There once was an ordinary woman who lived an ordinary life. Very ordinary, she thought when she looked at herself in the mirror. Ordinary brown hair, ordinary brown eyes, ordinary figure, a little on the stocky side. She and her husband had been married for a good while; they had two girls, and because the girls had begged them for a pet, they also had a dog. The girls had immediately named the dog Sally, who was tan and scruffy, not beautiful by any means, but her eyes were big and brown and she had burrowed herself quietly into their hearts at the shelter, so they had brought her home.
One night the woman went to sleep as she did every night in the queen sized bed that she shared with her husband. Most of the time, the woman loved the coziness of their sleeping arrangements—the queen was small enough that the woman was always in contact with some part of her husband’s body, which was slender but ran hot. She slept with her hand on his leg, or sometimes curled into the crook of his back.
On some nights, however, the woman felt her husband was too large for such a small bed; he was a bit over six feet tall and he complained that his side was too soft, which meant that he rolled onto her side to escape the divot his body had made. She tried to avert this by turning the mattress over when she changed the sheets, but it never lasted for long, and then the woman felt squeezed into a sliver of the bed, as if she had to occupy a smaller and smaller space.
This feeling was sometimes magnified by the thoughts flowing through her mind. At these times, she felt as if her thoughts were being formed backwards rather than forwards, that instead of thinking something and using words or actions to bring her thoughts into the world, she felt as if the world were dictating thoughts and movements to her and she was merely following a series of mysterious directives. Trying to reshape her thoughts into different thoughts and her feelings into different feelings felt like trying to reform a glacier out of water from a tropical sea. Try as she might, she couldn’t get the water to stay in one place; it kept slipping through her hands, back into the vast ocean.
This made it difficult for the woman to separate her own thoughts from other people’s thoughts, and her happiness from other people’s happiness, especially her children’s. She thought about the sweater she was knitting for her younger daughter. It had a round neck and long sleeves, and was a soft yellow mohair yarn. The yarn was fine but strong, and the needles were tiny, size three; it would take a long time to complete the project. The woman had started and stopped knitting the front piece several times already, as the small needles made it difficult to keep track of the stitches. Though it was slow work, the woman liked the feel of the yarn, and took pleasure in her incremental progress. She enjoyed making each stitch uniform, and she could see her daughter wearing the finished garment, looking at herself in the mirror, how she would feel the softness of the knit against her skin and admire the angle of the neckline against her collarbones.
That night, the woman went to bed as usual. Her husband was already asleep, so she turned on her book light and angled the beam away from his face so it wouldn’t disturb him. The new chapter of the book she was reading described a group of scientists who were searching for particles so small they could only be seen when caught in the flash of the recording instruments; the particles were undetectable as long as they were in motion. Even with double-blind experiments, the book said, scientists could not predict where the subatomic matter was going to be next, and the woman dropped off to sleep imagining quarks and neutrinos as tiny magicians who were never doing what you thought they were doing, building the universe in ways that surprised the big lumbering humans with their mind-boggling variety.
Later, when the woman woke up, she thought she must have only been asleep for a few minutes. She could sense that her husband was in bed with her, his body emanating its usual amount of bulk and warmth, like the extra-large pillow she had slept with each time she was pregnant with her girls. The book light was still on, and she tried to reach up to turn it off, but found that she could not.
It was a simple movement of the arm that she should have been able to accomplish without even a thought, but her arm was a dead weight against her body; hers, but not hers at the same time. Frightened, she tried to call her husband’s name, but her mouth, suddenly frozen, did not move either, and her voice was caught in a silent bubble in her throat. Lying on her back, the woman attempted to turn her head, but all she could do was open and roll her eyes in their sockets; the rest of her body was absolutely locked inside itself.
What was happening? the woman wondered. Could she be dying? Maybe she was having a stroke or a heart attack or some kind of dire but strangely painless medical event. She had heard of people sleepwalking, but what was it if she could not walk? The woman felt panicked, but also oddly becalmed, as if her emotions were in herself somewhere, but like her body, they were not operating the way they normally did.
The woman tried to call out to her husband again, but she could only hear his name in her head. She tried to scream, but again, the scream only sounded in her mind. There was an immense pressure against her throat, so great that nothing could escape through it. She strained her ears, but could only hear her husband’s steady, rhythmic breathing. Then, quark-like, an explanation popped into her mind that hadn’t existed there before.
