Biking Through the Land of Ghosts

“The World Holds What It Remembers Most” by Tess Allard, recommended by the Black Warrior Review


“Where were you when time collapsed?”

What a premise, and what a question.

It’s a rare thing to encounter a new kind of ghost story. Here, in Tess Allard’s “The World Holds What It Remembers Most” — chosen by judge Nicola Griffith as the winner of Black Warrior Review’s 2017 contest in fiction, and appearing in BWR 44.2 — rattling chains and slammed doors are replaced with something far more unsettling: “the telescoping of all time into a single moment.”

The narrator, left alone to traverse and chart the new world, remembers what it was like before, and thinks wistfully of the mundane — “mismatched curtains” in the living room, and lounging in “the shade of our old white oak, its beaded strands of pollen dusting our shoulders.” These personal memories are constantly engaging with the specters and memories the world retains in its new state of collapsed time. The ghosts the narrator witnesses are unusual: long-dead people trapped in the new abstract present in ongoing, endless repetitions of past moments.

The story’s engine, as Nicola Griffith recognizes in her contest citation, is the exploration of loss: “sadness drives the protagonist’s (and so the reader’s) need to explore and understand the sequence of events, to reason back from effect to cause, to find out why.” The narrator rides her bike around the city, unable to keep still, always looking for another explanation or another sign of the world she left — or, maybe better said, the world that left her. The narrator’s quest for meaning is, again in Griffith’s words, representative of “a wholly human experience,” one where the exploration of a place is also an exploration of memory and history.

How, Allard wants to know, do we think of memory? How do we think of love? And what do we do with America’s memory of itself, or its lack thereof? Maybe the ghosts of history never leave us; maybe they’re always waiting in the wings, poised to remind us of what we have and what we can lose.

Chase Burke
Fiction Editor, Black Warrior Review

Biking Through the Land of Ghosts

“The World Holds What It Remembers Most”

by Tess Allard

It rains every day now — if these are days, in the traditional sense. Tangled masses of autumn clematis overspill the rotting fences. The sky is flat white, a cap to the world. Everything is spongy and yields to the touch; everything is coated with moss and algae and scales of lichen. But at night the clouds clear and the stars arrive, and they are strange stars now, the ghosts of ancient constellations, ever-changing. The sky is the only place that does not repeat itself. Each night I study them and make up names: the Drowned Sailor, the Hungry Wolf, the Lost Child. Long-ago humans must have gazed these stars, right where I lie. They must have had names for them too.

Without the confines of linear time, the rain does not bother me. Out of habit I wear a raincoat, but when I’m soaked it’s not unpleasant — it just is, like everything now. It’s never cold or warm. It’s the perfect neutral temperature that so many years of climate control sought to obtain. I ride my bike under the laden clouds, along routes I’ve deemed to be safe: past the marina, where the moorings of boats both real and remembered moan and creak in the river’s sway; along one stretch of empty highway, where shimmering ghost houses teeter on knotweed hills, ghost children in their windows, ghost wives hanging laundry, ghost steelworkers forever climbing down rickety stairs to the mills. But if I go much farther, there will be the pileup. The twisted wreckage, the sobbing, the flashing ambulance lights and the smell of blood and burning rubber, all of it unceasing. Like a record caught in its final loop, a little pop as the scene begins again.

When time collapses, what is left? Which events have imprinted themselves most indelibly onto the fabric of the world? At my house, I found, it was the death of a draft horse, back when this land was still a frontier. It lies on its side among my strawberry beds, feebly lifting its head, wild eyes rolling, skin stretched taut over bones — and it screams, a high panicked whinny that echoes across the vanished fields. I tried for a while to stay at home, comforted by the objects of my former life, but I couldn’t stand the sound. And down the street was something worse. A woman screaming for help, two gunshots in quick succession. I didn’t have to investigate that; I remembered it from the news.

Now I stay in a quieter place, a new-construction building on a dead- end street where apparently nothing has ever happened. Ghost rabbits dart through the rooms. I should be used to it, but it still unnerves me. I’ve made a space for myself in the attic, where nothing loops at all. Blankets and candles and a stack of books. I could stay here, but my body always itches to move. I think sometimes about leaving the city, but what must the rest of the world look like? If I biked east I know I’d find Johnstown flooding, the unimaginable horror of Gettysburg; to the south, mine collapses and Flight 93 — and what smaller, personal crises in between? The worst moments of someone’s life, endlessly replayed.

But there are happy memories, too. Down in the hollow where I sometimes stop to sit beneath the sheltering oaks, a tangle-haired little girl in a deerskin dress plays in a field, picking dandelions, spinning until each puffed strand detaches, and they rise in a cloud around her, and on her face is perfect joy.

