Her grandbabies should be asleep, yet here they are, restless as everyone else tonight.
By the time they tiptoe down the central stairs, the creaking giving them away, she’s long lost the sun. The sky is a sweep of black. Only the backyard porch lights keep her eyes from working too hard as she kneels into the garden. Clusters of chickweeds, their white tufts masquerading as flowers, have sprung up between the chrysanthemums and squash, whose vines circle each other loop after loop. She yanks the weeds and stuffs them into a brown plastic bag.
“Mmmhmm,” Damonia says. She can sense the children inside listening. They don’t move from the stairs. Maybe her voice doesn’t carry far enough. “We’ll just take care of this, right quick,” she says. “Before we go back to bed like we’re supposed to.”
Quick or no, someone’s got to take care of what grows around the house. Earlier that day, her daughter leaned over the kitchen windowsill, stared straight down into the garden, and said, “Oh, look at these little things.” As if weeds were anything to be grateful for. Go figure that’s how Stella would think of it, standing there tugging on the sleeves of a silk blazer glossy as her hair. What on Earth did she do to that hair to give it that shine? And in all the days of her life, has the girl spent so little time outside that she’ll see a weed and not know to yank it up?
“Grandma?” Nemy calls, her voice loud and clear through the open sliding door. “Grandma, is that you downstairs?”
Damonia says nothing, studies the dirt she’s disturbed. If she’s quiet, maybe the grandbabies will go back to bed, instead of continuing down into the kitchen and then out into the backyard. Something turns in her stomach, and she massages her side, feels her flesh give under her hand. Beside her, a breeze lifts a corner of the plastic bag and lowers it again.
“She ain’t outside,” Howie whispers. “She’s not allowed.” His voice fades as they head back up the stairs, pausing somewhere near the top.
At least she’s keeping this one promise to Stella—being a stickler about bedtime, instead of letting the children tire themselves out on the trampoline or the oak’s rope swing. But her daughter can’t tell her when to go to bed, or where she is and isn’t allowed to go—though no one has forgotten her accident on the stairs last June, how she’d fallen and ended up on the foyer’s hardwood floor, head twisted toward the front door for what seemed like hours. She’d just lain there, feeling the rise and fall of her chest, staring at that door until it opened and her son-in-law’s upside-down face—confused, then quickly terrified—entered her vision.
She’ll do what she can while she can, especially during autumn. No summer heat to press headaches against her skull, no winter chill to keep her at the fireplace. Autumn has even given her this time alone: Stella and Derek have gone to a costume party a few doors down and are not there to argue that she needs “looking after,” like the children. If it wasn’t for the regular babysitter—a short, light-skinned girl named Diamond or Ruby or some other gemstone of a name—canceling, Damonia wouldn’t be in charge. But her body isn’t as withered as Stella thinks. Dropping a teacup every now and then doesn’t mean she can’t take care of her grandbabies—not yet.
Her fingers dig like spades through the dirt, under the weeds. “There you go,” she says. “Give a little.” And with the right pressure, the weeds give easy, or easy enough.
Depending on what the Lord sees fit to do with her this time next year, how thoroughly he will unravel her body, this may be one of the last times she can clean up a garden, pull the weeds and cut the squash, brush the caterpillars from the flowering cabbages’ undersides, which can look deceivingly healthy from above. She leans forward. The damp earth has soaked her pajama bottoms at the knee. She’ll have to change before Stella gets home. Otherwise, her daughter will give her that look: What have you been doing? You went outside when the kids were asleep? With all that’s going on around here?
It’s a damp Saturday night, and either her ears are failing or the neighborhood really is this silent. Everybody in Starr Hill must be studying their phones the way Stella has been all week: pictures from the summer, men carrying torches through the darkened campus, students surrounded at the foot of Jefferson, smoke and stone angels, the flags waving in the white of early afternoon, protestors rushing toward one another with shields and placards, bodies swirling together among gas and guns and the spray of saliva, the slow dispersal, the car smashing into the crowd, people flying or crushed. Or maybe everyone is looking at the post that’s popped up since: the lone black flyer with white lettering: Re-UNITE the Right 10.28. No one in charge, apparently. Just a flyer going round and round the drain of the internet and refusing to vanish. Despite all the speeches condemning violence, the idea of another rally tonight has everybody on edge, trying to figure out what’s real. Are the men from summer—or their kind—coming back, or is this some sort of early Halloween prank? Who knows what to believe. Or how to prepare for the worst when it comes.
