2016 Margarita Donnelly Prize for Prose Writing Winner
War of the Ghosts
by Lorain Urban
“I’m going to tell you a tale. Please remember it,” the professor said.
“Two young Inuits went down to a river to hunt. A war party came along in a canoe through the fog, and one of the Inuits went with them to help attack an enemy village. They gave him arrows, and he battled fiercely by their side, until he heard one of the warriors say: ‘The Inuit has been hit. Let’s get him home.’ Although they said he had been hit, the Inuit felt nothing, and thought: ‘They are ghosts.’ The warriors took him home, where, around a campfire, he told his people about the attack and about the ghosts saying he had been hit, but that he felt fine. When the sun rose, he fell down. Something black came out of his mouth. His face became contorted. The people jumped up and cried.”
Every so often during the semester, the professor asked us to write down what we remembered of the tale. He collected our papers and kept them in a folder labeled, “The War of the Ghosts.”
The night was brittle. Street lights were ringed with the fog of their own breath. I picked my way carefully along the walk to the door, key in hand. I heard a neighbor’s dog howling and thought it sounded like the loneliest wail in the world, a wail that reminded me of an empty beach. When I stepped through the door, a hand shot out and clamped tightly over my mouth. It was gloved and big, and I felt the ribs of leather seams scrape my face.
The owner of the hand dragged me farther inside to the kitchen, tripping over the stool in front of the cupboard. The two of us crashed to the floor. I heard him unzip his pants and the excited explosions of his breath. He entered me from the back, panting and heaving, panting and heaving, panting and heaving, until he let out a muffled wail that sounded much like the lonely howl of my neighbor’s dog. He rose, pulled up his pants, and left.
Through it all, I told myself “The War of the Ghosts”—over and over, like a prayer.
Two young Inuits, naked and panting, ran down to the river. One of them got into the canoe of a warrior. He hunched down in its bow, breathing the musk of animal hides and twilight. The Inuit and the warrior engaged in fierce battle. The warrior left him in the canoe to sail over the falls.
My phone was in the pocket of the pants he had ripped from me. I found it and held it in my hand, staring at the screen. I realized the door was still open, so I crawled on all fours, shut it and leaned against it. I dialed 911. The dispatcher asked if I was in a safe place. I said I guessed so. I gave her my address.
Two cops banged on the door. When I opened it, they pointed their flashlights beyond me into the dark kitchen, eyeing me with embarrassment. They told me they were going to look around the premises. I sat on the couch watching them. The older cop limped over and sat down next to me. “We’ll need a description,” he said. “He was tall,” I said. “How tall?” he asked. “He was dressed all in black,” I said, “and his skin was like a lizard.” “What do you mean?” he asked. The cop had a gap between his front teeth. “I think he had a gap between his front teeth,” I said. The cop’s eyes narrowed. I told him his gloves were like the ones my father would pull on in winter before heading out the door to work, the smell of cigars trailing behind the flap of his London Fog. “His hair sprouted out in great puffs,” I said. “His voice reminded me of pencils or arrows of driftwood.” The cop stopped writing. “Come with us,” he said.
The young Inuit made his way to shore where he encountered people from his village. They looked like dancing shadows made by firelight, and he told them of his battle with the warrior; he told them he thought the warrior was a ghost. He knew the people did not believe him.
The walls were putty colored, like his skin, which was smooth like an old leather purse. And the paper on the examining room table rustled like his clothes—swishing as he ran toward the door. I told the SANE nurse that her hands felt like his: chapped and warm, curious and intrusive. She said, “shhh.” I told her that he made a sound just like that. She put her hand on my forehead. I told her he had done that too. The nurse asked if there was someone she should call. I didn’t know what she meant.
The cops came back, this time with a dumpy woman who said she was my advocate. She spoke slowly, as if I were a child. “These police officers would like you to try to tell them everything you can remember. Do you think you can do that?” she said. “Yes,” I said. “Good girl,” she said. The cop with the gap between his front teeth took out the notebook he had been writing in when we sat together on my couch. “The night was brittle,” I began. The cop looked up from his notebook. I told him about how I was careful along the walk to my house and about the lonely wail of my neighbor’s dog. “Is that important?” I asked him. The cop said he didn’t think so. I told him about being grabbed and how I felt like I should know what to do, how I should know the spot to press to paralyze my attacker like Uma Thurman would, but how instead, I just crumpled to the floor and studied the cracks in the tile and pretended I was rocking in the bottom of a canoe.
“A canoe?” the cop asked. “Or maybe a small row boat,” I said. He scratched out something in his notebook. I told him I thought the guy was dressed all in black, but maybe it was gray or blue and just looked black because of the darkness. And I told him how his eyes were scaly and red, or maybe they were yellow, and how his breath smelled musty, like old library books. I told him how something about him–I think it was his jaw—reminded me of my tenth grade science teacher who had pressed me up against a locker and asked me if I liked him, and I had noticed the bulge in his pants. “Did you see his penis?” the cop asked. I shook my head no. “That’s okay,” he said.
The Inuit said he had been hit in the battle, but he felt fine. The people around the campfire pressed him: “Where was this battle?” “Where were you hit?” The Inuit said he didn’t know.
They called me again. “Come down to the station. We want you to look at some men in connection with your rape,” they said. “Do I have to?” I asked. “Yes,” they said.
The men were shadows. Their forms shifted and stretched as if in candlelight. The cops and a prosecutor watched me as I studied them. “Would you like them to say something?” they asked. “No,” I said. One of the men looked like a punching bag. “Not him,” I said. Another looked like an oak tree. “He’s not it,” I said. Another looked like a grandma, knitting in a rocking chair. “That one is definitely not him,” I said. There were three left. One lifted his arm and tucked his face into his arm pit. “He’s a bird,” I said. “That’s not him.” The remaining two men seemed to merge, faces pointed in opposite directions, Janus-like. “Ask them to lie on the floor and then get up,” I said. They did.
