Seven days after the ghost crawled into her husband’s throat, Della called the magnetizer. Perhaps it was a long time to wait. She thought so—seven days without hearing his voice, seven days hiding him from polite company and missing the money he brought back in cab fares. But she’d never been the sort of person to rush into anything. Like sore throats and arguments between friends—sometimes, these things healed on their own.
But it hadn’t, and so she sat in an oxblood armchair working her fingernails under the rivets while Charles Parkhurst asked her husband to take off his facecloth and speak.
“You might not want to hear it,” Della said. “It isn’t very nice—”
“My dear,” Parkhurst said. He looked over the rim of his glasses and gave her a faint, disapproving frown. “I’m a physician.”
Della sat back. In the chair opposite, Harry reached behind his head and untied the gag they’d made from a dishtowel, red checked and stained from his morning coffee.
Parkhurst leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees, his eyes keen with anticipation. Harry opened his mouth and for a moment, no sound came out.
It hurt Della to hear him speak, that loud little-boy’s voice from a man’s throat.
“Madame tells me tie the line longer,” Harry said. He kept his eyes tightly shut, like he could pretend it was someone else speaking. “She says more slack in the line makes the spirits move better. Madame tells me be quicker about rattling the table. Rattle that table, John. Rattle that table so their kneecaps bruise. Give ‘em what they came for. Give ‘em a ghost, John. Rattle that table. Show them the dead are always with us. Madame says. She says, gotta give ‘em what they came for and—”
“That’s enough,” Parkhurst said.
Della hurried to Harry’s chair and slipped her fingers around the corners of his jaw. She wrenched it gently closed and the words cut off midstream, though she could feel them forming under her hand, his tongue working behind his teeth. She tied the dishcloth behind his head again.
“Well then.” Parkhurst got up and went to the back wall of his office. It was lined with bookshelves, but only a few books. The tools of his trade lay there on display, glinting metal and glass and sharp edges. Parkhurst passed his hands over a pair of brass rods, but did not pick them up. He pinged a fingernail against the side of a small glass tank.
Della put her hand on Harry’s shoulder. A muscle jumped along the side of his neck.
“Do you know how snails communicate?” Parkhurst asked.
Della said, “No,” just to be polite. She rubbed her thumb in small circles over Harry’s collarbone.
“A snail’s mucus transmits a kind of electricity—the kind that runs between the soul and the muscles. With one touch, a snail can form a sympathetic bond with another, allowing communication by thought as their electricities and spectral fluids mingle. Those bonds can last a lifetime.”
Parkhurst fell silent. He looked into the tank, tapping his upper lip with the pad of his thumb.
Della said, “Are you going to get rid of the ghost?”
Parkhurst shook his head. Slowly, like he was deep in thought, or had shouldered a heavy burden. “I cannot take your husband’s ghost away. Only he can do that.”
“Oh.” Della dropped her hands to her sides and curled them loosely into fists. She told herself: be calm. Harry’s being calm, so you be calm, too.
Harry sat still in his chair and his mouth was hidden behind the dishcloth.
“No, I cannot take the ghost away,” Parkhurst said. “But I can let you talk to your husband again.”
He turned away from the tank, back to face Harry and Della. A wet yellow snail curled around the tip of his finger. He smiled at the snail like it was a hundred-dollar bill and Della told herself—stay calm. “This isn’t why we came here,” she said. “We can’t live with this ghost.”
“Oh, I know,” said Parkhurst, and he made a little tut-tut noise with his tongue. “Perhaps I could make some progress in time, with deep somnambulic therapy. But that kind of thing takes many sessions. I don’t think that’s what you came for, is it?”
He looked at them carefully, from the tips of Della’s old pinched shoes to Harry’s secondhand suitcoat. Della flushed and said, “The snails will be fine.”
“Ah, wonderful,” Parkhurst said. “I think you will be surprised. The snail is such a marvelous creature—so complex in its simplicity.”
Della accepted the jar when the doctor handed it to her. Two snails sat at the bottom, munching leaves. “These will let me talk to Harry.”
“Of course they will.” Something in her face must not have been convinced. Parkhurst beamed and said, “Trust me. I’m a doctor.”
