When the light came
When the light first came, it was faint. It moved slowly through the tall grass, out past the alfalfa. I first thought it was a flashlight held by a far-off body, that I would never know whose body it was unless they approached the house and I felt strongly that they wouldn’t. I closed my eyes and then opened them. The light remained.
My wife shook her head at me. My wife was dead. My wife’s ghost shook her head at me. I’ve thought a lot about what I should call this pale vision of her — she felt no different to touch than air. She was an opacity, purely an experience of my vision. My wife no longer exists, I’m certain. My wife’s ghost had been appearing to me. The ghost could not or would not speak, but her eyes, her hands, her being all greatly resembled that of my wife, whose body I had seen lowered into the earth.
“What do you think?” I said.
She shook her head again and moved through both the closed fiberglass and screen door. Stepping out onto the deck, a reduced wooden platform that had replaced the original, more expansive but too-rotted deck with this past summer. My sons — our sons — had helped. I haven’t told them that their mother — or their mother’s ghost — appeared to me, that she appeared to me often.
The ghost turned her head one way and then the other. I called out to her. Far off lightning cast a gray light and brought brief definition to the overcast night. A rough gulp of thunder came from the north. She walked through the yard and passed the rotting fence post, the barn, the red and rusting horse corral, and moved out into the alfalfa field. Her silver presence finally faded off into the far timber. This was how she left some nights. Other nights, I would turn away and she would be gone. Tonight, I called out her name. Eden. She didn’t turn back.
The first night she appeared to me, she left this way and I followed her. When we got up to the tree line, she turned to me. I recognized her expression immediately and felt the weight in my gut. It was the look she gave me when she felt frustrated at my incomprehension, when she was trying to tell me something and I failed to understand. Halfway back through the field, I turned and she was gone.
Tonight I decided not to follow.
Ben, my eldest, came up the next day. Must have been a weekend. Marie, his wife, and their daughter Sammy didn’t come with him. A gymnastics meet or a birthday party. One or both. Could’ve just not been in the mood to take the drive out. The interstate, the highway you turn off on, the gravel road. Just long enough to feel too long, especially for a child.
I asked Ben about work. Work was good.
I asked Ben about Sammy. She had just started first grade, was talking more than ever, reading out loud to him and Marie every night.
We drank coffee made from the machine Ben’s younger brother had gotten me for Christmas, the one you insert small plastic pods into. It sputtered and gurgled as water ran through the grounds. When my neighbor, Tim, visited, he complained to me about it. Said that it tasted different. Tasted like coffee to me. If he hadn’t known how it was made, I told him, I don’t think he would’ve have cared.
“I remember when we used to make it on the stove, in the percolator,” I said, chewing the word percolator like a piece of stale bread. Often I said something like this and hours would pass before I realized how old and stuck I sounded. The past was so heavy, its gravity shaped everything. In the brief moments I was aware of it, my chest feels tight. Eden sometimes told me that I was stuck in the mud, a phrase that could have several meanings, and that was one of them.
“Do you remember the apple tree that used to be out there,” Ben said. Humoring me, I was certain. He had a habit of always wanting to bring anything to a calm neutrality, even as a child doing the heavy lifting in conversations in order to make people feel comfortable. He pointed towards the west pasture where a sapling now grew in its place. “It really made the best apples.”
“I’m not so sure. You might just be remembering it that way. You were young.”
“Maybe.” He trailed off.
I picked it back up. “Having kids around to pick the apples off the ground made the apples taste even better.”
“We treated it like a game. Who could pick up the most apples. John and I never counted and I always made up the final count.”
The past, once found, was so enrapturing, so totalizing. A bed of soft earth and cool grass you could lay your whole body down upon. Digging your hands into the dirt, pulling at individual blades, brittle and thin.
I brought us back to the present. We talked about his work and Marie’s work, little of which I understood. It was the kind of work that didn’t even exist until a decade ago. Soon enough, we found ourselves back talking about when he was a kid, when I was still farming some of the land and working at the factory making washing machines. The dogs we owned, the ones he remembered the best. The people we knew that had either died or left.
In a moment of silence, he would check his phone for the time or look off in the middle distance. There were parts of his life that he would never share with me, the complexities of the pleasure along with the stress and pain, but I had never taught him how to. There was a far off place of deeper understanding, but nothing I could figure out how to say that would take us there. I willed the moments of silence to says what I couldn’t.
