I found my new mentor sitting with Zackie on the stone wall outside the old Methodist church. Zackie stared at me, her long hound face dominated by a pair of bored eyes. Cam held her lead loosely in his hand, barely in compliance with the leash laws. In contrast to my mood, they looked relaxed and comfortable beneath the budding branches of an old oak tree. The soft, filtered light made silver highlights in Cam’s unruly, gray mop and warmed the russet color in Zackie’s coat. It was late afternoon and I had timed my arrival in Hope Township to make sure they would get there first. Hospitals, cemeteries, and historic buildings are places I avoid. There are too many dead, and I can easily be overwhelmed.
Cam looked me over. “Ready, Fia?”
“Sure.” With no real conviction, I threw down the challenge. “Bring it on.”
Cam nudged Zackie, a grin spreading across his face. “The young lady says she’s ready. Shall we find out?” Doing a fair imitation of the voice of authority from Incident Command, Cam launched into my first lesson with his cut-glass British accent. “Listen up! Our subject is a Caucasian female. The Point Last Scene was on the steps of that church. She was wearing a bridal gown and was weeping copiously.”
I rolled my eyes and flipped my hair back, desperate to appear nonchalant. “What do you want me to do?”
“Go to the church steps and see if you can draw her to you. When she comes, I want you to hold very still and to resist the urge to push her away or silence her. It’s natural to want to avoid the flood of negative emotions that may come, but again, resist the impulse. Look at her closely and allow yourself to take in whatever impressions may come.”
Dubious about what I would learn from this, I followed the stone wall to the steps leading into the church. The dark red doors sat below an arched transom and made a nice contrast with the white clapboards and gray stone foundation. This would be a great place for wedding pictures. Gazing up, the steeple centered perfectly over the doors and the arched windows to either side provided a graceful symmetry. The overall effect gave the building a sense of strength and dignity. A small plaque affixed to the church’s wall indicated that this was Saint John’s Methodist Church. Built in 1876 in the Gothic Revival style, the structure had recently been added to the National Registry of Historic Places. The venerable, old church made me feel small and unprepared for what lay ahead.
I did as Cam said and I drew a deep breath, relaxing and opening myself up to her presence. This was contrary to every impulse I felt, but I forced myself to be still and to unclench my fists. I was not here for a fight. Cam would back me up if anything happened. I took another deep breath and then I felt it—a light breeze, scented with roses. The bride shimmered as she manifested, carrying a large bouquet of the red flowers. Her white gown was loose and unfitted, with a low waist and a hemline that ended at her knees. As she reached to adjust her tight-fitting Cloche hat, the beads and sequins covering her entire ensemble caught the light and glittered. She was the picture of a 1920s flapper bride.
Cam paced slowly along the stone wall. “What are you getting?”
My jaw dropped as I took in the sensations. “Joy. I’m getting joy. She is incredibly happy….” The bride wept, but these were not the tears of despair I expected.
“And there you have your first lesson. They are not always distraught or in torment. This one is reliving a happy moment that led to an even happier life. Let her go now.”
I looked at him and frowned. “Aren’t we expected to do something for her? Not just leave her like this?”
“No, let her go. She’ll move along in her own time.” I did as he suggested and let my concentration wander, wishing the bride well as she dissolved into her history. This was certainly a first for me and a true revelation.
As I stood there with a goofy grin plastered on my face, a film crew burst through the church doors and clambered on to the landing leading up to the entryway. Their cameras were trained on a man dressed in a black long-coat and white poet shirt. Large silver buttons decorated the length on either side of the coat, but the suggestion of vintage military styling was spoiled by the addition of jeans and high-top sneakers. Heavy eyeliner accented gray eyes and his long blond hair was swept back in a ponytail. I resisted the impulse to laugh at this walking affectation.
“I know you can hear me.” The man paused for dramatic effect. “You and I both know that he was right to leave you at the altar. You weren’t good enough for him, after all. Or maybe he preferred a younger woman or a prettier woman?”
I hastily moved out of the way. Not my monkeys, not my circus. Joining Cam and Zackie by the wall, I was a safe enough distance from the spectacle. “What the hell is going on?”
Cam’s lip curled in distaste. “This particular hell is an idiot trying to provoke a spirit. He’s taunting our weeping bride.”
I slowly shook my head. “Why would anyone want to do that?” The thought rattled around like a ball in a pachinko machine, and I came to the conclusion that Cam was right. The guy was an idiot. I spent a great deal of time trying to avoid notice. It made no sense to me why a person would try to force the attention of the dead by pissing them off.
“He’s trying to get something on film for his show,” Cam explained. “If he succeeds in enraging a spirit, he might get something physically revealing of a presence. Depending on personality, things might be thrown, a person might be shoved or struck…. He won’t get that kind of reaction from our bride, but I’m sure you’ve seen this type of behavior in other circumstances.”
I nodded as we watched the man continue his capering. I was all too familiar with the violence of poltergeist activity. “So, I enrage spirits?”
“More like frustrate them. They’re expecting a deeper level of understanding from you.”
