A Ghost Story for Hallowe'en: Lost and Found
A young man loathes going on outings with his family, but he is mesmerized by the watch he finds at the edge of a lake. Eager to get away from the chatter, he declines their invitation to come home with them and goes back to his apartment where he briefly forgets about his new watch. But the original owner is not so careless.
L O S T A N D F O U N D
HOLDING it in his hand, he watched the light pool in the glass and run down the silver in brief, sparkling flecks. Someone from above called his name and he instinctively hid it his pocket, leaving the place where he had found it. He looked up into the fire tower. Some movement caught his eye – a white shape bobbing side to side then falling down. His aunt was waving her hand from the lookout post one hundred feet in the air. Beside her were five indistinct shapes – grey patches sitting neatly atop dark oblongs. His sister and their four female cousins watching from the shadows. He moved away to avoid the sun that glared in his face and casually returned his aunt’s gesture. His hand returned to his pocket. It was still there.
The object in the pocket, the pocket, and the twenty-six year old man who wore it all currently existed in a puzzle-piece of flat earth made up mostly of patchwork farmland bearded by black groves of poplar and walnut, and the puzzle-piece was called Wells County. Wells County is in northeast Indiana, near the border to Ohio, south of Fort Wayne and southwest of Toledo. It’s only notable town is Bluffton, the seat, but on its western side it fosters a small but respectable state park which is also of note. Its name, Ouabache, is the French rendering of the Indian word for the Wabash River (which transfixes it on its way to the Mississippi) and although the spelling proves a stumbling block to some, it is quite simply pronounced wah-bash. In spite of this very simple program, the locals – even more so perhaps than visitors – delight in the somewhat dignified if erroneous pronunciation wuh-bah-chee. It is far more likely that they have tried to exotify an otherwise mundane title with a touch of Indian gravity, and the custom continues on to the deep annoyance of the underpaid and underwhelmed rangers.
Amidst the sprawling, endless farmland – dotted with copses, and ribbed with sun-whitened highways, Ouabache State Park nests several manmade lakes, a collection of brooks, streams, creeks, and ponds, and a beautiful though not necessarily impressive stretch of Hoosier woodland networked by modest hiking trails and pocked with electrified campsites where lonely packs of campers nestle during the summer months while the raccoons grow obese and arthritic, and the beavers slip into the water along with the bullfrogs, box turtles, and green snakes. It has unassuming stocks of small fish and maintains a lightly populated swim park, but the two boasts that it is comfortable making lie in its bison park – a modern marvel during the 1970s when the all but extinct buffalo were first introduced – and its fire-tower, the delight of some children and adults and the terror of others.
It was from the peak of this great feat that the visitor’s family was now scanning the landscape: the lake gleaming brassily, like a strange, tarnished mirror, and the bushy green woodlands fading to blue and grey near the horizon. The tower consisted of a tapered scaffolding of red-brown steel that ended in a wooden platform roofed with the same dusky material. Achieving the height was done by carefully marching up a flight of grey, wooden stairs that cocked in an ascending series of right angles, and shuddered with every footfall, sending the severest vibrations to the top flights, the worst of which were created by enthusiastic interlopers on those at the bottom. Like its counterpart in Babel, it was easier to digest from the ground, and brought escalating punishments to those who insisted on continuing the ascent. But the view gained from the top rewarded its worshipers enough to steel them for the even more harrowing return to earth. It was vast and wide, and while it was simple, unadorned Indiana woodland, it provided something – itself simple and unadorned – to the restless nerves of the soul.
