Solstice Specters: Four Midsummer Ghost and Faerie Stories

“Midsummer Eve was one of the spirit nights of the year, when the boundaries between the worlds were thin and porous. Evil spirits and witches were active. Men were proverbially subject to fairy tricks and queer fancies, as portrayed by Shakespeare.”Mythology Matters

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 

I routinely have vivid dreams I rarely remember. When I can recall them, it is only in fragments, like a person recovering from amnesia after a terrible car accident. Because no one ever gets amnesia on account of a fortunate event, I assume the dreams I know I’ve dreamt but am unable to remember are not the kind I’d want to anyway and allow my subconscious its private traumas.

 

Dreams I do remember upon waking are often loose adaptations of some mundane event from my waking life. For example, the other day my cat was trying to get into the windowsill behind my bed. Oscar was a large tom in good health, but has grown to a Bulgakov-sized Behemoth as a side effect of daily steroids. A 20lb black tux with queerly human behaviors (I recently found him brushing himself with his brush clamped between his two front paws) he’d fit nicely into Woland’s entourage, but not the window. He’s grown too large to slink between the curlicued bars of the bed frame to taunt and be taunted by urban wildlife. I was always a bit anxious he’d fall from the precariously framed screen, so perhaps life behind bars is best for him. Then I dreamt my cat was on the window ledge. See? Mundane. But for this “thin and porous” business…

 

I dreamt there was a tornado, a plot device also plagiarized from real-life and more mundane than you might imagine here in the Midwestern summer. I looked around for Oscar as a funnel cloud barreled toward us from the horizon, all Dorothy and Toto-like. On the window ledge behind my bed, on the exterior side of the screen, lay my cat. My mother’s cat, to be precise. I’d inherited the fat white cat after her death, and the cat itself had passed away many years ago. “Bella! You have to get inside!” I dream-screamed. She paid no attention to my demands, attached determinedly to the concrete ledge. The wind picked up. “Bellakin!” I fought to wrench her from her perch, but she simply would not move. I awoke in a panic.

 

White cats are bad omens. That’s what my mother believed. Her head was full of superstitions and faerie tales and god knows what or how it got there. Mind you, her own cat, Bella, was mostly white. But a mysterious white cat showing up outside of one’s home was bad mojo. When a massive, long-haired, solid white cat came lurking around our house one year, she said it was a “harbinger of death.” I protested. “Mom, it’s beautiful. It’s a stray; can’t we please bring it in?” We’d brought in all types of animals over the years. But inviting this creature into our house was verboten. It sat each night outside the sliding glass kitchen door, under our windows or on our porch in front of the door. Bella would cry and howl and growl and hiss. Eventually I too became afraid. When I arrived home one night to spy it sitting under my bedroom window, I genuflected and slept on the couch. We talked at length about calling a priest but opted for animal control instead. It was a crazy thing to get caught up in over a poor stray… My mother was dead within the year.

 

I can’t for anything imagine Bella out there in the afterlife doing Uber but for Death. And whose soul had she come for? Perhaps the cat was a representation of my mother, slipped through the porous boundary of the spirit world and planted firmly on the threshold between me and a coming storm. Perhaps, as Puck would implore, it was just a dream.

 

City Gates

 

I went to the store for coffee.

 

I’d put off going until there was no coffee and only a tin of tuna and some ramen left in the cabinet. I’d put off going because storms had threatened daily for the previous week, and I’m doing my part to save the earth by walking and using canvas bags. I’d put off going because I get vaguely ambivalent when the food v. bills v. everything else times hit. But I am not ambivalent about coffee. And once I was inside the store, I was no longer ambivalent about food. Blueberry carrot hempseed bars? Organic peanut butter with flax and chia? Sprouted wheat bread? Superfruit spread? Australian lemon curd yogurt? Watermelon water? I am the novelty food market’s target demographic: a single white female freelancer whose ridiculous lack of money is matched only by her ridiculous abundance of curiosity. Momentarily giddy and greedy, I justified my purchase of fruit with the prefix “Super-” by the fact that I was in a German supermarket for poor people: so continental, yet so practical! I wondered if there were even any poor people left in Germany or why there wasn’t more German food here and remembered the coffee. And milk. And eggs. As the cashier muttered my total, I realized I totally could have gotten the watermelon water.

