I decided to go to the library and talk to Professor Mann. Maybe he had seen Rafe. I can’t say I much cared for his holier-than-thou, angry-professor demeanor, but he had a certain power, or presence, that was undeniable. Besides, I couldn’t think of anything else to do.
His setup in the back of the top floor of the library was the same as when I had last been there. Were those the same students sitting around the table? I had no idea, but one of them stood up from the chair beside the professor and moved down to the end without being asked, just like last time. I had the weird feeling that they hadn’t left the table in weeks, that they sleep there and live off Cliff bars while the library turns a blind eye: crazy Professor Mann, yes, he lives in the back, takes bird baths in the sink in the restroom, sends his minions out for candy bars and to do his laundry.
The prof, dressed in a blue polo and black jeans, looked at me with an expression you might describe as either blank or neutral or disinterested. Or maybe he was trying to figure out who the hell I was. “I wondered if you’ve seen or heard from Rafe,” I asked, sitting down. No point in making small talk; the prof was not a small talk kind of guy.
We sat there for a couple of minutes, neither of us saying anything. I decided to ignore his pose, whatever it was supposed to be. I had the questions, but he was the one with answers. “How do you know Rafe?” I asked.
“He used to be a student of mine at Duke,” the professor said. “He wasn’t registered, but he monitored my classes. Informally. Which means he attended because he was interested in the material. I allowed it, welcomed it, actually. He was always the smartest person in the room.” I raised my eyebrows with the unspoken question. “Yes, that included me, much of the time.” Then he smiled, as if the thought of Rafe sitting in the back of his classroom gave him pleasure. By now I could tell he’d remembered who I was.
“He knows things, our Rafe,” he went on. “I don’t just mean facts and figures, dates, that sort of thing, but the why of things, the feelings, the reality of history. Sometimes he would tell us stories that were quite remarkable. Remember, I told you I wasn’t interested in the larger elements, the larger personalities of slavery, the men and women who became famous for escaping the system. I want to know what it was like on the ground, in the fields, in the homes, the quarters.”
“Hard history, I believe you called it.”
“That’s right.” He sat quietly for a moment. “But what of you — Allen, isn’t it? You’re on a quest, as I remember. Your house, buried slaves? Rafe is helping you. How is that going?”
This was a question I had been asking myself all week long. “Allen, yes. Allen AppeI. My quest. I don’t know,” I said, deciding I might as well be honest; beating around the story wasn’t going to help. What was one more person thinking I was crazy? “I got into it because I was hearing and seeing strange apparitions that were, as far as I could tell, living underneath my house. It turned out that Rafe was digging under there. He explained to me that what I was seeing were spirits connected to bones that were in the ground in my crawl space.” After each sentence, I paused to see if he was going to laugh at me, order me away or maybe smack me for wasting his time. He did nothing, just sat there listening. “Go on,” he said.
I shrugged. “Rafe says that if someone dies in a, I don’t know, unfair way and their body is not given a proper burial, then that person’s spirit can’t ever settle into being dead, they inhabit a kind of middle space, purgatory maybe.”
“And that purgatory exists beneath your house?”
“Are you making fun of me?”
“No. If Rafe said it, I’m not going to say he’s not right.”
“He didn’t call it purgatory, I don’t think that’s the right term, though I don’t know what it would be.”
“Purgatory implies the dead person has committed a sin while living and until the sin is expiated he, or she, will not be admitted into Heaven. In general, it means a place of temporary misery. Rafe says these, um, persons you are seeing can be released from this state?”
“He says if the bones are gathered and then properly buried the spirit will be freed.”
The professor appeared to be thinking. He was tapping a blue pen that had the Duke University name and logo on the side.
“This is a very common belief among many cultures all over the world. The Japanese, have their Onryo, the Navaho Chindi,the Chinese Mogwai; really, I can’t think of an ethnic group that doesn’t have some spirit of that sort. It was a very strong belief in slave culture in this country. You’ll find many references to dead slaves who come back to haunt not only their cruel masters, but the other slaves where they died as well.”
“So how do you get rid of these spirits?”
“I don’t know that I have any instructions for that. You said that Rafe says you have to dig up the bones and then re-inter them?”
“Something like that. I’ve been trying to find him. I was under the impression he was working on it when he just disappeared. He implied that was his job.” I decided I wasn’t going to describe the night a week ago when I saw him in front of my house. I had almost convinced myself that I had dreamed that. If I told the story out loud, I would be committing myself to it, and I wasn’t ready for that. What it implied was something I was not ready to believe. Even in a world of wandering spirits, poltergeists, Onryo, and Chindi, there are limits. At least there still were for me. When those limits were gone, what was left for me to cling to?
I realized I had mentally drifted away from the discussion. The professor was looking at me, not in a judgmental way, but patiently. When he could see I had dragged myself back from wherever I had been, he continued.
“I would suggest that you familiarize yourself with the rituals around slave burials. There might be something useful for you there.”
“Could you point me in a particular direction?”
“You seem to be doing fine on your own.”
For the first time he frowned. “I think you should forget Rafe for the time being. He comes and he goes and there’s no way of knowing when or where he’s going to be, and there’s no way of knowing if he can or if he is even still willing to help you if you were to come across him. He seems to have put you on a path of, at least understanding. If you’re going to proceed further down this path and eventually make a change in your unusual world, I think you are going to have to do it on your own.”
“He saved me once before.” I remembered when he dragged me out from under the house, when the spirit girl Ada had my cat. And how he took Sweetie cat and gave her to me.
“That’s good,” the professor said. “But we all know the Lord helps them who help themselves.” He gave me a big beaming smile, so big and beaming that it scared me. For the first time since I had met him, I thought to myself that of the two of us at the table it wasn’t me who was the crazy one, it was old Professor Mann. I came to several tentative realizations: this guy –the old professor, the beloved History master — was nuts. And Rafe was probably not going to save me again. Like the man said…
I was on my own.
That night, last night, I slipped out of bed at 3:00 AM and went downstairs. Very quietly, I rolled up the oriental rug Sherry had put down on the floor in her office covering the slits in the floor. I stretched out and put my ear to the wood. I was afraid I was going to fall asleep, and Sherry would find me in the morning. But I wasn’t there that long before I heard crying. It sounded like a young girl, quietly sobbing. It had to be Ada, weeping, weeping, weeping.