The Docent and the Don (a ghost story)

By Jackie Houchin

Something is not right, thought Shirley Clark, the elderly, yet spry docent of the Oliveros Adobe Historical Park.  She looked around cautiously.  The March morning was sunny and bright, warming up nicely, but nowhere near the baking heat of summer.  So what had caused that “shimmering” in the air over by the fountain?

She’d been sitting on a bench in the rose garden, taking a break from the confines of the Visitors’ Center, where musty displays sometimes made her sneeze.   She’d been enjoying the sun, allowing it to soak through the black, lace “period” dress she always wore on her docent days, to warm her “only slightly arthritic” shoulders.  Out of nowhere, a whimsical breeze had lifted her white hair and sent a chill down her spine.  Then a tingling at the nape of her neck – like someone staring at you – had made her turn toward the fountain.  That’s when she’d seen the … the what?

She rose from the bench and walked towards the circular spray of water. A glance at the parking lot revealed only two vehicles; her Acura and the battered old Ford truck belonging to Luis, the Park’s maintenance man.  She could see him far down the grassy slope to her right, bending over the ancient lawn mower, trying to coax it to life.  There were no visitors.  Not even a lost motorist turning around in the parking lot, whose mirror could have caught the sun and reflected a flash of light on the fountain.

She sighed and sat down on the low, tiled wall around the fountain.  Until the summer tourist season arrived, her Sundays were mostly like this one; quiet and solitary.   She looked up at the old eucalyptus tree where the Adobe’s famous owls came to nest each year.  Like the swallows at Capistrano, she thought.  But the owls hadn’t come yet either.

 

The Oliveros Adobe was not a well known historic site, tucked as it was down a small side road several miles outside a coastal resort town.  Except for a few months in the summer, not many people visited the Park, which was officially open to the public only on weekends, when Shirley and a few other docents would come to lead tours and answer questions.

Of course Tuesdays were different.

On Tuesday mornings the grounds were full of fourth graders.  Shirley smiled.  She loved those school field trip days when the kids who studied early California history in their classrooms came to the Adobe to experience it.  Then she was in her glory, telling them stories about the Oliveros’ nineteen children as she led them through the rooms of the house … explaining how Don Reynaldo Oliveros got rich selling beef to the Gold Rush minors who paid him with gold nuggets … and how, one terrible night, the treasure was stolen, down to the very earrings ripped from the pierced ears of Dona Teodosa Oliveros.  How the boys would whoop and holler at that, while the girls cringed and covered their ear lobes.

Afterwards, they would rush out to the courtyard to grind corn in stone trays called metates, and make tortillas and eat them.  They would pull off their shoes and use their feet to press mud into wood forms to make “authentic” adobe bricks.  And a local vaquero would show them how to lasso a steer.

Later, on a weekend, a few of the kids might bring their parents back to the Adobe to show them what they’d learned, and Shirley would beam with pleasure when they repeated exact phrases from her tour speech.

 

She sighed and leaned sideways to scoop a eucalyptus leaf from the fountain.  It was on lonely days like this that Shirley feared her well-rehearsed tour speech might rise into her throat and choke her, so badly did she want to share it.

Once already that spring – well, maybe it was twice – Shirley had walked the rooms and the grounds of the old Adobe reciting her speech to invisible visitors, her words clear and crisp in the still morning air.  Practicing; is what she’d tell anyone who came upon her unexpectedly. But Shirley didn’t need practice.  She had known her speech perfectly for years now.  Sometimes – and she didn’t admit this to anyone – she’d awakened in the morning with the final words of her speech on her lips, knowing she had recited the entire tour in her sleep.

The Oliveros not only invaded her sleep; they possessed her waking hours as well.  There were times when Shirley believed herself a member of their family – in spirit if not in name – feeling their joys and sorrows as if they were her own.  One thing, however, she didn’t understand: the sense of gloom that had settled recently over the Adobe.  It made her uneasy.

There it was again: that shimmering of light!

Shirley knew she hadn’t imagined it.

She could see it now through the gate in the old wall, across the courtyard, near the rounded mound of the oven.  She rose and nervously retied the knot that held her shawl in place, pulling it closer.  Could someone have fired up the oven without her knowing it?  Were those simply heat waves she was seeing?  But the stack of twigs and small branches next to the oven looked undisturbed.  And besides, hadn’t she first seen it right there at the fountain?

