The night it occurred to him he was living inside a corpse—or, to be more precise, inside the bones of a hundred corpses: the trees that constituted the timbers of his house—was the same night he stopped sleeping. His daylight troubles were the same as everyone else’s: the bills that needed paying; the work that needed doing; the sicknesses that needed nursing. But his nighttime troubles emanated from a different place altogether, the far back marshland of his mind, dense with fevers and perseverations, offering up scenarios as fantastic as nightmares, yet conscious, waking. Like God: what if God was not almighty, he thought, or even particularly effectual, but a loser, an underdog—kind and loving maybe, but outstrengthened by the forces of chaos and suffering. What if this world was simply the best He could do? Or the earthworms: so many of them that beneath the ground they must nestle together like the folds of a gigantic brain, and what would happen if that brain were suddenly to become conscious? And now the trees and their dry dead bodies. All his life, without thinking, he had allowed himself to be encased in their remains. Eaten at his wooden table. Walked across his wooden floor. Leafed absentmindedly through his books and his magazines. Blithely he had filled the hours with their boards all around him. In the daylight, the idea would never have bothered him, but now, as he lay in bed with the moonlight filtering through his blinds, his entire body hummed with apprehension. Suddenly he could feel the rafters looming above him, the walls bulking around him. To his vision there came a swift progression of images: the ruinous machines that had severed the trees at their ankles, that had stripped them of their bark, drained them of their sap, and made a door of their ribs, and he, the dumb human specimen who had stepped unwittingly inside their corpses. What was the word for a house made of bones? A mausoleum. An ossuary. The cavemen had it right, he thought. You should find a hole in some cliffside and cower in it like an animal. That’s what you should do. And now a worse thought: What if the trees had ghosts? And what if those ghosts came back for their bodies? It wasn’t the first time, bundled under his covers with the lights out, he had sensed that he was not alone. Something in his groin tightened, and a pulse of ice ran through his veins, as the house settled with a creak against its foundations.
A Story Swaying Back and Forth
Summer followed spring, and autumn, summer, and that was the end of it. For a week, maybe two, the trees displayed their glossiest oranges and reds, but the leaves never brittled or fell, only swayed slightly, like brushtips. Flocks of birds made nets of themselves in the air, as though they were preparing to migrate, but as the sun set they always dispersed back into the treetops. Night after night half a moon shone in the sky. Then, just when October was supposed to tumble over into November, the leaves refilled with chlorophyll, the days brightened, the temperatures rose, and another summer arrived. The river of time was flowing backward. Spiders retracted their silk, pumpkins drained into their stems, and the clouds drank up the gullies. First the world went sliding back through October, then through September and August, until a shimmeringly hot afternoon in the middle of July when, over the course of an hour or two, while the bugs made their reverse shrilling sound, time gradually lost its wind, decelerated, paused and turned back around. Suddenly the days began moving forward again. There they went, the spiders, clouds, and pumpkins, making webs, spilling rain, and plumping out on their vines. Each minute followed the one that had come before, until, once more, the first of November approached and everything slowed down, stopped, and doubled back on itself. Time was not a river after all, it seemed. Time was a pendulum. For a few months it traveled in one direction, for the next few months in the other. The trees regreened and then reyellowed, the sun journeyed east and then west, people grew a little older and then a little younger. Some of them died and became ghosts or became nothing, then their bodies reassembled and came back to life. With each swing of the months, however, the curve of time diminished slightly. It reached from late July to mid-October, early October to early August, September the 1st to September the 15th, swish swish swish swish, until finally, in a little series of converging agitations, it stopped altogether. Time was not a river. Time was not a pendulum. Time was a plumb line. At one minute past three on Friday, September the 8th, it fell still. Everything ceased changing. Bonfires turned to sculptures. The waves made sawteeth out of the ocean. This—this moment—this was where eternity would take place, not in the glow of paradise, and not in the blackness of oblivion, but in a stillness charged with memory and premonition
Countless Strange Couplings and Separations
They made him leave the afterworld when they found out he was not a ghost. Asked directly, he was forced to confess the truth—that he was living and breathing—and before he knew it he was back on earth, sitting on a thermoplastic steel bench in the food court of a shopping mall. Atoms were pinballing every which way. Mobs of people were galumphing around inside their fat and muscle. His stomach ached from what he gradually identified as hunger. Oh great, he thought. This again. To his left was a noodle bar, to his right a fried chicken counter, but the thought of taking the matter he possessed and adding yet more matter to it repulsed him. He was practically bursting with the stuff already. He had to admit he found the haste with which he had been banished from the afterworld galling. What, after all, was his real offense? “Willful and premeditated materiality”: that, word for word, was the accusation they had leveled against him. As for “materiality”—well, okay, he couldn’t deny the charge. But “willful”? “Premeditated”? A more deplorable mischaracterization of his motives he could hardly imagine.
