Writing the (Un)Explained

As a small child I lived in Belize. Recently while going through some old photos, I found two pictures: one of me and one of the house I lived in—located in a small seaside village in southern Belize. These photos brought back many memories—one, a story of the unexplained. (And if you like this story, you might also enjoy another post I wrote called The Ghost of Mr. Able.)

Some events stick in your mind, try as you might to drive them out. Try as you might to deny they happened. Try as you might to explain them away. In Punta Gorda we lived down the street from a small cemetery. In fact, there was only one other house closer to the cemetery than our house: Miss Mary’s.

Miss Mary and everyone else was superstitious and wouldn’t go anywhere near the cemetery at night or even at twilight. My parents said it was nonsense, that I didn’t need to worry.

They tried to reassure me that I didn’t have to worry about the ghosts or spirits that my friend Kolo told me about.

“We don’t believe in those things,” Mom told my seven-year-old self when I approached her with a worried brow. So it was okay that we lived within a stone’s throw of the cemetery, even at twilight or even later when no one else would walk down the road toward that cemetery. And even though our closer neighbor, Miss Mary, made sure she was home safe and sound before then.

That particular day my mother and I were weeding in the garden. As the day wore into evening, and twilight came, my mother started to pick okra and beans for dinner. As the light faded, the colors turned gray, and I helped my mother pick the beans, being careful as I stepped between the tightly-growing plants. On other days, we found spiders and once even a six-foot long snake—and we didn’t want to step on anything that night.

I hurried, wishing myself back in our small cozy house, away from whatever was hiding beneath our feet. My mother was nervous, too, I could tell because she pulled the okra from their bushes instead of using the pocket knife she carried in her apron pocket.

As darkness settled around us, a shadowy figure silently emerged from the murky darkness, walking down the street toward our house, toward the cemetery—toward us. The figure was tall and shrouded in gray and glided along the road. I couldn’t see any feet touching the ground beneath the sweeping gown.

I reached for my mother’s hand and she squeezed reassuringly.

“Hello Mary!” My mother called out cheerfully as the figure walked by us.

No answer.

“Mary,” My mother called out again.

Still no answer!

I clutched my mother’s hand, not sure what to think. I couldn’t see the face inside the hood or under the veil. But I knew my mother had to be right. It had to be Mary!

The figure glided right by our house, less than 20 feet away, never hesitating or answering, never turning toward us.

My mother and I stood there a few more seconds more, side by side, hand in hand, watching the figure disappear down the street, vanishing into the gloomy grayness toward Mary’s house….and the graveyard.

We looked at each other.

“Who was it, Mom?”

“Must have been Mary,” my mother said matter-of-factly. “She didn’t hear me call,” she added with less conviction.

“Are you sure?” I pulled on her hand.

She briefly hesitated. “Of course. Who else, what else could it be?”

“A ghost, Mom? Could it be a ghost? Kolo says there are ghosts… in the graveyard.”

My mom shook her head.

“Are there ghosts in the graveyard Mom?”

“No, no ghosts! No I don’t think so.”

My mother swept the vegetable basket up in her arms and headed toward the house. I followed without question.

That evening, after dinner, my mom and I told my dad about “the figure,” as my mother would always call it. Even after I went to bed that night, I could hear them talking about what it was, what it could be.

My mother was a great storyteller, and I heard her tell the story of “the figure” many times over the years. Over time, as the years went by, she chuckled as she told it. But I could still hear the chill in her voice. She staunchly refused to ever admit it might really be a ghost, and yet still she told the story.

For me, it’s not that easy. That warm summer evening was long ago, but I still remember it like yesterday. Standing in the garden, hand in hand with my mom, I feel the cool shiver down my spine, the goose bumps on my arms, and the uneasiness in my stomach. Because the event that sticks in my mind is a ghost story. And try as I might, I just can’t explain it away.

Have you ever had something happen that you just can’t explain? 



