When a priest is haunted in his own rectory, who can you call for help?
When Father O’Mallory refuses to go out to give last rights to his most difficult parishioner, he didn’t realize it meant she would haunt him to his days. Bridey, the priest’s housekeeper calls in Marlene to see if she can make peace between the two of them.
Can she untangle forty years of anger, rage, and resentment?
Margaret and the Priest
Bridey sat in front of me, nibbling her sandwich. Birdlike, Bridey’s head always tilted on an angle as though she was listening to something somewhere else. She came in once a month wearing a purple plaid skirt with a prim white blouse and tweed jacket. She wore a crumpled slouch hat at a slight angle. She regularly asked about her nephew and the bingo numbers. I read her cups and she passed on the good gossip.
Bridey was the housekeeper for the priest at St. Phenomena’s. Father Mallory was a tyrant and bully but she gave him as good as she got. He preached grateful obedience and hellfire. But she ruled the rectory, scrubbing floors in rage and perfection like a sandstorm on a mission. She filled the kitchen with the smells of hot bread and stew and filled his ears with invective any time he tracked in mud.
Bridey told me more than I told her. Bridey treated parish gossip as a combat sport. It was like watching verbal gladiators sling guilt at each other in a sumo match. She’d lost her love in the war and cared for the priest when she was done caring for her parents. She didn’t just do his laundry. She kept his records and took all his messages when he ducked his calls. She saw everyone who came to the rectory, served them tea or coffee, and then waited behind the door to hear the story. She knew everything. There was little she wouldn’t tell.
Today she was between scandalized and titillated. She leaned into me as if to impart a secret. “Old Margaret Ryan died this week. Lord, Father hated that woman. No love lost from her side either. They must have fought for forty years. Her wake is tonight. They’ll be burying her tomorrow.”
“What did they fight over?” I asked her.
“Mirella, I don’t know how it began. They were blooding each other regularly by the time I arrived twenty years ago.“ She picked up her teacup, raised one pinkie in the air and sipped delicately.
“Over what?” I asked.
“I don’t think they actually fought over things,” Bridey said. “They just fought.”
“Why didn’t one of them leave the parish?” I asked.
“Father wasn’t about to. The bishop never said a hard word to him. It was his home.” She put her cup down to nibble a cookie. “But she wouldn’t have gone either. Her parents helped lay the church foundation. She always said it was her church, not his.”
“What did Father do to her this time?” I asked.
“I think he told her no. She wanted him to put her in charge of the altar guild. The other women would have quit if he had. They hated Margaret that much. He gave the job to Annie. Margaret was so steamed she didn’t come to mass for the last three weeks. “
“Was that all, Bridey?”
“Not exactly. Margaret went the church thrift shop instead and told stories about the last time Father was drunk at the Parish picnic. It was true as true, but he wouldn’t acknowledge that. He wore his aftershave that he puts on to cover it. God knows who he thinks he’s fooling. The other women ran straight to Father to tell him. So he told Margaret she was a sinful woman and he couldn’t give her communion. If she couldn’t have communion, she refused to go to church at all. Last Tuesday she had heartburn and pains down her arm. Called the rectory and asked him to come give her unction. He refused to go out that night to give her the sacrament. He said he’d send out the curate, but I know he didn’t call the man. By Wednesday morning, she was dead. Margaret didn’t get the last rites, and he got to have the last word. We’re putting her in the ground tomorrow.”
“Will you be going?”
She brushed cookie crumbs from her front. “How could I miss it? Her daughter is bound to have words with Father. I can barely wait. Those Ryans fought with Father for at least three generations now.” Bridey bustled off in her tweed jacket, scarf tucked in at her neck, like a child looking forward to a fireworks display.
I shook my head. Father Mallory might be a tough bird, but he’d stepped out farther than the bishop would probably allow. It was a week later when Bridey returned. She told me in a worried tone, “You won’t believe it. Father ’s not sleeping.”
“How do you know that?” I was baffled. How close were the quarters in the rectory?
“How could I miss it?” Bridey said. “He’s rattling around like a dried pea in a pot. He’s red-eyed and sore-tailed by the time I bring in his breakfast. He’s stopped showering.”
“How can you tell that?” I asked.
“Trust me, Mirella, you couldn’t miss it. Won’t let me wash his cassock, either. He’s worn it all week, crumpled and smelling like God’s own mess. He’s not sleeping. And he won’t say why. He’s nipping into the bottle I’m not supposed to know about.”
None of that sounded good to me. “How did the funeral go?”
“It was grand, but he asked three times for a glass of water with baking soda before he was out the door.”
“Was the daughter angry?”
“Yes, but she’s always angry. It’s hard to say at whom. She was so mad at her mother, it hardly mattered how she felt about Father. But he told me she cheated him on his funeral fee.”
“How was that?” I asked.
“She didn’t slip anything extra in the envelope.” Bridey slung her purse over her arm and rose for the elevator. She didn’t quite skip, but she was definitely perked up by the uproar.
Two weeks later she came in with her latest report. It was more serious. She loosened the pin on her hat and put it on the table. “I think he’s come to a crossroads, with all that brandy,” she confessed.
“Why is that, Bridey?”
“I’ve never seen his bottle at that level. I checked. I heard him talk to himself last night. How to do you fight with yourself out loud? He must be losing something upstairs.”
I nerved myself up to ask, “How did you know?”
“How could I have missed it?” She waved her hands to describe the chaos. “Screaming at the top of his lungs. ‘Get out!’ but that wasn’t directed at me. God knows who he was talking to. Father didn’t know I was behind the door listening. I’ve got to get back. If I bake something sweet it might soften the evening.” She trundled off back to the rectory.
An hour later, Bridey called in again. Her voice was a soft stage whisper. “Father broke down with the bishop. He called the bishop a pencil-headed overstuffed intrusion, right over the phone. This morning he fumbled words at the altar. Couldn’t get through the consecration. The bishop comes next week. I’m worried for both of them. Father stares off into space, his face screws up and then he looks like he’s going to crap himself. And I have to do his laundry, if he’ll ever let me in there to go get it. He’s in a bad way. Last night he was at the bottle again. But I can’t for the life of me think why he’d have poured two glasses instead of one. Surely he’s not using both hands.”