Shirley walked through the narrow arch and crossed the sunny courtyard towards the oven, her eyes fixed on the wavering light.  As she grew near, however, it began to fade, and then disappeared altogether.  Disappointed, yet curious, Shirley reached out a thin hand and laid it on the whitewashed mound of adobe.  It was cool, not yet warmed by the morning sun and certainly not hot from an internal fire.  Puzzled, she turned to look at the house itself.  What was going on?

Then she heard the music; faint, similar to a wind chime, but different.  It was the organ-grinder/music-box “plinking” of the antique barrel piano in the main parlor of the Adobe.  La Sala, she called it in her speech; the place where the Oliveros family entertained visitors with music and singing; the place where all the family photos were hung.  Shirley left the oven and walked swiftly towards the open double doors.

A jealous possessiveness rose in her.  Playing ‘El Cilindro’ was part of her tour.  She was the only one allowed to open the waist high gate protecting the parlor; the only one allowed to step across the frayed and faded carpet to touch and turn the crank and to point out how the tiny figurines danced and spun to six different tunes.  Now someone had dared to cross the line.

The tinny notes of “Old Susannah” reached her ears and her breathing quickened.  She marched through the doorway, fists on hips, ready to scold, to demand, to threaten.  She opened her mouth in anger, but froze.  No one was there.  The room was empty and silent.  There was not even an echo of soft hammers striking wires.

Shirley cocked her head, alert for the smallest sound.  But she heard no covert, retreating footfalls on the wooden floors leading to the connecting rooms on either side of the parlor.  She opened the gate and stepped to ‘El Cilindro’.  She touched the crank at the side and found the handle cold.  No human fingers had turned it recently.

Her gaze was drawn to the yellowed oval photograph of a young woman in black silk.  She smiled, and the tingle began at the nape of her neck.  “Francesca?” she called softly.  A wisp of sound caught Shirley’s ear – a sweet melodic voice in song – and she turned her head towards the fireplace.  A small, framed photograph of a young girl with white lace at her throat seemed to glow momentarily.  “Rebecca?  Dominga?”

A rhythmic creaking overhead caused Shirley’s eyes to widen and her smile to broaden.  “Teodosa!  Baby Raimendo!”  Quickly she turned and hurried out the door, the balcony luring her upwards.  She hesitated at the bottom of the steps, her left hand on the large wooden ball on the top of the newel post; familiar and comforting.

How many times had she come to these stairs with a group of attentive visitors and drawn their attention to the sign on the post beside her?  MAXIMUM OCCUPANCY OF THE BALCONY LIMITED TO 12 TO INSURE THE SAFETY OF VISITORS AND THE ADOBE.  Her right hand gathered the long skirts of her dress, and she began to climb the stairs.

At the top, she paused, panting slightly – she was seventy, after all – and listened.  The rhythmic creaking continued as she tiptoed to her right towards the door of the master bedroom.  Was that a soft Spanish lullaby she heard?  And that, was it the sweet snuffling sound of a nursing baby?  She peeked around the doorpost and for a second caught a shimmering presence in the rocker.  And then it vanished; though the chair continued to rock gently … slower and slower until it stopped.

Shirley turned her head to the left, her thoughts wandering through the connecting doors to the children’s rooms.  Soft thumps and giggles and squeals reached her ears.  She let out the breath she’d been holding and leaned against the doorpost.  Her beloved Oliveros girls had returned.

Then, from the right hand connecting door, the one that led to the Oliveros’ private chapel, she heard soft chords from a pump piano, and faint voices singing Ave Maria.

Quietly, slowly, lest she spoil the enchantment, she walked out to the balcony and laid her quaking hands on the railing.  She closed her eyes and took a slow, deep breath.  Then she opened them and looked out across the courtyard to the bell archway.  She gasped in astonishment, for the courtyard was alive with shimmering, transparent beings.  Horse hooves clopped on dust-muted cobbles and old wagon wheels groaned.  A blacksmith’s hammer clanged softly on an anvil, like a far away church bell.  Young boys chased each other, laughing.  There was young Jose … and Miguel.

And over there, was that the rascally Nicholas playing on the canon?  His father would get after him for that!

Near the huge magnolia tree which grew in the courtyard, busy Chumash Indian women in colorful dress tended the oven and the grill, while others rhythmically ground dried corn into meal on their metates.  And far to the left, through the wide opening in the courtyard wall, Shirley saw other Chumash women in the herb garden filling baskets with basil and rosemary and chives and long red peppers.

