Ghost, Ghost in the Graveyard

Edinburgh, Scotland – September 2016

Whatever it is, it emanates from here. At least that’s what they say. Greyfriar’s Kirkyard is the location of the most well-documented poltergeist in the world – the Mackenzie Poltergeist. Legend has it that, one dark and story night in 1998, a homeless guy broke into this mausoleum seeking shelter. It is the final resting place of George Mackenzie, a man responsible for the deaths of 18,000 of his compatriots. While the vagrant was ransacking the coffins he found on the lower level, he fell through the floor, landing on a pile of rotting corpses that had been dumped during the plague. He clawed his way out and ran screaming into the streets, never to be seen again. Ever since, hundreds of attacks on visitors to the graveyard have been reported. Scratches, bruises, and burns appearing on the skin. Sensations of being kicked or having hair pulled. One woman was found unconscious with bruises around her neck.

All is quiet around this little mausoleum. The hair on the back of my neck is at rest. We have just entered the cemetery, however. My mother, stepfather, and me. Tonight we are going on a Haunted Graveyard tour of this very place, but we wanted to see it in the daylight. We weave in and out of the gravestones, moving deeper within. These are the most sinister tombstone adornments I’ve ever seen: gaping skulls, leering demons, wicked cherubs. We attempt to decipher the faded epitaphs. Strolling through cemeteries usually gives me a sense of serenity. I’ve even adopted the Eastern European tradition of wandering at night through candlelit graveyards on All Saint’s Day. I pause to gaze into the weathered faces of twin girls. Demure hands clasped in prayer, a seductive glimpse of leg. Tainted virtue. Every image in this necropolis seems to mock the beholder. I’m not sure I could be paid to venture here alone in the daylight.

A black Labrador bounds back and forth along the back wall. It jumps on one of the tall tombstones and wags its tail. A male voice barks an unintelligible command. It takes a while for the ear to become accustomed to the Scottish accent. The dog stands up, catches a ball in its mouth, and carries it to the man. And the cycle continues. My parents and I exchange bewildered glances. As we approach, I notice an upturned hat. Ah, so that’s the purpose of this unexpected show. My stepfather adds his contribution to the hat, and we move on.

The wall curves around, leading back towards the entrance. The conversation turns to family stuff. Catching up. I’ve crashed my parents’ Scotland trip. Or rather, their voyage to this part of the world was an excuse for a much-needed reunion. A flicker on my left. A shadowy figure appears. Immobile, yet infused with sentience. Watchful. An abrupt halt. I gasp. “Woah.” We peer into the murkiness. Stillness like an indrawn breath before a forceful, taunting BOO.

A young man strides towards us, all arms and legs. Blonde hair protrudes from his skull. He pauses, twists his long neck towards the dark effigy, shakes his head, and proclaims, “Tha thing’s skelly as fook!” He lopes away with a chuckle.

I look at my parents with a snicker. “Did you understand that?”

My stepfather smiles and nods. My mother shakes her head. “What?” When my stepfather translates for her, she laughs.

I roll my eyes and laugh. “Scotland.”

Night falls. Intermittent rain and humid gusts of wind. I wonder what it takes to be classified as dark and stormy in Scotland. The tour guide is a tall young woman with long black hair. Black leather trench coat and combat boots. She is perfect for the part. She pauses inside the entrance of Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. The group clusters around her. We are on a hill, but it’s not a natural hill. It’s made up of tens of thousands of bodies that were discarded here. Most of them died in horrible conditions or are the very worst of criminals. There are so many bones that, if there’s been a particularly heavy rain, they will rise out of the ground. You see the buildings next to the graveyard? Since the Mackenzie Poltergeist was awakened, there have been unexplained fires and other misfortunes for those who live there. Be warned: it’s not unusual to feel nausea or headaches or faint.

And she leads us deeper into the shadows. To the very back, where the black dog and its master were so joyfully playing just hours earlier. This is where the rogues are buried. Bad people. She launches into a tale of murder and mayhem. Torture. They used to lay a bottomless metal box on the abdomen of a prisoner, put a live rat in the box, and then heat the box until it was blazing hot. There was only one way for the rat to escape…

A sharp exhalation of disgust escapes me. I’ve been making an effort, lately, to dislike humanity a little less. This is not helping my attitude.