  1. Julia, this is chilling! You tell the story so well that I feel kind of creeped out, even though I’m sitting at my desk with the sun streaming through the windows. Did you and your mother ever ask Mary if she was walking past the cementary that night, or did the two of you talk about what you saw years later?

  2. Jen, I’m so glad I creeped you out!! (sorry but it means I told the story well!) I can’t remember if my mom checked with Mary or not, I’m guessing not (she was quite pragmatic about everything)…. we did talk about it later many times, however, and my mother — the pragmatic scientist — was never quite sure how to explain this one (which never happened with ANYTHING!)

  3. What a terrific post! I was on the edge of my seat! I’m a big fan of ghost stories… I have a few of my own too, and what I love about them is that when you tell one, your readers/listeners will make different conclusions about it based on what they believe or don’t believe. Cemeteries really are such (ahem) fertile ground for storytelling. 🙂

  4. Dina, I’m so glad you enjoyed it — I really debated putting this up because I wasn’t sure i’d pulled it off, so I’m very happy for the good feedback! Thank you! I so agree about the different conclusions, it really is what makes writing (and reading) these kinds of stories fun!

  5. Fantastically told, Julia. I am quite a spiritual person, and I have “seen” things, never as clearly as a ghost walking right down the street, but everyone tends to have their own unique experiences with the supernatural. The one important thing to remember is the ghost didn’t stop that night, it passed you by with no ill-will. It might be creepy, but it’s also an amazing experience! Thank you so much for sharing. 😀


  6. Ann says:

    I’m with Jen – that was spine tingling. I’ve never seen anything like that before. I think what got me the most is the fact that your mother still tells the story…

    The thing that happened to me that I can’t explain? My husband marrying me. I figured I’d have to knock him on the head and drag him to my cave, but he came willingly! Go figure…

  7. ashleesch, Thank you for reading & enjoying & the compliment!! Yes, I will be eternally grateful that the ghost, or whatever it was, did not stop and wish us ill-will. I doubt I’d be writing about it today if that had happened….it would have been quite a different experience no doubt. Glad you liked my story!

    Ann, Yes, my mother certainly enjoyed telling that story! As for your husband marrying you being the unexplained thing that happened to you — TOO FUNNY!! You’re a hoot! hahaha!

  8. I really enjoyed reading this! Even though it’s a ghost story I wasn’t ever afraid. It seems like the ghost was peaceful and your mom’s energy seems like it made you feel safe. I loved picturing a 7-year-old you, wide-eyed and curious.

    When I was younger, I spent the night at my cousin’s house. There were five of us, and we were home alone (well, my grandfather was there but he was asleep and could sleep through a hurricane).

    My cousins had a grand piano in their home, and my uncle’s grandfather had been a great piano player in his time. That night, we could’ve sworn we heard some of the keys being played, and we spent it screaming and running through the halls, thinking his ghost had come to haunt us.

    My grandfather slept through the whole thing!

  9. Liz says:

    WHOA. And for both of you to have seen it? I usually hear only individuals seeing ghosts. That.is.FREAKY! Yet totally awesome all at the same time. 🙂

  10. How creepy! I’ve had some ghostly encounters in my past, too. Most of them from two houses that we lived in when I was ages 5-9. I’m getting chilly just thinking about them – and now I don’t want to go to the basement to get the diapers out of the dryer! lol

  11. SuziCate says:

    I found that story chilling, and yet those are the things we tell with great finesse…the stories that are hard to believe and keep others listening! You are a great story teller…I think many of us have those kind of ghosts or unexplained things that are passed through generations. My father often tells of someone called Peg Leg Clark that supposedly roamed the staircase and halls of his boyhood home.

  12. Natalia, That’s a pretty great story about you and your cousins! I could see you guys running around the house: must’ve been fun and scary too! I’m glad you enjoyed reading my story!

    Liz, Glad it was freaky… yes, we always wondered why we could both see it. I think it freaked out my mom (and rarely did anything freak her out, let me tell you she was pretty undaunted by everything). Glad you enjoyed it!

