My mother walks up dizzy from the pier with her mouth open and her arms out and dripping. The lizards on the boardwalk drop their blue tails to get out of her way.
I’m on the patio swing saying it’s a tough living dyeing my own wool and spinning it into fancy yarn. Peggy tells me to shut up and worry about my mother. My mother vomits algae on the patio, and I get worried.
My mother says, “Don’t you kids look. It’s just my vertigo.”
The kids are me and a few old women in shorts. The old women push me inside the lake house and block the sliding door with their clotted bodies. I sit on the floor and trace the black veins from leg to leg through the glass. The veins are black because they’re full of ants. If the old women get cut, the ants will escape, and the old women won’t have anything to carry their granulated blood to their hearts.
My mother married into this family. She doesn’t have the right blood for the lake. Linda told my mother how a ghost would swim up in her if she went out on that raft, but my mother comes from country people. They learn by doing. My mother is learning right now. A ghost from the lake is caught in my mother’s stomach, and it’s teaching her what it means to be a stubborn individual.
A cloud of mosquitoes blacks out my mother’s hair. Sandra looks at her phone.
She says, “I’m calling it.”
Linda says, “This whole situation makes me want to spit. Get those mosquitoes out of her hair. Those mosquitoes don’t get to be part of this.”
I knock on the glass. It hurts. My knuckles are sharp, and my skin is thin. It’s something about my parents’ combined genetics. I’m hardy and fragile at the same time. I bleed at the joints when I make a fist. My blood isn’t ants. It’s just blood. Before my father died, he taught me to squeeze that blood into jars and keep it the right temperature for if I need it later.
He said, “You can do more with blood than it says on the box.”
He’s right. I’ve used my blood to dye wool the perfect shade of brown.
Peggy hugs open a Christmas tin and eats a cookie.
She says, “Your poor mother.”
Peggy was made to stay behind the glass with me. Her sisters are out there telling my mother how not all dizziness is vertigo. My mother’s screaming a story about the first lake people.
Sandra says, “Someone should record this. I don’t think we have this one.”
Linda says, “I’m not going to be involved in that. This woman has her rights to privacy.”
Peggy gives me a cookie and says, “Your mother will be fine. Eat this cookie, then we’ll go out front and play a game.”
I eat the cookie. It has raisins. I can’t digest raisins at the lake. My stomach turns them to gravel. I puke the cookie into a red plastic cup.
Peggy says, “I know. The lake takes getting used to. My first time here, I found out I couldn’t whistle. We lost a puppy that way. He started running toward the lake, and I tried to whistle for him, but nothing came out. He ran right across the water on a bridge of snakes.”
The lake is a man-made finger of blood-black water on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. It’s a culture shock like when I was in Australia and used the toilet paper to the last square. The last square was glued to the roll. I cried because that’s not how it is in America. In America, the last square comes clean.
On the other side of the glass, my mother says, “Brother Bill Agnes dressed as an old woman and secured a place on a lifeboat. That was in April of 1912. Grandmother Will was born a year later to Sister Viv, a lapsed nun who made pies out of sawdust. All Sister Viv’s children were allergic to trees.”
Peggy reaches behind my ear and pulls back two lit cigarettes.
She says, “Let’s go play that game.”
Peggy and I go out on the front porch and sigh into rocking chairs. A noiseless fighter jet goes over the trees and unzips a formation of geese. There’s an Air Force base nearby. The geese crash in the yard and shit the sand to mayonnaise. Peggy says when she and Linda and Sandra were kids they would grab the geese by their necks and swing them over the house and into the lake. I think that’s a feat misremembered.
I tried grabbing a goose once, but the goose grabbed me instead. I had to climb a tree to get away. My hands got cut up on the bark. Sap fell into the deepest splits. My hands healed up bumpy, so now I have hard beads in my palms like a pearl necklace held and absorbed.
I thought the sap might have poisoned me because my fingernails started growing faster than normal, and I had this urge to scratch people. My mother would hug me, and I would pull up divots of skin from her back. One of those times, I pulled up a mole and its network of cancer. My mother let out a sound like a motorcycle.
I told her I was a poisonous monster because of the sap in my hands.
She said, “No, honey, look. I’ve got pencil lead in my neck from a thing that happened on accident, and your father says I’m good ’til I die.”
The boom of the fighter jet catches up to us a minute after the jet’s out of sight.
Peggy says, “That’s what ghosts sound like when they’re not sitting in your stomach. If you put your head down in the lake, you can hear the ghosts screaming like a really big shell put to your ear.”
I say, “I know what ghosts sound like. My father had a bad ghost take him over a few years ago.”
Peggy says, “I didn’t forget.”
I say, “You said something about a game.”
Peggy says, “Yeah, the game where we smoke these cigarettes and just shut up because there will be enough talking in the morning, and the geese want to talk now.”
The geese start honking. I yawn. Peggy looks at me like I’m ruining the moment. I yawn again but in my closed mouth. My eyes water like I might cry.
I’m the oldest of the younger cousins this year because Ashley, the real oldest cousin, had a baby, and the baby’s already doing that thing where he looks over Ashley’s shoulder at things that aren’t there.