“Really?” I thought back to the spirit of the boy that started my apprenticeship and realized that none of the information Cam had revealed about him had percolated to my senses. “How do I get to that deeper level?” I looked at him earnestly. “Is it something you can teach me?”
“In time. But at the moment, I’d say that we’ll have to abort our lesson plan for the day.”
“If this guy is trying to rile things up, shouldn’t we stick around? In case we need to do something to calm things down?”
“Do you see the bride anymore? I certainly don’t see her. We really have no need to stay here. I say we let the idiot carry on playing the fool and let nothing happen for the cameras.”
I looked at Cam and narrowed my eyes. “Oh ye of little faith! He’ll either make something happen or someone will do something off-camera.”
“Perhaps you’re right… Care to place a small wager on the outcome? I say there will be no shenanigans now, but later, they will add special effects.”
I grinned at him. “You’re on. Winner gets ice cream.” I turned back to look carefully for any evidence of shenanigans. “We’ll have to figure out when the show will air.”
The antics of the man now became a spectator sport, and we avidly watched the action unfold. He stalked theatrically in front of the church, proclaiming all the while the failings of the bride spirit. Synchronized with the panning of the cameras, Zackie’s muzzle pointed first left and then right as the man paced back and forth. Eventually, to make her disdain plain to all, she sneezed mightily in his direction and began to circle before lying down for a nap. Just as she was really getting comfortable, the man bounded down the steps and proceeded to the far side of the church to enter an old graveyard. Forcing Zackie to her feet, we moved along the edge of the stone wall to keep the man in sight. A wrought iron gate stood in front of the cemetery. It was elaborate in the Victorian style and bore the words ‘Moravian Cemetery Hope, NJ’ in a twisted metal banner at the top.
While we watched the man slap at the gravestone of what was undoubtedly the bride spirit, Zackie suddenly stiffened and stared intently at something in the nearest corner of the cemetery. Her alert drew our attention to the figure of a man who sat hunched on the ground. I took in a sharp breath and froze, fearful that all hell was about to break loose if the dead man saw me. Around him were roughly three rows of what looked like a path of footstones. The figure had his arms tightly wrapped around his torso. He rocked to and fro with his head bowed, unaware of the idiot man ranting to his camera crew.
“Don’t worry,” Cam murmured. “Zackie will shield us from notice until we’re ready to make our move. What you need to understand is that these spirits are like drowning people. They have no intent to do you harm, but once they notice people like us, they will latch on in their panic and desperation. They can drag you under if you are not prepared.”
While the idiot droned on, we dared not approach this spirit and draw attention to ourselves. Our difficulties were increased by the prospect of bringing a dog into the cemetery, so it appeared our best option was to wait this whole thing out. The sun was close to setting, and the deepening shadows might afford us the ability to enter the graveyard unnoticed—if only the film crew would leave.
I groaned quietly as the idiot man asked his crew to hand him a spirit box, so he could try to hear what the ghost had to say. This was going to go on forever. As usual, dinner time was approaching, and it seemed likely that I would miss another meal. My stomach growled in protest.
Cam chuckled and tried to distract me by asking what I noticed about the dead man. I looked carefully and reported was I saw, drawing on my undergrad degree in history that everyone said I’d never use. The spirit’s coat was dark blue, and he had a white stock around his neck. I could see buckles on his shoes and dark stockings that met his breeches slightly below the knee. Aside from clothing that placed him in the eighteenth century, I saw nothing from my vantage point that offered any additional clues.
As I shifted my gaze back to the idiot, I noticed him watching us as he fiddled with the spirit box. As amusing as it was for me to see a ghost hunter oblivious to what must be his heart’s desire, I felt a bit of sympathy for him. The spirit box emitted nothing but static. You would think that maybe a word or two from radio broadcasts might leak through. That would at least give him something to substantiate communication with the bride spirit. Luck was just not with him this day.
Eventually, the idiot turned off the spirit box and faced the cameras squarely. “While we tried everything at our disposal to make contact with the ghost of the bride, we failed to find evidence that she is here.” Turning to show his good side to the camera, he continued. “We will carefully review our tapes and recordings to see if we captured anything that can only be detected by electronic devices. Sometimes, this is the way investigations go, and you just have to roll with the punches.” At this, he made a slashing motion across his throat and the operators shut down the cameras. Cam waggled his shaggy eyebrows at me, since it appeared that he would win the bet.
The idiot and the crew packed up their belongings and headed to the parking lot on the far side of the church. Cam and I lounged on the stone wall as we waited for their cars to depart. As night embraced the graveyard, Zackie kept watch on the spirit. She had the attitude of a herding dog, relaxing on her side while maintaining an air of alert surveillance. When the last car pulled out on to High Street, Zackie got to her feet and began leading us to the dead man.
As we approached, I recognized the path of footstones as tombstones that lay flat to the ground. Dates of death ranged from the mid seventeen hundreds to the early eighteen hundreds. Each of the stones was numbered, beginning with the number one in 1768. Apparently, the Moravians were an extraordinarily orderly people with a penchant for good record keeping.