Could I be possessed? the woman wondered. I don’t believe in possession, she responded to herself. I don’t believe in ghosts, and I don’t believe that ghosts can invade a person’s body. But that is what it felt like—she felt sure that an invisible force was sitting inside her chest, squeezing her neck so she couldn’t speak.
Her mind seemed to be running on two tracks at the same time, like cars driving side by side down the highway, headlights on, into the dark night. On one current of thought, she attempted to will her brain to tell her arms and legs to move, to jump up, to run. On another level of consciousness, her mind kept trying to parse its own perceptions.
There was no such thing as ghosts, her mind said again. Her body was not just numb; it was unresponsive in a way she had never felt before. Her body felt stone-like, immoveable. She had read of people having near-death experiences, where their spirit had hovered above their bodies as they were being operated on by doctors, or lay by the road after a car accident. This felt like the opposite of that—instead of being freed from her body, her spirit was trapped in it, imprisoned.
As the woman looked into the darkness of the bedroom, figures began to take shape in the air before her. First she saw a limb, an arm, blue and dismembered, floating in front of her eyes. It had a definite outline; she could see each finger outstretched from the blue palm and lengthening forearm, bloody tendons dangling from the end where the elbow had been.
The woman blinked, trying to take in the sight of the arm. She watched as the midnight-colored hand opened to show that it was holding a metal bowl, and as she watched, the bowl began to fill up, then overflow with a thick red-black fluid.
It gushed over the sides of the bowl, and bodies began to emerge out of the blood. First came a badly burned girl with charred skin and hair matted with ash, embers still glowing in her blackened tresses. Then a ghostly warrior riding an armored horse, both man and beast covered with open wounds from some terrible battle. And more, dozens of them—some wet and bloated, bluish-white, as if they had been immersed in deep water for days, others encrusted in grotesque and virulent tumors. Many of the figures were missing arms or legs, corpses caught in various stages of decay.
The phantoms materialized out of the bloody bowl and crowded into the room, calling out their pain, nameless and harrowing. The woman could make out no actual words; the sounds were the pure suffering of those who had been alive once upon a time. She tried to scream; she struggled to look towards her husband, hoping that the wildness in her eyes would wake him up, make him see what she was seeing.
But he just slept, peaceful and unaware. He snored slightly, a sound that usually annoyed her, but now gave her assurance that he was really there with her. The woman’s thoughts raced, her pulse pounding in her skull, as she searched her memory for something, for anything that might stop the visions from appearing from the cursed cup. Maybe something from a horror movie—the one with the masked killer or the one with the killer who stalked teenagers in their dreams.
But even in those movies, you had to be able to move to fight back.
The woman had once read that you could tell if you were really dreaming by checking for odd angles in the room, or by having your dream self turn on the lights, which would break the spell of a nightmare. So she looked at the walls and ceiling, but the bedroom seemed exactly as it always seemed, and how could she turn on the lights if she could not even move one muscle? Even if this was a dream, her dream body was just as stuck as her real body.
And though she had never been religious, the woman raked her memory for what she could remember of the Lord’s Prayer she had learned as a child:
Our Father who art
deliver us our daily bread
And lead us not as we
and forgive us
our sins who have sinned
The wraiths kept weeping, more and more thronging the room every minute. She tried again.
Give us this earth
Our daily trials
Do not forgive
The phantoms wailed; they tumbled out of the crimson bowl, prowled the room, howled like injured wolves under a full moon.
Forgive us Your will
Hallowed be temptation
Lead us to earth
Only ghosts and demons and pain and blood answered her. The crowded dead continued to swoop around the woman, an exaltation of black larks. An old man, covered in deep cuts, drew near to her, trying to staunch the flow of blood from his lacerations with his hands. A young girl, naked from the waist down, bruised and bleeding, held her face in her hands and cried.
Then she remembered something—wasn’t the Buddha attacked by demons under the bodhi tree? Over the years, the woman had taken up yoga and her teachers had passed on stories and sayings as they went through their sun salutations and headstands and backbends. One of her instructors had told them how the Buddha had defeated the demons of Mara’s army by touching the ground and repeating, “I see you Mara. I know what is real. The earth that I touch is real.”
So the woman imagined reaching her hand to the floor of her bedroom and repeated over and over, “I touch the earth. It is real. I see you Mara. I know what is real.” In her mind’s eye, she could see herself holding her young daughter in her arms, soothing her after a bad dream, saying, “It’s ok, honey. It’s all over now. It was just a dream.”
