That’s where I’m going, my husband said as he forcefully shut the suitcase, the last of his belongings haphazardly thrown in it. He told me he was leaving for Ushuaia, the lowest part of South America.
Significa ‘fin del mundo, principio de todo.’
¡Ah, mirá vos! I remarked. How about that—a place called “end of the world, beginning of everything.”
He marched toward the doorway and paused, framed in the narrow wood trim. Quietly, like an afterthought, he asked, “Do you want to come with me?”
Flashes of our life ran through my mind like a film reel, my heart producing just enough light to brighten the images. I refocused on his eyes, brows drawn in frustration, hand squeezing the door frame as if he would rip it from the hinges.
No. Volá, I said. In other words: get out of here.
So he left, and faded to a phantom. I stayed in Buenos Aires for one month. Then I decided to come to America. To a place I could pronounce easily, because it was like Spanish: California. I would become an actress, the dream that gave my husband that faraway, unbelieving look in his eyes. Maybe there would be a beginning for me too.
The journey started so easily. No flight delays. Not even turbulence. I gathered all of my luggage without difficulty in the Colorado airport. I planned first to stay with my friend from university, to get comfortable in America before going on my own. I had made Argentina feel like her home when she studied abroad. She was happy to do this also, for me.
Colorado. Spanish for red-colored. Red, like my face blushing as I asked a third time for the internet connection password at the airport front desk. Hours had passed without my friend coming to retrieve me. My new life was so fragile that it depended on the correct spelling of the connection code, and the steady glow of three arched bars.
When I reached her, she explained that her sister-in-law had passed suddenly. Hit by a drunk driver. My friend had to fly to her brother, to help with his two small children. She hoped I understood.
I scribbled her address on my arm. She told me to drive her car and stay in the apartment like it was my home. She would be back, eventually, to help me too.
My voice shook uncontrollably as I sat in the taxi and recited the address to the driver. He asked me repeatedly why I was crying. I pretended I did not understand him.
In the apartment, I spent much time scanning the newspapers and magazines about the town. The articles detailed events and restaurants, with photos of happy families. There was one note in the newspaper, an entry under JOB POSTINGS that caught my eye.
ACTORS/PERFORMERS: Does the thought of haunting excite, rather than scare you? Do you understand the emotions of faraway souls, whose presence lingers? Ghost tour guides needed. Inquire at the Visitor’s Center.
The worker on the phone had not specified what to wear to the interview. I wore my regular clothes. Jeans, a sweater. I put on a wool coat. Argentina is not sunny all year, but this mountain air does not suit me. I go to bed with socks like furry creatures on my feet, a clinging knit cap, and still, I wake up cold.
When I explained who I was to the worker at the visitor’s center, I thought the man was laughing at my English, which needed improvement, but he said, “How do you expect to lead ghost tours dressed like that?” I apologized many times; I did not know how I should present myself for the interview. The man, Mr. Thistle, handed me a folder and told me to come back tomorrow. He added, “Sorry, darling.”
I sheepishly took the folder. That night I took out its contents, particularly the photos of the other tour guides. They were dressed like my great-grandparents. Vests with little buttons, tall hats, and puffy blouses. I sat for a long time at the small kitchen table, tucked into the corner of the apartment, and wondered how I might become like these people.
The next day I marched through melting piles of snow, down the main street of the historic ski town, back to the visitor’s center. Groups of families and their acquaintances stood aside. They wore large sunglasses like bug eyes, silk scarves around their heads and draping from their pockets. Even their shoelaces looked expensive; they stood up straight, and did not droop as laces should from excessive wear.
They snickered as I strode past in a black lace tango dress that had belonged to my mother. I had thought it would be helpful for auditions in Los Angeles. I found a black turtleneck to go underneath the plunging neckline and wool tights to cover my legs. The ruffles of fabric flowed with each step, revealing my friend’s brown snow boots and hiding them in the next stride, like a curtain opening and closing. A headband fashioned from a piece of dark lace covered the side of my face. In my apartment, I stared doubtfully at the outfit laid on the bed. But I straightened my back now, because these people would never be as brave as me.
On the second floor of the imitation log cabin, Mr. Thistle was organizing books behind a desk. When he turned, his eyes brightened.
