Image by Esther Samuels-Davis
An innocent little box found in the belly of a tree.TRANSCRIPT
Featuring Eiren Caffall
Eiren: When I was a kid, I found solace from a house that was pretty stressful where my dad was sick and my mom really didn’t know how to handle it, by taking a backpack and going on walks up the mountain behind our house. And I did that every single day. My job was, as a kid, to experience whatever mystery and magic and maybe fairy realm just happened to be hovering right under the surface. There was a cave on the hill behind my house.
Eiren: There was this huge rumor that it had been the cave that had been used by counterfeiters during the twenties, and that they had produced all this counterfeit money. And then the Feds had figured out that they were there, and gone and found them [inaudible 00:00:51] the mountain and dynamited the cave, but that the printing press was still locked inside the cave.
Eiren: And so a huge part of my childhood was spent in some combination of sitting on rocks and playing flutes and pretending that I was about to meet a hobbit, and also searching into these dark spaces all over that hill for evidence of the way that people had used the landscape. That investigatory, mysterious, “Maybe there’s some hidden story here, and maybe it’s dark. Maybe it’s going to pull me into closer connection with some tragedy that happened here,” that instinct is as old as anything in my bones. It is the first instinct that I have.
Agnes: From Luminary, you are listening to Love + Radio.
Nick vdK: I’m Nick van der Kolk. Today’s very special Halloween episode, The Story of the Box.
Agnes: This audio adventure features Eiren [Caffall 00:01:57], who shares her encounter with the most innocent box, found not directly on the ground, but on the grounds and inside the belly of a tree of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s lovely upstate New York wood. That’s it. Nothing at all to be frightened of. Now, please listen with headphones on.
Eiren: I found out that I got into the residencies. I was in the middle of my book proposal, and two weeks after, my mother called. She had had an emergency hospitalization and they discovered that she had colon cancer. And maybe a week after that, we found out that it was stage four and it had already metastasized into her liver. My mother was devastated that she was getting sick right at this moment when all of these really great things were happening in our family. And she, every time I talked to her, said, “This is an amazing moment for you. You have to finish the book.” I was like, “Well, I think I’m going to be really isolated in the residency. And I’m really worried that I won’t able to hear from you.” And she said, “You can’t miss this residency. You are not allowed to not go to this residency. You have to go.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay: All I could see from where I stood was three long mountains and a wood. I turned and looked another way and saw three items in a bay. So with my eyes….
Eiren: The residency is located in upstate New York. The Millay Colony for the Arts. It’s stunningly beautiful. You’re down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Nobody comes up that road. You go up onto this mountain and just sit surrounded by forest. It has this incredible history of being an artist space from when Edna lived there and invited people up from New York to come and stay with her and work or party. The heart of the space is a [inaudible 00:03:57] at Millay’s old barn. Classic, looks like an upside-down boat or whale bones. Each artist has a bedroom on the first floor, and the second floor right above their bedroom is where their artist studio is.
Eiren: It was a really hugely productive time. For the first time in my working life, I could print up most of the pages I was working on and pin them all over the walls. And then you’d take a break from your writing day and you could go to the doorways of the studio you were working in or to your neighbor’s studio, and there would be all of the names written down into the wood of the door jambs by the people who had had the studios before. So if you were feeling stuck or feeling like you had lost track of the privilege of being able to be there, I’d just walk over to my neighbor’s studio and look at Leonard Cohen’s name written on the door jamb and think, “Okay, cool. Good, go back to work.” And I wrote a ton. After a lot of walking the property, talking through this big question and what was going to be the organizing principle of the book, I had a huge breakthrough. “Oh my God, I solved it. I’ve got it.”
Eiren: But it was about two days into that, that I went on a walk. It was a beautiful day. It was absolutely sunny. It was the warmest it had been. The snow had melted. And I was walking up the hill and noticed that this ancient apple tree that was there, the bottom of it had been uncovered. The snow that had been around the base of the apple tree had all melted. This particular tree also had a huge gap at the bottom of its trunk that was open, almost so that it looked like there wasn’t anything of the trunk left. It had been hollowed out. I went closer to it and noticed that inside, there was a box.
Eiren: It was perfectly lit by the sun in that one moment in the early afternoon. And it was a small metal box. I think it was red. I walked up to it, bent down and picked it up. It felt as if my hands were holding something heavier and warmer than anything else around me at the moment, like if you picked up an engine that was already running. It felt really heavy and really dense, and really like it was producing an energy of its own.
Eiren: When I opened the box, it was full. It was full of small pieces of paper, plastic-wrapped photographs… The photographs and papers had been placed inside ziplock bags. They seemed to be very carefully arranged and packed in. It was incredibly tight, how much material was in there. I couldn’t tell what was on any of them. It looked like an overwhelming amount of material, and it looked so specific and so deliberate and so carefully done.
Eiren: What does it look like when you make a time capsule for the dead? Maybe this is what it looks like when you make a time capsule for the dead. I felt like I had been hit in the solar plexus with panic. Breathing really shallowly, I started having a cold sweat breakout. I could feel it underneath my coat. I could feel it in my socks, inside my rubber boots. Even now remembering it, that sense of not being able to breathe fully and a cold pressure on my chest is back.
