S&R Literature

S&R Nonfiction: "62 Questions to Ask a Ghost," by Leanna Lawrence

I. May 30th, 2010. Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In which I insist upon the veracity of the enclosed.

The characters in the following narrative were once really alive, even the kangaroo.

What is your name?

How old are you?

Do you have any relatives?

Are you married?

Where do you live?

Where do you work?

II. May 25th, 2010. One p.m., in Conference Room of Academic House at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In which I place before my colleagues the fruits of my labors.

I want to thank everyone for turning out this Friday afternoon to hear my presentation. Let me begin by providing a bit of context. In the Autumn of 2009, not long after my father died, I was granted a sabbatical to research two items of scholarly interest:

Firstly, the sacred Hopi katsina dolls, which I discovered are dolls only in name; they’re actually portraits of the katsina spirits who look out for the Hopi people. I wasn’t allowed to make them, being female, nor do the Hopi consider it polite to take a lot of photographs of their sacred sites, videotape their sacred ceremonies, or ask too many intrusive questions. As a doll artist, I was somewhat disappointed, although I did accumulate a lot of data about Hopi mythology which I put to good use in teaching my mythology classes. If you want information about the katsinam, ask me after the lecture.

Secondly, the story of Susie Reed, an Apache Indian child who was “adopted” (according to family legends) into the home of Dr. Walter Reed in 1878, while he was stationed at Fort Apache. This was the same Walter Reed who proved that mosquitoes cause yellow fever and for whom the hospital is named. Reed’s discovery allowed work to commence on the Panama Canal. Reed didn’t live to see the hospital named for him or to receive the Nobel Prize the rumors promised him; he died in 1902 of acute peritonitis, probably brought on by eating tainted fruit in Cuba. He loved fruit. Susie Reed did not attend his passing for reasons you’ll hear in my presentation. His son Lawrence was not available because he was a young soldier stationed in Cuba. Emilie Lawrence Reed, his wife, was not with him because she had chosen to lock herself in their Washington home with a pitcher of cocktails. She sent their 19-year-old daughter Blossom, still wearing some of the clothes she’d been trying on for her debut, to the clinic where Reed in his delirium grieved, guilt-ridden, over having so little to leave his family. Blossom was never quite the same after that.

Emilie Lawrence Reed, coward and cocktail lover, was first cousin to Mark Lawrence, who was my grandfather. I suppose this makes Emilie my first cousin once removed, or twice. I don’t much care which. I’m interested in the fact that cousin Emilie connects me to Susie Reed. Susie haunts a handful of family stories, a few footnotes in various biographies, a number of references in archived letters. I pieced together her story painfully, in bits and patches.

For much of the time, I thought her story haunted me. Then, to my embarrassment, I realized that I was haunting her, and I took the steps necessary —unwillingly, because it’s very hard to give up haunting the dead, once you’ve started—to sever our connection.

As this narrative proceeds, I expect you to determine who and what the ghosts are, and to ask at appropriate intervals (subvocally, I hope) the 62 Questions you’ll find in the handouts in front of you. I prefer not to.

What are your hobbies?

Who are your close friends?

Where do you most like to visit?

Where were you born?

What is your fondest memory?

Do you have a favorite possession?

III. Sunday Morning, July 1874. First Methodist Church, Murfreesboro, North Carolina. In which Miss Emilie Lawrence does not think on the glory of the Lord.

The church is sweltering because the entire congregation has turned out to hear Lemuel Reed launch into his sermon because it is July and there is nothing else to do in Murfreesboro on a Sunday in July. (Murfreesboro is a town so starved for excitement that years ago, when the town planned a ball to welcome the celebrity General Lafayette, only to discover that he’d been delayed by a washed-out bridge, everyone went ahead and had the ball anyway, without him. You could call that charming joie de vivre, or passionate desperation.) Fans flicker like butterfly wings, stirring the humid air.

Miss Emilie, butterfly par excellence, flutters her fan and engages in what every Lawrence since the dawn of Christianity has practiced in church: the art of daydreaming to avoid the tedious necessity of spiritual instruction. Miss Emilie is mistress of the craft of reversing the direction of internal self-analysis so that her meditations are always comfortably on things outside herself. Preferably her neighbors and what they are wearing. She is, perhaps forgivably, only seventeen. If she had the self-awareness to see what is tattoed on her heart, she would find not WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) but rather WWPT (What Will People Think). It is because of What People Will Think that she has changed the spelling of her name from the dull prosaic Emily to the more romantic, possibly dangerous, Emilie.

Her eye falls on the boy sitting in the pew across from her’s, a slim boy with ramrod straight posture and a flaming blue cravat that makes his eyes April cerulean. This is the preacher’s son Walter, the boy who lives in the parsonage across from Emilie’s handsome white house with the gingerbread columns. Walter doesn’t have two cents to rub together, his family are gypsy church mice, his future is uncertain, but his eyes are so blue that Miss Emilie does not pause to consider what Jesus would do or what people will think. She spends the rest of the long dull service plotting how she’s going to hook that boy in the blue cravat into matrimony.

