The author on his bicycle in Rome, ca 1985

Roman Ghosts

by Steve Poleskie

Contributing Editor/Columnist



Halloween is fast approaching, a holiday that has gone from a pagan celebration to a commercial event rivaling Christmas, which I suppose has evolved in much the same way. I mean, who pays for all those presents that Santa Claus supposedly brings? That’s the spirit. But spending hard-earned cash on Halloween costumes — when we were kids we dressed up in old clothes and made our own costumes. Some of my school friends even smeared their faces black with burnt cork making themselves into… well one can’t say the word.


Now parents pop down to Walmart and spend their money on costumes made in a sweatshop in some foreign country that turn their kids into a Spiderman or a Wonder Woman or some other readily recognizable commercial personality. What has become of creativity? I suppose if your children have grown up on I-pods and TV screens they don’t know too much about cloth and scissors. Who would think of putting a white sheet over their head with cut out eyeholes to become a ghost? Besides, where would one find a white sheet these days except in a hospital? Check it out at Walmart, or maybe Target if you are upscale, or search on the web. You can find pastel colors, stripes, and plaids, but rarely plain white. Besides, ghosts are definitely out of vogue. When was the last time you read a ghost story that actually had a real ghost in it; that is, if ghosts are real?


I must admit that I did see a ghost once, the same ghost, I believe, on three consecutive nights, and it was under conditions suitable for seeing ghosts. Let me explain, as clear as I can explain, and as clear as I remember it after almost thirty years.


I was living in Rome, the city in Italy, not the one in upstate New York. I was staying in an old palace, Palazzo Massimo, in the historic center, just around the corner from Piazza Navona. The Massimo family, like many modern day royalty had fallen on hard times and had converted most of the palazzo into rental apartments, which Prince Carlo, who looked exactly like one of his early relations depicted on a horse in a 15th Century painting in the entryway, was renting out.


My apartment was on the third floor in the rear. There was a door in the apartment that was always kept locked, but once opened on a stairway that led to the floor above when this was a two-story apartment. The tale was that the remains, and what they meant by remains was never made clear to me, of one the male Massimo family members that had been made a saint by the Catholic Church were stored up there. Apparently when the Massimo person had died a bishop was sent for to pray for his soul. While the bishop was praying, as was a room full of other people, the dead Massimo apparently came back to life. Legend has him looking around and announcing that he had just been to heaven and that it was so nice up there that he was happily returning. He apparently died again, despite the numerous prayers being said for him. This was deemed a miracle and after the appropriate waiting period, and additional miracles attributed to him required by the Vatican, the man was declared a saint.


While I was typing the above there was lightning flashing outside, a storm was coming, so I prudently saved what I was doing and began to shut down my computer. When I got to the desktop I planned to store my ghost story to a memory stick; however, it was not there. As I had just begun this story I assumed that I must have mistakenly saved to it my documents file, but it was not there either. I tried all the search techniques I knew, and then called my wife, who used her skills to no avail. Feeling sorry for my lost three hours my wife decided to try the documents file one more time. To our surprise, the Roman Ghosts file was there big as life. Now both of us had gone through documents several times and would swear the story had not appeared.


So I started typing again, with my two fingers as I am wont to do, and got this much done when my wife came running back downstairs. She tells me that she has heard a crash outside; she thinks that there may have been a car accident. Now it is a dark and stormy night, but as I am the man of the house I must interrupt my ghost story to check out the strange noise. My desk is right by a front window and I heard no noise, however my wife did, so I cautiously push open the front door, which being an old door naturally squeaks. Now if you have read some of my previous columns you will recall that I live in an 1860s’ farmhouse on twenty acres, surrounded by a 700 acre state park and across the street from a creek and a nature area, so if there had been a car crash there would not be neighbors out in the street gawking. Lightning flashed, the rain poured down, but there were no crashed cars on the road. Then I saw it, a wind chime that we had hung on the porch had fallen down. The “S” hook that had held it in place for years had, for some reason split in half.


And so back to Rome; I must admit that when I learned what was in the rooms upstairs I was rather curious and kept peeping through the forbidden door’s keyhole, but all I could see was a dark stairwell. I was told that the door was only open on one day of the year, the anniversary of the dead Massimo’s resurrection and return to heaven. On that day, I was advised, my apartment would be invaded by an array of priests, bishops, and cardinals, and maybe even the pope himself, who would be coming to pray, light candles, and spray incense on the stuff in the rooms above. I would be permitted to stay and see the ceremony if I didn’t interfere. I hoped that I might even be allowed upstairs to look around.


Three nights before the arrival of the clergy I was awakened by the feeling that there was someone in the room with me. Looking around the moonlit space, I saw a figure standing by the forbidden door, not an ordinary figure that one could define the features of, but rather a transparent figure, not wrapped in a white sheet, but in something that looked like a lace curtain. I did what any normal person would do — I dived under the covers. It was a hot night. When I finally came up for air there was no one there.


The next day I checked the room. I found no footprints, nor anything out of order. My apartment door was still locked, as was the forbidden door.  When evening came I prepared for bed, arranging the curtains and the furniture. I wanted everything to be exactly the same as last night. I had even bought some powder and sprinkled it in front of both doors and the bathroom.


I got in bed, but could not sleep. I kept getting up to look out at the empty courtyard below. There was a full moon, as on the previous night. Then, as I lay there staring at the shadows playing on the ceiling, it appeared, the same figure as before, lace-like and transparent, standing in front of the forbidden door. Being braver than last night, I jumped out of bed and turned on the overhead light. When I looked toward the door there was nothing there. There were no footprints in the powder.


When it appeared again on the third night I tried to stay calm. Whatever it was it looked exactly the same and again stood in front of the forbidden door. Careful not to move, I decided to try to talk to it. I began in English and when I got no response I tried my feeble Italian to no avail. I must have fallen asleep talking to the “ghost” as I had now defined it, for when I woke up sunlight was streaming into the room.


In a few hours my apartment began to fill up with priests, bishops, and cardinals, and their assistants. Today was the special day when the forbidden door would be unlocked. Dressed in my sport coat and tie I waited for the ceremony to begin. Amid much chanting and dispersing of incense the locked door was opened and the procession of clergy proceeded up the stairs. I followed along after them. As I reached the door the last person, wearing a red sash, held out his arm. “Entry forbidden,” he said in English.



About the author:

Stephen Poleskie’s writing has appeared in journals in Australia, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, the Philippines, and the UK, as well as in the USA, and in the anthology The Book of Love, (W.W. Norton) and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  He has published five novels and two story collections. Poleskie has taught at The School of Visual Arts, NYC, the University of California/Berkeley, and Cornell University, and been a resident at the American Academy in Rome. He currently lives in Ithaca, NY, with his wife, the novelist Jeanne Mackin.