Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ghost Town

Note:  This is an essay I wrote 20 years ago for an Expository Writing Class assignment in college. I'm copying it out here because some old friends and I were just talking about memories of our childhood places.  Just a word of explanation though, it was EXPOSITORY writing.. which is English Major speak for VERY WORDY. Also, this story may or may not have actually happened. But the place is real. 

My parents' voices could be heard through the door even though they were trying to keep quiet. My brother and sisters and I were straining to listen in on their conversation through the door. I'm sure they heard us shuffling in our pajamas. It was a tense night at our house and our parents hadn't done anything to explain to us why. They hadn't said much of anything besides "Don't worry" or "Git on to sleep now, it's past your bedtime."  It was impossible to sleep, however, because Charlie was missing.

In our household, dogs (and there were always at least four or five) were relegated to the backyard. Given that we were a hunting family in Arkansas, they were almost exclusively beagles or anything with a good nose for rabbit or squirrel. I grew up around a passel of Beagles so interchangeable, I couldn't tell you all of their names, but Charlie was special. She was the matriarch of our pets and had given birth to most of the other ones. Although her muzzle was getting white, she was still bright eyed and beautiful.  She managed a regular sort of regalness that completely disappeared in a barking frenzy whenever she smelled something wild. Though she had gotten tubby after years of being fed table scraps, she'd take off like a shot, disappearing into the woods, her tail erect, fanning wildly, leaving dogs half her age in her wake.

Mr. P___ our neighbor had called that morning and said that he had heard some wild animals around their house the night before. We lived out in the country, miles past the county line in an isolated neighborhood where possums and raccoons hadn't quite given up their territory. Since we didn't live in the city limits, we didn't have regular garbage pickup, so the local vermin population usually had a field day if we let things go long enough without burning the trash.  Mr. P believed that one of our dogs had "gotten into it" with raccoon the night before. There was lots of growling, he told us, then yelps and whimpering. The next morning, Charlie was missing. She wasn't around the yard like she usually was. She wasn't under the house or off begging for food at one of the neighbors. My mom had enlisted all four of us plus our friends to look for her. We search everywhere and came up empty. That's what my parents were talking about in the next room, what happens next, where to find Charlie. We heard them get up from the table so we scampered back to our rooms, but not before I heard my father say something about "Ghost Town." I didn't sleep for the rest of the night.

Ghost Town was situated in the corner of the woods that were back behind our house. The woods didn't have a name like "McKay's Woods" or "The Brown Wood," they were simply "the woods. Everyone assumed the woods didn't belong to anyone. All the kids in our neighborhood played there. When I was seven, the woods were exotic enough for us to pretend we were in the African jungle, but they were also close enough to the house that I could hear my mother calling us for dinner.  There weren't any "No Trespassing" signs anywhere along the whole mile or two that the woods stretched across the edge of the neighborhood, but there were places in the woods where none of us went alone. In particular, no one went to Ghost Town by themselves.

Several years before, no one quite knew when, there had been a big storm during tornado season that had knocked down a swath of trees in the woods. In the northwester corner, along the edge of the woods, one big oak tree had broken off about halfway up its trunk. The tree was still alive when it broke off, so the middle part of the trunk simply bent over, still connected to the bottom stump instead of making a complete break. The top part of the tree now hung at an angle from the stump to the ground like an upside down "V." Over time, the trunk had been overgrown with cudzu and honeysuckle until the fallen part of the tree and its stump had been covered with a blanket of leaves and vines that grew full and green in the summertime like a circus tent covered in wilderness. Underneath the canopy there was an open space big enough for a grown person to stand and walk around. The tree was so covered with plants, even in the wintertime, that if you walked under it, the vines almost completely blocked out the sun. Consequently, no grass grew there. There was just dark, moist dirt, the kind that dried out and faded in the regular light, but there in the covered shade of the tree, the dirt stayed cool and almost pitch black.  Embedded in the ground were some leftover branches from when the tree had been whole. They crackled underfoot like the snapping of small bones. The woods were always noisy with the sounds of birds and shouts of kids, but Ghost Town always seemed quiet and unmoving. You could have heard the wind blow, if it blew there. I never knew the wind to disturb the peace of Ghost Town except for the storm that created it.

For as long as I could remember, kids told other kids the truth about Ghost Town:  it was where animals went to die. They said that when the cats got so old they couldn't chase any mice, they went to Ghost Town. When dogs got too aged to hunt or couldn't find their appetites to eat anymore, they crept to Ghost Town, dug their own graves and laid down to die there. There was something about the moist, soft dirt, people said, that made it easy for the old arthritic pets, to spend the last of their energy to dig a small hole and settle their bodies into it like a final bed. When it came time, the animals would find their way to the fallen tree. There was some sort of homing instinct that drew them there. It was what the animals wanted, everyone said, to have a final home there under the tree. No one wanted to interfere with that kind of magic, so we left the place alone. Eventually, the place came to be known as Ghost Town because we all believed it was haunted with the spirits of all our old pets.

The only ones who ventured near Ghost Town were the older boys, probably showing off. We all knew where it was because it was right next to a giant daffodil patch we raided in the springtime. During March and April, that corner of the woods became completely carpeted with flowers. It was all but impossible step anywhere without crushing a blossom. My brother helpfully pointed out to me once that the reason all those flowers grew there was because the ground was fertilized by all those dead dogs and cats decomposing in Ghost Town. "I bet if Mom grew her garden here, she would have tomatoes THIS BIG" he said, holding both his arms out to show me. I believed him completely as I filled my bucket with daffodils over and over without hardly even creating a bald patch in the sea of flowers around me. But I knew Mom would never venture to plant her garden here, no matter how dark and moist the soil was. Ghost Town was a sacred place. It looked, even, like a natural shrine. Untouchable and inappropriate for such ordinary things as growing tomatoes.

The next morning my father took off early, but we were already up. He headed towards the northwestern corner of the woods and we all knew where he was going. Wordlessly, we looked at one another, waited til he was far enough ahead and then followed. It wasn't a long walk, so it wasn't long until we caught up to him. My Dad was looking around the fallen tree under the surrounding bushes. He looked up at the broken trunk and studied the canopy. It was green and thick and speckled with honeysuckle blossoms. In the morning light, it looked more beautiful than scary. He lifted some vines, then hesitated. He looked at us and then walked inside. After a second, my father burst through the wall of cudzu. He took off running towards the direction of the house, leaving us all behind. We froze. My brother walked towards the tree. He peered through the hole my dad had broken through the vines. I started to walk forward too.

"Stay there!" he said. And then as he looked again, he turned back and whispered, " It's Charlie."

My dad was coming back then with a blanket and a brown bottle of peroxide. He went back under the canopy and after a few minutes emerged holding Charlie in his arms.  She was bleeding and limp. The raccoon, it seems, had won.  We took her to the vet and he kept her overnight. She had lost a lot of blood and needed stitches but she was going to live.

I didn't go back to that part of the woods again that summer. By the time spring rolled around again the next year, we had all but forgotten what had happened. Several years later, when Charlie was much older, she went missing for a couple of days. I was tempted, then, to go back and look for her under the canopy. But this time we let her make her bed there and settle in for her sleep.

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