Lucy Ainsworth Cooke, I see you. Your bright eyes, kind and sorrowful. Your black dress fans up like a seashell towards a wide lace collar, and a coral necklace skims your throat. Your brown hair shows a hint of auburn, spreads in wings from your pale face. Your lips curve in the slightest smile. What have you seen? Your face is so familiar that I need to sit down, need to linger with you for a moment. Cramped in a nook at the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier, I crouch against the wall and crane my neck so that I can behold you.
The parade of the living tromps by me, peering down as if I am part of the exhibit too. I ignore it. I am here to commune with the dead.
You were thirty-one when this portrait was painted in 1850. The laminated museum booklet tells me they called you “Sleeping Lucy” because you went into trances, found missing wallets, and healed the sick. You were deathly ill as a girl. Your parents couldn’t support you and your eight siblings, so you were sent into foster care at age eight and somehow survived. You outlived your first husband and married a second. You became famous throughout New England, consulting with over 2,000 people during your fifty-three-year clairvoyant medical practice.
You were a witch. The booklet doesn’t say that, but I see it in your eyes: the compassion of someone who has known great suffering. I see the weight of responsibility that it took to follow your calling. That at any moment your neighbors, the law, perhaps even your own husband, could become jealous of your power and turn against you.
But they didn’t. I know why you lived here and why I live here now, at thirty-four, almost the same age you were when this portrait was painted. There is something about this place. I can feel it. Vermont never gave up its witches, never drowned, hanged, mangled or burned them.
While hundreds were accused of witchcraft throughout New England, and tens of thousands were murdered for it in Europe, there is only one record of a witch trial in Vermont. No exact date is known, though it is guessed to have taken place sometime in the mid 1700s. A woman living in Pownal, known as “the widow Kreiger,” was accused of “possessing extraordinary powers.” In the middle of winter, her neighbors gathered by the shore of the Hoosic River, cut a hole in the ice, and tossed her in. If she floated, she was guilty, held afloat by the Devil. If she sank, she was innocent. She sank like a stone, like a woman who knows that death in a freezing river is quicker than death by fire. Luckily for Kreiger, her neighbors fished her out. No other record of her exists.
How did I end up in this small, musty history museum in Montpelier, on a bright, cold day in February, thinking about those who possess extraordinary powers? Out of this whole museum, how did I end up staring at a portrait of a witch, this woman who feels like a friend, even though she’s been dead for a hundred and twenty-four years? Why did Vermont call me from across the country, whispering in my ear?
I too hear voices. I too know where people hurt when I lay hands on them. I too track the comings and goings of the dead, sense things before they happen. Wandering the Green Mountains, I feel lonely. I feel at home. We’ve met before, haven’t we? In Vermont, everywhere hovers with that same feeling. Haunted, some might call it. I say, At home. The past is here, ripe and palpable, reaching out to us. Hoping we reach back.
In Vermont, people talk openly about the world of the dead. I noticed it when I first came here ten years ago for an artist’s residency. Every building was haunted. Children’s laughter woke us at night and a man’s heavy footsteps prowled the hall outside my room. One night some of us were so scared that we all slept on mattresses pushed together on the floor. The next day, we took thick, silvery bundles of sage and smudged every room in the house, but the ghosts were undeterred. They simply moved from the rooms where our smudging had been most vigorous and took up residence in the dark corners where we had been less careful, the nooks of stairwells and the forgotten shadows behind doors.
Now that I live in Vermont full-time, I find that it’s not just the residency center that is haunted; ghosts are normal dinner-table conversation here. No one who has lived in Vermont for any length of time bats an eye when I tell them there are two ghosts in the building where I live. “What are they like?” they politely inquire, as if asking after the health of an aunt. I tell them about the lonely woman who lingers near the upstairs shower and the prankster man who follows me around the basement, sending waves of anxiety along my back and causing me to whirl around every few minutes, sure that I’ll see him right behind me. My hosts nod and mm hmm, then tell me their own stories. Everyone here has one. It’s only the outsiders who harrumph and shuffle, shifting in their chairs, breaking in with, “Oh come on, do you really believe that?”
