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Sunday in the Park

I was fast asleep at 2:30 in the morning when a loud commotion outside woke me up. The sound of somebody on the front porch, clanging about. I remembered I had set out Halloween decorations, gourds and pumpkins and ornamental corn, even the dried hollyhock stalks I had only recently cut down (not having any corn husks on the property). I have done something like this for years and it has never been bothered before. But I grabbed my glasses from the bedside table and tiptoed downstairs. There was no one on the porch and nothing appeared to be missing. I wandered around the living room peering out the windows, but there was no sign of life in the still, dark night. Just a fall ghost, I told myself, go back to bed.

In the morning, when I ventured outside I could see what I had missed during the night. Some of the ornamental corn had been, well, chewed off. With the snow this week still on the lawn, my ghost had left tracks& deer tracks. My deer had returned and had made their way from bird feeder to bird feeder, dinning al fresco, in the moonlight. I was delighted. But rather disappointed the ghost story was so easy to dissolve.

Years ago I stayed in a house on the tip of a private island in the San Juans off the coast of Washington State. I was working on a writing project and needed the solitude the house and the island provided. There were only four other people living on the island that summer. The caretaker and his wife, the man running a whale-watching camp for kids who stayed for a week and then gave us the island back for three, and the camp cook. The island was three miles long and half a mile wide. There was room enough for the five of us to spend day after day and never run into one another.

I remember the first week when I woke up one morning and discovered something, I was certain I had left in the study, in the living room. There too, my bedroom was upstairs and so nocturnal occurrences were not exactly under my eyes. Still, it was unsettling and I felt foolish thinking something had actually moved it. I chalked it up to being absorbed in my project. The following morning, something that had been in the living room the night before disappeared entirely. Later that day, though I had searched before, the item turned up in the study. When the caretaker’s wife came down to check on me for the first time in days, she asked if I was sleeping all right. I said yes, the ocean noises were kind of a lullaby to my ears and I fell asleep easily and slept well. Good, she said. Everything else here, um, OK? I could see she was being more than polite and I asked her, what exactly did she mean? She said, in her memory, no one had stayed in the house more than week, ever before. And why is that, I inquired? Well, she said, some think it’s haunted here. It was a new home, relatively speaking, built in, say, the ’70s. I always thought hauntings took place in Victorian structures with gingerbread moldings and cupolaed attics.

She assured me hauntings take place where there are ghosts. And it turned out this house had been built on old Indian burial ground. A tribe had buried their dead by placing them in blankets and tied up in trees. I looked around at all the old-growth trees and tried to imagine this as a sacred resting place. I thanked her for her explanation, and confessed I thought things had been moved about and she asked if any other things had occurred. I shook my head. My lease was for a full month. I was determined to stay.

I decided to try and make peace with the spirits. I sat under the tallest tree on the tip of the island so far north that just three more miles put you in Canada. I talked to those trees that afternoon. Explained I meant no harm. I needed quiet to write. I knew this was a sacred place and I planned to honor that. When I looked up, I spotted the eagles’ nest. A pair of bald eagles was summering there, too. As it turned out, there were six pair on this island and my corner became Eagle Central. They would dive for salmon and show me their catch in their talons before they lifted off to dine elsewhere. I felt very blessed. Things continued to move around the house but nothing actually disappeared. After the first month, I signed on for a second. By the end of the summer I had collected more than 50 eagle feathers left in the path I would walk each day. Breast feathers, wing feathers of all sizes, tiny feathers from, I don’t know where. I’m not certain if that house was haunted but I do know I’ve never had so magical and peaceful a time in my life. That’s when I first came to understand not all hauntings are bad.

When my deer ghosts woke me up the other night, I wasn’t the least bit cranky about it. I was grateful for the occasion to wonder about things I cannot always see. That, and it gave me a few uninterrupted hours in which to read a new book, "The Thirteenth Tale," by Diane Setterfield. It is up there on the New York Times best-seller list but my friend who passed it on didn’t know that. She just said, ah, it is a ghost story and you’ll like it. We don’t always read the same things, or even agree on the same television shows, but she does know my taste, so I trusted her enough to take the book. It has been a dozen years since my stay at the island house. I had forgotten that not all ghosts are either scary or evil.

I finished my book last night. Or should I say in the wee hours of the morning. It is a gothic-feeling story with layers of characters and satisfying resolution. When I closed the cover and set the book on the bedside table, I heard a noise outside. I scurried downstairs and peered out into the still night to see the birdfeeder closest to the front door swinging wildly but no creature was in sight. But I’m fine with that. If the deer are back feeding there, terrific. If there are birds dining at night, swell. And if there are things that just go bump in the night, who am I to question their visits? This is the very time of year to embrace ghosts and goblins and three-legged beasties. On this day and on this very Sunday in the Park&


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