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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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ROARING MEG

 

by Erin Stagg

 

 

 

Sometimes, late at night, I see the ghost of Roaring Meg standing at the edge of the lake. Wild long hair curling past her shoulders, starlight shining through her skin. She wears one of those old school dresses that projects the curving tops of her tits out into the night. But she is stunning, the queen of the night, the fiery prostitute, and I don't think she knows I can see her.

 

Tonight she is standing with the water up to her calves, the edge of her skirt floating in the water. The first time I saw her, I'd thought I'd gone nuts. I knew who she was right away. I'd seen a picture of her somewhere. A Museum maybe. Or a book. A sepia colored photograph of a woman surrounded by grim faced men. She seems more substantial in death than in life, with her feet in the water as she looks out towards Cecil Peak. She scares me because she's beautiful and dead.

 

But tonight I'm drunk because Dan bought me three shots of tequila before disappearing with some beautiful Asian girl. The stars are spinning too fast. I consider approaching her. I want to ask her so many things. I want to ask her how my baby's doing Over There, on the other side. The night is thick. Reaching towards my ankles I unzip my leather boots. My socks are next. The concrete sidewalk is so cold against the soles of my feet. I leave my socks and shoes there, promising myself I won't forget them. The pebbles on the beach roll underneath my toes. I walk until the cold black lake water is lapping at my own toes. I'm surprised when she turns her eyes towards me and in their dark depths I can see thousands of eyes, women's eyes, weeping eyes.

 

And then, just as suddenly, I'm alone, my own bare feet in the water and it's cold. The sound of percussion from some bar in town blows faintly across the water. I catch a glimpse of something white under the surface. I reach down, the shock of cold pushing past my fingers until they numbly pull up a necklace carved from bone. A seahorse-looking creature with the head of a bird, curling and twisting around itself, white in the starlight, with paua shells for eyes and notches along its neck. It reminds me of the dragon bone my grandma Mercedes used to wear. Hers was un-carved except for a thundercloud etched in the corner. She used to heal people, rubbing up and down the knobs of their spines. She told me, once, that it helped her stay in touch with the dead.

 

I put the necklace on. It hangs cold between my breasts. I look out across the water and see nothing but night.

 

After a while, I'm not sure how long, I turn and start walking home, up the hill, along the quiet streets and past the dark houses until I get to the dump in which I rent a room. I have to wiggle the key in the lock and as I step into the moldy smelling house I know that I won't be able to sleep. That the spins will keep me awake, that every time I close my eyes the room will tip over on its side and try to pour me out. And I know that I will end up thinking about Agustin, and the baby he didn't even know about.

 

Maybe we could have gotten married, Agustin and I. Nothing fancy. Just a nice white dress and a nice ceremony at the San Felipe Church in Albuquerque's Old Town, down by the river.

 

We were going to buy a house together. One of those adobe bungalows not far from the University, with three bedrooms and a backyard with a rusted old swing set that someone had left behind. We had plans. We wanted to have kids, one day. But one day still seemed far away.

 

Life was already coming at me too quickly. I could see it sprawling out in front of me, the house, the kids, the 401k. And yet there was so much I hadn't done, so much I wanted to do.                            

 

When I was late I thought it was no big deal. I thought pregnancy wasn't a possibility. We took precautions. But I was wrong. I stared at that little white wand with its happy pink line and I could feel the earth shuddering beneath my feet. Going through with it wasn't an option.

 

I didn't tell Agustin because I knew he would be thrilled. That he would want to keep it.

 

The abortion was easier to arrange than I thought it would be. I didn't need to have surgery. The doctor did my blood work, made me stand on a scale with my shoes off. During the ultrasound I closed my eyes. Then all I had to do was take two pills, one a few days after the other, and lock myself in the bathroom after Agustin had already gone to work.

 

But all that blood made something twist inside of me. I lay on the cold white sheets in the clinic, the cramps knotting up inside of me, and I knew that something in my life was ripping open and that I might never be able to sew it back together again. I could hear my mother's voice telling me that I'd opened up a box of Pandora's.

 

The next day I called in sick again. I told Agustin I had the stomach flu. He bought me bottles of Gatorade before leaving for work. When he was gone I reminded myself that lots of women have abortions. One in three, according to the doctor. It was no big deal. I took a shower. I went to work the next day. But all the color had gone out of the sky and I couldn't stand the marble and air freshener smell of my office. I convinced myself that I should feel relieved. That this was my opportunity to go somewhere. To do whatever it was I'd always wanted to do. To travel.

 

My mind roamed the world, exploring the possibilities. First I went to Australia. And then, somehow, I found my way here, to New Zealand. I was supposed to stay for a week or two and then go back home to Agustin and my life. But I pushed my flight back. Figured out a work visa.

