Haunt

by Theresa Hottel Read author interview June 18, 2018

Well, what is the function of a ghost?

In the mud pond that bordered the north pasture, they had hunted tadpoles. The little girl and her little sister, standing knee-deep in brown water, dresses tied up around their waists. They were waving their fat hands in the water, feeling the black specks flick over their palms, watching the wriggling, gummy shapes appear to distort in the slosh.

The little one asked the big one what would happen if you drank the water. The big one told the little one she was gross. They were barefoot walking home, dark dots darting in their cupped hands.

Then it happened, something like this: Big sister looked over her shoulder as the sun set, and she saw little sister disappear.

*

Here is a memory: Sitting on the porch with Grandpa as he told her of the Boogeyman. The night pushing in around them. The sad wind through the trees. Grandpa’s slow breathing beside her, the creak of his wicker rocking chair.

The Boogeyman waits just outside the porch light. The Boogeyman hunts little girls who step outside their homes. He lives on the wild edges of the farm. He sleeps all day and lurks by night. He is waiting to lure you away from your life.

A sweet sadness. A homesickness. This is what comes from that memory, from a point far removed in time and place. Perhaps this memory never happened, she thinks from the future. Perhaps it is a conflation of many memories, fears, and hopes. She remembers looking out into the world and thinking often about the Boogeyman. Thinking about him was like thinking about possibility. Looking out into the dark night at all the places you might go.

After her little sister’s disappearance she lay at night between her grandparents, the only parents she had ever known. She lay between them like a small log. Grandma lay ramrod straight. Grandpa breathed loudly through his mouth. Sounds of the night drifted through the open window: leaves rustling, bugs chirping, cows mooing. Wolves howling, in the far distance. Perhaps the howl of a dear sister, running through the night with her new friend and mentor Boogeyman, who had taken her as his apprentice, who was teaching her to hunt with wolves and shed her skin.

Grandpa’s arm would fall upon her chest. It was a heavy weight, and warm. His skin was rough. She liked to pick his limp arm up, laboriously, and cradle it like a baby. Sometimes she would pump it up and down, pretending to lift weights. Sometimes she would spread his hand over her face, so that her eyes were nestled in his fingers, like eggs in a nest. She would bat her lashes fast against his hand. His palm, unlike his hairy arm, was cool on her forehead. In his sleep he might tap his fingers on her head.

She dreamed of the Boogeyman’s lair where her sister lived, in a dam over the creek at the edge of the farm. Her parents lived there too. They were all picnicking together through the night.

*

When she loses her fourth tooth she tells no one but keeps it safe in her mouth all through suppertime. She had once swallowed a tooth. It came loose as she chewed an apple. Before she knew it, it was gone, but Grandpa still gave her a silver dollar.

But this tooth, on this night, she spits hot and sharp into her palm, and when the clock strikes twelve she slips out beneath Grandpa’s arm to stand by the lace curtain at the kitchen window, looking out at the porch and the darkness beyond. In her mind she casts herself over the land, peering into the mud pond where the tadpoles sleep and the thicket where the wolves lurk, and even farther, as her mind-self flies through the night across the pastures, her bare feet skating on the waving grass.

She goes until she comes to the creek, the border between this world and the next. Here, she buries the tooth and waits for the Boogeyman to come. She tries to guess if she is awake or not, if this is really happening. The wind is cold upon her arms. The Boogeyman never comes and so she lies down by the buried tooth and falls asleep, but in the night she feels a touch on her shoulder.

It is her little sister, and the sun is bright and golden. Her sister has thirty-two shining white adult teeth, and a green shoot sprouting from her head. The farmhouse is small and getting smaller in the distance. “What’s that?” her little sister asks, nodding toward the house. She is caressing the green leaves of her head. She is digging her feet into the moist earth. She is planted.

“Nothing,” big sister says. “Let’s have a picnic.”

*

When she woke up it was the future. She had somehow skated over everything that could ever be, so that she saw the whole world was like a farm: here was the house, here was the thicket, there the mud pond, and farther off the creek. And within these careful patches she saw her life wound back and forth, out into the stars in both directions, above the water and below, outside the windows and inside.

She has the thought now that she is the Boogeyman, and she is the little sister. She is the tadpole at the bottom of the brown soup mud pond ocean. She is a squirming body waiting to be plucked by fat small hands. She wants to go back, her eyes in a finger nest, a soft hand tapping on her head.

She puts her grown up hand on someone else’s sleeping forehead. She paces her apartment, city sounds drifting through the open window.

She eats an apple, swallows the seed, rubs her head, feels better.

About the Author:

Theresa Hottel is an MFA candidate in fiction writing at Columbia University. She received her BA at Oklahoma City University where she won the Kimberly Fuller Award for Creative Writing. She is currently working on a novel about ghosts and the Dust Bowl.

About the Artist:

Find more of Luis Del Río Camacho's photography at Unsplash.