After The Flood
Time, or some equivalent of it, begins again when Goldie finds the hat, a gray tweed fedora lined with flesh-colored satin, a tiny red feather stuck in its brim. She concentrates hard to pick it up, strains to make her phantom hands as solid as possible, and when she does, when she holds the hat in the attic’s dusty air, she knows it’s special, knows it’s hers. Well, not hers exactly—it’s a man’s hat—but she knows it must have belonged to someone she once knew when she was alive, perhaps someone she once loved.She tries the hat on and it hangs a moment in the air, covering her eyes, another veil of darkness over her already-dim vision. But before the hat falls through the transparency of her body to hit the wood floor, she smells something: fragrance of scalp, oils of thick human hair, musk of a living body, notes of shampoo, cologne, smoke. This is the first scent Goldie has smelled in the interminable time since she’s arrived in the shadowy world, and in just a quick whiff she remembers the bright world, where she once buried her face in someone’s hair, in someone’s pillow. She remembers the animal smell of being human, and misses it. She wishes she could place that scent, that memory: Whose hair? Where the pillow? Why the fierce animal tug of her body that is no longer a body? How is desire possible, now?
She skims stairs down to her bedroom and holds the hat close to her chest, its red feather fluttering in front of her, a tiny makeshift heart.
Blue pulsates in the corner of their bedroom, Blue her ghost-husband, Blue who looks like some midnight salamander, like those anonymous creatures she remembers watching in the Gulf sea grass, creatures she remembers better than she remembers her living self, as if she can only remember creatures without individual names. Her own name, Goldie, is merely a ghost-name, given to her when she arrived because of the slight sunset-hue that radiates from her hair, as if she died not in water but in fire. She doesn’t remember the name she had when she was alive, though she does know she once lived, a fact that no one else seems to care about, not her ghost-husband, her ghost-in-laws, or any of the other ghosts who come and go from this duplex which, if she could remember anything about her life, she’d know was once her family’s home and long before that had been a trading post for Creole fur merchants. Now it’s merely one of many abandoned houses in a city ravaged by hurricanes and floods.
Goldie shares one side of the duplex with a large family of ghosts; pulsating shades tinted with different hues, passing like stains of light over walls, floorboards. No one has ever been on the other side of the duplex. For a reason Goldie doesn’t understand, the wall separating the two sides of the house is the only one their bodies cannot pass through, even when reduced to their most insubstantial forms. When they try, they stick like shadows preserved by an atomic blast.
As usual, Blue doesn’t acknowledge Goldie coming in, involved with observing his own apparition pulse in and out, in and out, pondering his own substance and insubstantiality. He’s done this all day, every day, since she arrived. But when night comes—a deepening of the constant dusk, marked by church bells the origin of which they know not, whether ghost-bells or an echo from the living world they left behind—then Blue swims out of his corner and takes his place beside her on the bed, hovering just above the yellowed sheets. Sometimes, Goldie wakes up to find their apparitions merged to create one greenish arm or leg, a shared shoulder the color of marshes.She hovers in front of him, holding the hat. Was it his hair she buried her face in once? Did they sleep side by side in life also, or was this pairing simply a fluke of their shadowy realm? He doesn’t look up, his dusky profile bent over his dusky body. Did she sometimes wake to the warmth and sound of his breathing beside her? The sound of breath is merely a concept, now, the feeling of it on the nape of a neck something only half imagined. She drops the hat to the floor; she’s spent herself trying to remain solid.
Blue glances up at the muffled sound of the dropped hat, then gazes back into himself. The hat’s red feather is static, stationary on the warped floorboards. Goldie imagines how it would flutter under someone’s breath, under any uttered word, any at all. Banana. Seashell. Baseball bat. Desire.
