Oct/Nov 2004 Nonfiction

Not a Ghost Story

by Sherri Linn Kline

They were a nice, older couple, a little wired about dealing with not only a Twilight Zone episode but a real Witchdoctor. Although that wasn't how Shava introduced me. She told them I was "well-versed in Appalachian folkways and spiritualism." I could hear my great Aunt Elsbet chuckling in my ear. She was the one who was the real Yarb Doctor. A Yarb Doctor is not only responsible for physical healing, she's responsible for healing spirits as well.

We settle ourselves into the sofa with our cups of coffee, and Mama brings in a tray of cookies, cheese and crackers. We nibble and chat for a bit until finally the pair relax enough to tell their story.

The cabin was reputed to have been originally built in the mid eighteen hundreds and then abandoned during the turn of that century. Some time around 1900-'05, a man came with his family to re-claim the land and rebuild the house. He'd been a factory worker who lost a leg in an accident, so he decided to try farming to support his family. They thrived for several years, until a local epidemic took his wife and all of his children save two daughters who had married and moved away. He, alone, was left.

He refused to go to church after his family's funeral. He just lived by himself, growing bitter and strange as the years passed. Local legend has it that he murdered two Indians who had had the bad luck to be caught on his land once, but, the times being what they were, he got away with it. Still, he was shunned by his neighbors for the deed.

Finally, his body was found by the local minister, who had noticed that he hadn't been seen for several days. The old man had committed suicide. They buried him beside his cabin, in unhallowed ground, away from the rest of his family. Then the land was sold by his daughters and turned into pasture. The cabin that had faithfully housed generations of families was left again to the weather, the animals, and the silent dead.

The whole area grew to have a reputation for being haunted. People kept seeing the shade of a one-legged man peering from the empty windows, or two slender, graceful shadows walking through the lower meadow. Just harmless romanticism. Time passed.

About twenty years ago, the parcel of land that had the remains of the cabin on it was sold to a pair of newlyweds, who built a lovely house a little farther up the meadow. The owners, for some reason, decided to leave the cabin be, although what was left of the old man's bones were dug up and re-interred with his family. It would seem that some parts of our new age really is kinder in its attitudes.

The new owners didn't stay married long, though, and finally the land and everything on it was sold to the people who own it now.

When they settled into their new digs, they checked out the old cabin and its fallen-down well, and aside from capping the well, decided to leave it as-is. While the building was damaged, they thought it might be able to be salvaged at some point. It was a historical site, of sorts. More time passed. They learned of the cabin's history from neighbors and the children descended from the old man's two surviving daughters, who came to visit their ancestral home once. They had no problems with the old man or his shade during those years.

About two years ago they'd had the cabin assessed and found out that it was far too damaged for it to be feasible to restore it. So they saved up enough money to have the thing torn down and hauled away. This year they'd made an appointment with a contracting company to have it done in late October or early November. Which meant they might get around to it in February of next year.

That's when things got interesting. The owners of the land started having nightmares and generally experiencing a case of the willies every time they walked by the cabin in the evening or at night. It got so bad, and they grew so spooked, that they were thinking of paying a thousand or so dollars extra to have the company come in early to raze the thing.

My sister-friend Shava is a neighbor of theirs, and from time to time they'd mentioned the situation as it developed. Since she was a trained councilor, she tried her techniques to settle their minds a bit, but it was a no-go. By this time, they were firmly convinced that they'd annoyed the ghost of a mean, murdering old man, and he was out to get them.

That was when she gave me a call and asked if I'd mind if she passed my name along as somewhat of an expert in settling spooks down. Or at least settling down people who are spooked. I wasn't too sure about this. I don't usually do out of state housecalls, and I work for the Neo Pagan community. I wasn't particularly interested in dealing with non-pagan neurotics clueless enough to keep an emotionally poisoned house for years. I didn't even want to think about the possibility that there might be something there besides bad vibes—just because I've never met a real, "live" homicidal ghost doesn't mean I want seek out chances on actually doing so. On the other hand, I have serious trouble saying "no" to my sister. If she thinks I might help, she's usually right.