I miss you, Matthew. I miss you, Sarah and Susan and Raja and Julian. I miss all you people out there in the streets, on the buses, at the checkout line in the grocery store. Real human bodies exhaling, sweating, moving of their own accord: who would have thought I would long for strangers so fiercely?

Yes, there are the shapes of people: dark-coated Victorian men and ancient tribeswomen and marching soldiers and Iroquois fathers teaching their children to hunt — but I can walk right through them. They have scent and sound and look almost solid, but there is no corporeal heft. Their bodies do not stir the air; the earth is not marked by their passing. I can sit in the middle of a howling fire and feel nothing but the rain beading on the vellus hair of my hands.

I remember these small joys the most: walking barefoot in fresh-cut grass, clover crushed between my toes; getting off work early on a summer day; grilling burgers in a friend’s backyard. Playing catch with dogs. Bubble tea. Sex on a snowy morning. The sun. My god, I miss the sun. I like to imagine that someday this will end, and the orderly world will return, and there will be other living humans again, and we will ask each other: where were you when time collapsed? And I will say: I was stepping off a city bus, like any other day. The square was thronged with people — but they weren’t hurrying to work, they were just standing — and they were dressed like in old movies, and there was a shimmer in the air like heat off asphalt, and I knew right away that something was wrong. In the center of it all was a huge, mangy bear in a vest and top hat. Two mustachioed men were prodding him in the back with metal poles. They were making him dance.

It wasn’t an art piece; it wasn’t a flash mob; it was the world eating itself, the telescoping of all time into a single moment. The bear stumbled, howled, and dove suddenly into the crowd. People scattered. I watched the bear pull a baby from its pram and shake it between its teeth, tearing at the air — and then a gunshot, filling the air with reeking smoke. The bear crashed to the ground. The infant’s nanny sobbed. The scene blinked out of existence for a fraction of a second and then began again.

I will say: how long did it take you to figure it out? Did you spend hours upon hours trying to ferret out the rules, to make some sense of the chaos? Did you wander in circles, thinking: why is it only me? Did you believe we were all still alive, trapped and hidden, waiting for the key to release us? But for now there is no one to ask. It is only me, the ghosts, and the rain.

Sometimes I am brave enough to venture into uncharted territory. Uncharted — funny to think of it like that, these places I once loved. I am an explorer and cartographer now: I mark the map of the city on the wall of my room with little shorthand doodles. Smiley faces, sad faces, question marks. Skulls and crossbones for the worst. When I go out exploring I take a notebook and write down my discoveries. Is this what it felt like to be an ancient sailor, setting sail into the boundless unknown? Here there be monsters. Here be the edge of the world.

I set sail on my two wheels, backpack and notebook and raincoat. I speed downhill on the empty road as fast as my bike will take me, helmetless with wind pummeling my cheeks, a thrill rising high in my chest. I sail blindly past the child getting hit by a bus. I detour around the arsenal explosion. I ignore the forest fire shimmering through the rowhouses. I pass through the middle of a buffalo stampede. I am getting better at this unmoored existence.

At the bridge I turn left instead of going straight, and I am suddenly aware of the drumming of my heart. I haven’t been here since everything changed; all things imaginable await. But I cross the bridge anyway, passing over the ghosts of clattering rail yards, and pedal up the hill until my calves burn with effort.

At the park a group of boys run circles in the basketball court, and if I squint and ignore the repetition of their movements I can almost pretend they are real. Imagine that: children playing. Walking past the playground on a summer Saturday when the light is fading and the streetlights are coming on and listening to their joyous shrieks, these creatures of infinite possibility.

I walk up toward the court to watch. The boys are lanky, awkward, maybe thirteen, with the thin gold chains and frosted hair of the late ’90s. I sit in the damp grass and watch them circle. One of the boys trips on each go-round, and I focus on him, studying his face — why does he look so familiar? And then it hits me, suddenly, like a wave breaking against my chest. It’s Matthew. It’s Matthew as a boy. I am certain of nothing so much as this, though he was already broad-shouldered and bearded when I met him, though I’ve never seen photos of him at this age. The world has brought Matthew before me to show me what I have lost.

I stand and move toward him, hands outstretched, as if I could touch him if I just wished hard enough, but of course I pass effortlessly through. I stand in the center of their whirling circle, willing the air to move around me, for something, anything about this to be real. Matthew’s face flickers with surprise as he trips, laughter as he rights himself, determination as he catches up. I would know those expressions anywhere. It is the cruelest kind of irony.

How do you mourn your husband when the whole world has disappeared? I spend the night in that circle, right at the spot where Matthew trips so his weightless body intersects again and again with my own. I watch him as the new stars traverse the sky and I listen not to the whirr of insects or the distant sirens that used to fill the city night but instead the echoed sounds of history. I fall asleep and when I wake my hair is soaked with rain.