“Could you hear what he was saying?” I asked.
“Something about ‘you can at least drink with me.’ I’ve no idea what he meant. The bishop scheduled a visit at the end of the month. I hope Father’s not cracked in two by then.”
“Bridey, do you think it’s just the alcohol?”
“I don’t know. When I cleaned up the next morning, a voice whispered ‘Leave my glass alone.” Not a soul in the room. It’s a cruel joke if someone wanted to scare him or me. I left the dust where it was and came here. He won’t be back until dinner. Do you believe in ghosts, Mirella?”
After three months in the tearoom I’d seen one of almost everything, live or dead. How do you say that to a sweet old lady like Bridey?
“Why do you ask?” I said, hoping I could redirect this conversation.
“If he’s not mad-hatter mad, then what is talking to him? If I’m hearing it, am I mad too?” Bridey wasn’t crazy. She could be manipulative, funny, kind at one hand and cruel at the other. But she didn’t imagine things because she had no imagination to start with. If she heard something, it was there. “Mirella, you know about these things. Will you come to the rectory? While he isn’t there. Just to see what you can see?”
I never managed to tell Bridey no. Even when I should have. At the end of the day, I stopped at the rectory, just to see.
We sat in her kitchen, with a cup of tea and some cakes. The pans hung precisely on the wall. The cabinets were a display case. Even the wet dish towel hung with precision from the counter. Bridey reigned in the kitchen. It wasn’t the Father’s space at all. The parlor served as a community meeting room. His bedroom was almost a monk’s cell. Which room would be Father’s stronghold?
‘May I see the study?” I asked.
She took me past the double wooden doors, into a dark curtained room full of dust and books. Bridey turned with her hands out in display. Bridey had told me so many stories about the rectory I could have found it myself. “Well, Marlene, here you are, but I don’t know what you’ll find.”
I asked her for a glass of water, to get her out of the room. She scurried out. I closed my eyes for a moment to focus. Then I heard a small, hard-edged voice.
“And who are you?” It was a woman’s voice, but not Bridey’s. It had more gravel in it. A smoker’s voice. Not a friendly voice. But very clear. “And what are you doing here?”
I opened my eyes to see a translucent woman sitting primly in the chair across from his desk. She wore a black sheathe dress from the fifties, and pearls around her neck. She had a glass of whiskey in her hand. She sipped it.
My eyes bugged slightly but I manage to speak to her. “My name is Marlene.” My tearoom name wouldn’t do here. If I wanted her honesty I had to give my own.
“Little girl, get out of here.” I hadn’t thought of myself as a child since my mother died. But this woman scared me.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I’m Margaret. Margaret Radigan Ryan. Father did me a wrong and he’ll right it or I’ll know why.” Margaret was a small-boned, delicate woman, but I didn’t make the mistake of thinking she wasn’t tough as old boots. She pierced through me with eyes hawk eyes, bright and predatory.
“I’m here, Margaret, to help you if I can.”
“And why would you be thinking I need help?”
“Bridey asked me to come.”
“That over-prissy, step-scrubbing drab. How dare she!”
I let that pass. I’d seen Bridey’s spotless floors. I could see what she meant.
“You have noticed that you’re dead?” I asked her.
“Well, of course. I wouldn’t be in his study if I weren’t,” she replied.
I sat in the chair across from her. “Most dead people don’t stay here, you know.”
“I haven’t a choice,” she said. “He refused me the last sacrament. Sad to say for us both, this is purgatory.”
“I don’t know much about purgatory. Are you here because of your sins?”
“Heavens, no. The black robed bastard refused me my final forgiveness and last rites. I’m here for his.”
I was unsure of the theology behind that. None of the ghosts I’d ever met felt their condition was a punishment. Most ghosts I’d run into were just lost or confused. Unless they were having such a good time that they didn’t want to move on. But dead or alive, they were just people. Dead or alive, they had free choice. Dead or alive, she could stay in Father’s study as long as she wanted. “Is there a reason why he would have done that?’
“Other than the sheer meanness of the man?”
“I won’t argue that with you. I’ve heard some of the stories.”
She snorted with laughter. The snort shook the drink in her hand. “Well, we fought over the altar guild, but that was just for fun.”
“You get to be older. You take what you can.”
“What did you do to the man?”
“Other than showing up in his shower every morning?”
Aha, that explained why Father’s hygiene had gone to hell. “Other than that.”
“Well, I sat in the curate’s lap in the middle of mass. Only father could see me. He didn’t respond, so I sat on the altar, right by the candle sticks. Now that he responded to.” Her face softened a bit. ”We fought out of habit. It was just how we were with each other. But I never thought he’d deny me the rites. He knew I was dying. And he wouldn’t come.”
She wasn’t a disappointed parishioner. Her heart had been betrayed.
“How long have you been here?” I asked her.
“In the study?” Margaret took out a ghostly cigarette, and lit it.
“No, at this church.”
She inhaled and elegantly blew smoke to the side. “I was born and baptized in this church. My family has been here at least eighty years.
“So how long has Father been here?”
She tilted her head, as she sorted dates. “It seems that long, but it can’t be true. I turned sixteen when the bishop sent him here.”
“Were you friendly with him then?“
She put her drink down and crossed her arms and her legs. “We were never friends. But he did have a sparkly eye and a very pretty wave in his hair. All the girls noticed.”
“And you did too.” I continued the thought.
She gave me a wry smile. “I wasn’t blind. What can you say about the things you do when you’re young? Some of us outgrow being stupid. He was a waste in a cassock, though. A man like that ought to be a man, not a priest.”
This wasn’t a simple grudge match. You can’t hate someone with your whole heart unless they’ve broken your heart.
“What was Father like as a young man?”
She looked as if she’d swallowed something bitter. “A proper good priest. A bit stiff. He said a pretty mass. He wasn’t an ass in the confessional back then. Although he became one. I helped with the school program. I came in to tutor kids after school. Sometimes after that he’d walk me home.”
“Were you proper too?” I asked.
“Oh, God no.” She laughed at me. “There was never a rule I didn’t test or a trial I didn’t run. It was damned boring to be a girl then.”
