by Joshua Barnes
I turned off the lights and the room went black; only days after the winter solstice, unfettered from its natural enemy the sun, the darkness came quickly. As it shrouded the room, the absence of ambient noise was magnified, and my ears rang with it. There were no sounds in the house, none save my slow breaths, and no sounds outside the house, not even a cold wind off the lake to whistle through the attic rafters or shake the old windows in their frames.
I sat isolated in the inky darkness, alone in the lake house – alone in the entire strip of coastline, the neighbors all flown away to Florida for the winter – my only company the deer and the winter birds and the tabby that hunted the grounds for mice. I thought: had this place ever been so lonely? The house, the yard – the entire property – had certainly never been so dark, not since the 1940’s, when the entirety of the coastline had been undeveloped, when it had been an undreamed of tract, nothing but trees and grass and the long, long coast that swept away into what must have felt like eternity. Even in the coldest winters of my memory, when everyone slept under thick quilts and snow blanketed the world, certainly it had never been so black.
At some point there had been a nightlight in the hall, dim and gold, illuminating a path to the bathroom, but that too was gone now, though I couldn’t say where it might have gone. The way of all the other things, I supposed, that had once been there, that had once been set into place with purpose; inanimate residents of one discrete, chosen space in the world. So easy to lose things, wasn’t it, to forget where they’d gone: to the trash or the junk drawer or some shelf in the garage, pushed back behind the years, left to gather dust and dry rot. And there were so many things to lose, so many that it would be a herculean labor to ever catalog them all.
How easy it must be for those people, I thought, whose job it is to distill a life – lives – into a list, a tally, a number and a price. How easy for them to see in everything not an ache, not a nostalgic longing, but a black-and-white account of things to be categorized. A random collection of goods. There was the 1918 Grandfather Clock crafted by the George Lippert Table Company in Kitchener, Ontario, worth almost eleven thousand dollars, that I had woken to on Saturday mornings, the one that I had set my ear against when my grandmother wasn’t looking so that I could close my eyes and hear nothing in the world but the ticking, ticking, ticking of the seconds, waiting in anticipation for the gong that marked the hour and would make me jump with exhilaration. There was the 1889 flattop steamer trunk with its original iron latch hardware and working lock and key, worth nine hundred dollars; it held hundreds of black-and-white and color family photographs that I had sifted through on dozens of occasions, inhaling the scent of the old polished wood as I looked for unnamed ancestors who shared my nose, my mouth, or the set of my eyes. There were other objects, too, like the giant ring of antique keys with no matching locks, the cracking rubber stamp set, the wooden Punch and Judy dolls, and the rusted kitchen tools that hung, unused, on the walls for rustic decoration; they had no monetary worth, of course, their only value the memories associated with them.
Yes, there were so many things to lose. So many things to try to remember.
Wouldn’t it be so much easier to just let it all go? To let all of those things – those objects – go to the record-keepers and the accountants, to the probate attorneys and the government? Well, take it, I thought. Take it all and leave nothing behind but the memories of what once was. Leave only the memories for the ghosts to feed on for an eternity to come.
If there were ghosts in the house, though, they were quiet. If spirits did live on there, they were the spirits of the old past, the nameless ones from the black-and-white pictures, and as such were polite ghosts, not like the teenaged ghosts of today, rattling their chains and slamming their doors at inappropriate moments, no care for nuance or setting, no respect for their own condition. No, the only ghosts in the house were old – ancient – and so they were silent. The only rattling was in my own brain as it played faded recordings of fond memories over and over – the ghosts of my own design.
We make our own best ghosts, we create our greatest haunted houses, and we do it with barely an effort, barely a conscious thought, and they are as real as the spirits who run the planks. And they, unlike the souls of the deceased who may frighten but are ultimately physically impotent, can main, and they can scar. And they are never truly exorcised.
Sitting on the bedroom floor, legs crossed under me, my back against the cold, white steel closet doors, I was cold, colder than I could remember ever being before. Well, maybe I fantasized. Maybe I hyperbolized. But hadn’t there always been a fire in the hearth on the coldest winter nights such as this? The sense memory, spurred by the chill, filled me. Couldn’t I hear the cracking and popping of the fresh-cut logs, couldn’t I see the tiny embers flying into the air, cooling, and falling into the dust? And even a step further, couldn’t I taste the homemade popcorn cooked in that hearth? Couldn’t I feel the heat on my face, and the smell of the burning wood?
I could build a fire now, I thought, but there was no wood. My grandfather, the one who had once chopped the wood, was long gone, and my grandmother, who had taken his place, was newly gone. No one had yet risen to take her place.
I decided that I would chop the wood myself. Yes. I would build a fire in the hearth in memoriam of those lost. Memento mori.