Yes, we do.
My friend Tyler tells me about all the run-ins with ghosts they’ve experienced since moving to Vermont ten years ago. We talk about the genocide of the Abenaki, Mahican and Penacook, their systematic murder by the incoming settlers, backed by the government. How their language, culture and bodies were violently removed from this place, as indigenous people have been from so much of this continent. Yet the land remembers what the conquerors would rather forget, echoing off granite hills and whispering through dark valleys.
When I toured the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I now study, the Associate Director proudly told me about Anna, the ghost of a young woman murdered in the street behind the campus in 1897, who haunts the tower rising above the fourth floor in College Hall. There are stories of doors on that floor closing suddenly, items and even furniture mysteriously shifting place, pictures falling off walls in unison and glass breaking.
To subdue Anna, or perhaps simply because they were fond of her, the college named their cafe after her. Once Cafe Anna was born, her ghost quieted down. No more banging doors and relocating desks; though once in awhile, the staff whose offices are on the fourth floor still report strange happenings.
There’s also said to be the ghost of an angry Civil War soldier near the women’s bathroom in the basement. The whole school was once the site of a Civil War hospital. Rumor has it that this man was taken for dead and placed in the morgue, only to wake up later surrounded by bodies, left to die a slow, lonely death. I’ve been warned that he doesn’t like women and children, so it’s best to use the bathroom on the 2nd floor instead. Some other students laugh when I tell them this, march boldly down the stairs at night to see if they can rustle him up. I don’t join them. I’ve lived with enough ghosts to know that they’re better off left alone.
One of my earliest memories is being woken from sleep by a man’s voice, asking again and again if I would help him. He didn’t have a body. I pulled the covers over my head and held my breath, and finally he went away. In the morning, my mother and father said I was dreaming; my sister said it was the Devil. I didn’t believe them, but the message still landed: I began to doubt my perceptions even as I discovered that to ignore them meant putting myself in danger. I learned that some truths were unspeakable, and that I would have to hold them alone.
Around the time that I encountered the man without a body, a family member began sexually abusing me. I’m not ready to write more about that here, not yet. It was another kind of haunting which wove itself into the walls of the house, burrowed under my skin, looked through my eyes, froze my tongue. It was another truth that hovered in the air between me and my family, heavy with silence, sucking up the air in the room, yet going unnamed. It was one more of my experiences that nobody wanted to believe, one more secret I had to carry alone. I became at home with being haunted. I didn’t have a choice.
I spent much of my childhood in an abandoned pioneer cemetery, up an unmarked gravel driveway on a hill in southwestern Wisconsin. I liked the feeling of the past breathing softly on my face. If I listened closely, I could almost hear them speaking; I could catch the tone, but not the words. A comfortable sadness blew through me, ruffled the tops of the oak trees, the unmowed grass like the hair of the dead. I ran my hands over slabs of rock covered with lichens and moss, struggled to make out the chiseled script: Jane, aged three years. Resting in the bosom of the Angels. I was the only one who visited the cemetery. I belonged to the dead and they belonged to me. I knew that if I turned my head in just the right way, or listened a little harder, I could enter the other world I sensed shifting just beyond my fingertips.
When I was a teenager, my unschooler friends and I spent Halloween at a haunted house deep in the woods. Unschoolers are the more politically radical, non-Christian version of homeschoolers. None of us had curfews or strict rules, and my parents hadn’t batted an eye when I told them I was going to a party in northern Wisconsin for the week.