They wore the snails like fancy jewelry, tethered to leashes that tied around their wrists. At mealtimes, Della balanced leaves on her arm or sometimes let the thing onto her plate to clean up her salad.
Good food, Harry said through his snail, but under it came a feeling that wasn’t pleasure and fullness, but something lonelier. Della didn’t acknowledge it, because he wouldn’t want her to. Instead, she smiled and said, “Thank you.” Maybe he heard different words from her mouth and from the snail. She wasn’t sure exactly how it worked.
Snails didn’t lie. They weren’t like people. She’d already heard things about Harry that she’d never wanted to know—that she knew he never wanted her to know. She tried not to think about what her snail may have told him.
Harry opened his mouth for a bite of chicken, and the ghost said, “Madame, no, please I don’t want to.” Harry closed his mouth around the chicken and chewed. He took his water through a straw, so he could keep his lips tightly sealed.
Della said, “I think I’ve found some work downtown, answering phones. Just to get us by, until we’ve got everything settled.”
Harry nodded and gave her a smile, like he approved of her industry. Della’s snail moved on her pulse point and transmitted: (bleak acceptance. You ate the last stem of grass—your scraping radula bored a hole in your partner’s shell.)
“Oh, Harry,” she said, and he flinched. He opened his mouth as if to answer her, and the ghost blatted—”It’s not real, it’s not real, don’t they understand that none of this is real!”
The snails said, wish it wasn’t, and Della didn’t know which one of them had said it.
When she went downtown to work, Della left her snail outside in a small glass jar with airholes poked in the lid. Because it was natural for the creature to want some time to itself, she said, and because Harry wouldn’t want to know her thoughts while she was at work—it would be far too dull.
She parked her little black car outside the office and spent a moment reading and rereading the sign, the same name that had caught her eye in the phone book. Charles Parkhurst, Professor of Animal Magnetism and Spiritual Healing. It was a professional-looking sign, very neatly lettered.
Parkhurst had an appointment, so she waited outside his door until he was done. His waiting room was done up in shades of wine, bleached by the sun. A glass-cased frog skeleton sat grinning on the coffee table next to a three-day-old newspaper.
“So you see, Mrs. Quimby,” Parkhurst said through the door. “Though your disease may manifest itself physically, everything roots itself to a psychic cause, a mental cause. If your will was only stronger, you should be cured.”
The door opened, and Parkhurst ushered a young woman through with a paternal hand on her shoulder. She had very thin fingers and the yellow tint of jaundice around her eyes.
Parkhurst’s eyes widened when he saw Della sitting on his couch, but his smile didn’t flag. “Shall I see you again next week, then, Mrs. Quimby?”
“Yes,” the jaundiced woman said. She looked very tired—she put her fingertips to her temple and pressed—then smoothed a hair behind her ear, like it was only a casual gesture. “Thank you for your help, Dr. Parkhurst.”
“My pleasure, my dear.” Parkhurst steered her out the door and watched her go for a moment, squinting through the frosted glass. Then he turned back to Della. Della crossed her ankles and wondered if she should apologize for coming unannounced.
“I don’t give refunds,” Parkhurst said sharply. “If the treatment fails to cure, that’s not my doing. It’s always a failure of will, you understand? The patient must do their part.”
“I see.” Della stood and brushed invisible dust off her skirt. She regretted taking such care with her outfit that morning. As if it would make her more respectable. “No, we are very pleased with the snails, Dr. Parkhurst. Thank you.”
“You—are you really.” Parkhurst stepped around the end of the couch and seized her hand. The skin of his palm was warm and a little slick, like snailslime. Like she should be able to read his electricities, his thoughts with only a touch—but she looked into his eyes and they were blank animal eyes; she held his hand and felt nothing but a faint disgust.
“Yes,” she said, and couldn’t keep from saying: “it seems our will is very strong.”
“Come into my office, please. Tell me everything.”
“Of course, Doctor,” Della said. “But I came for something else, if you’ll hear it.”
“Oh,” Parkhurst said.
He dropped her hand and sat down at the end of the couch, sitting stiff and very tall. Gathering his professional dignity back around him like a coat he was used to wearing, though it didn’t fit well. “How can I help you?”