Shirley’s head spun dizzily.  A giddy laugh welled in her throat.  She closed her eyes and gripped the railing as the sounds and smells intensified.  Now she could smell meat sizzling and corn tortillas frying, and a roast pig seasoned with rosemary and garlic coming out of the oven.  A breeze teased her nose with the fragrance of eucalyptus, citrus, oregano and cilantro, as well as fresh cut hay and manure.

And sweat.

The pungent, unpleasant male odor caused Shirley’s eyes to spring open.  Her head jerked to the right and there it was … the darkly handsome, yet sinister form of Don Reynaldo’s notorious older brother.  It shimmered, and then solidified before her eyes.

Don Rodolfo Oliveros.

He grinned when he saw she’d recognized him, and raised an insolent eyebrow.  His teeth were white and even beneath a thick black mustache, his dark hair oiled and slicked back under the wide sombrero. At once, Shirley knew it was this specter that had lured her step by step to the balcony. The grin slowly turned into a sneer, and his voice, when it came, was low and threatening. “Senora Clark…” it began.

Shirley’s chest constricted as she turned to face him.

“You have portrayed me badly in your little speeches.  Is this not so?  You have told many people that I am a bandit and a desperado.”  His eyebrows dropped low over his black eyes. “Joaquin Rodolfo Oliveros does not like this!”

His words cracked like a whip and Shirley took a step backwards.  He followed her movement, anger flashing in his eyes.  Foolishly she thrust out her hand, knowing it would pass through his image, and gasped in surprise.  A warm, solid, rising and falling chest lay beneath her palm.  She snatched it away and clutched at the knot of her shawl over her heart.  She took another step back.

“But … you were a bandit and a desperado! You stole your brother’s gold, and…”

“I did not!  You have no proof.”

“There were witnesses.”

“Who? Who would dare testify against Rodolfo Oliveros?”

“The children.”

“Ha!”

“And the men at the bar in town to whom you bragged…”

“They do not live.” It was a cold statement that chilled Shirley to the bone.

“You killed them too?  As well as your brother and his…”

“WHAT?”

“You murdered Don Reynaldo, and then you stole his wife and abused her until … oh, merciful God … until she lost his baby.  And then she too died.  You were a greedy thief and an evil murderer, Don Rodolfo, and that is the truth I tell!”

Shirley’s face was flushed.  Her hands shook and her breathing came in gasps, but she held her ground.  She knew her history.  It was all in her speech.

“I?” roared the form of Rodolfo Oliveros.  “I, killed my brother out of greed?  No!  Your knowledge of our history is mal, Senora.  I am the older brother—”

“Yes, you did!” countered Shirley, her voice shaking in outrage. “With that very dagger you wear at your belt!  And then you beat dear Dona Teodosa to death.  You killed her innocent unborn child.  You and you alone, were responsible for those heinous crimes, Don Rodolfo!”  Anger flamed in Shirley’s pale blue eyes as she remembered the details of her speech.  “And then!  Worst of all, you murdered the Priest – a man of God – because he denounced your wickedness!  You, Don Rodolfo Oliveros, were a wicked, despicable villain for whom hanging was not punishment enough!  God … has … no … mercy … for … you!”

Her last utterance came out in a righteous shout.  She raised a hand to slap his face, but his callused hand grabbed and gripped her wrist like an iron manacle.  His other arm rose swiftly for a backhanded clubbing.  Shirley turned away and cringed, her last glimpse of his face a mask of fury and twisted madness.

But the blow never came.

The fingers loosened on her wrist and she risked a glance at the form of Rodolfo.  His face was ashen, his eyes full of horror.  “No…mercy?” came the strangled whisper. “But…that is why I have returned–”

Shirley straightened her body to its full five feet as Rodolfo sank to his knees.

“That’s right,” she spat, “You received no absolution because you would not repent. You know your catechism, Don Rodolfo.  You know your fate.  You cannot expect to escape your purgatory.”

Shirley pointed a stiff finger of accusation at the crumpled weeping man-image at her feet; her breast heaving, her eyes hot, her chin lifted in righteous indignation.  This was the man responsible for the downfall of her beloved Oliveros family, for the crumbling of their lifestyle and their beautiful adobe home.

She had no pity for him.

And then she heard it – soft pump piano music wafting like a cool breeze from the chapel along the balcony behind her.  It rose and fell in exquisite, heart-rending sound.  Soon, sweet angelic voices joined in … Ave Maria.

