My grandfather sits in the ruin of his house. It is always night when I am here. The sky is my skull, a low dome seen from the inside. His jaw is strong and held hard, grinding the fossils of his teeth. (Even if he still smoked, he could not. His pipe stem could not be forced between those lips. It would be snapped by those teeth. The end of it would stay in that mouth a hundred years, preserved.)
Wind sweeps the ash. I do not feel the cold. I stare at the strength of that head. I remember bending and kissing that head, like a child’s, as it lay on a pillow. The man I never kissed, who always shook hands. The skull beneath the skin.
That he came back to sit here, among the ruins. He does not decay, instead the house does. Each time I come, it has deteriorated further, taking his place in the grave. The elements do not bother him. If the wind wears him, if water drips him away, leaching away the minerals of him a drop at a time, perhaps it is for the best. Perhaps it is what he desires. As he weathers, mountains are ground down, oceans rise, seas fall. Forests grow and are consumed. The constellations shift, all sped up for him. He is the Time Traveller, he is Rod Taylor in his chair, encased in stone, then freed again. In my visits, I am a shadow. I am the flickering ghost. It is I who am death, I am mortality. We are worn down around him.
He gulps sometimes. The throat works, the jaw moves and clenches. He is biting deeper, getting a better grip on the world. Once or twice he has looked towards me. I stand close. He does not stop me. I am calm in his presence, calm with the nostalgia of grief. The longing for those other worlds I can never visit. Childhood. The past. The lives of others. The drowsy warmth of everything will be alright. The knowledge of grief to come.
That he has returned, and so far, not the others. Preserved in his pride, his inflexible ideas of proper behaviour. The feuds that burned silently within, in his room as he read, as he listened to talk back radio.
It is monochrome here. It suits the grey hair, slicked back along his scalp.
My aunt, white gowned against the window, arms raised and pressing the glass. Could only I see her? Were the adults pretending it was otherwise? My other grandmother, from the other side of my family, smiling, her lips uncertain, her eyes betraying an unease. She knew. We mourned when my aunt left, why did no one tell me she was back? Kept inside, a secret.
All the dead are kept inside, a secret that no one else wants to know. We are all haunted, and sometimes they stare out from the windows of our eyes. They come back, but they are not the same.
My grandfather sits amongst the exposed beams, the drooping wallpaper having outlasted the plasterboard beneath. He has made himself comfortable in the chair that was thrown away long ago. Its return is as great a miracle as his. He is silent. Why do we protest? Why do we bother to rage? The brave new world was always coming, and there was nothing we could do about it. We shall consume the whole world, we shall eat our young, the forests will die, the skies will burn.
There is no moon, no stars, no electricity, no peasant mob brandishing torches, but I see him clear in this night. I cannot think how I first found him here. I think I just knew. He cannot be in this house. It was sold years ago, and rebuilt, and another family lives here. Still, it is where I found him. Perhaps we are in one of those other twenty four dimensions of folded string. I do not know. I just gaze upon him and sit in his quiet presence.
The dead stare. What vision is imprinted on their eyes? We fear what they have seen.
His wife is not there. Will she come? Nobody told me my grandmother was in hospital. I could not answer the phone. I was freezing in a bath of ice, sitting with a child who refused to be comforted unless someone was in there with him, trying to bring his fever down. Later, when I finally was told, in emergency as she, unconscious, clawed at the air, as though prematurely buried and scraping at the coffin lid, I prayed and prayed into her ear, a hundred Hail Mary’s to calm her down, and then those arms rested, they allowed themselves to stop. Thank you God for that.
The dead are all inside. How many skeleton arms drag torsos forward through the mud of my mind, skulls drooping, exposed spines drifting away to nothing? How many more bony arms are yet to come? When shall I join them? What shall I see?
Or will death be banished forever, and we infested us with nanobots that work constantly to keep us fit, keep us happy in our jobs, content in the hell we have made?
These are thoughts I think, when I awake after my visits.