Somehow, my friend Phineas makes do. He finds his way through life with a stick, an ear tuned in to a different station, and hands and feet that know this world better than you or I ever will.
I know, because I prune his spirit trees. And after I prune, I sit with him on his porch as day shuts down. He listens to the ring-clang of Coca-Cola and Bromo-Seltzer bottles, hung over branches with old, frayed boot laces. They are heavy green and cobalt blue wind chimes to trap evil ghosts and keep them from invading his mean shelter.
I watch his opal-glazed eyes pull in the last light. When no moon is out, we’re both almost—but not really—the same. Bushes and trees are a shade darker than dark, just past the porch with no bulb in the overhead light socket. The dirt path leading to the road, I know it’s there only because I walked down it a few short hours ago.
Phineas’s dreams are like that path. Sometimes the path is visible, a barren scar through brambles and high grass. Sometimes it disappears, just a haunt of memory. Because he dreams, not often enough, of people he saw before his sight went. “Saw Mama last night,” he’ll tell me, as the bottle music slows, becomes a regular church-like clang.
“What was she doing?” Because that’s why I’m there.
This is what I tell my wife when my hand’s on the back door handle, and I’m on my way out to the shed for the saw, after she asks that same question again—“Why?” I tell her, because I’m there to bear witness.
I work on the old, gnarled crepe myrtle trees he can’t see, thin out where the branches cross. Honeydew from aphids living off it collects on me. I remove the suckers from the base. These spirit trees, I need to keep them going. They keep the bad spirits away that swirl around in the abandoned cotton fields surrounding his daddy’s sharecrop plot. In the used-up, dead dirt those beings fly up and spiral into dust devils on a windy day.
“Her skin, it’s shiny. Washin’ me in the kitchen, in that cold white tub she used for cleanin’ garden spoils. I see the blessed sun on her forehead . . . right there, in the middle. Her, black and soft. Seedsack apron smellin’ of armpits . . . vanilla . . . and there, a red cock’s crown right in the front, right there, in my face as she puts my head between her beatin’ bosom. Runs soapy water down my back.”
Phineas holds his life worn face up to that empty light socket. I can’t see his actual face in the dark, but I can tell he’s looking up to the memory of the light, like it’s the sun in his dream. Or his mama. All around him, moans of the captured escape the bottlenecks when the wind picks up over their mouth traps.
I believe I’m there to bear witness to what can still be seen, and seeing makes him less of a ghost himself.
Tara L. Masih is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays (both ForeWord Books of the Year) and author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories. Her flash has been anthologized, featured in Fiction Writer's Review, and was a finalist for the Reynolds Price Prize in Fiction. At Awkword Paper Cut "A Haunt of Memory" appears in video form, produced, narrated, and filmed by Michael Dickes.