“What happened then?” I probed.
“I started dating Willy. He was smart-looking, but he was an octopus when he thought no one could see. I was pregnant before the end of my junior year.”
“What did you do?”
“I did what everyone did back then,” she told me. “I dropped out of school and I married the bastard. A lot of good it did me too. But my parents almost died of shame and the priest said it was what I had to do to do make it right.”
“Father Mallory?” I asked her to clarify.
“That would be the man,” she said. “He wouldn’t give me absolution until I did. If my parents felt ashamed about a child on the way, they were furious he could toss me out of the parish They weren’t mad at Father. This was my problem, my fault, my punishment. I was a bride within a month and a married mother within a half a year.”
“That’s not so bad,” I said.
“And a fat lot you know. It was the end of my dreams. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to go to France and England. Instead, I left my baby howling in the bedroom, while I searched the bars for Willie.” By now her face was twisted in rage although her voice stayed low.
“So you resented it,” I confirmed.
“I knew it was a sin. And I confessed my rage. The church should help us through heartbreak. I cried tears in front of Father in the confessional. Do you know what he did? He told me to say three ‘Hail Mary’s’ and three ‘Our Fathers’. And to remember how grateful I should be to have a man who married me in my shame.”
I winced and rubbed my forehead. “What did you do then?”
“Well, I’d already found where Willy hid his whiskey bottle. I took a nip whenever I needed the courage or the strength. And I made my mind up never to trust a priest again.”
“But you stayed in the church. That must have been miserable.” I shook my head at her courage.
“Where would I have gone?” she shrugged.
“Did you still go to confession?”
“Of course I did. I told Father regularly how sorry I was I didn’t appreciate my mum enough. And that I’d forgot my morning prayers. I never let him near my heart again.” Her face could have soured milk. “I lost my nerve once. When I was pregnant with my fifth and green sick, I asked his permission not to have the child.”
“Abortion wasn’t legal, was it?”
“No, but that didn’t mean it was never done. I was desperate. He was still the same ass. The man was as stiff and unbending as a ramrod. ‘Children are a gift from God,’ he said. ‘Be grateful God has filled your womb again.’ How grateful can you be when there’s not enough food for the ones already here? And you’re unable to fix it for needing to throw up?”
“So he insisted you had to have the baby.”
“Told me it was a sin as black as black and he’d have to condemn me to hell.” Her voice quavered. “So I had the child, I did. The babe died of measles and hunger before he was two.”
“Are you sorry you had the child?”
“I can’t even say. It’s so muddled for me. I loved the baby, but I knew from the first he wasn’t like the others. And the pregnancy broke my health.”
“Do you think Father told you the right thing?”
“He always told all of us the right thing. He never said anything against the teachings of the church. It’s a shame and a sorrow that the teachings of the church usually broke your head and your heart. And he’d hold you to that track to save your soul whether it broke you or not.”
“So you never spoke to him again?” I shook my head.
“It’s a tiny place, this parish. You can’t ever break that far away.” She fiddled with the pearls at her throat.
“One day I went to the tavern to find Willy gone. The priest said Willie left us for my wicked attitude and ungrateful heart. I said the hell with him and the church and God as well. I worked in an office and learned to smoke and swear with the best of them. Slept with my boss for a short bit of time. Drank whenever I could.”
“Did you go still to church?”
“I couldn’t ask the kids to go and not go with them.”
“Did father know?”
“Bits and pieces. Every one smoked. And he took to drinking with me. He started asking me the oddest questions. Was I happy? Did I know God loved me for my suffering? Did I trust the Lord with heaven and earth? And why was it, I couldn’t trust him as God’s priest? Did I tell you the man was an idiot?”
“So he knew how you felt,”
“He wouldn’t say. But he’d noticed that I never told him a thing that mattered to me again. And he couldn’t have missed that I was miserable. He wasn’t blind either. He’d have Bridey call me up over some church matter, and she’d shuffle me into this room. He sat for hours trying to get me to say what he wanted to hear. I couldn’t trust him. He may have been right. But that kind of cruel can’t be right. There wasn’t a right decision he made me make, that I didn’t hate.”
“How many times did he threaten to throw you out of the church?”
She shook her head at me. “I lost count sometime after I was thirty. It couldn’t have been more than once a week, but it felt like that.”
“So what was the flap about the altar guild?”
“It isn’t like I wanted to do it. I knew it would put everyone in a snit.”
“Were you in love with him?”
“What good would that have done?”
Her anger confirmed it. Of course she was. “Do you think he loved you?”
“Don’t be thick. He never turned his gaze away from me, and he never looked at another girl the same way.”
Margaret still had her pride. Even as a ghost.
“Was he your lover?”
“He never touched me. He was an honorable man. And an insufferable idiot. The real fight was if I would let him do the wedding for my daughter and the premarital counseling. I’d rather she talked to Planned Parenthood. It would make more sense in the end. I told him that.”
“So he wouldn’t come when you were dying?”
“He may have thought it was a trick. A chance to whack at each other one more time.”
“Does he hold you here?”
“His sadness does. For being so damn sure, he’s damn miserable. For once in my life he can’t keep me out or bar me from the door. But I’ll stay damned if I let him dump his pious poison into my daughter’s ear. I’m not angry about the rites. I’m used to his disapproval. I did half of my evil deeds just to tweak his nose. I’m angry that never once, not even once, did he choose to be kind for kindness’ sake. It’s a miserable thing to be endlessly right and never kind.”
And, I thought, that he was too good a priest to make love to another man’s wife.
She faded out of the chair, smoke from her cigarette softly drifting away.
Bridey was of course, at the door. She’d even put a stool by it. She’ heard me. But she hadn’t heard Margaret.
“Bridey, what do you know about Margaret and Father Mallory?”
“Not enough to put in a nutshell. They always fought. They drank together although they thought I didn’t know. He always yelled at her face but he spoke softly at her back.”
“You have Margaret in the study.”
Bridey made the sign of the cross. “Preserve me from evil.”
“Margaret’s not evil,” I explained. “But she’s heartbroken and hopping mad. Have you seen Father ever bend?”
