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The old woman came down from the mountains, leaving the mining neighbors who lived in the place that she called “the patch.” She slipped down that stream and into the river and made it almost to the city, and with her, she brought all of her witchery.
Once, I lived in the rural parts of Pennsylvania. There were mountains nearby and all kinds of wildflowers and birds of assorted colors, and most people I knew paid attention to what lived and grew on the ground and in the trees. This is why I took notice of the first blue bird I had ever seen in real life. It sat on the road near the Laurel summit. It was tiny and bright, like birds in cartoons. It sat, still still, a brilliant bolt of blue among the greenery of trees and moss and fern and the pale pink of the mountain laurel that rushed through the forests to the edge of the road. And I think I ran that little bird over. I might have. I was driving the Jeep that once belonged to my father, and I didn’t hear it hit, but I saw it fly up as I swerved away, and then nothing. No fluttering blue feathers in the rearview mirror, not that such a small bird would easily be seen from the vantage point of a car’s interior mirror, but no little blue birdie was seen flying up into the trees from any window view either. It simply disappeared, and I hoped I didn’t squash it, delete it from existence with those rubber eraser tires. But, I might have.
At home, the home where I grew up and not the home where I live now, the home surrounded by foothills of rolled hay, hay that I once helped bale from a wagon where I grabbed the prickly, itchy grass from the baler with a hook and pulled it up to be stacked by my cousins on the trailer’s wooden boards as my grandfather pulled us along with the tractor and my cousins joked that I was the hooker, at this home, there were other birds.
In the spring, there were barn swallows nesting in the rafters and gold finches flew over the fields at the foothills of the mountains. In the farmhouse where my father once lived, my grandmother kept tabs on the birds. She knew where the hawk kept its nest and counted the hummingbirds that came to the feeder at the wisteria. You’d think she loved those birds, and she did, but this farming grandmother could also chop the head off a chicken, and there were rumors of drowned kittens spoken at the dinner table at home, my home where I once lived, near the farm but not at the farm. There were rumors of a canary thrown heart-beating into a burning fire. Someone claimed the old woman couldn’t hear herself think with all of that tweet tweeting, so, into the fire you go, as someone once said to a child in a gingerbread house.
The farmer’s wife came from the mountains with slippery elm and ginseng, black cohosh and blue cohosh. She’s blend tea to be supped by women or young girls and labor began, sometimes after long pregnancies and too-slow babies were shoved out wailing against their wills, but other times, early, early in days and months, babies came out secret secret, quickly buried in the ground before they even had time to inhale their lungs and cry out to the world.
As for the farmer’s wife herself, she gave birth to nothing but ghosts. How many ghosts? Two, to be exact, both fathers.
The first ghost she brought with her when she came down the hillside with the mountain stream. It was the ghost of her father, a miner who one day heard the whistle blow and took the canary tweet-tweeting and sticks of dynamite and went down into the belly of the earth. Into the fire you go. On that day, she brought forth her first ghost.
Now, we don’t want to be gullible and show any lack of sophistication as if we are uneducated hillbillies, or farming rednecks, or, more simply and more generally, nothing but white trash. We are aware that superstitions and talk of the extraordinary lower our standing in the eyes of the cultural elite. So, we try to keep our mouths shut and don’t ask questions, neither affirming nor denying much. But, I never did do a good job of keeping my mouth shut, so I’ll say it again, and I’ll say it out loud—the witch was a witch.
But, back to this particular ghost, this ghost of a miner father, she kept him bundled and warm, close to her own belly and insides. He was wrapped tightly and no one was allowed to take a look, though sometimes, we could hear that howling baby noise coming from deep inside her where he was tucked up, almost secret. But, then again, maybe it was that other ghost we heard crying in her room.
Because there was a second baby ghost—the ghost of her son, my father, and this was a ghost that I hoped I wouldn’t have to care for, not ever. He was her child, and I’m no witch who wants hauntings; I’ll drink the tea now, please, and we’ll bury him out back, secret secret, no more. Fly away, little birdie. I might just erase you, yet.