So I said "yes." About an hour later, I got a long distance call from her neighbors. First off, I told them that they had the cure already scheduled—outside of a Stephen King book, I've never heard of a spook sticking around after its focus had been broken up and hauled off to the Great Dump. They told me that they were desperate, because the thought of even two more months of being haunted was freaking them right out, but they couldn't really afford the extra money to have it demolished earlier. I tactfully told them that I don't work for free (at least not outside of Family, anyway). The guy I was talking to quoted me a price.

Just call me an honorary Ghostbuster.

Besides, this way I get paid to hang out with my favorite kin for several days when I'm not doing whatever the heck I'll need to do to settle things at Casparvill. Hopefully. If I can't do it, I won't take more than my travel expenses.

So I pack up a few oddments and head to Shava's.

The first day I got there, she and I went over to her neighbors' so I could be introduced. They told me the tale, much as she told me. After they were done, I sat and thought a bit before opening my mouth. My initial thought was that they were suffering from some self induced spookitis induced by the granddaughter's visit. That was a tale straight out of "Famous English Hauntings."

The vague picture I had forming in my mind involved one of my psychodramas that would cut the house off from the rest of the land, in their subconscious mind, until the contractors came and hauled off every splinter and nail. It was overkill for me to do a full-on housecleansing for a place that nobody lived in and would be demolished in a couple of months or so. Just put a fence around it and let Bob the Builder deal with it.

But I still needed to check the house with my own mismatched eyes and odd senses, just to be sure. With my luck I had a nineteenth century Hannibal Lector haunting that pile of wood. In which case I'd "accidentally" set fire to the damn' thing myself. So I made arrangements to spend the early part of the evening meditating near the cabin, and we went back to Shava's to gather up some camping gear so I could do it in some sort of comfort. Shava leant me her cell phone before she dropped me off, so I could call her to come and pick her up. I wasn't going to try dragging my gear and my butt the half-mile back to her house in the dark. Especially with the sky threatening some weather in the wee hours.

I told the couple that I'd come back, and they gave me permission to seek shelter or a bathroom in their house if I needed it while I was out there—thank all the wee gods. I've never done a meditation over an hour at a spot where I couldn't at least dig a discreet hole. Here I was planning on three to four hours. They also said I could light a small fire in the bare area by the old well.

So I spent a half hour setting up my short-term camp: gathering downed wood from under the scrub trees near one end of their meadow and arranging a circle of stones to contain the fire when I lit it, laying out the zafu (a little, round pillow filled with buckwheat hulls that a friend of mine makes) I sat on to keep my hip from giving me fits while I meditated, wool blanket folded beside it and a leather bag with niblets, a bottle of water, matches, a rain poncho, a flashlight and the cell phone. The can of pepper spray and the pocket knife were clipped to my belt, under my vest. I'm more worried about the living than I am about the dead. Although my braid and my hat WAS filled with various odd charms, Just In Case.

After that, I took advantage of the waning daylight to get a good look at the cabin. I didn't plan on going in, just checking out the outside. It had been well built and was large for its type, with two short stories and a chimney built of close matched stones. I've helped build a couple of those back in West Virginia. There's an art to it. The well had been built by the same hand, by the looks of it. The planks of the roof were still in place, although the shingles were gone. The logs that made up the walls were weathered silver gray and dry, but they still seemed sturdy. A good part of the white chinking that filled in the spaces between the logs was still doing its job. There was no front door, just the frame of the opening and the black holes of the windows on either side of it like hopeless eyes.

The people who owned the land must have been about as sensitive as the rocks in that well. I could see why it took the better part of a hundred years for someone to take the land as a dwelling place again. That cabin radiated loneliness and sadness. I wouldn't have had the thing in my backyard even if it was a half-acre from my house. The least the countryside could have done was bury the poor man with his kindred. I wondered how large that sad shack in the backyard loomed in the reasons behind the first newlyweds' marital breakup. It looked as if some sort of house cleansing was back in the game plan, dammit.

