If There May Be Ghosts
by Matthew Olivas
Mom grew up with ghosts. Raised in a clay pueblo her whole life, in a town you would not otherwise have known had you never met her, somewhere in Michoacán and under the shadow of a lonely mountain where the smell of petroleum and masa lingered in the air. I know this place intimately; the tiled courtyard in the center of my Mamá Leonor’s house, the back-room door that jammed whenever it pleased – creaked too, like a thousand giggling ghosts. Ghosts were commonplace. So much so that the one (or ones) in my mother’s home had become predictable. My mom, only a child, would wake to wild songs of pounding pots and pans from the kitchen, and listen to the tribal beating in the night-chilled air. She’d go back to sleep. Knowing no one was really there. In the mornings when she and her sisters checked the kitchen in the warm sunrise, they’d find the kitchen neat. Just as they’d left it. So, they stopped checking, letting the spirits go undisturbed.
Sometimes my mom used to stay up reading in the living room long after her sisters had scattered to their rooms and could hear their mattress springs creaking from down the hall. She’d flick off the kitchen light, and head for her room only to stop at the flick of a switch behind her. And she’d turn, and down that hall the kitchen light would be shining again.
“Otra vez, el espíritu está jugando con nosotras,” My mother would tell her sisters, the times they were all present for it.
It became a game, to flick off the light and rush to the confines of their dark and quiet bedrooms before the light sparked back on, their giggles fluttering. It would, too, and the girls would have to walk back, shut it off, and scuttle away again. Sometimes it lasted six rounds. Once even more than that.
• • •
Now I wasn’t there for it, for this story I’m about to tell you. Mom wasn’t either. We were home, a country away and I had just returned from college for the summer. However! Those who were present did tell us what happened, relayed it over a series of phone calls and Facetimes. And with those I compiled the story together for you. Piece by piece.
I know when I was younger, you used to tell me you didn’t care for ghost stories, even though I did. They were superstitious things and you’d said my mind was full of permutations of the natural world. But I wouldn’t be telling you this unless I thought you needed to know. Besides, we come from a Mexican household, and you know here we do not make light of the dead.
When the first call came, I sat across the kitchen counter, eating lunch as Mom picked up her phone. Even from across the kitchen I heard Candidó’s voice, frantic and heaving between gulps of air as he zipped through his words too fast for me to keep up.
We’ll start with him: Candidó.
There had been five people present in my grandmother’s house when Candidó unearthed the tunnel. They stood in the courtyard, flanked by crackle clay walls and dried cacti. My grandmother, Mamá Leonor was there of course – you know her, you’ve met her. You know she’s a squat old woman with silver braided hair and stands just a foot or two taller than Yoda would. My Tía Araceli was there, always making sure Mamá Leonor had someone to talk to, and the neighbor Juan was there too. Though he was really just lingering because, like all other old people in that town, he simply had nothing better to do and went to see the commotion. Then there was Candidó with his coworker whom we only knew as El Amigo – the one who found the tunnel in the courtyard after peeling away the old crumbling tiles.
Tunnel, because it was not a cave – it was manmade, Candidó was sure. He saw the carved-out dents on the walls, the long fingernail rakes emended at the tunnel floor. He was even the one who found the damp ball of human hair, sitting just before the black.
“You know what, I found it when we were digging.” Candidó crackled in Spanish over the speaker phone to my mom. “Getting the fucking tile out to replace when the earth began to move. It fucking breathed up and down until it collapsed. I’m serious!”
Mamá Leonor’s house was starved for renovations, you see. Had needed them for some time. It was not how you’d remember it. Living in Mexico alone, with all her children having fled to the United States, and herself too stubborn to leave the place she’d known her whole life, and too old to fix it all alone, Mamá Leonor let the home decay to ruin. Mom visited every spring, and she’d finally had enough of sleeping in a forty-year-old spring mattress, and crouching in a tile-chipped shower just to splash herself. So she took it upon herself to hire Candidó to repair the house. Modernize it, if you will.
