The point is to be silent. The dead can’t speak, so in their honor, neither do the living.
I rarely talk the other three-hundred and sixty-four days, so for me, Halloween is not such a challenge. Nor do I invite any other living persons. I haven’t reached the point where I have to converse with myself to stay sane. Or, I’ve never been sane, so have never needed spoken words to ground me in the moment.
All day I’ve had chili simmering on the stove, with cinnamon, honey, paprika, red pepper and clove. The apples are cut in half so you can see their seed-stars, pumpkin muffins are iced with thin cream cheese, and I pull rosemary bread out of the oven just at sunset. There’s cornbread, too, and dried plums. Two bottles of red wine are breathing next to the jack-o-lantern waiting unlit in the center of my dining table.
My dishes are black, and the tablecloth, too. But I only have silverware. I like the contrast where they rest on the black napkins, especially when the candles are lit.
I brush my hair, and put on slight touches of eye shadow and lipstick. My skirt flares just below my knees and I have on decent stockings and solid shoes. The shirt is silk and buttons up to my neck. I have on small pearl earrings and a charm bracelet made of small golden headstones.
This year it is storming, and I part my curtains to see a family running between two houses, clear-plastic ponchos distorting the costumes on the three little ones. Porch lights shimmer through the rain, their welcome glows ruined and sad. Most children will be eating bowls of candy meant for other trick-or-treaters, but relegated to consolation prizes against disappointment and tantrums.
And I know that a mere storm will not keep the real tricksters away, the dead and their never-living brethren.
So I walk through the dark halls and rooms of my house and light candles in every corner. Black for warding off evil, orange for the holiday, and white to invite peace.
When all the air wavers with flickering flame, I go to the kitchen and bring out the chili pot. I ladle some into every place-setting, and I break bread to dole out. I place a selection of dried fruits and apples beside chunks of cornbread, and last I pour the wine. Then I sit at the foot of the table, across from the black-draped chair at the head. I fold my hands, bow my chin, and pray.
Silently, of course.
Restless ghosts, I welcome you to this table. It is filled with the year’s bounty, with my bounty, and I would share it with you that you not go forgotten or hungry.
Nothing happens, but I am not alarmed. The dead arrive when they will. I sip my wine, a heavy merlot with the hint of chocolate and smoke. And I wait. Excitement and dread mingle on the rim of my glass.
Outside, the wind rattles branches against my roof like a welcome knock. The first spirit arrives and I feel it with a chill. It is a boy in an Irish cap and knickers, swinging his feet and watching me. I smile.
Next to him appears an old woman with glinting gold at her ears. Both ghosts are flimsy and white, and I can see the upholstery through their flesh.
More come. I smile welcome at each arrival, recognizing my regulars and being careful not to stare at those unfamiliar. The young woman in the empire-waist summer dress I’ve been seeing since I was seven takes the seat to my left, and my affection for her makes me raise my wine glass in salute.
I have done research, of course, on my local spirits to discover their identities, but only in one case has a ghost ever matched in death his final picture from life. I believe it is not the last moments that mark a ghost, but their happiest. I see no slit throats or gunshot wounds, no blood-shot eyes or yellowing lips. I see instead how they project themselves. For the little boy, it is not necessarily that he died when he was five – perhaps he was twelve or twenty or fifty-seven, but his moment of strongest self-awareness and identity was at such a young age.
But it is only my theory. There is no exact science to this, and I had no master or old crone to learn from.
Soon all the seats are filled but for the head. We do not eat until everyone arrives. I stare at the empty chair and wonder if this will be the year he does not come.
Traivs Andrew McCarthy. I know his name, because he showed it to me, one Halloween when I was thirteen. He wrote it in smoke at my girlfriend Ginny’s house, when I hid in the bathroom from her bullying older brother who said my costume made me look fat and trashy. Travis’s touch froze away my tears, and when he smiled I felt my sore heart soothed. I felt the flush of shame melt away. I said his name, and he mouthed mine back at me. I could not hear it, but I knew what he said. Every day between that Halloween and the next I thought of his slicked-back hair, the unshaved jaw, and dashing jacket. He appeared perhaps nineteen or twenty, and I loved him as hard as thirteen year olds must.
I am older than him now, older than he seems, by several years. But every October thirty-first, I set my table to welcome the dead, and wait for him especially.
They used to terrify me, the ghosts no one else sees. They like to slink into your peripheral vision and mouth words at you, words you have no way to hear. It is awful to stare and stare and not know what they are saying – it is a greeting? A warning? A dire threat? But Travis never frightened me.
At my dining table, candles flicker, casting shadows through the spirits. They move their lips, chatting to each other. But all is silent around me, except for the clang of my clock striking nine, and the wind in the trees.
I sigh, and Travis forms himself beside me, brushing his cold fingers down my neck. I watch at his walks down the length of the table to sit opposite me. He nods, and smiles, and I smile back. The table is complete.
I lift my spoon and dip it into the cooling chili. Taking a bite, I see all the ghosts mimic the same. With invisible cutlery, they carve bread, stir soup, and pick the plumpest fruit. None of the food moves, of course, not even a drop of wine, but for my own. But if you let your eyes relax and did not worry about details, it might be a family, eager to join in supper together.
Travis leans his elbows on the table and says something to me. I demur and sip my wine. He grins, and raises a ghostly glass that seems to lift out of the real one. We flirt across the table, him smiling and using his eyebrows, me bashfully fluttering my lashes, biting my lip, hiding behind the food. The wine fills my head and I am alive. I imagine color in Travis’s face, warmth in his lips. I imagine the feel of his hair, thick and rough under my hands. Superior to any living man’s. He is attentive and laughing, and he loves me.
Slowly, slowly, my plate clears. I pour a second glass of wine. Soon, ghosts are patting my arm and mouthing their thank-yous, rising up out of their seats and vanishing up into the ceiling or zipping through the walls. My summer-dress girl takes the hand of the little boy in the Irish cap, and several of the older spirits twirl off together. I am left alone with Travis.
He stands, hands flat on the table, and smiles at me. It is a smile that says, well done again, my darling, a fine feast you set.
Travis and I, we do not need to talk.
I rise as he comes around the table. I close my eyes and his hands press cold against my cheeks. It is like the temperature dropping suddenly, or the snap of frigid wind when he kisses me. Ten seconds of frozen bliss. My heart stops and I keep my hands at my sides, knowing that if I reach for him all I will find is cold, empty air.
Then, he is gone. I look at the dumb supper, spread out in all its black, candlelit abundance. Except for my crumb-covered plate and empty bowl, every setting is filled still with food and drink, colorful and welcoming.
I sigh and sit back down. Dark rain pummels the windows. I drink more wine.
And next year, I decide, I will add sweet-potato casserole.