“I like it, don’t you?” Alyssa Ross whispered to her husband Owain.
Owain checked to see that the real estate agent, Peter Hoskins, was still busy talking on his mobile.
“Yes,” Owain whispered. “At this price we can afford it. But why is it affordable? It’s in walking distance of downtown.”
“Well, it’s a peculiar shade of blue, isn’t it? All the other houses in this neighborhood are painted in pastels. Anyway, ask him,” Alyssa said softly. From the looks of it, Hoskins was winding up his conversation.
“Sorry about that,” he said, turning to the Rosses. “There was a last-minute change to a contract that I had to approve. Now—any questions about the house?”
“Yes,” Owain said. “We were wondering why no one else has snapped it up. After all, it’s in a prime location.”
Hoskins looked blank for a moment, then said, “The owner has just decided to sell. The old man who lived here died but his heir lives in Toronto. He doesn’t want to be bothered finding renters for the house.”
Alyssa forbore to say that renting houses at long distance could be left to a property management company and said instead, “How long has the property been vacant?”
“Oh, a year or two, I think. The heir has had it spiffed up inside, you know—the floors and all that. And he had wiring for the Internet put in.” Hoskins laughed, a little self-consciously. “No one wants to buy or even rent a house without it, these days.”
“Of course,” Owain agreed.
While the agent and her husband began to discuss details, Alyssa let her gaze wander around the room. The house was a Victorian—most appropriate, considering it was in a city named Victoria—built around 1900. We could walk everywhere, she thought. Owain could take the car to work and I could get by with a bicycle. I love this house!
Both Alyssa and Owain liked the wooden floors, the old-fashioned doors that separated the rooms, the views from the windows. Alyssa thought she and Owain could live with the somewhat old-fashioned kitchen until they could afford to modernize it. Best of all, there were enough bedrooms that they could use one as a home office and still have space for friends who wanted to visit.
Everyone will want to visit us here in Victoria, the most beautiful place on earth, Alyssa thought. She’d fallen in love with Victoria the instant they’d left the ferry and begun walking up the hill from the harbor to the city, dragging their suitcases behind them.
“We’ll give you our decision by five o’clock today,” Owain said to Hoskins.
But all three knew that the decision had already been made.
Six weeks later the house was theirs. Owain and Alyssa gave notice to the bed-and-breakfast house where they’d been staying and bought furniture to be delivered to the Blue House.
“We’ll have to start with the minimum,” Owain said. “We can add pieces as time goes on and we figure out what we need.”
“Good thing we were renting a furnished apartment in Washington,” Alyssa said. “At least we’ve been spared the expense of renting a storage facility and having furniture shipped from the USA.”
They settled in quickly after the basics had been bought. Owain went off to his job every morning in the car and returned shortly after five in the evening. He was a sanitary engineer, working on a new wastewater facility in a suburb of Victoria.
“For a century the city has simply dumped all the effluent into the Salish Sea,” Owain told Alyssa when he’d accepted the job, back in Washington, DC. “Terrible! It pollutes the water and endangers marine life. Besides, it’s just plain nasty and irresponsible. However, the political wrangling that was holding up the project has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, so work can begin on the wastewater treatment plant. That’s where I come in.”
“It’ll be quite a change from where you were before,” Alyssa teased. “From West Africa to Canada—talk about climate change!”
But now here we are, Alyssa thought, and hummed as she arranged wildflowers in a vase and carried it into her new office. Her work was designing and maintaining Web sites for small businesses. Most of her jobs came by customer referral, but sometimes she did market her services by visiting shops and businesses in person.
Two hours after completing the initial phase of a project, she got up from her chair, stiff from sitting so long. She stood and stretched, looking through the window that was closed against the morning chill--and then she froze.
Reflected in the window glass was a pale face belonging to a figure standing in the doorway of the room she was in. The hairs on Alyssa’s neck and arms stood on end as, slowly, she turned around to see who was standing there.
A young woman, wearing a curiously old-fashioned skirt that ended below the knee and a short-sleeved sweater with a lace collar looked back at her. Her dark hair was arranged in a bouffant style with the ends flicked up. The expression on her face was troubled.
Alyssa recovered from her initial shock at finding a stranger in the house with her and took a step forward. “Who are you? How did you get in? What do you want?”
The young woman vanished in an instant.
Great Mother! Alyssa thought. Had she, Alyssa Ross, just gone mad? Had she imagined the young woman? Or was the visitor a ghost?
