It was a steal at a hundred dollars a month. The quaint, historic Medical Shoppe stood next to the 18th century courthouse in the small Virginia town I’d moved to after law school. It was built by a doctor during the Revolutionary War, used by another during the Civil War. It sat at the edge of the historic Yorktown Battlefield and oozed history. I was a fledgling attorney looking for a place to hang my shingle, and it was the perfect place.
From my first day in law school it was clear to me I’d never make it at one of the major law firms. Three years of learning to read and think with the cold, analytical mind of the legal scholar was like a slow strangulation of my soul. It was a lonely time too, feeling alienated from my law school classmates, intent as they were on learning to manipulate the truth to their advantage. None of them could understand my frustration. What good is a rich imagination if you’re always constrained by the facts on the record and legal precedent?
So I threw myself into sweeping the dust from the corners, polishing the windows, and washing every surface, each stroke bringing the small building to life again. The National Park Service was so delighted to have it rented, they willingly agreed to build an inner wall to create a private office for me on the first floor.
“There’s plenty of lumber in our storeroom for the walls,” the Park Ranger said. “But we’ll need a door. I think there’s one of the original ones down below.”
“Let’s go see,” I said, eager to explore the basement. We carefully made our way down the ancient wooden steps, roughened with a century of wear. With each step down into the deadened space, the air grew cooler. It felt like I was traveling into an earlier century and that eyes from the past might be gazing from the shadows. A shiver ran through me. I hesitated. The Park Ranger looked back questioningly, but he didn’t appear frightened, so I forged ahead.
Murky stillness filled the darkness at the bottom of the stairs. I reached out to the stone wall to steady myself and found it oddly cool and dry. The floor was earthen, packed down hard near the steps, but softer as we edged our way into the shadows. My eyes adjusted slowly as the Ranger’s flashlight splashed over the historical debris discarded there over the years. We found what we were looking for standing against the wall in a far corner. If a door could speak, it would have called out, “Pick me! Pick me!” Its aged patina, though deadened with the grime of many years, gleamed through. As I rubbed away the surface dirt, I could almost feel the hands that had crafted it long ago.
As he worked the door loose from the floor, I noticed half-buried behind it a small, homespun cloth sack, its corner chewed by mice. Its contents, bits of brass and wrought iron, most likely handcrafted in some 18th or 19th century forge, now blackened with age, were scattered in the silty earth. I dug into the earth to gather up as much as I could, and then used all my arts of persuasion on the workmen to use as much of the old hardware as they could when they mounted the door. I took on the job of cleaning it and found beneath its thick coating of grunge beautiful inset panels of curly maple.
Several small metal pieces from the old sack were left over; these I kept on my desk in a small dish – historical tchotchkes I could finger from time to time. One small circle of metal intrigued me. The workmen said it looked like a link from a metal chain, but I wasn’t so sure. It had no break in it and felt less dense than the other pieces of metal. I’d have researched it further, but I had a law firm to establish.
I introduced myself to the courthouse employees and to the shopkeepers on Main Street. I met the local attorneys. Clients trickled in. I discovered I liked contracts, estate work and real estate transactions. My first divorce case was enough to convince me it would be my last. Talks to community groups brought in elderly clients who needed wills. The charitable organizations I volunteered to help all needed non-profit tax filings. Before long, I hired a part-time secretary. My life fell into a predictable, comfortable pattern.
It ended late one afternoon. My secretary had left for the day, and I was in the attic above my office where I’d created a private workspace to lay out my papers without concern for the wandering eyes of clients. Footsteps below—a man’s confident, measured gait—surprised me, because I hadn’t heard the front door open.
“Marcia?” I called downstairs.”Did you forget something?”
She didn’t answer, and the continuing silence left me uneasy. My heart quickened as I crept down the stairs to investigate, then skipped several beats when I saw nobody was there.
There had to be an explanation. A house on the next block was being restored; I saw the construction workers’ trucks parked in front of it that morning. A distant hammer could sound like steps on a wooden floor, especially the brisk clip of a military walk I’d heard. I shrugged it off, and the memory faded. Days passed, and nothing further happened.
The following week, I heard three sharp knocks on the door to my private office.
“Come in,” I said, but nothing happened. After several moments, I got up and leaned my head out. “Yes, Marcia?”
She looked up from her own desk across the room.
“You knocked,” I said.
“No, I didn’t.”
“But I just heard you.”
“I couldn’t. I’ve been sitting here for the past hour.”
We stared at each other, then we began the meticulous recounting of each action of the last moments. Nothing could account for the knocking. I returned to my office, closed the door and sat down, too perplexed to continue my work.
