My dad told me once, “Maybe it’s not all mean and greedy ghosts out there."
You know the house where my parents live now? It wasn’t always theirs—it’s actually where my grandparents lived for more than fifty years. Where they raised my dad, aunt, and uncle. The house I grew up in—which my parents built—was just fifty yards down the road, so I used to run over to my grandparents on a whim. But, like most old folks, they eventually had health problems—my grandfather was on oxygen constantly, and after my grandma broke her hip, she always needed a walker to get around. The house just started falling apart around them.
So they moved to, like, an apartment with senior care services, and my parents bought the house. My brother and I had long since moved off to college, so my parents wanted a smaller place that didn’t feel quite so empty. Now, we all knew that it would need some work and that my grandfather couldn’t unpack all the nooks and crannies. But we didn’t anticipate how much they would leave behind—including something that spooked my dad awful.
I was in grad school at the time, and when I went home that year for Christmas, my dad got me to help unpack his parents’ stuff from the attic. This was late December during a crisp mid-Atlantic winter, and the temperature was right at freezing. When we stepped inside the old house that day, it had a chill like an icebox—we could see our breath inside it. I climbed up this old ladder-staircase to access the attic then handed down junk to my father at the bottom of the steps. The shit we found was unreal—rotting furniture, infant’s clothing and toys, a few haunting dolls, crumbling newspapers of the Apollo landing and Kennedy assassination, decades’ worth of tax returns, food long past its expiration date—you get the idea.
Late that afternoon, I pulled a few cardboard boxes out from a back corner and peeked into one. It was packed with papers, so I brought the bunch down the ladder-steps to investigate. My dad and I discovered my great-grandfather’s collected papers in these boxes: old letters, pictures, drawings from his contractor days, and his genealogy research. The old man loved local history—so I’m told. He passed when I was seven or eight.
Anyways, among these materials, I found a camera in a pleather carrying case. I remember its model etched into its plastic casing—Kodak Tourist II. My dad was nearby when I pulled it out, and when he saw the camera in my hand, he froze. Imagine this salt-of-the-earth guy, who grew up in the sticks and handled all his home maintenance, go stiff as a deer in a spotlight. I might’ve been holding a bloody knife or a loaded gun.
“You all right there, Dad?”
He stepped over and I handed him the camera. Now, this was a classic roll film camera, the kind where you pulled a latch and the lens folded out at the end of a bellows and clicked into place. He turned it over in his hands and opened up the back, closed it, folded the lens in and out, turning it and turning it in his hands. To be clear, my dad’s never been a “camera guy.” He’s perfectly happy with his smartphone’s setup. So all this sent clammy sweat prickling down my back and made the gusts of wind outside ominous.
My dad eased down into a nearby chair, so I plopped onto a box. And then he spoke.
“Y’know, back when I was little, my dad—”
That’s my grandfather, don’t forget.
“—was on the road a lot working as an independent contractor. He’d be away in Philly or Baltimore or DC for like two, three weeks at a time, then come home for a week or a weekend. While he was away, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather.”
And that’s my great-grandfather, keep ‘em straight.
“I was always the first one awake in my house—this house—so I’d walk next door and my grandfather would be at his kitchen table, reading the paper with a cup of coffee. I’d jump up next to him, and my grandmother would make breakfast for me.” He smiled. “My grandfather would say, ‘You remind me of my long-lost son.’
“When I wasn’t in school, he took me along to his contracting sites or whatever else he was doing. We’d drive around town in his station wagon, and he’d point to a building and say, ‘That was a jail’ or ‘That was an inn.’ One of the big colonial-style houses out on Hoornkill Road he used to call ‘the home place’ because his father—or maybe his grandfather—was born there. He even claimed to know the original extent of our family’s land, though the exact boundaries . . . shifted a bit every time I asked him.
“We used to walk through all the fields and woods that he owned. Altogether, he had something like sixty acres, including the field right behind the house here and a lot of what’s university land now, all up along the marsh. And y’know that embankment back in the woods along the creek, with its end sticking out into the marsh? He found some old planking there and said the Dutch had a dike and a swing bridge way back, that the embankment was part of an old path or road. I dunno, at the time it just looked like a dirt path to me.”
