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A House Haunted by a Mysterious Smell

Emanating from somewhere deep in the house was an unmistakably pungent, yet unrecognizable, odor.

Bee Murphy

We moved in the middle of a summer thunderstorm, dashing through the rain to haul things through the front door of our new 150-year-old house. This was Dan’s dream house, the kind he used to see sitting on the crest of hills while riding in the back of his parents’ old Ford Escort: a big, stately off-white colonial with a red door, two whitewashed chimneys, a jack pine and an apple tree out front.

I was attracted to the many rooms and the old pine floors preserved under carpet as old as Jimmy Carter. After years of living in small apartments in big cities — Los Angeles, New York, Paris — this was my own little slice of rural Maine.

We bought the house despite concerns that it would sink us with the amount of work it needed. Dan was excited about doing most of the work himself. The problem would be finding the time, on top of his photography career and our daily lives.

I was in the middle of rewriting my latest book, which was due the week we moved, so Dan generously told me to leave the packing to him. The result was like some kind of Fringe Festival performance, the boxes mounting around me and my desk in our small rental a few towns away.

Like me, Dan is a dyed-in-the-wool Mainer, so we didn’t hire movers either. “Why hire someone to do a job I am totally capable of doing myself?” Dan said to anyone who suggested that we were already dealing with an awful lot that year: I was turning 40; we’d had a second baby; I’d written a book; Dan was working an hour away and was often out of town on photo shoots; and a few months earlier, our beloved dog, Hopper, had died, leaving us shipwrecked with grief.

But on our first night in the house, there was a magical omen: a large red fox that stood on the lawn on top of the leach field, his fur glowing like fire in the moonlight.

The next day, Dan set up a desk for me in a room that looked out at an old spruce tree. Surrounded by boxes, I went back to work on my book while the baby, Lev, napped and our 6-year-old son, Marsy, investigated the yard and the dark channels between the sprawling rhododendrons and the house. I remember a satisfied feeling of permanence that morning. The house may be a shambles — us, too — but even if it took 15 years to set up camp, there was no pressure to hurry. We had finally arrived at the threshold of the American dream.

This is the point in these stories when something unpleasant and foreboding inevitably happens. And sure enough, we discovered that our house was haunted. Not by a spirit, but by a smell.

Emanating from somewhere deep in the house was an unmistakably pungent, yet unrecognizable, smell.

At first, we thought it might be related to the work that had been done to clean out the damp, crumbly basement and sagging crawl space before we moved in. Although we had insisted that no fungicides be sprayed, we wondered if the odor was caused by a chemical. Dan made the calls and was assured that no harsh chemicals had been used. We were stumped.

Days passed, and then weeks, as I soldiered on with my work, taking care of the children, cooking and unpacking. Dan was gone a lot. And the smell got worse. It seemed to come out of the ductwork in our little warren of bedrooms upstairs like gusty breaths from a monster living in some ancient, forgotten closet.

I would text Dan in the middle of the day: “This house is rotten at the core!” “We are all going to smell!!” “What if the smell is something dangerous?”

Sleuthing at night as our children slept, Dan would open doors and press his nose to damp drains. We eventually decided it must be coming from the laundry room — or from a dead space between the laundry room and the windowless downstairs bathroom with green walls, a dim light and a stall shower from the 1970s.

Contractors and plumbers paraded through, offering opinions. Our plumber couldn’t help asking if we had seen “The Money Pit,” with Tom Hanks. When we told him we hadn’t, he laughed and said maybe we shouldn’t.

Finally, one contractor suggested that Dan take matters into his own hands and demo the bathroom to get to that weird space between it and the laundry room. That weekend, as Dan worked, the smell got stronger, but its origin remained maddeningly elusive, despite the mouse skeletons he removed from inside the walls.

By now, the odor had taken on a distinctly feral character: a combination of dead animal and something musty and unnamable. We depleted our limited budget even further, hiring a contractor to seal and demo the laundry room and the wall that joined it to the now-demolished bathroom. He arrived with air-scrubbing machines and reams of plastic, and he soon found mold in the ceiling between the downstairs bathroom and the one upstairs, as well as the origin of a leak from the upstairs tub.

We immediately began a much bigger project, with help from our insurance company. The contractor started ripping apart the upstairs bathroom and our family moved into a small bedroom at the front of the house. We were able to use a toilet left standing in the gutted downstairs bathroom with the help of a flashlight at night, but showering required a two-mile trek to the campground down the road. I would pack a tote bag with towels, clean clothes and soap, and buckle Lev into his car seat. Once there, we would trudge to the showers, and Marsy and I (and Dan, if he was in town) would take turns in the hot water while Lev looked on from his stroller. As the evenings got colder, our nightly ritual became excruciating. Only once did Marsy complain. I told him that we would look back at this and laugh, that it was an adventure. He reluctantly agreed, pulling his wool hat down over his wet hair.

One night, though, the stress of it all got to him. We were walking down one of the house’s dark hallways and he tripped over something shadowy and squishy. Trying to be brave, he began attacking it, whooping and wrestling the monster to the ground. I quickly found a light with my free hand as I held Lev with the other, and we burst out laughing when we realized it was my old Muck boot. Now the house had a new monster: “The Booooooot” was coming to get us.

Not that the smell was gone. Ripping up the bathrooms hadn’t gotten rid of it. Over the next few weeks, we were visited by more workmen, who re-plumbed the entire house — why not, when it had been torn up already? — and rebuilt the bathrooms.

But now the boot began to loom as large in our imaginations as the smell. In the evening, with my help, it would stomp up the stairs as the children waited, terrified and ecstatic. There were two giants in our house, in our lives, that seemed to grow larger in the gloaming.

Finally, around Christmas that first year — five months after we first moved in — when the second bathroom was nearly done and the plumbing was sealed, the smell went away. Just like that. No one ever figured out exactly what it was, though there are numerous theories. Around the same time, the boot lost its appeal, too, and our bedtime routines became standard fare: stories, songs, cuddling.

Like the house, we healed and moved on, our lives still messy and chaotic. But the stink and the boot are part of our history — and the long history of the house.

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