Ghosthunter

By Jason BreMiller

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Father. Forgive them. For they know not what they do.

 
All I know is a door into the dark.
       – Seamus Heaney

 
My father liked the darkness. He’d often squint at us to turn down the lights, turn off the lights, and hunting mornings were no different. He’d click off the headlights a quarter mile from where we’d park, turn off the engine and coast to a stop. I remember stepping out of the warmth of the car into the cold of night, a jeweled sky and the decrescendoing tick of the radiator falling to silence. He once told me that his own father spent his evenings in the dark, in the den, drinking until he fell asleep or passed out in his recliner. Dad said he knew his father was still awake from the glow of the cigarette flicking on and off as his father inhaled. How often that light blinks in my mind’s eye.

It seems obvious to me now, of course, but for so long I never saw it: Dad carried pain—from his father mostly, but from his father’s father too—a long, black train of abuse stretching into the unseeable past. Dad avoided talking about it altogether, as if silence were just another shade of darkness he preferred.

There are only flickers of stories gleaned from my mother, who knew Dad as a boy and witnessed firsthand what everyone else in town saw, too—the chaos of cops and guns and booze. I met my great grandfather only once, when I was seven. He is only a beard and glasses in my memory, but I can still feel the withering pain from my fourth and fifth metacarpals grinding together in the crush of his handshake. And the story goes that when my grandfather was young, his father electrified the bed so that it would shock his genitals if he wet the bed, and then displayed the soiled sheets in the front yard for all to see. In turn, my grandfather turned to drink and the litanies of darkness that follow. I remember the faded La-Z-Boy pocked with circular burns. In his turn, and in an effort to stave off the chaos, my father gravitated to the Army, to religion and bodybuilding, to all the variations of order he believed would save him. In an effort to break the chains, Dad built his body to mythical proportions (think Arnold, think Hulk or He-Man) and followed suit with the kind of muscular Christianity where God roots for football teams and chooses sides in war. I think he believed he’d broken them, too.

On hunting mornings, Dad worried that the light of a headlamp might signal our presence to the deer we sought, and so we moved through those woods in the dark to our treestand, blackness closing around us like a draped blanket. We’d wait for our eyes to adjust so we could make out a path through the vertical lines of trees, and I’d follow him into the November mornings, arms stretched out in front of me, watching his footsteps and trying to place my feet in the exact same place. I aimed for the little puddles of darkness, depressions in the leaves made by his boots. His steps were always silent, and I knew I could step without fear of snapping a branch that would alert the deer to our presence, without fear of risking a disapproving glance for having given us away.

When my father was 13, he took his recurve into the woods beside his house for deer. I imagine him small with serious eyes, moving through the trees in morning shadows, stepping heel to toe so as not to snap a branch obscured beneath the leaves, careful to test each landing before shifting his full weight onto the step. He keeps his fingertips curled around the bowstring as he walks, feeling the satisfying tautness of the draw. Up past the hill, along the stone wall that hinges the swamp, he wanders upon an old forked maple where the wall thins and deer cross and thinks, here. Then lifts a stone, rounded and flat, and wedges it deep within the crook of that tree. Propping himself higher, he taps the stone down, seating it in place—a small platform on which to stand, like my grandfather taught him. He stands there on the stone in the crook of that maple, feeling the slow sway of its limbs press against his shoulders in the breeze, in the dark, listening to the forest fall to silence but for the sporadic scraping of mice beneath him and the lowing of cows carrying across the meadow. He closes his eyes and feels the stillness of the morning, opening them to note the quickening light in the east. I wonder what he thinks as he waits. Does his mind wander to his father as mine does to him when I hunt, or do the myriad beauties of the forest take over? Does he smile when the sun crests the horizon and light slants across the field turning the tamaracks to fire?

When I was young, I was so religious I played soccer with my eyes closed. Pray without ceasing, the Bible said, and so that’s what I did. 