 

My alarm wakes me up, pounding through my skull like a guilty conscious, yanking me away from the soft folds of sleep. My bedroom is colder than Antarctica because they don't insulate houses in this country. I can see my breath. Roaring Meg's necklace is hot against my skin, tangled with its cord. Its whiteness against my own skin surprises me. I put on my cloths as quickly as I can. The fabric's cold and unwelcoming against my skin. Darkness hangs on the other side of my curtains.

 

Sebastian, my French housemate, is already up. He's taken a shower and made a pot of coffee and is now eating eggs for breakfast. I pour myself a bowl of muesli but can't eat more than a couple spoonfuls. My stomach is doing back flips.

 

"Do you want some coffee?' Sebastian asks, pouring coffee into a mug for me before I have time to answer.

 

"Thanks."

 

The coffee's thick and bitter and makes my stomach burn. I add milk. Lots of milk. But I drink it, hoping it will wash away some of the cobwebs in my head. Dan emerges from his bedroom, all smiles and blood shot drunken eyes. He smells like a brewery.

 

"Good night?" I ask.

 

"Oh man," he says.

 

"Do you even remember her name?" I ask.

 

He laughs, like it's a joke, but I can tell by the way his eyeballs swim around in their sockets that he probably never even asked her for her name in the first place. Not that I blame him. He's an ex-marine and got the body to show for it. I'm an ex-banker and got nothing to show for it.

 

"I don't know how you two do it," Sebastian says.

 

"Do what?"

 

"Go out every night."

 

"I don't go out every night," I say.

 

We do go out a whole lot more often then Sebastian does. I didn't used to. But here it seems like the natural way of things. Plus it's not like being a ski lift operator is hard. You just have to do a bit of shoveling and make sure no kids fall off.

 

"I saw a ghost last night. The ghost of Roaring Meg," I tell them.

 

"And I thought I had a good night," Dan says.

 

"How do you know it was Roaring Meg?" Sebastian asks.

 

"Maybe it was the tequila," I say, "Maybe I should quit drinking."

 

"Don't be silly," Dan says.

 

Sebastian gets up to rinse the dishes, mine and his, even though mine's still mostly full of cereal. Dan eats nothing.

 

On the bus to work I can tell everyone feels about as healthy as I do, but we're all pretty used to it by now. Only Sebastian seems to be awake in any capacity, listening to his IPod and staring out the window across from us.

 

The bus drops us off in front of the base building and we stumble in, past the empty guest service desks and rental shop, to the staff locker room where we put on our boots like a bunch of zombies.

 

Luckily my boss sticks me down at the bottom of the T-bar, where nothing much ever happens, for the day. I'm sort of relieved to spend most of the day sitting in the sun, watching the snow melt around me and admiring the green grass down in the valley below. It's strange, the snow and the grass, but I like the contrast. I think that if I were an artist I might take a picture of it. But I don't know the first thing about taking photographs or describing something as breathtaking as the steep white Southern Alps pressing out of the sheepy green valley below, the lake so blue you think it might hurt your eyes.

 

I imagine what it would be like to have Agustin here with me. Maybe we would rent one of those camper vans and drive around the country. Go and see the glaciers and volcanoes. We could go all the way down south, to Stuart Island, where the land ends and there is only the ocean and then Antarctica at the edge of the world, all the glaciers and snowy wastelands reaching towards outer space, and I could tell him about our baby.

 

Maybe if he were around I wouldn't be seeing ghosts.

 

A tall man skis up all by himself. He's looks like he's a few years older than me, in his early thirties maybe, and attractive, so I wonder what he's doing skiing alone. Probably left his wife or girlfriend on the beginner slope to practice her wedge turns. I get up and plant myself in the middle of the T-Bar track to help the guy on, but he just stands there facing me, leaning on the fronts of his ski boots like he's a wannabe ski racer. The snow is turning to slush all around us, sugary underfoot. He's looking at my nametag.

 

"You waiting for someone?" I ask.             

 

"Mercedes? Now that's a name," he says.

 

His accent's Australian, so I'm surprised when he says it right, light on the vowels.

               

"Yeah. I don't know what my parents were thinking when they named me," I say, even though I'm proud to be named after my grandmother.

 

"I've never met anyone named Mercedes before," he says.

 

"Well, now you have."

 

He introduces himself as Shane. By now I can tell that he's hovering around because he wants to flirt. I'm impressed again because this uniform looks mostly like a potato sack and no one can tell whether I have anything to offer or not underneath it.

 

"Have you ever been wine tasting?" he asks.

 

"No." I expected a coffee invitation. Or a drink. Wine touring is out of my league.

