The houses are haunted.
They die their public deaths a thousand times over, or if lucky recede into woods to molder in leaf litter and strangler vines, their halls hushed but for the soft patter of rodents or the shiver of bats’ wings, abandoned, untended, unloved, while their previous tenants gaze forlornly out empty windows, some trapped and angry, others apathetic, and a few wandering off to skirl the heaps of autumn leaves where they accumulate beneath the junipers and pines or to meander along the dry watercourses pebbled with the bones of the hills. One venerable limestone house near a cemetery where my wife’s mother is buried developed a crack running down its center that over the years sagged the walls outward until gravity pulled it down. At last ignominiously disassembled into irregular blocks latticed atop sturdy wooden pallets, a puzzlement of stone, carted off, with only a rocky foundation marking the spot and an opening in the trees where bluebirds flittered. The late afternoon sun summoned shadows that moved of their own volition.
How different is that from a wire cage emptied of its occupant? Still a shell and still, and silent, its voices and footfalls gone the way of sorrows.
Another shell, this one sited along the foothills of northern New Mexico, where my mind takes me more than I care to admit. Lori and I were young and barely a couple but what lurked within those four dilapidated walls was older than time, and angry at my intrusion. Was it the barred calling at sunset that brought me back those miles and decades, or something else, a stanza in a Wallace Stevens poem, a snatch of song, a lonely mind’s neurons firing intermittently? Whatever the impulse I was there again, the interior air colder than ice and the warm grip of the riot shotgun suddenly inconsequential, a fearful child’s plaything, my false bravura wavering and quavering like a flickering lightbulb, dimming and pulsing and dimming again, each a lessening in intensity until at last there was nothing left but an afterimage on the retina of memory. Chased out into the bright sun and chastened to boot, my first and perhaps most memorable episode of ghost-dealing, though not the last.
Not only ruins echo with incorporeal movement. Several nights ago, an hour past midnight, I stepped onto our porch and inserted the key into the lock and heard beside me in the starlight a soft whoosh like a breath of air sighing through pines and sensed a presence just beyond the reach of sight, and pausing there with the key half enjoined with the tumblers and my other hand cradling a small flashlight weighed my options in that primitive fight-or-flee mindset fueled by pounding adrenaline, except that for the first time in my life there was only a calm acceptance of whatever was there or might be there, so that I removed the key with a slight metallic scrape only barely registering above the incessant ringing in my head and stepped back, and turning faced the direction where I had perceived the sound. Only darkness and a soft silvered light and a darker threshold between the porch railing and the skeletal arms of the mulberry. Eyes straining, ears singing, I walked to the edge of the concrete and hesitated but a moment before stepping down onto the cold yellow grass, and hearing nothing more moved on to the back of the house where the yard opened up framed by the supplicant arms of trees and the blocky mass of the hollow-eyed, doorless shed. No sound but the regular plodding thump of my heart, no motion nor dancing shadows nor any other signs of life or unlife, and yet I was not alone. For a second my thumb caressed the flashlight’s switch, more reflex than desire, before I slipped it with a flicker of annoyance into my pocket. Whatever was with me could no more be illuminated than the dark side of the moon. There was no sense of exposure or threat, only of inspection as if I were being scrutinized or studied for a reaction, and motionless I stood there with a calm assurance that whatever came next would be welcome, even necessary. Starlight like frost shimmered to my left, a fleeting glimmer more felt than seen, a subtle susurrant retraction as the unseen presence withdrew and the words not yet, not yet half-imagined, as weightless as starlight, and me rooted to the spot key in hand, hand in pocket, less distressed than disappointed somehow.
What’s left in the aftermath of such an encounter but to wait until the cold seeps into your bones while the stars cartwheel across the heavens and the universe expands into an infinity of unfathomable nothingness even as our intractable worlds retract and diminish into one man turning away to slide a key into a lock, rotate the handle and enter an empty shell of a house, and thereafter turning off the lights to lie in bed awake wondering where life had taken him, where it might lead him next, and how to redefine its boundaries. Certainly a new map is called for, with landscapes only barely conceived or dreamed of, a terrain unlike any before encountered.
And yet mornings have been grounded in this mortal plane. While driving to Frankfort a rough-legged hawk lifts from a roadside carcass with a powerful thrust of wings, a ghostly white raptor with a slight darkling band across its belly and eyes fiercely golden, and as it dips into my lane before surging skyward, a feather’s breadth from the windshield, I curse don’t don’t don’t and dance on the brakes. For a second only our eyes lock but it’s enough to peer into another reality, one more clear-eyed and focused if not more essential.
A trio of rabbits shadow the back yard like gray dumplings in the half-light of predawn, the flash of their white tails like brisk streaks of lightning bugs before bleeding away as the sun eclipses the last lingering stars. Later, a flock of turkeys parade through the field, one lone male fanning his tail, pirouetting in a circle and shivering with lust in the warm glow of a sun just topping the trees along Juganine Creek. Encompassed within the wrinkled folds of his wattles and the naked skin on his head are all the colors of the rainbow, and a promise that within these houses life carries on without hesitation or constraint. We are not ghosts yet.
Good ghost story. Love the way you tied up the end of the piece. Also loved your photo of the bike and bird. I'm learning how to do some color-choice work, but have nothing close to the power of this image to work with. It's perfect!
Carol -- Thanks for the comment. I don't normally care for colorized images but this worked. In color or b&W the image frankly sucked. I have a new lens I want to capture the same scene with but I have to be outside waiting for the bluebird again. Should be soon with the weather warming up.
Flowers in the basket would be nice, too, now that I think of it....
Isn't there a photoshop plug-in that allows you to add flowers in a basket being advertised in the camera-mags this month? Gee, maybe I shouldn't joke. There just might be something like that actually out there.
MWC -- Yeah, I could do it in Photoshop, but is that ethical?
Ethics be damned!
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