Ghost stories aren’t necessarily meant to frighten — often, they’re ways to explain to ourselves the living’s unresolved matters of the heart: old ambitions, old loves, old hatreds. T’s Nov. 15 Travel issue is dedicated to such tales, including three original short stories written exclusively for the magazine. Below is “Where Ambition Goes to Die” by Ruth Ozeki. Read more in our letter from the editor.
“I SAW YOURS today.”
“Oh?” you said. “Where was she?” Your tone was nonchalant, but I knew you were pretending. I’m your husband. I can tell.
“On the side of the road by the gorge. Near the big Douglas fir.”
That part of the road curved around the fir, cutting so close that the cars drove right over its roots. Back when the road was still dirt and not well traveled, the tree was OK, but when the car ferry came in the ’60s, the road got paved, and the fir started to die. Pity. It was a magnificent tree. Old growth. Girthy. The old-timers came to rue that ferry. They rued all of us newcomers, who crossed the border into Canada and traveled up the coast: first, the hippies and draft dodgers, then the New Age seekers and utopianists, then the dropouts from Silicon Valley and the pandemic refugees. We came with our big cars and big dreams. Our architects and our American dollars. Our fancy ambitions.
“What was she doing?”
“Hitchhiking. Toward the ferry.”
The ferry was the only way off the island. All our ambitions tried to leave at some point, when they woke up to the fact we had betrayed them. When they realized what was in store for them if they stayed.
“How did she look?”
“Not great. Pretty wan. Transparent, even. It won’t be long before she — ”
You cut me off. “Yeah,” you said. “Well, it’s probably better.”
What I didn’t tell you was how young she still looked, with her long black hair and furious face, even in her frailty. She was so beautiful once. Strong and full of life, lithe in her struggle and vivid in her suffering. I remember how she animated you, glaring at me from behind your eyes, during those first long winters of rain. The rain caged her, the island imprisoned her; she clawed inside you like a wild animal, and I could feel her writhing when I held you in my arms. From time to time, you would throw open the door and stride out into the rain, throw back your head and let her howl. I watched you through the window as you turned your face to the sky. Her howl tore from your throat, but from inside the house, I could barely hear it. Just a thin trickle of sound, quickly swallowed by the pelting rain and the mossy forest, by the wind that lashed the cedars and the density of fog. We humans were so insignificant in that landscape, and she didn’t like that. She was still trying to write that novel back then. I mean, you were.
“Did she see you?” you asked.
“Yeah. She gave me the finger. I saw her in the rearview mirror as I passed.”
You smiled. “She’s got some life in her yet.”
“She still blames me for bringing you here.”
“You didn’t bring me,” you said, pulling back your long, graying hair. “I came of my own accord.”Dripping, you would come inside, face wet with rain, and I never knew if you were crying or if she was.
“I’M NOT UNHAPPY,” you informed me. As if I, your husband of close to three decades, wouldn’t know.
“In many ways, I’m happier without her,” you said. “She was never satisfied. Always complaining … ”
“Yeah, she was a total pain in the ass,” I concurred. You looked hurt when I said this, so I added, “but she was awfully cute.” You frowned. “I mean, you were cute.” You glared at me, and I tried again. “I mean, you still are cute.”
You made a face, but then you relented. “And those insanely grandiose plans of hers! Just one damn thing after another. Relentless!”
“Do you remember when she started the bakery? Built that cob oven and almost set the forest on fire.”
“Well,” you said, smiling, “we ate some nice bread for a while.” You paused. “Sorry about your tooth.”
I’d broken my tooth on one of her loaves. It was sourdough. Hard as a rock. “Do you remember when she got into ayahuasca and apprenticed with that shaman?”
You shuddered. “Her shamanic phase was the worst!”
“No,” I said. “The worst phase was the polyamory.”
You didn’t hear me, or maybe you did. Quickly, you changed the subject. “And then there was the Institute, when she wanted to start an international field station for mycologists and fungi researchers and canopy biologists.”
“That was my idea.”
