine she felt rather smug seeing her father in a tizzy over a ghost when the rest of the family had been living with it all along.

After enough time passed, he stopped talking about his experience. In fact, he never spoke of it again. But he also never tried to convince anyone that ghosts don’t exist again, either.

As it turns out, the ghost of the miner was just passing through. It wasn’t the source of the hateful feeling found in the house. No, that one stayed and you’ll hear more about it next week.

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Filed under My Dearly Beloveds, My journey to writerhood

‘Tis the season to be scary

The spiced cider is burbling away in the kitchen, candles are flickering, and there’s a strong wind rattling the windows. Have a seat in my little cabin and let me tell you a story, a mild tale intended more for wonder than fright.

Years ago, I worked with a delightful woman. Her name was Karen (I say “was” because she is no longer with us, though maybe she is with us right now, listening to this tale) She was awesome. And crazy. And hilarious. We worked late together, alone in our office, long past the time when streetlights came on. We would sit at our desks, cackling and carrying on, sometimes to the point that people from other departments had to walk over and tell us to shush.

Karen was one of those good souls, the type of person everybody should be blessed with as a friend. She would call me when I was home sick to give me the day’s work-related news; she always remembered my birthday; she did recon on one of my ex-boyfriends and we said horrid things about him and his post-me lifestyle; she gave me her unwise shoe purchases (she couldn’t wear heels above 2 inches but bought them anyhow. Then she’d try to wear them but would fail and end up giving them to me because they were “just too cute to go to waste”) When I was looking for a new place to live, she just happened to be looking for a tenant for her parents’ house, a place that had been rented-out since her parents had died years before.

It was a wonderful house – split level on a corner with a landscaped yard. My friend and I, we moved in right away and later, Noelle and Little B joined us later. I loved living there, some of my favorite memories come from our time in that little home we’d made for ourselves. Except for the downstairs bathroom. I didn’t love it so much. It was an eyesore – small and rectangular, covered in a ghastly wallpaper that made a person dizzy. It wasn’t much different from this, actually, just smaller print in a much smaller space:

The color scheme was the same – red on cream – and the busy-ness was there. Our wallpaper, though, was made of a bunch of small, red diamonds that were actually made of four dots. It really did make a person dizzy to be locked in such a tiny room with such dotty/diamondy wallpaper.

So one day, I asked Karen if I could re-do the bathroom. She told me to have at it and I did. Only, here’s the thing: The wallpaper, the monstrous, eye-hurting wallpaper, had been glued directly to the drywall. That meant that even with steaming, removing the wallpaper brought giant chunks of plasterboard with it. It was horrible. I had friends come over and help and every single one left crying. My roomie and I spent two weeks denuding the walls and every single day, I cursed the moron who stuck wallpaper glue directly to drywall and didn’t think of future house-dwellers who might need to remove said wallpaper.

Around that same time, Karen started looking worn down. She said she wasn’t sleeping well at night. She felt jittery all day. One evening, quite a way into my renovation project, she said, “I’ve been having terrible dreams.” She looked awful, bags under the eyes, bruisey skin.

I asked, “Dreams about what?”

She said, “About my mother. In my dreams, my mother is terribly upset because she’s misplaced her purse and I’m trying to help her find it but I don’t know where it is and she’s so angry.”

She mentioned a similar dream a couple of days later. A little bell chimed in the back of my brain. I said, “Hey, Karen, the bathroom downstairs, who put up the wallpaper?”

She said, “My mom. She’d been so proud of it. She hung it all by herself, decorated that room all by herself.” I nodded, put my head down, and got back to work.

The minute I got home that night, I ran downstairs, stood in the bathroom with its pockmarked, crumbling walls from whence wallpaper had been ripped violently away, and yelled,

I AM SORRY! I DIDN’T KNOW! I AM SURE IT WAS BEAUTIFUL AT THE TIME. I NOW UNDERSTAND THAT YOU LOVED THIS ROOM BECAUSE YOU MADE IT YOURSELF! I DIDN’T KNOW AND I SHOULD HAVE ASKED BEFORE CHANGING IT. PLEASE LEAVE YOUR DAUGHTER ALONE! I AM SO SORRY FOR EVERYTHING I SAID!

Then I sat down and explained my vision – grayblue wainscotting with sky blue wall and ceiling, clouds dotted up top. I’d paint a tranquil sea along the trim and my roommate would decorate the room with seashells and lighthouses. I mentioned that it would be a peaceful place in an otherwise dark corner of the basement, just as she’d originally intended. Then I got to work. The rest of the wallpaper came off like I was peeling skin from a sunburn.

I was sitting at my desk the next day when Karen walked in. She looked great! No more dark circles or saggy skin. I asked how she’d slept and she said, “I haven’t slept that well in I don’t know how long.”

“So, no dreams about your mother?”

She thought about it and said, “No. She’s fine now.”

I apologized to Karen for causing her such trouble and when she asked what I was talking about, I told her, “Your mother knows.”

For Karen: I hope the afterlife is everything you wished it to be. I miss laughing with you.

And for Dana since you got to share this adventure with me. We had some good times there, didn’t we?

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Filed under Adventures, For my short story collection, In my backyard, My journey to writerhood