“The Forgetful Ghost”
William T. Vollmann
After my father died, I began to wonder whether my turn might come sooner rather than later. What a pity! Later would have been so much more convenient! And what if my time might be even sooner than soon? Before I knew it, I would recognize death by its cold shining as of brass. Hence in those days, I do confess, I felt sometimes angry that the treasures of sunlight escaped my hands no matter how tightly I clenched them. I loved life so perfectly, at least in my own estimation, that it seemed I deserved to live forever, or at least until later rather than sooner. But just in case death disregarded my all-important judgments, I decided to seek out a ghost, in order to gain expert advice about being dead. The living learn to weigh the merits of preparation against those of spontaneity, which is why they hire investment counselors and other fortune-tellers. And since I had been born an American, I naturally believed myself entitled to any destiny I could pay for. Why shouldn’t my postmortem years stretch on like a lovely procession of stone lamps?
If you believe, as H.P. Lovecraft asserted, that all cemeteries are subterraneously connected, then it scarcely matters which one you visit; so I put one foot before the other, and within a half-hour found myself allured by the bright green moss on the pointed tops of those ancient stone columns of the third Shogun’s loyally suicided retainers. Next I found, glowing brighter than the daylight, more green moss upon the stone railings and torii enclosing these square plots whose tombstones strained upward like trees, each stone engraved with its undertenant’s postmortem Buddhist name.
The smell of moss consists of new and old together. Dead matter having decayed into clean dirt, the dirt now freshens into green. It is this becoming-alive that one smells. I remember how when my parents got old, they used to like to walk with me in a certain quiet marsh. The mud there smelled clean and chocolate-bitter. I now stood breathing this same mossy odor, and fallen cryptomeria-needles darkened their shades of green and orange while a cloud slid over the sun. Have you ever seen a lizard’s eyelid close over his yellow orb? If so, then you have entered ghostly regions, which is where I found myself upon the sun’s darkening. All the same, I had not gone perilously far: On the other side of the wall, tiny cars buzzed sweetly, bearing living skeletons to any number of premortem destinations. Reassured by the shallowness of my commitment, I approached the nearest grave.
The instant I touched the wet moss on the railing, I fell into communication with the stern occupant, upon whose wet dark hearthstone lay so many dead cryptomeria-tips. To say he declined to come out would be less than an understatement. It was enough to make a fellow spurn the afterlife! I experienced his anger as an electric shock. To him I was nothing, a rootless alien who lacked a lord to die for. Why should he teach me?
Humiliated, I turned away, and let myself into the lower courtyard behind the temple. Here grew the more diminutive ovoid and phallic tombs of priests. Some were incised with lotus wave-patterns. One resembled a mirror or hairbrush stood on end. I considered inviting myself in, but then I thought: If that lord up there was so cross, wouldn’t a priest have even less use for me?
So I pulled myself up to the temple’s narrow porch and sat there with my feet dangling over, watching cherry blossoms raining down on the tombs. The gnarled arms of that tree pointed toward every grave, and afternoon fell almost into dusk.
A single white blossom sped down like a spider parachuting down his newest thread. Then my ears began to ring—death’s call.
So I ran away. I sat down in my room and hid. Looking out my window, I spied death up boards and pouring vinegar on nails. Death killed a dog. What if I were next?
The tale is collected in Vollmann’s forthcoming book, Last Stories and Other Stories.