Eiren: The immediate sense I had was, “Oh God, I should not have touched this.” And I instantly put the top back on the box and put the box back into the tree. I walked away as quickly as I possibly could. Maybe if I can get some distance from this, then what I’m feeling will just turn out to be a momentary panic, and won’t be connected to anything. It’s just a little slip. Just me mistakenly standing inside a fairy ring for a second. No harm done.
Eiren: Nearly at the same moment, the weather started to change. There suddenly was a wind that started coming up through the valley, up the long dirt road. That apple tree was so precariously balanced and so old that it did that move where even the biggest branches started to shift and buckle in the wind. I was shaking. I was sweating underneath my sweater. I kept walking around in circles thinking, “I just unleashed a ghost. I just unleashed a ghost.” And I knew that as sure as I knew that the wind changed, or that I was colder or that there was sweat on back of my neck.
Eiren: The thing that I had unleashed was following me. It felt like it followed me through the forest. And my instinct was not to go back to where I slept, but to go back to where I was working. It felt safer. It felt like a less intimate space, oddly. I didn’t want to invite whatever was trailing me back to where I was going to try and sleep at night. I got onto the phone and started texting my husband and saying, “I’ve unleashed a ghost. You need to tell me what to do to make this right.” And he texted me back, first to not panic, that it probably wasn’t a ghost, but look, if it was a ghost, what’s the worst that can happen. Let’s address it as if it is a ghost.
Eiren: It didn’t surprise me at all that he was willing to answer that question. And that’s not because we sit around having conversations about ghosts on the regular, but he’s a poet and he’s a southerner for generations back. And there is enough of a familiarity with the Southern Gothic and the complexity of experience and the poetry of unseen realms that I felt like he was not going to hesitate. He was going to go with it.
Eiren: So he told me to burn something at the windows and doors of my spaces of the rooms that I was in, if I had any oil to put ritual oil on the thresholds and the window sills so that nothing could come in that I didn’t want to have come in. He said, “Maybe you should do that in your living space too,” so I went down and did exactly the same thing to the windows and doors of my bedroom. The panic still wasn’t abating, though. That sense that I was still accompanied by an energy that I didn’t have any control over, it didn’t go away.
Eiren: And then I started collecting all of the things that I had put in my pockets on the walks that I’d taken and made a little altar. I think I was borrowing from every person that I’d ever known who was more of a crystal witch than I am. My friend who is training to be Reiki practitioner, she has a smudge stick. “I don’t have Palo Santo here. I don’t have access to sage. What have I got? Oh, pine. Okay. That’ll be great. I don’t have any crystals here.” I didn’t travel with crystals to my residency. So I found some quartz on the road. “That seems like it’ll stand in. Quartz is a crystal. That’ll work.” And then just lining them all up, every single thing that seemed like it had any potency.
Eiren: Then I started talking out loud to the ghost. “Thank you so much for coming. I don’t need you to be here. I’m very sorry I disturbed you.” I felt really awkward. I felt like I was having a tea party. “Thanks so much for coming. I’m okay.” Even as I was saying it, though, I didn’t really believe that I felt that way. It felt disingenuous. It felt empty.
Eiren: I think I opened my pocket-knife and put it at the threshold of my bedroom when I went to bed. I went to sleep with a knife at the door and the quartz along the window-sills, and a couple of other little things that made me feel safe in my hands when I went to sleep in my bed. And then at two o’clock in the morning, the wind started up. It started to moan and howl. It sounded like a human voice, a low, faraway, constant screaming. But it didn’t stop. It. It just kept going for the whole night. And it was the endurance of it and the quality of it not shutting down that made me think it was somebody screaming outside my window. It was like somebody who was in response to a deep pain. It’s almost like that crying that someone does when they are wounded by a loss and they just can’t get out of the mode of weeping about it. The way a person would look, if they were making that noise would be doubled over into a fetal position.
Eiren: I sat bolt upright in bed, and it was really cold and every piece of exposed skin that I had was freezing. I got out of the bed, put slippers on, went to the door, moved the knife, opened my door from the common hallway, looked out and the wind was pouring through the front door. Snow was pouring through the front door. It was pitch black outside and freezing cold. This is not an ordinary windstorm. It didn’t wake anybody else up in the middle of the night. It woke me up.
Eiren: So I went back upstairs in my pajamas, sat down and tried to think about why the ghost was not going to leave me alone. I stayed up that night, walking around the studio, panicking and telling myself, “There is something you are not looking at or thinking about in terms of the darkness of this place, of this moment in your life. There’s something that’s going to keep following me until I figure it out.” And I fell asleep on the couch in my studio thinking about that, and woke up in the morning and the wind was gone.
Eiren: Every day for the rest of the residency, it felt like a presence that had some kind of consciousness to it. About a week after this had happened, it had started feeling more like it was just a dull panic that was going to follow me around that I was going to have to get used to.
