October 27, 2021

Ghost Story

During a break in the first rain after a long period of none I went for a walk through the neighborhood. I would like to make this sound beautiful because I like to pretend the city’s vast parochial aspects don’t exist, but they do. There’s one kind of pavement for sidewalks and another for roads and how they invented the difference I don’t know. It was still morning and a little cool but the sun came out and steam rose off saturated wooden fire escapes and from the squares cut into the pavement to give trees a little taste of the organic material that might surround them in the woods, were they in the woods. Of course nothing is permitted to decay in these squares except the trees, which sometimes look harried. As I approached the next square its steam burned off, revealing a perfectly round shallow depression filled with teeth. When I bent down half prostrate to listen all I could hear was a quiet chattering. I got bored and my knees got damp and the little pebble conglomerate of the pavement embossed my palms so I got up and left. When my great-grandfather grew restless and hungry in the village of his birth he decided to become a woodsman in the Pripet marshes. I know this because he wrote about it and although I don’t trust everything he wrote I do believe the awe he felt in the marshes among enormous trees. I have felt the same. He purchased leather hip boots with two rubles he earned by teaching an older girl some conversational Russian. She spoke Yiddish as I assume he did, not that he bothers to mention something that would be contextualizing to know. He didn’t write with anyone else’s interests in mind and I admire him for that. He loved those boots. For a thirteen-year-old boy, being a woodsman was largely a matter of pretending to know about how people are. He convinced himself he did know, and I pity him for that. He also acted as an intermediary between the actual woodsmen and the men who sold the trees from an office, which he said was situated in a place I can’t find on any map, this being one of the things I don’t believe — that a place as prosaic as an office existed in the Pripet marshes in 1900. I have to remind myself that just because I consider a place to be haunted doesn’t mean it isn’t ordinary. The trees were cut in the summer and removed from the woods in the winter once the ground froze sufficiently to drive carts out over the marsh. If the marsh didn’t freeze well or fast enough the trees rotted. My great-grandfather wrote about a place in the marsh that was covered with a great cloud for nine months every year because of an unknown furnace under the water that prevented it from freezing. A gestational period. He heard that many animals including a person named Ivan disappeared into this cloud. He heard about a bear who approached a woman, paw outstretched to draw her notice to a splinter, and in exchange for the extraction the bear brought her wild honey for many seasons. I heard you can put anything in art even a lie. He himself encountered a brown bear embracing a tree near the cloudy bog and had backed well away before he remembered his gun. He went with the woodsmen to hunt wolves over one long night. The forest sleeps most of the time unless men are in it. They made camp and after it grew dark the guide Vassily released his breath over a whistle and the sound that emerged was meant to mimic a wolf in love. I have a ceramic pipe that does this to mourning doves. I think of it as a decorative object. Well it worked, the men and the boy were soon surrounded by glowing wolf eyes and Vassily shot into the array, evidently striking one of them because wolfish screams went on for an hour. In the morning after they broke camp my great-grandfather went to look at the dead wolf. Only the head was left of the corpse, lips pulled back and fangs exposed. He bent down to listen and all he could hear was a whisper that he understood as a threat. He didn’t say what the point of any of this was or whether it made him feel like a woodsman. I think my great-grandfather would have loved the orderly dentition of California. I think he would have recognized these teeth.


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