Olivia Rose’s Ghost, by Aimee Henkel

Although her husband was dead she could not take down the portrait that guarded their bed. She shuddered when she so much as glanced at it, yet she was afraid of what Malcolm would do if it was disturbed. Olivia put her hand into the thin strip of sunlight breaking through the curtains, but there was no warmth. Looking out into the yard, she watched as a brisk wind circled the house, driving coils of red dirt across the yard. Around the back of the house, the garden gate slammed against its post. All at once, the light began to fade.

Malcolm had been a man of terrible habits and obscene ideas, but his darkest predilections rarely surfaced, and certainly not here in this expensive portrait. Studying his face, the expression was inscrutable. In his life, he had applied hatred easily, managed it like gossamer strings in his fingers, but his expression in oil did not betray his contempt. No one he touched escaped. The core of her despair with Malcolm had not been so much his imaginative torture as his sense of ownership, the arrogant confidence he could do anything he wanted to her.

Malcolm was dead. Buried once and for all, yet he chafed at her, taking miniscule pieces of her moment after moment, never slowing. He had now filled every part of her life: he was the smell of rotting oranges in the morning and the taste of dirt in the afternoon, at night he was a thin wisp of smoke under the door or a shadow creeping against the wall. These days, electricity came and went; lamps flickered and snapped off. The grandfather clock’s hands whirled and chimed at odd hours. Doors slammed up and down the hall and the front door rattled against its hinges in air as calm and still as a child asleep. She had had the last word and now he never left her alone.

Olivia wondered if there were rituals, ancient rites or incantations designed for her particular problem: the dead husband who just won’t go away. She had tried everything she knew: sprinkled vials of holy water over his grave, said prayers to every deity, burned money, shed blood and gave things away to reap mercy from this universe, but he remained to torture her. Now she had almost nothing left. She had often stood on the crumbling mound over his body, feeling glad that his nakedness in the hole was her final revenge. She delighted that here his brittle bones would remain for centuries, while his withered limbs and skin and nails would mold and rot. She questioned her sanity.

She considered leaving, but his bones always called her back. She promised herself he would never have a decent burial; he would never be mourned. If she left now the house would surely be sold for taxes and the grave dug up. Had it occurred to her his evil spirit might be trapped in her house, she would have driven into a forest late at night, dug him a nice plot and dumped him in with so much lime his body would melt, but now it was too late.

There was another grave in her yard, under the rosebushes near the garden. The tea roses had spread and bloomed, pointing green fingers with their tiny pink nails in every direction. The bushes erupted in the spring with the pinks and reds of sun kissed cheeks and rosy skin. It was as if the earth had conspired to recreate the child she’d buried underneath them, now tangled in their roots. The blooms were warmed each day by a maternal sun and watched over by the moon; the dirt itself was a place where the holy had come to rest. Her son had been so full of vigor and promise, but as each shovel of dirt spilled into the hole, she felt herself grow stronger, the chains holding her to Malcolm breaking loose.

She would have gone mad if she let the child live; she knew that as well as she knew the lacy patterns on her skin. Olivia knelt under the bush’s spiny arms, checking stems and stalks for breaks and bugs. She pressed her nose to the ground, inhaling the soil’s peculiar smell of mold and burned sugar. She crawled further under the bushes and listened, her belly rubbing against the ground. The baby’s cries were high and sharp, but she did not linger. In this place filled with echoes, there was too much noise. Olivia sat up and brushed the dirt off her hands. What a petty revenge. She regretted the baby’s death now, but there was nothing to be done. He was gone underground and lost forever. Olivia knew she would end up right alongside Malcolm one day, stuck between this life and the perils of death, because of what she’d done.

Brown and brittle leaves swirled around her ankles as she studied the harvest moon rising over the house. Her evening ritual was now over and she stood waiting while an idea suddenly coiled through her. She needed to think about Malcolm’s haunting in another way. What if he could be contained, controlled, and turned out of her house by will alone? Could he follow her outside, she wondered. Could she trap him out here and be rid of him once and for all? Curious, she called for him over and over in her mind and waited, watching for a sign. She held her breath for several minutes yet saw no sign of him. He must be trapped in the house. Could she reattach his body to his soul?

