Meditate and Wait
by Katie Strine
They smoke in the garage, four of them, five of them. Can’t see through the haze of sun into the shadowed room. From the street neighbors hear their sounds: laughter coated with emphysema. Rotting lungs and dogs that howl at subtle movements. A grandma, a grandpa, an uncle, and one older niece: the remains of a larger family that has dwindled by death and decay (all smokers, all drinkers, and all self-proclaimed Catholics).
Three dogs guard the garage at the edge – a baby gate corrals them. Una walks by and the chorus of howls arrange like limp notes and soar into the air. The smell of dead tree seeps from the soil. Their house, the first one built on this street, is the last one before the road dips to the left and opens to a cemetery. Originally a family grave, but years and community planners and the sway of money rearranged the rights. Now it’s public property. A gothic iron gate surrounds the land; doors eek open on aged hinges. Una loves to hear them whine.
She walks down just to walk down and visit no one in particular. Her long, brown hair whips behind her shoulders. Their eyes, as well as the eyes of the yard statues, follow her. She can’t be sure of what they’ve erected between the overgrown pine shrubs, and they’ve planted plastic flowers in plastic planters, but she ascertains Catholic saints (none of whom she knows), a fox (with cold, beady, cement eyes) and a rooster (garnished with a red and white checkered apron). A harsh “Shut up you damn dogs” echoes forth and maybe a whimper but then a grotesque cough tumbles forth. The sounds spill over one another.
She reads the names, the large ones printed in all capital letters, last names sprawled, the family honor. She shuffles leaves to the side and searches for smaller headstones. Children, maybe. Small adults. Women from the 1800s who have since shriveled like dead bugs: heads craning toward bodies, arms tucked at their chests. She’s searching for a way to connect to the past or a way for the past to connect to her. Voodoo magic, Ouija boards, séances: she’s sick of pretending.
They burned each other’s skin with hot lighters, the metal sank into the flesh and years later scars talk to strangers, stories of their odd behavior. Imprints on the back of hands. Signals coded only for each other. Scar tissue signs — personal tattoos — created before members departed to the other side. Rumors circulate the town. People whisper. But the members of the house have crafted a system all of their own, separate from the community, and the symbols remain embedded in their history and their family.
They pull back their baby gates and open the garage that weekend for an estate sale. She wonders, and maybe even hopes, if they might move. She saunters through their belongings. A lamp with a broken bulb – the glass shards visible through the shade; a box of used ashtrays gray and soot stained; a box of run-down toys featuring a doll with a loose eyeball. The black button swings and wobbles as Una roots through the box. Finally her hand emerges holding a magic eight ball. She palms the prize and pokes further.
Suddenly the feeling of a ghost catches in her throat. She stands within inches of the garage and fingers rotten pots and stained lace. A framed picture of a church (a jagged crack running through its surface) props against a table. She runs her finger down the glass and lets the slit of its cut dig into her skin. A small streak of blood remains on the glass, a dull red hue painted on the steeple. She bends toward the picture and seeks to speak to the spirit she feels hovering from the house but knows she needs closer. So this is where it hides, she thinks and buys her eight ball. A boy tucked behind the bushes and the beady fox watch her desperately.
She leans against her front porch steps and watches families retire as the day’s water-painted clash of colors darkens. The leaves rustle against each other. It calms and stirs harder and the wind chimes collapse into a song. She waits for midnight black, the lunar phase on her side, a tiny rat’s nail of white in the sky.
Their garage door is closed. The baby gates rest on the outside of the door ready for another day. She crosses to their side of the street, the cemetery entrance within view but the graves tucked into a small valley of swirling fog.
Una creeps through their uneven grass. The unkempt yard crunches below her feet: a slew of leaves and twigs and mushrooms. Against the house she smells standing water. A deep stench of mud or mold. She walks with her back flat against the exterior and finds herself in the backyard where an unexpected scene develops.
In place of a standard backyard flush with grass and peppered with flowers, here lies an entire pond. The water covers the expanse of space, with a back porch that extends above the water approximately ten feet from the house. At the far end of the watered yard stands a large stone – not shaped into an obelisk or other tomb – looming over the abyss. She has no way of making it to the stone unless she plunges into the water.
Overhead an explosion claps in the sky – fireworks – but she imagines the uncle with a gun, his face another shadow, and turns from the pond and toward the street.
There’s a knock on the door the next day, late afternoon. The air smells like fire and burned leaves. A hint of smoke hangs over shingled roofs.
A younger man, maybe even a boy, stands on the other side of Una’s door. His toes hang over the front edges of his flip flops. His toenails visible, curled and yellowed. She doesn’t recognize him and he knows she won’t.
