Homo homini rodentius est

A Ghost Story

hat better way to mark the Halloween season than with a good ghost story? Even better if it’s a true story, as this one is. Once upon a time, as they say, I had an aunt who liked to buy run-down old houses and fix them up. She and her husband would then use them as weekend and summer homes until she scouted out her next project candidate and then they would pack up, sell the house and start all over again. One of her houses was an old schoolhouse, built in 1815 but long since abandoned, that she found dilapidated and overgrown on the road that ran between Catskill and the neighboring town of Athens in upstate New York. It was available for taxes, so she bought it and set about making it into her dream cottage. In short order she had accomplished her project and the result was a very charming two-story two bedroom cottage that she was rightly proud of.

It wasn’t long after they moved in that people began noticing curious things about the house. Guests who stayed in the guest room would have their sleep interrupted by the clear sound of rapping in the wall behind the headboard of the bed. That was odd because it was an external wall, with no trees on the other side of it and no pipes running through it. But more disturbing still was the creaking of the stairs just outside the guest room. As one lay in the pitch dark the sound of the steps groaning and cracking would occur in sequence, as if someone or something was climbing the stairs. If that was not enough, after a while the sounds would decline in the opposite order, as though something was progressing back downstairs! I myself heard it and was petrified. My aunt, a devout Catholic, dismissed any suggestion that things were amiss by insisting that it was merely the warming and cooling of air rising from the furnace in the cellar beneath the stairs that was causing the noises and their weird progression. But, as time and events played out, her faith in rational explanations was sorely tested and, eventually, failed her utterly.

One night my grandmother was staying in the house while my aunt and her husband were out of town and my sister was charged with keeping her company. At one o’clock in the morning we got a call from my sister who was near hysterics, demanding that we drive out and pick her and my grandmother up and take them to our house for the night. When we got to the schoolhouse my sister recounted that earlier in the evening, as she was getting ready for bed she had walked past a closet at the head of the stairs and noticed its door ajar and a long drape of fabric, as from drapes or a gown, trailing from the closet. When she came back a few minutes later, the door was still ajar but there was no fabric showing. She looked inside the closet and saw nothing off its hanger. Once they had retired for the night she had, as usual, heard the bizarre creaking of the stairs but, unlike previously, this time the door of her room had slowly swung itself shut, though the windows were closed and there was no draft. Armed with a flashlight that she used to get from the light switch to the bed in the dark, she got up and reopened the door which, moments later, closed again. Once more, she got up and put her suitcase against the door to hold it open. She was only back in bed a few minutes when she heard the door slowly push the heavy suitcase out of the way as it again swung shut. Terrified, she reached for her flashlight and as she picked it up the top flew off spilling the batteries which rolled under the bed. Minutes later we got the call.

One Sunday after church, we drove my aunt and uncle and grandmother back to the schoolhouse and as we entered heard a buzzing sound. It was the alarm on an electric clock that hadn’t been set for years. As we were pondering how it had turned itself on, my grandmother announced that something was wrong with her cat Tommy. A gentle cat, about 13 years old at that point, Tommy was crouched at the bottom of the cellar stairs peering up at us in the dark and emitting low growls. He didn’t seem to know any of us and was clearly scared to death. As my grandmother tried to reassure him he suddenly screamed and tore up the stairs past us and hid under a cabinet from which he could not be moved. Significantly, my grandmother, who, like my aunt, would not admit to any supernatural concerns about the house also would not stay alone there after that day. I suppose it was one thing for a child to claim the place was haunted, something else when the cat suggests the same thing.

At one point, my aunt rented the house out to a woman and her daughter. Except for my aunt and her husband no one in my family had any contact with them and we certainly never conveyed any of our concerns about the house. Less than a year later they broke the lease and moved out. The reason? They said the house was haunted. My aunt, who was gradually coming to acknowledge that something was wrong, told us that the woman had presented as evidence a number of bizarre occurrences including the following familiar story. She and her daughter had a guest stay the night on the couch in the living room. The next morning when the woman came downstairs he asked her if she was feeling well. “Yes, I’m fine, why?” she asked. “Well,” her guest said, “I though you might have been ill in the night and came down to the kitchen, I heard someone going up and down the stairs all night long.”

The crisis for my aunt came one winter night when she and my uncle and grandmother were shocked out of their sleep by a deafening sound that, as it turned out, sounded like something different to each of them. My aunt heard what sounded to her like the crashing of glass and china. Her husband lying next to her heard the furnace explode and my grandmother thought a car had careened off the road and into the house. As they ran down the stairs each expected to see what they feared: my aunt expected to see the china cabinet in the dining room tipped over with her treasured Waterford crystal and Belique china in shards; my uncle expected to see the house engulfed in flames and my grandmother half expected to see a car sitting in the living room. Of course there was nothing. No flames, no car, the china cabinet fully intact. Unable to go back to sleep, they went over every inch of the house and found nothing out of place. I remember that day because it was another Sunday and, at church, my aunt sat whispering to my mother through the whole service. The next day she asked our parish priest to come to the house and bless it.

Not long after that the house was sold to a young married couple with a new baby. I never heard what happened to them.

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