Her chin came down; her eyelids fell in automatic prayer.  Her rigid arm and hand and stiffly pointing finger relaxed into a gentle cup that reached beneath the tear-damp chin of Rodolfo Oliveros.  Without effort she lifted him to his feet.  Her frail hand found his rough one, now limp and impotent in his misery, and she led him towards the music.

Light streamed from the doorway of the chapel as Shirley and Rodolfo drew near.  Inside, Shirley saw brightly shimmering images filling the wooden pews, faces and arms lifted in prayerful song.  She recognized one face, then two, three and more – all members of the Oliveros family.   And there, in the front, she saw the strong image of the Priest, his arms stretched out towards the now penitent Rodolfo.

The villain lifted his eyes briefly, saw the forgiving arms, then ran and fell at the feet of the Priest.

“Father, forgive me, for I have greatly sinned.  I have stolen and killed—“

“Your sin is erased from the sight of God,” intoned the priest over the repentant sobs of the man at his feet. “You are forgiven, my son,”

Yes, forgiven, echoed Shirley, in chorus with the souls of the departed Oliveros. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

At once the music, the voices, and the light intensified so that Shirley had to look away, pressing her forearm against her eyes and stepping back.  She reached behind her for the balcony railing and gripped it, fearing her legs might collapse beneath her.  She turned and bent low, arms on the railing, until her racing heart began to calm.

Gradually the music and song faded into silence.  An incredible sense of peace settled over the adobe.

After a while, Shirley became aware of a faint buzzing – a bee busy among the blossoms of the bougainvillea which climbed the adobe’s wall at the end of the balcony … near the chapel door.  Unwilling to break the spell, Shirley remained bowed, her forearms resting on the railing, her eyes pressed into them.

 

“I say … are you alright?” came a clipped voice beside her.  She straightened, blinking her eyes in the natural light of the scene.  “You look a mite washed out, old girl.”

Turning towards the voice, Shirley saw a thin, elderly gentleman with a cane, looking at her with concern in his watery blue eyes.  “Are you feeling faint, madam?  May I help you inside to one of those benches?”

Shirley turned and looked into the chapel.  It was cool and dark again; smelling vaguely of old wood and ancient beeswax.  She glanced down at the courtyard. It was empty of life, dusty and still.  She looked again at the man and nodded.

“Yes, thank you.  I’d like to sit down for a moment.”

The man held out a knobby elbow and Shirley slipped her arm through its crook.

“I’m Cedric Simms,” he said, smiling down at her.  “I spotted the sign along the road and realized I’d found the place.”

“The place…?”

“Yes, the Oliveros Adobe, the home of the oldest known fuchsia plant.  I’m a gardener you see, visiting America from England.  Before I left, I read the most amazing article about this place.  It claimed that the oldest, living fuchsia…”

“…was alive and well at the Oliveros Adobe,”  Shirley finished for him. She chuckled and lowered herself onto the small bench at the front of the chapel.  The 100 plus-year old fuchsia, believed to have been planted by Rebecca Oliveros in 1895, was part of her tour speech. “Let me rest a moment, Mr. Simms—”

“Please call me Cedric.”

“Let me rest a moment…Cedric, and then I will show it to you.  And I will take you on a tour of the Oliveros Adobe.  Some new historical facts have recently come to light, you know.”  Shirley’s gaze slid to the front of the chapel.  A breeze had scattered a few scarlet bougainvillea blossoms across the floor, and some rested against the foot of the crucifix.  Like drops of blood, Shirley thought.

She lifted her eyes to the age-darkened image on the cross.  Forgiveness … but at what price?

Shirley took a deep breath and let it out in a whoosh.  “Okay, I’m ready for our tour.”  She heaved herself forward to get up, and quickly – under cover of her rising – crossed herself.  Shirley was not Catholic, but somehow it seemed right in that place on that day.

“Come along, now, Cedric.  We’ll start at the first floor and I will play the barrel piano for you, if you like.

“Oh, I say, that would be splendid.”

#####

  • The verse Shirley quoted is from 1 John 1:9  KJV.
  • Despite what this story may allude to, forgiveness comes only by belief and trust in the substitutional death on the cross of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and not by any penance or good works we can do. Christ’s death satisfied God’s righteous judgment that “the wages of sin is death.” He resurrected Jesus to prove it.
  • A deep sorrow and acknowledgment of one’s sin, prepares the heart for receiving God’s merciful forgiveness and salvation.

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