Ghost Wood Song – Erica Waters

I’m as restless as the ghosts today. The sigh of the trees makes my scalp prickle, my senses strain. There’s something waiting for me in the silences between the notes we play, like a vibration too low for human ears. It’s been out here in the woods for weeks, just out of my reach. No one else notices. Sarah leans over her banjo, dark hair falling across her forehead, mouth set in concentration. The music that spins from her fingertips is bright as the sunshine that drifts across the pine needles. She looks soft in this light, her eyelashes downy as moth wings. The wood behind her glows golden right up to the edge of Mama’s property, where the true forest begins. There, the sunlight loses its hold, fading to shadows. Those trees grow tall and close together, clotted with brambles and vines. That’s where the ghosts who spill out of Aunt Ena’s house like to linger, mingling their whispers with the wind. I can’t quite catch their words, but they tug at me, drawing my attention away from the music. “Jesus, Shady,” Sarah says, her voice hacking through the song like a machete. Orlando slaps his hand over his guitar strings to mute the chord he fumbled.

“You missed your cue again. Why didn’t you come in?” All her moth-wing softness has disappeared. “Sorry,” I say, glancing at the fiddle in my lap. “There’s not much for me to do in this song.” I pull a loose thread from the fraying hem of my skirt, wrapping it around my finger. That was the second time I forgot to come in. I’m distracted today, but the truth is, this song doesn’t mean anything to me. I want to learn to play bluegrass the way my daddy did—like it’s the breath in my lungs, the beat of my heart. And I never will if Sarah keeps picking all these folk-rock songs. She pushes her short, messy hair back with an impatient hand, revealing her undercut and the cloud-shaped birthmark behind her ear.

I’ve thought so many times about running my lips over just that spot. “The open mic’s in one week, Shady. We can play something else, but if we don’t decide on a song today, we won’t be ready in time.” There’s an edge to her voice like she’s been paired with a lazy classmate for a group project. “You know how badly I need to win this.” “I’m sorry,” I say again, louder, taking up my fiddle to show I’m paying attention. I know I’m the one at fault, but the annoyance in her voice makes me glare back at her, all thoughts of lips on skin forgotten. “I want to win, too, you know.” The prize is a free half day in a small recording studio, a chance to record a song with professional help and equipment. It sounds cool, but I mostly want to win to make Sarah happy.

She thinks it would help her get into a good music school. But we can’t even agree on what song we’re going to play for the open mic night. Sarah only wants to play newer, more popular folk-rock, Orlando flits from one style of music to another like a butterfly tasting flowers, and I can only really perform if we’re playing traditional folk and bluegrass. We’re like the leftovers from three different dishes someone’s trying to make into a casserole. “We could do ‘Wagon Wheel’ instead. It has a strong fiddle part,” Sarah says. “‘Wagon Wheel’?” I say, so surprised I flinch. The last time we played “Wagon Wheel” it was just Sarah and me, alone in her room. One minute we were playing and the next our lips were inches apart. Sarah pulled away before we could kiss, but it changed everything between us.

We haven’t talked about it since. Maybe now she’s trying to remind me, to give me an opening? Confusion passes over her face, followed quickly by a deep blush. She definitely didn’t mean to bring up the almost-kiss. “‘Wagon Wheel’ is kind of overplayed,” I say, glancing away. “It’s a crowd pleaser, though,” Orlando offers, oblivious to what just happened. He’s stretched out on his belly, wire-rimmed glasses sliding down his nose, which hovers about three inches from a mess of pill bugs he found under a rock. That’s always the danger of holding practice in the woods— Orlando will wander off after a grasshopper or get stuck watching the progress of an ant colony for hours on end. His whole absentminded-professor thing irritates Sarah, but you can’t blame a person for loving what they love. And Orlando loves bugs. “Any other ideas?” Sarah asks.

“I’ve been working on ‘The Twa Sisters.’ Orlando likes that one too.” “It’s too creepy and weird,” she says, shaking her head. I shrug. She’s not wrong. “The Twa Sisters” is an old folk song about two sisters who fall in love with the same boy, so one drowns the other. When the drowned sister’s body washes up on the riverbank, a young fiddler finds it and shapes her bones into fiddle parts. Her rib cage becomes a fiddle, her finger bones its pegs. But the bone-made fiddle will only play one tune: Oh, the dreadful wind and rain. Daddy taught me “The Twa Sisters” during one of his low times, when his songs all turned dark and drear, as far from the bright notes of bluegrass as a person can get with a fiddle in hand.

