You don’t have to believe in ghosts
to know that we are all haunted.
When Pamina Campbell learns of a murder committed over two hundred years ago in her Connecticut farmhouse in order to avenge an unforgivable crime, she accepts that there are some things in life that just can’t be explained. Two plot threads twine as one woman calls to another across three centuries. One story, featuring Susannah Mathews, takes place in the late 1700s, while Pamina’s story is set in present day. Pamina leans that disaster – the sort of disaster that leaves you numb on a park bench in Brazil – can be a freaky thing of beauty. As Pamina and her family try to piece their lives back together in their 1770 home, little do they know that secrecy, homophobia, and a ghastly confession await.
I used to think the antique cross-stitch sampler hanging in my friend’s tiny guest bathroom was kind of cheesy. Her sloping bathroom is tucked up under the eaves, and I’m one of the few people who can actually stand up straight at the corner sink. The other day, I dried my hands and read the sampler. For the first time, I thought about the words.
Some people come into our lives and quietly go, others stay for a while
and leave footprints on our hearts and we are never the same.
In the last year, two such women have entered, and exited, my life. I’ve thought a lot about these women. Both of them have left their mark on me. Both of them have changed me. My mother always told me, “Pamina, there is no growth without change.” They have made me grow.
The first woman was an intuitive who claimed to have psychic abilities. She was in and out of my life so quickly that I often wonder if she was real. She helped me understand that sometimes we just have to accept the fact we can’t explain everything. Because we see the effects of wind, we believe it exists. Just because we don’t see the spirit world doesn’t mean it’s not there. As a skeptic, I resisted. Yet I didn’t question contagious yawning, the placebo effect, dreaming, nipples on men, intuition, the law of gravity, or female orgasms. It’s a very confusing dilemma to be open-minded, yet be skeptical. It sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?
I met the second woman only once – on a chilly October night when the maple trees blushed red and my husband and kids were out of town. That’s when I found out that ghosts do exist. My ghost needed me. She had unfinished business in this world, and spirits are often people who can’t get over their past. I don’t think you have to believe in ghosts to know we are all haunted.
I used to think a lot of things. I used to know a lot of things. Now, I only know two things: I have no idea how the universe works, except that it seems to require acquiescence at every point. And disaster – the sort of disaster that leaves you numb on a park bench or aching for your husband to come back to you – can be a freaky thing of beauty.
Old houses groan, and creak, and sigh, but if you tune them out a bit, you can ignore the theatrics. They speak to you – if they want to – sometimes in whispers, a bit at a time. If you’re open to hearing what the lives within the walls have to say, the rewards can be transformative. Old houses are for those who can tolerate a little imperfection in their living, and owning one is kind of like knowing a really great secret.
Jim and I agreed I would take a drive over to see the house for sale in Rockbury rather than waste our realtor’s time by scheduling a showing. We had always been fascinated by historic homes and the fact that when people walk into them, they don’t automatically know where the bathroom is. When I pulled into the driveway, I kicked myself for having passed over the house so many times on Realtor.com. It looked nothing like it did in the blurry online photos. Before I even climbed out of the car I knew this was the one.
It was a simple square Connecticut farmhouse, added on to many times over the years. At the far end of the property there was a meadow that turned to pinewoods. Potentially lethal icicles, some of them four feet long, hung from the roof like the frozen teeth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Winter had been especially rough that year and the piles of snow surrounding the house were so high, they gave me the perfect vantage point to peer in the six-over-six windows, the frost on them like bits of lace. The kitchen walls appeared cartoon yellow in the listing photos, but were actually a traditional mustard color. Wide board floors with wrought head nails ran throughout the first floor. The early American fireplace had a massive hearth. It was surrounded by a wall of raised paneling where someone had hung a wreath of dried hydrangeas that I planned to take down as soon as we moved in. I swear the house whispered to me.
“Wait until you see this place! It’s perfect,” I babbled to Jim from my cell phone. “It’s empty, and really old, and just past the farm that sells the free-range eggs. Those crummy photos don’t do it justice. Let’s call Beverly and see if she can get us inside tonight to see it. You’re going to love this house,” I promised.
The twelve room house was in foreclosure and had been vacant for five years as the asking price dropped and dropped. When the bank accepted our low-ball offer, Jim arranged for eleven men, most of them Brazilians who worked with him in his construction business, to help us on the day of the move. In my mind, I thought I had mentally allocated a place in the house for all of our belongings.
