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ISSUE:  Spring 1995

I opened the gap into the pasture, a single strand of rusting bob wire notched in a twist. The cold came high in my chest, but the wind had finally laid and from some distance I could feel the heat off the horse. The hide-odor off the horse, that soily smell he carried even in the winter. I pushed my face into it, into the hollow behind the shoulder, before the belly swell. Old, patient horse. Indifferent horse. Twenty-seven years old, born on my grandfather’s farm. Had outlived both him and my daddy now. The dogs sat at the edge of the yard and bayed nothing, just bayed. I turned my cheek to his skin and looked down towards the creek, to the sycamores, ghost trees, bone-shiny in the littlest moon.

My daddy had said just put him under a big tree.

Inside there was more food than I’d ever seen on our table, and fat women in print dresses perched on the couch with saucers balanced cross their knees, while their husbands slunk, dangerous-mouthed, from room to room. I found the fried squirrel, floured nice, on its chipped platter. I still had horse on my hands, and I smeared them across my Sunday pants, listening, the wood fire brightening my back.

“I heard some of em are up in Dayton. Some of her people.”

“Yeah, it’s John Eddy and them is who it is.”

I ate my squirrel, quiet, that good black meat, so tender you could drop it from the bone with your tongue, and the fragile hips.

“Remember John Eddy? The fat one with the cast to his eye.”

“No, that was Connie who you’re thinking of.”

My daddy had shot the squirrels just days before, fox squirrels. I’d helped him dress them out along the creek. He’d come at my head with the knife, and I flinched, but he just nicked off a little swath of hair and laid it beside the squirrel skin. Look there, he said. You’re colored like that squirrel is.

“Better for the boy.”

“Got better schools up there in Dayton.”

Outside the dogs were still barking, the chops falling even and deliberate, and I knew they would be at it all night.

“With a dog chain,” one of them said again. I watched him shake his head. My daddy had looked uneasy in his box, his legs drawn out straight and him touching his heart.

“Be still now. The boy’s right there by the fire.”

Those last years before we left the land were dry ones, the oaks making naught but the little acorns that dropped in August and burned up on the ground. Then there was no mast for the deer, and hunger-doped by spring they strayed near the house to crop the early grass where the dogs brought them down, the young ones goat-bleating the way they will. Buzzards busy all March, all of April. Vulture constellations. You could catch wind off them from some far away in the woods, overripe venison rot, and the dogs writhing in the carcasses on their backs.

There were ditches that wrapped round those hills, and people said they were left over from the War Between the States. Don’t tell anyone, my daddy said, we will have out-of-staters walking the ridges, picking up things the way they do. One afternoon when I was very small we were rabbit-hunting in a power cut and saw a man across the way. My daddy yelled at him, but he wouldn’t turn. And we followed him, him plodding tired and steady through that parched brush, making no effort to get ahead of us nor none to wait, and we came up on him and called again, and that time he looked at us. My daddy grabbed hold my shoulder, stopped, and let the other one go, gray, all of one color he was, with the electric wires crackling over his cap.

That night my daddy came in my room and sat the edge of my bed with his back to me, his longjohn shirt whitening a space in the dark. He told me that had been no man at all, but a ghost, a Confederate soldier, and I stiffened in my iron bed. Here was thick with ghosts, he told me, and told me not to be afraid, but I was, that the first one I ever saw and me maybe four years old. After he left I cried with the blanket up over my head, listening for those ghost boots slapping up the stairs. Here was as thick with ghosts as it was with deer, my daddy told me, all of them pushed in from the outside. Think, he told me. There’s no place else for them to go.

Some days my daddy wanted to be alone. He filled his jacket pockets with venison jerky strung on greasy twine, and he left before light, penning the dogs in the house behind him because he didn’t want them following him and couldn’t bear to see them chained. I’d wake with a wet nose in my face, the other dog snuffling the corners, and puddles on the floor. The odor of gun oil in the kitchen and the notches along the table rim where he’d whittle, nervous, as he finished his breakfast with his left hand.

My mother’d tell me wipe up the puddles, her dressing rapid while the coffee made because we would be going to town now, and she uncoiled the pantyhose over her legs with both hands, the cigarette bobbing on her lower lip. She waited tables at the Stonewall Jackson and didn’t like to see a boy idle, made me stack the little sugar packs in their wire cages and fill the creamers. The locals would get in early, Bud and Mr. Haines and Twink and the rest of them. They sat with me at the counter over pancakes and asked without looking in my face, “How’s your daddy?”

“Boy don’t say much, does he?”

“Shy,” my mother’d tell them.

The Stonewall was the only restaurant in town and after nine on the weekends the out-of-staters stopped, passing through to their skiing or their second homes. They locked their car doors behind them, suspicious in their bright loud jackets and pants. Wouldn’t nobody accidentally shoot them wearing those kind of clothes, Twink would make a joke, but it wasn’t accidents they were worried about, said Mr. Haines. Bud didn’t even have to look up, could tell it was them by how hurried they opened the door. “Here come the imports,” he’d say. They complained about the cigarette smoke and the grease on the bacon. Their health was important. My mother carried the bacon back to the kitchen and sopped at it with paper towels. I sat on my stool, drawing pictures on the back of used placemats, trees and twelve-point bucks. “How’s Hector?” Mr. Haines asked my mother.

She would sigh, “Ohh, all right.”

Once one of the imports took my picture even though there was nothing to see, just me sitting along the side of the building on a bread rack because I couldn’t bear any longer to be inside. Foreigners. From-away-from-here. They talked like people on TV, that whitewashed talk of people from no place.

Ghost-dogged my daddy was, saw them the way some people can spy the last berries in the brier roar of a thicket or brook trout in a root shadow. By the time he was grown and I came along it was in him so keen I couldn’t help but catch it. Hunting or woodcutting we’d carry a lunch and eat in the house rubble way up those little draws, us resting on the crumpled chimbley stones, all that was left of the old people a stubborn shock of jonquils, maybe, a buckled sheet of stove iron. Runty deer picking their way past, they were rank as weeds back in there. They’d freeze up and stare at us, confused, until they winded us and arched away. Then my daddy would catch sight of a ghost. I could smell it off him like an animal hide, and I’d watch, too, even though I didn’t want to, and a shape would come, like comes the body of a black snake from a black limb, a shape would come.

The first time, he told me, he’d been just a little boy clearing grass in the big orchard up on Twelve Square, him working with a madeover boysize scythe, ticking up and down the rows. This was when my grandaddy was a landowner and hired a dozen men in the summers, sweet corn in the bottoms, apples on those limestone ridges. My daddy caught his ankle with the blade one morning a good ways off from the others, and while he bled into the timothy, a man gathered himself from the grass. Gathered himself out the grass, I mean all of the pieces fell like they were spilling one at a time out some kind of opening and feeling for each other, for how they fit together, you see. He was a big strong man, ground-colored like a deer, and he was taken with the little scythe. He picked it up, the blood already dry on it, and he looked at his quarter-moon reflection there. By the time the workers found my daddy, the man had pulled himself back through his rift.

Sometimes he’d make me sit for hours. On a log without moving for so long I thought I could feel the world drift under my feet while we waited to see who would come. When he was a boy it was different, my daddy would whisper at me between his teeth, the deer scarcer and stronger and barrel-bellied with the heavy racks. The ghosts different as well, and less common than they were now. When he was a boy sitting a watch, he would see old-timers pass out of a gap and clip along the flanks of the hills with wild gobblers slung over their backs, running those deer paths like the slant was level ground, like they were born to it, my daddy said. And then sometimes he’d take the safety off and make me do it the way the old-timers had. I ran with the gun carried crosswise in my hands, one on the stock, the other under the barrel, dancing on the edges of my feet the deer ruts strung sidewise along those steep ridges. Juggling the rifle like eggs, my chest heaving, I could see the black space behind my eyes where I knew I would go if I fell. That’s the way you do it, my daddy called from behind. Don’t be scared.