“Hey, honey! Thanks for coming back.” He sounded very much how I imagined an American cowboy to talk.
“Hello, thank you very much.”
“I love your accent—Romanian? Sounds like Transylvania. Feels spooky.”
“I am from Argentina.” I emphasize the harder g that we would roll over smoothly in Spanish.
“You reviewed the folder?”
“Great. You gotta know these stories inside and out, like you’re really a ghost.”
“The outfit is perfect. Different. Has a latino flair, you know?”
I was not sure of his meaning but I nodded. It was not as good as a movie role, or even a minor role on television. But the advertisement said “acting.” How could I work at a restaurant, or the grocery store, knowing I passed the chance to be an actress in this town?
He asked more questions, logistical-type concerns, and after that, I signed the paperwork to make it official.
I successfully became a ghost.
“Oh, hello! I did not see you all there.”
I hold a big black binder with my notes but only take fast glances at its contents. I talk loudly, because Americans seem to speak at high volumes. When I speak louder, I tremble less. An oversized lantern swings in my hand, meant to light our way in an aesthetic manner. It has a real candle inside that drips wax in pools of milky puddles. Though beautiful, I must spend hours scraping it clean, until my knuckles splinter and bleed.
“Yes, I lived here a long time ago. And I have seen many soopertitious things. Come, and I will tell you my stories.”
As I tell the stories, the names meld together. They all sound the same to me. A young couple whispers to each other, then slowly walks away from the group, as if I will not notice. But I do notice, and I hear their whispers about me. My accent, my strange clothes.
There was a rumor floating around the town that the innkeeper’s wife, Maria, had gone back to her old ways and become a companion to the mining men. Though it was not true, and she loved him very much, the inn owner came home in a rage. She was so frightened that she had a heart attack, and died hours later. Since then, the inn has been sold many times. They say Maria haunts the halls, scaring away customers from her home.
A few years ago, a woman staying at the inn went to shower in the bathroom on the top floor, since another was occupied. The bathroom did not seem recently cleaned or used, but the light came on when she flipped the switch. As she showered, she heard the door slam from the other side of the curtain. She called out, but only silence answered. The water started running very hot and burned her skin. The woman could not turn off the water and so she hurried out of the shower. As she dried off, the mirror shattered. The woman ran out of the hotel in her towel, blood dripping from her legs and feet. When they investigated, they found the water pipes had been taken out of the bathroom many years ago. The owner left the inn shortly after.
Though many faces on the tour show raised eyebrows and slight frowns as I finish the story, there is one young girl with bright eyes of wonder.
“Why does she act that way?”
The answer seems obvious. Perhaps she missed part of the story. “She is very angry, because she did not think she deserved that treatment.”
“But the husband thought she didn’t love him anymore. Couldn’t she forgive him?”
Feet pace back and forth in the small crowd surrounding me. I do not have a good answer.
“Maybe if I see her, I will ask her.”
While packing up my binder and papers into my bag they fall and spread across the front porch of the inn. When I raise my head from picking them up, a woman’s face stares back at me in the window. Blood rushes under my cheekbones, constricting my insides and stealing my breath.
The face is mine though. A reflection.
Maybe the wife did not know how.
On one evening, I must redirect the tour in a different direction from my usual route, because there is another guide who has gone the wrong way. The situation is minor but she does not even look sorry for interrupting me. I act nicely and my flock of backpacks and relentless picture-taking follows.
The road slants upward; we climb to the neighborhood where more affluent citizens lived, where they could survey the people below. I look in my binder discreetly to practice the characters’ names and that is why the blooming tree, enormous, with curving black branches, surprises me.
Large boughs of flowers in varying shades of vivid purple bounce in the breeze. So similar to the trees that bloom in Buenos Aires, though it is winter here, not the springtime of South America. There are no other colorful plants on the street, which is dark except for the occasional shimmer of snow in a headlight. As we walk to an old haunted inn, I see there is someone tending it, before the tree disappears from view.
The next day is my day off, the one weekday that I do not lead tours. Even so, I have gone into town, dressed in my own clothes instead of a costume. The morning is bright. Skiers in puffy coats and goggles walk along the sidewalk, looking for a meal or a trinket in the shops. I visit a café to purchase a tea, something earthy and strong, and with the paper cup warming my hands, I start up the road.
