Writing inspired by the following SWC prompt: What is a ghost?
What is a Ghost?
by Emma Downey
Trigger warning – this is about the loss of a close family member
The first ghost I was aware of was the Banshee. I’m sure you’ve heard of her, the weeping, wailing female harbinger of death native to Ireland and Scotland. When her cry is heard you know that you or someone belonging to you’s time is up. When I was at school we used to scare each other with stories of the Banshee. We pictured the terrifying red eyed woman dressed in a white shroud, sitting by the road combing her long hair. We believed that finding a comb on the path meant that the Banshee was around and that could mean bad things for us. Once a group of us argued over which of us had first spotted the comb and was therefore ‘in for it’.
When I was growing up ghosts never seemed to be far away. I was educated mainly in convents and convents always seem to have had a least one fire in their history, resulting in generations of ghost stories. We would dare one another to go up into the attic or the passage way behind the chapel in the hopes and fears of sighting the undead. This was the 1990’s, a lot of us adolescent girls were obsessed with the film ‘The Craft’. We spent break time playing ‘Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board’, a levitational game that a certain kind of pre-teen brain will imagine invokes and harnesses supernatural powers.
Ghosts weren’t just for the children either. There would often be someone, a distant relative or a neighbour who would claim to have the ability to commune with the dead. These people, usually women, would hold a piece of jewellery belonging to you, a wedding ring for example and they would claim to be able to communicate with your deceased loved ones. My mother once met such a person and received a message from her own mother, who was by that time, long dead. She didn’t and doesn’t believe in the supernatural and we all joked about it and yet the message felt relevant.
Years and years after I stopped believing in ghosts, I am back in my childhood bedroom and my eight-week-old son is snuffling beside me, looking to be fed. I can hear someone at the door of dad’s old workshop, trying to open it. That must be him, I think, still half asleep, he’s going in to tinker around with something as usual. Only it can’t be because usual means something different now. My dad has just died.
Another evening that same week I am holding my baby son, Rafael, feeding him as I do day all day everyday now. We are alone in my parent’s house, the television is on but I’m not taking anything in. My brain is fogged by hormones and by grief. The lamp beside me starts to flicker on and off. For one mad moment I almost think it’s dad trying to reach us. Of course, it’s not, his message from beyond the grave would be far more interesting than a half-hearted lightshow. That, and my father spent so much time explaining to me, when I little, that ghosts weren’t real. He’d hardly want to scare me now and above all else I’m not insane and I know that ghosts aren’t real. Yet, sitting there in that room surrounded by things he repaired, collected, waxed or built from scratch, it is as though he is still here.
They used to say, that in the days after someone’s death their ghost might be seen in their home. Children and animals were thought most likely to see them. There was a custom of passing a young child over the body (which would be laid out at home) back and forth three times, this was believed to make the child’s sighting of the ghost less likely. At this point that idea doesn’t seem as ridiculous to me as it did before my father died.
Upstairs in his and my mother’s bedroom, I see a pair of shoes just as he left them on the rug. There is a guidebook for a trip to Greece he was planning. One afternoon I half hear a neighbour picking out Beethoven’s Für Elise on a piano, just like dad did from time to time. The family dog, or dad’s beloved ‘hound’ as he called him, sits erect in front of the window with his nose poking out through the curtains. He’s waiting for his master to return. Every so often he lets out a sorry little whine followed by a deep canine sigh. Friends and relations call to the house, dishes of food and tins of scones are left on the kitchen table for us. Everyone tells stories about our dad, times when he was funny or kind and it feels as if he is still very much alive. We laugh a lot, even though we are sad, our father was a character and had a wicked sense of humour. I keep on imaging I can hear him stamping onto the door mat to clean his shoes before he turns his key in the lock and steps into the house.
About a month after dad’s passing, a family friend visits. She bounces my son on her knee. ‘He’s bonny.’ She says and he is, shiny blue eyes and sweet little curls.
‘He’s really here now, isn’t he.’ She smiles and she continues. ‘With the tiny little ones, it’s almost like they’re still part of another world.’
I nod and smile and then later on that day, I start thinking about my son in the weeks gone by. I picture him when he was tiny, with his new but ancient looking face, when he was terrifyingly fragile curled up in my arms. Fragile and helpless, just as dad was at the end, lying in the hospital bed, surrounded by his family and knowing that it was the end of the road for him.
By now, Rafael is beginning to smile, or at least to look like he is. He has chubby cheeks and chunky thighs and he never stops wriggling and kicking. He is absolutely determined to live and to be here.
Dad isn’t here. I have stopped expecting him to walk into the room. He is gone for good but something of him does remain. We still have the great many things he taught us, as well as all the wonderful memories of him being a caring and sometimes eccentric but very inspiring dad.
What is a ghost? Ghosts are us trying to hold on to the coat tails of someone who has already stepped out the door. I might be old enough to know better than to fear the Banshee but none of us is ever old enough to grasp the finality of the death of a loved one. And, so people come up with all kinds of stories about and ways to negotiate the hard, unwavering line between the living and the dead. I’m writing this at the very end of October. The evenings are dark and misty and in nature many things are withering, falling to the ground or dying off for the year. In many cultures people believe that now is the time we can feel closest to our dead and that will bring comfort to some. If I were I to meet someone who told me that they had a message for me from my father I would assume they were deluded or a con artist and yet a small part of me would be hoping that it was true and that they’d say something to convince me as much.
Ghosts may not exist and yet they are real.