Tuesday, October 31, 2017
An October Moment
This is not my ghost story. It’s someone else’s.
I was in third grade, a school year I remember with a special if fleeting fondness, because that was the year I got to sit by the window. Our school was an old and venerable building with many fine decorative touches, but not well designed with regard to ventilation. It had no air conditioning, of course, and each classroom had only a couple of windows. The first month of school, when September still carries the hot authority of summer, the classrooms were stifling, so it was quite a perk to be assigned a seat near the window.
And our third grade classroom had the finest windows in the school. For one thing, they were huge--you could have winched a king-size bed through them. For another, they drew in an excellent cross breeze when our classroom door was open. And when September gave way to October, there was no more wonderfully excruciating place in the world to sit, snug in your classroom, surrounded by your playmates, your body firmly planted in a world of order and safety. Your spirit, though, could only pay attention to the wind, bringing you the first hint of cold, the perfume of sweet decay, the faintest taste of wood smoke from a distant burning brush pile. You’d turn your face to that wind and gaze out at the world and want nothing more than to be out in it.
From the third-grade windows, the world that you could see was the rolling field behind the school, a sward of fading green, dotted at intervals by towering maples and a few ancient apple trees. The field, tragically, was largely off-limits. In the spring, when the weather was nice, we were sometimes allowed out there for school picnics or science activities like collecting bugs, but only under the supervision of at least two teachers, and we always confined our activities to within 20 feet of the school.
We all knew why: The field was treacherous. Our teachers told us that there was a boarded-over well out there, somewhere, unmarked. School lore held that once, a long time ago, a little girl had been playing in that field, fell through the rotted boards of the well, and drowned. The seventh and eighth grade kids had a further embellishment to the story. The real reason the field was out of bounds, they told us, was because it was haunted by the ghost of the little girl. Many big kids swore--crossed-their-hearts-and-hoped-to-die swore, so you knew it was true--that they had even seen her, lurching through the field on a foggy morning, or peeking up at the school from behind a tree, her face a puckered, flyblown mask of unholy evil, angry at her own early death, waiting for some unsuspecting little kid to wander out there. Whereupon, we were assured, she would “grab you and suck out your soul and live in your body and then you would be the ghost,” to quote an eighth grade boy I knew only as Crazy Arthur. Crazy or not, Arthur’s words made quite an impression. Four decades later, they still give me a chill.
So we stayed out of the field, but it exerted a powerful hold on our imaginations, the way hazards (especially supernatural hazards) will when you’re a child. At least a couple of times a year, usually on blustery and rainswept days, you’d hear reports from classrooms on the field side of the school: Someone had seen the Drowned Girl, flying across the field or staring with beady eyes from the branches of a maple tree. Never mind that the teachers said it was a page of blowing newspaper or the glittering stare of a bird in the tree. We knew.
Now here I was in third grade, finally on the field side of the school with a good view from my awesome window. And I looked out on that field constantly, hoping that I’d see the Drowned Girl, but worrying that I’d see her too. I imagined that eye contact might set her off. I’d spot her gliding across the field. She’d stop, turn, see me looking at her and come flying straight to my window with unnatural speed. Before I could emit so much as a startled fart, she’d muckle onto me and suck me right out the window, soul and all. The only evidence of my departure would be the fluttering pages of my math workbook on my desk, which the Drowned Girl—now living in my body—would smooth out with her ungodly hand. The one silver lining in that scenario would be that she would have to do my long division assignments and I’d be free from homework forever. But eternal damnation seemed a steep price to pay for that kind of freedom.
So I kept an anxious and fascinated watch. Misty mornings and dark, rainy afternoons seemed like the best time to spot her and then I’d scan the field carefully, warily, ready to avert my eyes if I saw a shape emerge from the fog or from behind a tree, looking to make eye contact and stake a claim on my sweaty corporeal self. It occupied so much of my attention that in parent-teacher meetings that fall, my teacher informed my mother that I was “easily distracted.” Well, you would be distracted too if you thought the school grounds harbored a soul-sucking ghost-child with a grudge. But I never actually saw the Drowned Girl.
Nicole did, though.
Nicole was a tall, quiet girl in my class. I didn’t know her very well then so you shouldn’t be surprised that my mental notecard on her now is pretty spare (taller than me, black hair, yellow sweater). She barely ever spoke in class, at least until this one week in late October when she wouldn’t shut up.
On Monday, she was late for school, late enough that her mother had to walk her in. We could hear her coming—her sobbing echoed down the hallway. I’m sure people looked up, but not me. I registered the noise, but Mr. Sensitive here was looking out the window again. It had rained a lot over the weekend and a scrim of fog hung low over the back field—prime viewing conditions for the Drowned Girl, I felt.
Then Nicole and her mom stepped into the classroom (I wasn’t looking, but based on the commotion, I like to imagine her mother dragging Nicole in by her feet while the girl’s fingers left grooves in the hallway carpet.). Once inside, Nicole really commenced to blubber, but in between sobs, she said, very loudly, very clearly. “I SAW HER!”
