‘Ghosts may just be the memories of individuals and visions we’ve had which have long since passed away, but which we never properly laid to rest, in our mind and heart. Here is a tale of a man haunted by the memory of what never was, and what he’s never been.’
Upon an evening in the depths of winter, bundled to the chin and with my hands thrust deep into my coat pockets—I had misplaced my gloves at the party—I heard a song rising from the lips of a tired man. My motion arrested, I stopped to listen to the melody from the street, through the small opening of a window, and silently I lowered one knee atop a crust of snow underneath the sill, and propped my shoulder against the cold brick of his house. Through the thin curtains I could see the man’s silhouette against the orange glow of an electric heater. He sat in the armchair of his study, surrounded by hundreds of dusty volumes which I knew were lining the shelves at the dark edges of the room because I have a distant memory of the man telling me, with a vague gesture, that he had not the courage to open ‘any-a-one of ’em’ for the past two or three decades, as such an act would serve only to remind him of the heights to which his mind had once soared, in vain.
“But I sit in this room specifically,” he went on, “in this small house, empty except for a cat which once wandered in and has never left, because the rest of the house is too silent, and in my study at least I can hear the whispers of the past, rising from these bounded volumes.” He tapped the spine of one of these books to punctuate the thought, but his lightly veined, frail finger did not remain upon the embossed title for long, and he tore his hand away as if the lettering had seared the thin flesh of his fingertip.
His voice was so filled with weary age, then as well as now, and, as on this night he did not sing to be heard, I had to strain to catch every line, and so leaned closer. I listened with bated breath, my limbs still as the frigid night, my concentration, chilled by the temperature, yet warmed by what energy lingered in the old man’s words. The snow in the nooks and corners of the street was reflecting the glow of the street lamps, even as more flakes gently fell, glittering, upon the cold stone, as well as upon the tip of my nose, and the tops of my flushed cheeks. The shoulders of my coat were damp, for the material still retained the warmth of the house I had just left, but the longer I knelt beside the window sill, the more snowflakes began to cling to it, here and there, as the threading cooled.
I recognized the song he gave voice to. It was an old, closing ballad one might sway to whilst holding someone close at a party’s end, and, for many reasons, it pained me to hear the words cutting across the chill seeping into the room. Still, I listened, and the sensations of the cold seemed to unite him and I at that moment in time: my fingers stiffened against the night’s freezing temperature, and I could imagine myself in that armchair, holding that woollen blanket close to me, as tightly as hands such as his, enfeebled by age, were able.
I listened, and a frigid gust came rippling from up the street and whistled through the gap in the window which I, at a crouch, leaned toward. At once I had the urge to slam the window down, to save the man inside from becoming ensnared in its icy clutch—and permanently, I then thought. Before I could act, however, a refusal to do so seemed to come from the man himself, and a voice inside of me determined that he was the one who had left the window open, after all—perhaps he meant to invite the cold in.
Fortunately the wind soon died down, but even as the street behind me once again became so still, the cold blast of air remained as a biting memory upon my skin, and it was then I had the curious sensation that nothing separated this street, on this night, from the cold depths of space above. Like the dull throb of pain receding from an area of pinched skin, I became vaguely conscious of the eternity in which the planet was cradled, and it was as if the wind which struck me had come rippling across the universe itself, only to die with some whispered secret, carried from the very edge of existence, lost upon it, as it faded upon my skin.
‘It is not age which makes us impotent’, the man continued, that time he had told me about his books. ‘Rather it is the cumulative weight of all we intended to do but did not achieve, which does it’.
‘I don’t remember him inviting me in.’ I remember thinking to myself at the time. I could not recall then how I had gotten there, and still I cannot recall how it happened that I was in his house. Yet there I was indeed, watching him pace his room, stooped by the weight of years passed which I could only guess at, as he told me:
‘We become haunted by such memories, in old age, horribly aware that we now lack the power to realize the visions of our dreams. And, if we grow old enough that we end up alone to our thoughts, we become haunted by the presence of those who were closest to us, who were a part of those dreams but who are now, because of death, or estrangement, or life itself, no longer able to be.’
He said that the whispers—the ones which rose from his bounded volumes—lulled him to sleep most nights, as they woke him in the mornings, and I admitted that I could entertain the thought, as I had a unique relationship to my own collection. He nodded, and went on to describe for me how he would listen to their indistinct murmurings, and would actually pick out a sentence fragment now and again, but how, each time, before its importance had dawned on him fully, it would flit away, beyond his reach, because his grasp was weary, and his mind exhausted.
