A Little Marshmallow Ghost (and other essays)

A Little Marshmallow Ghost

A 1998 film directed by Michael Bay, which pulls on the heartstrings via Liv Tylor and Ben Affleck’s tortuously precarious future together. The world is ending! It’s always been ending, Liv, very slowly, one person at a time.

Black veined brown
Another name for the Monarch Butterfly, scientific name Danaus plexipus. The female glues sand-sized lacy domes on the undersides of leaves and leaves them in the care of their own tiny minds. They swell into pea-pod sized caterpillars who then boil themselves down and spread like toffee into stained glass miniatures. Four batches hatch a year, but only the fourth does anything remarkable. Don’t romanticize them, I know it’s tempting, but they don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t know that the fate of their species depends on how thickly they can hang themselves on the drooping arms of oyamel firs. They don’t see that their life is only the domino that gets the next one going. They don’t want anything more out of life than to do this great thing, this mindless feat, and reproduce so that the next generation can do this great thing, this mindless feat, and reproduce so that the next generation can do this great—

A small cemetery set into the side of a hill was the site of my first unofficial date with my fiancé. We walked slowly in the cushion of fall air, reading and talking about last names and messages on headstones. A maple tree bloomed yellow over our heads. I didn’t think about death the whole time because the terror of love was far nearer. Upon hearing about this date my friend says, “Where it starts and where it ends!”

Danse Macabre
As if we needed a reminder.

Endymion was an Aeolian shepherd who lived at Olympia in Elis. The goddess of the moon, Selene, saw him sleeping one night as she passed her silver hands over his pasture, and his beauty so struck her that she asked Zeus to grant him eternal, youthful sleep that she might gaze at his face nightly for eternity. She appeared to him in dreams.

Futile, adjective
French futile or Latin futilis, that easily pours out, leaky, hence untrustworthy, vain, useless. Some phrases that mean futile: painting rocks, to pound sand, to put lipstick on a pig, to whistle in the wind, to grasp at straws. Some things that pour out easily: water from my baby-blue watering can, milk from the half-gallon jug, sugar from the 1-cup measuring cup. Some things that are leaky: hoses that aren’t screwed on tightly, polychloroprene balloons, the shower head in my college dormitory. Some things that are untrustworthy: oracles. Some things that are vain: plans. Some things that are useless: promises.

A tiny ghost, small and blobby like a marshmallow: the form in which God appears in my mind as I watch my fiancé’s grandfather look down into the casket at his wife’s face for the last time. This room is weirdly shaped and people are struggling to decide how quiet they ought to keep their voices. “To God a thousand years is like a day and a day is like a thousand years.” God is hovering at the shoulder of the widower, in his eighties, who stands shorter than me now and with an underbite, his hand covering hers, which are folded, which look like plastic. A thousand years is a long time to watch someone be so sad.

Henry V, Act 5, Scene 1
What I was reading when my lover came and laid beside me as I sat on his bed. A thunderstorm was gathering. His breathing evened and slowed. I put my hand on his brown, wooly head, attendant to his freckles and begonia cheeks, his eyelashes like mink, his peony lips. The pang of complete adoration, the desire to touch but not disturb, to keep utterly, shuddered and purled in my gut. I wondered if he dreamt of me.

Isopropyl alcohol
Isopropyl alcohol is the household variety also known as rubbing alcohol. It is an effective disinfectant and a sterile way to kill an insect without deforming its body, which proved very useful to my brother during his bug-collecting years. A monarch butterfly dragged itself along the road, unable to fly, missing some legs, resolutely pointing south. Unwilling to let this specimen – of no use to its species now – waste itself, my brother and mom put it in a clean peanut butter jar with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol. I sat on the front step and watched the butterfly’s spiked feet slide against the sides of the jar. It could see the world right there. Its legs began to slow until they were twitching, and then they were altogether still.

Jones, Davy
Supernatural ruler of the Seven Seas, captain of the Flying Dutchman in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, immortal ferrier of souls. Jones asks any sailor whose ship he overtakes a single question: “Do you fear death?” He delivers this line with gumption, relish, and spluttering due to the tentacles on his face. There are two answers to this question. If no, or any variant thereof, the sailor is immediately killed. If yes, he becomes a member of the deathless crew. Jones falsely assumes that anyone who answers no wishes to die immediately rather than join the crew, and that anyone who answers yes wishes to join the crew rather than face his fear. Being a man of impulse himself, Jones cannot see that sometimes people are surprising, sometimes they can see death more clearly when it’s closer.

