MURMUR • by Joy Lanzendorfer

She came in with the rain, through an open window. It was the house of a young family. The ghost, whose name had been Amaya, gazed curiously at their cleanliness, their food-in-bar-form, and the bright newness of everything they owned. She watched the mother string grapes onto skewers and then paste chocolate chips on one end with icing, the eyes of a long green snake. When the children came home from school, they ate the snakes as snacks. The mother said the grapes were healthy. Grapes had been so expensive when Amaya was alive that she hadn’t tasted them until she was an adult.

The mother puzzled Amaya. Machines were all around her: boxes that cleaned her dishes and clothes, a tub that heated her water, a car in which she glided through town, and many small, glowing screens that she peered into like she was reading the future. Yet she was unhappy. She rubbed her head and complained of headaches. Although she had everything to eat at her fingertips, she was concerned about her body, and the bodies of her children. Weariness dogged her and she blamed her diet, something to do with probiotics in the belly. She woke up throughout the night and sighed and rolled in bed as Amaya perched on the headboard, a shadow on the mother’s neck.

One night, Amaya crept close and whispered in the mother’s ear, “Your children are hungry.” Immediately the woman jerked awake and Amaya laughed and laughed. It was so easy that it became a game. Where before she floated through the house, slipping in and out of cell phone cracks and curling up in the chemical smell that covered the laundry, now she would dart from her perch and whisper in the woman’s ear thoughts of mortality, or failure, or fear. It pleased her when the mother flung open her eyelids, her heart beating so fast that Amaya was surprised the whole house didn’t wake from the noise.

Then the woman began taking pills at night that made her lie like the dead in her sleep, so Amaya took to riding on her shoulder throughout the day. She waited as the woman volleyed between work, shopping, and home, sipping water with sour smells that imitated fruit and eating limp lettuce for lunch. When the woman’s heart sped up while she was maneuvering the car onto the freeway, Amaya whispered, “Your hands look like your mother’s hands now.” The woman almost veered into traffic, and Amaya was stung with something new. She remembered, suddenly, having hands. She remembered them being cold in winter, and of the wonderful fluidity of her fingers. This seemed to be something from a dream half-remembered, but the feeling it produced made her tiny teeth sharp.

All day, she waited for openings, that moment when the stringent smell of sweat rose through the woman’s clothes, and then Amaya would whisper to her the thoughts: “Your children are hungry.” “There is poison in the food/ that container/ the hair brush you draw over your son’s downy head.” “You are wasteful/ you waste everything/ you are waste.” “Your husband cannot be trusted.” “Everyone you love will die.”

Each time the woman reacted, and each time it produced a tiny thrill in Amaya, a burst of color and light that made her feel stronger. Before, she’d been a wisp floating in the wind, and now she had half a vision of herself as a person who’d once walked and breathed. Her hold on the woman’s shoulder sunk deeper, with needle-like precision. The woman lost weight. Her eyelids grew sticky from lack of sleep. She sought help from doctors and friends, but it was no use. Despite the advice and pills and glasses of chardonnay, Amaya’s shadow fell on the floor and the air grew denser around them. The whispering continued, a stream of words that ceased to pause, ceased to have moments of reprieve, until it became an unending pour of poison into the woman’s ears, until she tipped her head toward it, waiting, quietly, for more.

Joy Lanzendorfer’s work has appeared in Tin House, The Guardian, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, Hotel Amerika, Los Angeles Review, KQED, and many others. Joy is the recipient of the 2015 Gulliver Travel Grant from the Speculative Literature Foundation and her novel was a finalist in the 2016 William Faulkner William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition.

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