You know Liam, sympathize with his loss. Perhaps you lost someone, too.
A fright. That’s what you’re supposed to call a group of ghosts. Not a herd. Not a flock. Not some sort of harmless congregation of beings. A fright of ghosts. As if fear is the only option. That there would be no room in your heart, in your body, for anything else, were you to come upon them. Were they to come upon you. But there are other possibilities. Like the year Liam McDaniel turned 51 and found his way to an abandoned mountain town in Colorado, the aspen trees just beginning to clatter into a warm and golden autumn. You know what year it was. The year everyone he loved most died.
Liam’s circumstances were unusual for their raw improbability. Perhaps you understand this from within circumstances of your own. You know Liam, sympathize with his loss. Perhaps you lost someone, too. Maybe your wife died. Your husband, your partner. The person whose hand you held within yours for years, or whose hand you had only just begun to hold, already feeling how it could last. Maybe your parents died, either at the end of long lives or not so long. Maybe you lost a child. A grown child, or a baby, or one who was at that in between age: not too young to take notice but not old enough to understand. Or maybe you were already alone, but before you didn’t mind so much, and now you do. Or maybe you always minded. You always had that ache in your chest. Whatever your circumstance, you know what it’s like to keep company with absence in an empty room.
A group of patients is called a virtue. A group of doctors is called a doctrine. There is no definitive collective noun for corpses. There are many names for a group of trees. A clump, a forest, a coupe. A grove. A thicket. A stillness. A stand.
After everyone he loved most had died, after he couldn’t touch them while they were dying, and after he also couldn’t touch anyone else he knew—those who might have loved him or he might have come to love—Liam McDaniel left everything to be among the trees. A stillness of trees. A place where being alone was a choice, not something that happened to you while you tried to push it away. After everyone he loved most had died, Liam read an article about a man who bought a ghost town. It was a hopeful story. The man bought the ghost town before the virus crossed the ocean, crossed every state line. While the man was visiting his ghost town, the order came to shelter in place. So the man hunkered down, discovered treasures in all of the ghost town’s walls. It was a hopeful story. The man was having the time of his life.
A group of bats is called a colony. There is no designation for a group of viruses. Perhaps because it only takes one. One virus that jumps from its usual host. An infection. An outbreak. An epidemic. A pandemic.
Liam had held his wife’s hands in his hands, and then he hadn’t. His wife’s hands had been strong, her nails trimmed short. She made things with paint and she made things with rope and wool and she made things with clay and she made things with metal and stone. Once she made the shell of a person that you could step inside of. Like a paper-mâché mask, but life-size, cast from head to toe. You were the skeleton. You were the organs—the lungs and heart. Your breath was warm coming through the nostrils of the face. You could hear, and you could see through the holes of its eyes, but you were fixed in place and couldn’t move. When it was exhibited, people in galleries revolved around the shell to see who might be standing inside. To take their turns being inside. Everyone was allowed to touch.
A group of houses is called a huddle. There is no word for a group of ghost towns, but they are littered throughout the Colorado mountains. Liam found a listing for one that was headed to auction—just a single cabin still standing, the remains of a saloon, the small dark opening of a mine against the rocky earth—disintegrating in an alpine meadow. Sitting in the empty kitchen of his house, one among the huddle of little brick houses whose windows reflected Denver’s late summer sun, Liam placed his empty hands palms up on the table’s dark wood. He stared at his left hand and imagined it pooling with blood, imagined the deep line of a wound across his wrist. Liam had no parents left to miss him. No wife who would find him. No children he could harm with his leaving. A group of children is called an ingratitude. But there are other possibilities.
Liam stared at his right hand, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t see it as completely empty. Light spilled through the kitchen windows, filled the cup of his palm. If he turned his palm over, the light was stubborn, flickered on the back of his hand. Reached all the way up to his elbow, hot and bright. It was not a ghost. But Liam didn’t know that then. He hadn’t yet seen the real thing. The light was not the ghost of his wife or the ghosts of his children. It was just an abundance of sunlight with exceptional timing. Liam chose his right hand and used it to call up the real estate agent and place his bid.
