Over dinner a few nights ago I was telling my husband about some oddity I had encountered or read about. For as long as I can recall, I've always been fascinated with what some people might call the paranormal, but I prefer to think of these things as the parts of life we just can't quite get a bead on.
It's taken over forty years to bring him up to speed on these things, my areas of interest, but I've been patient in bringing him along and then of course there was the ghost dog in the haunted house. By the time he encountered the ghost dog,he was convinced that it is a funny old world indeed.
Below is a very slightly fictionalized account of our encounter with the ghost dog. Names have been changed and the event took place in our first home in England in West Sussex, not Brussels where I placed it. I also made the storyteller a glamorous woman who is very unlike my pedestrian self. Lena is visiting her mother-in-law's summer camp on Lake Champlain and telling her story to Jonas, who like me, collects stories. I have hung onto this story for years and was delighted when I could finally use it in my yet-to-published novel Summerland.
“Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, but I refuse to think the whole world can be explained away. When I was a child I was so religious, I suppose because my mother was, and it meant so much to me until I was about six or seven. As I grew older, I couldn’t believe anymore, at least not in the Church. But there must be so many things, wonderful things, we know nothing about.”
“So you can’t believe in God, but a lake monster might fill that void?”
“Oh, it doesn’t have to be a monster, not at all. And I’m not against God, just the God I was handed as a child.” She made a silly face and giggled like a four-year-old. “Can I tell you what happened to me when I we lived in Brussels? I never mention it because people will think I’m odd, or making it up, but I think I can tell you.”
“Of course, that’s what I do, I listen to stories.” As he said the words he thought they made him sound useful and wise. He almost told her he was neither, but she wanted to talk and he did listen to stories, so she could find out on her own over the course of the summer that he wasn’t very useful or wise.
“The house was an old one-but not an ancient one, about half a kilometer from the Grand Place. A very nice house, two stories and quite good sized, at least by Belgium standards. Spencer and I had our bedroom downstairs and the boys each had a bedroom upstairs. Marcus had a room with another room attached, a play room if you will, just on the other side of it. That room was accessed through double doors next to Marcus’ bed. Are you getting the picture?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Good. So we moved into this house and my first thought was that it had a very nice feel to it. It felt like a happy house, do you know what I mean by that? Have you ever walked into a place and you just knew that people had been angry shortly before, or something bad had happened there?”
“I think I know what you mean.” He knew exactly what she meant. Even though he was grown he still avoided the two tiny rooms off the kitchen in the New Haven house where servants used to sleep. The rooms were used for storage now, but he could feel sadness whenever he entered them. He’d tried to find out what might have happened in those rooms, but back when the house required several servants, those servants where almost anonymous. They were mentioned only by name in the household accounts and only in reference to what they were being paid.
“We’re living in this nice house and one night I am making dinner and I see this figure just outside the kitchen door, the door that is off the front hall. Just for an instant I saw her, but it seemed to be a woman in some sort of old-fashioned dress with a bell-shaped skirt. Just for an instant, then she walks into the next room. Of course I followed her, but there was nothing so I tried to put it out of my mind. Just thought it was a trick of the light or something. Not that I’d ever been given to seeing things, still I didn’t give it much thought what with running a busy home.
“Anyway, the boys had been asking for a dog for ages and I wasn’t against the idea, so Spencer agreed. We had some friends who were being posted to England and they couldn’t take their dog with them because of the quarantine laws. We agreed to keep the dog for a year until they returned to Brussels, sort of a practice dog if you will. He was a cute little fellow and we took to him right away and him to us, I think.
“It was a Sunday morning and only Alex was home. Marcus was spending the night with a friend when Spencer and I were awakened in our downstairs bedroom. I remember this part very vividly, by the way." “What awoke you?”
“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? We heard the dog playing in the room above our heads, the room that Marcus usually slept in. The dog was having a lot of fun, too. We could hear him rushing back and forth, chasing a ball and we were laughing and feeling pleased that he had settled in so well. After a few minutes of this, Spencer got up to put him out in the garden. I remember Spencer grumbling that Alex should have put him out before letting him run riot upstairs. Spencer was always worried about the rugs when we were renting this house since some of the rugs were quite nice.
“Still grumbling, Spencer ties on his robe and goes upstairs to Marcus’ room which is completely empty with all the doors closed. He then goes into Alex’s room and the little dog is sound asleep on Alex’s pillow. They are both sleeping like little angels. Trying to figure out what we heard, he goes back to Marcus’ room and looks around again. No balls, no toys, and certainly no little dog.” She looked at him as though she had just given him a basket of ripe peaches.
“Weird. Any other visits from the phantom dog when you were there?” He glanced over at Forty who was sunning himself on the flagstones of the patio.
“Oh yes, do you want to hear it?”
“Is the pope Catholic?”
“I don’t really know anymore. Remember, I have renounced the church.” Lena smiled at him and bit her lower lip.
“Tell me about this dog.” He wondered for a moment if she was flirting, but realized that she was the sort who flirted with everyone including old women and babies. Just being friendly, he thought. A damn good thing considering the circumstances. He quickly imagined what a farce it would become; a relationship with the woman who was married to the man who was the son of his mother’s best friend.
“The house had two staircases, one off the main hall and another back staircase which was very narrow and clearly intended for utility as the laundry room was at the bottom. The little dog didn’t like this back staircase by the way and I had assumed it was simply because the steps were too narrow and dark for his taste. Anyway, I went into Marcus’ room to awaken him for school one morning. I sat down in a stuffed chair by his window and we were just chatting about this and that; our day ahead.
“Then we heard the dog on the other side of the double doors that I’d mentioned earlier. He was scratching and we could hear his tags jangling. He’d already been out that morning and he’d been fed. This dog often did a walk around in the morning, but the thing that was odd was the only way he could have come into that room on the other side of those doors was up that staircase that he dreaded. I went to the door to let him in, but as I did so Marcus and I both commented that it was odd that he’d found his way into that room.
“So, I opened the door and the room was empty. We used it as a guest room and I was always very careful that the room be kept pristine for guests, whom we often had, and it was pristine indeed. I turned around to comment on the dog’s absence to Marcus and the little fellow walked in through the other way, the door he always used. He was never in the other room. Something was, but it wasn’t the dog. What do you think of that?”
“I think I wish I had been there.”
“But have you ever heard of anything like this?”
“I’ve heard of a few ghost dogs and even one ghost cat. The literature is full of things like phantom stags and there is something called the black dog, but it’s not really something that could be classified as a ghost dog.”
“What is the black dog then?”
“It’s meant to be more like, oh how to put it, more like an apparition or sometimes a portent. It’s an ancient legend, dates back long into the pre-Christian era. Conan-Doyle based the Hounds of the Baskervilles on the legend. And the phantom stag is probably tied with up with early fertility rituals in some way although if you believe the literature, there have been sightings very recently of the stag. ”
“But my ghost dog, what do you think that was?”
“There’s a theory that buildings can act almost like tape recorders. The thought is that they can somehow record an event and then when the situation or the conditions are just right, it can somehow be played back. I don’t know if I buy it, but it’s in the literature.”
“What is this literature you keep referring to?”
“Oh, that’s whatever book I’ve recently read.” He smiled at her and tied off the awning with a square knot.
“You are an odd man, Jonas Adams. I like that.”