Chasing Josie's Ghost
There's a little wrinkle of land down in Stone County, an isolated pocket valley so remote you can hardly find the sky. My wife Sarah and I were happy there. A nearly feral cat lived there too, a scruffy calico that hung around the house to avoid coyotes. Sarah called her Josie. That cat was neurotic, delusional, paranoid, and pathologically afraid of me, though I never gave her reason. For three years all I ever saw of her was a peripheral flash of color and motion, or the tip of her tail disappearing around a corner.
The exception was anytime my wife ventured outside. Josie would slink out of hiding, stare death at me and sidle around on stiff legs, back arched and tail fluffed, to get to Sarah's lap. I didn't resent it. Sarah had a way with damaged goods. She could talk tadpoles from a puddle, chant clouds from the sky, charm ticks from a mule's hide. She surely charmed that cat. I'd leave them to their healing magics and go find something useful to do.
It fell to me to care for Josie. I fed her, discouraged skunks, watched for predators, and poured saucers of cream. But Josie never warmed to me. About the fourth year she stopped running and took to sitting, watching carefully from a distance.
Seven more years passed before she deigned to butt her head against my shin in greeting. She retreated when I reached down, but it didn't matter to me. I ran inside to tell Sarah, excited as a bird dog puppy.
The next morning I found Josie out behind the barn, stretched flat. She was done. She couldn't move. Her eyes were glazed; her breathing was coarse and erratic. It was clear she'd had a stroke. So I sat the long watch with her, murmuring meaningless comforts through a timeless day full of falling yellow leaves and shifting beams of sunlight. When she finally died I buried her in the garden. Poor little thing. I planted violets over her. I lied to Sarah about it, and took food out for Josie every morning.
Not long after there came a very bad day, a cold and terrible day I do not remember well. I knelt on dead grass before a mound of fresh turned earth and vowed to grow roses, but I did not, could not. Instead I hired a caretaker to do it for me, and I left the valley, cursing and weeping, banished, for I was not strong enough to cherish the memories kept there.
I went on a long bender. I crawled through months of alcoholic haze and simply did not care. But eventually I sobered up, or toughened up, or simply outlived the pain, and after a long while I returned to Stone County.
I had to go back. There's a spring there, in the valley's bottom. Water wells up through limestone to form a pond fifty feet across, pure as sunbeams, clear as truth, sweet as god's own breath. Sarah named the place Heaven.
When the full moon is close above, when the water is still and the night transparent, the moon's light reflects not from the surface of the pond, but from the bottom, and the water turns clear as a breeze. You can see the fish. Sitting on the pond's edge the illusion is so complete, with the sky above and the sky below, it feels like flying.
We had walked there often, in every season. In later years I had to carry Sarah. By then she weighed so little she was no burden. Josie always dogged our heels. Many a full moon caught us sitting there on the bank. Josie always kept Sarah between us.
How gently years turned. Our life in there was graceful and unhurried. My lovely wife Sarah, Wise Woman that she was, taught magic.
"Magic is potential. When the breeze touches only the tips of the leaves, when the moon is one night shy of full, when the air smells like memory, magic seeps from ground, coalesces from the air like Brigadoon from the mist, and manifests as potential. We perceive it as excitement, or expectation, like the feel of Christmas morning." Sarah had a lyric way of talking when she taught. All the Wise Women do.
I'm the practical kind, so I asked, "How do you use it?" But Sarah shook her head, pityingly, I thought. "That kind of magic is not for using. It's a gift from the Goddess, it's for enjoying. So enjoy. Believe, and enjoy. It's the thing you most need to learn." She kissed me then and took my hand, as I remember.
Beneath a nearly full moon I knelt by her grave, remembering. I lowered my head to sweet yellow roses and begged forgiveness, to have been away so long. After a time I looked up and saw out of the side of my eye, a moving flash of color. It surprised me and I stood, and saw the tip of a tail disappear into the woods. I followed.
Emotions painful and sweet constricted my heart. The wind stirred the trees and I caught sight of something just ahead flickering through shadow and moonlight. I followed it down to the spring and there I found an apparition, Josie's ghost, sitting in bright moonlight out on the surface of the pond.
I sat on the bank and waited, excited as a birthday boy, expectant as a new mowed lawn. The night grew quiet and close. The moon climbed the sky. Potential condensed around me and as I watched, the moon's reflection shifted below the surface. The water became transparent and Josie's ghost drifted in empty space, suspended between two moons.
I sat enthralled on Heaven's shore. If love and potential and miraculous surprise are possible, then all things are possible. If one ghost, why not two? I closed my eyes and believed it to be so. When at last I felt it was, I looked about to see.