“I need to get rid of the ghost,” Della said. “During our first session, you said you couldn’t do it yourself. That only Harry could do it. But I don’t understand how.”
Parkhurst spent a long moment sucking on his teeth. “I thought you said the snails were working.”
“They are,” Della said. “But Harry still has a ghost stuck down his throat, and he can’t work. He’s miserable.”
She didn’t say: humans aren’t meant to talk like snails. Our relationship can’t survive that much honesty.
“Mm-hmm,” Parkhurst said. He tapped his upper lip. “Well, I could put your husband in a somnambulic trance, to help recognize the source of the imbalance in his electromagnetic fluids. It would be a revolutionary treatment—with my guidance, your husband could exorcise himself!”
“If his will is strong,” Della said.
Parkhurst smiled. “Of course.”
There was a sense of immense pressure in Della’s sinuses, a heat balled in her throat and behind the bridge of her nose. Some ghost that wanted to burst loose and wail about the unfairness of it all. She swallowed it down and said, “Thank you, Doctor,” because snails were honest but humans could be polite.
She turned to go.
“Yes,” she said.
“Let me put you down for an appointment.”
“Thank you for the snails.”
Parkhurst said something else, but Della walked out to the street and closed the door behind her and didn’t hear the specifics—only the low babble of his voice, vanishing into the noise of traffic.
When Della returned, she found Harry and the ghost in the kitchen conducting a séance. At least, she thought it was a séance. Harry had the window shades pulled down and all their power-outage candles burning in puddles of wax on the kitchen table. The good Thanksgiving tapers in their turkey candlesticks at his elbows. His hands were raised to the ceiling, his mouth open—and the ghost was wailing, absolutely wailing.
“Let me find your brothers sisters lovers in the afterlife, she says. Oh they’re just here. A face appears to me through the mist. They tell me: yes, they’re so happy. They don’t blame you at all. Everything is forgiven.”
His voice cracked a little bit, around the edges. It sounded like he had been talking a long time.
“Harry,” Della said.
Harry tipped his chin down and looked at her, though the ghost was still ranting. He blinked and Della thought: oh, the snail. She said, “Just a minute,” and ducked out the kitchen door to the front step, where she’d left the snail in its little jar full of leaves. It was so much quieter out there on the steps. The evening air still and cool.
Della held up the jar and looked at the snail through the slant of glass. It was hanging upside-down from the lid, slick little slime-tracks tracing the places it had been. It looked happy enough.
She popped the jar open and plucked the snail from the lid and clipped its leash to the tiny silver loop that was drilled through the top of its shell. “Free time’s over, buddy,” she said, and placed it on her wrist.
Help me, Della, help me talk to this thing, Harry said, at the same he was saying (alone and so small: the time you were one all by yourself in a black expanse of tarmac and there were no snails and it had just rained and everything tasted like wet oil).
“I’m coming,” Della said to the door.
“Oh Great Spirit, listen to us,” the ghost said as she walked back into the kitchen. Della went quietly to the kitchen table and sat across from Harry. Her aunt Lila had given them that table when they got married. It was small, just built for two. She reached across it and caught Harry by the elbows and brought his arms down.
“Hello,” she said, and then she stopped for a long moment, blanking on the ghost’s name. Which was so stupid, for all the times she’d heard it. It was something generic, something—
John, Harry said.
“John,” Della said. “Please, listen to me. I know you’re suffering. I know things were hard for you.”
The ghost quieted, just for a minute. Della didn’t allow herself to believe it was listening to her. And what to say next—when all she wanted to say was leave us alone, for God’s sake, leave us alone.
“Things don’t have to be like this,” she said. “You can move on—be at peace—”
The ghost said, “The wig she makes me wear smells like cat piss. She makes me stand in front of mirrors and calls me an apparition from the other side.”
He’s not listening, Harry said, and he said (going the wrong way: when a snail climbs to the top of a long stalk of grass and is too heavy and breaks it down and all the other snails fall down, too).
“I don’t even know what that means,” Della snapped, but heat rose to her cheeks anyway.
“Rattle that table, John,” the ghost said. “Rattle that table so their kneecaps bruise.”
“Stop.” Della flung up from the table and her chair screeched out behind her. “Please stop talking.”
