Qualm on the Piscataqua

No other state has a coastline shorter than New Hampshire. At thirteen miles, shut your eyes and you may miss it. I’ve driven it many times, though have avoided it for many years. The computer console to my right shows the road twisting ahead, pink highlighted against black. It’s a far cry from the worn paper map crumpled on the passenger seat of the Volkswagen Beetle I drove along this same road in October of ’78. How the world has changed? I fiddled constantly with the radio knob, on that long ago trip, trying my best to hold onto that Harry Chapin song transmitting from fading Boston airwaves. Now, a satellite in space, high above me, plays songs to my will. I think, even more than these things changed, I have changed. My hair is short and gray now, back then it was dark and tousled. Then, I was lean, now – not so much. Changed most of all is my fortitude. I lived fearless before that October evening those many years ago, but have since lived in fear of the unexpected. Not constant fear, but an underlying fear that coils, always waiting to spring through the thin veil of normalcy I’ve since so carefully fostered. Don’t judge me a coward. Not until you’ve seen your first ghost, will I consider any judgement of yours.

In those days I was an inspector, certified by the government to keep in-code work they’d privately contracted. That trip was my last in a series to inspect ductwork installed into new warehouses at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. I usually stayed at a grimey motel right off the interstate, but since it was my last visit, I made arrangements to stay at a quaint little bed and breakfast on the small island of New Castle where the Piscataqua River met the Atlantic Ocean.

The sun was getting low when I killed the high-stroking buzz of my Beetle on the street in front of the Inn. I made haste in getting my luggage from under the hood of the car, as I’d hoped to get a photo of the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in the sunset which, by the billow of the clouds today, looked as if it were setting up to be a stunner.

“Good evening,” I greeted the innkeeper.

“Indeed,” he answered pale and absently.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” I forced in a laugh.

“Well, someone’s dying anyway,” he gruffed.

His attention was split between me and the live evening news report playing on the small grainy black and white television rigged up on a dining room chair in the doorway to an office. The newscaster droned in hackneyed levity about a silence from the Governor’s mansion in regard to an execution due to take place that very evening.

“I thought capital punishment was a thing of the past in this neck of the woods,” I offered in an attempt at smalltalk, “Texas maybe, but New hampshire?”

“New Hampshire’s always stood out a bit from the rest of New England,” mumbled the innkeeper. “Thankfully, we got the death penalty back in “77 – and not a moment too soon to take out the likes of this devil,” he thumbed in the direction of the television.

I thought about asking him what the doomed man had done, but the color in the sky was starting to match the leaves of the trees outside the window and I really didn’t care about an answer. My mother was a fan of lighthouses, decorating her Barnegat bungalow with pictures of them. I’d hoped I might take a photo of the lighthouse towering above the trees outside and frame it for her as a Christmas gift, so, as he extended the key to my room, I asked if there was a quick way to the water’s edge where I might snap off a scenic shot or two. He paused, then told me of a trail at the corner of the block that led through a shallow wood to a rocky stretch of beach halfway between Fort William and Mary at the North end of the island and Fort Stark at the southern end. I thanked him and climbed the stairs to my room.

My room, cheap art aside, was a far better cry than the accommodations of the interstate motel specializing in vibrating beds. The quilt on the bed was thick, warm and appeared handmade. My glance paused an instant on a framed print above the dresser depicting a highly romanticized scene, from a place not too far south along the coast from here, showing two native Americans peeking out from behind a copse of trees to spy Pilgrims disembarking from what was no doubt the Mayflower as they landed on Plymouth Rock. It was a perfectly cozy room and I chuckled to myself a question wondering if I might be becoming a yuppie.

Outside, I toggled my cable knit Cardigan against the damp sea air, infused with the scent of burning leaves. The broad glowing porches of the homes along my walk were decked out in corn stalk bundles and jack o’lanterns sitting atop hay bales. Invigorated by my decision to stay on this beautiful island instead of my usual accomodations, I breathed deep, congratulated myself, strolled across the intersection of the main road and entered the trail of the small woods. It was much darker in the woods, leaving me to believe it was much later than it really was, so fearing I’d miss the sunset, I hurried my steps.

The woods were not more than a hundred yards and ended upon a rocky stretch of coast. The innkeeper was right. It afforded quite an advantageous spot for photographing the lighthouse. I slipped on soggy autumn leaves nestled between the boulders and skinned my ankle. Quickly losing good light, I simply pulled my sock up over the scrape, but took greater care in climbing the rocks. My camera was cheap, but the film was quality. I couldn’t tell if the dial on the camera was on four or five exposures remaining. I unloaded them all, hoping one would turn out a winner. It turns out it would have been better if I’d saved one, or had the convenience of the smartphone I carry around these days.

