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We haunt the cabin

July 9, 2020

In the summer before the blizzard, shortly after tadpole season, we moved our base of operations away from the frog pond with its permanent swarm of mosquitoes and its stench of green-slimed mud, and we headed for the cool darkness of the woods. At its border the woods were a thicket of brambles and second growth saplings that discouraged entry. But we were children, and so, undaunted, we pushed through the sharp-thorned blackberry canes and ventured deep through the undergrowth until it gave way to a place where the trees were large and unclimbable. Tall cottonwoods flanked the trickle of a stream, and wide-trunked oaks surrounded clearings overgrown with soft mounds of unmown grass. It was in one such clearing we found the cabin.

I’m not sure which of us saw it first, but it wasn’t long before we called it ours. Our cabin. Our haunted house. It was a small building, just one room with a stone fireplace at one end. It had no panes in its windows, and the lone doorway gaped open with no door to keep intruders out. If the house had ever known a lick of paint, we couldn’t tell. It was weathered gray with splintered siding. Inside, the walls were simply studs, like in the garages of our own homes.

The house stood high off the ground, but no steps led to its open doorway. We stood on tiptoe to peer inside. The floor was thick with dust, but it looked solid enough to us.  Jeff and Greg, both tall, took turns boosting the shorter of us into the house. We pulled on their arms to help them scramble their way inside.

The silence of the house was eerie. No sound of leaves rustling, no gurgle from the nearby creek. The cicadas were only a distant hum. Someone laughed a bit, just to chase away the quiet. The heat of the day was stifling, even in the darkest shadows of the tiny house.

“Do you think it will hold our weight?” “What if someone falls through?” “Nah. It’s solid. Go ahead, walk on it.” And so we crept into the room on its ancient floor boards, daring each other, step by shaky step. There really wasn’t much to see besides our footprints in the dust. The house was utterly empty. We didn’t know about the ghosts, yet.

A few days later, we decided to hack away brambles surrounding the house. The weeds and blackberry canes were hiding something, we reasoned. Maybe a cellar. A cellar would be cool – another strange place to explore. After we’d cleared the weeds away, we found it, a cellar built into a foundation made of stones. Round stones, sharp angled stones, big stones, and little stones, all stuck together with cement.  One small window opened into the darkness below the cabin. We could see a stone wall dividing it in half. We could not see what lay beyond that little stretch of wall. That unknown space made us nervous.

In the thick wood beams of the ceiling were enormous iron pegs. Like the room upstairs and the part of the cellar we could see, the pegs were empty. All but one, that is, and on that one peg hung a rusty hacksaw. That is when the haunting began. An empty house, derelict in the woods, yielding no clue of human habitation except the one – a hacksaw rusting in a cellar. A cellar with a room we could not see. A room that could be full of bodies, people sawn to pieces, now moldering, dusty skeletons.  In bits. The rust of the hacksaw became bloodstains. We ran.

We were only twelve years old, so of course we returned – again and again – to the house we’d made haunted by our tales. Ghosts of the dead. The ghost of the killer. All that summer, we haunted the cabin, creeping through the woods and peering through the cellar window and scaring ourselves silly.

 

Henry

June 21, 2020

Henry was over six feet tall when I attacked him. My husband John snapped pictures of the whole thing. I felt bad about it, but my patience had worn thin. Henry had outstayed his welcome, and he had to go.

I found Henry when he was about knee high. He was peculiar, kind of cute and unlike any I’d ever seen. I decided he must be a stray looking for a home. I had no idea what sort of mongrel he was, so I accepted him as he was and named him Henry.

Henry had leaves the size of tennis rackets, a thick, hollow-sounding stem (yes, I did knock on it, don’t ask me why), and tiny yellow flowers arranged like a miniature crown on top of all his greenery. When he grew waist-high, I wondered about his possible alien origins. None of the other garden weeds looked like Henry. He seemed lonely, so I began to talk to him whenever I passed by. “Hello, Henry. How’s tricks?” He seemed to like the attention.

When Henry reached shoulder height, I questioned my hospitality. I dreamed of the man-eater in Little Shop of Horrors, and I imagined him singing into my ear, “feed me.” I refused, figuring that Henry had plenty of energy without my involvement.

