6. The House on Sigler Street

Weirdly enough, I was with my Mom at the Melrose Kroger and she was telling me about her friend, Helen, who had just been in the house on Sigler Street after having bought it, and how Helen said there was nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with it, when the woman in line in front of us started to shake and spilled her purse all over the floor.

Her face was completely drawn. I scrambled to get her things back in her purse while my mom put her arm around the woman and tried to keep her upright.

“Y’all talking about that house at the end of Sigler Street?” She gave us the house number and my mom said, “Yes, that’s the one.”

“I used to live there,” she said. “We rented that place.”

“So, is it true?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, so firmly that I felt bad that my mom and I had been having such good fun laughing about it.  She went on. “That lady’s stuff was still in the house. Not all of it. But there was a big chest, like a foot locker, that we never could get in, that was in the bedroom. And one of the closets had a bunch of her old dresses. And you’d just find shit… stuff… I mean, all the time. Like, you’d go to get a spoon out of the drawer and there’d be a lacy handkerchief in there. Old-fashioned. Looked handmade.  Not there before and not mine. That’s for sure.

“We’d hear someone walking around the house all the time. And we had a cat and it would never go in the bathroom. You don’t want a cat in the bathroom, but it would sit, for hours, and just stare into the bathroom, but it never, ever went in there.

“That place is wrong. There’s something wrong with it.

“Your friend should not live there.”

Well, we thought the conversation was strange, but we didn’t bother to mention it to Helen, because she wasn’t going to live there, she was just going to rent it out.

She asked me and my husband to help her move some stuff out of the house. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So, over we went, one sunny Saturday morning. The house seemed fine, just an old Victorian that, if it were on the east side of the river would have been fixed up grandly and sold for half a million dollars. Hell, that might be its fate on this side of the river, some day, if its reputation doesn’t precede it.

I had thought that, when the woman in Kroger was talking, that she made it seem like she had lived in the house many, many years ago.  But when we walked through, we saw, just like she’d said, a hope chest in the front bedroom and a closet full of old dresses in the back room.

“What’s in here?” my husband asked, knocking on the hope chest.

“I don’t know,” Helen said. “They didn’t give me a key for it. But it needs to go.”

“Honey, let’s you and me move it by the front door.” So, he grabbed one end, I grabbed the other and, I swear to you, we could barely lift it. It was so heavy. It took us a good ten minutes to get it out into the front hall.

“How are we going to get that in the truck?” I asked.

My husband just shook his head. “We might have to get some of the guys over here to help me.”

The upstairs had been converted to its own apartment, so the grand staircase had been walled off at the top. We went around back and up the outside stairs.

As we were walking into the upstairs apartment, Helen was telling us about her plans to restore the house back to one home. We heard a noise. It took a minute for me to recognize it, but it was obviously the squealing groan of wood against wood.

We all looked at each other.

And there was the noise again.

My husband and I ran down stairs, ran into the house, and there was the hope chest, not in the hall where we’d left it but in the bedroom doorway.

“No,” my husband said. He stormed down the hallway, checking rooms. “There has got to be someone here.”

“There’s not,” I whispered. I didn’t mean to, but I couldn’t help it.

“This cannot happen,” he said.

Finally, Helen appeared in the doorway. “What was it?”

My husband just motioned to the bedroom doorway, almost like he was disgusted.

And then, that damn hope chest moved again. With us all looking at it, it just slid three inches across the floor.

I screamed and ran outside. They quickly followed.

We all stood there, not sure we should leave, afraid to go back inside.

“What am I going to do?” Helen asked.

“Well, I’d leave that god damn chest in the bedroom, for starters,” my husband said.

5. The Fort Negley Lights

It’s hard to say how long this has been going on and people just didn’t know it was a ghost. Until the rise of cell phones, I don’t know how you’d know for sure. I first heard about it from some Vandy grad students who lived over on Marlborough, just next to Love Hill. They regularly walked up to the top of it. At night, even in the city, they found it a wonderful spot for star-gazing.

