(1). to make (someone) so frightened, they are unable to move or think
“her icy coldness petrified him”
(2). to change (organic matter) into a stony concretion
A beginning: I find a girl rotting by the river. It’s scary but not in the way a girl rotting by the river is usually scary. Her body isn’t cut open or beaten. There is no blood. Her bones aren’t bulging the way an emaciated dog’s would. She doesn’t look like she has been murdered. She looks like she has been waiting. And day passed into night and night into day and she didn’t move or eat or cry or do anything. She just let her body rot until she was a part of the river, no different than the pebbles by the bank or its overgrown weeds.
She doesn’t look upset that what she is waiting for hasn’t come. She looks tired.
She is the type of girl who has a word for everything, the type of girl who can make things stay. If you give something a name, she says, you let it exist. And when something exists, it can never leave.
I say, what’s your name?
She says, Haven.
Here is how it could begin and here is how it could end: Begin with a death and end with a birth. Begin with a birth and end with a death. Begin with a death and end with another death.
All of the endings feel appropriate. It’s the beginning I’m not sure about.
For a story to begin, two people must meet. According to Haven, we met at a funeral. I know this can’t be true because we met by the river but I let her tell me anyway. She squats on the couch. The story flowers in her mouth. Her eyes burn blue.
(1). a place of safety or refuge, a home
“a haven for wildlife”
“a wild life for Haven”
She says we didn’t know the man the funeral-goers were mourning and they didn’t know us. No one asked any questions. I was twenty. Haven was eighteen. The priest lit candles around the man’s corpse and we walked in a line, paying our final respects. She blew all the candles out. When we looked back, the moon was black. The wind pierced holes through the graveyard, bending leafless trees like crooked spines and she looked at me for the first time. We smiled at each other with our mouths closed and then for no particular reason, I started to cry.
this is the nature of loving a ghost
My mother used to tell me that the wind was the hand of God, and whenever it blows, it’s to remind us that there are some forces meant to be felt and some forces meant to be seen. She said to never confuse the two. This was before she tried to explain what the word “invisible” meant.
“But what if I can see everything?”
“No one can see everything.”
“But what if I can?”
Every day Haven waits for me at the bus stop and when I arrive, we run errands together. Today we are at the supermarket. We stand in the checkout line, holding eggs and milk. She said we wouldn’t need a bag. The line hasn’t moved for minutes and we stand there waiting. The milk grows heavier. My eggs are a weight.
Haven won’t leave the bed. It’s hot outside and she thinks she will start to stink.
I hate days like this. Days when her skin begins to stick on the headboard, her flesh rotting, the sheets crimson. These are the days I want to hide or call somebody. But whenever I’m ready to tell someone, she calls me back to bed. Her eyes are bright and she is happy.
I spend the entire day reading the dictionary to her. “Misread,” to read or interpret incorrectly, to not understand what’s real. “Misrule,” a form of disorder. “Miss” or alternatively “missing.” I ask her if she wants to read this, but she says no. She likes my voice the best.
(1). (of a ghost) manifest itself (at a place) regularly
“a gray lady who haunts a chapel”
“a word that haunts the mind”
(2). a place frequented by a specified person
“I visited my old haunts”
“this empty attic, this safe haven, this needle in my spine”
Haven and I are walking to the movie theatre when she stops. Turns around. What if every single time you saw a door, she asks, you had to walk through it?
I don’t know what she means.
Would you ever run out of doors, do you think?
I don’t think so but you would never get to where you were going.
We decide to try it and walk through every door we see, hoping we’ll find a way to the theatre.
The town I know shifts into a labyrinth, an unfamiliar field of maps and mazes. We end up in a closet with our bodies pressed against each other. I can only see her cold blue lips lit by a naked light bulb.
What do we do now? I ask. There aren’t any doors left.
She doesn’t know what I mean.
Another beginning: We met by a river. I know this can’t be true considering we met at a graveyard but I let her tell the story anyway. She says she was sitting by the riverbank, dipping her toes into the water, when I floated around the bend.
