Our Dear Specter
When, in the late 1880s, a plea scrawled on a note was plucked from a bobbing bottle in Wallabout Bay, the good men of the police force shook their heads. It was not the content that was mystifying: our dear specter Annie Walker wrote desperately that she had been taken and brought against her will onto a ship where she was treated, as a modest woman might say, “unkindly,” and that she needed so badly to be saved and brought home. This was an unfortunate symptom of the time, when the wild coast was seething with fear and anger, unmarked ships abounded on their journeys, and where one might alight with a horse-headed serpent in the seas whose waves we have now all but choreographed.
It was when the police commander struck out to conduct his investigation by first visiting the home address described by Ms. Walker that the mystery became odd. The address provided by the girl for her home in what would someday be called Fort Greene simply did not exist. The road was there for sure, and houses surrounded the empty lot, yet the home that would be hers was an unbuilt space with its house number waiting to be claimed. An inquiry with the community revealed extant several “Annes” or “Annies” Walker, some living, some memories of those who had passed, some come and some gone. Yet, like her missing home, it seems there was no missing woman.
At this point it was suggested, quite obviously of course, that the whole circumstance might be a hoax: there was no Annie Walker, no dread sloop, and by chance an address was chosen which happened not to have been built. Or, maybe, in her haste to be discovered Ms. Walker wrote the wrong address, and somewhere her pauper father, starved from the loss of his daughter’s income from the factory, traded his coin for bread instead of the news and missed the article tucked away in a corner of the Times.
I, however, had been more observant, or at least in a better position to receive The Fates. The clipping where I found the story was tucked in a library book about the circus, reverse a report of a train wreck which recently crushed to death P.T. Barnum’s beloved Jumbo, the African elephant. I thought then about the police commander as I walked the leafy street of stately brownstones, iron gates, and newly-stained wooden doors, and I imagined him alongside me as he passed down the cobblestones now drowned under the asphalt which in turn lay atop the soil, its arrowheads, the blood, and the bullets of the Revolution. I imagined his consternation then as I too felt when I found, where a home ought to have been built, the sealed-off husk of a flame-licked building slated for demolition.
I wondered about this house stuck in limbo, the rich stone structure of life-abiding shelter, built some time after the rest of those on the city block. The police commander shrugged and accepted the hoax of Annie Walker as the joke of some bored seafarer, maybe intent on disparaging the name of a competing ship. Yet here she was, pulled partially into existence: a named woman with a home, a street she was said to have walked, a family to which she wished to return, and a desperate plea for warmth and not the vile nature to which she succumbed. At the address she would have lived stood a house in which she never set foot, reclaimed by the fires of the earth, bereft of life.
But there is more, I think now, than what the police commander realized. The story of the woman was rooted in the stories of many women. The villain seafarer, upon hearing news of the locomotive crash which took the life of Barnum’s elephant, recalled the night years prior when during the procession of beast-tamers and beasts through the street towards the circus tent, he snatched a lone woman like a skulking wolf. In the awful, damp moonlight, he thought of a girl back in his port of call whom he abandoned in New England, he thought of the whores of the brothels of Southold Town, and he thought of the liquor on the breath of his father as he was struck down taking a blow for his scorned mother, and the awful, peregrine trumpeting of the exotic elephant burst and roiled through the street and into the alleyway where he left her trembling and half-dead in darkness. Annie Walker, the common name, the Jane Doe, the name he took when he scribbled his letter so that his words might engender sympathy. During the storm that led him through Hell Gate’s fierce current for the last time, he pulled one final drought of the terrible alcohol, and wrote of his wish to return to the street address of his lost love in far-off Providence. He sealed the message into the bottle as the wave came, and the very nature of reality began to quiver before his eyes as he was swallowed up by the water.
There, from the burned out bay window of a home which was never hers, a woman who was called into existence stared out to the street and awaited patiently its demolition. The charred stones will tumble and be gathered, and they will be carted to a desolate mountain of rubble in New Jersey. Annie Walker, ghost cobbled out of so many things, atop the palanquin of the African elephant, will wander the unfamiliar shoreline as Jumbo silently blows his call at the passing container ships and the young and handsome families at the crumbling waterfront docksides.
There shall come a day when I too begin my trek down the same path to the same shoreline, the pavement giving way to trolley tracks, cobblestones, soil, blood, and the lucky coins of Caesar carried by an unlucky British Redcoat. I will carry those coins on my journey to Charon, the ferrymaster of the final journey, as he steadily goads the woman and her elephant aboard with me. As we pass in the night through the murky waters of the East River, around the tip of Manhattan, across the Hudson to the underworld, I will scrawl a note of sympathy as the victim of my own life’s misdeeds and I will cast it off into the aether, and the thunderclap of the elephant’s trumpet shall herald the arrival of our dear specter to the hereafter.