"Pale Ghosts" Three

Dolly Reynolds from issue 292.5

This weekend we featured Dolly Reynolds's nonfiction story in three parts beginning Friday November 7th, Saturday November 8th and this is the conclusion, part three and four of "Pale Ghosts" from issue 292.5, September-October 2007.

Thoughts from the author: dolly bread loaf photo

I wrote this piece as a personal essay response to the murder of my mother in 1997. It seemed then such a huge and unmanageable subject, but writing "Pale Ghosts" helped me decide to attend grad school and focus on my writing in a serious way. I am now a 3rd year MFA student at San Francisco State and am working on a book length memoir about my family, the murder, and its aftermath.

I've been back to Connecticut twice this year to visit the reservoir where she was killed. The first time, in August, the reservoir seemed unbearably haunted; I thought the trees would reach out and grab me like in the Wizard of Oz. The second time, just last weekend, I went with the police chief who found my mother and stayed with her body all night. With his quiet, solid, decent presence, the reservoir became a beautiful, light-filled, and ultimately hopeful place. The two trips made me see that spectral visits and hauntings depend a lot on our earthly circumstances and frame of mind.


      I moved to California after college and have lived here for fifteen years. Little by little, I left the New England ghosts of my childhood behind and built myself a life in San Francisco. I feel safe in the fog. For awhile, I kept two pictures in which the ghosts appeared. The photos were taken on Thanksgiving, the year before I left. They  were two identical shots of my sister and me sitting on the couch with our dog, taken one right after another. Standing behind my sister on the couch is the image of a red, snout-nosed man, a demon, almost. Standing behind me is the image a woman with long, flowing hair in a high-necked dress, wearing a medallion around her neck. She looked like an angel to me, a protective one, one I believed had somehow helped me to make the safe passage to my own California life. I’d trot out these pictures when friends told me they didn’t believe in ghosts. That notion was absurd to me; it was like not believing in grass, or rain.

One December morning in 1997, I looked up from my desk at work and there, in the corner of my shared office, was a ghost from our house. He was dressed like a photo I had seen once of Abraham Lincoln, in dark overalls and a white collarless shirt, holding his top hat solemnly across his chest. He looked down at his hands and disappeared.

“Kerry,” I called to my office mate, at work at her desk against the opposite wall. “I just saw a ghost.” Then my teeth started chattering.

That night the phone rang in my apartment.

“Darling.” It was my father. I could barely hear him through his sobs. “I have the worst possible news. Your mother is dead.” He told me, wailing, that she had taken her puppy for a walk around the reservoir and never returned. The police found her body nine hours later, at the bottom of a ravine, covered with snow. What was more, my father wept, the police had found marks on her neck. My mother was not only dead, she was murdered. The ghost had come to California to tell me that my mother was gone, killed in a violent and horrific way. I could absorb it. I stared at the phone, gasping, for what felt like hours, before I could control my voice enough to respond. “What should I do?” I whispered.


“Come home,” he answered, and then his line went dead.

I was afraid to stay in the house in the weeks that followed my mother’s death, but the ghosts were completely silent. It was as if they were all on their very best behavior, as solemn and reverent as the ghost had been that day in my San Francisco office, holding his hat in his hands. The ghosts remained silent even as the house filled with relatives and we ate dinner every night in the dining room, where the silverware used to clatter from the buffet. They were silent when we gathered after dinner in the living room, to drink ourselves to sleep. The marble clock stayed planted on the piano, and the jade Buddha looked on stoically from the window sill, never once moving an inch.

Most of all, the ghosts remained silent when the two detectives came to the house to tell us they had caught the man who killed my mother. The detectives sat on two ladder-backed chairs in the middle of the kitchen floor at 7:00 in the morning, and, while the coffee maker spat and hissed, they told us how she had died. Her murderer was a sociopath who had just been released from prison.

He told the detectives he had been waiting in the woods by the reservoir for someone to rob, and when he saw my mother, alone, he attacked her. He beat her head with his fists so savagely he split the tendons in his knuckles. She was still struggling, so he threw her down the ravine. When she wouldn’t stop screaming, he went down after her, strangled her with the puppy’s leash and slit her throat with his hunting knife, severing her jugular vein, though not killing her immediately.

The murder has destroyed my family. I do not speak to my father. He sold the house in the months following my mother’s death, right after he had sprinkled her ashes over the field. The new owner has subdivided the lot, and now there are six new McHouses, all with separate driveways, where our horses used to live. I wonder sometimes if any of those old spirits are still clanking around in the farmhouse, terrifying the new owners.

Ghost hunters will tell you that you have nothing to fear from ghosts; after all, they say, ghosts are just people without bodies that are stuck between this life and the next, often because their deaths were so violent or unjustified or cruel. But that was my mother’s death, as well. Still, even after all those years of being terrified, I don’t believe there was an evil spirit in that house. My mother was right; it was the spirits inside us that were causing the harm. The ghosts were like my neighbors in our thin-walled San Francisco apartment building: the strangers who are thrown together by coincidence and come to know the most intimate details of our day-to-day lives. I will always remember the ghost in my office with his hat in his hands. The final act was one of great decency, since after all, who better to understand the trauma of a violent death than a ghost who had experienced the same? Likewise, my downstairs San Francisco neighbors, after years of complaints about the noise and banging on the ceiling with a broom, came to my door with tears in their eyes and a warm plate of muffins in their hands when they heard about my mother’s  death.


      But there is still my mother, the only ghost I long for. I try to imagine her at night. The prosecutors told me she was still alive when the murderer left her in the ravine, crying out for help. I imagine her freezing, bloody, calling out as her strength as she died with no one to hear her. I make myself listen. It’s all I can give; it’s all I have left of our savaged relationship. There was no mending while she was alive; maybe there’s no mending after death either. Her spirit is with the man who killed her, tormenting him. She’s left me alone.


I still wait for her, praying for grace, for reverence, just like she taught me with our rice ghost so long ago, when she was her best self. Those days in that Connecticut kitchen with her hands in the bowl of rice were the happiest we had. She showed me how to respect the spirits that remain after tragedy seems to take everything.

I never speak of her death now, but it’s with me all the time. People would tell me to move on, not to dwell on the horror of her murder. Maybe one night I will stop listening for her, one night soon, but not tonight.

Dolly Reynolds has a JD from UC Hastings and is currently an MFA student at San Francisco State. Her work has appeared in many literary journals and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She works as a veterinary nurse and lives in San Francisco by the ocean with her husband and their twin daughters. Dolly’s essay appeared in the North American Review September-October 2007 issue.

Top Illustration by: Catherine Byun is a freelance illustrator based in San Francisco. She spends her time drawing, watching movies, and hiking around California. Her work appears in issues 299.1, Winter 2014, 299.3, Summer 2014 and 299.4, the Fall 2014 of the North American Review

Bottom Illustration by: Illustration by: Vlad Alvarez, who was born in El Salvador, Central America and now lives in West Chester Pennsylvania. He attended Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and graduated with a BFA of Graphic Design and Illustration. The image was created for Fort Worth Weekly. http://vladalvarez.com/. Vlad is featured in issue 299.2, Spring 2014.