My name is Archibald Reef, and I am a ghost.
Though to be honest, ‘ghost’ suggests an incorporeal form, an idea primarily used by children, of necessity, to comprehend an afterlife beyond their limited capacity to imagine. I am just as human, just as real as anyone of the flesh that strolls the holiday-laden streets of my hometown, Portsmouth. You simply cannot see me.
Oh dear, that’s not entirely true either. Forgive me, for I’ve never told my tale to a living audience, though it bears telling, and I will need to request your patience while I find the words that you, as a living, breathing, human being, can understand. And I don’t have much time. You see, tomorrow, Christmas Day, at 5:15 a.m., I will be free.
Perhaps I should begin my story three months ago, when the baby was born, right here in the very room where a hundred years ago I died.
I was ecstatic, of course, when it finally came to be that a child would be born inside the house. Not that her parents planned it that way, for the little package came early, squirming her way unexpectedly into the world before any of the modern trappings of childbirth could be called upon. But her parents, Gloria and Richard, handled it all well. They are good people, I suppose, at least according to the mores of your time. They give to various charities, they visit with each other’s in-laws (something I could never stomach when I lived) and they spend an inordinate amount of time renovating my home. I built this house, along with my brother, in 1905. I believe Portsmouth historians and architecture students would now call the style Folk Victorian.
The plan, originally, was to rent it on an occasional basis to workers at the shipyard. But life, as you know, rarely abides by our plans. In my case, I met my love, Katherine. We bought my brother’s share of the home and set about creating a family. But that never happened.
There’s no need to bore you with the tiresome details of the tedious decade through which Katherine and I tried repeatedly to have our own child. Nor shall I detail the circumstances of my darling succumbing to consumption and my subsequent years of depression. My ancestors will tell you that on Christmas Day 1915, lost in a haze of regret, I took my own life in the home I built, while townsfolk merrily celebrated Christ’s birth.
I did not, I assure you. I died only of a broken, defeated heart.
My ancestors will tell you that on Christmas Day 1915, lost in a haze of regret, I took my own life in the home I built, while townsfolk merrily celebrated Christ’s birth.
But I become morose. The century of wandering, waiting, yearning, has left me with nothing but fond memories of my time of the flesh. Melancholy perhaps, but what ghost isn’t? You see, I’m here to tell you during this season of joy and giving, if there is one chain that binds you more fiercely than all the others, it is regret. For it was my deep regret — my bottomless, all-consuming regret — at never having a child, that turned my soul into a wraith. And I have waited all these years for a baby to arrive at the place of my death to unhinge me from my earthly ties so I can once again be with my precious Katherine.
The happenstance that, in order to release my tortured soul, the tiny baby girl now gurgling in her crib will herself be forced to roam the spirit world when she dies is a gloomy fact of the karma of the afterlife. I must not let this inhibit me when on Christmas Day, at the precise moment of my demise a century ago, I take the girl’s soul and set it adrift.
That this unearthly change will take place on Christmas Day is to be expected, for that is when the temporal and the spiritual intersect. Were I on the Asian subcontinent or my geography of a more Arab inclination, the holiday would be different, but the opening between the two worlds would be equally strong.
Though I am fond of Christmas. And it’s a wonder to see the town of my birth and death celebrate the holiday in much the same way I did when I roamed the earth. I’ve learned that history revolves in concentric circles, always opening and reclosing on itself. So now, ironically, I can peer out the second-floor window of what used to be our bedroom and see the Victorian-style decorations of Christmas past adorning the windows and lampposts of our neighbors.
Though I understand that I am far from the only apparition who wanders the halls of his or her old haunt, through some cosmic joke of our creators I have never met another.
A pang of fear enters my heart, brief and sharp. Just what will come next? In my mind I try to picture Katherine, her long hair, black as night. I try to remember the feel of her fingertips brushing against my beard, touching my closed eyes. My memories are vague, and pointless.
Midnight has passed. It is Christmas. It’s time.
I settle myself high above the little one, like I have many times over the course of the past three months. Her lovely white crib is surrounded by toys and shelves of books that are far too complicated for her to read for many months. In the corner, where my old reading chair used to sit, near the window, is a rocking horse. The tiny toy is made to look old, with a delicate saddle and a fine white mane down the horse’s back. It will be several years before she can use it.
I watch her sleep for a bit, just drifting, listening to her breath. She’s a tiny, delicate child. Even at three months, she’s underweight. In the fuzzy red and green light from a neighbor’s holiday decoration, her skin looks nearly translucent. She has a small patch of black hair at the very top of her head.
At 5 a.m., as my time approaches, she sighs softly and her eyelids flicker open. And as a light snow begins to fall outside the window, even in this thin light, the baby looks right at me, right into my eyes. And smiles.
She can see me.
In all my time as an apparition, that has never happened. I move a little to the left, and her eyes follow me.
“You — you know I’m here, little one?”
She lets out a squeak, like a balloon releasing air, and her eyes glow with awareness and recognition.
Her mother comes in after hearing her gurgles and lifts the baby out of her crib. But her eyes never leave mine. Even as she sits in her mother’s lap and takes her bottle, she tilts her head toward me.
“What do you see, baby girl?” her mother whispers. “Do you have a friend?”
Incredibly, the baby lifts a tiny palm toward me. It’s nearly time. I reach down and hold a finger out to her, and as my soul touches hers, I feel the hope and innocence and the need. I become aware that 5:15 a.m. is upon me, but as one hundred years of searching and longing and pain begins to slip away, I can’t take her. I can’t allow my fate to be hers.
The time passes. I am still here. My sweet Katherine will never see me again.
After a time, the baby relaxes and her mother leaves. Even in the crib, swaddled tight, she continues to look into my eyes. I drift lower and press my cheek through the bars of her crib.
And as the snow falls on Christmas Day outside, and the lights from the trees and windows shimmer on my 100th Christmas Day as a ghost, my new ward turns her head toward mine, sighs, and falls asleep.
Dan Szczesny is a long-time author, travel writer and journalist living in Manchester. Find out more