I’m Lauren, I was lucky enough to be a part of Dr. Pancake’s class in Spring 2021. We talked so much about what it means to be an Appalachian and how conflicting that can be. We truly created a community within that classroom, a communal discussion and support group where we shared our fears and hopes for our world and our futures. Dr. Pancake introduced us to beautiful Appalachian stories and characters, and I was so inspired every Tuesday and Thursday morning.
I’ve always written stories, ever since I was very young and asked my mom how to spell words for my sentences. But I’d never, not ever written about Appalachia. Not until I took Dr. Pancake’s class and started getting ideas for a new story, a story with a thick-trunked tree at the end of a dirt road and a boy’s spirit tethered there. A story formed, and I ended up using it as my final project for ENGL 352. And I didn’t stop there– I kept writing, kept expanding it, which was rare for me. I was used to writing short stories and leaving them. But this was a larger piece, and I knew it.
One of the biggest themes we talked about in Dr. Pancake’s class was the conflicting emotions we felt for Appalachia. There is love, and there is grief. Undoubtedly, a deep love, especially since I grew up here and only have ever known here. A pride for the land, and the traditions, and everyone who has walked the earth before me. But there is also a deep sense of grief. The sorrow that comes as we watch earth being shattered before our eyes and our fellow Appalachians starve or live in poverty. There’s that sense of helplessness, too.
And it wasn’t until I took Dr. Pancake’s class that I realized these two battling emotions, love and grief, that was exactly how I had felt my entire life. I had just never put it into words before. And those two themes are the centerpiece of my story, now something of a cross between a novel or novella.
My work focuses on the protagonist, Ash, a young boy growing up in the middle of nowhere, Appalachia, in the early 1980s. He lives with his obsessive father and has just, only months ago, lost his older brother. Ash was the one that found his brother, dead to the world, next to their favorite sycamore tree. His brother, Fox, had a mysterious head wound, but no known suspects. And everyday following his death, Ash walks the lonely road to the sycamore, where he can see his older brother’s ghost. He can only see it there.
I wanted my work to encapsulate the love and grief we as Appalachians feel for the earth. After Fox died, the only way that Ash could see his brother, just the wisp of his brother, was at this tree. And so, he feels those two profound feelings all at once. There is love: love for this sacred tree, love for the earth, a deep love for his older brother, his best friend, the fact that he can still see him at all. And there is senseless, powerful grief. His brother is dead. He’s all alone. He knows that he’ll never be able to see Fox in the same way. So, just that devastation.
So, Ash feels these insanely contradictory emotions about the tree, in the same way that Appalachians feel toward their land. The beauty and the horror. The love and the hate. The pride and the frustration. I wanted that to be the center of the entire work.
So, I have two portions from the novel. One is from the first chapter, where we first meet Fox’s ghost at the tree, and one from a little short interlude. Both are parts that I think symbolize this sense of love and grief. Thank you.
Excerpt from Ghosts
It was strange, but the old sycamore tree at the end of the street held my entire life in its branches. Summer and winter, growth and decay, life and death. It used to be Fox’s favorite spot. Then it was mine.
It was nearly a mile to get there, though: past all the houses in our dusty neighborhood, vibrant in the swing of summer. I walked past all the clotheslines and clothespins, clothes ballooning and collapsing in the wind, all the crawling weeds and bone-dry soil, all the yelling kids running around with shirts either three times too big or three times too small. Past weather-beaten trucks and sweating grandmothers and screened-in porches with creaky, chipped floorboards. Past dead, yellow grass and chattering mamas and sticky-faced toddlers clutching at ankles. I kept my head down, feeling the mountains’ eyes on my back.
The road eventually turned to nothing but dirt and dust, and that’s how you knew you were nearly there. Just a little way further, to where it was quiet and no words could reach you. Just you and the trees and the dust at your feet.
And there it was, the old sycamore. It was thick with life, wind coursing through the branches, time peeling away the brown bark. I could look all the way up, tilt my head the whole way back, and still not see the top. Fit right in with the giants, silent and solemn and slow.
I had to keep myself from running to it that day, a restless rustling burning through my limbs. I wanted to see Fox so badly my chest hurt.
He always took his time, though. It was a waiting game. A waiting and praying game. So I sat against the strong trunk that day and tried to calm my pounding heart. The wood was steady at my back, sticky with heat. Overgrown grass clutched at my bare calves; lazy bugs floated by my nose. There was only the rustling of leaves in my ears and the cool breeze on my cheeks. I closed my eyes and leaned in.
The next time I opened them, my brother Fox was sitting next to me.
“Jesus,” he murmured. He was squinting at my cheek. He had the worst eyesight when he was alive, mainly with reading and close-up stuff, and I guess it carried over to his spirit, too. Mama always said he needed glasses, but every time he got a pair, he’d either break them or lose them. Eventually, Mama gave up, and so Fox was a permanent squinter.
“Benny Brewster,” I told him. Suddenly my cheek didn’t hurt as bad.
Fox scowled and stared at his knees. His fingers twisted in the blades of grass.
