The Ghost in the Gate

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By Elizabeth Speth

This is a true story.  A ghost story.

It’s a story about a woman aged enough to have an old-fashioned name like Harriet.  Harriet was also old enough to have experienced losses in her life, some significant, some her fault and some not.

She lived alone — sometimes sad — far, far away from the city.  Her old house was a family place, built a century before on a grassy plain under a wide blue sky.

She had several cranky old horses, and a naughty barking dog.  Horses and dog destroyed the garden Harriet planted every year, greedily tearing up carrots and lettuces, trampling and digging, until she wanted to give up on the garden.

She was old enough to know about giving up on things.

But she loved warm, sweet tomatoes in September.  So she did not let the garden die.

Instead she built a fence.  It was crooked, loopy and drunken-looking, but it blocked the garden from those who would do it harm.

She found that she needed a gate.  So she bought an old one from a neighbor.  Rusted, bent and blistered, with a tiny metal plaque affixed to it that said in faded words:  “Black Hills Fence Co.  South Dakota” under a faint buffalo silhouette.

A gate is a point of entry, or it can be an impediment to the same.  So the woman brought home that old gate, bouncing around in the bed of her truck, watching it through the mirror as she bumped over rutted dirt roads.

With some difficulty, she mounted the gate to a wobbly post, smashing her thumb in the process.  No one knew about her smashed thumb, how it throbbed for days.  There was no one to share that information, to cluck over the blackened nail, or roll eyes when she complained about it too much.

The gate hung crookedly — it had been hard to hang by herself — but inexplicably it swung freely.  This pleased and surprised her.

The naughty dog, a small, fat, white terrier, dug a hole under the gate and passed smoothly through it like a chute, in and out of the garden at will.

But the gate kept the horses at bay, and the carrots, lettuces, cucumbers and mostly the tomatoes grew.

There was, Harriet saw immediately,  something strange about the vegetables.  Every morning, she came out to find the soil beneath them cool and damp, though she never watered.  The leaves stretched and grew and budded, and not an insect molested them.

Sometimes, she would spend the afternoon out in the garden, because she felt at peace there.  She would pick a few stray weeds — there weren’t many — and listen to birds.  Though there wasn’t the faintest hint of a breeze, and nothing else moved in the stillness, the gate would rattle itself at her periodically.

Not in a hostile way, Harriet thought.  It was more like a dog shaking itself.  She didn’t understand it, but it soothed her somehow.

One morning Harriet came out to the gate, and she found all the horses’ manure piled neatly in her wheelbarrow, the old pitchfork leaning up against the fence.  She looked around her at the clean pasture, as if trying to see who had told a joke.  The cranky old horses pricked their ears at her, a new friendliness in their eyes.

On another day, harassed by the heat, Harriet approached the gate with her arms full of tree branch trimmings.  She was tired and sad, and thinking of things she regretted, and her loneliness made a kind of hollow sound in her brain.  She didn’t like trimming trees, and the branches scratched now at her eyes and arms.  But she meant to stack them in the back of the garden so the horse wouldn’t get at them, eat them, and grow sick.

She drew a long, tired breath, preparing to drop the branches and open the gate.  But the gate rattled then, and the chain lock fell away.  And then it swung open for her, soundlessly.  Harriett was taken aback.

She was also deeply grateful.

Harriet began to notice other things about the gate.  On days the wind did blow, it coaxed a deep, moaning sound out of the posts, like lowing cattle.  Occasionally it sounded like a piano, warm, honey notes of a saloon ballad that plunked happily into the dust at her feet.

Her naughty barking dog stopped barking, though he was still fat and usually dirty.  Harriet watched him pass back and forth through the hole he’d dug under the gate, and the bottom rail scratched his bristly old back as the dog’s eyes half-closed in bliss.

On winter mornings, wind and rain brought the smell of coffee and bacon through the gate.

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Of a warm summer morning, the faint smell of baking biscuits lingered there.

In the evening, there was woodsmoke and whiskey, spiraling up into the sighing trees.

During thunderstorms or other catastrophic events, the horses gathered around the gate as if for comfort, and wild vetch twined purple flowers around its rusted corners as lavender bunched beneath it.

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And Harriet understood that her gate was haunted.  She also knew that all signs pointed to the fact that her ghost was a cowboy.  Not the young, firm-jawed, lean-hipped rodeo variety of cowboy, but rather an older version, with busted-up, poorly-healed bones, sun spots, and eyes the pale blue of soft, faded denim, hidden in wrinkles he’d earned staring past wide horizons.

He was the kind of old cowboy who opened gates for a lonely, tired woman, who kept gardens watered and manure picked up.  He convinced the dog to behave, and comforted horses with gnarled old hands.

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She knew that, though her cowboy was a kind ghost, he was not an angel.  She was old enough to know no good cowboy was ever an angel.