This moment may prove to be the only time Miss Emilie lives up to the desired essence of her name.

Miss Emilie dives into a campaign of strategic allure. She assesses Walter’s morning schedule so that she is watering the morning glories on the Lawrence house front porch just as he’s walking by. She waters while barefoot, dressed only in her morning “wrap.” Watering the flowers requires that she reach up on tiptoe with the watering can, which causes the morning wrap (was it a silky kimono, with its hint of Oriental exoticism, or white batiste, with its mouth-watering assurance of innocence?) to hike up above her ankles. She looks like a genre painting. The sight of her bare feet and calves turns Walter’s head. He might as well be a gigged frog.

Have you ever spent time in a government institution?

How do you feel at this moment?

How do you feel in general?

Physically, how do you feel?

IV. Any Murfreesboro Morning in the 1870’s. In which Miss Emilie considers herself in her mirror as her hair gets done.

Murfreesboro’s acknowledged belle. That’s if you don’t count Emilie’s cousins Annie or Sallie. Emilie does not count them. She knows she’s prettier than either, although she suspects Sallie Southall (who will one day start women’s clubs and write poetry about the lost English child Virginia Dare) is smarter. The Southalls live in the most impressive residence in town, a true Southern mansion complete with columns and smokehouses and greenhouses. Emilie discovered her love of roses in those greenhouses. An uncle hung himself behind the door of one once upon a time. His face was unrecognizable; so swollen and black, they thought he was a black man. Everyone thinks Emilie doesn’t remember this, and Emilie believes so too. But sometimes the dark skin of the girl behind her in the mirror, the girl who does her hair, makes her close her eyes because dark skin reminds her of tales of death.

Emilie’s Ma’s people own two ships that operate up and down the East coast, from Boston to the Chowan river and then up the Meherrin to Murfreesboro, loaded with both practical dull things and pretty things, and Emilie gets first dibs on the pretty things.

Miss Emilie likes first dibs. She is a teenage girl with high-maintenance, honey-colored hair. Her girl spends most of the morning on Emilie’s hair. The hairstyles of the 1870’s are elaborate and complex. Too many unmarried young women and too few marriageable men, a generation of men depleted by the Civil War. Young women in Murfreesboro wear their hair in tall billowy waves and beehives. Showy hopeful nets in which to ensnare a mate.

Each morning, Miss Emilie smiles at her girl in the mirror. She has a slim mouth with a humorous quirk on the right side, a Lawrence trait. Her nose is long and straight. Roses are her favorite flower, and why shouldn’t they be? The petals are like her skin, smooth and soft and pale.

Her girl’s skin is very very black, almost purple. Emilie cringes a little and closes her eyes. She doesn’t really like black people to touch her, her girl is clean of course but black people are dirty in other ways that Emilie can’t quite define, at least that’s how Murfreesboro white folks think, but Law, who else could do her hair?

Emilie’s grandpa owned her girl’s mother, but Emilie doesn’t own her girl. Not in the old way.

Despite her quirky pretty mouth, Miss Emilie watches her girl in the mirror with pale eyes hard as bullets. People who judge Emilie on her mouth end up feeling betrayed once they get to know her eyes. Emilie’s girl never feels betrayed. She reads Emilie’s eyes always. Never her mouth. Mouths might lie, but eyes never do.

That’s how things work in 1870’s Murfreesboro, North Carolina, when you make your living being somebody’s black-skinned girl.

V. Walter and Emilie Together, 1875-1878. In which the course of true love leads to hell.

Are you frequently tired, weak, or cold?

Do you consider yourself forgetful?

Do you miss your loved ones?

Do you consider yourself normal and well-adjusted?

What year is it?

Where are you?

Walter Reed is a boy with a big heart that he furnishes with broken, damaged things: the mangy starving dog, the limping cat, the spavined mule, the immigrant whose legs have been crushed in a work-related accident on the Brooklyn Bridge, the orphan, the seemingly self-assured young woman haunted by unspeakable things that hang behind greenhouse doorways. He is drawn to abjection like a bee to honey. The maimed is the object of his desire.

When just a boy, during the Civil War, he spent a short time as a prisoner of war, when Northern troops found him trying to hide the family horses. They took his horses and marched him back home, feeding him sardines.

No one thinks he’s brilliant.

And yet in 1866 he qualifies for the University of Virginia at the age of 15.

At seventeen he applies for admission to UVA’s Medical School. Having hunted a great deal in growing up, accustomed to skinning small animals, he deals with dissection pretty well. Medical degrees took only a year in those days, so at 18 he graduates third in his class of 49 and is the youngest person ever to graduate in medicine from UVA.

Walter and his brother Christopher move to New York, where Walter studies at Bellevue.