When I was young, I was so religious I played soccer with my eyes closed. Pray without ceasing, the Bible said, and so that’s what I did. I wandered around the field blind like some dolt playing Marco Polo in the middle of a soccer game, and when I heard the play approaching, I would think, “Okay, God, hold on juuuust one second,” at which point I’d flick open my eyes, boot the ball away as far as I could, and snap my eyes closed to start praying again. “Okay, here I am, God.” Our family was so religious I wasn’t allowed to watch the Smurfs on television. Gargamel? Bald guy with a black cloak? Gravely voice, stirring the cauldron on the fire? Yeah. I know: Satan worshipper. Who knew? Who knew? If it wasn’t absolutely true, these quips might read like the staccato punchlines of “yo momma” jokes: “I was so religious, I spoke in the tongue of angels; I was so religious, I fasted for a week, yo; I was so religious I shaved my head in a gesture of holy self-abni-GATION.”

I toted my picture Bible around in elementary school like a textbook, flipping through those animated stories at the lunch table the way my kids Rosie and Alden read The Lorax now. One day, at recess, third grade, huddled on the pavement in a corner of the basketball court with a cluster of friends, I saw the stern face of Mrs. Grady loom over our circle, wrinkling her brow to discern what it was that held us so rapt. From the angle of that brow, she must have thought it something illicit. But no, just little old me evangelizing my fellow third graders, poring over that Bible, believing their souls hung in the balance. Be ye therefore perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.

One of those pictures, though, held more power for me than the rest. I can still see the pastel colors of that comic book window: A small boy riding a donkey, led on a tether by the boy’s father into the mountains. A trip, the father had said to the son. Time together.

The story goes like this: God decides to test Abraham’s faith by instructing him to kill his only son as proof of his loyalty to God. So Abraham takes his son Isaac into the wilderness to do the deed, but just before he thrusts the knife into his son’s chest, an angel stays his strike. “Now I know you love me,” God says. “Yay!” It’s the most messed up story in the Bible, and my father told it to me repeatedly.

I imagine Abraham moved quickly to shorten the trauma. His hand a vise on his son’s arm, pulling him in with a single poetic motion, binding his limbs, steering him to the makeshift altar where he drew his knife from its sheath for the fatal plunge. I imagine Isaac’s surprise at the betrayal, his mind grasping to make sense.

To me, those powerful arms roped with muscle in the picture looked an awful lot like my dad’s. I remember feeling confused. Something feels off to me about this story. So one day, I asked him. “Dad, what if God told you to, say, kill me?” I played it off like it was no big deal, like it was just a question, while I anticipated his possible response: I would never do that or Don’t worry, not going to happen, JB. But no. He looked at me and said, “We are always to obey God’s commands.” What I heard was, “Boy, you’re toast.”

And so when I followed my father into the woods those hunting mornings, a corner of my mind believed that he might kill me, that this morning God might test my dad’s faith just like he tested Abraham’s. I saw how it would go: he’d stop in the leaves as if listening for a buck’s grunt. He’d turn then, drawing his gutknife from its sheath. Only this time the angel of the Lord might not stay his hand.

But I followed him into the darkness anyway, every time. I follow him still. Yet though he slay me, still will I follow him.

Dad knew his way around a knife, too, so what I imagined wasn’t too far a leap from kneeling with him in the morning light, in the leaves, bloody to our elbows as we worked the blade along the belly of a buck. He’d pry open the ribcage to peer inside the chest, fishing around inside until he found the heart. “See?” he’d say, holding it up. “See?

 

There’s one more story I want to tell. We’re moving from Pennsylvania to Connecticut. I’m six and I’ve helped my mom move items stacked in the living room of our old house out the front door, down the walk, up the corrugated aluminum ramp, and into the recesses of the rented U-Haul. I remember measuring the progress we made by the decreasing number of steps into the truck it took to deposit the stuff, and by the light that poured in more brightly onto the outer lip of the tailgate.

Bumping along through the darkness, the U-Haul lurches its way over a rutted back road overhung with maples heavy with spring leaves that swish in the passing airblast. They brush the truck’s canopy as we rattle by, knocking the spring-loaded antenna sideways with a reverberating twang. Even though it’s evening and only late spring, the air is summer-hot, and my legs cling to the vinyl seats like duct tape.

Dad stares out the windshield, gripping the oversized steering wheel with one hand, draping his wrist over its curved apex so that his fingers dangle against the instrument panel. He splays his fingers into the wind as if reaching to snatch something from the road, or waving to a passerby. The hum of the truck’s engine is the only sound, and the gearshift vibrates in the space between our knees. There’s not much to say, so we just ride, looking ahead, or to the side, where my hand plays out the window, too, planing through the breeze, riding the currents up and down as dad accelerates down the road into the darkness.

