A Ghostly Tale in Sepia

It was late October when, like fingernails across  a chalkboard, the creaking of the unstable and rotting wood walkway below my feet, shot chills that rippled up my spine. A danger warning? The echo of desperate voices from the abandoned rooming house that abuts this walkway?

Regardless, my photo assignment was to chronicle the fall of life in this once upon a time boomtown fed by precious metals in the surrounding hills. This was no time to imagine ghosts actually frolicking in a forsaken ghost town now cloaked in lost memories.

(I should have never read an old Celtic tale of how spirits grow restless as autumn sets in to late October.)

Western boomtowns proliferated like the tumbleweeds that take advantage of soils defrocked of natural life. This boomtown’s final legacy is a tumbleweed jungle where the spiny weed rolls with the wind through abandoned alleyways and dirt roads. Whistling winds and creaky walkways are the source, some say, of voices from the past, and visions of phantom sightings through cracked windows last cleaned a hundred years ago.

I took this solo assignment so not to be burdened by another’s distracting deeds. This way I could idly stand and stare at photo possibilities without interruption. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. Nah. I’m rehashing silly storyteller gibberish.

The real story of this nameless and forgotten town began long before miners, near-do-wells, and dreamers brought their hopes and greed for endless riches. It was the quest of Spanish clergy who sought souls for Christ among the native peoples in this new land. Forcing native men to labor and build a small mission of stone and mud, that made its colonial mark on land once grazed by wild buffalo herds.  Stories abound with tales of disembodied natives seeking  revenge on the robed hunters of souls.

“...with decomposing dolls in the dust-crusted window.

This I imagined when an iced streak of air swept past me on this warm afternoon. I brushed it off when I sighted the remains of a stone-built house with decomposing dolls in the  dust-crusted window. While deciding what lens would best work to photographically suggest the mood of child who left her dolls behind, I swore I heard a child’s terrified scream. Beside me, no hint of a living human made itself known. Just another moment of my imagination gone wild. No. This scream was real. It definitely came from the unkept side yard splattered with rusted cans and broken liquor bottles that were dumped next this structure. Maybe I should’ve brought someone to be with me after all. Frozen in my steps, the sudden appearance of a lone coyote clutching between its teeth a slumped rat with blood trickling from its throat, trotted from the trashy yard. It stopped the moment it caught my scent just yards away. We shared a brief stare-out, when it continued to a safe place to dine on fresh rat.

I pushed my heart that leapt into my throat, back to where it belonged! 

Honestly, I didn’t expect a complete lack of visitors to this crumbling town. But it pretty much looked like it was me, and a few rats awaiting their fate by a hungry coyote. 

Across the dirt road was what looked like an old newspaper printing house. This could be a perfect allegorical shot for the times: then and now, newspapers meet their end.

The sun splashed on the window where I could peek through and try to focus on the cobweb covered remains of a rusted printing station. I squinted to see past the outside reflection. Oh wait a minute! NO! Not possible! Isquinted again to confirm my doubts. Wrong. The window did reflect a thin and bearded older man sitting crossed legged on a wooden bench. I turned to see if what I saw was right and saw the wooden bench, but no older man. Yet, in the reflecting window he remained: his furrowed face filled with tales to tell. 

Was he real? Was my imagination flipping out? Was he ghostly? Was he having fun teasing me like this? 

Besides being a great character photo (if he’s real), or simple proof that a ghost in a ghost town is for real, I swapped to my long lens. Like approaching nature in the wild, I quietly, directly, slipped into position where I could unobtrusively get his photo. Zoom. Focus. Click. Read the digital result. Yes! He must be real. I got him. This would be my dream human interest photo (since it was highly unlikely that I’d ever make my way to an exotic locale competing for that winning human interest photo by National Geographic photographers). He was well dressed. Clean jeans, a nice wool jacket, a hat and leather boots.

When I peeked around the corner to sight him again, the bench was empty. Wait! No one that old could scoot that fast and disappear. I peered thru my long lens again. He was there, unchanged.

Suddenly, a crow swooped over my head. “Caw, caw, caw,” it screeched. Prickled bumps of disturbing surprise took charge of my flesh. 

“Don’t be ‘fraid of that silly old crow,” a man’s voice said. 

Wait a frickin’ minute! Now I’m hearing things. Or am I?

“Hello?” I queried in a tentative voice.

“Caw, caw, caw,” the crow seemed to reply.

That’s it! I’m out of here. 

“No, no, no, don’t leave now?” a man’s voice said.

The only man that I might have seen, was that old guy on the bench.

“Hey, Lady,” the male voice continued. “I ain’t gonna hurt no one. Can’t anyway. Well, unless I came up behind ya, and yelled ‘Boo!’.”

“Where are you? I don’t see you. Show yourself!” I said, quite unsure if this was a smart challenge.

“You know where I am,” he said. 

“On that wooden bench?”

“Yep. Been sittin’ here since the last man left this old place, oh somewhere around 1920 or so.”

The crow flew off, catching up with two other crows aimlessly flying above where the old mission once thrived. 

“Now iffin’ you’re thinking that I might be some scary ghost, you’d be flat out wrong—well, mostly,” the old man said as I started to see him with my naked eyes. “I don’t mean to scare ya. It’s the angry ghosts from that mission and a few nasty old miners that you need to worry yourself about.”

“Bong! Bong! Bong!” echoed through the empty streets. Mission bells? No way. I read how the miners striped those iron bells and melted them into tools and contraptions to bring to surface that streak of gold buried in the hills.

“Right on time,” the crinkled man said. “Right on time.”

“What do you mean ‘right on time’?” I asked.

“Every midday, those mission ghosts ring the bells. They’d be callin’ up the natives to git back to work after prayer. One day, it’s said, those native men grabbed the tools they’d a been hidin’ and went after the robed ones. Kilt everyone of them, but the one who got away. Folks say he hid in the hills until a likely prospector found him, and gave him shelter. The prospector asked the fella if he ever saw gold in the hills. The friar didn’t speak a word of English, so the prospector reached into his pocket and pulled out a quartz stone with gold streaks running thru it. ‘Gold’ he said to the friar. The friar said Si. That’s how it all started.”

Talk about a real ghost story! Here I was getting a story from what I pretty much assumed was a ghost. 

“Who’s ringing the bells that aren’t there anymore?” I asked.

“Friars who, like me, can’t seem to move on.”

I had to ask, “Don’t they know that the native folk were forced off this land and on to government land—reservations as they’re called now?”

“Don’t matter none. Some things can’t be rectified.”

“So, how do you know all this stuff? Why are you sitting on this bench, looking like there’s much to think about?”

“I be that prospector who found the friar, and started the big rush that bought this place to ruin.  We shoulda left it to the buffalo.”

He adjusted his hat, stroked his beard and started to fade from my vision. “Re-re-re-regret is a powerful force little lady.” 

He disappeared.

Rattled from this ghostly encounter, I headed to where the mission once stood. It was as if the nightmare left behind a few ghostly reminders of humanity gone wrong. I photographed a skeleton hanging by its wrists to a rotting pole. But like the fellow on the bench, the skeleton suddenly left my vision, like the forgotten terror humankind leaves behind.

Desolate empty buildings left behind. Coyotes, rats and crows the replaced population — along with the remorse of ghosts pinned to earth by regret. Such is the way this town I call Regret.

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