As if in answer to her question, a tangerine colored mist converged from the clear night air, transparent and foul and very deep. The revolving mist stretched and bulged, reaching out unsuccessfully as if fighting against an invisible wind. Without warning the shape developed into a man whose body was huddling against a storm only he could feel. As the mist converged, his hands reached for her, straining for her. It felt as if he sent an electric current through her spine. The jolt lingered then disappeared, leaving her drained and afraid. She turned to run but had forgotten how. As she struggled to get away, this visceral terror consuming her, an old memory arose, crowding out any thought of leaving.

She once visited a county fair when she was nine. Alongside wooden enclosures holding natty goats, lowing calves, and unusually large rabbits there was a giraffe’s enclosure, odd and forlorn among the barnyard pens. Olivia studied the giraffe’s mouth, staring at its browned, crooked teeth and ragged lips. As she stood there wondering at the age of the poor animal a woman beckoned to her, curling a thick, stained finger in her direction across the muddy path. She was huddling away from the rain under a ragged, filthy tent. At first, Olivia ignored her, but the old woman continued, now calling to her from across the way.

Struck with fear, Olivia ignored her, but the more she pretended not to hear, the louder the woman called. Finally, despite herself, Olivia walked cautiously away from the animals and sat in the chair at the woman’s table. She realized then that she had always known that the whims of fate would find her, revealing the whole of her life in an instant. It was a fact she accepted when she was very young. Now, today, fate had finally found her at a listing county fair, now that she was old enough to know.

Holding her breath, Olivia stared at the ground waiting for the woman to tell her fortune, but when she said nothing, Olivia looked up and saw that the gypsy woman was nearly blind, her black eyes dim and staring into the distance. Her flowered dress was covered in dust and muddy around the knees, and her thick fingernails seemed coated with dirt. The woman reached for Olivia’s right hand as fast as a snake, pulling it across the table until her arm was nearly wrenched from her shoulder. Instantly, Olivia was suffering; her arm hurt very badly. Then the woman smiled into the air, her grey teeth clacking between peeling lips. “Not feeding the giraffe today?” The gypsy said, finding Olivia’s eyes with her own.

Olivia shook her head. “I’ll cheer you up.” The woman said with a wry smile. “I’ll tell your fortune.” She held Olivia’s palm open until the veins showed blue and the flesh white, tracing each line slowly and carefully, caressing each groove.

The old woman’s fingertips were dry as they smoothed the surface of her palm. Suddenly the old woman’s face became white and bloodless and she gasped. “What’s wrong?” Olivia asked. She pushed Olivia’s hand away and quickly put her own into her lap. “Go find your mother,” she said, dismissing her. Without warning, the woman stood and pulled Olivia out of the chair and pushed her from under the tent. “Go, I said.” “What’s wrong? What did you see?” Olivia demanded. Blood rushed to her face and her chest grew tight with anger. For the first time in her life, Olivia needed an answer. She could not be content with questions and confusion, not today; her anxiety would not be brushed off as it had been countless times before. In a few moments her mother would find her. She needed to know now what the old woman saw.

She pointed a bent and accusing finger toward Olivia’s chest. “You want to know your destiny, girl? If I were you, I would have kept my mouth shut and lived in peace – took the gift I gave ya – but you wouldn’t go, so now you’ll hear. Those are the rules. You should have walked away when I told you to, forgotten you were ever here. And now you’ll always know.” Olivia stepped back, afraid of this woman’s cruel expression. Whatever she had done, or would do in the future, could not be as bad as this woman portrayed.

“You’ve got ghosts in your future, girl. How nice you must be now that no one knows.” Olivia backed away, looking for some sign the old woman was insane, but she continued to hurl the words at her, louder and louder until people stopped and stared. “There are two worlds, girl. There is the one you can see and the one behind it that you can’t. Unless you open the door. And you will open that door. Your ghosts will haunt you without mercy. I know them two worlds are really one. And eventually so will you.”

Across the path now, Olivia turned and watched her as she sat down again, pulling her dress between her legs and rocking forward in her chair. She yelled again: “Your hands will be bloody and never be free of it.” Then the old woman closed her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest to protect herself from whatever she had seen.

