Once upon a time I was a child. Then one day I wasn’t. Let’s say that it was one of those winter days. The sky sagged. The dog whimpered. A thought came to me: “Maybe this is all there is?”


That’s all it took.





The sun comes up through haze on the far horizon. Ocean waves burst into happy flame, and a vast river of fire races toward the edge of the continent. There the coastline, dim and soft-edged, awaits it. On the empty beaches, sea wrack lies scattered. In the grassy marshes, tidewater laps against steel-gray mud. Elsewhere dark conifers turn deaf ears to the booming surf, intent as they are upon the approaching blaze. For night still lurks among them, its bony fingers clutching at their trunks.



The Unborn (1941) by Clarence John Laughlin © The Historic New Orleans Collection

The ghosts came riding in on the wind. It was a long time before they left. I’m talking years. Even then, one stayed behind. So I guess you could say our house stayed haunted. Technically.


I don’t have any clear memories of that day. Mama says Becca and I had been playing in the creek. The wind kicked up, and she came running out of the house to tell us to get out of the water. By the time we got back inside, there was a ghost sitting on every chair and three napping on Mama’s bed.


My earliest memory from that time is about Joanna. Mama and Becca had gone off somewhere. I was outside talking to the chickens. Joanna wafted over and hovered over my right shoulder. When I glanced back at her, she said something like, “Sooner or later, you all are going to be eating those chickens. The least you can do is let them preserve a shred of their former dignity.” At the time, I thought “preserve a shred of their former dignity” had something to do with what we were feeding them. “Preserve” and “shred,” you see. Anyway, I pestered Mama about it until she threatened to make me spend an entire day with Mr. Pembleton, if I didn’t leave her alone.


As you might expect, having a house full of ghosts didn’t make Becca and me popular at school. Speaking of Mr. Pembleton, he would sometimes tag along. He said his daddy had taken him out of school after fifth grade, and now that he had all this time on his hands, he saw no reason not to improve himself. Miss Brown was the only teacher to put up with him, though. She said it was because he knew so much about history, what with all those long (BORING) stories he told. Becca and I were pretty sure it was because she had a crush on him. Anyway, as soon as the principal found out that Mr. Pembleton was hanging around, scaring the other children, he’d call Mama and tell her to come get him. (more…)

At the Crossroads


So, you were saying?


— Yes. I was saying that eventually I arrived at a crossroads. I looked for a sign but didn’t find one. I decided to wait until someone passed through.


And did someone?


— No. I waited a long time. No one came.


What were you thinking?


— I was at a loss. (more…)


Moonset near Donahue Pass © Peter Essick 2010


Over the years, he had blazed a trail, tamed it, improved it. Now it carries him zigzag up the slope without difficulty, even in the darkness. Deftly sidestepping boulders, wending among the ancient trees, it asks nothing of his conscious thought. And so he can let his mind run ahead, upward to the top of the ridge and then beyond it, out into the empty air and across the shadowy valley to the lights at the limit of his vision, flickering evidence of things not seen. (more…)



Midmorning, midweek in Middle America. Single-story brick house, midway down the street. Black mailbox, dented and empty. Nondescript front door, and behind it a living room. Weary white walls, tan carpet, upholstered sofa centered below a framed picture: painting of a snug cabin beside a river, deer grazing, hillside smeared with red and orange. Seated in the middle of this sofa, directly below the picture, is a man. Average height, neither fat nor thin, eyes like muddy water. Like the bottom of a grocery bag. Like the featureless landscape on the edge of this anyplace, stretching away from four lanes of truck exhaust and greasy fried chicken. (more…)



At night, only ever at night, they arrived in twos and threes. The tinkly bell at the main gate announced them. I waited to hear Jesse’s door open and close. The murmur of his questions, their answers. If he refused them, they went away. Otherwise the hinges sang out, and they shuffled in. With them came their silent lamentation. Memories of chill mornings on empty stomachs, river crossings, shallow graves. Smells, too. Campfire smoke, unwashed bodies. (more…)