Friday, November 1, 2013

The Ghost I Wasn't Expecting

Short of Carbon-14 dating, I'd be hard put to tell you the age of my barn with any precision. That said, the off-center double doors, gableless roof angled low enough to walk on, and rough, hand-hewn post and beam construction fit together with hand-carved nail pegs (photo), strongly suggest it's stood its ground at least 183 years, if not longer. The names of those who raised it are pieces of historic mystery, but between its walls, one of them fell and his life was no more.

It had been a warm autumn day. September, maybe October. Probably October. Haying season was over and the sun drifted slowly down past the line of yellow leaved oak and maple that formed the western boundary of his field. He was in the loft, raking loose hay back from the edge, tucking it into the enormous pile towering above his head and spreading from one end of the barn to the other. He'd done this daily after feeding time since they'd gotten in their first crop, rain and shine, sometimes negotiating the snow he measured in feet between his house and the barn on skis he fashioned himself. 

"You be careful," his wife admonished, when he stepped out the kitchen door that afternoon. She said the words so often he could mouth them with perfect timing, though not with impatience or irritation.  She'd ended each of her letters, written while he was serving in the Continental Army, the same way. He understood what she meant. 

"I will, don't worry," he said, like always. He knew what he was doing and he was careful. Heights didn't bother him in the same way they did his father. Growing up, he'd saved the old man a dozen times, grabbing him by the shirt collar when he teetered too dizzily near eternity. There was no reason to think he'd fall and if he did, it was only a few feet, eight or nine at most. He'd fallen that far, or so it felt like, from the back of the Shire draft horse that pulled his plow. True, the ground isn't a wooden floor, but it's hard enough and one fall is as good -- or bad -- as another, he told himself.

Besides, what troubled him wasn't man-made. It was owls and bats roosting in the corners where the roof rested atop the walls. More than once he brushed the bats away when they awoke at dusk and headed for the open doors. He kept a broom in the loft for just such occasions. It wasn't so much they bothered him, but his wife thought them ugly, they frightened the children, and their acrid dung turned the barn into an outhouse in the summer heat.

"I'm coming," he shouted, in response to his wife's call to supper. 

Cool weather and we're done with bats for another year, he thought, tossing his rake onto the hay stack and turning to descend the ladder for the night. What happened next he couldn't say but suddenly, a large winged shadow was flapping round his head. He ducked and waved his arms, trying to ward off what surely must be a devil or an angel who mistook his barn for the local publick house. He never saw the dark grey barn owl with its white, heart-shaped face and wingspan the length of his arms stretched wide, that started at the sound of his voice. Nor did he see the edge of the loft until he was in mid-flight and then, only fleetingly.

At first, he feared he was dying, and a few agonizing seconds passed before he found his breath again. He wasn't hurting but his head felt wet, so he rolled to one side and slowly raised himself to his knees. That's when he noticed his right hand pressing into his right hand. He stood up quickly, backed up several paces, and stood there, looking at himself lying on the floor with blood draining from his head into the cracks between the boards. It's odd what crosses your mind at times like this. All he could think was, "I knew I should have laid those boards closer."

Concerned his delay was a portent of what she feared the most, his wife called again. With no answer forthcoming, she ran to the barn, stopped in the doorway, and raised a flour-dusted hand to her mouth. Watching her weep, helpless to convince her he was fine, that he was right there, next to her, he began to weep as well, cursing whatever it was that permitted him to survive a war and let him die like this.

They laid him to rest in the cemetery behind the Congregational church he and his wife had faithfully attended all their lives. Years later, she was placed next to him and eventually, their children with their husbands and wives, sons and daughters, too.   

Halloween in New England plays havoc with the imagination and mine is no exception, though lately I've begun to have serious doubts about the distinction between real and imaginary. Earlier this evening, for instance, I went out to the barn to switch on the exterior flood lamp on account of a recent episode of what appears to be nocturnal adolescent trespassing. A few hours later, as I was getting ready to turn in, I glanced out the living room window and observed the barn door swing wide and close again. I locked it, I was certain; there was no wind, and the only cars in sight were mine.

With my heavy Maglite flashlight in hand, I walked out to the barn, trying to steel myself to sound braver than I felt. My steel turned to molten lead when I realized the door was locked as tightly as it had been when I snapped the padlock shut at sundown. Common sense called it weariness, the beer I didn't have with dinner, or time to get my eyes checked. I also knew I had few choices if I wanted to know the truth. 

With hands trembling so badly I may as well had Parkinson's, I slipped the key into the lock, took a breath and stepped through the entry cut into the frame of the large, double doors. That's when I saw him, sitting on a bale of hay toward the far end, his back against the wall, with a long thin stem stuck between his teeth. He could easily have been relaxing after a hard day's work. I reached over and turned on the remaining lights, thinking maybe I do need to get my eyes checked after all. And then he moved. 

I couldn't have if I'd wanted to. My feet were planted as though they'd taken root and despite my pounding heart and a cold sweat breaking out across my back, I stood there, hand on the light switch, watching as he got up and walked the length of the barn toward me. "This was mine once," he said, gesturing with a wave of one hand, "now it's yours?" Dry-mouthed, I couldn't speak and nodded, instead. "Mm. You don't farm, do you."

Somehow I managed to whisper, "No, I'm...I'm almost a doctor...I...who...who are you?"

"Not the ghost you were expecting?" He said, cryptically. "Too bad you weren't around the night I..." He looked away for a few seconds and I thought he'd lost his train of thought when he turned back to me and said, "There are some things you should know about your barn." 

(Photo of beams and hand-hewn nails copyright 2013 by the author)
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