Ghost Story - JED

Word Association, the first in a horror theme that lasted throughout October, 2005

   I'm looking at something strange. There’s a fish frozen in a stream. I think it’s a trout, but I’m not very good with that kind of thing. The stream is small, barely more than a wet weather trickle that finds itself in the mountains west of town and loses itself in a big eastern river. There is no frost today; the air is undecided, balancing on the edge of a long cold November, with a fast fading tang of August still lingering on. The honey colored sun is warming, but it’s close enough to kiss the horizon, and the coming chill is licking my skin. When I look down, I see shadows on my legs, like a slow tide of night rising out of the earth. The trees are shaking down their leaves in an early fall breeze. A thousand shades of yellow are spinning around me, and the woods are raining gold.  

      The creek isn’t even really frozen, it’s still flowing everywhere else, sluggishly rippling and bending light; winding down, the motion draining out of it. Just here, in one place, in a big dark patch beneath a moss-furred overhang, at the base of a small skipping drop you could hardly call a waterfall, it’s frozen solid. The rock is dripping with little icicle stalactites, all these little frozen spikes caught in mid leap. It’s pretty; it doesn’t bother me. But the creek bed is dark brown-black mud and the ice above it is white, that kind of empty, frozen, grayish white that you find in a dirty snow bank, or at the back of an old freezer. It isn’t entirely translucent, but inside I can make out the shapes of stones and twigs, sprigs of grass, bubbles latched in place. And in the middle, right in the clearest spot there’s the head of this fish, its body tapering away, fading beneath it. Its eyes are wide open, and so is its mouth. I can see the yellow in its irises, the thick green of its skin, the faint speckles and dappled striations. It’s so real that its stillness is unreal. I think about how it sat there and let the ice form around it and within it. How it swam in slowing circles, how it stopped moving, how it was trapped in its dying. It’s a portent, and I know what it means.

      I walk home through my family cemetery and I think about what’s going to happen to me. It’s hard to get that kind of thing off of your mind. The gravestones don’t help but it’s the quickest way back, and I feel a need for the warmth of a fire, for the false socialization of the television. The company of all my dead ancestors is more honest, more accurate, but it doesn’t suffice. There aren’t all that many graves here, and many of the markers are old; failing in their duty, they are subsumed into the spongy turf, tilted by trees and chiseled down to crumbling rocky cores with no date or name to mark the edges of a life. I am most jealous of these. I am least jealous of the newer ones, still crisply etched with human words and the invisible emotional fingerprints of human memory. They’re still bound here, so I don’t envy them as much, but with time they’ll decay into nothing, and I’d take their place if I could.

      Since my revelation I’ve done a lot of reading on the afterlife. On ghosts. The Navajo believe that when people die they become evil spirits. Bad people, good people, wide-eyed children, nice old ladies, everyone. Even someone who loved you. The Navajo believe that you should never speak the name of a dead person, because it attracts the attention of their ghost. It will come and in its anger and jealousy it will try to take your life. Consider that the next time you walk through a cemetery. Think about how we memorialize the dead, carve their names into stone, build monuments so that we’ll never forget them. If the Navajo are right, it’s no wonder we’re haunted.

      I walk on past the cemetery, close the black iron gate behind me and move down the hill towards the house. My breath is leaking from me in little white steamy puffs. My eyes are adjusting to the dimness. The sun is slipping behind the mountains now, and the long shadows are coming out, stretching from the valleys and the underbrush. It’s a menacing time of day for me, but not for the reason you’d think. I’m not afraid that the shadows will hurt me. I’m not afraid of the things that hide in them.

      I used to be a paramedic, before I quit and moved back here. I’ve seen people die. Probably hundreds of people. I’ve seen them die quietly, asleep for the passage. I’ve seen them die screaming and mutilated, blood streaming out of them and their voices fading, desperate whispers. I’ve seen people die happily, eagerly. I’ve seen people die full of wrath and desperation. I’ve seen it ugly and I’ve seen it sweet. The worst to watch die are the nurses and the doctors, the people who are on speaking terms with death. You’d think that they’d be used to it, that they wouldn’t be afraid because they know what’s coming, but that’s not true. It scares them even more than everyone else. I don’t want to die, but it’s not dying that worries me.

      There are birds flying across my backyard, coming in to roost. A flock of sparrows held up against the last tattered stitches of sunlit sky. They settle into the underbrush of neglected shrubbery beside my driveway. Behind me, in the woods there is an owl, or something that sounds like an owl, calling. Big hollow hoots that echo through a night-emptied world. My bones resonate to that sound. It’s another sign.

      The signs are everywhere and I know their meaning. I know that when I die, I’ll leave a ghost behind. I’m going to be stuck somewhere in between here and nowhere, like an echo fading into the night, like the last hint of sunlight that reflects off of the high clouds. God, I’m afraid of that. Of becoming a sad, incomplete remnant of a living thing. But I know it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen because I’ve seen the dead, I’ve seen ghosts, I’ve seen the signs and I’ve come to believe in them. I can’t clean that belief out of my heart and it’s going to pin me here, like a trapped insect, like the last few late-season moths spiraling around my porch light. It’s unavoidable. Because I believe in it and that belief is going to drag me under. But right now I believe I’m alive, and I’m holding onto that with all I’ve got. I can’t remember the last time that I talked to someone. I can’t remember the last time I was in town, or the last time that I touched another person. The ice is closing in around me. But I still believe.

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Author's Notes