“That’s the one he got recognized as a Historic Place, right?”
“Yup, he got it onto the National Register, so I guess he was right.” My dad shook his head. “But whenever he burned his piece of marshland, he told me about the lights. Back then, they used to burn the marsh every coupl’a years—or, rather, sections of it. My grandfather had a little piece behind the old railroad path and the woods where our house is now. He’d wait until the wind was right, then go out on his own and set a few places on fire. Had a little can of gas to spray—ksssssss.” He mimed the spray can. “And every time he did, he told me about the ‘spooklights.’”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“These lights that appeared around dusk and went on into the night. They drew folks out onto the marsh and they’d disappear, maybe wash up later in the Bay or never be seen again.”
Something hit the floor of the attic overhead. We paused for a long moment, looking up.
“So, like, will-o’-the-wisp?”
“Yeah, there ya go. My grandfather said it’d been going on since the English took this place from the Dutch. He’d heard about ‘em as a kid and said he’d seen ‘em throughout his life. He told me he and the city people burned the marshland to burn out the lights, so they weren’t taking people out there. Well, I asked my mom about it—she said my grandfather was just kidding with me. I asked my dad too—he said it was some bullshit my grandfather made up. Told me, ‘He’s kind of a pisser.’ I went back to my grandfather and asked him if the stories were true, and he just laughed and said they couldn’t prove him otherwise. That got me thinking.
“Now, my dad loved his gadgets back then just as much as he does today. A decent amount of the shit we just pulled from that attic—y’know, furniture and tools, all that—he brought home from work trips. Found this stuff and said he got ‘deals’ on it. One day, he brought this home.” My dad held up the camera. “Pleather case and all. Might look clunky now, but it was a big deal at the time—even my mom was impressed. She went out and got film for it, brought it out to all these family events, right? So, I started asking her questions: how do you take a picture? How do you load the film? What do all those pieces on the lens do? She was all about it.
“Well, one weekend when my dad was away—and my grandfather must’ve been off somewhere too—I got ahold of the camera. Figured my mom wouldn’t let me go off with it on my own, so I snagged it off her dresser with a roll of film to boot, snuck ‘em to my room. Waited ‘til she was busy somewhere in the house to load the thing. This was back when you had full-size film and wound it through the camera on a damn spool. Look.”
He turned a few latches and removed the back of the camera. “The film roll went here. It stretched across this area behind the lens and attached to the other side. And you’d wind the spool with this knob. You’d have to wind and wind the damn thing for just eight shots. And,” he laughed, “you had to set the lens based on what you wanted a picture of.” He folded the lens back out. “You adjust these levers for the picture’s distance, brightness, and lens speed. I just guessed all those things.
“Anyways, once the camera was ready, I stashed it outside. Now, my mom didn’t like us hanging around inside the house before dinner. So I grabbed a book and sat down reading it in my room. Next time she came down the hall, my mom saw me and said, ‘It’s a beautiful day. Go outside and play.’
“My brother and sister were already out messin’ around in the junky old boats and cars that my dad had laid up in our yard. So, I snagged the camera and set out across the field without anyone noticing. It was late in the afternoon—the sun was red and dropping. Might’ve been around this time of year—late December. I was bundled up pretty well and remember seeing my breath out in front of my face. Well . . . this is when things started gettin’ weird.”
That sent a shiver up my spine—not the sort of thing you want to hear in a cold, empty house.
“I stepped into the woods and the late afternoon plunged towards evening. Only patches of the dying light reached in through the branches. I’d went through the brush on a deer path—it continued into briars, shrubs, then the trees. Besides the hollies, they were nearly bare: sweet gums, cedars, and swamp maples with only a few red leaves clinging on their limbs. The dead foliage crunched under my feet. If I paused, I could hear crashes, shifting leaves, off deeper in the woods. The briars and branches drug along my coat and pulled at the camera case’s strap. The ground beneath my feet was stiffening—mud freezing below the litter.