I turned then, boy. And I knew exactly whom she must have seen.
It took a while to get Nicole settled at her desk, but after her mom departed and she went through about half a box of Kleenex, Nicole told everyone what I already knew. She had seen the Drowned Girl.
But in a dream, as it turned out. “I was here and she was right out back,” Nicole said, pointing a skinny long arm in the direction of me and my window. “And she was looking right at me. She had flies and boogers on her face. And then she waggled her finger at me like this.” Nicole crooked her hand into a fist, extended a bony index finger and made the universal “come here” gesture. “And then I woke up.” Nicole took a shuddery breath, then looked around the room. “She wants to make me dead,” she said.
For just a moment, I was sitting in the quietest third-grade classroom on the planet.
We decided as a group there and then that we were not going out for recess.
This went on for about three days. I don’t know whether Nicole had the same dream every night or was still haunted by the one dream, but each morning she’d come in crying, she’d tell us about her dream and remained resolute that she was not going out back for recess ever again. And we didn’t go either, none of us. Now, my memory’s not what it used to be, but I have a hard time believing that a room full of children could be so induced to stay indoors voluntarily for three days. In fact, I’m reasonably certain that it rained off and on that week and it’s likely that our teacher just kept us indoors because of bad weather. But the fact remains that we didn’t go out back. And I lost all interest in looking out that window.
Something about Nicole’s dream—the way she told it, over and over again, never varying in detail—unleashed a powerful apprehension in my mind, to the point that I couldn’t bear even to see the window in my peripheral vision. I sat sideways in my chair, almost facing the row next to me, my workbook all but in my lap, so great was my nervousness about that window. Because I believed in the magnetic power of evil. I believed that if I looked in the direction of that window, I’d be compelled to crane my neck and look out. And there she’d be, perhaps hovering just beneath the sill, boogers and all, waiting to jump into my body and make me the ghost.
Wednesday was a sunny day, I remember that. I remember that we were getting ready to go outside for morning recess. Not Nicole—she was firm in her conviction that she was going to stay indoors more or less forever. I think a couple of other girls were going to stay with her, and probably our teacher’s assistant. The rest of us were grabbing jackets and getting ready to go out, but slowly. Getting our class ready to go outside was like herding cats. We were always late. The big kids were already out back—I could hear them through the window I was no longer looking out of.
And Henry, the boy who sat behind me, said a funny thing for a third grader. He said: “Holy shit!”
Then we heard the screams.
Well, we all looked out the window then, even me.
All of the big kids were running back towards the school. I spotted Crazy Arthur, of all people. He was covered in mud to his knees and one of his shoes was gone. Teachers were hollering, blowing whistles, all pushing and shoving everyone up the steps and back into school.
And just behind them we saw the sinkhole.
I didn’t know that word then. I just remember the field looking different. What I first thought was a great track of mud in the grass was actually a crack in the earth. And we could see it widening, right before our eyes, like a magic trick. By the end of the day, the sinkhole went almost up to the foundations of the school and had widened to the size of a modest pond. Tree roots from some of the old maples were exposed and later they had to be cut down.
It was not a natural sinkhole. As I learned much later, that field was home to an enormous and ancient septic tank, one that was years overdue in being replaced. That’s why we couldn’t play out there. But between the rain of that week and its already overtaxed state, it broke open. Water and sewage went pouring out the side of an embankment on the other side of the school and the ancient tank collapsed in upon itself. But there was plenty of effluent still on site. Crazy Arthur wasn’t covered in mud, let me tell you. The important thing is that no one was hurt, but it was a bit of a close call. It happened so fast that one of the teachers and a couple of kids almost fell in. Things might have been different had there been more kids out there.
We kept the windows shut tight for months afterward, although I overcame my aversion to looking out the window, especially when the giant earthmoving equipment started coming in and doing interesting things to the landscape before winter set in. By spring, the field was more or less back to normal, although missing a few trees. We still weren’t allowed out there, but only because landscapers had reseeded the grass. It grew lusciously thick, as I recall.
So the boarded-up well was a fiction, I guess, the more palatable alternative to telling parents and children that a great vault of sewage sat out in the back of the school and that it probably wasn’t a good idea to play freeze tag or touch football on top of it. I suppose the Drowned Girl was a fiction too, a highly localized fable whose purpose was to keep children safe. Although even after the sinkhole, the older kids were still telling us the ghost was real.
Many, many years later, because it’s my job and my compulsion to want to know things, I did some research on the building that served as our school. It had once been the mansion of a textile magnate back in the 1800s, but at some point he lost his fortune. He lost his young daughter, too: She died of scarlet fever in that house. So I wonder.
I wonder if Nicole remembers the dream about the Drowned Girl. I wonder if she tells her children about the spirit who came to her in a dream and made her to stay indoors. And how that dream saved her and all her friends from injury, maybe death, certainly the need to buy new shoes. I guess I’ll never know.
After all, this is not my ghost story.
From Somewhere on the Masthead