In 1869 Walter takes the competitive exam for position of assistant physician at the Infant’s Hospital at Randall’s Island, nails it, takes the job. The Infant’s Hospital is filled with dying children of the poor. In 1871 he is hired by King’s County Hospital in Brooklyn, where he cares for the penniless people from the County Farm. The rooms of his big heart bulge with the sheer overwhelming volume of abject rock-bottom misery available in the world.

He transfers to Brooklyn City Hospital, where Dr. Bell, another Virginian, takes the boy under his wing and talks to him about health and sanitation and yellow fever. Bell believes yellow fever is contracted via contaminated material, and will continue to believe it even when Walter presents his findings in 1901 at the meeting of the American Public Health Association. Bell will attack Walter bitterly after that, which Walter will find depressing.

Walter is an excellent doctor, particularly insistent upon maintaining cleanliness.

In Murfreesboro, young people like to tease Walter about his interest in mosquitoes. They don’t tease him much. He is courting the belle of Murfreesboro, and by 1875 he is Assistant Surgeon and First Lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps. Twenty-four years old, and his qualifying papers for the Medical Corps position indicate he knows more about malaria and yellow fever than most doctors of that era. He is sleek and handsome in a uniform with a saber. How amusing—to have once been a raggedy little prisoner of war, and now a member of the very army that held you captive!

Walter has become an Army Surgeon in order to marry Miss Emilie Lawrence. Army surgeons make more money than self-employed doctors, in this era, and Miss Emilie is a high-maintenance girl.

Walter and Emilie are married on April 26, 1876, and after two weeks together Walter is posted to Fort Yuma, Arizona. He will send for Emilie in the Fall.

Fort Yuma is a hell hole. To get there takes a month by boat, railroad, stagecoach, and army wagon. A great many officers, upon arrival, get drunk and stay drunk until their tour is over. The air is so dry that sweat evaporates before it can be felt. Daily temperatures are 113 degrees F. Hens cannot lay eggs unless you build a little moat of water around their nests to supply humidity; otherwise they harden the moment they leave the hen (this is true, I swear to it; check Fanny Dunbar Corbusier: Recollections of Her Army Life, 1869-1908, if you have doubts).

From Fort Yuma, Walter is transferred to Camp Lowell, near Tucson, where it’s 115 degrees in the shade. This is Apache country. Walter attends to alcohol poisoning, depression, venereal diseases, malaria, and pulmonary afflictions. Emilie writes, asking him to describe the “horrows” of Army life, to prepare her. But how can he? He doesn’t want her to stay in Murfreesboro. Instead, he grows a huge mustache that takes up half his youthful face—a kind of facial privacy hedge.

After 6 months apart from her husband Dr. Reed—she will call him Dr. Reed until the day he dies—Emilie Lawrence Reed leaves the East alone, unaccompanied, for San Francisco. It is said by all to be the most outrageous and courageous act of her life. En route she survives sea sickness, a train wreck, and quite likely a near-paralyzing fear of the unknown. In San Francisco she hardly recognizes Walter, with his enormous mustache. It makes her feel oddly separated from him, as if he’s trying to hide something. They take a steamer to San Diego, and from there proceed upon a 500-mile journey to Fort Lowell in an army ambulance drawn by mules. Reed will later give his sister Laura a hilarious account of his travels with Miss Emilie through the Arizona wilderness. His most telling comment will be: I wished to find a wall upon which to bash my head.

Emilie is pregnant by spring with the baby who will become Lawrence Reed (future Inspector General, but no bookworm—like many Murfreesboro Lawrences, he will love horses, hunting, and the outdoors, and hate the schoolroom). Walter is assigned to a new fort 200 miles away in the heart of the White Mountains. Camp Apache. Not even a Fort yet. He situates Emilie and the still-in-utero Lawrence in a wagon with Undina the dog, a pair of shoes, a carbine, several romantic novels, two hats, a sword, an umbrella, a stereopticon with six slides, a pistol, a cartridge belt, two full canteens, and a basket of knitting. The men who accompany them laughingly tell them to watch out for the kangaroo, who has seemingly escaped from a travelling circus and is terrorizing the White Mountain area.

Walter delivers his own son at Camp Apache on December 4th, 1877. It is a difficult labor and Walter feels guilty. He tells Emilie in a letter of 1878 that Papa remembers how sick his poor sweet wife was and how patiently she bore it all, and remembering this, he could never see his precious brought to bed again, except it should be her own wish! Now, darling, it isn’t every husband who is so thoughtful of his wife’s welfare, and who for her sake, would have made such a promise.

Walter essentially promises never to have sex with Emilie again unless she wants to because by 1878 she has left for Murfreesboro and taken Lawrence with her, back where there’s no Apache dust on everything, where the Apache scouts don’t drift into your quarters and leave the bloody leg of a deer on your dressing table or remove a picture from the wall and hang a dead pheasant in its place. These are payments to Reed for his medical services, she understands that, but the whole environment is so unnerving. Life is so…odd.