But, one evening, at dusk, they were up on top of Love Hill with a friend, who was something of a Civil War buff. He was pointing out to them why Love Hill was such a strategic spot, showing them how you could see clear across town, from the Centennial Park dog park hill to the old reservoir that marks where Fort Casino was to Fort Negley.

And, as he pointed at Fort Negley, they all saw a faint, blinking light. At first, they thought it was nothing more than maybe a car or, they speculated, kids with flashlights up in the park.

But then the friend said, “I think that’s Morse code.”

“What’s it say?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s weird.”

“Maybe they’re doing some kind of reenactment at the fort?”

So, they went to see. But the fort was locked and dark.

The couple didn’t think anything of it until they saw the light again, this time in the middle of the afternoon.

“Okay, that is something,” they said to each other. “Let’s go see.”  They grabbed their binoculars, got in the car and cut over by Rose Park and stopped there to see if they could still see it. And there, in the woods below Fort Negley was a shiny spot of some sort.

“You stay here,” the one said to the other. “Just keep watching it while I try to get closer.” And so the one took the car over to Fort Negley, staying on the cell phone with the other the whole way.

“Yes, I can still see it,” the other said. “Go more to your left.”

“I can’t go any farther left.”

“Well, it should be right there.”

“Can you see me?”

“Yes, it’s right there, right in front of you.”

“There’s nothing… Oh, excuse me, sir.”

And then long silence.

“Honey, are you there?”

The other searched the hillside through the binoculars and was just about to dial 911 when the one ran into the Fort Negley parking lot at full speed.


“I thought I saw a man, in a uniform, but he… I don’t know… I saw him, but I didn’t. His face. It was like he had no face, just nothing where his face should have been.”

4. The Hendersonville Tree

I think it’s apparent to anyone who has had a cat that cats saunter easily between here and the hereafter and back again. Many live cats disappear outdoors and appear days later in a closet that hasn’t been opened in weeks, their ability to walk through walls already well mastered before they shake loose of their skin.

Once they have passed on, again, it is nothing for them to slip back here and be seen, regularly, even by people who never knew them in life, napping in a favorite sunbeam or sitting in the window.

Even the most rational people have been known to settle into bed and feel the weight of a cat on the blankets near their feet, even if they have never owned a cat.

Dogs, on the other hand, though well-known for noticing the dead, tend not to spend too much time while living bothering with them. Dead dogs, being easily distracted, tend to only haunt the kitchen, if they bother with haunting anywhere. Many people report hearing the clinking of nails on linoleum or the soft silvery click of a license on a collar in the kitchen long after a dog has passed on.

Dogs don’t really feel regret, other than about not getting that one piece of steak they really wanted, and so they aren’t often ghosts. They die and things catch their attention and they are off after a new scent or a movement in the bush and, by the time they think to circle back home, there you are, dead yourself.

Sometimes a dog will haunt with you. They are loyal that way.

But I can’t help but wonder about other things. Does every living thing have the ability to haunt once it’s dead? Is there such a thing as a ghost chicken?

I admit, I laugh at the thought of a ghost chicken. But then you hear stories about how a momma chicken will throw her whole body over a brood of chicks to protect them from owls, even if it might mean her own death. And you wonder–is there something about even a chicken that might linger?

But what about a ghost jellyfish? Or a phantom amoeba? A haunting mushroom?

Some things are impossible to imagine.

I would have never thought of a ghostly tree, even though there’s something very person-y, though utterly inhuman, about the trees in my yard, always looking like mad scientist about to convene out by the creek.

But I’ve heard of just such a case up in Hendersonville, in a subdivision just off New Shackle Island Road, which I will leave unnamed, so that they are not inundated with looky-loos. Before the subdivision was built, there was an ancient oak standing in a field. Four people joining hands could barely stretch around it.  It was in terrible shape. Parts were dead and parts were dying. Twice, during one spring, huge branches broke off and crashed to the ground with such force people nearby called the police, thinking the noise was some kind of explosion.

