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Norma was the name my mother had given to the ghost she claimed lived in our house. According to Mama, Norma was responsible for any and all of the above: missing keys, misplaced shoes, pictures askew, and miscellaneous noises that seemingly had no explanation, like doors and cabinets that opened on their own. The house had belonged to the real, living Norma many years ago while she was alive, my mother told me, but old Norma would not move on to that better place in the afterlife.
For six years, each Halloween night, my mother had tried to contact our ghost to no avail.
"She's tall," my mother told me, as she mixed up batter for chocolate cookies. She held the large yellow bowl against her hip with one arm and stirred with the other. "Copper hair, long nose." She handed me the wooden spoon, dripping with sugar paste. "Her lips are thin, especially when she smiles."
I licked the spoon, letting the sugar grains dissolve into saccharine syrup on my tongue. "How do you know?" I asked.
She smiled at me, and wrinkled her nose the way she does when she has a secret. "Well, I've seen her."
"You have not."
"Have so. Her cats too. They skitter and scurry around the halls at night, searching for mice."
I clicked my tongue. "Cats can't be ghosts! And ghosts are invisible, like air... you can't see them."
My mother began scooping the batter into heapfuls onto a baking sheet. "My little girl of little faith! Sometimes you can, when they want to be seen."
I considered this for a moment. "Do you have special powers?"
Mama chuckled. "No, I'm afraid not. Maybe it's just that I believe."
"Believing doesn't make it so."
"True," she replied, "but sometimes we must have faith, believing in things we can't see."
I didn't quite understand, but I nodded. "Ma, can I stay up for the party tonight, just a bit?"
She shook her dark head. "No, you can't. Ask me again, but the answer will stay the same."
In my bedroom Mama pulled the covers up high so that they tickled my chin, and leaned in close. She smelled like patchouli and cigarettes. "Sleep, my peach. Soundly." She brushed my cheek with her lips and gave me a love bite on the nose.
I held my breath after she was gone so that I could hear. I knew she would wait for just a brief moment on the other side of the door. She always did. When at last I heard the shuffle of her leather sandals on the floorboards start, and then fade, I scuttled out of bed to the window.
The pane glass was cold and veiled with moisture. I wiped clear a circle so that I could see them begin to arrive. First it was Josephina, my mother's best friend, teetering across the lawn on the highest heels I had ever seen. She was a French maid, her long legs spurting out from beneath a tiny black dress and white apron. Her voluptuous chest rose and fell with exertion as she struggled to navigate the cobblestone front path with her stilettos. I stifled a giggle as she stumbled and pitched forward onto the dewy grass.
Next were Emily and Beth, our neighbors to the east. They were wizards. Heavy Emily was overflowing her wheelchair, garbed in a purple cloak that was strewn with glittery stars. A cheap cone-shaped hat graced her large head. Beth was pushing her lover up the front walk with concerted effort, dressed much the same. They were laughing together as they entered the house.
My beautiful Auntie Grace was last, as was typical. She was a 1920s-era flapper girl, classy in a short silk dress that was the shade of a fresh bruise. Beneath the fluttery fabric, her small breasts and thick hips were pronounced. Her swan-neck was collared with a beaded band, and on her crown she wore a sequined cap.
From beneath my feet, downstairs, a happy commotion rose up to me like vapor. The ladies mingled. Peals of laughter rang out, the soprano trill of my mother's delighted exclamations.
I opened my door very slowly so as to elude the tattletale groan of its hinges. The bouquet of popcorn and candles wagged its finger at me and I followed it, tiptoeing down the hall softly in my naked feet. There was a small alcove at the top of the stairs which contained a small table and vase of flowers. Being ten years old and of smallish frame, I was able to ease myself into the tiniest crevice here. I was undetectable, and in the shadows that soaked the stairwell, I could peek at my leisure.
The parlor was darkened, lit only by the dancing flames of several pillar candles placed about the room. The ladies sat on the floor, cross-legged, forming a circle with their bodies, and in Emily's case, wheelchair.
Mama was pouring wine for the rest, filling the five glasses with the pale rose liquid until the bottle was nearly empty.