“Only to tie shoes.”
“Will he speak to me?”
“Only if you’re confessing or donating money.”
I couldn’t quite give the man cash. I was uneasy with what he would do with it. But I could surely find something to confess, if I had to make something up. “Make me an appointment, Bridey. I’m sure I’ve sinned. Will he do confession in the study?”
“He will if that’s what the penitent demands.”
“Good. Tell him it’s necessary.”
I hoped to confess his own sins to him. I hoped to show him his own selfish, cold correctness, in someone else’s light. It was a good plan. A great plan. But like most plans it simply didn’t work the way I thought it would. Bridey made me an appointment in a week. Two days later Father Mallory slid to his final end on a patch of ice on the front stoop. He hit his head on the railing and he was gone before he hit the ground.
If Bridey had enjoyed Margaret’s death, she was devastated by the Father’s. She hadn’t just lost her job and her home. She’d lost the underpinnings of her life. I saw her as I slipped through the church door. She was crumpled into a seat at the second pew, right behind the family. His mother and brother survived the man and stood together with plastic mask-like faces, unable or unwilling to show a loss. Bridey had her hanky in hand and honked her nose almost in time to the hymns. The family had always hated Bridey for running the father’s life. She did so with Father’s full permission. But his mother swore that half her messages left with Bridey never reached her son. I knew for a fact that they had, but that wouldn’t have made his mother feel much better. I slipped into the church in back to watch the bishop do the eulogy. It was a lovely service, but it was inarguable that either the bishop left a hell of a lot out or else that he simply hadn’t known Father Mallory well. His description of the man was almost unrecognizable.” A noble priest whose faith inspired us all. A man who was a true shepherd to his flock. A gentle man who loved the people in his care….” I had to wonder if the bishop had ever heard him in the confessional. One would assume, not. Standing at the altar was Father Brian, the new priest the bishop had brought in. Father Brian still had the rosy cheeks of childhood. There were still creases on his cassock from where he’d unfolded it out of its packaging to put it on.
After the service I slid through the unlocked rectory doors and wove through the mash of people here to gossip and be fed. Father Mallory’s mother was ensconced in the parlor while her other son ran errands and interference. I saw him leaping two steps at a time down the staircase to the kitchen to try to orchestrate the march of hors d’oeuvres, casseroles, coffee and wine. The women of the parish had crammed every surface with pies, a roast turkey, macaroni and cheese, cookies, a lone taco salad, the ubiquitous green bean casserole and an unforgivable bowl of lime Jello marshmallow cottage cheese surprise. It left me feeling queasy. Father Brian had been backed into the corner by three women on the altar guild. He didn’t have his hands protectively over his head, but I got the feeling that that was only because he was paralyzed in fear. It was clear who was in charge there. I walked past the pantheon of food toward the back door to find Bridey hunched in her small chair looking out the window. The parish women had decided it would be too hard for her to cook. Instead of comforting her with their care, they’d managed to throw Bridey out of her own kitchen with their kindness. Clear, silent tears ran down her face.
I didn’t try to talk. I put my hand on her cheek, reached for her hand and cried with her.
After we were both too worn to cry more I asked her if we ought to have a cup of tea. “Well, of course.” She unfolded herself from the chair and reached for the tea pot and kettle. She looked as though she belonged, now that she had a task.
“Will you be wanting cream?” she asked me. She knew better. But it was the ritual.
“Two lumps please. Is that the lovely black current blend?”
“It is.” Her smile popped out. It was faint but present. She swept through the kitchen with the cups and saucers. The steaming teapot came in the second trip. When she poured the two cups, she’d begun to look a bit more like herself.
She looked up at the steps to the parlor. “They don’t even want me there. Just as well. I’m going to the doctor next week. I’m hearing things myself.”
I thought about Margaret in the study. I felt a crushing need to check. “Bridey, may I go into his study?” I asked.
“It’s not like anyone would care. You know the way, don’t you?” She settled back into her chair and sighed. She’d lost her expectant, birdlike stance. She curved into the shape of her chair in exhaustion.
I opened the dark, heavy doors to the parlor. Poked my head in to see if anyone else was there. I half expected Margaret to be there sitting with a drink in her black dress. I was wrong. I was facing Father Mallory, sheet white and translucent. He jerked up, shocked to see me.
“And why are you here?” he bellowed.
“Actually the question is, why are you here?”
He was dead. He might have been a bully in life, but what could he do to me now? I came into the room and sat down before him.
“This is my space,” Father Mallory growled.
“Not for long. There’s a spanky new priest upstairs in the parlor. The Bishop brought him in specially for your funeral. Did you miss it?”
I caught the shallow grin that flashed across his face. ”The Bishop said the nicest things about me, didn’t he?”
“You might have listened to some of the things some other people were saying as well.”
His smile crumpled into a small pout. “I’ve been a good priest. A fine priest. A shepherd and protector….” He was winding up for his own eulogy.
“Were you protecting Margaret when you refused her last rites?”
“I didn’t refuse her. I thought I could go in the morning. It was a miserable night and I thought she’d keep.” His face dipped in shame.
“She didn’t, you know.”
He began his defense. “I anointed her body. I asked for her soul to reach heaven through whatever purgatory God led her to. And for her to be strong enough for the journey.”
“Had you thought your study might be that purgatory?”
He looked at me, shocked I knew. And then he acknowledged it. “Ah, no. That hadn’t crossed my mind. She was such a wicked thing.”
“Was she really?”
“You didn’t know the woman!”
“I did get to talk to her. Just as I’m talking to you. She had a really hard life.”
“No more than most women.”
“More’s the pity. It broke her, you know. Those rigid laws break all kinds of people.”
“The Church prescribes proper behavior for a Christian soul. My job is to lead them in that way.”
“Your job used to be to lead them. I think you might have another job now.”
I could see that truly hadn’t occurred to him. The man shook his head, dazed.
“Do you think Margaret was truly damned?” I asked him.
“I used to threaten her with it. Kind of like threatening a child with a spanking you’ve got no intention to give.”
“She didn’t know that. And in the end, you left her in the dark alone. To be damned by your laziness and indifference.”