When he did look at me, I saw his concern clearly. Just down the road, Midge Granning had passed away a few years ago. Her husband, Tom, went not even a year later. A few years before, Tim Sampter had a stroke and lingered in hospice. His children helped his wife Mary Lou sell the property and move into town, where she still lived. If the wife died first, the husband was sure to follow, but the women often carried on long after the men.
Ben helped me up from the kitchen table. The leg I’d hurt years ago falling from a hay loft always got stiff when I sat too long. I looked at him and said, “my grandpa always told me that the two worst things about getting old are that you can’t do anything by yourself and it hurts to piss.”
He laughed at that and it felt good to hear him laugh.
The world as it is was beyond me and I existed mostly in memory, my own and sometimes others, even as it crumbled and frayed, shook like the asphalt horizon on a hot day. His mother was dead and soon I would be too. But it wasn’t as bad as all that.
We went out into the yard. A brute sun, but the breeze was cool in the oak shade. Cats came and curled around us, the barn cats Eden fed who now came to me. The circumstances could not be adequately explained to them, so I had inherited the contract.
A cloud of gravel dust rose up in front of the house when he left. I stayed out under the shade of the tree. Night came again and brought the shade out from under the tree to cover everything.
The light returned. I watched it from the window until Eden’s ghost returned too. There were clouds and a little moon, but the light shone no brighter. She walked off towards it. I went back inside.
I woke early in the dark morning. The sun came slowly. A cup of coffee on the deck as the screeches of the insects faded. By noon, the sun would make the day washed and bright. Too warm to touch, like white linen on a clothes line. I worked in the gardens and flower beds that Eden had tended, the ones she taught me how to work after I retired.
Eden’s father named her after the famous Eden, the garden from the beginning. He took her birth as an omen. Born in a drought year, her father would say the same thing every time he brought it up, in one of his good moods: “her mother was the only thing that grew that year.”
A cruel man. Drunk more often than not. Once, when Eden and I were just dating in high school, I was driving her home from the movies and he nearly hit us with his truck driving home from the bar. I drove my car into a ditch to avoid him. He stopped his truck, fell out of the driver’s side, gave us a long look, then climbed right back into the driver’s seat.
He died in 1960. Hit on his way into town by a gravel truck that hadn’t seen him. He wasn’t even drunk. They dug him out from under the gravel and got him to the hospital where he moaned and begged. Eden’s sisters thought he was asking for forgiveness.
My anger for him was white hot for years and years, the way it can be for someone that hasn’t done you wrong but has wronged someone you love. As I saw it, he was a waste of a man, ever a burden, a needless complication in an already complex life. But the heat of my anger was always blackened with fear that grew into the empty spaces made by my inability to understand him at all. I worked hard all my life for the people that depended on me. I never thought that I could do anything else and my inability to understand or extend any kindness to those who wouldn’t or couldn’t narrowed me.
I’d get wound up and go on about him, even after he died. Eden would let me for a while, but at a certain point she would give me that look and say “he’s my dad and that’s just the way he it is.”
When Eden and her sisters brought her mother the news, she was sitting on the porch next to a fishing pole. They often fished together, had planned to that day, but when he didn’t return from town, she assumed that he’d gone to the bar, as he often did. When they told her what happened, she said nothing. She picked up the fishing rod and walked it over to the shed. Returning, she looked at her daughters as their father was dying. He’d gone into town to get bait.
“I guess there’ll be no fishing today,” she said.
This was the first day I had thought of them in a long time. My hands were black with dirt, swollen from the heat. It approached noon and I went back inside the house. With the soft drone of the television, I slept through the afternoon.
The light came again in the evening, barely visible at first, but brightening. Eden’s ghost stood next to the oak tree.
“I thought about your dad today,” I said.
I had a habit of speaking to her ghost loudly and slowly as I would to her in the final year of her life, when it became more and more difficult for her not to recede into some far off place. The ghost turned her head slowly. A vacant look. Sometimes I recognized her in the ghost and other times I didn’t. Her ghost never seemed all that interested in reminiscing, but neither was Eden when she was living. I could almost hear her say: “that’s just the way it was. Talking about it won’t change it. So talk about something else.”
The light hung in the sky, bright enough to appear as a diminutive moon next to the larger, constant one. Occasionally, it would dip lower or higher in the air before settling back into its static position. Eden moved slowly out towards the corral. She put her hand on the rust-flecked metal, the first time I’d seen her ghost make a pretense of touching anything.
