Kentucky Ghostscapes by Daphne Roe
At twenty-four, during a week-long holiday break from graduate school, I retire from the cornfields and piercing winds of Iowa to the subtropical hills of Kentucky, where my parents and maternal grandmother live. On this trip, I ask my father to show me the ghostscape of our family’s two-hundred-year-old farm, a shadow world of people, trees, and buildings that exists in the liminal space between history and the present. Each day, as my father works cattle, he visits and revisits this world, and on this particular trip home, I have finally worked up the gumption to ask him to show me the parts of our farm that elude my immediate vision. Our first stop is a cemetery.
Beneath a living mausoleum of trees, one of several groves remaining on the farm, the seven limestone tombs, all engraved with names and dates now impossible to read, look forgotten. These graves existed before my grandmother’s farm did. Perhaps they existed before Kentucky did, in the 1700s, when early white settlers roamed the hilly, wooded region called Transylvania, ready to shoot human and non-human natives upon first startle. These settlers bedded down in bamboo-like canebrakes for the night to avoid Indian capture. They drank from the cool, limestone creek beds. They laughed. They worked. Sometimes they died.
I bend down and touch a grave worn so soft, not only by wind and microbes and rain, but by the moist noses of my father’s cattle, and of my grandfather’s cattle, and of my great-grandfather’s cattle, and of my great-great-great-grandfather’s cattle before them—the crushing weight of generations upon generations of those enormous, shade-seeking bodies.
It’s a windy day and the tree canopy above me shakes, so I push myself up to take in crowns still empty from the winter’s cold and several deep green pines. These trees that cover the graves—the pines and persimmons and the oaks and the hickories—many of them a hundred years old or more, were not yet saplings when the men, women, and children who occupy the graves died and were buried here. The trees of that time, if they hadn’t been cut away before the burials occurred, died long ago. Before the trees died, some of them sported trunks the width of dinner tables. Most of them, though, out-branched, out-rooted, fungus-ridden, or choked off by poison ivy, never generated spores or seeds. On the interior corner of the farm, however, a stand of hickory trees, large and small, lines the bed of a perennial creek. They are a tree family. They are the lucky ones.
Near a fallen, hollowed-out tree, I kneel down beside two graves, infant-sized. No slumbering lambs appear on these stones, and even the moss, a popular haunt of graveyards, has long since abandoned them. Sometimes, perhaps after a hundred years or more, a body decays for so long and so well that the matter itself becomes a silent echo of the awkward arrangement of flesh and bone it once was. It becomes a ghost of a ghost, the raw fodder with which the world will continue to make and remake itself.
My father and I don’t speak while we visit this place. More than anything hallowed, we have always appreciated the large, pine-lined silences, and their power to swallow our consciousnesses whole.
As we continue our trek across the farm, my father shows me more tree ghosts, two house ghosts, three road ghosts, one creek ghost, and four drainage-ditch ghosts. He shows me the swollen body of a critter that fell into the cistern he uses to water his cattle. Its body is as slimy as an internal organ. The rat, or whatever it once was, isn’t a ghost yet, but it will be, several months or years down the road, weather willing. Drainage-ditch ghosts, however, play by their own rules.
Drainage ditch ghosts are the perennial haunts of the Kentucky farm. Push soil into their waters, and they’ll come back with the first thaw, surer and stronger of their natural courses than they were pre-filling. It’s the same with sinkhole ghosts, so common to my karst homeland. Fill them in with dirt and old washers and dryers or other human junk. In a few months, their earthen jaws will open wide, ready to swallow unsuspecting cattle, pit bulls, or children whole.
And then, at the bottom of a hill, no living person on Devil’s Creek knows exactly which hill, live the ghosts that no one talks about. My father doesn’t talk about them. My mother doesn’t talk about them. My grandmother doesn’t talk about them. No one does. Yet they sit on rocks at the bottom of the hill all the same, breaking beans, stripping tobacco, listening to the sweet water run out from the land to fill the rivers and oceans of this world. In this place, they who sit on the rocks are the silent sentinels of their own histories. No one acknowledges them—or not for long, anyway, and never with ease.
Old Man Barns, however, a farming neighbor and family friend, newly dead, once did acknowledge them.