It’s so brutally hot. The chaplain keeps a pet Gila monster he calls Sallie Ann in his kitchen, and claims he can tame it with kindness. Periodically the post captain sends out a small team to search for the kangaroo. The cook is a trickster who serves the boiled potatoes in the water pitcher and the fried chicken in soup bowls and the soup in wide shallow serving platters. She can never eat crab again because one day she smells crab cooking and upon entering the kitchen finds a posse of little Indian children toasting crickets in the iron stove.

She hates the execution hill, where orders are to leave the hanged criminals until they fall in pieces from the gibbet. Soldiers are posted at the hill to keep the Apaches from cutting them down. Apaches are horrified by this method of execution, especially one so close to human habitation. Dead people need to be buried (or left behind, if they’re dead enemies) as quickly and secretly as possible; otherwise they’ll give you ghost sickness.

The Apaches call white people White Eyes, because the whites of an Apache eye are darker than those of white people. Apaches think the bright white eyes of white people are unnerving. Emilie, with her pale eyes, is not much liked.

Camp Apache overwhelms Emilie. She is forced to simplify her hair as she has no girl to fix it. Little Lawrence is a handful, even as a baby. And Walter has presented her with another child to attend to, the Indian girl Susie. Everyone assumes that Susie will help Emilie with Lawrence, that Emilie will train Susie in housekeeping and child care. Emilie is appalled. Susie is about four, one of Walter’s abject loves, and while Emilie has been raised in a culture that is familiar with bringing a dark child into your household to train as a nanny or house servant, this dark child is (to use Emilie’s choice of words, not mine) no easygoing Murfreesboro pickaninny.

VI. July 7th, 2009. Raleigh, North Carolina. In which Cousin Frank presents a novel approach to academic research.

I’ve been in the North Carolina State Archives all afternoon, trying to track down references to my family and their connection to Susie Reed, with little to no success. I am sitting in The Pit with my favorite cousin Frank. We are drinking Lemon Drop Martinis and watching the après work crowd eat barbeque. Frank makes a suggestion, one that most people would laugh at. I, however, have imbibed enough Lemon Drop Martini to listen with an open mind. My cousin Frank is, after all, a professional, a master of his craft.

By day, Frank is a genealogist. By night, a ghost hunter. So he works with the dead on both sides of life, as it were. He is not the sort of ghost hunter you see on television. He sneers at the reality-show ghost hunters, calls them impolite ham-handed yahoos. Frank is a paranormal investigator, who attends regular seminars at the Rhyne Center in Durham. While he says little about the nightside aspect of his career, he sometimes drops spooky tidbits of information that make me wish I drank the hard stuff.

If you can’t find anything in the Archives, he chirps happily, why don’t you ask Susie herself?

Can you imagine how my peers would react if I tried to pass off an interview with a ghost as legitimate academic proof? That’s sort of a career-killer.

Not where you work, says Frank.

Ask her how? Via Ouiji Board?

Not a Ouiji Board, says Frank sternly. Those things are dangerous. Don’t ever—EVER—mess around with a Ouiji Board. No, no—just do it by EVP. Electronic Voice Procedure. I’ll lend you a recorder and the list of questions and you can go to town.

I don’t think so, Frank.

You need another Lemon Drop, honey, says Frank.

After that Lemon Drop, I begin to think that talking to a ghost is really thinking outside the box, that it will add texture and allure to the shape of my research. Frank and I have a wonderful evening in The Pit, although it gets very hot from all the barbeque, which necessitates more cool refreshing drinks.

I never actually interview a ghost; it turns out that I don’t have to. You will, however, find the questions included in the packet before you. They are the standard questions asked of ghosts by most legitimate paranormal societies worldwide.

VII. August 21st, 2009. Partial transcript of a telephone conversation between myself and my 94-year-old second cousin Emily Lawrence of Richmond, Virginia, namesake of Emilie Lawrence Reed and reputed to know everything knowable. In which Cousin Emily nearly makes me doubt my identity.

Cousin Emily? This is LeeAnna Lawrence, Mark’s granddaughter? I’m calling to find out some information on Susie Reed, can you help me?

Mark never had a granddaughter. You must be somebody else. Who was your father?

My father was Lewis Hamel, Mark’s son? Lewis Hamel had me and my brother Lewis Bridgers?

Lewis Hamel had a son but he never had a daughter. You’re mixed up somehow.

No ma’am, but listen? I just want to know about Susie Reed and Emilie and Walter Reed.

Who said there’s anything to know about them? Why do you want to know about that Indian girl?

Well, I’m going on sabbatical this Fall and I’ll be in the Fort Apache area and I read that Walter Reed was an Army surgeon out there, and out of interest in the family history I read some of his letters in the UVA archives and I came across several references to an adopted Apache girl, Susie. Her story seems sort of mysterious? She just disappears from the family letters?

There’s nothing mysterious about it. She went back to her people.

Oh. Ok, but, well, when? And why?