Eiren: Around that same time, I was able to get in touch with my mother for the first time in three weeks. It was really close to my birthday, and she had started to clearly take a very bad turn. Couldn’t remember my birthday, couldn’t remember what time of the year it was, how she was doing. So my project started feeling like it was falling apart and her health began to feel like it was falling apart.
Eiren: In that mood, one of the other residents, who is a poet, asked me if they could go for a walk with me in the woods. It was starting to be warmer. The snow had melted again. It was another day very much like the day that I found the box. We walked past the apple tree and I turned to them and said, “You see that apple tree over there? There’s a box inside.” And they said, “Really?” and immediately walked up a little embankment to the foot of the apple tree. And I said, “I don’t know if it’s… I opened the box and I feel like I’ve been…” and I almost didn’t really get the sentence out. “Maybe we should put that back. Maybe we shouldn’t be opening that.”
Eiren: And they were unconcerned, utterly. They opened the box and started looking through what was inside. There was no wind coming. There was no sense of panic. And as they took things out, it became obvious that it was letters, pictures, writing, each of them in their own individual ziplock bags, that seemed to be from people who might have been at the colony as artists.
Eiren: They looked at the things in the box and then put the things back in, put the top back on, put the box back in the tree, and was like, “Okay, let’s go.” And we walked up the mountain, past all the spring peepers and flowers starting to emerge and little frogs starting to come out and tons of chipmunks. And it was absolutely idyllic and beautiful. We walked up to the top of the ridge. We walked back down the ridge, back to the studio, never looked at the box again and we never talked about it.
Eiren: And then it was time to leave. I packed up and got to the bus, took the bus, to another bus, to my mother’s apartment. We’d usually reunite in the entryway. And when I arrived at the sliding doors, we locked eyes and she fell. I had to put my bags down and basically carry her back in. She had gone to the store by herself to get tiramisu and bring it for me for a birthday treat, because my birthday had been the day before. So she’d remembered enough, and she’d used her last bit of strength to try and drive herself somewhere to get the sweets. So we tried to make it a celebratory evening, but it was clear that it was not. She was not coming back, and she never did come back from it.
Eiren: I think in the moment that I lost her, it just had a bubble around it of real peace, but the sense that the box unleashed in me, which was that something was terribly off and everything was going in the wrong direction, almost like a darkest timeline version of things where everything was going worse than it should and harder than it should and faster than it should. That never left. If I hadn’t opened that box, we would have had more time. It would have been easier. We would have had more planning. It wouldn’t be happening like this.
Eiren: So when a friend told me that she was seeing this Reiki practitioner that she referred to as the Witch, I was like, “Uh-huh. I’ve been saying I needed that for six months. So, okay.” And I went to that first appointment and I literally said, “I need…” I said it as a joke. “I’ve been telling everybody I need an exorcist. That’s not something you do, is it?” And she’s like, “Yeah, actually there’s a Reiki system for breaking attachments and entanglements. So yeah, we can do that.”
Eiren: And I can’t even tell you what it was she did, because I closed my eyes. I remember crying a lot and feeling like that accompaniment, which I feel like was isolated over in my left shoulder someplace, was being moved. And when I was done with that first session, I felt lighter than I had since I had opened the box. And I stopped telling people that I was haunted.
Eiren: It’s funny. My husband said something to me. He said, “Artist residencies are intense. They’re places where people are away from their home, they’re out of their usual experience, and they’re asking for something larger than themselves to come in. And it’s been a place where that’s been happening over and over and over again every month for years and years. Each of those people are at a creative peak and maybe the most intense set of questioning they’ve ever had about what their purpose is and whether they’re going to make anything that matters.” And so he said, “Of course, that was what you were haunted by. Of course that’s what was in that box.”
Eiren: It’s plausible to me that a whole group of people took the collective energy of managing the creative process in a deep, spiritual, intense way and put it in a box and it sat there for as long as the snow covered it up, and I opened it.
Eiren: I think that there are people who are just more vulnerable to ghosts at particular moments in their lives, like having your immune system run low. The veil between me and things outside of reality was pretty thin. I was in a place of asking to be open to a lot of really powerful, sad, intense feelings. I think it’s that vulnerability that would have made me the most likely person to get the flu. Do you know what I mean? It didn’t wake anybody else up in the middle of the night. It woke me up.
Nick vdK: That’s it for Love + Radio. This episode was produced by Anne Ford, Phil Dmochowski and Steven Jackson. Phil and Steven did the sound design, which includes music from Steven’s new project Cue Shop. For more information about the music we feature on the show, plus transcripts of all the episodes, please visit our website loveandradio.org. You can also sign up for our mailing list there. Love + Radio’s producer is Phil Dmochowski. Steven Jackson is our contributing editor. We are brought to you by Luminary and made possible thanks to its subscribers. Thank you.
I’m Nick van der Kolk and I want to wish you and your family a very happy Halloween. And one last thing, if you haven’t already be sure to check out our brand new Secrets Hotline podcast, online at secretshotline.org, on Instagram @thesecretshotline and available for free wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening.
Nick van der Kolk, Host and Director
Anne Ford, Producer
Steven Jackson, Producer
Phil Dmochowski, Producer
Sound design by Steven Jackson and Phil Dmochowski.