He emerges from a cloud of steam; the simmering dish grasped firmly between two oven mitts. “It’s ready,” he exclaims triumphantly, and the table buzzes with excitement. The faces lining the long table watch my father’s dance from the stove to the table and back and soon a patchwork of steaming delicacies fills the wooden surface in front of us.
Our guests have only recently arrived, and I don’t know them yet. I don’t know which foods will capture their hearts, so I watch. The elderly woman across from me smiles at a plate of chocolate chip cookies and her eyes close as she remembers.
I look toward the end of the table, where a middle-aged gentleman is shaking his head at a roast. “Every Sunday,” he mutters, “every single Sunday.” I wonder who will go first. It’s a little game I play with myself at our evening meals and tonight my bet is on the old woman eyeing the cookies.
Up and down the table, through the steam of the bubbling mac and cheese and the smoke coming from the slightly burned garlic bread, I hear murmurs, exclamations of nostalgia as the food works its magic. They’re all making progress, but it’s the elderly woman who, when she opens her eyes again, is gazing past me into the life that was now surely playing out before her.
“My granddaughter loves baking cookies” she whispers, uncertain that anyone is listening. When she sees me watching her, she smiles kindly and continues. “She’s about your age, barely a teenager but still willing to spend time with an old woman. Such a good little cook…”
As she tells me about her granddaughter’s first time baking, the flour everywhere after the bag broke, the care she took to measure each ingredient perfectly, she begins to fade. I can see the back of the chair through her chest, and I nod along, encouraging her to continue her story even as her voice echoes as though from the end of a tunnel. With each word, she disappears into the backdrop of the kitchen, until she is gone.
When my father finally takes his seat, he is the only one to reach forward and spoon food onto his plate. By that time, two of our five guests have disappeared and the man at the end of the table, muttering about the roast, is already a wispy, fading outline.
My father looks pleased with his work as he shoves a forkful of mac and cheese into his mouth and nods. The dishes were full, but he didn’t cook to feed their hunger—everyone knows ghosts don’t eat. He cooked to feed their memories.
He glances at me and winks, and I hear his explanation of many years ago echo in my head. Right after they started showing up, he’d told me, “They’re a little lost when they die, Pearl. They don’t remember who they were in life, so they don’t know where they belong in death. Food helps. Food always helps.”
For as long as I can remember, our home at the edge of the Lakewood Cemetery has been a stopping point for souls passing on to the next realm. As the caretaker of the cemetery, my father wasn’t even disturbed when the ghosts started wandering up the front steps into the house. “Well, I take care of the cemetery, I guess it’s my job to take care of its residents, too.”
“That was a highly successful meal don’t you think, Pearl?” he asks, pushing back his plate and standing. There are only two guests left, and they look from the food to my father to me, just as lost as when they’d first arrived. For some special cases, food isn’t enough. Even if they remember who they were, something else keeps them from passing.
I nod and stand too.
“You folks can head on upstairs and find a room that suits you. Pearl will be up shortly to make sure you’ve settled in.”
While my father clears the mostly untouched dishes off the table, the two figures rise, and I motion them toward the main staircase. They glide past me, their feet moving as though they’re walking even though they hover just a few inches above the ground. It takes some time to get used to being dead.
“I’ll be up soon,” I say. It was my job to help the guests when the food failed. For some reason, they always seemed to trust me. When I talked to them, asked them questions, they opened up, and they remembered.
Before I can head up after them, there’s a sound just outside the front door that shakes the foundation of the house. I jump and look to my father, who has hurried from the kitchen and now stands in the entryway. Bam. Bam. I open the door.
The massive, bearded man is dragging an ax behind him as he climbs the porch steps, the blade banging against each stair. Bam. Bam. The sound sets my teeth on edge. It’s an effort for him to take the last step and I imagine he must be newly dead because he’s still moving like his body aches. He scales the last step, and as he approaches the door, my father moves in front of me.
None of the ghosts have ever tried to hurt me, but there’s something different about this one. His heavy-lidded eyes look out through a mess of curls and facial hair. His thick, plaid shirt is torn, and one side of his suspenders droops off his shoulder.
The lumberjack enters the house and pauses for a moment, looking around. He glances at my father, then at me. His gaze freezes on me for a moment, and my father moves again to block me from his view. After a few blinks, the man walks forward, dragging his ax behind him, and starts up the stairs. Thump. Thump. A shudder goes through me, and my teeth chatter.