It is hard to pull myself away. I keep looking back as I pedal, testing the limits of my balance, until the playground is hidden above the crest of the hill. Halfway home I realize I’m headed to my old house. Not the rabbit- run, blank-walled house I’ve been staying in but the one I shared with Matthew in the vanished world, where we cooked pasta primavera and hung up mismatched curtains and lounged in the shade of our old white oak, its beaded strands of pollen dusting our shoulders. I stop in the middle of the road. I watch a nest of huge speckled eggs wriggle on the ground, something with claws just beginning to break the shell. I hesitate for a long moment before turning around. I can’t get mired in my own past when I’m already mired in everyone else’s.

But it’s easy to say that, isn’t it? Like it used to be easy to say I’ll wake up at five-thirty to go to the gym, or I really don’t need to spend fifteen dollars on lunch. But the whole time you feel the pull of what you truly desire. I lock my bike to the railing of the porch, though there’s no one alive to steal it. At least it’ll slow me down a minute, give me time to think.

At night, as I lie in my pile of blankets in the attic room, it plays itself over and over in my mind like one of the memory loops: that moment when I stepped off the bus, the dancing bear, the frantic fumbling for my phone to call Matthew only to find a useless hunk of plastic. A dead screen that looked into nothing. Walking all the way home, the route filled with incomprehensible scenes. Finding our house empty. Seeing the horse in the strawberry beds and falling to my knees and sobbing, bereft of understanding, unable to put the pieces together to assemble anything like sense. And thinking then, and thinking still, that surely Matthew had not disappeared. Surely he too was wandering this foreign world, separated from me by some kind of spectral veil. If I puzzled this out, perhaps I could lift it. Perhaps I alone was meant to undo this.

I know that if I stay here I’ll be drawn to the playground again and again. I’ll camp out in that spot, yearning. I’ll forget my maps and my expeditions and my careful attempts to unravel this mystery and I’ll plant myself there like a dog waiting for its master. And so I leave. It’s not as difficult as I imagined. I pack my messenger bag and panniers and test my brakes and fill my tires. I go back one last time to lie on the ground and let Matthew trip over me, his face coming so close to my own that if he were real I could feel his breath on my cheeks.

I take the long way out of town. I ride through ghost houses, long ago demolished for construction of the highway. I ride through a disappeared lake, plunging into the depths where fish weave in and out of the spokes of my wheels, passing beneath of the shadows of rowboats. I stop in the hollow where the little girl twirls, struck with light from an invisible sun, gazing with pure rapture at the dandelion seeds. I put my hand on her head and pretend I can feel her warmth. I kneel and wish her goodbye.

I bike through open country, vine-choked forest, four-lane highways with nothing but ghosts. I raid abandoned rest stops for road atlases. I dangle my legs off the edge of an overpass and look out at the mudslide hills, bare roots reaching like fingers from the dirt, not strong enough to hold the earth together when faced with endless rain. What will happen when it all slips away? Will the memories stay if the true earth dissolves?

Ohio gives me a fiery plane crash, a farmer’s daughter falling from an attic window, brilliant mounds of snow as high as my chest. Indiana gives me a howling tornado. It gives me a baby tugging on the ears of a golden retriever, rolling in the dust of a long-gone lane. I mark all this carefully in my stack of maps, labeling a key in the corner of each. I shortcut across dead fields where water gathers in the rut from my tires, a sodden scar on the face of the earth. Matthew and I took a road trip, once, getting a third of the way across the country before our Volkswagen’s engine blew — did we stop beside this field when we changed a tire? Did his feet graze this asphalt before it was cracked? But there’s no use in wondering. Matthew is not here.

In Illinois there is a massacre, a wide bloodstained meadow of bodies and panicked horses and people being shot right where I stand, Shawnee with blood streaking their bare chests and settlers with filthy coats and gleaming guns. I swerve as a horse careens toward me and lose my balance, tumbling into the grass. Its massive form tramples substanceless over me. I lie there with my eyes closed, breathing quietly. I can still hear and smell it. My heart does not know this happened long ago.

I know I should go on, but I lie there as dusk gathers, thinking about all the days to come. I will keep riding across this country, weathering the worst. I will forge a path into the unknown. I will map it all until there is nothing left to discover. I will quantify, categorize, trace careful lines of roads and borders until I’ve crowded out the mystery with reason. And I’ll wait. I’ll wait for that morning when I open my eyes to an astonishing day, pure crisp sun-soaked blue, and all the people I used to love will be waiting out there, and the world will be simply itself.

By now the light has faded. I roll onto my side, the wet ground yielding as I move. Across the road is a cornfield, which is a cornfield in this layer of time, too, though in the memory it is tall and tipped with gold. The ghosts of a thousand fireflies are winking out there. They rise up from the ground, drifting like embers. They climb the tassels and perch on their precipice and blink their secret song into the night, searching for their mates. They will search forever. They don’t know that they are dead.

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