After Henry topped six feet, John suggested that maybe it was time for Henry to go. Jack’s beanstalk was mentioned. And, with a weak pang of remorse, I planned my attack.

I tried to coax Henry out of the ground, giving him a gentle tug. No deal. I strained until I rocked back on my heels, and pulled at roots that were deeper than I’d thought possible. No matter how I wrestled that weed, I failed. The photos John took of me during the battle show a crazed looking woman with dirt-smudged face, dressed in baggy jeans, socks up over the cuffs, a long sleeve canvas shirt, and a sunhat. I am holding loppers, ready to snip Henry down to size. No deal. The loppers weren’t strong enough to cut through the stalk. Henry’s ancestors must have been redwoods. I stomped off to the garage and came back with a saw. If Henry wanted to behave like a tree, I’d treat him like a tree. The saw may have been a little puny, but I made it work. I ripped him into logs, and stuffed him in bags for the waste hauler. My summer idyll with Henry was over.

This spring, I noticed a cluster of little weeds that look alarmingly like Henry. Perhaps I’d misnamed him. He was a she, and her name was Henrietta.

 

 

 

 

An Evening with Margaret Atwood

June 10, 2020

With the recent publication of her newest book, Dearly: New Poems, my thoughts have turned to the night five years ago when Margaret Atwood came to town. Here is something I wrote the day after her appearance that February.

“Who is Fuck?” Margaret Atwood reads from her novel, The Year of the Flood. Those asking the question are the Crakers, a band of genetically engineered innocents who address each other with the honorific “Oh.” They are curious about the identity of the one called “Fuck” to whom Jimmy speaks when he stands alone on the beach. Jimmy believes he is one of the last human beings left alive after a plague. “Oh, fuck!” he yells each night as he looks out over the sea. “Oh, fuck!” and the Crakers believe he is addressing someone invisible. “Who is Fuck?” they ask, and that’s when the audience here to see Atwood cracks up.

I am here with four friends, and I wonder how they are responding to the free and frequent use of the word “fuck.” These are not true f-bombs; they are necessary to exemplify both Jimmy’s anguish and frustration and the impossible curiosity and innocence of the Crakers. My companions at the theater are older than I am, and are mannerly to a fault. At least one of us can only be described as prim. We arrived separately and were unable to find seats next to each other, so I do not know if this particular friend is laughing as hard as the rest of the audience.

My friends and I are part of a book club that will soon will be reading Atwood’s Alias Grace. Her appearance here in our little university town is fortuitous. We hope that seeing and listening to her will enhance our appreciation of the novel, or at least of its author. Although we don’t hear anything about Alias Grace, which was published in 1996, we are nevertheless rewarded by a glimpse of Atwood as an author and expert public speaker.

When I first suggested that we read Alias Grace, Jean immediately asked, “What is it about?” I was flummoxed – why not just read a book to find out what it’s “about?” How do you quickly sum up a book that’s 482 pages long? I opted for the sensational. “Well, it’s based on a true story about a sixteen-year-old murderess.” Jean leaned in closer. I went on, “the interesting part is that much of the book is written in first person from the girl’s point of view, and the reader needs to deal with an unreliable narrator. There’s a third-person narrator, too, from another character’s point of view, and we don’t know whether to trust him, either . . .” I trailed off. I’ve never been good at summarizing the aboutness of a novel. Jean nodded slowly, looking a little baffled.

A few minutes later, Mary Alice, who had been chatting with Debbie and Connie when Jean had asked her question, posed the same question: “What is Alias Grace about?” I sighed and replied, “Well, it’s kind of complicated. The narrative time is different from the story’s time.” “Oh, dear,” Mary Alice frowned. “I like books that are easy to follow. They’re so much easier to read, don’t you think?” I shrugged a little, and nodded vaguely. “I like a little challenge,” I ventured, hoping Mary Alice would at least sample the book. “Sometimes it’s good to exercise the brain,” I added. Debbie and Connie agreed.

