They arrived at sunset, their tired blue Toyota sputtering past the wrought iron gates. I waited at the front door of the mansion, curious to see who would emerge from the car, just what events were about to unfold.
The car door swung open and the monks spilled out one by one, their saffron robes glowing in the multi-hued light. The air was still and quiet, the regal trees surrounding the property offering up a near-night scent; one of settling, of quieting, of laying down.
I received the call earlier that day. “Corry, can you come and open the house for a group of Buddhist monks tonight? They want to do a cleansing ritual before the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu arrive for dinner tomorrow. Apparently, they need to rid the space of spirits and negative energy before he can enter.”
They say the 20,000 sq ft Edwardian mansion is haunted. Depending on who you speak to, that is. During movie shoot rentals, film crews have sworn up and down they’ve felt someone (or something) push them, heard things banging when no one is there, discovered equipment not working and mysteriously moved. I’ve worked there 10 years and have not experienced anything otherworldly (although there was this slice of cheesecake to die for one time).
As level-headed as I like to think I am, however, I do get the creeps when closing the ballroom level by myself at night. And I do tend to believe the house appreciates those (such as myself) who take good care of it. And that it just seems tired of too many happenings sometimes, too much people, too many buffed and fancy feet bending its aging floorboards. And (don’t tell anyone) I do always whisper, “Good night, house,” after locking the back door before heading home for the night.
During rentals and events guests will often enquire about the history of the mansion, so I offer up the interesting stories I’ve discovered over the years. I tell them how the original owner, General Alexander Duncan McRae was, by all accounts, a good man. How he always made a point to thank the staff after each meal. How he donated the house to the government for a dollar as part of the WWII effort, often returning to visit the veterans afterward.
I tell them how his wife, Blaunche, an accomplished horsewoman, wore elaborate gowns to match her colour-schemed gardens. I tell them about Lover’s Leap, an alcove off the old servant’s staircase at the back of the house, so named for the supposed late-night dalliances between the maids that slept in the attic and the stable boys in the adjacent coach house. I point out the grand sequoia tree towering over the West side of the grounds, and tell the story of how the General purchased it from a tree farm in Oregon to grace his newly acquired property. How he had it transported up the hill by police escort, the 20 ft beauty (at the time) pulled by a 10 horse team. I tell them how people thought the tree, which would eventually grow to be close to 200 ft and live for hundreds of years, would surely not survive.
I choose stories with which they can impress other guests, pretend to be history expert and fascinating tour guide. And, like the old telephone game we played in school, the stories are almost always stretched and exaggerated, imbued with fresh (often inaccurate) details.
I introduced myself to the monks as they glided through the front door, and, so as not to disturb their private ritual, said, “Feel free to wander around. If you need anything, I’ll be in the office,” and tip-toed away.
They retreated to the lower level, which houses a grand ballroom modelled after the one the General had seen while visiting the Vanderbilt mansion. The ballroom, the largest of its kind in Vancouver at the time, was home to lavish parties attended by renowned members of society. The who’s-who of guests dined, drank and danced for hours while outside, their patient horses guarded shiny carriages in a long row. The McRaes always served steaming cups of consommé to mark the end of their notorious events, which often lasted into the wee hours of morning, the clip-clop of hooves echoing on gravel as night edged toward the thin light of day.
The door he speaks of leads to what we call the McRae Lounge, an area just off the ballroom with marble floors and thick oak beams lining the ceiling. Portraits of the McRaes hang on the walls; Alexander looking dapper and handsome in his General’s attire, Blaunche in a silver embroidered gown, feather-plumed tiara, satin gloves past the elbows, and a long veil cascading down her back
Carved into the ceiling beams are a quartet of hooded figures facing each other at either end of the lounge. The monk-like figures are grinning, long fingers cradling open books held outward for all to see. The pages of the books are empty, as if to reminder us that we compose our own stories, create our own tales. Wise, portly owls guard the 4 corners of the room, and 4 lion-ish creatures – part man, part beast – emerge from the wood, clods of dirt clinging to matted manes.
I imagine the General retreating to his lounge after dinner with his male cohorts, pontificating and gesturing, brandy swirling gently in one hand, thick cigar jutting from the other. Slow careful conversations peppered with business deals and talk of large sums of money changing hands. Laughter erupting in pockets. The women are somewhere on the main floor having tea, while Blaunche speaks of Spring garden plans, staffing issues and the theme for her upcoming New Year’s Eve Ball.
The mirrored bar is on the East side of the McRae lounge, a long narrow alcove with shiny lights, polished mahogany, gleaming brass fixtures, and rich terracotta tiles lining the floor. There is a doorway at the end, behind the bar, which is always locked. Well, almost always.
