A Haunted House

A Haunted House April 19, 2024

A dark window behind weeds in an abandoned house
image via Pixabay

 

It happened when I was weeding the strawberries.

It was the brightest of bright late April days, after a soggy week.  The grass was high– Jimmy the Mechanic knows I like to mow it after the dandelions have bloomed, so the pollinators can eat. The lilacs were opening. I could hear the songbirds nearby, and the neighborhood hawks calling in the distance. I’d weeded the onions and found a few volunteer sunflower seedlings, from where the birds tore the sunflowers apart last year. Besides the onion blossoms I had spring peas popping out of the ground. Everything was just as it should be.

I was planning the summer’s garden to share with Jimmy’s boy. He keeps coming by to “look at the vegetables” even though the garden has been nothing but cardboard and dead strawberry plants for the past several months, but I haven’t seen him too much lately. I couldn’t wait to surprise him with the seeds I’ve got: I’m going to try growing sand cherries and bush watermelons for the very first time. He wanted more fruit and I found a way, even on such a tiny patch on a rental property with no room for an orchard.

Those lilacs were filling the yard like incense fills a tiny little chapel. The bees were patrolling around the blossoms, buzzing softly, so it almost seemed that the flowers had a sound as well as a smell.

Beyond the humming of the bees and the music of the hawks and songbirds, the garden was silent.

I think that’s what threw me off.

For the seven years she lived next door, my stalking neighbor had a set of irritating wind chimes on her front and back porches. Most of them have disappeared; there’s only one great big one left on her back porch, and it barely moves. I think it’s gotten rusty. I’d always liked wind chimes, before I came to Steubenville. They provided a little harmless music. But I hate them now. She had me conditioned to look up in terror every single time I heard a noise from her side of the property line: in case she trespassed and started wrecking things again, or in case she sicced her German Shepherd on us. She was always letting that dog out to our side of the property line. Always slamming her door and muttering obscenities to make me jump.

That is what I think of, when I think of wind chimes. I think of her.

A breeze blew, silent. I noticed the lack of a chime, and looked up.

I took in that horrendous bright blue house. It used to be green, with peeling paint on the siding, but in the last year of her life she hired painters to come and paint it the most vibrant blue imaginable. It’s the exact same shade of blue as electrical tape, on a block of houses that are mostly white and taupe. The paint looked bad enough when it was fresh, but in the 15 months since she’s been dead, the quality of the workmanship has betrayed itself. The painters didn’t remove the layer of old paint properly. The blue is all wrinkled and catches the light in funny ways. Her old houseplants are dead and wilted in the windows, and the scraps of paper with Bible verses she taped to the panes are catching dust. The grass is raggedy, dotted with pleasant dandelions.

On her porch, someone had tidied up the bric-a-brac. That ridiculous plywood ornamental bench that blew over in a wind storm was sitting back up.  There was a faded wooden cutout of the word “BLESSING” sitting on the bench, next to a dusty wooden crucifix and half a bag of potting mix.

Her son comes to bring in the mail every several months, and Jimmy still mows the lawn for her family when he doesn’t forget. One of them must have done it. There’s no mystery to how it got cleaned up, but it felt ominous anyway. It felt as if she herself had wandered out of the grave to clean the porch.

I froze.

I panicked.

I felt the wave crash over me, ice cold and boiling hot all at once: fear. Anxiety. Vulnerability. Rage. Outrage. How are rage and outrage distinct? Rage is a flash of instinctive anger that comes from an adrenaline rush, and outrage is something else. Outrage is anger at injustice. Outrage is anger at a wrong that wasn’t righted. Outrage is anger that she’d abused us for seven years and the police told us to handle it ourselves, even after I took their advice and got that restraining order. Outrage that they wouldn’t investigate when I called them after I found my car keyed and the tires slashed. Outrage that the prosecutor bawled me out when I begged him to enforce the restraining order. Outrage that she used to call me a “ball-headed c*nt” when my hair was falling out from poly-cystic ovary syndrome and she herself was bald from the cancer. Outrage that she leaned out the window chiding me for “not knowing how to wash your own ass” when I was just trying to sleep at six in the morning, when she herself always dressed like a rag bag and was clearly as poor as we were. Outrage that we were so poor and our credit so horrible from all the debt that we couldn’t afford to move, but people chided us for not just moving to a different block.  Outrage for the time she convinced the tenants across the street that we were the ones harassing her, so they started to harass us and call us names as well. Outrage for when I found out about her history of violence and arrests, but still no one would act. Outrage for the panic attack when she taunted that she’d convinced the sheriff we were trafficking our daughter and were going to be shot by a SWAT team. Outrage that I’m scared of large dogs now, when I used to love all animals.  Outrage that I’m scared of women with a certain tone of voice and scared to be outside in my own backyard. Outrage that she’s been dead for fifteen months, yet I’m still afraid.

Is this where they myths of haunted houses come from?

Is it all just the trauma and panic associated with a place where an evil person tormented others, long after the evil person is gone?

How do you exorcize a ghost from a haunted house, when you’re a ridiculous middle-aged chronically ill woman who left a Catholic cult and is afraid God doesn’t love her? This isn’t a ghost story. This is real life. I am not a character in a story. I’m a boring and useless person who is vulnerable to abusers, that’s all. This wasn’t a real ghost, just the ghost of a memory.

I began humming snippets of a corpse chant, not in the right order but in any order I could remember.

This ae night, this ae night,  Every night and all,
Fire and fleet and candle-light,  And Christ receive thy soul.

From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass, every night and all
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last; and Christ receive thy soul.

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav’st nane, every night and all 
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane; and Christ receive thy soul. 

This ae night, this ae night,  Every night and all,
Fire and fleet and candle-light,  And Christ receive thy soul.

And then it was over, and the evil woman was dead, and I was standing in my own yard with a handful of weeds in my hand, staring at an ugly derelict house that couldn’t hurt me.

I picked a dandelion off the lawn and blew the fluff onto her side of the property line.

I think I will be all right now, but it takes time.

 

 

 

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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