My mother always comforted me with, “But at least you made them comfortable, at least they felt some love, that’s all you can do,” when the abandoned kittens I rescued from my grandparents’ farm died. Countless babies for whom I dipped my pinky finger in fake milk in the middle of the night to make sure it was warm but not hot; for whom I pressed my palm to the heating pad to make sure it was neither warmer nor colder than the soft underside of their missing mother; for whom I moistened a paper towel and rubbed their anuses so their intestines wouldn’t explode; for whom I set alarms for 2:30am, 4:30am, 6:30am; for whom I picked out soft scraps of fleece fabric to serve as burial shrouds when I found them cold and stiff in the morning; for whom I cried knowing that some time while I slept the very last little breath was pressed out from those lungs and though they were comfortable, they weren’t being held.

Lab-created diamond
My research indicated a lab-created diamond was more environmentally friendly, so that’s what he got me. Emerald cut on 18K gold. He said, “Will you marry me?” And what I want that to mean is that I’ll never lose him, that it’s a guarantee I’ll get him for a long, long time. I want it to mean something about forever, whatever forever means, and I think as long as I believe it does mean forever, then it does. So I said yes to the gauzy outline of forever I could see in his eyes. The lab-created diamond looks no different than the regular kind, it still makes rainbows on my walls.

Marmalade tabby
The color of the day-old kitten I found on my grandparents’ driveway. It had crusty sunburnt splotches from lying in the sun on the cement all day. For an hour I washed the maggots from its tummy and the crooks of its arms and from under its chin, the warm water my not yet to their yes.

Necromancy is the practice of trying to communicate with the dead. People usually do it to learn about the future, as though the dead by no longer participating in the present are suddenly privy to that withheld information. It’s like when you play the game Mafia or Werewolf with your friends and once you die you get to keep your eyes open and see who’s who. Except in that game you can’t talk until it’s all over. The point isn’t that we should forget the dead, or let them go, or believe we’ll never see them again. The point is that you can’t know how it will go, and that’s what separates you from the dead. You have to play the game.

Caroline Van Hermert is an author and ornithologist. She used to spend her time catching birds in giant nets and killing them so she could study how pollution and environmental change were causing beak deformities. Hundreds of birds. Mew gulls, hairy woodpeckers, black-billed magpies, warblers, nuthatches, crows. What faith she had, to kill and kill, all for the bird of the future, the bird yet to be. How sad it must have made her to do that. You have to love birds an awful lot to kill so many of them.

Classical Latin promiterre, to send forth, to promise, to predict, from the prefix pro- forward, and verb mittere, to let go. A promise is a prediction in the sense that when I answer you, when I promise I will love you forever I thrust myself forward into the future like an arm through a window. Of course, I can’t predict the future (which is from Latin, futurus, which is the future participle of the verb to be) because it has yet to be. But a promise is the best I can do. I predict that I will love you forever and with every second of my life, with every beat of my heart I must work to make it true. There is no passivity here, there is no waiting for what will happen to happen, I am not a crystal gazer blowing gold and roses with my breath. A promise is not a paper boat set into the stream of time. A promise is a sending forth. What am I sending forth? My own self. My own hands to do the loving, the dishes, the proof-reading, the touching, the laundry, the desk job, the picking out, the picking up. I am sending forth my words like butterflies, like birds with messages tied onto their scaly ankles, to meet us in what is yet to be, to wait for you and me to get there with our bodies. It may turn out I cannot keep my promise. It may turn out that my forever lasts longer than yours, or yours longer than mine. But we both must acknowledge that and then put it away. The promise is only worth something if we act like it’s worth something. If every step I take until the end is a step toward my promise to you, then that is all that matters. The promise isn’t dependent on if we both ever get to forever, because we probably won’t. No, we won’t. But if we both decide forever means as long as we can, as far as we can, as hard as we can, then, yes. Yes, yes.

Can I say “I will” instead of “I do”? It seems more future-oriented.

“Remembrance of what is now passing”
The Lord of May tries to cheer his melancholy Lady, on the day of their wedding, under the perfume of the May Pole, the sun glinting on their dark curls, flowers draped heavy over their chests, by saying the very remembrance of this moment, now passing, will be the brightest glimmer in their lives. Yes, says she with a quiet smile, that is why I am sad. It is already passing.

