(A Ghost Story)
Every night she slipped through the lodge made of pale white wood and it reminded her of embers turned to ash. The most awful things in the world were made visible in the dying embers of an already dead fire; this she knew, should she have the ability to know anything any more, which she did not, for she was not, nor ever would be again. Yet she moved through the halls and did remember, by one of those tricks of fate or fortune or failure to die properly, and as she she did her nightgown fluttered incandescent along the smooth paned floors that were worn by those whose flesh still had weight. As she thought of that sad awfulness, gliding night by night in the world in which she no longer lived, down and back the lonely hotwired hallways of an almost white lodge on a sparkling white mountain under a rude thin sky and laughing moon, she dreamt of things she no longer understood. Of a girlhood in the distance, with apples in orchards and rattlesnakes on the porch in sunlight, of wind, of sluggish rivers against which the great Midwestern cities trembled, and knew not for sure how she came to be where she was. For the dreams were disjointed and spiteful. The apples were made of worms and the rattlesnakes enchanted sorcerers; the sunlight bit at her unflesh with rays like sharp teeth, the wind spoke sermons backwards and babies pitched themselves into rivers from the tops of apartment complexes overlooking the bottoms. She hated and feared the outside, even more than she hated and feared the halls, just as all those who are dead hate more the fact that they have an outside still with which they tread and pace and wail into their last vestiges of existence, more than they hate the inner workings which let them know they are stuck in that everlasting decay. It was as she was amidst these hateful almost-thoughts of fear and paradox that she met a living woman who spoke to her.
“Can I take your picture?” the living woman asked the dead. The living woman was one who strode the alleyways of the spirit and yet was blind to it; her hands ran palm to cool damp stones of the walls that led from one street of quickened flesh to another street of rot, and she never noticed the change of tone. She only asked, where is my camera? How best do I capture this?
The dead woman blinked.
“May I? the living woman continued, lifting a camera from a strap that hung round her neck. To the dead woman it looked like a mechanical noose, but she nodded. The dim row of 60 watt lanterns hanging from the pale ceiling struggled, flickering against the cold, a persistent mountain cold, but for once did not fail. The living woman, whose name was Irene, caught the block of machine against her face, close to her eyes so that the world was changed and yet not, for the gesture. Click.
The dead woman blinked again.
“Fantastic, thanks. What’s your name again?”
It was the “again” that threw the dead woman off the most. Strange as it was for this young live creature, heart’s blood thundering under her skin, to see her, and strange as it was for this same creature to speak to her, and take her picture, it was the question of naming compounded with the “again,” that ripped forth the first few words to ever come from the dead woman’s mouth. For what had been her name, when she was living? Why not she take a name again, now that she was dead? For what other reason would the living bother the dead but to ask, how may I capture you? How may I call you? What is your name, again?
“Martha,” the dead woman decided, and her lips clung to the word as it cleaved from her mouth. “I am dead.”
But the young woman was already shifting the camera back onto her chest. So carefully she moved that the dead woman, who would now be called Martha, followed her movements curiously. What pains the living flesh must feel, what knowledges their skulls must hold.
“That’s nice,” Irene said. “Good to meet you. I’m Irene.” Then she looked back at the thin figure, floating imperceptibly in the hallway, but of course it was not the sort of thing Irene would notice, “I’ve got a darkroom set up in 302. Probably do up a batch of photos this afternoon. You’re welcome to stop by if you want to see yours.”
But the hallway with its smooth-paned floors of wood that looked like the ashes of a dead fire was empty, and the lanterns bobbled in the cold.