I took my daughter to play on the grassy hill by the abandoned school at the end of the street.
She brought her bow and suction-tipped arrows, to practice her archery, and a plastic sword for “training.” She is always “training.” When the neighbor boys come over to play, she invites them to “train’ with her. She wants to be a ninja.
The neighborhood was cooling off after a hot day. A light breeze bent the grass; starlings murmured to one another in the raggedy trees that bordered the field and the hill. The sun was just dipping out of sight, leaving a blush on the horizon. I sat on the side of the hill while she shot her arrows and ran to gather them. She darted back and forth with her sword, sparring against her long shadow in the evening light.
I remembered that this was the time that the Lord was said to walk in the garden of Eden– in evening, in the cool of the day. His children would come to walk with Him, but after they sinned, they feared.
A woman came out of the woods on the cliffside just then, walking a dog across the field toward me and my daughter.
There were old trails in those woods, and old staircases down the cliff. I had walked down one of them myself when I first came here and didn’t know better, and didn’t know why I found the remains of a campfire. Those used to be trails maintained by the city, when the steel mills were open and Steubenville could afford such things. Now they are officially closed. Besides the occasional college student, they’re mainly used by homeless people camping out. It’s not unheard of that homeless people in Steubenville should find themselves keeping pets, like the dog this woman had, but it’s not common. And she was too old to be a college student. Maybe she was one of the cruel people who live in mansions facing the cliff and want the poor pressured out of the neighborhood. But those people never use the trails up and down the cliffside, and they hate the people who do.
I cringed reflexively. Steubenville is not a kind place; I usually cringe from strangers. But the woman kept coming, across the warm grass, uncanny in the evening shadow. She could have been a neighbor come to glare at me, or tell me that I didn’t belong on this street; she could have been a specter, or Jesus walking on the water.
That mystery has always puzzled me: when the Apostles saw Jesus they thought He was a ghost; and, never quick to learn a lesson, they thought that again after the Resurrection. There is something in the eyes of human beings, that makes The Presence seem like a haunting and a Holy One like a ghost. Maybe it wasn’t always so, but it is now. Now, if we saw the Lord walking through the garden in the cool of the day, we would hide ourselves in terror.
I hoped the woman would pass straight by, but she waved at Rose and came to sit next to me. Her dog ran in tight ellipses around her, straining at the woods, “pointing” as beagles do, desperate to hunt.
“He smells deer,” said the woman. “There’s deer in the woods. There’s eight of them. When I walk by myself I can walk right up and pet ’em, but he likes to chase ’em. He wants me to let him run.”
“I finally got a house with Section Eight,” said the woman, hugging her knees in front of her. “Been in the Gaylord Tower for years. I was raised in the country. My better half and I moved here twenty years ago, before he died. He grew up here, remembered it as a good place to live, get a job. We were so surprised… everything changed. Used to be much better. Used to be a park with a great big pool over that way. I found it once, on a walk. Just overgrown cement now. A big empty pool of cement. They don’t want you goin’ there.”
I found myself chatting with the strange woman– about her dog, about the Gaylord Towers, about how she’d beaten a bedbug infestation twice using double-stick tape.
“Gotta replace the tape often,” she said with a grin that was both satisfied and disgusted, “Or else they just crawl over each other’s bodies.”
“I’m Lloyd Garbadon, the Green Ninja,” exclaimed Rose, spinning around with her sword.
The woman laughed with genuine delight. “You’re a ninja?”
Rose is shy of grown-ups but loves to show off her “training.” Instead of answering, she performed a flourish with her sword and went back to sparring against her shadow.
“I love people who can have kids,” the woman said to me.
I wasn’t used to being admired for having children. One isn’t considered much of an achievement, around here. I think of myself as a failure.
“I always wanted kids,” she said. “I love kids. I had eight miscarriages.”
I’ve had two, as far as I can tell. It always haunts me that it was so early, I can’t be sure if Rose’s siblings were real or not.
“I think it was because of an accident when I was a little girl, on the farm… I was training a horse and he rolled over. The saddle horn went into my side.”
I murmured sympathy.
“The first miscarriage was when I was fifteen– twins.” She held out her hands and stared at them. “I was twelve weeks along. Bad cramps all of a sudden, then one clot the size of my fist– that was the placenta. The next day, bad cramps, then two clots the size of my thumbs. Those were the babies. The rest were all earlier than that. Then, when I was older, the pain got so bad, I went to the ER, the tube was all twisted, there was gangrene. They had to take everything out. I think it all started with that horse rolling over.”
It was getting dark. Rose couldn’t see her shadow anymore– it was lost among a hillside of shadows. The sky was a collage of red and blue streaks. Time to get her home to bed.
“I gotta get back, I guess.” The woman stood up with her dog’s leash still in hand; the dog strained harder for the woods.
We stared at each other, for a moment– two mothers and the girl who survived, on the hillside of a neighborhood where we weren’t welcome, surrounded by as many as ten little ghosts. Then again, if the ghosts are in the heart of Christ, they’re saints. And if they are saints, their presence is a blessing, no matter what it looks like to my fallen eyes in the cool of the day.
“God Bless, now.”
She went back into the woods.
(image via Pixabay)