We know these streets. We know the houses, the bicycles. We know the rain covered cars parked up and down the wet asphalt. And we know the house up the street, empty for a long time, a family leaving it there to sell when it could be sold, because the rain was too much for them.
This house up the street housed a family with no fisherman or pirate, only a confused father who left each morning clutching a briefcase, driving his car around our township looking for work. But he would come back every evening at dusk, when the gulls were turning to bats, sunlight becoming moonlight, and he still didn’t have work. Some nights his hands felt like hooks. Some nights lines seemed to pull at his chest. Some nights he could only see the moon as a million silver fish huddled together. His wife was beginning to feel widowed inside, the shore more menacing with each fog coated sunrise. They didn’t have children yet, but her middle was increasing each day, hands resting on the rise, already protecting an unborn child from the sadness. This was the family who lived in the house up the street, the family who packed boxes one day, all day long, heaping them atop their station wagon, tying every belonging to its roof or stuffing them in the back seat or the trunk, panic on their faces.
Finding a new family for this township isn’t easy. The coastline is jagged and daunting, the sky gray, the rain constant. For months, their house stood empty.
Plenty of families drive our streets looking to move here, windshield wipers clunking and whispering in bursts. They watch us ride our bicycles to the arcade, lunch sacks clenched to handlebars, and we see them smile behind wet windows, imagining how they could raise their own children here too. But then they see the widows pacing their walks at the peak of some houses and other children grown too old too fast, helping the widows back inside. They see children in front yards, drenched in rain, pretending to lop off one another’s heads. They see the sheen of tiny sewing machine lights in living rooms, women holding up empty dresses. They see that the rain never lets up. And occasionally, they see a pirate lugged home for a stint on land, or a fisherman dragging his arms up porch steps, and the men in those cars, imagine the glint of rubies or fish, all of the sudden licking their teeth, wondering which would be silver, envisioning thick unkempt beards. And the women in those cars, they see the exhaustion and solitude of men rarely returning home and women foolishly accepting them back again, love as if a ghost in the air between them.
They drive away, nearly all of them, confused at our township.
And then the rain again is the only sound. Empty houses muted and unsold.
In this township, mourning is in our bones.
The house was vacant until this morning. Riding our bicycles to the arcade, we saw new drapes in the windows and lamps burning. As we slowed, straining to get a look into this family moved in overnight, a body passed between the lamplight and the gauze of curtains. The figure passed again. The third time it didn’t pass but stayed between the light and us, on our bicycles, riding wide circles now like bats looping back for a missed swarm.
The body stood, watching us. Then it disappeared and the light returned, its swath glowing through the curtains.
The house had been empty yesterday, only so many days after Our Father’s latest departure. We had ridden past it then and saw the dark insides, the bare walls, and we’d wondered if this house would ever be lived in again, since the for-sale sign had already begun to wane in its yard. We wondered if sometimes a house could have so much sadness, so much panic and fright, so much so that it becomes unlivable. We wondered if maybe that was why we grew up around so many for-sale signs. But in our hearts we know the empty houses of this township are a symptom of pirates and fishermen, of ghosts, these monsters we all are.
We circled a time or two more, waiting for the body in the light to return, but when it didn’t we stopped our bicycles dead in the street, legs as kickstands, waiting for what the house would do next.
We stared. We didn’t speak. Rain drizzled. Spruce boughs glistened. The house was still until, in an upper window, upstairs from where the figure had first appeared, a hand pulled one half of a sheer drape back, and there she was. A girl masked in the partial veil of the curtains, our age but how much she looked like a ghost.
We saw our first ghost years ago. We’d wandered deep into the surrounding spruce and fern forests that border this wet township, far enough to make midday gray nearly a darkness. We were playing pirates. Our Mother was in the house sewing a dress she would hang with so many closeted others, a rainbow of the never worn, hoping for another dance with Our Father. Our Mother was grieving, so we went to the backyard. We sailed a pretend ship into the nether regions of the world. We landed it by anchor in the wet bay of a treasure laden island. But before we could drop our jollyboat and row ashore, a mutiny brewed, arguments about the share of riches each deckhand would receive. Complaints escalated to cutlass-backed words, until us brothers had to fend off the crew. Our swords struck and leveled, our pistols fired into bodies until the decks were quiet, until we could return to treasure hunting.
We had a map loaded with markers to follow. We counted paces and established bearings, counted more and stood. We held fingers to the air and squinted, what we thought pirates would do. We pretended not to know where the treasure was buried, pretended we were only two young pirates carrying on Our Father’s legacy.
What we hoped for, beyond anything else, was to be Our Father’s apprentices. We believed in our muscles and our might, our brains and our courage, but when Our Father was on shore his vision was so blurred, his mind so dizzied, he could only ever see us as boys. And to Our Father, boys means silly. Arms too young to hold swords, bodies too finicky for pistols, heads too full of arcades and make-believe. We couldn’t make Our Father see that we pretended piracy because we were buccaneers at heart. The make-believe we performed in our bedroom and our yard, it was all to show him how eager we were to set sail, how we would vow as pirates do, with oaths and blood.
Further into the spruce and rain than Our Mother would have allowed, we are on our hands and knees in the undergrowth, the mud and leaves and dripping ferns, digging. We’d buried the treasure deep, but the rain had pooled there, made the mud so thick the digging took much longer than we’d thought, took so long that by the time we were nearing its depth, dusk had become night and even bats were no longer visible. We were digging then by the sporadic light of the moon wavering between sets of clouds and bouts of rain, using sticks as shovels. We dug and it rained, and then, through the boughs, a new light shone, a wilted light through tension and rain. In our make-believe we pretended it was the lantern of a rival pirate crew, but the more the light drifted and hovered, sank and rose as if on the wind, the more we came to see what the light was. And just as we had this realization, this epiphany that a ghost was upon us, it barreled forward, faster than we could think to stand or run, until the ghost has passed clean through us, a burst of sonic light, two brothers with muddy hands and exploding hearts.
That night we jockeyed for position at the bathroom mirror, looking for strands of white hairs the ghost would have given us. If not that, then a scar of some sort on our chests or our backs where the ghost shot through. We found nothing, but we knew we’d seen our first ghost, out in the spruce and rain, where a treasure is still buried in the muddy floor.
And now, though we don’t yet know her name, can’t even vouch for her reality, today, in the second story window of the house up the street, we saw our second.
- Ourselves and This Once Empty House - February 13, 2014