There is a ghost for each crack of the child’s heart. Her ghosts are neither good nor bad. They bless, they poison, they offer deliverance through wood and poetry, through empty buckets and walking sticks. The ghosts take the form of wild beasts, of her parents, of a long hallway, a warmth pressing between her legs.

They are all things at once while reflecting her nothingness. They are born from her dreams where the she-monsters cry, where the mermaids drown, where the warm rush of his arms in the river made her see God.

We live in an unincorporated town with a busted-up post office housed in a trailer. There is a sign painted on a mossy rock that says, “This Way to Town” with a hand pointing nowhere.  There is a mountain lion that wanders the dark trail behind my house. The cat-man with hundreds of empty tin cans spilling over his deck. The vulture sits above my house, black wings spread, drying herself off against the wet night. In her vomit we find finely cracked vertebrae and delicate femurs. Down the hill are old men with crumbling cabins and dry crab nets. The river shoots creeks in every direction, usnea drips green from trees, everything is pulled in and spit out by the forest. The ocean is 9 miles and seven fence posts away.

My home is quiet. The one-way street that curves over a bridge and through bramble is rarely walked. It is hard to be distracted from matters of the heart in this forest.

The abandoned child keeps ghosts in the steam of her bath water and in the space between one song and the next. She sleeps with aberrations pulling at her wrists, she wakes with ghost kissed eyelids. They circle her patiently, blowing the hair out of her eyes, whispering moments of meaning into her lungs. She pauses in the pantry looking through empty jars of dried leaves. You used to belong, you used to belong.  

At night I have a reoccurring dream that I have snuck into my family’s home, past the taxidermied red-tailed hawk and the boar’s head, through the glass library, and on to the couch facing the garden. I have come to sleep. In my dream I am ragged from a life of insomnia. The dream always ends without sleep. My family walks in and catches me, shames me for needing refuge, and then tell me to leave.

In the morning, I sit quietly waiting for my daughter to wake. I take these moments to make coffee and prepare the coat of mothering, a coat that always needs new stitching.

In hopes of feeling less left, to ease the lines around my worried eyes, to feel the small of my hands in the large of his hands, I bring a man home. I show him the house cut in two by a fallen redwood tree. I show him the heads and torsos at the sculptor’s home. We find a torn deer leg on the trail left by the mountain lion. He pisses off my porch. We skin a snake in the creek bed; leave its body for the ravens. Shoulder, collarbone, shoulder. I bring him into my bed.

My dreams intensify around him. When he leaves in the morning, all the ghosts follow after him, so taken are they with the warm flesh of his neck. The deep wrinkles scented with dirt.

The jilted child is prophet. She sees through touch, she smells through images. At the side of your mouth she can see your thoughts before they have been formed. This is her gift, to see the future. All things must die. All things are alone… but she has this memory, this memory of being born and belonging…

The comfort of his touch reminds me of being loved. Just a faint brush against my fear, but enough to hurtle me towards the inevitable. Love is left and leaving, they sang, one in the same. Not fully understanding the architecture of my lungs, he asks me to get behind my breath. I want my ghosts back. Nail his hands to the walls, they coo, don’t wash the sheets for his smell. My ghosts threaten to leave me for him, so I chain my ghosts to the trees and asked him to go, even though I want him to stay.

The first three days after he leaves, I read about snakes and the art transmuting poison. He produced a small crack and provided an articulation to my grief that I had not yet understood. He became the faintest ghost of all, walking the woods, dragging bones and birds about him.

On the fourth day, my ribs begin to break but my eyes are clear. I stand alone in the forest, finally able to see the outline of my family. I see my mother bend down above my bed with my journal in her hand. I see my grandmother’s radio, the outline of her form as she paints hummingbirds on canvass. There is no space for silence within me, only a loud rushing. I miss my brother, perhaps most of all. I see him across the fire, holding up a fish from the sea, a gift to me that he used to bring me.

If you can see spirits then you can see the ghosts of girls walking in the woods, over the railroad tracks, pissing in plain sight. They are pulling apart your curtains, your construction sites, the wings of geese at the river’s edge. Their song is painful; their voices pitched high and unfavorably against the night’s dim light. But if you can see spirits, you will want them. You will want them more than your lovers, your family, yourself. You will chain them to trees, and make everyone leave, if only for a moment alone with them.

Kelly Gray is a writer, naturalist and educator living among the redwood trees on occupied Coast Miwok land in Northern California. She is mother to a fiery daughter, two perfect cats and one untamable dog. Her writing digs into the tension between loss and survival and what it means to decenter the human narrative during cycles of grief. She has been published in sPARKLE & bLINK, write, bitch, write!, Squat and is a Cal Arts Scholar in creative writing. On her day off, Kelly is a raptor handler who brings birds of prey into schools and public events, telling stories of falcons, owls and vultures to all who will listen. // @west_of_west

Banner image by Olivia Cronk