I admired the view until the sun dipped below the horizon, then made for the woods. The trailhead at the edge of the woods gaped open and dark, darker than the remaining light in the sky should have allowed. I considered taking the long route around the woods to the street, but knew I’d have to climb more rocks to do it. Thinking about the scrape I’d already suffered from them, I started into the dark. No sooner had I started forward, when the dark began to shimmer in a dull foggy-blue. My first thought was headlights coming through the length of the wood, but lights from a car don’t coalesce into shapes. This light was a source unto itself.

It wasn’t until the silhouette of arms and legs took shape of the light that a sense of dread seized hold of me. Could I really be witnessing a spectre and, if so, why on Earth would it choose to descend upon me? I froze in my tracks hoping it would not see me, but there was no denying I was it’s target. Slowly, not more than five or ten feet before me, its vaporous features came into focus. It was a young woman. She wore feathers in her hair and a beaded dress made of deerskin. It was the spirit of a native! From under the lengths of her hair, dark trickles of blood ran across a pretty face. Her eyes were sad and absent. They looked through me when she droned: “In love…I fell. I fell…in love.” Her voice warbled like an echo of an echo.

“What?” I gasped in a whisper.

“In love…I fell. I fell…in love,” the spirit repeated.

“Are you dead?” I managed to ask through my terror.

“Tonight. He returns for me, tonight,” she said.

“Who returns for you?”

“Tonight, he comes for me tonight.”

And, with those words, the image dissolved from focus, and the light of which it was made swarmed past me in an icy chill before disappearing into the rocks beside the water.

I never ran so fast, before or since, than I did from that wood. My heart was true in its duty, pumping blood at a speed to match my feet. I took the stairs of the inn’s front porch in a single leap and opened the door only enough to let me through but allowing for none of the night behind me.

The innkeeper rushed from behind the desk to my side: “Dear God, man. What’s wrong? Now, you’re the one who looks as if he’s seen a ghost.”

“I have,” I cried. “I really have!”

The innkeeper pulled aside the lacy window curtains and inspected the street outside: “Where?”

“In the woods – by the water’s edge.”

“Son, around here the Atlantic sometimes does some funny things – sprays, mists, fogs – I’m sure it was only…”

“It was the ghost of an indian. It spoke to me.”

“It spoke to you? An indian? In what language?”

I’d been so terror stricken at the encounter, it hadn’t struck me as odd that the ghost of an indian would speak to me in English.

“What did it say?” the innkeeper asked me.

“‘In love – I fell. I fell – in love,” she said.”

“She?” asked the innkeeper, his face draining of color. “An indian girl told you she fell?”

“She was injured – her head bloodied. She said, ‘He returns for me tonight.'”

“Tonight?!” the innkeeper cried.

“That’s what she told me.”

The innkeeper tore into the office behind the desk and returned as quickly holding a picture frame: “Is this the girl you saw?” he asked, extending the picture.

My blood ran cold when I saw her face in the frame. It was one of four faces, four smiling teenage girls posing with their arms around each other. One was dressed as scarecrow, one as a baby, one as a flapper and lastly the girl dressed as an indian. It had been a Halloween costume! “Yes, it was her!” I shivered.

The innkeeper ran to the phone at the desk and dialed the operator, “Hello! Get me the Governor’s office. Yes, the Office of the Governor – please, hurry!”

“What is it?” I cried, while he held for the operator.

“That was the last picture taken of my daughter,” he moaned, tears rattling in his eyes. “It was two years ago. They were going to a Halloween party up at the Wentworth Hotel. They met some men along the way and separated. My daughter was raped and murdered – by him by that man!” he pointed to the television that had broadcast the news story about the man scheduled for execution that very night. “He told the police he was her boyfriend. I told them she didn’t have one. He said it was their secret – that they didn’t tell me because I wouldn’t understand. He said they were making love by the rocks and they slipped on leaves and she hit her head on a boulder. She fell – in love! She was making love and fell! He was telling the truth. Oh, God! He returns for her tonight!

He never got through to the Governor that night – not in time anyway. I couldn’t stay in that place that night and ended up driving back up to the interstate motel with the vibrating beds.

To this day, I don’t know if that innkeeper was calling the Governor to try and stop the execution because the young man was innocent or because he was trying to stop the young man from returning to be with his daughter in the afterlife. I’m sure it was a qulam he never got over.

I like to think the two lovers were re-joined in the hereafter and she is no longer alone in haunting that dreaded place or that she no longer has a reason to haunt it at all.

It was just ahead, that very copse of woods – a black patch on my GPS next to the pink road twisting beside the water. My heart began to pump my blood as I approached, much like it did that night so long ago. My foot pressed the gas pedal down as I turned the bend in the road. There was a light in the woods. It was just my headlights. I’m sure it was only my headlights.

4 thoughts on “Qualm on the Piscataqua”

    1. I’m glad my story is so believable as to make you pose that question, Jeff. Alas, it is only a yarn, spun for your enjoyment. I’ve never even been to New Castle Island, New Hampshire, though I do plan on stopping there on my way to Maine and French Canada next summer.

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