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"The Harbor Ghost," short story excerpt

Tuesday 8/16/22

The harbor ghost had no shortage of duties to which to attend, but on occasion he went beyond himself.

There was a woman in the village who once harbored substantial hopes. She previously believed her husband died at sea because he left to fish one morning and didn’t come back. The Coast Guard recovered a portion of his boat and it was really only luck that they found it at all, but sometimes luck can be mistaken for a chance. The point had gone past when anyone expected to locate anything, so at least half a boat was something, though seeing it also made the woman think of her husband without parts of his body.

It could have been those thoughts that made it out to where the harbor ghost lived, for lack of a better term, and alerted him to the woman’s case, a subject he turned over in his thoughts and kept track of from afar. He felt tapped into what she was going through, and so the harbor ghost had a vested interest, like they were both a part of something.

In the mornings before dawn, the harbor ghost went from boat to boat moored in the harbor, a kind of sonic provider for each vessel. He performed that clanging sound that the people heard in the village, which often awoke them. The harbor ghost thought of himself as a musician. A symphonist. His sound could be crushing or uplifting but most people who knew some semblance of joy found it peaceful. And that was important to him, which was one reason why he was a stand-out ghost. He didn’t want to wake you cruelly.

The harbor ghost was a solitary creature. The other ghosts he passed more or less left him to himself. He never saw the ghost of the woman’s husband, because there was no ghost to see. The harbor ghost was thus in the know, and he knew before the woman did. The man had faked his death, up and left, started all over again far away. The woman eventually found out in the manner in which so many people find things out—without trying. She thought she recognized him in the background of a photo on the internet for a news story about farmers and artisanal markets 2000 miles away. He sold produce. The woman looked up the fake name and saw more photos. It was definitely him.

This was a few years later. The harbor ghost couldn’t have told her all of that, but he had thought about how, precisely, to let the woman know the man wasn’t dead, and he was ashamed of himself that he hadn’t stepped up with the truth, which is something a ghost has a knack for, though it’s a challenge to get people to see it. That’s just the logistics of communicating between worlds even in a shared world. But when it turned out she knew and he knew she knew, the harbor ghost developed this strange, unrelenting sensation that he should reach out to her all the same. That there was more to be done, and he could help do it, but what that was, and why he felt what he did so acutely, was lost on him.

Her husband must have really hated her, the woman thought. She didn’t like it better when he was dead, but it hurt less. Her hope used to be that the man—when he was someone who was lost at sea—would be found. He’d return. Or later when she finally got to die, it’d feel like no time had passed at all, and they’d be together again. Those were her substantial hopes and they hit the harbor ghost hard, all the more so because the sounds he made did not wake up this woman peacefully. His sound terrorized her.

So one night the harbor ghost went up the bank, left the harbor, and walked through the village streets. There weren’t many streets there, but still it was all new to the harbor ghost. He looked both ways five or six times before crossing any of them, though no one was out, and virtually no one was awake.

He arrived at the woman’s house, which was the same house where she had lived with her husband. The harbor ghost knocked on the door. Nothing. He knocked again, louder. Nothing. He pounded furiously, creating a roar unlike any he’d ever heard, even as a symphonist. He wanted to tell her—and maybe that was the best place to start—that he meant no ill will with the sounds he made in the morning. He had to make them, that was his duty, but he still cared, though he realized you can’t please everyone. We all have our stuff. Certainly at different points in our lives and in death. And he hoped she found closure and peace. As he planned what he might communicate, the harbor ghost thought how he hated to hurt anyone, but he also didn’t want to make this about him. And if that guy ever became a ghost, he’d knock some sense into him, if she liked.

The woman came to the door. She wore a tattered robe in need of replacing, but it meant too much to her, for some reason or other. Her feet were bare. They reminded the harbor ghost of death and children and the kind of ghosts children have because they never seem to be wearing shoes.

A small girl was at the woman’s side, holding a flashlight with the bottom end facing outward, as though she were ready to strike someone with it. The girl and her mother looked straight though the harbor ghost. Leaves tumbled and wisped across the driveway, an unpaved strip of rusticated darkness in the still darker night.

The harbor ghost, the child, and the parent, were more conscious of those leaves and their sounds—that leaves had sounds—than ever before. Leaves made no sound in the harbor, so the harbor ghost was taken aback.

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