As night came in on the rising wind, I lit a fire in my little hearth, sat myself down on my zafu with my legs curled comfortably in a half lotus, and settled down to stillness.

The clouds were covering the sliver of Moon that should have been showing, as well as the stars. I could only see the cabin as a silhouette against the ambient light coming from the living house a half-acre away. The wind covered any small sounds that animals might have been making around me, but it was constant enough and mild enough not to worry me at the moment. I would probably not get rained on. The wood I'd managed to gather was quite dry, so the small fire was hot and bright as it danced with the wind.


The familiar stillness of a half-trance fills me like sun-warmed water. It's not a full Theta-level trance, just the kind of meditative state a hunter falls into when she waits for what will come down the trail.

If an EEG were attached to my head at this point, it would register what the medical folks call an "alpha state." Like that induced by listening to good music by a fire. In a full, deep, trance, I need a keeper if I'm moving around much because I don't perceive the quotidian world until I'm coming out of it. If I were wired up, then it would register a "Theta state," like light sleep.

Time passes. I grow more still, more open. Is there anyone here? I'm listening if you have something to say.

My attitude is not as silly as it sounds. One side effect of a trip I took to Ground Zero in New York is knowledge of my own strength. If what I picked up there didn't drown me, Hannibal Lector—if he's finished with the flesh, anyway—can kiss my earth-bound butt. I'll be out of trance and out of THERE before he can finish his first soliloquy on how to serve Man. One of the charms braided in my hair is the one I wore on the Tower trip, too. Let's just say it proved quite effective.

No one answers, though. No angry soul comes to shake his fist at the intruder from his doorway. It's just a breezy night filled with empty sadness. My mind wanders around the things I've learned. When I come back from my reverie, I realize that I've been softly singing one of my favorite old lullabies, "All the Pretty Horses." It's one of the saddest I know. He must have been in a mort of pain, to imprint his house enough to last ninety years.

Poor house. Poor man. You were each other's second chance, gone to naught. Houses develop a form of life when they've been lived in long enough. I once cleaned up a garden that I'm almost sure mourned its maker. Would a house mourn, be aware of an emptiness? He must have clung to that house because it was all he had left of his dreams. No wonder he reacted so ferociously to trespassers.

Who have long gone on, however they died. As I'd cris-crossed the meadow earlier, looking for wood, I touched nothing but clean nature. If murder had been done on that land, a thousand sunrises and rainfalls had washed it of the memory.

The thought comes to me: what if some part of him really is still there?

What if I'm getting an answer to my question? Not anger, but despair.

Isolation. He'd gone to church at one time, so he was a Christian. Don't they believe that Damnation is being apart from God? This poor man had separated from everything before he died. It makes a certain amount of sense that he'd stay separated after. Except for the sheltering hands of his home. Which is going to be torn down soon.

Time to go. I need to think about this. I stand up, stretch for a minute and let my joints settle. Then I take a stick I'd laid aside for the purpose and dig what's left of the coals of my little fire into the dusty earth. I'll scatter the stones when I come back. I call Shava to pick me up, gather everything and head up to the house to wait for her.


When we got back to her home and she settled me down in her huge, old living room with a warm cup of tea, I gave her a run-down of my impressions. I wasn't worried that she'd shriek and automatically reach for the commitment papers. She's heard stranger stuff from me over the years.

She frowned at me over her cup and said, "I thought you were going to just enclose the cabin so the people on the land will not be disturbed. Why take so much effort when the problem will be taken care of soon anyway?" Her Israeli accent was thicker than usual. I could tell that she was a little worried about where I was going with this.

I tried to explain what I felt. There's a wound, here. The patient is going to die soon, yes, but why should he be in pain until the end? Man, spirit or dwelling, it seemed as if no one cared enough to help them when they were first injured. They certainly didn't care later. If it crosses my path, I'd say it's my job to try.

"Are you saying that you believe that there is a real, aware entity in that house? Or that the house, itself is aware?"

I couldn't read what was going on behind her eyes, but we'd talked about this over many campfires over the years. "Ghosts" vs. some sort of psychic residue imprinted by trauma. I've been mostly on the side of the latter viewpoint, but have kept my options open. I believe in spirits, so my cosmology admits a possibility that a soul might be tied to this plane of existence. I just haven't had one walk up and introduce itself yet.