Dad pulls his left hand through the window and cranks it closed, then grips the wheel, shifting the right hand to the truck’s seat where it rests in the space between us. For a moment, I wonder if we’re going to hold hands. He pivots, orienting himself so that his knees cant inward, toward the middle of the truck, in the manner of one who has something to say and who makes that fact known by addressing you physically before any words are exchanged. But he says nothing, and we ride on in silence, like before, his body contorted across the seat, tilting his head to the side, looking me over from the slant, shifting his eyes from me to the road and back again to keep us going straight.  

“How do you know I’m your father?” he breaks the silence. As he speaks, his hand moves to reach deep into his pocket, where I can see the impression of his fingers walking beneath the fabric against his thigh. “Tell me, how do you know I’m really your father?” His voice ticks over “really,” elongating it so that it makes me think of the slippery thing that lives in the ocean and can shock you dead if you touch it. And yet this time, as he says it, he pulls his wrist out of his pocket, his fingers clasping something buried in his palm. I know what it is before I see it. A quick snap of his wrist, a decisive flick of his thumb, and I know there’s a blade. I hear it snap into place before I catch the glint of steel in the moonlight.

I couldn’t name it then, but I felt the surety and ease of childhood seep out of my head like an emptying bathtub. Something sagged inside. I believed this man was not my father, that he was an imposter, that all the moments of tenderness and care—the storytelling, the frontyard knee-football and fishing trips, late night stories, piggybacks up the stairs to bed, rough beardscrape kisses—were all parts of some elaborate ruse brought to now.

I glance at the door handle. It’s unlocked. Dad continues to flick his gaze from me to the road, testing my reaction, watching me clench back the tears beginning to pool.

But I followed him into the darkness anyway, every time. I follow him still. Yet though he slay me, still will I follow him.

A cool morning this past July. Low clouds lean into the shoulder of Bald Mountain obscuring the view upmeadow so all we can see are the silhouettes of apple trees and the darker backdrop where the forest rises to the south. I’ve just wedged my son Alden into the backpack, pulling up the sunshade to shield him from branches and dew. His feet dangle in the stirrups, and my daughter Rosie holds her hiking pole at the ready, little intrepid adventurer that she is. Our goal for the day: bushwack up Gray Brook to where it intersects the Bald Mountain Trail. We douse ourselves in bug spray before heading west through an aperture where last year we watched a black bear gulp early spring grass, where the forest path wends its way through a stand of balsam. Rosie’s walked this line before, helping me blaze our property boundary with red paint, and now she calls out with glee the tufts of orange forestry ribbon and the rectangular blazes as she catches sight of them through the tangle of understory: striped maple and hobblebush, black and yellow birch. “Dad,” she points. “Got one!”

I’m amazed by how much Rosie knows at five, by how much she’s absorbed already from our time in the woods together. She calls out spider webs glinting in the angled light, the names of birds and trees and tracks embedded in streambank mud. She suggests which direction they’re headed (“That way, Dad!”) and what they were up to (“Heading for the den!”). And even when she’s wrong, she adheres to her declarations with the staunchness of a politician, as if I’m the one who’s crazy. “Daaaad, that’s not a hawk [it is], it’s a crow [it’s not]. Silly Dada.” Our going is slow, but that’s okay. In fact, it’s the point.

We move along the brook with space for my mind to wander. I’m watching Rosie pick her way along, feeling the heat of the day and thinking about what we’ve done here. Who buys a yurt on 160 acres way up here in the northwoods of Vermont when you could be paying off your car or saving for college?

Rosie and Alden call it the “Round House,” and it’s just that: a circular tent without edges. The yurt sits on the downslope of a meadow, looking uphill to the south. A blunt ridge rings us like the lip of a bowl, running north-south, then curving to the west—a cupped hand on the east shoulder of Bald Mountain, the highest peak in the region. A place. A wild place to contemplate our inheritances and to establish them for our children. A place to redraw the maps. To follow the blood trails where they lead. As Rosie begins to move again, she turns toward me, arms akimbo. She draws an exaggerated breath and exclaims, “Dad, it smells so beautiful,” before she turns and presses into the brush.

 

Sunrise.