Though you might have thought otherwise, Liam wasn’t afraid of ghosts or the prospect of living in a ghost town.
A group of carpenters is called a panel. A group of architects is called a rendering. A group of sculptors is a mold. Liam’s wife had built spectacular things out of ordinary things, pieces of things, while Liam’s hands drafted plans, then carried them out with nails and screws and joists and planks and beams. Liam’s hands had been over every inch of their brick bungalow, working its pieces until the house was distinctively theirs. He had mended pipes and shored up sinking porch columns and restored the built-in cabinetry with sandpaper and stain and sweat. He had painted bedrooms. Painted nurseries. Painted the kitchen with its riot of light. And within the house’s walls, Liam’s hands had been over every inch of his wife. Had tended his children when they were newborns hollering at the middle-of-night moon.
Though you might have thought otherwise, Liam wasn’t afraid of ghosts or the prospect of living in a ghost town. As he prepared to leave the bungalow, he moved room to room, accounting for the accumulation of things by trying to see with his wife’s eyes. Noting how each item might have a use. How it might become something new. But then he packed up most of the contents of the house to put in storage while he was away. He set aside very few things to bring with him. The wooden box his daughter had made last year in high school wood shop, because that was how he knew she had inherited his hands. The ceramic serving bowl his son had recently made in pottery class, because that was how he knew those hands were gifts from his wife. The shell of a person his wife had made and exhibited many times, but never sold. The rest of what he took from the house fit easily into the back of his pickup truck. There were no ghosts, so the ghosts took up no space at all.
Liam drove away from the little brick house, away from the huddle of brick houses, through the crisscross of city streets and out of the city altogether. A group of maps is called a latitude. A group of mountains is called a range. Liam followed the maps into the mountains, drove until the highways turned to roads and the roads turned to dirt and tailings and dead-ended in the meadow of his ghost town, ringed with aspen trees glittering in the mid-September sun. When Liam stepped out of his truck, the alpine air raised up goosebumps on his skin, and then the sun smoothed them down again. The aspen trees shivered their cymbals of leaves all around him. Liam sank to his knees in the scrub-brown grass, wrapped his arms about himself, and began to cry. There is no agreed upon name for a collective of tears.
One thing you should know about ghosts is that they rarely waste time. Another is that they are rarely direct. Anything caught between worlds exists with both urgency and uncertainty. Liam could feel the expectant energy in the air, nudging him to get settled before dark. So he rose from his knees and walked across the meadow toward the cabin. Dozens of grasshoppers zig-zagged through the last of the summer’s fading wildflowers, bumping into his legs and springing away. The first living creatures to touch him in months. He stumbled a little, startled by the proximity of their bodies, but then leaned into them, trying to catch them between his hands. A group of grasshoppers is called a cloud. A cloud of grasshoppers, moving across the brilliant blue sky, out of Liam’s reach.
Standing in front of the little cabin, Liam with his architect’s mind marveled at its longevity. It was constructed of carefully saddle-notched, hand-sawed logs, its windows uncannily intact. Liam tested the door, reinforced with tin to deter rodents, and found that it still hinged open and closed, that it could be secured by a wooden peg fitted in a hasp. The shallow pitch of the roof, crafted from a sturdy ridge log and purlins and wedged with collar ties beneath the eaves, explained the years the cabin had survived beneath heavy snow. Liam ran his carpenter’s hands along the unpeeled logs. A masterful example of vernacular architecture, wrought with hand tools from materials nearby. Liam wished he could have met the builder of this cabin, could have sat with him and watched summer thunderstorms roll in over the peaks as they drank strong coffee and wiped the dirt from their palms.
Liam’s son had died first. Just a couple of weeks after turning 13. You remember how it was. At first we thought children were invincible, that the virus would inhabit them quietly and then go on its way. We took steps to protect the children, anyway. But a few days into the stay-at-home order, the first week that schools were closed, Liam’s son developed a fever. After that, it was quick, like a boulder in a landslide, picking up speed as it tumbles through the scree. There is no standard collective noun for a group of rocks. Until they are stones, monuments set in place. A cairn of stones. A henge. Until they are gravestones, and then we don’t know what to call them again. A cemetery is not a collection but a place, containing so much more than markers with names and dates. We might agree to call them by our own appellation: a grief of gravestones. A sorrow. But perhaps if we name death too precisely, we hold it too close.
