Shades of the Past

Old bones and ashes buried below tilted crosses and broken head stones.  The smell of wet pine and decay lingered in the air after an early morning autumn rain.

I stood outside a rusted old iron gate leading into an abandoned grave yard. The once beautiful scroll work was covered in moss and tangled vines. I gave the gate a slight nudge and while it squeaked and groaned its displeasure, the idea that unseen spirits were inviting me in crossed my mind.

An isolated path beckoned and my shoes slid across a slick trail of dead leaves and pine needles. Wayward branches scraped against my arm while the shadowy trail led me further into the morbid silence. Among the twisted and gnarled trees bordering the pathway, tops of tombstones poked through over grown grass and brush. Forgotten remembrances of candles, crystals and old toys scattered across graves reminded me that cemeteries were not for the dead, but for the living, the ones left behind.

At one time there must surely have been a steady stream of family and friends tending to graves and visiting loved ones, but for now this small piece of land contained a world of bleak emptiness.

I lifted my face to the drab November sky and closed my eyes as a fine mist covered my skin.  Memories swept over me and I began to remember the house where my family once lived. I pictured it in my mind's eye, a log cabin nestled in the woods blanketed in a thick layer of glistening snow. Warm light glowed through the windows and the smell of wood smoke hovered in the air. If only I could go inside and warm my hands by the fire as I had done so many times before.

My parents were good people and throughout their lives together they dreamed of living out in the country in the middle of the woods away from the traffic and city noises. They wanted to pump their own water and raise vegetables. My mother had even mentioned raising goats.  At first it was only a day dream, unattainable and foolish even but then Bob entered the picture.

My father and Bob were strangers until they both showed up at a local bar one afternoon. After a few beers and a game of darts they became fast friends. They talked well into the night discovering they had much in common, especially the desire to live out in the woods. Bob was an architect by trade but had given up the high paying corporate funded  job and left for small town living to become a carpenter. He brilliantly sketched out a design for a cabin with a broken crayon on a paper table cloth stained with pizza sauce.

Two months later my father and Bob were cutting down trees and clearing a small plot of land. They dug a deep hole and poured the foundation.  In three weeks they had the walls up and were measuring for windows and doors. Once the roof was attached we moved all our belongings from the city to the woods and settled in to become country dwellers.

The first thing we did was plant vegetables and flowers. We could smell the earth and feel the peach of nature. On walks through the woods we located edible plants and collected medicinal herbs. We built fires to warm ourselves underneath the night sky and looked beyond the brightness of the shooting stars. It was true that we were living off the land. The cabin was ours to live simply and enjoy the changing seasons.

In the months to come Bob frequently spent the weekends at the cabin.   The sofa near the fireplace became his bed and he often times stayed up late into the wee hours of the morning staring into the glowing embers of the fire.

Sometimes Bob would call me and my brother to his side and say, hey did I ever tell you the story about -? Bob knew plenty of ghost stories and we delighted in each and every one. Mom didn’t think filling our heads with such nonsense before bedtime was a good idea but she never said anything to Bob, she let it ride and just hoped we wouldn’t wake up screaming in the middle of the night scared out of our wits.

On one particular night Bob told us a story about ghosts hiding in the woods behind our house. He called them the spirits in the woods. He said these spirits would free themselves from the trees and wander around looking into windows of houses where there was light and warmth.

Bob explained to us that if we ever broke a branch off a tree by accident or on purpose, we should ask permission of the wood spirits because if we didn’t they would haunt us for the rest of our days.

It was funny that Bob mentioned the wood spirits peering into windows because I always felt like something or someone was watching me – but it wasn’t just from the outside, it was from everywhere inside the house.  My dad and Bob cut down a lot of trees from the woods. Maybe there was one tree they forgot to ask permission.

Sometimes during the night while I tried to fall asleep a feeling would come over me that I wasn’t alone in the room.  I was too afraid to turn on the lights though – so I would just lie there with my eyes wide open staring up at the ceiling hoping that whatever it was would just leave me alone.

Finally after growing weary of the unknown presence, I shot my middle finger into the air and shouted out loud, “Buzz off!” Maybe that’s what the spirit was waiting for – an attitude – because after that I was never afraid.

