Content warning: This article contains mention of sexual assault.
October clambers in without warning, its ostentatious display sweetened by crisp autumn air, boisterous jack-o-lanterns flashing toothy grins and ghost stories.
I’ve never experienced the supernatural: I have no sinister encounters to furtively whisper around a bonfire, no tales of messages from beyond or Ouija boards gone awry. I’ve never touched the other side, but I think I believe in ghosts. Not the kind you’re thinking of, I’m sure, but ghosts all the same.
The ghosts I’m acquainted with don’t look like the ones written in folklore. They are not disembodied figures with lifeless skin, pinned up curls and shadowy nightdresses clinging to their skeletal, evanescent frames. They lack the eeriness of empty eye sockets and mouths frozen in a permanent scream of agony, moaning in torment as they float down ornate spiral staircases. Mine take the form of moments frozen in time, so vivid I think they’re still here, but long-since dead.
They are people, places, memories, relentless in their haunting and antagonizing in their absence. They lurk patiently in every corner, begging to be remembered: in old photo albums and my childhood bedroom, in text messages and vacant corner stores, in the pages of my high school diary and the dusty frames on my nightstand. Ghosts may connote death, but it’s the living who create them. We conjure them in empty corridors and horror films. We lure them to speak to us in the sanctity of flickering candlesticks, with our hushed whispers and electronic spirit boxes. We want them to make themselves known to us, enamored by the untouchable specters we force back into existence.
I am no stranger to necromancy, to the cruel and fruitless pursuit of trying to bring things back from the dead. I long for lemures: I crack the door open for them, I leave the lights on. I am encompassed by eulogies, akin to apparitions.
I am a mosaic of ghost stories. To tell them is to keep them alive.
I drive back to the town I’m from and think I’ve never seen a graveyard look so much like home.
The roads are familiar but uncanny, reeking with the putridness of a past life. I was born and raised here: I’ve kissed every corner, caressed every crack in the concrete, so why do I feel like a tourist? I don’t recognize the new shop by my high school. The city has cut down the towering oak tree in front of my house and nobody cared to invite me to the wake. I am sick with unrest, like an anguished Victorian spirit discovering that the sanctuary wherein he lived and loved had been bulldozed and replaced, that nobody remembered him at all. I drive the same car but it feels like a casket now, a cold metal vessel transporting me through a world that’s since moved on without me. I’m pale with the bone-chilling premonition that things have died here.
I realize I’ve died here too, a hundred times over. So many little versions of me have faded away, leaving sepia-toned remnants in their wake. Old flames, friends, feelings and fleeting memories, all faceless ghosts now marking this place as a land of no return. I wonder if my presence sends a chill down the locals’ spines, if they know someone that no longer belongs here has tried to communicate from the other side.
I try to rouse these things back to life. I perform seances in the parking structure I used to frequent with people who dare not speak of my existence. I watch in solitude as the sunset, red as inferno, sets the town ablaze. I think about how so much has changed here, that I’ve changed too. But I find solace in knowing that one November evening, we drove up to the top of the parking structure and used our car keys to carve our names into the wall. I’m grateful for the etchings that outlived us, the irrevocable proof that once, I was here.
Kyra tells me to hold my breath when we drive past a cemetery. Superstition warns that the restless spirits will enter your soul and nestle into your bones. With no home to return to, they anxiously await a gust of air from unassuming lungs that they can get swept up in, longing to take the life that courses through your veins and make it their own. I don’t blame them, but we selfishly puff up our cheeks and sit in silence anyways. Kyra steps on the gas so we don’t suffocate. We turn the corner and breathe out a sigh of relief in unison.
I pull out of the driveway of my home and make the trip back to school. I hold my breath. I’m blue in the face the entire way there.
Pretty Dead Things
My body feels like a graveyard, too.
Because my body, it’s a mess of limbs and appendages, of flesh and regret. Sometimes it feels like a thing I haunt, a land that is no longer mine. To be so disjointed in the skin that was painstakingly designed for you feels blasphemous, but each movement is exorcised out of me, like I’m rattling my putrefying bones from the inside trying to coax out some evil sickness.
I remember the graverobbers that visited my body, their greedy hands digging and clutching and taking, always taking. They were insatiable in their taking, and their hunger raised a mind-splitting ring in their ears that stopped them from hearing me protest and plead and persist that this body is mine, not theirs. Not that it matters: dead girls can’t say no.
It feels like watching from the other side, suspended in the leaden grey of compulsory silence. Like a spirit that doesn’t know it’s passed on, screaming until her throat is raw, wondering why nobody can hear her. But I watched as they made a grave of me, something so alive, with teeth and hair and blood and fight left in me, still.
I mourn the girl that I was before you touched me. I bring her flowers on Sundays. I make her headstone beautiful, wondering if dead things can be pretty, too.
I scrub and shine until my knuckles bleed.
Can dead things be pretty, too?
