BY RACHEL LYON
I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. But I have a ghost story.
Many years ago I worked in a haunted hotel on an island eight miles off the coast of New Hampshire. I’m not kidding when I say it is haunted. It’s been inhabited by white people since the 1600s. It’s been the site of massacres, epidemics. People have frozen to death. Starved. Been murdered. Etcetera.
I was a skinny girl back then—strong bones, worried eyes, wild heart. I was shy. Had a weakness for whiskey, an aversion to food. My second week on this island eight miles out to sea, a boy showed up. He was a storyteller. Loud voice, lots of charm. Everybody knew him except for me. His fondness for whiskey was weaker than mine.
One night we took a walk with our weakness to the back of the island, where the cliffs are highest. Above us, a trillion stars showered their long-dead light. Below us, black water smashed against rock. We sat and we drank and we talked and then we felt someone near us. Footsteps in the rose hip bushes, which grow in that wild wind. We said, Hello? Who’s there? Come join us. No one replied.
It was late anyway, and we’d finished our drink. We got up and made our way through the bushes. Heard footsteps behind us. Stopped. Said, Hello?
No one replied. We walked faster. The footsteps sped up. We walked faster still. The footsteps sped up more. We began to run. Tearing through the low bushes, sliding over wet rock, then mud. Breathless we reached the door to the hotel kitchen, where the pots are stacked on industrial rolling shelves by the sink, and the huge carving knives are stuck to a long magnet on the wall. At the bakery window, leftover pastries had been piled up and put out for the staff. We stopped there, freaked out and quiet. I hadn’t had dinner. The drinks had gone to my head.
We tore open a soft dinner roll. My back was to the wall; his was to the knives by the door. That was weird, he was saying. So weird, I said, but I was distracted. Behind him a knife seemed to be swinging.
They are hanging, I told myself as he talked. Those knives are just hanging there. We must have unsettled them when we ran in. But this knife was not swinging as a pendulum swings—that is, speeding up at the nadir of its swing, slowing down just before changing directions. It was moving steadily, as if someone were holding it. I watched it as he talked, trying to figure it out. Slowly it dawned on me—thickly, drunkenly—that those knives were not hanging, anyway. They were attached by a magnet. There was no way it could be swinging, at all.
Run! I shouted. We skidded on the wet floor and scrambled up the back stairs to his room, where he slammed shut the door and demanded, What did you see? I told him about the swinging knife. I was frightened as hell. I was shaking. Likely I cried.
In the morning at breakfast he told our coworkers—who all knew him so much better than they knew me—that I had experienced my first island ghost. It seemed like a rite of passage. Everyone had a ghost story. One girl told me she’d seen a woman walk through a wall. Someone else said that she’d seen a woman in white pacing by the small graveyard. Someone else had seen a child in the corner of his room, vomiting. The island was lousy with ghosts.
Somehow, though, despite all these stories, in the light of day I was beginning to doubt what I’d seen. I had been so worked up the night before, but now it seemed as if it couldn’t have been real. Maybe the knife had been on a hook, I tried to reason. None of those knives are on hooks, my friends said. Something must have been going on, I insisted. Someone must have been holding it. Maybe, they said. They shrugged, turned away.
Thing was, they all had their own ghost stories. Stories they’d told and retold. Stories that had grown over them, and which, like trees encircled by vines, they’d incorporated into their very selves. They told these stories without trying to convince. Without drama or intrigue. But do you believe it, I asked? Do you think it could have been real?
I never got a straight answer. Thing was, The question didn’t matter. What was belief? What was real? Reality was beside the point, like a figure next to its shadow. What mattered wasn’t the ghosts, but their stories.
(Image: Francesca Woodman)