“No, I don’t think you’re insane or delusional,” Owain said after Alyssa told him of the morning’s event when he returned home. “It must have been a ghost. What beats me is why it’s still here, if it is a ghost. We smudged the whole house before we moved in, and all the furniture is brand new—no one has owned it before us, so there can’t be any imprints.”
“Possibly the imprints are in the floors and walls,” Alyssa said. “Anyway, I hope I don’t see her again.”
She gathered up her riotous red curls into a knot at the back of her neck and said, “I’m going to start dinner. It’ll be ready in an hour.”
Owain smiled. “While you’re cooking I think I’ll play Hadaicha.”
Hadaicha was the djembe that had chosen him for her new partner when he was working on a project in Mali. Because they’d been so busy since arriving in Victoria, Hadaicha had sat in a corner of their bedroom, unplayed. Now he picked her up, sat down and stood her between his knees, adjusted the drumhead, and began tapping her softly.
Was it his imagination or did Hadaicha sing softly to him as he played, “Beware, Alassane! Beware!”
A fortnight passed uneventfully while Alyssa and Owain went to work, did their shopping, went for walks in the neighborhood, or sat on their front porch in the evenings.
However, on a Monday morning when Alyssa was once more at work in her office, the sounds began. She heard giggles and a scuffling noise. The giggles seemed to come from the hallway outside her office door. Cautiously, dreading what she might discover, Alyssa got up from her computer, went to the doorway, and looked into the hallway. She saw nothing but a ball.
It was a soft, round ball such as children play with. The giggles had sounded as if they came from small children. Was the ball real?
Alyssa reached for it but it too disappeared.
Now she was frightened. She ran out of the office and down the stairs, through the front door and on to the sidewalk. Either she was completely delusional or there really were ghosts in the house. She didn’t know which idea was more disconcerting.
Taking a deep breath, she decided to go back into the house to get her handbag and shopping bags. As her concentration had been so rudely interrupted, she couldn’t settle down to work again so soon. Perhaps the mundane task of shopping for tonight’s dinner would take her mind off things.
Half an hour later, wandering among the stalls of the local farmer’s market, she stopped to admire some vegetables. “Look at that eggplant,” she said to the stall owner. “I could fancy a ratatouille for dinner tonight.”
“Everything’s right here,” the man said. “Aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes. You’ll find the cheese, onion, and olive oil over in the next row.”
As he weighed the vegetables and loaded them into the string bag, a youth she hadn’t noticed before, perhaps the stall owner’s son, spoke up from the far aisle. “I’ve seen you walking around the neighborhood, haven’t I? You live in the Blue House, don’t you?”
Alyssa turned to face him. “Yes, we do live there. We like it very much.”
“Ah, then, they won’t have started yet,” the youth said. “That house is haunted, they say. They never could keep renters there longer than a month because of the ghosts.”
“That’s enough, John,” his father said sharply. He addressed Alyssa. “Don’t pay any attention to him. They’re just silly stories.”
Alyssa wanted to reply, “Are they?” but she didn’t want to prolong the discussion. Already, other shoppers seemed to be listening to the conversation. She simply shrugged and turned away to look at the fruit. Although it was mid-July there were early apples for sale. Perhaps she’d make an apple tart to follow the ratatouille.
That evening as they ate dinner Alyssa told him about the sounds, the apparition of the ball, and what the young man at the farmer’s market had said.
“So it’s common knowledge, then,” Owain said thoughtfully. “And he said that no renters would stay longer than a month? That must be why the heir to the property didn’t bother renting it out and just wanted it off his hands.”
“And then we showed up, the American suckers, not knowing anything about the place,” Alyssa said. “I don’t care, though. I still like the house.”
“So do I,” Owain said, beginning to stack the plates. “I’ll do the dishes. You probably want to work again.”
“Good idea,” Alyssa said, rising. She went upstairs to her office and put in two good hours of work before calling it an evening. By the time they went to bed, she was glad she’d worked after dinner, because an enormous storm blew up. Thunder crashed, lightning pierced the night sky, and rain battered against the windows.
“Great Mother, listen to that,” Owain said, sitting up to turn on the bedside lamp. They listened to the storm rage for a few minutes before Owain reached to turn the lamp off. Just as he was about to flick the switch, the light went out. “Would you look at that—we’ve lost electricity!”
