At the gates of a school, a wispy, willowy figure floats past the sleeping guard. It’s bustling tonight, but the figures navigate the hallways effortlessly, never once colliding. Some congregate in the playground—a few on the swings; another, shoulders heaving with silent laughter at some unheard joke; a solitary figure knee-deep in the kiddy pool. The principal’s office is packed like a subway car at rush hour, but the figures don’t seem to notice. They stand mostly still with their heads lowered.
A lone figure sits in the booth of a café. His hands encircle an invisible cup, caressing it absentmindedly as his lips mouth unintelligible words and every now and then curve into a smile. He’s a regular here, sometimes two or three nights a week, always in the same booth, nursing the invisible cup.
It’s a bit past midnight and the neighborhood is quiet, save for the monotonous hum of crickets. There’s a house on the corner of the street that’s been shuttered ever since the owner died six years ago. She had been in her late seventies—a widow. The house stood now with its paint faded, the garden overgrown. Her son hadn’t had the time—nor the heart—to renovate or sell it. The neighbors say the house is haunted, with a few reportedly having glimpsed the old lady tending to her garden.
Tonight, again, a squat figure is among the weeds, stooping to pick something off of the flowerbed. It isn’t the old woman though, but a girl of nine or ten. She’d spent summers here with her grandma, taking day trips to town and the zoo, where they’d unwrap rice balls they packed for lunch and eat them on a park bench. One summer they’d gone potato digging. Afterwards, the grandma cooked up a delicious potato soup, sweetened by the sweat of their labor. Another time, they’d picked bright purple pansies from the garden and pressed them. And so there the girl was now, foraging through the weeds, picking one unseen flower after another. She straightens up suddenly and turns towards the glass sliding door that faced the garden, as if someone had called her name. Her face lights up and she mouths a response, before disappearing into the house.
The old man awoke annoyed; it was still dark out but the neighborhood dogs had decided to start a howling fest. He rubbed his bleary eyes and, suddenly remembering his dream, chuckled. It had been a while since he’d had this one. In the dream, he was a boy again, back at school. He’d stolen a pack of candy from the snack bar and gotten caught, and the lunch lady had sent him to the principal’s office. Goodness knows that was one of his more banal crimes. He recalled the countless other times he’d been in that office, enduring the wrath of the principal, head lowered. He shivered, put on his slippers and shuffled off to make coffee.
The alarm went off. Eyes still squeezed tight, the young man groaned. He really ought to set a different alarm tone, he thought. Hitting the snooze button, he sank back into that strange, wondrous euphoria he’d felt just before the alarm blare had pierced the calm. What was it, now? Ah yes. He was back in that café booth, talking and talking. It was their first date. He was grinning like a maniac and couldn’t take his eyes off the girl. The girl. He grimaced as the magic melted away and he remembered. Right. She’s gone now. He’d been having the same dream for months now. And every time, he’d wake up in rapture, before bitter realization settled in. One of these nights he was going to remember, he told himself resolutely, that the girl sitting across the booth from him was just a ghost of his past, a figment of his love and longing. If only he could remember when he was asleep, it would perhaps soften the blow of disappointment when he awoke.
Sunlight streamed through the window. The woman rolled over and planted her face in the pillow to block out the light. Ah how strange. She was always a little girl in dreams about her grandma. It had been years since she’d been at the house on the corner of the street, but she remembered it vividly: waking up to the smell of grilling fish and clambering down the narrow staircase to the kitchen. Breakfast at grandma’s was always a feast. Steaming rice with salty grilled fish, soup and pickled plums. Her mouth watered just thinking of it. At her last visit to her grandma’s grave, the woman had picked a few pansies from the flower bed beside the tombstone. She took them home and pressed them, like she had done as a little girl with the pansies from her grandma’s garden.
Nightfall again: most nights the floating figures are shrouded by the lights and sounds of the city, like the stars twinkling behind the urban haze. But they are there, nevertheless; and on dark nights, beyond the city limits, one may catch a glimpse—if one looks very intently—of their transparent forms, their outlines mere ripples in the night air. With practice, one learns to recognize the subtle ripples, and the figures can be seen flitting out from bedroom windows and traversing the night sky in a great silent procession, breaking off here and there to wherever it is they are drawn to. Places they long for, and places they long to forget, but are destined to remember.