The First Day

Simon Guthrie awoke later in the morning than usual, a few minutes after eight o’clock. He rolled out of bed and went into the bathroom, his mind still under the influence of the Dream. He stood for a long time under the shower, watching tendrils of soap foam flow down the drain between his feet, thinking about the little girl running between the monuments, the sudden darkness descending over the cemetery, the black mist coiling across the ground toward him. Clenching his teeth, he shampooed his hair and forced the Dream out of his head. There were other, more immediate problems to face.

Simon towelled off, brushed his teeth, shaved and dressed. It was a bright, sunny Friday morning in October, so he chose a heavy rugby shirt and a sleeveless grey hoodie over jeans and sneakers. At the sound of his movements Jeremy, his yellow Labrador retriever, wandered into the room to greet him, then settled down on the floor to wait for him to finish. At ten years of age, Jeremy had mellowed in the way many yellow labs do, developing a patient and unhurried approach to life based on an understanding that Simon would feed him, walk him and not ask him to do things he really didn’t feel like doing at this time of his life.

Simon glanced down at the dog and thought of Gail, as he always did. Jeremy had been Gail’s dog. Her only child, she used to joke. Gail was the one who walked him, fed him, took him to the vet, slipped him treats under the table at mealtime. In return, it was her side of the bed he guarded at night, and it was Gail he ran to meet, tail wagging, at the end of the day.

The house was quiet. He ran the comb through his wavy, sand-coloured hair, grimaced at the mirror, and thought about growing a beard. Then he sighed and shook his head. Time to face whatever the night had brought him. He went out onto the landing, put his hand on the banister, and slowly descended the winding staircase to the main floor of his million-dollar log home.

At the bottom of the stairs he found the portable phone on the floor. He picked it up and put it back in its cradle. On his left, separating the foyer from the kitchen, was an island with bar stools where he often ate his meals. The stools had been stacked on top of the island. One on top of the other, all four of them, balanced with impossible precision in the mathematical centre of the island. He carefully returned them to their places on the floor. The carafe had tumbled out of the coffee maker and sat on its lid on the counter. He checked it for damage, found none, and proceeded to make coffee. As he carried the grounds from last night’s pot of coffee to the trash bin he looked at the calendar on the wall. One of his chef’s knives was impaled in today’s date. Sighing, he stepped on the lever, dumped the coffee grounds in the trash, rescued his knife and dropped it in the dishwasher.

He finished making the coffee, and as it began to percolate he took a quick look around. Yesterday morning there had been a severed raccoon head in his kitchen sink. The morning before that, all the furniture in the great room had been covered with a disgusting slime that had taken more than two hours to clean up. He felt as though he were getting off easy this morning, although the knife trick was a little unsettling. He didn’t want to be around when his cutlery began to remove itself from the drawer and fly through the air.

Was that a message for him? Was today the day? The day for what? Who knew? After two weeks it was all starting to get a little tiresome.

He took Jeremy outside and walked down the driveway, two hundred feet long, to retrieve the local weekly newspaper from his mailbox. White clouds moved through a deep blue sky, hiding and revealing the sun. Jeremy trotted off to examine something under the lilac bushes. The air was cool and fresh. The wind rattled in the yellow leaves of the quaking aspens lining the road. Blue jays flew overhead on their way to the back yard feeders. He folded the newspaper under his arm and looked at his house as he slowly walked back up the driveway.

It was a beautiful structure, constructed of sawn logs dovetailed at the corners and chinked with white acrylic. The roof was covered with red-painted steel, and the great room featured enormous windows. In all, the house contained almost four thousand square feet of living space on two floors, with a large deck and gardens in back and a three-car garage accessed through a breezeway. Off to the left were the outbuildings, including an insulated workshop, a potting shed, and a chicken coop and stable that were not yet occupied. A year ago this property had been a hay field, and now it was his home. His retreat. His country estate. His second chance.