You say you’re Mark’s granddaughter?

Yes ma’am. Definitely.

I think you’re mixed up somehow. Mark never had a granddaughter. Can you tell me your name again?

And can you tell me

Who is the President?

Are you hungry or thirsty?

Do you have violent thoughts?

Have you committed any violent acts recently?

Does my manner of speech seem strange to you?

VIII. December 4, 1878. On the way to San Carlos. In which Chief of Police Dan Ming considers a thoroughly awful situation.

What is your worst memory?

Do you have nightmares?

Do you ever feel trapped, confused, or lost?

Do you ever have dreams in which you die?

When was the last time you ate?

I’d rather been sent to hunt down kangaroos. This is liable to drive me out of my mind. One hundred sixty-nine women, kids, and old folks to be got back to the Reservation before Victorio comes down on us to steal them back, and in a freezing rain and sleet no less. And now we’re late because some fool piled the logs improperly on the campfire and they fell across the kid’s legs.

Glad we could leave her with Reed. She’ll die if we take her to San Carlos, the weather is awful, some of these kids are walking through frozen mud with nothing on but a piece of blanket. White kids would be crying their heads off, or dying—freezing rain, no food, exhausted—but these Apache kids have been trained from the cradle-board to keep their mouths shut and stay mum. Survival tactic, given they’re nomads who like to sneak up on a body and raid hard-working folks for their horses. Arrogant bastards, they say why should we work to raise livestock when we have Mexicans and White Eyes to raise them for us? It’s no wonder the whole damn world is out to put them down like dogs. The worm’s turned, Victorio, and you too, Geronimo. It’s the white man’s destiny to make you like normal human beings, although for God’s sake I don’t know how anybody could act like anything human in a place like San Carlos. Worst breeding ground for yellowjack and malaria in Arizona– biting flies, biting mosquitoes, biting tarantulas. Can’t even get a dog to stay in San Carlos, the Apaches say.

Some of these war leaders, seems like they’re willing to sacrifice even the kids when their power talks to them. The soldiers tell me that hunting them down was a nightmare. The women hid them in holes in the ground. Poor little brats, even in the good times they go through hell. Their parents dunk them in freezing water in winter and then make them roll in snow. They force them to run up blazing hot mountains in the heat of summer with a mouthful of water they’re forbidden to swallow. The boys scar their arms with toxic plants just to laugh at the pain.

Can’t say I’ve ever seen them spanked or beaten. They put them through physical training the likes of which you’d never see at West Point, but then they consider corporal punishment barbaric.

These are terrifying people, born to cruelty because they live in a cruel country. They don’t live by mercy but by implacable necessity and we white people are lucky they’re so few of them. We’ll whip em in the end. Maybe Reed can give one of them a chance. She was a cute kid.

Spines, spines everywhere. Everywhere in this country a mouth to bite you—the cactuses, the flowers, even the damn frogs. Hope that kangaroo gets et by a Mexican.

IX. Susie Reed, 1887-1883. In which Susie rides the crest of Manifest Destiny.

When was the last time you saw a family member?

Have you ever walked through a wall by accident?

Did this seem strange to you?

Do you recognize things around you?

Do you know what a “ghost” is?

Reed saves the badly-burned child’s life by means of the then still-somewhat experimental procedure called a “pinch-graft,” in which he takes a small portion of skin from his own body and attaches it to the most badly injured portion of Susie’s leg. The graft takes. The rest of Susie’s people are moved on to San Carlos, where General Crook imposes on them the wearing of tags rather like those that mark the ears of cattle. But Susie becomes a patchwork girl, a child composed of fragments, Walter Reed’s own little Frankensteinian experiment, a little morsel of human debris washed up into his arms by the seemingly unstoppable tsunami that is Manifest Destiny.

Everything in Walter’s life and training has prepared him to foster this damaged child. His upbringing as a minister’s son, his life as a doctor—these, and the prevailing notion espoused by Manifest Destiny itself—that to separate an Apache child from her culture is both Christian and necessary—seems to make his love of Susie inevitable.

Susie is at least four years old. Her identity as an Apache has been ingrained. At this age an Apache girl would know of White Shell Woman, who loves little girls, and the lullabys and songs women sing to children, and probably what things are good to eat out of hand (like crickets) and what things to avoid handling (like scorpions). In her four years she would have known nothing but war, endless resettlement, and the eroding of her ethnic culture. The recognized sovereign nation of Apacheria has been struggling with the United Stated Government for nearly 30 years. She might have seen Geronimo while living on the San Carlos Reservation. He might have frightened her. Over one hundred years later, his photograph will certainly frighten me. He has a mouth like a steel garotte and eyes full of desperate anger.

Susie herself seems to be full of desperate anger, although her anger doesn’t manifest itself as anger per se. Walter’s letters refer to her as “our wild Susan” and give accounts of Susie’s protests of “me good pony-boy!” and “me all full of humbly-doing!” She is watchful, anxious; she has trouble concentrating.

