A Theory of Ghosts

by Nina Li Coomes

I met my first ghost at the age of six.

In the dream, I am sitting in the backseat of our family car, safely cocooned in the special way of a child inevitably dozing on a nighttime car ride home. Out of the window, I glimpse a woman standing at the side of the road. She has the sway-backed posture of someone who has given up. She momentarily glistens in the white oval of the passing headlights, and as we roll past, she raises to her eyes to mine, overwhelming me with a wave of sadness—as if heartbreak could be transferred through a glance. I woke with a start.  My blankets had bunched together in a nervous pile and I held my hands anxiously in my lap, debating whether to knock on my parents’ door and crawl between them. Above me, my sister snored softly in the top bunk.

Just as I had resigned myself to trying to sleep in my own bed, I realized someone was standing in my room. In place of the usual shaft of yellowed street-light filtered through the curtain, there she stood: the woman from my dream. Her posture was unmistakable: her shoulders rolled forward, hands held loosely, her chin drawn to her chest.  Defeat crawled off her skin, pale and wan against the stark blackness of her hair. She raised her eyes, just as she did in my dream, and looked at me—a long, imploring stare.  I was frozen in place, frozen in her sadness, a drowning, underwater kind of sorrow.  She blinked, and I found myself scrambling for the door, incoherent and sobbing, propelling myself into the furrow between my slumbering parents.

Later that week, the doorbell of our family home in Japan rang.  From my place tucked behind my mother, I saw the delegation of Shinto priests, four or five of them, wearing their draped, raven-colored robes. I felt my mother tense as they bowed and asked if they might be allowed inside to perform a ritual cleansing. Our home was a newly built western-style town house, standing starkly apart from the peaked roofs of the Japanese style homes that surrounded it. The contractors, having anticipated that the half-American family moving in would not care about old ways or traditions, had neglected the usually obligatory consultation with the neighboring shrine. Because of this, no one had bothered to ask for the necessary rites to cleanse the land of old spirits that may lurk there. In our case, no one had considered the well that had once inhabited the plot of land where our home now stood. Hovering by our door, the priests described the well as where some years ago a woman had thrown herself to her death, drowning in its depths.  She had never been buried, and the land had never been cleansed. Her death still haunted the plot of land where our home stood, according to the priests, who in my child’s mind spoke in a droning unison, as if their robes had somehow folded and funneled all of their voices into one, shivering the air.

Eventually, my mother inched open the door and allowed the host of priests into our home. As they wandered from room to room, I followed from a distance, a curious shadow. I wanted to know what magic they would perform to cleanse our house, if the woman would appear again, if they would drag her weeping and moaning into the street. Instead, I only saw the continual chanting and shaking of the haraegushi (lightning wand), paired with my mother’s tense posture, her arms crossed and lips pursed, clearly displeased at their sudden intrusion. We lived in that home for another year after that, but the woman never appeared in my dreams or in my room again.  

I saw more ghosts after that. There was the crawling, amphibian thing that raked its body against the asphalt garden-path outside my window, as if trying to molt a perennial skin, moaning jealously night after night. There was the laughing, delighted, childlike ghost that flitted around a room I shared with my mother and sister one summer in the mountains. The next morning we found a trail of small fortunes—a friendly shop owner with complimentary sticks of grilled pounded sweet rice, a train conductor overlooking a misplaced ticket, a near-empty bath house with spacious, steaming tubs as if just for us.  Another summer, we were kept up by a whole family of ghosts swarming outside the window, aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas, children with bevvies of cousins, shouting, laughing, their merriment an unbearable din. They crowded by the sliding door, faces pressed to the glass, hooting and hollering over our half-American bodies: how odd we seemed, how long and fair, how strange and peculiar we were to them. The next morning, as we stumbled sleepily out of the inn where we had stayed, we saw the clusters of slate tombstones peeking over the hill, the inn-keeper’s entire family tree buried next door.

There was a time when I told these stories regularly. After all, it is Japanese tradition to tell kaidan (ghost stories) in the summer, using the uncanny chill of hearing a ghostly narrative as a clever means of cooling off. As a child I would add my voice into the milieu of my mother’s and grandmother’s, piping up with my own stories in between retellings of sightings of faceless women, or my mother’s teenage run-ins with kanashibari, a paralysis caused by a stony spirit that would kneel on the unsuspecting chests of dreamers, causing a terrifying paralysis upon waking.  My spectral sightings were not a strange anomaly or childlike hallucination, but existed as an inheritance of experience. When we spoke these ghost stories out loud, I felt connected to my loved ones around me, as if an audible faith in the phantasmic bound us closer together. On these occasions, even my American father could be persuaded to tell us about one of the first apartments he moved into as a young teacher and the unshakeable eerie impression of an empty cradle rocking in the corner of the room, surrounded by the half-echoes of voices belonging to people who were certainly not there.