Spiritus Sanctus
Latin for holy spirit or holy ghost. The third person of the Trinity, the Triune God of most Christian denominations. In the Bible, the Holy Spirit appears as a wind, a breath, a glob of flame. We consider a spirit to be the remnant of something that has died, synonymous with a ghost, a perspective which emphasizes the death of the body, rather than the movement of the life. The Holy Spirit is the life breath of God, that which entered the dust-made body of man to make him living. Maybe when people die their scrap of breath flies back to the Holy Spirit like a bird to its flock. In Early Christian marriage ceremonies, the wedding ring was touched to each finger: “In the name of the Father (thumb), Son (pointer finger), and Holy Spirit (middle finger), Amen (ring finger).” The promise of love as long as life sits next to the Breath of God, which forever whispers blessings from one knuckle to the other.

According to Gary Chapman, tactility is my top love language, the most impactful way I experience love from other people. I cannot, like the moon, content myself to gaze on my beloved. I have to have him. If I cannot feel the pressure of his arms around my ribs, the weight of his head on my chest, the contraction of twined fingers with every step, step, step, then he might as well be a phantom, an apparition. Life is different from her sister Death because her lips are warm.

Utah State Route 24
When I was driving on this road with my brothers and sister and mother and the love of my life, the world felt vast and old, and in my bones I felt the sheerness of the breast of the globe upon which we traveled, in between nothing and nowhere, red earth stretching out and out like a tanned hide. We were on our way to Goblin Valley to witness the wonders of time worn away by time. We call it a destination, as though we knew anything of destiny, how brash. Look out the window, there, you’ve arrived, you’ve arrived, here again, you’ve arrived.

“Vampires”—full title “If We Were Vampires”—is a song by Jason Isbell, released in 2017, which won the Grammy for Best American Roots Song. I can’t listen to it anymore. But that’s okay.

The final line of Elizabeth Swann, Pirate King of the Brethren Court, lover of William Turner, in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. She could have ruled the seas as the King of Pirates, finally having escaped a domestic fate. But she doesn’t. She waits on an island for William, replacement of Davy Jones, new immortal ferrier of souls, captain of the Flying Dutchman, to come back to her for one day every ten years. It wasn’t about being Pirate King for her, it was about him, having him.

X marks the spot
Typically on pirate maps, the location of a treasure which the pirates will go after is designated by a letter X. But we don’t watch the movie for the place where the treasure is. We watch the movie for what happens in between. For the sword fights, for the quippy retorts, for the romance and the danger and the moments in which characters’ eyes meet and suddenly they have to get married right now, in the middle of the battle, in the middle of the hurricane.

“You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly”
A 1978 song by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty that my fiancé put on his love song playlist. I don’t even mind. It feels like a brave, quivering joke, a flame we cup our hands around. Hypothetical children, hypothetical ugliness, veritable love.

Sugar dissolves and is gone. For why have we tongues but to taste it while we can?


From somewhere in the trees behind our hostel comes a primordial screeching early in the mornings. In the mist, in the cool, waking up feels like a Jurassic park scene. This place, this back side of the city, is mostly bushy jungle. Mist clings to the canopy as the sun rises, and out of this dewy cool comes the murderous cry. We keep the window open at night because it’s still about 26 C when we go to sleep; three bodies in a bedroom and 12 in a house make for warm nights. The house is navy blue stucco with thick white trim. Trellises with magenta flowers crawling over them frame the doorways and cover the patio. The back side of the house, the side where our room is, is submerged in the ground so the bottom of our window is at ground level. We climb in and out of it, stepping up through the inside sill, and then standing up outside, our heads almost level with the roof. Some mornings, when my roommates are still pretending to be asleep with their pillows over their heads to block the noise, I climb out the window and listen to the bird call bouncing off the mountain that looms over us. In my head I go through the list of New Zealand birds I researched before we came, trying to match the sound to a face.

The kākāpō, a flightless, green, shaggy parrot, once was the favorite food of Haast’s eagle—a bird of prey the size of a seated Saint Bernard. Thankfully, this eagle is extinct and no longer prowls the skies, or New Zealand would be a far less popular travel destination. Today the crowd-favorite New Zealand bird is the kiwi, but the cultural importance of kākāpō stretches back just as far. The main consumers of kākāpō while they were abundant were the Māori people who roasted them in pits with hot stones, or boiled them in hollowed-out gourds. They used kākāpō feathers to construct cloaks so warm that a Māori saying preserves this no-longer-possible attire, “You have a kākāpō cape and still you complain of the cold.” It’s said to a person who’s being unreasonable, who can’t be pleased. The Te Papa Tongarewa (“container of treasures”) has a kākāpō cape in its collection, preserved behind glass so any visitors to New Zealand’s capital can see it. The cloak is made out of 11,000 feathers.