Before the chimes, before the ghost family retires to bed, they gather for dinner, the habit having trailed them to the other world like a dog. The table is set with empty china cups, silverware few can pick up, white plates like moon replicas desolate of food and pocked with faint flowers. Before, in her first dinnertimes on this side, Goldie remembered only the shapes of certain foods, not their smells, their tastes, their textures on the tongue, and certainly not the abstract longing to consume, that emptiness in the gut, the craving of hunger. During those evenings she hovered above her chair listening to whisperings of other ghosts, Blue, his ghost-parents, and his ghost-brother Gray, so named because his apparition is not too dark but not too light, and his eyes are gray also, like rain clouds Goldie still sometimes sees through windows though she knows she can no longer feel the rain that will eventually come from them.
But the night after finding the hat, Goldie stares at the empty plates and bowls in front of her and hungers for what’s missing from them, longs for things she can’t remember tasting. The other ghosts ignore the emptiness on the table, moan about the weather, the way the ceiling drips rain that runs through them like candle wax, the poor quality of light through dusty windows from a sun they’ll never feel again.
I found something today.
Goldie hears the sound of her own voice as something alien, a gurgle from underwater. She wonders if that was the way her voice sounded when she was alive, or if it changed in the course of her journey to this place as a stone is shaped by its passage through waves.
Blue glances up from his navel and opens his mouth to speak, then simply shakes his head and drops it again to stare into himself. Goldie wants him to ask her what she found, what she smelled, wants him to hunger for memories too, but he seems wholly disinterested, wholly content with ghosthood.
From across the table, Gray’s voice pushes through the barrier that separates the ghosts.
What’d you find?
A hat, she replies. In the attic. And I could smell something in it that made me remember.
Gray’s form throbs, and Goldie watches his arms ribbon with the appearance of veins.
I’ll show it to you, Goldie says, and he follows her through walls and ceiling, leaving Blue silent at the table, the rest of the ghosts chattering, radio stations pulsing in and out of static.
The hat rests on a bureau in Goldie’s room, in front of a dusty mirror through which she can see no reflection of herself. Gray studies the hat, leans in close so that his face almost merges with the fabric, and Goldie tries to explain to him what she smelled, the hair, the cologne, the smoke. Gray nods slightly, says nothing; Goldie knows those fragrances must be just words to him, as they were to her before she experienced that fleeting moment of memory.
What was it you remembered? he asks, looking away from the hat and at her. As he looks at her his features come in to focus, and suddenly he’s no longer just another specter haunting the halls, no longer someone designated before she arrived as her ghost brother-in-law, no longer simply someone who was also once alive, but he’s a presence in the room, palpable if not tangible. Almost sinewy, almost a man.
I remembered a room, sort of like this one. But brighter. With whiter walls and sheets.
Goldie pauses, frustrated at how hard the memory is to express.
I was lying on a bed, she continues. I was rubbing my face in a pillow, then leaning close to someone. The smell—it was so familiar, a real body. My arms were heavy. The person next to me was warm.
Who was the person?
I don’t know. I didn’t see the face.
Gray opens his mouth to sigh, but no breath emerges. I wish I could have some kind of memory, he says. Even if it just lasted a second.
Goldie motions to the hat.
Try it on.
Before he picks up the hat, Gray makes himself more solid, and in his almost-solidity Goldie can see clearly the kind of man he was when he was alive—someone who wore blue-jeans and baseball caps, someone who worked with his hands to create things: cars, bookshelves, children. Someone who was tired from all that work and wanted to rest, who still couldn’t, even now.
He places the hat on his head, and Goldie feels herself disappear more completely in the subsequent silence. A moment later, the hat drops through the column of Gray’s body, which swiftly diminishes to the appearance of smoke or sea-spume.
For days Gray refuses to tell her what he saw or remembered when he put on the hat, days made more unbearable because Goldie now senses time, the past as unknowable as the future once was, the future all too predictable, an eternity of wandering the same house. Gray ignores her, disappearing when she spots him in the hall, avoiding dinnertimes, stationing himself in his bedroom as Blue does.
Goldie tries to talk to Blue about it instead, tries to get him to put on the hat. He won’t. After days of his refusal, Goldie feels something warm in her core, warmth that grows and becomes hot and begins to radiate outward. One day, after his final refusal to try it on, she propels the hat out of her hands and it flies through Blue, who doesn’t move but shimmers a bit with fear or phantom pain. Goldie pushes out a scream, a scream she thinks sounds real, not tunneling through water but cutting through air, traveling some distance out of the room, out of the house and into the outside world she desperately wants to remember. Blue is unmoved by her scream.