Sometimes I caught myself wavering over the many possible lives that I could have lived but had not. Often when I felt myself reaching that soft oblivion of time unrealized, I was able to pull away. But there were some days where the morning fog would fade into heavy air, days that were dry and silent.
Decades of life, its weariness, had left my memory opaque and thick. Sometimes a memory, with such clarity that I have no choice but to believe that I have altered it in wishful and impossible ways or made it up entirely, appeared. Certain small moments — putting gas in my car in high school, picking up one of the boys from school, waiting with Eden in the hospital as she sat calmly, not looking at me — have caused me to break wide open.
For much of my life, like many of the men I knew, I would not cry. Many days a dark feeling came and sat in my chest. I worked furiously around the yard or the house. I became meaner than I meant to be and regretted it.
The day Eden was diagnosed, I paced around the room after the doctor left. She watched me. Her face twisted itself then relaxed. She spoke clearly and calmly: “goddamit, stop it.”
I sat down in the chair and looked at her. I knew her round face and every wrinkle, how deep they’d grown, how every moment now brought her farther away from me. Tears came in a stream. She started crying to and then, for some reason, we both just started laughing.
“Jesus,” she said. “Finally.”
Tim came to the backdoor with a cherry pie. This was a joke between us. When he would come to help clear the driveway with the plow attachment on his truck or help me cut down a dead tree, Eden would send him home with a cherry pie. The pie was made from the cherries of a spindly but industrious tree that still stood just beyond the back deck. When he got hurt on the job, I drove Eden down the muddy road in the rain to leave a pie — sealed in a box wrapped in plastic — at his backdoor. The process of making them was always laborious. The cherries had to be pitted. They were made into pie then or frozen for future pies. The crust never wavered, born again and again from monotonous devotion and single-minded repetition.
Now Tim brings me cherry pie whenever he visits, fresh from the Wal-Mart shelf. We sit at the table and talk about how bad it is, the specific ways in which this pale shadow reminds us of the unreturning beauty of Eden’s pies.
“Mom would hate that you’re eating pies from Wal-Mart,” Ben said when I told him about this new tradition. I acknowledged that she would, but I also thought that she would appreciate the humor in it. It was one my favorite jokes in this strange new life.
When Eden was dying I learned to cook. This surprised everyone, myself included. I started with casseroles, some made with egg and others potato, meat and cheese, poorly seasoned at the start. I made chicken and pasta made with store-bought sauce, enhanced by the addition of basil from the garden. On our anniversary, I made some steak and cut it up into small pieces.
Tim and I sat across from each other and chewed, both comfortable enough with the other that long silences could move easily between us.
“God, I miss her pie,” Tim said.
“I don’t know. The store-bought is starting to grow on me,” I said.
We spoke about the corn that was doing well despite the lack of rain. He was worried about the alfalfa. We talked about the horses he was raising and training that would one day be strong enough to race. How beautiful they would be.
Several slices of pie remained in the tin. Tim rose to leave. His eyesight didn’t let him drive at night anymore. I knew the ghost of my wife would return soon, silent as the moon. I thanked him again for the pie. When he left, I threw away what remained.
Living in the wake of a great death is like lying down in a shallow creek bed. The silty water rushes beneath you. There’s no drowning but your breathing is thin. There’s a thickness and weightlessness to the world. A heaviness in your limbs, black negative space in the middle of every room. A placeholder for the absence but not the absence itself.
I’m not sure I believe in a soul. But I do believe that there was a whole part of me — part of me that was built up over a great span of time — that was made known to me by her death. I wasn’t even aware of its existence until it had suddenly calcified. It remained in place as what was left writhed and changed shape, but it was kept now like a round black stone. A part of me now made solid, unchanging.
I’m not sure if this is a soul, but it is mysterious and familiar, strange and intimate. There’s only me: my body, crafted by my own blood and thoughts. The taste of the world that I’ve known. Part of it left with her, I’m certain. I watched it go. A space, unmeasurable and unsayable, remained. When my body dies, this small soul will go with me. There will always some remainder.
I have struggled to decide whether or not Eden’s ghost exists. I haven’t asked anyone if they see what I’m seeing. She never appears to me while I’m in the company of other people. I’ve been certain of this: Eden’s ghost is not her. But she is of her.
Whatever the soul is, I also don’t believe in life after death. I’ve never spoken with anyone about this, not even Eden. Sometimes she wondered aloud to me: what death would feel like, what would it be like in the moment you moved between this world and the next? We never spoke of death while she was dying.