You’d think he was the one who killed the fair sister from the song, the way his voice got so husky-sad, the way his fiddle cried. Only tune that the fiddle would play was Oh, the dreadful wind and rain I’ve been practicing it for weeks, but I still can’t play it like he did, as if the song’s story is my own. My notes come out sweet and bright, no matter how I try to deepen and darken them. But I can’t seem to leave this song alone, like it’s the only one my fiddle wants to play. I’d never say it out loud, and even admitting it to myself gives me chills, but if I could have a fiddle made of my daddy’s bones, I’d take it. I’d take it and play it and learn all the secrets he kept, all the sorrows he bore inside his breast. I think that’s what made his music so good. “I don’t get why you’re so opposed to playing new music,” Sarah says as if she’s reading my thoughts. “And I don’t get why you’re so opposed to playing good music,” I shoot back, heat spreading across my cheeks. Sarah’s lips part for a retort, but then she closes her mouth, looks down at her lap.

She puts on such a tough front, but underneath all that sarcasm and bossiness there’s this tender, easily bruised Sarah she tries so hard to hide. And my barb cut right through. Before I can apologize, she snatches up her banjo and stalks off through the woods, her boots kicking up pine needles. Orlando groans and gets up to follow her, leaving me with only the trees for company. I wish I could make her understand what playing the fiddle means to me—what it used to mean, what it can’t ever mean again. I know that music could be my ticket out of here, out of Mama’s crowded trailer, out of Goodwill clothes and food that comes in cans and boxes. It could be an escape from all the memories that never leave me be. But that’s not why I play the fiddle. My family history—everything we’ve lost, all our ghosts and all our griefs—those feel like the truest part of me, the beating heart of my music. Playing Sarah’s way is like taking an ax to my deepest, most secret roots.

Bright, soft banjo notes begin to drift through the trees. Sarah’s playing a Gillian Welch song, the one about Elvis. Orlando starts singing along, his voice rich and sweet as molasses. Their music floods me with longing, making me think of ninth grade, when the three of us met. Sarah had just transferred from another county, and Orlando had moved to Briar Springs from Miami the summer before. We were close friends within a few weeks and started playing music together soon after. Orlando was happy to discover that the bluegrass Sarah and I liked reminded him a little of the guajira music—Cuban country—he’d grown up playing with his grandfather and uncles. He taught us a few Cuban songs, and we taught him bluegrass and folk. Music is what made us friends, but now it feels like it’s pulling us apart. If we could play together again like we used to, when it was just for fun, when we laughed through half the songs we played— I grab my fiddle and follow their notes like bread crumbs through the trees.

They both look up, startled, when I reach the small clearing where they sit. “That’s the one,” I say, pushing down all my doubts. “We’ll play that for the open mic night.” I linger in the woods after Sarah and Orlando head home. The sun has gone down, and the woods are hushed, shadows spilling like ink through the trees. The air is cool and sweet with the smells of early spring. I raise my fiddle and breathe into the quiet, my eyes closed in concentration. A great horned owl hoots gently somewhere nearby, like a chiding mother telling me to get on with it. Daddy always said twilight was good for ghost raising because it’s an in-between time, when the barrier between worlds seems to grow thin as tissue paper and the ghosts are at their lonesomest. This fiddle can’t so much as poke a hole in that tissue paper, but it’s the only one I’ve got now.

Daddy’s fiddle drew ghosts like hummingbirds to nectar. Mine only reminds me of everything I’m not, everything I’ll never be. My bow slices across the strings, sending a wail into the blue hush and startling the owl, who erupts in a flurry of shocked feathers from a branch high above my head, hooting her displeasure. I play “The Twa Sisters” over and over again, trying to imagine myself as the drowned sister, watching the world turn to brown river water. Then I play it as the fiddler who finds the body and strings the girl’s long, yellow hair into a fiddle bow. But the song comes out the same—sad and sweet, quiet and calm as the river that washed up her bones. Finally, I let the song fade, its last notes disappearing into the skinny pines. Night settles in around me, the air close and clammy. Cicadas take up where my fiddle left off, and small animals rustle in the brush. The trees sigh and sigh and sigh.

This forest feels like an ear that’s always listening but never hears what it’s hoping to. Maybe it misses Daddy’s fiddle same as I do. Maybe it’s waiting, like I am too, for a voice of its own. I turn to put my fiddle in its case, when, like a belated echo, a snatch of music comes back to me from the trees, deep and pure and full of grief, the dark twin of my bow’s last arc. A shiver runs up my spine, spreading chill bumps over my arms. Every muscle in my body tenses, waiting for another note. “Shady,” Mama yells from the trailer, making me jump. “It’s dinnertime.” The door slams, and I shake myself. I put my fiddle in its case and turn for home, back through the hungry, darkening woods, back toward Mama’s trailer, to the life we made inside the emptiness Daddy’s death left behind.

