Story art by permission of Daniel Sterner.
From the author: When I was first starting out, authentically gay stories were very hard to sell. This one was no exception, and though I think it's the most authentic gay story I ever wrote, it ended up not finding a publisher until I put together my collection. Like most authentically gay stories, it's a bit unusual: A man lives in a house with the ghosts of his ancestors. But are they really ghosts?
My old house creaked with the sprits of my ancestors. Not literally, of course. There's no such thing as ghosts. But I do hallucinate.
The old Indian woman hadn't been around for several months, but then there she was in the lower room of the oldest portion of the house, stirring a pot over open flames in the river-rock fireplace.
Kalen, my nephew, raced through the room, arm outstretched, holding up a plastic figurine of a turtle that held two swords. He roared with a battle cry and wove around the old Indian woman as though he could see her, too. She spoke a singsong sentence in what I've always assumed must be Algonquian. I've never been able to understand what she says.
"Uncle Joe, Donatello needs us!" Kalen yelled from the steps up to the two upstairs rooms. He roared again and tromped up toward what I had adapted to a rumpus room for the days when my sister dropped him off with me. I had to admit, I didn't understand the warrior turtle phenomenon. Somehow the Lego and Matchbox craze that gripped my generation at his age seemed more rational.
The fire crackled. I have no idea if it was really there or not. I didn't light it, and a hallucinated fire would smell just as real as the real thing.
Then I caught that distinct, pile-of-manure-that-scared-a-skunk stench. That meant that Tobias Guthrie was also around somewhere. Bathing is a relatively modern notion. When my ancestors are in the house, the smell precedes them, and each one smells different. The old Indian woman always smelled like wet leather.
Tobias appeared from the stairs to the second floor, greasy grey beard puffed up around his pouting lips. "You tell my grandmother that she's got to salt it or it won't keep!"
I have no idea if the old Indian woman understands English or not, but she just kept stirring.
I sat down in my grandmother's wingback and opened the journal I was reviewing. "I'm staying out of your fights, Tobias."
"You have to eat her crap, too!" Tobias swaggered over to the pot and stared down into it. "Dammit, you old witch, smell that! It needs salt!"
The old Indian woman just stirred.
With thunderous steps on the stairs, Kalen charged back into the room, this time with a plastic rat in his other hand. "Out of the way, Tobias! We have to save Donatello!"
"Don't talk to my hallucinations, Kalen!" I shifted in my chair and tried to focus on the latest paper about the data being released from the Midcourse Space Experiment. Astronomy always made more sense to me than whatever was going wrong with my brain chemistry.
"They're not hallucinations, they're ghosts, Uncle Joe." Kalen had stopped next to the old Indian woman.
"You listen to this young man," Tobias said to me. "More brains in his head than in all those degrees you got."
"There's no such thing as a ghost." I turned my chair so I wouldn't have to look at them.
The old Indian woman started dishing mush out of her pot and into one of the decorative bowls from the mantle. She handed it to Kalen.
"Don't eat that," I said. "Ghost food doesn't have any calories."
"Plus it needs salt!" Tobias barked at the old Indian woman.
Kalen took a fingerful into his mouth, grimaced, and dropped his bowl on my lap. He ran through the first addition toward the kitchen. "There's carrots, too!" I yelled after him. "Not just cookies!"
The old Indian woman handed a second bowl of mush to Tobias. He harrumphed and flopped down on the chaise, putting muddy, buckled shoes up on the cocktail table. "So, do I have another generation of grandkids yet?"
"You've got more grandkids than you can count, Tobias."
"That's not the point!" he barked, scratching his lice as he contemplated his mush. "You know you can't get pregnant from buggery, right?"
It was an old argument. "I'm not trying to get pregnant. I don't want to get pregnant. And I'm not sure, biologically, if a man could even carry a child to term, Arnold Schwarzenegger movies notwithstanding."
The old woman said something in Algonquian.
Tobias thrust a finger at her. "You stay out of this, you old bat! He's my grandson, too, and I've got a right meddle! You don't want this property going to a stranger again, now, do you?"
"Kalen inherits the house." I tried to stay focused on my journal, but the words all blurred together. The ancestors loved to remind me that I was the end of my line. I always wondered about the psychology of my subconscious mind dredging that up over and over again.
Kalen tore back into the room with a bag of carrots in one hand, a bag of cookies in the other. He dropped the carrots in my lap, and flopped down next to the fire with the cookies.
Tobias harrumphed again and ate a handful of mush. "It needs salt, you crazy, old, wench!"
"There's salt in the kitchen, Tobias," I said.
"Woman's work!" Tobias barked. He resumed his trademark sulking.