“I’m Zeek, short for Ezekiel – your neighbor.” He cranes his neck toward the house with the garage. She’s never seen him there. She doesn’t respond. “If you want to get in that pond, if you want to find that spirit you’re after, I’m willing to help you out.”
“You don’t believe all of a sudden?” He sticks a toothpick into his mouth and swirls it around with his tongue. “I’ve seen you. You hang around at the cemetery, poking around at strangers’ graves. I know you don’t have family in this town – new blood – so you go looking around at the old blood. Old souls. Whatcha looking for?”
Una stares into his eyes wondering how much he knows.
“Forget about it, Una. Wanna see a trick?” From the other pocket of his sweatpants he pulls out a stack of cards. He shuffles and pushes the cards back together again. He waves his hands. The right hand, she notices, is scabbed from scratched bug bites or some kind of poison ivy. He catches her looking and moves his hand quicker. “Okay, pick a card – go ahead, Ain’t gonna bite you.”
She inches a card from the cluster. A Jack of Hearts. He nods to her to slide it back into the deck.
“Good, good. Okay, now, watch closely – I didn’t see it, right? But you gotta remember what card it is.” He holds his eyes steady into hers. An answer dances behind his gaze. She shivers away a question and shakes her mind into vacancy. After a few more sleight of hand tricks, he procures the Jack of Hearts and flashes it in front of her. She looks into the face of the card and notices its menacing features that either weren’t there before or ones she overlooked. His hand appears freckled like Zeek’s. Warped skin.
“I don’t really like card tricks,” she says and shuts the door.
It’s cold when the ghost enters your body. A halo of chill surrounds the exterior. When it’s gone, a familiar heat returns, and you’re alone again.
She doesn’t ask for them to visit but she returns in case they do.
She weaves through tombstones and waits for one to call to her. Her skirt hangs low and drapes through the leaves. A few hang at the edge and she pulls them along unknowingly. She carries a book of poetry, a dilapidated copy handed to her from other people in another world: her past. It’s a relic she can live without, so she tugs at the pages. Each papery feather pulled from its binding. A light rip. The glue lets go. The page frees. She tucks one after one against these permanent headrests and weighs each to the earth with a rock.
A harsh whistle blows through the surrounding trees. Her skirt tugs against her legs, and her head flings toward the sound. A black shape of a bird flutters behind tree trunks. She wonders if Zeek is there, too: his lanky body against a tree, the bark rough against his spine. Beady eyes like the cold, cement fox.
Then, movement. Low to the ground, a shadow forms and creeps from the woods. It hovers on all fours. She imagines Zeek on all fours – preternatural, foam at the mouth — and on the hunt for her. His toenails dig through the grass, soil ripe under his nails, as he lunges toward her.
“Clyde?” She asks the animal, a large beast with a head like a shoebox: one from the garage dog gang. He ambles to her side. “Why are you down here?” He nudges into her, and she rubs his broad back. A faint smell of cigarette smoke lingers on his fur. “Do you want to hear a poem, Clyde?” To which he responds by settling in and shutting his eyes. His gentle body collapses. She reads aloud each word, the syllables unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed. A whoosh of air – the trees breathing from her left – carries and cools her neck.
Una meditates and waits.
She wakes to the uncle standing above her, the graves below her. She feels the warmth of Clyde’s back on hers.
“That’s my dog,” the uncle growls and yanks at Clyde’s collar. The man’s mouth clenches as he talks. She wonders how the words escape. “And what’s all this litter?” He waves a sinewy arm through the air. Una sees her poems scattered, some swooped and soaring with the wind. “No respect,” he whistles and hobbles away. He tugs at Clyde, who he’s wrangled with a rope.
She watches them circle through the headstones. The uncle precariously places each step, and Clyde hunches toward the smells of earth. Their bodies bumble back toward the street.
She collects rocks. Smooth, cold rocks: minute minerals miraculously compounded into handheld objects. She rubs at each testing its smoothness, handling its weight before placing them into the folds of her skirt she’s lifted for a temporary carrier. Stooping toward the graves, she weighs the poems again.
“Are you a witch?” She hears Zeek’s voice before she sees his face. A bouquet of fake flowers dangles at his side, their heads facing downward.
“Those dresses, all long, covered, heaven-like but hellish altogether. Pagan, I guess is what I mean to say.”
“Your family doesn’t own this property, Zeek. First your uncle. Now you. I’m allowed to be here.”
“Allowed?” He suppresses a smile, then steals a whiff from the bouquet before dropping the bunch by his side again. A collection of vibrant blue, red, orange, yellow – abnormal colors for flowers. “Did you think more about the pond? My offer? I know what you’re chasing, Una. I get it. Why are you hesitant?”