“When I reached that embankment out next to Pagan’s Creek—my grandfather’s historic find—the sun was nearly set. Its orange glow had vanished, replaced by deepening blues and purples. I followed the path on top of the embankment towards the marsh, pushed through the pines along the woods’ edge, and out into the open. The sky’s darkening maw gaped. Below me, past the edge of the embankment, was the expanse of dark brown reeds and cattails. Fifty yards out, the creek wound its way to the great bay beyond.
“Now, remember that town was tiny back then. It got busy in the summer, but it was dead in the winter. And all my grandfather’s land—acres of woods and a handful of farm fields—separated us from it. There was no Route 1, and New Road was a single-lane dirt road that hardly anyone drove on. And besides us, only a few other folks lived along it: the Hills in Nassau, with all their apple and cherry orchards, and the Littletons. The Heracles Company had some farm fields out thataway too. But no one encroached on the marsh. It bordered all those properties and stretched north up to the bay, reached along the coast past Broadkill to Prime Hook, without a proper boundary and instead just fading into the landscape around it. At night, it got dark and quiet like you can’t imagine—even the creek hushed, its tides rising and falling without a murmur.
“Standing on the edge of that embankment, staring out on the marsh with my arms wrapped around the camera in its case, I started shaking and couldn’t stop. Every time the wind picked up, I heard branches crashing and leaves shifting—shifting closer to me. Each time I turned, the trees fell deeper and deeper into gloom.
He shivered and his eyes stopped looking ahead—they were fixed on the past now.
“Finally, I looked back and saw only pitchy darkness. The marsh reeds whispered. I whipped my head back around towards them—and there was a spooklight. Out in the reeds, up towards the bay, twinkling cold blue. Small but persistent—it took my breath away. Even though it terrified me, I refused to step back into the woods. So, there at full night, I climbed down the embankment and into the reeds.
“Ever walk in a marsh before? There’s little use trying to describe it. Without any path, you take the way of least resistance: logs. Mudflats. Sedges. Hillocks—patches of cordgrass. Grab any bush or shrub to steady yourself. Step after step’s a fresh challenge, and I often put my foot down without knowing what it would land on or in. Often it was a pool of frigid water—I shook inside my coat. The mud I disturbed let off salty breath. Its stink made my head ache and clung inside my throat. Couldn’t go back—the night had swallowed my point of entry. I simply held that camera tight and followed that blue light.
“The wind shook the reeds around me, but otherwise silence reigned. My sniffles could’ve been foghorns. Cattails bobbing overhead. I hadn’t even considered the tide that day, so it was just dumb luck that I came when it was low. You think you would have lain down in defeat from that miserable trudge, but the marsh wouldn’t have had you. If that light had led out over the bay, I would’ve walked right into it—I wasn’t given to quitting—I’d worked long days with my grandfather out in his gardens, petulantly giving the least effort possible but damned if I’d ask to stop. These small, monotonous, mindless movements require no force of will, so there’s really nothing to climbing through a pitch-dark marsh stinking to high heaven once you overcome your own inertia. The one-track mind. It led me to the blue light.
“I started recognizing a disturbance to the silence, beyond my own. It was like a voice heard through a plaster wall in a cheap apartment—mumbling, but I couldn’t pick out any words. Then I noticed the light’s brilliance growing. The splendor grew strong enough to light the earth, and I followed bits of solid ground until a clump of cattails and fronds stood between me and that illumination, reeds silhouetted against the night. And though I had to tread in deep mud, I stepped around the knot of marshland and peered towards the light.
Our own sunlight dimmed—the house’s chill grew stronger.
“At first, radiance obscured everything. As my eyes adjusted, I could see that the glare occupied a finite space. It was diminutive but intensely concentrated, near to the ground, floating a few feet above it. No—it was held—a figure, dressed in black and hooded, had their palm open beneath it. I saw no face, but I knew that it issued the mumbling—though its sounds remained obstructed and unintelligible.