And so Harriet came to understand that people who have lived long enough to be sad, without hope of circumstances ever really changing — without a miraculous happy ending — can get through somehow.  They can learn to watch for moments of warmth and consideration.  She understood that not all good things can be seen.

She learned that she was not alone.

As I said, this is a true story.  A ghost story.

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What Fresh Hole Is This?

hole By Elizabeth Speth 

Every time Angus, the Jack Russell Terrorist, digs a new hole, I think to myself:  “What fresh hell is visited upon us now?”

Lest you think I am melodramatic, let me explain.  Have the stomach to hear me out, and then ye can judge.

Angus digs several holes — about 36 — a day.  In the nine or so years he’s been with us, that makes… let’s see…. multiply by… carry the four… factor in two leap years… seventy billion holes.

It’s not his fault.  He’s a Jack Russell.  They are known for their frantic energy, their non-stop drive to go, chase, chew, jump, yip, run, bark, dig.  I don’t hold these things against him, although my husband swears he is football-shaped for a reason.

My objection to the holes is based solely on three factors.  Location, location, and location.

I’m talking about the holes in the flower beds.  And the dirt sprayed over the walkways.  I’m talking about the holes in the garden, and the subsequent mass slaughter of innocent herbs and tender radishes.  Holes among the rose bushes.  Holes around the propane tank.  Holes in my neighbor’s yard.  Holes in my neighbor’s garden.

Holes in my indoor plant pots.

There are the holes in the riding arena, where my horses will someday snap a leg if I don’t constantly re-fill them, only to turn around and see that little white tail going mad in a new flurry of flying soil.

We have a lot of pasture, and many are the nights I have heard the horrific clack of my teeth as I suddenly step in one, arms full of hay, because Angus has strategically dug right in my walking path between the gate and the feeders.  Between the gate and the barn.  Between the faucet and the water troughs.  Our pastures are so hole-y they ought to be consecrated.  Filling those holes is about as vain an exercise as picking up horse manure every day, but it still must be done.  One does these things.  One keeps up appearances.

You might be tempted to suggest a dog trainer, or a canine psychotherapist, or a strong sedative.  What we need here, gentle reader, is an exorcist.  I am withholding Angus’ allowance until we can afford one, but in the meantime there are the holes, multitudes of them, each one bringing us several inches closer to hell.

This morning, I caught my wheelbarrow on a new one.  It was hidden under the gate, right where I always pass through, often pushing or pulling a loaded cart, to deliver the horse poop to the compost pile.

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The wheel of the cart plopped right in, my forward momentum was abruptly arrested, and over the cart went, road apples tumbling everywhere, a warm and fragrant bed upon which I landed after several long seconds of undignified struggling against the inevitable fall.

Angus had the grace to look guilty, although he did not offer to help me re-gather my manure.

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“Damn you, Angus,” I said, because no one was around to hear it.

I finished my chores, circumnavigating the hole, and then I went to fetch my shovel to fill it.  Angus ran circles around me as I worked, joyful and energetic, assuming I was having as glorious a time as he so obviously was.  This is why it’s hard to stay mad at Angus.  He is a gleeful dog.

Shovel poised, I approached the gate.  Angus scurried underneath it, as he’s been doing for years, because he’s too impatient to wait for it to open.  I watched him crawl through using the hole like an open tunnel.

I rested the shovel on the ground.  “Come here, Angus,” I said, and he slipped back under, through that perfectly-placed, perfectly-sized hole like a breeze.  He came and sat at my feet.

I took a good, long look at him.  In my mind’s eye, he is still a puppy.  That is because my actual eyes, which will be fifty soon, blur the edges of the everything now.  They still see Angus as a youngster because of his energy and attitude, I guess.  But I did the math right there, and realized he is a middle-aged gent, maybe even a little older than that.

Also, he has gotten stocky, put on a few, as the saying goes.  I hadn’t really seen that before.  I asked him to lie down, then roll over, which he did happily, but was that a little stiffness he struggled against there, getting back up?

“Angus, go back the garden,” I said, and he obliged, flowing like a creamy white rivulet, right back through the hole and under the gate.  I put the shovel away, marveling at the fact that it was entirely possible Angus is taking stock of himself, and coming to some of the same realizations that I must face.

I’m approaching middle age too, and damned if things aren’t starting to widen and stiffen.  Most of my clothing has elastic now.  I need reading glasses.  I use a mounting block to get on a horse, but I don’t intend to stop riding.  Angus needs a hole under the gate, because he does not intend to start waiting for it to open.  We are both trying to maintain a certain standard of living here.

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I have to admire the fact that he assessed a need to adjust his environment to his changing needs, and took care of it.  It made me feel better about myself.  And also a little sad for both of us.

So that one hole can stay.  All future holes will be evaluated in light of this Angus epiphany, but I think it is a safe bet that most will be re-filled.

The horses remained unimpressed when I shared my new insights about our tiny, rough-coated, high-pitched and frenzied friend.  They still find him irritating.  They assure me it will be ever thus.

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