I mentioned that I still had the copy of the book I’d used as an undergrad, and I said that I was thrilled to find how marked up it was. “Lots of notes and underlining,” I said, feeling pleased. I thought the notations would come in handy when it came time to discuss the book the following month. Connie looked concerned.  “I haven’t had to read that closely since college. I’m not sure I can still read that way.” The discussion then turned to the relative merits of various electronic reading devices, and I was off the hook.

Prior to Atwood’s reading from The Year of the Flood, there was an interview by a professor from the English department at the university. Atwood was in good form, her every response to the professor’s questions sharp and irreverent. The audience hung on her every word, and we were rewarded by Atwood’s insight as well as her wit. It was the reading, however, that brought down the house.

It will be a month before I can ask my friends what they thought of Atwood’s talk and reading. I am curious to learn if they were as entertained as I was, and whether they enjoyed seeing the author behind the book we will be discussing at book club.

February 3, 2015

 

Fishing with Grampy at Turtle Lake

June 2, 2020

It is warm today, nearly 85 degrees, and my thoughts have turned to the cooler air at Turtle Lake in northern Wisconsin, where I spent summers with my Granny and Grampy. It is about the time of year we’d load up the car and head north to the lake for a few weeks of swimming and fishing. I remember my first time fishing with Grampy and learning about just where those fried perch came from that Granny made so well.

***

First off, we needed worms. Down slope from the vegetable garden in the shade behind the garage and near the fish shack was a patch of dirt, its shape a perfect rectangle, like an unplanted flower bed. Nourished with coffee grounds, egg shells and vegetable peelings, the earth of the bed was loamy and black and cool to the touch. Grampy had turned the earth with his pitchfork so many times you could sift the dirt through your fingers without encountering lumps or clods. This was the worm bed.  We used the pitchfork to unearth the fat earthworms. They wriggled and twisted, objecting to their exposure to unaccustomed daylight. I plucked them up, one by one, and placed them gently into a half-pound coffee can along with a few crumbles of damp earth.

Before we set out with our long cane poles, Grampy produced a slim canister of peppery-smelling chewing tobacco. “Time for a pinch of gladiola blossom,” he said, in a voice at once rumbly with phlegm and high-pitched with old age. He never spat tobacco on the ground. There was a soup can handy on the pier for that. He walked beside me down the hill to the lake, limping a little because of his bum hip.

The lake glittered in the sunlight, and tall grasses lined the shore a few yards from the weathered wood of the dock. An old wooden barrel sat on one corner of the platform at the end of the dock. This was Grampy’s barrel, the place he always sat to fish. I sat on the edge of the platform with my legs dangling toward the water. The sun was warm on my back, and insects droned in the afternoon air.

Before we could begin fishing, I needed to thread a worm onto the hook tied to the end of the fishing line. The hook was huge. Grampy told me that its size made it easier to attach a worm, that it was the perfect size for a beginner. I struggled with the task, nearly gagging at the slimy feel of the desperately wiggling worm. My first attempts failed – the worms fell off almost immediately. Eventually, I figured out that you have to skewer the worm multiple times to get it wound around the shaft of the hook. I was horrified, but also eager to please Grampy. I wanted to catch fish with him, and this was the only way to go about it.

We sat for a long time, casting our hooks, watching the bobbers in hopes they would dip into the water. When the bobber gets pulled under, that means you have a fish. I lost a few fish along with the worms, but eventually I caught a perch that was big enough to keep. Later, Granny would fry it up for us for supper, along with the fish Grampy brought in.

Before that, though, the fish needed cleaning. This was more stressful than hooking worms, but Grampy said if I was to be a fisherman, I needed to see how fish are prepared for cooking. It’s important to know how food gets on the table, he said.

After we’d caught enough, we brought the pail of fish to the cleaning table behind the storage shed. There, I learned that you first have to stun the fish by giving it a solid whack on the head to make it stay still. Then, you had to slice the belly open with a sharp fish knife, and scoop out the guts. The guts get thrown into a tin pail under the cleaning table, and it would later be emptied back into the lake. It wasn’t long before the smooth wooden surface of the table was slick with fish slime and guts. Finally, we had to cut off the head, and toss the body into a pan of cool rinse water. Grampy didn’t filet the fish. At supper, we’d eat carefully to avoid the bones.