Retracing my steps, I estimate where the tree should be. There is only a small, empty field between a house and an abandoned restaurant. I cannot tell if it is a park or simply a clearing, but there is no tree. I stand for a while, flipping my silver wedding ring around my fingers. I make my way back home confused, with an emptiness in my chest and a lingering tingle in my hands and toes.
About the time when I start to settle in my borrowed home, a letter arrives from my mother.
She says she misses me. The city is not the same without me. She slid a few dried flowers between the rustling paper sheets, because, “with a text message you cannot capture, cannot hold home.” There is a pain, a lump in my throat, as I trace the delicate, flat veins.
At the close of the letter, my mother writes, “Roberto called to check in…he’s been thinking of you.” My jaw tenses. Beto should not have had any concern for them. She copied an address and a phone number at the bottom of the paper.
I fold the paper back into its envelope and slide it into a stack of books on the table, so that it is mostly hidden, but still easy to find.
The visitors place large bills in my jar as they leave and I pack the tips carefully away. As I walk down the street, a purple glow radiates in the distance. My heart pulses wildly.
The trunk is thick and sheltering, with knotted branches that twist and curve. It’s as if it has a heartbeat, a hum beneath the bark. A yellow spotlight on the corner of the abandoned restaurant coats the tree and the clearing in a haunting glow.
There is a rustle from behind a low-hanging branch. A young man turns around from the other side of the trunk.
“I’m sorry, I did not see you—I did not mean to disturb you,” I say.
“Please, don’t be sorry.” The dusk sky, lit from the sun dipping below the horizon, illuminates his deep blue eyes, which seem to reflect the stars.
“I’m happy you saw it.”
“I had come in the daytime and could not find it, but now, when it is becoming dark, I found it quite easily.”
“Yes, it’s funny how things like that can happen. Disappear, and sometimes reappear.” He chuckles quietly. We exchange names. His name is Marcel.
“Do you often come to this tree?” I ask.
He nods apprehensively. “I’ve become a bit like its caretaker.”
I lift a group of flowers. The fragrance is overwhelmingly of vanilla.
“Your dress is very interesting,” he says. “It’s like a tango dress.”
“Ah. I do not normally dress like this. It is for work.” I tell him how I direct ghost tours.
“You must be very confident.”
“I was not at first. My groups did not go well. People did not like that I seemed strange to them. But it is getting better.” I stop short and hurriedly gather my belongings. “I should be going now, before it is very late.”
“I understand,” he says. “Will I see you here again?” There is a hint of a plea in his voice.
“If I can find it, yes, I hope so.”
“I think you’ll be able to.”
I duck under the canopy of flowers and into the sweet-smelling space and sit on a nearby branch. Marcel leans against the trunk next to me.
“You found it again,” he says. He sounds genuinely surprised.
“You seem to think I would not be able to find it. It’s very large. And bright.”
“That’s true.” His mouth twitches as if deciding on words, but he stays quiet.
“This tree reminds me so much of home,” I say.
“Yes. It makes a space feel familiar. Safe.”
I do not think the feeling is only produced by the tree. There is something familiar about Marcel, too.
In the darkness, the light from the corner of the abandoned restaurant illuminates the snow falling silently. I look up to the branches, to the clusters of flowers, and expect to see them covered in icy flakes, but they are bare and bright. The snow dissolves into their glowing color.
I rehearse the questions in my mind, searching for words. How are they resistant to the cold? It seems Marcel is challenging me—seeing if I will inquire after the thoughts he protects.
I start to ask but pause at the sound of voices approaching from the sidewalk. Through the flowers and leaves, a couple draws close from the main street. I scoot closer behind the trunk, anticipating that they will also want to explore the blossoming branches. But with faces turned to the ground, they slosh past.
I whisper to Marcel, “How could they do that?”
“They didn’t see it,” Marcel says.
“But this tree is huge. I have not seen another bloom like it here.”
“If they’d seen it, I’m sure they would stop.”
“If? Only some people can see it?”
He hesitates, but answers. “Yes.”
“So it is not real?” I push against a branch but it bounces with my shifting weight.
“It is real. Not everyone can see it.”
