In the Company of Ghosts

Foolish, I suppose, to sit among my ghosts, but they’re my ghosts and I cherish them. Woodsmoke loiters on the still evening air, prickling into a hundred memories. Leaves drift softly from sycamore and chestnut, littering the path which wanders among headstones so old, many are worn smooth, relinquishing any hint of who lies beneath.

My bench sits under a skeletal oak. I’ve been still so long, the red squirrel returns, scampering over those anonymous stones and into the branches above me, in search of a last few acorns. The year is winding gently down; one can almost smell winter. The old graveyard will slumber, wrapped in a blanket of snow before long.

Like the squirrel, I came here searching, but he’s luckier. Acorns are plentiful while the stone I sought eluded me, and I must go soon.

October nights fall early and cold–a chill discovered my toes an hour ago. My squirrel friend rushes home with his hoard and I, stiff after sitting too long with my ghosts, crunch away through drifted leaves.

He’s here somewhere, quite close, I think: the grandfather who showed me the world, taught how it wags, before he left it when I was still a child. My own days are as short as October’s. The end gnaws inside me, never far from my mind. This is my last October, so I wrap myself in it, as if it were a cloak. My squirrel busily plans ahead for spring, while I wind down with the year, settle to sleep like these trees.

The path takes me back to tall iron gates I’d forgotten; it’s been so long since I was here. Lights shine from the little church, and from houses across the way. A sweetness of stewing fruit wafts from one of them, reminding me of the season, and my ghosts creep closer, invited.

Harvest festival and jarring jam; turnip–not pumpkin, not here, not then!–lanterns for Halloween; the newsagents’ shop stocked with sharp-smelling fireworks for Bonfire Night; gathering twigs for the hearth on chill, bright afternoons exactly like this one, half a century ago. I recall the sound and feel of muddy boots crunching through russet, gold and amber, while keen winds stirred bare branches against windswept skies promising snow and, so soon, Christmas lights. Fun for the child, magic for me now. October magic.

My search for that one headstone was fruitless but the evening was far from wasted. Odd, how congenial the company of ghosts can be.

The sun is long gone as I walk away. The old town lies placid with evening, the sky clear, dark velvet. A few people, dressed for the cold, too busy to notice me, rush home like the squirrel–and so must I, though I’m half a world away from home and won’t, can’t, return here.

So I pause, steal a few more moments to inscribe new-old memories into the crannies of my mind: the deepening calm of the fast-expiring year, the softness of trees settling to drowse until spring; a quiet and welcome I hadn’t looked for in this of all places, under the diamond sparkle of October stars.

Jen Downes
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