I grew up in a home surrounded by trees and a river in the backyard. My father split apart a 100-year-old *coke oven to make our driveway. I remember walking the property and finding old bottles and rusty tins inside the decrepit remains of a farm-house. Remnants from another life and another time.
I was a nature child. I despised shoes, and would play in the glacier water that ran through our backyard like other children splashed at the beach. My parents gave me a lot of freedom. I didn’t stray from the yard or too far from the river bed. When I was thirteen or fourteen, I began nightly excursions down to the river. My weather-roughened feet splashed through the icy water. The moon lit my path like a 20 carat diamond on black velvet. I had one companion that always joined me for my nightly adventures, our 150 pound Rottweiler named Buddy. He was my furry guardian.
Around this time I had experienced a lot of death. I lost both of my grandmothers, my great-grandmother, and my grandfather. Also a second cousin. I didn’t know my cousin well, but the one summer I spent with him he taught me and my brother how to play pool. He paid a lot of attention to us both, even though he was much older and much cooler. Through the whisper of “adult conversation” I learned that he overdosed. Anyway, I digress.
I was fascinated with death and the afterlife. I buried everything that died in our yard. Between the cat and the dog, I had a high residency in my animal cemetery: moles, mice, birds, baby deer still in the placenta. I figured every creature deserved a prayer when they died, so each animal was blessed by a scrawny little wood nymph.
I pondered where our souls went as I filled each tiny grave. I wanted to encounter a ghost, but was also terrified of being caught off-guard. I wanted to see a ghost on my own terms, and I was always looking. I wanted to believe that every strange thump or snap was a phantom in the night, but I debunked these odd occurrences with logical explanations—Being a dreamer and a realist is exhausting and rather frustrating.
One chilly, late autumnal night, I slipped out of bed and found Buddy on the front porch. I ran my hand down his shiny black coat and he followed me to the river. The water was swift this night due to recent rain, but Buddy and I plunged ahead. I hiked my flannel pajama pants until they were short shorts and crossed the river to the island that separated both channels.
I sat down on a frosty log and watched the massive black shape of my dog as he wandered from bush to bush. Every exhale was visible, my legs were numb. Tucking my face into the neck hole of my jacket, and pulling my legs inside the warm cocoon of my over-sized coat, I ignored the cold and lost myself in thoughts of school, boys, God, and ghosts.
I started to get sleepy and decided to go home. As I was crossing the river I thought about how good it would feel to huddle underneath my comforter. I reached the other side and stood upon the dike that separated the water from our house. I waited for Buddy to catch up. He always followed right behind me. I started to worry that the current may have been too swift, or maybe this night he wandered too far. I started to call out but he still didn’t come. I began to pace on the dike, looking out into the dark, willing his black, hulking shape to appear.
“Buddy!” I screamed. I strained to hear his movements.
Then a woman whispered against my ear, “Don’t worry he is coming.”.
I jerked my head to the see who had spoken, but no one was there. My left ear tingled from her ghostly whisper.
After the initial shock, I realized I wasn’t scared. The voice was so calm and reassuring that I realized there was no threat. I soon heard my dog splashing through the river and crashing through the brush as he ran up the embankment.
I never heard from the ghostly woman again, but I felt her with me until I left home to go to college. Throughout the day when I played outside and on my nightly excursions, I knew she watched me. I wrote a poem about her that is buried somewhere in my old room. In the poem I described how the woman was actually me and that what I heard was a collision of my past, present, and future.
When I visit my childhood home, I like to think she walks with me as I stroll past the foundation of that old farm-house and the animal cemetery where Buddy rests now. Rotting wooden crosses and an old sign nailed to a tree that reads, “Pet Cemetary” are the remains that I leave for future generations. For the next young, naive heart that innocently thinks she can discover the mystery of death.
Will she hear me whisper?
***coke oven – A coke oven is a brick oven that is used to produce coal. The coke ovens on my parent’s property were used to produce coal for the nearby railroad.
Cover image found here.