Why do you want me to try on that hat so badly? he says. I don’t care about remembering.
Goldie doesn’t reply, stares for a few moments through Blue’s body and at the hat upturned in the dusty corner.
I remember it now, she says.
What it felt like to be so angry.
Eventually Goldie comes upon Gray in the attic, wandering through aisles of soggy boxes and toy cars and broken tables and empty picture frames and moth-eaten yellow dresses floating off hangers. This time he doesn’t disappear. Goldie rests the hat on a cedar chest, tired from days of carrying it around with her. She looks at Gray, who says nothing at first, and then:
I had the same memory, okay? I smelled skin, hair—whatever it was. And I remembered a bed, and having a body, and feeling someone beside me.
Goldie moves closer to him. He saw and felt the same things she did. What could it mean? That the hat was simply revealing the same memory to everyone? If that was the case, then the memory would belong to none of them, would reveal nothing about their individual lives. Or was there something else being revealed to her, some link between her and Gray when they were living?
Gray continues, Now the damn memory is haunting me. I want more. I want to know. I want.
Goldie nods, feels herself sliding closer to him until their arms are touching, merging into one arm, electric and pulsing, as if blood is running through their veins. On their left, the hat’s red feather seems to diminish in color as their own color increases. On their right, a strange sound like laughter or human voices echoes behind the wall that keeps hidden that other, unimaginable side of the duplex.
They search together. Through the attic, through bedrooms, through closets filled with the ghost-fragrance of leather shoes. They hold objects close to their faces, close to their heads, close to their chests, hoping. Maybe something will jog another memory. It can’t just be the hat, the fedora with the red feather that holds the secret to their pasts. They find notebooks in boxes in the attic, ink smeared, illegible. They find photos so warped the figures in them are barely recognizable as human. They find books and read them, amazed they still can, and they are so hungry for memory sometimes the plots of the books invade their dreams and when they wake they believe they have dreamt a memory from their own lives. They are whale-hunters, adulteresses, kings, orphans, and murderers, until they are reminded that they are none of these things.
Nothing they find evokes a sense of their past as the hat did, the hat that collects dust and rests on the bureau in Goldie’s room. Gray grows dim and dimmer, so Goldie is surprised to see him materialize in the attic one night when she’s been there for hours studying the walls, the way the paint has been mysteriously flaying off to reveal what’s hidden underneath. A child’s drawing in pencil, a scrawled ship.
Gray watches the walls with her. When all the paint has fallen off, revealing thin plaster over yellow wool of insulation, Goldie asks Gray to follow her downstairs. He looks sick. Goldie wonders if ghosts can get sick, if sickness isn’t something limited to those with real bodies. Down in her bedroom, they watch as those walls shed their paint too, fragile flecks of eggshell white lofting to the floor like feathers. Goldie watches, hoping they’ll find something beneath the paint that will let her know if this is the same room from the memory she had while wearing the hat.
But all that’s uncovered, in the end, is on the ceiling: a cluster of tiny glow-in-the-dark stars stuck there, arranged in constellations they are amazed they still know the shapes of, the names of. Cassiopeia. Pegasus. Ursa Major. The names, but not the memory. What was it like, Goldie wonders, to see real stars in a real sky?
Looking up at this makeshift sky, Goldie notices Blue materialize in the corner of the room. She wonders if he’s been there the whole time. She feels him watching as she and Gray hover just above the bed sheets, faces trained on the ceiling, arms merging to create one solid arm, so near to becoming flesh again. Goldie doesn’t acknowledge Blue’s presence but feels something inside stinging the way she imagines a jellyfish stings. She knows the name of that animal, as she knows the names of so many things she is still discovering. Shame. Regret. Pain. Pity.
The last conversation Goldie has with Blue is an argument, though most of the arguing is done on Goldie’s side, since Blue is like a balloon, mute, floating, loosed from feeling.