At first she thought I was a log and then she was sure I was a dead animal. I was neither. She pulled my body out of the river. I vomited water everywhere. She held my head close to her chest until our blood pumped at the same rhythm, until she could feel the ache of the water in my lungs, until the cuts on my chest were hers and the cuts on her wrists were mine. We wrapped our feet around each other until we woke the next morning. The constellations looked like scars in the sky.
Today we go to the DMV. There is a clock in the corner. Restless men wipe beads of sweat off their foreheads and it drips down their wrists. When we get to the front of the line, we meet Peggy. She has blue eye shadow and a freshly done perm. It will be another hour.
At night, snow lands on the ground. The trees slump like an old man’s shoulders. Haven runs down the fire escape of my apartment and into the middle of the storm. She has never felt the snow before.
When snow warms, she says, it turns into water. When snow falls, she says, it sticks to the ground. She talks about how sometimes the flakes fall fast and sometimes they fall slow.
The streetlights are everywhere, painting the snow gold. It is falling and falling, wrapping Haven’s translucent skin in itself.
She shouts through a flurry that she didn’t think it would be like this.
What do you mean? I ask.
She smiles and reaches around my waist. She opens her mouth inside of mine and lets the words float: I always thought it would hurt.
Haven has started to disappear. Every day there is less of her. The street and sidewalks mark her footprints but that’s all I can see. She is fading. She is lost. When we kiss, her lips taste like dust.
this is the nature of losing a ghost
Before Haven’s smile crumbled into ash. Before she lost her feet and her eyes and became an outline. She told me a story before I was left with nothing but a smell: Spoiled flesh. Sour skin.
(1). a moment that hovers and lingers for more than a moment
This was her favorite story.
There is a word she said, like any other word, except this word cannot be seen. It has never been written. It should not be spoken. There is something familiar about it. You will recognize it the way you recognize your beloved’s handwriting. You can never find it but you have to search anyway. Like a mother waiting for her kidnapped child to return, this absence is somehow worth the wait.
But how can you search if you have to wait? I asked.
You didn’t go searching for me but here I am. If you wait. If you leave an absence for long enough, what you are searching for will come. It’s like wind.
What if I don’t like the wind?
She lit a cigarette. I don’t know what that word looks like, she said, but you have it written all over your body.
The nights are rich with color. I watch a henna sky fall apart from the fire escape, waiting for her to come back. “Decline,” to become smaller, weaker, worse. “Declivity,” a downward slope. “Decoction,” the concentrated essence of a subject, produced by heating or boiling.
When something becomes hot enough, it starts to feel cold. When something is cold enough, it becomes distant. When something is distant, you question if it was ever there.
n. my worst, my bruise
“Haven, who was missing before she even lived”
n. the smell of sugar, the taste of a burn
“Haven, who ate words and let them catch in her teeth”
n. the philosopher, the poet, the pirate
“Haven, who would wear the same veil to her wedding that she wore to her funeral”
n. a fly: abdomen, thorax and wings
“Haven, who smashed light bulbs into fireflies, who sang naked in the dead of night”
n. the night, the dead
“Haven, who was”
“Haven, who was not”
this is the nature of a ghost
Everything I own still holds her reflection. She is the window glass, the bathwater, the bottom of my cup. When I look in the mirror, she is in my eyes.
Surfaces that I never knew could hold a face are dipped in her. She stares at me. She follows my every move. She will not look away.
(1). a collection of texts, especially the entire works of an author
I open up the pages of her dictionary. She sits on the page and laughs. At first her laugh is light and buoyant but then it morphs into something else. It claws out of her chest, scratching through her throat. Her laugh is a howl. I clutch my ears. When I pull them away, they are covered in blood.
Still she is everywhere. And so I shatter anything with her image. I smash the vase against the walls. The lamp breaks against the floor. I throw picture frames out the window and the windows into the dumpster. Things I didn’t know were breakable explode into shards across the bedroom.
I worry my lungs might be made of glass too.
Another beginning: We meet on an airplane. No, wait. I forget this one.
