Do I believe in ghosts? I don’t know. I believe in atmospheres engendered by people who are long gone; in auras retained in places where folk have been deeply affected; that profound emotions hang around, caught in corners of buildings, trapped in groves of trees. I can enter one house and immediately feel welcome before meeting its occupants; in another home the back of my neck tingles with unexplained unease.
Is our family ghost story explained by such sensibilities? Perhaps.
Our house on Clinton Heights Avenue was a friendly place. We had looked at dozens of smarter, tidier houses two years earlier. Many of them we thought we might have been able to call home, but knew we would have to work at it. We walked into Number 116 and could see the five of us settling in. We loved the deep two-leveled backyard with its dozen elms that had defied Dutch elm disease—a garden far too shady to grow anything. The house itself was old and shabby but bright with sunshine, and spacious enough for three children, two adults, and a mixed-breed pup. Three bedrooms; a dining room with French doors onto the yard; one inadequate bathroom with tub but no shower; a living room with a fireplace in which no fire could be lit; a small but efficient kitchen; and a mudroom, above which was a sleeping porch—furnished with a full-sized creaking metal bedstead—among the elm branches.
In the summer of 1970, my husband and our five-year-old James departed for Europe for two months. It was hot and humid as is usual for late June in Columbus, Ohio. I moved myself from the master bedroom onto the sleeping porch, where screened windows captured the slightest breeze. I lay naked, limbs spread wide on damp sheets. I slept well, not unpleasantly exhausted by two active children.
I think it was midweek, a night like any other. Before going to bed I checked on the children. They shared a room: Kate, aged four, and Simon—still occupying a crib—almost two. In light pajamas but bedclothes tossed aside, they exuded the salty smell of baby sweat, sticky curls plastered to foreheads. The window fan hush-hush-hushed.
At about two o’clock, I woke suddenly, violently. I sat up, heart pounding. Overpowering dread made breathing difficult. I had always thought that “night terror” was an alternative name for nightmare. Now I thought again, for this was different. I had no crazy dream-happening on which to hang my fear. My nakedness felt vulnerable. I pulled on a nightdress and lay down again, eyes wide open trying to pierce the darkness.
About ten minutes later, Kate screamed—a single terrified shriek. I shot out of bed, and ran to her. She was sitting up, her small body rigid. I picked her up, glanced at Simon, who was sleeping soundly, security blanket in one hand, two fingers thrust in his mouth. I tiptoed with my daughter in my arms out to the porch.
“What woke you, Katie love?”
Quivering, clinging, staring over my shoulder: “I don’t know.”
“A bad dream?”
She shook her head emphatically. I put her down on my bed, climbed in beside her and turned on the bedside lamp. Her shaking slowly subsided.
But then, suddenly, Simon: “No!” he was screaming. “No! No!” Clutching the hem of my nightdress in one hand Kate followed me to him. He was standing in one corner of the crib, shrinking back from something only he could see at the other end.
But he wasn’t even two. He couldn’t tell me. He held up his arms to be saved, and I snatched him out of there. I saw lying on the mattress his wooden crocodile—a strange painted toy from which he would not be separated, although it was a hard and knobby bedfellow.
“Did your crocodile bump you?”
“No! No! No!” he sobbed. His pajamas were wringing wet with sweat that smelled sour and strange.
“Tell you what,” I said, trying to be matter-of-fact, “We’ll all sleep in my bed and we’ll keep the light on.” I thought it best not to admit my own fear. I had another idea: “Let’s call Jan upstairs. Dogs are good at comforting.”
The young dog usually slept in the mudroom. When it was hot she often went down to the basement. She was allowed upstairs only as a treat. She would surely be delighted to be invited in the middle of the night. We went to the stairs and I called her. We heard her eager and still uncoordinated gallop coming up from the basement. She hesitated at the bottom of the stairs to confirm that I really meant it. “Come Jan, good dog!” She pounded enthusiastically up the first part of the stairway. Three-quarters of the way up was a landing, at which point the stairs turned a right angle. Here she stopped. Her plume of a tail lowered slowly.
“Here, Jan. It’s OK.”
On her belly she crawled the last steps, slower and slower. She reached us. She was shivering and whining. Suddenly she cringed, urinated copiously, turned with her tail wrapped between her legs, and ran back downstairs.
Stunned and wordless, I cleaned up her puddle. Then we all got into my bed. The children soon settled. I stayed awake until the sky lightened.
As the sun rose, I knew the house had resumed its usual benevolent disposition. The vapor, or misery, or malevolence that had passed through our rooms was gone.
Except that Simon refused to get into his crib next night, and I had to scramble to set up a bed for him; except that for at least two years he needed somebody’s hand—usually Kate’s—to hold until he fell asleep; except that he needed a nightlight for the next ten years of his life, everything was normal again. Indeed, as long as we lived there, Number 116 never entertained another evil presence.
This should be the end of the story. But, a year later, friends came to stay with a baby. We brought out Simon’s old crib and assembled it in the room in which our visitors were to sleep. Simon was intrigued. He asked if he could get into the crib. Surprised, I picked him up and popped him in. He stood there a bare ten seconds. Then, without a word and with amazing agility for a three-year-old, he vaulted over the railing. He hit the wooden floor with a thump and started crying. I thought he must be hurt and took him in my arms to comfort him. But that wasn’t it.
“I remember!” he whispered.
“What do you mean? What do you remember?”
“The hands!” he said. He was now old enough to have the words to describe what he had seen that June night. He told me of hands, long gray hands reaching through the bars of the crib to take him away. He was quite specific and clear about it. He still is, forty years later.
Do I believe in ghosts? I wish I knew.
Ann Elliot was born (1937), educated, and married in England. In 1967 she moved to Ohio with her family. Her husband is a geology professor (now emeritus) at Ohio State University. With a degree in pathology, Ann worked in medical research until the mid 1980s, and then began a freelance career writing and editing medical literature and history. Creative writing has been central to her life since childhood. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been published in numerous literary journals. A biography, Charming the Bones; a Portrait of Margaret Matthew Colbert, was published by Kent State University Press in 2000. Music has also been important in her life. She plays viola in a community orchestra and in a string quartet; and plays piano for her own pleasure. She also enjoys gardening, photography, and exploring the wild places of North America.