Still, it was something to see, ancient and wild, thick with leaves that often seemed to move as much with the memory of old breezes as with anything you could feel under it.

Sadly, though understandably, once it was obvious that the field was destined for houses, the tree was chopped down.

That does not stop the tree from casting shadows on the houses near where it once stood. I have been in a back bedroom, looked out a south-facing window onto a sunny back yard, and I have seen that there is no sunlight in that bedroom, as if something still blocks the light. I have heard there’s a kitchen in which you could even make out the dappled shapes of the shadows of leaves on the floor in front of the patio door. The builder, free of charge, put a tree right in front of the patio doors, so that it is now not so apparent that those shadows have nothing to make them.

And I can’t explain it. They say there are two types of ghosts. Some are actual sentient beings, who either can’t or won’t move on. Others, they say, are like memories, held in a place by means we don’t yet understand, which play out like old movies, when the conditions are right.

Who knows which the Hendersonville tree is? Either it remembers that it was once alive or that place remembers it. It’s hard to know how much of a difference there is between either scenario.

3. A Dying Fire

One of the lovely things about Nashville are the times in autumn when it is warm and sunny all day long, but just cool enough at night that a fire in the evening will warm the whole house all night. Maggie Wilson, who had just turned ten, was staying with her grandparents out in Donelson. For the most part, she was bored.

If she complained, her granny would put a dust cloth or a broom in her hand and she’d be set to doing chores. If she just kept quiet and out of the way, she might spend a whole Saturday afternoon hidden under an old magnolia reading, or watching inchworms in the garden.

In the evenings, she would help her Paw Paw build a fire in the big old brick fireplace in the living room. He always aimed to for a one-match fire, but rarely did they achieve it.

Once the fire was going, though, Maggie would spend all evening, she and the dog, just watching the flames dance and the embers glow.

One evening, as the fire was dying down, Maggie thought she saw a face in the red coals. She closed her eyes, in a long blink, then opened one, then the other, to try to see if it was a trick of the light.

She was not sure.

“Granny?” she turned to get her grandmother’s opinion, but her grandmother, a Duratt before she was married, was already asleep in the recliner.

When Maggie turned back to the flames, the face was gone.

It was a few weeks before she saw the face again, though, this time, it seemed more defined, more clearly a man, with a rugged face. This time, she poked the coals with the fire poker and they fell apart, taking the illusion with it.

And then, she thought she caught glimpses of him quite often, not just a face, but she would swear she saw a whole, tiny figure, sometimes, moving.

Even still, she had often been told she “had an active imagination,” and so she figured that she was just actively imagining it.

And then, one day, she saw the face take form, almost human size, and the coal-red eyes opened, and the coal red mouth opened and the man said something. She leaned in to try to hear, and her Paw Paw startled and yelled, “Maggie Wilson! Get your head out of that fire.”

When Maggie’s dad got home on leave, she babbled at him nonstop for at least two hours–from the airport, to the house, through dinner, and even while her ice cream melted on the spoon.

“And the man in the fire wants to talk to me,” she said. Her father and grandparents had, until that sentence, been politely and somewhat delightedly tuning her out. It was good to spend time with each other and good to not have to come up with anything to say right away. The mention of the man in the fire caught their attention.

“What’s that, honey?” Her dad said.

“The man in the fire. He’s always talking to me.”

Her dad took a long time to ask his next question, “And what’s he say?”

“I don’t know,” she said, thoughtfully, “I can barely hear him. He’s so quiet. But I think he wants me to help him out.”

“Out?” her grandmother said. “Help him out or help him get out?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. A look passed among the three adults, over Maggie’s head, beyond her notice.

There were no fires until after her father was gone again. But one night, during the dark of the moon, Granny Wilson sat Maggie down in front of a dying fire and said, “Tell me when you see him.”

They waited, but not so long as you’d think, and there he was, first a small figure, running through a glowing fiery forest. Then, after a shift of logs, a full face, his mouth moving.

“Granny, Granny,” Maggie said, “Here he is.”