Had it not been that the tree was so beautiful—if it wasn’t that the warmth of Marcel reminded me of the dusty, fire smell of charcoal in the city, and his sweetness the smell of dulce de leche—I would have run far away from the place in a panic. But I did not run. Like anyone, I was drawn to what reminded me of home.
“Have you felt a desire so strong, you’re sure it will make you happy?”
I nod wordlessly.
“Close your eyes.”
Wind threads through the branches above us, creating a comforting whoosh and causing a cascade of soft speckles to tumble over us. I like the coolness on my skin, relieving for a moment the heat of panic and desire competing in my blood.
My legs sway when I open my eyes. We are on top of a hill, facing a valley of lights—a city, blinking like a creature awake and breathing. There is no chill, no cloud of vapor when I breathe. Instead pillowy warmth tickles my cheeks and I remove my coat. Marcel stands next to me, in the same spot he had been in, hands on his waist as he looks out into the crater of lights.
“Where are we?” I ask.
“Not sure. I think Los Angeles.”
“This is imaginary though—a vision? A dream?” I ask.
He bends down, scoops a handful of sand and throws it toward my dress. The dirt glistens like glitter on the hem. “It’s all real. It always is. What did you think of?”
Staring at Marcel, my eyes dry in the desert air. “I thought of becoming an actress. In Hollywood. That’s why I came to America.”
“So that is how it works…” Marcel traces his fingers across the trunk.
“What do you mean?”
He raises his head with a look of sadness. A fist forms and releases repeatedly in his hands.
“I first saw the tree wandering through the streets at night. My girlfriend told me she was leaving. It ended my world. I couldn’t just watch her pack. So I walked out, passing time until I thought she had definitely driven away. I was so empty—the beauty filled me. I felt safe, like being at my grandma’s house. I shut my eyes thinking of her. She died years ago. When I opened my eyes, I was on the front lawn of her old house. The mail carrier was sticking a few envelopes in the mailbox. He asked if I was okay. I said I wasn’t sure, then gestured at the tree. He didn’t see anything.”
This is the familiarity I recognized in Marcel: the seeking, the longing.
“So it is like a spirit?”
“A ghost tree? I guess so. Have you ever heard of such a thing? It appears and disappears, and draws close to those who are missing something.”
His look is guarding accusation, tip toeing around the question that hangs heavy.
“You must be wondering how I could see it, too.”
He nods. I tell him of everything I had lost in Argentina.
Marcel says, “I imagined my whole life with her: kids, warm dinners, cool evenings— everything. I saw it so clearly, as if that vision would make it real. Suddenly, with the tree, that’s possible.” He sighs. “Sometimes you just want to escape. As if you can become someone else.”
“I understand.” My shoulders sink.
We stay for a while, watching over the city. Was the tree strange? Was all of it strange? Of course. But Marcel understood why it was so easy to accept: we also felt strange, and separated from the world.
“Why don’t we go together, and never come back.”
Marcel and I walk through a hedge maze in the English countryside. Our tree stands just outside of it, gleaming in the moonlight to our eyes only.
“Anywhere—anywhere in the world. Wherever you want.”
“We already do. We have gone to many places.”
“I mean forever. As far as I know, you and I are the only people who can see the tree. That means something, doesn’t it?”
Doesn’t it? It must mean something. A light of hope that had been shut within me flickered hesitantly, flirting with the idea of shining.
“Wherever I want?”
Marcel smiles. “Yes.”
In the distance, a window brightens in the historic estate. A single naked bulb in the shadowy, towering structure with spires. A ghost? Perhaps.
I tell Marcel, “I have to think.”
The mail comes late in the day so I always receive it in the dark, once I have returned from work. Tonight’s small stack from the metal mailbox contains something heavy and different among the store circulars and coupons.
My stomach churns as I turn on the light and see the handwriting. The stamp on the envelope shows two tango dancers locked in an embrace. It looks ridiculous, such an exaggerated symbol of my country, but I look down at my work attire and how I appear as an identical symbol.
Beto’s neat, graceful penmanship spans many pages. From where did all these words come, from the man who for months had nothing to say?