Suddenly Marcia barged in, her face ashen. “Come out here. You’ve got to hear this.” I rushed after her to where she was standing next to the copier.
“Listen,” she whispered, pointing warily at the floor where we stood. I heard nothing for a few seconds. Then I heard the footsteps I’d heard the week before, this time directly beneath us, as if someone were walking on the ceiling of the basement. When I cried out, the footsteps walked swiftly to the wall and disappeared.
“What’s going on?” Marcia asked anxiously, but I could only shake my head.
From then on, our ears were attuned to every sound in the office, and they came more frequently, as if we were encouraging them. Working alone in the office now made me so uneasy I had no wish to be there alone. Even with Marcia there, I often sensed someone watching over my shoulder when I worked at my desk, but when I turned, the feeling disappeared.
The next time the Ranger came to pick up the rent check, I told him about the footsteps. That’s when he told me what apparently was common knowledge: a Civil War soldier had died there, the only one in his regiment who hadn’t died on the battlefield.
“Was he buried with the rest of them?” I asked. I’d seen a small Civil War cemetery on the edge of the battlefield lined with dozens of rows of white markers.
The Ranger shook his head. “There’s no record of what happened to him. He survived for a few weeks. I heard a story once that he was buried quickly here in the basement as the Union was advancing, but we’ve never seen any evidence. You might ask around town if you want to know more. Some people here are into that sort of thing.”
With a few inquiries, I found there were stories of ghosts in every historic building in town. One that had been a boarding house in the late 18th century had half a dozen spirits who congregated in the afternoon on the front porch. No one knew any more about my dead soldier, but none seemed surprised at the possibility. I returned to my office, and sat at my desk, frozen with uncertainty. No wonder the National Park Service rented the building so cheaply.
Sleep was impossible that night. At 5 o’clock the next morning I was as tired as I’d been at 10 the night before, and by that time, I was angry too. Determined to take control, I drove to my office and slammed the front door loud enough, I hoped, to wake the dead.
“I’m back!” I shouted. “And you’d better stay out of my way, whoever you are.”
I turned on all the lights and waited, savoring each moment of growing silence. When I was satisfied I was alone, I hung my jacket on the peg by the door and made coffee. There was work to be done, and I relished the peace of the morning.
It shattered the moment I opened the door to my office, where I stopped so abruptly I splashed coffee all over myself. My desk was bare, devoid of all the files I’d left on my deskpad so I’d see them first thing in the morning. I frisked my desk, one drawer after another. At last, in my junk drawer at the bottom, I found my missing files, stashed in the back as if they’d been hidden. Rage exploded inside me. This was war.
“Get out of here!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. “It’s either you or me, and I don’t plan to leave.”
Anger consumed me like a white heat rising from my toes upward. I jerked the missing files out and placed them on my desk. I banged shut all the drawers I’d opened, and as I did, I heard other noises. At first, I thought it was Marcia coming up the steps to the office, but it was too early. She had to drop her daughter off at school first. I paused to listen and soon recognized the measured footsteps I’d heard weeks before. I got up and stamped on the floor three times, shouting “Go away!” with each stomp. After a brief silence, I heard three loud steps answer me.
My breath caught, and the hair rose on my body. Tentatively, without shouting, I pounded my feet on the floor five times. He answered the same. I marched out several more steps in a different rhythm. He mimicked them. I stared at the floor, and the silence between us felt pregnant as if he were waiting for my next move. My eyes fell on the old door. I walked over to it and slowly tapped on it three times as I’d heard before. I nearly fainted when I heard three identical taps in response. I tried other sequences, combining them with steps on the floor. They were all answered the same way.
I sat, pondering the impossible idea I was communicating with a ghost. When Marcia arrived, I told her what happened, but she refused to believe it was anything other than street sounds embellished by my wild imagination. Over the next few days the ghost and I teased each other with our random steps and taps. “It sounds like a telegraph office in here,” she complained at last. That sent me to the library where I learned the Morse Code was invented just before the Civil War. With a copy of the code they’d used in that era, I tried to decipher the patterns I’d heard. It took my breath away when I deciphered the word my ghost kept repeating: STAY.
The loneliness I could feel in that one word chilled me to the core. This was a kindred spirit who was speaking to me across the centuries, and by some miracle we’d found a common language, crude as it was. In a few minutes I crafted my simple response: YES.
Soon I made out the words HOME and WELCOME but could make sense of little else. Nevertheless, his actions spoke far louder than his words. Every morning the scent of roses and camelias filled my office. Small gifts appeared on my desk – an old thimble one morning, a shard of an old china cup another. Did he keep a stash of old objects below? I wished I’d taken more time to explore, but, once we’d brought up the door, the Park Ranger told me the basement wasn’t included in the rent and locked its door. Even if it were, to go there now would feel like an invasion of his privacy.
