Ghosts in the Mud

by Carrie Bachler
I don't believe in God.

It makes people uncomfortable when I say it. You are probably uncomfortable right now. But I choose not to spend my time fighting other people's demons, wrestling their insecurities. I know what I believe in and it is no god – no  man or woman, no beast or spirit.

I believe in the earth.

People try to tell me that I'm wrong. Not that my beliefs are wrong – most people keep that notion to themselves, I think – but that I am wrong about myself.  "You believe in God," they tell me. "You just don't know  it yet." I let them believe as they wish, as I want the same from them. But I tell you, here, that one can't choose what  one believes. I wish it were so. It would comfort me, greatly, to believe that a warm spot was waiting for me on the  other side of my grave.

As it is, I try to take solace in my gut belief that I will return, only, to the earth, by remembering that life will spin on around me where I lie. There is something enchanting and beautiful about a metropolis standing around my bones,  buildings crumbling and new ones rising, trees creaking and growing and blooming, lives continuing. The real scary  thing, what terrifies me most, is the disturbing fear that I have in my head of a grey, desolate, and empty earth housing  my bones, my soul if I can call it that, for all time.

How lonely it would be.

~

Winter, out of no where, kicked me. We were lying opposite one another on the ground, our bare feet propped up against each other. It had rained, recently, and the wet and somewhat oozing earth was comforting. I was deep in  thought, I don't remember about what, when I felt her toenails slice my ankle as she kicked.

"Ouch, what're you doing?"

"I just had an idea."

She pulled herself up at the waist, sinking her palms into the mud. Her left cheek was dirty where it had been resting in the earth. She sat and stared at me.

"Well?"

Her eyes had this thing about them – they always had it – which I find difficult to explain to you. She cared about little, I guess I will say, but was always passionate about something, and it showed in her eyes. They were  never really there, with you, as you talked to her.

I wondered, just then, where they were.

"I think, Jack, that I should marry you."

I laughed and rocked my head back and forth in the mud.

"You do, do you?"

She fell back into the mud, on purpose, I think, so I could no longer see how serious she was.

"I don't see why not."

"You don't even know my real name, Winter."

When I had met her, three years ago, she had seen it fit to call me Jack. One couldn't help what one's name should be, she had said. And from that day forward she knew me only as Jack, without another thought.

"Oh, don't be foolish. You could be Steven or Daniel just the same."

She paused and I could hear her eyebrows crinkling.

But I'm quite fond of Jack, she was thinking.

I smiled and closed my eyes. What she would do if she knew my real name. The thought made me burst, almost, with laughter.

"So what do you say?"

Her unease with the subject of my real name amused me and I smiled.

"I can't marry you, Winter."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm not even sure that I like you all that well."

Her kick didn't surprise me but bruised me, I think, and made me feel quite smug inside.

"Oh, you're maddening sometimes, Jack."

I let her voice fall into the trees and I shivered. It was cold now that the sun had gone down.

"Do you want to get a pizza?"

She stood and her face brightened above me. "I'm starved. Mushroom and jalapeño?"

"I hate mushrooms."

She walked by me toward the door of my little house and dropped a big, soggy leaf on my face as she passed.

"I know."

I could taste, quite clearly, the satisfaction in her voice.

I pushed the leaf aside and laid there, watching the sky, hearing the screen door bang behind my head. The wind was quite chilly and made me wish for a sweater.

I had read, once, that goose bumps stemmed from the body's reaction to uncertainty and to fear. I studied the undersides of my arms as they laid propped under my head and thought it foolish, really, that my body should think  goose bumps to be a defense for anything.

I laid my head back into the earth. I wasn't scared of a lot; I didn't need a whole lot of defenses, really. Life always, for me, stemmed back to time, to the end – something there was no defense for. There was just so much to do  – so many rivers to swim, trails to trek, clouds to name – so much earth to appreciate before joining with  it forever.

I stood up, brushing a loose strand of hair behind my ear, and it stuck there with the mud. I walked toward the door, where Winter was waiting for me inside. I needed to be with her just then. She eased my mind.

~

I sat with my legs dangling, my back propped up in a neat and knobbly fork of bark. I was pretty close to the top, actually, and I hadn't realized, until just then, how different and alive leaves were when looking down through them  from the top. From the ground, sometimes, they all look the same. But from the top, it's almost like they've all got lives  and personalities of their own, telling each other jokes, high-fiving now and again, learning to dance.

I picked a chunk of bark and dropped it down, watching it bounce around and come to rest in a bed of browning leaves, twigs, and dandelions.