But the description of the torture is not finished! Do you know how long it takes for a rat to eat its way out of a human body? Sometimes they got lost and chewed their way up instead of out. Like into the arm. And how long can a human survive this situation? Hours!

My head spins. I step back and take a deep breath. The migraine I had earlier in the day has come back.

My mother moves beside me. “I’m starting to feel sick, but it’s probably just jet lag,” she whispers.

I nod my head at the rest of the group, their blank expressions. “I think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t feel sick after hearing that.”

I close my eyes. She’s surely embellishing the story. A memory arises. There was a game the kids in our neighborhood loved to play in the autumn. When the air was rich with the smell of decaying apples and burning leaves. For a night or two, rivals made a truce. Because: the more the better for Ghost, Ghost in the Graveyard.

We gathered at my family’s house, because we had the biggest yard in the neighborhood. My brother and sister, me, the neighbor twins, the bully who lived down the street, and his brother and sister. Two people were picked to be the ghost and the tour guide. We turned our backs while the ghost hid. The bully was usually the tour guide, because he was the most entertaining. His name was Derek Farrio*. He was the oldest. Scrawny, but vicious. He had a skinny, oblong head covered with black hair. Chimpanzee smile. He was the terror of the Catholic school. The altar boy from Hell. He made faces at the priest’s back during mass. He brayed the hymns with exaggerated fervor, even after the organ’s last notes had died away. Even the teachers had a hard time keeping a straight face. Undeterred by the punishment that was bestowed upon him, he operated by stealth. His impassive expression was the most fearsome. Lips at rest, watchful orbs under heavy eyelids as he prowled the school bus aisle looking for a target.

On Derek’s tours, the front porch became the site of a bloody battle. A smoldering pile of leaves became a plane crash. An unremarkable bush became “The place where JFK, um, shitted on.” We’d giggle behind our hands. He was the only one brave enough to swear. It was all a way to distract us. This was the goal of the game. When we reached the ghost’s hiding place, Derek would screech, “And this is…Ghost, Ghost in the Graveyard!” We’d squeal and scatter. The person who was unfortunate enough to be caught by the ghost would be the next ghost. And so it continued.

I smile to myself in the dark. As we are shepherded towards the finale of the tour, I share the memory with my mother. She remembers Derek, of course. The bumps and bruises and hurt feelings she had to soothe because of him.

“His sister told me, not so long ago, that he was actually bullied by the kids in his class. That’s why he took it out on us littler ones.”

My mother snorts. “That’s no excuse.”

“No, not an excuse, but an explanation. He was the one with the problem, not us.” Bullies are so often the result of bullies. It comes from a need to feel powerful. Those who are truly strong feel no urge to perpetuate the cycle. Scars are so much easier to bear than guilt. “She also told me that his kids are worse than he was. What goes around always comes around.”

Our lovely and talented guide pauses at the gates of the Covenanter’s Prison. She pulls a large key from her pocket. The tour company had to take out extra insurance for the right to enter. This is where the majority of attacks have taken place. “I’ve seen people become very distressed very quickly in here. You are not obligated to go inside.” She pauses. There are no objections, so she rattles the gate open and closes it behind us. We follow her down the long row of mausoleums. Twelve hundred religious prisoners were crammed in here and left to fend for themselves. George Mackenzie, “Bluidy Mackenzie”, was the overlord. Hence the connection with the present hauntings. He was awakened to wander in perpetual torment. What goes around comes around. Always.

As the guide continues her florid account, we are herded into a tiny mausoleum. She stands in the doorway, facing us. Voice lilting with rising drama. A masked face lurches into view. A scream blasts us. Deafening, elongated, heartfelt. A collective scream erupts in reply. The face disappears. The shock is replaced with laughter.

“My goodness, that was impressive. It’s rare to see someone with such passion for their job these days,” I say to the guide as we make our way back to the gates.

She nods. “Yes, he takes his job very seriously.”

Fat raindrops begin to fall. One more stop before we are free. I come to rest at the back of the group with my parents. A couple stands in front of us. They have stood to the side for most of the tour, casting disdainful looks at the rest of us. Her gold metallic platform sneakers glitter in the darkness. She pulls a fur-trimmed hood over her blonde hair. The guy wrestles an umbrella out of his coat pocket. It opens into a mangled mess. He lifts it above his head anyway. My mother nudges me. We attempt to stifle our giggles. The guy looks over his shoulder at us with a haughty smirk. The tremor intensifies. The worst thing to do with a laughing fit is try to control it.