It was a little cool to be on the patio this morning, so he took his coffee into the solarium to read the paper. Through the glass walls he could see a wide expanse of lawn leading to the potting shed. When he turned his head to the left he could look down the driveway to the gravel road. On the right he could see the other outbuildings and the edge of the woods that dominated the back portion of his two-hundred-acre property. He had insisted on a solarium being included in the design of his new home not only because it was an excellent source of passive heat for his home but also because it would provide him with a bright, restful place to enjoy his coffee in the morning. Two large ceiling fans turned overhead. Plants thrived in pots and baskets around him. He felt frustration at the thought of it all being threatened by some unknown thing. He bit his lip, however, and forced the emotion down. He had to be patient. The cause would eventually reveal itself. He simply had to wait.

He made his way slowly through the pages of the Monitor, the weekly paper published in Coburn Falls. The high school football team was well into its season and was in first place, undefeated. Cub scouts from around the area had enjoyed a weekend jamboree at Camp Minnewanka, where the theme had been aboriginal customs and beliefs. The cubs had been taught how to make dream catchers, said to have the ability to filter out bad dreams. Just what I need, Simon thought, turning the page. Next week was Agriculture Week in Ontario. Locally there would be a ploughing match, a craft and bake sale, and other events to mark the occasion.

When he was finished with the newspaper he locked the front door, set the security system and drove into Coburn Falls. A community of just over four thousand people, it supported two butchers, a fresh fruit and vegetable shop and two supermarkets, and among them Simon was able to purchase whatever he required from one week to the next. Of course, it was nothing like having suppliers show up each morning with a full range of fresh produce, meat and fish to choose from, right from the back of the truck as he’d been used to, but it would have to do. Theoretically he could drive to Kingston or could even go back to Toronto from time to time for more serious shopping trips, but so far, after thirteen months, he’d resisted the impulse.

Grabbing a cart in the Food Mart, he took out his list. There were a couple of ideas he wanted to try. He might be retired, but he wasn’t dead. The creative impulse was coming back to him, slowly but surely. Pork tenderloin was one of his focuses this week, along with summer squash. Vegetables were his first love, after all, and his treatment of them had made him famous. Summer squash in a Cajun context. It percolated in the back of his mind as he methodically walked from aisle to aisle, his spirits lifting.

In the checkout line he found himself behind Margaret Stead, who lived on the next road over from him. A short woman in her early sixties with faded red hair, she was chattering away to the cashier.

“This year we—” she was saying as she looked around, saw Simon and closed her mouth. The cashier continued to scan Margaret’s groceries as though she hadn’t been listening at all. Margaret smiled uncertainly and nodded up at Simon who, at six feet three inches, towered over her by more than a foot.

“Good morning, Mrs. Stead,” Simon said.

“Morning, Mr. Guthrie. A nice day out there.”

“Yes, it is. Please call me Simon.”

She patted her hair absent-mindedly and nodded to herself as though making up her mind about something. “You know, you really should drop by again for a cup of coffee. Roy enjoyed your visit last month and it’s nice for you to get to know the neighbours around you, don’t you think? After all, you’ve been living in that beautiful home of yours for a year now, haven’t you?”

Simon nodded politely.

“I’ve made some pumpkin cookies you’ll want to try. It’s a new recipe. Why don’t you drop over this evening some time?”

“Oh? How did you make them?”

Margaret shook her head. “You’ll just have to come over and see, won’t you?”

“Yes, I guess I will. Maybe some time around eight.”

“That’ll be fine.”

Simon glanced at the clerk, who was bagging Margaret’s purchases with an absorption that seemed to suggest she was alone in the world, that Margaret and Simon didn’t exist at all. It was like that in this town, Simon had discovered. After a year in this place, he still knew almost no one, still found it almost impossible to strike up a conversation with the people he saw every week in the stores, the bank, the gas bar, or anywhere else he did business in Coburn Falls. It was as though he were a ghost passing through this place like a faint current of air, unseen and unknown. His small talk fell on deaf ears and his jokes often failed to draw even the slightest smile. Margaret was one of the few exceptions who took notice of him, made eye contact and exchanged more than monosyllables with him. Perhaps she too possessed special powers that allowed her to see into the spirit world, to see what others could not see. As he watched her wheel her shopping cart toward the automatic doors, his thoughts passed from the figurative to the literal. In fact there was something about the Stead home that drew him. Something very unusual he’d sensed on his previous visit.

