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Halloween Month: Ghostly Encounters
Beheadings & Homecomings: A Ghost Story for the Haunted
Last night I dreamed it was the holiday season and I was a teenager again, attempting to give the first boy I loved—and would go on to love for many years—a potted basil plant. He would smile and refuse each time I offered it, before eventually receding into the mist. The dream itself wasn’t a mystery; I’ve lived it in real time for most of my adulthood.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the story of Isabella and her basil plant, how she fell for a man of modest means named Lorenzo, instead of the tycoon to whom she was betrothed. In the tale her brothers murder Lorenzo and hide his remains, and his ghost visits Isabella in a dream to tell her where to find them. Isabella retrieves her lover’s head and plants it in a large pot of basil, tending to it obsessively until her brothers take it away, whereupon she literally cries herself to death. The tale appeared in Boccaccio's Decameron (Isabella is called Lisabetta), which I’ve only recently begun to read; my teenage introduction was through Keats’s poem and William Holman Hunt's painting (featured below).
At face value it’s a macabre tale of tragic love, but I think Isabella deserves a bit more credit. She wasn’t just languishing over the potted head of Lorenzo, garnishing her pasta with the foliage of his grinning skull, but clinging to the ghost of her life’s turning point. The future must have looked like an interminable, doorless corridor, and she must have wondered how she would cope the rest of her days.
(Side note: Basil has long held a dueling symbolism of love, hate, death, insanity, and purification, spanning ancient Greece, Hindu tradition, Vodou rites, Sicilian folklore, and the Victorian language of flowers, just to name a few. I don’t think this is a coincidence.)
Films and novels love tagging their protagonists as haunted, i.e. “so-and-so, haunted by her past, returns to her hometown” or “that-dude, haunted by a fatal injustice, seeks vengeance.” It’s an easy way to forge a connection with the reader/viewer and lure them in, because who isn’t intrigued by such a poignant claim? And yet those who know the truth can’t be bought so easily. They know to be haunted is neither romantic nor deliciously gothic; it sends few shivers down the spine. To be haunted is to feel a weight that is greater than depression and deeper than grief.
When I was much younger I used to see things that I knew were not of this place or time, and I accepted them with a child’s casual solemnity. When something passed before my eyes or murmured in my ear I nodded, gave it consideration, then went back to whatever I was doing. Adults occasionally commented on my “eerie” gift for premonition and knowledge of things that should have been above my head; more often, however, they accused me of having an overactive imagination. I don’t think either was the case. I think most children see beyond the waking world and develop their keen imaginations from such sightings, and not the other way around.
As an adult my glimpses and mufflings from the other side are more peripheral, and half the time too nebulous to be fully trusted. To put it another way, I instinctively know when I’m trying too hard, and whatever is in my presence knows it too and quickly retreats. These days when I enter places with a violent or tragic history, or places that were simply inhabited by sad or angry people, I can’t call it a haunting, but a lingering. What’s left behind is energy that doesn’t know what to do with itself, and is thus condemned to bounce around waiting for a place—or person—in which to settle. I have felt watched in rooms and followed down hallways but was seldom struck with fear, only sadness for what we leave behind when we pass on, in flesh or in spirit. And what isn’t left behind but maintained as one’s personal, movable real estate? Sometimes that’s the saddest of all.
Like Isabella, I’ve tended to my own unearthly garden (of few delights, if we’re going to draw out the Bosch pun) the past decade and some change. I have buried the grim and grinning faces of lovers, friends, colleagues, tormentors, and even those I encountered only briefly but was forever marked by. They all still walk and breathe as far as I know, but it doesn’t matter. They’re ghosts, and the person I was when I shared space with them is a ghost too. Yet that doesn’t stop me from revisiting them constantly, asking why and how and what it all meant, and the collective response is what I imagine Isabella was met with: silence.
I live in a Northern Italian city that sits on Lake Como, in a township that has thousands of years of history behind it. My village is a mere five minute drive over the bridge into lovely and Baroquely haughty Lecco, but those five minutes may as well be a century. Nestled at the base of the pre-Alps, the original village was at a much higher elevation, but by the late Middle Ages trade and convenience necessitated a relocation. Traces of the old upper mountain village can still be seen, predominantly through several standing churches and abbies. Ancient Neolithic and Roman remnants are still being excavated in the area as well. The Italian Plague (also called the Great Plague of Milan) wiped out an overwhelming number of inhabitants between 1629-1631, and their bones line the main church drive and fill up little street chapels that flicker by night. During WWII resistance fighters operated out of primitive hunters’ cabins I often hike to, and around the corner from our apartment stands the bar where my husband’s great grandmother served booze to SS officers while hiding Jewish families in the basement right under their boots. Goods and humans have been smuggled in and out of this region since time immemorial, an oddly satisfying counterbalance to its better-known reputation as a luxurious retreat for the wealthy.
