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Our Ghosts


This is a little piece that isn’t quite a short story, but more of a mish-mash of various local lore and ghost stories. – Tim

The new library on Rosebud Street couldn’t be opened to the public without its own ghost. In the 90’s, the city council built several libraries around town that didn’t have ghosts, following the general tide of the times away from the old superstitions. Those libraries were filled with rainbow colors, comfy chairs, little stuffed animals, smiling faces—all to attract visitors, as if a library was a cafe or coffee shop!

But the city council later regretted its errors. The visitors to those libraries complained that something important was missing: the cold finger that draws itself along one’s neck when one steps into the stacks, the mist of silence that veils the periodicals. Such feelings turn a book-filled room into a real library. At great expense, the city council rid itself of the rainbow colors and comfy chairs and tried to install in their place appropriate ghosts, but the atmosphere was never quite right. The shadows that should have played in the dark corners weren’t dark enough, and the footsteps that should have paced the empty corridors could hardly be heard.

Hoping to avoid another catastrophe, the city council hired me. I had been among the most vocal of the concerns citizens when the ghosts were omitted from the earlier libraries, and I knew the ghosts of our town better than anyone else. Only I could interview the various candidates and choose the most fitting for the new library on Rosebud Street. It was not only a matter of equipment, which I possessed—the tape recorders, magnetometers, and time-lapse cameras—but a matter of acclimation and expertise. I could keep my wits and therefore approach the task with the necessary dispassion.

The ghosts of our little American town are nothing like the ghost of the Old World. Our eldest spirits are from the 19th century. Compared to the dwellers among the English stones or German forests, 19th century ghosts are only children. It’s true that once, in the slice of land that our town now occupied, there were Native Americans with ten thousand years’ ancestral spirits, but the first settlers drove away the natives and the ghosts, expelling them to the mountains or to the western reservations. None of the old ghosts stayed behind, or if they did, they didn’t survive into the modern age. Anywhere they could have installed themselves was plowed down into cotton. This is a great misfortune; our little town could use more diversity to shake off our provincial prejudices.

More than half of our town’s ghosts are soldiers killed during the Civil War. They sit on their gravestones in the Old Cemetery and gamble on dice, or they complain about the hard tack and pine tea, or they play idle music on harmonicas and cheese hoop banjos. The ghostly soldiers rarely leave their earthly encampment, but they vigorously defend it against invaders. Once, a drunk wandered from the Hail Mary sports bar into the Old Cemetery. He had a mind to turn over some tombstones as a amusement. That, of course, was an aggression not to be tolerated, and the ghostly soldiers conspired to turn over a tombstone onto the drunk himself. It was a little menhir, a spire six feet tall that commemorated a particularly noble horse (who, I have discovered, is only partially buried in our town; his tail is here, but his limbs and head and other horseflesh is ten miles up the river). The toppled monument pinned the drunk’s leg against the cold earth, and the pitiable fellow spent the night crying out as the ghostly soldiers bounced long-rotted sunflower seeds off his wriggling form. None of the nearby inhabitants paid attention to the drunk’s pleas—they were accustomed to the generally debauched atmosphere among the soldiers in the Old Cemetery and gave the noises no special mind.

For my search for the Rosebud Library ghost, I set up a little office next to the historic courthouse and sent announcements along the usual spiritual channels. Applicants were requested to arrive during twilight hours for interviews. I was a little too old to make it to the witching hour, straight midnight, without falling asleep.

The first to visit was the ghost of Edward Owens, who lives in the abandoned train station in the valley. Edward was ten years old in 1885, when he put a fat metal screw on the railroad tracks. He wanted the train to flatten it; it would be a novelty. He’d seen others put out pennies on the tracks, but Edward did not have a penny to spare. The five o’clock express to Atlanta rushed past, and the fat screw became snarled in the wheel works. Sparks jumped forth and brakes engaged, but the momentum of the rear cars was too great. The train crumpled against itself, and the cars jumped the tracks. Six passengers and three cows died. A grain storehouse and two water towers were destroyed. The rail line was closed for ten days, postponing the delivery of tobacco, gravy, and beer that were the lifeblood of the local economy. For all this death and delay, and because Edward could never hope to repay what was lost, he was hanged outside of the train station. The gallows were normally built outside the courthouse, but this was a special occasion. As is customary, it was not the accidentally killed passengers that had their spirits imprinted on the land where the rusted smears of tracks are still visible. Instead, it was the little boy, suffering his own catastrophe of sudden guilt and untimely violence, whose spirit remained.