And, truth be told, even without baby father ghosts, old women who are in their mid-80s and alive and well and seeding and planting and keeping watch on woodpeckers scare the living shit out of me. Talk of the dead at the dinner table, those little kitties, or old barking dogs who followed the gun to the field, the pheasant on the plate and the feathers in the backyard, and often, the singing birdie singed, served up en flambé. “It’s a perversion,” my mother said, “this love of dead things—she can’t let go.” But this time, she was talking of my father, talking with the bitterness that only a daughter-in-law can have, talking with the guilt that comes from not holding on. He was squashed on the road and that alone made him untouchable, even if you ignore the rest. We weren’t the kind to pick up road kill, but my grandmother just might have done it. We suspected she’d cook it up for dinner if it didn’t look too old or smell too bad, and to be sure, Sonny-boy could never look too old or smell too bad, not to her, he couldn’t. And, as I thought, there was a moment when I almost began to feel guilty as I wondered if I could ever be like that and eat up that body, allow a flesh and blood to become a part of mine, to love someone that much, and say, yes, I’ll take all of you, body and soul, as you are, because, let’s face it, we all have a little bit of rot, and there’s no escaping it.
“You don’t stop loving people just because they’re dead,” my grandmother said when I visited her kitchen. There were always bones in a pot, the slick shininess of fat rising to the surface of the boiling water, my grandfather getting ready to say grace because he was a good Lutheran German and believed the church was the center of the community. To support the church was to support the town and the people who lived there. My grandmother let him have it that way while she cooked down that meat and simmered those bones. “There are things we owe our fathers,” she said sternly while my grandfather fidgeted, ready to begin his “Dear Heavenly Father” praise.
But talk is cheap, as they say, and that grandfatherly chatter is not what this woman—this woman who knew her way around woods and bark and fern, roots and moss, witch’s spells and magic potions—wanted from me. She wanted full moons and incantations; she wanted to witness a sacrifice, my sacrifice; she wanted nothing less than the undead. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.
What did I owe my father?
My father did not seem to be one for whom sacrifices were warranted. He was more like an animated figure, the tipsy thug whose buffoonery made him seem less dangerous. He was a character on a t.v. show that I long ago outgrew, though there was once a time when I really liked that show; indeed, it could have been my favorite. But, the night when the clownish tomfoolery turned the joke back on him as the car spun around and went the wrong way down a winding highway, leaving a dying man in the passing lane, I didn’t think much of anything about the whole event. Instead, almost instantly, I thought about another animal I once saw on the side of the road—a dog recently hit by a car.
She was white with a black spot or two, elongated nipples, her own babies somewhere in the spinning world around us. She wouldn’t close her eyes, and I could see the blood creeping from underneath her ear. Her chest moved slightly, but abruptly, awkwardly. I watched her there and wanted to touch her. I wanted to hold her head and remind her that I was there, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. She wasn’t the first dog I watched die, but, still, there was too much blood, and yet, at that moment, I thought I could slice right through someone’s throat and not at all mind the blood on my hands. There are things that I wish I didn’t think. The night my father died, I mourned a dog that I didn’t know because she was the one I saw slip roughly, claws out, heaving heavily and slowly, as if pushed along some cragged terrain, dragged on knotted pavement, shoved against her will.
Afterwards, when my father’s ghost cried like a baby at my grandparents’ farm, I found myself hanging around more and more. I sure as hell didn’t want to touch him, but I couldn’t walk away quick enough either. I was compelled, instead, to search him out, try poking him with a stick, like I might have tried if I had found that dog a few hours later after her chest had stopped that rickety rising and falling, and maybe only her lips and whiskers twitched, moving from the breeze or maybe those post-heart-already-stopped muscle spasms that I saw on that other dog moments after the man at the table said there was no longer a heartbeat. Jab, jab, and maybe I’d get a reaction out of him that I sort of wanted while I also sort of wanted to prove that there could never be any kind of response and that I should just go home.
But on and on this went. Jab, jab, but the dog lying on the table only twitched his lips and never opened his eyes and, at that point, it was just me and him in the room and I knew those motions weren’t for me. Or, jab, jab, the dog on the road who I couldn’t force myself to touch because it all just hurt too much. Jab, jab, all of you who I once knew before cancer and heart-stoppings and car accidents. Jab, jab, little ghost. It seemed that I very well couldn’t leave things alone, but I also couldn’t pick up that newly killed, or even dying, piece of anything or anybody.