The acrid bite of too-strong coffee jolts me to attention as I welcome the sun’s first rays into the meadow bowl. A cold morning in late September. Silver grass frosted stiff. I pick up the maul, feeling its heft at the end of the shaft, and repeat aloud the words of Frost, as I always do, before I swing: “You’d think I had never felt before the weight of an axehead poised aloft. The grip on earth of outspread feet. The life of muscles rocking soft and smooth and moist in vernal heat.” I feel close to him, to Frost, we New Hampshireites swinging away across the years. As I feel close to my father when I carry a bow or a gun.

I split ten lengths, then stack them between birches before the pile grows too large. Bending low to grab two chunks at a time, smelling the wood, the morning, it all in the rhythm of movement. My mind feels loose in the freedom of it. No phone in my pocket. No emails or texts pinging away with a thousand interruptions. Just me and my body and a task and my mind between with some elbow room. I’m thinking, thinking. Thinking of my father, of my wife, my son and daughter, feeling joy in the memories and the movements. And suddenly I feel a small fracture in my mind, the clichés, the phrases of my youth flooding in, mantra-like in the morning: you must lose yourself to find yourself; be ye therefore perfect as your father in heaven is perfect; yet though he slay me, still will I follow him; father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Father. Forgive them. For they know not what they do.

And suddenly I’m crying in the morning coolness, standing there with two lengths of ash in my palms. I’m thinking of my father, thinking of them before, of all the men and all the words ever spoken. All the words ever spoken, all the stories ever told and written flowing downhill to this moment on earth, to this confluence of all time, and past, through me, on downhill, away. The edges are gone. The blade is dull. It doesn’t matter anymore. We are rolling, roiling, tumbling down to the great confluence, to the ocean of space and time where our stories are all the same. Maybe that’s it. Could it possibly be this simple?

For most of my life, I’ve been afraid of my father, afraid that he might kill me, afraid of disappointing him, afraid that the lineages of darkness that have plagued my family for generations would manifest themselves in me despite my best efforts to keep them at bay. But suddenly, in this moment, palming ash in a field, I know the lightness of putting something heavy down carried for a long time—a backpack or a millstone—where I feel my shoulders rise skyward of their own accord. As if I had wings. Maybe it’s the image of my son, Alden, sitting in my father’s lap just this week, planting his bald head with a field of kisses, or maybe it’s been this way for longer than I’ve realized and I am just seeing it now; but suddenly I’m aware that I’m not scared of my father anymore. “My love you, Bpa!” Alden says as he bends to peck Dad’s shorn head one more time.

I know what it is before I see it. A quick snap of his wrist, a decisive flick of his thumb, and I know there’s a blade.

A decade ago my father bought the property next to the house where he grew up and built a house on the hill overlooking it. It’s the property where he set the stone in the maple all those years before. On a late fall or winter day, he can look down on his childhood home from his kitchen window. At the time, I criticized him. Why would he choose to live so close to the site of such haunting? Why build your home here of all places? But now I see that maybe he’s just keeping the ghosts close enough to watch. And who can blame him for that?

A few years ago, near the end of the hunting season after we both had taken deer and the last November leaves had fallen, Dad and I went looking for the stone he placed in the maple all those years ago. He had been telling me the story once again, and I asked him if he remembered the spot. “Sure,” he shrugged, “it must still be there.” So we walked the length of the wall along the swamp, looking for the place where the stones thinned for the deer to cross. We scrambled up every forked maple, peering into their crotches, and sure enough, there it was: a heartstone grown tight into that nook of tree 50 years after he set it home.

I visited that stone every fall for three years, a small homage to the past, to my father, and when I returned in the fourth year, I found the tree split, one massive arm broken off and lying on the ground, the heartstone exposed, and I helped it along with a crowbar to sit on my classroom table, one side stained black from detrital rot, a reminder that what is set is not always set, that we can pry loose the stones of our past and place them anew.

 

I think of men swaying in trees in the dark, of all the men swaying in trees in the dark. I touch the hearts of all men who have ever swayed in trees in the dark.

 

 

Jason BreMillerJason BreMiller teaches English and directs the Environmental Literature Institute at Phillips Exeter Academy in seacoast New Hampshire. He serves on the Board of Trustees at the Northwoods Stewardship Center in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where he and his wife and small children spend as much time as possible.

Header photo by smallurbanlife, courtesy Shutterstock.

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