Cara Ellen Modisett


A distant prospect: a vista.*

I’ve never yet seen a ghost, but not for lack of trying. They move through old spaces, along floors that have borne the weight of so many people over the years, throwing open doors that have been shut, opening windows to air out stuffy rooms.

There’s something in old houses, in large old houses, with high ceilings and unused parlors and unexpected hallways, steep back stairways that connect kitchens with drafty Victorian bedrooms, deep shadowed attics and cellars that seem carved out of rock. I’ve stood in front of mirrors in old hotels at midnight, waiting for silent guests in hoopskirts or flapper dresses to appear. I have fallen in love with an old cottage by the sea where we stay in the spring, turning on the art deco wall sconces in the evenings to read, studying the bric-a-brac on the built-in shelves with their glass-paneled cabinet doors, sleeping upstairs in an old bed under warm blankets with a window to the east, view soaring over the dunes to the ocean, over the ocean to the sky, which darkens the water to deep green when storms are coming in, that same green ocean that took fishermen away forever, and hid German U-boats in its depths, while the cottagers along the shore blacked their windows in the war.

At my grandparents’ farmhouse, I’ve looked through the kitchen windows, out to the side yard, the spring house, the hill with the cemetery, waiting for my father, five years old, to run past.

In the attic, two floors above the kitchen, long iron rods are stretched taut from one side of the building to the other, holding the chimneys steady, as if all the years inside might push them apart, walls collapsing outward, spilling ghosts, and music from the old box piano, and my grandfather’s creaky voice and my uncle’s quiet, slightly sad laugh and my grandmother’s wavery sweet voice, the rumble of the threshing machines, the lowing of cows in the pasture beyond the yard and the cicadas singing in the hot summer – they might all overflow in a quiet cacophony of dreams.

A plan, sketch, map. A faint or shadowy representation.

Years ago, when a friend of mine visited from Germany, we decided to go to Galax, a small town in southwest Virginia where musicians have kept on playing without the town turning into Bristol or Nashville. Every summer it hosts the Old Fiddler’s Convention, which I have still never experienced, but it is legend – a near-week of competitions and concerts where the real music happens after dark – not the headliners, or the play-offs, but the campsite jam sessions, where amateurs and professionals may sit down next to each other to pick tunes, where you never know who might step out of the darkness, into the firelight, to listen or join in.

Weekends the rest of the year, the Fairview Ruritan hosts live music. I’ve spent more daylight hours in Galax, gotten to know its barbecue, its antique shops, a bookstore, the hospitality of one of the town’s matriarchs, a widow with a small grand piano in her living room and a little cabin right next to her house, where I’ve slept nights under quilts and let the screen door slam behind me.

My friend and I decided not to take the interstate, but instead be guided by a DeLorme Virginia Gazetteer, one of those wonderful red-bound books that divides the state into quadrants, and you can follow the ridgelines and peaks of mountains, the paths of creeks, the forest roads and crossroads, the names that aren’t attached to any towns anymore, just to a long time ago, a history, a once-owner, a now-ghost.

Through no fault of the gazetteer, we ended up driving through woods and along dirt roads, past bullet holes in handmade signs (one read “PRAY TO GOD,” and we weren’t sure whether or not to laugh anymore), and finally worked our way out of the trees, ending up in Galax too late to find the music. Every turn, every crossroads, every odd little route traced on those pages exists. But the lines on the map didn’t show us the thick trees, or where the hardtop changed to gravel, how deep the shadows grew by evening. We plunged into an unknown, complex country, translating the tiny numbers and crooked lines on paper, and though we were too late, we reached where we meant to go, and, unexpectedly, where we meant to get there by, proving once again the old cliché that the journey is sometimes more important than the destination.

A compendium, epitome.

These places have been worlds to me:

A small white church along the Leaksville Road, the mountains distant blue ridges beyond. A line of trees I remember as cedars or some other rough-barked, dark-needled trees stands behind the structure, but there are few trees among the gravestones.

A hillside I have climbed twice in my life, rising up from creek and spring to the edge of the farm, its unseen skeleton the deep ribs and clavicles of limestone, foramen of caves, a cemetery near its top, a cornfield, a view of the farmhouse, the trees so old their roots drape over the rock that breaks the ground in the thinner places.

Silent first flight through mountains of clouds, cumulus that reached up higher than my ten-year-old mind could understand. I knew they were vapor, unfallen rain, but they looked solid enough to walk on. Below, river after thin thread of river wound past, and I asked my parents if each was the Mississippi. When that great old channel finally emerged from the horizon, my questions became laughable. It was vast, wide, a massive force of water, not a thread. We passed over mountains with snow on them, over farmland divided into squares like archaeological digs. We sank into Houston, and for the next three weeks my windows looked into forests of skyscrapers, at more windows where people held meetings and talked on the phone and typed and stapled and exercised and ate meals and bought and sold things, and I watched those lights from a bed, a tube feeding my veins, wires telling my heart when to beat, staples sore in my breastbone, the people on the television speaking Spanish. I was moved around on wheels, watching the ceiling fluorescents shine past, a stuffed koala bear wearing a surgical mask for company. Afterwards, my parents pushed me in a wheelchair over cracked sidewalks and city blocks to the zoo.

A deep forest and a long walk through it in the dense green of a high school summer: a picnic boulder by the stream, a winding dirt path that took us away from the world, Lost River, Blue Hole.

And years later still, the moon and the road east in the early morning to meet the clattering railroad, take the train north, push through the crowded station under New York streets, watch the sunset red and gold on a river of ice, stand in the snowy air to feel the freight trains roar through Buffalo at midnight.

Summers: The wind pushing the ocean waves up and over into a fury of white and green and slate blue, making the pier shake and underscoring our dreams every night we’re here and for night after night after we go home, a constant, quiet, violent, comforting rush, hush.

In Roanoke, the circle of rooms in my sister’s house, the windows that look at the moon, the thick beds of mint, the tree that died; the upstairs bathroom where she miscarried her first child, the downstairs living room where we celebrated news of the second, the hallway door where her third wept while she watched her parents disassemble her bed, pack it up for moving away.

Winters: Orion, the Seven Sisters, the year’s brightest stars, rising up over the Blue Ridge in the longer nights, silver piercing through the cold air.

The thick handfuls of Brahms, the delicate counterpoint of Bach, the wide-open spaces of Copland, in black and white and not.

A corridor of forsythia bushes along the fence, a rhythm of yellow bursts according to the speed we ran, turned the corner at the walnut tree (or was it mulberry?), past the woodpile, past the little graves where we buried goldfish with pieces of bark for their gravestones, past the playhouse where we pretended to cook dinners and plant gardens and open gates through knee-high fences; past the picnic table, the lilac bush, the gate we were forbidden to open because it went to the front yard, the meter, the screened porch with its sedate black iron furniture, the bush with red berries that might kill us if we ate them, my sister’s window, my window, the corner of the yard where we hid away and imagined, the ivy growing over stone, the neighbors’ gate, the swing set, the money tree, and back to the forsythia. A back yard perimeter, a journey that in our minds was across the world, from here to Europe, from here to the Kansas prairies, from here to the moon and back again.

The depiction or description of something in words.

* Word definitions come from The Oxford English Dictionary.

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