I disagree with my sister. She thinks the visitor was a ghost from the woods come to judge us. But spirits have too much dignity to look so vulnerable and fragile and weak. Why would a spirit choose to be old?

I still think about him when I go out to gather kindling, when my husband rides the horse, when I try to pray. I once went to the god of the woods, bowed before her tree, and asked if she had sent him. I was frustrated at the god for not answering and at myself for crying.

“You don’t understand,” I tell my husband. “He didn’t act like he was lost.”

I know it bothers him when I bring it up. I must seem obsessed—or desperate to convince myself I’m right.

A long time ago, he walked into the village with a cane in one hand and a leather satchel in the other. He didn’t speak a word of our language, didn’t look anyone in the eye, and didn’t understand our customs. My husband graciously offered to host him for the night. “No one with jowls and grey hair should wander the forest after dark,” he said, and that was that. I had the neighbors look after our daughter while the visitor stayed with us.

I never excelled at hospitality. After the man went to bed, I rummaged through his bag. Inside I found many flattened flowers and a paper with strange, jagged marks scrawled onto it. I thought for a moment that he was a demon and these were his unholy words. Even though I rejected the idea, I stayed awake and watched him until the sky teetered between grey and blue.

All night, the visitor snored softly and muttered to himself in no tongue I recognized. The sound reminded me of a time when this house had more people in it.

In the morning, I caught the visitor sitting in our garden and stuffing flower petals into his bag. His cane lay on the ground beside him. I approached and tapped his shoulder; he said nothing and continued smelling flowers. He smiled when he reached the cornflowers, my mother’s favorites, and quickly snapped one from its stem. I tugged harder on his shoulder, and he protested like a child clinging to his toy.

My daughter called out for me. I looked and saw my neighbor approaching with the child in tow. Come to deliver her back to me already? My daughter freed herself from the neighbor, ran over to me, and hugged my legs.

The visitor had turned to look at us. Before I could say anything, my daughter had gone to him, and he opened his satchel for her to smell. He nodded his head and laughed breathily, baring the few teeth he had left, while she told him the flowers’ names. He didn’t understand any of it. He didn’t need to. I watched him skeptically.

In a cemetery, everyone is a visitor. I went to my mother that afternoon and sat in front of her wooden post. I asked her where he came from, whether she had sent him to taunt me. The wind shifted the post back and forth, so I stood and twisted it deeper into the earth. I sat back down and asked my last question: why does no one else notice his face? Why am I the only one who sees it?

The clouds flirt with rain. I go back.

The visitor left unceremoniously. That evening, right around dusk, he simply packed his bag and walked out the same way he came in, bowing to me and my daughter like we were spirits. I followed him up to the gates and waited until he disappeared in the forest. My daughter was disappointed, and my husband chided me for not telling him.

“I can’t believe you let this vulnerable man get lost again,” he said. “You’ve given an easy target to bandits.”

I held up my finger. “He’s not lost.” And that was that.

He stormed off to go ride his horse.

I no longer mention his face to my sister, or my husband, or anyone. The first few times I brought it up, they stopped listening once they realized I was not joking. My sister chalked it up to a need for attention, while my husband ignored me outright. I try to draw it sometimes. While I can picture his whole face, I can never summon its parts—his nose, his eyes, his mouth. I pick up the brush and put it back down. I saw that face every day of my childhood. How could I forget it? How dare I?

Since the visitor left, my husband has ridden his horse every day. I’ve picked up new habits of my own. I can name all the flowers in every garden in the village, and I quiz my daughter on them as we walk the dirt paths. She comes up to my waist now. Afterwards, I collect my sister and we visit mom, whose marker always needs a good twisting. We leave a cornflower there.

I tell my sister to take my daughter back while I tidy up. When they’re gone, I kneel and ask my questions.

People in this village see the divine in everything. A moth is someone’s grandma. A tree is someone’s revered ancestor. A beetle is someone’s old pet. I don’t have the taste for gods and ghosts, and I distrust magic. But I hold my tongue, because I have superstitions of my own.

No matter who sent him, I cherish their gift. I have never seen a spirit or a demon, but I did see my father when he came to visit.

return to the garden