by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Samhain or Samhuin (SAH-win or SOW-in – rhymes with cow) was the first day of the new year in the ancient Celtic calendar, the beginning of the “darker half” of the year. Samhain is Irish Gaelic. Samhuin is Scottish Gaelic.
Special bonfires were lit, for protection and cleansing. Samhain was believed to be a time when the veils between worlds thinned, so faerie folk came amongst humans, and the spirits of the dead could visit their earthly kin.
So there is a very long-standing tradition of ghosts and uncanny tales connected with what we now call Halloween.
My friends and I, at an age when we were too old for trick-or-treating, but too young for teen-aged boy-and-girl parties, would sit in a circle on the floor, all lights turned off and curtains drawn. We’d take turns telling the scariest ghost stories we could come up with – a single flashlight would be held by the storyteller, lighting her face so the story would be even spookier.
Hughes Mearns (1875–1965) wrote this poem in 1899 for his play, The Psyco-ed. It was inspired by reports of the ghost of a man haunting the stairs of a house in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada. Later, it became the lyrics for a song called I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There.
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…
When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)
Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…
This poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was in her first book of poetry published in 1917, the same year she graduated from Vassar College.
The Little Ghost
I knew her for a little ghost
That in my garden walked;
The wall is high – higher than most –
And the green gate was locked.
And yet I did not think of that
Till after she was gone–
I knew her by the broad white hat,
All ruffled, she had on.
By the dear ruffles round her feet,
By her small hands that hung
In their lace mitts, austere and sweet,
Her gown’s white folds among.
I watched to see if she would stay,
What she would do – and oh!
She looked as if she liked the way
I let my garden grow!
She bent above my favourite mint
With conscious garden grace,
She smiled and smiled – there was no hint
Of sadness in her face.
She held her gown on either side
To let her slippers show,
And up the walk she went with pride,
The way great ladies go.
And where the wall is built in new
And is of ivy bare
She paused – then opened and passed through
A gate that once was there.
Yusef Komunyakaa (1941? – ) was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana. He is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. You can hear the musicians riffing in his poems, and friends lost in the Vietnam war. This ghost story is far more real than the stories we young girls told holding a flashlight in the dark.
Eli “Lucky” Thompson was an American jazz tenor and soprano saxophonist. Marion Brown was a jazz alto saxophonist and ethnomusicologist.
In the days when a man
would hold a swarm of words
inside his belly, nestled
against his spleen, singing.
In the days of night riders
when life tongued a reed
till blues & sorrow song
called out of the deep night:
Another man done gone.
Another man done gone.
In the days when one could lose oneself
all up inside love that way,
& then moan on the bone
till the gods cried out in someone’s sleep.
already I’ve seen three dark-skinned men
discussing the weather with demons
& angels, gazing up at the clouds
& squinting down into iron grates
along the fast streets of luminous encounters.
I double-check my reflection in plate glass
& wonder, Am I passing another
Lucky Thompson or Marion Brown
cornered by a blue dementia,
another dark-skinned man
who woke up dreaming one morning
& then walked out of himself
dreaming? Did this one dare
to step on a crack in the sidewalk,
to turn a midnight corner & never come back
whole, or did he try to stare down a look
that shoved a blade into his heart?
I mean, I also know something
about night riders & catgut. Yeah,
honey, I know something about talking with ghosts.
So as the nights get longer and colder, make a cup of something hot to wrap your hands around and sip it slowly in front of a fire, or wrap up in something soft and comforting, and leave the lights off.
Be still. Wait to see if the veils have started to thin.
If you listen carefully in the dim hush, you just might hear the murmur of a voice silenced long ago, or feel the subtle brush of a remembered hand over your hair.
I wish you a spooky Halloween!
Sources and Further Reading
Antigonish by Hughes Mearns (poem in public domain)
The Little Ghost, from Renascence and Other Poems, Edna St. Vincent Millay New York: Harper, 1917
Blue Dementia from The Chameleon Couch © 2011 by Yusef Komunyakaa, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Staircase in old New England house
- The Little Ghost – Kate Greenaway
- Musician in Fog on New Orleans Street – by Bullaty-Iomeo
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud