The Ghost
© by Anne Sexton (2,250)

   I was born in Maine, Bath, Maine, Down East, in the United States of America, in the year of 1851. I was one of twelve (though only eight lasted beyond the age of three) and within the confines of that state we lived at various times in our six houses, four of which were scattered on a small island off Boothbay Harbor. They were not called houses on that islands for they are summering places and thus entitled cottages. My father, at one time Governor, was actually a frustrated builder and would often say to the carpenters, "another story upwards, please." One house had five stories, and although ugly to look upon, stood almost at the edge of the rocks that the sea locked in and out of.

   I was, of course, a Victorian lady, however I among my brothers and sisters was well educated and women were thought, by my father, to be as interesting as men, or as capable. My education culminated at Wellesley College, and I was well versed in languages, both the ancient and unusable as well as the practical, for the years after Wellesley College I spent abroad perfecting the accent and the idiomatic twists. Later I held a job on a newspaper. But it was not entirely fulfilling and made no use of these foreign languages but only of the mother tongue. I was fortunately a maiden lady all my life, and I do say fortunate because it allowed me to adopt to maiden heart the nieces and nephews, the grandnieces, the grandnephews. And there was one in particular, my sister's grandchild, who was named after me. And as she wore my name, I wore hers, and at the end of my life she and her mother and an officious practical nurse stood their ground beside me as I went out. Death taking place twice. Once at sixty-four when my ears died and the most ignominious madness overtook me. Next the half-death of sixty shock treatments and then still deaf as a haddock - a half-life until seventy-seven spent in a variety of places called nursing homes. Dying on a hot day in a crib with diapers on. To die like a baby is not desirable and just barely tolerable, for there is fear spooned into you and radios playing in your head. I, the suffragette, I of the violet sachets, I who always changed my dress for dinner and kept my pride, died like a baby with my breasts bared, my corset, my camisole, tucked away, and every other covering that was my custom. I would have preferred the huntsman stalking me like a moose to that drooling away.

   There is more to say of my lifetime, but my interest at this point, my main thrust, is to tell you of my life as a ghost. Life? Well, if there is action and a few high kicks, is that not similar to what is called life? At any rate, I bother the living, act up a bit, slip like a radio into their brains or a sharp torchlight going on suddenly to blind and then reveal myself. (With no explanation!) I can put a moan into my namesake's dog if I wish to make a point. (I have always liked to make my point!) It is her life I linger over, for she is wearing my name and that gives a ghost a certain right that no one knows when they present the newborn with a name. She is somewhat aware - but of course denies it as best she can - that there are any ghosts at all. However, it can be noted that she is unwilling to move into a house that is not newly made, she is unwilling to live within the walls that might whisper and tell stories of other lives. It is her ghost theory. But like many, she has made the perfect mistake; the mistake being that a ghost belongs to a house, a former room, whereas this ghost (and I can only speak for myself for we ghosts are not allowed to converse about how we go about practicing our trade) belongs to my remaining human, to bother her, to enter the human her, who once was given my name. I could surmise that there are ghosts of houses wading through the attics where once they hoarded their hoard, throwing dishes off shelves, but I am not sure of it. I think the English believe it because their castles were passed on from generation to generation. Indeed, perhaps an American ghost does something quite different, because the people of the present are very mobile, the executives are constantly thrown from city to city, dragging their families with them. But I do not know for I haunt namesake's, and she lives in the suburbs of Boston - despite a few moves from new house to new house. I follow her as a hunting dog follows the scent, and as long as she breaths, I will peer in her window at noon and watch her sip the vodka, and if I so desire, can place one drop of an ailment into it to teach her a little lesson about such indulgence and imperfection. I gave her five years ago a broken hip. I immobilized her flat on the operating table as I peered over his shoulder, the surgeon said as he did a final X-ray before slicing in with his knife, "shattered," and there was namesake, her hip broken like a crystal goblet and later with two four-inch screws in her lip she lay in a pain that had only been an intimation of pain during the birth of two children. A longing for morphine dominated her hours and her conscience rang in her head like a bell tolling for the dead. She had at the time been committing a major sin, and I found it so abhorrent that it was necessary to make my ailment decisive and sharp. When the morphine was working, she was perfectly lucid, but as it wore off, she sipped a hint of madness and that too was an intimation of things to come. Later, I tried lingering fevers that were quite undiagnosable and then when the world became summer and the green leaves whispered, I sat upon leaf by leaf and called out with a voice of my mouth and cried, 'Come to us, come to us" until she finally pulled down each shade of the house to keep the leaves out of it - as best she could. Then there are the small things that I can do. I can tear the pillow from under her head at night and leave her as flat as I was when I lay dying and thus crawl into her dream and remind her of my death, lest it be her death. I do not in any way consider myself evil but rather a good presence, trying to remind her of the Yankee heritage, back to the Mayflower and William Brewster, or back to kings and queens of the Continent who married and intermarried. She is becoming altogether too modern, and when a man enters her, I am constantly standing at the bedside to observe and call forth a child to be named my name. I do not actually watch the copulation because it is an alien act to me, but I know full well what it should mean and have often plucked out a few of her birth-control pills in hopes. But I fear it is a vain hope. She is perhaps too old to conceive, or if she should, the result might be imperfect. As I stand there at that beside while this man enters her, I hum a little song into her head that we made up, she and I, when she was eight and we sang each year thereafter for years. We had kissed thirteen lucky times over the mistletoe that hung under a large chandelier and two door frames. This mistletoe was our custom and our act and tied the knot more surely year by year. The song that she sang haunted me in the madness of old age and now I let it enter her ear and at first she feels a strange buzzing as if a fly has been caught in her brain and then the song fills her head and I am at ease.