The mutilated spirits seemed not to notice the woman’s words, instead getting closer and closer, wailing into her unwilling ears, forcing her to look into their green and rotting faces. A once beautiful woman with a ravaged and pockmarked face opened her mouth to show a toothless cavern, a vast whooshing of wind her only song.
That nothing changed almost made the woman laugh. Who was she kidding, trying to invoke the Buddha’s mantra? Did she really believe that the ghosts would just say, “Ok, you got us!” and give up and go home? What a joke, what a lark! What hubris! She laughed to herself and the laughter seeped gently into the rest of her body, making her feel less frightened.
Then she closed her eyes shut and thought about giving up—what was left to do except accept that a switch had clicked off her brain, making it impossible for her to control what was happening? Strangely, the idea cheered her. If it is true, she thought, then these disturbing visions can’t really be mine can they? They weren’t voluntary, so the ghosts didn’t really belong to her—they were just. . . well they were just there. Just as she was just there, just as her husband was just there in the bed beside her and her daughters were in their own rooms down the hall.
Perhaps the spirits hadn’t asked to be here either; maybe they just found themselves in her house for no reason. Wouldn't that be the biggest joke of all? That none of them were in charge of this—that perhaps there was no one in charge?
After all, none of them had asked to be born, to live, or to die. None of them had chosen when, or where, or to what family to belong to. So many things— race, class, religion—it was all a crapshoot, beyond their control. Important—life-changing, even—yet so arbitrary.
The woman thought of her girls; children so wanted, so desired, yet they had been her and her husband’s longings, their daughters did not decide to fulfill them. The woman had spent a lot of time wondering what her daughters wanted from their lives, and how to help them find out.
Instinctively, she called out to the phantoms before her, What do you want? Why are you here?
What can I do?
And though the dead did not say anything out loud, the woman could sense that they yearned simply for one thing—an invitation to remain, even though they knew they were unwanted.
And the woman felt herself soften, then melt a little—it was almost as if she had somehow been made out of butter—she felt delicate and creamy and salty sweet, almost like tears that had solidified into something golden and beautiful.
Oh, she thought. Of course nobody wants you; who would? No one wanted to be reminded of pain and death while they themselves were still alive.
The spirits seemed to collectively hold their breath as they watched the woman thinking, and the room filled with their hope; the air becoming buoyant with it. And their hope eased the woman’s trepidations, and she melted a little more. Slowly she opened her eyes to look at the ghosts—the young, half naked woman, the old man with his slashes, the ravaged woman, the drowned boys—and her revulsion gradually lost its hold on her, became something bright and glistening, a current clarified, a balm.
The balm spread through her body, warming it, welcoming it, turning it into a vivid river. And the phantoms came flocking to her then, like larks coming to drink, bringing her their open wounds, their devastated love.
And a flurry of sympathetic shivers began to roll through her body, and these shivers grew bigger and bigger until she felt them as a wave and then another wave of pulses that spiraled into each of her cells in what seemed like an unending circuit flashing two points of light: Acceptance, Home, Acceptance, Home.
Each time one circuit was completed, it amplified the next one, making it bigger, more able to encompass all of the spirits from the room and into her. She found that she could make space for them all and they could make space for each other.
With a start, the woman realized her heart was beating hard again, but now it seemed as if it was pumping not only for her, but for all of the beings that had settled inside of her, their empty eyes intent on seeing the world they had known once more.
As she let the entities in, the apparition that had trapped her body and deadened her voice suddenly evaporated. No longer tethered to the bed, the woman began to float, rising upward into the air, where she continued to glide until she stopped just shy of the ceiling. There the woman stayed with the fluttering specters, all of them moving together as if they were drifting on a warm, undulating ocean, being rocked softly and soothingly to sleep. A quietude came to her as she had not known, except perhaps as a felt memory from before she was born.
The woman could not say how long she and the others lingered, swaying together at the ceiling, when the sound of a dainty clicking, a tapping against the wooden floors wafted up to her. The dog was padding into the bedroom as she did every morning, her toenails ticking against the bare wood of the stairs.
The rustle of the familiar sound touched her, and the woman floated back down to the bed, pulled off the yellow coverlet and stood up. Her husband stretched and yawned beside her and rubbed his head vigorously as he did every morning. She could hear her daughters moving about in the house, turning on the faucets in the bathroom to brush their teeth.
And as she did every morning, the woman opened the French doors to the backyard, so that their good girl, their lovely Sally, could go outside, the beginning of another day.