And her Granny leaned over, sprinkling first a fistful of salt into the embers, and following it up with the remnants of her tea. She spoke something softly–Laisse la seule–and the fire went out.

“A dying fire is the Devil’s doorway,” she said to Maggie.

The next day, her grandfather bricked up the fireplace.

2. Something Not Under Water

Sal and Evan were very fortunate. They had three feet of water in their house. They had to gut the kitchen and pull out all the drywall and carpeting. Everything that the water touched had to be gotten rid of or cleaned. Sal spent two hours one day cleaning their old tub. Spraying cleaner and wiping and spraying and wiping until she had a bag full of dirty paper towels, a bruised knee, and a clean place to shower. They lost so much, but not everything.

At first, the worst thing was the smell. It was everywhere in the house and in neighborhood, a mixture of outhouse and stale fishtank. After a while, they weren’t even sure if it was a real smell anymore or just the ghost of the smell taken up residence in their noses.

But then, for Sal, the worst thing was the dream. Long after it was over, she dreamed about the flood. Dreamed of floating in brown water, waiting for Evan to save her; dreaming that Evan was dead. Some days she would dream that she was standing on West End, in front of Vanderbilt and she would see Evan coming up the hill from downtown and she would run to him and he would hug her to him and when he leaned in to kiss her, dirty water would pour out of his mouth into hers.

One time, she woke from this dream and felt that her face was wet. She was already screaming before she realized she had just been crying.

Months passed and one day, Sal was on her knees in the bathroom, once again scrubbing the tub. And there, right at the drain, but not yet slipped in it, was a small clump of blond hairs.

Neither Sal nor Evan were blond.

She went into the living room, where Evan was watching baseball. She sat down next to him on the couch and handed him the hair.

“I just wanted something not under water,” he said.

“A shower is water.” It was not up for argument.

She walked out the front door, up the driveway, and into the road. She laid down.

And waited to die.

At first, no one noticed. Not even Evan. I think he thought she had gone to get the mail. After all, surely, if she was leaving him, she would have taken her purse.

All afternoon, she laid there, her cheek hot against the asphalt, her outstretched hand collecting ants. Eventually, some neighbor kids saw her and ran in to tell their moms. One of those mothers called Evan, who hurried out.

“Are you okay?” He said, but she said nothing.  “Come on,” he said, “You’re making a scene.” But really, once your whole neighborhood has been under water, what’s one distraught woman in the road? “Fine. Fuck you, too.” He stormed off, and stood on the porch.

After a long time, a police officer showed up. Maybe we should have thought there was something weird right then. No one remembered seeing a police cruiser. And his hat was a little too “milkman,” but the badge looked real enough.

He walked over to Sal. “Ma’am?” he asked, his voice more gentle than people expected. He was a bear of a man, tall and gray-haired. When he saw that she could not answer him, he sat down next to her. He crossed his legs, shifted his gun belt, and reached down and took her hand.

He sat with her a long time, quietly whispering to her. Eventually, huge tears began to roll down her cheeks. She blinked in the afternoon sun and he helped her sit up.

“Damn Nashville drivers,” she sniffed, finally breaking a smile, “can’t even run a gal over right.”

He laughed, too, and helped her to her feet. Only after she was safely on the porch and drinking the sweet tea that Evan brought her did the officer finally leave.

Shortly after that, a police car pulled up. “Did you guys see a woman in the road?”

“An officer already dealt with that,” Evan said.

“There’s no officer out this way but me,” the cop said.

“Ask anyone,” Evan said. “We all saw him.”

“What did he say to you? What did you talk about?” the police officer asked Sal.

“We talked about how much he missed this place,” she said, mostly to herself, “and how he would give anything, anything to have even the worst of it back.”

1. Still Haunted

Not that long ago, but back when we all took for granted that we did not live in a river, Daniel Forte stole a long leg bone out of the bluff at the bottom of Bells Bend.

