Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Creative Nonfiction: WTF is that?

So I haven't finished my vampire story. I am working on it, but I want it to be good, so I am not about to just throw something together and then post it without it being decent.

But I will post something that might be considered "Creative Nonfiction." Which is, basically, blog posts. So it works, right?

The Vampire Story will come soon enough.

            When I was younger, I once saw the Invisible Man in a dream. He was standing in the kitchen, but he was only a pair of trousers and a buttoned-up denim shirt in the shape of a human being. He was just leaning over the sink. It terrified me, and I woke up. I kept my eyes open as long as I could, because the possibility that a body can disappear and leave its clothes behind, and then that person could remain an ethereal presence in a kitchen was horrifying.
            It was around this time my great grandfather died, and when I tried to get my sister to explain this concept to me, she said that it meant that your body stopped working. It just stopped. As far as I knew, a “body” was the trunk that your legs and arms and head attached to, and it was strange to think that if this part stopped, then your limbs and your sight and everything else did, too, like a car that blew an engine gasket.
Somewhere, tucked into that unconscious corner of my four-year-old brain, I already understood that death was unfair. And then I started to consider the possibility of ghosts. It was a love-hate obsession: they terrified me, but they seemed like the only way to make death a little more balanced.
It made a little more cosmic sense for our ancestors to come back as disembodied flaneurs, sitting on front porches in the empty chairs, or peeking out attic windows, watching the others that still had pulses and a sense of touch and taste carrying on without them, and because of them.
Someone once told me that people who claimed to be abducted by aliens might have actually been possessed by demons at the time, since a large proportion of them had dabbled in the occult at some point before said abduction took place. Whether this insight is correct or not, I used to apply this reasoning to ghosts as well. It was possible that ghosts were actually devils straight from Hell.
But then again, who’s to say that being a ghost couldn’t be kind of like heaven, anyway? The vague answers, that heaven is “above” and hell “below” never made a lot of sense to me anyway. This may sound awfully Eastern-religion of me, but maybe these two places exist together on earth, side by side.
At any rate, I’m well aware we’re not supposed to believe in ghosts, despite how scared they make us. But I do, anyway, mainly because I’m fairly certain I saw one last summer while on vacation.
I suppose I was lucky this was my first run-in, but it also makes sense. The house I grew up in wasn’t filled with these ghosts, like other people’s houses, because it was built in the 1980s, and its only inhabitants that have died were dogs, cats, and innumerous hamsters. I am fairly certain those don’t come back.  No people had died yet, and even if someone had, they probably wouldn’t have stuck around anyhow. There was no space or quietness for the spirits to hang about in anyway, with all the children running around the carpeted halls, past the empty, white walls.
The house that we stayed at for summer vacation, though, was a different story. The place stank of earlier generations.
It was built in the 1930s, by my mother’s grandfather. He had built another one before that, but it burned to the ground. It was unsettling that the arts-and-crafts reincarnation was just as much of a firetrap, but at least this one had some outdated fire-detectors, so that was a minor improvement. But it still had that half-finished quality. Nails from the roof stuck in through the walls in the upstairs bedrooms, crooked and menacing.
For a while, we all thought that this house was terrible: there wasn’t a television, the roof leaked on rainy days, we had to wear flip flops if we used the cramped shower, and you could feel the springs sticking into your backside when you sat on the dilapidated couches. But the lake that seemed to stretch out for eternity, or, at the least, to the coast of England, straight off the front porch, made up for it. And, as we all grew older, the space that allowed for a week without work, and without the outside world, which made up for it, too.
My Mom showed us the outhouse in the side of the garage, and she said that was the only toilet they had when she was little. And there was a cast-iron sink in the kitchen with a rusty water pump at the side, with a red rusty residue left along its spout, and a large, pot bellied stove dusted gray with fifty year old cinders that we’d put the cat’s dishes on, so the dog couldn’t get at it. The floor was hard, crusty linoleum, with faded flowers running along its edges.  It was peeling away along the edges. Like the rest of the house, it was a diminished version of what it once was, frozen in place, but slowly going back to whence it came. Like people, kitchen appliances and iron come from the earth, too, even if they last longer than we do.
The bedrooms on the second floor were never finished, and when you lie in bed, you just stare at the bare rafters right above your head, and listen to the other bodies around you shift on their creaky mattresses. The walls make for visual privacy, but otherwise, only exist to push an old bureau against, or nail an antique photo up.
Even the lake reminded us of a long-dead age. During the first half of the twentieth century, a paper mill would dump all of its leftovers into the water, and it would slowly creep into our little nook and bog, creating a dark, mushy mess, perfect for leeches. We’d wade out to the yellow, clean sandbar, feeling the decay squeeze between our toes, squinching up our faces in disgust. Later, I found out that the paper mill closed down over forty years ago, and yet more of that pulpy debris would come and stack up every year; it wasn’t until a couple years ago that it seemed to subside by degrees.
My mother never minded these kinds of things. For her, this was where life became complete and whole again.
Maybe it’s because she knew that it was the perfect place for ghosts, and her mother died when she was thirteen years old.
It really shouldn’t have come as a surprise. There were so many hiding places, dusty corners and cob-webbed ceilings. They didn’t even need an attic, or an empty front porch. They could sit on the empty rafters upstairs and stare down at their sleeping grandchildren, great grandchildren, in the antiquated beds below, two per mattress. They could mill around their familiar kitchen. The twenty-first century hadn’t crept in yet; they’d know how to pull the string hanging from the bare bulb, and use the stove, or pump some water, but they wouldn’t need to.