 

I returned home on foot in the blazing late sun like a little mule laden with canvas sacks of treasure, wobbly and strained. I scanned for cracks in the treacherously underfunded sidewalk infrastructure and for rogue summer children, either of which could send me crashing to the pavement. I successfully dodged dogs and bikes and paleteros and women in majestic, sail-like abaya. The earth’s strong gravitational pull keeps things upright on the solstice, I remember.

 

And so it was that I was not knocked into the street when just steps from my building, a large black iron gate clanked unlatched and opened onto the sidewalk blocking my passage. It had opened neither too slowly with a spooky creak nor too swiftly as if thrown open by the wind. It just … opened. I stopped abruptly, set down my bags and waited a moment for it to close again before continuing, as if it had been a proper human who had opened the gate. And in fairness, at one time, I suppose it may have been. “Hey, howabout you look where you’re going next time, huh?” I complained aloud as would to anyone who’d flung a giant iron gate open in my face. As I continued on my journey, I threw an accusatory look back in its direction and grumbled something about why do ghosts even open doors and gates when they can go right through them? Like, what the hell is that about?

 

Some days I think everything I know about living in the city I learned from Seinfeld. Hardly a day passes that my friends and I don’t share tales of the infuriating, inexplicable or downright absurd situations we’ve been subjected to throughout the day, and the equally absurd schemes we’ve come up with in response. I do love living in the city though, precisely because you can yell out loud at a ghost gate to have some fucking respect and literally no one is talking about it at the supermarket the next day when you go back for that watermelon water. Because the inhabitants of cities have lives.

 

Even those who no longer do.

 

A Romance in 3 Acts, by either Shakespeare or Chekov, I don’t know. But it’s utter, utter crap. See Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 instead.

 

I’d been witnessed having a bit of a low-key row at the pub over vodka tonics, and he’d checked in with me when my boyfriend got up to use the bathroom. He came back to check on me each time my boyfriend excused himself. He seemed a bit shy and sweet. Not at all like my boyfriend, who was not in the bathroom because he had to relieve himself, who thought American Psycho was a how-to manual. Things eventually ended with Patrick Bateman and I. Meanwhile, I became accustomed to my server at the pub, a preferred meeting place for my client. I was there routinely for work, and so was he. He had raven hair, pale olive skin and a subtle Slavic accent. He told me he wanted to get out of Chicago and move to Moscow. I wasn’t lying when I replied, “Me too.”

 

I know people who immediately become friends in such situations, dropping in unannounced, inviting each other to shows, saying things like, “My friend Kristian so-and-so… Do you know him? Oh I’ll have to introduce you…” These people usually bang on about being loners but know someone at literally every establishment in town. Then there are people who draw hard and fast lines between their waiters and their peers, who cloak class anxiety under pretense of professionalism but fuck the coat girl. These people fancy themselves well-adjusted but are horrible humans. Me? I was just happy to see him every month. It was nice to be around a nice person in a cruel world. It helped that he was devastatingly handsome, a cross between Rami Malek and a young Vladislav Surkov. Macedonian. He could have been one of those hackers for all I know, but he was so beautiful I couldn’t possibly care. And I was content to leave it at that. I was in no mood for relationships after Bateman. A routine lament for Moscow with a beautiful man was enough romance for me.

 

One day I showed up to the pub, and he wasn’t there. Earlier in the year my scarf had disappeared from this very same pub and then inexplicably reappeared, so I didn’t panic. Schedules change. To be honest, I was a bit sadder than I thought I would be. A young girl busing tables came up and asked me how to get involved in our organization. “Who are you and what have you done with Kristian?” I thought as the long memorized lines from the bylaws rolled off my tongue. As I headed toward the door, my waitress inquired if she could ask a personal question. I was done talking. “You can ask, but I can’t promise I’ll answer.” “Are you … dating anyone?” She seemed like a nice person, but that’s not my scene. “Who is asking?” “Kristian. Do you know Kristian? He works here. He thinks you’re so beautiful.” “No. I mean, Yes. I mean I know him, and I’m not dating anyone.”

 

And then I left. Like an idiot.

 

There was much ado about if I should call the pub, but I decided I would just see him the next time I was there, like my scarf. Because now I believed in magic. The next time, however, moved increasingly farther down the calendar. No matter, he had been there for ages… Until he wasn’t. There were over a hundred people crammed into the event room to see the kind of person a hundred people should cram into a room to see, but not one of them was him. If he had wanted to see me, then… why… It was hot and damp from the torrential evening rains and I wanted to weep a little but I didn’t. Before leaving, I staked out the waitress he’d asked to ask me personal questions. “I was rather hoping Kristian would be here.” “He doesn’t work here anymore,” she explained. “Why?” “He’s moved away.”

