My Hudson Valley ghost story begins as an entirely different memory, a scent trigger. Fifth grade, when my science teacher--new, and probably twenty years younger than I am now--was trying to teach us something I can't remember the point of at all. But the demonstration involved lighting a lock of hair on fire. And it all sent us running, unable to go back in the room for the rest of the day.
And over the years, that day was forgotten, shuffled off in a deep file cabinet of time past; and I probably hadn't thought of that day in decades, until one autumn night, I was dining with friends in the cellar of a Hudson Valley inn, and the waitress ran out, a wet towel on her head, trailing that scent of burning hair like a jet contrail.
We'd been talking about ghosts all night--those of us who had seen them not even bothering to try and convince those who hadn't, because, quite frankly, seeing a ghost is like having sex for the first time, divides the world into before and after, yes and no.
The restaurant, a pre-Revolutionary War tavern, now itself a ghost, was locally famous for ghosts. For Lafayette and low ceilings as well, perhaps. And that night was the night I finally find out exactly what Yorkshire pudding was, which, after years of reading about it in a thousand British books, turned out to be fairly disappointing, even with the distraction of constantly looking around, hoping to see something spectral peeking out from behind the hewn support beams.
Nobody had bothered to tell us who the tavern's ghost was, or if they did, by the time the ghost lit the waitresses' hair on fire, I had already forgotten.
Maybe there's a more prosaic explanation. Maybe she was careless around candles. Maybe a very small bite of the sun had fallen out of the sky and landed on her head, a shooting star finding its target. Things not unknown.
But it happened right after she told us she didn't believe in ghosts.
Those of us who had seen ghosts before weren't all that surprised. Any piece of the past that wants to stick around that badly should not be trifled with.
So here's what I think, haunted by that fifth grade memory, by past present, a flash, a scent, here's what I think when the ghost reminds me that there's never a good reason to forget anything because ghosts are the doppelgangers of time, proof Einstein is wrong and that everything really does happen at once. So what I think is, maybe there really is no better way to go through life than with your hair on fire, reveling in the light of memory and the haunt.
Edward Readicker-Henderson is the recipient of two Lowell Thomas awards. He's currently working on a book about the edge of the world.