Two Our trailer always puts me in mind of a tin can with a firecracker that’s about to blow. Tonight’s no different. My stepdad, Jim, is laid out on the recliner with NASCAR cranked up loud enough to make you think you’re on the track yourself, inhaling burned-rubber fumes. Mama’s at the stove banging pots and pans and swearing under her breath, while my two-year-old sister, Honey, tugs at Mama’s Waffle House uniform. The smells of fried chicken, instant mashed potatoes, and canned spinach make my stomach turn. “Shady, where’ve you been?” Mama asks when she catches sight of me standing at the counter that divides the kitchen from the living room. “I was in the woods with Sarah and Orlando.” Honey wanders over, and I start to braid a section of her silky hair. My own hair’s so curly and thick you can’t run your fingers through it, so I love playing with Honey’s. “They left an hour ago.

You been out there by yourself playing that fiddle?” Mama wipes sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. I don’t answer, so she goes on muttering. “Just like your daddy, too busy playing that instrument to help me.” Mama’s in a temper, but I know it’s not really about me. It never is. “I’ll help you, Mama. What do you need?” I say, touching her arm. Her eyes soften. “Go tell Jesse to come in here for dinner.” I cross back through the living room, but Jim doesn’t even see me, his eyes locked on the endlessly circling cars.

His cell phone is ringing, but he ignores it. I knock at Jesse’s door and then poke my head in. “Mama says come to dinner.” My older brother sits on his bed, back against the headboard, with earbuds in, steadily texting. An awful, metallic-sounding music grates from the speakers. “Jesse.” “What?” he says, yanking one earbud out. He pushes a shock of light-brown hair from his eyes. “Are you coming to dinner, or not? Mama’s in a bad mood, though, so you’d better get in there.” Jesse sighs like I’ve come to lead him to his death.

“What’d you do now?” I ask. “Why’s it gotta be something I did?” “It’s always you. Can’t you find something better to do with your time? You could play with my band and me. It doesn’t have to be fiddle—you could learn mandolin or something. Daddy would be so disappointed that you—” Jesse’s face goes hard before I can even finish the sentence. “Fuck off.” I step back and look away, my cheeks flushing with anger and embarrassment. I turn to leave, but Jesse’s voice stops me. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.

” I spin back to face him. “You did, though.” Sometimes I look at Jesse and don’t even recognize him anymore, but he’s still my brother, and I miss him. I miss the way we used to be, before he saw Daddy die right in front of him, before Mama moved another man into Daddy’s place. “Yeah, I did, but I’m still sorry. I just don’t want to play music like that, okay?” Jesse’s voice softens. “Playing that sad song over and over again isn’t going to make him come back, you know. You’re only making it harder on yourself.” His words sink like fishing weights in my stomach, landing cold and true. Is that what I’m hoping for, deep down, when I spend hours in the woods, playing for the unreachable ghosts? Is that why I can’t stop playing “The Twa Sisters”? These past few weeks it’s all I’ve wanted to do.

I shrug and change the subject. “Will you at least come see me play at the open mic next weekend?” “Maybe,” he says, pushing me forward. “Now get out.” When we trudge into the kitchen, Mama’s eyes snag on Jesse, but she doesn’t say anything. Jim’s glowering at the screen of his phone, which has started ringing again. I go to the stove and make a big plate of food for Honey and me to share. That way, Mama won’t notice if I don’t eat any meat. She’s dead set against me becoming a vegetarian. Honey’s already at the table in her booster chair, and I squeeze past her to the seat between the microwave and window, well out of the fray. “Jim, turn off that noise and come eat with us,” Mama says.

“And answer your phone or turn it off.” “Goddamned Frank hassling me about that missing lumber delivery.” Jim silences the phone, but keeps scowling at it. “Just bring me a plate in here, Shirley.” “Do I look like your servant?” Mama asks, staring him down. Writers are always going on about piercing blue eyes, but they must’ve never seen Mama’s brown ones when she’s mad. She’ll burn a hole through sheet metal. Jim grunts and turns down the volume on the TV. He plunks himself into the chair next to Jesse, forcing his lanky legs under the table. “Why’s your mama in such a bad mood, boy?” Jesse doesn’t say anything.