Jim posted me in the garage as I was supposed to direct the men where to go with each box, or piece of furniture. The first things off the moving truck were saddles, bridles, reins, and a huge box labeled “Cow Medicine and Calf Nipples.” I quickly realized I had forgotten about at least half of our possessions. I had approximately three seconds to decide where each box was supposed to go and didn’t even know what we were calling many of the rooms in the new house. Men, speaking Portuguese, wandered aimlessly looking for logical places to put their boxes, and one narrow staircase was completely blocked by our queen-size TempurPedic bed. An older guy I had never seen before carried a cardboard box labeled ‘Pamina’s bras’ as if it held holy relics. He kind of bowed to me as I pointed him in the direction of our bedroom. Eelin, our eighteen-year old daughter, insisted we save the box I had neurotically labeled, ‘Doilies, or however you spell it’ to remind her of the nightmare of packing with me – the me I used to be. When it was all over, hardly any of our things wound up where they were supposed to, but eating pizza with all the men at our long lost dining room table was a wonderful feeling. We were home.
Those first few weeks, whenever we came home, we were greeted at the front door by our whining cairn terrier, Chauncey, who kept trying to alert us to something. It felt as if we were living in a 1960s TV episode of Lassie! Do you remember all those unbelievable things Lassie the Collie could do? It’s a miracle any work ever got done on the Martin farm because every Sunday at seven pm it seemed someone, usually wholesome Timmy, was either trapped in a badger hole, caught in quicksand, developing a high fever from the measles, being threatened by a mother wolf, or getting pinned under a tractor. Once, June Lockhart (Timmy’s adoptive mom) was caught in a bear trap and told Lassie to go home and get a C clamp (she actually pantomimed a “C” with her hand). Lassie dashed home, got a knife, and dashed back. Timmy’s mom tried to free herself with the knife, and when it didn’t work, again told Lassie to go home and get the clamp. Before Lassie raced back with the clamp, she whipped up a tuna noodle casserole and caught up on the ironing!
Remember all of Lassie’s whimpering and tugging at sleeves? That’s exactly what started happening right after we moved into our new old house. I swear we used the exact same lines they did on the Lassie show when we said things like, “What is it, boy? Do you think something’s wrong? Do you think he wants us to follow him?”
Glancing over his shoulder to make sure we were trailing behind, insistent Chauncey would lead us through a maze of stacked unopened moving boxes to the corner of a back room on the first floor. He would stare at the ceiling, scratch at the rug, and kind of bleat. There was never anything there.
For over a month, Chauncey the Cairn Terrier continued his Lassie the Collie act in the back room, and nothing we did could get him to stop. He was working himself into a frenzy. If dogs could get bags under their eyes or drink cocktails to help them cope with stress, he would definitely have been a haggard version of himself, wearing under-eye concealer as he drowned his sorrows with a dirty martini in some dive bar. He was making himself, and us, crazy!
At the same time, Jim and his crew of eleven workers spent two days tearing three layers of shingles off the roof of our house in preparation for putting down a new roof. The amount of dust was unbelievable and probably dated back to Thomas Jefferson’s administration! Pry bars, pounding, nail guns, men on the roof, falling debris, and hammering all made Chauncey even more nuts and drove me to a living room in the oldest part of the house. I sat there and tried to read while Chauncey whined and scratched. All the vibration caused dust to fall through the light fixtures and I knew once it settled it would only be stirred up into the air again. Layer upon layer of dust coated a cobweb at the top of a window, reminding me of rock candy crystals forming on white cotton string for a science fair project. Finally, at lunchtime, there was blessed silence.
Sitting on the couch, enjoying the peace and quiet, I suddenly heard scratching and muffled squealing in the ceiling above me. Chauncey raced into the room with an ‘I told you so’ look on his face.
Oh my god! I thought to myself. There really is something there!
Knowing he was still on lunch break, I ran outside to find Jim. Just as Chauncey had done, I led him through the maze of cardboard boxes while I held his hand and chattered.
“What’s that, girl? Timmy’s in the well?” he asked.
“Very funny, but there is something in the ceiling, and as all Lassie viewers know, Timmy falling in a well is an urban legend. It never happened in any episode.”
“We just tore the entire roof off the house right down to the rafters and I didn’t see anything, but we’ll get some Havahart traps and see what we catch.”
As soon as Jim entered the room, the noises stopped. I sighed in frustration and explained, “Whatever these things were, they didn’t sound like mice or squirrels. I almost wonder if they were bats because they sounded like they were dragging their wings around and squeaking.”
Before too long, it wasn’t just Chauncey who was in a frenzied state – all of us were! We never caught a thing in the Havahart traps – which we baited with everything from cheese to peanut butter – not even a mouse. The squeaking and the scratching went on round the clock. The sound seemed to come from the attic. At night, I would sit and read in the old living room and listen to rustle, flap, drag, rustle, flap, drag across the floorboards above my head and down behind the water pipes in the first floor bathroom.