I decided that Edward Owens was not a good candidate for a library ghost; the simple fact was, he couldn’t read, and that seemed to be a poor thematic and moral lesson.

The next interviewee was Molly Maltbie, whose husband was a famous drinker in the Eagle Tavern on Pike Street. The tavern opened in 1911 against the objections of the local temperance committee; the local workers and farmers made it a great success. Every night Maltbie spent his strength, time, and money in the Eagle, consuming legendary quantities of beer and of a homebrew that was also renowned for its efficacy in removing paint. When the Eagle Tavern, later transformed into the Eagle Pool Hall, was renovated to become the Hail Mary sports bar, the new owners stripped away 70’s-era vinyl and found hash marks on the original woodwork that seemed to recount a particular liquor contest from almost a hundred years before. One storm-wracked night, while Maltbie was at the tavern, his wife could not longer be restrained. She made her famed March on the Eagle, carrying a hook and a broom. She opened the tavern doors with her boot; lightning illuminated the wrath on her face. “With this broom, I’ll give this place such a cleaning!” she cried, breaking every bottle and glass, upending tables, splintering the great mirror above the bar, shredding the indecent pictures, and defending herself against the counter-attacks of the clientele. In truth, after her assault, the tavern was much less clean, by the traditional use of the word. She placed her hook beneath the collar of her husband’s shirt and dragged him into the street, through mud puddles and thorn bushes, until they reached their beloved and peaceful home. On stormy nights, one can still see her white form making the March up Pike Street, and from the Hail Mary, there will be incidents where waitresses accidentally upend pint glasses of lite draft.

But after a long conversation with Molly, I decided that she, also, was not the right candidate for the library. She died as an old woman and was not very attractive—a round, plump woman with a mustache and big ears. That sort of ghost would not be approved by the public, who would want someone more beautiful. Her spirit-forming event, too, was a loud and raucous one, which would be unbecoming in a library atmosphere. And finally, I will admit to a personal bias. The ghost tours that I lead, commencing in September and running three times weekly until the first week in November, would be much less rich without the story of Molly Maltbie. I needed her at her current station; she was a necessary, punchy, up-beat figure in a litany of ghosts that would otherwise be too maudlin.

Next was Mike Callums, who occupied a place at the one-time Rhodes Hotel. Mike trained as a boxer and in 1933 won a high title at a regional championship. He returned to our town as a hero, and a grand spectacle was mounted for him in the courthouse square. The party burned long into the night, and as the women and children wandered homeward and the evening became heavy and boastful, Mike offered to face any challenger. He bested thirteen, but the fourteenth was the wheel man at Watson’s Mill, and his work had imbued the sinews of his arms with more strength than any boxer’s training. Already worn and battered, Mike Callums could not beat him. Immediately, the air of the place changed. The cheers and shouts stopped, and the high title lost its worth. Mike’s fiery temper was snuffed out. That same night, the Rhodes Hotel burned, and Mike Callums died.

I decided that he, too, was inappropriate for the library ghost. He was an angry and tormented spirit. At the Rhodes Hotel (rebuilt in the 80‘s and now hosting lawyers’ offices and a sub-par Italian restaurant), he terrified visitors with cries, blows, and hurled furniture. I was afraid that he would be insufficiently subtle for a library. The fire that had killed him had also left him with certain grievous wounds that could not be cured in a bloodless body. His face would be more fitting for a horror movie or nightmare than a glimpse reflection in the windows behind the circulation desk.