He stopped for lunch at Sammy’s Grill, a small place near the marina that catered to the upscale tourist trade travelling the Rideau Canal during the summer in expensive boats, fuelling the economy of Coburn Falls. Now that it was October the crowds had thinned and Simon was able to get a table with no trouble. The restaurant did some wonderful things with salmon that Simon particularly relished, and so he occasionally treated himself when he was in town. Apparently his fame hadn’t penetrated this far into the hinterland and he was able to dine in anonymity, enjoying the product of another chef’s genius as though food were just a casual thing for him rather than the central focus of his life.

In fact, he was beginning to toy with the idea of getting back into the game, inspired in large part by the cuisine offered here at Sammy’s. For the first time he felt the impulse to ask the name of the chef, to seek an introduction and reveal his own identity, to talk shop for a while, perhaps even tentatively explore a partnership. Or what the hell, why not just go ahead and open up his own place?

Later that afternoon he was in the potting shed cleaning out a stack of clay flowerpots when he heard the sound of gravel crunching under the tires of a car coming up his driveway. He put down his trowel and removed his gloves. From the door of the shed he could see a small black sports car approaching the house. Simon wasn’t an expert on automobiles but he recognized an expensive vehicle when he saw it. Puzzled, he started across the lawn as the car’s lone occupant, a woman, got out from behind the wheel and stared uncertainly at the house.

She was a small person, short and slight, with shoulder-length chestnut hair and wire frame glasses that caught the sunlight as she turned to greet him. She wore an ankle-length dark brown skirt and a white blouse under a buckskin-coloured jacket. She held out her hand and looked up at him.

“Are you Mr. Guthrie?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Hello, I’m Doris Fowler,” she said, shaking his hand with long, bony fingers. She was not an attractive woman, he thought. In fact, she was rather homely. Her eyes were a muddy brown colour, her nose was long and thin, her cheeks were puffy and her top front incisors crossed and protruded. Her hair, although naturally wavy, tended to wave in the wrong direction at the wrong place. She wore no makeup, her eyebrows were thick brown arches above the frames of her glasses, and the lobes of her ears, which sat low on her head, were too large.

She looked at him and pursed her lips in a smile that framed her protruding teeth. “I’m sorry to bother you today, but I want to ask for permission to go onto your property. I’m a history professor at Queen’s, and I’m doing some research in this area.”

“I see,” Simon said, neutrally. “What kind of research?”

“Well, I’m working on a project involving the early settlement of the county. What a beautiful home you have. It looks new.”

“Thank you. A project. Is that a euphemism for a book, Ms. Fowler?”

“Yes, it is,” she replied, and then added, almost apologetically, “it’s Dr. Fowler, actually. Doris.” She removed her university identification card from her purse and showed it to him.

As with most photo identification cards, the picture of her was not a flattering likeness by any stretch of the imagination. Simon gave her a polite smile. “Do you want to come in for a moment? I put a pot of coffee on about fifteen minutes ago, and it should be just about perfect.”

“I don’t want to bother you or your family.”

“No bother at all. There’s just myself. Come on in.” He led the way inside to the kitchen, where he took down two coffee mugs from a cupboard. Jeremy, who had been asleep in the laundry room just off the kitchen, strolled out to see what was going on.

“Hello, puppy,” Doris said, bending down to rub the dog’s neck. “What’s your name?”

“This is Jeremy. As you can see, he’s a vicious guard dog who can’t be trusted around people.”

“Well, I think you’re just lovely, Jeremy.” Doris straightened, looking around. “What a beautiful kitchen,” she said. “I’ve never seen one this large before, and a walk-in refrigerator, my word! This is amazing!”

“Thanks,” Simon said. “What do you take in your coffee?”

“Black. Wow. I could probably hurt myself in a kitchen this large.”

Simon smiled, handing her a cup of coffee.

“Thanks. I’m not much of a cook,” she explained. “I burn toast and I couldn’t fry an egg to save my life. I eat out all the time. Actually, this looks like a kitchen from a restaurant.”

“The design’s scaled down from a restaurant kitchen. What kind of book did you say you were writing?”