 

"Me neither. Wanna go?"

 

"I don't even know you."

 

"That's the point. To get to know each other. And have a good time while we're at it."

 

He looks like a nice guy, tall and well built, not too skinny. I wonder what color his eyes are beneath his goggles. I wonder if it's safe to go with him. Shane looks like your average, run of the mill, good guy. Like Agustin, only with money.

 

For a moment I allow myself to imagine what it would be like. He would show me how to swirl the stuff in my glass and sniff at it. How to gurgle it so that the full flavor would ignite my mouth and then to spit it out.  I've seen enough cooking shows to know that's what you're supposed to do, but I would pretend innocence, for effect. We would go from white wine to red. From winery to winery and I would starting to feel drunk, but I like feeling drunk, so I would let myself settle into it. And then, afterwards, we would go back to his place. Maybe have dinner. Maybe have sex.

 

"Thanks, but I don't think so."

 

"Let me give you my card, just in case." He reaches into his pocket and takes out a thin black leather wallet. He hands me his card. It's plain sophisticated white with black letters that announce he does recruiting for the mining industry. Shane Dunn. Masters in Geology. I turn his card over to look at the backside. There's nothing there to look at.

 

"Call me if you change your mind," he says.

 

He skis out into the T-bar track while I'm still trying to stuff his card into one of my pockets. A T-bar swings around the bull wheel and knocks both of us in the head. I'm embarrassed, but he laughs. I grab the next one for him and watch him ride it up, past the first tower and then second, so sure on his skis.

 

When Sebastian rocks up with his class I'm wondering what sort of person takes the time to get a Masters in Geology. Sebastian does a big snow-spraying stop right in front of me and then, with a shit-eating grin on his face, starts explaining the T-bar to his class. I already know half of them are going to fall off and I'll have to help him put them back together again, collecting skis and hats, and I momentarily hate Sebastian for it.

               

At lunch I tell everyone about the guy hitting on me. I show them his card.

 

"You should go for it," Dan says.

 

"Who invites someone out wine tasting, anyways?" Rama stays. She's tall and dark, part Maori, with freckles on her cheekbones and hair a lot like mine. She grew up by the sea, not far from here, in a house full of cousins and grandparents. "It's a bit creepy, if you ask me."

 

"I'm not going," I say.

 

"Keep the card. You never know. You might change your mind. Maybe he's a millionaire, or something," Dan says.

 

"Like that matters," Rama says.

 

The staff room is sweltering.

 

"He could take you heli-skiing or something."

 

"Maybe you should date him," Rama says.

 

Dan grins. Somehow he's already finished eating.  "At least it might keep you from seeing ghosts."

 

"You saw a ghost?" Rama asks.

 

"I was just drunk."

 

"I used to see the ghost of me grandma all the time. She come into the kitchen and smash the pots around. Mom always blamed grandpa for never doing his own dishes."

 

"I can't believe you two believe in ghosts," Dan says.

 

"I found this." I loosen the leather cord around my neck and offer the pendant to Rama.

 

She wraps the leather around her hand and holds it dangling in her palm. "It's old. Whale bone. Probably worth something."

 

"Really?"

 

"Someone must have dropped it accidentally," Dan says.

 

"That's not the sort of thing you accidentally drop," Rama says, handing it back.

 

"Do you want it," I say, even though I don't really want to give it to her.

 

"No. You found it. You must need it."

 

I put it back on. The bone's cold now, soothing against my skin. I wonder if I'm supposed to give it back to Roaring Meg. 

               

During the length of the long afternoon and the quiet endless hour between three and four, I wonder about Roaring Meg. She must have aborted her own children, one after another, until there was nothing of her left.

               

When I get home I'm tired but after only half an hour of sitting on the couch I can feel the walls closing in around me. I'm relieved when Rama texts me. She and Dan and everyone else are down at Braz. I find them still sitting in their ski pants with tremulous radiance in their eyes.

 

"What do think of Dan?" Rama asks.

 

Dan is at the bar, buying another round and flirting with the bar tender.

 

"I think Dan is a lady's man," I say.

 

"I think he's hot."

 

"He is hot."

 

"Maybe I should ask him out."

 

"I don't think he dates girls. I think he fucks them and then forgets them." I feel bad for saying it, but it's the truth and I like Rama.

 

"Maybe he wouldn't forget me," she says.

 

But we forget to eat dinner and the beer goes quickly to our heads and we don't know where Dan's gone off too. Rama and I end up dancing on the bar in our jeans and bare feet. I dance until the alcohol sweats out of me and I realize how tired I am.