I was eleven at the time, and my parents and I were at a dinner party. My father had noticed a collection of limestone rocks down at the bottom of the hill with a strong semblance, in their arrangement and size, to gravestones. In shape and texture, the stones looked cruder than tombstones, had perhaps been fashioned with farming implements, or not at all. In the Barns’s dining room, the lamplight spilled across the wooden table and onto Old Man Barns’s face. He looked at my father.
“Did you ever notice some odd stones down at the bottom of one of those hills on your property?” Old Man Barns asked, raising a chocolate pie-laden fork towards my father.
Mrs. Barns fixed the most succulent chocolate pies. Two slices already rested snugly in my stomach.
My father wiped merengue from his beard with a paper towel. “I think I know which ones you mean. Slave graves?” my father asked.
“Slave graves,” Old Man Barns confirmed, shaking his lean face in and out of the light, before leveling another column of quivering chocolate with his open mouth.
“Where are the slave graves?” I asked, my lips muddied with pie, but no one answered me; the conversation, along with who led it, had moved on, but I started to see the ghosts, and I see them still, living their lives in limbo, swinging their feet near the water, waiting.
Now Old Man Barns is a ghost, his grave, fresh as a flower in the city cemetery, a fifteen-mile drive from his rural home, and I wonder how long it will be before no one visits him anymore. At least he’s a ghost in a sea of other ghosts. He knew where he would rest in death, had a rough idea of the smooth stone that would carry his name into the future. But if the ghosts at the bottom of the hill, those who, perhaps, created the fires in the fireplaces of my ancestral home could speak, I don’t know what they would say, or in what language. Perhaps one of them, similar to the mother of Isaac Johnson, a former Kentucky slave and slave narrative writer, was snatched up from Madagascar as she sat, staring into the rounded, fat-finger boughs of a baobab tree. But she and others like her didn’t write the history books. Slave families didn’t get to choose their haunts.
Through the serrated leaves of the beech tree that leaned against my window, the moon shined like a face, and I would quickly close my blinds to obstruct the flow of its light . . . But the light always found a way in, making dreams.
When I was a teenager, I used to lie in bed at night, head turned towards my bedroom window, watching the dark shade spread out from the bottoms of the trees until it covered the rest of the world. As night fell, and darkness broke like a bruise across the sky, my body would begin to groan like a haunted house. Animated from feet to brain by the creeping vines of my nervous system, my slick insides and moon-colored bones would generate the kinds of dreams that only become visible by night. Through the serrated leaves of the beech tree that leaned against my window, the moon shined like a face, and I would quickly close my blinds to obstruct the flow of its light, the effect it can have on sensitive people like me. But the light always found a way in, making dreams.
One night, when I was fifteen, I dreamed that I was crouching before the fireless hearth of my maternal grandmother’s two-hundred-year-old home. The cold air caught in my throat like menthol, and a low voice began to summon me from the fireplace. “Shari,” it said. “Shari.” In wide, tunneling motions, the disembodied syllables gusted around a bedroom that hadn’t known human sleep in years, becoming, by turns, louder, then softer, then louder, then softer again. I closed my eyes, hoping the voice would leave, but it didn’t. “Shari,” the voice whispered. “Shari. Shari. Shari.”
Shari is my mother’s childhood name, but sometimes it became my name, too, when I sat in the passenger seat of my grandmother’s 1992 Cadillac Deville, and she looked over at me from the wheel, almost veering off the road. “Shari—uh, I mean, Daphne,” she would say. Like a proper Kentucky grandmother, she also called me Sugar Boogie, Sweet Pumpkin Pie, and Baby Doll, but this voice I heard, soft and sterile as ash, dripped none of her syrup.
Still kneeling, I felt my heart tremble, as I registered a chill in the room distinct from the old home’s lack of fire or central heating. I didn’t want to open my eyes, but when I did, I saw my great-grandmother’s face quivering above the empty grate, in gray scale, like a hologram version of the photograph that sits on the dresser in my parents’ bedroom. Her collar was high, her neck long, her eyebrows arched, and her schoolmarm bun, too high and tight on her skull. Her large eyes, so similar to my mother’s, gleamed like cold graphite.
“Shari,” she groaned through soft, gray lips. Beautiful lips. Not large, but bee stung, like my mother’s. I straightened up. I corrected her.