It’s impossible not to be a tourist when you’ve never been somewhere before. It feels like a residue that itches on my skin. It’s even more difficult to not be a tourist when your traveling companions are solely occupied with the most touristy things they can find. Half of the group complains loudly about the bird that wakes us in the mornings and walks to Starbucks everyday to sit under the canopy of a small green umbrella, choosing which pictures of themselves on the beach to post today. They hate the bird because seven am is far too early when you stay up every night enjoying the liberties of a drinking age lower than your native country’s. The second half of the group is intent on paying extraordinary amounts of money to come as close to dying as possible. Together we’ve all done things like zip-lining and white water rafting and surfing, but they go out on their own and dirt bike down mountains and throw themselves off cliffs. They keep doing things that sound worse than drinking a coffee that contains seventy grams of sugar. I walk to Starbucks, but I don’t buy anything.

It seems so unfair that the kākāpō evolved perfectly for a place that no longer exists. The kākāpō once spent its days tucked under the branch of a tawa tree that it climbed using its long, hooked toes. It meandered through the forest as the sun set, rummaging for snacks, not missing the use of its wings in any way. Only the eagles of the day and the laughing owl of the night might have threatened its placidity. What peace of mind it must have brought to the kākāpō to know that simply by existing it fulfilled the purpose of its species, that its habitats satisfied destiny. And then, one day while the kākāpō is out on its evening stroll, a little brown creature comes bounding towards it, bites it on the neck, and eats everything but the beak. By the 1920s, kākāpō were extinct on New Zealand’s north island.

“You don’t want a beige life,” the canyoning guide tells us, “You want it to be resplendent and iridescent and blinding.” My friends nod their heads but suddenly I’m dizzy. What color is my life? What color is resplendent? Surely resplendency is not a color, but a sumptuous refraction of light absorbed. How should my life look? Like soap bubbles, like feathers, butterfly wings, seashell nacre? Sequins? Diamonds? I look down at my hands and feel a hole swell in my chest. How do I get resplendency when there is nothing about me, nothing inherent, nothing built-in, that makes me feel that way? Why does it take a wetsuit and a helmet and repelling gear and a harness and a surfboard and a kayak and a splash guard and a lifejacket and a seventeen hour plane ride for my life to feel blinding, for me to feel resplendent? That night I go to sleep wanting the earth to swallow me, the earth and all her waterfalls.

Because they are nocturnal and flightless and clumsy, kākāpō were almost eliminated completely when rats, dogs, and stoats were introduced by Polynesian and European settlers. It’s easy to imagine dazzling, barrel-chested Europeans stomping their boots into the nubile soils of virgin islands and unleashing hoards of hounds upon the helpless endemics. But this only happened after the Polynesian settlers arrived and did a good bit of damage. To be fair, New Zealand was the last substantial, habitable place on earth to be settled by humans, so its doom was delayed. What existed before humans arrived was a green hedgy forest inhabited mostly by birds. In fact, New Zealand’s only native, non-aquatic mammals are three species of bat, as though the mammals too, wanted to be birds. Humans found New Zealand somewhere around 1300 CE and the kākāpō let out a great, sad sigh.

This place is not my home, and who’s to say whose home it really is. Is it home for those who were here first? For those who were here bigger, stronger? For those who were here gentler? For those who were here last? But it is certain, factual, irrefutable, established, that this place is not my home. Even though they tell me not to, I keep tucking stones and leaves into my pockets, shells and shards. Maybe if I can bring a small pile of it with me, then that glittering, luminous burn in my belly will stay with me too? Maybe I can absorb, just a little, just a speck of the magic, and become less dependent on where I am and more on what I am. The human body is hopelessly adaptable. I can do too many things. I don’t have a beak that was clearly meant for prying open seeds, nor a spine built for extreme flexion to hunt antelope, nor skin so camouflaged with tree bark that not even my own mother could find me. If I was bioluminescent like a jellyfish then finding resplendency, brilliance, purpose, would not be so hard.

The male kākāpō, who is about the size of a hiking backpack, creates an indent in the earth called a bowl, and plods little paths into the ground leading in and out of the bowl for females to follow. Kākāpō mate only when their favorite food, the rimu tree, produces a bumper crop. The male settles himself in the little bowl like a chicken in a roost and produces a booming call by inflating a sack in his throat. The sound is at such a low frequency that to human ears it is quiet, just a thumping like a hand over a PVC pipe. But the sound actually travels for miles. Female kākāpō hear it and begin waddling through the forest with their large, pinkish, zygodactyl feet. Predators hear the sound and find dinner waiting for them, already in a bowl.