Earlier that night, Stella and Derek had taken their time getting ready to leave the house, making a show of putting Howie and Nemy to bed—all the teeth-brushing and singing and tucking in—as if she, Damonia, in all her years, were incapable of minding the children in a practical way.
“What time’s the party start?” Damonia asked when they’d finished. She was at the kitchen table, nursing her decaf. Stella and Derek leaned over the marble island, their attention absorbed in the phone’s white band of light.
“Eight,” Stella said. She stopped scrolling to look up at her. “Haven’t I been saying eight all week?”
“Well then why haven’t you left?”
“I’m trying to figure out if anybody knows anything, Ma. What’s wrong with that?”
Outside, in the dark, Damonia pulls another cluster of weeds and hears faint conversation as strangers walk up the street, their voices lifting on the other side of the fence. Two girls. Teenagers, she guesses.
“So Tavis offered to walk with us as far as the Johnsons’, but I was like, nah—”
“Why not? What’s he got to do otherwise?”
“Who knows. Wait, you saying we should call him?”
There’s a pause, and in that silence a clacking sound: beads colliding with each other at the end of one girl’s braids. “Nah, we don’t need him. They got the new streetlights on that end, anyway. And I wish somebody would try me tonight.”
The girls move on past the house, past the other faux colonials. Damonia wonders if they might be headed to some counterprotest, or maybe just a party, if they are dressed as angels or witches or, from what she’s noticed on the screens appearing throughout the house, kittens. Had she been young in this time, she would have gone as the former first lady with her hair tucked around her dark face, her toned arms inherited from generations of people who worked with their hands. She would have dressed as that woman every year, if given a new adult life, her age forty-eight instead of eighty-four as she paraded through costume parties, that first lady always and forever. Who would’ve believed it.
She can sense her grandbabies easing down the staircase again. How is it possible that her body, weaker than it has ever been, can perceive so much? Her eyes can barely make out the print on the sack of manure leaning against the house, and when she stands, she might discover urine patches in her underwear again. But those grandbabies. She can almost feel their small toes pressing against the wooden steps, tentative. Descending the stairs with real purpose now, to make sure she’s still there. She knows them like she knows her body’s own rhythms: the way her heart slows when she wades through the guest room’s nighttime dark, her flaking skin chilled by the house’s stillness. The way it speeds toward panic when she wakes and doesn’t recognize the open air of a room bigger than the one she shared with Beauford for fifty years. Sometimes, her heartbeat is gone entirely when she realizes he no longer sleeps beside her, his massive, steelworker’s body a missing heat, his gentle fingers absent from the small of her back. She, too, will be gone soon, free from this house where her daughter makes all the rules.
The children are in the kitchen now. Damonia thumps the side of a gourd, pretending to garden when really all she’s doing is letting them know she’s outside, just below the porch, along the kitchen’s outer wall. Their footsteps are slow, hesitant, not the usual pattering around. And how could they not be uncertain, given the nonsense Stella and Derek told them?
Her daughter and son-in-law almost hadn’t gone to the party. Damonia remembers Derek rubbing Stella’s shoulders with both knuckles, his lips pressed against her hair. “It’ll be alright,” he’d said. “The kids’ll be alright. Just something on the internet, for now. And if anything happens, we’ll be close by. Walking distance. We deserve a break.”
“You do,” Damonia said, then sipped her coffee. “Considering the way you two work.”
Derek gave a weak smile. A wrinkle spread across Stella’s forehead. When neither of them said anything, Damonia stared down into her coffee. How odd: The kind Stella brewed left no powder swirling in her mug.
“But you don’t stop living,” Damonia went on. “You don’t stop living because a few knuckleheads feel emboldened. Even if that maniac did run over that poor girl.”
“God, Mom,” Stella said, looking upstairs, toward the children’s bedroom. Derek sighed and pressed a button on the phone until it went black. “Do you have to say that so loud? Nemy’s four. Four.”
