Spiritual Adjustment in the Ghost World
“Mom, Kelly and I are going to take photos by the railroad tracks!” Abigail yelled as she put on her silver hoop earrings.
“Okay, be careful! No photos on the tracks themselves!”
“Yeah, I know Mom, I’m not stupid.” Abigail picked out a burgundy scarf to go with her yellow shirt and jeans. She was excited to wear her new beanie in the cool weather. She had spent the morning eating pancakes and watching General Conference with her family and she felt restless. Her notebook was splayed out on her desk, and she had filled it with notes on the ways she could be more spiritual in the future. She planned to serve a mission after college, and wanted to be prepared. She already prayed and read the scriptures every day, so it was kind of frustrating to her when a lot of the speakers focused on those basic things. She knew that she probably had a lot of room for improvement, somehow.
Abigail walked four houses down the street to Kelly’s house. When she first moved here four years ago, Kelly’s family had brought them oatmeal cookies. She remembered because her mom had complained about the raisins. Then she teased her mom about being ungrateful. Was that the first time she had seen her mom embarrassed? Maybe it was the first time she had noticed it. The next month they made brownies and meant to return the favor, but her brothers ate them all before they got around to it.
Kelly was already waiting when Abigail arrived, and they hopped into her 1998 Honda Civic. Even though the car was older than them, Kelly kept it so clean that it felt like being the first one to the classroom when the chairs were all in neat rows. “How did you like the morning session of conference?” Kelly asked as they did their seatbelts.
“Oh, it was fine. My mom made a bunch of pancakes and we all snuggled up under the blankets,” Abigail said as she opened her mp3 player to play music. She plugged it into the auxiliary cable attached to the cassette adapter and started playing some Foster the People.
“I thought it was kind of creepy when Brother Packard said we have power over the spirits who don’t have bodies,” Kelly said. She was the kind of person who watched horror movies and didn’t close her eyes when blood was dripping everywhere.
“So we have power over spirits. But do some spirits have power over other spirits?” Abigail asked.
“Oh good question. Are those new boots? They look cute. I can’t wait to show you the kinds of pictures you can get by the railroad tracks. The leaves are perfect now, unlike last year when I did this.” Last year Kelly had posted her fall photos that she took with her friends, but Abigail hadn’t been able to go.
They turned off of highway 89, crossed the railroad tracks, and pulled over to the side of the road. There were two sets of railroad tracks here, about ten feet apart, and they walked between them toward the mountains, which were practically glistening with yellow and red patches. One train started coming towards them from the mountains.
“Oh, let me get your picture with the train in the background,” Kelly said. Abigail started to pose. She felt a little nervous that they would be only a few feet away from the train as it came by, but she trusted that Kelly knew what she was doing. She managed a smile and Kelly started taking photos with her phone. The train started to pass them and it wasn’t as scary as she thought it would be.
Another train was approaching, this one going towards the mountains. “Huh, I’ve never been here with two trains at the same time.” Kelly sounded curious and a little worried. As the trains passed them at the same time in opposite directions, Abigail started to feel like she was falling, or maybe floating. She was falling--or was it running? She felt a strong wind drag her scarf behind her, and she tried to grab it as it flew off her neck. She ran towards it, propelled by an unusually strong wind. Her arms and head slammed into the side of the train. She had a numb feeling, like when you hit your finger with a hammer and it takes a minute for it to start hurting, but before she could feel anything, she was suddenly looking down at her own body. Blood poured down her misshapen face, and her arms stretched out at odd angles. Was her back broken too? She watched as cars pulled over, calling in the accident and kept watching as the emergency crews arrived and tried to resuscitate her and Kelly. They took Kelly away in an ambulance, but they covered up her body. She must be dead, she thought to herself.
She looked around, floating in the air, which no longer felt crisp. She heard a loud ripping sound and saw her great-grandmother Lucy floating nearby. “Hi grandma,” she said, feeling oddly calm for someone who just died.
“Hello Abigail! I’ve been sent to tell you that you can’t come to the spirit world yet. But, ah, I’m not powerful enough to mend that body of yours, so you’ll have to hang out here for a bit.”
