Ghost Story

The rooftops of Glastonbury, from an upper room of the hostel there.
View from Glastonbury Backpackers Hostel

I’ve seen ghosts. I’ve never looked for them, I don’t want to see them, frankly, but it’s happened nevertheless. None of them have been particularly scary, but they’ve scared the life out of me every time. Maybe it’s just because our worlds are not meant to meet. Maybe it’s because they are not meant to be, echoes that were supposed to move on but are trapped like flies in amber. Maybe it’s just my instinctive fear of death. My mind knows it’s just a passage from one state to another, but my body knows better.

There was the little dog under the bed across from mine in Glastonbury.  I had the luxury of a four bed dorm–with a view worthy of any novel concerning scullery maids–to myself for three glorious nights. On the second night I woke up to see a little dog curled up under the bed opposite placidly looking at me. I jumped for the light. The dog disappeared. It took me a bit of time before I could turn the light off and go back to sleep. Too bad, perhaps it was only observing me. Perhaps it was planning a journey that only we two could share. Perhaps I was having a dream that could have been even more interesting. I’ll never know because my first impulse was the light switch.

The ghost aboard the tallship came long before the dog, however. He really chilled me. He kept coming back, which was even more unpleasant. The first time I saw him I was sleeping alone in the main hold. All the bunks in the fo’c’s’l’e were taken and I was making do, hoping, as every recently joined crew member does, that one would open up. The main hold contains the galley, and padded bench seating that serves as the ship’s living room. So it’s basically couch surfing, salt-flavored. I woke up and it was dark. I saw someone bending over the coffee pot at the far side of the space, and my first thought was ‘Oh. It’s the cook putting on coffee. It must be 5:30.’ Then I realized the figure was glowing. “Joe?” No answer. “You’re not really there are you,” I said, and jumped for the light. The figure disappeared. I was alone in the space. The galley clock struck 7 bells. 11:30. PM. I was a big chicken and left the light on. We were in port, on shore power. No one noticed, as no one was standing watches. I didn’t do too much more sleeping anyway.

The next night the engineer came in late, drunk, and amusing, at least for a while. He knew what was what, and had no problem telling us. He steadily got angrier, and began talking to the bunk I’d been sleeping in. He was talking to someone who wasn’t answering him. He wasn’t having any of my telling him no one was there, and the purser, who had a Zen way about him that could calm almost anyone, was having a hard time with this one. By then I was getting upset, because I knew who I thought he was talking to, and that someone was lying in my bunk. In the end, the engineer went to bed, and I told the purser about the ghost. He took me to the fo’c’s’l’e and made a crew member, who was sleeping with his girlfriend each night anyway, give up the extra bunk he’d been claiming as his. She was crew as well, it was a common enough arrangement aboard, but I didn’t know the ins and outs of it all. I was just grateful not to have to spend another night alone in that empty, dark hold.

Things were fine, we left port, and lived in that wonderful calm bubble that is offshore sailing. One watch on, two off, and all that we do is done in the service of Herself, the vessel that encloses us. We serve Her, she protects Us. We are one, and even if the food isn’t great, and the trip up the coast is bumpy in the extreme, as long as conditions at sea are good, we all fall into a state almost meditative. We stand our watches, take our turns steering, scanning the sea ahead for lights at night and obstacles by day, and check the bilge, the engine, the lights. We walk quietly on deck and don’t talk near hatches, knowing that the ship is hollow, like a giant guitar, and someone is always sleeping.

One night I woke. The ghost was in my bunk. I didn’t dare open my eyes, but I could see the glow of him through my eyelids, surrounding me, and hear the hum of him, there, but not there. I reached for my bunk light, and again, he was gone. I spent a long time telling him silently to go away, that this was MY bunk, and he was NOT welcome to share it. He didn’t return. Why me? I’d never seen a ghost before. I’d never *wanted* to see one, and very much never wanted to see this one ever again, though I felt sorry for him. The purser, you see, had known whom I was talking about. He’d told me that they’d picked him up one night, offshore. Maybe he had drowned and come across the ship one night. He didn’t know. That was all he said, and all I know.

The last time I saw him the ship was in port, all the crew gone except me. I was catching a greyhound bus south in the morning and was spending my last night aboard. I had my favorite fo’c’s’l’e bunk, had stayed up late reading in solitary splendor after an excellent dinner ashore. I once again woke up, in the middle of the night. A figure made of light was climbing down the fo’c’s’l’e ladder, inches from my bunk. JESUS! I jumped for the bunk light, he was gone. I eventually got back to sleep. The next morning I was gone.

In retrospect, maybe I missed out. I don’t know if any communication was possible, because I never tried. Only one other person on board knew what I was talking about–but I only spoke to one about it. No one else that I know of saw him, except possibly the engineer, and he was not in ordinary waking consciousness. Neither was I, every time I’ve ever seen a ghost I’ve been awakened from a sound sleep. What side of the border of sleep did these encounters happen on?

Maybe the ghost missed out too, if ghost he was. What state of consciousness was he in? What awareness did he have of the ship and of us? He climbed aboard one wet night, apparently. What might it be like to flow like the sea after dying in it, perhaps not knowing when the boundary between life and death had been crossed? The waters off the coast of California are cold indeed, he might have let go of life from the cold alone. Was he just trying to live his life, aboard this ship, or was he looking for a way to move on? Could I have helped him to do so?

All these questions flowed from that jump for the light switch. If I’m ever in a similar situation again, I hope I’ll stay tucked up in bed and see what happens.

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