What a Good Ghost You Are

Each morning I lift an imaginary glass of tea and whisper to ghosts. “What are we?” I say. And they obediently say nothing. A nut hatch walks over the wet grass, head bobbing, as if he hears rhymes. A neighbor coughs behind a screen of junipers. I love stories where we leave our bodies: old Vainamoinen disguises himself as a yellow bird and burrows beneath the earth, in search of a lost word, a single word that the birch tree shaman keeps under his wooden tongue.

If I was a proper man, and not half specter, I’d think such stories are impractical.

**

Once I met a ghost in Helsinki. I was young enough to be surprised, old enough to worry. I was walking with my friend Tim. We’d stopped outside a toy store while Tim’s son Pablo went in to look at insect shaped kites. It was April, clear and dry. There was weak afternoon sun, the kind of light you get in the far north. We lit cigarettes, I remember, and started talking about poetry—Tim was a terrific translator and writer and he said something and I said something, and in accord I finally said—“I see!” And poof! There before us was an extremely old man. He was agitated. His skin looked thin as paper. He had a wisp of white hair on top of his head which stood up. He looked at us, pointed, shook a bony finger and said: “Why do you say you see? You don’t see! You understand! You understand!” “Yes,” said Tim. “You’re right.” And Tim looked at me, and I, with my legally blind eyes looked at Tim. And then we turned back and he was gone. Quite gone. Tim ran up the block and looked down a perpendicular street. The man had been frail, old as the city’s paving stones, and overtly present before us, and zounds! He’d appeared and disappeared in an electrostatic bolt of sadness and urgency. This is a true story. I knew inwardly this event had something to do with my being profoundly blind and pretending I wasn’t. What a good ghost. And what a peculiar city Helsinki really is.