As if I could forget. As if I could imagine letting myself forget.
Yes, I thought, the light of a fire would be right. That would be a comfort.
I put on the heavy boots that I had left by the back door, buttoned my wool coat, slipped on a pair of gloves, and grabbed the axe that sat against the frame of the door. My fingers fit the shallow grooves that had been worn into the handle. The last thing I picked up was a flashlight; while I could allow myself the indulgence of the haunting darkness inside the house, having no emergency light with me outside could mean dismemberment or death. And who would save me then? Who would mourn me? I was the only one left.
It was frigid outside, the sort of damp, mid-winter Michigan cold that fills your lungs, sets into your bones, and chills you to the core. That there was no wind was a blessing; without it, frostbite could be delayed a few extra precious minutes.
The trees, except for the many pines, were bare of leaves, their branches heavy with snow. The moon was only a few days past new, and only occasionally did its faint light poke through the thick cloud cover. There weren’t even any stars because of the low cloud ceiling. In summer it seemed that you could see every star in creation over that house.
I stopped. To my left, the forest. To my right, the lake.
The winter lake had frightened me since I was a young boy. Too gray, too cold. Even in January, iced over and snow-covered, it had terrified me. It was the lake of summer that I craved, with its hues of progressively darkening blue and green that led to the eventual black drop-off, the lake of summer whose waves rushed to the shore in the breeze, and whose waves became choppy and dissonant before the storm. How many storms had we watched come in together, the three of us, grandpa and grandma and me, the electricity of it invigorating our skin, exciting our neurons, dropping the pressure in our brains along with the barometer? How I had squealed as a child, watching the arthritic fingers of lightning in the distance, counting the seconds until the superheated air created the requisite rumble or crack of thunder.
But this was the winter lake to my right, the gray one, the one I imagined held the souls of the dead swimming toward Tartarus, hands clawing toward the surface, mouths open in drowning moans. I shivered.
The axe, heavy in my hand, reminded me of the reason for my foray. It was late, I was tired, and standing at the threshold of that coldness I thought that maybe I could forget the fire for the night, but I knew I would sleep better in front of the fire than I would shivering in the bed. I had barely slept at all the night before – the funeral that waited for me in the first light of the morning had set my nerves alight and I could hardly even lay still – but now, how I wanted to sleep, how I wanted to let the anguished world slip away even if only for a few hours. Yes, I needed a fire.
I clicked on the flashlight and felt my pupils constrict, the yellow light almost blinding. I waited a moment to adjust, then walked toward the woods.
There were eyes in the woods. I’d met them all at one time or another: deer; owls; squirrels; chipmunks; foxes; skunks; possums. Once, even a bobcat, fleetingly, during a walk in the woods in early autumn. Its tan and gray fur was camouflage against the tree bark and the fallen leaves, and I had to look twice to be sure I saw it. By the third look it was gone. I never saw another, though on several occasions I heard the bobcat’s cry, like a far-away infant screaming for its mother.
I stomped through the woods, feet sinking into the snow, crunching leaves and snapping twigs. My ears burned and I cursed myself for not wearing a hat.
I stopped when I found an ash tree that grandpa would have approved of. Ten feet tall, probably. Even beyond the winter-skeletal limbs it looked well and truly dead. I inspected the base of the tree and found the bark loosened, a good sign that the tree was indeed dead. Although, even if the ash tree isn’t completely dead, he had told me, the wood would still burn hot.
I set the flashlight on the ground, propping it on a stone so that it would shine on the trunk, and I took my first swing, landing it with a satisfying chunking sound. I swung again and again, one blow after another, my assaults not practiced, not honed over the years, only making my way through the tree after twenty or thirty strikes. I kicked the tree and it fell over, the sounds of splintering and cracking echoing through the woods, scaring away any eyes that valued their lives over their curiosity.
Except, perhaps not.
The flashlight shone through where the tree had been, landing on two glowing amber eyes. Shocked by those eyes, I yelped, and the cat retreated a foot, but then stopped and held its ground. Is this what a heart attack feels like, I wondered? They’ll find my body and say I had a heart attack trying to chop down a tree, and this devil’s trickster will get away scot-free. That was if they found me at all, if there’d be anything left of me after two or maybe three seasons exposed in the woods, decaying, consumed by time and animal alike.
I picked up the flashlight and shone it on the tabby. I’d seen him for the first time about a year earlier when I was out for a walk to clear my head, to shake off the hospital-induced anxiety, the morbid dread, to forget that cancer existed and it had visited this house. He’d followed me through the woods that day, and dozens of days after. What a comfort he’d been, though I’d never touched him, and he never came close enough to be touched. So many months later, I’d wondered if I’d ever see him again.
He made a sound that was not quite a yip or a meow.