My father looks down at me. “Leave this one alone, please.” He’s never asked me to do that.
But I can’t leave the man alone. It’s my job to help them. So, when my father goes back to the kitchen to clean up and prepare for our next round of guests, I move up the stairs.
The lumberjack is in one of the guest rooms, pacing, the ax screeching as it drags against the wood floor. I step into the room but he keeps his eyes low.
He grunts. When he finally looks at me, it’s only for a moment before he glances furtively away.
“What brought you to us?” I ask.
The man shrugs. He looks up at me again, and this time his gaze lingers.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
He shrugs again. He’s looking at me like I’m a puzzle he’s trying to solve. I shift, uncomfortable under his scrutinizing stare. He notices and turns away, wandering over to the window. He looks beyond the cemetery, to the trees surrounding us.
“From the woods…” His voice is gravelly and hard to understand.
“I came from the woods.”
He jerks his head back to study me again, and his rough voice declares, “You look…”
“Pearl!” My father appears in the doorway. “I told you to leave our visitor alone.”
I sigh and move toward the door, turning my back on the lumberjack. But before I reach the exit, I hear a clatter of wood against wood. Without looking, I know he’s dropped the ax and I hear him whisper, “You…”
I turn to face him. His eyes are wide, and his form is flickering as though he’s shaking.
He whispers, “It was an accident.”
“What was?” I ask, but I know.
“I should head back to the house,” she thinks. But she loves the woods at dusk. The cool of the evening is prickling her cheeks, and the birds dancing in the trees sing their final songs of the day. Just a few more minutes, she tells herself, she’ll head back before dark.
Dusk falls faster than she expects and soon it’s hard to see the ground in front of her. She stumbles over a stick as she turns back toward the house. Dinner is probably ready. Since her mother died, her father puts so much work into their dinners, tries so hard to take care of her.
She can’t see the house, but she knows these woods, the woods sheltering their cemetery. Before she can begin her progress through the coming dark, she hears something. Whop, whop. The sound vibrates the trees and makes her teeth chatter. It’s coming from nearby, but she can’t see through the thickening darkness.
The sound gets louder as she treads carefully through the dark woods. And then, it stops. She hears a rustling, a shifting of leaves and stops walking. There’s an explosion of white light as the back of her head expands with pain and she feels the sharp edges of dried leaves meet her cheeks.
She lays among the twigs and leaves, something warm and sticky slowly flowing around her head, and thinks of her father. He took care of her. If she left him now, who would he take care of? She could feel herself slipping away and she fought it. She knew her body wouldn’t make it, she could already feel the life draining from her limbs, but somehow she knew she didn’t have to go to the place she was being called. She could stay. And she would.
“You shouldn’t have been working in the dark.” My father’s voice is harsh. “You were careless, and you took her from me.” His tone softens. “I heard on the news they found you at the bottom of a tree. They said you left a note, that you’d lived with the guilt for too long and couldn’t do it anymore.”
I look between the two of them, overtly aware of my body for the first time in a long time. I feel light. I look down. My feet hover inches off the ground.
My father turns to me. “You showed up right after the funeral. Just walked in like it was any other day and sat at the table. So, I made you dinner. You didn’t eat, but it seemed to comfort you, and you enjoyed talking to me while I cooked and ate. Then, the others came. They were different. This wasn’t their home; it was simply a stopping point. They needed help and comfort like you did, so I cooked for them, too. They trusted you because they saw who you were, even if you couldn’t. Together, we helped them move on.”
Grief flashes in his eyes, but it’s an old grief, and I wonder how long I’ve been holding on. He turns back to the lumberjack, who’s staring at me, pain raging behind his eyes. My father swallows and squares his shoulders. “I know it was an accident. You never meant to hurt her.” He sighs, letting go of his anger, “I forgive you.”
And just like that, the storm behind the lumberjack’s eyes calms, and the dark red and black of his shirt blends with the wood grain in the wall behind him. With one last glance at me, he offers a half-smile and crosses into his next life.
My father turns to me. “Thank you for letting me take care of you, Pearl. Thank you for helping me take care of the others, but you don’t have to do it anymore. I can do it alone. I’ll be okay.”
Then, it’s like I drop a weight I didn’t know I’ve been carrying. My guilt hits the floor like the lumberjack’s ax and I am weightless. I reach out to touch my father, but I can’t see my hand. I watch his smile until it fades away and then, I too am okay.