I was sitting in a beautiful day.

"You feel like a giant?"

Winter was propped up next to me, her knees bent to her chin.

"No. I feel like I'm sitting in our tree."

"Oh, come on, Jack. You need an imagination." Her dirty blonde hair was tied up in a fuzzy knot on the back of her head and I wondered how it looked so neat and so terribly messy at the same time.

"Just reach your arms out, see," and she stretched her arms as far as they would go, split her fingers, took a deep breath. "And you're a giant."

"Be careful or you're going to fall right out of this tree, and then what am I going to do?"

I hadn't a clue where her eyes were but her voice was there, at least. "I don't know, Jack. What would you do?"

"I'd fall apart at my inability to protect you, I'm quite sure. Collapse at the sight of your broken limbs and spirit. It would crush me to pieces. I would eat myself up inside and wither away and drink myself into a miserable life, and,  eventually, die a slow death from the guilt of it."

She glared at me and laughed just the same.

"Oh, I bet you'd have a hell of a good time thinking up some embarrassing story of what happened to me and laugh your way into the emergency room. That's what I really think you'd do."

"Nah. I've got no imagination, after all."

She would have tackled me, I'm quite sure, if we were on solid ground. Instead she stretched out her arms and closed her eyes. I had never seen her look prettier.

"Winter, will you marry me?"

She smiled and kept her eyes closed and waved her fingers through the air.

"You can't marry me, Jack."

"Why? You already told me you wanted to."

"But I don't even know your real name. It's just not a reasonable thing to do."

I turned to roll my eyes at her but she was up, monkeying through the branches and catching the cuff of her pant leg and tearing it and jumping to the ground before I could even get my bearings to climb down after her.

She shouted up at me as I climbed. "Do you love me?"

I peeked at her through the holes in the branches. "Some days."

And I landed next to her and she grabbed my hand and we walked through the grass barefoot toward the house.

"Well, that's good enough for me." She looked at me, or through me, I couldn't tell. "Why the change of heart?"

"No change of heart." I kissed the back of her hand. "I just wanted to be the one to ask."

~

Our wedding was outside in late September and it was snowing, very strangely, like it was deep into February. Winter wore a long pink skirt and my favorite pink blouse and she was freezing, which was okay, because she liked to be cold. It  made her feel crisp and alert and ready for life, she said. Okay, is what I usually said to that. I wore a thick Eskimo coat  and I, too, was comfortable.

We had tables set up in the park and music but it was too cold, much too cold for dancing, for anyone but Winter and I. So people went inside the lodge by the fireplace and drank rum and beer and talked politics, and Winter and I danced to  the Beatles all night outside, just her and me. I zipped her up facing me in my Eskimo coat and her pink skirt floated  through the snow and we danced and laughed and looked positively insane, I'm sure, but no matter. I was happy.

And as John Lennon told us that he was the walrus, we laughed because we didn't know what he was talking about and spun and sung out of tune as loud as we could. Winter, snuggled against me in my coat, tucked her hands up beneath  my shirt. I wondered, just then, how much she really liked being cold and I tightened my grip around her waist.

"Well, on to kids then, right?"

"Winter, are you mad? We've been married for three hours."

She acted very un-Winter like and snuggled against me. I wondered if something was wrong.

"No, I'm not mad, Jack. Let's have seven."

"Seven? Are you even serious?"

"Of course I am. Seventeen, even, as many as time permits, I guess."

"And how are we going to think up as many names that are at least halfway decent?"

"Oh, whatever their names should be, that's what they'll be."

I laughed and kissed the top of her head. "That's right. I forgot."

She pulled away from me and ducked down and out of my coat and flopped down in the snow.

"Winter, you're going to freeze!"

But she was in her own world, again, just like that, with her eyes closed and the snowflakes dusting her eyelashes. So I picked up an acorn and dropped it on her belly. She took a glance and closed her eyes again.

"Thanks. If I were a squirrel this just might by my lucky day."

I sat down next to her, cross-legged, and felt snow soaking through the seat of my pants. "I think I'd rather be a cat. Don't they just make you feel wonderfully sleepy and content?"

She crinkled her eyebrows. "Yes. I suppose they do. But squirrels are adventurers, they get to see the world, travel the earth. Run up and down trees all day." She sat up and looked me in the eyes. "Just like we want to do, no?"

I loved her so much for understanding me better, almost, than I understood myself. I needed, just then, to wrap myself in her.

"Winter, please don't ever leave me here alone."