Convinced we did indeed have bats, Jim spent hours online researching how to get rid of them without killing them. Spring was approaching and we learned bats give birth in June, meaning their numbers would soon multiply. Jim built a bat house with the desired four roosting chambers, making sure not to use pressure-treated wood. He made certain all the wood surfaces were scratched or grooved horizontally, and then mounted it on a fourteen foot pole, hoping to lure them out of the house. It didn’t work.
For three nights in a row, Jim and I both sat outside as dusk approached and never took our eyes off the house, hoping to see where the bats were exiting. I sat in an Adirondack chair and watched the rear of the house. Jim monitored the front.
Birds aren’t really active at night and most go to roost shortly after sunset. They move gracefully in smooth curves or they fly in fairly straight lines. Bats, on the other hand, make sharp, choppy, right-angle turns. They appear to fly in no general direction, moving in large circles with jittery movements. In midair, bats seem to stop and go as they hunt over ponds and the edges of woods, taking advantage of the updrafts the breeze makes when entering trees.
We never saw a single bat.
Thinking they could be leaving the house and then flying back in before dawn, Jim patched even the tiniest holes in our fieldstone and cement foundation. Then he attached plastic netting to the side of the house where he suspected they might be coming out. At dusk he’d raise the netting so the bats could exit and then around midnight he’d lower the netting so they couldn’t get back in. The squealing kept up. Chauncey was on the verge of exhaustion from keeping a constant vigil in the back room which was starting to have a creepy, but inconsistent, smell.
Finally, we called an exterminator for advice. We had no intention of hurting the bats – we just wanted them out of the house before their babies were born.
The exterminator, who sort of looked like an unshaven Robert De Niro, arrived in a white pick-up truck with the company name stenciled in orange on the side doors. He inspected the attic, the basement, and the foundation. After putting away his flashlight he joined us on the patio and I poured him a glass of iced tea.
He scratched his head and began, “I think what you have here is the possibility of a multiverse, which is basically somewhat similar to the idea of multiple planes of existence. Imagine, if you can, a billion realities all around us, but not perceived by us.”
Jim and I nodded our heads thoughtfully as we pretended to understand what this guy was talking about. I kicked Jim under the table, but he ignored me.
“There are different levels to our reality. Let’s say our reality is floor thirty-seven in a giant hotel and our dreams are floor fifty-three. We can get to the dream floor by letting go of our conscious bodies and floating up to floor fifty-three. There are other floors. Generally, we just don’t know how to get to them. But, non-metaphorically, there are an infinite amount of existences, and the planes are considered stable states of existence, defined as being governed by separate realities. Our existence is pretty much just a set of rules. There are laws of physics, and our link to our bodies keeps us stuck in this plane.”
After a very long pause, Jim asked, “So, we don’t have bats?”
“You don’t have real bats,” the exterminator agreed, making air quotes at the word real.
“So what do we have?” I asked.
“I think you have bats that are stuck in this plane of existence. I’ve seen this once before.”
“Because they can’t get to their dream floor in the giant hotel,” I nodded as Jim looked at me in disbelief.
“Exactly!” the exterminator boomed.
“So the bat house isn’t going to do any good,” Jim conceded.
“Not unless it’s on another plane of existence,” the exterminator agreed.
“I’m pretty sure it’s right there on the pole,” Jim observed.
“So in this other case of multiverse bats, how did you get rid of them?” I asked.
“I didn’t,” he admitted.
“You didn’t?” I responded.
“No, the family eventually just moved away. Remember, it is beyond our control in which plane of existence we will be reborn,” the exterminator shrugged. He handed me his bill and I walked him to the driveway.
“Out of all the exterminators in Connecticut, we had to pick the quantum physicist?” Jim snorted as he bent over to remove the plastic netting from the foundation. “Can you believe that guy? I think he’s inhaled way too many pesticides!”
“At least he took it easy on the bill,” I offered, glancing at the paperwork.
“He didn’t do anything besides shine a flashlight around and talk!” Jim roared.
The next night we finally got rid of the bats, or whatever they were, on our own. Eelin searched her iPod for something obnoxious and annoying and found a Kanye West hip-hop album she claimed our son, Luke, who was away at college, had downloaded. She turned it up full-blast in the back room and then the three of us hid upstairs for the rest of the evening. Even though the rap lyrics came from a floor below, the music pounded in my ears and gave me a headache.
In the morning the unseen bats were gone. As I turned off the iPod, my parting conversation with the exterminator popped into my head. Just before he climbed into his Please Release Me! pickup truck he had stared up at the Windex-blue sky and asked, “Have you ever seen the northern lights?”
“No, I haven’t,” I answered.
“I haven’t either,” he conceded. “But it doesn’t mean they’re not there.”