Conversations in the Dark
Later that day I had untangled myself from Johanna’s speculations of my new life as a Hollywood medium and Jason’s infuriatingly intriguing looks and was safely installed in a corner of the library, where there was just me and my maths book. It was heaven. OK, so maybe not heaven as I sincerely hope I will not have to do maths in heaven, but it was so simple to think about maths compared to…thinking about everything else. Maths may be boring, but it doesn’t involve ghosts.
Once I had gotten through the last math problem though, I knew I had to face other problems. Like finding old newspaper clippings and books about Rocky Creek’s past. We’d decided to look into the town’s past from about 1850 to 1900 to see if there were any particularly juicy stories. The Gold Rush was good as it was the beginning of Rocky Creek and Lookout Village, but we were more interested in a cool story that we could accompany with good food, clothes and magic.
One Google search later (because sitting in a library full of books I was too lazy to move my ass to have a look at any of them…) I found out that the Gold Rush had been akin to rabies — as soon as someone had been bitten by gold fever they had done anything to get gold into their hands (and bank accounts). Not only had people risked everything to find their fortune, often dying due to things like typhoid in the process, they’d also deliberately killed others who wanted to get their hands on gold.
People had killed each other over territories for gold panning and, later, mining, but they’d also killed a lot of native Americans who lived off the land because, well, they were simply in the way. The people who had lived off the land without disturbing the natural balance had almost vanished in the Gold Rush. Instead, they’d been replaced by people who released poison into streams by upsetting river beds, looking for gold. In short, California had received thousands of people who killed off plant and animal life in the search of rocks. California had become toxic. In more ways than one.
On the upside, there were plenty of cool stories from that time too. For example, there was an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to notable women at the time.
As panning for gold and gold mining was hard physical work, not many women joined the men in the fields (though some did) and there was generally a lack of women in cities like San Francisco. This resulted in a much more liberal atmosphere where women were cherished and welcomed to take up an array of different professions. Many ended up entrepreneurs who made more than the men in the gold fields, as the need for certain goods and services was constant, but finding gold unpredictable. One woman made a fortune baking pies!
Another woman, Eleanor Dumont (who later became known as Madame Mustache due to hair that grew on her upper lip as she grew older), earned her living as a card dealer, traveling from town to town. She then opened her own gaming parlor and, later, a ranch. She had to give up the ranch though as she lost all her fortune thanks to a conman she fell in love with. At least she managed to rebuild herself after that unfortunate event.
I pictured Madame Mustache with a deck of cards in one hand and a pistol in another — fierce and always on the ready.
Madame Mustache was no a saint, but Mary Ellen Pleasant came close to being one. Mary Ellen was a once bonded servant who for a long time lived in San Francisco, where she became a millionaire as an entrepreneur and investor and spent her fortune on the Underground Railroad — a network of routes and safe houses that helped slaves escape into states and countries where slavery was not tolerated. California, for all its bloodshed during the Gold Rush, was against slavery.
I could see parts of Mary Ellen’s life in my mind’s eye: sending notes to people in her network to hide slaves, receiving callers at midnight to discuss plans and keeping a pistol underneath her pillow, just in case. Of course, she’d also travel to different towns and go on slave freeing missions in the middle of the night — smuggling people away in the dark. What a life!
California had also been home to one of the first transgender women — she called herself Charley and was famous for being one of the best stagecoach drivers. Not until she died and they did a post-mortem did people realize she was a woman!
The story about Charley made me ponder how many people there have been throughout history who have had to hide their true identity just because other people couldn’t accept who they were. Feeling you are a man trapped inside a woman’s body must be difficult enough without having others judge you for it. Imagine feeling you can’t be loved if you reveal your true self. Then again, Charley had been herself and people had liked her plenty. They just didn’t know about the transgender thing.
Naturally, I didn’t know if Charley had felt herself to be a man, or if it had just been convenient to pretend to be one. She was an orphan who ran away in her childhood and the streets were never particularly safe places for women. Back in the day, it had been hard to find work as a woman too. California during the Gold Rush (which came about after Charley had grown up) had been one of the first eras in America that had little qualms about female workers of any kind.
I sighed. At least Charley seemed to have had a passion for her work. I wasn’t sure I had a passion for helping ghosts. Not if I had to interfere in people’s business like a crazy woman telling them weird things coming from the spirit world. I did like helping people. Caring for them. I’d always fancied that I’d do something where I could look after people. And I seriously had a passion for the theatre. It was just that I had never really considered that a career path because, well, I wasn’t very theatrical in everyday life. Or maybe I was in my thoughts, just not my actions.
An acting medium… I sighed again. Life was definitively getting complicated as of late.
There were plenty of actors and other entertainers in California during the Gold Rush as well (though none of them spoke with ghosts to my knowledge). The men who first arrived welcomed any form of female entertainment and, as there weren’t enough women to go round for marriage, a lot succumbed to prostitution, but there were exceptions.
Lotta Crabtree and Lola Montez became two of the most famous entertainers — Lotta was a seemingly sweet woman who started her career in San Francisco at the age of six, while Lola was a worldwide star with an unpredictable temper who had an unnervingly large volume of people around her who died mysterious deaths. In short, she appeared murderous. I was sure one could create a great ghost story about her! She might have visited Rocky Creek at some point to perform as well.
I leaned back in my chair and bit my pen thoughtfully — Charley, Mary Ellen, Madame Mustache and Montez all made for great characters in a play about Rocky Creek’s past. The only little issue was that none of them might have visited Rocky Creek. One could bend the rules a little though and include some famous folks from San Fran, couldn’t one?