We lived in that cabin for five years. The first thing my father did in the early mornings was put on his red ball cap and take Frisco out for a walk in the woods. Frisco was our big black lab who magically appeared out in our yard on a cold, frosty morning waiting patiently for someone to notice him.

When my dad finally saw him it was love at first sight. They bonded immediately and from then on no matter the weather - rain, snow, sun or wind the two companions would walk in the woods for hours upon hours.

We never knew where Frisco came from or where he went at night but he never seemed to age, his coat was healthy and shiny and he never tired of romping and playing in the woods.

Dad loved having the forest as his backyard. He was a birder. He thought about them, searched for them and studied them. He knew every bird song, every feather that dropped from the trees and every myth or legend about winged creatures.

One night while driving home after work a large bird flew into his windshield and was killed instantly. My father came through the front door of our house cradling a dead owl in his arms. We all stood around staring down at the enormous creature which lay on our kitchen floor.  The scientist in my father began pointing out all the parts of the owl that might be of interest. It seemed cold and heartless but later that night after we went to bed – my father dug a deep hole out by the tallest and most beautiful pine tree he could find and laid the owl to rest.

I read in a book once that owls were guides to the spirit world and were known by Native Americans to bring messages of change and transition.
We were happy and settling into our new environment when Dad became infatuated with Bob’s new motorcycle. Nothing would do but he had to have one of his own. He reasoned that it would take up less space than a car - it would be cheaper to operate, it was fast and yes, he looked cool on the motorcycle. Mom had reservations and tried to persuade him against it but he was stubborn like an old mule. He traded in his car and bought his first motorcycle. I guess I favor my dad, because whenever I get an idea in my head it takes moving mountains to get me to change my mind.

On the night my dad and Bob took the motorcycle out for the first time, he wrote a letter to each of us. He told us how much he loved us and that we had made his life complete. We never knew why he wrote those letters unless he had a premonition of his mortality.

I turned and walked out of the cemetery. Thoughts of that night were still tender in my heart and I did not wish to be sad any longer, but something made me turn around for one last look. I had long since shed tears for my father but there was a knot in my stomach as if someone called out my name. Maybe certain people for whatever reason were not meant to stay on this earth for very long.

After my father's passing we remained in that house for only a few months and then we all decided the memories were just too painful.

Bob wanted the cabin. He was the right person to leave it with and he also asked if he could have Frisco. Sadly to say, Frisco’s destiny was not in our hands, that dog had a mind of his own, he belonged to the woods.

On a snowy winter’s morning we drove as far away from the cabin as our car would carry us. I had dreaded that last moment of farewell but strangely it wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined. Our departure meant we were leaving behind all the tears and moving toward renewing our lives.

Bob called a few months later. He said he was happy. He didn’t seem to mind the isolation nor did he crave human interaction any longer.

He also said that Frisco was now coming inside the cabin and sleeping by the fire for a few hours before disappearing into the night again. He had no idea where Frisco went but he had no doubts the black lab would show up again the next morning ready for a brisk walk in the woods.

Bob ended the conversation with a story that was pure Bob. He told us that one morning awakening early he wiped the dew away from the front window with the palm of his hand and gazed out into the yard. As the fog and mist rose from the ground he was able to make out the hazy figure of a man wearing a red ball cap walking through the woods and playing with Frisco.

Bob believes in ghosts and I guess now I believe in ghosts too.

Old bones and ashes buried beneath tilted crosses and broken headstones. If it were not for all that it would be like any other piece of land.
The remains of all these old souls who have passed before us still wander the earth as if nothing has changed for them. The dead can never hurt you – only the memory can hurt a little until you realize they’re still doing what they want, watching over loved ones, climbing mountains, floating in the universe or just walking a beloved black lab in the woods.

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Kathy Attwood

Kathy Attwood is a retired teacher who has lived in Eureka Springs since 1998. She divides her time between writing and making art. In 2003 the Eureka Theater Company produced her play Case 3001. Her short story The Attending Physician was chosen to be included in the anthology of the Hot Springs Fine Arts Center. She has received awards from The Arkansas Arts Council for art pieces included in the traveling Small Works on Paper. She was also included in the Somerset Studio Magazine for entries pertaining to The Sea.