The visitor knew this because he lived in the county to the east and had journeyed up the tower once or twice before. He was, however, not an ambitious man and not an adventurous spirit. He preferred the earth, where things maintained their appropriate perspective: the sky was above, the trees ahead, and only the dead soil was below. In the most literal and appropriate terms, he was a grounded person. Shrugging off his family’s entreaties to join them, he pretended to no longer notice and sauntered beneath the black arms of a slumbering beech tree. Here, while their laughter and shouts could still be heard rumbling off of the lake’s surface, he reached into his pocket and removed it jealously. This is what it was:
A wristwatch, androgynous and slender, with a silver plated band, a clean, postmodern face (the only hours represented were the quarters, 12 being a black diamond, 3, 6, and 9 being black dots), with two rectangular arms, and three odometers measuring the month, day, and weekday. 9,8,Fr. it said. This was the one drawback of the piece, for it was 6, 29, Su. Furthermore, he knew that September 8 was a Monday that year. And yet the arms were correctly positioned to 3:43. 3:44. He held it to his ear. Shck-shck-shck-shck-shck-shck… The gears shuttled dutifully forward, propelling the arms through time. He turned the watch over and looked once more at the inscription, traced in a floral, Florentine italic which announced “Wherever you are will be my home.” It was quaint and sentimental, unlike the visitor, who preferred the ground and the shade of old trees, never being one to play loosely with gravity. He admired gravity and preferred not to treat it presumptuously. But the italic legend caught his eye and wormed its way into his dormant imagination. “Who were you, I wonder?” He wondered, too, why he had so instinctively – without doubt, hesitation, or consideration – cast the wearer in the past tense. But of course, it was because they were no longer the wearer. Past tense. The joints between the silver links were black with dirt and tarnish, the band itself was nearly brown with age, and the glass face had been opaque and yellow before he had cleared it away with his thumb. It had hardly caught his notice except for the gleam of the back plate in the sun.
He turned back to the lake and his eyes fell on the tree where he had noticed it, a less than middle aged maple with the stump of a branch jutting through its grey trunk like an accusative forefinger. The amputation appeared to be due to lightning, which had left an angry black scar racing down the trunk and burying itself in the earth. It was on this peg – a white shock of dead tissue some five feet off the ground – that he saw the watch while his family first mounted the steps to the fire tower.
There was nothing at all attractive about it in that moment. It hardly resembled its true nature at all – more of a twist of dead grass than a discarded watch – and there was nothing about it to lure the eye of a man preoccupied with fellow hikers or the earthy smell of the lakeside path or the hum of the creation that teemed around him, bristling with life and death and evolutionary ambition. But the visitor was preoccupied with none of these things, and the soft, milky glint of the watch glass beckoned him through the limp shocks of grass that crowded protectively around the tree.
His hand is stretching forward and it passes along the bark – dry and deceased – where the electricity had scored the living vegetable flesh. It travels forward. Now his fingers have found it – they are crossing through the circle of the wristband – and they are clutching. They pull it to his face. What is this, eh? A watch. Something someone left? He is wondering who. He is thinking a swimmer, someone stripping to dive into the lake and they have forgotten the watch behind. They might have looked for it. But they haven’t been able to retrieve it, and now he is holding it, stretching it, chipping away the caked-on dust with a thumbnail. And now it is in his pocket, and now he is walking away. Funny, he thinks, that he should suppose it belonged to a swimmer. The lake is off limits to swimmers, besides which, it is revolting – lathered in black scum and green slime – a habitation suitable for fat frogs and weaving snakes and ghostly catfish. Not for anything human. Nothing human. He is closing his hand around it inside his pocket. He is hearing his name. But what a voice!
When his aunt caught sight of him, he was stooped over the lake with his hands in his pockets. Something stirred in the black water very much like a large fish. She remarked to one of the girls that it was a pity their father hadn’t been able to come. He enjoyed fishing far more than any of them, and if the fish were really quite so large, quite so friendly, and quite so stupid, then he would have had a rare day plucking them out of the water. But she hardly thought he would have carted them of and dressed them for their dinners. There was something vaguely unclean about the thing she had witnessed breeching from the scum. Unwholesome. Hardly something she would care to eat, let alone take home with her. To take home such a thing! But it was no matter; the fish was safely in the lake, and her nephew was standing up and gazing out into its silver heart, where the scum receded, and the bald water ran deep and black.
They ran down to him – he wouldn’t heed their calls – and finally she laid a hand on his shoulder. It seemed cold. But he turned.
