The Facts I Learned

Michelle Donahue

His blood, like our salmon, left quickly. First came the initial thermal shock from his nuclear plant—that bloom of heat dispersing into the once cold depths of ocean. Then the salmon bodies piled on the shore. They couldn’t escape fast enough. At first it was like a gift, such wealth. But we all knew, we must have, that this meant deprivation later.
It went like this—my kitchen knife, good, hard, stainless steel—slid into his neck. The blade found his jugular.
Even when the salmon formed mountains on the shores, I couldn’t have guessed how bad it would be. Fishing, the fuel of our town’s economy, in one move obliterated. But we’d been told the new plant would bring jobs, and it did. Jobs and thermal discharge, water laced with heavy metals, trace uranium, who knows what else.
Fact: Ghosts are about power. They arise when the dead individual just can’t take it. Power persists even after death.
His blood pooled on my kitchen tile. This wasn’t the way I expected the night to go. I’d always been just a little too impulsive. I’d invited him—James DeWitt, owner of the plant—over for dinner on an impulse. That was how our small town worked. You were friendly, you invited everyone over for dinner at some point. I thought if he could just sit down and talk to someone, a real human, he might have some sympathy.
I knew it was naive, but our economy had already imploded and rebuilt around the single nuclear plant. What else to do?
A knife to the jugular was an option I hadn’t considered. Oh, I had fantasized about killing him, but that was the stuff of dreams, lived in half-consciousness. But when I met him, he was all villain. I couldn’t believe it. When he was in my house, when he was telling me they followed all the safety precautions, when I told him he was hurting the environment, was killing children—
He stood, pushed me against the wall, my wall, in my own house. I wondered if he knew I was working on a lawsuit, was gathering all the medical data I could. He held both my shoulders and whispered in my ear.
“I will ravage you.” He placed his arm on my chest to hold me, to free one hand, which ran down my body, under the hem of my dress, “You’re so powerless.”
I stabbed him. The knife was so convenient on the kitchen counter.
Panic. Like someone had taken a saw to my body, torn me in two, so my body divided to aching pieces. My fingertips tingled, wet and slick from the blood. Working at the hospital, I saw blood frequently, but I’d never felt it like this on my hands. Thick. I washed and washed my hands as I looked out the window to the distant ocean. I scrubbed, the blood diluting pink.
My mind raced with how to dispose the body (or turn myself in?). What next to do?
But when the blood stopped flowing, the body vanished, each particle blinking from existence. How strange, I thought. How easy it is to disappear.
But in the empty space created by the body, a cloud formed, thicker than mist, less dense than cotton.
I ran.
Fact: Darkness confuses ghosts. It diffuses them, so they drift far away from their targets. The darkness splits them to pieces; in it, they almost lose themselves. If you walk fast during the day, you can sleep at night and almost always, you’ll outrun your ghost.
I stood, silent in the redwoods. Put my palm to that lucent, red flesh, soft and fire scarred. Amazing, how the base of these creatures so often burns, carves out the flesh, leaves a crevice, permanent black. The base can die, but the tree still lives. The bark won’t rot, will still support the rest as it grows.
This was the night Abe came to us, scared and pursued. He still had a knife in his hand when he joined us. He tossed it on the ground, and there was blood on it, ripe and hot. Did I imagine I could see the heat still rising from it? Or was it a trick of the eye? Some cloudy remnant of his new ghost?
I wasn’t the only one being chased, though I was one of the first.
Something had made us violent. The pollution, the thermal shock of our waters? Or just desperation. We were a rag-tag group, young and old, ghost refugees, always on the run. We had all killed, in self-defense, half-accidents, deliberate murder. Or like me, a sweep of impulsive violence.
Abe was young, only nineteen. We felt his presence before he arrived. It’s always like that. This pull toward a place, a prediction a killing will happen before it does.
That’s how we gathered, how we found one another.
“What happened?” Edward asked Abe. In a circle, all of us, maybe twenty or so. So many I had lost track.
