He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ -Robert Frost, Mending Wall
Mother’s intuition, maybe. Talking to myself, pushing the little gray, modernist crib to the far corner of the room, away from the windows. “It’s in your head, it’s for warmth.” I had felt the striking presence of someone watching all of us since moving in. The feeling sitting between my shoulder blades, a pressure from cowering posture. I imagined the General Mills boxes going into my grandmother’s compactor. That small, too narrow for an eyeline. I don’t want to be seen. My son dropping crumbs on the wooden patio floor, “did you lose your crackers,” I say out loud. He scrunches his nose up. Am I losing my crackers?
On weekdays the smell of cigarette smoke rolls into the nursery. It is peppery and sweet, I try to place it. A tobacco pipe, a glass of 2015 red wine purchased for six dollars. It is cheap and comforting. My fiancé Peter once told me he would smell phantom cigarette smoke and assumed it was his father looking after him. Papa Paul, Iowa stock, in the business of corn syrup and buried proudly in a Dale Earnhardt NASCAR jacket. The ghost story debunked when Peter finds construction workers at his office sneaking smokes in a basement under the Coke machines.
I tug the corner of newly placed blackout curtains taut and the happy fresh turquoise paint in my son’s room mutes. There’s no art hanging on his wall. The mobile is still packed away in tissue paper. Driving nails into the wall would concede this place as “home”. He doesn’t sleep in his crib for a month and instead, in our room in the too-small bassinet. I start sleepwalking, swearing I am hearing a man coughing outside, roaming the house in one sock and mid-sleep half lucid looking for something. Half. I am half. Half here, half unpacked, half awake, half afraid. I don’t know what the problem is.
Those shows that air midday when you’re home alone with a baby. Not the good ones with that slick-toothed couple rehabbing homes in Waco, Texas. Those other shows. The unassuming family gets a bargain on a house. It’s the right neighborhood, like mine. A post-war sea of Cape Cods. Good schools, walking distance to a library and state park. The realtor forgets to fill the family in on that slight detail, the one you find when you rip the carpet up. The spray painted pentagram and that portal to hell now dormant under the Crate & Barrel coffee table.
The family before us lived here for 40 years. Picking through the house with Peter we put together a story with their leftover mail and forgotten artifacts. Orderly enough to leave every instruction manual to the low-end Hunter ceiling fans, sloppy enough to leave two inches of dust on the JC Penney valances. At closing the husband of the pair tells Peter, “I could tell you a lot of stories about that house. A lot of stories. And if anyone gives you guff over the fence, I had it surveyed. What are you gonna’ do to it? Knock it down and build some big thing?” We aren’t those people we assure them. Peter leaves the session with unfamiliar keys in his pocket and several survey maps under his arms. It’s ours.
After Peter returns to work, I try to parse out this new dwelling while my son is nestled to my chest. Unfamiliar sounds make me jumpy and disclose themselves one at a time; the neighbor’s side gate, the garbage truck, the fridge covered under our homeowner’s insurance. The fridge rattles like a big white skeleton in the galley kitchen. I keep hoping it dies for something slick and silver. According to daytime television this is where usually the family in question gets their haunting.
I had a strict policy on never buying a foreclosure because the house would have “bad energy.” This house was bought fair, but if anything maybe we paid too much for it. It couldn’t possibly be haunted, we didn’t dig up the backyard or change the floors. A coat of daring HGTV paint schemes (and I mean daring, I went with Citrone) wouldn’t upset a ghost. Can they see color? Am I worth their time? I’ve never used an Ouija board or cast a spell. I’m safe?
The fridge compressor goes off like an earthquake and I hold my breath. The cat’s ears twitch and he looks towards the kitchen, my son stirs in his blankets, sighs and continues his nap. I hear soft singing but I figure the neighbors are out on their porch.
On Sunday morning we get one of those worthy autumn days. Full sun, crisp air and red leaves giving the sun a good run for her money on who is harnessing fire better. We sit in the backyard drinking coffee and the house becomes familiar, taking on the feeling of an earned sanctuary. I leave Peter and the baby outside start cussing to myself over the laundry, the cat box, the dishes.
That’s when they get you. The ghosts. It’s the woman in the basement sorting laundry. I hear Peter call out to me and I go up the stairs,
“What is it?”
“I have to tell you something and I don’t know what to say. It’s bad.”
“Oh god, just tell me.”
“There’s a man sleeping next to our house, next to the baby’s window.”
I take the information like a missed flight. Disorientation, helplessness, confirmation. Around the corner I see a man maybe my age in a sleeping bag. We ask if he needs help, we knock on doors. He smokes cigarettes with his Rapunzel wife who for some reason is locked away in the house and he’s not allowed in. In this telling Rapunzel is missing a sock and needs rehab. Meanwhile the prince sings to himself, chain smokes and reads books in a brown puffer vest. Police come, the man stays. The ambulance comes, the man stays.
A week later, the fence contractor comes. The man hides in old growth pines trying to minimize his 6 foot teddy bear self, but we see his embarrassment. We debate the fence, what it means. It’s about as loud as hiring a skywriter at the shore in summer, “GET OUT. GET OUT” the banner trailing behind the biplane would read.
We aren’t haunted. Turns out some primal part of my brain knew to protect, make changes, minimize my presence behind curtains and fences. The man is afraid too, always minimizing. Hiding under an abandoned hot tub shell in the yard. When we take the garbage out he tries to line himself up like a wall. He thinks we can’t see him.
I asked my daughter, when she was about ten years old what she would do if she ever saw a ghost. We were driving through the Patapsco Valley, and old part of Colonial America with abandoned mills and an abandoned seminary. Ghost tours go year round in this region with themes ranging from haunted pubs to the bloodiest civil war battles.
“No really, what would you do?” I press as we snake through the hills in a Subaru.
“I would have to accept it as fact,” she says this very seriously. She’s thought about this, she continues, “I would accept it as fact because it would be real and I would have to deal with it.”
These words seem a little too wise, but every mother believes their children are the greatest intellectual asset to walk the earth.
The sun sets early now, big tendrils of trees reaching down to caress our homes shift with a light hiss. The man goes to bed too, laying the big brown vest on the bushes. I peek out my layers of curtains each night to check his status. I see loneliness, I see him being ignored by the sick woman in the house. I see sadness. A theory of hauntings is unfinished business in this life or deep trauma. I see both outside my window. A fence couldn’t stop it.
C.E. Snow is a seminary dropout writing about religion, ghosts and bicycling. Her first memoir Friction & Momentum is forthcoming from Microcosm Publishing. She tweets @punkcotillion