Friday, May 12, 2017

Not Flesh and Blood

by Jean Roberta

Like Giselle, I live with a sweetie who seems more sensitive than I am on several levels. Maybe it’s because she grew up in a Catholic and indigenous culture in which children are encouraged to believe in the presence of guardian angels, saints, spirits, demons and ghosts. I kept an open mind at the beginning of our relationship, but by now, I’ve seen things that I’m sure the skeptics in my life would sneer at, but I know what I saw.

Some time in the 1980s, when we lived in a large, rented house, we were watching TV in the TV room with a built-in sofa. I even remember the drama on the screen: The Burning Bed, starring Farah Fawcett-Majors as an abused wife who finally sets fire to a bed with her husband in it, not knowing how else to stop the abuse.

Apparently someone else was watching with us. We heard crackling, and noticed that the wicker peacock chair near the window was moving exactly as though someone were sitting in it. A breeze would not have moved it that way.

My eyes were pulled away from the screen. “Do you see that?” I asked Mirtha.

“There’s someone in the chair,” she said calmly.

Later, she told me she thought it was her father, who had died earlier in Chile. My parents were both still alive, and I had no strong feeling about who it was. I was shaken up, and I never saw any other uncanny thing in that house. Maybe whoever it was decided not to come back because my reaction wasn’t welcoming.

In 2009, my 90-year-old mother passed away. We were living in our current house by then, and paying a mortgage instead of rent. A few weeks after my mother’s death, we had several helium balloons in our dining room, left over from a birthday. One of them detached from the weight holding it down, and began floating toward the staircase. Again, there was no breeze to explain the movement. The balloon floated serenely up the stairs as we followed it, and drifted into our bedroom, where it hovered over our bed. That sent chills down my spine, and I moved it into the guest bedroom. Eventually, the helium leaked out, and it sagged to the floor. Mirtha thinks my mother was in the house, and her playful side was attracted to the balloons, so she used one to show us she was still around. I dunno. If it was my mom, I wish she had left a clearer sign.

In most ghost stories, the person contacted by the ghost questions his/her sanity. In our generally skeptical age, writers of ghost stories often provide a plausible alternative reading of the situation: the character who thinks he/she sees a ghost is drunk or high, or in the grip of some extreme emotion. And after all, it's fiction, so readers can believe whatever they want.

I created a somewhat overwrought narrator in my lesbian ghost story, “Authentic.”* She is a single woman from a big city in eastern Canada who has moved to the prairies to accept a job as historical consultant for the running of Government House (an actual place), home of the first Lieutenant-Governor (local representative of the British monarchy) of Saskatchewan when it became a province in 1905, now a museum where guides dressed as servants of the Edwardian Age conduct tours and serve tea. No one has actually lived in the house for years, and a sketchy neighbourhood of pawn shops and rundown houses has grown up around it.

Matt, the single woman in my story, has been taken aback at how hard it is to meet other single lesbians in the capital city of Saskatchewan. In her loneliness, and with much spare time on her hands, she chats with someone named “Ravenheart” on-line. Matt invites the mysterious stranger to meet her in physical space:

"When will you meet me?"

"Already met."

"In RL, girlfriend." Real Life. I hardly know what that is any more. She knew how easily Ravenheart could disappear completely if Matt pushed her too hard, but Matt wanted to know how much of what she had said was true. Last week, Ravenheart had sent her a link to a blurry photo of a young woman with large, questioning eyes and long pale hair tied with a ribbon behind her neck. The shading made it look like something from the archives - probably a photo of Ravenheart's great-grandmother.

"Whats real 2 u?"

"Face 2 face. Both bodies in same room."

"R u inviting me?"

"Duh. My place or yours?"

Matt waited several minutes for an answer before sensing that Ravenheart was not going to give one. Angry with herself for childishly trusting a joker in cyberspace, Matt logged out, then checked her work-related emails. Having to delete fifty government memos which had nothing to do with her made her feel invisible. By the time she finished, she was shaking. She had never felt so alone before, and she was tempted to burst into hysterical sobs. She was terrified of losing her grip.

However, Matt doesn’t have long to wait. As she munches a sandwich in the kitchen, she hears someone playing the piano, and rushes into the room to find a small, blonde woman in evening dress. In fact, she is dressed exactly like Diana MacDonald Ferrier, wife of the first Lieutenant-Governor, when she sat for a portrait in oils. The intruder is playing a song composed by Mrs. Ferrier (music-lover and feminist)+ before 1910.

The plot thickens.


*This story was published in Haunted Hearths and Sapphic Shades: Lesbian Ghost Stories, edited by Catherine Lundoff (Lethe Press, 2008).

+This character was based loosely on Henriette Forget, actual wife of the first Lieutenant-governor of Sask, who was quite a social activist for her time, as well as Dame Ethel Smythe, member of the Women's Social and Political Union (UK), who wrote "The March of the Women" in 1911. According to legend, she handed sheets of the song to supporters through the bars of the prison where she was held.


  1. I love the notion that you could meet a ghost in an online chat room!

  2. Wow, the bit you posted about "Authentic" really grabbed me. I'll have to put Haunted Hearths on my ridiculously long list of things I'd like to read someday :)

    I've often thought about what it would be like to exist in a culture that didn't tend so much toward the skeptical. I'm trained to immediately look for logical explanations when I see something weird, but what if I wasn't?

  3. Thanks for commenting, Lisabet and Annabeth. It's interesting that we now take it for granted that we can communicate across vast distances via computer with people we haven't met in person, yet communicating across time or with people who aren't still living in live bodies seems impossible.