The moon was bright enough for me to meander around the graveyard without tripping over Celtic crosses.
It was Halloween and I was studying in Ireland. I had bussed north out of Dublin, accompanying Will, a fellow Tar Heel abroad, on his quest to discover a long-lost lineage near the town of Donegal. Feeling bored and irreverent in a teensy town, we roamed, reading engraved names by the light of our cellphones.
While examining tombstones—O'Brian, O'Brian, Mrs. O'Brian, O'Hare—we chanced upon three drunk teenagers. They asked what two Yanks were up to in their churchyard. "Looking for ghosts," I said.
"This graveyard isn't haunted," a squat 16-year-old replied, slurring his accented words. "I could tell ya' where to go but I don't want to see two dead Americans on CNN. A woman committed suicide there last month. It's the place for it."
The night felt staged, and Will and I snickered. But the boy was sincere. Only pestering and the bribe of a couple Killian's bought us directions to the abandoned manor house out in the woods.
We found a taxi willing to ferry us out of town, but the price was steep. We would have to split the equivalent of $80 each way. We couldn't afford a return trip. The old cab's steering wheel pinched the driver's gut. His hair was snowy and his doughy face showed grandfatherly concern. "Drop ya' off and just leave ya' there ladies? Are ya' sure?" He slipped our cash into a clip.
We rolled down a highway at moseying speed, revering adventure and bragging of our bravery. The moon shone on the tall grasses of flanking hills and the headlights lit a trash-strewn median. The highway portion of the drive felt so quick and lighthearted. But as the car turned off the main road onto a dark dirt path below a hunched canopy of trees, time grew slow.
The tires crunched over graveled soil. At a fork in the road, the tunnel of foliage receded to reveal a windowless church encircled by woods. "When you walk out, boys, remember to turn left at the church," our ferryman said. "OK, boys?"
Decrepitude had overtaken what must have once been a well-kept and blossoming yard. It looked like a Southern plantation house that had been unoccupied since the Reconstruction, rotted but still standing, adorned with a dozen coal chimneys. "I'm not going near that thing," Will said. We got out and watched the brake lights curve back along the road until they passed away.
The ground was mush as I walked toward the door. I expected a padlock, a deadbolt or a "NO TRESPASSING" sign. But under an awning on the door was a solitary brass knob. Will was creeping behind me and I could sense our combined fright.
"Whatever, man, we've come all this way," I said, and reached out to turn the knob. The feeling I got was one I had never felt before and have not felt since. There was something in that house. I knew I was playing with something older than myself—something primal that wanted to be played with. I felt tempted to enter, a force absent of goodness stoking my curiosity. Maybe it was just adrenalized nervousness?
I ran, Will in tow. We sprinted after those brake lights in the woods.
Some years later, I was busing tables at Four Square Restaurant in Durham and paid little heed to rumors of its haunting. The eatery is located in the Bartlett-Mangum House, built in 1908. Line cooks told me about cookery inexplicably moving afterhours. A pretty-eyed waitress swore she once heard a phantom voice, presumably of Inez Mangum.
Inez and her sister Bessie inherited the residence in 1927 and shared it for years without speaking to each other, due to a feud of unknown origin. One used the front door and the other the side door.
At the top of the stairs and to the left is a dining room where I was warned not to leave glasses or plates on the fireplace mantel unattended. Apparently, Inez would knock them off and shatter them.
One evening, I set some glasses there and left the room to get some spoons. I heard them shatter.
There is a crawlspace in the wall opposite the mantle. Two older waiters instructed me to crawl in and retrieve clean tablecloths. On my knees, I went into the darkness. They locked the door behind me.
The prospect of Inez gave me no fright. But my mind drifted back to a night in Ireland, and I wanted to run. Trapped, I sat in the silence, haunted by a memory.