By the time her mother found her, Olivia’s eyes were red and swollen from crying, but she pretended it was from the dust. Her mother dragged her home angry that Olivia had been gone for so long. But for the first time she wasn’t afraid of punishment. For the rest of her life, nothing touched her after that day at the fair. She often wondered who she would have been had she not met the fortune teller.

This night, Olivia shuddered. The cold and damp were seeping into her bones like water into loose soil. She was at a loss about what to do. For most of her life she had known what to do and how to do it. Once she had been so capable; creating life and then destroying it, killing what thrived; it was strange that she was now so lost. Malcolm’s ghost was no help. He waited there in front of her, congealing slowly but becoming nothing she recognized. Would he kill her where she stood? Would he simply vanish? There were no answers and no words spoken between them. Olivia wondered: would this be the end of her? Would he have the last word after all?

It was then that Malcolm materialized as solid as she was, holding his son by the leg like a lamb just before slaughter. The child’s round, naked body twisted and jerked from side to side as if swung by a ghostly wind as it tried to protect its chest. What surprised her was that the baby did not cry or open his eyes, but simply swung in Malcolm’s fist. Olivia worried vaguely that all the blood might be rushing to his head, but she shook the thought away and faced Malcolm square, her hands clenched and her mouth set.

“Have you come to convict me?” Olivia stared at the child, fighting the urge to hold it right side up. “Now that you know what I’ve done?”

Malcolm was taller than she remembered as he stood over her and his body was thick and full. Yet he could not blink, his head did not move and his arms were stiff and slow. He had no feet or ankles below his knees and it surprised her that his body as a ghost was not whole in the afterlife.

Didn’t she deserve death? Her body would decompose, exposed on the short brown grass, and no one would be the wiser. There was no one to find her. She had no visitors, not even the postman, and she had no family any more. It would be years before her bleached bones would be discovered, quite possibly dragged through the yard by coyotes and scattered throughout the yard. It seemed a fitting end, in any event: sent to hell by her husband’s ghost, the bellhop of death. Olivia smiled.

As Malcolm came closer, she backed toward the house slowly, careful not to fall backwards and end up on her back. Escaping will be useless, Olivia thought, but I have to try. I owe it to myself to run away, and perhaps he won’t follow. Without thinking, Olivia turned and ran, her feet flying over the wet ground, slipping and gliding, nearly landing face first in the hedges against the back of the house. When she realized he wasn’t coming, she turned and watched him, curious now what would happen.

With one motion, Malcolm let go of the baby and he fell, burning the ground as it disappeared. Olivia’s head swam as she stared sadly at the burned grass; there was nothing she could do now to get its forgiveness. She folded her hands in front of her and began a little prayer, but it was no use. She didn’t regret what she had done and she didn’t really want to be forgiven. Should she end up in hell on Malcolm’s heels, so be it. Her mind grew empty and still.

Malcolm’s image faded, became thin and grey, as if his spirit were tired and powerless to call himself into being anymore. He was not strong enough to convict her or destroy her. It seemed strange that Olivia felt no guilt, no misgivings. There was nothing but relief, as if she had been emptied of all her feelings. She turned her back on Malcolm once again and walked slowly toward the empty house. If his spirit chose to hound her now, well then, let him come, and as she stepped back into the living room, she turned to watch as his spirit slowly followed her inside.

***

Aimee Henkel loves writing and Dave Matthews, in that order, and has been working at various forms since finishing her autobiography at nine. She studied fiction and poetry at NYU, Mahattanville College and the Hudson Valley Writers Center and has published fiction and non-fiction in Atlas& Alice, Prick of the Spindle, Inertia, bioStories, Metazen, Danforth Review and Sleet Magazine. She has also worked in corporate communications publishing anonymously in national newspapers and magazines, co-authored a book in the “Now You Tell Me!” series, Now You Tell Me: 12 Nurses Give the Best Advice They Never Got and sidelined as a local journalist. When she is not writing she reads from lists of great books. Most recently, she attempted Time’s 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century, but stopped after American Pastoral. She then moved on to Francine Prose’s list of “Books to Read Immediately,” which is taking much longer than Ms. Prose expects. She lives in upstate NY with her husband, two children and a golden retriever.

Aimee Henkel

Aimee Henkel

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