I was on the lam. I was tired of people. I wanted to be alone with weeds and the dead, so I went to the river. My long-dead uncle, my first botanical and etymological mentor, strolled at my side. My recently dead psychoanalyst strayed somewhere behind, enjoying the wombs and phalloi of early spring. Glenn Gould was somewhere in the pathside thicket. I could hear him humming. He had borrowed my gloves and my hands were cold.
My uncle, an autodidact, was a photographer by avocation and a photoengraver by trade. Decades of photons bouncing off my uncle had engraved traces in my brain in countless layers and masks. It was the ultimate in lossy compression. That's why ghosts are translucent.
"White oak," he said, pointing up, and then he asked me about film.
He pronounced it "fillum," his old joke.
"There is no film," I explained. "Now there's a sensor."
He'd died before the heyday of digicams. His ghost, contextless, looked baffled. I photoshopped in some pixels.
"Oh! " he exclaimed. I handed him the D70.
"Very nice," he said, admiring the little machine. He looked into the viewfinder, focused and motioned for me to enter the frame. My uncle believed that all photographs should contain a person. I declined.
"Tell me about camera, Uncle. Camera obscura, camera lucida." The ghostly face wrinkled. A smile, perhaps.
"Camera," he explained, "is from the Latin for vault. As in I am lying in camera. There are light rooms and dark rooms. Rooms with and without doors. Do you understand ?"
My uncle handed the camera back and wafted off toward the river.
I stood by the path and listened to the birdsong. Two women walking terriers passed by. One, seeing my camera, told me there were cardinals ahead. I thanked her. I would watch for cardinals.
Hummed bits of the Goldbergs drifted from the rosa multiflora. I watched Glenn detach his scarf from a thorn.
"Like ragtime !" he chortled, and headed down the slope toward the river.
There was a flash of red in some switchgrass. A cardinal !
Boston's Cardinal O'Malley, in fact, newly incardinated by Rome and freshly disincarnated by me. Not all ghosts are dead, after all. He wore a red skullcap and his brown Franciscan robe.
"I like your sandals," I said, looking down. They were leather. Hand-made, I'd read in the Globe. "Aren't your feet cold ?"
He sighed. He seemed sad. I thought of his vows. Poverty. Chastity.
"Ob- audire-," chimed in my Uncle voice. "Near. Hear."
I sat beside O'Malley on a rock. He leaned his ear toward me. Apparantly I was supposed to confess.
I lowered my head. I tried to remember the unfamiliar Catholic words. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been an infinite number of days since my last confession."
It was then that I spotted Dr. M. sitting in a patch of old milkweed. He was taking notes. He ran one fingerdown the orange central rib of one empty pod, then scribbled in his steno pad. At last he looked up.
"Go on," he murmured.
Confused, I turned back to O'Malley. "Does this have anything to do with my The King Is Dead dream, the one I had in 1978 ? And why are you wearing that robe ? Empty pod or Patriarch, what shall it be ? I have desired both. I have even interpreted dreams !"
"So have I, my child."
Before I could receive my penance, there was a thudding of wings in the tree above us. It scared away all the ghosts, living and dead. I looked up. It was a hawk. I looked at the hawk and the hawk looked back.
"Eat ?" it thought.
"Focus, quickly !" I thought.
Photons shuttled back and forth. Ions crossed membranes. Proteins twitched. It was a fair exchange.
The day was cloudy, but not too cold. The ground, in fact, was warm. The sun peeked through once or twice. I peeked back. I was neither happy nor sad. There was a lot to see. It was all interesting.
And strange. Don't forget strange.
Don't ever forget strange.