Some might consider it a cruel thing to make a brittle, old rock-of-a-man cry. If I hadn’t heard Margaret’s agony, I might have thought so, too. But I had. “Did you know she loved you?” I asked. I knew it was another twist of the knife. But I felt as though the damage might do him some good.
“Stop being a black-robed bully. She broke her heart over you time after time after time.”
“Because I was a priest?”
“Because you were a cold-hearted, bitter priest with no love or kindness in you. I don’t think she’d have jumped your bones.”
He clearly didn’t know what that phrase meant, but that might have been just as well. I went on. “But she wanted your friendship and kindness as part of her life. You left her with a bitter crust of pious correctness. And in the end, you left her to die unforgiven and unforgivable.”
He crumpled in his seat. His tears rolled down his face. “She was so lovely. And so quick stepped. And whip-smart. She was like a room full of wild sparrows, darting everywhere. I couldn’t help but be drawn. I held my vows. But she always held my heart.”
I looked up to see Margaret, black dress and all, against the wall by the bookcase.
“So am I forever damned?” she asked him, head tilted in questioning.
He shook off the tears, embarrassed at her presence. ”You know you don’t follow the rules. At all.”
“I know,” she said. ”Do you think it’s helped either of us overmuch to do so?” Her chin pointed out like a precipice.
He shook his head gently, “I’m not so sure it has. If you’re damned, then perhaps so am I.”
“Do you think we’re stuck with that?” she asked.
“If I forgive you,” he asked, “can you forgive me? It’s an awfully small study if we’re stuck here for forever.” Then he smiled. “Do you fancy a walk with me?” He rose and stretched out his arm to her. “Maybe, just maybe, we can move on if we do it together.”
I knew I’d fallen into the shadows for them when he opened the door and they strolled out towards the light. The priest closed the door behind them. I opened the study door, onto the ordinary hallway this time, so I could leave.
On my way back to the kitchen, I heard the new priest running down the stairs. “Bridey, they’re out of coffee. Did you know what those ladies are like when they run out of coffee?”
“I can only imagine,” she smiled as she filled the pot. “Don’t you worry, son. We’ll get through. Take up that bowl of green Jello goo. I don’t know why they like it, but they do. It’ll keep them quiet trying to figure out what the recipe is. That’s a mystery for sure. I’ll bring coffee up in five.”
The grateful look he gave her told me that Bridey wasn’t going anywhere. She was home where she’d always been.
Bridey always took care of the priest.
Have you ever stopped to think that all the founding fathers of our country could be ghosts? Here’s a view of them you might not have thought of before.
“Did you ever investigate ghosts?” Alyx asked me. Alyx was one of the Artemesians, a group of self-proclaimed witches who specialized in healing and moon worship. She came into the tearoom as much a friend as a client. She was not a reader, but she was a brilliant herbalist and a very gifted psychic healer. Blond and willowy, she might have come from Danvers four hundred years ago. She might even have been hanged. Now Alyx was a rising star in her coven.
Alex had the “it-girl” factor. She had the “cool girl” thing going on. When in high school, I was far too emotionally delayed to understand the relationship dance between the girls who fluffed pompoms and went out with the football players. Or their often-cruel friendships. There was a witty, catty script to their dialogue, so vaguely cool that I almost didn’t notice the cruelties behind the words. I wish I could say I didn’t join in because I was better than that. I wasn’t. I wanted to belong, like every other backward, awkward wallflower, leaning towards the sunlight of the golden girls. By their lights, I was not worthy.
I was so flattered Alyx had befriended me that I found myself unconsciously mimicking her. It was a terrible shock when I found some of those mincingly cruel comments coming out of my mouth as well. But I felt warm around Alyx, as if I were resting in a pool of sunlight.
If she wanted to go ghost hunting, of course I’d join her. She began by making a list of equipment she thought we’d need.
“Why don’t you just talk to the ghosts?” I asked her.
She turned a baneful glance on me. “No one really talks to ghosts, do they?”
“I’ve talked with ghosts all my life. Or rather they demand to talk to me. But I never went in just to look around.”
“You talk with ghosts?” she said scornfully. “How do you codify that? How can you prove it? It must be done scientifically. You measure the temperature, take pictures, document energy surges, make films. You can prove there are ghosts. It’s not like telling someone a tale and hoping they believe you.”
Nona had always taught me not to worry about whether people believed me or not. She told me, “You believe yourself and that’s plenty and enough. If you saw it, it’s there. If you heard it, it’s there. You can’t prove anything to people who don’t believe and you don’t need to prove anything to anyone who does.” But she also warned me a lot of people would be threatened, and I should keep what I hear to myself until I know how it will be received. I was intrigued that you might actually be able to have proof. Would having proof make speaking to ghosts more legitimate?
“How do you prove you’re a healer?” I asked.
“It’s simple. If the people you work on get better, you’re a healer,” she said smugly.
“So why is talking to ghosts different?” I asked, just to burst her bubble.
“It just is. You can’t prove you did. If you use the equipment, you can prove what you’ve accomplished!” She looked down on me scornfully.
I just shook my head.
“So where would you go to ghost hunt?” I asked her.
“Don’t be silly. You go where there are ghosts!” She gave another smirk.
“What did you have in mind?” I asked.
“Granary Cemetery is right down Tremont Street. They say it’s deeply haunted.”
“Isn’t that like the most public graveyard in all of Boston?” I asked.
Alyx pulled a strand of hair behind her ear. “The sisterhood knows a little trick they use for privacy. We can investigate there all night and no one will be the wiser.”
Alyx went home to prep ghost hunting equipment for an evening’s exploration. I finished up the day in the tearoom. Rita called me into her office.
“So do you have plans tonight?” she asked me.
I was embarrassed to tell. “I’m going off ghost hunting with Alyx,” I confessed. It seemed childish to say it that way.
Rita looked firmly at me. “You watch Alyx,” she told me. “She’s on the fast track. I’m just not quite sure where she’s headed.”
I gave her a funny look. Couldn’t Rita see how cool Alyx was?
“Do you know where I’m headed?” I asked her.
“You’re a work in progress, but you’ll be a fine reader in your time,” she said. “How much do you know about ghost hunting?”