“A history of the early settlement of Leeds and Lanark counties.” Doris sipped at the coffee. “Mm, that’s good. You were right. I’m a professor of history at Queen’s University, on sabbatical. My specialty is Canadian history, the early period. This area had a very interesting settlement pattern, and I think there’s a book in it. Actually, there’s a story in it. A few people have already written about the early settlers, especially the Irish in east-central Ontario and the role they played in settling the area, not to mention the Scots, the French and the Germans, but their work tends to be rather dry and academic. I want to write something that touches more on what it must have been like for these people to come over here and find themselves facing challenges they never dreamed they’d have to take on. Of course, writers of the day like Moodie, Traill and Langton all emphasized the harsh winters, the bone-crushing work clearing the land and the primitive living conditions, but they all tended to be English gentry with greater expectations, so to speak, rather than the more common immigrants who cleared most of the land people still farm on today. I’m more interested in the German soldiers who received land grants after having been captured from Napoleon’s army and impressed into the British army, the French who came down the river to work in the lumber industry that bloomed here, the Irish Catholics who—”

She interrupted herself and gulped a mouthful of coffee. “Sorry, I tend to talk too much sometimes. Anyway, you probably get the idea.”

“That’s all right. What makes my property of interest to you?”

“Well,” she said, her eyes widening and her lips pursing again around her front teeth in a small enthusiastic grin, “this is really interesting, because I’m currently researching the establishment of the Catholic Church in this area, and you may not be aware of the fact that the church in town wasn’t built until 1864. Before that, there was a small frame church right on the township border where the Catholic cemetery is today, down near Bedford, but that church burned down only a year after it was built in 1852. In fact, the very first Catholic church in this township was a small log cabin right here on this lot, built in 1844.”

“On this property, you mean?”

“That’s right. Not here where your house is, I don’t think, but at the back of the lot where it faces onto Murphy Road. Up here at the front of the lot on Wright Road was where the original settler built his shanty, the man who donated the land at the back to the parish to build their church. Doran, his name was. Did you know that? That there was a church at one time on your property, I mean?”

“No, not at all. It wasn’t something that came up during the transaction. I had no idea.”

“Well, that’s the interesting thing,” Doris plunged on, “because I went over the land copy book entries for this lot and there was no record of the back portion of this lot changing ownership at all. It’s my belief that although Doran donated the acreage, the Church never actually registered the change in ownership and it fell through the cracks. When the land was bought in 1851 by George Willits, it included the entire two hundred acres. That’s what you own today, isn’t it? All two hundred acres of the lot as it was originally surveyed?”

“Well, yeah, there are two hundred acres altogether.”

“Ah ha. I’d like very much to find the site of that original church. With your permission, of course.”

“Not a problem,” Simon said. “There’s a bit of a trail that leads back into the woods behind the house. I’ve never followed it all of the way to see how far it goes, but we could take a look, if you like.”

“I’d love to.” Doris held up a finger. “Just a moment.” She drained the rest of her coffee and sighed. “That was delicious. Let’s go.”

They went back outside, taking Jeremy with them, and Doris went over to her car to fetch her camera.

“I don’t like to be without it when I’m in the field. You never know what you’re going to come across.”

Simon glanced backward as they set off around the side of the house. “Nice car. What kind is it?”

“A Maserati Spyder. I have only two extravagances in my life, that car and my house. A four-bedroom stone house, built by an Irish stonemason who worked on the Rideau Canal. A historical house for a history professor.”

“And where does the fast car fit into that picture?”

“It gets me where I want to go in a hurry,” she grinned.

“I’ll bet it does.”

Behind the house Simon led the way to an opening in the tree line that formed the entrance to a pathway through the woods. Birch and tamarack mixed with aspen and a few sugar maples as the forest closed in around them. Simon put his hands in his pockets and inhaled deeply. He’d found this path soon after moving in and had widened it somewhat, removing young tamaracks and clearing away patches of brambles and shrubs. He’d marked the trail by tying pieces of fluorescent pink trail tape to overhanging branches. He and Jeremy liked to walk back here when the weather was nice. Jeremy was at the age where he needed a bit of exercise from time to time to keep his paunch from getting too large, and frankly, so was Simon.