Years ago before I started working here, my daughter (6 at the time), her father and I attended the Christmas fundraiser, an annual event where the mansion, open to the public, is lavishly decorated for the holiday season and mothers (like myself) bring daughters in satin dresses and brand new tights, reluctant husbands and boyfriends in tow.
The mansion is magnificent at Christmas; boutiques selling sparkly wares in each room, and fresh trees bursting with wavering ornaments, winking lights, perky packages and abundant bows. Baskets overflow with pinecones, and everywhere are angels, ribbons, wreaths and bells. Hot chocolate and apple cider permeate the air, candy canes, gingerbread, fresh fudge; garland, garland, garland! Carollers sing and a life-sized Father Christmas stands, arms outstretched, in the main hall; a bearded, hooded, monkish-looking sort, who seems more wise and wizardly than the stout Mr. Ho Ho Ho we’ve come to know over the years.
I sat perched on an antique velvet chair next to a woman playing a large golden harp in the drawing room, mesmerized by the lights, the scents, the enchanting notes drifting from the vibrating strings, while my daughter and her dad set about on an expedition, determined to discover secret passageways and hidden doors. They returned a half hour later, out of breath, eyes glinting. “We found a secret tunnel!” they said. “There was this unlocked door behind a bar in the basement . . .”
For years I had driven past the mansion before first entering the house, the circumference of the property bordered by a high cement wall which curved along the road. In the middle of the wall was a small iron gate, and beyond the gate were glimpses of greenery and stone. I used to think of this as the entrance to a secret garden. A secret garden! What hidden treasures lay just beyond this wall, what fantastical tales? What eccentric and tragic characters dwelled there? What wild and gnarly things stemming from ancient soil, in need of infusion, in need of new life? I adore the metaphor of the unruly and untended garden, coaxed back to life by the innocent curiosity, common sense, and pure heart of a child.
The door the monks were asking me to unlock, the one my daughter and her father explored those many years ago, was the doorway which leads to what used to be, after the house became a veteran’s hospital following the Second World War, the morgue. If there was such a thing as spirits needing to be banished, it would certainly be there.
They were about to begin their cleansing ceremony. The Head Monk invited me to stay and observe so I stood, unobtrusively, in the corner. They began to chant, a slow, meditative sound that felt calming at first, yet as the chants grew louder, more urgent, began to unnerve. Rich smoke trailed from a shiny silver incense ball, like an over-sized pendulum or hypnotist’s charm, swaying from the Head Monk’s hand. He was robed in red, the colour of dried blood. The smoke curled from the silver globe in thick brushstrokes, dispersed and dissipated, hanging heavy in the air. With each swing, new ribbons of ashy scent emerged, curling upward toward the carved figures, old picture frames, wooden beams.
The air was warm down there, like a jungle at night. The man-lion creatures shifted and twitched, the hooded gnomes holding not-yet stories grimaced slightly, and the owls in the corners ruffled their feathers, clucked and purred. The trail of monks snaked their way through the forbidden door toward the former morgue. Past happenings surfaced as they entered the dwelling place of the dead, like bubbles along the periphery of now: Kind nurses fiddled with needles and tubes, pausing to wipe the foreheads of horizontal men with hollow eyes, shaky hands, mumbling mouths. A rush of other voices filled the air, other footsteps, other happenings, hopes, dreams, despairs. I quickly retreated in the other direction, back to the top-side safety of office, stillness and light.
Yet their voices reverberated, the incense following me, wisping its way up the ballroom stairs toward the main floor of the house. The monks trailed through the bowels of the ballroom, swinging and chanting, past the boiler room, beside the 2000-bottle wine cellar, the smoke puffing along criss-crossing pipes and cement walls.
They climbed the stairs, emerged in the main hall, their chants growing louder, louder. They moved toward the library, dining room, the smoke caressing silver platters and brass candelabras. It floated past flower centrepieces and a thick Italian vase. They made their way to the drawing room, incense wrapping itself around ivory piano keys, curtain tassels, crystal teardrops that dangle from elaborate chandeliers.
The procession of monks spiralled around and up to the second floor rooms, rising like the smoke from the shiny ball, guttural sounds penetrating the polite evening air.
Those quiet (when not chanting!) and gentle monks were disturbing the carefully constructed calm. Like children tipping over garden rocks to reveal damp earth and squiggly creatures, they were shaking things up here, the smoke and sounds prodding, loosening, undoing. It was as though all of the good work, all of the careful attention to detail and structure and routine – the way things are done, the way they have always been done – were not important at all. As though they had never really been that important.
I shifted in the office chair, glanced at the clock, waited. I felt a sense of urgency, as though something was about to happen – some grand climax, a great crescendo. The grandfather clock in the main hall chimed, announcing the hour of 9. This sound, usually somewhat dignified during an event, causes people to stop and pay homage to the history of the house. It is a firm and decisive sound that says, this is how it is, how it is going to be. And look at my big round face because this, by the way, is the time; time to do something, to be something, to become important.