He had been fishing off of the end of the boat ramp, when he decided that the small shore, just downstream, littered in white shells, was a better prospect, since there was a large upended tree in the shallow water there.

He had to wade through the river to get there, but the Cumberland was so calm he barely felt it tug on the legs of his jeans, as he skirted along the bottom of bluff to the tiny beach. Maybe twenty steps, maybe fewer.

He found the bone almost immediately. He was grabbing onto bare roots for balance and, as he stepped onto the shore, he put his hand out to steady himself and, when he touched the bluff, he touched bone.

Maybe it had already been raining that spring, and we just thought nothing of it. Maybe, when something wants to be found, you can’t escape the misfortune of finding it. Either way, he pressed his fingers into the mud, grabbed hold of it, gave it a slight yank and out it popped, with surprisingly little effort. A whole thigh bone.

He squatted down, washed it in the river so clear, watching as the mud slowly swirled away and off down stream.

When he went to go home, he tossed it in the passenger side of his truck. He wasn’t even as far as the Ashland City Highway when he thought he saw a man out of the corner of his eye, sitting shotgun. Forte almost died right then, swerving off the road like he did.

A few days later, he asked his girlfriend what she’d done with the bone from his truck. He was going to take it down to the bar, show it to a few of the guys, see what they thought.

“I gave it to the dog,” she said.

Before he could even think to be mad, he was running through the house and out the back door. The bone sat under the catalpa tree. The dog stood nearby, its chain stretched taunt, staring at something.

“Come on, boy,” Forte said, but the dog would not take its eyes off of the spot under the tree where the bone sat. Forte walked over and grabbed the bone. The dog, his dog, lunged at him, barking and growling and snapping.

“What’s going on?” his girlfriend asked.

“Dog’s fucked up, I guess,” he shrugged.

During the flood, Daniel Forte was out of town. He was over in Missouri helping his cousin move. He called home a couple times, but his girlfriend never answered. He didn’t think much of it.

I don’t know what he thought about on the drive home, as he passed swollen creeks now the size of rivers, as he was detoured around washed-out roads. I do know that, by the time he got to Nashville, he was afraid.

He couldn’t get to his house. He parked at the end of the street and walked to the police tape and watched, along with a small crowd, as rescuers launched boats off the low point in the road.

“The dog’s dead,” was the first thing his girlfriend told him, when he finally found her. “Water rose so fast, and I couldn’t get out to him.” He waited for her to say what she always said, that he shouldn’t leave the dog tied up out back. But she seemed uninterested in blaming him.

“How did you get out?” he asked.

“I heard something,” she said, “a voice or a laugh or…” again, she lost interest in trying to explain. “I just got out. I waited on the roof. They came and got me.” After a long while, she said, “Here.” and handed him the bone.

“Do you think this was it? Do you think I did this?” He asked, but she said nothing.

For the next few weeks, she was like a ghost, walking around the hotel room like she had lost track of what anchored her here. Forte wondered if she might fade completely away.

One Sunday, he took the bone and went back down to the end of Old Hickory Boulevard, deep in Bells Bend. The water in the Cumberland was still high, and brown and fast moving. He slipped going down the boatramp, but righted himself. The shore was smaller, mostly under water, and so it was further, thirty steps, certainly, maybe more. And from the moment he stepped into the river, it pulled at him, swirled around him, and brushed brown mud and sticks against him.

When he stepped onto the shore, it sucked him in and, without thinking, he pulled back, trying to get his foot out of the mire. He struggled to regain his balance and, at the last second, pitched himself forward. He fell in the mud. The bone rolled out of his grasp, towards the water. He grabbed after it, stopping it before it went into the river.

He stood, with some difficulty, in the shin-deep mire. The driest spot was nearest the bluff, so he struggled over to a small patch of firm ground.  He dug into the side of the bluff as best he could, and put the bone back.

He waited to see if something would shift, if he would feel that something had been righted.

He felt nothing.

He ended up having to scramble up the bluff, just to get out. And I’ll be damned if he was barely to the Ashland City highway, when he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a man riding shotgun.