Recently, I have grown reticent in these retellings. Time passed, my family moved to the U.S. when I was 7, and ghosts began to mean something different. There was Ghostbusters and Scooby Doo and the strange cable documentaries where skinny men with unrecognizable gadgets stomped through empty houses, looking for electromagnetic waves. Not to mention, every time I mentioned my own ghosts, I seemed to get myself into unimagined trouble. Now, instead of the flickering candlelight and communal storytelling, there were suburban church ladies who looked at me with concern, murmuring things about demons and satanic influences. At school, instead of reciprocating with their own ghost stories, children would shriek and point, calling me a liar on the playground, while begging me later in private to “tell the one about the sad lady” again.  

As I grew older still, those around me began to confront me with science, insisting that ghosts could not be real because of complexities of matter and energy. And yet, I saw what I saw, and so I developed a working theory surrounding ghosts. Instead of a human soul left behind by a mortal body, I’ve begun to think that ghosts are more like temporal projections of emotion, or experience. Like a dusty slide passed in front of a projector, perhaps ghosts are more like holograms of something that once existed, sprung into action by one circumstance or another. The woman at the well, for example, is not so much something that was once a person, haunting a home. Instead, she is a manifestation of despair, an ultra-concentrated moment of sorrow that now exists in a strange in-between of time and space. So too the gaiety of a gossiping, rolicking family, their laughter and chatter echoing long into other nights. When we tell the stories of these brief bursts of once-lived experience, we bring them back to life, acknowledging them and honoring them. In turn, the ghosts bind us together, affirming our own emotions and lives.

There is also another reason why my ghost stories have become stale since moving to the U.S.: there are no ghosts here, or at least none that I have seen, and I wonder often why that is. Is it because of the relative youth of this country in its colonial iteration, still new-green behind the ears in comparison to the mossy histories of Asia? Is it the American tendency to shelve the supernatural in stories and fables, never letting them breathe in the mundane of our everyday lives? Is it because I’m older, less receptive to the electric shiver of something outside of myself, passing through a darkening room?  Or is it because there are ghosts of my own now, people I love who have passed through the doors of death ahead of me—a much adored dog who drew her last breath on a bed of newspaper, the arresting laugh of a young boy in the park with a swoop of hair identical to a friend who died too young?

And now, you, my grandfather, for whom I write this theory as I head home to Japan to see you just once more before you go. I have been thinking of you, and your unique animations in living, the sure-footed, slow plod as you cross the room toward me, hands thrust shyly in your pockets. I am trying to conjure the snapshots of you that might live on as a ghost, vital moments that might flicker back to life for a witnessing passerby. Perhaps it will be of you as a post-war child, a bodily concentration of hunger scampering shame-faced after the heels of American soldiers for scraps of gum and the ends of cigarettes. Maybe it will be of you as a young man, newly married, your eyebrows drawn in a thick, confident hand, so handsome and stubborn, a stranger I have only encountered in dimming photographs. Or maybe still, you will appear as the gentle meadow-spread of a wordless love, the patient ache in the small of your back as you bend towards the youngest shoots in your garden, your hands round as rocks.

I find myself hoping to see you again, to recognize in the still of some future night a clear-eyed boy thrumming disappointment, or a jovial, drunken man imitating Bing Crosby in a growling baritone. I am willing you into ghosthood, telling the story of you to myself so that perhaps you will live on, even if only briefly.  As I think these things, I find that I should amend my theory: maybe ghosts are just the sliver of open in a mostly closed door, giving us grace in the bleak solitude of death. Perhaps ghosts exist so that the goodbye is never permanent, so we can say to ourselves “I was here.”  Perhaps that’s all they are: proof. Proof that we wept, and laughed, and screamed, and loved with all of our might. Proof that we existed, no matter how fragile, no matter how fraught, no matter how fleeting this brilliant gift.

Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer, originally from Nagoya and Chicago, now living in Boston. Her work is forthcoming or can be found in Catapult, the Asian American Writer's Workshop's Margins, the alice blue review, Blue Stem Journal and elsewhere. Her chapbook, 'haircut poems' is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in November 2017.