Fearless Books

Sunday, June 14, 2005

A compelling ghost story
by D. Patrick Miller
Fearless Books

After falling out of an Ohio hayloft one day in 1922, Aaron Burke hit the hard ground far below and lay still for a moment. The other farmhands gathered around as Aaron got up and brushed himself off, assuring everyone that he felt fine. There was just one problem: they were all talking about how dead he looked.

He kept trying to tell them that he was really all right until he followed their gaze to look at his body, still lying prone on the ground:

At first, I didn’t realize it was me — the head twisted at a forty-five degree angle, eyes wide open and mouth ready to cry out. But the clothes were mine, and I shaved each day with the help of a reflecting glass, so I knew what I looked like.

With horror, I lowered my gaze to the arms and legs and trunk I stood in now, separate from the body on the ground, yet still intact. I didn’t understand.

Thus begins Aaron’s Crossing: A True Ghost Story, in which Michigan author Linda Alice Dewey presents one of the most unusual ‘as told to’ memoirs ever written. Both spooky and redemptive, this double autobiography of Aaron Burke’s life on earth and his afterlife in the “Second Layer” has the uncanny ring of truth. Written mostly in Aaron’s voice with Dewey’s opening and closing commentaries telling how she came to meet this ghost, establish communication, and eventually help him “cross over,” this independently published work shines with a spare yet evocative prose style that takes the reader right into the ghostly realm with a compelling sense of first-hand authenticity.

Later in the first chapter, after Aaron has accepted that he is really dead, he strikes up a conversation with a female ghost in the graveyard where his body is buried. After several failed attempts to converse with other spirits who prove unfriendly, he’s relieved to find someone who might give him a clue about what goes on in the new realm he inhabits:

“Good morning,” she said, smiling. She patted the earth next to her. “Have a seat.”
I obliged, grateful for someone to talk with.
“New, ain’t ya?”
I nodded.
“What happened?”
“What do you mean?”
“How did you die?”
“I fell.”

“Oh.” She chewed on something. Funny, I hadn’t thought about food since the fall yesterday. “I fell, too. Horse fall.”
“Oh.” Then, “That’s too bad.”
“Nah, it was good.”
How could it be good?
“Got me outta there. I hated working.”
“What type of work did you do?” I asked, more to keep the conversation going than out of real interest.
“I was a Lady of the Evening.”
“A what?”
“You know. A prostitute.”
Until that moment, I hadn’t even thought of her as a woman. Uneasy, I began to rise.
"Don’t leave,” she said. “I’m not a whore now.”
I relaxed and sat back down. “No, I don’t s’pose you are.”

We sat for a while as the sun moved west at a pace I could watch. Amazing how quickly the time passed.

I indicated the unattended graves. “Where are all the others?”
“They went.”
“Went where?”

“Anybody still here usually leaves after a while.”
“Still here?”

“Anyone that doesn’t cross.” She looked at me. “You don’t know nothing, do you?”
I shook my head. “Not about being dead.”
“When you die, they come and get you — most of the time. Sometimes they don’t.”
“Oh.” Then, after a while, “Why not?”
“Now if I knew all the answers, would I still be here?” she asked, annoyed. “Look, if they didn’t come and get you, they didn’t come and get you!”
I got up and walked off to see what they had done with my grave. Filled in, it was, a mound of dirt covering the top. I had missed seeing the last of the box, but then, it wasn’t me in there anyway.
Twilight had descended, so I decided to lay on this plot of land belonging to my “body” and camp for the night.
I could get more answers tomorrow.

Eventually Aaron learns from his spectral friend Marnie that “crossing over” seems to require coming to terms with the physical life that one lived on earth. At that point, Aaron begins to reflect on the life he accidentally left at age 35 — beginning with the kidnapping by his father when he was four years old, when he was spirited away from Ireland to America. Growing up emotionally remote, Aaron is a hard worker from an early age, fiercely devoted to his own independence. He eventually escapes from his domineering father at age seventeen, secretly helped by his stepmother Maudie, and goes on a search for his real mother. When he finds some of her relatives in Boston he learns that she has already died, but he is informally adopted and soon meets the love of his life, Susanna, whom he marries a few years later. After the death of Aaron’s father, they take over his farm in Michigan, with Maudie living close by.

Having grown up lonely and troubled by his own angry, judgmental nature, Aaron feels blessed by a stable family life with his beloved wife and children Sean, Eloise, and Katy. Although he is never close to the kids, he is a responsible father and devoted husband until a serious crisis develops in 1916, when his youngest daughter Katy dies from an illness at age three. Susanna goes mad with grief and must be institutionalized; when she returns she seems to be herself again but is physically weakened, and soon

withers away. Overwhelmed with sorrow after her death, Aaron goes on a drinking binge and decides thereafter that he is not capable of raising his family alone:

The truth of it was that I had so depended upon Susanna for every happiness, I could not imagine being happy without her. So I closed the door on whatever else life had to offer, thinking I had no other choice.
I have no use for these people, I thought. No use for this place. Never had, really. We stayed here because Susanna liked it, not because of any attachment I felt for it.
I was ready to leave in two days — hired a boy to look after the animals, fixed myself a good blanket pack, got on the horse, and turned my back on the farm and everything related to the life I had lived. Trusting Maudie to wire their grandparents, I left Sean and Eloise to whatever future the relatives felt appropriate. I never wrote a note to tell of my leaving. I never said goodbye.
It was as if I had disappeared from the face of the earth.

Wandering into an anonymous life as a day laborer, it is not long until Aaron Burke suffers the fall that physically completes his emotional departure from “the face of the earth.” But as he comes to realize in the strangely accelerated realm of the afterlife, he must eventually come to peace with his grief and anger. Present at the deaths of Sean and Eloise in later years, he is devastated to watch each of them cross over into a realm of light, and wonders why it is taking him so long to be ready for the transition. Gloomy and long self-imprisoned in Susanna’s graveyard in the hope that she would someday come for him, Aaron is surprised when the means of his breakthrough unexpectedly arrive one day in 1991:

When first the women came, I barely noticed. The cemetery had become more of a curiosity to the living than anything else, and I ignored visitors, choosing to stay in the Second Layer. But the dark-haired woman got my attention when she dropped to her knees in front of Susanna’s grave, making the sign of the cross.

Now why, I thought, would she do that right here when there isn’t even a headstone to mark the grave?
Then she said something bizarre. “Someone’s here.”

I sat up.

“The hair is standing up on the back of my neck.”
Aye, and on the back of mine too, lady. Could she sense me there?

The story of how Linda Alice Dewey and Aaron Burke learn to communicate and then mutually pursue his “crossing” is one of the most unusual reports in metaphysical literature, containing unexpected flashes of humor as Aaron relates his experiences in modern settings after decades of isolation in the graveyard — especially his wonder at the speed of traveling in automobiles and airplanes. (While spirits can fly from place to place, Aaron reports that they cannot move very fast, and the effort required is exceptionally tiring.)

Regardless of whether one believes in ghosts and afterlives, Aaron’s Crossing provides compelling insights into life, death, grief, and redemption with the story-telling finesse of a fine novel. Unlike most ghost stories which aim to give goose bumps, this one presents a hard-won, heartfelt lesson: that only forgiveness can end the seeming eternity of suffering too easily brought on by the inevitable mistakes and misfortunes of our life on earth.

© 2005 Fearless Books. Used with permission