My stepfather rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “Men are so stupid.”

Through the gates and into the streets we go. Dispersed into the night. My parents and I trod back to the hotel. My eyes in the bathroom mirror are glassy, exhausted. When I lower my gaze, I notice three scratches, like claw marks, on my chest.

Photo by T. Blackhurst

*Name changed, but the rhyme is the same.

My stepfather took the last photo, which is of the Covenanter’s Prison, on his iPhone. We sent it to the tour company. They added it to their collection of hundreds of such photos. The photo of my scratches is blurry and unimpressive, so I didn’t post it. I made an effort to check my skin before the tour, so I know that it was clear. Except for the migraine, I felt absolutely no pain during the tour. Apparently, most people don’t. The marks just appear.

The Color of Blood

North Berwick, Scotland – September 2016

How high the walls of this castle are. How red the stone. Red: the color of the family that once dwelled within. The color of blood. My blood, diluted over the centuries by that of other tribes. Descendants dispersed in the winds of time. It’s just a name now: Douglas. A family ripped apart by rivalry. They became Red Douglases and Black Douglases. I have visited that other castle, in the Borders region. I wasn’t aware of the rift, then. Or to which line I belonged. It all comes down to color. Swarthy or ginger. Dark or light. Any heritage I claimed at Threave is erased and replaced by this intimidating structure. Tantallon.

The House that William Built, an information board proclaims. My mother and I exchange a look and snicker. William is the name of one of my brothers. She takes a photo, so she can show him when she returns home. Scotland is her “bucket list” place, she says. She has always wanted to visit the country that gave her children their name. Despite the hardship she personally suffered because of this same name. She wanders off with my stepfather, exploring rooms and staircases and passages. I pause to gaze at Bass Rock. Tiny white specks blanket the massive boulder. Gannets. Every few seconds, a group takes flight. They rise in one surge, soar for a few seconds, and then come to rest again.

Someone recently asked me which places I’d most like to return to. I realized that I’d never really thought about this. There are so many new places to see. Scotland, I replied. I’d love to go back to Scotland. There is something comforting about this wild, bleak land. I’m delighted to be here again.

Every Christmas, we got together with my father’s family. We were the only ones who didn’t live in Bay City, so it was often the only time of the year when we saw them. We’d walk into one of the uncle’s homes. Most of the others would already be there. A silence fell. Upper lips curled. Eyes narrowed. Looks were exchanged. Backs were turned. They’d warm up, eventually. A grudging cordiality. I was always relieved when it was time to go home.

My parents divorced. I didn’t see the Douglases for years. When my father died, we became reacquainted, but the underlying contempt from some of them had only deepened. They didn’t like us because we were snobs, some of the friendlier ones informed us. My mother was from rich Midland and not blue-collar Bay City. She will always be the witch who divorced my father. Those few who honestly liked us died young, like my father. There was squabbling over pennies after my grandmother died. Greed and betrayal runs deep in the veins. My siblings and I realized the futility of this allegiance. We drew up the drawbridge and closed the gate, insulating ourselves from the petty intrigue.

How quickly the clouds gather here. I pull my hood tight around my head. We linger at opposite ends of the barbican. In the grim light, the redness of the walls fades to rust. The color of old wounds. My mother and stepfather stare out over the deep blue water and embrace.

On an Island in a Scottish Loch

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

June 2004

Every day, I awaken around eight in the morning. After a breakfast of tea and toast with jam, I set up the restaurant for lunch. Fold napkins, polish cutlery and glasses, vacuum the faded carpet. Around eleven, the mail boat putters up to the restaurant dock. Day trippers, mainly elderly ladies, alight. I deliver their food and rounds of drinks. At exactly noon, the captain of the mail boat whistles. The ladies make their way back to the boat, giggling and slightly swaying as they are helped aboard. At two, I go on break. I have three hours off before I must set up for dinner. Every morning, I tell myself that I’ll try to find the castle ruins on the island, but I end up lying down instead. Some days I sleep, other days I stare at the white wooden planks of the ceiling and contemplate my self-imposed situation.