“Well. Hello to you, too.”
He sat in place, watching me pick up the axe and drive it into the tree at two-foot intervals. It was no more than fifteen minutes of work start to finish. I picked up all the tree pieces that I could hold in my two arms, held the flashlight in my mouth, and plodded homeward. The cat followed.
What wood I didn’t place immediately in the hearth I stacked in the metal basket to the fireplace’s side. I added twisted paper to the wood, then drew out a long match from the pack and struck it against the red side of the box. First the paper caught fire, then the dried bark of the ash. Finally the wood itself caught, and I covered the face of the hearth with the metal screen.
I stood and felt the warmth blossom on my body. The tabby pressed his head against my legs and rubbed the length of his body between them. He certainly didn’t seem feral; I wondered whom he might be living with in the summer months.
“So what do I do with you?” He looked up at me and meowed. “You’re hungry, I guess?”
First things first, though. I dug through the hall closet and found a cardboard box that was a little bigger than the cat, emptied out the contents, and ripped the top off. I bundled back up again and walked out to the lake where I filled the box with sand – the souls of Tartarus and their reaching hands forgotten now that I had a purpose. I carried the homemade litter box inside and set it down on the stones near the fireplace and let him explore it while I found bowls for water and food.
How could I have imagined the surprise waiting for me in the pantry?
I could expect a singular response from my grandmother at any mention of cats over the years: a thinning of her lips as she pressed them together; a swallow; and the story of a neighbor who had once owned a cat and let it walk all over the kitchen countertops whenever it pleased. She’d been unable to eat at the neighbor’s house – or eat anything that emerged from the house – without imagining little cat feet clomping through the food, leaving hair and bits of litter along the way.
But what did I find, buried all the way to the back behind four boxes of dried pasta? Where I had hoped to find some long-forgotten can of tuna fish I found instead four cans of wet cat food. Fisherman’s Catch. None of it was even close to expired; she’d bought it all the way up to the end, apparently.
She’d taken care of the cat. She’d tried to make it happy. Make it comfortable. She’d given it a special treat. In that way, had she loved it?
I could have cried, but in the end I smiled. How could I not? How could I not smile when, thinking my days of absorbing new knowledge about her were gone, I had instead learned something vital? I had come to understand something about her that wouldn’t have even been possible during her life. I was still capable of learning and she was still capable of teaching. There were still secrets to uncover, if only I looked in the right places.
I found the cat sleeping in front of the hearth, curled up in a tight ball, paws covering its eyes. The litter had been used, I saw, and the cat had been careful to cover up the evidence.
“Well,” I said, my voice hoarse, my mouth dry. “I guess you’re a house cat. You’ll need a proper name.”
The remembrance of death surrounded me. It was in the smell of the furniture polish, in the ticking of the grandfather clock that I wound and set, in the creaks the upstairs floor made when walking across it. It was in the remaining, rotten leftover Thanksgiving turkey and the spoiled half-gallon of milk in the refrigerator. It was in the smell of the laundered washcloths and towels, in the decorative soaps on the dish next to the bathroom sink, in the squeegee that hung in the bath to be used after every shower. It was in the antique desk in the study, in the pens and pencils and the light-blue stationary with the white doves. It was in the dozens of boxes of Christmas decorations in the attic. It was in the boxes of China and crystal. It was in the wedding dress she had kept for fifty years, cleaned with care and sealed by the local dry cleaner. It was in the golf clubs that he had bought her and she’d used only once, but still kept in pristine condition in a cupboard in the garage. It was in everything that had ever been touched by them, ever been loved by them.
It was in the waves washing the shore.
It was in the song of the wind chimes I rehung outside the bedroom window.
Nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything is changed by touch, and by thought, but nothing is ever truly changed by time.
The phone rang in the night. The shrill ring startled me, though not out of sleep, because that was a distant friend who had no intention of visiting. I went to the phone with bleary eyes and wobbling legs, picked up the receiver, and said quietly, as if I might wake someone in the house, “Hello?” No reply. No voice, no breath. Not apparently a prank call, not a wrong number. I sat down on the wicker chair next to the phone, receiver to my ear. I said hello again.
I sat in that uncomfortable chair, receiver pressed against my face, listening, waiting, until I broke down into a fit of crying. I cried into the phone as if it was my best friend, and I said things between sobs that I don’t remember and don’t care to remember.
It was no movie. No disembodied voice spoke back to me. No apparitions materialized before me in the golden light of dawn. There was no phantom smell of baking cookies, no wafting scent of cologne or perfume. No electrified caress of spirit fingers on my face to console me.
The ghosts in that house were old. And so they were silent.
Joshua Barnes is an Emergency Department Nurse Manager living in Philadelphia, PA.