I’m not religious or even particularly spiritual but I do believe in ghosts. A ghost, I think, can be a lot of things beyond a spooky apparition, and today’s poem and story both suggest at the many ways a person might be haunted.
I’ve had at least three ghostly encounters. I’ll tell you about the first one. When I was seven, my family moved a couple towns over, from an apartment to a house. A couple weeks after the move, I asked my mother why the little girl hadn’t come with us.
“What little girl?” she said.
“The little girl who sits on my windowsill at night and talks to me,” I told her.
I don’t actually remember these nightly meetings. What I remember is my mother telling me the story about me telling her; I remember her memory of my story. Which also seems pretty ghostly to me. And I’m haunted by it, continually wondering—was I making it up, and if so, for what purpose? Was I confusing an imaginary friend for a real one? Having some kind of febrile hallucination? Or was another child really appearing to me, and who was she, and why me?
The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, photograph by Captain Hubert C. Provand and published in Country Life in 1936
My Mother’s Teeth—died twice, once in 1965, all pulled out from gum disease. Once again on August 3, 2015. The fake teeth sit in a box in the garage. When she died, I touched them, smelled them, thought I heard a whimper. I shoved the teeth into my mouth. But having two sets of teeth only made me hungrier. When my mother died, I saw myself in the mirror, her words in a ring around my mouth, like powder from a donut. Her last words were in English. She asked for a Sprite. I wonder whether her last thought was in Chinese. I wonder what her last thought was. I used to think that a dead person’s words die with them. Now I know that they scatter, looking for meaning to attach to like a scent. My mother used to collect orange blossoms in a small shallow bowl. I pass the tree each spring. I always knew that grief was something I could smell. But I didn’t know that it’s not actually a noun but a verb. That it moves.
Who is this lady?
Born in Detroit in 1970, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Victoria Chang developed an interest in poetry as a child. She earned a business degree and worked in finance and consulting before shifting her focus to writing and teaching; she has published five collections of poetry and two children’s books, as well as an anthology of Asian American poetry. Her latest book, Obit, was published earlier this year by Copper Canyon Press and is a collection of poetic obituaries. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Carol Muske-Dukes writes, “These poems are zinger curveballs, and often come from the graveyard’s left field.”
Have You Ever Met One?
I answered that I’d been visited by three ghosts.
Was it three?
The first ghost showed up in the form of a Bernese mountain dog. It was like this. I was staying at a cabin with my husband’s family over the Christmas break. This large dog, maybe two hundred and fifty pounds, came to the back door. He didn’t bark—he looked in through the glass pane and waited patiently. My father-in-law, who, as a child, had shared a home with a deer and a flying squirrel, opened the door.
That giant mountain dog came up the steps, crossed the room, and greeted me with a gentle head push. He put his nose down between his front paws, to make himself lower than me. He wagged his tail, gently. He had chosen me. He visited every day that week, for an hour or two in the morning, an hour or two in the afternoon, following me all around the house and out into the yard, too. I get along with dogs fine, generally, but this was something else. We loved each other. His nametag read “Kush.” To the rest of the family, he was merely polite. I don’t know how to explain it, but my father’s spirit was in that dog. Yes, my father had also been giant, and gentle, but it was more than that. My father was paying me a visit. It was strange, but also obvious. This was some fifteen years ago. In the year or so after the encounter, it seemed like I was meeting Bernese mountain dogs in elevators and on sidewalks all the time, but, when I met Kush, who was also my father, he was the first Bernese mountain dog I’d ever seen.
Where were all those dogs now? The breed had surged in popularity, then, it seemed, vanished.
I met the next ghost at a book-club meeting at the Boulder Public Library. I didn’t live in Boulder, I was passing through, but there was a notice in the newspaper about the book club, and my husband and I thought it sounded fun. I was a better person when I was young, and more open. The book club was reading “The Overcoat,” by Nikolai Gogol. Poor Akaky Akakievich spends all his savings on a new overcoat; the coat is stolen; after a series of further humiliations, trying to reclaim the coat, he dies of a fever; there are reports of his ghost haunting St. Petersburg, stealing coats from others.
It was a mixed crowd at the book club. Was the story about bureaucracy? About human vanity? About folklore? Was it a satire, or a tragedy, etc. It was the usual discussion. But then a small, thin man sitting in the corner scolded us all for missing the point. “Ghosts are real,” he said. The story was about a real ghost and “none of you understand that.” The thin man said that he knew that ghosts were real because for years he had worked at a slaughterhouse in Broomfield.
The man’s comments were received politely, but he left the meeting frustrated. Upon reflection, it was clear, to me and my husband, that the man from Broomfield was himself a ghost. That was what he was trying to say.
The last ghost was a mom I knew only a little bit, from my youth. Her husband was a professional trumpeter. I babysat for her two boys a few times. The last time I did so, they were so out of control when their parents came home that I was never asked back again—which I thought was reasonable. Later, two very sad things happened in that family: one of the boys died in a car accident, and the mom had a seizure in the night and was found to have a brain tumor. By that time, I lived in a city thousands of miles away and hadn’t seen the family in years. But one night, more than a year after I learned of the tumor, I had a very vivid dream with Leona in it—Leona was the mom’s name—and we said hello and were very happy to see each other. Really happy. The next day my own mom called me to tell me that Leona had died. I’d never had a dream with Leona in it before, and I never had another one after.
I told my daughter about the ghosts, because I wanted to be honest with her. Ghosts aren’t real, but also they are? Or something like that. I don’t know what I wanted to communicate to her. Probably I was showing off. I said three ghosts. But wasn’t that misleading? I had spent so many years interested in ghosts, the dead, ancestors I’d never met, anything sad and gone—that world felt real to me. But I haven’t seen a single ghost in more than ten years. Wait, no, I fixed the math. I hadn’t seen one in . . . the number of years was the age of my daughter. Now I spend my time more fully among the living. Either that, or the ghost these days is me.
Who is this lady?
Born in Toronto in 1976, Rivka Galchen was raised in Oklahoma, where her father was a professor of meteorology at the state university and her mother a a computer programmer at the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Aptly enough, in her debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, the protagonist seeks out a mysterious meteorologist whom he thinks can help him solve his own dilemma—he believes his wife has been replaced by an impostor. Galchen has also published a short story collection and a book of essays.
Write about a haunting—however you interpret that word.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to firstname.lastname@example.org