This is a sacred place, you know. Oh, yes. You know as well as I do. I think on Granny’s old house, the one we all spent the whole of our youths in, the one that was haunted by familiar spirits. Ghosts, indeed. Some will call us crazy or ignore us altogether. But we know the truth. And we know it well. I say we should just let folks talk. They’re going to anyway.
Before we were even thought of, this was a sanctified place, you know, these hills full of promise and forethoughts of the life after this one. There’s no present time in these Appalachian hills and hollers. No choices, neither. It’s always been this way. Folks here only dwell on the past and the next life. This between place is just another row to hoe, a procession of days we must satisfy. Granny talked to her sisters back in Kentucky on the telephone every other week. She reflected on their ten-minute conversations for days on end, dreaming of the next wonderful time they could be together again. They prayed day and night. They prayed for each other. And for the children, of course. And for their husbands who were killing themselves in the coal mines up Jewell Ridge and beyond.
Granny had pictures of their last Christmas together, the one before her baby sister died from that awful women’s cancer. Her husband had a big thang, she’d said. And it kilt her. Them men will kill us, girls. Don’t go lookin’ for them. Sons a’ bitchin boys, they’ll eat you outta house and home, too. Sons a’ bitches. She had those pictures in fancy silver frames on the mantle, and she’d dust them daily and tell us how beautiful Kentucky was, and how much she missed her sisters.
Now I heard Granny’s warnings with my own ears, those about boys and husbands and the downfall of girls who think too much of them. And I saw the pictures, too, those sepia-hued remembrances of her and her dearly departed sister, the one that had been kilt by her husband’s awful thang.
It may sound strange now to us new women, we girls of the modern age, but Granny had every reason to consider the awfulness of her sister’s demise. Sex was just another chore to be done, just like doing the dishes or hanging out the wash or stringing leather britches. Why, it had even kilt her sister. Men were dangerous, you know. Granny hadn’t gotten more than food in her belly and a passel of children for her marital chores, that and a telephone on the kitchen wall and a long distance call from Kentucky every other week. The goods in her garden was like nothing you can get at the Kroger or the Publix. No, ma’am. She grew it, tended to it, prepared it, and cleaned up the mess after she’d fixed it. All the sons a’ bitchin’ boys had to do was eat it. You know it’s the truth. It was the same for your own granny, no doubt.
And as I said, this is a sacred place. I think on Granny’s grandmothers, the ones from the Old World, that distant land most of us have never set hide on, and if things are this hard for you, sister, just imagine how much trepidation your granny’s granny went through. And not just because of those blasted thangs, neither. Lord, no. Back in those ancient days, the literal devil ruled the roost. No telephone, no letters holding words from your dear sisters, nothing. Most of us were illiterate, you know. Marks on a post meant nothing, least of all to you. There was nothing but the landscape before you and the gifts from the garden and the mountain, the sprigs of dandelion and pokeweed and the wild raspberries, which were surely a gift from the Beyond. But that was all there was, sister. You and the Divine and your memories. Their winsome days were done at fifteen. Maybe sooner.
And the ghosts, oh, they were as real as you and me. We all saw her, the ghost of that sad woman. Now these were the days before tales of such a thing were seen on a television. Granny never owned a TV, you know. In the silence of her work in the garden and kitchen of the house on the hill, the ghost of a woman called Naomi still roamed like she owned the place. Now folks can say what they will, but I saw her with my own eyes. So did Mama and Aunt Margene and Big Ruby. And Granny, of course. You can see straight through her, Granny would say. She ain’t got feet at all. She just floats right by in a gray cloud. Even the poor people down on Rat Row remembered Naomi—Mrs. Proffitt, they called her—curled up in her bed with her toes and fingers curled inward toward death, writhing from the pain of the arsenic poison. She kilt herself to escape the pain of this life, Granny had told us. She’d been married to a man meaner than the devil, and dying was just the cure she needed to rid herself from him. Naomi died in the heat of that 1929 July right there in the back bedroom where I slept many nights. She never scared or disturbed me. Maybe she enjoyed having children in the house, like Granny did. I’ve seen her a hundred times, Granny would say. She won’t hurt us none.