Kalen twisted around to look at the empty chaise where Tobias sat. "How come Uncle Joe thinks you're a hallucination?"
"Because he is," I said.
"He could be a ghost."
"There's no such thing. And if we had proper insurance I could prove it to you. Meanwhile, you just try not to go insane, too. There's nobody here but you and me."
Kalen shrugged and went back to eating cookies.
"I took a picture of Martin Jacobson once," I told Kalen. "When I got the film back, I just had a picture of an empty chair."
Kalen shrugged. "Ghosts would do that, too."
"Kid's smarter than you are," Tobias said.
I dipped a carrot in the hallucinated mush and sampled it. I had to admit, Tobias was right. It needed salt.
I knew my mom's family was descended from the Guthries when I bought the house. And I knew it was built by Tobias Guthrie, of course. The info plaque that the Massachusetts Historical Society put on all the houses in the village when I was a kid named the original owner. The one by my inoperable front door said, "Built by Thomas Guthrie, 1698. Site of the Guthrie farmstead." What I didn't know was that my great-great-great grandmother was descended from this particular Guthrie, and was actually born in this house, back when it only had two additions. My mother found that out doing genealogical research. Her theory is that some sort of ancestral memory made me feel at home in the house when I looked at it. My theory was that it was the only house for sale in the village.
My mom also discovered in her research that I'm 1/1024 Indian. When 17th-century colonists came over from Europe, there were three ways they dealt with the Indians: They fought them, they ignored them, or they assimilated. This county is one of the very few places where the Indians assimilated with the English, took Christian names, and were welcomed into the colony. Tobias Guthrie had apparently built his house where his grandfather's wigwam had stood. The land had belonged to my ancestors since before it belonged to anyone.
If my mom knew about the hallucinations, I'm sure she would have blamed that on ancestral memory, too. I'd always found science to be a better explanation for things, and going insane is a lot less frightening than you'd expect.
The oak tree by the driveway needed to come down. And even though I'm generally opposed to physical activity, I'm even more opposed to spending money for something I can do myself. So I fired up my next-door neighbor's chainsaw and went after the rotting bark on the side farthest from the house.
"The squirrels planted this one."
I jumped. Rev. William Jacobson stood right behind me, his pre-era-of-amplification voice carrying over the roar of the chainsaw. "You may want to stand back! This isn't like any saw you had in your day!"
The truth is, the chainsaw bucked so badly I wasn't sure I wouldn't lose control and slice him in two. And, hallucination or not, I figured that would be messy.
"This side of the house, the fields had gone fallow, I was so busy with the church." William stepped alongside me and helped steady the chainsaw. He still wore the long, black coat he used to preach in, and looked far too formal to be cutting down a tree. "Wet, too. Not like the marshlands, of course, but good for oak trees. There weren't many trees left by that time. We considered clearcutting a virtue."
A series of snaps echoed up the full height of the dead tree. I pulled the chainsaw out and stepped back, winded. It wasn't quite ready to topple yet.
"You should tie a rope to it so you can guide it the direction you want it to fall," William said.
"As long as it doesn't hit the house, I don't care!" I lit back into the trunk, wood shavings hurling in every direction.
William wandered into the garage – actually a converted stable – while I found the chainsaw less and less effective the further into the trunk I got. After a few minutes, William emerged with a length of nylon rope tied into a lasso. "You've got it notched pretty well now. Let me toss this over the limb, and you cut from the other side."
I turned off the chainsaw, annoyed. I was already short of breath. "Wisdom of the ancestors?"
"I've cut down a few more trees than you have." He studied the top of the dead oak nostalgically as he began spinning the lasso. It only took him two tries to hook one of the larger limbs. He stepped away and pulled the rope taut, then nodded to me. I was long past the point of wondering how a hallucination would help me guide the tree down.
My arms ached from the chainsaw, and for some reason my jaw started in with sympathy pains. I held down the starter button and moved around to the other side of the tree as the motor roared back to life.
Working on the tree from this angle was no easier, but William shouted out the occasional encouraging word. The tree leaned more and more toward William as the chainsaw cut a groove deeper and deeper into the decaying wood. The ache in my arms spread into my chest, and soon the world was spinning.
A mighty crack reverberated through my body. I saw William scampering out of the way. The world twisted and folded as the once-mighty tree fell.
I stood in deep woods covered the land, a bed of rotted autumn leaves covering the ground even though the trees were still lush and green. Dank filled my nostrils. And a whole tribe of Indians emerged from the woods and studied me. They didn't dress like you imagine an Indian – their outfits looked like combinations of tunics and shawls and they wore oddly pointed hats. The old Indian woman from my house walked beside one of them, her arm around his waist. She smiled.
