The small, single-level, shotgun-style house was typical in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. It was freshly painted and well-maintained. Its new occupants planted flowers by the front steps and in the back yard. They looked forward to starting a vegetable garden out back, a luxury after years of living in apartments.
But, inside the house, strange occurrences worried the new occupants, at first. Doors they could swear they had locked they found unlocked. The bathroom door, kept closed to prevent the dog from entering, would be wide open when they returned home from work. Most disturbing was a presence that moved from the kitchen to their bedroom on to the living room and seemed to fiddle with the knob of the front door. In time, the occupants lost their fear and accepted the fact that they were not alone in the little house.
What is a haunting but something that resonates in us, like the hum of a tuning fork. Living in a house with restless spirits is one of many ways to be haunted. There are worse ways.
When my wife was nearly 3 years old, she moved to the United States with her mother to join up with her father. My wife is not sure of the timeline (both of her parents are deceased, so she has no one to ask), but at around the same time, her maternal grandmother was gravely ill with cancer back in their native Central American country.
For many years, my wife was haunted by a vision of her gaunt, pale grandmother sitting up in bed, arms outstretched, beckoning her to approach, but the little girl was too scared to go to her. My wife does not know if this was a memory or a dream, and whether the guilt, or shame, of rejecting her ailing grandmother was justified.
Sometimes, stories can haunt us. I never met my dad’s father; he had died long before I was born. But as I was growing up, I would soak in any details I heard about him.
My grandfather was a type of farm-animal broker, arranging the purchase and sale of cows, horses, sheep, and goats. It did not pay much, but it suited his wandering, sociable spirit, going from farm to farm, talking with people all day long.
He often would not arrive home to his family, but they did not worry. They knew that he would spend the night at his sister’s house if the hour got too late, if he had drunk a little too much wine with his clients, or if the weather became inclement. Most homes did not have a telephone in Southern Italy back then, in the lean years just after World War II.
One morning following a rainy night, my grandfather’s brother was walking to his job when he happened to glance at a ditch that ran along the side of the road. There was my grandfather, lying still in water. No one knows what happened; he may have suffered a heart attack or a stroke.
When I was younger, I often wondered what my grandfather had gone through the last hour of his life. A couple of years ago, some friends of my mother told me that they had seen and spoken with my grandfather as he passed their house that day. He was on his way home, which was a couple of kilometers down the road. The sky was getting darker by the minute, and my grandfather wanted to beat the rain, they said.
When his body turned on him, did my grandfather clutch his chest or his head in pain? Did he realize he had tumbled into a ditch? Did he pass away immediately, or did he lie there for minutes or hours, unable to sit up as the darkness of the night deepened? Did he hope and pray someone would pass by and see him, help him? Did he feel the raindrops hit his face, the water collect in the ditch and soak his well-worn clothes? Did he cry out to God or to anyone to hear him?
I never met him, never even saw a photo of him. And yet …
As for the small, single-level, shotgun-style house: one late August day, the nearby levee broke and the rushing waters destroyed that home and many others in Bywater, courtesy of Hurricane Katrina. I wonder if the spirit that felt trapped in the little house found liberation at last.