Abe said nothing, eyes on hands. I remembered how it took months for my hands to feel clean again.
“Don’t press him,” I said
“Whatever you say,” Edward said, adjusting his hat, giving me a mean eye. Edward was ancient, at least eighty, and he begrudged my leadership. Or maybe he was just grumpy. He pulled on his tinfoil hat again.
We were being chased by ghosts and he was worried about aliens probing his thoughts.
Our newer members, those who had been running for a year or less, were still sound of mind. But I was the only old member who still had all of my faculties. I hadn’t yet lost my grip. I wondered why I hadn’t lost it. Could think of no reasons.
Fact: People come back as ghosts because they’re afraid of the place they’ll go next.
The redwoods burned and we kept running. Redwoods fell, as any unpreserved land was clear-cut. Slim smoke tunnels replaced trees. We ran deeper into the woods, taking refuge in the shade, resting only in the dark, out in the wild, where our ghosts most easily lost us.
“How long have you been running?” Abe asked one night. He wouldn’t talk to anyone but me, but I didn’t ask why.
“Three years. I was one of the first.” And though I couldn’t quite tell because of the dark, it seemed like he nodded. Many knew my story. The disappearance of DeWitt made some news. Coupled with my own vanishing, there were rumors. If only it had made a difference. But one of DeWitt’s sons took over the nuclear plant. My home was the same as it was. Probably worse.
“Who do you miss?” Abe asked.
It was hard to pinpoint individuals. I had spent so much time at the small hospital that I had forgotten what existed beyond work. I had no husband, no children, a father who had died young, a mother forgetting her existence thanks to Alzheimers. But I missed the town, the small community of mostly good people. There were good people here too, running, losing themselves slowly.
“Will I go crazy, like the others?” Abe asked.
“But you haven’t?”
Fact: Ghosts are like rabid animals. Wild, acting on pure instinct, on disease. Though they slowly forget their former lives, still they pursue their killers.
One night, when the moonlight glared bright, the ghosts’ half-forms whispered to us. Echoes from a once-solid form. I could feel DeWitt around me, a fierce, probing energy. In his last minutes of life, he thought he was powerful enough to enter inside me. When I closed my eyes, sometimes I could feel it. A phantom memory of what never happened.
The full moon was the worst. There was no running from it. Only hoping.
The last full moon they got Muriel. She had been with us for years, was perhaps the most gone, already. She talked to everything inanimate. Held long conversations with dirt, with the silvered bark of trees.
In the light, with thoughts of death, I touched Abe. He had red hair like DeWitt, only his face was much kinder. I pinned him hard against a redwood, one of the older ones. We were screaming distance away from the others, but out of sight. With my palm pressed to it, the dry hull of bark skimmed my fingertips. This too, was scarred. These trees needed fire to live, for their seeds to burst. Fire that killed the old parts of them.
I pinned him to the tree to feel solid. I kissed his neck, so salty from a constant sheen of salt-slicked fear.
“Yes?” I asked. He was so much younger, I wanted to make sure.
I rubbed my hands down his chest, his body so thin I easily found that flat bone disk of his manubrium. Traced the outward curve to his ribs, pressed into the valleys, that intercoastal space between his bones. I lifted the hem of his shirt, revealed inch by inch the skin. He swept off my shirt in one quick pull, but hesitated at the bra clasp.
I guided him into the tree, inside the old redwood that already had outlived us. I pushed him into the darkness inside the hollow, the safety that comes from a lack of sight. I unclasped my bra.
In the dark I felt dissolved. I longed to map him, every rib, precise curve, the sternum’s rough edge. I could name every bone in his body, but I still felt like I couldn’t know him.
I ran my tongue across his palate, bit his lip, a breath away from drawing blood. We clung, dug our claws into each other, covered our skin in grit.
Fact: Only a certain sort of person can return as a ghost. They must be truly evil or determined, sometimes both.