When the computer in the restaurant office is free, I send my husband an email to let him know that I’m still alive. The South Pacific already seems like another life ago. I’m here, on this distant, gloomy island, because I needed to prove that I am able to be employed. That someone, somewhere would want to hire me. I tried, down there in that place of relentless sunshine. I am now fluent in French. I have lots of varied experience. My efforts were met with sneers. You’ve got a lot of nerve thinking you can work for us. Snotty little bitches. I walked away with my head held up. And yet, my self-confidence ebbed away with each petty humiliation. I’ve written a novel and revised it twice. But writing doesn’t count unless someone else will acknowledge that it exists. That I exist.

“Why do you need to do something to be? If you want to go on a trip, I will pay for it.” My husband sighed and put his arms around me. “Okay. Whatever you need to do.”

I came across an ad for this job on the internet. A pub and restaurant on an island in a Scottish loch. Room, board, and a little money. Enough to pay for some trips around Scotland afterwards. Then I will go home. Head cleared and ready to tackle a new draft of my novel. To be a housewife again.

The staff cottage is just behind the restaurant. The carpet in the living room is so grimy that I don’t dare walk on it without shoes. The dishwasher, a young man from a nearby town, has invited me to watch television with him there. I think. I can hardly understand a word he says. Even if I watched television, which I don’t, I could never relax in there. The bathroom consists of a bathtub and a hose. There are three bedrooms – one for the chef, another for the dishwasher. The very back room is called the “girl’s room”. It has two single beds with matching white ruffled bedding. Flowered sheets and crocheted comforters. Vintage garden prints hang on the walls. I can walk without shoes on the white shag carpet. A dingy haze hangs in the air. It is not a dirty room, just saturated with the essence of wandering souls past. If only I had some sage to burn. I ponder the things these other women left behind: half-empty bottles of nail polish, ponytail holders, single socks. Some travel brochures on Scotland. Books, none that I feel inspired to read. Bad romances, mostly. I will surely add to the detritus when I leave. The apple-scented lotion that gives me a headache. Random words scrawled in the margins of those books, maybe. The haze will thicken with the cast-off vapors of my spirit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After my break, I serve three or four tables, hang around until ten, and then the day is over. The family who owns the island walks home together. Their houses are on the other side of the island, a half mile away.

I found out from a regular pub patron that the old man owns the island. He is tall, gaunt, stooped over like an old tree. Disheveled gray hair. He wears rumpled navy blue overalls. He avoids the bright conviviality of the pub, only entering when it’s time to change the kegs. Instead, he does outside chores and pilots the ferry that brings visitors from the far shore. When there’s nothing to do he sits on a beer crate in the murky, dirt-floored entryway and looks down at the ground. Everyone once in a while, he lets out a shriek, “Midges!”

A fleeting spasm passes over his wife’s face when she looks at him. Shame and fear. She dresses in immaculate white blouses and colorful pants. Hair like snow-dusted cobwebs. Not a strand out of place. Determined to keep up appearances. She shows me the old man’s photos, which hang in the pub. The strapping, robust man of yesteryear. A regular winner in the Highland Games. “He is getting worse,” she whispers. “He refuses to make an effort.”

Every morning, when the old man sees me, he looks me in the eye and says, “Good morning, young lady!”

“Good morning, sir,” I reply. I meet his gaze and nod in solidarity. I understand. He’s just over it.

Their two sons live on the island with their families. The elder son is soft-spoken and kind. His wife is the restaurant manager. They have two children. Curious, delightful little blonde beings. They show me their art, tell me their stories. “We all like you, Julie,” their mother says. A musical resonance in her voice. Scottish must be the loveliest accent ever. “We’re happy to have you with us.”