Auntie Grace was munching on a celery stick, careful not to muddle her lipstick. "One glass and I'm done for the night," she said to Mama, waving the crudité dramatically. "I stepped on the scale this morning and I've gained three pounds!"
"Oh, Gracie," snorted Emily, shifting her large girth in her seat with a grunt. "You could gain thirty pounds and still look like a rail." She held up a cookie in one chubby paw. "I should be the one refraining tonight. But ah... it's Halloween and I'm going to enjoy it."
Mama helped herself to a deviled egg and took her place in the circle. "Em, we love you just as you are. And so does Beth. You're a gorgeous girl."
"And healthy, Amen," said Beth, squeezing Emily's shoulder. "On Thursday the doctor declared her cancer-free."
"To Emily!" Josephina toasted, and raised her glass up on long, thin fingers.
"To Emily!" the rest of them joined in, and there was a tinkering sound as the glasses met.
"Now," Gracie said after swallowing a mouthful of wine, "Ria! Are we going to meet this ghost of yours tonight?" She giggled, and wiped the wetness from her lips.
Mama's smiled. "Oooh, you laugh dear sister, but Norma said she wants to speak just to you tonight!" And she winked.
Gracie rolled her eyes and exchanged glances with Josephina, who was picking chocolate chips out of her cookie with one long fingernail, and placing the dark smudges on a napkin.
Josephina looked up and smiled at my mother. "Norma is restless, it's the anniversary of her demise, after all!"
Beth was growing pale beneath the large frames of her glasses. Behind the lenses, her eyes were as wide as an owl's. She looked to Emily for affirmation, who patted her arm.
Mama clasped her knees to her chest, and her serious face silenced the others. "Let's start now ok?"
Gracie tittered but quieted at Mama's sharp glance. It became very quiet and very still in the parlor.
My stomach tightened, and I made certain to breathe through my nose so as not to make a sound. My legs and arms were beginning to twitch from not moving.
"Norma Noones," Mama continued, "lived in this house for forty-six years. Ten of them were alone, after her husband died."
Emily barked out a rough laugh, but Beth shushed her quickly.
My mother raised and then lowered one eyebrow; it was a talent she had that I did not. "Norma was not a happy woman," she said. "She was sour and grumpy in disposition, having suffered from terrible arthritis for most of her adult years. Even her husband did not like her, which is why, they say, he jumped into Bender River one Sunday night in 1938."
Beth gasped, and touched her fingers to her mouth.
Mama nodded. "The only thing Norma did love was her seven cats," she eyed Emily as she said this, "and Halloween night."
"Oh, Ree, honestly," blurted Aunt Gracie, "you prankster, you're making this entire thing up."
My mother did not reply right away, but took another sip from her drink. There was a rush of rustling outside as the autumn wind wiggled through the giant maple outside in the yard. The faint distant cries of leftover trick-or-treaters - mostly teenage pranksters - was heard. Her topaz eyes were wild and shining in the candlelight. "Tonight is the night, girls, I know it."
Josephina replied, "Lovey, you said the same thing last year, and Norma didn't show her pretty face at all. Same thing with the year before."
"And the year before that," Gracie added, unhelpfully. "And yet you want us to believe you that she haunts this old house..."
But Mama was confident. "Tonight is the night. I can feel her here, she is in the air, prickling on my skin." Nobody else said a word, and my mother reached out her hands. "Ladies, let's all join hands, and complete the circle."
They did, and formed a coil of limbs in the center of the parlor floor. Josephina and Gracie looked at each other and smiled knowingly before clasping fingers.
"Now we must all focus," Mama instructed. "Clear your minds of all else, don't think about what you did today, what you'll do tomorrow, or all that worries you. Our heads must be clear.
"We're here tonight to reach out to Norma Noones, who lived in this very house for forty-six years. I know that she's still here. Her soul is not at rest. I hear her sometimes at night, crying. I hear her walking, around and around, just before dawn."
At this, Beth opened one eye, peering at Emily, whose eyes were squeezed tightly shut.
"Norma," Mama went on, "please talk to us tonight. I so much want to speak to you, and to know why you aren't at peace. If you are with us now, please give us a sign."