“I crept forward, clutching the camera to me. The marsh’s scent intensified, clogging my nostrils and building the ache behind my forehead. Consciousness no longer clung strictly to my body but eased along the level of that light, peering around its corners to get an unobstructed vision of its interior mystery—ineluctable—usurping. The pleather case, cool in my palm, recalled me. As I slipped the strap off my shoulder, opened the case, and removed the camera, a small movement seemed to shiver in my peripheral. But, opening the lens and looking back up, I saw that the figure remained stationary, holding up the light or holding their hand beneath it. I stepped forward, my thudding heart shaking my entire body, and stopped six feet before the glow. Set the lens for that distance. Cocked the shutter lever. Put my finger on the release button—and let light in.
“A glare galloped through my veins, and waves emanated past the light’s fringes. Its interior shuddered, shifting and overlapping. I no longer looked at it so much as I couldn’t distinguish the landscape from it—the marsh’s features revealed themselves under a cavernous void. My eyes opened past their sockets so my vision expanded. My jaw dropped open and air gushed. The button glued to my finger as the shutter continued—clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick deafeningly, fit to wake the dead at the bottom of the bay. The light pulled my vision and my mind bent forward into its wake. Those articulated mumblings banged in my ears, filling my mind and crushing any resistance I had. The light pulled me under.
“I have no idea how long I was caught like that, nor how I got out of the marsh. I just woke to myself sprinting through the woods, gasping for air, rain crashing down.”
A gust rattled the windows in their frames—I shuddered with them.
“I ran without any sense of direction until I tripped and tumbled into foliage and mud. There, lost in the howling wilderness, I started sobbing without intent or control. Snot ran into my mouth and I shook in the cold of the night and the mud I’d landed in. The camera case’s strap still ran round my neck and I felt the camera wrapped up in it, but that was little comfort. Still, I dragged myself over to a tree and leaned against it. The wind wailed, the rain fell in sheets, and an image of the hooded man came to me. I felt compelled to both run and remain frozen, so I moved into a kind of crouch—latched on to that tree, looking out into the tenebrous woods.
“When another light came on, I spotted it at once. Out in the offing, a speck of darkness suddenly gave way to a distinct glimmer. You might think that would have sent me over an edge but no—this was no shivering blue light. It was warmer, more like yellow or tinted orange. While its sudden appearance made me uneasy, the light itself did not panic or torment me. If anything, it was a species of comfort.
“The longer I clung to that tree, the more warmth I felt from the light. While sounds and rustles still came from around me, I had only to look in the light’s direction for a sense of reassurance. And, finally, I answered its call.
“When I first moved, the woods’ scuttling and crashing grew around me. And as I walked, holly leaves and sharp branches reached into my face—briars clung to my coat. But these things prickled me less than before. Frightening, but not paralyzing. And the longer I moved, stepping over logs and pulling the briars that caught my jacket, the less I thought of the shifting trees around me. There might’ve been pale hands reaching out from tree trunks behind me, or dark, hooded figures watching with cold blue glimmers in the distance. But I fixed on the warm light, and it grew.
“Finally, I pushed through a layer of briar, parted the wall of shrubs behind it, and stepped into a clearing. In its center sat a wooden shack—a lamp aglow with a lively flame hanging above the door—surrounded by overgrowth that parted for a path up to the front door. I walked up this and stopped in front of the shack’s dinky porch, doubting my own vision. The pouring rain battered down on its rusty tin roof.
“Before I made up my mind to knock, the door opened and an old, whiskered face topped with white hair poked out. ‘Well,’ it said, ‘you just gonna stand out there? Come on in.’
“So, I stepped onto the creaking porch and into the doorway. Inside, the white-haired head was attached to the body of a tall, thin man who stood next to a rust-colored potbelly stove, on top of which he was setting—a coffee pot? He looked around towards me and said, ‘Shut the door, yer lettin’ all the heat out. Si’down here by the stove.’
“I entered the shack and sat in a wooden chair that the old man motioned towards. As my eyes adjusted to the interior, I saw that he wore a pair of overalls, ripped and stained, beneath which was a flannel shirt. After poking the stove’s fire, he hocked and spat into a corner of the room, then stepped over to me. ‘Yer soaked through, son,’ he said in a cracked, wispy voice, ‘and coffee’ll be a few minutes yet. Least get yer jacket, yer boots, and yer socks off ‘fore you catch cold.’ Then I felt the chill of my dripping garments, clinging to my skin.
