Critical Thought: Shaft

Initially I was skeptical about there being a ghost in the house in which I would be living. When speaking to my future roommate on the phone before the move, he mentioned it casually at the end of the conversation, as if discussing a minor flaw in the house’s architecture: “Oh, and there is a ghost in the house.” I didn’t know how to take this information. I had never met this man in person. If he’s joking, I’ll probably like him, I thought, and if he’s not joking, I’ll probably like him. “Tell me more,” I said. He was reticent to divulge much over the phone, but he made it clear that the ghost was not malicious, that she was the spirit of a woman, Leonora Haygood, who had died in the room I would be inhabiting. She made shuffling noises at night, she moved keys and jewelry, and occasionally she cut the electricity on the anniversary of her death. And once he had seen her.

Upon arrival, I tried to remain aloof, but I was hyper-conscious with anticipation. Both my roommate’s girlfriend and the landlady independently corroborated details concerning the ghost and patiently responded to my questioning. They could be all in on it together, I said to myself, lying awake in the enormous night. After all, what kind of name is Leonora Haygood? Weeks later, while wandering through one of the many local cemeteries at dusk, I came across her gravestone. The date of her death matched what my roommate had told me. The next day I discovered the loose floorboard.

Joe Fletcher’s chapbook, Sleigh Ride, is published by Factory Hollow Press. Other work has appeared or will appear in Octopus, Jubilat, Slope, Poetry International, Hoboeye, Gulf Coast, Hollins Critic, A Public Space, and elsewhere. He lives in Carrboro, North Carolina.

The Shaft

I haven't told you yet about the loose floorboard under my desk. It's as long as my foot and half as wide. One night I removed the board and the shaft of a tunnel yawned in the winter gloom of my room. I looked over my shoulder: my lamp lit the wind- raked branches of the magnolia outside my window. I dove. I burrowed. I heard drippings, rustlings, the click of small claws as something fled. I caught a whiff of sugared dough and heard faint tabla music and a piece of conversation that went: "My first thought was that a public execution was taking place, that the condemned had just been led into the arena, chubby and trembling, and that the cold blade was slowly being drawn up. . ." But this drifted off, echoed, and was lost among the ducts and passages. I crawled on. My head finally parted a heavy curtain and I was spilled into an enormous vaulted chamber, which I soon realized was a railway station. A chandelier whose chain descended from an unseen roof bathed the area in a harvest-orange glow. Slump-shouldered birds perched on the fixture. Sometimes they launched into lazy, sweeping forays, only to return to their deep repose on the chandelier, which swayed. Trackside signposts bore the names of Balkan villages and further stops in the provinces— I imagined forest parks where coachmen waited behind massive, charcoal-flanked steeds. The curved walls of the station were tiled into a mosaic that resembled a landscape from Courbet. It gave a depth to the room, as if one could walk along that river and glimpse the pale bellies of carp flashing beneath the surface. There was a crowd. They were quiet—as crowds go—but I don't mean silent. A bearded man stood before a booth and objected to the price of a cigar. The clerk absorbed the complaint in a posture of stoic resolve, his meaty arms crossed in front of his chest. A lady was walking a baby leopard whose green eyes flashed toward me through the shifting forest of trousers, skirts, and canes. A platform rose some fifteen feet above the bowler hats of the tallest men. On it a fat woman was dancing. She wore only a whistle on a chain around her neck. Her breasts and belly gleamed. Flashbulbs popped among those gathered beneath her. When her movements bordered on the obscene, a stern voice barked in objection from the crowd, at which she giggled, blushed, and blew a kiss to the children who watched from their fathers' shoulders, gorged and delirious with sweetmeats. Suddenly a look of alarm swept across the woman's face. She leaned over the railing of her platform and peered into the dimness. She blew her whistle and the station was transformed: the birds lifted from the chandelier emitting cries that sounded like a canoe being dragged over gravel. The crowd rushed and jostled to the trackside. I felt a rumbling. "Where are you going?" I asked a little girl, who was being pulled in her mother's wake. "To the Tree," she said, and soon was lost. The vendors hurriedly closed their booths, stuffing samosas wrapped in wax paper into their pockets. It would have been difficult to climb on board among that swarming mass. I don't like trains if I don't have a seat by the window and a place to set my hat. I took my leave unnoticed. The train's whistle-blast followed me up the shaft and echoed through the conduits. Then all was dark and silent except my own slithering and panting. I returned as dawn touched grayly the walls of my room. Someone had extinguished my lamp.

by Joe Fletcher