 

I wanted to weep a lot and I did.

 

After a summer rain, my mother would take us children into the back yard to see the drops of dew on the tree leaves, which she would have us believe were faeries. Rain, or idiot faeries who fuck up people’s romantic lives… Workplace, or magical Irish pub where things strangely materialize and vanish… Psychologically moving between the realms of the material and immaterial seems no more preposterous to me than physically moving from Avondale to Moscow. But I can think of few things more absurd than when the living become ghosts to one another.

 

For Sentimental Reasons

 

It’s always raining these summers now. Searing heat and flooded underpasses. We’re far enough north for there to be fewer hours of darkness than required for sleep, but the weather feels more like that of a subtropical developing nation. The trauma of climate change, like terrorism, is best responded to by maintaining a sense of normalcy. And by leaving the AC off. And by walking places. So one sweltering evening, a friend and I headed out for ice creams. A light drop of cold sky water here and there on our sweat-slick skin felt exhilarating. We arrived at a busy paleteria and debated eating inside or nah while making obnoxious guesses about the flavors. “It’s black, so black currant.” “No, look at it. It’s black brown. It’s tamarind or coffee.” We brazenly settled on scoops in cups, chocolate chip and strawberry cheesecake, straight up owning our basic whiteness. But we chose to eat them in the rain on our way home. We weren’t so basic we couldn’t get our hair messed up. I didn’t mention the matter in deliberations, but I think everything is better in the rain. Everything.

 

Living in my neighborhood requires navigating both cultural barriers and dangerous streets. “Basic white girl.” There is in fact no confirmation of my ethnicity, and most people here don’t see me as an interloper since I am on the swarthy end of the Caucasian spectrum, and everyone here is from somewhere else. But guilt is guilt. And girl is girl. So when I hear a lone man’s voice behind me on a dark side street, I move into the light. Which is what I did when about three blocks from home we heard a voice behind us that put the hair on my neck on end.

 

I stepped into the parkway and turned around. Emerging from the inky night and backlit by the rain-blurred neon lights of the city, an older man approached, passed, and continued down the block, acknowledging neither us nor any of his surroundings. The words I had been unable to make out earlier were lyrics.

I love you and you alone were meant for me
Please give your loving heart to me
And say we’ll never part

I think of you every morning
Dream of you every night
Darling, I’m never lonely
Whenever you are in sight

I love you for sentimental reasons
I hope you do believe me
I’ve given you my heart

 

He sang the song slowly and sonorously in a professionally trained, and I suspect professionally performed, baritone voice as luscious as our ice creams. We followed behind, mirroring his pace despite the increasingly inclement weather, caught up in whatever spell had been cast upon him. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone sing so beautifully, so intentionally, outside of a concert, and even then maybe only at La Traviata. This isn’t the kind of neighborhood Lyric Opera singers reside in. It’s not even the kind of neighborhood season ticket holders reside in. I wanted to approach him to pay a compliment and perhaps to inquire, but I feared doing so would break the spell.

 

“You really missed something out there,” I announced as I whirled into the apartment, dripping with rain and delirious with noirish romance. “I know. That’s why I don’t go out there,” my roommate joked. I scowled and began singing in an unfortunate tone but with all the cheeky swagger of Bill Murray’s lounge act. “I love you. For sentimental reasons. I think of you every morning. I dream of you every night. I love you. For sentimental reasons.” I looked like a drown rat, my ice cream had melted, and I was really hamming it up for my audience of confused felines. Everything and I mean everything this week had been so fucking awful, it felt good to blow off steam. But I meant each word I sang. About my mom. About my dead pets. About my mercurial Macedonian. About everyone who is still around until they no longer are. And then I simply could not stop singing, as if possessed.

 

“You’ve been pixilated,” my mom would say whenever I fell into these silly moods. Pixilated meant gotten to by the pixies. By the faeries. By Puck. There was nothing she couldn’t explain in terms of the supernatural. And maybe it’s just where the sun’s been in the sky, but I confess there seem increasingly fewer events I can explain using logic. And those I can? They frighten me more than ghosts.

 

Besides, even though faeries can fuck things up for no good reason at all, they at least apologize:

 

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends

 

–Shakespeare, from A Midsummers Night’s Dream