By the time I was born it was different. The little land we’d held on to went unplowed, pushing up the only crops Uncle Sam would pay for, set-aside, waste stuff, cockaburrs and thistles and rabbit tobacco. Government crops. Up in the mountains the springs drew back into the ground, and it was just tiny deer prints scoring the mud they left behind. The ghosts we saw were ragged old people, lots of them, clambering up the gulleys, ribby like the deer and dry-apple-faced, clambering empty-handed up the banks and always fading back into the dead leaves before they reached the bench. And the Confederates, again and again, the Confederates, all the time watching the ground under their feet, we saw one in nothing but a horse blanket and his boots. Down, down under the mountain the traffic made a wind sound.

Some days we didn’t go up there at all but sat along the creek instead, on the warm rocks there, and he watched the humped hills beyond the sycamores and told a story for every wrinkle, a buck he’d shot there, a bobcat he saw 15 years earlier, the ghost of a club-footed girl. Put it in your head, he’d say, you have a good memory. He’d rap me above my ear with his knuckles, just hard enough so it hurt, and I put it there. I could close my eyes and unroll the whole range in my mind, every fold, every rise, the color of every season. Think, he’d tell me, speaking of the deer and the ghosts again, there’s nowhere else for them to go. And what about this? he told me. Finally they’ll all be pushed onto one acre of ground, and then what? He tore deer jerky off the string with his teeth and rolled white storebought bread into gray pellets between his palms.

The bottom grew second homes that looked more alike than corn plants did. Among them sagged the house where my daddy was born, a ghost itself in the middle of all that aluminum siding, the house vine-swallowed and collapsing in on itself as though it had drawn a single deep breath then never let it go. Foreclosed, I knew from listening at the Stonewall, “fore” like “for sale” and the “closed” spoke for itself. Even I could read “No Trespassing” sign, but he said that didn’t mean us, and when I seized up in that thistly yard, ghost-scared about the place, he grabbed my arm and jerked me over the porch. The plaster had shaken loose of the walls, showing logs like house ribs underneath, and the honey-suckle runners through the kitchen windows. Swallows in there, and wasps and mud daubers, the furniture carrying a crust. Snakes and groundhogs denned under the floors.

Then he told me go upstairs, to make sure. He said the steps wouldn’t hold him. Go on up, he said, see what’s up there.I shook my head. Get up there, he said. I stood quiet in the spoke wreck of the bannister on the floor. You heard me. He wasn’t carrying his gun that day, but he had his deerknife. The one that opened them between the breastbone, snick, easy like that. He pulled it out. Do you love your daddy? he said.

I climbed. I climbed them careful because they were punky and bowed in the middle, and I stopped on the landing. I could hear my daddy breathing heavy down below me. I crooked my neck to see what was ahead up there in the hall, and the blood came loud in my ears, it came whum, whum, whum. Get on, he hissed. The hallway lay empty in front of me, the stink of the rat dirt and the mote pools, dreamy. All my skin rose up and the whumming so loud now I heard nothing else, but I knew he was down there listening for my feet. I started walking. The door to each room was either open or gone and I peeked sidewise into each one expecting to see it. And each one was empty, emptier than the rooms downstairs, just the water stains making pictures on the wallpaper and beyond the window panes,the vines and then the second homes.

I walked the hall to the end. The last door was shut. I knew that that was where it would be.

I reached out and eased the door open with my boot toe. It swung in. In the middle of the floor lay a heap of olive-colored cloth. I forced myself in and turned it over with my foot, keeping my body as far away as I could, expecting a face to roil up out of it. But they were empty work clothes, soiled with rat droppings.

I walked all the way back along that hall, ghostless.

