My house is haunted by ghosts who live outside on the lawn. What is the form they’ve chosen?
Snow drops, crocuses, glory of the snow, and purple flowers called blue bugles.
These are the echoes of flowers planted years and years ago by previous owners. They’re unruly echoes. They’ve long ago left their original garden beds and have wandered like sleepwalkers and bedded down everywhere.
Why are we so lucky? I wondered. Then I told my wife a theory: “It must be a septic leak. It’s us. We’re fertilizing the crap out of our lawn.”
This confirmed something I’ve always believed about myself: every last bit of me is art. Look at the flowers I paint with my waste!
My wife said, “No.”
“Go on,” I said.
“The lady here before us loved flowers. These are hers.”
I know this is true. But the flower-haunting of our lawn is so extensive, my heart tells me it has to be older than a single previous owner.
Our house is one of the oldest in the neighborhood. When the sun hits the windows just right, you can see for brief moments the house’s memories: images of farmland, dirt roads, woods. It’s a house built the old fashioned way, back when houses were so new, they didn’t have preestablished patterns to follow. They grew into the air as haphazardly as someone feeling their way through a room in the dark. Rooms grow out of rooms this way and that. Windows open where they open, as unexpectedly and numerous as the eyes of a potato, but full of fierce personality: the eyes of a spider.
(As an aside, I must tell you this. My brother went walking in the woods one night. On the trail ahead of him, his flashlight caught something glittering. Clearly, someone had misplaced a diamond. He approached, following the angle of the flashlight beam down and down. It didn’t lead to a diamond, but to a spider standing in the middle of the path, watching him. The glittering was the shine of its eyes.)
An old house is the best kind of hand-me-down. Houses are musical instruments played differently by each group of musicians. Some play mostly cheerful music. For others, the songs are mournful. Or full of rage. And though you bring your own music to the house, the old songs are still there. On the quietest days, you find yourself swaying to music that doesn’t belong to you.
I live in a musical barrel, getting seasoned by the dust of old notes.
I think of the long chain of people who have lived here and wonder how many of them loved flowers. Considering the state of our lawn, all of them. And I wonder is this something they brought to the house, or is it a love the house suggested to them, like a boy who receives his brother’s hand-me-down overalls, finds a forgotten harmonica in the pocket, and learns to love music?
How They Haunt
Our flowers haunt us in four chapters.
The snowdrops appear. These little white flowers are as crazy as I am about the approach of summer. They can’t wait. They sense a stronger sunlight and run out into the yard, but they find themselves standing in the snow in bare feet.
My wife and I feel sorry for the snowdrops. They show up in mean March, that wishy-washy freak of a month. March, a conjoined twin (half lion, half lamb), gruesomely tearing itself apart.
Hey, March, know thyself. Your sun is a liar. April hates you.
The two-faced sun of March lures the poor snowdrops out like the glowing wand of an anglerfish. Then the sky drops snow on them, a lead-blanket net.
April, we need you now.
The purple, pink, and white crocuses. These are the size of shot-glasses. How many?
Picture a city of barnacles on a long rock. That many.
Now stop thinking of barnacles, because you’re picturing thousands of little crusty anuses.
Replace the anuses with flowers. That’s our lawn!
Just when the crocuses are at the height of their power, the grass erupts with starry-blue glory of the snow, as if the ground is the sky, and night is falling. Stars. More and more.
Lastly, the blue bugles. These little purple flowers arrive in tight groupings and look to me like miniature woods made of purple Christmas trees. Their color is the delicious icy purple of superior grape candies. They draw the bees. Every bee in town.
I imagine walking in the purple woods. The shade is purple. And the sky is full of bees as big as zeppelins. The sound is huge. It is the world murmuring in its sleep.
A Good Question
Why do I care so much about flowers?
I didn’t use to. For years, the only flower I cared about was the Venus flytrap, because it is a monster, and I worship at Monster Mountain, cousin of Olympus. Location?
I’m getting old.
Either that, or I’m getting young. Little children care about flowers. If someone wasn’t there to stop them, they’d pick all the flowers on Earth. They’d weave them in their hair, wear them heavily behind their ears, and flowers would shoot out of their pockets like music from trumpets. Children would eat them too, hoping to become flowers. Gardens would be their beds. They’d pull blankets of daffodils, lilies, and buttercups over their heads and stay up late reading the little pages of daisies by firefly light. And if they had their way, everywhere they planted their bare feet, roses would grow.
Who loves flowers more than me?
It’s not even close.
My flower-love is a dim woods stream. It’s spent most of its life underground, sleeping deep as a coma. Dreamless. Now it’s back, and a little chilly from living underground so long.
But for my wife, it’s an unbroken love from baby days, a river wide as a lake, and long as a continent.
A love you can see from space.
ASTRONAUT ONE: Why does western Pennsylvania look purple?
ASTRONAUT TWO: Hold up. Do you smell lilac?
ASTRONAUT ONE: I do! But that’s impossible.
That’s my wife.
Whenever I think of loving flowers, I think of loving birds, and I wonder again, am I growing old or young?
