by Margaret Mendel
Most people picture houses when they think of something haunted. They see dark, old creaky, rotting wooden stairways, and locked rooms that groan and whisper in deserted houses overgrown with weeds and twisted vines crawling up the sides of the walls. These are the places people usually think are haunted. I used to believe that too, but not any more.
I live in a city apartment. I know my building is haunted and a shiver runs down my spine when I remember the first time I realized this.
Our building, constructed in 1926, is a sturdy four-story walk-up. From our dining room windows we look out onto a charming inner courtyard with trees that were planted when the structure was first built. Today the trees reach the top of the roof, the branches spreading out like a canopy, the roots stretching far beneath the foundation, or so I imagine. In the warm weather, when the windows are open, we hear the leaves rustle and chatter in the gentle breeze. No matter what the season, squirrels scurry about in the trees. Who would suspect a haunting in such a tranquil setting?
There is a pattern to the hauntings. Everything is quiet for a while. Weeks and months go by and there is a rhythmic hum in our ordinary lives. Then it happens. Light bulbs burn out all at the same time; faucets leak, appliances break down and the milk sours quickly in the refrigerator. That’s how I know the haunting has come. That’s when I sense something – a momentary emptiness in the air, and from the corner of my eye I see shadowy images flit down the hallway like quickly moving smoke. Then when I look, it’s gone. All that remains is a faint, moldy scent. For a brief moment, I feel a disquieting breeze rush past me and I sense eyes looking out at me from behind the layers of paint on the walls, following me, silently waiting, watching.
At night when everyone has gone to bed I sometimes hear footsteps coming down the hallway. The footsteps approach the door to my bedroom, they stop, and then they are gone again. I know now that when this happens the haunting has retreated back into the walls. I used to think this sound was the wooden floorboards expanding and contracting. But its footsteps, one after the other, deliberate and purposeful steps, walking up and down in the hallway.
Other tenants have said that they’ve seen something, or heard something in their apartments, too. They explain any strange sound or movement as being caused by a neighbor on the other side of the walls. I, too, used to be skeptical of the existence of the thing that haunts, but something happened, and I no longer deny what I see or hear.
One day after my son left home and moved into an apartment of his own, I was moving furniture, turning his newly vacated bedroom into a study for myself. I had taken his bed apart, moved his comic book collection and schoolbooks into a spare closet. I took his rock music posters down from the walls and put up my own choice of art, a plaster head of Nefertiti and a large photo of Billy Holiday. I was hard at work scooting things around in the room when all of a sudden I thought I saw something, a movement, perhaps a dust fairy floating past my vision. I told myself that nothing was there. Yet, the image persisted. And then I sensed something standing in the doorway. I slowly turned, and I saw the strangest little fellow leaning against the doorsill.
“Where the heck did you come from,” I murmured. I could not believe what I saw and closed my eyes. When I looked again, he was still there. I waited for him to say something or to move. He did neither. He simply stood silently watching me.
This thing, this strange little creature stood no taller than a yardstick. His dark eyes, deeply set under bushy brows, glistened like candle flames. His face and hands were the texture and color of tree bark and he wore garments of coarse fabric. Gnarled misshapen toes poked out from under the ragged edges of his pants legs. Thick, dark, bristly globs of hair stuck out all about his head and his knobby hands hung at his side.
I remember thinking, “So, this is what you look like. I knew you’d show up some day.” And I wondered if this little creature had been living in my son’s messy room all these years.
We stood watching each other and I felt as if we’d spoken before, or maybe had touched each other somewhere, in the walls, in the clothes closet, under the trees. I realized then that all those nights of worry and hearing something coming down the hallway, coming toward me, scaring me, were not so frightening after all. Then as unexpectedly as this strange little fellow had appeared he was gone again, like a fading echo.
I don’t know what causes these hauntings but I know I saw something in the doorway of my son’s room. Some days it feels like it must have been a dream though I’m sure I saw something that day. I’ve asked myself many times, if this little guy was a part of the building or was he something that I conjured.
Some days I think I hear the building breathing. If I listen closely when the street traffic has stilled for the night and the children have all gone to bed, I believe that I can hear the walls creak and groan as they expand and contract.
Though I’ve only seen this little creature that once, I know he’s still there watching the tenants, living with us as we struggle with our lives. I wonder if the haunting is brought on by something that happens in the building, like the sadness of the woman living two flights up from us who died before her daughter was grown, or is the building missing the young soldier who never returned alive after his tour of duty? Are the fears and sadness, anger and disappointments of the people who live in this building absorbed into the walls like the cooking smells? Do the maintenance workers paint over these emotions that have been sucked into the walls throughout the years, painted over like they cover over the stains and fingerprints?
I like to think that the laughter of children playing in the courtyard comforts our tired old building as the giggles are sucked into the cracks of the brick and mortar walls. Has anyone else seen this strange little being, this thing that moves through wood and plaster, a soul with eyes the flickered like candle flames?
I know that the light bulbs will continue to burn out all at the same time and that there will be other unexplained happenings. I also know that every once in a while this little fellow will flit down the hallway making another vaporous appearance to a purpose I cannot understand.