“Oh, well, at least we hardly need it until tomorrow morning,” Alyssa said as they lay down again and she snuggled into his warm back. An hour later she woke up, frightened.
She could hear sobs outside the bedroom door. A man’s deep, tearing sobs that seemed to go on and on until they ended in a desolate howl.
By this time Owain was sitting up in bed too, listening. Alyssa clutched his arm.
“Dear Goddess, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Owain spoke quietly. “But we’re going to find out. We’ll start tomorrow. I wish we could make some cocoa, but with no electricity we can’t.”
“Oh, well, let’s try to go back to sleep,” Alyssa said. “It can’t be long until morning.”
The electricity was back on by the time they woke up the next morning. Owain, awake and downstairs before Alyssa, was cooking breakfast when she came into the kitchen yawning and rubbing her eyes.
“As today is Saturday,” Owain remarked as they ate their bacon, eggs, and toast,“I’m going to call our friend Mr. Hoskins and get the name of the old man who lived here before we did. If he won’t tell me anything about the house, I’m going to search the official records.”
“The city offices will be closed today,” Alyssa reminded him.
“True. But there’s still the Internet.”
“I think I’ll walk around the neighborhood and see if I can fall into conversation with any of the old-timers,” Alyssa said. “Perhaps I could introduce myself and see whether anyone wants to join us for drinks tonight. I could get some beer and wine and make canapés or something.”
“Good idea,” Owain agreed.
Alyssa wished they had a dog. No one questioned why someone would be walking a dog around the neighborhood. However, the next best thing might be a sketchbook. She’d put on an old shirt and try to look like an artist. After donning the shirt, a bandanna, and a large, floppy hat she set off with sketchbook and pencil, trying to look as casual as possible.
She walked by a man tending the flowers in his front garden, three houses down from the Blue House. “Good morning, how are you? I’m your new neighbor, Alyssa Ross.”
The man put down his trowel and came over to her, wiping his hands on his old, stained trousers. “Good morning! I’m Frank Hertford. My wife and I live here with our cats. The kids are grown and gone. Where do you live?
Alyssa turned to look down the street. “In the Blue House.”
“The haunted house, eh?”
“Haunted house?” Alyssa looked straight at him. “Who haunts it?”
“They say the last owner and his family still haunt the place. No one stays in that house for long.”
“We bought it,” Alyssa said defiantly. “It’s not haunted. It’s lovely.”
“Perhaps it’s just an old story, then,” Mr. Hertford said with evident relief. “Good. Do you have any children?”
“Not yet. My husband and I are newlyweds. We just came from the States a few months ago.”
“Come in for a coffee and meet my wife? I know she’d like to meet you.”
In the end Alyssa stayed so long chatting with Mr. and Mrs. Hertford over coffee that the morning slipped away. “Thanks for the coffee and the chat,” she said, rising. “I must go home now. My husband will be expecting me to join him for lunch.”
“Goodbye,” the Hertfords said. “Come again, eh?”
She waved to them as she set off down the sidewalk to the Blue House.
“Hello, love,” Owain said when she entered the house. “How was your morning?”
“I met some nice neighbors down the street,” Alyssa said. She took off her hat, set the sketchbook down. “How was yours?”
“I got hold of Hoskins. He said the last owner’s name was Pettigrew, Richard J. Pettigrew. He died two years ago after living in the house for more than half a century.”
“H’mm,” Alyssa said. “At first Mr. Hertford said the house was haunted but when I told him it wasn’t, and we’d bought it, he seemed relieved.”
“Well,” Owain said doubtfully, “We’ll see. If there are any more manifestations, we’ll have to take steps. Now, what about pizza for lunch?”
At midnight that Saturday, after she and Owain had been asleep for an hour, Alyssa suddenly awakened. What was the matter?
She sat up in the darkness to hear the sound of a piano being played softly. The tune sounded subdued, nostalgic, even. It made her think of the set pieces music teachers urged their students to learn: simple, but successful if played properly.
Alyssa wondered whether the sound would die away but then she felt a movement beside her. Owain sat up, put an arm around her, and seemed to be listening too.
After a moment he got out of bed, opened the door, and peered into the hallway. Then he padded back. “No one there.”
“And there’s no piano in the house,” Alyssa said, feeling a cold chill down her spine. “The only musical instrument we have is Hadaicha.”
Owain got back into bed and hugged her. “Go back to sleep, it’s probably finished for the night. Everything will be fine in the morning.”