    Elle, Those basements can be creepy — I know, I rarely go in mine unless necessary…. so glad you enjoyed but sorry I creeped you out! Thank you so much for the comment and for the visit to my blog! Nice to meet you!

    SuziCate, Glad you found the story chilling — that’s where the fun lies in telling, as you say! I appreciate the high compliment on my storytelling. THANK YOU! I love your mention of your father’s story of Peg Leg Clark, fascinating!! Have you written about it? Thanks so much for your kind comments and for the visit to my blog; nice to meet you!

  13. Good story! I would tweak it just a little. [getting out my red pen]

    “That particular day” to “One afternoon.”

    Cut or change this: “we didn’t want to step on anything that night.” Perhaps, “we didn’t want to step on anything, especially at night” ?? Because as written it gives a weird foreshadowing that doesn’t make sense – I don’t think it’s ever enjoyable to step on creepy-crawlies, but maybe that’s just me. 😉

    I think it’s more powerful if you make the tone very prosaic and matter of fact – another day in the garden, and THEN let the spookiness creep in.

    “toward our house, toward the cemetery—toward us.” I would flip the house and cemetery: “toward the cemetery, towards our house, toward us. And make the figure disappear into the grayness around Mary’s house.

    I love your mother’s not-quite-take on this, and completely empathize with you on the chills & goose bumps.

  14. CMSmith says:

    GREAT story (and cute picture too.) You just gave me goosebumps.

    I think I would have been terrified so several reasons: spiders, snakes, spiders, ghosts, spiders, graveyards, and maybe even Miss Mary. (I was a wimpy kid.) What a rich experience you had.

  15. Cynthia Robertson says:

    Love the photo of you as a little girl, Julia. 🙂

    Great story. I like the particulars…the being careful around the bean plants, and watching out for snakes and spiders; nice atmosphere build up.
    Delicious strange tale.

  16. Ado says:

    OK, that scared the SHIT out of me.
    I’m sitting here in the dark ready to go to sleep and you SPOOKED ME with that MARY story.
    Holy cow now I’m scared.
    totally superstitious.
    What a great vignette.
    Those photos are priceless. Amazing. And that house!
    And little you!!! I loved everything about this. PS: You are such a good writer!

  17. Beverly, I’m glad you enjoyed this post and that you gave it such a thorough reading! Thanks for the insight and suggestions!

    Christine, So happy to give you goosebumps and that you liked my cute photo too 🙂 Believe it or not I was a super wimpy kid too — so I was pretty scared 99% of the time! Still, I had some pretty weird and fun experiences! Thanks so much, Christine! 🙂

    Cynthia, Glad you liked the photo of me as a little girl, LOL! I’m glad you liked the telling of the story, too, and found it strange and delicious with good atmosphere. 🙂

    Ado, Glad to offer the evening fright! BOOO! Your comments are so sweet and mean so much! Thanks for enjoying the tale. 🙂

  18. Wow, Julia. Another gem! I LOVE ghost stories, and don’t think you CAN explain that event. I experienced one of those unexplainables while on spring break with friends. One friend’s Dad had recently died & she was battling anorexia, depression, etc. But during that trip we suddenly saw a change in her. She was eating, she was happy, and TALKING about her dad for the first time. AND one night when she went to the showers with my other friends, HER teddybear – the one her dad gave her before he died – suddenly ended up sitting neatly on the middle of her pillow… Seconds before, it was shoved up in the top bunk of the motor home. My sister shrieked, “Who put that there? How’d that get there?!” No one knows… That same night, we also saw shadows where we shouldn’t have. I like to think her Dad was with her that evening…. I never told her about the bear, by the way.

    The photos in this post are wonderful and evoke such mystery themselves (what a cute photo of you). What a treasure trove of story ideas you have in you arsenal!

  19. Country Wife says:

    Eek! This gives me a Lady in White vibe. So glad you had your Mother to hold your hand!