Humans are certainly all one species, but I’m beginning to wonder if there aren’t different kinds of us. There are people here who live in the hostel full time and live to surf, eat to surf, sleep to surf. Our kayaking guide is from England, but he couldn’t get these mountains out of his head, so he stayed. Some people thirst for a place like these, it is their beak, their bent, their blending in. What am I, then? I’m waiting for the right wings to sprout, for the right scales to grow, for my body to make clear to me where it belongs on this great, big world. Maybe I am a worm, coming out from the darkness only when it rains, only when streetlights can glint the water off my back.

New Zealand advertises itself excellently. It maintains an image of complete authenticity, untouched nature, pure and clean, while also getting loads of tourists to come. New Zealand is home to 4.8 million people, and in a year will host 3.8 million tourists. They come, we came, for the bays throwing off cloaks of diamond light, mountains musky and cool, waterfalls around every bend, and the best surfing in the world. The climate is also literally perfect exactly when the midwest is a hellscape. It’s too late though, I can never be from here, no matter how welcoming people are. Sometime since its colonization, New Zealand had a bit of a transition in how it welcomes visitors. When the first Europeans arrived – a Dutch crew – they were met by Māori in carven canoes. Somehow there was a row and four Dutch men were killed. Their captain named the area Murderer’s Bay. In 2014, it was renamed Golden Bay.

It turns out there’s a bird preserve right next to our hostel. We walk behind it on a skinny path through the bush that leads to a restaurant someone has selected for dinner. Through the bird park fence I see the neat paths that lead visitors from one enclosure to the next. In the nearest one is a large greenish bird. I can’t quite make out what bird it is through the trees, a kea? A kākāpō? It lets out a call like “EEEEEEEaaaaa, EEEaaaaaaa.” My friends, single file in front of me, recognize the sound. “You!” they shout, laughing, “sleep in, we beg you!” The path is not really official, so the wild bush pushes us up against the chain-link fencing that surrounds the bird park. We move branches aside with our hands. It’s curious being in a place where there’s not a single animal that could hurt us. The worst thing we could meet in the bush is a common brushtail possum, which is honestly one of the cutest animals in existence. The possum, while adorable, is New Zealand’s greatest pest, and we took a ziplining tour during which the guide showed us the handy traps that shoot possums right through the brain with a little spike. The little spike-shooter goes “native things only!” and bam, the possum falls dead to the ground below.

The kākāpō is a habitat generalist, meaning it can be happy anywhere it’s not being eaten by stoats or nest-robbed by rats or thrashed by someone’s loose dog. They needn’t worry about that anymore though, since the 208 kākāpō still in existence have been relocated to a handful of islands just off New Zealand where nothing nasty can eat them. Every kākāpō is named and equipped with a radio-transmitter. Despite their geographical location and pitiful population count, kākāpō are still making their mark on the world. They’re internet famous as the “party parrot” emoji on the communication platform Slack. There they appear in various shades of neon blue, coral, and purple. They can be found holding a cup of coffee or a slice of pizza, wearing sunglasses or sporting a mustache. The kākāpō on whom the emoji was based is named Sirocco. His mother’s name is Zephyr, his father’s name is Felix.

The face of the canyoning guide as he implored us not to live beige lives rises in my mind when I try to sleep. He looked so worried, as though beigeness was worse than death. But I just know that when I get home to the dearth that is winter, all the glitter will drain out of me and all I’ll be is tan. But who am I to think I can take any of this place with me? It isn’t mine. What right have I. All those birds, here for ages, for eons, shunted out of their homes, pushed to extinction, only to be caught at the last second, welcomed back to certain spaces, revered, modified. All those people to whom the same thing happened. Now you’re an emoji, be thankful you’re not extinct. Now your culture is a souvenir, be thankful you’re still around. And my home is not enough? My home, rooted in the mud of the Mississippi like a mollusk, going nowhere, safer than salt. Can we not let one bird greet the mountain in the morning in the cool of its shadow? But nothing starts where it ends up, the very earth is moving, the very stars are sailing away. Everything came on a canoe or a breeze or a promise. It has always been this way, and I saw that even the glowworms made their heavens out of mud.


  • Hanna Ferguson is a nonfiction writer and poet whose work can be found in The Oneota Review and elsewhere. She's a recent graduate of Luther College and lives in Chicago with her husband and sweet kitty Minka.

  • Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was many things: a painter, printmaker, draughtsman, and pastellist, who, over the course of his career, developed a singular style that fed both the decadent symbolism of the late nineteenth century and the modernism of the early twentieth. His work included etchings of disembodied eyeballs and smudged ballooning minds in charcoal chiaroscuro. From Public Domain Review.