“It’s you who’s doing the haunting,” the witch accused, tired of me occupying her space in the kitchen, hovering over pots and pans, stews and roasts. She wasn’t going to stand for it, she told me. There she was, caring for memories and sweet family names as if they were infants to be coddled and nurtured. She talked to those two when she thought no one was paying attention. She told stories about earlier days in hen houses or times on porches when skin so black from coal touched her arm and she was told to get back into the house. It seemed that there were always guns, but she shoved that aside. She talked about birds in cages, and they fluttered and chirped from the days of mining through the days of farming and a boy went to the barn to help milk the cows. She whistled to those ghosts and sang them lullabies. Hush now, the babies are sleeping.
“But, there you come, whipping those tree limbs, looking for something to thrash.” And I was. With sticks and switches, I was looking for a ghost to beat because, well, because. Because I could. Because they were dead and I wasn’t. Because I wanted to win. I said things like “Screw your Sonny-boy. Why should I care?” And then I’d leave and go back to my mother’s house where all was quiet and serene, and maybe that other guy would be there, and his fingernails were clean, and he had good table manners, and no, he never smelled too bad either.
But, as I said, I couldn’t leave well enough alone, and then the joke turned on me.
The witch said, “You better stop all that talk,” and I said, “No way” because there was always some other crud to say, and my tongue just kept going. Jab, jab. “I don’t owe anybody anything.” My mouth kept opening and my tongue kept spitting and the farmer’s wife was getting fed up, and the next thing I knew, from somewhere inside her, out came that road-killed ghost, and before I knew it, he was in my mouth and I had swallowed him whole.
There he was, squeezing himself down my throat, jamming himself into my stomach. I felt him kick my insides, making room for himself, wiggling those legs down into my own, spreading his arms out, reaching for my armpits, sliding his along as if the two limbs at the sides of my body were sleeves to a brand-new flannel shirt for him to wear. I swallowed him up, but he seemed to be confused about the matter. He got it all wrong and acted as if I was his very own Jesus Christ—this is my body shed for you.
I jammed my finger down my throat. I drank half of a bottle of bourbon. I looked for meat that really had rotted, but no matter how much puke and bile I could summon forth, I could not spew him back out. Instead, he stayed put and I could feel him poking at my very guts, slamming his hands and feet against my internal organs, and I would vomit even more. But, the worst was yet to come.
Eventually, this father baby ghost of someone I once knew pressed his head forth from somewhere in my chest. He pushed through the canal of my neck until he found the spot where my spine opened up and there was a whole new place for him to occupy. Soon, those ghostly thoughts and memories that he carried with him sat in among my own. There was a wife who always frowned because everything was too dirty. There was an adolescent girl who never spoke and seemed to think she was too good for all that there. She read books and the New York Times and wouldn’t come out of her room. I could tell that the ghost wanted another beer because what else was there for him to do.
In the realm of things remembered and unforgiven, it was as if we sat across from each other and there was a match to be played. And for me, I knew what kind of game it would be. It would be violent, a wrestling match to the death, and I wondered if I could be as badass as an archangel named Michael because, surely, I wasn’t the one who had fallen. I wasn’t the one lingering around a lifetime of disappointments and unfinished business, and I began to look for my sharpest sticks.
“You’re going about it all wrong,” my grandmother said. She wasn’t looking forward to witnessing this battle, and it occurred to me that it wasn’t my welfare she was considering. But, I was getting desperate. With each haunted pang of what was never said or heard—the way I never understood that I wasn’t the only one looking for a reaction, and that sometimes, talk about the weather really is enough. “It looks like a storm is coming in,” or, in other words, “You’re a part of my life, and I want to know you.” Shrugging and letting the screen-door slam shut does not reciprocate that feeling. With each ghost story told, I began to doubt more and more my ability to be the one left standing at the end.
“What should I do?” I asked. She then told me to go to the woods and caves and even to the mines. There was tea to be made.
