He sang a duet with an empty room. Beneath a high and lonely ceiling, sitting in decades of dust and shattered glass, he answered his own echo. As a harmonizer the empty room had perfect pitch but a poor memory, so he kept singing the sad Irish songs that used to suit his brother’s voice so well.
He sat on the floor, cradling the guitar, his back against one of the dozens of broken and ransacked display cases, all splinters and spearheads. Little was left in them. A tuft of taxidermied fur. Small white signs with long Latin names typed on them. In one case, taller than he was and twice as wide, just a small and lonely knucklebone.
He was singing another song to the rusted chain dangling from the ceiling, the brass bones of its chandelier crumpled on the floor below it, when a black hole opened in his chest. It sucked his heart out from behind his ribcage and he knew with a ghost’s certainty, with the instinctual sympathy between the dead and those close to death, that his brother was dying. He had not seen Michael since he left home to study physics, hadn’t been able to see another human being at all since the day he died bloody in the street, listening to the screeching of wheels on concrete.
He knew his brother was in their old hometown of Carpenter’s Shore just as he knew he was dying. He had tried to return once, decades before, but had not made it more than thirteen feet over the town line. He had receded, faded, the further he went. The ghost stood up. He slung his guitar across his back, and went out to the cracked marble staircase.
He thought about the museum as he climbed, about the history the place used to hold inside it. He wasn’t sure it could be called a museum anymore. It had joined the ranks of hollow places – boarded-up churches without a congregation, weedy lots where childhood homes used to stand. Are things only what they are now, he wondered, or what they once were and can no longer be? The dust on the railing was undisturbed by his trailing hand.
At the top of the staircase he followed a wide and shadowed hallway to tall wooden doors. Spiders skittered up and down the walls. Beyond the doors lay what remained of the portrait gallery. He had spent long hours there, amidst its broken frames. It was comforting. And he was in need of comfort.
He stepped through the doors, like water trickling through pine needles, and the cobwebs on the door handles did not so much as flutter.
Moonlight and cold air streamed in from the broken and sea-colored stained glass window high on the wall, casting the room in a chilly blue. Gilded frames littered the floor. Memories of faces painted on shreds of canvass – the flash of an eye, a ripped smile.
Somehow, one painting survived, hanging crooked on the wall. The ghost walked up to it: a young girl, beautiful, with pale skin and a soft smile. He raised a trembling hand and pressed his fingers against the paint, trying to imagine how its ridges would feel if he could feel them, trying to touch the closest resemblance to the human beings he could no longer see.
He drew up a memory of Michael’s face, from their trip to the Grand Canyon after Michael’s graduation from college. He was reddened, with a few days’ stubble, laughing, a knitted hat pulled low, framed by the rocky arms of the Canyon reaching for the sunset. He tried to sketch the lost decades onto Michael’s face, but could only see him as he was that day in Arizona: a young man who had not lost his brother.
He could not return to Carpenter’s Shore. Would not. He did not want to fade from the world. But he would do something in remembrance of Michael.
He walked along the railroad tracks, keeping his eye on the sliver of sun disappearing behind the far-off mountains. He had watched a thousand sunsets and sunrises since his death. Sunsets held more energy, as every breathing thing that looked up and watched its world fade to black lent their own life to the moment. But the sun rose mostly in loneliness. He preferred sunrises.
The tracks stretched off into the plains. Buildings, he realized, were not the only things that held the past. God knows how many ghosts lay quiet beneath the railroad tracks.
A distant whistle sounded, and the ghost stood in the middle of the tracks. He tucked his hands into his pockets and bowed his head. The train sped down upon him. A law of physics decrees that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. The law went unbroken, he being all subject and no object.
He raised his head and stopped himself inside the dining car, brightly colored and lit by lamps that teetered between charming and tacky. Desserts were everywhere. A pleasant sugariness thickened the air, lightened by the clinking of silverware, grounded by the happy murmur of conversation. Glasses floated upwards and red wine drained out, forks chiseled off cake, all by the unseen hands of the invisible living.
The ghost unslung his guitar and sat down, cross-legged, in the middle of the aisle. A dessert cart appeared to wheel itself down the aisle. It paused at a nearby table, sowed sweets, and squeaked back to its resting place.
He cradled his instrument. Strumming, humming, he listened for his brother in the hollow of his guitar, playing what they used to play together on the back porch during summer nights. Firefly music, they had called it. Every so often, a slightly puzzled voice would cut through the foggy din hovering over the dining tables.
“Does anybody hear music?” it would say. “It’s beautiful.”
He took the train all the way to Flagstaff, and then a bus to the park. From there he made his way to the edge of the South Rim and looked down into the Canyon. It stretched out beneath a cloudless night sky, exposing the old bones of the earth.
He began the walk down. The sun would rise in a few hours, and with it other wanderers, but just then the night belonged to him and the canyon. He had walked this same trail with Michael. It had been night then, too. To pass the time he’d told his little brother a ghost story. Michael had smiled at the end, and said it was good.
He used to tease Michael about how he believed in ghosts. But now as he walked down the trail as a ghost himself, he took comfort in his brother’s belief. It’s a hard thing, not being believed in.
