Monday, May 4, 2009

Heavy Footsteps

I woke to the slow, deep, mournful warning of the fog horn from the direction of the coast guard station and Brant Point Light House. A light drizzle tapped softly on the tin roof over the closed in back porch of the guest house where I lived and worked. I knew that no guests would be rising early that day; it was not a beach morning. No laundry would be done, because I could not hang it on the line to dry. I reached for the copy of Moby Dick on the shelf next to my cot.

Moby Dick is a dark horror and a chore to read, but at the same time it is rich with enduring poetry and symbolism. The setting in which I was reading the tale could not have been more perfect. I was on Nantucket, the island where Ishmael and Queequeg signed on with the whaling vessel the Pequod. The main streets of Nantucket are still paved with the same cobble stones that were the ballast for whaling vessels that came in to port two centuries before. Ships were disgorged of the heavy rounded stones and loaded down again with whale oil, candles, and other trades from far off ports. Many of the homes and buildings in the town of Nantucket are original to the whaling community of the early 1800s and are still intact and decorated in much the same style as when they were built. So, it is easy to imagine the ghosts of widows pacing ‘the walk’ and searching the horizon for their sailors out at sea.

I read for about an hour and got up at 7:30 am. By the time that I had my toast and eggs and had finished cleaning all of the rooms in the guest house, the sun had come out and burned off the fog. By 11 am, children, their pails and shovels in hand, were already kicking at the dead carcass of a horse shoe crab and chasing gulls on Children's Beach in front of the guest house. I walked from the beach, up the cobbled Main Street, past the bank that dominates the top of the street and turned left onto a small shady side street.

My second job was both flexible and lucrative. Except for the creepy house that it was in, it would have been the perfect job. The house was built in the late 1700s and I was told that it had been owned by Maria Mitchell’s Quaker parents. Maria Mitchell, born 1818, was one of the first women of note in American science, an award winning astronomer. In the early part of the summer, I was hired to prepare this home for rental. This meant that I would go in, decide what needed to be done, and send a bill for the work. A blank check seems like a great gig except that I couldn't bear being in the house alone. One of the first chores that I tackled was cleaning out the fire place on the first floor. I shoveled out the ash and lemon oiled the cast iron fire dogs, and the swinging hanger that would have held the hanging cooking pots. All of these items were original to the house. The entire time I worked, I could not help looking over my shoulder to see who was watching me. I started to sing loudly to keep myself company. On later visits, I often paid my friends to help clean the house with me, but some of them were more uncomfortable in the home than I was.

Within a few weeks the house was ready and the first vacation renters came to stay. They were a very pleasant family with two young children, and cleaning the home became much easier with other people around. On this day though, the weather had become so warm and beautiful that the family decided to enjoy the afternoon on the beach. They left me in the home alone and asked if I would please make up the rooms on the third floor because they had friends coming in on the ferry that evening.

I hated the third floor. Of all of the rooms in the house the two on the third floor were the most uncomfortable for me. I made the beds, took out the garbage and vacuumed the floors everywhere else in the house first, before I went up with clean sheets to the third floor. Shortly after I entered the room at the top of the stairs, the sky turned black and there was a loud rumble of thunder. Rain began to pour out of the sky. I was concentrating very hard on working as quickly as I could, when I heard the heavy footsteps of a hard soled shoe coming up the stairs to the third floor toward me.

I put on my 'I'm in charge' voice and demanded, "Who's there!" No answer. "Who's out there!"

I boldly threw the door open and stomped out of the room to where I was sure a man should have been standing. No one was there. A heavy steamer trunk that had been shoved against the attic door was pulled out about a foot from the wall and the attic door was ajar. I slammed the door shut and ran down to the second and then the first floor and then right out of the house and into the yard. With amazement, I noted that it was sunny outside but the grass was wet.

I stood outside looking up at the third floor windows for about 10 minutes. I really didn't want the embarrassment of being caught out in the side yard, not working, when the family returned home so I gathered my wits and marched back into the house and up to the third floor again to finish my task saying, "I'm comin' back in and I don't want any trouble from you!" The attic door was still closed when I got back up to the third floor, but I couldn't budge the steamer trunk to push it back against the door. Leaving it there, I went into the room to finish the beds. Just as I put the last pillow in place, I heard the family return from the beach.