***

The house at the lake was sold after my grandparents died, and I no longer fish. I am happy, though, that I spent those afternoons fishing with Grampy, helping food get to the table for supper. I’ve learned how to fry a perch, and I look forward to many fish dinners here this summer, grateful for the fishermen who caught and cleaned the fish for our meals.

Impermanence

May 20, 2020

It began with a little porcelain cat. The white cat with black patches – all 2.5 inches of it – rests on its haunches, looking over its shoulder at the viewer. A green base suggests that the cat is seated on a patch of grass.  On its bottom, my grandmother penciled “I am 80,” along with the date 1981, the year she handed over the cat to me.

I am fond of the little Staffordshire cat. Granny gave it to me when she, like the cat, was eighty years old. It was a time IMG_0192 when she was busy distributing her possessions among the grandchildren. She knew I liked cats, so it became mine. I liked it, but I loved that it was a true and thoughtful gift. This gift was genuine in spirit, and it resembled in no way the usual one-dollar bills given to each grandchild at Christmas and on birthdays.

Unfortunately, once the little figurine took up residence on a shelf in my dining room, other cats began to join it. “Oh, you collect cats!” people remarked when they saw it. And the cat collection began. I now have chalk-ware cats, cast-iron cats, pewter cats, blown-glass cats, and dozens of additional porcelain cats, none of which I have purchased for myself. The shelves in the glass-fronted cabinet in the dining room and in the pair of built-in corner cupboards are crowded not with dishes, but with cats.

When the overabundance of cat figurines became obvious, people began giving me pictures of cats to hang on my walls. There are embroidered pictures, there are paintings, and there are etchings. There are also cat-themed objects. There are small sofa pillows and fuzzy blanket throws with alarming cat images staring out at the viewer. There are three stuffed cats. There are plaques with vaguely clever cat sayings, along the lines of “Dogs have masters – Cats have staff,” and “This is a mouse-free zone.” I have displayed none of these objets d’art, but they keep coming in. I wish the influx would stop.

The little kitty from my grandmother has been all but lost in the crowd of feline representations that infest my house. My family and friends have no idea that I care for only one cat — the porcelain kitty given to me by Granny on its, and her eightieth  birthday. I doubt I would regret the loss of any other figurine or artifact. I don’t worry about them or their eventual fates. I do worry about Granny’s kitty, though. If it were to break or disappear, I know I would be heartbroken.

It seems wrong, somehow, to be so attached to an object. What are things, after all, if not encumbrances? In Walden, Henry David Thoreau remarked about a neighbor’s farm that the land owned the farmer more than the farmer owned the land. Might the same be said of my little figurine? After all, I do keep it safely tucked away in a cupboard where I can look at it, but am not tempted to touch it. I dust it rarely and with trepidation, lest it break. Protecting it has become more important than enjoying it. But why do I wish to keep it from harm?

The little Staffordshire cat is a token of sorts. It represents giving in love and receiving in joy. The token is not necessary for Granny’s love to be remembered, however. Whether the cat exists or not should be irrelevant. I will remember my Granny Wagner in all her aspects even if all the things she left me are lost. Is it a character flaw that makes me so attached to a little porcelain figurine, to the memory that it invokes?

But I am attached. Like a barnacle, I cling to that little cat and to the memory of my Granny Wagner. I know that the attachment is silly. I know that the cat is impermanent and that my memories are impermanent. After all, once I am gone, so will my memories be gone.  Nevertheless, I would like to give memories to someone new, knowing full well that, in the grand scheme of things, even those memories will be impermanent, just like the fragile little cat.

Someday, when I am eighty, I know I will want to find a new home for my cat. I would like to think that it will be a true gift, that the gift of love that the cat represents will give pleasure to its recipient, as it gave pleasure to me. I would also like to think that the receiver of my gift understands the impermanence of things and of people and even of memory, and that the little cat will be no more than a token.

Tai Chi Peace

Master Jody Curley, M.A., Certified Teacher

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