Candidó sent us pictures of the hair: a fat black knot, like a rat-king’s tail, coiled spiderlike and caked with mold and dirt. “It smells like sulfur,” he said. Sent us the pictures of the bones, too, a dozen little splintered ones all scattered about the tunnel.
Candidó told my mom he had a bad feeling about it and that El Amigo said he felt it too. A dark feeling, heavy and sticky that made Candidó shower twice once he got home that night.
“Think it’s haunted?” Mom asked him over the phone.
I’d only been half listening during their conversation. I didn’t have much to do those summers home from college, so I’d try to be in proximity with Mom. Because I thought she was lonely. But I must have tuned her out, on my phone or something until I heard the word, haunted, and my ears perked up.
Candidó said from the other end of the phone, with complete seriousness that yes, he did think so. That there was something evil at the end of the black and narrow tunnel.
“Then just douse yourselves in holy water and get in there,” my mom said with bored eyes and a smirk peeking at the corner of her mouth. “Then they won’t touch you, and you can fill it up.”
She was joking, of course, but like I said, we do not trifle with the dead.
Candidó did in fact end up dousing himself with holy water, and El Amigo, too. They got in, crouched down on all fours and crawled into the damp tunnel. It was too narrow for them not to go in single file, stubbornly crunched up. The tunnel exhaled hot, sticky breath. Candidó was biting down on a flashlight that jutted from his mouth, clenched between his incisors. The light illuminated the dark roots that brushed spindly fingers gently along their shoulder blades. He crawled forward, dousing the walls with the water as they went, deeper, deeper. And the dirt drank it up.
They pressed into the dark, the walls narrowing. They would have gone as far as the tunnel would let them, but that was when the Noise came.
It pressed in around them, wriggled itself into their ears and screamed and screamed in the black matter of their heads. Fingernails on chalk boards – scraping agony. And they rushed out.
Or so Candidó said when he called my mom a second time.
“I’m not going back.” He panted. “No. No puedo.”
• • •
The third phone call was Tía Araceli’s. Tía Araceli, who’d spent her whole life keenly aware of the mystical and supernatural, who’d gone to several palm readers in her day, and could tell you which priests where exorcists, and which among them were the good ones. She liked talking about horoscopes and astrology and liked the sound of her own voice too. But she was above all, Hispanically Catholic. “El Amigo’s refusing to come in the house,” she told Mom. She sounded tired.
My mom asked, “Are you in the house?”
“What – No! I’m not in the fucking house. I’m with Mamá Leonor at Mamá Cuca’s.” The home of my late great-grandmother.
My mom tossed a hand in the air and furrowed her brow. “Oh let her be, she’s lived with those ghosts her whole life. You got to be kidding me—”
“I’m not kidding, Lucia. No. I called El Brujo and he’ll be here tomorrow.”
My mom rolled her eyes. “I’m not paying for that. If it’s serious, call the priest. We do not need a brujo.”
“You’re always like this, always making fun of us,” Araceli shouted in rapid-fire Spanish.
My mom snorted. “If you want to pay, pay. But I don’t care. I’m not talking to a brujo.” She hung up the phone. Mom went back to chopping onions on the counter and I called out from the far end of the dining table. “El Brujo?” I asked, the word reverberating in my head, shivers prickling up my arms.
“He’s going to inspect the house and tell us what the spirits have to say,” my mother repeated in a whine that maybe, sorta, kinda sounded like Araceli.
“Is he now?” I asked.
“He’s going to look for a quick buck is what he’s going to do.”
I didn’t press after that. Mom was worried about the finances. The hole could sink the entire house, and on top of that, we were figuring out how I could pay rent for the rest of the year. We’re fine, though, don’t worry. I promise. But – you know. Things get stressful.
Later, mom and I took a walk. It was something we did together, just the two of us without my brothers. If it was all of us, there’d be bickering and name calling, and someone would end up shadowing from behind. Just the two of us, we spoke as friends. We were getting better at that.