The ghost talking, the snail talking—she wanted to scream, to make a noise loud enough to be heard over everything else. Instead, she got Harry’s checked dishtowel. She took his jaw in her hands, less gently than she had in the past. She clicked it shut and tied the cloth over the top.
The ghost was silent.
I’m sorry, Harry said, and with it came a feeling of deep shame and sorrow.
“We’ll fix this,” Della said. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll fix it, all right?”
Harry nodded, and snuffed out the last of the candles with his fingertips. Della’s good Thanksgiving tapers were burned down to nubs.
“I’m going to go think about it,” she said.
Harry said nothing. When Della turned back to him, he was flaking off patches of pooled wax with his thumbnail and his expression was completely opaque, hidden behind the dishcloth. But the snail told her: (desperation: looking at a dish humans put out for you; knowing that it’s probably poisoned but being too hungry to care).
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Della said.
Harry shrugged. Her snail circled the little bone of her wrist and she felt: love you, love you, really do.
That night, she took the snail off and put it outside in its jar to enjoy the night air. Snails were nocturnal, after all.
And the house was quiet, edge to edge. Harry’s lips moved sometimes, under the dishcloth. But no words escaped him. And if he looked at her, like he was trying to communicate something strange and wordless——then she filled it in with guesses, and the things she wanted him to say. Just as she always had, before all this started.
They lay together in their bed and the moonlight swept in the window and slipped slanted over their legs. Only the sides of their fingers touched. Della felt for a spark between them, a flow of Parkhurst’s spectral fluid, but she felt only the warmth of their skin. If humans had ever spoken like snails, they’d lost the ability some time ago. Dropped it like fur, tails, a third eyelid—a superfluous reminder of something no longer needed. A burden of an earlier time.
Harry shifted and rolled onto his side. Carefully, Della reached over and walked her fingers up the thick cord of his neck, the lump of his Adam’s apple. She thought she’d be able to feel it under his skin, but she couldn’t. The ghost lay there sleeping, curled up like a kitten in a box —only a fragile layer of skin and cartilage to protect it. She could crush it in her fingertips.
She snatched her hand back and clutched it to her ribs, grinding her nails into the side of her thumb. The moonlight shifted over Harry’s legs. He didn’t wake—not even once.
Della woke in the morning and Harry was not there. She woke grasping for him, reaching over to his side of the bed—and he was not there.
She put on a robe and jammed her feet into slippers. No reason to be worried, not yet.
But then she went out onto the front step and found her snail-jar missing.
She spun back into the house. “Harry,” she said. Her slippered feet carrying her quietly from room to room though she wanted to stomp, to hear herself aloud in that quiet house.
He knocked on the table. The little table that her aunt Lila had bought for them. Della stepped into the kitchen and saw him, sitting there reading the sports section with his snail perched on the back of his hand and her snail munching a leaf on one of their plain-china breakfast dishes. He wasn’t wearing his dishcloth—he’d grown a messy little beard, all squashed flat in places.
Harry held up a napkin. The ghost’s writing was there—all illegible scrawl and a rough-ink sketch of a screaming face. But in the middle, Harry’s handwriting in blue pen: I have an idea.
She sat across the table. She wanted to take his hand, but it didn’t seem like the right time. “What are you going to do?”
He plucked her snail from the plate. It curled as he lifted it off the china and took the chewed-up leaf with it. He smiled at her—a bright, meaningless smile. And opened his mouth and dropped the snail into it.
His throat worked hugely as he swallowed.
The ghost made one abrupt cry, like the start of a word. And then it quieted.
“No,” Della said, rising from her seat—but she sat down again. She stayed very still, watching him and twisting her hands together. Parkhurst’s voice spoke in her head, saying your husband could exorcise himself. It didn’t bring her much confidence.
Harry was looking right at her, but he didn’t see her. She could tell. One of those long-distance looks, where the world in front of his eyes didn’t matter because everything he saw was inside. His lips moved, but she couldn’t interpret it.
It wasn’t supposed to go this way. They should have solved it together, or maybe she could have done it—saved him from the invader, gifted him back his privacy and his personhood. That way they could have stood back afterward and thought, god, aren’t we better together.