The other son works in the city. He wears argyle sweaters and perfectly pressed trousers. A thick head of blonde hair. Entitled frat boy demeanor. He saunters into the pub, face tightened in a perpetual look of contempt. His wife is big-boned, rosy-cheeked. A hardy, capable woman. Her eyes are the clearest blue I’ve ever seen. The color of the sun shining through an arctic sky. Warmth shimmers behind the cold.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Shards of rainbow often appear in the sky. Sometimes they meld together into one divine arc that embraces the loch. Sometimes they sink into the pillows of gray.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On Wednesdays, the restaurant is closed. The cook and dishwasher go into the city. The family stays on their side of the island. I am allowed to eat whatever I want in the restaurant. The door is never locked. The first week, I walk ten kilometers to a small village. I check out the Viking graves in the cemetery. Afterwards, I have a cup of tea and some scones in a small, bustling cafe. I’m beginning to think that the only people who travel in Scotland are teetotalling old ladies. I catch the afternoon bus and ask to be dropped off at the small parking lot near the ferry dock. It is nearly Midsummer. Night falls at around eleven and dissipates into dawn around three. I lie in bed, my ears ringing in the profound, unnerving silence.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The second Wednesday, I explore the island on foot. The slight, but constant sore throat I’ve had since I arrived has turned into a cold. The damp has seeped deep into my bones. There are a couple of wide dirt paths that crisscross the island. Cows laze in small pastures. Not so much as a moo or a look of languid curiosity when I pass by. When I asked about the location of the castle ruins, I got only vague directions. If I walk around long enough, I should stumble upon it eventually. I leave the path, tramping through high grass until I emerge at a shore. Soft waves rasp over stones. Phosphorescent moss carpets the surrounding rocks. It contrasts against the different grays of sky and waves. The wind rips my hair out of its braid. I pull my hood over my head. They told me that the previous waitress, a Swedish girl, came here to swim between shifts. I dip my fingers into the water, then pull them back with a shiver. Living in the tropics has made me a sissy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After my walk, I eat dinner and then settle in for the night. In a small notebook, I scrawl the mysterious offerings that emanate from my subconscious at this time of day. The wind intensifies, knocking out the power. My hands shake as I light the candle on the bedside table. The flimsy walls shudder. I huddle under the covers. Voices creep into the gale. The spirits of the island have been conjured. A strident female wail, a forlorn male moan. A background choir of inhuman anguish. This must be what a banshee sounds like. Not that I ever wanted to know. I think of my husband on the other side of the world. My goofy white rabbits who follow me around all day. All of them so patiently waiting for me to come home. The point I so desperately needed to prove suddenly seems petty. I am punishing myself. What a funny little thing the ego is. A massive gust of wind seizes the cottage. The front door slams open. I gasp. A shrill giggle escapes. The door bangs open and shut. The shrieking wind barges into the hovel. The next wail to join the choir will surely be mine.

And then it all just seems ridiculous. What’s next: the Grim Reaper? I throw back the covers, grab a candle, take a deep breath, and whip open the bedroom door. The candlelight does not illuminate a black-robed entity with a scythe. I exhale, walk to the front door, slam it shut, and barricade it with a chair. I sweep the candlelight across the corners and in the bathroom just to be sure, and then go back to my room. Soon, the black sky softens to gray dawn, driving the phantoms back to their abyss.

In the morning, the sun pierces through the gray. Yet another rainbow appears over the loch. I don’t want to stay here anymore, but I hate to let them down. I go through the motions of work, speaking as little as possible. Turning possibilities over in my mind.

I head into the cellar to summon the old man to change the keg in the pub. I peer around the corner. He is bending over to pick up a crate of beer. A slow, laborious process. The shaft of light from the doorway illuminates a long tendril of mucous oozing from one nostril. Six inches at least. I pause and gape, transfixed. Will it reach all the way to the floor? Then I shake myself and retreat into the pub. The keg can be dealt with later.

A migraine materializes. I don’t have any medicine, so the older son offers to drive me into the nearby town. His car is a brand new Jaguar. He asks me how I like working on the island. A glib apology for the state of the staff cottage. He looks at me out of the corner of his eye. Calculating, sly. He drops me off at the chemist’s and then picks me up a few minutes later. He does not sit and wait for anyone.

Insolent now. “Aren’t you bored staying on the island on your day off?”

I shrug. “It’s fine.”

“I’ll give you a lift into the city next Wednesday,” he says. An all-too-familiar heaviness thickens the air.

I tense up. “No, thanks. I like to stay on the island.”

His face tightens. He shifts the gears. His movements are curt. Bratty. “You’re coming into the city with me next week.”

I look out the window and say nothing. A new dread takes hold. The threat this Wednesday night won’t be of supernatural origin. If I say anything, it will all be my fault, of course. Time to break out the well-worn “my grandmother died” excuse. A sigh of relief. It has been decided for me. Tomorrow, the old man will ferry me to the shore one last time. Transporting me back to the world.

****************
Note: I have intentionally omitted and distorted details of this island’s location, for reasons that should be obvious.