Ghost in the Parka
Let me share with you a Halloween haunting back when I lived in one of the little Yup’ik villages on the tundra of southwest Alaska. The sun slipped beneath the horizon, my sisters and the other little kids were back from trick-or-treating, and it was our turn, the teenagers, to race down the narrow dark boardwalks between houses to fill our own plastic grocery sacks with candy.
I don’t even remember if we had costumes, but I do remember that it was a fall like this one, with no snow, and tall grass lined the boardwalk like two moving walls that whispered in the winds. We grabbed candy inside the first house and when we came out and started to the next, someone spotted something strange emerging from the tall grass. A traditional Yupik parka, with the hood up, no hands or feet visible, the thick fur ruff obscuring the face, appeared on the boardwalk behind us. We sprinted to the next house, not sure what to make of the parka, but not quite willing to admit to the adults inside what we’d just seen.
Back outside the little parka appeared again and again between each candy stop, each time giving us a good scare. We’d all grown up hearing the traditional stories of such haunting and we had a sense that we were being played with, but none of us were brave enough to approach the little figure or to question who or what was toying with us.
The last batch of houses sat on the far north side of the village, a walk that would require us to travel down a considerable span of darkness, right past the abandoned (and haunted) teachers’ quarters that everyone in the village avoided and didn’t even like to speak about. As we made our way down the boardwalk towards the last cluster of houses the little parka appeared behind us, and when we entered the arctic entry to the house, I remember looking back and seeing it standing there mid-way beside the teachers’ quarters, blocking our passage home.
When we came out, the parka was gone.
As we passed the building, we expected the parka to jump out in front of us or behind us, but it didn’t. Someone gasped and pointed, and there in the darkness beneath the building, near one of the steel posts that held it above the permafrost, the parka sat upright, waiting. It sprang towards us with a cackle.
We screamed and ran for our lives, and behind us the parka followed, growling and roaring. We fled in terror, but the scary sounds in our wake turned to laughter — and legs and arms popped out from the squirrel and moose skin covered coat and soon a face emerged from beneath the parka’s hood.
My good friend. Ever the prankster. A boy with a contagious giggle and a hyena-like laugh. Loved by everyone. Afraid of nothing and afraid of no one.
Not a soul in the village would have gone to those lengths for an all-night prank like that. Not only was he foregoing his sack of free candy, but he spent that spooky black night alone, hiding in the grass; even hiding beneath the haunted school buildings despite all the traditional Yup’ik monsters and spirits also lurking in the same shadows, just to hear our terrified squeals.
A few years later we lost our prankster friend. I heard he managed to climb out from the black scar his snowmachine left through the river ice, but in the cold and wind he couldn’t escape death’s icy grip.
I try to comfort myself with the notion that he feared nothing. That even in the face of death, alone and cold in the howling tundra winds, he could find a way to giggle and that he wasn’t scared. And while his death still haunts me, over twenty years later, I am comforted by the fact that his trickster spirit survives. Each Halloween I think of him and imagine if I stare hard enough into the shadows I just might catch a glimpse of the ghostly fur parka waiting to jump out and chase me.
[This essay first appeared on the 49 Writers Blog: https://49writers.org/2010/10/ghost-in-parka-guest-post-by-don.html ]