I’m exhausted as the year draws to a shaky close. I see everyone else seems drained and hollowed out as well. The world seems determined to end itself in a flash of nuclear fire, yee haw.
So here’s an excerpt from a story set in and around Christmas from my book, Oregon Gothic.
I went to Nora’s side of the room. ” Nora? Something to read?”
Nora shook her head. “Not today, Marianne. Look at it snow. Christmas should always have snow.”
“Yes, I guess it should.” I said.
“You haven’t been here for a while.”
“Oh I had things come up, ” I said as vaguely as possible. I had never really discussed or opened up about my disease to anyone here. It was boring to hear an ex-drunk drone on about being an ex-drunk. No, I was just a drunk who’d put down the bottle. I’d never not be a drunk. One could be cancer-free but one could never be not an alcoholic. Blah blah, boring. And I had always kept to myself, it was, sadly, easier that way. I was just doing my time left on earth. Just surviving day to day…as I had told Fran not days before, as Fran sighed a little too loudly and shifted way too many times on her cheap office chair. Fran had put a small fake tree up in her office. ” I’m back now, though.”
“I see,” Nora kept her cloudy eyes on the solid steel and white sky outside, the ground now almost all white. “They think I’m crazy.”
A sick little thrill went through me. Yes, Nora, they do. But I carefully went stupid as a bowl of pudding. “Who does?”
Nora sat up, careful herself. Emmalou kept her head down over her Sunset, but she was listening. But who would Emmalou tell about all this?
“Everyone. There’s nothing wrong with my hearing. They think everyone here is deaf.” Nora said with a great deal of asperity. Emmalou nodded slightly. I decided this might take a bit so I sat in the bedside chair, prepared for a long listen. ” I’m not. I’ll be dead soon. My heart. There’ll be no warning.”
“Nora, why do you…”
But she waved her rough hand at me. Her hands were gnarled as old tree branches, her joints outrageously swollen and gigantic. “Hush. I know you think so, too. You’re young yet.” Her calling me, at forty-three young…! I was vastly old, far older than some mountain ranges I knew. “She comes to visit me and we play a game. She pretends I’m her grandmother. It’s a ghost. Or whatever it is. Angel, demon, ghost, but she comes to visit me. She likes to play with my dollhouse. And we pretend we’re getting ready for Christmas. If it were near Easter, we’d pretend to get ready for Easter. Or Halloween, we’d be making popcorn balls and decorating for a party, all pretend, of course. We’re just pretending.”
Ghost. Ghost? Oh no, not crazy at all.
“Okay,” I replied to all that. Nora looked at me and then she hunched up her shoulders. “Well…who is the little girl, then?”
Emmalou nodded, I saw it from the corner of my eye. Go along, Emmalou seemed to advise, go along.
“She won’t say. I think…I think she was someone who died, nobody wanted her, she died alone, like…like a cancer patient over there in the hospital.”
Which was just down the road about five miles. No trouble at all for a ghost to travel, even during rush hour. “I thought ghosts stayed where they died.” That was it for my knowledge of ghosts. Classical literature said they stayed put where they had been murdered or so forth. Or they looped, like a film, in one place, replaying some tiny portion of their existence until that energy dissipated. Or…well, nobody knew, exactly, what ghosts did or did not do as nobody could actually confirm or deny that there were ghosts. Or spirits or demons or phantoms, gods, devils or mermaids, pretty much any of the supernatural folks hanging out in nightmare or dream.
“Perhaps they get drawn to things they wanted in life,” Nora said very, very carefully. “Like a grandmother, a dollhouse, someone…someone who cares. She’s tiny and very thin, cancer or some big illness that ate her up.” Nora’s voice caught and sputtered, she kept clearing her throat or coughing. “I don’t mind if Emmalou hears this. The ghost only comes when Emmalou isn’t here.”
We both glanced over at the other occupant of the room, who had not turned a page for ages now. Emmalou shrugged at us both, whether to keep her out of it all or as agreement, I didn’t know then and still don’t know.
“Happens? Well…she walks right in and…and the room changes, it started changing.” Nora struggled to explain, as people who are not natural storytellers do. “It’s…it’s this big old-fashioned kitchen. There’s a counter, there’s a big stove. Knives and onions and gingerbread. I can smell. Everything. And it’s warm. There’s a smell of sage and onions and gingerbread. And cinnamon. She sits at the table and we shell walnuts. I crack the nuts and she gets all the walnut stuff out. There’s a bowl of oranges on the table, and I know I’ll use them in the frosting somehow.”
” That sounds nice. ” I said and meant it. It was like a Christmas scene as if written by Charles Dickens or Louisa May Alcott, something vaguely Victorian. Something someone would write who was having a bad life.
“And I can see into other rooms. I can see there’s a Christmas tree. With big glass balls all over it. And. And ribbon, red and silver ribbons. And presents. Wrapped. Big presents that would make a child so happy to shake and guess what’s inside.”
I had never had anything like that at Christmas. I had a feeling Nora had not had anything like that, either. “Maybe you’re dreaming all this, Nora.” I had to say it, I had to say the flat, logical assumption. But she shook her head at once.
“No. I never remember my dreams. I don’t remember dreaming much at all. I’m not…I’m not that creative or…or anything like that. It’s not a dream. I can smell the cinnamon. I can see the decorations and the little girl who calls herself my granddaughter sitting at the table, trying to get the walnuts out of their shells. So we can make cookies with them, so we can put those walnuts. In the cookies.”
“What’s her name?”
“She won’t tell me. She pretends not to hear when I ask her.” Nora sighed, adjusted her dingy shawl. It cost her something to tell me this at all. To lay bare what she had thought she had seen. Or so I believed then. Because of course I did not believe her. “You can go, Marianne. I know you’d rather be anywhere than…listening to a crazy old lady.” Nora tried to make it a joke, but it fell very flat. I could see her waiting over a skimpy supper as her husband failed to return, as the hour grew later and later…Nora getting up to check on her sick baby, her husband’s car not coming up the road as she peeked out the window. To face such a betrayal, and such a death, and go to work and be so alone and thrown away…her and so many other women. So many. To end up here, so far from her birthplace, so far from security and light and hope and, yes, love. And still be able to make tiny, flat jokes and pretend life hadn’t handed her a sandwich full of shadows and toadstools.
“It’s all right. I don’t mind. So you sit with a little ghost and cook things for Christmas. What’s crazy about that? That’s rather nice.” I had somehow said just the right thing. Nora smiled, that rare real smile she had.