From the road it could be a power station, a postmodern cathedral where they will feed us? But it is neither: the abattoir that serves villages all the way from the river to the edge of the woods. This, because we are so hungry, and as Jackie so likes to point out, is our lady fortune in disguise.
My job is to cart the disembodied heads of lambs from the refuse pile to the incinerator in a metal wheelbarrow. I wear a rubber apron and thick black gloves. Jackie says this proximity to death is just what we need but he doesn’t say why we need it. I am more disturbed by our proximity to youth. How close to its birth does a lamb need to be slaughtered to still be considered a lamb?
In the house where we learnt music there was a green staircase where ghosts were. The door to the green staircase had no lock but we had been told by our teachers not to open it. At the top of the staircase was a green room with high set windows and old schooldesks. I didn’t see a ghost in the room. I saw an open wardrobe and old clothes spilt out onto the desks. A black top hat, a cloak with red lining, white linens.
The next day a man came. He could recite the Gospel of John from memory so we sat in rows in the assembly hall. Sometimes he wore a shroud about his head and neck. Sometimes he pretended to weep. I don’t remember much of the Gospel of John, just the man standing at the front of the stage shouting ‘Lazarus! Come forward!’ It was 12 years later, in the house where Alfred died that I learned how I could talk to ghosts.
In Page, Arizona, on a street of eight different churches, a car dealership rises where the town fades back into the desert. With the purchase of a new vehicle comes a free goat. But those aren’t goats. They are lambs. They are in a small pen on the highway side of the property. There are balloons that mark them there and a banner. Free lambs. And they are alive. This morning I saw a fox running through traffic on 6th Avenue at Clarkson. Every evening we eat offal except Tuesdays when we walk through the snow to Giotto’s house.
He fries whitebait in goose lard on his one-ring stove. Once he served us tiny black shrimp he’d caught at the docks with a syringe, a length of carpenter’s twine and a net he claimed to have woven from hair. The next morning Jackie sat doubled in the corner of the slaughterhouse vomiting blood into a general issue blue bucket. Some of the others thought this was funny. The floor that we work on, the main floor, they call it the ‘blood flats.’
They are driving to the city tonight. A man has come to talk about God and reptiles. I wonder if this is the city we saw from the road, months ago when we were hungry. Jackie tells me a dream he had as a child: I sell everything I own and walk into the woods. I build a house inside an oak tree. Life becomes acorns and silence.
Dear Gretl: I know that an American book is a book of movement. I know that movement is only seldom accompanied by silence. On her first night in the hospital, Marjorie heard a heart monitor flatline. It was the heart monitor of a woman two beds down on the opposite side of the ward. This is the ward to which I always return.
Marjorie had thought she was dying. But it was the woman opposite who was dying. What disturbed her most was that she could feel no seams as she passed between worlds. Dying felt exactly the same as being alive.
In the morning a man came to consecrate the space that the woman had left. He wore a black top hat and a cloak. He chanted prayers in a language that neither of us knew. Marjorie said that foreign languages could be our secret lives. The man shook ashes over the bed. When he left, I asked Marjorie if she wanted anything from the canteen. The menu was a blackboard and the prices were written with yellow chalk. I didn’t eat anything. I just stared at the blackboard. Dear Gretl: This is the tariff that I know by heart.
Soon we will leave the slaughterhouse. Giotto told us of poppy fields that surround the city. Near the hospital, closer to the water, is the church of Our Lady Star of the Sea. In the park opposite is a miniature golf course that reproduces the various landmarks of the harbor. Here is the lifeboat. The guildhall. The helter skelter and lighthouse. It costs 25 pence to walk to the end of the pier but the helter skelter is free if you don’t mind the queue. Before you climb the stairs a man will give you a mat woven from sackcloth. The causeway to the lighthouse is submerged at high tide. Check the times before you leave. Be careful. Check the tides.
Will we meet ghosts on our journey?
Should we call our journey a pilgrimage?
A ghost is an impossible literature.
Contained in each unsatisfactory moment is the promise of the next.
Whenever I try to transcribe this conversation, I end up rewriting our story.
A cloud, small as a man’s hand, is rising from the sea.
Richard Froude is a premed student at the University of Colorado Denver and an associate of the Arts and Humanities in Healthcare program. His second book, The Passenger, will be published by Skylight Press this winter. This section is from Fabric (Horse Less Press, 2011) and originally appeared in Wolf in a Field http://wolfinafield.blogspot.com/.