“First, you need to find the bones,” she said. “Go into the ground, down and down,” and I knew where the gap in the rock was, squeezed down, and the air was dark and damp and slick, and my feet slipped and my hands tripped, head first with a flashlight in my mouth, down below the houses and farms and trees, down below the plants and birds, the things that live and breathe and grow on the ground, down and down below the coffins of fathers and mothers, daughters and miners, tunneling tightly through sweat and rock, mud and muscle moved forward and down, slippery, sliding, and shimmying until…
Find bones and beaks and feet with claws.
Under a spell of witches and ghosts, a line as long as a history of names, the cavern opened, and all was quiet.
Tea to be made, and then the kettle whistled like morning calling. Come into the mine, and the steam began singing. Songs like sirens slyly seducing and summoning before the shove and pull, come, come. And the halls were haunted, miners with coal coveted quick like crystal; rats ran restless among debris and decay, and I could smell bark and herbs simmer, wafting winded from witch’s wares, a conjuring brewing; mercenaries lined up like guards at the gates. Click clack guns at their sides; three four go through the door; abracadabra alakazam. Into the fire you go.
Five six broken sticks; ping pang metal clangs; I stumbled over cages cracked, wire doors opened wide. Nine ten, and, on the floor, tiny bones of tiny wings, dredged from dirt tiny ribs for tiny lungs. “Tweet tweet,” I heard them chirp, and, from a cooking chamber rang the charmer’s humming hoodoo hex. She struck a match for the cauldron boil, and flicker fire sparked and rose, birdie boney twigs and tinder as flaming feathers fluttered.
A fire of birds sparked in the cave; from bone and ash, the canaries flew forth, yellow like sun at the tips of the flames. The songbirds lilted and lifted and flew, circling the room. But the fire was hot and at the bottom, at the center, where the blazing bones burned, the fire was blue and the blue birds sat tiny and bright; they sat still still. There are things we owe our fathers, and there are things we owe ourselves, so I reached in, cupped and cradled a bird in my hand.
With delicate bits of bird wrapped in a scarf and held close to my chest, I went back to the witch. The ghost paced in my head, and I wanted him out while I wanted him in. I wanted to eat up that dead body, digest him fully. I wanted to be able to do so, but, instead, I imagined the blood creeping from underneath his ear as he lie on the road.
The bones were still hot, and, as I unwrapped them, a blue feather floated up, and as it cooled, I saw that it turned yellow. And then it flitted away.
There would be an exorcism that day, but I still wasn’t quite sure whose it would be. The witch added the bones to the pot, and the water boiled. Would this be the spell to set him free and cast him out of my mind forever? Or, would this be the ultimate sacrifice to a father?
The tea was poured into a mug, and it simmered slightly. Who would live and who would die? I wasn’t sure, but my head hurt. My lungs and guts and heart hurt. I drank the tea.
What does tea blended with bird bones taste like? It tastes like a funeral where ex-wives and daughters don’t know how to cry. It tastes like long hallways that go through years of quiet avoidance, like heavy silence that lands forcibly on softer tissue leaving an imprint larger than anything concrete or visible ever could.
The silence in my stomach expanded, and it grew more and more. It tasted like puke and bile. I waited for something to spew forth. It tasted like sweat and fever. I felt the witch holding my head. It tasted like dizziness and death. Who would be called to leave?
On my tongue, I tasted blood as it began to fill my mouth—more and more blood as if the floodgates were opened, it ran into all corners of my body. It expanded and thickened, and I was unsure if it was the blood of a dead man or it were my own that began traversing and moving more rapidly through my veins. But, I could feel it spread from my insides, through my chest, and along my spine. The thickening blood ran like a river down that long hallway, and it filled that silent imprint.
The blood spread out from underneath it all.
I realized that the ghost hadn’t left as I felt myself get heavier and fuller. Instead, we had our own sort of merging. My father’s ghost turned to blood and bone and blended like a witch’s potion into my own. We blended like light and color, like the way yellow and blue make green. I put my hand over my heart and looked to the sky. There was lightning, and I said something about the coming rain.