Out there in the yard, the very same one where Granny used to grow Kentucky runners and tomatoes and hills of cucumbers, my daddy and his brothers used to make balls to bounce around out of pig bladders when the Spring slaughter came. They’d blow the bladders up and tie them off and hit them back and forth until the rot set in. Granny used everything but the bones, which she threw to the hounds. But she’d cure that rich side meat and ham hocks and boil them in a pot of pinto beans or set them aside for those Kentucky runners and new potatoes. Cousin Snoot about fell out in the kitchen floor when Granny told us about the pig bladders, and Snoot decided she was a vegetarian that year and how awful it was to be frying animals up for Sunday dinner. Granny said she wasn’t a proper country girl if she didn’t eat fried chicken or Virginia ham, and she’d get low blood if she didn’t eat right. And go on up in the holler, gal, and a black bear or a wild panther will gladly eat you for supper, and they’d not give two shits if you’re a vegetarian or not.
Oh, there ain’t nothing like a ham hock in a Sunday pot of green beans after a Baptist sermon where the preacher warned us against entertaining ghosts in the house. Granny said there was just some things the preacher can’t explain; she wasn’t able to read from that Bible anyway. She’d go about making sure those Kentucky runners were tender enough for her table, and she’d fry chicken in a cast iron skillet, adding enough paprika and table salt and bubbling lard enough to make even Snoot’s big mouth water. You could eat and eat and be about to bust and still want to eat more—that’s how good it was. And she’d have garden cucumbers and fried green tomatoes and buttermilk biscuits so light they’d almost float off your fork. For dessert, if you had room enough for it, was apple pie made with the sour June apples from the trees out back and vanilla ice cream from Deskins grocery store. And while Granny took the leftovers to the neighbors down the road, the ones with too many children and not enough moxie to make it on their own, she’d tell us those supper dishes ain’t gonna wash themselves, and we’d best get to it. And to listen for the telephone, in case her sister called from Kentucky.
The summertime music would carry on way into the eventide in those days, and Daddy and Mama and the aunts and uncles would sit on the porch and weave tales and sip from a bottle that I was never allowed to touch, and Daddy would pick his mandolin and Aunt Margene would kick up her heels and throw her shoes over the banisters into the yard and Mama would clap and smile and Granny would shake her head and beg the Lord to forgive us all. The lightning bugs would sail up from the very earth and dot the twilight air, and a hazy scarlet cloak would shroud us in that eventide magic. We’d run between rows of Kentucky runners and capture those enchanting bugs in Mason jars. Granny would have extra jars for those poor children down the road, the ones she’d fed from her own table, and they’d come up and catch the lightning bugs with us. I don’t remember their names, but we’re connected just the same. I’m sure they remember those evenings beneath the dog star, too, if they’re still of this world. Granny would make us let the ethereal bugs fly away before their lights went out, and remind us that their lives are just as important as our own, and she hoped we’d have as much divine light to shed on this world.
We’re trying, Granny. We’re brighter on some days more than others, but we’re trying.
Those old dog days and front porch memories still linger even now in this new July, these new days of the dog star, and I recollect how I used to think Granny was a rich woman. She had everything she needed and enough left over to share with us and others. And I don’t think she knew it then, but she gave us an inheritance too valuable to ever sell. Oh, yes. This is a sacred place, still haunted by familiar spirits. Not just Naomi, but the ghosts of who we used to be. They’ll call to you, long distance, of course, just like Granny’s sisters used to do. If you wait for the call, it’ll come. The children we used to be are on the other end. You can hear them between the past and the next life, but only if you listen for them. Oh, yes. You can hear them. All of them. Aunt Margene and Naomi and those nameless children. Nothing under the sun is new, or so ol’ Solomon said in Good Book.
This is a sacred place, you know. You know as well as I do, and we know it well. Tonight, when the twilight falls over the mountain and that same old scarlet cloak enfolds around us and the lightning bugs come up from the earth, I’ll lean in closer and listen for that distant mandolin and that front porch laughter and I’ll throw my shoes over the banisters and finally get a sip from that forbidden jug.
I’ve got an extra jar for you.
What has been done will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9