My friend Lotus’ two moms owned the land that held the abandoned house, as well as their family’s home. We converged from all over the Midwest, taking Greyhound busses and Amtrak trains to spend the week together. We savored the sense of community and belonging, when many of us felt lonely and freakish at home. We eagerly anticipated roaming through the woods and fields, cooking big meals that we’d eat sprawled on the floor, staying up late playing guitar and singing Ani DiFranco, having dance parties, and hopefully, a lot of makeout sessions.
When we arrived, Lotus said that her parents had decided the abandoned house needed an intervention. Our group of friends would clear the ghosts out. Some of us were skeptical; some of us were scared. But we were also bright-eyed and earnest, sure we could help. And it was Halloween after all, so of course we said yes. Lotus gave us a lecture on ghost-busting from a book her parents owned, then we ambled over to the abandoned house, twenty teenagers dressed in patched denim and thrift-store dresses, noses and lips pierced, hair dyed purple, blue and green. I walked with my arms thrown around Aremy and Ryland, looking up at the sharp blue sky and the leaves turning crimson and copper.
We decided to start in the basement. We walked through the living room, old yellow-flowered wallpaper peeling off in strips, the hardwood floors covered in dust and dirt, then made our way down the dark basement stairs, a wave of cold hitting us in the face as if we were entering a cave. My stomach sank and settled into a knot. I suddenly became aware that a small boy was sitting on the basement steps, crying. I couldn’t see him, not quite, but I could feel him so strongly that he may as well have been visible. I knew that he was about six, had blonde hair, and was halfway up the stairs with his face in his hands. I also knew that he was terrified. I was just about to speak when Ryland said in a choked whisper, “There’s a little boy over there.”
We gulped and shuffled, exchanging anxious looks. This was our moment. We linked hands in a circle, closed our eyes, and said loudly, “You’re stuck here but you don’t have to be. It’s time for you to move on. Just move towards the light and you’ll be ok.” When I opened my eyes, wiping my clammy palms on my pants, the little boy was gone.
By the time we were done with the house, everyone had experienced a ghost. Upstairs, Kat sat whispering with a whole room full of dead children, while Fiona followed the sound of marbles rolling across the floor, opening a creaky door to find nothing but one dusty aggie lodged in a heating grate. A group of us huddled in a small blue room at the top of the stairs, trying to learn more about the ghosts. Someone had made metal dowsing rods out of bent coat hangers and I held them loosely in my hands. We took turns asking yes or no questions, then I watched spellbound as the rods moved against my palms, crossing themselves for yes or pointing straight ahead for no.
“Are there more than ten of you here?” Yes.
“More than twenty?” No.
“Are you unhappy?” Yes.
Suddenly, a freezing patch of air settled on my lap.
“Um, you guys?” I said. “Can anyone else feel this?”
My friends ran their hands back and forth through the cold spot. Everyone felt it. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or frightened. Just then, Adam, the boy with the icy blue eyes and blonde mohawk who I had a crush on, started weeping. He was sitting in the corner, his body hunched over in big, racking sobs. We gathered around him, asking if he was ok, but he seemed completely unaware of our presence. Finally he looked up, his face wet.
“A girl committed suicide here,” he said.
After that, we decided we’d spent enough time with the dead. I moved as quickly as I could down the rickety staircase and out into the golden light of the late afternoon, drawing deep breaths and trying to shake off the dark, cold, sadness of the world I’d just slipped out of.
Later that night, I lay next to Adam as he slept post-makeout. I was wide awake. A fine, cold line of fear ran the length of my spine and I felt a deep, sinking dread in my stomach. Even though we weren’t sleeping in the abandoned house, the air felt full. The stairs creaked softly as if someone was climbing up them. The shadows in the corners seemed to move.
But in the morning, something within me had unfurled. My body hummed with a strange buoyancy. Finally I wasn’t the only one who believed in ghosts. I wasn’t the only one who carried the heavy silence of this secret.