The cousins flowed down the hillock like a parade of Russian nesting dolls: the Amazonian prima donna – a girl old enough to claim a monopoly on the comparative science of cosmetics, pop music, and boys, but too young to be allowed out of the house in her makeup without a maternal inspection and an inevitable scrub-down – led the other three who dutifully trailed after their elegant idol in order of age and thus height. The aunt and sister looked back to ensure that they made it down the slope without incident (the Amazon had demanded to wear wedges – rocketing her already precocious height – and there had already been three accidents). They streamed down – the younger girls desperately fighting to keep pace with the Amazon – and eventually circled around a picnic table where they broke ranks and swirled over the sandy earth and under the grey trunks of elms like pieces of paper eddying in a brisk wind.
Jabbering and yelping, they flocked around a brace of iPhones, absorbing themselves into the little tools and relishing their collection of portraits and landscapes. All the while he quietly ignored them and wondered what the humidity was. All around him, the chatter of life blurred into an abstract work of tones and vague harmonies: the frogs purring in the grass, the cicadas buzzing in the leaves, the mourning dove moaning an elegy in the old sycamore while a bobwhite, a whippoorwill, and a titmouse all prattled cheerily in a robust maple opposite. Crickets crackled under the picnic table, squirrels barked as they jousted up and down the sycamore’s wrinkled side, and two small foxes slunk quietly in the yellow weeds that bordered the woodland, watchfully reconnoitering on the chipmunks and hares that would spring frantically from one meadow to another, from time to time. Amidst all of these symphonics – a winding blur of dissonance and harmony that wove from pitch to pitch – was the sound of human beings, hardly distinguishable from the titmouse and the frog and the cicada. Neither exalted nor diminished, the voices rose and fell around a larger tapestry of life.
Outside of its sphere, the visitor became absorbed in his own iPhone, researching the origins of his new watch. It was a strangely anonymous piece of machinery, having no observable trail on the internet. Only the inscription, with its saccharine, unoriginal sentiment, seemed to connect the bauble to real life. Frustrated by his inability to scrounge up more information on his new possession, the visitor quietly returned the phone to his pocket – opposite of that which housed the watch – and sauntered off while his family clucked warmly to one another. The lake drew him to its side once more, and he stared quizzically into its murk. Nothing. It yielded nothing. Well of course it didn’t – it’s not as though a lake were a computer or a microfilm viewer. And yet he felt deeply compelled to search it, as if it was unquestionably connected to his little discovery. He somehow felt that with it he had acquired an inheritance – an inheritance the details to which would prove tremendously important to him in the future. He felt urged to unearth its origins, as though by taking it he had signed a very serious contract without being fully aware of its contents. It was a strange thought, and he laughed at himself, but it was a sense that was proving difficult to dislodge.
The sun continued to beat down on the human beings by the lake, even as it settled down the sky, deepening from searing white to boiling gold. But the day was undoubtedly waning, and none of the human beings had planned to sleep in the forest, so they started to gather their trash and pocket their trinkets. After some lazy milling around the rubbish bins, they formed a column (the Amazon leading the company of cousins, her nine-year-old lieutenant struggling to seem dignified and pert as she attempted to match pace, and the other two hopelessly tumbling after them) and filed down the gravel path to the parking lot. The aunt (walking ahead of the visitor and his female relatives) was talking to her husband on the phone, while she dodged the horn-like roots and glinting webs that encroached ambitiously into their tidy path.
“We’ll be home soon, just heading out to the parking lot. Yeah. Yeah, oh, no, he had fun, too. Yeah, we’ll have to tell Janice about it. I think she and Curt – no, no I think so. Oh, I don’t know why you would think that. Of course! It could – well, yeah, sure. No, not really. I guess – yeah. Yeah, I’d say it was. Sure, sure.”
She nimbly stepped over a branch that had plunged into the little path, holding the phone aloft, and brushed away a fresh strand of spider thread, before returning to the conversation.
“Well, all in all, it was a lovely day. We had all had a great time. I think we should come here without the kids. It’s such a chilling little place… What? I did? I did not. I did. Ha! Well you know I meant to say cheerful. Ha! What a thing to say!”
At the end of the throng was her nephew. Men over twenty-five rarely enjoy being carted with their cousins on play dates, and he was eager to get back to his home, far from their voices and empty thoughts, where he could make some coffee, turn on the air conditioning, lock the doors, and read a book. All by himself.