“He sees spirits,” Ashley says when she calls to make sure we’re all still alive.
I tell Ashley my mother’s been hit by a long-winded ghost. Ashley says that’s a shame and a tradition. She says to give everyone her love. I tell her blood is love at the lake.
She says, “You know what I mean.”
Ashley didn’t tell me being the oldest cousin came with responsibilities. I have to get the younger cousins drunk but not too drunk. One of the old women gives me 50 bucks to buy her some cheap bourbon. She tells me to keep the change. I spend the change on vodka for the younger cousins. Peggy helps me pour the glasses.
I say, “This is weird.”
Peggy says, “They’ll need it to sleep in a house that’s always talking.”
Peggy and I decide to split the rest of the bottle. This would be a good time to cry and ask about my mother, but I know ghosts don’t give up easy. I look out the window. There’s too much fog to see the lake anymore.
Peggy says, “That’s the body of the ghost. If you go out tonight, try not to breathe it in.”
Peggy coughs some ants into the bottle.
I say, “My mother won’t talk again, will she?”
Peggy says, “Well, your mother’s staunch, so she’ll probably try.”
I call the younger cousins into the kitchen, and they get their drinks and head to the basement. Peggy says I should go with them.
She hands me the bottle and says, “Don’t you leave this shit vodka with me.”
The stairs to the basement are covered in carpet that’s always a little wet. I run down the stairs, and it feels like I’m running on rum cake. The younger cousins are sitting around a card table and flicking poker chips at each other.
Matt says, “You know what you do with these?”
I say, “They stand for money.”
Matt says, “No. They stand for America. This one’s red, this one’s white, and this one’s blue.”
Matt takes a drink and starts coughing.
Lee says, “I know. This one’s really strong.”
Katie says, “Yeah, this one too.”
All the younger cousins take cat sips and talk about how they can’t wait to get out of wherever they are. Lee’s the only one who isn’t a blood cousin. He’s the neighbor. His teeth cross like swords. Katie has a thing for messed-up teeth. She’s been all over Lee since we got here. She texts me and asks if I think it’s OK for her to keep going. I tell her it would be fine if Lee weren’t gay.
Peggy yells down for me to move her car closer to the house so it’ll be easier for her to pack tomorrow, if there is a tomorrow. She laughs and shakes a pill bottle. The other old women come running.
Lee says, “I’ll go with you.”
Katie stands up and pulls down on the legs of her shorts.
Lee says, “Just me and your cousin on this one.”
I say, “Yeah, there might be snakes out,” which is stupid because we all know snakes take to the water at night. They float on top of the lake in loose sex balls, roaring like a gas leak in a small town. Every morning, there are clusters of fresh eggs knocking the pier legs. Linda and Sandra cut the eggs open and use the undeveloped snake babies for fishing bait.
Katie says, “OK, guys. What. Ever.”
Lee and I hit the gravel. I try not to breathe the ghost fog. Lee trips over himself like he got drunk off three sips of vodka. I tell him to keep his mouth shut and his nose shut and just breathe with his mind.
He says, “No can do, but I’ll race you to the car.”
Lee grabs my hand, and we run through the fog to Peggy’s car where we suck in the clean air and pass it between our mouths. My tongue counts Lee’s crooked teeth. I want to ask if his teeth hurt arranged like that, but my mouth and his mouth are the same for a while. I can taste where I smoked a cigarette earlier, and so can Lee. He sucks on my lips to get it all out.
Lee tells me he’s moving to California to sit in a chair on the beach and talk about what he believes. He doesn’t know what he believes yet. He thinks if he starts talking, he’ll know.
Lee asks me what I believe.
I say, “I believe my mother still has a lot to say.”
Lee says we don’t believe the same things.
I ask Lee if he’s met any of the ghosts from the lake. He says no. I take his shirt off and say, “I’ll show you a ghost in the morning.”
The fog is lifting. Lee swallows all the spit in his mouth.
“No,” he says, “you won’t.”
My mother is sitting on the pier in the morning, and the ghost has left her. I can see her skull through her skin. She says it’ll pass when she eats, but she’s not hungry.
The water under us is black and iridescent as motor oil. I tell my mother I’m not hungry either. She says I smell like I ate all night. She coughs, and no algae comes out, but her breath is still green.
Lee comes down the boardwalk, and I say, “Mom, this is my special friend.”
My mother grabs a post to stand. I see all her veins at once like purple lightning.
She says, “Don’t do this to me right now.”
Peggy yells that breakfast is ready. My mother says she needs to try to eat. I say we’ll be up soon.
Lee and I get on our bellies on the pier. We look in the water for ghosts.
I spit in the lake, and the lake spits back.
Casey Hannan was born in West Virginia, raised in central Kentucky, and has lived and worked in Kansas City since 2003. He graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2007 and has continued to develop his literary and visual art practices in tandem. He is the author of two books, Mother Ghost (Tiny Hardcore Press) and The Three Woes (Spork Press) and can be found at caseyhannan.com.
Shimmer #46, November 2018, 2100 words