She asks where he’s been, why he hasn’t come to their bedroom since he saw her floating beside Gray the other night. He doesn’t answer, points his long, wavering finger at her solar plexus.
What did I do? She wants to smack his finger away, knows it’s impossible. I was just trying to remember what it felt like to be alive. Don’t you want to remember?
Blue shakes his head slowly.
How can you not?
Blue doesn’t answer, but his body expands, molecules bloated and floating away from one another so that his form spreads out like a blanket, merging with her, with the bed and the bureau and the fedora, with the coat rack that has more of a human appearance than he does, even with Gray as he comes into the room, and then Goldie cannot move, cannot feel her own body. She’s no longer singular, no longer separate. There’s no longer the hunger that has gnawed at her since she found the hat and remembered life, no longer the desire to know anything, because everything is known. Time passes, or no time passes; Goldie doesn’t know and doesn’t want to. She doesn’t want anything.
Then Blue contracts, and Goldie snaps back to her self, the singular and increasingly solid self, as if her wish for flesh has been granted. Now, she doesn’t desire to become flesh but the opposite, whatever it was that Blue has become in his hours of silence and not-searching, something all-encompassing, something beyond desire. For the first time, Goldie wonders if there is something beyond, if there is an after-afterlife. If there is something beyond the duplex, beyond being human or ghost, something even more unknowable than her memories of life.
Her wondering is punctuated by a new sound, the sound of a hammer, a knocking from the other side. Plaster falls in puffs like breath, and a fine mist of dust fills the room. Blue is gone, gone from the house for good.
New ghosts arrive after Blue is gone and mill about the place like merchants once did. Gray spends nights hovering above bed sheets beside Goldie, and sometimes she wakes to their feet merged to make a sick muddy yellow, like river silt kicked up by children. She thinks their mixed colors are not beautiful, not at all, and she misses Blue.
The hat rests in the corner. Goldie doesn’t touch it, afraid of what it might stir in her, and neither does Gray. He spends his days wandering the house with the other ghosts while Goldie listens to the hammering from the other side of the wall, trying to make sense of new memories, the ones that come to her now without warning, without putting on the hat, each flash of memory punctuated by the pound of a hammer.
She remembers the back of her mother’s neck in summer when she put her dark hair up and tiny wisps would fall down around the graceful curve. She remembers the boots her father wore, caked with mud and torn so that sometimes she could see his big toe through the hole, not an anonymous human toe but his, only his, Goldie is sure of it. She remembers the limbs of her sisters, long, glistening, like horses. And she remembers horses, white and black and brown and beautiful, their hot breath like the proclamation of their livingness.
The more she remembers the more she is not sure she wants to. She tells this to Gray one night, after a dinner during which new ghosts sat at the table, strangers, and Goldie felt herself grow more separate, more apart from them.
But I thought that’s what you wanted, Gray says. I’d give anything to remember as much as you do. All I have is that slice of memory when I put on the hat, and even that’s fading.
Goldie holds her hand out in front of Gray’s face.
But I only remember little things, she says. I can’t even see anyone’s face in my memories. I miss them, but I don’t even know what they really look like.
Her form is becoming so solid that she can barely see Gray through her held-up hand. She can touch and move and pick up almost any object now without even concentrating, and it’s becoming more and more difficult for her to walk through walls.
Gray moves closer to her, though his form is so dim she can barely see him. And then the dull hammering from the other side of the duplex becomes louder.
You hear that? Goldie asks, but before Gray can answer, there’s a crash, and a hole the size of a man’s fist appears in the wall separating Goldie’s bedroom from the other side of the duplex.
Goldie and Gray float slowly toward the hole, toward the wall behind which the other side is now silent. They lean down to look through the opening, each peering through with one eye, cheeks merging, as close to a real kiss as they’ll ever come.
