Ghosts of Breath

by Howie Good


I'm high up on a ladder that's noisily being circled by ravens and crows. Somewhere below, my daughters have exchanged names. I call to the younger one, but the older one answers. I should've known this is what happens when you marry late. They laugh at my confusion and then head off through the trees. It isn't that they don't love me; it's just that they love other things more. I begin to climb down. I'm halfway to the ground before I ever notice the man in the skeleton mask pacing at the bottom.


The repairman says mice have chewed through the wires. Thank you, I say—to the mice. Maybe now I can think without being interrupted. But first I must do something about the Styrofoam peanuts scattered all over the floor, and then there's the fire to strum and the Bureau of Weights and Measures to contact. My wife won't be any help. She's hiding in our bedroom, embarrassed that we have grown children. I pat my pockets as if searching for cigarettes, or, if not cigarettes, symptoms. One side of me is cold and dark; the other side, cold and bright. I exchange melancholy glances with the deer head on the wall. The repairman says he'll be right back. Quiet, I say, the baby's sleeping.


Who'll turn the witch's broom back into a tree? Who'll make the sick baby to crawl again? You? Ha! Somehow I don't think so. But step inside the shop. An odd but not unpleasant odor. Cellophane packets of ground bone arrayed on the counter. Shelves lined with well-stoppered bottles. A Mason jar in which an unidentifiable pink organ floats. Necklaces of wildflowers hanging from hooks. And over there in the far corner, his pale eyes narrowed in concentration, the apothecary's assistant breaking long, stiff strands of hair, rather like your own, into a furiously boiling pot.


The teacher stands swaying at the front of the classroom. Many of the students think he must be drunk. His face is flushed, and his hands flutter like disoriented birds as he speaks in desperate tones about black holes, carnivores, ancient Babylon. But he isn't drunk; he's merely over-prepared. In the faculty lounge the older teachers laugh at his earnestness. They feel superior because he hasn't realized yet that when he turns to write something on the board, the students vanish—true, some only momentarily, but others forever.


The war has entered its second decade. Maddened by the futility, the dogs run away. Few people seem to notice that they're gone. Three times a day, if not more, their former owners take empty leashes out for a walk. Just this morning the old widow stopped to let a boy on his way to school bend down and scratch behind the ears of what wasn't there.


I was sitting on the curb, resting, when my father called. “We've lost your mother,” he moaned. Where could she be? I got back on my bike and rode down to the pond. The swans hadn't seen her. Neither had the winos sleeping under the bushes. A plane passed high overhead as if on a bombing run. I got out of my car. It was a neighborhood of mud streets and old stone houses. I stood gazing through a window, marveling at the changing colors of the flames. The town constable caught me. “Move on!” he barked. He raised his club threateningly. And now I'll never know whether the woman who lived there with her shadow had just left or was about to arrive.


I step down off the bus and back into the world. The landscape smells as if it has just been painted. Red fields stretch away on either side. I can't imagine what's growing. By the time I hurry into the village, I'm frightened. Everyone I'd passed on the road, man or woman, had the thick, unfinished features of a convict. I find a door in the wall, a place for a drink. There's only one other patron. He might be a slaughtering angel. He looks at me over the rim of his glass as if he were, and I know then that, despite the time, it's almost night.


The chief inspector leans back in his chair and picks his teeth with a matchstick. The dead aren't missing much, he muses. My right arm hangs dead at my side. Perhaps I'm bleeding from somewhere as well. His men, spread out across the plateau, rap smartly on the doors of empty apartments. I only escape because they let me. But the moon is chipped, and even the star-strung ladder on which I might once have climbed wobbly toward it is gone.


Come morning, I'll renew my flight, a hat and scarf to hide my face and a pill sewn in the lining of my pocket in case of capture. I'll pass through small towns God has abandoned, where the stoplights work, but traffic is frozen. I'll hear guerilla fighters scurrying about the tunnels beneath the soybean fields. I'll sleep less and less and sigh more and more. I'll be hungry all the time. As in a legend, the ravens will feed me.

BIO: Howie Good, a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz, is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Dreaming in Red from Right Hand Pointing and Cryptic Endearments from Knives Forks & Spoons Press. He has four chapbooks forthcoming: Elephant Gun from Dog on a Chain Press, The Death of Me from Pig Ear Press, Living Is the Spin Cycle from Red Bird Chapbooks, and Strange Roads from Puddle of Sky Press.