Per hospital rules, children were not made to suffer alone as adults were, but only one parent was allowed to be at their son’s bedside at a time. So Liam and his wife took shifts. When his wife called in the middle of the night as their son’s body was failing, Liam could hear through her sobs the chaos of machines in the background. Long, high-pitched tones and alarms threaded themselves through her choked breaths, her urgent weeping. Liam hadn’t been sleeping when she called. He had been standing in the dark kitchen, running his hand along the wooden doorframe. Wood that he had once restored to its original, flawless grain. He was trying to find comfort in that which had been tattered and then repaired. Liam was not there when his son died. It happened while he was racing through the quiet city toward the hospital, streetlights blurring into pinwheels through his watery eyes.
Liam stepped inside the little cabin. As his eyes adjusted to the interior dim, a table with two wooden chairs and a ladder to a sleeping loft came into focus. A cast iron wood stove hunkered in the corner of the single room. Something had chewed at the table legs—marmots, he suspected—and every surface was overspread with dirt and the scattered evidence of mice. The cabin’s front window looked out over the meadow, across to the only other building left in Liam’s ghost town—the remains of a saloon tilting into the afternoon light. But the saloon could wait. Liam unloaded his few belongings—the twin mattress that had been his daughter’s, kitchen essentials, books, tools. One bundle of bedding. One large suitcase of clothes. Several bins of non-perishable food. The wooden box, the ceramic bowl, the human shell. One sturdy broom. Three small cremation boxes, each with a set of initials marked in Liam’s scrupulous hand.
Liam swept away the dirt and droppings from the room and loft and secured the cabin door in the hasp. He hauled the mattress up the well-made ladder and fell into the heaviest sleep he’d had since everyone he loved most had died. Inside, a mischief of mice darted wall to wall in confusion. Outside, the aspen trees were alive in the wind. Perhaps all the creatures that roam about at night woke up. A mask of raccoons. A wiliness of coyotes. A crackle of crickets. A prickle of porcupines. A parliament of owls. Perhaps they moved in and out of the ghost town all night, around and around Liam’s cabin, in and out of the bed of Liam’s truck. Perhaps they were simply being exactly their animal selves, hunting and hiding in the darkness, smelling the new smell of Liam but leaving him be. But there are other possibilities.
Looking out the window, he saw them. Massive animals running together through the moon-bright meadow, their hooves rumbling over the open ground.
Liam was shaken out of sleep that first night by a sound like thunder. If not for the odor—a smell like a rodeo corral—he would have assumed a storm was preparing to heave the sky open, drench the meadow in late-summer rain. But the smell was overwhelming, dragged him fully out of sleep. The cabin was cold—he had been too exhausted to investigate the workability of the stove—and he wrapped himself in his blanket as he sat up. The walls and table were vibrating, the chairs making tiny jumps on the tremoring floor. Liam grabbed a camping lantern from his bedside, made his way down the ladder on careful bare feet.
Looking out the window, he saw them. Massive animals running together through the moon-bright meadow, their hooves rumbling over the open ground. Bison. A herd of bison plunging their earth-dark bodies through the grass, pressing the humps of their backs together as they ran, their horns shimmering in the lunar light. What was a herd of bison doing, traveling in the middle of the night? Liam bundled the blanket more tightly around him, undid the peg from the hasp. As the door swung open, the sound and smell intensified, and Liam had to steady himself against the frame. These bison were enormous. Much larger than the ones he’d seen at the zoo. As he watched, the bison circled the meadow, drawing within a few yards of the cabin’s door. And then, as Liam stepped back, the bison began to vanish, blinking out like streetlamps until a single bull stood at the far side of the meadow, its silhouette moonshadowed against the sagging wall of the saloon. The bull regarded Liam, lowered its gigantic head to snuff the ground, and then disappeared in a collapsing burst of light.