The sun was high, and breeze carried the summer scents of charred steak or barbecue chicken. We’d stopped to look at the baby ducks in the stream by my old high school, and there I asked Mom if she believed what was happening with the tunnel. It wasn’t dramatic or anything, it was just some small talk. The ducks bobbed down in the clear water and plucked the algae languidly floating by in green slick streaks. Mom told me it didn’t really matter. That it wasn’t a big deal. When I pressed more, she laughed. “I’ve told you my experiences, this is nothing new. They’re just bored and there’s nothing at all for them to do there.”
She didn’t have to elaborate though; I knew the story. I’d thought about it a thousand times in the past, all those nights I couldn’t sleep because apparently trauma’s a catalyst for insomnia. I guess I always hoped the story was true. I can’t lie to you about that. I held onto that hope. Kept it right in my chest, near my heart and beneath my ribcage as I lay on my bed and watched the glow in the dark stars tacked to the ceiling all those sleepless nights. It was the story about the time her uncle died.
Mom’s sisters, her parents, her tíos and tías, and all her cousins had gone to the plaza church for her Tío’s funeral. He was a smoker and the cigarettes had ravaged his lungs until he suffocated, little more than a wraith of a man. Only mom was home alone.
She was fifteen.
There was comfort to the stillness, the quiet. My mom had cried so much the night before, thinking about her Tío whose name she never even told me. “How was he like?” I’d asked once. “He trusted me,” was all my mom said with a familiar hollowness to her voice, like ripples through time, from then to now. I don’t think anyone should ever have to feel that emptiness. And you know Mom knows that feeling all too well. But that’s not your fault. It’s no one’s fault. We persist and know it anyways.
She’d lay on the couch, feeling nothing at all. She couldn’t even read through the blur of her eyes, and the muffled church bells seemed so unreal. She stayed back because she could not say goodbye; her Tío was still so very warm and real and alive when she shut her eyes. A pulse of his own blood ran through her heart and onward to her distant hands and feet. She closed her eyes, and after a while, she fell asleep like that. Woke to the overbearing smell of him.
Tobacco and fresh leather wafted in the air. My Mom tried to get up, but an invisible weight locked her down. She moved her arms, but they were gone and distant and her pale limbs might as well have belonged to the porcelain dolls her mother collected and displayed around the living room. Glass eyes watching. Watching her then. She kicked her feet, but they would not move, tried to open her mouth, but could not scream; she could hardly even breathe without bricks of weight pressing her sternum. And then when she thought she couldn’t bear anymore – it was gone.
She sat up. Clutched her chest and heaved through the tears coiled in her throat. But she wasn’t scared. She made sure I knew that part of the story. She’d cried and cried and held herself because she’d felt the hand of someone reaching, waving. Saying goodbye.
• • •
When El Brujo returned for his second visit, the small town was rabid with gossip about the first. The chisme was everywhere, as if every neighbor knew and let it slip through chapped lips – the events of the first visit. My Tía Chucha had called to confirm what she’d heard, and my Tía Leonis called too. The day had become a back and forth FaceTime frenzy. All about those damn ghosts. And well, The Shove of course.
What had happened was, the day after the tunnel’s discovery, El Brujo had arrived like Tía Araceli said he would. Came with a pressed black suit and a pipe to smoke. Nothing more. He was a quiet, soft-spoken man, with silver hair and full moustache. He had dark circles around the slits of his eyes and wore thick perfume that reeked of basil and honey and some other third scent that lingered underneath. He did not proceed into the tunnel with caution.
Everyone saw it happen.
Candidó said it was a great shove, but El Brujo said it was something else entirely. When El Brujo stepped into the tunnel, murmuring faint incantations that crackled and slipped from under his tongue to flutter into the dark, a gust of wind roared up – flung him back against the gravel.
“Three spirits there are,” El Brujo said to Araceli, dusting himself off and wobbling on the loose earth. “And they’re angry their tomb has been uncovered.”
It made sense; the home of my Mamá Leonor was older than most of the houses there. While it was newly built when my Papa Jesús bought it all those decades ago, the house had been part of a monastery beforehand, and all manner of people died there. It was derelict and skeletal before it had been revived for a family of seven.
Araceli told my mom whose voice chirped back over the phone, “Yeah, because there’s five fucking people crowding their living room!”
