The woman who works miracles, Linda, has given up. She’s gotten a day job as a Red Cross Instructor. In the phantom green fluorescent-lit basement of an old church, she teaches us the secret of breathing life into mannequins. Our warm lips press against the antiseptic plastic. We count to three.
It’s an unlikely morning for miracles. There are only two of us: me, Liza, a fresh-out-of-college bleeding-heart idealist; and Stephen, a consultant of something or other in his weekend-casual cotton dockers. We’re in Worcester, Massachusetts, an old blue collar city that leaves off its “r”s and invented train car diners. (Pardon, that’s Woostah, blue collah, and train cah dinahs.) A city that occasionally likes to get up and be defiantly proud of itself, shouting out slam poetry and new guitar riffs, but mostly just likes its eggs over easy, its coffee lukewarm with free refills, and its work day get-through-able with a beer at the other end. Today is a cold rainy Saturday in October and the diners aren’t even open yet. We’re bored, exhumed from our beds. I’m getting my CPR certification so I can apply for a job as a summer camp counselor, though summer feels a long way off. Stephen’s just renewing his for the sake of it, he says, a neighborly duty. We infect each other with yawns while going through the motions of saving lives. One, two, three.
We get through it quick, small class that we are. We don’t ask questions and are done by eleven. Linda starts disassembling the mannequins and packing their parts into sealed plastic bags: heads, torsos, a baby. She sighs.
“It doesn’t make any difference,” she says.
“Sorry?” asks Stephen.
“No, I’m sorry, I mean, I wish I could teach you more—something more useful.”
Stephen and I exchange looks.
“Do you guys want any coffee?” she asks. She pulls out a thermos. “I’ve got plenty. I was just going to stay and have some anyway, you guys are welcome.” She pulls out a Ziploc bag full of chocolate chip cookies, too.
I shrug. I don’t have any plans, the course was scheduled to go until two and the coffee looks warm. “Sure,” I say, and Stephen sits back down as well.
“I thought maybe it would make a difference,” she starts again. “Trying to save people’s lives, trying to change things. Trying to teach others the skill to do it, like it could stall time, like people could get second chances.” She shakes her head. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be so discouraging. You guys came here to learn CPR, I shouldn’t …”
She’s a short woman, plump, but not heavy. She wears a forest green down vest over her stark white T-shirt, with its bright red cross the color of fresh blood hitting oxygen. As she talks she zips her vest closed up to her neck and pours the steaming coffee.
“It’s just that you oughta know,” she decides to go on, “the majority of them don’t make it. It’s not your fault.”
Stephen and I exchange looks again.
“What do you do besides teach?” Stephen asks. “Are you a paramedic?”
Linda laughs. “No,” she says. “If only things were that simple. No, I do other Red Cross work, to pay the bills mainly, these days. At first I got into it because I thought of becoming a paramedic, I thought of doing that. I thought maybe if I could keep people alive I could stop the flood of them coming to me later, needing me to help them sort things out after they’re dead.” She laughs again. “It seems so insane now! Of course I couldn’t stop them. People die, they will always die, it’s the way of things.”
Stephen stops chewing his cookie mid-bite and studies her.
“I mean I guess the idea did have its logic at the time.” She seems to be talking to herself now. “If you give people a second chance, and if they’re scared enough by the close call of death, maybe they’ll sort things out for themselves before it’s too late. That was the theory. I guess it’s true in some cases. It’s just that those aren’t the ones that really need help. The ones that do, I just don’t know how to help them. There’s too many. More all the time. And I’m the only one who hears them. It’s exhausting.”
Stephen perks an eyebrow, puts down his half-eaten cookie, and leans forward in his chair with the enraptured look of an investigative journalist who’s just hit gold. “Who are the ones that really need help?” he asks.
Linda looks up at him. I can see the red rings under her eyes now. I can see that she is exhausted. “They’re mostly girls,” she says. Her voice almost cracks. “They’re mostly girls that have had horrible things happen to them. You have no idea how many of them there are. They don’t stop. It keeps happening.”
She looks down again. “I stopped trying to help them, I had to. I just couldn’t do it anymore. But they haven’t stopped coming. They don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“Interesting. So how did you help them?” asks Stephen. He’s leaning back in his seat now, surveying her like the subject of an anthropological study. He shoots me a sideways glance like we share a secret.
Me, I kind of believe her. She looks like a jaded social worker. She pushes her bob-cut chestnut hair back behind her ears, unruly gray strands refusing to stay. Right now, she’s just happy to talk. I have a feeling if we weren’t here, she’d be going home to an empty apartment, maybe a cat. An empty apartment filled with voices. I imagine she watches a lot of TV for company. I would.
