I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know her name. It just seemed like second nature to talk about her as if she were a part of our family. In a big way, I suppose she was. She built the two storey cabin in the woods where we had slumber parties and roasted marshmallows over the fire, the makeshift train caboose library where I went to find solace in a classic novel, the huge warehouse that to this day has the hand-painted name ‘Lawing’ plastered over the doorway and her own modest little bungalow with glacier lake views in our tiny town of Moose Pass, Alaska…yes, that’s a real place. But it wasn’t just in memory that her presence at the property was felt….
One of Alaska’s crack-shot hunters and an adoptive mother to a mischievous black bear -Alaska Nellie (AKA Nellie Lawing), was a wiry, four foot nothing, fiercely independent woman who walked all the way to Alaska from her childhood home of Montana…and we lived on the land she put together with her bare hands. My late grandmother ran it as a Bed and Breakfast until Dementia got the better of her in the early 2000s and the property went to ruins.
Nobody had ever lived in Nellie’s cabin until the winter of 1991, when my Dad’s older sister Charlotte moved in. It’s not that it was off limits per se, more that when you went in – you felt like an uninvited guest. So much so that even my own grandfather, (who would find some logical reason for a chair floating in the air next to his head) refused to set foot in there…though he never admitted exactly why.
But that winter, move in Charlotte did, making it her own. To this day I cannot work out exactly if it was on account of her Wiccan leanings, or her total lack of understanding when it came to social cues (if she didn’t pick up on them from the living, certainly it stands to reason she would be even less alert to signs from a proverbial other side). Whatever the reason though, she didn’t seem to be either bothered, nor aware, of Nellie’s lingering spirit.
A few weeks after she moved in, Aunt Charlie invited my older sister Macie and I, to have a quasi sleep-over in the cabin with her. Being only eight myself at the time, I myself was pretty oblivious to any temperature shifts or vague hauntings in the vicinity.
After a dinner of Charlie’s (questionably prepared) poached eggs and a thoroughly enjoyable Tarot reading lesson, my sister and I began to doze under the heat of Nellie’s old barrel conversion fireplace and soon enough, made our way to the sofas in the main room.
In the wee hours of the morning, I was gently tugged out of my slumber to the noise of my Aunt Charlie throwing more logs into the makeshift stove. I slowly opened my eyes and, as they adjusted to the glowing firelight, I saw her silhouette in front of the mantle…but suddenly, I realised the silhouette was far too short (and thin) to be that of my Aunt’s, and my sister was still fast asleep on the sofa opposite me. No quicker had the terrifying realisation come to me, than Nellie had turned to face me, as I sat bolt upright for a moment – paralysed in fear, with a smile as warm as the fire she was trying to keep going.
Panicked, I darted straight through the front door, the snow and ice stabbing my bare feet, as I made my way to the main cabin and the comforting safety of my Grandmother’s bed. I hopped right in and curled into her arms crying that I had seen Nellie. She gave me a quick snuggle and a knowing smile.
Mere moments later, my sister came charging through the door to our Grandma’s room – screeching frantically, ‘I can’t believe you just left me there with her!’
Make of that what you will…