  20. JM Merchant says:

    Wow Julia, how spooky! And beautifully told.

    My younger sister and I had a similar experience when we were children.
    During the summer we used to ride our bikes all over the little village where we lived. One afternoon, our Nan took us a bit further out, up to the village church over the fields. We knew the area well as we’d both attended playschool and Brownies in the church hall. We sped off down the hill passed the church, but as my sister turned the corner ahead of me she came to a screeching halt. As I tried to avoid crashing into her, the wheels of my bike skidded out from under me and I tumbled to the ground. When I looked up, there was a grey shrouded figure moving very slowly away from us on the other side of the road. Needless to say neither of us ever moved up that hill faster than we did then, back to the safety of our Nan.
    My sister maintains that the figure was our Uncle Matthew, who’d died the summer before. Me…I still have no idea what it was we saw.

  21. Susan says:

    Well told! I’m afraid to go to sleep tonight! You could turn this into a great short story. I had an odd thing happen years ago after our beloved yellow lab, Abby-Dog died. She used to sleep at the side of my bed at night after the kids left home. I’d have to step over her in the middle of the night when I got up to use the bathroom. One night, there she was, clear as day, laying next to my bed. I stepped over her, left the room, and she was gone when I returned. Then I remembered she had died the week before. It was not a scary feeling at all; just a happy-sad one. I got back in bed and cried.

  22. Melissa, Glad you enjoyed it! What a wonderful and touching story about your friend; that is just incredible! How wonderful that she had such a strong and powerful connection with her dad. (and that is crazy about the bear!) Glad you enjoyed the photos, too — it was great fun to come across them!

    Country Wife, Glad you enjoyed the story, and even more glad I had my mom’s hand to hold! Thanks for your comment!

    JM, So glad you enjoyed the story! And thank you for the compliment! OMG that shrouded figure sounds so FAMILIAR!! Glad to know I’m not the only one…. thank you for sharing your story and for your visit to my blog!

    Susan, Glad you enjoyed the story! And I appreciate your vote of confidence that it could be turned into a short story! That is such a touching story about Abby-Dog — I think I’ve told you that I have an older black lab (right now) named Abby…. and your stories make me think about what it will be like when she’s gone. It will be very hard, but I know I’ll always have her in my heart, as you do your Abby! Thank you so much for sharing!

  23. Leah says:

    So chilling! Great writing. And I absolutely love the photo of you and of your house!

  24. Leah, So glad you enjoyed the story — and thank you so much for the compliment about the writing and the photos; I’m glad I found them to inspire these memories! 🙂

  25. Julia, I agree! Am waiting for your short story/novel, and am on the edge of my seat! I was with my family on Cumberland Island one night and was awakened by a scream–the woman downstairs had a scary physical ghostly encounter, and it led me to write about coastal ghosts…maybe I’ll post a chapter sometime.
    I’m going to save this to read over and over!

  26. reeling, such a sweet comment; thank you! I also am waiting for my novel on the edge of my seat 🙂 I better get busy. I would love to read a chapter on your coastal ghosts! Thanks again for the lovely compliment!

  27. Although I can’t recall ever having an experience of this nature, your story reminds me how scared (and, at the same time, fascinated) I was by a particular storybook as a child.

    In The Sneetches and Other Stories (Dr. Suess) there’s a story about a boy terrorized by an empty pair of pants (and the pants are equally terrified of the boy). A silly story, for sure, but to me his fear of those empty pants felt so real. And especially his fear of encountering them at night.

    I have no trouble believing you saw a ghost (and I’m not even the Ghosthunter type). I steer clear of cemeteries whenever I can. And the idea that there might have been snakes underfoot as the ghost glided by – well, my hair was standing on end as I read!

    On a happier note, I adore that picture of you! And very interesting to see the house you lived in in Belize. I had the pleasure of stopping in Belize for one day (during a Caribbean cruise). I imagine I got a very different view of it from what your childhood time there was like.