“I used to be one of those police psychics,” she says. “You know, the ones nobody likes to believe really knows anything and yet they always do?” I knew exactly where the girls were, what happened to them, always told the cops exactly where to go: the spot under the Green Needles Road bridge on the Wicassett River, behind the big red barn on the Johnson farm in Spencer, the vacant lot on Burncoat Street, behind the Blockbuster.” She shudders. “I helped solve a lot of cases, actually, but they stopped calling me. Not because I wasn’t good. I was too good. I knew about things that happened before anybody knew to start looking. I’d report several things a day, go down to the station trying to get their attention. They started treating me like I was a crazy lady, like I was crying wolf. They forgot I was always right about things. They wanted to forget.”
She looks up at me, then, almost as if she knows there’s no point in saying it to Stephen. “I’m not crazy,” she says.
I can see how she would make people uneasy though. I nod.
“You guys are good guys,” she says. “I shouldn’t put all this heavy stuff on you. I know I shouldn’t.” Her shoulders are hunched over with invisible weight. She wraps her hands around the warmth of the plastic thermos mug and takes a sip.
“But it sounds like you have helped lots of people,” I say. “It sounds like there are ways, even if it’s hard.” Even as I say it I know I sound naive, patronizing, but I mean it with the best of intentions, and she knows this. She smiles.
“I wish I could say that were true,” she says. “Yes, I solved some cases. We found the guys. We locked them up. Some got away. But whatever happened, the girls still hung around. Still idled by the river, not knowing what to do, not knowing how to leave. It never changed what happened. And they’d come to me for answers, but what answers do I have?” She shakes her head. “It just keeps happening.”
There’s a long pause. Then Stephen breaks it. “Lots of horrible things certainly happen,” he says. “But do you really think these ghosts are actually there? I mean, perhaps you’re imagining them over and over because those cases were traumatizing for you. I’m sure working with the police like that, you must have seen some horrible things.”
“No, no,” she insists. “I wish that were true. I wish it were true. You don’t believe me because they don’t go to you, you don’t see them. They all come to me.”
“There are whole towns I can’t go to,” she goes on. “It’s too hard. It’s not just the girls. There were massacres. You think that the massacres of Indians are a thing of the past? They’re not. They happen over and over. They keep happening. Nothing has stopped them. You don’t stop them by ignoring them. If I go to one of those towns I fall apart from the brutality—whole families, babies, screaming. And the Puritans, they were scary, scary people—you have no idea.” She looks up wide-eyed, shaking her head. “And you think the Puritans are in the past, and they’re not. They’re all around us. Souls dead as steel. Rotten. They’re not human.”
She gazes at the space between me and Stephen, her eyes still wide with fear, with the thought of the Puritans. She sees something, something she doesn’t want to say out loud. I imagine it’s someone with one of those white hats and collars out of The Crucible, someone with cold blue eyes and hollow rings around them. I picture native children with long black hair running terrified in circles. I picture their heads smashed against a quaint New England stone wall. Linda shudders; she shakes herself out of it. She looks back at me.
“Cookie?” she asks. “There’s plenty.”
I take one; they’re soft, home baked.
“What towns?” I ask. “Where did this happen?”
“Everywhere,” she says. “But some are particularly brutal. There’s a clearing in Manchuag—it looks normal enough—it’s this space between an old red barn and the road, bordered by the woods on one side. It used to be all cleared, all farmland with sheep, and there used to be a farmhouse. New England used to be all cleared you know, most of the woods now are second-growth after agriculture moved more out west. These are new forests … new forests on old soil. Anyway, this area that’s still a clearing, it looks peaceful but dark, like dark in the corners, you know? Dark in the air,” she motions with her hands to indicate where the dark was: around. “A whole Massapequot clan was murdered there—a whole clan. There were people trying to run away, they were chased down. I’m not sure how it started, it’s hard to understand everything that happened, but it seemed they were somehow invited there under false pretenses, like maybe they were supposed to negotiate a truce. They say things like that happened. I could smell burnt steel—betrayal smells like that. And the animal fear of the horses, that has a smell, too, like moldy sweat. The horse spirits are still there, the fear keeps happening.”