Liam blinked, then stared into the empty meadow. The air thickened with cricket noise and the rustling of aspen leaves. Was he dreaming? Had he finally succumbed to the fever, too, with its wild hallucinations? He set down the lantern, dropped the blanket behind him on the cabin floor, and stepped out barefoot into the meadow’s grass. No hoofprints anywhere. The soil was utterly undisturbed. When everyone he loved most had died, no one could come to comfort Liam. No one could hold him in their arms. Friends receded into faraway voices, miniature faces on screens. Liam looked up, the sky so dense with stars it was hard to find the dark. A galaxy, a wonder of stars. A chill ran through Liam, ushering him back inside.
In the cold cabin, the shell of a person beckoned him, spectral in the moonlight. Drawn to it, Liam stepped closer, pressed his face up against the interior of the shell’s mask, closed his eyes. The shell was made of everything. Plaster and wood and metal and stone and clay and cloth. He tried to smell his wife, but his nose was still steeped in bison. No matter how many times he inhaled—breathing in the smell of the mask and trying to force out the animal smell as he exhaled—the odor of the beasts lingered, obstinate and relentless.
Liam didn’t remember lying down or falling back to sleep, but he awoke in the morning curled in the blanket on the cabin floor, the shell of a person looking down at him with empty eyes. He stood creakily, shook the memory of the bison away like airing out a rug, dust dissipating into dream. Liam cobbled together a breakfast of canned pears and jerky, then set about cleaning out the stove. It responded to his care like a neglected dog, offering its belly and happily stirring back to life. Liam filled it with wood from a well-seasoned stash he found behind the cabin, nursed the fire to crackling, and made coffee on the newly-cleaned surface. The remarkable ease with which the cabin welcomed him ignited in Liam the first inklings of joy he’d felt in many months. His meadow, his ghost town, were alive with morning birdsong and the sound of wind through conifers, an abundant calm.
As the sun climbed up over the ridge, Liam walked across the meadow to investigate what was left of the saloon. A scurry of chipmunks darted in and out of the ruin as Liam approached. Under the weight of years, the saloon had not fared well. Its tall façade still stood, but the double doors had mostly rotted away, and the sign was long gone, a rectangle of faded wood where it used to hang. All of the windows were broken or boarded up, and the whole building leaned to the side, pushed by weather and wind. Liam braved the brittle front porch and cautiously stepped inside.
You might expect such a building to be riddled with ghosts. A group of poltergeists is called a blanket. A group of phantoms is a rumpus. Spirits come in a penumbra. But those sorts of ghosts had all left long ago, taken back by the mountains and the warm sapphire sky. What Liam saw inside the saloon was just a scattering of physical things: tin cups, broken furniture, empty bottles. Shotgun shells. Bits of paper and cloth. Unidentifiable animal scat. Piles of tiny mouse bones, picked clean by ants.
Liam stepped behind the bar, surveyed the decaying room. In one corner, the remains of a piano, a rubble of strings and keys. His wife had loved listening to music while she worked. She had liked piano best, its capacity for both simple melodies and complex arrangements beneath the human hand. She would sculpt and weld and stitch for hours, the music pouring from her studio windows, sliding its way out from under her closed door to drift down the hall to the kitchen, where Liam would stand listening in the sun. A group of pianists is called a pound. The memory of the piano music felt heavy now, pressing on Liam’s chest, the room spinning in sun-slivered light.
Liam’s wife died three weeks after their son, following days of her struggling harder and harder to breathe. At first Liam thought it was the weight of her grief—so much time spent in bed, sobbing to the point of gasping. When she finally went to the hospital, there was nothing Liam or his daughter could do. They were not allowed to hug her, to hold her hands, to touch her at all, as she was taken away from them. They were not allowed to visit, to set foot within the hospital’s walls. They tried to talk with her by video, but just a day after leaving them, Liam’s wife was on a ventilator, unconscious.
