Wouldn’t — Austin Adams

I don’t believe in ghosts but I have seen one. I know how that makes me seem. I know what that makes me. My sister saw it with me. Of course what does that prove? To prove the impossible is impossible and proof only of something less, something earthly and actual. Naturally I don’t know what that thing is because what happened was I saw a ghost.

My sister and I are twins and we lived in a house near the woods. It sounds like a story but it was our lives. We were thirteen. We were and still are reader types and so to us the woods were the place of the poets. The woods were Nature. We walked in the woods to be in Nature which meant something. My sister knew the names of the trees and the plants. I held the compass. North by Northeast, I might say. Common blue violet, she’d say back. This is how we spoke when we weren’t speaking about our lives, which we did often because we lived far away from anyone and we taught ourselves school at home. We talked about every small thing. There’s a language when you’re twins. But we spoke the language of Nature when we spoke in the woods.

There was a path through the trees. My sister would say that there wasn’t a path but that there were many paths that were all connected. That’s what she used to say when we debated the path. We were best friends and loved each other like two people who are alone but that doesn’t mean we never disagreed. Even now that we’re less alone, we disagree sometimes still, like just this morning. But that’s to be expected of people and she isn’t telling this story so if I wanted I could say that there was only one path and no one would have reason to suspect me other than that I saw a ghost so how can anything I say be true? But no one would doubt that I have a sister. What I mean is that it’s hard to tell someone something extraordinary because you want them to believe you but then you also want them to understand that this thing is extraordinary and so it should be hard to believe. It would be easier if you didn’t say anything and if you were just silent. Everyone would know by your silence that something extraordinary had happened to you. But then if you’re always silent people will think that everything that happens to you is extraordinary. Really though only some things are and they’re always secrets even when you say them out loud. Besides this fact about our lives my sister and I are serious people and the people we know take us seriously. Naturally the people we know do not know that we saw a ghost.

There was nothing remarkable about the ghost. We walked over a small rise that we had walked over nearly every day of our lives and there was a ghost. We tried to say it might be something else. Is that a drape? my sister asked. It is not a drape, my sister answered. And I said no simply No and we knew what it was. So there it was. It may have been a boy or a girl. It had that look. I would say it wasn’t too old. A child or older. The moment required something of me and so I said out loud that the ghost was eastward fifteen degrees. My sister must have needed to say something too because she told me then that what it was hovering above was cushion moss. She said to me that the ghost was the size of something just larger than ourselves. We held hands, which is something we never did.

It was a long time waiting. We thought it would speak to us and tell us its name or what to do with our lives. It didn’t. It didn’t anything, speak or look at us. It was just there for us to look at. To marvel at. I said we won’t tell your name because I thought it would tell us something if only it knew we would keep its secrets. We were not afraid, my sister and I but we were holding hands and it was a death. It’s a death when something that can’t be actually is. And I can tell you that a death is simple to do because there is nothing to know. There you are and a death takes you.

Time was no different even though there was now a ghost in it. Day ended. The ghost did not disappear. I said to my sister does it disappear? She said evidently not or not yet. We didn’t know would it go or would it be there forever. But what we did know was that the knowledge that these things were possible would be with us forever and that it would change things. Etiquette in such a situation is difficult to know. My sister squeezed my hand, she apologized to the air, and we walked through the ghost.

At home there was our mother. Our mother was sick. We found her trying to make dinner. Of course, she could not make dinner, but it was a kindness that she tried. We put her to bed and we made real dinner. We served her in her bed where she was supposed to be. Her room smelled of old sheets. It was just the right smell.

The woods had smell. And my sister’s room.

Mother asked about our walk. My sister told her that she had seen cushion moss. She said that her brother had seen just green and just fuzz. I said that I had walked thirty degrees north, and I said that my sister had just walked to the right. Our mother smiled and said not to tease, though she knew we didn’t tease and she liked that we liked each other. It made it easy for her, who was so sick. We washed our faces for sleep. I could feel the water on my hands and on my face. The water had more reality now. It was Nature.

Often my sister found it hard to sleep. The woods were too loud. The woods were too quiet. Her reasons were her own. She came into my room sometimes and shook me awake and then we sat up to wait out the night.

I slept fine but hardly. It’s easy to wake up from sleep like that. I sat up when she shook me. I closed and opened my eyes until they got right in the dark. My sister looked at me. I could smell her strong reality. She said let’s write a poem. We wrote poems when we felt something had happened. Not much ever happened, so we also wrote poems when we wanted something to happen. Tonight both things were true.

She got paper and said what should we call it?

I said We Won’t Tell Your Name.

She said what will we tell instead? She said she didn’t know what to tell but that if ever there were a time to tell something, and then she left her words because we both knew what they were already.

Where you were and what you wore, we know, I said, And say, but we won’t tell your name.

Why you came and who you were, we can’t say, she said, But if we could we wouldn’t tell your name.

Then she was quiet just like she was thinking. It was always her idea to write a poem and it was always her idea to stop. She was not a poet but I couldn’t write without her telling me to. My sister was making a face like she had come to something inside herself. She said what does it mean for something to be bad now? She said this very seriously. She took her thoughts very seriously and so it was serious when we talked about them. I wouldn’t make a joke or make a smile. She said who knows what’s right now that there are impossible things in the world. I said I don’t know. I didn’t know. But I was thinking something. She said it’s all possible. I asked what. I said most anything because I already knew. She said most anything or even more. When she moved on the bed the bed rocked a real noise. The bed was Nature. Our mother was sick and asleep and when my sister looked at me then we both said with our eyes and our frowns: our mother is sick and asleep. And we said with our eyes there’s never anyone around. And we told each other that we had seen a ghost. She said out loud that we wouldn’t even if it’s all right now. I didn’t answer. I didn’t want to. I wanted to. Then my sister leaned over the bed and took my face and kissed me on the mouth. Slowly she floated up to the ceiling, hovered above me like a real impossible thing.

I keep the things from childhood that my sister doesn’t care about. She is not one for collecting. What she studies in the world she leaves in the world. But I have a compass and the linens. I have the leaves she collected. And I have every unfinished poem. We grew up and it wasn’t long before I became a poet and wrote a poem once which received a prize. It ends:

Freedom is so specific as

To hover above this patch of

Cushion moss

Now that we’re adults we rarely speak about the ghost. It would throw everything that can be spoken about into confusion. For instance just this morning my nephew told me he saw a stag in his mother’s yard. Stags are not found in our woods. They have never been to his mother’s yard.

I believed him and told him so.

His mother disagreed with me. She told him that there could be no stag but that if it returned he should be sure not to touch it.

I never named the poem. We told it we wouldn’t. I never showed it to my sister. I know she has never seen it. But nightly she recites it to me.

There are questions now I do not ask. I do not believe in ghosts. I do not ask did I see one. But I wonder – will the animal come back? And I want to ask – what will happen to the boy?

I don’t know. Something wonderful?

Austin Adams is a writer from Tennessee. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Prelude, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Offing, Hamilton Stone Review, Adelaide, The Millions, Poor Yorick, and Verdad Magazine. He was a finalist for The Sewanee Review’s Fiction Contest, A Public Space’s Fellowship, and the Kenyon Review Editorial Development Fellowship. Twitter: @__AustinAdams