I’m gripped by her story, dimly aware of the styrofoam cup full of coffee in my hand. I grew up here in New England, in an old colonial house, with the original giant ceiling beams of old growth white pine. The floors sag with history. The house shields dark corners and secrets, whispered ghost stories into my childhood dreams. There’s a secret room inside the chimney of the house, about four by five feet, accessible through the now boarded up brick oven and the back of the china closet in the dining room. I used to be convinced it was part of the Underground Railroad, and that the tortured spirit of a runaway slave still lurked in the secret passageways. There’s a new addition that my father built, an old external wall that’s now an internal one, and an old window that’s now a door. Growing up, I kept shutting that door, because I felt like a woman was staring out in my direction, a melancholy woman looking out with longing, not knowing I was there. That was the old kitchen. Now it’s the dining room turned office where my mother works as a genealogist, researching family histories. I always spent my time in the new part of the house. It let in more light.
“None of it’s in the past,” Linda says, like she’s climbed inside my head. “None of it. Time doesn’t work like that, that’s what we don’t get. It’s got nothing to do with time. Just ’cause we forget something or don’t pay attention doesn’t mean it’s gone or over. Forgetting’s not the same as healing or letting go. Forgetting just means there’s someone or something out there, going around feeling forgotten.”
“Now wait,” Stephen pipes in. “Let’s just suppose this is all true, even if it were, are you saying we should hold onto the past and all that pain? Keep remembering it? What good does that do anyone? Seems a hard way to live. What’s the point?”
Linda shakes her head avidly, “That’s not what I mean. We do need to move on, just that ignoring these things isn’t the way to do it.”
“Well then, what is?” asks Stephen. “It just seems you’re listening to voices … I mean you’re going around feeling hopeless, but what can you do? Just seems you’d be a lot happier, and happiness breeds happiness,” he says, “if you can find a way to stop listening to these voices that are bringing you down.”
Linda looks at him with a pained expression. “Don’t you think I’ve tried that?”
Stephen gives her a half-smile and then shifts forward carefully in his seat. “Have you talked to anyone else about this? Like, say, a psychiatrist?”
She shakes her head again. “I’ve tried it all,” she says. “Nobody knows how to help me. That’s what’s so ironic; these girls come to me for help, but sometimes I feel like I’m just like them. Like we’re all just lingering by the river together. I’d love it if I were crazy! I’d love it if I could just take some pills and make this all go away!”
She looks at me again, like she sees something in me before I do. Her eyes dig in. “You think you want to see,” she says. “I know you think you want to see. Just be careful what you wish for. You could drown.”
She sinks back into her eyes, falling down into the black abyss of her pupils. I want to grab her, reach out my hand and keep her from tumbling into nothing. But a moment of doubt flickers in me. She might be heavier than me; if we grab hands I might lose my footing and tumble down with her, or maybe I’d manage to pull her up. I don’t know if I’ve got the strength. I don’t even know what I’m standing on. I don’t know the weight of the gravity that’s pulling her.
“Are you sure,” I begin, at the risk of sounding an idealistic fool, “there isn’t even one person, or spirit, that you’ve helped? Are you sure you even know?”
I’ve caught her, for a moment, off guard. She thinks. Suddenly her eyes well up. “There was,” she says quietly, almost a whisper. “Once.”
I wait for her to continue, but she doesn’t.
Then she does. “There was this girl, a young girl, maybe twelve. I’m still not even really sure what happened to her. She wasn’t one of the ones that came to me. Actually, she ran away. She kept running away. But I kept seeing her. She was behind my own house. She’d show up randomly, like a deer in the yard. She had the eyes of a deer, too, gentle, kind, unconditional, fragile. You know, those big brown eyes. She was afraid of me and I couldn’t take it. She kept appearing, lost, and I’d go out and try to help her and she’d look at me, scared to death, and run. I hated that she was afraid of me. I started to run after her. The more I ran after her, the more she was afraid and ran faster. I chased her down through the woods so many times. I got cuts and bruises on my arms from plowing through branches. She flew like an owl. This happened over and over. I’d try approaching her slower and slower, tried caution, quietness. But she’d see me and run. I knew she was hurt. I knew she needed help. I didn’t know what to do. This went on for months. I cried over it, lost sleep. I kept losing her in the forest. I’d stop, panting. I’d call out, ‘Please don’t be afraid! I want to help!’ Nothing.
“I tried to think of what I could do differently, what I could do to make her see I wasn’t going to hurt her. I couldn’t think of anything to do differently. I just kept going after her. I couldn’t let it go. Then finally one day after I’d lost her again I just sat down on the forest floor, on the pine needles, just sat down and cried. After a while I looked up. And then I caught sight of her, she was hidden in some branches, watching me. I saw her and she got the scared look again in her eyes. She almost took off again. And then, I don’t know, she just didn’t. She decided not to. I don’t know what happened. The thing about spirits is they’re not really aware of what’s going on, they just repeat things, the pain, the distrust. I don’t know why, one day, she decided not to run. We looked at each other for a long time. She started to understand that it was okay to let go. She smiled. Then she walked off calmly into the pines, moving forward. I never saw her again.
