Green Hills Literary Lantern



Ghost Marriage



Bren turned a page, vaguely aware that Hobart had not turned one yet.  Here he was with his fat Pushkin and yet had not turned a page in the whole forty-five minutes they had sat on the deck. 

Knowing that she treated their evening reads almost as a competition, Hobart turned a page—unread, but he didn't want her to feel too superior. 

Beatrice tottered across the yard pursuing fireflies.  The jar was too big for her hand and she kept dropping it in the grass.  She didn't need the jar, thought Bren—she was too young and slow to be successful at it, but found delight nonetheless.  Do I remember that delight? she thought, before turning back to Susan Jacoby's latest.

Bella hung by her parents, who could at least converse.  She was no longer interested in catching fireflies, but her curiosity was predatory.  “Why are there so many tonight?”

“Ghost lights!” exclaimed Hobart.  “Lighting their way back to the grave, you know.  Wouldn't you think ghosts could see without them?”

“They're a lot like stars, aren't they?  Trying to find the sky.”

They might make it, he thought, for they were in scant danger of being “jarred” by the family huntress.  “You know what you just made?  A simile—and one most apropos, at that.”

“What's aper-po?”

“Edgar Allan's consumptive sister.”

Bren gripped the book tighter, her concentration now scattered.  She looked up and stared and thought, how pointless to make jokes Bella wouldn't get and she wouldn't countenance.  But she would not interject.  She would not call bullshit on him, though she fervently hoped Bella would.

Instead Bella formulated a new tangent.  “At science camp Mister Lund says the universe is expanding—that all the particles in it are moving farther apart.”

“That's what the evidence suggests,” Bren murmured, as Beatrice stopped and waited for the fireflies to show themselves. 

“Your mother's a scientist now.”

“At least she keeps up,” Bren countered.

“Why aren't I expanding?”

“Bella bella estella!  You're growing bigger every day!”

“But my atoms aren't growing farther apart.”

“Why are you asking me?  That's a logical question, and you know who gets those.”

Damn sneaky move, Hobart, but this time she demurred.  “Why don't you write that question down, so you'll remember to ask it of Mister Lund?”

“I don't suppose your teacher has told you of the ghosts that live in the universe.”

“Contradiction in terms.”

“Right—as always.”  Even when laconic, Bren was precise.

“Ghosts,” she addressed the page in front of her. “Is that this evening's motive?”

“That word, Bella, can be pronounced with an f-sound as well.  Your mother uses a v because she is very worldly.”

“Daddy, you're silly.  Ghosts aren't real.”

Bren's snort was quick and quiet.  “Your father's barely real.”

“Just look at all those stars, bella Bella.  Some of them are quite dead, you know.  They no longer exist—at least not as stars.  But they were very good stars—like Beatrice—and you—they were benevolent—and so have been allowed to keep shining.”

“What did they do that was so good?  And what's benevolent?”

“Tending to kindness and charity.  A term that cannot remotely be applied to stars, which are gaseous inorganic masses.”  How she did that, without even looking up from her page.

“They stayed up all night—though tired and sleepy—while the lazy moon had slunk to bed, just to inspire poets and lovers.  And thus have been rewarded.  Their light lives on after death—like a ghost, you see?”

“How does a star die?”

“Old age.”

“That doesn't make sense,” she turned to her mother, “does it.”

“Stars do die out—or rather, they burn out.”

“Can we see them burning out?”

“I don't think your mother is done explaining,” he interjected.  “At least not in my experience.”

“Some of them are so far from our solar system that it takes many millions of years for their light to reach us.  Remember what a light-year is?  So if a star burned out, we would presumably not know it, for we would still see the light it gave off eons ago.”  Bella did not ask what an eon was, because she did not want to be told to write it down.

“Dead but still twinkling,” chimed Hobart.  “Sounds like a ghost to me.”

“But” and no but more haughtily intoned, “if they're that far away, we can't see them with our naked eye.  So they can hardly have been the inspiration for romantic idiots and—delusional couples.”  Bella mentally stored delusional.  Undeterred, Beatrice missed another firefly.

Effectively put in his place, and in front of his daughter, Hobart retaliated.  There were times he didn't mind playing the doormat—really—but there were times he would say ouch.  He bent down and whispered her next line in Bella's ear.

“Mother, what happens to stars when they burn out?”

“They become white or black dwarfs.”

“Did you hear that?  Stars turning into dwarves.  Who's silly now, right?”  This perplexed her, as her mother was usually the sensible one.  For Bren, this tactic was a five-inch nail on a new car finish—it was meant to madden, to do costly damage. She re-crossed her legs and floridly looked away.

“When you tell me different things like that, I don't know what to believe.”  She had her own tactic, which she exploited now.  “I don't think I'll go to college.”       

But they had heard it before.  It was no more compelling a threat than Beatrice was to the local firefly population.

“I tell you what, dear,” and this was Bren's tactic—to draw on reinforcements, “—ask Mister Lund which one of us is telling you the truth.”

“But why do you tell me different things?”

“I decided to join the reality club.  It would be nice to see your father at the meetings—just occasionally.”

