The first time I saw the ghost was when I got up in the middle of the night to fetch an orange from the kitchen and found him on hands and knees in the hallway at the top of the stairs. We had only been living in the house for a little over a week and at first I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. I thought perhaps my mum had left a bag of laundry in the hall and I considered it quite careless of her. Someone wandering around at night in search of an orange could easily trip and fall down the stairs and break her neck. But then I noticed whatever it was moving and my heart lodged in my throat. Was it a creature of some kind? It was too bulky to be a dog. I then realized I could see the wall behind it, like it was a reflection in a window. And the reason it looked so strange, and so hard to identify, was because it lacked a head.
My parents thought I had gone kooky when I told them about it in the morning. They both accused me of walking in my sleep. And getting them to agree on anything is no mean feat. But I’m not an especially imaginative person and knew what I had seen. I am pretty resourceful though, and that afternoon I biked down to the public library in town to look up the history of our house. Without hesitation the librarian pointed me in the direction of a set of dusty books in a far corner. The house, it turns out, had been owned by a sea captain who one day, in an apparent fit of despair after his wife had succumbed to one of those glamorous-sounding 19th-century diseases, had plunged from the attic window. However he had neglected to aim properly and had been rather gruesomely decapitated by the iron fence that surrounded the property. The poor ghost, I thought, crawling around on his hands and knees all over the house groping for his head. I really felt sorry for him. I resolved that the next time I saw him I would help him look for it.
After leaving the library I rode my bicycle out to the cemetery where he was buried. His was a modest tombstone, steepleshaped, at the top of a peaceful hill. Beside it was a stone fountain, leaves floating in amber water. A wedge of blue sea was visible in the distance beyond a grassy ridge. Not a bad view for a sea captain. Second only to being buried at sea, I supposed.
I wondered if the ghost would accept a substitute head. There was a puppet store in town and it was possible I could find a wooden puppet head of roughly the right proportions. Finally I decided against this. If I lost my head I wouldn’t want it replaced with a wooden one. I wondered how easily a head could be reattached. There was some glue above my father’s workbench and I thought that might be of use, should the head ever be located. Having your head glued on did not strike me as ideal. Wouldn’t it be difficult to turn your neck? You’d be forced to face forward at all times. But maybe that would be better than nothing. If it were me who was missing my head I guess I wouldn’t be choosy. It must be unbearable to lack a head, to be deprived of nearly all your senses.
Several nights passed before I saw the ghost again. He was in the kitchen searching through the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator. He appeared to grow momentarily excited when he found something round and vaguely head-shaped, but it turned out only to be a cabbage. He tried to fasten the cabbage onto his neck but it didn’t fit properly and he simply looked ridiculous.
The next morning I went up to the roof and out onto the widow’s walk, where I looked out at the sea—the foamy waves, the whoosh of breakers against the craggy rocks. Birds landed on the crooked weather vane above my head. This was where his wife must have stood watching the horizon for his ship to return, wondering if each voyage was the one from which he would never return. Off battling pirates and sea monsters, scurvy and mutiny. And yet she was the one who stayed home and perished first. How sad. Then it occurred to me that maybe his wife couldn’t recognize him in the afterlife without his head. If my mum came in without her head I don’t think I could recognize her either. Maybe by her clothing. She has a rather distinctive yellow dressing gown which I might recognize. His wife might recognize his captain’s hat, but he no longer has a head on which to wear it. And he needs the eyes in his head in order to find his wife so they can live happily ever after. This was simply intolerable. I couldn’t stand to have him wandering headless around our house for all these years. I can’t bear to see anyone miserable. Even a dead person. Especially a dead person. It was entirely unfair.
Maybe the head rolled into the cellar, I speculated. That seemed like a good place to look. Armed with a flashlight I went down the creaky wooden steps, gripping the handrail tightly. I had the distinct impression the cellar was hungry and would be reluctant to give me up. But playing the beam across the dank space all I found were empty mousetraps and some broken bottles in a corner. Nothing that in any way resembled a sea captain’s head. There wasn’t anywhere where it could be hid.
As I turned to go I heard the clink of bottles. I spun around. A ghost shaped like an old butter churn in a tangled wig gripped the captain’s head, fingers in its mouth and nostrils. With a heave the ghost sent it rumbling across the floor towards a triangular formation of old bottles which he must have set up while my back was turned. He was using the poor captain’s head as a bowling ball. The head rolled with a noticeable wobble and struck only two of the bottles, knocking them over.
“Can I have that?” I asked, pointed at the head which lay facing up in the corner.
“No!” snapped the ghost in a highpitched whine. “It’s mine. I found it!”
“But look how it wobbles. It’s not a very good bowling ball, with all those protrusions and things.”
“That’s true,” he admitted. “And sometimes it sneezes itself into the gutter.”
“I have something I think you’d find more pleasing. Will you trade with me?”
He considered. “Okay, but only if it’s better.”
I rushed upstairs and returned moments later with the cabbage from the refrigerator.
“It’s cold,” he complained.
“Yes, but it’ll warm up. Look how smooth it is. And it’s soft so you can poke holes in for your fingers if you’d like.”
The ghost was convinced. He let me pick up the captain’s head. I dusted it off. Tendons and icky things dangled from the severed neck which made me a little ill to look at. I took the head upstairs to the dining room where the sea captain was searching through my mum’s credenza, running his hands puzzled over a punchbowl. I tapped him on the shoulder.
“Here you go, mister. I found your head for you.”
The captain took the head in his hands and, with a twist, screwed it back into place. It fit perfectly. He looked at me and gave a kind smile. Then he melted away.
I never bothered to tell my parents. They would just tell me to stop eating snacks before bedtime. But I know this was not something I dreamed up. Like I said, I’m not especially imaginative. But sometimes when I’m playing in the yard and I glance up, and when the light is just right, I catch a faint glimpse of the captain and his wife holding hands on the widow’s walk, gazing out to sea.
And I don’t know about you but I find that pretty goddamn endearing.
Rob Hill was born in Flint, Michigan, of all places, and currently lives in New York City. His work has appeared recently in Armchair/Shotgun, Akashic
Books, and Eunoia Review. He occasionally posts rags and bones at