Just as I pondered that I heard a weird noise and looked around. I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary — there were only bookcases around me, not people. Nor were there any books that had fallen to the ground that I could see. My little corner of the library was a sectioned off area filled with books on geology, so it wasn’t exactly a spot most people visited. My desk was the only desk in an ill lit corner — the most light came from one of those little green lamps. After I was creeped out by the noise, the shadows seemed to have grown in quantity, stretching their arms towards me.
I had definitively heard a noise, but apart from the creepy looking shadows, there was no one around. I looked outside, as I was sitting by a window, thinking maybe I just thought the noise came from inside the library, while in fact it came from the outside?
Outside dusk was approaching. It had been a grey day and now fog floated about in the air, as if waiting to cover the town in a blanket of white.
Looking out, I felt the hairs on my arms starting to rise. I was getting goosebumps. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was remembering the noises I had heard last time I biked through the library park at dark, or if it was because of the noise I had just heard. Either way, I didn’t feel like doing more research. I knew I was meant to look at digital copies of old newspapers and such from Rocky Creek at the time of the Gold Rush (if there were any — it usually took a while for newspapers to become established in a town), but I felt I had enough stories for now. Hopefully, Jason, or Elbert, would dig something out about Rocky Creek itself. Johanna would, no doubt, only research fashion trends.
As I stood up to gather my things and put on my coat, I heard a noise again. This time I made out a voice, sounding like it came from far away. More like a whisper than a voice: “Gold, there’s gold in the mountain.”
It was as if the words swirled around my head, making me dizzy. Suddenly, my limbs felt frozen, as if I couldn’t move. I also felt cold, not a regular cold, but a cold from the inside kind of cold. It frightened me.
Then the voice disappeared and everything returned to normal.
Quickly I threw my things into my backpack and put on my coat — I was in no mood to have a conversation with whoever that voice was. I had no doubt it was a ghost. Or well, either a ghost or some incredibly weird recording of a voice someone was listening to in the library…but I’d seen no one near me and why would I be so frightened of a real human voice? Then again, neither Josephine, nor Mr Crinkle had been the least frightening. Plenty of “real” people had frightened me a lot more in my life.
I hurried through the library towards the exit. I wanted to get out of there before hearing the voice again and having to explain to anyone why I was behaving so weirdly.
I couldn’t remember ever having wanted to leave the library so much — it’s one of my favorite places. The building looks like an old mansion, complete with tower-like structures on either side. It’s stunning inside and out. After a day of regular teenage angst in school, or when my aunts have one too many visitors, I’ve always escaped to the library. It’s my sanctum sanctorum. Not least because I like the idea of being surrounded by thousands of stories. In fact, I had been planning to sit there and study my part as Juliet, but now I didn’t feel like I wanted to stay a minute longer.
Leaving the library and heading full speed for my bike I wondered when I’d turned into a chicken? Since when did (possibly imaginary) voices about gold in the mountain frighten me? If it was a ghost, so what? Hadn’t I met two ghosts in so many days already?
Thinking of it some more, I decided I wasn’t a chicken. No, I was clever. I listened to my intuition. And my intuition told me to get the f*** out of there. I was a proud white witch. I was someone with great intuition. I was someone who didn’t freak out unless I had cause to do so. I was… Was that Jason standing in the bushes some ways away from the library?
I stopped short and blinked…and he was gone.
I stood as if frozen to the ground. Had Jason just walked into some bushes? Walking around the grounds of the library is nothing strange. As I think I’ve mentioned more than once, the park is beautiful. I love it. And right now autumn colors made the place look enchanted. But one doesn’t walk straight into some bushes? Maybe he had dropped something in there…or maybe he was desperate to pee and hid amongst the bushes? Or maybe he was doing a botanical study for some biology project I hadn’t heard of (unlikely)? Or maybe he was hiding something? I mean it’s not quite normal to disappear into some bushes for no reason, is it?
I shook my head. What Jason was and wasn’t doing in the bushes was his business. If it was Jason. I probably thought it was strange seeing someone disappear into a bush because in the past 24 hours I’d had to contend with ghosts and weird voices. That didn’t mean that everything that happened had meaning, or was some extraordinary thing. And it certainly didn’t mean Jason had magical power because he disappeared so quickly. If anything, it probably meant that I was losing my mind. Nothing unusual when Jason was around.
Biking through the park I felt myself calm down. The strands of fog floating about that had looked eerie from inside the library now looked magical as the streetlights shone their yellow light on them. Surrounded by the colorful artwork of fall, the floating fog looked like a shot from a movie. The park was peaceful and the scent of damp woodlands rose through the air. It made me feel grounded to the Earth and alive. Nature always had that effect of me; as if I could feel life force running through me.
I was starting to feel silly for having been spooked just moments before and was longing to get home, sit down in front of the fireplace, eat a hot meal and relax as I read Romeo and Juliet. I also wanted to do some research Shakespeare’s time period to try and understand Juliet’s life.
Just as I contemplated the warmth of the fire, a loud bang interrupted my reveries. I almost biked off the road in surprise. My breath caught in my throat as I looked around and hit the brakes.
“Hello, is there anyone there?” I called, as I got off the bike, still turning my head in every direction.
No reply. Nor could I see anything but an empty park, slowly filling with fog and I felt a shiver going down my spine.