I went to church with my family every Sunday growing up and continued to go every Sunday with Eden and our children. Throughout my life, it had been a place of community for me more than a place for any kind of spiritual reflection. Occasionally, we would go to church in another town over if the church we were attending got a new, particularly unpalatable pastor. This would always pass like a hard rain, and we would return to our old church again.
At Eden’s burial, many people presented me with that phrase, those worn words people bring like an heirloom from a small porcelain box that smells of moth and old velvet: “she’s in a better place.” Always that exact phrasing. A better place. Presented with this, instead of turning my eyes and placing a hand over my mouth, I would pause a moment and complete my portion of this ritual, saying “yes” or “that’s right.” The tone was uniform for every person, like making the sign of the cross or saying the Lord’s prayer. Always an emphasis on better. To disagree would be to break something that didn’t exist, and therefore unimaginably terrible.
In my life, I’ve sometimes found myself craving death. I’ve always felt that death had to be an end of being. I’d seen people die or just never seen them again, all my life, and it never made much sense to me that it would be any other way. I’ve never thought about dying when my life has been particularly stressful or overfilled with pain or sorrow. It has welled up in seemingly random silences and sat with me. A cloying desire to no longer be.
A high school classmate of Eden and I’s committed suicide in the 80s. He was going to have to sell off his farm, like a lot of people we knew during that time, and the future collapsed on him. At the funeral, in the deep end of a hymn, I felt total understanding for this act. I imagine death feels like something small and totally perfect. The click that accompanies the unlocking of a door. A small brush of wind that rises and disappears, an empty breath.
I once told Eden that there were things that I never told anyone. She said, “that makes you a liar.”
She wasn’t angry, not even a little annoyed. She said it to me like she was explaining something to a child: “If something remains unspoken, then it’s a lie.”
“I’m not a liar,” I said. “Some things I just kept to myself.”
“That’s called lying,” she said. She never asked me what it was I never told anyone.
Night was encroaching again, the sun a thin flame on the horizon. Eden’s ghost appeared in the yard, standing again beneath the oak tree, the tree that had been there longer than I’d been alive. She was looking up into the deepening shadows of its branches.
She ignored the sound of the screen door slamming. I walked down the steps and out onto the lawn. I approached the ghost. She did not look at me. I stood there as the stars grew in the sky and the nearly full moon grew brighter. She pointed the apparition of her index finger straight down.
“What are you trying to say?”
The ghost shook its head at this request. She looked at me again with colorless eyes and turned, moving across the lawn and into the field of alfalfa. With great effort, I got down onto my haunches and laid an open palm on the grass. There was a coolness to it, the sharp and dense green against the solid earth.
The ghost had moved out into the field. I followed. There was no hurry. The light had come again.
I realized then how much affection I had for the ghost. She wasn’t Eden, but she reminded me of her and how she once lived and I couldn’t let go of that.
Now the ghost approached the edge of the timber. She moved past the tree line. I followed. The wood was blank with darkness. I heard only the crunch of leaves and twigs under me. The ghost had gone from my sight, but she was still there.
I don’t know how long I walked, but stopped after a while and closed my eyes. It made little difference, but the darkness there was more familiar, warmer than this other, outer darkness.
Somewhere in the timber there was a creek bed. As a child, I walked the course of it, all its rain water and dark soil. It was still in the darkness somewhere, probably nothing but a ditch after the recent dry spell. I once found a smooth, white round rock with the impression of a seashell imprinted upon it. I brought it to my grandpa who told me that, a long time ago, the ground we walked on was once a vast ocean. I asked him what happened to that ocean. He told me that it dried up over thousands of years, that it happened before there were any people. I would sometimes find myself staring out the window and imagine everything around me as nothing but a blue dark expanse. The endless nothing that left behind only absences, impressions in the small rocks.
I opened my eyes again. The light had descended into the field behind me and now hovered there. The trees cast long shadows deeper into the timber. I moved toward it.
A vision came to me. I was in the home of Eden’s family. We were young. The skin of her hand was soft and so was mine against it. She brought me to her room while her family slept. I remembered this. We undressed each other silently, by touch alone in the lack of light. There was only a moment. I let out a soft cry as I raised my body above hers in a long, slow motion. She raised her hand and covered my mouth with her open palm. I looked into her eyes, black and shining. She held her hand there. My body was raised above her, unmoving.