Children are not self-conscious. They don’t know how to be. They have to be taught. And while they’re in the glory-years of being nothing but eyes and ears and reaching hands, they see and smell flowers. They see and hear birds.
They reach for all, longing to receive. Flowers and birds are their wafers and grape juice, their wild communion.
But children do learn self-consciousness.
Then they battle with it all their lives.
They used to walk. Now they have a walk. Carefully curated steps. And constructed smiles. And a way of laughing. A way of loving. One style replaces another and another as they desperately seek what they had in the beginning: forgetfulness of self.
These cats chase their tails, turning themselves into whirlwinds, drills, boring out their own graves. Some of them, the lucky ones, emerge from the ground young once more. They’ve learned to forget themselves.
They’ve remembered how to see flowers, and birds, learned to love them again.
The other morning, I lay awake in the dark. Something woke me up. What was it? Then I heard the first bird song of the year, and I said (and it was like crying out),
“Oh thank God.”
I’ve never had a response like that to birds before.
What will it be like next year, and the next? I have a feeling that when I hear the season’s first bird twenty years from now, or thirty, or forty, the happiness might kill me.
You’ll find me mysteriously dead some early morning. The autopsy will shock the world.
As soon as the scalpel touches my chest, I pop like a balloon, and out flies flowers and birds.
Cause of death?
Arrested By Flowers
Our flowers are so shockingly abundant, they stop people. Walkers halt. Drivers slow down and park. Drivers get out of their cars, leaving the doors open, leaving the cars rolling away down the street.
A pair of walking ladies stopped in front of our house. One of them shot her head forward like an attacking turtle and her mouth hung wide open.
The look on her face reminded me of something a friend said once. She cut open a melon and the yellowness of the fruit inside shocked her. It made her laugh. She couldn’t help herself. The color shouted at her and she had no choice but to shout back with laughter.
The walking women took pictures. Pictures from far away and close up, and they crouched down as close as they could get to the colors on the ground.
Look all you want, I thought, but don’t touch.
A little car stopped. An old man in a dark blue t-shirt and faded jeans got out, leaving a woman in the passenger seat, watching him.
He walked slowly back and forth in front of our flowers. He took pictures. He crouched low, like a child, like he was about to perform a somersault.
Move along, grandpa.
Lastly, before heading back to the car, he stood there looking down at his feet, at the flowers growing right up against the sidewalk, a hightide of flowers coming in.
One last look. Quiet. No pictures.
He returned to the car. The woman watching from the passenger’s seat lifted a cigarette toward her mouth. She also took a last look at the flowers. While she did, she held the cigarette in the air close to her mouth, paused, forgotten.
I saw a young couple walking by. They stopped. They stood close together, looking at our flowers, whispering. The gal glanced at the house. The guy glanced. Still whispering.
What are you up to? I thought.
Then it happened.
The girl crouched down quickly. Eyes on the ground. Eyes on the house.
She picked a flower.
Then up she jumped, turned her back on us, and hurried away with her boyfriend down the sidewalk.
I watched them go, giggling as they went.
I was angry.
With disgust, I hammered out a thought: I hate human nature.
The sneakiness. That depraved smile on her face while she checked to see if she could get away with vandalism and theft. The childlike energy of their escape, the mocking giggles.
Oh, the endless fun of crime.
I told my wife about it later. We were in the kitchen, making supper.
“Guess what?” I said, chopping carrots like a born executioner.
“There will always be war.”
“What?” she said.
(I’m from Maine. Frickin’ is something we say. It’s the high-powered form of Friggin’.)
“What happened?” my wife asked.
As I told her about the youths, their devious whispering, that rotten smile, the hateful laughter, my mind howled:
You think you got away with it? GOD SEES EVERYTHING!
When my wife had all the details, the whole picture of the assault on our property, she smiled.
“That’s so nice,” she said.
“What?” I said.
“It’s nice. Let them have a flower.”
“Yeah,” I said, “it’s a flower today; tomorrow, they’re pulling us out of our beds and beating us to death.”
“They’re wearing your clothes. They’re claiming my figurines. Who’s gonna stop them? No one, because we’re dead. Now they’re sitting on our steps, strumming my guitar. They’re eating my Reese’s Pieces!”
“No one’s eating your Reese’s Pieces.” My wife showed me the Pieces. They were safe. Then she continued: “Like you said, it’s a flower today. That’s all it is. Also, they’re not our flowers, not really. Who planted them?”
Grudgingly, I said, “God.”
To further beat me into the ground, my wife said, “Isn’t everything a gift anyway?”
I had no answer, so I started stacking carrot chunks into a wall, imagining this wall around our flowers, imagining myself as a guardian, a man with a big knife walking the wall to protect his flowers, and then I realized I was right:
There will always be war.
And I’m the reason why.
After supper, we sat on our front steps and looked at the flowers, our multitude of beautiful ghosts.
My wife was smiling. I was imagining thieves and grinding my teeth.
But then she reached to hold my hand, and I was forced to open my fist.