She has a slightly different way of looking at the world. She planted a grove of trees in honor of her dead, and carries her ghosts in her memories.

"Aware or not, something might be aware. That's enough for me. Nothing walked over, shook my hand and introduced itself, if that's what you're asking," I told her. She set the cup down and took up one of her interminable crochet projects that she's got scattered around her house. "So, what can I do to assist you?" was all she said in reply.

I do love my sister. The knot in the middle of my back loosened at her offer. "I need a keeper while I'm doing my Thing."

Aside from the possibility that I'm going to trip over something and break myself when I'm wandering around in an altered state of consciousness, I need someone to smack me awake if circumstances occur where I unexpectedly need to act like a sane member of Quotidian space. The best thing of all is she's my mental health councilor. If I do get my head into some sort of trouble, my mechanic will already be on-site.

She cocked her head at me, surprised, I think. It's no small measure of trust to ask a shrink to watch you while you wander around, acting crazy. A shaman in full trance can be a very strange sight. I don't have seizures or snap at things, but I do give full evidence that I'm completely using the non-linear parts of my brain when I'm under. The small circle of shamanic practitioners that I'm a part of usually spot for each other when we operate outside of our subculture so we don't have misunderstandings with Civilians. Misunderstandings can lead to coming out of trance in a psych ward or the back of a cop car.

Shava's one of my closest friends. She knows about most of my oddities already, just as I know a fair number of hers. I'm not worried I'll shock her. Frankly, I'll feel safer with her at my back than I would with any of my fellow Walkers. As for her opinion of my sanity, she's a Jungian and an ex-Kibbutznik. I'll risk it.

I got one of her surprising grins. "I have always wanted to watch you at your Work, Wolfie," she told me.

I wanted to check one last thing with her, though. "What would you think if we do run across our first real spook?"

She shook her head at me."Do you think I am afraid of the dead?"

Personally, if I were one of the restless dead, I'd worry about HER.

We both went to bed on that note. In the morning I called to arrange permission for us to take a private look inside the cabin. The couple would be gone during the day, which suited me just fine. They were going to get the drum, sage smoke and protective Circle later. This was for whatever was the real problem. Right before we left, I raided her kitchen garden for the old herbs that signified protection, healing and remembrance. Sage, thyme and rosemary were in my bundle, and since she'd been too busy to weed, there was even a goodly bit of goldenrod. If I was going to do this, I'd do it right, the way I'd heard Elsbet describe so many times.

When we got to the part of the meadow path that came closest to the cabin, I hello'd the house, as was polite far back in the hills when I was a kid. That's where you call out to warn the people inside a house that you're coming up into their yard. I suspected that what was polite behavior in 1960's Appalachia resembled what was considered polite in rural Ohio in the 1900's. Shava and I went through the doorless opening and into the cabin.

The space inside was a little dim, but the open windows and unchinked parts of the walls let in more than enough light to see by. Two empty rooms, a buckled wooden floor. On one end of the house was what was left of a fireplace that had been converted to a wood stove. On the other end, near the door that opened out into what had been the kitchen garden, I could see the remains of a narrow staircase going up to what was probably the children's sleeping space. No need to risk my neck going up there. I was sure that whatever was left of them was wherever they needed to be.

While Shava stood quietly by the hearth space, I carefully laid my herbs at every door and window, finishing at the hearth. She dug into the bag that I had her carry for me and handed me the matches and yarzeit candle that I'd pulled out of her pantry. Elsbet' had always said that you needed a candle burning or a fire in a hearth to make a shelter a home. Homes had power far above a shelter to keep the spirit safe. I've used the image ever since, and it hasn't failed me. A yarzeit candle is a small clear, glass cup half filled with candle wax and a wick used in Jewish religious practice, but I didn't think Anything would mind, and it was as safe as a fire could get in that tinderbox.

