I don’t believe in ghosts, but I have met a few—most of them in Scotland. The most unquiet bunch waited on a hilltop in the middle of the Midlands.
“Hilltop” sounds impressive, like Weathertop, like some majestic lookout crowned by ruins dignified in their decay, but this place was just a little hill surrounded by trees and sheep, barely visible unless you stood on it already. A ruined castle did crumble on that hilltop, but it was not crumbling in a graceful or tragic manner. There’s a difference between swooning dramatically and simply smacking your face on the floor after you pass out.
Even if the set designer of my little ghost story chose to scorn the classics of gothic literature, somebody backstage knew the proper cues: a fog rose up among the tree, and surrounded the hill. Hardly remarkable, for Scotland—but, then again, most of the hauntings I encountered were hardly remarked on by the locals. “Oh, right, sorry. The ghost in that room hates men with beards. No wonder you didn’t get any sleep. Here, switch rooms. No bother, no bother, try the one across the hall tonight.”
I digress. Back to the hilltop.
While walking across those unimpressive castle grounds, I noticed that I was angry. I had no reason to be, but that didn’t seem to matter. Old grudges and petty bits of unfinished business came bubbling up into memory, as though my brain were searching for reasons why I felt the way I already did.
This isn’t right, I thought (angrily). I don’t think this anger is actually mine.
In that instant a whirlwind took shape and surrounded the spot where I stood. Dried leaves spun in a perfect circle, twelve feet or so in diameter, and that circle began to contract. So I picked up a stick and drew a smaller circle in the dirt, around myself. It seemed like the obvious thing to do.
The whirlwind contracted only as far as that line. Outside my little barrier it continued to howl. Inside I continued to stand. The wind did not abate, and I had nowhere else to go.
These circumstances went on for a bit. It’s strange to feel simultaneously terrified and bored. (The anger was gone. No, that isn’t true, but I no longer felt it. I watched it surround me instead.)
“I’ll leave,” I said aloud, “but you’re going to have to let me go.”
The whirlwind vanished. Leaves fell, hit the ground, and stayed there.
I stepped slowly outside my circle. Then I left, and got lost. Sheep can be surprisingly sinister looking when you run into them in dense fog. Eventually I found the town, and my room, and my bed.
The next morning I glanced at an old map in the hostel lobby. The precise spot where I had been standing the day before, the place that expressed rage with wind and leaves, belonged to the executioner. His ax severed hundreds of heads on that spot. It’s possible that the heads are still unhappy about this. Frustrated by a lack of lungs, they all make do with the world’s wind.
I wonder if the local executioner had worn a beard like mine. Might shave before traveling next time.