Bulletin from Shangri-la # 4: spirits

trees outside windowWhen I first walk into the house in the pines, I hear my mother say, “It’s beautiful!” My mother passed on in 1976, but this is the first I’ve heard from her. My grandparents, even my father-in-law and certainly my father when his time came, showed up in the days after they moved on. Not my mother. Absolute silence. So profound, that I had an existential breakdown. Now here she is- or seems to be- celebrating the tiny, jewel of house in Sierra mountains.

Of course she would be here, if anywhere, because the mountains and the pines are like her birthplace in Hereford, Quebec. And we are here, her daughter and her grand-daughter and full of joy to be together. It is the week of Mother’s Day and Julia’s mother-in-law is due to arrive as well.

We speculate that my mother has been lost in the timelessness of that other place, a purgatory of her own making, and only now has found a beacon to guide her out.

In the days that follow, her spirit seems to be doing loop-de-loops in the blue sky above the mountains. All the other mothers in our line, Janet and Jenny and Gladys, come into our thoughts as they often do, but only Lila is delirious.

She is not the only spirit there.

Besides being thin, the air is bone dry in this drought. Near the front door, a humidifier sends a jet of mist into the air. Out of the corner of my eye, I see it as a dancing water sprite.

The floors are local stone, patterned like rugs. Every step feels rooted in their strangely old, slumbering consciousness. There is a small cairn of rocks near the entry and California jade and other semi-precious stones on the desk and tables. The fireplace and massive hearth of red brick fills one whole wall. The cathedral ceiling is rafterred and wooden. A wall of sliding doors looks out on the woods. Below a lake peeks through the trees.

This is a Taoist household with altars to the ancestors and the family, but there is also a stone Buddha sitting below the bookcases. A path of beige floor stones leads up to him. One morning when I am making tea, I catch a glimpse of a figure standing in front of Buddha, the figure of a monk in a brownish robe. When I turn, he gives me what can only be called a stink eye. I hurry away. Julia tells me there is a Zen monastery nearby.

Enough proves to be enough one night as I get into bed, I have a picture of an army of brownies – no not that kind- tiny beings wearing red hats and overalls going about some work under the trees. I saw such creatures when I was a child when my father took me fishing in the trout stream that ran down through the woods. They scared me with their intensity. I always understood the Seven Dwarfs on a visceral level.

In the fields, as a child, I saw fairies – blue and pink and gold- or once in a while, a towering angel. I preferred them.

Happy ghosts, water sprites, meditating monks, nature spirits, but I don’t have to cry like Macbeth, “No more sights!” I move over to the boxcar house and don’t even see dead miners. https://115journals.com/2014/05/15/bulletin-from-shangri-la-the-boxcar-house/



Once upon a time, I moved on Hallowe’en and like all moves, it was a truly scarey experience. But I want to talk about two moves later, the time, I moved to Z., a crossroads hamlet, an hour north of the city, hard to find on the map. Like most other newcomers, I moved there because I could afford it.

It was the second time a home-owning partnership had dissolved on me, only this time, the housing market had boomed. Whereas the first time, 10 years before, I could afford to buy a hovel on my own, city hovels were now well beyond my price range.

As luck would have it, I arrive with a Newfie dog, 7 cats and a badly sprained ankle. My partner and I have had 3 dogs and we divided them according to poundage. Bella, the Newfie is all I can handle, weight-wise. The 7 cats belong to my son and his girl friend, who are quitting the city in an anti-police protest. There have been demonstrations, friends have been roughed up. My 22 year-old son, his girl friend and the cats are seeking safe-haven with me in the country -in a white clapboard house with arched windows and gables, next door to the church.

The first load of furniture and all the animals have been dumped, my bed set up in deference to my lamed state and the young people have departed with their friends to pick up another load. Silence falls as silence can in the country, even at a crossroads. The cats don’t know me or trust me and have sequestered themselves in the summer kitchen, a one story extension at the back of the house. Belle has clumped upstairs after me and heaved herself up onto the bed, deaf to all arguments that Newfoundland dogs are too big to be bedfellows. I stand in the middle of the bedroom, gazing at the 3 pitch black, uncovered windows. No problem actually because there is nobody out there.

What about in here? A house built in 1889 surely had seen its share of death. Could it be haunted?

Fortunately, I fall immediately into the righteous sleep of the newly-moved who have badly sprained ankles, and barely notice when the second load of furniture arrives.

It is a chaotic next few days as 8 animals and 3 people sort out their roles. The big black dog soon learns her place relative to nose scratching cats. Gradually we clear paths between rooms and a nest of seating where we can take refuge and eat. Unfortunately, my son, Ben, steps on a rusty nail and we have to find the nearest walk-in clinic for a tetanus shot. Shocking how far away everything is in the country.

Unfortunately #2, now Ben and I are both limping on our left foot. I follow him through the kitchen one day. He is going out into the summer kitchen, while I am turning into the cooking area past the island. It looks like a gimp parade and I am just enjoying a quiet laugh, when another figure rushes past, arms thrashing and clothes flying. And laughing.

“Ben,” I yell, “did you see that?”

“What?” he calls back.

“Where’s Aunya?”


We meet at the door. There is no one else there.

“An Indian – a First Nations person – whatever. Brandishing something -seemed like an axe, doing a kind of war dance and laughing!”

We stare at each other in silence. Well, if you are going to have a ghost, it is probably best to have a laughing ghost.

Some time later, I learn that the hamlet sits on the portage route up to Lake Simcoe.

Things settle down. We buy Ben a very old Ford pickup truck guaranteed to work just fine and he begins renovations. I begin commuting to work. Oh God, why did I ever move here? Surely, there is a shorter route. And there is. It takes only 60 minutes, not 75. Two hours a day, am I out of my mind?  Etc, etc.

Ben is tearing up the floor in the dining room. But no wait, he has to tear out the roof in the summer kitchen. It’s leaking. There’s been a fire up there at some point.

And something in the house is not happy.

I know it’s not the native trickster. Anyway, he’s a wayfarer not a resident.

My city-bred son and girlfriend tend to vanish back to the city until late into the night. One night, Ben calls me around 10 P.M.

“We’re staying in town for the night,” he says.

“Okay,” I reply. I do have experience living alone. I lived alone in the hovel.

There is dead air on the phone line.

“Ben?” I querry.

“Uh, have you seen the ghost?” he asks.

What a truly terrible time to ask such a question, a dark rainy October night.

“I don’t actually see her,” I reply, “except in my mind’s eye, but I know she’s there.”

“Yeah,” he says, “she’s small and she wrings her hands.”

“She’s upset about the work you’re doing. I keep telling her we’re just making her house better.”

“Me too,” he says. “I didn’t want to mention her before. Are you all right staying alone?”

I want to say that I was a lot better before he outed the ghost, but I just go on reassuringly and get off the phone. I stand there in the kitchen. She is standing just out of sight beside the stairs. She is short and thin, wearing an apron which she has balled up in her hands. I feel so cold that I might as well be naked.

I give myself a shake.

“I’m going to put on the kettle for tea before I go to bed,” I announce.

A passing cat, the orange one, meows. No bristling, no raised hackles. Belle ambles along the hallway, right through the ghost lady. Co-residents. We have to get along.

The title search arrives in the mail. One family, the Toves, owners of a car dealership, owned the house for much of the century.  One of them,Daisy died at the Village of Z., having her fixed abode there. Could be her. But on another document the most touching note of all concerns Edith, “a lunatic”. After that, various other last names, two of whom declared, “We are not a spouse”. Who cares about these late-comers in the second half of the the 20th century! My ghost now has a name.