Close to the river mouth of my home, Edward left us. The heat rose from the river as visible clouds. There was no heat left in his body, face-down, half in, half out of the slow river. His tinfoil hat had washed away, gathering somewhere in the ocean.
When I found him, his was the only visible body left in the river. Perhaps microbes still existed there, but to my naked eye there was no life.
Fact: A ghost is an image, but also a feeling. It finds you slowly, turns you cold, and then slowly attacks.
As I arched into Abe, I named his strong deltoid muscle, triangular, rounded between the shoulder and outer arm. Attached to that bladed scapula of the shoulder, moving like wings. I imagined peeling back his skin, touching each muscle of his body.
Palm to clavicle, I used the collarbone for leverage. I always thought anatomical terms carried a weight to them. I gasped. Deloit from Greek deltoids shaped like a river delta. The land formed at the river’s mouth. Our mouths met, heavy. It felt suffocating. Rivers carry sediment and deposit it in the delta, the place between. River and ocean, estuary, lake. As he sunk between me, I counted and mapped.
My hands found his hard, elephant-eared pelvis. The protrusion of hipbones beneath taut skin. Three fused bones forming his cupped cavity, his socketed hip joint. Before me: bones comforted by cartilage as he slid back and forth, forth, back.
On his back I traced each vertebrae. The telltale plummet of the spine. I spine-tapped, determining just where I could plunge a needle for a lumbar puncture. I collected that fluid and analyzed.
Fact: A ghost is only a memory, a tangible representation of fear.
Each full moon we lost another. As the rivers grew warmer, our group grew smaller. I found Beatrice with a tree limb through her body. She had begun to believe that the trees were people, could save her from ghosts.
We ran faster. Abe’s young, tireless limbs pushed me on stronger.
I felt too full of motion. Like my particles were moving too fast.
We ran in circles. When we arrived close to my old town, it was empty, each house still there, but cold. The plant still released heat, thick clouds of it, but I couldn’t see anyone. Were they hidden inside its gates? Existing only indoors under phosphorescent lights?
Fact: Ghosts fixate on one single purpose until it absorbs them, becomes them.
In the dark, I saw the map of Abe’s body, his skeleton delicately housed in muscle and skin. Each night, I would take a scalpel to him, form a line—clavicle to groin—and peel back his skin.
The night was misty, clouds of formless substance floating. I breathed it into my lungs.
I plunged my hands into him, felt his endless warmth. I peeked inside him, to better know him, to understand myself.
There is no darkness like the dark inside a body. I crawled in. Inside him, I would be safe. Inside him, we became each other.
Fact: Ghosts have no sense of time and little sense of self.
Fire. Bright brilliant fractures, like shards of stained glass. I remembered only the darkness inside Abe, and then this pure light. The redwoods burning, all creatures fleeing from the heat.
I was so hot. And Abe? I could no longer feel him.
I ran and ran until I dissolved.
I had been curled and safe inside him, and then there were no walls so tightly around me. I stood, and I was back in my empty house, in my stark kitchen light. I thought, this is what madness is. How strange to finally know.
My body on the floor. No sign of blood, only stillness. I felt a terrible cold as I looked down at myself. How beautiful I was, skin pale and peaceful.
I tried to remember how I got here. To piece together what I knew and what I didn’t.
I thought I knew the story, had just told myself again, again its pieces. It went like this.
I remember killing DeWitt, but also the feel of him inside me.
I remember the endless running, but also being motionless.
I remember Abe, each bone vivid.
I remember ghosts, heavy metal, redwoods in flame.
I remember the hot, thick feeling of blood on my hands. How I washed them and watched the ocean outside my window. The water ran up my arms, swept me into its heat, a rush. Wet skin, salmon swimming past.
As the salmon piled on shore, my pink body was left gasping salt.
Michelle Donahue has work published or forthcoming in Arts & Letters, CutBank, Beloit Fiction Journal, Paper Darts, and others. She has an MFA from Iowa State and is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Utah. She was the managing editor for Flyway and is a prose editor for The Adroit Journal.