“Oh, but he’s going to negotiate with the ghosts,” Araceli said.
“So now he’s an ambassador, too?”
Either way, it was enough for Tía Araceli to fork up the three hundred pesos for the next appointment – the one El Brujo was ready for now.
The house was evacuated. It needed to be that way from dusk to dawn, with just El Brujo and the spirits within the walls. Araceli watched him enter with the black briefcase he held in his bony fingers. Within it: four candles, a vial of rabbit blood, two coyote claws, and a bag of incense. Araceli tried to watch him through the black windows from across the cobblestone road, but she never even caught a glimpse of what he did in there with those things, all alone in the dark.
• • •
After El Brujo had come and gone, all the gossip about the ghosts faded out with all the other old chisme. There were new stories: Blah-blah was marrying Bleh, and someone said something about somebody, and like ripples in a stream, the town carried on.
I asked Mom a few weeks later, after she’d finished a conversation on the phone with Candidó about the roof renovations, what had happened with the tunnel. It was evening and the sky swirled violet and orange. I was packing, slowly getting ready to go back to school in a few weeks and my Mom was sorting the mess of clothes sprawled across my bed.
“Don’t know,” she said. “They just put a plank of wood over it. Or something. I’m letting them deal with it.” I nodded in agreement, waiting because I’ve found that people say more when you wait for more to be said. I know you know this. You were good at it, listening that is.
My mom laughed, and then she told me, “Apparently, he made an agreement with the one really angry spirit. It will not torment us, so long as we do not fill up the tunnel.”
I nodded. “Ah. I see.”
“The ghost assured El Brujo that the house will not collapse either. How this spirit became an architect I don’t know, Michael, but it apparently is one. We’re also assuming it’s keeping its word. But whatever. Three hundred pesos, dios mío. Candles don’t even cost that much.”
I laughed, swiping some hangers from the closet, ignoring the wheelchair and oxygen tank we don’t use anymore pushed behind the jackets. “So what was Mamá Leonor’s opinion on all this anyway? Did anyone even ask?”
“She doesn’t care! I told them! We lived our whole lives with those ghosts. They might as well be family! All my mom does is knit and pray. But fine, they’re going to board up the hole. Araceli told me to relax, but I explained that she’s not the one who’ll have to pay if the house collapses. But fine – what can you do? I’ll deal with it later once the rest of the renovations are done. It’s fine.”
Again, I waited, just to hear anything else, anything she might have said, because like me, my mom keeps it all so close to her chest that it might feel like heartbreak once extracted. But she did say, “Pinche Brujo,” and sat down. “You know, one time I got tired with the light switch. Always going on and off. So, you know what I did? I took it apart, and started, you know, picking around in there with the wires in the walls. I unscrewed it, and I was ready to fix it and guess what.”
“It shocked me.” She said, “And I thought it wasn’t worth it. If it wanted to play, I let it go. I left it like that.”
She got up with the empty laundry basket, but I stopped her and asked if she believed in the ghosts at all. And she shrugged, “I’m too old to care, I feel the weight on my chest even out here. It happened just a few months ago in that room.” She pointed down the hall. “I felt heavy and I couldn’t get up. But you guys have all your college stuff to explain everything because you think you know everything. One minute it’s ghosts, the next you say its sleep paralysis. I just don’t care. Do you?”
I didn’t say anything.
I shrugged, and she smiled, and we both went about our own business.
I’m writing this down in the room where you died. It’s quiet now, everyone’s asleep and there are no lights flickering on and off. And I’m wondering if I’ve ever seen the ghost of you. If there are ghosts. If you are a ghost. Or not. Yet you haunt each word I inscribe to page, your shadow hidden in prose. If you are a ghost at all, you are in my shadow, my broad shoulders, my smile, and the coffee brown eyes that stare back at me in my own reflection – at least from what I remember. And I try to remember a lot, like the shadows I see when I turn the lights off. You were real. Are
And if there may be ghosts, that is what I choose to believe.
Copyright © 2022 by Matthew Olivas