I wasn't worried about our spirits, but if my feelings were right, there was a remnant of a spirit who hadn't felt safe for a long, lonely time. I lit the candle and set it down on the stones where the stove had once stood. Shava gathered her skirts and lowered herself onto her heels beside it. It's a strange pose, forearms crossed and resting on the knees, back relaxed and curved forward. It's not quite a squat, and not sitting down, either. I've seen her hold it for over an hour.

I'm not as limber or as fastidious, so I just handed her my glasses, sat down in the dust, and began combing my hair with my ritual comb. After that, I started to work on going into deep trance. This time I decided not to use a drum, after this many years of meditation work I can induce a trance with just humming a reoccurring string of tones. It just takes a little longer sometimes. Elsbet' had always said that when she "bespoke a ghost," she used herbs to heal it and words to give it strength to move on. Of course, she never told me WHAT words she used. When I've ever done "ghost work" before, my intent was focused on the living people who were trying to make a home in the "ghost's" space.

So I'm hoping that my pre-conscious is up to the job. If I blow it, well, if there is a ghost, at least he won't be gossiping to my kindred that I'm incompetent.

The world fades, and so do my conflicting worries, as I go under. My memories from that point aren't the kind that one can write down with any sort of sense, so I'll use what Shava told me later:

She said my voice grew softer and slower as I repeated the tones. Then I went silent, my eyes wide and dilated, almost blind. It was if I were listening to something. Then I stood up and started walking from room to room, talking aloud in a deeper than normal voice and gestulating with my hands as I walked.

She called what I said "poetry." Verbal images:

Sunlight on a woman's hair as she bent to pull out weeds from the garden. How your daughters' voices sound as they tease each other, walking up the lane from the barn. The sound of the children giggling in the loft at night. The smell of a woman's skin as you hold her against you. How rich it smelled when bread was baking.

In between those, it seemed as if I were talking to the house, itself. Soothing it. I ran my hand gently along the walls as I paced.

What raised the hairs on her neck was the feeling that something was listening. It raised goosebumps on her arms when she told me about it later, too. She said that the feeling was like when she was in the military and her unit would stand in dead stillness, knowing that the enemy was on the other side of the wall. Not knowing what might happen next.

This went on for some time, the feeling of presence deepening. Then I abruptly stopped in the middle of the room and addressed the air. "She has granddaughters, you know. You have granddaughters. Your life together wasn't a failure. As long as they are, nothing's lost. You aren't alone. They remember you. I was river baptised, and I've met God where the water met the sky. If I didn't come to harm, there's naught for you to fear."

Then, in a clear alto I sang "Amazing Grace" like I believed it. In my conscious mind I used only the upper register of my voice because of vocal cord damage—speaking in what was my natural voice gives me a throat ache and a coughing fit after a short period. As I sang, the room emptied. She had no other way to describe it. There was no one behind the wall any more.

I came to myself with Shava's hand on my shoulder. I was standing in the middle of the room that held the stairs to the loft. My throat ached a bit, and I had the usual fuzzy headed feeling I get when I've been tranced for a long time. Almost tentatively, she asked me if I wanted to go home. "Did it work?" I managed to ask. She heard the hoarseness in my voice and went back to the bag for the water bottle. After I drank half of it, she still hadn't said anything more. When I finally lowered the bottle and gave her a quizzical look, she just finished gathering our stuff and blowing out the yarzeit candle. I was beginning to get a little concerned, but she looked up at me and smiled before she stood back up.

"I think that will have to be your call," she said.

We went home for the evening and a long, interesting night of talks it was. I got into trouble with my relatives because I didn't meet God during my baptism. It would seem that the pre-conscious part of me disagrees. Shava simply said that it shouldn't surprise me—a Gaiaest who has felt water and sky has met God, no?

I showed up the next day to work a Circle around the Cabin while the couple looked on from the house. The cabin was just that—a cabin. An old, half-fallen set of timbers and stone like dozens I've ran across in the hills. I still went around and hammered in iron nails over the doors and windows and the chimney afterwards, just in case. I don't think there was anything left there that needed binding, though. Whichever spirit needed healing, mine included, I think it worked.


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