January 14, 2010
It’s preview time! One of the greatest things to experience is reading old books. I don’t mean words that were written a hundred or two hundred years ago. I’m talking about actually holding old paper, wrinkled, bark-like leather, and smelling the decay of paper itself. Ink turns different colors with age.
Maybe I’m just a bibliophile, but it’s a much richer experience. I’ve been lucky enough to work in archives and look through records and letters stretching back centuries. I even got to restore an old Civil War letter by digitally scanning it and bringing out the ink.
And yet… it’s easy to think of the past as something that’s gone. We may realize people existed, but to hold a book so old, or better yet, something hand-written decades ago, is to touch someone else’s thoughts…
This is a true story. In a way. It’s real in that it exists. I’ll let you decide if it really happened.
I found the old journal while cleaning out my grandmother’s things. It was an old elementary school notebook with a blue grid for practicing letters, but when I opened the yellowed pages expecting to find a child’s scribblings, I instead found tiny handwriting that had turned almond-brown with years. Each word looked like a single line with the occasional spike indicating a letter, and it took me an afternoon staring at them to finally figure out what peaks were vowels and what peaks were consonants. I forgot about dinner and read as much as I could, but it hurt my eyes. The notebook was a journal, something my grandmother kept secret. In just a few entries, I knew the names of her friends, the little restaurants by the river she liked to go to, and her excitement with her new husband. I went to sleep just after I got to an entry talking about a man my grandmother met.
I woke up around three in the morning to get a drink of water. I felt my way to the door. As I walked into the hallway, I saw the shape of a man at the end near the bathroom. He was looking at me and the hallway smelled like fresh-cut plants, dirt, and sweat. Intense, wide eyes looked at me from a tanned, wrinkled face marked by the sun. Even though his mouth moved, I couldn’t hear anything. I wanted to run, but a combination of fear and curiosity kept me in place. As soon as I moved towards him, he disappeared.
My house smelled like cut grass and dirt until the sun came back up. I didn’t go back to sleep.
The next morning, I asked around to see if anyone at work had any idea what to do. My friends all thought I was insane, of course. They went back to scanning books into the library system. I helped people at the reference desk, but I kept smelling cut grass and wet dirt every few hours. At any moment, I expected to turn the corner and find the man staring at me like some horror movie cheap shot. I wasn’t even sure what he looked like, but my nerves were so frayed that I skipped lunch and just walked around the block three times.
I didn’t open the notebook again for two days, but every time I wanted to, the smell came back.
Every day, walking the stacks in the library, all I could smell was the paper, the scent of the new arrivals contrasting against the dull aroma of old paper from the older volumes. I remembered the journal and instantly thought I saw the ghost in front of me. It was just another patron. That happened at least three times before lunch.
I wasn’t going to start checking books out on what to do, either. All my friends would see them and think I was crazy. I spent my next few lunch hours looking through old newspapers. Nothing in the front page, of course, but I thought somewhere in Via Rosa there had to be a human interest story. There were plenty of psychics and mystics in the yellow pages, but they were there for profit. I was looking for someone who didn’t advertise. It took a week, but I found a story about a story about a young woman that suffered some sort of gang attack. The neighbors all said she was a witch working with a demon. She sounded like a brat, and there wasn’t much beyond a picture of the home where it looked like someone had taken a pound of dynamite to the front door, but I recognized the place.
Every city has it. It’s the house or the neighborhood where the witch lives. In this case, it was an old Spanish mansion downtown near Herradura Street. The place was vibrant once. The iron gate squeaked and shed bits of rust as I opened it and walked the overgrown path to the front door. I was about to knock when the door swung open and I was face-to-face with a young Hispanic woman, no older than twenty-five. She was thin and dressed like she was in high-school.
I swallowed hard and said, “You were waiting for me?”
She smiled and said, “Actually, I was going to check the mail. Can I help you?”
I showed her the newspaper clipping and she frowned. “I hate that picture,” she said. “They made the house look like was condemned. Look, I don’t do love potions or voodoo dolls or anything like that, so if you have a problem with your vieja, go to counseling.”
“It’s a ghost.”
Her eyes lit up and she opened the door wide for me. I walked in, clutching my briefcase, and was instantly hit by the smell of a dozen spices. The walls were painted a dull orange that screamed faux-Spanish, but almost every wall was covered in mismatched shelves stuffed with books, notebooks, and jars, spice racks, and plants in various stages of bloom. I wondered if any of them were illegal. She motioned for me to turn into the living room. None of the couches matched either, and the coffee table had more stacks of old, fifty-pound books sitting on top. She sat cross-legged in the loveseat and looked to me while she took out a notebook and pen.
“So what’s the problem?”
I explained the ghost, the smell, and the journal. She asked for the notebook and I carefully pulled it from my briefcase.
She took it in both hands and inhaled deeply.
Closing her eyes, she said, “He’s here…”
I looked around, but she giggled and said, “Well, mostly here. It looks like we have some work to do.”
“What kind of work?”
Once again, she giggled and said, “You don’t bring up the past without the past coming back for you. You need to set things right.”
“But I didn’t do anything!”
“Yes you did… You peeked.”
To be continued…
Want to read more? Just visit the main Charcoal Streets page and take a look at the complete stories, samples, and other fun features, and stay tuned in 2011 for the release of the first volume of collected stories!