But everything was not fine. Beginning at daybreak, as they rose, washed, dressed, and went down to breakfast, both were conscious of a feeling of unutterable sadness. Alyssa felt hopeless, as if life weren’t worth living and nothing good would ever happen again.
The day wore on, with both Owain and Alyssa moving restlessly about the house, unable to settle down to gardening, cooking, or even watching TV.
“This is useless,” Owain said at last. “I’m going to go online and find out about this Richard J. Pettigrew. We need to know what’s causing these manifestations.”
At six o’clock, when Alyssa returned with carry-out hamburgers for their dinner, Owain greeted her at the door, his blue eyes shining with excitement. “I think I’ve solved it!”
“Tell me!” Alyssa said. “Come, let’s eat these while they’re still warm.”
As they ate the hamburgers and drank their iced tea, Owain told her what he’d discovered. “I read Pettigrew’s obituary in the newspaper archives online. A terrible thing happened to Pettigrew as a young man. His wife and twin sons were killed in a typhoon.”
Alyssa stared. “A typhoon? Here?”
“Yes. It was called Typhoon Freda and it ravaged the Pacific Northwest, including parts of Washington and Oregon, in 1962. When the obituary mentioned that his wife and children had been killed in the storm, I went to the archives for October 1962 and looked up the Typhoon Freda coverage.”
“And?” Alyssa could see the distress growing on Owain’s face.
“Dear Goddess, it was terrible. The newspaper reporter interviewed Pettigrew after the accident. It seemed that the little boys—they were just four years old--wanted to see the Christmas display in the windows of Eaton’s department store downtown, so he agreed to drive the family there that evening. The storm blew up so they all ran for the car to go home. But as Pettigrew was driving, a huge tree uprooted and fell on the car, killing Frances, his wife, and the little ones, Declan and Brian.”
Alyssa’s eyes filled with tears, picturing the tragedy of that terrifying night. “So that’s why we heard the sound of a man sobbing after the thunderstorm the other night.”
Owain sighed and said, “Apparently, Pettigrew blamed himself for the whole tragedy. He kept saying to the reporter, ‘If only I hadn’t taken them to see the Christmas display! If only we’d stayed home! It’s all my fault.’”
A sob escaped Alyssa. “That poor, poor man! Oh, Owain, what can we do?”
Owain was silent for a few minutes. Then he leaned forward and said, “We can do a ritual. We can invoke the protection of Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, and do a really nice banishing ritual. We can tell them they were loved in their day but it’s time for their spirits to cross over to the other plane. They shouldn’t stay in this dimension any longer.”
Alyssa nodded. “We’ll use cedar incense this time—this is cedar country, after all. We should have used it instead of sage to smudge the house before we moved in. And let’s have some music—Hadaicha can help us with that.”
It was agreed. They would conduct the ritual as soon as they could gather the tools for it.
The next evening Owain opened the front door to a Pagan colleague from his office, Raven. A tall young man with hair as black as the bird from which he’d taken his magickal name, he arrived with a guitar slung from a strap across his chest and a backpack.
“How do you do?” Alyssa said, offering her hand as he stepped over the threshold.
He smiled and inclined his head. “I’ve brought some magickal tools with me for the farewell ritual.”
“Raven suggested that we call it a farewell ritual rather than a banishing, so as not cause negative vibrations,” Owain explained.
Raven set his backpack down on the floor. From it he removed cedar incense sticks, sea salt in a cardboard tube with holes in the top, and brightly painted gourd rattles.
Alyssa lit the incense and cast the circle to include the whole house, then she, Owain, and Raven joined hands as they invoked Persephone to guide the unhappy, restless souls of the Pettigrew family to Avalon. Then the three went from room to room; Owain sprinkled salt in the window frames and the doorway lintels, Alyssa carried the smoking cedar incense to wave around the room, and Raven shook the rattles. They all repeated, “Go now to Avalon, the sacred isle in the West. You loved and were loved greatly in this life but it’s time for you to depart to the Otherworld. Farewell and blessed be.”
When they returned to the living room, Owain picked up Hadaicha from the corner and played a soft tune, Raven strummed his guitar, and Alyssa shook the rattles in time to the music. The music and the woodsy aroma of the incense wafted them to a time that was not a time and a place that was not a place.
After they finished playing the three once again joined hands, thanked Persephone, and bowed their heads, thinking of the family that had once lived in the house. The incense burned down in its holder, falling into ash as it burned out.