But when almost every hope for a suitable candidate was lost, Amelia Bloom arrived in my office. Her blue eyes, perpetually half-filled with tears, blinked below her wide-brimmed hat. Amelia was born and raised in a large white house, set back aways from the main street of our town, and her family was well-respected. Her pleasant face ornamented Fourth of July Parades, and she sang sweetly and harmoniously in the choir. Every young man in town wanted to be her beau, and there was more mourning than celebrating when she announced her engagement to Jack Thompson, a handsome and clever calvary officer. Their days were happy and bright, but, alas, too short! Heartrending was the hour that he was called up to the great campaigns of the Civil Wars. From the moment of his departure, Amelia stood sentry at the window of her family’s house. But after two years, three years, her young face was lined with hopelessness. Passers-by saw her at the window and thought her a ghost, though she was not yet dead. After her passing, her demeanor and appearance changed little, except that she was somewhat more flighty and transparent. I was surprised that she was willing to surrender her watch and take up a place at the library, but even ghosts, I suppose, can get bored.

A more ideal candidate for the job I could not hope to find. Amelia was young and beautiful and therefore certain to be more popular and inspirational than the ghost of an old woman. She was intelligent and literate, but not a dusty professor that would sink into the books and forget that her chief role was to interact with the visitors. She died in a quiet but pure and pitiable way—heartbreak. She was not a crazy or savage ghost who would freeze the blood of steely-nerved adults, but she would give to the library the essential and delicately perceptible aura of something strange.

The city council immediately approved my recommendation, and on the day before the ribbon cutting for the Rosebud Street library, I introduced her to her new home. The books stood in neat rows, like soldiers in file. Amelia comments on this in a sad voice. I suggested that she could shuffle the books a little, put them in a slight disorder. It would be best if she rearranged them only subtly—put volume H after F, and M after T, so that her presence should be eerie and not overt. She should leave books open to random pages; visitors would find for themselves some significance in the revealed text and credit Amelia with clairvoyance. On stormy days, it would be her job to flicker the lights haphazardly. If a piece of paper were left on a table, she should decorate it with curious symbols and invented words; it was unimportant if these words have any sense behind them.

Amelia nodded her understanding. Happily, she didn’t ask why a ghost was required to do these things, because I didn’t have a ready response. It was the behavior demanded by visitors. It fit with the ghosts of film and literature and campfire stories. It is odd, I think, that they expect such conduct from ghosts, because in my experience ghosts are neither random or capricious. They stalk the same places for centuries and remain fixed on the same obsessions. There are some so regular that one can set his watch to their moans and wails.

In front of a crowd on Rosebud Street, the city council cut the red ribbon and turned the golden key. And when the visitors entered the library, they felt a cold finger run down their necks, and they felt the mists of silence wrap their ears and hearts. The memories of those warm, modern libraries were lost, and everyone recognized that the Rosebud Street library, properly provisioned with a ghost, was good and correct.

But Amelia was even more clever than I had anticipated. For several weeks, she fulfilled her role as a library ghost splendidly. She rearranged and opened the books at random, she flickered the lights, she scrawled words and symbols. But at night, when the visitors were away, Amelia read. Strange conduct for a ghost! They are not much for entertainment or self-improvement. She read everything that the Rosebud Street library offered on the Civil War. First, she read the basic histories, then the historical annals of our town, which held the records of enlisted and casualties —the list of ghosts. After she had finished these, she left requests that the library should send away to other institutions for further documents: maps, collected letters, battle plans, lists of burials at battlefield and prison camps. The librarians obeyed; perhaps they felt it their duty to serve a client, supernatural or otherwise, or perhaps they didn’t want to anger a ghost.

Then one day, when I entered the library, no cold finger ran along my neck, and sneezes and snoring and whispers dispelled the mists of silence. Amelia had left behind a letter addressed to me. In her refined antebellum hand, she wrote: “I’ve gone to Jack. He’s waiting on his tombstone in Virginia. I won’t let him wait at the window for all his life after death.”

What could I do? Sometimes, ghosts are not like books, whose stories are fixed to the page.

Written by timwestover

September 18th, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Posted in Short Stories

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