“But the thing is,” Linda shakes her head, “it was all her. I didn’t do anything. She got tired of being afraid, I think. I don’t know what triggered it. It was all her, I didn’t do anything.”
The room is silent. The green florescent track lighting hums and flickers above us.
“But you were there,” I say. “That’s not nothing. That’s not nothing at all.”
She shrugs. She doesn’t seem to think this is important. “But it doesn’t make a difference to any of the others,” she says. “It’s not enough. I see, but I can’t make them see. I don’t have the power to make anybody see.”
Stephen clears his throat. “You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself,” he says to Linda. His eyebrows narrow in a wrinkle of concern that reminds me of my father, the way he worries but doesn’t know what to say anymore, so his practical nature takes over. “You’re obviously a good person, you’re trying. That’s all any of us can do is try our best, isn’t it?” He downs the rest of his coffee and looks at his watch. “We’ve been down here a long time, haven’t we? I wonder if it’s still raining out.”
We wake up to the fact that we’ve been wiling away in a windowless room and agree its time to emerge. We gather our things and traipse up the metal staircase, exit through the industrial side door and squint at the bright patchy clouds. The rain has cleared; the parking lot has filled with puddles and lost earthworms. The church steeple stands above us, over a quiet city.
We part tersely. “Enjoy what’s left of your weekend,” we tell each other. “You, too. Take care.”
I could go home to my boyfriend and dog. We could make potato-leek soup and garlic bread for lunch and chat about my unusual morning. Instead I get in my little green Geo Prism and take Rte. 146 south. I get off at Purgatory Chasm, halfway to Providence.
I take the long trail towards the chasm. It winds through a mossy forest that today is filtering the leftover raindrops. I think of the darkness of the woods, the generation of trees without grandmothers, the blood in the thick sponge of soil. I think maybe, if I go slow and quiet, I’ll catch sight of a girl, running.
I go down into the chasm: a long granite gorge full of boulders to navigate around and walls to stare up at. Do I believe Linda and her ghost stories or is she crazy? In the middle of the gorge I stop and look up. Like a fish in a river, I look up at the channel of sky. The cold circle of the sun speaks its absolute truth.
It doesn’t matter if she’s crazy, I realize, or if what she says is true. It’s true enough.
I finger the card in my pocket, the CPR certification. It’s a temporary one until the real one comes in the mail, on which Linda scrawled my name and her signature to say that I’d qualified. “Good luck,” she’d said, before we left the basement. She handed it to me like she didn’t want it anymore, like it weighed as much as a boulder here in Purgatory Chasm. I take it out and look. There’s the American Red Cross logo on the side and in italics it says: Together, we can save a life. I’m officially certified. Officially crazy. Officially supposed to go out there and be the one to dive in and save people.
It’s ten years later and I’m still looking for that girl. The one who I will know to chase down, who will stop and look back at me. I’ve volunteered at schools in the rainforests of Thailand, stuffed envelopes for Greenpeace, held up signs and shouted in the streets for justice, waded through clouds of tear gas, worked with “at-risk youth.” I used to read the paper every day. I read about the wars, the election frauds, global warming and drowning polar bears, the debates over whether or not to call something genocide, the prospect of a future without water. I read about the car accidents, the random shootings, the missing girls. I read about the people that disappear, the people that disappear into the pages of yesterday’s newspaper, the people buried on page C-16. I stopped reading the paper so much. I couldn’t take it anymore. The feeling that I’m of the few who care, the few who pay attention. The feeling that nothing I do changes anything. That I don’t even know how to take care of myself sometimes. There’s just too much, too many voices wanting to be heard. But I keep getting up in the morning, not every day, I admit, but I do. I keep groggy-eyed pouring my coffee. And some days, when I remember to, I’m the girl who stops and looks up. Some days I look up and see that there’s somebody else there, that it’s not just me. They don’t have all the answers, either. They’re sitting on the pine-needled ground crying like I do sometimes, like Linda does. And then I know to walk forward, bravely, into the forest. Because these things, they don’t stop. They keep happening.
Maryann Ullmann is currently an MFA candidate in fiction and the 2012 Margaret L. Whitford Fellow at Chatham University in Pittsburgh and has published multi-genre work in Halfway Down the Stairs, Cultural Survival Quarterly, Whole Terrain, International Living, and Diner, among others. She travels obsessively and lived abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she acquired an imaginary llama named Svenz who feeds on alfalfa and dulce de leche.
© 2011, Maryann Ullmann