After work I go straight to the supermarket. It takes four minutes to buy all my groceries. There is no wait.
corp · us
(1). a dead body, of a human being
“I found a corpus rotting by the river today”
(2) no longer useful or viable
The graveyard isn’t as close as I remember. The moon is a silver hole in the sky. Moss coats the tombs, licking the bodies. It grows in their eye sockets, thick and neon green.
None of this is how I remember it. The candle wax has melted and the bodies are buried in the ground. I walk deeper into the graveyard, past the tombstones. The trees and their naked, skeleton arms stretch forever.
A river meanders through the middle of the trees. The water catches the moon and flecks of silver splash out.
And there I see Haven on the riverbank, dipping her toes into the water. She lifts her head up towards the sky. She is waiting like in the beginning, but which beginning? I can’t tell the difference anymore. All these beginnings feel the same.
Have you found it yet? I call out.
She looks at me and smiles but it’s different. Her mouth hangs open and her teeth are gnarled like a rotting tree. She reaches for my arm.
The inside of our home is covered in broken glass. I have decided it’s best to move to the fire escape. The nights are cold but the sky is clear. It is the only place I can’t see her.
All I have now is this memory. They say that when you remember something, you only remember half of what you had the last time you remembered it. Which means every time I bring her back, she moves farther away. Every time I remember her, she is also forgotten.
ap · pa · ri · tion
(1). a supernatural appearance of a person or thing, “She appeared in the middle of the night and said she had written her name on me.
And yes, she may be gone but she is still returning like a story that won’t stop beginning over and over again. I am afraid that forgetting her isn’t that different from remembering her. Both are voices drawing air from my lungs, startling me out of my chair, leaving me stiff as a corpse, so that when I look around the room and try to find some trace of her: an open window, an invisible word, some promise that she has returned to stay or is gone for good, I can’t help but realize I am haunted.
Faces I’ve never seen pass the fire escape and only a few look up. A little girl skips past with scrawny birdlike legs and mosquito bitten arms. A man in a wheelchair carries groceries. He tries not to be seen. There is a woman without an arm. A boy without a bike. There is a Jehovah’s witness who stands on the corner smoking a cigarette.
Past the horizon, a flicker emerges. Among the clouds, an airplane curves into view stretching out smoke behind its tail. Thin grey letters. Apparitions.
I thought I was finished with hieroglyphics. I thought there were no words left in my head. But these begin as cursive and seem to stay that way, never flattening into lines. They are permanent and unchangeable. Monuments in the sky.
An abridged version of this story: I begin with a book. It is empty. I fill it with words. The words fade away. It is like being given the book again.
You’re not sure whether it’s scary, but regardless, you sleep with a light on.
My mother used to tell me that silence has a sound all its own, that absence is louder than any word. She would turn off the lights and hold her breath until her face turned purple.
“Did you hear that?”
She laughed. “Give it some time.”
this is a ghost
mem · or · y
(1). an unburning, a haunting, what always fades.
“the memory left too, melting away, like the promise of snow into water”
Today I was found rotting on the fire escape. It was scary, but not in the way a man rotting on a fire escape is usually scary. I wasn’t cut open or beaten. There was no blood. My bones weren’t bulging the way an emaciated dog’s would. I didn’t look like I had been murdered. I looked like I had been waiting. And day passed into night and night into day and I didn’t move or eat or cry or do anything. I just let my body rot until I was a part of the fire escape. No different than the iron rails or the petrified bird shit on the floor.
I didn’t look upset that what I was waiting for hadn’t come. I looked tired. And as they lifted my body into the ambulance and started to drive away I noticed a woman next to me. She was rotting too. I shifted my body closer to her, feeling her breath on the back of my neck and we looked to the roof of the ambulance.
There was a word scrawled on the ceiling. Invisible letters. She edged her body toward mine, carefully, as if she might scare the words away, and she touched my hand and whispered in my ear, the brush of her blue lips against my body, writing across my skin like some kind of birth, and so this hovered until she asked me her name. I laughed, brushing it off.
What’s my name? She said again.
I couldn’t remember. There was a word caught in my throat.