Liam’s heart imploded with the guilt of waiting too long, of not recognizing the hidden cause of her distress. When the call came that she had died—the doctor’s voice a chisel driving at their crumbling family—Liam’s daughter shut herself up in her room, afraid of every surface. Afraid of Liam, too. He sat in his wife’s studio, himself afraid to touch the things she had touched, but also longing to hold every single thing.
Liam staggered from the saloon, anger and grief rising up in his throat. He tripped on the splintering floorboards and fell face-forward off the porch onto the ground. A group of grasses is called a fistful. A group of insects is a flight, a plague, a swarm. Liam grabbed at the grasses, yanked them out in clumps and threw them into the meadow. Swatted at the insects crawling on his sleeves. Yelled and yelled until his yelling was indistinguishable from its echo. A group of voices raised in song is called a harmony, a choir. But that isn’t what this was.
On the third night, Liam didn’t even bother trying to sleep. He sat at the table with the three cremation boxes arrayed in front of him, staring at the initials until they hardly resembled letters anymore.
Liam’s second night in the ghost town, he was visited by a pack of eerily light-haired wolves. The moon was perfectly full, brighter than the night before, and he was pulled from sleep by their howling. They howled together like any other wolves, though their voices were somehow hollow, transparent. It was as if they were whispering their howls, but the sound wasn’t any less loud. A sound like the memory of a sound—something you can hear distinctly, even when it no longer fills your ears. The wolves sat together in the center of the meadow, and Liam watched them through the cabin’s window. Their coats were yellowish-white, with blackish-buff hairs down their backs. They howled and howled for hours, a mournful keening. Liam cried quietly with them, grateful for someone to share in his sorrow as tears ran in slow rindles down his face. Then he dropped his head into his hands, and when he looked up again, the wolves were gone.
On the third night, Liam didn’t even bother trying to sleep. He sat at the table with the three cremation boxes arrayed in front of him, staring at the initials until they hardly resembled letters anymore. The steadfast stove pulsed with firelight. Liam’s bare feet were firm on the cabin’s clean-swept floor. It was comforting to feel his feet against the cabin’s base as it pressed its reliable foundation back at him. Beside the boxes Liam placed his son’s ceramic bowl, his daughter’s wooden box. Vessels. A group of vases is called a mingling, but only when broken. A group of bowls is called a nest. There is no distinct word for a group of boxes. We could call them a cradling. An embrace. Built to hold, to keep.
Liam’s daughter had shared his knack for building things, his talent for joining one thing to the next in a perfection of pattern and design. The wooden box she’d built looked simple, but it was not. She’d assembled it without nails or screws, all dovetail joints rendered by hand. It was a thing of singular beauty.
Liam’s daughter died a month after his wife, to the day. After his wife had passed, Liam and his daughter tried to stay in their separate rooms, worried they might contaminate each other. They tried to hold on to each other by not holding on to each other at all. But this was largely impossible. When his daughter started to cough, felt the pain swell in her chest, Liam couldn’t stay away. He carried her to the car, drove her to the hospital before her symptoms were as bad as he knew they could become. Since she was only 16, he was allowed to stay at her bedside, which he did for two weeks. He covered his face with a mask, keeping all his fears tucked underneath. But she slipped away from him, too, in a room filled with doctors and nurses whose bodies were nearly invisible under all the protective gear. Doctors and nurses who couldn’t save her, though Liam was broken with gratitude for how they tried.
At the cabin’s table, Liam carefully lifted the lids of each cremation box. He stared down at the ashes, three individual piles which all looked more or less the same. The separateness of each box felt like a penance for his inability to keep his family whole. Gently, Liam scooped the ashes into his palms and transferred them to the ceramic bowl his son had made, its gently sloping sides with their deep blue glaze receding like the sea as the pile of ashes grew. He mixed them together with his fingers, caressing each shard of carbon and bone. Liam folded the ashes into one another until they were a single mound, laid his hands on top of them, and closed his eyes. Tried to summon the voices, the bodies, of his wife and children. But they did not come.
There is no collective noun for ashes, nor for bones.