“Oh,” you said. “Right.”
“I had my dreams, too, you know.”
“I know. I forgot.”
THE POLYAMORY PHASE almost ended our marriage, but you don’t like to talk about this. I think you’re still embarrassed, even after all these years. I don’t blame you, though. I blame her. She was blinded by the charismatic prophet who had come to the island to teach a workshop on energy healing, which she convinced you to take, telling you that it was necessary “research” for the novel you were writing at the time. It was a novel about a somewhat futuristic back-to-the-land movement, peopled by neo-hippies, earth muffins, meat punks and New Age refugees, and set on a remote Pacific Northwest island in Desolation Sound. You described it to me once as a fictional meditation on the theme of failed utopias, which I thought sounded fascinating, but unfortunately I never got to read it. I think there’s still a draft of it in a box somewhere in the basement, moldering away, eaten by silverfish. You never finished it, because she abandoned you. You couldn’t finish a novel without her.
Failed utopias. Failed novels. Failed marriages. Desolation Sound abounds with these.
ImageOne night, during the weeklong workshop, the prophet was scheduled to do a public talk for the islanders. His talk was to be about sylphs, and, needless to say, I didn’t want to go with you, but she insisted. We argued. She won. By the time we arrived, the large yurt was mostly full, but we found seats on the floor in front. When the prophet took his place at the mic, I was startled. I had expected a tall, willowy man with flowing gray hair, pulled back in a ponytail. Maybe an ethnically embroidered skullcap hiding his bald spot. Prayer beads, for sure, and maybe a caftan. But I was wrong. This prophet had an expensive haircut and was wearing a suit. He had the body of a man who works out with a trainer. Turns out he had made an enormous fortune in new battery technologies, but I didn’t know this at the time. Sitting there at his feet, I listened as he recounted what he laughingly called his awakening, which led to his decision to sell his immensely profitable company and retire at the age of 35. His delivery was casual, modest and precise as he described how the sylphs, with their etheric bodies, transmute and neutralize the toxic chemtrails being pumped into the sky by government geo-engineers, multinational corporations and U.S. Army biological weapons testing programs. Without the heroic intervention of the sylphs, and other intracosmic beings, he said, we would all die of bioengineered pandemics.Of course, I thought he was being ironic. At some point, I remember nudging you, but you didn’t turn or seem to notice. When I looked back up at the prophet, I saw he was staring straight at you as he spoke, and she was gazing back at him, transfixed by his pale blue eyes. After the talk was over, he glided up to us, captured both your hands in his and clasped them. I glanced over at you and saw her blush. When you introduced us, he drew himself up and pressed his palms together at his heart chakra, bending at the waist in a slight namaste bow. I bowed, too, awkwardly, and then, as I straightened, he smiled and winked at me. She said I must have been mistaken, but I swear that wink happened. Later, at home, I went online and found his website. It had a menu of his offerings, which included exclusive workshops, consulting services and a full line of high-end orgone generators, tower busters and power wands. When I showed you the site, we both scoffed, but she remained silent. When I made a harmless joke about the spelling of “profit,” she turned and left the room. I sensed she was attracted to him then, but you denied it, and so I let it go.
Like so many prophets and gurus and shamans and healers before him, he fell under the spell of the island, and soon we learned that he had purchased a prime stretch of waterfront on the south end, where he was building a long house capable of deflecting microwaves, electromagnetic rays and cellphone signals. This was not surprising. I was, however, startled when you told me that he’d invited us to move onto his land and into his long house and to become a part of his polyamorous family. I knew immediately that she was behind this — she had a terrible weakness for men in power positions, and the challenge of rising in the ranks of the prophet’s disciples and gaining his esteem was irresistible to her — but what truly surprised me was that you wanted us to try.
“Wife-swapping?” I remember asking. The island has a long history of this sort of thing, dating back to the proto-hippies in the ’60s. “Free love?”
You glared at me, or maybe it was her. “I’m not a commodity that’s yours to trade,” she said, or maybe that was both of you.