There was no word for it, how I felt when Fox appeared: my brother, alive again, eyes just as green and hair just as wild as the last time I saw him. His jeans were all torn up, his black sneakers falling apart, his arms taut underneath his worn blue sweatshirt. It was the same outfit he had been wearing the night we found his body. I guess he didn’t really need to change clothes anymore. Guess he didn’t need much of anything anymore.
“You gotta stop lettin’ him beat up on you like that,” Fox told me. “The ol’ one two, like we practiced, remember?” His finger hovered for a moment next to my cheek. Then something in him went cold, and he clenched his fist instead. “Ain’t right, Ash, ‘n you know that.”
I had no words to give him, his appearance alone being enough, much more than enough, so I let the rough bark graze my head as I gazed upwards at the blue sky.
“If I’d a been there,” Fox muttered. “Woulda punched the livin’ hell right out of him, I would’ve.”
A glow was spreading somewhere in my chest. I watched the thin clouds as they drifted above me, soft and slow. The sun was warm on my cheeks. I took a deep, slow breath and let the corners of my mouth drift up.
Our legs stretched out in front of us, thighs grazing. Silence settling. I suddenly wished Fox would hug me. He used to reach out every night before bed and just embrace me, even when we got older and I’d flush with shame. I tried to remember what that felt like, having Fox around all the time. Arms, strong and warm, wrapped around me. Safe in my older brother’s embrace, even without Mama, even with Dad petrified on the couch. But I had to let the feel of his leg against mine be enough. I was real careful with this version of Fox: asking too much of him might overwhelm him, make him wilt away like an old flower. And there was no way I could deal with that.
“How’s Dad doin’?” My brother asked me.
One cloud was slowly making its way across the face of the sun. “Same as always.”
“That bad, huh?”
I let out a sigh that I didn’t know I was holding. Turned so that I was facing Fox.
“What all can you see during the day? Where do you go?”
He frowned at me. “Ash, I told you I can’t tell you. Wouldn’t make sense in words, anyways.”
I thought of Charlie’s shiny trombone. I thought of the thud in my bones as I hit the ground, the dust that floated into the air. I thought of the exhaustive heat of the school bus. The relentless stream of everyday life. “But can you see us? Can you see—”
A sharp crack rang out from somewhere above us. Fox gave me a startled look, his green eyes like saucers. Then I blinked, and he was gone.
I found Fox on a cold night in November.
He was lying flat on his back, arms sprawled carelessly at his sides. Gazing straight up. His head was only inches away from the sycamore, his body nestled in the overgrown grass.
I thought for a fleeting moment that he was just staring at the stars, his green eyes wide and glassy. But he didn’t stir when I called his name or brushed his arm. He just kept staring. Then I realized he wasn’t staring at anything at all.
And everything suspended.
Somehow time returned, but only as a moment, a long and endless and singular moment that tore the feeling from my limbs, a moment that sent me to my knees and wrenched a cold, cold gasp of air from somewhere in my lungs. I stayed in that moment, that moment separate from time itself, life itself, just neverending cold in my gut and tears on my cheeks and the blueish tinge on Fox’s still face. I tried to say his name. I tried to say my brother’s name. I thought, if I could just get it out, push that one word out into the moment, break the binds of the terror, speak it into life and toward the orange leaves above, that somehow he’d move, twitch his foot or tilt his head, sit up and blink at me and right the world with his crooked grin.
But I couldn’t make a sound.
It was only much later—seconds, minutes of pure eternity—and long after the blue and red lights finally blinked out of my vision, after the shrill sirens were only distant echoes, after the neighbors’ hissing and crying finally moved behind their screen doors, after Dad forgot to lock our front door like he usually did and sat himself numbly on the couch, after I finally crawled into bed and watched the shadows dance on my walls, that I did it.
“Fox,” I whispered to the ceiling. Then I watched the shadows until the sun sent them running.
They buried him. Scratched his name onto a headstone and lowered him down into the dirt.
Moses “Fox” Foster. 1972-1987. Loved and cherished.
They sang hymns and held hands. Somber and slow. I stood there, inches away from Dad, his clammy hand weakly grasping my shoulder. Black jacket loose around my shoulders, sleeves rolled back twice. Wondered how I should arrange my face, where I was supposed to put my hands. They seemed to be doing all the weeping and moaning for me, the nameless faces dressed in black all the way up to their necks, clutching their cross necklaces and hushing their whining kids. Like some sort of swarm, singing and whispering and nodding. Buzzing, on and on.
No one knew what had happened. Least of all me. And the not knowing, it crept in everywhere, slid into whispers and sank into searching glances and rested somewhere in my Dad’s weak grip. Fox was dead, but there were no answers. No reasons or explanations or misgivings. None at all. Just the buzzing.
With a dull thud, the box hit the earth. My father shifted somewhere behind me.
I couldn’t look. Couldn’t even move. I just watched the black shoes and rustling grass. Just listened to the buzzing and wondered if Fox heard it, too.
Lauren Pauley is a recent graduate of West Virginia University and currently works as a copywriter. She hopes to become a published fiction author one day.