by David Henry
He woke at the bottom of the sea, and his memory was in shambles. Images of the storm came to him, growing out of the horizon like black ink, and breaking over the ship fierce and wild and beyond imagining. Losing control at the ship’s wheel. His men throwing themselves into the deep, and he, knowing he had failed them, and raging and screaming at the sea, even as the ship keeled over on its side and dropped into the water.
He remembered being sucked deep, behind the ship as she sank, and the horrible, no-air-to-breathe panic. He remembered clinging to a broken piece of wood, refusing to quit, to die, refusing to let the sea win. Mollusks crawled the debris of his ship all around him, the debris of his life. He brushed at them with his hand. They continued, undisturbed.
Despondent, he remembered Cape May, where solid land and the smell of the sea make a fair place, and with whaling profits he raised a three-story house worthy of any seaman.
The house, he thought. The house holds my life.
So he stood, smoothed his garments with his hands, and began a trek through the waters that would take over a hundred years, and as he walked the sea permeated him and sifted him.
On a foggy early morning, Zebediah Shank emerged to an empty beach. In the distance stood his house, and he strode forward, dripping the sea.
Zebediah gazed through the window at an intruder in scant undergarments sitting on a fine leather couch, facing a glowing screen of words and pictures. He spoke into his hand at a small glowing screen that spoke back. His other hand waved a baton at a glowing picture on the wall, and the picture changed to pretty people talking and smiling. Plugs were in his ear. The man sat completely absorbed in these screens, and there was almost no murmur of the sea left in him. Zebediah passed through the window. The walls held timepieces and photographs, and there were many fine furnishings. An exposed beam over the kitchen entrance still showed the words “Fair Meeting Place Of Land And Sea,” just as he’d carved them, but the entire house was sealed tight against the sweet ocean air and morning birdsong, and to the ghost, it reeked.
“Sir, you must leave my house,” said Zebediah.
The man sat as though dazed, fingering the device, his eyes absorbed into the bright little screen.
“Pay me heed.”
Eugene picked up a glass of water. Eyes still on the screen, he drank as though unaware of the water.
Zebediah rose up into the attic and puzzled over how to repossess his house.
The attic had seen no visitor in many years. In a crate Zebediah discovered the seascape given him by young Winslow, payment for sailing and net-mending lessons. In the night he felt Eugene’s restless sleep, and it agitated him. The man seemed a sleepwalker by day and in sleep seemed pitifully to be trying to wake up. That night Zebediah removed two clocks and hung the picture in their place. He roamed about and learned the man was Eugene Strump, a money changer, now called a currency trader. The parrot in the kitchen was friendly enough, but definitely a creature of extreme ideas.
In the morning Eugene fed the bird and ate breakfast on the couch. He played with his devices, watched television, dozed, and worked at his computer. In the afternoon he ventured outdoors twenty feet to his Mercedes. He didn’t notice the painting.
Zebediah rose to the roof, baking under September sky. He remembered such heat, but it did not touch him now. He lifted his arms to the sun, as though he could draw those rays of comfort into him, but felt nothing. He dropped his arms and hung his head.
“I am lost in my own house, trapped with a fool,” he said to the wind. The wind blew through him and moved on.
The parrot had been right, he decided. He must take strong action.
That evening, Eugene watched television. Zebediah caused a door to slam and the painting to fall.
“What – ?” Eugene examined the painting and hung it back up. “Perhaps the decorator . . .”
Zebediah drifted to the attic, frustrated.
The next night, Zebediah stood for hours above Eugene’s bedroom, making the house creak as though it might fall over.
In the morning, bleary-eyed, Eugene called a carpenter.
At this, Zebediah retreated to the attic and paced, fishing for stronger measures.
The next night, celebrating a minor business victory, Eugene toasted himself with beers and more television until he wobbled upstairs to bed, stumbling at the top.
“What? Who said that?” Eugene peered about, grasping the rail to steady himself, and looked for the source of the voice.
But at last he had heard, and the ghost chuckled. Eugene whipped around, lost his balance and leaned against the wall.
Fingers on the wall, Eugene took a few steps.
Eugene shook his head as though freeing himself from a cobweb and scurried to bed, pulling the blanket up to his neck and closing his eyes.
Zebediah stepped into the dark room, slurpy sounds coming from his waterlogged boots. Eugene sat up, turned on the light, and peered about. Seeing nothing, he rolled his eyes at himself, and lay back down. Minutes later, the man still calming, Zebediah walked again. Eugene started under the covers, then lay absolutely still. Zebediah advanced with slow steps.
Abruptly, Eugene leapt out of bed, hands out, eyes intent, a wrestler ready to grapple. His hand went to the lamp, turning it on but knocking it to the floor in the same motion.
He saw nothing. Dropping to hands and knees he searched the floor, running his hand across it where the sound of the watery steps had been. He scanned the dry ceiling. Returning to bed, he sat upright, light still burning, fingers over his chin.
Zebediah waved, and from downstairs came a clattering. Eugene’s hand shot to the bed table. He shook out three sleeping pills, swallowed them dry, and lay down, pulling the covers up to his chin.
Zebediah could hear the blood rushing in Eugene’s ears, sense the pounding in Eugene’s own ribs. He circled the bed. At his wave the light bulb popped and went out. Eugene went rigid. Zebediah hovered above, and saw the hard black ball of fear congealing in the man’s chest. For whole minutes there was no sound whatsoever in the room. Then Eugene groaned a long, slow, whimpering groan of dread.
