By I.M. Duleau
The secret to capturing a photograph of a ghost is, of course, the long exposure. It can be difficult to persuade them to remain stationary, which is why in most photos ghosts seem blurred and wraith-like. I coaxed mine to sit still by asking him to read with me. He’s something of a mimic, so if I sat and read, odds were that he would do so as well. Of course, before long, he’d be reading aloud. He loves the sound of his voice, which is odd, really, because it took a long while to induce him to talk to me at all.
It began with the decorative touches about the room. I didn’t think much of it at first. I had come out west a few weeks earlier, and I found everything very strange and barren. Everything—the vast, flat sparse earth, the wide new sky, the oddly empty people, with a cold eager light in their eyes that meant nothing or less than nothing. And my big bare rented room, a cave where I spent all of my time alone and unnerved. I was a fish in a land with no water.
So when things started showing up—small, pretty objects that made the place feel a little more homey, I thought it was my landlady attempting to make my stay more pleasant. She seemed a coarse enough character, but perhaps she’d taken pity on my plight. The first was a small tableau with an owl and a squirrel. Curious and rare—I’d never seen anything like it. But so much seemed baffling to me in my strange new world. And then it was a lovely fan, long lace curtains, a flowered garland. Delightful, really, and from all over the world, the artifacts of a well-traveled soul. I began to suspect that it could not be the landlady, who spent most of her day on the porch, spitting. Finally a small lamp appeared, which really did transform the space. I had been freezing in the cold raking light of a bare bulb far overhead, and this lamp turned the room warm and radiant. Things materialized while I was at work, and it was nice to come back to a room that was a little more welcoming, a little more cheerful of a place to spend all evening, alone, thinking my thoughts.
It was the beans, and some sort of meat—I can’t be sure what animal it had been in life. The concoction tasted funny, off, but I didn’t want to be rude. Well, I’ve never been so sick, and for the first time I felt grateful that my room was on the first floor, round back by the latrine. I stayed home from work, and I lay on my bed floating through waves of nausea and pain, shivering and wretched. At times I believe I became insensible, I fell into a faint. In my lucid moments I became aware of my ghost. I saw objects move of their own volition. I felt his impossible weight on the bed beside me, I felt his softer than soft hand on my forehead. I heard him laughing. I heard him laugh long before I heard him speak. And then I knew, after sign upon sign upon sign, I knew as surely as I knew my own self, that I had a ghost living with me.
I returned to work, of course, but I could sense, the second I walked in my door of an evening, whether he was home with me. Sometimes he went out, lord only knows where. Haunting someone else, I suppose.
I got him to speak by speaking to him. I’d sit, alone in my room, talking to the thin air, the thin sun-baked air of my new western home. I’d say anything on my mind. I’d tell him about my day. I’d read from the local paper about the calves who were born, or the woman who choked on a cherry pit. But he never responded, never said a word. And I grew impatient and yelled, “Go haunt someone else, you imbecile ghost!”
Well, he howled at that! He hates the word “haunt,” he hates the word “ghost.” He’s a stickler for accuracy, my ghost. Of course, once he started talking it was difficult to make him stop. But he would never answer my big questions. He would never speak about important things. I would ask him about the darkness, about the light, about the ocean of time before us and after us. I would ask him for any hint of what comes next. And he would say, “George,” which was not my name, “George,” he would say, “You should paint this room a brighter color. It’s so dreary. You could at least cover some of these dismal cracks in the plaster.”
And I would shout, “It’s a rented room, you stupid ghost! I can’t paint it. And even if I could, I wouldn’t. Because I just don’t care!”
And he would sigh with a sigh that went right through a person.
He always had a sigh in his voice, even when he was happy. And I think he was happy, and I felt happy, too, happier than I had in some time. It was the small things. His day-to-day thoughtfulness. His conversational contrariness, his crossness in the morning, his expansive after dinner mood. Of course he didn’t eat dinner (though he did, mysteriously, partake of spirits.) He would taunt me mercilessly with my bodily weakness, my flawed corporeal being. My need to use the latrine or to sleep. He found it all very amusing, the fiend.
Well, I was happy, as I say, but although I felt I knew my ghost, I felt, too, that I should like to see him. I wanted a photograph.
I settled in to read one of the infernal western romances that had brought me here in the first place, and I smiled when he sat next to me, in the same aspect, and began to read to me, just as I knew he would do.
“Soul. [he read]
O, WHO shall from this dungeon raise
A soul enslaved so many ways ?
With bolts of bones, that fettered stands
In feet, and manacled in hands ;
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear ;
A soul hung up, as ’twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins ;
Tortured, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart ?
O, who shall me deliver whole,
From bonds of this tyrannic soul ?
Which, stretched upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go ;
And warms and moves this needless frame,
(A fever could but do the same),
And, wanting where its spite to try,
Has made me live to let me die
A body that could never rest,
Since this ill spirit it possessed. “
Well, it goes on for a few stanzas, I knew it well, it was one of his favorites. He was still and we got a clear shot. The most curious of cabinet photos.
I was surprised, when I looked at the photo. He looked like my father. Not my actual father, mind you, but as you would surmise that my father might look. This I did not expect. I knew the ghost was not my father, I could feel that. I had been scared of my father my whole life, and I never felt a moment of fear in the presence of my ghost. I knew in an instant his objection to the word “haunting.” My father had haunted my nightmares, waking and sleeping, for as long as I’d known him, with a wrenching icy grip. But my ghost brought nothing but warmth to my dreams and to my waking life. I felt him as a good friend.
Too late, of course. He saw the photograph. The light from it splashed onto him and he disappeared with a sigh that shook the room.
I wanted to call him back, but I had no name, no words to use. I understood that he was gone. And I was so sick and so sorry. As empty, aching and vacant as I had ever felt. I was angry with myself for being disappointed that his appearance was not more phantasmagorical. I had wanted him to be beautiful, not ordinary and dingy. I wanted him to be singular, peculiar, not reminiscent of something so familiar to me. I was small in my disappointment.
I lay on my thin hard-boned bed and thought of my ghost. I thought of the time we lay here, together, I unable to sleep, and he not needing to sleep. We looked through the tall windows at the impossibly deep sky black upon black upon black stretching forever and ever into lonely nothingness.
“George,” he said.
“That’s not my name,” I replied.
“George,” he said, “We make a nice light, don’t we?”
“Yes yes,” I said impatiently. “I like the lamp. I’ve told you so.”
“No,” he said. “No, George, we make a nice light.”
Well, I wept to remember it. I lay and wept like a child. I lay for days, in my room, waiting and wanting and watching. I lay for days, weakening and not caring.
On the fourth day, I was awakened by a slight, impossible weight next to me on the bed, a quiet creak of bedsprings. I held my breath, I closed my eyes, I listened with an intensity that could strike me dead. A softer than soft hand brushed against my forehead, and a sigh trembled through the windless room.
I.M. Duleau is a middle school teacher and poet who is haunted by all of the usual ghosts.