I have too many ghost stories to tell here, bits and pieces accumulating over my life. Sometimes it’s just a hunch, a prickle of fear in the pit of my stomach. Sometimes it’s a full-blowner screech, telling me to get out of a particular place right now. I’ve learned to listen when that inner voice speaks. I’ve learned how to surround myself with bubbles of light, how to burn sage and spray my room with salt water, how to communicate kindly but firmly: You may not follow me. You may not come inside my house. You may not come inside my head.
I don’t seek out what’s haunted, but I don’t push it away either. My life has always been haunted: by trauma as well as the supernatural. If I tried to push those experiences away, they would only seek out another way to find me. Yet I still have an uneasy relationship with my otherness, my “extraordinary powers.” I’m still afraid of the ghost in the basement, still afraid I’ll dream something terrible before it happens, glimpse a face behind me in the mirror while I’m brushing my teeth, hear disembodied voices. I am afraid of my haunted body as well, the ways that trauma has marked me. Sometimes my throat becomes a block of ice and I am gripped with a familiar sense of dread. Sometimes I leave my body, the site of the haunting, hover somewhere just above my head, dizzy and spinning. Sometimes I can’t speak up when I need to, can’t say no, can’t run or move, my body a lump of granite. I have learned so well not to speak the truth of my experience, to minimize my discomfort, to disbelieve myself. It has taken a long time to start shifting these patterns. I am still learning.
I still don’t talk about my otherness much, unless I know I’m around people who will understand. It’s not that I’m worried about what others will think; it’s 2019 and the occult is cool, at least, sort of. There are witch podcasts and witch schools and witch stores and witch spray and probably witch underwear. No one will chuck me in a frozen river for being a witch, at least, not this kind of witch. But there is still a deep, cold bundle of fear inside me, fear that lives in my stomach, my throat, my bones. Fear that knows full well that being “other” is dangerous. In 2019, witch hunts are alive and well. Witch hunts for immigrants, for Muslims, for anyone with dark skin, anyone not straight, anyone who doesn’t neatly fit into gender binaries, anyone with a uterus, anyone who pushes too much at the lines of power and control that have been painstakingly etched into our flesh.
How much do I embrace my strange powers? How much do I leave them alone? It’s said that Lucy Ainsworth Cooke gradually developed her skills over many years, with the support of her first husband, also a clairvoyant, and friends in the Spiritualist community that began to sweep the nation in the mid-1800s. Unlike her, I’ve been too afraid to actively hone my skills or seek out much training, support or community. I feel too open, too porous, too much of the time. People with and without bodies seem eager for a piece of me, pounding against my flimsy energetic boundaries, trying to get in. I have spent my whole life trying to have better boundaries. Trying to recover from the sexual abuse I experienced as a child. The sexual assault I experienced as an adult. I’ve had countless friendships with people who took too much, who I gave too much to.
So why, when I still struggle to set and maintain boundaries with the living, would I want to train in letting those hard-won boundaries down with the dead? Train in opening myself to another thing I can’t control, something that can’t be told as clearly to stay away? I don’t have answers. But somewhere in the midst of my fear of being overtaken, subsumed by someone or something else, I also feel a deep longing. Longing for this part of myself that I haven’t yet fully explored, this part that has poked up tendrils throughout my life, but that I have never let flower or bear fruit. I feel it just below the surface of the everyday, waiting for me to fully claim it as my own.
Gazing at the portrait of you now, Lucy, with your twinkling eyes and Mona Lisa smile, I suddenly know why you seem so familiar: you look like me. You look like who I want to become: someone who has seen things that others would prefer not to, who has claimed your strange powers instead of stifling them, who has decided to use whatever abilities you have for good. You made peace with what haunted you; you made a home of it. Your gaze is kind but fierce: it’s clear that you suffered no fools. Perhaps I can learn from your example. Perhaps I can find others like you who are living now, others like me. I am tired of whispering, trying to hide myself. Tired of hiding my power.
I meet your painted eyes and smile back, say, thank you. Knowing that, somehow, you can hear me.