It almost seems, muses Walter, like she suffers from battle fatigue. But how could a little girl have battle fatigue?

Ghost sickness, the Apaches tell Reed. The child suffers from the ghost sickness.

X. October 15th, 2009. Durango. In which I encounter ghosts.

I discuss katsina dolls with Randy Brokeshoulder, a Hopi artist who is finishing his degree in teaching at Fort Lewis College. I observe him with great respect. Only 27 years old, and Randy is a renowed katsina doll artist. His father was in the military. I tell him about Susie Reed and ask him whether it sounds like she suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or ghost sickness. He shrugs.

“PTSD, ghost sickness. Potato, potahto. Either way, you’re haunted up the wazoo.”

Randy teaches 8th grade evolutionary science.

“Someday,” he says cheerfully, “Coyote will shut the door on this world and end ghost sickness. Or, in other words, evolution will take care of us.”

I show him a katsina I recently purchased. It has no discernable face, only a blank field of blue-black in which spiral galaxies hang. Who is he? I ask. Which one of the 300-some katsinam is this one?

“He’s new,” says Randy. “We don’t know how many katsinam there are, not really. This one, he’s a visitor.”

Why can’t a woman make katsinam? I ask.

Randy shrugs. “Nothing personal. It’s just how things work. You don’t want them making you sick.”

I respond, somewhat irritably, that I’m already a little sick. Ghost sickness. I’ve become obsessed with finding out what happened to Susie Reed. I’d rather focus on doll making, and yet Susie’s story won’t let me go.

Randy just laughs at me. Later, someone at the trading post will grin at me and ask, suddenly, Did you ever hear about the kangaroo that got loose in the White Mountains, long ago?

That night, I dream that a large wolf-like dog (a little like my childhood German Shepherd , Tip) brings me to a grave deep in the woods. The grave is at the bottom of a ravine lined with dirty white clay. I recognize where I am. This is the White Dirt Hole, a place on my mother’s family farm. They used the clay to whitewash their house, the hearth every Sunday, the fences. Black women came from all around to get clay for baking and eating (Zoophagia, that’s called). Suddenly a woman’s dark hand tears out of the grave. I’m terrified, but my dead father is on the other side of the grave, saying, calm down, this is just your sister, she’s simply been buried for a hundred years, that’s all. But I’m too frightened to stay. The earth of the grave is rippling and I know it will give birth to a horrible thing, a dark zombie or some other monster, some entirely new visitor beyond imagining. I turn to run but the wolf creature has turned into a gigantic kangaroo who bars my way and forces me to plunge my hand into its pouch. I feel something like a hand clamp around my wrist. This frightens me so that I wake drenched with sweat, gagging in terror. I curl against my husband’s back, always an anchor against nightmares, and say to myself that no woman is my sister.

Have you considered the possibility that you are a ghost?

Can you prove that you are alive?

XI. Murfreesboro, 1883. In which Susie realizes she is a ghost.

Ghost sickness. The Apaches believe that you shouldn’t mention the dead because that just interrupts the good times they’re having in the Happy Place. All Apaches go to the Happy Place, no matter how bad they’ve been in life. Well, perhaps not those Apaches who’ve been truly evil—those folks get reincarnated as water creatures like frogs and snakes, fish, slimy things. Good riddance to them. But such truly evil people are rarities.

Walter and Susie have joined Emilie and Lawrence and little Blossom in Murfreesboro for a visit, in time to comfort Emilie’s cousin Sallie Southall Cotton, whose 15-year-old son has drowned. The Reeds go to the Cotton home, a wonderful place of wide porches and shady trees, filled with dark servants and the dead boy’s brothers and sisters, so many of them, all talking about the dead boy. Susie has forgotten the Apache language, but she still finds talking about the dead uncomfortable, that and the attention of the well-meaning Cotton children, who even in their grief find an Apache girl from the wild western lands an object of fascination. Susie takes Lawrence and toddler Blossom and slips away to the barn, where she discovers a dark man holding a dark snake. This dark man works for the Cottons and is the chief snake wrangler, the only snake wrangler, for the plantation. Each day he takes the big black snake he calls Major on the end of a forked stick and walks him ceremoniously down to the pond, where the snake plays in the water awhile and then returns, satisfied, to his job of catching mice in the barn.

The man looks at Susie and says, don’t go thinking you’re anything more than a copper-colored pickaninny.

Not long after, Emilie is training Susie to wait at table. Young Lawrence summons her to his side like a pretend-customer in a restaurant: I say, waiter, bring the water pitcher this way! Everyone laughs, but Susie realizes the dark man is correct. But what options are open to her? What other family does she have? She is no longer truly an Apache. Without the Reeds, she is utterly, abjectly alone.

XII. Susie Reed, 1887-1895. In which Susie is alone.

I believe you are a ghost. How does this make you feel?

Can you fly?

Do you have a mission to complete?