I turned instead to the dish on my desk. One morning the metal circle the workmen and I had puzzled over suddenly came to life. As I turned it over and over in my fingers, it looked smaller, as if it had shrunk, and I recognized it was a ring. Its edges were rounder; it looked brighter, almost shiny. An inscription was faintly visible on the inner rim of the ring, too minute for me to decipher, but a jeweler with the help of his jeweler’s loupe read it easily.
“In thee my choice I do rejoice. M.M.” He looked at me with interest. “The phrase goes back at least a hundred years. Where did you find this?”
I didn’t answer, reluctant to give away our secret, only thanked him and hurried back to my office.
Now that I knew now his initials were M.M., I took the next day off to do research at the Virginia Historical Society, and told her to reschedule.
“What am I supposed to do with all these appointments?” Marcia asked me with a look of outrage. I had a meetings scheduled from ten until six.
“This is more important,” I said.
“This is unprofessional,” she grumbled, but she did as she was instructed.
In the research library there were excellent records of Yorktown’s Civil War dead and the soldiers buried in the Yorktown National Cemetery. Only one soldier who had died at Yorktown wasn’t buried there; his name was Malcolm MacDougall, a 19th Century Scotsman from one of the North Carolina regiments. There was no doubt in my mind that it was Malcolm buried in the basement beneath my office.
Marcia was horrified. “Someone’s buried in the basement? Good God!”
“I’m sure of it,” I said with a confidence I’d never felt before about anything in my life.
She shuddered. “Then he should be given a proper burial somewhere else.”
“But he’s communicating with us,” I explained, unable to comprehend her repugnance. “He must like having us here.”
“You call it communicating. I call it haunting. That wasn’t in my job description.”
She finished up her work and quit that afternoon. I was relieved to shut the door behind her; it would be much easier to delve further into Malcolm’s history without her watching or listening. It was a mistake to tell her of Malcolm, and I was well rid of her.
It was a struggle to continue without a secretary, but I was reluctant to hire another. I could tell Malcolm didn’t want me any busier, and I could understand that. He’d had more than a century of loneliness, and it wasn’t fair to expect him to appreciate 21st century ideas about women’s work. I’d just have to work harder.
It helped when I moved a cot into my private office so I could sleep there, no less than I’d have done if I’d been one of the 19th century camp women who followed their men on military campaign. It kept me as close to Malcolm at night as I felt during the day. With the old door bolted and Malcolm to protect me, I was perfectly safe.
When I returned that first evening with a carry-out dinner, I was touched to find a candle lit on the conference table where I ate. Before I sat down, I gently tapped out a thank-you to him on the door to the basement, and that was when I first heard Malcolm’s music—a lovely sweet melody from a distant piano, a sentimental song that would have been at home in any 19th century parlor. His candle glowed with a haze that carried my imagination away into what his world must be like. It was the most romantic evening of my life. His music continued until I fell asleep, and from then on, he serenaded me to sleep every night.
As I completed the matters I’d been working on for my clients, I declined taking on new ones to free up more time so I could be with Malcolm. It still wasn’t easy to manage it all, and at the end of one long day, I reached for my ring for comfort. My heart stopped when I couldn’t find it anywhere on my desk. I jerked open drawers, cleared every square inch of my desk of papers, combed the rug on the floor, and carefully laid out each piece I kept in the dish with the ring. I would die if I lost it. It was the only physical connection I had with something Malcolm had touched.
I cried when I finally found it lying in the center of my pillow on my cot. Immediately I knew this was the sign I’d been waiting for, his invitation to wear it. I placed it on my finger as tenderly as I knew he would have done—it fit perfectly—and I relished the thought that Malcolm had chosen me.
A few days later, I found a swatch of cloth on the corner of my desk. It was less coarse than the cloth of the bag I’d found in the basement, but still looked homespun and old. I puzzled over it and then remembered the owner of the antique shop down the street was an expert in Early American textiles.
“What do we have here?” she said as I handed over my scrap, her eyes gleaming with that curiosity of a collector with a new specimen.
Her assistant peered over her shoulder and didn’t even bother to feel it. “That’s like what they used for shrouds long ago. I’d throw it away.” She gave it a disgusted look.
“No, no, no,” the owner said in her perpetually cheerful, high voice. “It’s too fine a weave for that. More likely it’s from a shift – you know, the undergarment women wore back then. Or…”
She turned it over and over in her hand, picked up her magnifying glass to examine the handwork more closely, then looked up with a victorious smile.
