The screen door was hung tight, like all screen doors in the country seem to be, and it slammed as I walked out into the cold afternoon air. A striped-back chipmunk scurried past my feet at lightning speed, hanging an impossible left toward the carport wash room and a work table full of baskets of fat pecans. Chipmunks, it seemed, had places to go and things to do. I ran my hands through the pecans, imagining the pies, pralines and other delights they would adorn.
There was a proper front door to my grandmother’s house, but it was rarely used. The kitchen door off the carport was the eternal portal to this family’s collective life on the farm my grandfather started and my uncles struggled to keep alive. Walking in and out of that door was like walking in and out of Faulkner’s “past that was not even past”.
I strode slowly away from the house toward a small, sloping field: there were furrows, tired and spent, and the gaunt, stalky remains of what were once vegetables for the house garden. Unseasonably warm weather had betrayed okra and peppers into sprouting again. The dwarfed fruit seemed at once a small victory and a small tragedy: it would freeze and die soon, uncollected and unknown, here in this little field as the cold weather returned.
There was a stand of woods close by, on the border of the field. Coyotes lived as fugitives here, invisible to the eye during the day, but prowling out at night to sing and howl and pray. You would come across their droppings in the morning, left on the old railroad track levee that ran behind the house. They didn’t eat well. Coyotes, like farmers, lived a hard life.
Behind the house in the pecan trees and the red oak and the crepe myrtle, there were flocks of small birds. Their sounds were like children on a playground – yips and yells and chirpy shouts. It was not quite the sound of happiness; more like a child’s exuberance at finally being set free after a brutal day of lessons. Not quite the sound of happiness. More like the sound of relief or, perhaps, of freedom.
There were ghosts here, ghosts I knew well and once feared. These ghosts have no power over me now, but they walked with me just the same. When I was young, they crept behind, hissing with things I knew but couldn’t say. Today, in the cold and quiet of the garden, they courteously and quietly asked questions. Where had I been? Why was I back? What did I think I knew, after forty-five years on earth, about family and the ties that bind, binding so tightly sometimes that they strangled and crushed and destroyed?
I turned and watched a lone eighteen wheeler move slowly down the new interstate highway that now ran behind the house and the old railroad levee. That acreage had been farmland and woods when I was young, but, like so much of life, things had changed. Sometimes roads open up in places where there was once only wilderness. Sometimes we watch others ride down those roads; sometimes we travel those roads ourselves. And that, it seemed to me, was the answer to a ghostly question.