“‘I think I’m dripping on your floo—’
“‘It’s a’ight,’ he grunted. ‘Put yer jacket here by the fire—it’ll stop dripping soon enough.’ And by the time the coffee was bubbling, I sat wrapped in a scratchy blanket that the man proffered and all my clothes lay steaming before the stove. The camera in its case was on a nearby table. My shivering subsided, though my hair still dripped and its trickle sent shudders down my back.
My clenched chest gave way some, though the house kept its chill breath.
“We sat silent for a while. Woodsmoke clung in my nostrils, its presence a welcome replacement to the marsh’s. I looked around the space: a single, bare room with visible wall studs. A bed, covered by a colorless duvet, hunkered in a corner. A wooden table and chairs took up the middle of the room. The shack’s single window overlooked a counter stacked with plates and cups, while food stores—garlic, potatoes in a basket, motley dark lumps—hung above it. I turned back towards the stove and sipped my coffee—warmth flooded my chest and limbs. From the corner of my eye, I watched the man in his rocking chair. Once, he took a small bottle from his pocket and poured its contents into his cup, but otherwise he just stared into the open stove’s embers. Ancient—a parchment-wrinkled face, sagging flesh that hung off his neck and arms, droopy ears, and sunken eyes.
“‘Well,’ he finally said, ‘must’ve had a fright out there. In the woods on a night like this? Yer liable to set yer mother off that way.’ I nodded and, not knowing what to say, apologized. The man shrugged. ‘Well, I was sittin’ up tonight anyway. Good thing too—nobody else nearby that ya could’a stumbled on. More coffee?’ He leaned forward and grabbed the pot.
“Warm again, I found the coffee bitter and unpleasant. ‘No thank you,’ and I set my cup on the floor. He shrugged again and poured more for himself. ‘Um—where are we exactly? I’ve never been here before.’
“The old man snorted. ‘Nah—nobody come out this way all that much.’ He set the pot down. ‘Town’s that way,’ he pointed towards one side of the shack. ‘An’ the inlet’s out thataway,’ he pointed to the opposite. ‘And the marsh is out there’ and he pointed towards the wall behind me.
“‘Oh,’ I said, ‘that’s the way I have to go. My house is next to the marsh.’
“‘Right, we’ll getcha back there. But only,’ and he turned to look at me squarely, ‘if you stick to the path I tell ya. No more wanderin’ off in the woods. A’ight?’ I promised him then and there, and we fell back into silence, contemplating the stove. The rain continued pattering the tin roof, a comforting and easy sound. I stared into the embers and felt a gentle pull towards unspace, heavy and warm with woodsmoke—
“Then I woke up, curled in the scratchy blanket but lying on the bed, to gentle shakes on my shoulder. ‘Hey,’ the old man said, shaking me again, ‘buddy. Rain’s gone and the sun’s comin’ up. Yer clothes are dry. Time to get you on the road.’
“He stepped outside while I got dressed. In the daylight, his shack lost its cozy aspect from the previous night and, instead, felt dim and run down. I had to pee, but the outhouse looked none too promising—I held it. Still, my clothes were dry, warm, and cloying of woodsmoke. After pulling them on, I spotted the pleather camera case on the table. It was damp to the touch and, upon pulling it out, the camera chilly and moist. Then I removed the back—the film roll was gone. The camera was empty.
“The old man was standing on his porch, smoking a pipe—an old corncob pipe—looking out across the clearing at the woods beyond. I looked out too: the sun’s first rays brightened the sky, bathing the treetops in golden light, while mist and blue shadows clung close to the ground. A chill remained in the air, but the rain and the wind of the previous night had spent themselves. ‘Start of a beautiful day,’ he said. He looked down at me and pulled the pipe out of his mouth. ‘Say, wha’s that?’
“I had the camera in my hands. Inside his cabin, I was determined to ask whether the old man took the film—now I hesitated. I don’t know whether it was discomfort or nerves or gratitude or just that beautiful morning around us—my question caught in my throat. So instead I said, ‘Nothing,’ and put the camera away.