Are you searching for someone or something?

How did you die?

Who was responsible for your death?

Did you take your own life?

Do you know of others who perished with you?

Susie remains in the Reed household from 1878 until 1890. In 1886, Geronimo surrenders. The entire Apache nation, all 486 of them, are marched onto trains and shipped to Forts Marion and St. Augustine, and then by 1887 are incarcerated in Mount Vernon Barracks, Alabama. Reed and his family (Emilie reconciled herself to the peripatetic nature of Army life by the 1880’s) are stationed with the Apaches at Mount Vernon Barracks. Susie, due to her position in the Reed household, is the only free Apache in the United States. Lawrence is almost 14 and loves Mount Vernon Barracks; he rides ponies and swims in the river. Blossom, almost five, is beginning her education as a lovely accessory for some man. Emilie is not an advocate of much learning for girls, and neither is Reed. A follower of the Weir Mitchell school of reproductive health, he believes that too much education will interrupt the proper development of a girl’s ovaries. Well, no one ever called him brilliant.

Reed is concerned over how a high desert people like the Apaches will adapt to the humid Alabama weather. They do not adapt well. Depressed, homesick, confused, they begin to die off, struck down by tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, and other strange intestinal maladies they catch from their new diets. They are accustomed to eating protein cured quickly in the dry hot Arizona air. When they try to cure meat under the thick humid pines at Mount Vernon Barracks, it spoils, but they are hungry and eat it anyway. The Army supplements their food with white flour, which the Apaches do not know how to keep from going sour. They eat the sour stuff anyway, and develop severe infections.

We are melting away, says an Apache. Determinedly, however, they continue teaching their children Apache ways. Then the Episcopalians and the Dutch Reformed Church and the Methodists realize that if the Apaches are left to the tender mercies of Congress and its more harsh interpretation of Manifest Destiny, Mount Vernon Barracks will become the cemetery of the Apache people. Congress wants these inconvenient people to disappear. So, the socially conscientious decide to interpret Manifest Destiny in its more benign aspect: Kill the Indian, Save the Man. In other words, take the savage and educate him into the white world, teach him a trade and a means to make a living. Education for extinction, some call it. People like Captain Pratt of the Carlisle Indian School come to Mount Vernon Barracks and take away the children, which proves a traumatic experience for just about everyone involved and will seriously mess up the heads of at least the next two generations of Apaches.

The Apaches remain prisoners of war for 27 years, long enough for them to call themselves The Dead. Only when Geronimo died an old man in his bed were they officially declared free.

At Mount Vernon Barracks, Reed undergoes a sort of crisis. He realizes that it is the plan of the government to allow the Apaches to die off, passively, and that he is aging. He must get out of Alabama, fast, if he is to advance significantly in his career. He has lost a great deal of money in a failed Florida orange grove. He has no room left in his heart.

After a quick posting to Fort Omaha, he and his family move to Baltimore, where he begins the studies that will lead him to Cuba and the solving of the yellow fever problem. He and Emilie acquire a beautiful home and a stunning summer house in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania, which they name Keeywadin, West Wind. Then they discover that Susie is pregnant.

Who is the father? It is assumed—assumed—to be a soldier. Dark girls in Murfreesboro get pregnant out of wedlock , and the white folks say, well, they just can’t help themselves, not having self-control like us. And then without much to-do the babies get absorbed into whatever household their mothers work in. But Emilie severs all ties to Susie and packs her off, pregnant and alone, back to Mount Vernon Barracks, into the care of a respectable black woman.

Susie’s baby is born in 1891 and is listed in “The Vital Statistics of an Apache Community” as a “half-breed.” No gender designated.

Susie is then picked by Captain Pratt to go to the Carlisle Indian School to study to become a teacher of English. She certainly couldn’t teach anyone Apache; by this point in her life, Susie has lost all her Apache language.

Susie attends the Carlisle School until 1895. She never sees the Reeds again. For a few summers she works in New Jersey, in a system the Carlisle School calls “outing.”

When Reed is asked whatever happened to Susie, he says the savage nature of her Apache blood overwhelmed all the years of care invested in her, and that she ran away.

On July 14, 1895, Susie dies at the Carlisle School of tuberculosis of the bowel, a disease in which the intestines become paralyzed. It is contracted from eating spoiled food. Rather tellingly, she dies without asserting her belief in Jesus and Christian mercy.

Susie is buried in Row A6 at the Carlisle School Cemetery, under a clean white tombstone. You can go there to this day and see it if you want, but remember that the dead aren’t supposed to like visitors. They prefer that the living move on and allow the dead the same courtesy.

XIII. December 27th, 2009. In which I meet my dark sister.

What do you enjoy most about being a ghost?

What do you like the least?

What do you miss most about being alive?

Do you know any other ghosts?

When you’re not with me, where do you go?

Do you remember the moment you consciously became a ghost?

