A short story by Bekah Ferguson
“Ghosts are the superstitious nonsense of heathens, son,” Pa used to say, but I’d been haunted by one in the forest behind our homestead through much of my childhood.
I was about five years old the first time I saw it. A white entity moving deep within the trees at dusk. Then again one grey afternoon a couple of years later when I was mucking out the stable, and heard a crackle of movement on dead leaves. Gripping my shovel in front of me like a protective spear, I peered into the nearby treeline from whence the sound had come.
We lived in a forest in Upper Canada, trees furrowed and thick, undergrowth prolific and tangled. In some directions you could trail-blaze for days without encountering a single trading post or homestead. Yet there it was some fifty feet within and as tall as a man: a flash of white appearing for a second between tree trunks, disappearing behind others, and reappearing again as it seemed to float along. However, though I strained to see its contours, I could not piece together its form; and as soon as it was there, it was gone.
These apparitions occurred only once or twice a year and always in the same manner: at dusk or predawn, and only when I was working quietly by myself. The times when I helped my father chop wood and gather kindle from the forest, I always kept an eye out for it, but whether due to the reverberating splitting sounds, or the trampling of twigs beneath our boots, it never showed itself when I was with him.
One harvest when I was around twelve years old and unable to contain my growing paranoia any longer, I confessed it all to my father, barely able to lift my eyes to his face. I’d been right to fear his response. He scolded me for my fright and told me not to indulge in such nonsensical fantasies again. My face grew hot and I tugged down on my cap in a futile attempt to hide the blushing.
“Don’t want you soft in the head like your mother,” he grumbled, securing a harness to our two horses, and fastening the wagon behind them as he talked. “She’s giving you ideas, I reckon, with those angel stories of hers. Claiming there’s an angel out there what wears a white cloak, and has big white wings on its back.” A sharp laugh and the scowl deepened on his scruffy face.
“The heathens believe in ghosts,” he went on, “and the Christians, well they believe in angels, that’s how it goes. Now here’s what I say. I say, where were the angels when Ma and Pa travelled here from America to build this here homestead, only to have a falling tree crush my mother’s skull? And where is her ghost, having left my father to raise what remained of our humble family all by his lonesome? If she could’ve stuck around to make sure we was all making it okay, surely she would have done.”
He lifted a sack of threshed wheat into the back of the wagon and reached for the next one in the pile. “Why a spirit would wander around out there in the woods anyhow I should like to know. What’d be the purpose?” He slapped my shoulder and I stumbled forward. “Nah, your imagination’s fooling you, that’s all there is to it. Now get yourself back to work, you know your mother’s busy with the baby. And son,”—he met my eyes with a stern look—“no more silly talk, understand?”
I nodded and he continued loading the cart for what would be a half days’ journey along corduroy roads to the village where the closest gristmill was located. There he would spend the night in an inn and return the next day. We’d nearly run out of last year’s store by this time and were eager to increase our bread consumption again. In the meantime we still had plenty of small game and root vegetables to keep us going, fruit preserves, and milk and cheese thanks to the cow.
Father was right, my mother did sometimes speak in a reverent, hushed tone about an angel she thought she’d seen in the trees; but apart from the first time when I was five and ran fearfully to her for comfort, I kept subsequent sightings to myself. First, because I didn’t think it was an angel: To me angels were in the same class as fairies and trolls. But ghosts on the other hand, being human spirits of the deceased, did seem like a metaphysical possibility. And since I could think of no logical explanation for an opaque mist weaving its way through the woods—whiter than any fog I’d yet seen—I feared it was indeed some sort of phantom.
Second, though I loved my mother very much, she was a woman after all, and I had gradually learned while tending the farm and field with my father, that he viewed women as simple and gullible, even hysterical at times. Gentle and warm to embrace when comfort was desired, but not to be trusted with matters of higher reasoning. Therefore, especially as I grew older, I did not join her in solidarity. Instead, by fearing my father’s withering disapproval—that way he had of shrinking me with nothing but a curled lip—and wanting to please him, I nurtured and feigned an outward toughness I did not feel in my heart.
In those days there was no schoolhouse close enough for me and my younger sister to attend, so mother taught us at home while caring for the baby, milking the cow, tending the vegetable garden, sewing and washing our clothes, and preparing all our meals and preserves as well. There were days when she was up before dawn and still working after dark, though her burdens did ease somewhat as my sister grew older and shared in most of her work. Particularly during planting and growing seasons, I spent my days outdoors with Father working the crop field where we grew wheat and oats; only returning to the cabin to eat and sleep. But whenever and wherever she could, mostly within the heart of winter when we had a lot more time at our disposal, Mother taught us from her crate of books while the snowdrifts climbed the outside walls of our cabin and the fields slept till spring.
My paternal grandparents had brought along a collection of textbooks and storybooks with them when they crossed the Niagara border, as well as some Alphabet cards, slate, and slate pens. From these precious commodities, along with a collection of her own, Ma taught us to read and write, along with a decent amount of geography, history, and basic arithmetic. Yet it wasn’t until my adolescent years that I took notice of the difference between her speaking ability and Pa’s. You see my father was illiterate and nowhere near as eloquent. Though my grandmother had journeyed here fully equipped to teach her children, her untimely death resulted in the school supplies remaining nailed up in a crate for twenty years, until my father married.
I’d also come to realize that far from being simple and gullible, my mother, who came from a clergyman’s family and had been taught at home as well, was quite knowledgeable—in fact, far more so than was typical for her sex—and to a degree my father could never attain due to his lack of education. His skill was in farming and mother hadn’t had much choice in eligible suitors. If not for her, I too would have been an illiterate farmer: the first schoolhouse within walking distance was not to be built until the baby was seven years old, and two more had passed through the cradle.
While my father approved of the schooling, picking up moderate amounts of knowledge himself whenever he happened to listen in, he did not seem aware that by making extra jars of preserves and medicinal herbs each year (among other things), my mother was building a small enough income to occasionally order books from the general store where we did our trading. Books that were brought in from both America and Great Britain.
Our collection grew and receiving a new book was a magical experience for my sister and me. We’d run our fingers over the cover, turning the book over slowly in our hands, inhaling the scent of the pages; and savoring every single word again and again. Sometimes I even felt a sense of sadness for my father, aware that these glorious, world-expanding words would never be anything but black marks on a page to him. Ma read to him, to all of us, of course, which he greatly enjoyed, but though she offered to teach him to read as well, he refused: not wanting to be taught by a woman “like some common child.”
Another memorable sighting of the specter took place during a harvest when the moon was full and honeyed, hanging low in the sky, and my sister had come along with a lantern to let me know that dinner was ready. I was about fourteen then if I recall, and she eleven, with a braid coiled at the nape of her neck and an apron over her dress. Father had gone inside the barn with the last sledge of stooks to be stored, and she intercepted me on the path leading away from the field. I’d no sooner spoken a word of greeting when her eyes widened and she gasped, pointing behind me.
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