‘Why Ghosts Wail: A Brief Memoir’

13 10 2010

[written by author, Gary McMahon]

It was a dry, overcast Tuesday evening in the cold mid winter when I came back from the dead. Night was falling in slow shades from a sky that looked flat and grey as old slate.

I hauled myself from the river in which I’d drowned over a year ago — losing control of my car on an invisible sheet of black ice and plummeting to a watery demise — and stood on the muddy bank. Dripping.

The moon was heavy and bloated, drooping through the thin clouds like a pregnant woman’s belly and birthing a cold, hard light that did little to illuminate the way. I stared at the surrounding countryside, noting how much it had changed in my absence. Trees were bent and crippled, sporting layers of powdery mould from some ferocious blight; grass was brown and spiky, starved of moisture and sunlight; even the water from which I’d risen ran thick and black as crude oil.

Everything seemed tainted, polluted.

I walked in the direction of my old house, planning to look in on Molly and the kids. I didn’t plan to haunt them; that would only cause them alarm. No, I just wanted to check that they were surviving their grief, and that their lives were back on track since my small, ill-attended funeral. I wanted to see that they were okay.

I passed O’Malley’s place and saw old Tom crawling around in the mud outside the empty ruins of his family farm. He was down on all fours, like one of the animals he’d bred back when he was still among the living, and stuffing great handfuls of mud into his mouth. Tom’s face was drawn and elongated, his mouth stretched open like a grain sack. It made him look like that old painting, The Scream.

The clumped dirt just poured through him, returning to the ground where it had originated, leaving no trace on his transparent form. Tom had been dead for five years.

Tom’s wife and son had left the area not long after they’d buried him, relocating to New Zealand. Their absence must have driven Tom’s wraith insane, and all he could do to be near them was ram fistfuls of the earth they’d loved into his maw.

The dead have boundaries, lines and borders that cannot be crossed. We are tied to places, not people; and sometimes those we leave behind move on to destinations where we are unable to follow.

I averted my eyes and moved on. I had no desire to attract Tom’s attention, or to disturb what must be his nightly ordeal. Unstable spectral images of livestock that had been culled during the last B.S.E scare flickered in and out of focus around him, like a weird strobe effect. Tom reached out for them with mud-spattered hands, but the cows vanished before he could make any kind of contact, only to reappear elsewhere in the field, as if teasing him, or playing some kind of ghostly game of tag.

My clothes refused to dry as I walked, and my skin remained grey-white and sodden, the colour and texture of damp tripe. A consequence of my return, I thought. I didn’t even pause to wonder why I’d been allowed back into the land of the living, just accepted that I was there. To paraphrase a classic, there are far stranger things in heaven and earth than my limited philosophy can comprehend.

I passed not a single car as I trod the narrow and winding road to the cottage; nor did I see any other pedestrians braving the chill night air. Whether anyone would have been able to see me is a question that I cannot answer. Perhaps, I thought then, only those dear to me might perceive my presence. Or perhaps were I to enter a building, I’d register only as a faint wind in the room despite closed doors and windows, a sudden chill in the air, a partially glimpsed movement in an otherwise empty chamber.

The little rose garden I’d tended in life was overgrown and stricken with weeds, the plants and flowers all gone brown and rotten. Things had been left to die, just like I’d done. I guessed that Molly must still be deep in mourning to allow things to slide in this way.

The lights were on in the cottage, and I could see dim figures bobbing behind the dirty windows. The front door was chipped, the paint peeling like scabs from damaged flesh; even the bricks were flaking away, shedding in great patches like dry, reddened epidermis.

This was the house we’d bought together three months after the wedding, the place where Molly had given birth to our children, and where we’d begun to raise them. And here it was falling apart at the seams, sinking deeper and deeper into a mess of disrepair and neglect.

The state of the house seemed to reflect the condition of my wasted mortal remains when they were put in the ground, and of the three broken hearts that it held within its crumbling walls.

I glided right through the battered wooden door, passing into the house on a current of stale air that rushed to aid my transition from one place to the next.

My young son, Gary, was in the process of climbing the stairs, a moth-eaten old teddy bear in one hand, and a glass of water gripped tightly in the other. As if sensing his daddy’s spirit, the boy stopped, turned. Gazed down into the dark hallway.