Are you a ghost, too?
Last year, I asked a boy if he’d ever felt like a ghost.
He wanted me to elaborate and I was rendered speechless, that inexplicable shame boiling inside of me and clawing its way up my throat like bile. How do I say that I feel like a stranger in my own body, watching my life unfold from some hazy netherworld? Like a tortured soul condemned from their house of bones and forced to observe in paralyzed purgatory? I tried to articulate the placelessness, the drifting, the amorphousness of it all, but the words are all clatter and chaos and confusion. My abstruse existential question ultimately falls flat, and he says he hasn’t.
The boy relayed my question to his roommate later that night. His roommate responded with expected indifference, rolling his eyes and asking what the hell that even means. He called me pretentious, said it’s ‘not that serious’ and I nodded my head so hard that my papier-mâché bones clattered against each other in frenzied discordance.
“It’s not that serious,” I echoed. I want nothing more than to believe it.
When I was eight, I read about the girl with the green ribbon. Jenny kept the enigmatic bow laced around her neck, unrelenting as a promise. In her final moments, she allows her lover to untie it, and her head disconnects from her neck, rolling onto the floor in a discarded heap of skull and hair, long and black like my own. I think she looks like me. I am a mess of knots, more green ribbon than girl. I’ve spent years begging people not to touch the tangles.
I think I’ve always felt that way — like if someone tugs at me just right, I’ll fall apart entirely.
Birds & Banshees
I visit home again despite my apprehension.
Because when the unspeakable becomes reality, when you’re ghost-like and translucent and begging to be grounded by some sort of familiarity, you go home.
I drive to my favorite park and settle down at the top of the hill alone, brushing shoulders with my grief, thinking about the house with one less heart beating between its walls. I want nothing more than to be left alone, to remain ensnared by the frothing, sharp fangs of hurt.
But a man named Nick walks up to me, oblivious to my staccato of sniffles and sobs, and tells me he’s an ornithologist: he studies birds, memorizes their flight patterns and mating calls and physical characteristics. He possesses an unplaceable warmth, and I’m almost annoyed by the way my sluggishness subsides as he lets me sift through his leather-bound notebook. It’s overflowing with hand-drawn Midwestern fowl, and I sit in silence while he clumsily explains how to distinguish between their feather tracts and beak curvatures.
He shares his favorite type of bird, rattling off some complicated name I don’t quite remember. They’re difficult to find in the Midwest these days, already on their migration away from the bitter winter. He’s never seen one, but he found one of their vacant nests during his hike through the park, still miraculously intact and perched in the crook of a tree branch overhead. He flashes me a lottery-winning grin, telling me how lucky he is to have found it, how beautiful it is that they were ever here at all.
I find a video in my camera roll, and it takes me weeks to watch. When I finally succumb, music blares from my speakers so loud it launches my heartbeat out of sync. You’re swaying your hips and bellowing a triumphant zalghout in our family’s living room. I remember that day, how you tied a scarf around my waist and forced me to dance. My body is rigid and obstinate and not built for dancing. But you make it look as easy as breathing, and we share the same blood, so I do. I zalghout the way you taught me to when I was younger, when you and I roared ferociously in the kitchen until I got it just right, two unknowing banshees. You’re weightless, smiling and iridescent and so alive, waving your arms like wings outstretched in flight.
How beautiful is it that you were ever here at all?
It’s an undeniably human feat to believe in ghosts. Our illusory stories are fostered by the faith we have in things now vanished, in our inexorable trust that they are still with us. That our loved ones will visit with outstretched hands, that they’re sitting on the L-shaped couch that still bears the indents their bodies forged after years of use. That things like love and friendship and memory persist beyond the grave, beyond the metaphysical constraints of life and death, past and present. We welcome the visitations, leaving a seat open at the Thanksgiving table, letting the photos stay encased in the frames. We love the things that haunt us, and that love keeps them alive.
I love the things that haunt me, even when their visits spur night terrors and fever chills and body aches. I love them enough to retire the ghost hunting. I decide to stop driving aimlessly through my hometown searching for some semblance of what it used to be, of who I was when it was mine. To stop yearning for the versions of me that were once untouched and untarnished, to stop believing that I deserve to be here any less than they did. The things we’ve lost are not always ghosts or graveyards. Sometimes, they’re glorious reminders that we loved something enough to miss it, to keep it alive forever, to continue basking in growth and newness even in its absence.
I visit the unmarked grave of the things I’ve loved that are no longer here, and I leave yellow sunflowers. I mourn and I grieve, but I do not claw at the dirt, do not interrupt the blooming that is emerging in the wake of the loss. Instead, I thank them for their time and let them rest. Just as we must remember to hold onto these things, we must know when to let them go.
We make space for these ghost stories, safe in our mouths and sowed into the marrow of our old bones. But there is room for living, too.
MiC Columnist Yasmine Slimani can be reached at email@example.com.