“I know I’ve always seen ghosts. And sometimes I can speak to them. Although sometimes they don’t seem to see me back.”
“That’s the difference between a ghost and an apparition,” Rita explained. “A ghost is usually a lost or misplaced human soul. You feel like you’re talking to a person because you are. They just happen to be dead. Sometimes they’ve stayed here for one reason or another. Sometimes they don’t know they’re dead yet. It’s a grace to tell them that if you can do it in a way that’s kindly.
“An apparition is anything you see. The psychic world is the Wild West, even here in Boston. Most apparitions are like a recording of something that happened in a particular place and time. If will go through the incident repeatedly and consistently, like a tape recording. The ghosts won’t notice or speak to you. My guess is that the memory is strong enough to replay itself over and over but that no one is really present in that memory.
“But there are other apparitions as well. Be careful what you talk to. When you talk to an entity, it has permission to talk to you. Not everything golden is good.” She shook her head gently.
“Why can’t Alyx see ghosts?” I asked.
“Healing is about ritual. She’s a fine healer. Talking to ghosts is about discernment. It’s not the same thing.” she explained. “Go have fun.”
I ran out the door.
It was a soft fall evening with an enormous moon, yellow as a ripe lemon. I walked down the street, looking for Park Church. I almost missed the sidewalk that led into the graveyard. Alyx called me over. “Right here!”
“How could I have missed the turn?” I asked her. I looked around and saw small witch lights at each corner of the graveyard.
“I did a little masking spell. No one will see us. They’ll just walk right by, thinking nothing’s there.”
I had a momentary flash of jealousy over Alyx’s abilities. Or maybe over her training. No one had taught me tricks like that. Then again, it was not what we did at the tearoom. The Artemesian sisters practiced what they called gray witchcraft. They did not claim always to be white and insisted they were never really dark. But they practiced the manipulation of the world and things within it. That was something readers did not do in the tearoom. Rita was adamant about that.
Alyx had a knapsack full of gadgets. I shook my head as she started to pull them out of her bag.
“Don’t you just talk to ghosts?” I asked her.
“I can’t do that,” she said. “I don’t know anyone who can really do that. I always thought that was a myth. Besides, we need to get proof.”
It seemed imprudent to remind her I’d been talking to ghosts since I’d been three.
She pulled out two flashlights and cameras, a notebook, a digital recorder and EMF meter, followed by a collection of candy bars and other junk food. “We need to keep our strength up,” she explained. I chose a candy bar and listened to her plan.
Alyx spread her arms in display, over the pile, showing off her available technology. “We can set up equipment all over the cemetery if we wish. It’s smaller and that is better, since we can cover it more easily. Do you have anyone you want to focus on?” she asked me.
“I hadn’t thought. I didn’t know you went hunting for a particular ghost.”
“We could. We don’t have to. We can focus the equipment on someone specific or we can try to see who is most active.”
“Why don’t we see who has the most to say?” I asked.
“You think you can get someone to say something?” she taunted me. “We’ll see.”
It was a challenge, pure and simple. She didn’t want it to speak to me. Or with us. She wanted it recorded on her machines.
We set up camcorders along the wall and sat waiting for something to happen. Alyx kept checking the equipment, going from one tripod to another, taking readings with her EMF meter. It was a warm enough night that I dozed off.
Something poked me very gently. I thought I woke. But the graveyard was full of people as I opened my eyes. There was a small boy in a tricorn hat and waistcoat.
“Forgive me, milady,” he said as he removed his hat. “It seemed you slumber here. Night is swift as shadow. This no place for the quick.”
I blinked several times. He didn’t go away. “No, I suppose it’s not,” I replied. “But I wanted to see who was here.”
“Look and you shall know,” he told me. “The other girl is head blind, is she not?”
“I guess. She does seem to need her equipment.”
Alyx was now tinkering with a meter that was presumably not working. She whacked it several times with her hand, in impatience.
“She’s waking everyone,” he told me. “There are those best left sleeping.”
“What is your name?” I asked him.
“Master Patrick. Master Patrick Williams.” I shook the shape of his illusive hand.
“Can you tell me what she’s doing?” he asked me, pointing to where Alyx was set up in the corner.
I looked over to Alyx. Her face was reflected in the screens of her instruments. She walked from one to the other checking everything, scribbling notes in her notebook by the light of her flashlight. “Alyx!” I called out. “There’s a ghost right here!” She stayed hovering over her readings, unable to hear me. She was oblivious to the boy and me.
“She wants to know if ghosts exist,” I explained. “She’s trying to find scientific proof.”
‘’Like Ben Franklin’s witchery?”
“Well, as I understand it, Ben Franklin was a scientist along with everything else. He had a lot of equipment that probably looked pretty weird.”
Patrick rolled his eyes. “Mr. Franklin was out in a thunderstorm with a key dangling from a kite trying to catch lightning. They say he was a statesman and an author, but he was outright daft.”
“A lot of science looks that way if you don’t understand it. Alyx is trying to get scientific proof of life after death, I suppose. So, no. It’s not witchery. It’s cameras and measuring equipment.”
“What’s a camera?” he asked.
“Well, it takes a picture of an image and freezes it in time.”
His eyes had glazed over by now. Perhaps all science looks like magic if you don’t know what it is.
“Anyway, she wanted to see ghosts.”
He started to giggle hysterically. I couldn’t help but join him. He went over and put his hand on the meter. Alyx jolted for a moment and began to scribble madly in her book.
“You don’t need proof, do you?” He still was bent over laughing.
“Never did. But I told her I’d come along.”
“Everyone wants to meet you. We don’t always get visitors who can see us.”
“I would be honored.”
“Not everyone actually.” he equivocated. “There are some folk you probably should not meet. But I’ll introduce the people of quality.”
A wispy image of an elder woman climbed out of her grave, as if her hips were still sore and stiff. She stood herself up and curtsied.
Patrick announced her. “This be Goodie Goose.”
“The Mother Goose? Elizabeth Goose?” I asked. I’d seen the tombstone.
“Lizzy Goose. I’m snail-paced and a sorry sight but here at your pleasure, child. You’ll have to forgive our gentlemen. They argue and tussle every night. They are rebels all, in their own ways.”