“Why can’t I go to the spirit world?” Abigail felt a bit disappointed. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
“To be honest, I wasn’t expecting you so soon, and I haven’t gotten your room ready. Me and your great-grandpa have to finish the addition to the house, which got delayed when we found out that the basement was infested! Just sit tight in this world for a bit until we can purge it. Oh, and you look like you have an infestation yourself, so you should take care of that before you move in.” Great-grandma Nancy disappeared, and Abigail wondered what she should do with herself. She looked at her spirit body, which looked like her regular body, but translucent. It had opaque spots here and there. Maybe that was the infestation Nancy had mentioned. She was wearing a long white dress, and if she concentrated, she could appear to be wearing different clothes, but most of the time, she didn’t pay attention to it.
Abigail followed her body around, from the morgue to the casket. She saw her family and friends crying over her body at her funeral. No, they weren’t crying about her body, but the fact that she wasn’t living in it any longer. But she didn’t feel dead. She tried to comfort her mother, who was sitting on a pew in the front row, but her ghostly touch just made her cry harder. She followed her friends around at school and watched them struggle with Shakespeare and trigonometry.
She used her newfound powers to watch people from her life in their personal moments. One evening she watched her English teacher, Mrs. Sorensen, wash a week’s worth of dishes in one Saturday morning. That evening, Mrs. Sorenson watched Aliens, an R-rated movie. Hadn’t Mrs. Sorensen mentioned serving a mission for the LDS Church? Didn’t she know that watching R-rated movies was forbidden in For the Strength of Youth? Abigail felt similarly disillusioned when she found out that her own mother often fell asleep before finishing her scripture study. And Kelly, whom she thought was so put together and popular, worried over how her amazing photos only got fifty hearts.
Abigail didn’t really like to think of herself as dead. She was simply separated from her body. But it was lonely. What was she supposed to do all day? She started observing people closely. She could see the little solid pieces in their spirits like she had in hers. Over time they could stretch out or disappear, but everyone had them. Abigail tried to keep up her daily scripture study, but had to get lucky and hope that someone opened a book of scriptures nearby for her to study. Abigail liked hanging around Kelly, who didn’t burst into tears whenever she walked into the room like her mom did.
It was Thanksgiving morning and Kelly was catching up on her family’s thankful turkey, writing out something she was thankful for on each of the twenty-odd feathers she was responsible for. Food. My phone. Friends. Life. Was Kelly thinking about her now? Abigail saw Kelly’s soul take on a gentle illumination, a light that felt familiar. If she still had nerves, she imagined it would feel warm. She reached out, and the light disintegrated a spot in her hand. Suddenly she was thinking about things she was thankful for. Honest people. Her family. Not having a body, so she didn’t have to feel sick or uncomfortable. She was hoping to start glowing, but it didn’t happen.
She was sitting in the back of science class the first week of December when she noticed another spirit in the supply closet. It was so full of grey pieces that at first Abigail thought it was a large piece of unfortunately-colored Jell-o. Maybe lychee-flavored. As she looked closer, she saw two black eyes on the form of an old woman dressed in pioneer clothes. She froze as she realized they were fixed on her. How long had this personage been staring at her? The woman stepped towards her and greeted her. “Hello there.”
“Hi. Um. Hi. My name is Abigail.”
“My name is Silva.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve spoken to someone. How long have you been here?” Abigail asked.
“Since before this school was built. Back when it was just the Mormons and the Indians.”
“Wow, that was a long time ago,” Abigail replied. She wanted to ask about her appearance, but it seemed rude somehow. “Do you like it here?”
The woman puffed up a little at the question. “I don’t want to go anywhere, but I don’t want to be here either.”
Abigail thought Silva sounded depressed, but she was afraid to get any closer. Silva sighed back into her hunched posture, deflating. “I thought I would be with my family after I died. Especially my babies. But I guess I wasn’t good enough for that.”
Abigail wondered that this terrifying vision would be entrusted with anything living, let alone a small human, but decided against voicing her incredulity. Talking to someone who could hear her thrilled her, even if it was with a creepy ghost. Maybe she could prolong the conversation. “What was it like, living back then?” she asked.
“It was certainly difficult. I didn’t complain, but then again, I didn’t know that so many of you would get to live without wanting for bread. And so few of the children die. You must be the one they were mourning in this school recently.”
“Yes, that was me.” Abigail felt uncomfortable when she thought about how people felt sad that she was dead, when she was still hanging around this world. “Did you cross the plains with the pioneers?”
“No, but my parents did. Here, let me show you.”
