Virginia Lee Wood

2021, Essays

GHOST COLLAGE

When Dad was very sick, in the last winter we could keep him, a black snake came into the house and Mom said, “That’s his Dad,” and that we needed to catch it. Coming to take him before we were ready to let him go; it lay on the floor beside his hospital bed like a dog.

_________________________

Snakes come silently into my house and hide. I have been catching them. In Texas I am living adjacent to a drainage field, slightly below ground level. Snakes tuck up in the places where the laminate flooring doesn’t quite touch the wall. It’s always dark in the house. The gaps around the doorframe shelter them. 

_________________________

An owl arrived in the month when Dad was going. There had been another owl for years living around the house. A large female barred owl who screamed perfectly and only in the middle of the night, when even though you knew what she was, it sounded like a woman crying in the woods. Whenever she called, my dad would stop what he was doing and call out, “Do you hear that? It’s her.” The new one and the old one hooted together for a few weeks, and then the elder female left for good. He doesn’t know how to be an owl. He sits outside the kitchen window every day, looking off. We talk about him. Dad, are you OK? We’re doing fine. Why do you keep coming here and sitting there like that?

_________________________

Mom tells me many times a story about a snake lady. She says it’s true, it’s fiction, it’s true. “I told you it was made up because it was scaring you too much.” When my mom was in the fifth grade in Chinhae with a different name, she looked up as she crossed a creek bed and saw in broad daylight a woman in a tree. Long black hair. A sense of knowing what she was looking at that doesn’t need validating, except that she learned a woman had been hung there, and that other people knew about it. The next day she had to walk back the same way, and an enormous black snake was hanging there.

_________________________

Getting out of bed, I put my foot down and something cold settles against it.

_________________________

I keep thinking, not only does time keep going on but the things that occupied you tend to become normal and part of you. And it’s cruel. Struggling moment to moment with the searing pain of fresh loss works its way into the texture of the skin you wear. And you lose the activity of struggling to breathe, which you did every day. Having to find out who you are again with grief stitched in tiny knots all over your flesh. When I open my mouth now, the loss is part of my tongue. There is no need to struggle with language. Now what will I do with my time? Looking for you everywhere. My grey house slippers. The way I look at my car out the window, and every animal is a ghost of someone I know. When hail falls, I look at it through the blinds. Looking forward to things so that I will not be here. I want to eat things that taste like fresh lemon. I want to see flowers that are very green and smell wet sidewalks. Knots between fingers and eyelashes. Wanting to see and smell the dirt. The ghosts are everywhere.

_________________________

On my countertop, the mirror that hung in my Dad’s office for forty years. It saw him for so long, going in and out of the room. If ghosts are the energy we leave behind, here is an object with an aura. I don’t hang it up. I know that I will long to see him behind me, somewhere in the background. 

_________________________

I’m telling Mom about the house finch with a flushed throat that has been tricking me into thinking it’s the smoke alarm. “It goes ‘peep’!” “Oh,” she says, “I’m so glad you told me that. We have the same bird here.”

_________________________

There is a dream that on the way to work, I feel something tickling my arm. A large wasp, crawling, yellow and black. I  realize that there are wasps crawling out of my hair. Flying away. 

_________________________

What if, Dad, you and I’d had a chance to talk about what happened when I was finally old enough to ask? There are the possibilities of what might have been, and I think poisonously of these versions of us. So much happened when I was coming up that prevented us connecting at all. And you didn’t have a Dad to teach you how to talk to your kids. What to do when your kids’ mouths are jammed with excuses, and explanations, and pain. What my brother did to my sister and I, you shut down and I think I get it, you know, but what do I know? I close my mouth over those questions. 

  I look around and they aren’t as urgent to me as they were when the loss was fresh. Pain in my teeth. They’re like watching a snake struggling on my bathroom tile in the night. They’re going into the kitchen and finding a large enough Tupperware, tenderly slipping a birthday card between the snake and the floor. Remembering you saying, “It’s just a snake. Look how beautiful he is.” Yes. But why is it that I have to remember you this way and all of this has happened to us? How come when I have a question I can’t call you? That some unspoken understanding about love couldn’t grow between us? That now when I’m walking your footsteps in my career, there’s nobody and I feel that nothing that is really a hole? 

_________________________

Open the door to my place and there is a tiny garter snake there on the threshold. I hold the door open. Go home. The outside is right there. Do not watch the sunlight like this. Go on out. I reach down my car key to scare her onto the pavement, and she slips away back into the house.

_________________________

Mom says the wasp dream is a great one. That all of the things I suffer under are crawling out and headed away on the wind. While Dad was sleeping, bedridden and always in view of the trees he chose to build this house under, Mom and I used to go down the dirt driveway, picking up seeds that had fallen. We threw them into the fallow field. Listened to the owl calling out to its elder. How are the trees? I ask her.

_________________________

“They are small, but they are growing.”


Virginia Lee Wood is a Korean American writer and holds a Doctorate in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas, as well as an MFA from Hollins University. Her work appears most recently in The Southern Review, Sweet, Pleiades, Hobart, and elsewhere. She is an Assistant Professor of English at West Chester University.