“I know. But, to be honest, I was four once.”
“Will you just promise me you won’t say anything?”
“Why? What did you tell them?”
“Mom,” Derek warned quietly, and she should’ve known then it would be something stupid, given how Stella squeezed his arm.
“I told them they had to stay in bed because it was almost Halloween,” Stella said. And then when Damonia stared at her, struck dumb, she went: “Please, Ma. Just promise you won’t say anything more?”
“Fine,” she said. “I won’t.” Just so her daughter would feel safe enough to go.
Damonia can’t feel her knees by the time the children press their faces against the porch’s screen door. They stand above her, their bodies all curve and cylinder. Nemy pokes her fingers into the screen to watch it stretch.
“Grandma,” says Howie. He is in the third grade, and is she imagining that his voice is already deeper? “Grandma, you left the glass part open.”
“That door’s got a screen on it, Howie.” She shifts her weight to her thighs, feels it now, the locking in her knees. “There’s nothing gon’ fly in the house through a screen door. You seen bugs flying around in the kitchen?”
“No,” Nemy says. “We didn’t see nothing.”
“Ha! I got you.” Damonia forces out the laugh, leans to one side and palms the damp earth. “I got the both of you. How long you been sneaking around?”
“We were looking for you,” Howie says. His body is still, his flat gaze on her hands grimy with dirt. “You left the TV on in your room. We could hear it all the way upstairs.”
“You tricked us!” Nemy says, laughing. The gap in her teeth is like a window in a white-brick house. “You tricked us! You tricked us!”
“I’m not in the business of tricking you,” Damonia says, and Howie’s eyebrows draw together how Beauford’s used to. Or maybe it’s just that he’s looking down at her. “Have I tricked you before, chile? Is that why you keep coming downstairs, late as it is? You think I got something to trick you about?”
Her grandchildren look at each other. Howie sideways at Nemy and Nemy up at her brother, one puffy ponytail covering the side of her face. They are in identical plaid pajamas, red and blue with highwater bottoms. Howie slumps, and Damonia resists the urge to correct his posture, the curve in his back exaggerated by his hands, balled in his pockets. She thinks of the two teenaged girls, how they must have walked with their backs straight as they passed through the streetlamp light. Who could get near them, these girls strutting through the night?
“They gon’ get you, you keep staying out there,” Howie says, and with the way his voice has gone quiet, he does not seem seven, but much, much older, as if someone from another century has loaned him a voice.
“You know,” Nemy whispers, and she takes one step back from the screen door. “The bad things. The ghosts coming out tonight.”
“Yeah,” Nemy says. She plays with her bottom lip, an ugly habit.
A man’s laughter reaches them from the street, from the front of the house. Nemy yelps. Howie opens the screen door, as if to usher Damonia back in. “Yeah, bro, I’m on the way,” the man says, his baritone bobbing through the dark. Then silence. Howie’s shoulders relax. Nemy pulls her pajama top down and over her knees. Damonia feels silly as she smooths the hairs that rose along her neck. The scariest things in her life have always come slow.
“You’ve got to come inside, Grandma,” Howie says. His gaze burrows into hers. “You remember what’s going on tonight?”
Because they are watching her and she does not want them to see what standing requires, much less making it up the stairs, she pulls another set of weeds. God, Stella, putting her in this position, having to go along with this silliness rather than telling them the truth. “No ghosts are going to get me out here,” Damonia says, slow. “You know, me and your granddaddy, we’ve beat ghosts two, three times over. They’ve got more to be scared of with us.”
“You really have?” Nemy says.
Damonia nods. Still, there are far too many stories that could keep that belief from sinking all the way into a person, child or no. When Beauford was alive, he’d once whispered to her in the dark, “We ought to tell them, you know. We ought to tell them about my brother.” Though they thought they’d have more time before Beauford’s stroke, time to tell more stories about Simon, other than the final one of him being strung up in a bur oak.
“Yes,” Damonia says. “Really.”
Nemy’s mouth parts. Howie raises an eyebrow in suspicion. “Prove it.”
