I thought she’d be fat.
I thought there was a rule about these things. You don’t get to sing Wagner unless you’re a rosy giantess. Unless you look like you stepped out of a paint by Rubens. Then and only then could you be worthy of the spear and steer-horn helmet, guiding the souls of the fallen up to Valhalla.
But she isn’t.
She’s dead. She’s been that way for a century or so. We had to rifle through mountains of yellowed, mildewed newspapers to find the story. Celebrated Soprano – 23 Others – Drown in Steamer Accident. Vol. XVIII, No. 3543 of The Evening Bulletin. Associated Press Special Cable- if you want to confirm for yourself.
There’s a picture of her. A grainy one, more blur and shadow than anything else. A slender woman with hollow cheeks and enormous, moon-colored eyes. A yard of thick, dark hair done up behind her sharp ears. And she’s got one of those high collars that reaches all the way up to her lilting jaw, and her dress would’ve been dark. Blue, maybe. More likely pine needle green. She looked like a ghost even when she was alive, and I wonder if that has something to do with it.
You come up with these theories in the long, thin waiting hours. When there’s nothing to do but pace the halls of whatever old house decrepit hotel, empty cliff side road. You think back on old cases. Trying to connect the dots. Trying to find the patterns.
All of them were under the age of forty.
Or they tended to be.
All of them went violently.
So long as you don’t count the ones that didn’t.
But once they’re gone, they’re gone.
If they don’t show up again.
There’s an exception to everything.
But almost none of them show up until a good forty or fifty years later. After anyone would’ve been someone to them has been put in the ground themselves. That’s the reason we’re only now starting to see the first wave of them with baseball caps, with tattoos, with jeans and t-shirts.
The lamplight flickers in the fog. It happens with the older ones. Ghosts, not lamps, I mean. Morse code. I try to fish out my notebook but it’s over by the time I find it. And it might not mean anything anyways. Sometimes a flicker is just a flicker. Sometimes it just gets cold. And sometimes the things watching from the corner of the room aren’t really there.
But not this time.
She’s out there in the darkness, rising up from the water. The billowing folds of her dress are heavy from the brine. Barnacles crusting her wrists. Limpets in her hair, loose now, floating up towards the bruised, purple clouds in defiance of gravity. And she still has those wide, moon-colored eyes.
I practice my lines in my head again, then step out of the light and into the creeping shadows.
Miss Cormack? Miss Ada Cormack?
I can see the opaque blur of her figure halt, if only for a second. It shivers, and then it’s gone.
She’s behind me now.
I don’t know if she’s trying to scare me. Most of them aren’t. Most don’t even know they’re doing it. But if you scream, so will they. The trick is to smell them first. Yes, even they have a smell.
Worms, most of them. It’s an ugly thing to say, but it’s the truth. Worms and rotting wood. And nobody tells you this but when it rains the water seeps down through the dirt and pools in the bottom of the coffins. There’s always this festering, earthy stench.
Almost always. There’s an exception to everything.
She smells like ocean. The open ocean. The kind that few people ever really smell and none will ever be able to describe. And she smells like ice. Like great-grandmother’s perfume. Like one-bourbon-too-many on the rocking deck of a ship, miles out on the water. On a night, just like this.
Ease her into it. Ask questions you already know the answers to.
You performed as Ortud in Lohengrin, no?
And this was at the Sheridan? They had the statues of Melpolmene at the entrance? And one of Apollo?
And you recall boarding the Virginia Clemm out of Innsmouth?
She tells me “yes” in a gentle whisper that drifts out of her still-shut lips.
Do you want to talk about it?
She says “thahnk you, but no. I’d rather naht.”
And still she does.
I lend her my arm and brace myself for the sudden chill. Frozen seafoam creeps out from below her fingertips as they cling to my sleeve. She drifts at my pace as we slide down the oceanfront. She brings it together in pieces. Arthur’s false letter. The lonely pacing along the port side. The sudden, sickening crunch and her tumbling forward. And how her reflection in the water rushed up to meet her. The heavy folds of her dress sucking her in. You can usually get a final gasp of air before you go under.
But there’s an exception to everything.
She was afraid it would be all just darkness, but the moon was bright that night and filtered through the broken roof of water. Laid out below her, an ancient forest of kelp, stretching out to the horizon. Here, the rippled shells of giant clams. There, schools of barracuda, soaring through the black like the Egyptian’s spears in Aida. Nuzzling her with their curious, wolfish snouts. And somewhere in the deeper distance, the baritone chorus of whales.
She knows she’s dead. But admitting you have a problem is the first step in solving it.
She asks if “Mistah Arthah Morton” was still married. I said that Mr. Arthur Morton wasn’t anything anymore. “But did he ever leave her?” I said it didn’t really matter. But if it helps to think so, then…
“What about Miss Mabel Phillips? Miss Florence Jenkins? Did they put ahngels on Theo Breeland’s headstone, just like he always wahnted?”
I remind her that this isn’t about them.
She asks if anyone remembers her and as gently as I can, I tell her that no, nobody does. Nobody remembers the wreck of the Virginia Clemm. Nobody remembers the baroque façade of the Sheridan. Precious few even remember Turandot and Puccini, and the ones who still listen only do it to boast about being the last to do so.
She pales at this last one. As much as she can, in her current state. Perhaps better to say that her translucency sharpens and lines of frost creep from her lips. Her hand falls away from its perch in the crook of my arm. My skin screams as the blood flows back into it.
She drifts out in front of me. Rises up to stare pleadingly into my eyes.
She asks if perhaps I will remember her.
For a little while, I say. Until I forget.
But there’s an exception to everything.
Gordon Brown grew up in the deserts of Syria and now lives in the deserts of Nevada. Since his arrival in the New World he has had work published in Danse Macabre and has forthcoming work in The Airgonaut, NoD, and Burning Water Magazine. He spends his time looking after his cats, of which he has none.
What has he lost that he’d most like to be reunited with? “Without a doubt, the sound of a donkey cart, clopping down the street outside my window, on a quiet afternoon in Damascus before the war.”
Art — Philip King lives with his partner, cat, and two plants in Portland, Oregon. He is in the process of editing his first novel and creating his first graphic novel, and his work has been featured in the Portland State University Vanguard, Pathos Literary Magazine, Annex Zine, and Literary Brushstrokes. He has displayed work at the Saatchi Gallery in London, England, the Todd Art Gallery in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and in Portland at the AB Gallery, the MK Gallery, the Sugar Cube, St. Johns Racquet Center, the Littman Gallery, Synesthesia Festival, NextNorthwest, Splendorporium, and the Holocene. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art Practices from Portland State University in 2016.