Una considers his proposition. His words form like steam within a swirling fog already constant in her mind. Intangible and abstract. She knows she’s unable to sneak into the water without him knowing. She forces her mind backwards to distant memories. A train crash. Her parents thrown from a bridge. Her parents drowned in water. Her parents plummeted off cliffs. She surmises these details – all daydreams and fabricated realities — but understands they died without her and after years of foster care, miscellaneous homes, and empty emotions from town to town, this street, this city, this cemetery, that spirit, finally feels fulfilling.
“What do you chase?” She asks through the mindful fog.
Again, a sly smile breaks and his pointers show. “I don’t chase. Do you think that’s what you want? An end to an unknown? Some realize it’s over before they begin. You, I think, can’t settle. Others, like me, come naturally into this world.” He pauses to pick up a poem, one she missed as it skids between them. It crinkles against the plastic as he tucks it within the flowers. “Tell you what. Nine o’clock, tonight.” He answers for her because he knows she’ll come.
“We call her Mother because she’s been here before any of us.” Zeek and Una stand ankle deep in water, their feet mingled with moss and algae. “Inexplicable, maybe, that after hundreds of years, she remains. Her bones, her grave is here. Or it was. Before one of our generations made this pond.” The bottom three inches of Una’s dress swirls in and on the water’s surface. She thinks of the cold — the water as an aquarium of spirits – and she pictures faces, their bodies trailing behind them, as they swim through the murky water. Standing here now with Zeek she worries she misjudged him. She had thought he was uneducated, misguided. She thought she could distract him and have the pond to herself. “You’ll have to wade through to the center where there’s a drop-off. An underwater cliff of sorts.” Una, who has long since memorized the phases of the moon, knows only a fragment hangs above them. A waning crescent. She predicted the darkness and the unknown, but she miscalculated the power dynamic brought on by the property’s effect.
She steps forward unwilling to step backward. Her dress darkens as the water deepens. The coldness of the water forces her to take a breath. She sucks in the nighttime air, the clouds beginning to descend into fog, and the temperature trickles down her spine.
Zeek stays with her but a few paces behind. Her toes curl at the precipice. She stares into the stone. A woman’s features materialize within the rock formation. The earth’s minerals mold into cold eyes, silver hair and a taut expression.
“We wade and meditate. Do you meditate, Una? Sit and think thoughtless thoughts, as you breathe in, breathe out the wide world around you? A mindless yet mind-centered activity, don’t you agree?” She answers by centering her diaphragm. Like the poetry, she thinks, unstressed, stressed; her breath fills and releases. Fills and releases.
“You’ll have to go under water now.” Una thinks to question Zeek’s instructions, but reminds herself to move forward, not backward. She recalls the refreshing chill alighted in her the day of the garage sale. The pull of the house from a larger-than-life spirit. A distant hovering that’s beckoned her to this town, this street, this moment.
She descends, her eyes on the stone. A reflection of the stone appears on the water just as she’s eye level with the pond.
The black water engulfs her as a slight splash sounds beside her. Zeek.
He too stares into the stone. He too feels his toes on the precipice. He palms her head, a thick wave of hair sweeps his arm, and he holds her under water. The struggle doesn’t startle him. The muffled screams don’t deter him. He holds on, his toes curling at the edge, pieces of moss caught on a toenail.
Her dress will weigh her down. Gravity and water will push, push, push.
He feels satisfied in the sacrifice. He thinks to swim to the stone, to stroke his hand along its surface. But he feels someone behind him and turns to see his uncle on the porch. Clyde saunters from the house and stands at his side.
The way to family — bonds, secrets, scars – is a dark portal. A moonless sky, an unguided guide, an underwater spirit drenched pond. The calling to unite with our departed generations carries in a cold breeze, whispers on crinkling leaves. It’s a constant chase to collect, maintain and reincarnate.
He eyes his uncle, whose pride forms in the shadowed, hard lines of age. His face weathered artwork.
Zeek moves toward the edge of the water. Inch by inch his soaked pants emerge and he squeezes at the water, fists slippery and cold.
He pulls the graveyard poem from his pocket, handles a rock, and places a makeshift headrest in the small crescent of earth beside the water. Una’s only marker. Tomorrow he’ll toss the fake flowers down from the porch, the vibrant hues garish against the earthy moss and mud.
Katie Strine tolerates life through literature with a side of bacon and dark beer. She lives in the east suburbs of Cleveland with her quirky family — husband, son and dog — who accompany her on oddball adventures. Stay in touch via LinkedIn for more.