The villagers wanted to know more about the ghost. The Inuit told them he looked like one of them but when you looked into his eyes, you could see mountains and glaciers and caves that traveled beyond eternity, that there was a shimmer to him that reminded him of the silver scales of capelin.
I stared at the two men for a long time. They blinked and squirmed, knowing that they were being watched. I didn’t want to find out who it was. I wanted to go home. I pointed at one of the men and said, “That’s him.”
“Are you sure?” the prosecutor asked. “Take another look,” she told me. “I meant the other one,” I told her, watching to see if she liked that answer better. She nodded this time and asked again, “Are you sure?” “Yes,” I said. “Good,” she said. “Come with me.”
I sat in her windowless office. She had an old pair of tennis shoes stuffed in a corner, a photo on her desk of some very fat people who looked like her, and red fiber folders lined up in rows all over the floor of her office. She handed me a cup of coffee and set down a container of powdered creamer on the desk in front of me.
“I know you’ve been through this already, but tell me again what you can remember,” she said.
“The street lights were ringed with the fog of their own breath. A dog made a woeful howl as I walked up my front walk,” I said.
“Uh-huh,” she said, “keep going.”
“And then I opened the door. And there she was—I mean at first I thought he was a she, a big she, like that woman in the photo on your desk. And I said, ‘who are you?’ Then I ran into the hall and he followed me. That’s when I got a good look at him. He was wearing bicycle gear—brightly colored with stripes, and he took off his helmet. I started to scream, but he removed his gloves and shoved them into my mouth. He was very, very, very tall with long, long arms. His hands came down past his knees.”
The prosecutor had stopped writing and was staring at me. “The person you just picked out of the line-up was 5-foot 8.”
I shrugged. “Can I go home?” I asked.
“What happened to the ghost?” “Where is he?” the people wanted to know. The Inuit told them he faded like smoke, leaving him in the canoe alone, leaving him to sail over the falls and crash to the rocks.
The prosecutor shut her door. “Let’s try this again,” she said.
She shuffled some papers on her desk. “You’re safe here, you know.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s what I remember,” I said again.
“I think you need to talk to someone to help you,” she said.
“Help me what?” I wanted to know.
“Sort things out.” She gave me a card and told me to make an appointment.
His mother drew the young Inuit close to her, put her ear to his chest, and listened. She heard the spirit within, and she knew her son had been cursed.
I sat in the little office and looked out the window into a parking lot, while the counselor who was supposed to help me sort things out copied my insurance card. I watched a skinny woman with a scarf draped around her neck like a life saver, make trips back and forth to her Volkswagen bug as she carried large jugs of water into a door across the way. I wondered if she had a pool inside and figured her life-saver scarf would come in handy.
The counselor scooted her chair close to mine and asked me what I wanted. “I’m told I need help sorting things out,” I told her. “I see,” she said, “what sort of things?”
I told her about the blackness of the night, the loneliness of the dog’s howl, the hand across my mouth, the ribs on the glove, the crashing onto the floor, the man’s penis in me, the panting noises he made, the pulling up of his pants and leaving.
“I see,” she said. “I remember other things, too,” I told her. “Tell me about those,” she said.
I told her about how he made me think of old TV shows in black and white. And how he whistled “I Dream of Jeanie,” as we fell to the floor. I told her about his socks with fishes on them and how his belt buckle dug into my back and made a shape on me that looked like Mr. Peanut.
“Are you sure?” She asked. “Yes, that’s what I remember,” I told her.
When the sun rose, black spewed from the Inuit’s mouth and his face contorted. The people jumped up and cried. They left him lying on the ground next to the smoldering campfire.
The prosecutor called to tell me she was reviewing the file, and she’d let me know what was next. “I’m pretty sure you I.D.ed the right guy, but some of the details you gave us don’t exactly make sense. Which happens sometimes, but not usually to this degree,” she said.
“That’s okay I don’t want to do this anymore. It doesn’t matter,” I told her.
“Well, yes it does matter. Some guy broke into your home and raped you. He may rape other women. He may be lying in wait to rape you again. I’m going to send him away. I’m going make sure that he’ll be penned up like the animal he is. I’m going to make sure he will never hurt you or any other woman again.”
I was pretty certain she was standing up now, pacing in front of her desk, circling around the pair of old tennis shoes in the corner, knocking over the photo of the fat people on her desk. “That’s okay,” I told her again, which seemed to make her angry—or angrier. “How can you say…”
I turned off my phone.
I sat down on my kitchen floor, keeping my back to the wall, and stared at the canoe where our ghosts locked together. I thought of empty beaches with arrows of driftwood, and the smell of cigars. I thought of the way words seem to come from my mouth in a black cloud when I spoke. I thought of the way the two men in the line-up dropped to the floor when commanded. And I thought of the way I had imagined they were dead and wondered who would tell their mothers.
Then I told myself “The War of the Ghosts” again.
Lorain Urban lives in the Midwest and is working on a collection of short stories. She has participated in fiction workshops led by Imad Rahman and more recently, by Lee K. Abbott at Kenyon College.
Judge: Katherine Malmo is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor. Her memoir, Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition was published by CALYX Books in 2011 and a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Her writing has won the Goldberg Prize for Fiction, the PNWA Short Fiction Award, and been published in The Bellevue Literary Review, CALYX Journal, Gastronomica, and Good Housekeeping Magazine. You can read more about her work at www.katherinemalmo.com.