Oh, Lord. Where can she begin? With her own grandmother in Milledgeville, who’d seen the night riders on their long, white procession through the pines, their horses moving so slowly that the raised torches looked like an orange snake gliding up from hell? With her momma, who’d seen the horns and red-painted faces leering at her from the edges of the field?
She does not even know how to tell her grandbabies about her own encounter with the men who were not ghosts without first telling them about how she and her four siblings had been out in the town square that same afternoon, racing in the street, seeing who could tag the oak outside the drugstore the fastest, and how they’d caused Miss Julie to swing out her bike and dump herself into the road—her blue dress smeared with clay, her wobbling face all scratched up. They’d run home, but her oldest brother, Willie, knew the night riders would be coming for them, the same way they’d come for other families. Back at home, Willie unlaced the vines from the fence at the edge of their small plot of land. “You seen Mr. Abel looking at us?” Willie said as he pulled the vines across the ground, careful not to break them. “You saw how he grabbed Miss Julie?” He told them his plan, how they’d pull those vines across the yard, through the gap in the cabin wood so that anybody coming at them would trip. Their mother, who’d left the hog house at their hollering, watched them from the cabin door. “What did y’all get into now?” she said, and when Willie told her, it looked like her anger made her bigger. One of her chapped hands gripped the doorframe, and Damonia could see those awful words rising in her: Go on outside and pick a switch—and don’t make it a small one. Then Momma let go. She looked out at the yard where they’d been growing their own watermelon, corn, and cantaloupes, where, only the summer before, their father had been swinging the littlest, Ann, round and round until he made a noise like “Nnn” and set her down, half of his face sagging before the rest of him went too. “You might not have ruined it for us,” Momma said. “They might leave us alone.” Then she pursed her lips and left them. But while Howie and the others finished the vine trap, Damonia wandered to the back room, her heart one long, drawn-out shudder. Momma was kneeling on the floor, a suitcase open against her thighs, her hands lowering Papa’s amber cologne bottle into the clothes folded in neat squares.
“If you can imagine a house half the size of this one,” Damonia tells her grandchildren, “imagine it made all of wood, with gaps so wide you could see out of them. And one night you look out and you see a ghost.”
As the grandbabies listen, she knows they are picturing a floating blob with black holes for eyes, not so different from what she’s really talking about, the sheet-draped figure stalking the cabin, fire in his hand. His boots had smushed the soft earth as he walked round and round their property. When she says, “Now picture me as small as you,” they squint.
She was seven, her body a hard board beneath her nightgown. She’d crouched beside her brothers and sisters, all of them peering through the gaps in the walls and out into the night, hazed with orange flame. Even after what Willie and Momma had said might happen, Damonia hadn’t really understood. She had not expected the night rider to look like this.
“Come on out of there,” the figure said. “One way or another y’all are comin’ out.”
The ghost laughed, a wheezing sound thick as smoke.
Damonia does not tell her grandbabies that the figure had turned back to laugh at the other men, who’d been waiting on the dirt path a ways away. “You want ’em out, just burn it down already,” one of them said. “Just get on with it.” But the ghost waved them off. “You wait,” he said. “I’ve got my business too.”
“Momma was telling us to hush,” she says to Howie and Nemy, because one of her siblings had started to whimper—Ann, maybe, or her middle brother, Joe, who, at nine, didn’t talk as much as he should’ve. Or maybe the sound was her own.
Momma cupped her hands over their mouths two by two and guided them from the walls. Her palms carried the smell of pork and salt. When Damonia turned, her siblings were all touching some part of their mother: Willie gripped her bicep and pretty Shirley her elbow and Joe and Ann her nightgown. Momma wasn’t holding any of them anymore; she’d grabbed the hunting rifle off the wall.
The figure rapped on the walls, still circling, the orange flame disappearing and then reappearing again through the gaps in the wood: “I know you’re in there, and I’m gonna burn you alive. You know who I am? You know what I’m prepared to do?” He said things she didn’t quite understand—something about his return from hell, about armies at Chickamauga, how the war wasn’t over and this ghost would have his revenge. She didn’t quite understand him then, even as her flesh peeled from the inside. She wouldn’t understand until her momma explained it after they’d fled.