Harry’s back curled—his shoulders seized. He hacked and choked, leaning helplessly over his hands. A string of spit dripped down to the surface of the table.
“Oh my God,” Della said. What to do when people were choking—she’d learned this once, in some sort of mandatory class. She sprang up and circled around behind him and wrapped her arms around his midsection, her hands in a little fist under his ribs. She leaned back and squeezed—released. Slammed her arms back against his gut again and thought, absurdly, that he’d lost a little weight since he’d been possessed.
And then she squeezed him again, digging her heels into the linoleum, and he hurked up a glistening black mass the size of a marble. Like a lump of hot tar. As soon as it hit the table, it started to move.
“Catch that thing, Della,” Harry said, his voice hoarse. As soon as he’d said it, he ducked back down, still heaving.
Della scrambled for a glass, a tin, anything. The little ghost was fast, wriggling across the pretty white-oak table. If Aunt Lila had only known. Della’s hands found the breakfast plate and she upended it over the ghost, trapping it before it reached the edge of the table.
Harry heaved once more and spat Della’s snail into his hand. He placed the snailshell delicately on the table and wiped his mouth with his knuckles.
“What did you say to it?” Della said.
“I don’t know. We didn’t talk like people. That thing doesn’t think like people anymore. I heard its story and I said it was hurting me. So it left. I think it was sorry.” His voice was his own again—not that high little-boy wail. Just quiet, considerate Harry.
“Sure,” Della said. She wasn’t sure if ghosts had sorry, or if snails had sorry. If they even needed it. Already she was forgetting the hideous-beautiful oneness of being a snail.
Already she looked at Harry and couldn’t quite remember the quirks of his mouth—the emotions they mapped to. It didn’t seem as simple, anymore.
“Thanks for—” Harry mimed something that was much gentler than what she’d done; more like burping a baby. “When I was choking.”
“Of course. Glad to have you back.”
The snail that Harry choked up had regained its senses and was coming out of its shell. The other snail on Harry’s hand crawled slowly towards his fingernails.
Della wondered if they were saying anything to each other; if they needed to say anything. It was pretty dark in there, huh. She reached out and plucked hers off the table by the shell. Held it up to the light—watched the way light shone halfway through its shell and made it glow. Harry watched her and said nothing.
She took one fingertip and swiped it across the snail’s slimy foot. Harry said, the snail said: (such relief: estivation. When it is very hot and we must sleep. And then, the first drop of rain.)
Della put the snail carefully into the bottom of the glass jar, cradled in leaves. Then she slid the jar across the table to Harry. He looked at her for a long moment, then smiled and unclipped his snail from its lead. He tipped it into the jar. Maybe later they would let the snails out into the garden. They could nibble roses and talk to each other about what a strange time they’d had inside the house.
From the bedroom, Della got a little locking box that had once held jewelry. Wood-sided, so no one could see what was inside. They finessed the tiny ghost into the box over the course of fifteen minutes, using another plate, a drinking glass, and the entire sports section of the paper. By the time it was done, Della was laughing again. She could look at Harry and not think: there was a time when we couldn’t speak at all. And there was a time when we spoke without needing words.
Harry hefted the box and squinted at its lid, a pretty mosaic with no ghosts in it. “What the hell are we going to do with this?”
Della shrugged and smiled, all teeth. “Doctor Parkhurst seemed very interested in researching this kind of phenomena, didn’t he. Maybe we should let him take a look.”
Harry reached for her hand. She hesitated, and then took it. Somehow she still expected to feel that bridge between their soul and their skin—a link connecting each to each. Now that it was gone, she wasn’t sure if she missed it. After all, a human could lie. A human could be polite.
And Harry liked to say: “Love you, Della.”
Maybe there was no reason to doubt it. She never had before. But she found herself analyzing the set of his wide, white grin; the cadence of his words. She said, “Love you too,” and he looked back at her just as carefully.
Neither one of us can tell, she thought. Even after all that—we won’t ever be able to tell, not for sure.
“I’m glad,” Harry said, and squeezed her hand hard.
SHANNON PEAVEY is a writer and horse trainer from Seattle, Washington. Her fiction can also be found in Writers of the Future 29, IGMS and Daily Science Fiction. Contact her on Twitter @shannonpv.