When Liam opened his eyes again, the window of the cabin was crowded with the muzzles of horses. With a dusting of ashes still on his hands, he opened the cabin door and stepped out into the night. Dozens of horses circled his cabin, their hides so glossy they reflected the stars. A herd of horses that were not ordinary horses. They were large, and robust, with lustrous brown necks resembling those of zebras, short manes bristling straight up toward the sky. The horses did not shy away as Liam reached for them. He ran his hands down their long noses, their strong necks, the ashes smearing across their star-dappled hides. He had nearly forgotten what it felt like to touch another being, to feel a quiver of life against his skin. But the horses were not alive. Even as he stroked them, their bodies retreated into nothingness. Liam’s chest, his heart, swelled and then emptied as the faces of the horses faded, until all that was left were the stars.
Liam stepped back inside the cabin, his hands still curved to the shape of the horses’ bodies, and returned to the ashes of everyone he loved most. He removed the lid of his daughter’s wooden box. Then he lifted his son’s ceramic bowl and tipped it so the joined ashes slid into the box. Replaced the lid to shelter them again. There’s no proper name for this ritual, so we will have to make up our own. A mingling of ashes, the broken parts still calling to each other. A dovetailing of ashes. A slip of ashes, like the smoothing of clay before firing a vessel. A crossing. But there are other possibilities.
At the far end of the meadow, which had once been the edge of the town, the mine opened its uneven mouth against the rocky slope. The morning after the horses, Liam’s longing for his family pushed at the edges of his body, cresting in the chambers of his heart. There was only one place left in his ghost town that Liam hadn’t yet looked for everyone he loved most. You might assume a cavern that had given up its gold but had taken many miners in return would be laden with ghosts. And at one point it had been, but those ghosts had made their peace with the mountain. Had laid their spirits back down atop their bones and allowed themselves to be reclaimed. So when Liam entered the mine, stood just inside its entrance and felt the cold wind of its breath, the only sadness he felt was his own.
Liam walked deeper into the mine, walked along the broken spine of cart tracks and rail spikes, until he was swathed by the dark. He reached out his hands to find the jagged rock of the tunnel wall and then sat down on the damp floor. Liam waited for his wife to come. He waited for his children. He was sure they would find him here in the darkness, would be drawn to the beacon of his pain. But a ghost is not the same as a moth. An eclipse of moths will throw their soft bodies against the lure of any light—an endless scorch of longing. But a ghost is different. A ghost can choose to take itself past that hungering, can choose to move through.
When Liam’s wife was alive, she would turn to him in the night while they were sleeping, orient her body toward his body. Their children, when they were small, would cry out for him if they woke from discomfort or fear, and he’d gather them up in his arms. There is no name for a group of nightmares, nor of dreams. We could call them a reaching of nightmares. A compass of dreams.
Liam sat in the blackness until his whole body was numb and shivering, wracked with memory and grief. Nothing appeared to him. There was no one he could touch. Water dripped from the ceiling, and he listened to the dull splats of droplets hitting his boots, and to the echoing plinks of distant droplets falling farther inside the mine. If he followed the echoes, there might be a shaft, an unknown descent into the earth. Liam pictured himself plummeting, his body shattering the quiet of the mountain’s core. His solitary body in the darkness, his cracked and lonely bones. But then he remembered the wooden box of ashes, safe and waiting for him on the cabin’s enduring little table. He couldn’t leave the ashes of his family moldering in a cabin in a ghost town, whittled at by marmots and mice. So Liam stood and felt his way back to the entrance of the mine, stepped again into the warm, gold light of the sun. He walked slowly across the meadow, keeping the cold absence at his back.
There is no collective noun for ground sloths, but we could invent one. A reluctance of ground sloths. A linger. A gradation.
Night after night, the ghosts of the animals came to Liam. Animals who had once lived in the meadow, or some iteration of the meadow, long, long ago. Animals who lived in the meadow before there was a mine, before there was a ghost town. Before there was Liam.