The monks did not wear timepieces on their slender wrists, I noticed.
I drummed my fingers on the desk, clicked a pen, waited.
The same monk padded down the main staircase and tapped on the office door again. “Excuse me,” he said. “We turned on the tap upstairs for water, for cleansing. It is leaking now, all over the floor.” He made a flicking motion with his fingers. “Water spraying everywhere. You must go see.”
I sprinted up the stairs 2 at a time while they continued their spirit-banishing quest, down the cramped servant’s stairwell, past the main floor kitchen, the smoke clinging to carving knives, coffee cups, a rusty old thermostat protruding from the wall.
I arrived huffing at the General’s Bathroom door, a masculine black and white themed room with an elaborate (for its time) multi-head shower feature. We reserve this room during wedding rentals for sweaty-palmed grooms and groomsmen pinning shaky flowers to tux lapels, pausing to tip back whiskey shots while the women, neatly appointed in the Farris Room at the far end of the hall, sip champagne from slender glasses and giggle nervously while they fuss with bra straps, hair pins, tiny gold clasps.
Sure enough, there was water spraying from a pipe beneath the antique double sinks, an ever-widening puddle forming on the checkered floor.
I grabbed a garbage bin, shoved it beneath the streaming cascade, and positioned myself on the floor below to see if I could determine the origin of the leak. It was difficult to tell from down there; a fizzy explosion bursting from the circumference of pipe.
My hair was long, and as I moved to get up, was jolted back, my dangling locks caught in a rusty, jagged-edged bolt. I glanced at the floor next to me and there was a note (in my own handwriting) that said, “Tap is out of order. Please do not use.”
There I lay, water spraying onto my face and hair. All around me there was chanting. There was incense. There were monks. Oh my! I laughed out loud, because, really, what else is there to do when you’re at the mercy of monks, held hostage by an Edwardian pipe.
Okay; so after a few minutes, it was no longer funny. They had upset the natural order of things here, those mischevious embodiments of enlightenment. If this moment is all there is, this reality, this sacred pause between the in-breath and the out, I did not like it, did not like it one bit. They had messed my hair, smudged my make-up, dampened my freshly-pressed clothes, ruined my Friday night, and they wouldn’t stop that incessant chanting, wouldn’t stop winding through the house, swinging their silver ball, flinging their foul-smelling smoke into the previously unscented and pleasantly undisturbed air!
I yanked my hair from the pipe, leaving a thick patch of strands behind. The garbage bin was quickly filling with water, and I imagined a multitude of other pipes bursting behind walls one after the other, a grand orchestration, symphony of spray. I imagined (in horror) the 200 or so guests who were scheduled to arrive early the next morning (an event I was to supervise), without access to water; no coffee, no tea, no toilets, Oh my! I hesitated to even think it (for fear of bad karma), but I really just wanted those menacing monks to go home now. They should not be here. They should not be about. They should not be here while the others are out!
I found them waiting for me at the front door, their heads bowed reverently, looking oh-so-innocent, oh-so-serene! Their work here, thank you very much, was done, their cleansing ritual complete. The house and its’ myriad of spirits had been turned upside down, banished, thoroughly cleansed. And just where did the spirits go, I wondered? Did they retreat to nearby guest houses and back yard sheds in search of shelter; temporary dwelling places with which to wait out the banishing spell?
The messenger monk (as he had come to be known) reached out to shake my hand. I placed my still damp palm in his and felt something there – a crisp and tightly folded $20 bill. Surprised, and a little embarrassed by this secret payoff, I tucked it into my pocket so as not to let the others see.
It was dark when they folded themselves back into the car, blackness enveloping the silhouette of trees. I locked the deadbolt behind them and sprinted back up the stairs to attend to the aftermath of their visit. The clock announced a new hour as their taillights turned to pinpricks in the now night air.
I tell this, my Buddhist Monk Story, to a group of wedding guests gathered, drinks in hand, at the General’s Bar. They listen, riveted. Later, sitting in the office with the door slightly ajar, I hear one of the men relaying the tale to a small but attentive group. “And she’s lying on the bathroom floor crying,” he says. “She can’t see anything because her eyes are burning from incense smoke, water is flooding all over the floor, her clothes are soaked, and she can’t get up!” They are laughing hysterically at this exaggerated image of poor, pitiful me.
I don’t correct him. Just as I didn’t correct the pre-teen boy I overheard at last week’s event telling a group of children how a maid was murdered in the laundry room, years ago (not true). “And her ghost still visits,” he says, hushed tone, dramatic pause . . . “holding a basket of dirty clothes!”
I let them be Sir Storyteller, Keeper of History, Lord of the Manor, if only for a day.