Thick-chested dogs ran outside a wigwam, and I smelled her mush on the fire.
The trees fell one by one. My house stood where the wigwam had been, but only the front of my house. Old, leaded-glass windows in panes where the previous owner had installed modern triple-glazed vinyl. The paint smelled fresh. Tobias waved to me from the roof.
A road came through. Cows grazed and corn and squash grew together in the fields.
White ancestors now, too. They gathered in a ring, all looking at me, like they expected me to do something. William held out his Bible to me.
The cows vanished and more roads came through. The house grew larger, and a few additional shacks sprang up around it. Soon there were more houses. And more ancestors.
My grandfather was among them now. He looked like I remembered him from when I was a child, wearing plaid flannel and smoking his pipe. I couldn't have described the odor, but I knew the scent immediately. Strange. He had never lived here.
The tree I had just cut down rustled green lives in the breeze, a family of blue jays making a home in one of the lower branches. The familiar neighborhood now stood all around me. The oak tree died, and fell.
And I saw myself lying beside it.
One of the Indians spoke in Algonquian. I didn't understand. But I answered anyway:
"No. I'm nobody's ancestor."
The thing about being completely insane is you start to lose track of simple things. Like when you redecorated the house. Or where your bedroom went. But I'm still fond of my grandmother's wingback chair.
A young man who looks like an older version of my nephew smiles at me as I walk in. He reclines on a modernist couch I can't believe I actually bought, I don't remember buying. "Good morning," he says. "I was wondering if you were all right."
"Why wouldn't I be?" I settle down in the wingback, but none of my journals are nearby. I pick up what looks like a book but actually has a screen instead of pages. Some sort of fiction graphically describing the dissection of a living person.
"Nonfiction's in a separate folder," the young man says, as if reading my mind. Here, let me show you.
His fingers do a little dance on the screen, and there's a list of titles I can choose from. Astrophysical Journal is always a safe bet. I call up a treatise on interference lines from red giants in Seyfert galaxies.
"So how do they resolve something as small as a single star in a galaxy fifty million light-years away?" I ask.
"I have no idea," the young man says. "I subscribe to it for you. I went into marine biology, remember?'
I don't. Insanity affects memory too. "They should be glad I'm not the one doing peer review on that finding. I never would have let them get away with that claim."
William emerges from the newer wing of the house. He looks at the young man, and then at me. "Now Kalen's a promising boy. None of your leading him into your sinful ways."
"Please, he's my uncle!" the young man says.
Kalen is my nephew's name.
That's right. I remember. Kalen is my nephew. My nephew lives here now, too. And he has his Masters'. I had forgotten. When did he move in?
William passes through to the stairs. "You do everything you can to instill good morals on your children..." He shakes his head and vanishes up the steps.
I look over at Kalen.
"He caught me in bed with my girlfriend."
I nod. "That's nothing. He caught me in bed with my boyfriend once."
Kalen laughs. "Yeah, I found what you had in the back closet. That must've blown his Victorian mind."
But somehow our ancestors forgive us.
At least they do in my hallucinations.
"Are you going to marry her?" I ask.
"O.K., you're starting to sound like the rest of them!"
"Do I?" I say. "I'm not supposed to. I'm not your ancestor."
He smiles at me. Behind his glasses, he's tearing up. "You did more for me than my father ever did. And I cried more when you died."
"I don't remember dying," I say.
"Heart attack," he says. "Mr. Johnson says it happened really suddenly. Just went down while cutting that tree. And the boyfriend you had helping you just disappeared, didn't even call 9-1-1."
Mr. Johnson was the next-door neighbor when I lived here. When was that?
When I look at the walls just right, they're there and they're not. I can see the house when I lived here. I can see the forest before it was built. I can see hundred years of redecoration still to come.
I settle back in my grandmother's chair and study the man who looks like my nephew – who is my nephew. I don't know if I'm hallucinating him or if he's hallucinating me, but I know from experience that if I refuse to believe in him, he still won't go away.
And I still hear them, my ancestors, creaking in the old house. But me, I'm still nobody's ancestor.
This story originally appeared in Little Dystopias.
Includes: "Another Generation's Problems," "Clockman," "Eternal Love," "Eternity Undone," "A Fairy Tale," "Final Voices," "The Folklorist's Notebook," "Man of Water," "Nobody Watches," "Nobody’s Ancestor," "Pressure and the Argument Tree," "Promised," "The Survivors' Menagerie," "Too Close for Comfort," "Unforgivable," "Ward and Protector," and "The Wrong Dog." "Highly recommended." -- Howard V. Hendrix “[A] writer to watch.” -- Robin Wayne Bailey
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