Next day, Zebediah was chatting with the parrot when Eugene descended the stairs, one at a time, taut and stiff, squinting against the midday light. He flipped on the coffee maker.
“Raaaaa,” said the parrot. “Lookey here. Lookey here.” From the bars of the cage dangled a moist string of seaweed. Eugene rubbed his eyes and stared. He tore off a paper towel, seized it, and buried it in the garbage pail.
A mug of coffee at his elbow, he went researching on the computer and found exactly what he wanted to believe.
“Polly,” he declared, “ghosts are just products of our imaginations.”
“Raaaa. Lookey here,” said Polly.
Eugene did not look. He was rummaging in the storage closet, where he found the old air filter with the deafening whine and dragged it to the bedroom. He replaced the light bulb and left three spares, a flashlight and a glass of water. As an afterthought he added his penknife, then filled the Jacuzzi.
Two hours later Zebediah visited the bathroom and found Eugene soaking and asleep. Leaning over, he whispered.
“How do you live like this, modern boy? Such poverty, so far from sea, from sky, from forest, from living Earth? You are like blindness, like poison in my house.”
The ghost then walked through the water, and the surface trembled with ripples.
Eugene’s eyes popped open wide. Gooseflesh covered his shoulders and neck, and he shivered in the tub. He shot up, sloshing water over the side as he stepped out. He rubbed himself with the towel as though to pull off the skin, threw down the towel and stumbled to the bedroom, mumbling “No such thing. No such thing.” He put on five layers, ending with an arctic sweater, and bolted down the stairs.
Zebediah followed, boots sloshing.
“No such thing,” Eugene chanted.
Grabbing his keys, he seized the door handle, threw himself into eighty degree sunshine, and drove two blocks to The Ship Inn.
The bar was well lit. Eugene forced slow breaths and sat.
Half an hour later, third drink down, Eugene turned to the man on the next stool, and his vision blurred, but he found a way to focus. “My god, man. You’re soaking wet!”
Water dripped from the man’s face, hair, slicker. “Leave my house,” he said.
“Fair meeting place of land and sea.”
Understanding tinted Eugene’s face. He clenched his jaw, swiveled forward.
“Go away,” he said. “You’re not here.”
He clutched his drink. “No. Go away.”
“Fool. You only know I’m here when you’re pickled. And you’re a thief.”
“What!? Ooooh no. Do you have any idea what that house cost me?” Energized, he faced the ghost.
But the wind was filling Zebediah’s sails, and he exploded. “You’re worse than a thief! You kill the house, make it like a coffin, boxed up, sealed day and night. She needs to breathe, needs the sea air, have it wash her from within. The sea, the land, they must meet in the house …” The ghost eased his rough hands together, like lovers touching.
“The modern world has air conditioning, you old coot.” He sputtered.
“What am I doing? Who the hell are you?”
Zebediah floated up, expanding in size. Within him Eugene saw the storming sea, and he trembled.
“My house suffocates under the hands of a dead man. You.”
Eugene bolted for the door. Outside he headed blindly for open space across the street, the empty beach, the tattered fishing dock. A horn blared.
“Out of the road, you drunk!” yelled the driver.
Eugene jerked himself across the street and ran across the twilight sand. The squish, squish of Zebediah’s boots kept up. Almost to the water he stumbled, fell, put his hands atop his head, and cowered.
“Don’t kill me,” he whispered.
“You are no real man” Zebediah said, towering over him, dripping, “because you are blind to life! Do you not see it? You are captured, under the spell of pretty things and glowing screens, and you wither like a tree in the desert.” He turned away and faced the water. “Useless. You are dead already.”
Eugene blinked, the soft roar of surf all around him.
“Look at the sea.” commanded the ghost.
“She churns. She feeds the sky, the earth. Smell her! Feel the air around you! She is alive.”
Eugene drew in the air. “I know,” he said.
“You can not know,” raged the ghost, “or you would hold it in your life. You would draw on it like deep water within you.”
“But I love the ocean. It’s why I bought the house.”
The cool dust of evening hung in the air and settled on the water. Waves beat against the dock. Eugene sat, and then lay down, silent on the sand, listening and observing until the sea had soothed him and he fell asleep.
Zebediah stayed by Eugene all night. When the sky caught the first glow of morning, Eugene opened his eyes. He sucked in air noisily, and worked his mouth, tasting it.
“I feel the sea,” he said his voice calm and steady. “I feel the air. I feel it alive.” Then he closed his eyes, and his face twisted. “But my life pulls me. I am not strong.”
“What do I do?”
Light leaked around the window blinds. The sound of soggy footsteps came into the bedroom. Eugene opened his eyes and moaned. “Oh no. Please no.”
“Tis the hour. Get your carcass up and get to work.”
Eugene trundled past windows left open all night, down to the kitchen. The low hum of surf mixed with the spattering of fried eggs. He ate, then grabbed the broom and set to sweeping the front porch.
“A clean ship is a happy ship.”
“Aye Captain,” said Eugene. The light changed, and he looked up. The tip of the sun broke upon the sea like a hot, red coal. The sky flamed.
Atop the roof stood Zebediah Shank, hands clasped behind him, viewing the horizon, the town still quiet. It was a good house.
David Henry lives in Montgomery with his wife and son, Isaiah. He is the president of Zirius, a Princeton IT company that serves small businesses on the Route 1 corridor.