The long house, with its cubit coils and crystal shields, was not what protected us from the pandemic. We were no longer living on the compound by then, ever since she realized that the prophet, too, was driven by ambition, which dwindled the longer he stayed on the island. Ambition was the fuel of his sexual charisma, what made him burn so brightly, and without it, the prophet paled, turning into a ghost of his former self. His hair grew long and lank. He stopped working out and developed a paunch. She came to her senses then, as did you, and when he started wearing tie-dye, we moved out, putting the long-house affair behind us. Our marriage survived, although the episode did leave its mark. I think you began to distrust your judgment then, and your ambition never quite recovered.I fancy I’ve always had a slight edge when it comes to judgment, but my ambition has never been a match for yours, and consequently I had far less to lose. My ambition never troubled me the way yours did, and so I just assumed he was already dead. Given my relative contentment during the global pandemic, when everyone’s ambitions were being thwarted, this was not an unreasonable assumption. I figured mine must have passed away quietly in the night, and I never missed him.
But someone told me they’d seen him recently, too, and I was surprised. I was at the post office, picking up the mail, and this person said they’d spotted him, alive and running through the forest. I’ve always been a runner — you know this, of course — but never an ambitious one. Other people clock their pace and track their mileage, run half-marathons, set goals and post new milestones, but I never have. I run for the fun of it, for the pleasure of moving swiftly through the forest along the narrow trails. I love skirting those massive old-growth trees, jumping over their roots, ducking under dripping mosses and feeling the spongy ground underneath my feet. Sometimes I stop to eat wild huckleberries or photograph a slime mold or stare at an owl. I run for the smells of the forest, of cedar and fir, lichen and fungi. I run for the sweat and the way it makes me feel after. Ambition has never been a part of it.
So when this person said they’d seen him running through the forest, I pressed for details: Did he look ill? Was something chasing him? Was he running away? They said that no, actually, he looked quite fit, jogging at a good clip up one of the steeper trails that the mountain bikers sometimes use, never breaking a sweat. This puzzled me. This is the island where ambition goes to die. Had mine survived somehow? Adapted to island conditions? Was he in training? This was a frightening thought. I didn’t tell you about it, but frankly, I was worried.
WHEN THE PANDEMIC hit, the island closed its doors. The ferry still ran on a reduced schedule, but only islanders and essential businesses were allowed passage, and tourists and nonresidents were turned away. The wealthy Americans with homes on the island, fearing long months of isolation and deprivation, cut their vacations short and left before the borders closed. They have big lives and big needs. They have primary residences in big American cities serviced by Amazon Prime, and they can afford to pay for private health insurance and concierge medical care, so we weren’t terribly worried about them. The rest of us hunkered down and counted ourselves lucky.
“I think she was looking for mushrooms,” you told me later. “I think she was trying to help.”
“That’s sweet … ”
“No, it’s not sweet. It’s terrifying. I don’t want her help! She’ll try to monetize the mushrooms. Turn it into a business.”
“Don’t be so hard on her. She’s helped you in the past …”
You grimaced. “Listen. You don’t know her. You don’t know what it’s like to live with her.”
I put my hands on your shoulders. “Well,” I said, kissing the frown line on your forehead, “actually, I do.”
IN THE END, though, you didn’t have to worry. Eventually, you even started writing again. Not novels. Nothing that big or ambitious. But a draft of a short story now and again, or sometimes a poem, scribbled on the back of a recycled envelope, which you would later read to us by the fire. I say “us” because by then, we were all there on the couch together. Me, with my arm around you as you read. Yours, listening quietly and leaning into mine. The stories were short and didn’t take long. We’d listen and nod. Maybe ask a question or two. Yours, I noticed, was careful never to offer feedback or make a suggestion unless asked, and you rarely asked these days. What was the point? Like my running, you now wrote for your pleasure, and for ours.
The native people used to call this the island of the dead, for surely it is full of ghosts. Now, after you read to us, I dampen down the fire, and we all say good night, and then we go to bed. When we sleep, we dream, unhaunted.