   She senses my presence when she cooks things that are not to my liking, or drives beyond the speed limit, or makes a left turn where it says NO LEFT TURN. For I play in her head the song called "The Stanley Steamer" for Mr. Stanley's wife was my close friend and we took a memorable ride from Boston to Portland and the horses were not happy, but we disobeyed nothing and were cautious - though I must add, a bit dusty and a little worse for wear at the end of the trip.

   It is unfortunate that she did not inherit my felicity with the foreign tongue. But not all can be passed on, the genes carry some but not all. As a matter of fact, it is far more unfortunate that she did not inherit my gift with the English language. But here I do interfere the most, for I put my words onto her page, and when she observes them, she wonders how it came about and calls it "a gift from the muse." Oh how sweet it is! How adorable! How the song of the mistletoe rips through the metal of death and plays on, singing from two mouths, making me a loyal ghost. Loyal though I am I have felt for a long time something missing from her life that she must experience to be whole, to be truly alive. Although one might say it be the work of the devil, I think that it is not (the devil lurks among the living and she must push him out day by day, but first he must enter her as he entered me in my years of deafness and lunacy). Thus I felt it quite proper and fitting to drop such a malady onto a slice of lemon that floated in her tea at 4 p.m.. last August. It started immediately and became in the end immoderate. First the teacup became two teacups, then three, then four. Her cigarettes as she lit them in confusion tasted like dung and she stamped them out. Then she turned on the radio and all it would give at every station on the dial were the names and the dates of the dead. She turned it off quickly, but it would not stop playing. The dog chased her tail and then attacked the woodwork; baying at the moon as if their two dead bodies had gone awry. At that point, she sat very still. She kept telling herself to dial "O" for operator but could not. She shut her eyes, but they kept popping open to see the objects of the kitchen multiply, widen, stretch like rubber and their colors changing and becoming ugly and the lemon floated in the multiplying and dividing teacups like something made of neon.

   When her husband returned home, she was as if frozen and could not speak, though I had put many words in her head they were like a game and were mixed and had lost their meaning. He shook her, she wobbled side to side. He spoke, he spoke. For an hour at least he tried for response, then dialed the doctor, and she went into Mass. General, half carried, half walking like a drunk, feet numb as erasers, legs melting and stiffening and was given the proper modern physical and neurological exams, EEG, EKG, etc., but the fly in her head still buzzed and the obituaries of the radio played on, and when they took her in an ambulance to a mental hospital, she could not sign her name on the commitment papers but spoke at last, "no name." They could not, those psychiatrists, nurses' aides, diagnose exactly and most days she is not able to swallow. The tranquilizers they shot into her, variety after variety, have no power over this. I will give her a year of it, an exact to the moment year of it, and during that time, I will be constantly at her side to push the devil from her although there was no one in my time to push him from me. She is at this point enduring a great fear, but I am with her, I am holding her hand and she senses this despite her conviction that each needle is filled with Novocain, for that is the effect on her limbs and parts. Still, the slight pressure of my hand, the sound of the song of the mistletoe must comfort her. Right now they scream to her and fill her with an extroardinary terror. But somehow, I know full well she is undubitably pleased that I have not left. Nor do I plan to.

      HTML by Gary Morton

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