Some people swore the house was haunted. My uncles had told me that, but whenever I had pressed for details, they would talk about the price of cotton or peaches. We’d crane our necks when Grandmother drove past the house. At the end of an old wagon road-the place was a barely discernible mound hidden by kudzu. The porch was collapsing; the front door was a strip of black. Soon we turned up Grandmother’s tree-lined drive, up to her old, colonial brick house with white Corinthian columns. Atop one column, free from the discouragement of my grandfather’s rifle, bees had settled into the leafy wood crowns. The old plantation’s decline seemed paced by my grandfather’s long illness.
Usually, I spent summers alone with my grandparents.
This time, my brothers, Willie and Paul, were old enough to come along. I told them about the old well out back, the abandoned black smith’s shop, the smoke house with a tiny entrance for cats. We studied the empty pig corral where snouts once jutted between the boards, and I told them about the abandoned chicken house and the leaning three-story barn a tornado had sucked up, and then dropped in a heap of crumpled tin and weathered boards. The aging overseer had built a tractor shed with what was left.
I told them about old Ed. His two story, unpainted, tilt-roofed house stood between the tractor shed and the peach orchard. He’d shuffle up the back path for the slop bucket of meal leftovers and vegetable peels-offerings to the hogs. Ed died one winter when I was 10. A descendant of slaves, he had thrived 90 years on wasp-covered peaches dropped in the weeds and soup from the ‘possum my grandfather had shot in the chicken house.
Ed’s cousin, Mary, lived up the road and helped my grandmother with the cooking. Mary’s laughter fueled my story-telling. I would tell her stories from the kitchen floor while she cooked. She’d say, lawww, lawww! And shake her head laughing, her brown, bare shoulders moving up and down. When she threw her bandanna’d head back, her open mouth was as pink as bubble gum and lined with gold. I thought nothing about her gypsy-gathered neckline exposing more than her shoulders when she hoisted the vacuum. My brothers giggled and punched each other.
But this was Mary. Free. She didn’t say, “Yessum” to my grandmother, like Ed. She regarded my grandmother soulfully, as if she knew something my grandmother didn’t-something my straight-backed, Sunday school teaching grandmother with a line for a mouth, would never know.
It was Mary who knew about the ghost house.
A shortcut through the woods between the gnarled bay trees led around a lily pond thickly covered in wet, dead leaves. I had only gone as far as the edge of the woods, and studied the place from a distance. I could see windows, and that the porch had collapsed. The front door stood ajar.
Mary had said that a former overseer on a plantation that had burned long ago once lived there with his wife, an oracle. “She’d say things,” Mary said.
“What things?” I said.
“You know, talk off warts. And she knew portents. Omens.”
No one asked where we were going. We were told only to be back when we heard the old bell clang at the well house. So bare-foot, we picked our way through the ivy, around the pond and stepped from the woods, blinking in the sunlight.
“You go first,” Paul said. Delicately, I stepped onto the sagging porch and slid sideways inside the front door. Willie, unable to stand the suspense had stolen around back and climbed in through a window. Inside, the main room wasn’t as dark as it looked from the road. The room was empty and still. Light came in through the kudzu from holes in the roof and cracks in the weathered boards. Loose, empty thread spools had once served as doorknobs; floorboards were missing in the next room.
Kudzu must have held the place together during the tornado. Still, how had it stood so long and the boards not been reused? We listened to dust settling in the fields. That’s when I heard it. The whispering. I looked at Paul, then at Willie.
“Shhhh,” I said.
“What?” Willie whispered.
The walls creaked in the hot breeze.
“It’s a woman. Shhhhh. Hear that?”
Paul and Willie’s eyes grew wide. I lifted one knee and in two leaps was out of the house with both boys right behind. We ran, not toward the woods, but down the straight dirt road, zig-zagging through the strip of tall grass that split it. A day would pass before I could catch my breath and tell them what I’d heard.
There were cars on the front lawn when we got back, and Mary came out to tell us that Grandfather had fallen asleep in his recliner and not waked up.
The next day, around noon, we gathered outside as a parade of neighbors and old aunts wearing gloves and beaded, bunched black hats with netting covering their eyes, and uncles teetering on canes held tight to wadded handkerchiefs; they sighed.
“What did you hear in the ghost house?” Paul suddenly spoke up.
I squinted my eyes and looked at the cloud of bees at the top of a column.
“I heard a whisper,” I said. “It was ghostly. ” The boys watched, waiting. “It said, ‘Change with the wind.'” I drew a circle in the dirt with my toe. “Let it carrry you, ” I breathed out. “Never ever try to turrn it baack.” Paul looked at the bees. Willie watched Mary, her broom scritch-scratching on the back porch.
Later we found her in the kitchen and I told her. Paul said, “Yes, I heard it too.”
Willie said, “Me too.” Mary gathered us to her. We listened to car engines starting outside. Gravel crunching. Nothing was ever the same again after that.