Putting on my cheerful voice this time, I called down the stairs to let them know that I was there. Finished with my tasks, I went downstairs and waited until the children were out of the room to tell their parents what had happened while they were at the beach. To my surprise, the parents were absolutely delighted that they might have a ghost in the house. It seems that it just made for a more interesting vacation story, so I told them that if they really liked ghost stories there was a book that had just come out called, The Ghosts of Nantucket: 23 True Accounts by Blue Balliett which they could find in the book store on Main Street.

The next time that I came up to the house, they told me that when they had gone to the bookstore on Main Street to buy the book, they ran into their friends who were buying the very same book. Their friends said that the reason they had come to buy the book was that they were in home of Maria Mitchell’s birthplace on the same afternoon that I was in her parent's making the third floor beds. At the birthplace, a rocking chair was rocking back and forth slowly for several minutes with no one sitting in it.


  1. Aaaaaaaahhhhh! *running away from the computer to hide for a while...;-)*

  2. Wow! That's gripping.
    When did this happen?

  3. Quite some tale.
    And I believe it entirely.
    Was invited to a wedding on Nantcket at the end of May but sadly won't be able to go.
    I will some day.

  4. A strange tale, but well told and yes, believable. There is more to our lives than we are aware of. I am sure of it.
    Blessings, Star

  5. Siobhan, It happened in 1984, when I was still 19.

    Elizabeth, I really hope that you do go to Nantucket someday. It is an amazingly beautiful place. I spent seven summers working on the island.

    Hi Star, all true. I have been telling this story for years and I thought it was time to write it down.

  6. Fabulously spooky! I love the way the weather helped you understand what was happening.

    It's rare for ghosts to be able to actually move objects; they really have to be vivid to do that, so even more spooky.

    I love what a full life you've lived so far. Never a boring moment for Butternut Squash, oh yeah!

  7. I don't see ghosts but my sister does. She always finds it to be disturbing which I don't really understand as they have never been threatening. I've asked her if she tries to talk to them and she does not.

  8. Oh, you had me gripped all the way through. How beautifully, how evocatively you write. I was there, with you, in that house.

  9. i'll be with Tulsa...gulp!...beautifully written though Butternut, I was completely transported.
    ♥ Lori

  10. Spooky! That was a really good ghost story, vividly told. I was right there in that weird house with you!

  11. You had me at "I woke to the slow, deep, mournful warning of the fog horn.."

    Beautifully written. Direct, clear, and with more than a touch of suspense. Just the way I like it!

    And, now I know to stay in a modern hotel if I ever vacation in Nantucket:)

  12. As I think I've said before, you are a very compelling writer.

  13. ooooooooooooo - full body chills. First of all this was gorgeously written. Secondly, I w,as envying you your experience in such a beautiful place, the book, the history and all. And then, I was scared crapless. wow.

  14. I love the way you set up this story and conjure up the atmosphere of Nantucket for your readers. Very compelling.

    I just saw The Others a few nights ago. Have you ever seen it? Set in Jersey, it also has that foggy, isolated island feel to it.

  15. Aha..the rocking chair..I was wondering when the chair in the photo would come into play, because I saw it move immediately...booo!
    Love this post, wish I'd known about this house on a weekend spent long ago on Nantucket. My kind of town..thank you...

  16. congrats on the potd! What an interesting life you've had.

  17. I grew up in a house with a ghost - my father was killed when I was 9 and he came back to live with us. Unfortunately it was more frightening than comforting....

    Congratulations on winning David's POTD award. Well deserved!

  18. I can see why you were chosen for David's POTC. You had me enthralled, great story, great writing, Elizabeth.

  19. What a tense few moments I just had reading this, Butternut. Glad it turned out well for you...but I would not want that job no matter how much it paid no matter how great the subsequent story. Love to you. <3

  20. I linked to here from Trish and Rob McGregor's site; wonderful story; will be reading your past entries now! I'm adding you to Favorites.