Inherited Time

Sunday 24 April 202206:41 pm

Ghorba ghosts 

prepared by R22 April Guest Editor Massoud Hayyoun

I was musing on divergent family histories as I packed fabulous faux-French fashions, gold-plated baubles, and ceramic curiosities into suitcases. My grandmother, nicknamed Nanny in my mother’s Southern Oklahoma-North Texas way, was preparing to move to cancer hospice. There were only three of us — my mother, Nanny, and I. The Palestinian side of my family did not join us; their own unsettled traumas and our family’s cultural divides kept them away. 

Nanny’s father, William Asa Reeves, was a ghost hunter. Nanny was his enthusiastic protégée

Nanny waited in my mother’s car as we finished our work. She had several exquisite clocks, fifteen at least. I placed them in a large suitcase near her bedroom window, and the clocks’ ticking grew cohesive, louder, and more obvious as they looked up at me. I packed faster. The window shade was closed, yet the sun, like an immense ticking clock, broke through the shades in sunlit lines swiftly gliding across the floor. 

— 

Nanny’s father, William Asa Reeves, was a ghost hunter. Nanny was his enthusiastic protégée. William Asa brought a dowser — an apparatus used to divine the presence of metal, groundwater, and unmarked graves — on his ghost-hunting treks into the scruffy West Texas undergrowth of the Davis Mountains. The mountains were a seemingly timeless, often-sunny, seven-hour drive from their home in Fort Worth. William Asa’s dowser was comprised of only a few metal rods and one heavy cylindrical metal piece about half a foot long and thick as  an axe handle. This was his favorite item, and all it took was a loop of string through the wire at the top to put it to use. He’d thread the dowser and let it swing like a pendulum a few inches above the ground to see if it would hover over a particular spot. 

William Asa had nerves of steel, for he’d follow any legend or ghostly sighting with intense curiosity. When Nanny asked what he’d do if he ever met a ghost, he said he figured he’d ask the ghost what he came back for

William Asa had nerves of steel, for he’d follow any legend or ghostly sighting with intense curiosity. When Nanny asked what he’d do if he ever met a ghost, he said he figured he’d ask the ghost what he came back for. He hoped to find precious metals, such as jewelry or a gold timepiece, that a ghost might be guarding after an untimely demise. He’d take a confession from the dead or even the deceased’s accusation of the living, but he hoped the ghost would reveal some hidden wealth. William Asa’s family for years contended with what Nanny described as bicycle lights riding up to the door late at night to disappear a few feet from the porch (one of these phantom bicycle lights chased his own father back from the outhouse during the witching hour – with messy results), late-night screams which woke the house, mysterious footsteps in the hall, and appliances activating on their own. 

On one trip to the Davis Mountains, Nanny saw something. She and William Asa were out there chasing ghosts, because a deer hunter told them he saw the spirit of what appeared to be a Confederate soldier walking through one of the creek beds. On closer look, the soldier disappeared before his eyes, he said. The hunter swore he’d never go back into the woods, but William Asa didn’t have such qualms. He and Nanny packed up one weekend and headed for the mountains. They didn’t find anything in the creek bed except for arrowheads and shotgun shells, but they decided to stay overnight.

Nanny reached for my hand and placed in it a heavy, warm piece of tubular metal, the color of tarnished silver. “This was my Daddy’s,” she said. I looked down and realized it was the dowsing tool from her ghost-hunting tales. She meant to say that I had become the seeker

Nanny slept in the back seat of the car, and her father slept in the front. She told me she woke in the middle of the night and saw an old woman standing near the car’s rear bumper. She could hear her giggling. Nanny screamed, awaking her  father. They sat up the rest of the night, waiting for the apparition to return. Nanny said she kept repeating “Let’s go” the whole time, but with her father’s steady nerves, they went nowhere. At daybreak, William Asa used the dowser to check the ground for indications of metallic wealth. He dug around a little in the grass but found nothing. 

Nanny waited in my mother’s car, and as I walked by, she motioned for me to stop. I put the suitcases down on the pavement and Nanny reached toward the car’s floorboard. A cigarette dangled between her fingers and the smoke curled upward, spirit-like, and melded with sunbeams. She reached for my hand and placed in it a heavy, warm piece of tubular metal, the color of tarnished silver. “This was my Daddy’s,” she said. I looked down and realized it was the dowsing tool from her ghost-hunting tales. She meant to say that I had become the seeker. 

We awkwardly held hands through the car window for a moment. My mother climbs into the driver’s seat. “Thank you,” I tell Nanny, before I get in the car. As we pull away from Nanny’s apartment, I was aware of an insistent, synchronous ticking in the back seat: Nanny’s many clocks in the suitcases. 

For some reason I imagined we would lay our loved one on a floral bier and send the craft down a gently flowing river. Then the departed could lie under the blue sky and drift out of sight like a cloud. But this did not happen

— 

At Nanny’s funeral, I remember being shocked that people are buried in the ground. We are an interfaith family of Christian and Muslim traditions, and both religions practice burial of the deceased. A Christian minister performed her funeral service. Still, for some reason I imagined we would lay our loved one on a floral bier and send the craft down a gently flowing river. Then the departed could lie under the blue sky and drift out of sight like a cloud. But this did not happen. My thoughts reached for my Palestinian grandmother’s Muslim duas, little  prayers, and how she sounded like a ghost when she whispered them in her sleep. I left before the first shovel of dirt was thrown. 

Recently, I was at the mall, Nanny’s favorite place. I stopped to browse through a clothing carousel. Shadows wandered among the clothing racks, and shiny gold-plated metallic necklaces and earrings winked at me via the light reflecting from above. The pendulum swung on an anniversary clock, sitting on a nearby display case. The clearance rack moved in a lazy swirl, and I walked toward it. A perfumed scent curled around me. I crouched down to pick up a rhinestone broach someone had dropped and kicked aside. As I extended my hand, I thought someone called my name. I looked and saw several young women walking toward the sunlit doors of an exit — a bright tunnel of light.

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