There was a heated discussion coming from one corner. On a flat tomb-surface, three men played a board game, hardly watching the moves. Instead, their focus was on a conversation so angry they were declaiming over each other.
“John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Alexander Hamilton.” Lizzy pointed out the three.
“Do they know what happened? Do they know they’re dead?” I asked her. One of them looked up at me. “Well, of course they do. This is a graveyard. To a large extent they remain here to hear what is said about them. At one time, none of them knew whether they would be heroes or hung. It was rather a near thing.”
“So, they stay here listening to tour guides?”
“It’s heady stuff for them,” she acknowledged. “They’re grander here than they were in life. But they also lived for the fight. Had they not had the revolution, they’d have argued with their neighbors or their church or their second cousins. It’s who they were. And don’t think that because they were on the same side of the war they agreed with each other. These were never men of peace. They liked nothing better than a huge, messy, irresolvable quarrel. They still love their little nightly squabbles.” The ruckus got louder.
Sam Adams pounded his ghostly hand on the stone. “It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen on setting brush fires of freedom in the minds of men.”
“How do you set a brush fire in the middle of a tea party?” Hamilton smirked at Samuel.
“It accomplished both goals,” Samuel grinned. “I soaked their finances throwing tea into the harbor and set alight the fighting fire of our men.”
“Hear, hear!” Hancock cheered.
“But how will you do commerce?” Hamilton continued. “No colony will survive at all if they can’t trade with each other. You need a strong set of rules agreed upon by everyone so that business can flourish. That takes a central government, a common currency, roads and banks that all work together.”
“Are they still making the same arguments?” I asked Lizzy.
“As in life, so in death,” she said
“It sounds endless,” I said as I watched them pontificate at each other.
Lizzy answered me, “It is. It was. It has been. And will be. That’s why they’re still here.”
“Actually, the things they’re discussing are still not resolved. Different states, colonies, still have very different opinions of how much the central government should do, if anything. But we settle it by voting instead of fighting, usually. That’s something they gave us.”
“They did,” Lizzy acknowledged. “They weren’t fools. They just loved the fight.”
A plainly-tailored man walked near them. He tipped his hat in recognition and they looked up at him. “Are you tyrants still at it?” he said to the three.
Hancock answered, “Rev. Byles, we are not tyrants. We are patriots.”
“That,” the reverend said, “remains to be seen. Which is better, to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away or by three thousand tyrants not one mile away?”
Hancock stared at him levelly. “No one cares for what you say, you Tory son of George!”
“I am not George’s son, nor Tory whole, but servant of Christ,” Byles returned.
“But you still deny the rights of liberty!” Sam Adams roared at him.
Byles tipped his hat and walked away from the three rebels.
I looked in a corner. A beautiful young black woman in a Georgian dress and mob cap sat on a tree stump. She read her words aloud as she wrote.
“Great God, what light’ning flashes from thine eyes?
What pow’r withstands if thou indignant rise?
Against thy Zion though her foes may rage.”
She didn’t look up at us. Her whole focus was on her writing. Byles walked by her, stopped and looked over her shoulder at her writing. She looked up at him in reverence
“Who is she?” I asked Lizzy.
“She’s a marvel. Phyllis Wheately. ‘a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear.’ Her master taught her to read and write. So she writes poetry, as fine as any in America. Mr. Byles said so after he examined it. Better than mine. Mine are rhymes to put babes to bed.”
“Lizzy, people are still putting babies to bed with your poetry.”
“Really?” she smiled. Perhaps she hadn’t known.
“My mother read them to me,” I told her.
“Your mother could read?” she said in astonishment.
“Most people do now,” I confessed. Lizzy looked amazed.
“It must be a wonderful age. To all be learned!”
“It’s like every age,” I said. “Some wonderful things, some terrible messes and some things you just have to get through.”
Three shimmering riders on horseback burst through a monument. “Revere, Dawes and Prescott,” Lizzy pointed out.
Across the graveyard, I saw a lovely woman in apron and mob cap wave her hankie. “Now you be careful, Willie Dawes, and come home safe to me.”
Dawes turned his horse towards her and cried, “I’ll be back by midnight, Mehitabel.”
Revere grabbed Dawes’ reins. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Will. Ride. We need to reach Concord by morning.”
The three men halted in front of Lizzy. “Madam.” They dismounted, removed their hats, and gave her a short bow. Then they rushed through the cemetery to Adams and Hancock. The game was forgotten as all the men spoke in desperate whispers.
“Do they make the ride every night?” I asked.
“Oh, assuredly. Sometimes three and four times a night,” Lizzy told me.
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s their strongest memory. They warned Lexington and Concord that the British troops were on their way. The apparition repeats it over and over because it was the most important moment in their lives.”
The ghost of a black man drifted up through the stone erected for the martyrs of Boston Massacre. He walked across the graveyard, neither looking left or right. He seemed unaware of everyone.
“Who is that,” I asked.
“Poor Crispus,” Lizzy answered me. “Crispus Attucks.”
I could hear the man mutter to himself. “Just walkin’ through Bunker Hill on a short cut. Tryin’ to get back to my ship. Damn all white people yellin’ and shootin’ at each other. I pushed at someone trying to get away and they had to go and shoot me! Damn all.” His specter trudged through the graveyard and evaporated at the fence. Several seconds later, he drifted through the tombstone again and went through his march, like a set piece.
“He’s stuck?” I asked Lizzy.
“No one knows, child, but he responds to no one and nothing. I believe this is just his memory. It’s sad though.”
“Why are you still here, Lizzy?” I wondered what could have held this sensible woman here at her grave.
“I miss my babies,” she told me. “I miss my Thomas too. He still wanders through here and I’m waiting for him to be done with this world. When he’s done, I’ll go home with him. Until then, I watch after other people’s babies.
“Babies?” I asked.
“You all are babes. I always enjoyed caring for the young. It’s just that the young are a bit older now.” She smoothed her skirt with her hands.
There was a rumpus in the back of the yard and one of the stones split open as a man in black robes strutted among the tombstones. A black robed winged creature clung to the man.