If you asked him, his expulsion was unjust, and not only unjust but profoundly so, elementally so. The fact that he had not yet died, while true, was a mere technicality. Surely they would have realized as much if they had allowed him to argue his case. Not that he didn’t understand their concerns. No one wanted to find the gates between life and death demolished, the otherworld teeming with lookie-loos, tourists, and honeymooners. But he was no tourist, no lookie-loo, didn’t they see? He was one of them: pensive, ceremonious, a ghost in all but essence. He had never been at ease with himself—not, at least, as a corporeal being. Five minutes back in the world and already he felt just like everyone else, a big bag of skin sloshing with water and proteins. Through his clothing he could feel the empty diamonds of the bench against his thighs. Wherever he looked, another piece of matter was moving, changing, decaying, or maturing. Light was agglutinating on every available surface. No, no, no. It just wouldn’t do. He intended to file the paperwork to contest his deportation as soon as possible—or, barring that, to die, and to die just as quickly as he could arrange it. One way or another he was determined to return to the afterworld, his proper home, where everything slid pleasantly toward nonbeing. And with that thought, he stood up and strode to the mall’s glass doors. Outside he was sure he would find what he needed—either an attorney with a specialty in the transcendental or a good, heavy, fast-moving car.
In April, the U.S. Secretary of Philology held a press conference to announce the discovery of a twenty-seventh letter, dead for some centuries, that had been haunting the alphabet at least since the time of Cervantes. Formerly, the Secretary said, the letter was located between k and l. While its shape and sound were lost to history, it was believed to have been a consonant rather than a vowel. There was no evidence that its current aims, unascertained though they may be, were pernicious or occult. One of the journalists present called it “the ghost letter,” as in “What does the President have to say about this ghost letter?” and the name quickly seized the public imagination. Within days, an effort began to determine which words housed the ghost letter and which did not, and whether, contrary to the official posture, those that did gave off an aura of ill will. The results were inconclusive. Fewer words contained the letter than did not—far fewer—but the same could be said of every letter, a and e included. Among the words that possessed it, in one hidden berth or another, were waistband, learning, potato, glandular, ask, inadvertent, and noggin. Maybe there was a common variable in this catalogue, but if so, it was elusive. And what of such similar words as ruddy, which sheltered the letter, and reddish, which did not; stripe, which did, and striping, which did not; even record (a list), which did, and record (to write down), which did not? An analysis of the most exalted authors of the last hundred years showed that a surprising number of them had inclined toward the ghostly, making of their books, as if by intuition, a veritable golgotha of haunted words, but it was hard to tell if the otherworldly quality people now attributed to their writing was genuine or an illusion. By what force did their work take its turn toward the uncanny? That was the question. Student novelists began seeding their manuscripts with the phantom words the masters had used, believing that the right tumble of syllables might lend their prose a luster of greatness, while evangelists and conservative politicians scrubbed exactly the same words from their sermons and speeches. To some the twenty-seventh letter whispered of the wondrous, to others of the monstrous. The great shared regret was that no one knew how it had died: violently or peacefully. Clearly what was needed—and absent a body could never be achieved—was a postmortem, one that might determine whether the letter had succumbed to old age or been murdered. And if it had been murdered, by whom? And which letter might be next?