“I’m not Shari,” I said. “That’s my mother’s name.”
My great-grandmother coughed and ashes fell from her mouth. There weren’t any ashes in the fireplace she hovered within, and yet, the ashes emerged from her body, as if they had been blown out from a massive fire, all fluttery and soft, like cigarette embers, or snow. My body stiffened.
“Oh,” she said, nonchalantly licking soot from her lips, and though I knew she could see me—the light pulsing from her eyes indicated that she could see me—there remained something blind in her look, something opaque, something dead.
She would never know the world that I knew, just as I would never know the world that she knew in life, yet we did share some of the same life. My body rivers overflowed with her blood.
“All the same,” she said, as if reading my mind, “I’d like to show you some things.”
She never smiled. In the photos, she never smiled either. Gray ashes peppered the fine openings of her nostrils. In the photos, her nostrils looked delicate and clean.
“What things?” I asked.
Her eyes became fire. “Everything,” she said, and then my beautiful, dead great-grandmother did smile, in the slow, eerie way that the Hollywood dead always do, and I wished she hadn’t.
In 1997, when I was six years old, my maternal grandparents’ two-hundred-year-old farm looked like a movie set from the 1950s. A long gravel drive led up to a grass and gravel driveway where two baby blue Cadillacs from the 1970s sat, a bit rusty around the hubcaps, but still operable. Next to the drive, the old farmhouse stood covered in white siding with stacked limestone lining its base and two brick chimneys crumbling away from its sides. At some point, my grandparents had elected to cover the back porch in green AstroTurf, which I enjoyed sitting on because of its visual similarity, and textural contrast, to grass. A black metal water pump engraved with flowers stood near the back door like a human presence, waiting.
During my mother’s girlhood, in the 1960s, the metal pump had provided her with water from a cistern that my grandfather rarely cleaned. Sometimes, unlucky creatures—opossums, raccoons, skunks, or rats—would fall into the deep water and drown, fouling it with their bloated bodies for years to come. Union City farmers regularly checked their cisterns for these critters; my grandfather, for reasons unknown, did not. My father, who grew up in several southeastern cities, has always attributed my mother’s strong stomach to the gallons upon gallons of dirty cistern water she drank as a child, but my mother is strong in more places than her stomach. Sometimes, for reasons similarly unknown, my grandfather didn’t speak to anyone for months. “Bipolar,” my father says. My mother doesn’t talk about it.
To the right of the AstroTurf porch loomed a large tree. I can no longer remember which kind, but its center looked gnarled and rotted-out with age. Its reaching limbs that shrieked with frog songs by night overshadowed a small mound of grass-covered earth that my ancestors used as a root cellar. Below ground, the structure’s inner chamber sat level with the tree’s dying roots, its sole occupants a petrified ham, eaten by no one, and two Mason jars of rank chow-chow goop.
Above ground, on the other side of the tree, wrapped up in bushy scarves of poison ivy and orange trumpet creeper vines, the old wooden outhouse leaned into the wind, skimming the air for gossip left over from the days of the old telephone party lines, while two crumpled Sears-catalog pages knocked around inside. The shed where the black kitten once slept three weeks in a drawer unfit for squirming fur was so swollen with moisture that I thought it might explode. No one ever told me what happened to the kitten, but I knew. Coyotes. Whenever I stayed with my grandparents, I heard them yipping in the hills.
Mimicking the motions of the cattle that grazed in the field in front of me, I used to spend time noting the wads of ochre-colored chewing tobacco that my grandfather spat onto the ground, and how they would glisten when the sun struck them. Most of the globules revolved around the baby blue natural gas tank. The tank stood pert and fat as a pig in the evening light. I used to slap its wide rump, and give it a quick, two-fingered salute, before stalking on.
More fox than cow, I would snake along the fence line, hunching low and raising my feet high, before placing them back on the grass without a sound. The black fence sagged with age. The shy-eyed cattle chewed their cud and whopped flies off their overheated bodies with rope-like tails. My grandmother’s blouses snapped against the wind on the clothesline behind me. When I grew tired of agitating the cattle, I would grab some wooden clothespins off the line and pinch myself with them. Once I tired of this activity, I’d eat cherries. Sweet, tart cherries from the old black cherry tree. I never washed them or pried open their skins to extract resident worms, but popped them in my mouth right away: one cherry, two cherries, three cherries, four.