There is folklore, too. The Lariosauro is Lake Como’s own Loch Ness monster, and snake-like dragons are said to slither in the dark forest underbrush. There is La Dona Del Zoch, who terrorizes Alpine pastures with her wailing, and a strega with the power to hypnotize anyone in an instant, who travels over the mountain peaks with the speed and ease of a maiden skipping over stones. There are nymphs and elves and werewolves and mysterious travelers who pass under waterfalls and through stone, and of course the ubiquitous modern-day hiker who is never heard from again.
Where I live is a place of secrets and silent defiance, and I came to learn firsthand that outsiders are only welcomed once they’ve passed suspicion. It’s a stunning place, and populated by some of the best people I’ve ever encountered, but it’s not the sun-drenched Tuscan postcard so many mistakenly believe I reside in. Granted, I’m a short drive from those picturesque backdrops, but they’re not where I tend the hearth, so to speak.
My title and status as an expat is one my husband wryly attributes to the color of my skin and VIP passport, and he’s not wrong. Expat. It puts one in mind of a spoiled character from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, whiling away the hours by the lake in decadent ennui. If only, for neither my husband nor I can afford to be idle. And like my own ancestors I am navigating the highs and lows of a new life in a new land, complete with clumsy attempts at mastering a second language and insidious run-ins with Italian Catholicism and systemic misogyny. I am at the mercy of laws and customs I did not grow up with, for better and for worse, and ultimately humility precedes privilege. That I get to be called an expat, rather than an immigrant, is a petty comfort.
It shames me to admit that I have grappled more deeply with my clinical depression and the hobgoblins of my past since moving here, and I can’t decide if my isolophilia dilutes or enhances the sickness in my DNA. It's often said that in moments of peace and/or good fortune (or just plain hard work amounting to success) a teetering soul will meet their demise. It's not the worst that kills, but the best; the upswing proves more problematic than the struggle. I'll confess I’ve stood in front of stones bearing crude Neolithic carvings and contemplated ending myself. I’ve entered abbies and passed under ruins and felt the irresistible call of the other side, that ache to return to a place I can only call home. Until winter freezes them over I'll continue to plunge into the mountain waterfalls, forcing myself to stay submerged for as long as possible in a kind of ritual hydrotherapy. My favorite Edgar Allan Poe line is now an incantation: By a route obscure and lonely, haunted by ill angels only…
I’ve heard more voices and glimpsed more figures here than I have since childhood, and I only know I’m not descending into madness (or worse, delusions of grandeur) because the people I love and trust assure me that I’m not. I don’t know if my imagination + mental illness have finally met their match or if, as a local mentioned one night at a bar, the land is simply testing me. Even my husband felt it a few months ago, awakening from a nightmare where he swore he saw a monstrous figure floating above me while I slept, its enormous jaws opening wide to devour me. Conversely, he would occasionally mention a lady in white lingering outside our window or watching from a distance in his dreams.
As Isabella could surely attest, the letting go of one’s spectres can be an insurmountable feat that mars us and those we are closest to. One can only transport so many regrets and “if onlys,” so many traumas and heartaches and even those bittersweet moments that should have lasted longer. And God(dess), that sickly the-worst-is-yet-to-come paranoia can follow you to the ends of the earth—to paradise, even. I too water that botanical urn with tears, prune back the branches of what sleeps in the soil, and give each name and memory another season to live on. Like a lesser Atlas, I carry my urn on my back, and must always accommodate it when embracing any future happiness.
I don’t want to be a haunted woman. It’s exhausting, and a waste of potential, particularly when it comes to being of use to others. That dumb advice about letting go of the past doesn’t cut it; it’s about curating a better ending to all those wretched beginnings (and sprinkling lye on any loose ends). Because truly, this is a place worth calling home while the other one waits awhile longer.
I wish I could tell you a truly frightening story for Halloween, of things that go bump in the night and blood-curdling terrors and figures of rich gothic beauty—but I can’t. Much as I love all those things—and man, do I ever—I’m of the belief that Hallow’s Eve and the border seasons are a time to put aside the kitsch and Ouija boards (or at least hold space beside them) and listen with an open heart and unfixed eye. Because the hauntings I experience in my waking life are infinitely more disturbing than any my pen could conjure, and will take a lifetime to really bury and heal from. Because I suspect if you are reading this then maybe you're a little haunted too, and I hope you know you're not alone.
I believe the other side is always glimmering within our sightline, no matter the season or one’s faith. To sexy it up I’ll even cite the “what is dead may never die” line from Game of Thrones. Hell, I’ll even go one further and claim that was is technically still living may have died long ago. May it not only stay beheaded and buried, but blossom into something drop-dead wonderful.
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