Content warnings: death of a loved one, religious imagery, blasphemy, brief mention of chronic illness, sexual harassment
You can’t remember the first time your grandmother’s ghost visited, but you remember the last.
You have spent most of your life with her spectral body standing a few paces behind your left shoulder. She studies your face, learns the outlines, and tries to mold her bones into something similar. Sometimes, you can hear her sounding out the syllables of your full name, part of it belonging to her. Trying on the four words, mashing them around in her mouth until they sound right— a name that you have always hated, turned into something almost like a prayer just by the clacking of her teeth and the gentle formation of her lips.
She is almost always there, disappears only on Sundays — God’s Day. You don’t know where she goes, but you know it isn’t church. She was the kind of woman that preferred to pray alone, no matter how many prayer chains she led. Your mother told you this, you think. A long time ago.
Maybe your grandmother visits her other grandchildren, halfway across the country. As far as you know, they don’t carry her ashes around like you. Maybe that’s why they only get Sunday custody — a slot you only partially wish was yours to claim.
[You don’t pray anymore, but maybe the whispering of your name could spark some sense of belated holiness, beg of you a brief supplication.]
You have briefly considered exorcism throughout the years. The wielding of incense and holy water, Bible verses spoken in Latin by a priest older than graveyard dirt. The purging of a woman you only knew for the first four years of your life but for some reason decided to weld herself to the sixth notch in your spine, drink out all your marrow, and replace it with demanding.
Exorcism isn’t an easy thing, though. It can take weeks. And really, it should be reserved for demons and other girlhood monstrosities lurking under unblemished skin. If her head ever begins to spin around, or your head for that matter, then maybe a priest will be called. Maybe Incense will be burned, holy water splashed. You don’t even believe in religion, or God, or the errors of blasphemy— but exorcism? You have always believed in exorcism, in possession, in the loss of [self? autonomy? control? sanity?]
There was that time in ninth grade physics class when she claimed possession over your body, filled your chest cavity with cremation ash and demanded sacrifice of the miniature Bunsen burner sets — the delicate little hairs on your knuckles and the inside of your wrist melting away in the heat. Your lab partner bore witness to the ghostly ruminations of your matrilineal line come to life. He was that football player with the eyes like Bette Davis, the one that kept asking for a blowjob.
You often wonder why she ever wanted to fill your nostrils with the scent of burning. How a grandmother could desire such a thing. But then you think of her limp, lithe body being reduced to nothing but the aftermath of smoking a carton of cigarettes [on the back porch with your mother in early November]. You can almost understand.
An exorcism isn’t an easy thing, and maybe that’s why you thought about it so much. Considered the acrid cloying smell of cigarette smoke clinging to your mother’s clothing, a habit picked up after […]. Cigarettes are just as good as anointed frankincense, perhaps even holier for they touch on the mouths of loved ones and demand inhalation, exhalation.
You come close to trying it, severing an external possession and sending her back somewhere. But then you remember watching a whole list of possession movies with your mother two years ago. But then the sounds of screaming and begging fill you. But then the image of your grandmother’s head, a face that could never be your mother’s but is anyway, spinning around around around assaults your waking mind. But then the idea of sunshine personified being removed from your body by force. But then.
Concept of time does not exist when you’re haunted. Concept of time does not exist when you’re half-possessed. Concept of time matters not to teenage girls with notches in their spines and smoke as perfume. Concept of time matters not to teenage girls. Concept of time matters not.
The first time your grandmother’s ghost appears exists side-by-side with the last time. They live in tandem with one another, or perhaps they are a circle. These moments start with you, and they end with you, too. The common thread being your flesh, your name, the strength of your marrow.
Memories escape you most of the time. Drift through a sieve like dirt, the mesh of your hands waiting to catch the smallest piece of gold. There are the ones that catch, clumped together and painted bronze. Façade undertaking. The second they touch your fingertips they play through your mind like an old movie, pre-recorded laugh track and all.
[There’re volleyball tournaments, therapist appointments, lunch table study sessions, round robin disasters, periodic ultrasounds of a uterus with auto-cannibalistic tendencies.]
There are the ones that catch, and the ones that fall through effortlessly. The first time her ghost greets you is included. It continues to elude you, and it is very likely you will never remember, never grasp the fragile strings and knit them back together. Sometimes, though […], sometimes you allow yourself to imagine it.
Either it is good, or it is not. More often than not, you find yourself imagining a Hollywood-like haunting. You are in your childhood bedroom, in that old house with the water beetles and the cracks in the ceiling. You are in your childhood bedroom, and suddenly she appears at the foot of your bed, lifts a frail finger, all skin and bone. She beckons at you, whispers things soft and so polite but really, they grate against your skin, dig in and make canopies out of tendon and sinew. Parts of her write themselves on your skin, on your bone, on your soul — they blind you and in the dark you really have no way home.
[By the age of nine you are a scream queen, dressed in white Easter clothes and wearing the remnants of her around your neck, encased in iron.]
Either it is good, or it is not. Less often, it is good, and you look in your mother’s mirror and see just yourself, but yourself with something else too. Just a little glimmer of something else, just a fleck, just a reflection of a reflection of refracted light. It is a bubblegum pink kaleidoscope; it is looking at the world through the eyes of that praying mantis that your dad finds holding vigil over the washer-dryer one balmy June evening in 2013. It is the smallest of apparitions, and she’s never much of a problem because she is so bathed in light and warmth and something more colorful.
The last time your grandmother’s ghost made her presence known you are fifteen. Maybe sixteen. Not seventeen. You are old in ways numbers can’t ever touch. It is either right before the first quarantine, or right after. [The details are hazy, but the details are always hazy with you. A simile of a person, chronically over elaborating to make up for a lack of precision.]
It is early in the morning, one of those days where the sun shines earlier than it should. You think she wakes you with a scream, or maybe it is a kiss, a bite mark marring the soft skin of your calf. You think she wakes you before she says goodbye, because you looked at her and memorized the planes of her face. Sharp cheekbones hers once more, your name absent from her undead mouth.
[How could a ghost be so physical, so present, and yet seem now like it never once existed?]
She is there and she is not and now you sleep, and you are dreamless.
Maybe all apparitions are just waking dreams, all ghost stories just things that happen while asleep on your feet.
[How could a ghost be so physical, so present, and yet seem now like it never once existed? Why would a grandmother fuse herself to the spine of her second oldest grandchild, live there and burn there and supplicate just an ounce while she watches her live? Rob her of her blood and replace it with confession…]
And you think distantly — even if a ghost is full of love, even if a ghost keeps returning to a scene of comfort, even if a ghost caresses your cheek and wears your face, even if a ghost knows your name but not its own — all a ghost is good for is haunting. It’s all they can do, all they know how to do, all they will ever do.
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