 

Because I think Roaring Meg will be there, I walk down to the lake. The water is as black as the River Styx, but she's not there. Instead I find Dan throwing up. He can't remember how he got here. I rub his back. I put his heavy arm around my neck and insist that we make our way home.

 

"Did you see your ghost again?" he asks.

 

He can hardly stand up by himself. I wonder how I'm going to carry him all the way up the hill. I look around, hoping to see someone I know who can help me, but there's no one.

 

"Sometimes I see ghosts too," he says. "Ghosts of children trying to find their mothers. Ghosts of men I knew before they died. Of my friends."

 

"You're drunk," I say.

 

"So are you," he says.

I don't feel drunk anymore.

 

"Let's go home," I say.

 

We make our way up the hill in the rain. I wonder how we found ourselves like this, in a place so far away from home, members of a tribe of wandering souls. And I realize in some weird way we are lucky to have each other.

 

I put Dan in bed and then sit on the couch, in the dark, staring at the dark TV screen. From our window you can see the lights of town below us, twinkling. It's only a little after eleven. Early, really. I find the geologist's card where I left it, in my purse. The corners are bent now, the paper not nearly so white.

 

I don't expect him to pick up but he does and at first I'm not sure what to say. He might have forgotten all about me.

 

"Hi. It's Mercedes. From Coronet Peak. You gave me your card?" I say.

 

"The wine tasting girl," he says.

 

"I've never been wine tasting," I remind him.

 

"We could go tomorrow."

 

"I have to work tomorrow."

 

I imagine him sitting on a leather couch, looking out over the lights of Queenstown, over the deep black lake. He probably has the TV on.

 

"Sometimes, late at night, I see the ghost of Roaring Meg," I tell him.

 

"You see ghosts?"

 

"Just one ghost. She gave me a bone pendant."

 

"Is it worth anything?"

 

"I was going to have a baby once."

 

"Why are you telling me this?" he asks.

 

"Because I need to tell someone."

 

I realize that he won't be able to answer any of my questions.

 

"Do you want to come over?" he asks.

 

I hang up.

 

It's then that the room starts shaking. There's a roaring sound and it feels like the mountains are washing away.  The TV falls off of its stand and crashes onto the floor. In the kitchen I can hear plates and cups shattering on the floor. If we had pictures they would fall too. The house is weaving from side to side. I realize I should get up and hide under a doorway or desk or something but I my body feels so heavy, pressing into the cushions, that I can't move. I tell myself it's just an earthquake, but then I remember crumbled buildings in Haiti and Chile and realize the roof could cave in on me. I hold on and hope.

 

Then the shaking's over. The house is still and silent and smells, again, like mold. There are no longer any lights in town. The power must be out. I imagine crushed buildings, tragedy, all unfolding beneath us.

 

Sebastian rushes out of his room. He has his headlamp on and he shines it straight into my eyes.

 

"Are you ok?" he asks.

 

"I'm fine," I say.

               

"The power's out," he says.

 

He rushes into Dan's room. Comes back out, the headlamp's light glancing off the walls.

 

"He didn't even wake up," Sebastian says. "How can you sleep through an earthquake?"

 

"I'm sure he's slept through worse," I say.

               

"You sure you're ok?' Sebastian asks.

 

"I'm fine."

 

After he's gone to bed I put on my running shoes and go out into the night. Everything is quiet and dark. I walk down the hill, into town, expecting to see people in the streets. Women crying. Fires. Broken buildings and broken lives. But there's nothing. Everything looks just like it was before.

 

But Roaring Meg is there, by the lake, water up to her waist, the waves washing over her shoulders. Her hair is wet. I take off the necklace and hold it out to her, but she doesn't seem to notice.

 

"You left this," I say, wondering if ghosts can even wear jewelry.

 

My feet are in the water. The bottoms of my jeans are wet. She doesn't turn and show me her eyes. She's looking up, past the roofs of the buildings, past the ridges of the mountains, up into the sky. She takes off her dress. Her skin is white. Luminescent. I watch her dive into the water, watch the curling waves swallow her.

 

Looking out across Lake Wakatipu at Cecil Peak I realize that this must be the most beautiful place on earth, and I realize that I don't know any more about living than I did before I came here. The water is cold and silky and it feels like nothing I've ever felt before. If the ground shook now I wouldn't even notice. If the sky fell down and I tumbled into the sea, I wouldn't care. I could spend the rest of my life like this, washing away, my body becoming water.

 

Later I will walk back up the hill, the water dripping off of me, the streets silent. I will let myself in, quietly this time, and pick up the phone. It will be morning at home. Agustin will answer. I will tell him everything. And maybe, if he forgives me, I'll be able to find my way back.

 

 

 

 

 

                          Lake Wakatipu