I screamed but no sound came. Only dark water leaking from the sides of my mouth.

Gary’s face was prematurely aged, his eyes sunken into a haggard midget’s skull. His pretty blonde hair was thin and wispy, falling out in dry clumps. He’d become an old, old man looking out from the body of a four-year-old boy.

I went through into the lounge when my son resumed his steady ascent to the first floor, and saw my three-year-old daughter sitting before a flickering television screen. There was a framed photograph of me on the low table beside her — a portrait taken long ago, when she was just a babe-in-arms.

One of Katie’s arms was dangling slack at the shoulder, the joint having jumped, or been pulled, from its socket. The right-hand side of her face was crumpled inwards, as if from a heavy impact, and her remaining eye was staring blankly, milky-white as marble, from all that ruin.

I tried to cry, but only more stagnant river water poured from my useless tear ducts: it seems that the dead don’t cry for the living. I felt only an echo of a greater despair; an ironically phantom feeling that haunted the inner sanctum of my being.

Molly entered the room, looking groomed and beautiful in a pair of dark blue jeans and a white woollen sweater. She was the only point of brightness in a dim landscape, the only thing that looked as I remembered. My wife. My lovely living wife.

“Molly,” I tried to say, but only succeeded in sending a violent draught of air across the room, slamming the door behind her. She couldn’t hear me, or sense me; even the closing of the door had gone unnoticed. In that brief moment I felt far less than even the ghost that I am.

Then Molly turned partially away from me, and bent down to offer Katie a cookie from the open pack that she held in her delicate veiny hands. Her distant gaze fluttered like an insubstantial airborne insect and came to rest upon my picture. I could see the pulse beating rapidly in her neck, as if an invisible finger was repeatedly pressing her there. As she turned back towards me her eyes were moist, and she quickly wiped them dry on the sleeve of her sweater.

A large fist-sized tumour was suspended on rubbery strings of matter, dangling from a gaping rent in Molly’s back, located in the area near the kidney. The roughly circular cluster of angry cells twitched; evil, malignant, expanding in diameter as I stood there and watched.

I raised my hands to my river-wet face, and they passed straight through my head to meet empty air on the other side. Nothing could erase the awful sight.

Is it any wonder that ghosts are always seen moaning and wailing and mournful, their faces twisted and fixed into expressions of perpetual terror? When glimpsed by the living, spectres are never smiling, waving blithely, or radiating an aura of happiness.

And I’ll tell you why.

Because this is what they see: the whole wide world winding down like a big old clock, everything turning to ruin, and their loved ones gradually assuming the aspect of how they will eventually pass away… little Gary from merciful old age, Katie beaten to death in her early twenties by some late-night assailant or would-be rapist, Molly quite soon from a cancer that hangs like a monkey on her back and will never, ever stop until it has devoured her.

And I could see it all too: what little future they had mapped out across the pale white parchment of their living, breathing bodies. I could see far too much, and they didn’t even know I was there. But I had faith that they would see me eventually, catching sight of my tired spectral form whenever the pain and the rage allowed me to momentarily pass through the veil that divides us.

I tucked my legs up under my body, and slowly lowered myself down onto the floor, being very careful not to pass through the dusty carpet and creaky timber joists into the dank basement below.

And now I sit and watch the slow dissolution of those that I cherish, waiting for them to cross over. Wishing that time and space would just grind to a halt and freeze them there, in living poses, so that they no longer have to die. The other side, you see, is worse than where they are. Far, far worse than where you are.

One of these days I know my wife will join me, slipping her tiny ice-cold hand into mine as I stand watching our children weep. And we’ll wait together, Molly and me, wailing into the emptiness, trying our hardest to warn the rest of the family; and attempting to tell them to get on and live their lives before it’s too damn late to make any difference, any difference at all.

[Taken from the collection, How to Make Monsters]



5 responses

13 10 2010

God, that’s sad. I shouldn’t have read it before breakfast.

13 10 2010
Mark Deniz

In some ways I don’t think you should ever read it…

14 10 2010
Ali L

Ooooohh…bleak. Bleak, but really good.

14 10 2010

As bleak, poignant and painful as ever – good work!

14 10 2010

I think I’ll just go hide under the bed now, thanks.

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