But I can’t move on, not at first. I became obsessed with finding out what happened to Susie’s baby, as if knowing the baby’s fate would somehow reach into the past and save the child from being cast aside, from leading the life of a ruined experiment. The Apaches disliked mixed-race children, as they thought having sex with white people rather barbaric. The census rolls of that era burned, so no information to be gleaned there. I spent some time tracking down the Wratten papers at the Arizona Historical Society in Tucson, but they yielded little more than the fact that Susie couldn’t speak Apache when she returned to Mount Vernon Barracks. I contact local historians in the town of Mount Vernon itself, pleasant people who seem baffled by my intensity.

I engage in long obstreperous conversations in my sleep with people to whom I speak sharply, most memorably the night I wake my husband, shrieking: That is not properly delineated! That is not properly delineated! He asks me if I realize this child has long ago grown into adulthood, senility, and death, and I respond tartly that yes of course I do and I also realize that my cousin Emilie was a hard-hearted bitch who broke the contract. You bring anyone, I don’t care if it’s a dog, into your household and give her your family name, then by golly you don’t go throwing her away like she’s last year’s outworn accessory. Cousin Emilie might as well have put a gun to Susie’s head and pulled the trigger.

Do you know where you are buried?

Have you visited your old home?

Do you enjoy frightening people?

Have you ever attacked anyone using your ghostly powers?

Why have you allowed me to conduct this interview?

In December I visit my mother for her eighty-sixth birthday and we enjoy a lovely lunch. I tell her of the Apache incarceration. Oh, that’s right, you visited Mount Vernon, she says. I’d forgotten you were going there; you talked so much about the Hopi trip.

The Hopis are fine people, I say, but they wouldn’t let me make any dolls.

You know, your father and I loved Mount Vernon, says my mother. Back when we first got married and were living near Mobile. Pretty place, pretty pines. We scattered the baby’s ashes there, you know.

What baby?!

Oh you remember I told you I had a premature birth back in 1950, she says. They called it a spontaneous abortion back then.

You never told me that.

Oh yes I most certainly did, she says. You just don’t remember. I told you about losing a baby girl five and a half months into my first pregnancy, before your brother, and having her remains cremated and scattering the ashes at Mount Vernon because we thought we might live there one day and because we thought it was peaceful.

What was her name?

We never named her, says my mother. It didn’t seem…necessary. There was just so very little of her.

I sit back in my chair and look at my mother in complete amazement and think to myself, my dark sister. While I’d been running about Mount Vernon Barracks trying to bring to light one long-dead missing child, the nightmare child, I’d been walking over the ashes of my actual elder sister, who never saw the light of day.

Are you tired of being a ghost?

I lose my obsessive intensity after this revelation—or was it merely a reminder? It occurs to me that Susie and the Reeds were all victims of Manifest Destiny—Susie more overtly and catastrophically, of course, but Walter paid his own price. The Cuban experiments led to his death. Emilie and Blossom spent the rest of their lives acting out the roles of Widow and Grieving Daughter of the Great Man.

Emilie became a bit too interested in cocktails. In 1912, she asks George Wratten (a thoroughly amazing man whose writings can be found in the Arizona Historical Society of Tuscon) to translate an Apache lullaby for her. He tells her the words mean I don’t have it, I have nothing for you.

Lawrence had to bear the burden of being the Great Man’s son (in every photograph I’ve seen of him he bears a look of somewhat exasperated boredom).

Blossom seems to have broken down under the strain of being Noble Daughter. Her marriage to a Texas doctor failed; she had to be institutionalized more than once; she depended upon Brother Lawrence for income, simply incapable, he complained, of finessing a budget. She said to her doctors, whenever they confined her, You wouldn’t do this to me if my father were alive. Ghost sickness.

Are you tired of this interview?

I decide that some stories simply don’t have an ending; that you have to accept that some old wrongs can never be made right; that sometimes, your ancestors were, simply, assholes.

At this point in my research I collect my notes on Hopi and Apache myths, in order to share with my students in the Winter Term, and I begin concentrating on making art, my dark dada daughters. I think to myself:

Well, I suppose I had a dark sister after all, a real one I’d forgotten. And I think I have another dark sister, one I created myself, one I buried long ago and am now allowing to come out and play, in the dolls I make out of castoff junk. I search for junk these days with the same intensity that I searched for Susie’s lost child.

Debris, debris, debris, says Katherine Hepburn in Suddenly, Last Summer. We’re all just debris.

But that’s not so bad. We’re all objects of desire washed up on the shore of history, some of us simply a little more cracked than others. These days, when I pick up something rusty in the gutter, I don’t see a piece of thrown-away trash; I see a hand or a foot or a head, and that filthy broken thing fills me with great satisfaction, and I think to myself, it is perfect.

Is there anything I can do to help you?

If you see him, could you tell my father I’m using all the tools he left me?

1 reply »

  1. Thank you. I was wondering about Walter Reed’s daughter, too. I still wonder what happened to Susie’s Baby.