This is the first installment of Nina MacLaughlin’s Novemberance column, which will run every Wednesday this month.
November is a hinge in the year, and the door gets opened to ghosts.
It was a late fall weekend some years ago and lunch had gone long. A Spanish tortilla sat in the center of the table like a golden sun eclipsed as slices were put onto plates. A fire, lit that morning, threw heat from the other room. There was wine, maybe more than usual. Conversation rolled. After the meal, by the fire, the sun well into its descent, time moved at a different pace, a slower throb in the cheek-warmed flush from the wine, in the dimming light and hearth-warmed room. The fire glowed and spit, released its quiet hiss, and made that quieter high hum: the sound of the tree not in pain but in shift from one state to another.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” I asked the man who stood by the fire. He came from the rainy, witchy gloom of Galicia in northwest Spain, a place in climate and culture closer to the bagpipe-y mists of the British Isles than to, say, the thumping island atmosphere of Ibiza. He was narrow framed, wiry, with a coiled sort of energy, and gray-black hair in his rich, thick mustache. He had heat behind his eyes and there are few people I’d rather have a conversation with. He was somewhere over seventy, though his blazing vitality belied it.
He poked at the fire and the sparks wept down into the embers and ash. He spoke of an old stone farmhouse in Spain, of the chestnut trees there, of the cows who lived in the barn space under the house. He told me someone old had died, a great-uncle, and his body had been laid out in a small bedroom upstairs above the kitchen. People came and climbed the stairs and visited his body and the only light in the room came from candles that shifted in the farmhouse draft, flinging shadows on the wall, rising and slipping. He was a child then and he climbed the stairs with his cousins and they giggled because they were scared. He got to the door of the bedroom and the light was dim and the shadows slinked and all he saw was a mound on the bed and he ran down the hall. A hand followed him, reaching out from that room, trailing him down the hall, steady and slow. He felt the hand that day, and he felt that hand for all the days afterward.
In Spain, November 1 is Día de Todos los Santos, All Saints’ Day, a day to honor those in your life who have died, and chestnuts get roasted on fires. They smell like biscuits, buttered and honeyed, and they put up less resistance against the teeth than a normal nut. Not the woody chomp of an almond but closer to potato, a starchy softness, like tiny loaves of arboreal bread. Out of their shells, they look like miniature cream-colored brains.
In Spain, and across many Catholic countries and cultures, it’s believed the souls of the dead return on the first days of November. People visit the graves of those they love and leave flowers and food on tables and graves, as invitation and offering, as a welcoming back, as a way of saying we remember you, in private hope that when they meet the same inescapable fate, they’ll be remembered, too.
A friend and I had a walk in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge on one of the first real cold days last fall. I asked him also: Do you believe in ghosts?
“I believe in human forgetting,” he said.
I think he meant that he believes people can disappear in more ways than one. The Spanish author Julio Llamazares makes a case for memory in his elegiac novel The Yellow Rain:
Sometimes you think you have forgotten everything, that the rust and dust of the years have destroyed all the things we once entrusted to their voracious appetite. But all it takes is a noise, a smell, a sudden unexpected touch, and suddenly all the alluvium of time sweeps pitilessly over us, and our memories light up with all the brilliance and fury of a lightening flash.
Llamazares writes of a man living alone in an abandoned village in the Spanish Pyrenees. Around his waist, he wears the rope his wife used to hang herself, and he recalls how life used to be. He watches leaves fall and how nature overtakes the crumbling town. He digs his grave and is visited by ghosts. It is a novel of unalloyed melancholy, a lyrical and atmospheric examination of solitude, time, and ends. It is, perhaps, the most Novembery book I know: for its blurring of world and otherworld, for its grapple with time and loss, for its timing of autumn’s descent into winter, and for the presence of ghosts that feel as real and as natural as the yellow leaves falling from the poplar trees.
On November 1, souls are on the move. For a few days at the start of the month, those gone drift among us. The air is crowded with them. “Soul, we saw, said we / saw,” writes Nathaniel Mackey in his poem “Day After Day of the Dead.” “No one wanted to / know / what soul was.” Maybe you feel it. Maybe you sense a different vibration in the air as you rustle through gold-red leaves on the sidewalk in the four thirty dim. In November, something gets stoked.
In Spain, people gather around fires, like the templeless Celts who gathered in forests and fields. They roast and peel the chestnuts, leap over the flames, dust dark ash on their cheeks. They eat sausage and drink young wine. The Celts saw October 31, or Samhain, as “the first night of a year measured in nights.” November 1 is another sort of new year’s day. Happy new year.
Happy Día de los Muertos. In Mexico, marigold petals make the graves glow. They lead the way to ofrendas, to altars honoring the dead, and the festival lasts three days as the boundary between living and dead, world and otherworld, dissolves. In The Labyrinth of Solitude, the Mexican poet Octavio Paz writes of the fiesta:
Everything is united: good and evil, day and night, the sacred and the profane. Everything merges, loses shape and individuality and returns to the primordial mass. The fiesta is a cosmic experiment, an experiment in disorder, reuniting contradictory elements and principles in order to bring about a renascence of life.
The impulse behind it, Paz suggests, is more than amusement, more than an urge to return to an original state of mayhem and come out reborn. The celebration is a means to escape ourselves, “to leap over the wall of solitude that confines [us] during the rest of the year.”
Feeling death’s hand behind you is one sort of company, one way of knowing you are not alone in time, and it is not the same as knowing a ghost. “I believe in ghosts,” said the man by the fire from Spain. “But not in the way of dead souls wandering around haunting anyone.” Instead, he explained, the still-living become ghosts, the people he knew who slipped away, who changed to the point of being unrecognizable. He talked of friends, his brother, who, as the result of marriage, kids, time, shifted into forms he no longer recognized, or no longer wanted to. Death “makes absence just another familiar habit,” writes Llamazares. “Disappearance, however, has no limits.” For the man from Spain, the disappeared were preserved in the shapes they had when they were full of fire; now they were ghosts, existing in his mind as memory, in his life as gonenesses, recollections as opposed to flesh, another “invisible imprint,” as Mackey describes soul in his poem. Perhaps turning these people into ghosts came from his fear of seeing the same in himself, of wanting to preserve his own fire and youth, undiminished. To all my senses, it had worked; he had. We hadn’t turned the lights on, and the room had darkened around us except for the gold-red glow from the fire. We’d been held in the warm open hand of the fire and the lasting glow of the wine. And all at once he seemed to grow self-conscious. He disappeared down the hall, and I was left with the fire, left to consider my own ghosts, those in death, those in other states of absence, and all of us in the midst of a shift from one state to another.
It’s November now and there’s something different afoot. In November, when the nights get long and the days get cold, as we approach the long dark that is winter, we feel that hand following us down the hall. We feel death’s presence and are therefore more alert to our own. November makes us know, at the edges of our mind, that for each of us, looming winter will one day stretch into eternal darkness. So we welcome the dead among us, remember them, invite them back, and we eat and drink and let the boundaries dissolve, and we are more certain that we’re alive. That’s what’s on offer in November. It makes us know, at the edges of our mind, that we still cast shadows, that we are still bones and blood, that for now, for now, our heft is still heated. Feel it?
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.