“Five minutes later I entered the woods with the sun to my back. I tried to look back at the shack as I walked off but lost sight of it. The pines and foliage grew lighter with the morning’s radiance, and the briars and brush parted easily. I walked until I found a path that the old man had described to me. It was a bit overgrown but wide enough for a cart to pass through. I couldn’t recall it from all my wanderings with my grandfather.
“In a daze, I followed the old road. As the sun grew warmer, the path gave way to a farm field. Following a post fence along a hedgerow at the field’s edge, I recognized the field as one behind my house. Before long, moving in the same direction, I came back to the embankment, my grandfather’s path, and where I’d begun.”
The light outside the window had dimmed; the shadows inside deepened. The chill of the house clung to me, and my mind paused with the rhythm of words.
“You must’ve caught hell for all that.”
My dad nodded, smiling sadly. “My dad got home just before me—came from his work site. Town cop had been called over. My grandmother and all her church friends were there with my mother, and my grandfather was . . . either talking to the cop or to my brother and sister. Can’t remember. But when I walked in and my mom screamed and wrapped me up—yeah, I felt pretty bad about that. At some point, the camera was taken off my shoulder.” He held it up just then, looking at it. “I’ve not seen it since that day.”
“But, I mean, did anyone believe your story? Your grandfather?”
He sighed. “Y’know—I don’t know. Maybe not all of it. He didn’t have a response at first. When my parents and their friends told me that I’d panicked and imagined stuff out there, he stayed quiet—which was unlike him. He definitely felt bad about the spooklight thing, and that never came up again. But what I remember about afterwards was just confusion. All these adults who I trusted and loved were telling me I’d got lost in the woods and scared myself, but they couldn’t answer my questions. If I made it up, how’d I get home? How come my clothes were dry? What about the other spooklight stories?” He shook his head.
“The following spring, my grandfather was driving me home from town, maybe after church or something. We were up New Road a ways when he pulled off to one side, shut the car off, and said he had something to show me. He led me over to what looked like a random spot along the woods there and pushed in. I was pretty nervous about walking off in the woods, but I stuck to him. He took me along a little deer path, and I just prayed he knew where he was.
“About a hundred yards in, we stepped through a tree line into a clearing. It took me a second to recognize the place, but it was the overgrown field where the old man’s shack was. I ran around my grandfather and found a pile of old bricks, grown over with weeds. No shack. I turned back to my grandfather as he knelt down, and asked, ‘This would’a been the spot, right?’
“I was totally lost then, and I said, ‘I swear that old man’s shack was here.’ He nodded, reaching out and picking a piece of brick from the pile, looking at it between his fingers.
“‘This is why I can’t brush your story off,’ he said. ‘Your mom and dad, they’re perfectly willing to accept that you were lost in the woods and let your imagination run wild. Hell, you’re smart—you can take care of yourself for one night. But this . . .’ He stood back up and paced around the bricks. ‘This was my Uncle Penn’s shack. He lived alone out here for years—this place is on our land, y’know. The corncob pipe, potbelly stove, flannel shirt—that’s him to a T. But I can’t understand how you stayed here for a night—my Uncle Penn passed twenty years ago.’”
My dad paused, then smiled and nodded. “Later on, my grandfather would say, ‘Maybe it’s not all mean and greedy ghosts out there,’ and that became a shorthand between us, especially as the novelty of that night faded. But—I don’t know. After my grandfather sold that land to the university, they never complained about any happenings. And no one has burned the marsh or mentioned a spooklight in years. I’ve decided, many times, that my whole experience was a dream. And yet here I am—telling you the same dream that I had fifty years ago. Maybe that’s all it can be now—my grandfather’s dead and gone, my parents’ memories fade every day. And those pictures, the one thing that could’ve told us otherwise—gone. So . . . I don’t know. I’m not sure what I lost or found out there.”
We finished cleaning that attic over my Christmas break. In the long run, my parents renovated that house, moved in, and sold the one I grew up in. They like their little renovated space. My grandfather passed a few years later, and my grandmother wasn’t long in following. My dad and I hardly ever bring up this story, but I think back to my great-grandfather’s words on it, about the ghosts out there. I actually feel some comfort in it: a little light, set out against pitchy darkness, for us to follow home.