Silva made a small hop and started floating towards Abigail. Was Silva going to touch her? Would Abigail’s spirit be further tainted with contact with this questionable being? Abigail stole herself against her fear and reached out. As Silva connected with her, Abigail could see one of Silva’s memories in her mind’s eye.
Silva was just outside her log cabin, spanking her seven-year-old son with a sapling. “Eldmar! You need to STOP running outside in stocking feet! You’ll wear holes in your socks faster!” He started crying but she kept whipping his backside. Wriggling out of her grasp, he ran away to hide in some corner of the house. His shorts were wet with urine. Silva started to chase him, but went back to hanging her laundry instead.
In the evening, Silva was darning Eldmar’s sock next to her wood-burning stove. Her baby lay in a cradle near her feet while her other children slept up in the loft of the house. The baby woke up and Silva breastfed him while she read a copy of the Woman’s Exponent. In the morning she started to make little pancakes for her children while they sat around the kitchen table. Her older daughter helped make them. “Yes, Tala, that’s very good. Eldmar, be careful! Watch what you’re doing!” Eldmar reached over to grab a fresh pancake but spilled the batter all over the table. “Eldmar, why didn’t you listen to me! That was the last of our flour. Now there won’t be anymore pancakes! Come here!”
“Mama, I’m sorry, please don’t spank me, please, please, please.” Silva whipped him despite his pleadings. His voice was hoarse by the end of it.
Abigail pulled away, disturbed by Silva’s abusive behavior. “I know. It’s awful. I don’t deserve your company,” Silva muttered. Abigail floated off to her old English classroom to distract herself from the pain of Silva’s memory. There was her English teacher, Mrs. Sorensen. It was lunch hour, and while she was eating, she was reading through Kelly’s paper on Romeo and Juliet. She made some marks with her free hand, and finishing her bite of leftover curry, she started telling Kelly how she could improve.
“Remember to watch out for passive voice, and explain each quote after you introduce it. When you’re done revising the paper, bring it back and I can tell you what grade it will be and you can decide if you want to turn it in.”
“Thank you so much Mrs. Sorensen!” Kelly took her paper and went to eat with her friends. Abigail contemplated Mrs. Sorensen while she went to make copies of a poem for her afternoon class. Maybe Mrs. Sorensen did watch R-rated movies, but she was also a good teacher who cared about her students. Abigail stayed in the classroom to watch the students compose couplets for their sonnet battles and followed them into the bus as they went home. She was comforted by the familiar conversations from her classmates and excited to hear them discuss the latest Harry Potter movie.
At home, her brothers were snacking on chips and playing videogames, excited for the weekend. When her mother got home from work that evening, she made them a late dinner and eagerly listened to the boys talk about their plans to go into the mountains and build epic snowmen. “After work tomorrow, I’m going to sleep the rest of the weekend!” her mom proclaimed. Abigail had never thought about what her mom’s days were like before. She was a nurse and worked three 12-hour days a week. The next morning she followed her mother to work, watching as she caught vomit in bags, coaxed children into taking shots, and joked with her co-workers in their cell-sized windows of downtime. Towards the end of her mother’s shift, Abigail felt fatigued herself, despite not doing any work. Her mother collapsed into bed without pausing to read her scriptures, and this time Abigail didn’t feel judgemental. She understood how exhausted her mother must feel.
Abigail desperately wanted to talk to someone, anyone. But the only person she could talk to was Silva. After spending her Sunday absorbed in listening to hymns and sacred words, Abigail felt ready to return to the science room. Silva was still there. She didn’t say anything when Abigail entered the supply closet. “Hi Silva. I know that you’ve done terrible things. But I’m lonely and there’s no one else to talk to. Can you show me more of your life?”
Silva silently assented and slithered into contact with Abigail’s foot. In this memory, Silva was sobbing. New grass poked through melting snow. No one was holding a baby, but instead a small casket was being buried in the cemetery. Tala and Eldmar were somber, and a man who might have been her husband tried to comfort them. An older woman with white hair hugged Silva and stroked her hair.
By the time Tala and Eldmar were teenagers, Silva felt a little more at ease. Her cabin was a proper house now, with insulation and four separate rooms. She brought fresh bread to one of her neighbors, stopping to have tea and talk to her. She helped sell handicrafts at the Relief Society bazaar, donating her own knitted socks to the goods for sale. She mourned with other women who lost their children, telling them of her own loss to join her sorrows to theirs.