He stares down at his plate, running his fingers over the condensation on his glass of sweet tea. “The principal called,” Mama says, answering for Jesse. “He skipped school all week.” She turns to Jesse and levels that metal-burning stare on him. “You trying to get me jailed for truancy?” “Maybe it’s time we pulled him out of school,” Jim says, rubbing the back of his permanently sunburned neck. “Let him make his own living. Might teach him a thing or two. He was never going to college nohow, so what’s he need to finish high school for?” “My son is going to finish high school,” Mama says, her voice dangerous. Mama dropped out of high school as a teenager and only went to get her GED after Jesse was born. You mention dropping out of school—even as a joke—and you’re in for a three-day lecture about how shameful it feels to go out in the world without an education.

Jim ought to know better. Our stepdad usually keeps his thoughts to himself, at least when Mama’s around, but he’s like a dog with a bone tonight. Maybe because his boss, his brother Frank, has been riding him harder than usual at the construction company. But more and more, that’s just how it is between Jim and Jesse. Each one is an itch the other can’t stop scratching, and tonight Jesse’s a full-blown rash. “You keep letting him run around, wasting his life, it don’t matter if he finishes high school,” Jim says. “He’ll be in prison anyway. That’s about all he’s good for.” Jesse slams back his chair, knocking it against the wall. Honey jumps, her eyes going wide, but no one pays her any mind.

Last time Jim and Jesse fought like this, Mama had to pull them apart before punches were thrown. But Jesse only crosses his arms over his chest. “And what are you good for, Jim?” “You got a roof over your head and clothes on your back, don’t you?” Jim picks a piece of chicken from his teeth. “So I should be like you, and work a shitty job that barely pays me anything, and make my dead best friend’s kids live in a shitty trailer with a shitty stepdad they hate? You think this is what my dad wanted for us?” Jesse laughs, but it’s a hard, ugly sound. “Don’t bring your daddy into this. This is about you and your attitude.” Jim shakes his head, going back to his dinner. He’s trying to seem calm and in control, but his hand tightens around his fork. His job is a sore spot for him. Back before him and Mama got together, his drinking and carrying on got so bad he made a name for himself in town.

Nobody but his older brother would hire him, and it kills Jim to work for Frank—probably because everybody loves Frank and thinks Jim’s a piece of trash. I can’t say I disagree. When he notices Jim’s grip on the fork, a venomous smile spreads across Jesse’s lips. He never misses a tell. “You know, Jim,” he starts to say, but Mama doesn’t miss anyone’s tells either. She cuts him off before he can get going. “That’s enough, Jesse Ray. If you can’t be civil at the dinner table, you can go to your room. We didn’t work all day to listen to you be ungrateful.” Anger flashes into Jesse’s eyes again.

“He’s the one who—” “Don’t talk back to your mama,” Jim says, smirking. He’s got Mama back on his side. Jesse studies the two of them carefully, trying to push down his anger and get the upper hand. But when he speaks again, his voice is half strangled with hurt. “You can lecture me all you like, Mama, but I know what you two did, and I’m always going to know it.” He pushes off from the table, rattling the dishes, and stomps from the kitchen. “If you wanted me to be a better man, you should’ve married one,” he says before disappearing down the hallway. Jim makes to follow Jesse to his room, but Mama puts her hand on his arm. “Leave it be, Jim. Leave it be.

” I know Jesse is referring to Mama and Jim’s relationship, but he’s wrong. I asked Mama when Jim moved in if there was something between her and Jim before Daddy died, and she said no, of course not. “Mama, why does Jesse still think—” “You leave it be, too, Shady,” she snaps. “And cut up some of that chicken breast for your sister.” I curl my lip at the meat, but I know better than to argue. Jim’s still stewing. “A man breaks his back all day and comes home to this nonsense,” he mutters, rising from the table. He takes his plate into the living room and turns the TV’s volume up again, filling the angry silence with the monotonous roar of race cars flying around and around and around in circles—a fitting soundtrack for our lives. Mama stares down at her half-eaten meal, looking tired and sad and guilty. Honey’s playing with her food, thankfully oblivious to the rest of us now that the shouting has stopped.

I force down a few more bites of watery potatoes, but I can’t stand to sit at this table any longer. “I’m going to go get some air,” I say. “All right, baby,” Mama murmurs, not meeting my eyes. I take a huge breath of the pine-scented night air once I get outside and plop down onto the steps, leaning my head back against the trailer’s door. But I can still hear the mechanical snarls from the TV, so I wander out to the dirt road that runs past our house, walking along the tree line, where shadows move like the darkness of dreams. I reach the end of our small road and walk for several minutes down the larger dirt road that bumps its way toward the highway. With the dark pines at my back, I look out over the cow pasture on the other side, searching for the tree I’ve come to think of as mine. A blasted oak, twisted like a wrung-out rag, the bark smooth and pale, the limbs reaching up like an old woman’s knobby fingers. I guess most people would call it ugly, but I think it’s beautiful, even though it’s dead and barren and all alone. I like to think it’s going to outlast us all; that long after we’re gone it will still be standing there not caring it’s got no leaves and no acorns, that it can’t offer shelter the way other oak trees can.

