By Sophie May, Phase I Fellow
Many thanks to Farm Caretaker Pen Goodall for letting me use his meetings with Clay’s ghost as inspiration for this account.
It’s a foggy Saturday on Bear Mountain and the clouds are gathering low over its steep green pastures. The farm is just beginning to wake up, the old farmhouse still dark and squatting on the land in the lowest dip of the little valley.
This is the weather that Clay Hise likes best. He likes that it is the perfect temperature for his unchanging, eternal wardrobe: a long, wool coat, thick cotton pants and a wide-brimmed hat of the ‘Old-Timer’ style. He also loves that it allows him to appear and disappear freely in the mists that float about near the old wooden fence off to the right of the farm road, scraggly grey beard bobbing about like a bit of cloud gone missing from its flock.
After waiting for nearly an hour in this spot, dew soaking through the worn leather of my shoes until my socks squish unpleasantly, I finally catch my first glimpse of the man whose name remains so many years after his passing, emblazoned on the road sign just beyond the homestead he built for his family.
He appears to me in pieces. The hat comes first, floating incorporeal and strange in the air about six feet above the ground. Then his bushy white eyebrows and fierce grey eyes float out of the dim, caterpillaring their way into place below the wide, shady brim. As the rest of him slowly materializes, I take a small step forward and hold up my hand to wave, an initial greeting for our mysterious meeting.
He knew that I was coming. Perhaps by some trick of the spirit world that lurks just beyond the boundaries of our own, or perhaps by the note that I affixed to his preferred post— the third one to the right of the gate— asking him politely for an interview. In either case, he nods his shaggy head at me and does not disappear as I feared he might, but seems to become a bit more solid, perhaps transferring more of himself into this spirit form in preparation for our chat. As I approach, I see that he is smiling, a bit stiffly, as if it has been a long time since he last did so and is out of practice.
“Good morning, Mr. Hise,” I say, smiling back. “Thank you for meeting me here at this early hour.”
He shakes his head.
“It ain’t early for me, missy. ‘Tis but the hour of rising for a farming man.” His voice is old, weathered, and hoarse with disuse, but not devoid of warmth. Is that a small sparkle in his eye? Am I being teased by a grim old ghost?
“We don’t start the farming day here until 8:00 am! Did you run the farm very differently in your day, then? Can you tell me about what the farm looked like when you were working it?”
“Aye, well, I did not have any of them dratted water fowl. Always a-quacking and a-calling in the late night and the early dawn. A God-fearing body could’nay bear it.” Clay casts a withering look in the direction of the ducks, who are going about their ducky business, quacking up a storm in their little muddy pen.
“But I am mighty glad to see that the land is being seen to, and that it is being treated with respect.” His face clears, and he looks towards the forest with an appraising expression. “It speaks, you know, if not in the way that you or I do. I can hear it better now, and sometimes it speaks so loudly I can hear it from the other side.”
“What does it say, when it speaks so loudly?” I ask, following his stare to the shadowy tree-line where moss creeps out from beneath the boughs and over the rocks like water splashing out over the riverbank.
Clay smiles wryly.
“Most times, it sings to itself of happenings on the land, of new births and deaths, of fresh green growth and the needs of different trees. Sometimes it shouts out warnings; of floods, or wind, or the axes of men. Those times I hear its shouting even in my slumber.” The trees nearest to us gently rustle their leaves, as if in agreement.
“Do you sleep, then?” I ask. He raises his eyebrows and fixes me with a stormy look, although the twinkle remains. “Sorry if that was an impertinent question, Mr. Hise, just curious.”
“Aye, I sleep. Just as any man slumbers, so do I as well. Only my slumbers seem to last much longer than your’n might, these days.”
Clay looks pensive. “Once, I went to sleep in the evening and did not wake for many months, and by then I had lost my warm summer skin and been born again in this wintery one. A body ain’t been warm again since that waking.”
Outlined against the yellow-grey sky, Clay’s body appears to flicker, at one moment present in our mortal plane and in another somewhere else entirely, and then returning.
“Do you miss it? The warmth? And the…way things were before?”
“Aye and Nay. It was not so fine, all the time, in those days. There was much hunger, though we had much from the land, for there were many mouths to feed. And there was much labor to be done, and much sickness amongst the children.” He sighs deeply. “But I do miss their company when the moon grows big and glows at harvest time, and I remember their faces around the fire in the evenin’.”
I watch the smile return to his face in the growing light. “There and again, ‘tis mighty quiet now. In the old days, I had to go a’roamin' far and wide to find such quiet, and was always called back home again before I was ready.” Clay’s eyes stray towards the old farmhouse, so much bigger now than when Clay and his whole family lived in it, when he and his wife built it on this land, so many years ago. Some of its lights were starting to turn on and smoke was beginning to drift out of the chimney— I wonder if Clay ever appears inside the house now, or if it is too full of people and memories.
“On the topic of roaming, I heard that you once walked all the way to Staunton to visit the doctor. Is that true?”
“Oh aye, I expect you’ll have been hearing that from my good friend Pen- a fine fellow, he is. I’ve often seen him on my evening walks, and he sometimes speaks to me, although truth be told I’ve never yet spoken back.” Clay’s smile widens, and I can see the gaps in his teeth and their yellowing color clearly in the brightening light. “But he speaks the honest truth, I did use to walk my way into town for such visits. ‘Tis no cause to be a braggart, though, it was a mere fifty miles, as the raven flies, if’n that.”
“A mere fifty miles! Nowadays, we call that a backpacking trip!”
“’Tis true, it took me all of one or two days to go, and more to return, after the good doctor performed his work- much of which was stuff and nonsense, if’n you ask me. I always was fit as a fiddle, you mind.”
We speak a little longer, of the farm and the people who live on it. Clay loves to talk about the trees, and the crops, and the water on the land. He speaks like many of the farmers I know today, with a heady respect for the patterns of nature, although he seems to have many insights that us mortal farmers do not.
Eventually, he turns and squints towards the Eastern horizon, where the sun has begun to peak out in bursts from behind the down-sloping forest. The chore folks will soon begin to rumble down the mountain in the mule to begin the day’s work, with the rest of the Fellows following on foot soon after.
“I’d best be goin’ now, missy. And you’d best get to your workin’, it’s precious daylight you’re a’wastin!”
I turn to look at the farm, where so many weeds have sprung up overnight, ready to be pulled by calloused hands when the workday starts. When I turn back, Clay has nearly faded into thin air, only a shimmering outline remaining of the solid figure that stood before me a moment before. His hand raises in a brief farewell, just before he blinks out of my sight altogether.
“Goodbye! Thank you!” I shout after him, feeling too loud in the sudden solitude of the mountain morning. I stand there a moment, staring at the ground where Clay stood, the dirt where his leather boots should have left imprints clear and unmarred. Then, with a smile to the forest that is so loved by an old ghost, I head down the road towards the farm, feeling the steadiness of daytime fall onto me as I go.