Abigail pulled away, feeling empathy for Silva, who had endured so much. “Oh Silva, why was your life so hard?”
“I don’t know why. I do know that most everyone has hard things in their life. Sometimes it’s hard because we make it that way. Sometimes it’s hard because of drought or other people.” Silva pulled herself up on the step-stool. “There’s one more thing I want to show you though. Another way I made life hard for my family.”
“Please don’t show me more beating. I don’t want to see that.” Abigail said.
“No, no more beating. I wish I could forget that, but I can’t. This is about Eldmar when he’s older.” Silva reached out and touched Abigail on her shoulder. In this memory, the trees around Silva’s house were much taller. Eldmar was a grown man, visiting Silva. Eldmar was cutting some wood for her, and she had come outside to talk to him. “Eldmar, why doesn’t your wife come to stay with me while you look for work? I can help take care of her.”
Eldmar crossed his arms, still holding the wood axe. “Mama, I think the little children would drive you to do terrible things.”
“But I want to help! Let them drive me hither and thither.”
Eldmar let out a breath. He set the axe down against the house. “We’re moving to Logan next spring. We’ll be closer to her relatives there. I can work on Orson’s farm.”
Later that evening, Silva wrote a letter to her husband, who was away on a mission.
Eldmar is moving his family to Logan. I think he is afraid that I would be too harsh with the children. Maybe I would be. I wish I could go back and undo all the times that I beat him. You were away so much when they were little, and I thought that I had to be the harsh one.
Tears silently rolled down her cheeks as she reflected on her earlier life. She got up and took a flask down from the top of a cupboard and poured herself a glass. After a few drinks she slept fitfully.
Back in the science classroom, Silva pulled away from Abigail. “There are some sins that repentance cannot undo,” she told Abigail, who left without saying anything. Abigail floated back to her old house. She made her way to her old room, which still had her same purple comforter, her Sony boombox, and her bookshelf with all the Hunger Games books. She looked at her poster of Jesus on the wall, and wondered if He could still carry her prayers to God from whatever in-between space she resided in. She started a pleading prayer in her mind, petitioning God to help her know what to do. She heard a sound like a zipper being opened, and a clear spirit came into her room. Its form was ageless and ambivalently gendered, with no hair and a long robe.
“Who are you?” she asked. The person didn’t say anything, but came up to her and gave her a hug. Their arms lengthened to encircle her multiple times. She felt like her insides had liquified, but also that she had a solid future. “I know this feeling. I know you. You must be the Holy Ghost.”
They smiled and started to leave, but Abigail protested: “Wait! There’s someone else like me who you need to see.” Abigail took the spirit’s hand and they floated in the direction of her school. In the science room, Silva was still lying on the floor. “Can’t you help her?” Abigail asked? The spirit motioned towards Silva. Abigail felt the spirit urging her to comfort Silva. Silva had noticed their arrival with interest. They had a group hug, glowing with light, and felt that God loved them.
“Silva, I hope you can feel this warm love and acceptance. I feel like God loves you and I love you too. Even after what I’ve seen you do.”
“Thank you, Abigail. Thank you for helping me feel like I can move on past my mistakes.” Silva’s spirit eyes dotted with tears.
There was a ripping sound, and Abigail’s husband appeared. “Silva, come with me to the spirit world. You're ready.”
“Yes, I am.” Silva took her husband’s hand and they disappeared. At about the same time, Abigail’s great-grandma, Lucy appeared.
“Abigail, you cleaned up just in time! We have a room waiting for you.”
Abigail looked up, smiling for the first time since she separated from her body. “Thanks great-grandma, but I’m going to stay here. I have a mission to serve.”
Notes From The Author
Abigail’s death was inspired by a true story.
During the Saturday morning session of 2011 conference, Boyd K. Packer spoke about the spirit world and the Holy Ghost:
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not.” So every living soul who has a physical body ultimately has power over the adversary. You suffer temptations because of your physical nature, but you also have power over him and his angels.
He also talked about how the Spirit is felt, not heard:
Perhaps the single greatest thing I learned from reading the Book of Mormon is that the voice of the Spirit comes as a feeling rather than a sound. You will learn, as I have learned, to “listen” for that voice that is felt rather than heard.