She cocked her head to the side and bit her lip. "We'll explore up and down, Jack. Make the earth good and happy with us, ready for us, first."

I stood up, suddenly aware that I was getting too heavy.

"Come on, let's go somewhere alone. Get a pizza?"

"Great idea. Mushrooms, right?"

"I don't think I've ever liked a particular pizza topping more."

She looked at me and smiled.

"Excellent."

We bid our farewells and left hand-in-hand and I tried not to let myself love her too much. And as we sat in the snow beneath our tree in our little backyard eating pepperoni pizza I realized, quite definitely, that I would never love anyone more.

~

I sat in a chair next to the bed, leaning over her and watching her breathe.

"So what'd you tell them? That I fell down a flight of stairs, right?" She smiled weakly and kept her eyes closed.

My insides hurt.

"No. That you had to go to the bathroom so badly that you were delirious, wild from the pain of it, and ran real mad-like onto the tile, slipped, and fell into the tub where you cracked your head."

"That's pretty good." She smiled and opened her eyes. "Job well done."

Her face was swollen and purple. Her body was covered in sheets that bled red in spots. I was too afraid to move them.

They had barely been able to get her out of the car, they had told me, it was that bad. I knew, very well, what was happening.

"So you think they bought it?" Her voice was weak but still Winter.

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because I couldn't live with the lie. I told them the truth not a minute later."

"And what's that?"

"That you were watching Woody the Woodpecker on TV and decided you would like to be a woodpecker. And having decided such you drew the conclusion that you could fly, and tried to fly to the tree out back for dinner."

"Wouldn't you think..." her voice trailed off and she struggled to swallow. "Wouldn't you think that I would be better suited as Dumbo? That way I could be an elephant and a bird at the same time."

The ridiculousness of all of it made me smile, and I had never been so grateful.

"Yeah, I suppose you've got me there."

She smiled and turned her head on the pillow, facing me.

I hadn't in all my life hurt so badly.

She opened her eyes and I knew, for once, that they were no where else. They were there with me, looking right into me.

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

She smiled at me. "What's your real name?"

It was the first time, since I had known her, that she had ever asked me the question. It touched me and horrified me and mixed me up so badly that I couldn't think.

I knelt down on the ground, as close as I could get to her, and wrapped my arms across her chest. I put my face in front of her beautiful, swollen one and looked into her eyes.

"My name's Jack, Winter. It always has been."

~

We have names for everything, of course. This is an oak tree, that is a red tulip, here is a boulder. But I look around some days, if I can catch the right frame of mind, and realize that things make much more sense without names. It's all earth, really, when we take away all of our names. Built up tall over there, twisted and snaked around right here, sunken  and misshapen, pigmented and fluid. I like to think of things that way, if I can, instead of walking around calling this bump an Appalachian mountain and that one a cactus and not really seeing anything, at all.

It's what I believe in, after all. I spend a lot of time thinking about it.

Winter told me, often, that what she believed in was ghosts. That we as people never really die here on the earth. I thought her crazy, and I told her so. Every chance I got.

But yesterday it rained and I dragged a kitchen chair out onto my flat little porch and I let it rain right down all over me. The rain was cold and I thought it would make me feel better, or awake, or anything. But, as the drops ran down my face, I thought of the icy showers that Winter always took because they made her feel, she said, alive.

So I sat in the cold rain and sat there and couldn't leave for the memories it brought me. How she didn't own an umbrella and didn't care when mascara smudged under her eyes from the wet. How we had a mud fight, once, in the middle of a thunderstorm and passed out from exhaustion under our tree where we tempted fate and slept. How dark her hair got when it was wet, and how she blinked so quickly to keep the water out and how I missed her more – I should have known – when it was raining.

I sat there in the rain all night and woke up laying on the porch in the morning with a headache. It was still sprinkling and my head was still asleep as I tried to sit up, so I lay there, sideways to the earth, watching a worm inch across the pavement toward the grass. Winter grated orange peel and mixed it with hot water for a headache. I thought she was crazy, and I told her so. Every chance I got.

I don't believe in God. You can be uncomfortable and think me misguided, if you will, but I will never care just as sure as I will never believe. There's too much real around for that – too much rain, too many trees, too much earth. And, if I may borrow a page from Winter's book, I can see, now, that there are too many ghosts swimming in the raindrops right here on earth, seeping through the soil, floating in and out of everywhere. All I believe is here. And I can take solace now – I know – that an empty earth, a desolate barren place, will never house my bones. No place next to Winter can be cold.
Carrie Bachler is an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2007, Carrie Bachler