“It’s not from a shift. See here on this edge, there’s fine stitching, like decoration. They usually didn’t decorate shifts. I’d say it’s probably from a dress.”
“A fancy dress? Like – like, maybe, a wedding dress?” I asked urgently.
“Anything’s possible,” the owner said. “It’s only a scrap, after all.” Her assistant snorted and turned away.
I went home and put on the only white dress I owned. I hadn’t been back to my apartment in days and the air inside smelled musty. It felt strange to be there, no longer like my home. I ran a finger through the dust on my piano and resolved to clean it soon, but my heart was no longer there. As quickly as I could, I returned to my office, closed the old door on my private office and felt a deep peace blanket me again. I worked deep into the night to finish all my work.
The following morning, the heavy fog that commonly filled the valley rising from the York River when the chill of fall air began each day surrounded the office in a translucent haze as it had for the past few days. When I unbolted the old door to go wash up, however, I saw the office itself was filled with a haze that was thickening before my eyes and was pooled at the bottom of the door to the basement. As I returned to my office, the fog had begun to flow from beneath the basement door and rise slowly up the walls. An exhilaration I’d never felt before rose within me.
My fingers were clumsy as I fastened the buttons on my white dress. As I stared at the basement door, far in the distance I heard wisps of Malcolm’s music that slowly grew into a hum. At least, it sounded like a hum until I realized it was a word: COME. It had to be Malcolm.
“Where are you?” I called out, trembling as my heart raced. By this time, the walls were covered with the foggy haze and the ceiling too. Suddenly, like a whip cracking through the gentle hum of the music, I heard a creak I’d heard only once before, the first time I’d gone below. My eyes riveted back to the door to the basement, and I watched in fascination as it opened, slowly, steadily, inch by inch, allowing the hazy fog to flood into the room even faster.
I couldn’t move, could only stare at the opening door. My mind raced as faced as my heart was beating. I had documents to file with the Clerk of Court by noon. There were phone calls I had to return. Back at home, I had a tall pile of the books I hadn’t had time to read in law school, a piano I hadn’t touched in months, and mail I hadn’t opened in weeks. And there was my family.
But it wasn’t enough to keep me here, not with Malcolm beckoning me to come. I took my first step down the stairs into the cloud of fog flowing upwards. Three steps further it enveloped me and after that I could only feel the steps beneath my feet and the hand-rail I clutched with both hands. My heart beat wildly as the music grew louder.
It took a while for me to comprehend that the steps went far beyond where the basement floor should have been, so I began to count them. One. Two. Three. Four. Five…
When I reached fifty, I stopped. I couldn’t see a thing but reached my hands out anyway only to prove there was foggy emptiness in every direction. No wall of stone, no cool air. Doubts broke through my determination to forge forward. Where was Malcolm? Why was he so elusive? I had never wanted anything this badly. The music grew louder still.
I counted fifty more. The air was thick enough to cut with a knife, and it was hard to breathe. I counted another fifty; the stairs began to curve in an unfamiliar way. After another fifty steps they turned in the opposite direction. I lost count and continued on for what must have been hundreds more. Instinct propelled me forward, but I could no longer suppress my fear that the steps might never end. I raced onward nevertheless until the steps were only as wide as my feet, and felt hard and slippery like marble, not the rough wood of before. They sounded empty inside, with each step hollower than the last. The rough-hewn handrail had shrunk to the size of a thin dowel. Both were clearly vanishing, as was my hope of ever being with Malcolm.
I sank down on the final step in despair. When I stopped. the music did as well, and the sudden stark silence overwhelmed me. Was this only a nightmare I would wake up from? A hoax Malcolm had played on my mind? Had my own fantasies at last driven me crazy?
Or was this a test? Of my commitment to taking this final step to be with him? He was older and far wiser than me, and he wouldn’t want me to make this decision lightly. Malcolm had literally brought me to the brink of the rest of my life, but it had to be my choice.
I pondered until I felt dizzy and looked up to the long staircase stretching endlessly upward. Should I try to return? But the life I’d known before felt like an eternity away, and I had no wish to go back – ever. My deepest instincts took over.
“Malcolm! I need you! Help me!” I cried into the vast space surrounding me I knew wasn’t empty, Instantly, Malcolm’s sweet music burst through the silence with a brilliant sharpness I’d not heard before. Sweeter yet was Malcolm’s voice, this time as true and clear as any living being’s.
“Come,” he said, his voice the warm invitation I needed to hear. I had no more questions, no more doubts. I rose to stand tall on the final step and, with absolute confidence Malcolm would be reaching out for me, leaped into the abyss.