Hello! It’s Halloween, my favorite holiday, so I thought I’d share a spooky story.
Some of this is true; the history, location, thing I found, the man I met. Otherwise, this is a work of fiction. Happy Halloween!
A disturbing thing happened yesterday.
I decided to go for a walk out by Land’s End, where a long, twisty trail runs through flowers, trees, hillside. Off to the right as I’m walking is the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the foghorns. Since it was foggy and lovely, the horns were playing their tune, such a perfect day.
I kept walking down the familiar narrow path until I got to the long staircase to Mile Rock Beach. It’s a tiny spot, covered in logs and rocks, just a little spit of sand really, but very beautiful, and I had it all to myself.
I perched on some driftwood and watched the waves crash; it fills my heart to see that. Honestly, I’ll take a rocky ocean with dramatic waves over a calm blue sea any day of the week. After a while I walked over the wet, slippery rocks that join to another little beach, and I found the strangest thing.
There are a lot of old WWII remnants around the City, Fort Point I guess is the best known, but there are random machine gun nests and gun turrets in the Presidio and around, so coming up on a ruin of some sort is not really unusual. But this was different.
It looked like a building that had collapsed from erosion, also not uncommon here. Every now and then you may find a tombstone from one of the old cemeteries, back when they moved them all to Colma. Except they didn’t always move them, some of the tombstones were repurposed, the bodies forgotten. Now and then, they turn up. Renovations at the Legion of Honor went poorly, at least for whoever found the first coffin, and the anonymous fellow no longer Resting in Peace. It’s all part of our spooky history.
But this baffled me. It looked like it had been a bathroom, judging by the tile. The graffiti told me I was far from the first to find it, and a decaying vulture had been there for a while, but I still felt like an intruder.
Since I have photos, I won’t spend too much time describing what it looked like, but what happened, I couldn’t capture on my phone.
My mind has been cluttered, in fact, I went on this walk to clear it out a bit, so when I heard someone say my full name, Susanne, I whipped my head around to see who was there, and how did they know a name I haven’t used since I was about 11? Occasionally when hiking out here, I’ve come across a man who lives in the brush. The first time I saw him, he was standing by his tent, holding a couple of plastic gas cans that I assume he filled with water somewhere. We both froze, each afraid of the other’s response. I just walked slowly away; he passed me a little while later in another spot. I’ve seen him a time or two since then, but I’m relatively certain he’s corporeal. I wonder who he is and what he has seen out there in the trees and fog.
After a scan of the beach and it’s many hiding places, I convinced myself that my ears played a trick on me. “It was the waves crashing, that’s all. Sussssannneeeeee…a wave, that’s all.” I poked around the ruin a little more, and I found an intact room, plumbing fixtures still attached, one small porcelain sink, but no toilet or shower. I expect they had been on the other side.
I tested the floor, and it was solid. I started to imagine, who used this room? Was it military? It looked like it, and that wouldn’t be uncommon here. But where did it come from? I know the area well, and there was no structure like this up on the cliff. What kinds of things did they worry about, what kept them awake at night? What made them blissfully happy? If this was a WWII bunker, how did they deal with the stress? Although the City was one of the best places they could be during the war.
It hit me as it does sometimes. Most of these soldiers could have been my sons. Now, they’d be 90+ but then, just kids. Just kids in this tiled box in the fog and the horns.
I heard it again. I turned too quickly, slipped on the slick tile, and landed awkwardly on my left thigh. I sat there for a moment, very aware how defenseless I was, how vulnerable, when I heard a rustling in the trees, and the sound of feet trying to navigate the moss-covered rocks. My heart was pounding, and I breathed with my mouth open, so I wouldn’t make as much noise. From where I was I stared directly at the dead vulture, all the feathers on its wings splayed out around a neatly picked ribcage. I wondered how often it feasted on human flesh. I couldn’t shake this morbid thought as the squeak of rubber soles got closer, and the pain in my hip got sharper, the fog turned so thick it was light rain, and I couldn’t see much through my glasses. I thought, “That poor vulture won’t get to enjoy me.” I and covered my mouth and laughed quietly at the disturbing thought.
Just then the footsteps stopped. Slowly, and now soaking wet, I scooted down the floor to the opening, braving a quick glance. My heart raced and pounded like a timpani, deep breaths couldn’t calm it down. All around me, going about their business, men made of fog and shadow, wearing uniforms, dissolving in the wind, and reforming, going about their day in silence. I sat with my jaw hanging, in terror and fascination. And then one of them turned and looked directly in my eyes. He saw me. He reached out his hand and said, “Susanne.” then dissolved as the fog billowed, and reformed slowly in front of me, body wafting in the breeze as he regained form, not two feet away, beckoning me to join him. “Susanne.” was all he said. Although frozen, I felt my hand reach back to him, when the fog horns went still, and the little beach echoed with the sound of one lonely trumpet playing “Taps.”
All of the soldiers, including mine, looked around with sorrow in their cold, empty eyes, and then a look of quiet acceptance passed on their faces as they faded into the fog and the horns returned.
I got up as quickly as I could and realized I would be able to walk across the rocks. As I arose, I saw a figure near the cliff, but he was human. A gust of wind cleared the air for a moment. The young homeless man who lives in the brush was standing there with a battered trumpet tucked under his arm. He stared at me for a moment, saluted, and started the climb up the cliff.
Whatever happened to those boys, so many decades ago, I hope they have peace now. That this was just an echo in time. But since there is a sentry with a trumpet, I expect they come back now and then.
I wonder if anyone has ever taken that boy’s hand?