Once again, I did this. Made it to Round 2 last time. We'll see how it goes this year.
Genre: Ghost Story
Object: A Wish
Character: A Translator
You are a wish we call James.
It’s my first memory. My first patchwork of memories. The sway of the rocking chair. The groan of one protesting floorboard, a counterpoint to my mother’s voice and the sheltering warmth of her body. My father’s voice and the rasp his beard against my cheek.
It was ritual. The words from one, then the other. Hours apart sometimes, but every night from the time I was nearly weightless in the crook of an elbow, deep into the years I’d turn my face to the wall, shrinking from it. Love, unabashed and unwavering, that seemed hopelessly childish to me for too long.
I miss it, now they’re gone. The house is mine, huge and rambling. Cavernous and falling down in slow motion as the woods out back look on, eager to reclaim it.
I sleep in my childhood room. The same narrow bed, though it’s an afterthought now, crammed in among bookcases and her sewing machine. His rolling steel case tool chest that serves well enough as a night stand.
I sleep there. Or stare up at the ceiling more often than not. Out the window at the hungry woods and I miss the ritual.
You are a wish we call James.
I miss the gentle words and the certainty of her fingers, then his. I miss knowing the dip and rise of the mattress with familiar weight. I miss voices that don’t belong to a ghost.
I called her Da from the start.
That’s patchwork, too, of course. Something not quite a whisper, but a rearrangement of molecules in my ear. A name for the chill that always started at my toes and worked its way up my body, night after night as my mother or my father eased the door shut until the hall light was a narrow strip of floor-to-ceiling gold. As their footsteps retreated, the chill would come and the not quite whisper that settled the word in my head long before my body knew how to shape the air into the single, sharp syllable.
It wasn’t her name. Isn’t her name, I think, though I don’t yet understand how tenses are meant to slide past one another when it comes to a ghost. It’s what I called her, though.
My parents insisted there was never any confusion. Yee and Ya were always my words for them. Da was always the ghost, and they took it in stride. My mother, laughing, liked to tell the story so often, it feels like another memory.
Brown eyes meeting her blue, then his in the dead of night. The gold of the hallway spilling in on their heels as I looked up from my crib.
Ya, I declared. Adamant and forceful before my gaze traveled up and over her shoulder to my father. Yee.
Ya, she said a thousand times, splaying her fingers over her own heart. Yee. My father would add, the word and a shake of his head his only contribution. She was the storyteller. The one who knew how to tease a laugh from a sullen, angry soul. How to hold a room full of wide-eyed listeners in the palm of her hand.
She’d pause at this point. Always one breath longer than anyone thought they could stand it. Even me, long after the start of yet another retelling would make me roll my eyes. Even I would feel the air rush out of me as she lifted her hand to a point high up in the corner of the room.
Da. He always called her Da.
I have too much time to miss them now. Too many things and memories that I stumble over every day of this rest of my life that make me realize how remarkable they were. How extraordinary they must have been to build such an unremarkable life around me, strange as I was. As I am.
I was the wish they called James. The round-faced, dark-eyed infant who fell into their lives half a moment after they’d each found a corner of their hearts and minds empty.
Not empty, my father would say. Another line of dialogue from his spare repertoire, and my mother would nod. Not empty. Waiting.
I never doubted the story. That it began and ended with a wish and its fulfillment practically colliding in time. There was a time when I found it disappointing. When I wanted heartache and struggle. Some fantastic revelation or dramatic twist.
But it’s the calm that moves me now. The smooth contours of my life and I see the work of their hands in shaping it. I come across a basket at the foot of their bed, a small pile of things, his and hers and mine, and a note on top. A fold of paper sharply creased and slant of her hand. Mending.
I open the door to his workshop sometimes. I cross the ill-tended yard and slip the key into the padlock that groans with years and rust and my unfamiliar touch. I peer through the doors, always surprised to find them still there. Tiny squares of paper thinned by time. Rough, full-sized pages from my sketchbook, replete with black, angry strokes. Oil on a clumsily stretched canvas.
I’m surprised every time to see my own evolution so proudly displayed. To find care and devotion and kindness still around me, every second of this rest of my life.
There was a time when they worried about Da. About me, I suppose, but it’s one more remarkable thing. The way I never felt the weight of whatever might have troubled them when they’d find me sitting up in bed, my eyes fixed on the high-up corner between the closet and the window. When I’d shiver in the dead heat of the California summer or wrestle with unfamiliar sounds. When I’d blame Da for all her not-quite-whispers.
I was six that summer. Almost seven. As I sit at the kitchen table with my coffee cooling, I look up, half expecting my mother to be there. Turning from the sink. Correcting me as she dries her hand on a flour-sack towel.
But it comes from me alone these days. Interruptions from within that are nothing like Da’s not-quite-whispers, the same today as they ever were.
I was almost seven. First grade had been an unpleasant shock in many ways. Loud and unkind. Rigid and without laughter. The early days were worst. I saw kids just like me. They saw something to stare at. They saw skin and eyes and hair that were strange to them, even here where they shouldn’t have bene so out of the ordinary. But they would shout, and I would shout back, and the newness wore off the way it does when you’re young.
I made friends and fought with them. I went to their houses and never wanted to leave. I went to their houses and came home crying over some tragedy or other. I went to their houses and they came to ours less often.
Far less often, though there were reasons enough for that. The long, winding drive from anywhere but here. The sprawling, unfenced property with the woods out back. The ramshackle look that a hundred years lends to anything, no matter the care my parents lavished on the house. There were reasons enough that I never wondered why my friends’ visits came were so few and far between.