Then Alyssa raised her head and spoke. “You know what? Our music-making has given me an idea. Let’s have a party, a big party, to celebrate the Pettigrews’ departure to the Otherworld. Let’s have music and singing and dancing and food and—“
“—And we’ll ask all the neighbors so there won’t be complaints about the noise,” Owain said with a grin.
Raven looked excited. “I can bring the rest of the coven, if you like. Most of them drum or play the flute. We’ll have a great time!”
The three decided the details quickly: they’d make a huge pot of spaghetti and buy bread, lemonade, and wine to go with it. The coming Friday night happened to be Lammas, so their party would also celebrate the turning of the Wheel of the Year. Moreover, having the party on Friday night would enable people who had already planned their weekend to have Saturday and Sunday free.
“I’ll make up some flyers,” Alyssa said enthusiastically, “and go from door to door.”
The neighbors were nothing if not receptive. Householder after householder accepted the flyer enthusiastically and promised to bring salad, paper plates and plastic cutlery, brownies, even ice cream and beer.
When Alyssa knocked on the door of the Hertfords’ house, Mrs. Hertford answered. “Oh, yes, we’d love to attend,” she said after Alyssa told her about the party. “I wonder—would you mind if I brought my mother along? She’ll be visiting next week. She used to live in this house many years ago and she knew the people who lived in your house.”
“Of course you can bring her,” Alyssa said, “I’d love to meet her.”
On Friday night yellow light gleamed behind the windowpanes of the Blue House. Music streamed softly out of the door when it was opened to new arrivals but grew louder as the evening wore on. Alyssa, wearing a wreath of flowers on her hair and a long flowing tunic of sea green, drifted from room to room, offering plates of spaghetti, baskets of bread sticks, glasses of wine and lemonade.
At one point Mrs. Hertford came up to her. “Alyssa, this is my mother, Sylvie Campeau. She used to live in this neighborhood many years ago.”
Mrs. Campeau was old, white-haired, and slightly bent, but she looked up at Alyssa with eyes as bright as those of a bird. “Thank you for this party and the music. Poor dear Frances…I remember her well. She played the piano. She learned a song especially to please me, once.”
“Did she really? What was it called?” Alyssa asked, smiling.
“It was called ‘Florian’s Song’,” Mrs. Campeau said. “Let me see if I remember how it went.” And then she sang in a quavering voice,
“Should in your village you e’er view him
A shepherd lad with gentle ways…”
She sang both stanzas and although Alyssa had to bend down to hear her properly, she recognized the music as the same she’d heard from the ghostly piano.
The music and wine and laughter went on all night, with people dancing to the sound of Owain playing Hadaicha and the strumming of Raven’s guitar as he made his way around the room, bowing and smiling as he moved through the knots of dancers. All the guests looked happy, their bare feet thudding against the wooden floors as they danced. The aroma of cedar incense, burning in holders positioned at a safe distance from people’s heads, blended with the scent of flowers, of perspiration, of beer.
People sense that sweet, lazy summer will soon give way to cooler, busier autumn, Alyssa thought as she wove through the rooms bearing the plates of brownies, small tubs of ice cream, and cookies people had contributed. Couples kissed in corners or gazed at each other—ecstatically or nostalgically, depending on their ages—as they circled the floor, swaying in time to the music.
All the food disappeared as did the wine, the beer, the lemonade. When the party started to break up the guests thanked Owain and Alyssa again and again. “This was wonderful,” they said, “thank you for inviting us. You must come see us soon.”
It was four o’clock when the last guest left. Owain and Alyssa, unwilling to face a huge mess in the morning, gathered up the discarded paper plates and other rubbish and stuffed them into huge plastic bags. Dawn was approaching when they dragged the last of the plastic bags into the backyard and stuffed them into the rubbish bins.
“Let’s have a cup of coffee and then go to bed,” Owain suggested.
While the coffee dripped through the coffeemaker, the two stepped outside to untie the surviving balloons they’d tied to the front gatepost before the party began.
“The sun’s coming up,” Alyssa said, turning to look at the front of the Blue House.
The sun’s rays played over the house, turning the blue into rose and gold. They gazed in silence for a minute, then Owain said, “You know…I think we’ll paint the house pink.”
In the Bambara language spoken in Mali, the name “Alassane” means “adventurous.” (Please refer to “Somewhere A Drum Waits for Me.”)
“Florian’s Song,” by Benjamin Godard.