A ghost, Damonia tells her grandchildren, not a man pretending to be one. But the ghost is not the most important part of the story, anyway. What’s important is how Willie scurried away from Momma and grabbed the vines twined with rope they’d worked through the house. They all grabbed a piece. “Get ready to run,” Willie said. And they pulled.
When the figure tripped, the fire flared up—a rush of sound. His cursing flowered into shouts, and Damonia watched Willie’s eyes startle in the dark. He backed away, and their father’s knife fell out of his pocket.
“Shit,” Momma said, and leaned the gun against her shoulder, barrel up. “We’ve done it now.”
She yanked a quilt off the wall and pushed open the front door. Yellow light cut in, and after she threw the quilt, there was a schwomp. “Come on now,” she said, and urged them out the back door, out to their father’s old truck. “In the cab, all of you,” she said, keys in hand. They obeyed: Willie by the window with Joe on his lap, her in the middle with Shirley on hers, and Momma behind the wheel with Ann. All their shoulders pushed against each other, and the gun leaned out the open driver’s window. When Momma pulled off, Damonia twisted to look back, ignoring Shirley’s whining. Their house, slowly being swallowed by yellow light, shrinking and shrinking until you couldn’t see the glow anymore. “Just breathe, everybody,” Momma said. “Willie, you can get in the back soon enough.” They would not stop for longer than it took to get gas, who knows how long, seemed like forever, until some sign on the road told them they were in Virginia.
They’d been lucky, though she doesn’t tell her grandbabies this, either. The hooded men had rushed toward that figure writhing on the ground, distracted. They’d been lucky too, that the men, in choosing to perform the past, had chosen horses, which slowed them down even after they’d noticed her family was gone.
“I don’t believe a ghost could trip,” Howie says. His eyes pinch at her. “I think they’d just, like, try and move through it or something. Float.”
Damonia sighs and massages her knees. There’s some feeling back in them. A little nerve tingling. “Any floating ghost is one you don’t need to be scared of.”
“I saw a ghost floating outside my window once,” Nemy says. Her brown eyes widen in her chubby face.
“Oh yeah?” Howie leans into the screen door. “What it do to you, then?”
“Nothing. Just lookin’ in at me and stuff.”
“You dummy.” He sucks his teeth and swats the air. “You talking about the moon. Ain’t no ghost just going to sit there and look at you.”
“Hey,” Nemy says, and her face is the bottom of a squash, wrinkling.
“Howard,” Damonia warns.
Howie shuts his eyes, and because Damonia knows that neither of her grandbabies is focused on her, she pushes off the ground, her knees creaking, her hand squeezing the weeds in her fist, her eyes watering behind her glasses. The pain slows her down. She cannot make even this simple grandmotherly gesture: reaching out to wipe Nemy’s tears before they really get started. Or to pop Howie upside the head for causing them. She can only manage one stair.
“Alright now,” she says, and she has to settle for putting one hand on her hip, the other in a fist around the weeds. “Y’all stop messing with each other. Don’t let fear make you mean.”
Howie mumbles something as Nemy rubs her eyes.
“What was that?” Damonia says. “You got something to say?”
“I said, you can’t beat no ghost. And everyone knows it.” He opens his eyes again. His brows draw together, and something in her shrinks. Only at this moment does he really look like Beauford. “And so how come we can’t stay up tonight when we been fine every other Saturday?” She takes another stair: Are his eyes watering now, or is it just the light? “And that lady in the pictures on the phone wasn’t even out at night, and ghosts got to her, and she wasn’t even alone.”
“Stop it!” Nemy says, and pulls her pigtail, furious.
“You can, Howard,” Damonia says. “You can beat a ghost. I’ve seen it before.”
Howard says nothing, and in the silence, a car passes on the street, a hum that keeps on going.
“I think,” Howard says finally, gliding his hands into his pockets again. “I think you’re making that part up.”
It must be the chill, that cold thing nudging her back. “The way I was raised,” she says, “we don’t accuse adults of telling lies.”
