It’s that time again…time for long shadows and falling leaves. And ghost stories. So here’s mine.
I’ve always been somewhat of a skeptic about matters supernatural, even though my grandmother insisted that a “being” followed her home one night when she was a young girl living out in the country, and my mother was born with a caul (if you’re not familiar with the term, it’s a piece of amniotic sac over a baby’s face and/or head at birth.) Back in the day it was said that a baby born with this “veil” would have the sight, meaning they could see the future. And my mother did—from time to time—blurt out things that seemed to come from some particular knowledge not available to most people. My gram always said that the sight was a gift and should be cultivated, but my practical mother was not interested, so she folded up the membrane that her mother had carefully preserved, put it in a small envelope and hid it at the bottom of her jewelry box, where I believe it remains.
I always found these stories intriguing, but I never had any close encounters with the supernatural until the winter of 2002 when I came to Santa Fe to finish up the final draft of Isabel’s Daughter. I had been here for a month the year before to do research and stayed in a charming little casita on a small lane off of Garcia Street, where I could walk to Canyon Road and the Plaza and Downtown Subscription and Kaune’s Market and almost everywhere else I wanted to go. I had hoped to rent it again but it was booked. The owners offered me another casita, next door to the first one, also charming, and recently renovated with a nice kitchen and brand new bath.
It was cold when I arrived and patches of snow lingered from the most recent storm, but the kiva fireplace kept the living area toasty, and there was a comfortable slipper chair close by where I sat every evening with my laptop going over my editor’s notes and my own ideas, rewriting, adding, cutting, blending the new with the original. I worked late almost every night and fell into bed, exhausted, sleeping until the low winter sun came through the bedroom window, sometimes till noon.
If you write, you know how it feels to lose yourself in the work, whether it’s a book, a letter, an essay or a journal entry. I was so focused on the manuscript that I’d been there several days before I heard the music—a Spanish guitar that played softly in the evenings while I worked. I assumed it was a radio or audio system, probably the place next door or one of the houses behind me and it was very pleasant and non-intrusive, so I didn’t spend time thinking about it. Several nights later, the singing started—also very pleasant—a woman’s voice, and I did notice that she sang the same song over and over. It was lovely even though I didn’t understand the Spanish words, and I found myself thinking about it during the day and listening for it at night.
I finished the manuscript the afternoon before I was to leave, and while I was eating my dinner, the snow started. This worried me a little because I had to get up very early and drive to the Albuquerque SunPort to turn in my rental car in time to make my flight. I had done laundry that morning and my clothes were still in the dryer, so I had to pack, and clean up the kitchen, and of course I kept thinking of small but crucial additions and deletions to the manuscript so I kept stopping to type notes into the Word document. Meanwhile, the snow swirled and the wind blew and the guitar played and the woman sang.
And then it hit me like a blast of winter wind. The music. I couldn’t hear it in the kitchen, which was actually separated from the living area by only a counter and stools. It was only audible when I sat by the fireplace.
I threw on my coat and went outside. It was very dark, because on the east side of Santa Fe, it’s considered more authentic to eschew street lights. There were only about six houses in the lane and not a portal light to be seen nor a lamp light in any window. The snow had stopped and the ground lay under a pristine blanket of about an inch of white powder. So pristine that there were no footprints, no tire tracks. The rental casita next door was dark and undisturbed. It occurred to me that the whole time I’d been there I’d never seen anyone come or go.
The wind had stopped and the only sound was my boots squeaking in the snow. I walked down first one way and then the other. The house on the other side—why had I not even noticed?—was under renovation. Shadowed black holes marked future windows and doors. A backhoe sat like a sculpture in the yard. I walked down the path between my casita and the driveway. I could see the outlines of curving roofs, but no lights. No music.
Suddenly I was freezing. I ran back inside to hear the phone ringing. It was my husband calling to confirm my flight time. I wasn’t going to say anything to him about the music; I did mention the snow. We were having a normal conversation when the noises began. On the roof. Like footsteps from one side of the casita to the other. And then all the lights began to flicker, not randomly but in a sort of rhythm and I realized that if the electricity went off, the only light would be from the fire, which was burning brightly at the moment. I stopped in mid sentence.
“What’s going on?” my husband asked.
“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” I said. “There’s something wrong with the lights and I need to find a flashlight.”
After we hung up I took the place apart. No flashlight. No candles. The pause between flickers was getting shorter and my nerves were getting frayed. I picked up the phone to call the casita owners and then I remembered they’d told me they would be out of town this week.
The next flicker lasted for several seconds and all I could think of was trying to wash dishes and pack in the dark. And it totally pissed me off. I slammed down the phone and yelled,
“Will you stop it?! I have to clean this place up and pack and get ready to leave in the morning. Give me a break!”
So they did. The lights stopped blinking. The footsteps ceased. I put another log on the fire just in case, washed the dishes, packed my bags, pulled on my pj’s and brushed my teeth. I left a note for the owners saying I’d had a lovely stay, but I thought they might want to put a flashlight in the kitchen. Just before I got into bed, I went out to the living room. I shut down my laptop and slid it into its bag and stood there for a minute.
The fire had burned itself down to embers and there was no more music.
It made me a little sad.