Despite what this tree has lost, it’s still standing, a gleam of white against the dark field. Whenever I see it, something in me reaches toward it, like we’re kin. Daddy and I drove past it all the time when he was alive. He’d always start humming an old murder ballad he told me was called “The Old Oak Tree.” He would never sing the words for me, though I loved the sad, lilting melody of it. Tonight, pale, distant stars shine overhead. The forest behind me sleeps, breathing silently, the pine trees’ top branches finally at rest. The atmosphere feels the way it did when Daddy played his fiddle—like all creation had gone still and quiet, waiting to see what the music would bring. I wait with the trees and the ghosts, trembling in the warm spring air, my body tuned to a frequency that only sounds like white noise, empty static to my mind. No matter how hard I listen, the silence never resolves into melody.

As I get ready for bed, I still feel restless and on edge—still caught up in that snatch of music I heard in the woods, the spirits’ watchfulness I felt in the trees. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep, but I guess all of today’s fighting has worn me out. When I fall into bed at ten o’clock, I drift straight from thoughts of the shadowy, restive woods and into familiar dreams. I’m lying in my little twin bed at the old house—my real home—with the window open to a rare fall breeze. My feet are cold, but I don’t want to close the window because I can hear Daddy’s fiddle playing from the woods. A low, mournful song I don’t recognize drifts in with the usual nighttime creatures’ music. It’s a sad song, but it comforts me, and my eyes grow heavy. Just then, my bedroom door creaks open, startling me awake, but it’s probably one of the ghosts, nothing to worry about. I pull my quilt higher over my chest, until it’s under my nose. Then I hear heavy footsteps on the floorboards, nothing like the soft patter of the ghosts I’m used to.

I turn my head toward the door, where a tall, shadowy figure stands, his features obscured by the hall light behind him. My heart begins to race. “Daddy?” I say, but I know it’s not Daddy—his fiddle’s still crying in the pines. “Jesse?” I whisper, though the figure’s too tall to be my brother. I already know who’s standing at my door. The figure doesn’t speak. He makes his inky way into the room, drawing nearer and nearer to my bed, until he’s standing over me, gazing down into my face. I stare up at him as I have a dozen times before, unable to speak or move or even breathe. The figure has no face. He is darkness.

He is nothing. A hand reaches down toward my throat, and I know I should fight, know I should thrash and kick and bite, but my body won’t obey me. My limbs lie heavy, useless. Fingertips brush my throat, and finally I work up a scream from somewhere deep inside me. It rips from my mouth, cutting through the shadows in the room, making the dark figure draw back his hand. I scream until I am no longer a girl, no longer flesh and blood, but only sound and terror hurtling through the night. Warm fingers close over my arm and shake me. “Shady,” someone says. “Open your eyes.” And then I’m back in the trailer, in the room I share with Honey, staring into my brother’s face.

Jesse’s eyes soften in relief when he sees I recognize him. I’m still paralyzed, but my eyes flit over the room, searching for a man made of shadows. “You were screaming,” Jesse says. “I thought you were being murdered in your bed.” “I was.” A warm tear rolls down my face. When I reach up to wipe it away, I realize I can move again. I sit up, feeling sick and dizzy. “Where’s Honey?” She’s not in the bed across from mine. “She probably fell asleep in Mama’s room,” Jesse says.

He studies me carefully. “Are you having the dreams again, like you did before . ?” He can’t bear to say “before Daddy died.” “Everybody has nightmares,” I say. But that fear’s still sitting there on my chest, heavy as a body. It’s been four years since I’ve had to fight him off—the dark figure who held me down in the twilight space between dreams and waking, who slipped in and out of the shadows, from choking nightmare to screaming waking. He hasn’t visited me since Daddy died. If he’s back now, will the other dreams come back too? The dead girl in my ceiling, the stinging wasps? A shudder runs through me, making me squeeze my eyes closed. And why now? Why has he chosen to come back? “Shady, are you all right?” Mama says from the doorway. I must have woken up the whole house with my screaming.

I find my voice again. “Just a bad dream. I’m fine. You can go to sleep.” Jesse doesn’t speak to her. He gets up and heads back to his room. After murmuring good night, Mama goes too, leaving me alone with the memory of cool fingers on my neck, fiddle music in my ears, a secret I’m half afraid to admit to myself. The shadow man’s back.

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