“Nothing up here, daddy,” I called from the top of the steps. I heard him leave, bolting the front door behind him. By the time I crawled out the window and onto the porch, he was across the field and halfway to the road, a long brown twist, wind-driven in jerks along the thistled ground.

I sat my stool in the Stonewall Jackson drawing deer with a ballpoint pen, my mother hazy beside me in her cigarette break, mid-morning and no one there but a pair of out-of-staters whispering secretively at a corner table. The door opened behind us and somebody called out “Mona!” like he was surprised to see her there, “How you been?” He creaked like horse tack, straddling the stool on the other side of her, and I knew it was the sheriff.

“Ohh, all right,” she said.

He spoke of the cold and the dry and of business. He shouted at Minxie who owned the place and sat in the back listening to gospel while he ate his toast and honey there beside the deep fryer, hollered at Minxie that he’s heard the McDonald’s was finally on its way, ha, ha. I had a big buck all finished and filled in the bullets flying at his head.

“Listen,” the sheriff finally said. “They’ve been complaining about Hector. The people in the bottom.”

My mother said nothing.

“Trespassing, but that’s not all. Poaching, too.”

She crushed a butt in the Kool ashtray.

“I just wanted to tell you,” the sheriff said. “Before I have to do something. You know.”

She didn’t speak.

“Not that I want to do something. But you know how it is,” he said.

“You want some coffee?” my mother said.

He started fooling all the time in the woodshed saying he was building something, but he wasn’t. He told me stay out which meant I didn’t have to carry logs in, that was fine. I pulled up against a knothole, the woodshed soft and rain-colored even in the dry, and I let my eye open to the dark. He sat there on a stovelength handling the dog chain. I looked over my shoulder at the dogs down in the leafless forsythia along the house walls, bundled in on themselves against the cold.

“Kit!” my mother yelled from the back door. “Kit!” She told me to pick up sticks in the yard. There had been a high wind the night before and she didn’t like to see me idle. Afraid I’d come up lazy like my daddy. Lazy, crazy, like my daddy, I felt the rhyme with the sides of my tongue. I dumped the sticks in the pasture where the old horse stood with his rump to the air and rolled one muddy eye at me. Dry winter wind, no moisture in it. I could see my mother in the kitchen window, watching. She hated this place even though she was of it.

I went inside to warm up. She fried deer liver and onions in an iron skillet. “Go get your daddy to eat,” she said.

“I’m not allowed in there,” I said.

“I said go get your daddy,” she said.

“Daddy!” I called from outside the shed. “Daddy, come and eat!” We had nailed hides on the walls of the shed to cure, and under the eaves we’d hung the puny racks of the deer we’d shot in past years. Splayed out muskrats and coons, eyeless, snoutless, watching me through the holes in their faces, and the deer skulls above, watching. Animal bones on the outside the woodshed, I thought, and tree bones in. Bones, bones, bones. Oh, it was airy. I could hear a big limb up the mountain snap.

I told my mother he wouldn’t come out. She threw the fork on the stove and slammed out the door, coatless.

The liver and onions burned up in the pan.

My daddy said he wouldn’t be buried in no square. He said just lay him up the mountain under a big tree, but they put him in a cemetery boxed with a picket fence. It was tipped with one strand of bob wire to keep out the stock. I’ve seen no ghosts since.

In a city, I can tell you, it is all straights and angles, your eye broken up by corners and by edges. Your eyes are never rolled the way the hills do back there. Nothing back home wide open, it is true, but nothing sharp, all the time easy on your eyes. And when you stand between the ridges, your heart beat stops right there and drums along the sides. It is not like here where there is nothing to dam the throb, here where it spreads flat and thin forever.

Sometimes on the stoop of an evening or during a break at work over a cigarette, I close my eyes and try to unfold it the way he told me I could have it in my head. But I can no longer make it come.

I can make nothing come but this. The feel of the earth under my back, my knees. The smell of the heat in a rock.


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