“The Pleasure of Company: A Ghost Story,” is the last story in my collection, Birds of a Feather, published by Wiseblood Books. It is set in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1880, when ghosts from the Civil War still roamed in the heads of some who served as soldiers.
To say that war changes a person is surely an understatement. The ghosts of any war linger for a lifetime in the heads of those who fought it—-and some, like the soldier and his wife in this story, find the ghostly battles of the mind even more ominous than the war itself. Except, this is also a love story; one in which the opportunity to forgive an enemy (which might be oneself) is offered, but you’ll have to read it to learn whether that opportunity is actually taken.
Here’s an excerpt from the story.
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THE PLEASURE OF COMPANY: A Ghost Story
A year ago, when she could not bear to speak to a soul, when she did not comb her hair or wash her face or dab herself with lavender water, or wear her corset (because any underclothing cut off her breath), Julia began the night walks into the woods, taking off her gown and lying upon the ground beneath the ancient oak. But neither the cooling breeze upon her breasts nor the sparkle of stars kissing the leaves to silver against the dark sky lifted her melancholy. The night walks have become her futile attempt to make sense of meanness. Still Julia cannot fathom a reason for the death of her child; still she has no face for Hattie’s murderer.
Clara and I come.
We follow her home. The next morning, Clara and I watch as Joseph, Julia’s husband, instructs Esther to, “Restart the clocks, uncover the mirrors, and draw open the curtains in Miss Julia’s bedroom.”
Julia protests. “Joseph, it’s too soon.”
“It’s been a year, exactly,” Joseph says, motioning Esther to begin. He is tall and thin, with a once pleasant face, now pinched by sorrow and the worry of a much older man.
The old black woman, Julia’s childhood nurse, carefully lifts the customary black satin from the mirror on the dressing table. The light causes Julia to shut her eyes and lower her chin into the high-necked collar of her funeral dress, made from the same bolt of satin that covered the windows and mirrors. Every night, Esther washes and irons it for Julia because she’ll wear nothing else.
“What if Hattie’s spirit has been trapped behind the mirror?” Julia asks.
“The covering of mirrors is just superstition,” Joseph says. “Hattie has not been trapped. She has not been kept from Heaven.”
Clara and I hear and understand his thinking; that the only trapped spirit is Julia’s, and he desperately wants to help it escape.
He motions Esther out of the room so he can be alone with his wife. In the uncovered glass, her unkempt brown hair hangs about her oval-shaped face. Her narrow shoulders slump forward and her opaque eyes, once buoyantly blue with the promise of a happy life, are as tarnished as neglected silver. He has to do something meaningful soon, before he loses her forever.
Yesterday, he suggested a dinner party. Once, she loved celebrations. “The dinner party is what you need, Julia,” he reminds her. “You’ve not had the pleasure of company for more than a year.” He bends to kiss her cheek, but she shies away from him as she has come to do, giving a bitter wince at the touch of his fingers on the nape of her neck.