Element by Sara Rauch

Element by Sara Rauch

Nonfiction, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014

“You don’t need directions, even though it can be useful to consult them until you no longer confuse the road map for the road.”
—Karen Maezen Miller

I. Fire

I walk away from the dishwater-grey house, away from its rickety frame, toward the barn. Dark rust red, as organic as earth, and haunted. Pebbles tickle my soles. The wind howls, a warning.

The barn bears no door. I’m not meant to enter. The ghosts come to me.

The wind shakes through the dense frill of trees edging the lot; tall as the barn and as unknowable. The wind rushes me, and I can see it, carrying smoke. I take a step, and there, I’m in the smolder, and the ghosts press my skin and singe me until I am draped red as the barn with their dusty burn

The sky like quilted steel. The wind whips away. What I’ve come for has claimed me, scarred me, burnished me. I await the gift, my offering—there is always one, some blessing—for the job I undertake. An occupation few accept or even consider: ghost-bearer.

Cold earth, smooth stones—here I plant my feet, but the roots I set are temporary.

The air is dense. It will rain after I depart, and wash away what has not attached to me. Those ghosts that are not ready for a host, still too young to settle in; they’ll find me later. They know what to look for.

The wind gusts again, a surprise; it tangles my hair, blows dirt into my lungs, and I look toward the sky, try to keep the tears inside. An immense cloud of red dust like flame rolls toward me and I brace—this is big, maybe too big even for me—but the wind angles the cloud toward the barn and it races over the roof, taking the shape of a Pegasus.

It flaps its wings and nods a long equine face in my direction as it pierces the sky and disappears. Then come the ravens, black feathers glossy. They do not look my way, knowing too well the tears burning rivers down my cheeks.

Gladden, oh heart. Alight.

Burn, burn, burn.

These flames are a path for you to follow.

II. Earth

From a distance, I may appear chased. Come closer, and you’ll see the cloud of dust trailing me isn’t kicked up from speed—it’s an entourage. My spirits. They follow, a ragtag assortment of minerals and feathers and prickling light, uncut gemstones, cracked shells, sand, slivers of bone, curls of bark. I do nothing to encourage them, and yet they shadow. They drift from the woods, they seep from brick, they peel off tree trunks, sparkle along air currents, toss ashore from storm waves.

I run.

Down tree-draped paths, along back roads and over fields, eschewing pavement and treadmill for dirt, the melody of my feet pounding earth.

I like the wind whipping past. Along the current arrives news of the world, whispers unheard, dreams unremembered. I run till my breath clutches my lungs, till they threaten to explode. I run till my legs burn. I run, though there is no rush, hoping my feet might leave earth and take to the sky.

Ghosts have a reputation—of floating, mist-like and airy—but in truth, ghosts are all earth, beguiled by fragments and sparkles, tethered by physical desire. True, they are light. True, they shift shape and cannot be captured. But they won’t leave earth. They want to stay; they’ll do anything for a home here.

I run fast.

Few can keep pace. The ghosts, however, have no trouble at all. And they are amiable enough companions, never verbose and sometimes protective.

When we come upon each other on this road, when the ghosts part like the sea to let you close, I will study your legs. You won’t notice—I’m too sly, too practiced in silence. I’m measuring how strong you are, how far you’ve run. Taut thighs, knotted calves—endurance, devotion—peering beneath the skin for the flame that twins mine.

I’d like to tell you how long I’ve been running, but I cannot count that far back. I offer my motley cloud of spirits as evidence. I play the drumming echo of my feet along this earth. I pull bits of wisdom from my pockets but they scatter like dandelion seeds in the wind.

III. Metal

It isn’t a city I seek. Though this road will wind through many.

Cities are beguiling enough—shimmering mirages of promise, patterns of light and breath—if you can ignore the loss inherent in starless nights. Here I pass, no one seeing through the well-cut clothing to the wild skin I wear beneath. Transient, I never stay in one place long enough for anyone to grasp my true purpose; those in the cities rarely care. I catch their eyes; they try to possess me and cannot. I slip away.

I am here, among the crowds: To sing a brief lullaby. To give directions. To ride the buses and trains. To sample fresh-made pie in all-night diners. To gather snapping skeins of invisible color from clotheslines.

I am here for a few ghosts and then I will be going.

I stop often. My legs flutter in sleep.

I am restless in cities. Tuned to the bristle of hidden instinct and tamed hunger.

Each city offers its cluster of energy—mannered, angry, moneyed, sad, eclectic, damp, caffeinated, lonely—each unique, aching to be noticed. I lean into a city’s definition, letting the ghosts press the nib of their pen into my skin.

Ghosts are good cartographers: their mountains jagged, their rivers wide, their caverns deep. Each key’s calligraphy wrought shapely and precise. Page after page drawn by their hand wraps my body. Only they could provide such exquisite cover.

Lay me down and peel back my layers of skin. Read the fine lines. Memorize the maps. Redress my wounds, gentle and expert. Take this vow.

IV. Water

I am frightened of water. I call my darkest days the riptide.

When the road deposits me at the ocean’s edge, the ghosts stop short, piling up on my shoulders and in my hair, nattering, as terrified of the crashing tidal expanse as I.

But I know what is expected of me, when it is time to come clean.

Here, I’ll dip my toes in. Here, I’ll let the waves rush and gather round my ankles.

The sea’s a wily one. Don’t even need to splash in up to my knees and there: it has me, I’m gone, and once in that rip, I can struggle all I want, but only surrender can set me free. The ghosts keen, Let go, let go.

As if it were that easy.

In the end, it is.

From here, I’ll emerge baptized, exhausted, but bathed and new. Ready, once again, to return to the road.

In my pocket, the offering: blue sand dollar, mirror and token of the high moon above. The moon drenches the beach in blue light, exposing the heart, drawing a circle around it.

Don’t grasp. Trust what this illumination reveals, even as it passes, once again, from view.

V. Wood

Ghosts are especially fond of wood.

Wood is porous. Wood lets things in. It adapts. It grows around. It is sturdy, rooted. Wood lives a very long time.

I’m angling for the deep calm of bark and branches, trunks so tall they disappear into cloud. Quiet, thick enough to drown out the rest of the world.

There, I will find a tree to kneel beneath, to press my forehead into the dirt, to allow the fur I’ve ripped from my body to grow, to unfurl the tail I’ve kept too long under wraps.

The ghosts trust me. And I have my heart’s compass, and my feet’s steady tread. I’ll cover every curve and straight stretch of this road in search.

Meet me beneath that tree. You know the way.

Bring your ghosts.

Bring your human skin to shed.

Bring your wild animal beneath.

Bring your maps to burn.

We won’t need them once we are home.

Obits by Tara Thompson

Pyro by James Winter

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