Master Patrick grabbed my arm.
“You might best leave, mistress. This is not commodious company.”
The other ghosts evaporated in front of the apparition.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“Cotton Mather and his master,” Patrick told me.
“The thing on his back?” I asked.
“Purely evil,” Lizzy answered me. “We keep well out of its reach.”
Another man opened a door from his tomb. Like the first man he wore a judge’s robe. But the black was a clear galaxy as opposed to the filth hanging on the first judge. Light showed out of his open hand.
“Cotton,” the second man bellowed, “you’ll not bring that trash in with the rest of us.”
“‘Sewell, you’re deluded. You wanted charity, proof, legal reasoning. Against demons. A court of law is the only place to decide such things and that was our job. Couldn’t you smell the devil at Danvers?”
“You’re an idiot, Cotton,” Sewell answered. “You rail against demons and you wear one like a robe.”
Both men turned their attention to Alyx.
Sewell turned towards me. “And why are the living here?” he asked me.
“I was curious,” I stuttered. The man put out his arm. It blocked me from Mather’s sight. I could see Alyx if I stretched past his protective arm.
Alyx had been watching the meters closely. Apparently, the readings bounced off the chart when the two judges started to rail against each other. She walked steadily towards Mather with her meter extended in her hand. From her face, I could see her amazement. She saw him.
“You’re a ghost!” she exclaimed. Her face beamed with wild excitement.
“What if I am?” he said, maintaining his dignity.
“But I’m here to see ghosts. Are you a real ghost?” She waved the meter at him as if to get a better readout.
“You’re a witch, like as not,” he snarled at her. He reached to the upside-down silver star at her throat. His voice rose to a bellow. “The Maleficum speaks of such deviltry. Do you have a familiar? Do you rut with Satan?”
“I just wanted to see a ghost,” she continued simply.
“What would you like? Should I rattle my chains? Moan? Appear and disappear?” He was haughty, aloof and handsome in his regal court manners. She reached out to touch him. He pulled himself out of range and stood mighty as he had always in court.
“I just wanted to see if you were real,” she exclaimed.
The ragged demon riding him reached out and touched her hair. It picked a strand up and started to play with it. The wind rattled bushes and trees like castanets.
“Alyx!’’ I said, anxious to leave. “Let’s get out of here!” I ran up to grab her. Sewell blocked me from reaching her. I could see her, the ghost and the demon all together in an unholy trinity.
“Will you teach me?” she said to the pair. “I want to know everything about the afterlife.” She looked up to Mather with longing.
I watched Mather smile at her one way as the demon smiled a much crueler smile. “But of course child. We’ll teach you.”
“Alyx no!” I screamed. “It’s not what you think it is. Come on. Come with me. Let’s go.”
Lizzy and Patrick were on the side screaming “GO!
I ran through, grabbed at Alyx’s hand and pulled. She pulled away me and slapped me so hard I fell to the ground.
I rubbed my cheek, feeling the bruise already.
I looked up at her. She was beautiful. Cool. Chic. And a demon like a black rag was draped around her shoulders, stroking her face.
“You can go if you like, wimp. I’ve found my ghosts. You are such a baby.” Alyx dismissed me, the way the cool girls had always dismissed me. It still hurt.
Lizzy grabbed my hand and Patrick stood guard behind.
Lizzy ran with me to the cemetery fence, dragging me along when I stumbled. I flew over it as she released me. “Go!” she shrieked. “Don’t look back.”
But of course, once I was over the threshold, I did look back. I could see the church, but the cemetery and Alyx were blanketed in thick mist.
I ran down the middle of the street, terrified to be near the bushes or the buildings. When I got home I slammed the door, locked it and shivered over my hot tea in a hot bubble bath.
The next morning, Alyx marched into the tearoom. She looked triumphant. “I thought you’d like to see the tapes and readings.” She didn’t laugh out loud at me, but I could hear the sneer in her voice. “It’s a shame you got scared. I got some great readings after you ran away. What was wrong with you? I wouldn’t have thought you were that kind of a coward. I told the story at the sisterhood and they’re still laughing. Who’d have thought?”
Was there something different about her? A dark cloaked thing clung to her back, close and tight to her skin. But I could see it. Was there a thread of burnished gold around her outline?
Rita stepped out of her office and called to me.
“Sorry, Alyx. Got to go,” I said. It was a reprieve. I didn’t want to hear Alyx tell me what a baby I was again.
“See you.” She dismissed me with a wave and left.
Rita opened the door and waited for me to sit.
“What did you do last night?” Rita’s eye bore through me.
“We investigated the Granary Graveyard,” I said, as quietly as if I hoped she wouldn’t hear me. But she did.
She stared at me deeply, investigating, probing. Did she wonder if I had brought back a visitor as well? “You seem to be all right.”
“I hope I am. I had help. What was the thing on Cotton Mather?”
“You saw old Cotton?” she asked me. “What did you think it was?”
“I don’t know. It was just nasty. Mean and violent and evil. It gave Alyx what she wanted, but it felt vile.”
“Exactly. That, Marlene, is a demon. And you better not bring one home as a souvenir.”
“I’m afraid Alyx did. Is there something I can do to help Alyx?”
“Did she choose to engage with this thing?” Rita asked. “Actively?”
I thought about it. “Yes,” I concluded.
“There’s a reason I would never have Alyx as a reader at the tea room. Alyx will only learn if she’s allowed the dignity of her choices,” Rita explained. “She’ll find her own way to recover from her mistakes. Or else she won’t. But I don’t think she’ll learn except by experience. What did you do?”
“I chose not to talk to that nasty thing,” I said simply. But I’d been helped by the others in the graveyard that meant no harm.
She smiled. And poured another cup of tea.
“Then you can’t change her choices. But you may stay,” Rita said with finality.
I hadn’t realized leaving might be a consequence of the night before. I let go of my breath. “Would you have thrown me out for talking to it?” I asked her.
“In a heartbeat,” Rita smiled.
Did you enjoy this story? It’s a part of Book One: Tea Room Tales, from the Sight Unseen Series. Leave a comment or you can review it on Amazon.com. Or you can purchase Book One: Tea Room Tales on Amazon.