Despite the callous ignorance of youth, as I crouched by the sill I found sympathy enough to extend to the man a collection of memories he might have had, which might accompany the lyrics he was sending out into the night, as he sat there, alone in the dark. Perhaps this was because the ballad he sung suggested my own memories to me. Whatever the reason, I was caught up in the moment, and surely became convinced of the images which flit before him on nights like this; I imagined him passing the last of his days in his armchair, the shades on his window perpetually drawn so no sunlight from the street entered, except where one slat had cracked and bent. Images of faces they were which passed from me to him, as well as visions of grand ambitions the pulse of which I too recognized; all of them faded through time, from resignation and neglect.
Of all the emotions which could have attached themselves to that scene, I’ll admit it was horror which rose inside me as I imagined how, on every night, these images blended together to achieve a near majestic quality before sending the man off to sleep, as he watched his entire life, animated by these very people in these very places, rise and set upon a horizon which receded into the distance, and he willed his eyes to close. As another day came and went, almost as I sat there, I became certain that there was one image in particular which, not even in the life outside his mind’s ideal, had ever really moved at all, because the image had only ever been something like the memory of a photograph, which he had long since taken off his bedside table, and pushed, face down, into a drawer.
‘We become haunted by such memories, in old age’, I heard the man say again, now looking over from his bedside table. As I observed this action, I had little doubt that it was from this point forward his life had been destined to end in the way I then witnessed and judged from the street, with him singing to no one, alone except for a stray cat. I was certain that it was from this moment exactly, when the drawer had been shut with a hollow finality, that the whispering from the bounded volumes began to wake him from his slumbers, and his inner energy began to wane, before leaving completely; when, instead of fantasies of what might be, he began to close his eyes to images of what would never occur.
The man’s voice began to lose strength, and as he lapsed into silence, I myself became tired. It was a song for him alone which then came to an end, and I wondered, as I left, what he might have thought if he had known I listened. I don’t think he would have been pleased to see me again, lingering without cause upon his doorstep, judging him—but no doubt he was too weak to feel anger rise within him, at the violation of his privacy. Walking slowly, I grappled with the notion that, to hold on to something like pride, the man considered himself to be something of a martyr, as I knew he had intelligence enough to recognize that his was not an isolated occurrence. But quickly I turned away from this idea, almost personally offended at the thought, and I found it unbearable to entertain the smallest belief that it could be true—perhaps it was once again callous youth causing me to form such a harsh opinion. Whatever it was, I really think it would be too easy to call the man by such a name, even though his was a lot which fit the description, and millions would have no trouble recognizing the portrait he was making in his final hours: this man who had resigned himself to his fate, and had to live every day with this resignation.
The silence which followed his song was so complete it carried with it an implication that it had never been broken. The street became so still and so quiet that I would have believed it had been as I left him that the old man expired, and that I was now witnessing the world fallen into a moment of sombre reflection at the passing of another lost soul. The silence was impenetrable, and seemed to press against me from all sides, and finally it gave rise to the smallest doubt I had heard anything at all, that night: I laughed to myself as the thought crossed my mind that it had only been me singing the song, and to myself alone, because really, I needn’t have even strained so hard to hear the lyrics the man uttered, as it would only have taken a similar effort to recall them from my own memory. It was a popular song, after all, wasn’t it?
I yawned, and to prove their familiarity I sung the words again, quietly, and to myself. They did not sound any different coming from my own lips, as they had when they rose from the man, and it was for this reason I think I began to sing them to a more cheerful melody I had heard playing earlier, at the party. I started and stopped as the lyrics came back to me, line by line, and as they did a memory to which they were attached began to surface, and it was then my stomach began to squirm and knot as another gust of wind came rippling toward me. Even as my feet left their prints upon the freshly fallen snow, I began to look around with some vague sense of dread at the street on which I had ended up, as it suddenly looked like the one I made a conscious effort to never turn down.
The memory was one which, if I’m being honest, had once been buried. In it, I mouthed the words silently as I read them from out of an old, dust-covered book—the name of which I seem to have forgotten—whilst a shadowed figure peered over my shoulder. Just who this figure might have been, in my memory, is a question that seems answerable by three possibilities, and as the silhouette of the man I had just left behind slowly gained definition, almost in proportion to the distance which grew between us, it must have been my exhaustion indeed which had it intertwine with that memory, and in particular with the shadowed figure once peering over my shoulder. Together, in a room that suddenly became recognizable as my own, they became the image of the father I’d never known, whom I only wish that I had met and who never taught me what I now know, as I read out loud from the book the man had once placed his frail finger upon, only to retract it, quickly; but all of this, of course, only because it was his funeral that I had attended earlier in the day, before going to the party with old friends who knew not why I was back in town.