            The bathroom was on the first floor, so I knew I’d have to pass them all if I had to pee in the middle of the night. This is why new houses make sure there’s a bathroom on both floors, and why they had chamber pots before. It’s not because people didn’t want to go outside to the outhouse in the cold, or because they were lazy. It’s because they knew that night’s the best time for ghosts in their houses to come down and mill around.
            There were chamber pots still under the creaky old beds, but that didn’t mean I was about to start using them. 
And that’s when I saw her. I stumbled down the stairs, eager to finish what I had to get done, and safe back upstairs, but there she was, on the front porch steps.
            The front porch was where everyone spent most of their time, between the lake and the tame, screened indoors. When we weren’t swimming or eating, we were waiting around for something, playing board games, or reading books, or listening to music to pass the time. It’s strange that was the case. We were in limbo during vacation, and we wanted it that way.
            She was sitting there, ephemeral and pale, and yet very rooted to the spot. And she stared out at the lake, expressionless, empty, and yet not sad. You would think that ghosts are sad things, missing out on something that they never fully appreciated while they were alive, but I think that death does something to a person. It takes the sting out of things. 
            What made it worse was I recognized her, somehow. I could only see her back, and her head, and her shoulders, but the shape and posture were familiar. Perhaps it was from another dream, a familiar one that came back to me night after night. I couldn’t be sure. But that was what kept me from running. That was probably the problem; if you see a shadowy, faint figure of a person you recognize in a vague sense, you shouldn’t just stand there and stare.
            She wasn’t surprised to see me. Maybe she knew that I had been standing there, watching her, for several minutes.
I felt the goose bumps rise on my arms, and I stared out at the black night, and the occasional shimmer of light against the black lake water. I couldn’t help but consider the possibility that this was just as real as my eighteenth birthday, or my wedding day: days that would happen, possibilities that loomed ahead, very concrete and real, but a little hard to grasp for sure.
            This woman was not from our time. I could tell right away. People don’t look the same now as they did then. And they all probably said the same thing about their grandparents and their great-grandparents. My mother once showed me pictures of the woman I was named after, and she had her hair done up, held away from her face in a bun, pinned and neat. She wore a blouse that went halfway up her throat. A pin near her collarbone.
She was almost another type of human. The texture of her skin was different. Her eyes had a different kind of sheen to them, as though they were paler than our eyes. Her features weren’t like ours. They were rounder, softer, like many of the other people I’d seen in old photographs. The twenty-first century created different people than the twentieth, and the nineteenth. We kept evolving. We became harder, maybe.
            And this woman was from yet another, softer age. Her lips were dark, painted on. Her dress flared out from her hips, emphasizing her small waist, and her sandals were tall, and a little clunky, the straps secure around her ankles. The imaginary smoke from her cigarette curled up towards the porch rafters
            I crossed my arms. It was very cold outside, despite the heat during the day. I blew out my breath, wondering if it would come out in puffs of smoke, like hers. But it didn’t. And she didn’t have breath, anyway, I didn’t think. When she moved, the creaky floorboards of the porch remained silent.
            “Sometimes I think life lasts forever,” I said, confessing something that only teenagers think. “Sometimes, I think that tomorrow will always come, and I will always have a second chance.”
            And she disappeared.
            My mother once dreamt that my grandmother hadn’t really died when she was thirteen, and she had been waiting, underground, for over forty years, waiting for something to let her out. She was patient, and somehow, once the mistake had been realized and she was released from her prison, it turned out she hadn’t aged a day since her burial.
             They went shopping, and they went to Portland, and that was when my mother realized that my grandmother’s skin had started to turn gray. And my mother said to her mother: “Don’t go yet. Stay with me. I can take care of you. You don’t have to go.”
            And that night I knew what she meant.
Because all I want to do is take care of everyone, and keep them stored up, safe, in the rafters of the camp, or around the stove in the old kitchen there, in the dusty, cobwebbed corners. There will always be room for more. We can layer them on top of each other, my grandmother, my grandfather, my great aunt, relatives I’ll never meet, people whose names I don’t even know; everyone can fit, and I can take care of them.
            Ghosts don’t take up any space at all. They’re light, and they don’t have to eat.
They aren’t empty, though. They’re full of things, of the past, and they matter, somehow. Because without them, I wouldn’t exist. The house wouldn’t exist. The house was built on that fragile foundation of past lives, stacked up and fading away.   


  1. Firstly, I'm pretty sure I was the one who told you about the aliens. Secondly, I had no idea this happened at Sebago last year! But most importantly, this is a wise and beautiful story.

  2. 1.) Yes, you were the one who said that! Aren't you glad I quoted you?

    2.) I should probably clarify: I didn't *actually* see a ghost (hence the "creative" part of the Non-fiction title). I already got myself in trouble with Jeff who read the story and was like: "What?! Why didn't you tell ME you saw a ghost?!"

    3.) Thanks for the props! :)

  3. I think that the reason I loved this story so much was that it really caught the essence of what the Sebego cottage is and means. AND how homesick I am and can't wait for everyone to be there this summer..even Chris can come!
    (Skye liked the story so much that he said, "*I* want to go to the leech lake.)

  4. love this story. it is from the heart.