Angelica Whitehorne's piece "Ghost Feathers" originally appeared on Ruminate's online space The Waking on August 6th, 2020.
The only sound escaping me or the woman sitting next to me is our communal sniffing. It might just be the cold, or a bug we are fighting, or one sniff reminding the other of the snot that lives in their nose, but we go again and again. She sniffs and I respond, I sniff and she responds, as if our nostrils are rich, older acquaintances stuck in a stuffy conversation.
In front of us the machines are spinning, all of them in a row, a spectrum of clothes, rainbows tumbling behind their glass. The machines are whining loudly, some louder than others, with the force it takes to make the soap spud, to take the dirt out of our linens, and help us feel better about being human.
I am fifteen minutes through my cycle when I realize the woman next to me is a ghost. Her skin is see-through, and her eyes are hundreds of years old, although maybe she is just that poor, three or four lifetimes’ worth of poor. Still I worry she will stand up and her feet won’t touch the ground and she will float over to me and offer haunted advice like:
“You should stop saying you are going to kill yourself unless you are actually going to do it,” or “Every door will be closed if you never take the time to put the key in the lock,” or any number of riddled, haunted lessons that I know but cannot recognize in the crumpled tissues of my life.
The cold in the laundromat is specific. It is a broken-radiator cold, Buffalo, New York cold, the rotten-side-of-the-holidays cold, the cold you feel when a spirit is close.
The woman’s washer buzzes and my body starts. She sniffles. I sniffle. She opens the washer, grabs a single shirt, holds it to her nose and breathes deep. She must be satisfied by the smell because she folds it and puts it in her bin. She makes a noise in the back of her throat and turns to me, and I think “This is it,” and my fear is also cold.
She says, “Can’t be too sure of these washers you know, everybody’s using ‘em and nobody’s wiping ‘em.” She wipes her nose on her sleeve deliberately as she shakes out the wrinkles of her fabrics.
So that is the advice of a ghost, “Don’t trust the washers.” Which also may mean “don’t trust anything provided to you, or any space you have to pay to be in,” or it may mean “if you pick the wrong washer, you’ll smell like someone else, no matter how much detergent you feed the thing.”
I make a noise of agreement, a hum and a sniffle, and she coughs out to me “Have a good day, Honey,” her back curving forward to account for the heavy load of her basket. She pushes it against the exit before I manage to blow out a “You too.”
My washer is still whirling, making me nauseous as I sit with my elbows on my knees. In the woman’s empty washer, I see something long and white. I get up to take a closer look and see she’s left behind a single damp feather. I touch it with the tips of my fingers and think about flying, all the places I could go someday.
I’ll carry the feather around for a few weeks, sometimes take it out and stroke the soft part against my cheek. Eventually, I’ll reach down and it’ll be gone, back to the wing of its bird or clear down the gutter. I’ll retrace my steps and run my hands along the ground, but I won’t find it. My laundry bin will fill again with dirty clothes.
My washer buzzes. Before I leave with my own pile of panties and socks slung over my shoulder, I slip the feather in my pocket, its pointed tip making an outline under the fabric.
By day, Angelica Whitehorne writes for the Development department of a refugee organization in New York. By night she writes her poetry and stories with her 10 plants as backdrop and her future on her tongue. She has forthcoming work in the Magnolia Review, Wingless Dreamer, Crack the Spine, Dissenting Voices, Breadcrumbs Magazine, and Amethyst Review.
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Photo by Lee Kurth on Unsplash
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August 10, 2020
I really like the language you used. I especially like how you personified the sniffling of the noses to be like “acquaintances in a conversation”.