Reasons enough that it’s only now with coffee long gone cold and oils drying on the palette that I realize they must have worried about Da.
His name was Luke. Doctor Luke, he’d always say. I didn’t like the way he called himself that or how he’d drop to sit cross-legged on the floor, as though I wanted him there. I remember vividly the dread of pulling into the parking lot. Scrambling up on my knees to look at the cars snugged one next to the other in silver and black and white.
I remember vividly not wanting to go. My father’s wide palm pressed tight to my back as he lifted me down from the truck to the pavement.
I know, James, he’d say gravely. I know you don’t want to. One more try, maybe?
It was always one more try. Just a few weeks, really. I can count them on two hands now, but then it was an eternity. Then it was time stretching out beyond any horizon I’d known as Doctor Luke prompted me with quiet words.
She’s not for outside, I would tell him, week after week. Da stays home.
Nothing much came of it. I troubled him, he bothered me, and my parents were practical in their way. The visits stopped a few weeks shy of school and carried nothing with me but the memory of Doctor Luke’s oxfords and the way the carpet felt pressing into my knees. None of us carried anything but the absurd idea that Da was some imaginary friend. That I should call her that and not my ghost.
Nothing much came of it, though I understood better for saying it out loud. Da had never been for outside.
The way I wander these days makes her angry. She can’t follow, and I know that. I feel her waiting in the upstairs hall. I step through the spot where she hovers and make an absent note every time that she’s a little farther from my bedroom door each day. That she’s on the steps sometimes. On the second landing if I’ve roamed until the sun goes down. In the front hall, frigid and furious the one night I drive to the ocean and stay until the sun rises behind me.
I don’t mean anything by it. Leaving her behind or even the silence that’s fallen over me since I’ve been back. I don’t mean to let the noise inside my head drown out the sounds she tries to teach my clumsy tongue to make.
She must be lonely in the huge, rambling house. My parents must have been some kind of company for her, though they never once felt the chill of her winding up from their toes. They never once felt her not-quite-whisper stirring the air, even at my bedside.
She must be lonely, but I’m not there yet. I belong too much to them to be lonely here.
I knew about the fire. Even lagging behind the world as I do, I’d heard or seen something in one of the hundred papers I’ve smoothed out on the kitchen counter every day since the accident. One of the hundred papers I know so little about, because it was his job to read to us. My mother and I, neither of us entirely listening.
But now it seems like I knew. Standing in his workshop for the first time in a hundred days with the smoke-black canvas in my hands, it seems like I knew. Like I should have done something to keep these walls standing.
The firemen think I should have. Their arms sweep through the air toward the woods where the smoke still curls up from the black bite the fire has taken out of them. They tell me I should leave now. Take steps if I want to go on being a fool or see the fire for what it is: A wake-up call.
I hear them. With my father’s workshop gaping open to the woods and the house behind me falling down in slow motion, I understand. But I don’t know what it means when there’s Da and my mother’s basket of mending. When there’s the narrow bed I sleep in and the remarkably unremarkable history of a wish they called James.
I learn what it means to wake.
The house calls to me. Everything in it that needs doing. My hands are clumsy with childhood lessons, but it’s something. My mother’s patience and my father’s pride everywhere around me. And there’s Da.
She prods and needles, her not-quite-whispers are constant in my ear. I find my voice, dusty and disused. I repeat after her. Out loud for the first time since I was six.
“Almost seven.” I say out loud just as I open the door.
“After eight,” says the man I should have been expecting. He looks from the watch on his sun-browned wrist up to the sky. “Too early?”
I blink at him. The man I should have been expecting. I stare at skin and hair and eyes enough like my own that I almost shout.
He weathers the moment long after it bleeds into rude. He speaks again. “Koj hais lus dawb Hmong?”
Short, sharp syllables far more familiar than my own voice these days. Almost meaningless, but not quite. “I never learned.”
“Ob tiam.” He nods as though I understand. As though I should. “Around the side?”
He raises the toolbox I haven’t noticed. Reminds me that I should have been expecting him and there’s work to be done. He’s businesslike. Brusque and dubious in a way that wounds me, though he can’t know that.
“Salvageable.” A corner of the workbench crumbles to ash under his fingers. “Expensive,” he adds.
“You’ll draw up . . .?” My voice fails at the question mark.
“Estimate. Timetable.” He ticks things off on his fingers. It’s not unkind, but I only half hear him.
We turn back toward the house. I’d like him to go. I’d like to get back to the familiar groan of the floorboards and Da. I’d like to get back to the work I can do, but he lingers. He follows me to the stoop. He stays, even though my hand is on the door.
“Who is she?” He nods past me. High up and over my shoulder and it’s the first time I think to wonder how it’s always been like this. That she’s always in a high up corner and a chill l winding up from my toes. A not-quite-whisper from somewhere else entirely. She’s all of these at once.
“Da,” I say.
“Dab. Tus dab.” He laughs, and I know he’s right. “Ghost.”
“Tus dab.” It’s closer. Still an experiment on a clumsy tongue, but closer. “It’s not her name. I knew that.”
He tips his head toward the door. “MeNaag.” He frowns, thinking about it. “Little rain. She wants to know yours.”
“James,” I say, though she drowns it out. Da. MeNaag. She’s never liked it. I know that suddenly. I’ve always known it.
“No good.” The man shakes his head. “J. Not in dawb Hmong.” He listens again. He holds up a hand and she falls silent. “Xav xav,” he says. “Wish. That’s what she calls you.”
“Xav xav,” I echo. An experiment on a clumsy tongue.
A wish they call James.