Trusting that things would be different for me with Zackie and Cam present, I followed them to the man, but my gut felt tight. I steeled myself and tried to remain calm. Our man sat beside a tombstone that read “John Lewis Luckenbach, born Jan. 27, 1758 in Germany, departed this life March 4, 1799.” The man raised his eyes and gazed balefully at us. His face was a mass of raised and crusted reddish-purple sores. Tears streaked down his cheeks from swollen eyes.
Cam approached and knelt near the spirit. “John, why do you stay here?” I heard a mumbled response. His tongue was swollen, and he was sobbing. It was difficult to understand him. Cam glanced at me. I was squinting hard and cupping my ear, trying hard to understand. “Do not listen with your ears. Not all of them will speak, but you must hear them, nonetheless. Look into his eyes and feel his words.”
I swallowed my unease and concentrated on going beyond my revulsion for the man’s appearance. Taking a deep breath and relaxing, my mind began to focus as I held John Luckenbach’s gaze. “Smallpox,” I said. “He died of smallpox. He suffered fevers and could not keep his meals down. His body ached horribly… But this death is not the source of his suffering.” I held my breath and tried to go deeper, to get to the cause, but I began to feel feverish. Nausea was making my stomach roil. “I can’t… I can’t anymore!” My tongue swelled and my skin felt like it was on fire. Looking at my hands, I saw pus-filled boils erupting from my skin. “Cam! Cam, help me!” I stared in horror at the lesions and was close to screaming when Zackie jumped up and slammed her front paws into my chest. I was knocked a few steps backwards but managed to keep my feet under me. That broke the spell. Panting and rubbing my chest, I slowly returned to myself.
“Remember what I said about them dragging you under?” Cam examined my hands for the pustules. “You need to maintain your sense of self when you have discourse with them. The experience of dying is extremely powerful, and it can overwhelm. Accept the experience, but let it wash over you. Do not internalize it. Hold on to your reality. Can you do that?”
I gasped and rubbed my hands, trying to make them feel clean again. “I don’t know… I don’t know if I can do this!”
“Look, this won’t come all at once. It’s going to take time and you will need to take things a little farther during each attempt. You did well this first time.” Cam looked closely at my face. “Are you ready to finish this?”
“You have to lead. I’m done.” But I squared my shoulders and stepped in closer.
Cam nodded and returned to kneel near the spirit. “John, tell me what happened. Why do you weep?” As John Luckenbach raised his hands in explanation or supplication, it was clear that there were no hands. The spirit garbled something through his swollen tongue, and I caught the word “Lenape.” The sobbing and rocking started again in earnest, and Zackie sat down directly in front of the spirit. Putting her muzzle into his pocked face, she licked his tears and he clung to her. Cam stared intently at this scene. “He feels guilty for the death of others.” He nodded his head and then continued. “The Moravians sent missionaries to the Lenni-Lenape, the tribes that lived along the Delaware. John was among those who were chosen to go. He fell sick during the mission. Many from the tribe died from smallpox afterwards.” Cam frowned and now shook his head. “John feels that he is responsible for killing them.”
I stared at the spirit’s coat sleeves. “Why does he have no hands?”
“What becomes of someone who has no hands?”
“They can’t touch? They lose the ability to do things? They need help from others?” I had no idea what the right answer might be. “Could he have lost his hands to amputation, maybe from infection?” This didn’t really answer the question but might account for missing body parts.
“All possibilities.” Tilting his head, Cam thought for a moment. “In the context of this particular case, I would say that John feels helpless to make things right. The emotion is translated to his spirit body.” Turning back to the spirit, Cam queried him. “Do you hold the one who made you ill responsible for your death?”
The spirit vehemently shook his head no and he conveyed the words, “God’s will.” Zackie laid her head on his shoulder and it looked like he took strength from her touch. The spirit sighed and leaned into her body, wrapping his arms around her.
“Watch his hands,” Cam muttered to me. As the spirit of John Luckenbach seemed to calm and the tears ceased to flow, I saw a faint glow where the hands should be. We stood quietly and after a few minutes, the glow became brighter, and hands emerged from the light.
“You’re ready, then?” Cam looked closely at the spirit for confirmation. “Stand and follow Zackie. She will take you home.” I saw the spirit rise and take hold of Zackie’s collar. As the dog led the spirit away from the grave, Cam said to me, “They need to move quickly now, before he relapses back into his former state of mind. Shield your eyes. Do not look into the place Zackie goes.” Turning away towards the church, I remembered the last time this happened, and I hoped not to be blinded again.
A massive flash of light erupted behind me and I covered my eyes. From the open portal, the warm, sweet scent of freshly baked apple pie wafted out and made my mouth water. The sounds of a crackling fire mingled with the rhythmic creak of a rocking chair and a woman’s low, soothing voice singing in German. Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf… I’d never learned the language, but I had learned Cam’s lesson, and I reached with my heart to hear the words of the lullaby.
Sleep my child, sleep
Your father tends the sheep,
Your mother shakes the apple tree,
As falls down a dream for thee
Sleep my child, sleep
John gasped with delight. “Mama?”
The tags on Zackie’s collar jingled as they stepped forward together.
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