They emerged into a portion of the woods dominated by majestic white pine trees that towered overhead, blocking out the sun. Judging from their height and the thickness of their trunks, they’d been here for a very long time. Simon listened to the sound of the wind as it hissed through their boughs, like the sound of surf on a beach. Beneath their feet the ground was covered with rust-coloured needles, discarded by the pines over the seasons until they lay in a thick carpet that eliminated almost all undergrowth. Ahead, Jeremy paused to listen to the silence around them. Simon and Doris did the same.

“This is lovely,” Doris murmured.

“This is my favourite place on the property. It’s unbelievably peaceful here. Every time I come back here I can almost sense a presence—” Abruptly, he changed the subject. “The path goes back that way,” he pointed, “but I haven’t cleared much farther. Once we pass through these pines I made another path that loops back up to the house. Over there.” He gestured off to his right.

“Can we see where it continues on back?” Doris asked.

“Of course.”

Doris looked at Jeremy. “He looks like he’s listening for something.”

“He’s probably enjoying the silence, like we were. Sometimes, though, he’s listening for wildlife. There are a lot of rabbits in these woods, and white-tailed deer. We’ve passed a few of their trails already.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Doris said. “What else lives back here?”

“Oh, raccoons and porcupines. I’ve also seen some evidence of bush wolves. Saw one crossing a farmer’s field down the road the other day, so I know they’re around.”

“Wolves?” Doris asked uncertainly.

“They won’t bother us. They’re pretty shy of people. Jeremy and I probably sound like a herd of elephants when we come back here, and I’m sure any self-respecting wolf would be long gone before we came anywhere close to him.”

“How do you know they’re here, then?”

“I’ve seen their tracks, and the remains of a few of their meals.”


They passed silently over the carpet of pine needles until they emerged at a fork in the path. Simon pointed to the right. “This is where it loops back to the house, and this,” indicating the branch to the left, “is where it continues on toward the back of the lot.”

Doris looked at Jeremy, who was sniffing around the trunk of a tree down the path to the left. “Looks like he wants to go back there, too.”

“He’s just nosy.” Simon led the way down to the spot where Jeremy was inspecting the base of an overgrown shrub. A few yards ahead a tree had fallen across the path, blocking the way. They approached it and Simon laid his hands on the smooth greenish bark of the trunk. “It’s pretty much overgrown from this point on.”

Doris looked around her. “We’re, what, about halfway back?”

“I suppose.”

Doris turned to face him. “Listen, would you mind if I came back here tomorrow with a machete and branch lopper and cut my way back the rest of the way?”

Simon shrugged. “Sure, I don’t see why not. But wouldn’t it be easier just to go around to Murphy Road and enter the lot from the back end? If the church was back there, you’d probably find it a hell of a lot easier that way.”

“Well, you’re probably right, but where’s the fun in that? Anyway, I like to be thorough. This way I’ll have a chance to see the entire lot, more or less. I imagine the Dorans used to walk this way back to the church for mass all the time, and the children would’ve come this way to attend school. Did I mention that the log church doubled as a school? Anyway, it’s impossible to know for sure exactly where their pathway cut through the woods, since it was a hundred and sixty-odd years ago now, but this route is as good as any, I’d say.”

Simon shrugged. “Go right ahead. I have no objections, that’s for sure.”

Doris glanced at her watch. “This will still leave me a couple of hours to work in the township archives. Have you seen them? They keep them in the basement of the museum.”

When Simon shook his head, she grimaced. “What a mess. They’ve never had the time to organize them, so it’s just a mass of cardboard boxes and plastic bags filled with papers and photographs and you name it. Somebody needs to spend a month cataloguing and filing it all.”

Simon stared at her.

“Hey, I’ve got a job already. Well, off we go.” She marched back up the path and Simon smiled, following her.

“Come on, Jeremy!” he called.

“I’ll drop by first thing tomorrow morning, if that’s okay,” Doris said over her shoulder.

“No problem.”

“Great! This is going to be fun.”

Jeremy, loping ahead of Simon to catch up with Doris, seemed to agree.

© 2009, 2013, 2023 Michael J. McCann

The Ghost Man: An Excerpt