“Will you admit that we have different perspectives?”  Beatrice stopped and stood entranced, for one had landed on her arm.

“Will you admit that ghosts aren't real?  That such stuff you tell her is irrational?  No, worse, that it could stunt her intellectually if she made the mistake of believing you?”

Hobart thought, remembered—and couldn't decide whether his thought was sad or the opposite—that there was a time, pre-Bella or antebellum, when Bren would actually beam at whimsy, giggle at his poetic idiocy.

Bella tried, in her conciliatory way, to help. “Ghosts are invisible, Daddy!  You can't see them—get it?”

“How can they be invisible if they're not real?  Now, there's a conundrum.”

“What's a—?”

“A perplexing problem of logic.”  Now her fingers were clenched, squeezing Jacoby juiceless, and even her tongue grew rigid.

Should he further roil the water?  “What about dark matter?”

“Dark matter?  That doesn't sound scientific at all.”  Bren compulsively scratched the page-edges, trying to block the sound of ignorance arguing with ignorance.  If poor Beatrice could withstand repeated defeats and remain undaunted, why couldn't she?  Because the child respected the fireflies, while Bren had graduated from that world where one is in such awe.  How did she feel about him at this point?  What is the opposite of awe?  And then that stone that always sat too long in the pit of her stomach—when would Beatrice be old enough for them to—?    

“It casts its shadow on visible bodies, yet it can't be seen.  A ghost-force that permeates the entire universe—,” pointless redundancy, thought Bren, before catching her own, “but is virtually undetectable.  The untethered spirits of stars and planets and even galaxies.  You say ghosts aren't real, but most matter isn't real in the accepted sense.”

“Everything is real!  You are making this up to confuse me!”

“It reaches out its immaterial hand and clutches at everything with its wicked attraction.”  He bent close to her and whispered, “It is clutching at you right now.  It looks down its spectral nose at things made up of—” and the whisper diminished to firefly size “— atoms.” 

“Mother, make him stop!” and defiantly whacked him on the arm.

“Bella!  We do not hit in this family.”  She refused to let the sigh be heard, and she felt he deserved it anyway.  “We do not respond to metaphors, even absurd ones, with violence.”  She had tried so hard to ensure that their daughter would be more her than him.  Watching her rebuke him, she was suddenly doubtful of her plan's worth.  Was Bella too much like—well, a part of her that Bren herself didn't admire?  “It so happens, young lady, that this once your father is right.  And deserves an apology.”  But sorry never did pry open a good tight pout.  “Dark matter may sound like a made-up term, but it isn't.  Because it doesn't emit light or radiation, it can't be seen with human instruments.  It's—hypothetical.  And that's all you can understand at your age.”

Bella slammed out each syllable with her flip-flops.  “Hy!--per!--thet!--i!--cal!.”

“Someday you'll understand,” offered Hobart, “there are things it's wiser not to understand.”

Stomping down the steps to the yard, her body conveyed obstinacy, but her mind registered amazement.  For it couldn't remember the last time their explanations matched.  This distressed her, as the abnormal always does a child.

“I'm never going to believe in something called 'dark matter'!  It's stupid!” she stalked away.  “And I'll tell you what I'll never understand ….”  But the rest of her outburst was muttered and could only be heard by Beatrice as she tromped past her.

“'Wiser not to understand?  Now how is that supposed to help her—Mister Pushkin?  Honestly.”

“You're so sure it was intended for her?”

“Need I tell you who the absurd metaphor in this family is?”

With that each head turned stubbornly bookward.

Bella walked to the farthest reach of the yard, to the trees and brush.  And looked back, past the unabating fireflies.  She gazed at her parents from beyond a field of stars—or a coven of ghost lights, studying them as through the telescope's other end. 

Her parents were familiar planets to her.  But they were never close enough for her to orbit both of them.  She felt torn and alone, unmoored in space.  Missing a solar system to join, in the expanding universe.  Together, as now, sitting on the deck on a late summer's evening, they were like Venus—comforting only at a distance.   

But what science camp teaches distance thus: the lens that forgives?  That lesson would have to wait.

Now she had questions she was certain Mister Lund could not answer, might not understand.  Beatrice had switched quarries, now picking clover-flowers, which did not flit away.  A similar sense of accomplishment eluded Bella.  Fireflies she could catch—and leave in a jar by her bed, to die by morning.  Understanding—of the forces which attract, repel, determine, govern (all those excited science-camp verbs)—she could not attain.

If they stayed silent for more than three days, which she had seen them do, then her heart would, she supposed, give in—and come to believe in dark matter.

Several decades hence she would sum it up in a necessarily therapeutic book:


Physics presents us with this sad phenomenon—yes, sad:  particles once attracted to each other tend over time to move apart as the universe expands and their attraction diminishes.  The gravitational force which drew them together has weakened until it is barely perceptible.  They are relatively stable, but their meaningful interaction is—well—dead.  Known outside the scientific literature by the vernacular term ghost marriage.




Timothy Clutter is a retired high-school English teacher and long-time resident of southwest Ohio. He has taken degrees from Ohio State and Yale University.  His articles have appeared in English Journal and The Sondheim Review.  “Ghost Marriage” is his first published fiction.