The trip here was very long, my neck was cramped for days…I find the grocery stores do not stock the same items, it is inconvenient…I am getting acclimated to the lack of sun, mostly clouds…There was a sea lion lying on a rock…
These are empty details. How is it that he is still giving me the run around, when I am nearly at the top of the world and he is at its bottom? I am about to throw away the thick stack of paper until I fold it, and see the last page.
I don’t know how to say this—I have written these details thinking their meaning might become apparent. I should not send this to you. But these details—they are my life, without you.
I reread the rest of the letter, taking my time with the details. I was so foolish…no words seemed right… There are reflective sentences, moments of clarity threaded throughout.
I felt if I escaped, it would fix me. I think, now, that it was a lie.
Leaving forever with Marcel meant leaving behind acting, the small job that I had become fond of, and the little independence I had built. But part of me was only floating through and, at times, unable to make contact.
The place I chose to go had to be better than my dream and I could not think of one. Instead, I imagined a location based on its features. A slightly broken place that could be made exquisite if only it had a little love and a lot of hard work. A longing burns in my chest, and shakes in my bones. I trust the tree will understand my deepest desires.
I stuff my belongings back into the suitcases I had so hopefully carried to America weeks ago. As I walk through the town, I see a tour group in the distance. I would miss the ghosts and those lovely people. I forget them when I see Marcel waiting for me, his smile warm, his eyes assuring.
“Are you ready?” he asks. He holds a leather trunk in each hand.
The air becomes wet. Not in droplets, but invisibly damp around us. We’ve been brought near the coast, the churning of water hushing the slow hum of life in this place. Behind us, tall mountains rise from a scene of bold colors, their white snowy tips branching into streaks. If it was not for the climate, I would have thought we were still in Colorado.
“Where are we?” Marcel asks. We stand under the tree, in the middle of a quiet park.
“I am not sure.”
I had imagined the path would be clear. I thought the tree would lead us to a little shelter, something empty but comforting. A place that seemed right for two lost people.
Then I see it. Across the street, the house is sunny yellow with white trim. Plush grass surrounds it, vines with red flowers creep and twist up a wood fence with bumps and knots. Two rocking chairs sway on the front porch. The chairs are not near each other. One is in the corner. The other is closer to the stairs, with empty bottles underneath it. A cigar sits on the windowsill near it, ashy smoke rising from its end.
Through the wide bay window, I see Beto sitting at a small table, dipping a pastry into a ceramic cup. Steam floats from the liquid and wraps around his face. He dips the pastry three times and I exhale. Stillness. There is nothing to worry about in this place, except how much honey is still left in the jar, and when the sun will set. And yet, what are his glazy eyes imagining, and what sounds play in his head?
“Where are we?” Marcel asks again, voice shaking a little this time.
Beto turns his gaze toward us and I wrap behind the other side of the trunk. Does he see the tree too? Or only the back of a strangely familiar woman?
“That man,” I start.
Marcel looks across the street, shoulders leaning forward. When he turns to me again his mouth twitches as it always did when he was looking for words. His face settles into the expression I feel on my face. Slight frown, eyes quivering with emotion but lids settled heavily on top. It is surprise, confusion, and disappointment.
“He is your…”
The stolenness of his heavy sigh is familiar. At one time it was my own.
I avoid the tree for many days after our return. But without any ghost tours to lead, without anything at all to do, I think of it constantly.
On an evening when I am feeling brave, I go back to town. I had unfinished business with the tree, which acted in clever riddles to me.
Even from only a block away, it’s obvious that the clearing is bare. There is no tree. Despite the absence, the air lingers strongly with vanilla. A few teasing purple petals litter the brown grass. Anyone walking past would not notice them at all.
A slow shuffle of crunching salt on the cement approaches. Marcel stands a few feet away from me, looking into the field. For a moment I think that maybe, if I stand still, he won’t be able to see me. It is only wishful thinking.
“Can you?” he asks.
“No. I cannot see it.”
“I can’t either.”
Marcel keeps his eyes fixed on the grassy gap. I wonder what it is he has found now, and whether he is thinking of her.
I turn away from the clearing and toward the town. It glows like neon in the dim dusk light. Bright restaurant signs, slow headlights cruising, the occasional flicker of a streetlamp awakening for night. The top of the historic inn rises into the sky, dark and abandoned. A single light flickers in the top floor of the hotel. Perhaps the bathroom. Perhaps the wife.