Some nights there were giant, ancient cats. A clowder. A pride. They startled Liam with their curving, saber teeth, their human-like cries. Other nights he witnessed rolls of beautiful armadillos, double the size of their nine-banded, extant relations. Once a herd of Stegosaurs lumbered across the meadow, grazing on the grasses, towering over the slope of the cabin’s roof. One passed right through the cabin itself, disturbing nothing, its massive body with its rows of scales remembering when the landscape was something else—a low plain crossed by slow-moving, muddy rivers. Some nights there were ground sloths. There is no collective noun for ground sloths, but we could invent one. A reluctance of ground sloths. A linger. A gradation. The sloths made their way across the meadow slowly, their pace echoing the reknitting of Liam’s heart.
Finally came the night of the largest group of ghosts: the yellowfin cutthroat trout. A hover of trout. It was late autumn, the skies tipping toward winter. Snow had begun to fall. The bodies of the fish glistened amber, speckled with dark beads—the reverse of a sky filled with stars. The shoal of fish swam through the cold mountain night, weaving in and out of snowflakes, their tails whipping the air. An avalanche of snowflakes. A drift of fish. Liam stood among them, felt their shining bodies flex against his face as they moved past. Watched as they schooled in and out of his visible, living breath. The fish were small enough to fit within Liam’s hands, but they twisted smoothly out of his grasp.
Before his children, before his wife, when Liam was very young, his parents often brought him into these mountains to hike. Down trails quilted with fragrant needles of spruce and pine. Through rocky passes above the timberline brimming with wildflowers and pocked by the tawny, darting backsides of pika. Once to a glacial lake teeming with trout. In a little wooden rowboat, its bench seats painted the same soft blue as the sky, Liam caught his very first fish. Its body thrashed and pulled at the end of his line. He remembered the cold, slippery weight of it in his hands. The stilling of its dappled fins, its mouth opening and closing in gulps and pauses as he held it. Held on to it while it died, his own mouth falling open in anguish and awe.
The night after the trout, there were no ghosts, though Liam waited for them, standing at the cabin window watching the snow. The last of the aspen leaves unlatched themselves into the frigid air, settled on the meadow’s frosty ground. Another thing you should understand about ghosts is that they know when to leave. Liam listened to his heart beat and beat, an unfailing metronome, a lonely measuring of time until dawn.
When morning came at last, Liam walked to the center of the meadow, his daughter’s wooden box in his arms. The wind was building, rushing down from the peaks. Liam opened the box, offered the ashes to the air. They swirled up, twined with the flurries of snow. Liam watched as they whirled and lifted. He watched until all of the ashes had scattered through the ghost town, through the tired planks of the saloon, into the mouth of the mine, up over the trees. Watched until his body felt peaceful and calm. Then he carried the empty box back into the cabin.
Liam set his daughter’s box on the table next to his son’s bowl. Beside the table stood the shell of a person his wife had made. He stepped inside, kissed the inverse of its lips. Stepped out again. He secured the cabin and walked out into the snow, pried open the door of his truck.
The roads were not yet icy, but still Liam drove slowly. Everyone he loved most had died, but Liam felt something gathering within him, keeping company with his heart. When he reached the city, the streets were quiet. A person here, a person there. Half-hidden faces wherever he turned his reddened eyes. So Liam had to imagine clusters of children playing. Had to summon the figures of adults bunched together again, arms around one another in the cold but sunny afternoon.
A group of people can be many things: a crowd, a company, a band, a tribe. A body. Perhaps Liam drove until he found a house he remembered. Perhaps he parked his truck, knocked on the patient door. Perhaps when the door opened, you shouted his name: Liam! Perhaps he stepped into your arms.
But there are other possibilities.
Brittney Corrigan is the author of the poetry collections Navigation and 40 Weeks. A chapbook responding to events in the news, Breaking, will be published by WordTech Editions in April 2021. Daughters, a series of persona poems in the voices of daughters of various characters from folklore, mythology, and popular culture, is forthcoming from Airlie Press in 2021. Brittney was raised in Colorado and has lived in Portland, Oregon for the past three decades, where she is an alumna and employee of Reed College. She is currently at work on her first short story collection. For more information, visit brittneycorrigan.com.
Header photo by true nature, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Brittney Corrigan by Nina Johnson Photography.