A few more years and the tree would be dead. I didn’t know that then. I kept picking and eating all the sweet, tart cherries that I could reach until my stomach pooched out like a pregnant lady’s, then I would waddle into my grandmother’s kitchen—she wasn’t there—and on into the living room, where my grandfather sat, snoring a rumbly, Marlboro snore, in his La-Z-Boy chair. I watched his whiskey-barrel belly rise and fall like a slumbering beast. If he’d been awake, I’d have taken a running leap onto his gut, and sat on it like a beanbag. Instead, I observed the cigarettes and pen in his left breast pocket as the cool waters of sleep rippled over his tan, still-handsome face.
When my grandfather was a toddler, he emptied a pan of bacon grease onto his head. My mother showed me the yellow newspaper clipping: Burned Baby, it read. His mother, my great-grandmother, who was pregnant with her second child, had lost the baby shortly thereafter. As I leaned over my grandfather, I couldn’t see any scars on his face, but my mother said his skin was full of cancer. I didn’t want to look any closer.
While my grandfather snorted and carried on, I tiptoed across the living room floor and opened the wood and glass-paned door that separated the warm, lived-in part of my grandparents’ home from the cold, impossibly clean part where pieces of floral glassware glistened on every table and made beds remained made. There were blue willow plates and green lamps made delicate by the particular bulbous warping of their pale green glass and pink, brush-stroke flowers. These small, elaborate rooms, without a surface for sitting, formed the front of the house, the old part, built by my ancestors two hundred years prior when they journeyed into Kentucky with Daniel Boone. Yet, I always found it odd that the walls looked like ordinary walls––nothing log-like about them. This was the nice part of the house. The old part. The clean part. I couldn’t wear my shoes there. The carpet was so white, too white, and the air felt cold in a way that suggested it had been gathering there for a long time. Kind of like the cold air that I knew gathered in Devil’s Creek First Christian Church between Sundays.
My parents didn’t go to church. My grandmother taught Sunday school to the upstanding youths of Devil’s Creek. Sometimes I went with her, and the older kids would hold me in their laps while they analyzed Bible verses that all sounded the same to me. I wanted to be baptized by the preacher who looked like Bill Clinton, so that I could drink grape juice—First Christians don’t drink wine—and eat tasteless wafers, along with the rest of the congregation. I also wanted to go swimming in the baptismal where green water undulated beneath a pastoral scene that I thought must have been heaven. Heaven looked a lot like my grandparents’ farm, something I never pointed out to my grandmother.
As I tiptoed around this part of the house, I remembered something Helen, my babysitter, had told me. She said that the world was full of spirits, that they walked around everywhere like shadows that we couldn’t see. They walked through us and around us. They weren’t scary, and they weren’t scared, they just were. She also told me ghost stories about the spirits of babies abandoned by their mothers that cried out from the tobacco fields at night, and about the bags of potatoes that split, wide open in attics, without explanation. Helen fixed the best biscuits and gravy in the world. She also cooked me poke greens that looked like ordinary weeds—straight from her yard! Whatever she said, I believed.
I believed that there were spirits in the room with me as I peered into that empty fireplace. And I knew that they especially lived in the closet in the bedroom at the top of the tight, wooden staircase with the old books that smelled of mothballs and mildew. Some of these spirits were content, benevolent spirits, and some of them were shadowy, neglected, and evil. People had been living and dying in this house for a long time. My old fat Aunt Margaret, who was mean to her older, prettier sister, and who wore red and white polka-dot dresses on Sundays, died in this house; my great-grandmother died in this house, as did my lean, hymn-singing great-grandfather, along with many others, and even though they were my ancestors, I hoped they wouldn’t show themselves to me. I hoped they would remain invisible shadows in the shifting light of their world, unseen. But the older I got and continue to get, the more ghosts I could and can see. They really are everywhere, walking up hills, filling up empty valleys, fouling the water or air with their decay, thinking their collapsed, suspended thoughts that fall and spark like ash, as they die second and third and fourth and fifth deaths to create the world that we know.