They waited, but there was only silence. Emily coughed once, loudly, and they all jumped, and then chortled in relief. A minute passed. Then two. Then three.
Gracie opened her eyes. "Ria, what kinds of signs are we looking for? Apparitions? Blinking lights? Meowing cats?"
Mama was exasperated. "Well I don't know, Gracie. Something... anything."
After a pause, Josephina said, "Isn't this just the silliest thing."
"Josephina! Let's try again. Patience, please!" Mama motioned for everyone to join hands once again, which they did. "Norma, we summon you from these walls, come speak to us! We break down the barriers between the living world, and your world."
The ladies waited, eyes closed. But nothing happened.
Oh, poor Mama, I thought. I slipped from my hiding place and crept down the stairs, my small feet making no sound as I descended. As I reached the bottom, still out of sight, I stole into the kitchen. I held my breath, then, when I knew I had not been spotted, I exhaled carefully.
"Norma Noones!" My mother's voice was louder now, knotted with determination. "We call you to the world of the living! Speak to us! Give us a sign! We beseech you to talk to us tonight!"
"Yes!" Beth joined in, caught up in the moment. "Give us a sign, Norma!"
Heart pounding, I cupped my hands around my lips. "It is meeeeeeeeee!" I spoke in a loud whisper, and then clamped my hand over my mouth in disbelief. What had I done? My location allowed me to discreetly peer out into the parlor, so I did.
The women froze, and all five pairs of eyes sprang open, startled. Mama looked up at the ceiling, a slow grin blossoming on her face. "Norma. Are you with us?"
I swallowed hard and spoke again. "Yeeeeeeeeeeeeees."
"Oh!" Beth cried. She fumbled for Emily's hand.
Gracie was biting her lip. "Good Christ." She emptied the last drop of wine in her glass into her mouth, gripping the stem with quivering fingers.
"Norma." My mother's eyes were closed again, and she was concentrating deeply. "Tell us why you are here, why you are still in this house."
My mind spun as I struggled for words. "I..." My heart had settled in my stomach, churning furiously. "I... waaaaaant somethiiing!" I whispered.
"What? What do you want? Tell us, Norma!"
I opened my mouth again, but was unable to speak. My throat felt as if it were being packed with hot jelly. Panicked, I ran out of the kitchen and back towards the stairs. All of the women's eyes were closed; I was safe.
But as I touched the first plush stair with the tip of my toe, I looked back, and Mama was watching me. I ceased any motion as we stared at one another. I searched her eyes for an answer as to what I should do, but found none. I surged up the stairs, back into the shadows, back to my room. No one else had seen.
After a moment, I heard Mama say, "Norma doesn't want to talk any more tonight, I suppose." The women breathed again. They were glad, having had enough of ghostly voices for the evening.
Only a daughter could have noticed the sadness in her voice.
Though I waited guiltily, my mother did not come to me that night; the door to my bedroom stayed closed. I slept fitfully, wrestling with the duvet and sweating through my sheets. I dreamt of wiry-haired Norma, sitting on my bed, surrounded by seven slinking cats. She stroked their coats lovingly, and smiled at me. She did not speak. She simply wanted me to know she was there. I reached for the felines, wanting to touch their soft bodies and kiss their sweet whiskered faces.
Then I was in a field, dancing with a man. He was the same man that gazed out at me from the picture over my grandmother's bed. The one with the eyes that followed me whichever way I moved, all-knowing. He spun me around and around and my feet were bare on wet grass; the ripe blades tickled my toes and I laughed. My Grammy was there too, far away at first, but she was walking towards us. She waved to me. I thought about how all her life, she had prayed to that picture above the bed. All her life, and there were no guarantees.
I awoke to daylight beating upon my closed lids. The events of the night before came back to me like a sharp slap. I sat up and shuddered off my weariness.
Breakfast was silent. I pushed my eggs around my plate; they left a greasy trail. I gazed at my mother's downturned head as she read the newspaper and willed her to look at me. "Mama," I finally said, very softly, "I believe."
She raised her head. "Believe what, Lily?"
Mama nodded very slowly and looked past me, at something beyond my shoulder. I knew she understood that often, it is difficult to believe things we cannot see.
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