“I wasn’t calling you a liar! I just said—”
“You just said what?” She feels the glare on her face like a mask. What is it Stella is always saying about parenting: Asking him what he means? Act don’t react? Ridiculous. Her own mother never lied. Even in the truck, breezing through the forests none of them would ever run through again, she put them in their place. “You think the ghost’s gonna follow us?” Damonia had asked, shouting, the wind beating her face senseless. Momma breathed in quick. “I don’t want to hear that foolishness,” she’d said. “That was Mr. Abel, and you know it.”
“You just said what?” Damonia repeats, because Howard isn’t looking at her. “You just backtalking?”
The boy mumbles again. And finally she reaches forward. Opens the screen door. Squeezes his shoulder. You have to let a child know you’ve got things under control. Let them know the only thing they have to fear right now is you. Howard’s eyes slowly rise to her face.
“‘No, ma’am,” he says. “I didn’t say anything.”
She stares at his expression, how it folds in on itself. He looks, suddenly, the same age as Nemy, whose own upper lip is poked out, mouth open, as if she is unsure if she should cry.
“You two,” Damonia says, “ought to be kinder to one another. You ought to act better.”
She lets the screen door close between them. Thank God Howard is looking at his feet, missing the way she grips the railing. Squeezing him has worn her out. A siren hollers in the distance.
“Sorry,” he says. “I just don’t think that woman was killed by a ghost.”
Nemy whines and rubs one of her feet on the kitchen tile. Damonia bends and unbends one knee, the pain familiar now, though not deadened.
“Howard,” she says.
“Yes?” He takes a step back from her, into the blue light the television casts into the kitchen. She can only make out his lowered eyes. “Yes?”
“You’re scaring your sister.”
Howard looks at Nemy. The old thing looking out of him is its own sort of ghost, insistent on passing through. “I’m sorry,” he says finally. Nemy sniffles, then raises her arms, asking to be lifted, though it’s been a long time since Damonia could bear her weight. So she hugs her against her thigh, feels the throbbing heat of this small body and realizes how cool her own has become, out there in the garden. She rubs Nemy’s back in deliberate, perfect circles.
Nemy turns her face up and asks, “When’s Mommy coming home?”
“Soon,” Damonia says. “She’ll be on soon. Should we have some cookies before we get to bed?”
“Yes!” Nemy shouts, the sound echoing through the house. Howie’s mouth twitches, a reach toward a smile. Still, he keeps his gaze down, and Damonia gets the sense that this is not because of shame but because he’s afraid of her. The same way she avoids looking in the mirror, to avoid that reflection of a person she never thought she’d be.
She leads them into the kitchen, washes her hands at the sink. She will get in trouble for this, she knows. When Stella returns, she’ll notice that the three bat-shaped cookies, brought home from the pharmacy where she works, are missing from the pantry. She will turn to Derek and say, “We didn’t give them those, did we?” She’ll hear Damonia in the bath—much later than she should—and know that the children did not stay in bed after all. And then Stella will give her that low and level stare, not a little put out over the fact that, no matter how much work she’s put in, her house still doesn’t reflect the fruits of her labor.
Damonia sits across from the children, three bodies tense in the yellow overhead light. Nemy nibbles her cookie and fights off the sleep her milk lulls her toward, her head bobbing out of her palm and back down again. Howie leans back in his chair, his eyes fixed on the sky outside the back window, the streetlamps washing the porches orange. She studies her grandbabies. Oh Beauford, if ever I was ready to go.
“You slowing down?” she asks Howie. He’s set pieces of wet cookie on the napkin. Nemy’s eyes are finally closed, her cheek flat against her palm.
“Nah,” Howie says. “I was just thinking.”
She watches his face, how it is new and his own. She wonders what it would be like to believe in ghosts, in returning from the dead or never being dead at all. If it were her, for instance, would she hover over the neat lawn, float up the steps? Her body would be nothing, finally, free to glide through the doors, sail upstairs (no need to rest), wrap her arms around Stella and Derek and the grandbabies, babies no longer by then. But if she could stay long enough for them to feel her presence, surely anything could linger, if persistent enough. Too painful, allowing herself this fantasy. What she knows of the world has tarnished even the idea of coming back.
“Here,” she says to Howie. She breaks her own cookie and offers him a piece. Watches him bathe it in milk.