No matter how much we may envy the ghosts, be assured: in no way do the ghosts envy us. They seem not to envy each other, either: envy is the hoarded treasure of many a dying person, one thing other than life itself to cling to as grasp and grip expire. —but a possession or function of ghosts? I think not.
The ghosts seem as beyond envy as they are beyond both life and death. They cannot envy us our frail frames, our feeble brains, our transparent pomp, our illusions of progress. We may as well confess: the ghosts are those best placed to repudiate envy, so far are they beyond us and our mortal condition. Whittled down to blind will, without any mediation of sight, without any somatic hungers, ghosts can have no possible use of envy.
Perhaps it is the uselessness of envy to ghosts that might qualify as the exact motive for their enduring apathy. I myself never was able to put much stock in “ghost revenge tales”: Hamlet should have been written and performed as pure farce (or: as a much more obvious farce, a genuine Senecan comedy), since it is enormously difficult to even begin to understand what motive any ghost would have in seeking “justice”, in righting some wrong capable of being resolved only on this side of the grave. No: apart from having no motivation to pursue envy, revenge, or some specious notion of justice, ghosts would seem to have every justification and every talent for being just as passive or inert as possible—surely, inaction is the last gasp of every ghost, with or without reference to any other matter. Ghosts would seem by their bodiless constitutions to . . . manifest the very antithesis of practically all striving among all things that move with their animated appetites and their animal hungers. Ghosts by their nature would seem to be buried in graves of inaction and inertia: this is a matter of the nature of bodiless existence, it is no issue of ambition or of striving or of career choice. —and even if it could be construed as “ambition”, such ambition could not be compared with any ambition that those of us left on earth could recognize, beholden as we are to our appetites, hungers, and thirsts.
In fact, ghostliness (because it enjoys the aspect of continual retreat out of and away from somatic existence) could perhaps best be understood as “the entrance into being”, a concession to the actual circumstances of death (whatever else those might be), if it were or could be the case, that is, that the ghosts are the ones who have in fact, in deed, and in truth attained existence: we who labor and sweat and toil and bleed in our animal frames this death may not in fact, in deed, and in truth enjoy the ontological status we have taught ourselves to claim for ourselves. All the essential details remain hidden, it might seem difficult to say—but all ghosts seem always to eventually disappear but not necessarily into oblivion, or the oblivion of non-existence: sure, maybe they manage to linger for a century or two, haunting some specific locale on our hurtling piece of sand, but after another century or two, no one is left even to remember when some ghost used to haunt a room or a road, a house or a beach. The ghosts themselves never linger to boast of their former success or prowess at haunting, either! What mysteries endure!
Lest my reader begin to suspect me of fruitless speculation, I am compelled to observe: whoever has heard the first time of a haunted maternity ward or a haunted nursery? If some ghost were of a mind to return to somatic existence (and, frankly, who could want to after escaping the first time?), wouldn’t the perfectly natural locale be the very place where freshly ensouled bodies make their fresh entrances into somatic “existence”? (Why must we continue to privilege the baryonic realm now, after learning about the negligible status of baryonic matter at such a late date?)
Could any self-respecting ghost be said to’ve learned a thing by insisting on acquiring the body of a middle-aged slouch, a mediocrity? No: if any ghost really pined to be re-admitted to the land of the living, surely it would have the sense to hover in or around a maternity ward or a nursery, throttling some unsuspecting infant in its crib long enough to kill it then creep into the infant’s frame to be resuscitated into whatever life of whatever length might be forthcoming. (This could be a matter simply of my desiring that ghosts be more cunning and crafty, even more ruthless, than those of us still on this side of the grave, but if they’re just as stupid as us, why care one way or another what strategies they might employ to return to life? —because isn’t the entire prospect of “returning to life” one of the most ridiculous ambitions anyone could conceive?)
If a ghost learned nothing that life had to teach the first time around, could any lessons be presented more clearly after a second or a third go? How could the revelation of the vanity of baryonic existence have escaped them the first time? Dead and bodiless, with no appetite and no hunger to guide them, can’t the ghosts see plainly and clearly how well off they are? I find it impossible to think or believe they could have any interest whatsoever in returning to this mortal frame of existence, even temporarily (which is all it ever is for any of us, a temporary interval, no matter the perceived length of the interval—a mere hallway of one short length or another).
All and any appeals to the contrary, I refuse to suspend my disbelief! If the ghosts have no actual need of us, I cannot see that we are in any good position to court their company, no matter what discernments or charms they might exhibit in their bodiless states.
—and yet . . . and yet . . . : I have in fact felt the presence of a ghost, not seeing it, of course, and having no physical sense stimulated by its presence: a sensation of something numinous nearby, a feeling, an apprehension, not vague, and yet without any ability to exactly identify this ghost. It did not seem to be that of any deceased relative, none that I’d ever been acquainted with, at any rate (I’ve had all kinds of distant cousins I’ve never met). Nor did it seem that of any childhood friend lost to accident or disease, suicide or murder. Hard to think why any ghost of a complete stranger would want or be able to get noticed by anyone, much less by me myself . . .
Because I never frequent maternity wards or nurseries, I did not encounter this ghostly presence in any of those sites but in a jewelry store of all places. (I’m sure now the ghost must have been shopping for diamonds or emeralds, jade or turquoise or smoky topaz! [I’m being facetious.])
Well, this “sensation of the numinous” did occur when I stood before the lone display case on the premises of items obtained from estate sales: heirloom and antique items, whose original owners had to be presumed long since buried, et cetera. No single particular item aroused this “sensation”—no specific ring or pendant, no one particular bracelet or necklace that my wandering gaze took the trouble to examine or identify. Something about the spectacle of the contents of the entire display case, for all I knew: not any threatening menace, no arousal of horror or panicky fear, just the odd sensation of former owners lurking about invisible, examining not so much their former finery as surveying the guts and the very perceptions of those who paused to examine these items with any aspiration of acquisition or thought of purchase. I was only in the shop passing time waiting for a movie to start, I was not shopping for jewelry of any kind: but there was that odd sensation I felt standing in front of that long display case of items retrieved from maybe a decade’s worth of (mostly local) estate sales. It was notable enough an event for me to find it distinctly odd.
I had all but forgotten the episode, of course, when a few years later, after I’d moved out-of-state to a small city where I was known to no one, into a house I’d picked up that was not too large or too expensive and didn’t require too much work to make habitable, when going through the spare closet opening off the garage which I’d designated to hold decorations and bric-a-brac I would not be displaying in my new abode that I discovered on one top shelf, in the very corner at the back, a small sturdy wooden box. It was of two pieces, and the lid was not fitted with hinges but simply fit snugly atop the bottom piece. I wasn’t even curious to open it for days until after I’d stuffed the closet with everything I intended to store there, at which point I saw it and pulled it down again.
Getting the thing open was a small chore all its own, I had to get a knife with a thin sturdy blade to pry the two pieces apart (I wound up having to use a scalpel). The box was an odd shape, too, long and narrow, which may have made my grappling with it all the more challenging.
Inside the unlined box lay a skeletal finger, apparently human, apparently a little finger, two joints, slightly curled, severed just above the knuckle: but on this finger was a gold signet ring in an antique style to judge by the engraving of the initials. This time, my heart did begin to race, since the engraved initials match my own.
— strannikov is the anonym of the writer of flash fiction (absurdism, science satire, noir humor), essays, and verse whose works have appeared across recent years at Gone Lawn Journal, Metazen, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Fictionaut, The Miscreant, The Earth Journal, The Bookends Review , Literati Magazine, and in print at Chiron Review. He is a disaffected auto-didact and thus merits deep sympathy.