The long walk to the bottom brought him close to where the Colorado River flowed. He lay down in the sand, looking at the stars and listening to the sounds within the silence. The rush of running water was punctuated here and there by the call of a bird and the brush of a breeze, the same sounds that had filled the canyon since it was carved out of the earth by time, or shifting ice, or running water, or a god who wanted to feel a little less lonely.
The Grand Canyon held the river, the trees, the dizzying cake-layer canyon walls, the hikers, but it was defined by its empty space. We are, the ghost thought, the things we are missing. We are our empty spaces. Spaces filled only with the smoke from our forest-fired past. Gray tendrils of absent friends and family and sacred places, of gods and lovers and childish minds, of our past irretrievable selves which we wonder about when we’re low, whether they were better than we are now. And while the Grand Canyon could not fill itself up, it was content – in the way of inanimate things – to be beautifully empty, forever. He could stay that way for a time too, but lying on the banks of the Colorado River, the realization came.
Eternity was a long time to spend hollow.
He stopped at the very edge of the town limits, toes touching the imaginary line dividing what was Carpenter’s Shore from what was not. It was morning, the sun was high, and he took in all the day’s colors: the greens of the grass, the brown of the tree trunks, the gold of the dog that sat panting in the slatted black shade of a white picket fence.
He stepped over the imaginary line, and kept walking, and felt himself start to recede. Colors drained slowly toward gray. Sound dampened and distorted. The world bled out around him, each footstep a teardrop on a watercolor painting. He dug his feet into the pavement and kept moving.
He walked through his childhood, a small town in a small state, passing all the places he used to know. He had preserved different parts of Carpenter’s Shore in his memory, picking and pickling moments. There was the barn where his family used to gather every summer for a raffle, stretched out on blankets and swatting mosquitos; it was boarded up now. There was a stretch of ocean road where at sixteen he and a love had lain in the back of his car, skin touching, listening to the rain; barely a road now, eroded down to sand and memory. There was the cemetery where he had watched the burial of his best friend’s grandfather; it was fuller now, brimming with the dead. And here he was, a stranger in his own hometown, watching it fade away.
Then, a splash of brightness: a red door on a modest house at the end of the street. He walked through it into a tidy living room. A small sofa faced a television, and dozens of photos lined the walls. In them, he watched his little brother grow up. Graduation, wedding, the birth of his kids, coaching his son’s soccer team, him grey and smiling with his wife. Here was his brother’s life, the one he never got to see, splayed out before him.
Framed and set prominently above an archway was another picture. Not a good picture, really. They were both squinting into the sun and their hair was blowing madly in the wind, but there they were, the Grand Canyon opening up behind them.
He followed a staircase to a landing on the second floor. At every step up he felt pulled back as by a wave, and the world was more than just colorless now. The edges were blurring and the light was dimming. When he reached the landing, he stepped through the door on his left.
There, straightening his tie in the mirror, was Michael, in color, gold tie, brown eyes, pale blue shirt. He was old, wrinkled, bald except for a tufty crown. Time had calcified on his body. There in the mirror, next to Michael’s face, was his own, young and tan and handsome, as it had been the day he died. Michael’s eyes shifted up to his brother’s, and he started, turning slowly. Somehow, with the instinctual sympathy between the dying and the dead, Michael understood why his brother had come.
At first they just looked at each other. But then Michael went to embrace his brother, and his arms passed straight through, and both felt a sharp pang, like coming home and finding yourself locked out. They sat on the bed and talked for a long time. Michael made phone calls, cancelling plans for the day. He told his brother of his life, filling in the decades-wide gaps left in between the pictures in the living room. The ghost told Michael of his travels, of the things he’d seen, of the last visit he’d made to the Grand Canyon.
All through the conversation the ghost felt himself fading further, bit by bit, and when night came he knew he did not have much longer. He told his brother this, and asked if they could go outside and look up, like they used to when they were kids, like they did when they were in the Grand Canyon.
Michael, his old bones threatening to give way, struggled up from the bed. His brother could not help, and he felt one of the last sturdy parts of himself break. But Michael got up, and got down the stairs, and out the door, and maneuvered himself down to the ground, where he sighed and stretched out and patted the grass next to him.
The ghost lay down next to Michael. “I used to laugh at you for believing in ghosts.”
“I always have believed,” Michael replied. “A ghost is just hollow space where a person ought to be. And the world is filled with those.”
The ghost strummed a chord on his guitar and the years fell away, and they were on the banks of the Colorado again, practicing harmonies.They sang to fill the empty spaces in the world, in each other, in themselves, voices weaving, thatching. Closing their eyes and swelling with the moment, gazing up at the empty space between the stars, they waited to pass from the Earth.
“Hollows” © Emmett Schlenz
This story is a reworked version of a story that was first printed in L.A. Miscellany, literary magazine at Loyola Marymount University
Emmett Schlenz was born in Rhode Island and studied English and History at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He currently works in special education in Portland, Oregon.
“Epiphany” and “Waiting for the Train” by Fran Eisemann. Stock used:
silhouette stock 9 by Emily, The strawberry tree
blue stained glass by Sarah & Jessica, AmethystDreams1987
railroad train in the morning fog by LakeSpirit3
false pretense 12 by Gin, thepropagation3