The room Goldie sees on the other side is a mirror image of the room she’s in, except it’s bare of furniture, save a ladder and some tools and a can of paint. As she watches, the hole gets larger, crumbling around its aperture until it’s the size of a human head. And then she sees people walk through the doorway of the room on the other side. Walk, on two feet, the weight of their bodies resting on two wrinkled soles. There’s an old woman and man, and behind them, a young man holding a hammer. They’re talking, though Goldie can’t make out what they’re saying. Their voices are not muddled like the ghosts’ but contain the clarity of wind chimes.
Goldie asks Gray if he can hear what the people are talking about.
What people? he says. I don’t see anyone.
Goldie looks at Gray, his confusion etching life into his ghost face, and she passes her hand through his transparent hair, hopes she remembers the exact shade their combined forms made. Then she dives through the hole in the wall, leaping like a wave onto the other side of the duplex, before the young man with the hammer comes forward with plaster and sheetrock and paint and begins to fix the mess he’s made.
The living may not know it, but the dead do dream. When Goldie first arrived in the ghost world, she dreamed every night of her death, of drowning in a river swollen with debris—motorcycles, tables from outdoor cafes, street musicians’ saxophones, lampposts floating like uprooted trees. Now, landing on the other side of the duplex, she dreams of drowning in air, floating in a wind littered with picture frames and lampshades and wineglasses wrapped in newspaper and rocking chairs that don’t stop moving just because a body has left but keep on rocking, as if some remnant of the rocker is still there, as if the human life is not contained to the edges of a body but leaves a trail like a comet.
When she wakes, the room is empty and the hole in the wall has been plastered over. She hears nothing from the other side, the side where Gray still roams with the other ghosts, his mother, his father, the strangers that will maybe convince themselves, over time, that they are family.
Goldie stands up, feeling a new weight, maybe not the weight of the living, but close. A substitute weight, the weight of the dead. She walks out of the room, into a narrow hallway that smells like steam and flowers: she sees a young woman stepping out of the shower, hair dripping and body loosely covered by a towel. Her exposed skin is stung pink by heat, raw, as if she has just been born. Goldie follows her into her bedroom, where the girl puts on a summer dress, dries her hair with the towel, and then steps around Goldie’s body to walk out the doorway again.
Goldie follows as the girl walks downstairs but hesitates when they reach the front door and the girl opens it. In all her time at the duplex, Goldie has never known any ghost to go outside of it. If she follows the girl outside, Goldie wonders, will her light body be swept up like a leaf, a sheaf of papers? And where would she be swept to, what other worlds?
But she slips through the front door before it is closed, floats out behind the young woman onto the porch, its gray and blue chipped-paint boards sagging under the girl’s feet. A rush of breeze passes through Goldie, feels like a bird wheeling through her chest. So this is what wind feels like: yes, she remembers it now, the many different kinds of breezes, some gentle and wet, some stinging and salty, all from the same source.
Goldie looks across the street at houses boarded up, gutted, knocked halfway down. She follows the girl as she walks down to the sidewalk and they turn around to join their gazes upon the duplex. It’s the one house not entirely abandoned, though in the windows there is no movement, no sign of the living or the dead. Goldie watches the young woman beside her, whose eyes are welling up with something Goldie doesn’t understand. She remembers the old couple she saw through the hole earlier, how they looked like her parents might look if only she could remember their faces. Then she thinks of Blue, wishes she could remember his face, his real name. She wonders who this girl is beside her; she looks familiar but not quite, an age-progressed picture of a child Goldie once knew. Goldie is surprised by the clear sound of her own voice as she says to the girl:
I miss them so much, Corrina.
The name Corrina stirs like wind inside her. Goldie can’t remember if it is the name of the girl next to her, if it’s her own name, if it’s the name of anyone she ever knew. But it doesn’t matter; she’s suddenly overcome by a mysterious dry weeping the living know only in dreams.
The young woman doesn’t respond, looks away from the duplex and returns to the porch to sit on the sagging steps. The girl hasn’t heard her, and Goldie doesn’t try again. But she will try again to remember all her life and all her death, even if it suffers her. For now, she hovers beside the girl and waits for dusk, for the slow-dappled appearance in the sky of other worlds, other bodies that still shine long after their death.