The Bridge: A Ghost Story

At thirteen, Samantha decided she was too old to go trick-or-treating.  She came to this determination when the popular girls giggled after overhearing her tell her friends she was dressing up as a witch.  Not a sexy witch, but a black hat and green nose witch; the kind of witch Puritans burned at the stake.  She insisted on staying home, handing out candy to little kids.  Samantha lived up on a steep hill in western North Carolina with exactly one neighbor. 

Her house was never visited by trick-or-treaters.

            Her mother, Amy, saddened at this loss to Samantha’s childhood, decided rather than sitting around at home, she would take her daughter to Helen’s Bridge for some real-life ghost hunting.  Samantha rolled her eyes but indulged her mother’s idea. 

Amy stopped the car in the middle of the arched, quarried stone bridge at dusk and turned off the engine, leaving the headlights on to slice through the dark.  The lights of Asheville glowed beyond, the only noises from crickets and far off music.  

            “In the early 1900s, Helen was in love with Sir Phillip S. Henry,” Amy told her daughter, who kept texting in the passenger seat.  “Did you know there is a secret mansion up there named Zealandia?” She pointed up towards the top of Beaucatcher Mountain, but the castle was hidden by trees and darkness.  “Sir Henry was the master of Zealandia, and Helen was one of his maids.  He enjoyed having parties, and when he invited Helen to attend as his guest, she wanted to go but had no one to care for her daughter.”  When Samantha still didn’t look up, Amy lowered her voice, the way any good ghost story should be told.    “Sir Henry told her to just leave her daughter in the library, check on her through the night, and all would be well.”

            Samantha rolled her eyes and said, “I’m guessing since we’re parked on this bridge, this is a babysitting horror story, and all was not well.”

            “Nope,” Amy said cheerily.  “There was a fire that night, starting in the library.  Her daughter was burned alive while her mother partied downstairs.  By the time anyone noticed the fire, it was too late.  Everyone survived but her daughter.”

            “And now Helen stalks around forever?”  Samantha’s tone was mocking, but at least she put down her phone.  What more could a mother ask for?

            “She was so blinded by grief and guilt that she came to this bridge and hung herself,” Amy gestured widely in front of herself towards the night.  “It’s said that if you say her name three times, she’ll appear.”

            “Helen, Helen, Helen,” Samantha deadpanned before looking back down at her phone.  “Dang it, no signal.”  Then she looked at her mother, her eyes wide in feigned horror, “Did Helen, Helen, Helen do this?”

            “They do say that electronics and cars don’t work well when she’s around.”  Amy looked back at Samantha with equally large eyes and spoke again in her low ghost story voice.  “Wanna get out and look?”

            “Not really,” she said quickly, but when her mother scrunched her nose in disappointed, she added, “Sure, why not?”

            “Yeah, what’s the worst that can happen?” Amy said while wiggling her eyebrows and eagerly left the car.  Samantha followed, and the two walked out to the low wall of the mossy, leaf covered bridge.  It didn’t look any different than any other old bridge in Asheville. 

“So, this is where she did it,” Amy said, but without any of her theatrical voices or faces.  Her mood changed outside the car, not to fear, but to guilt.  It felt wrong she was making a joke of a mother’s grief.  She wrapped her arms around herself as the air grew colder atop the bridge.

            “Can we go now?” Samantha asked.  Her hands shook.  She was sweating despite the chill in the air, heat emanating inside her.  When she took deep labored breaths to try to calm herself down, white puffs of air came out in front of her face. 

            “I’m so sorry, baby,” Amy said, staring out into the dark, not bothering to wipe away tears that were freely falling down her face.  “It was so wrong of me to bring us here.”

            “I want to go home, mommy,” Samantha said in a small voice, and she turned away from the low wall and ran back to the passenger door.  She tugged on the handle, but it was locked.  The headlights flickered then cut out, and they descended into darkness.

            “I’m sorry I left you,” Amy continued, “I loved you so much.  So, so much, so much…” Her voice faded until her mouth was miming the words.

            Samantha screamed, a small, shrill, girlish noise.  A pair of invisible hands pulled her away from the bridge, through the woods, carrying her faster than possible over the rocks and between trees.  She struggled, flailing her arms and kicking her legs, yelling out “Mommy!”

“Mommy?  Mommy?  Where are you?  Help me!  Mommy!” Her voice grew in hysteria.  The sweat soaked through her clothes, and she started to cough and choke as smoke swelled inside her lungs.   Heat overwhelmed her senses, desperation ruled her mind, the searing pain eviscerating her as her skin bubbled from the heat burning out from inside of her.  The last thing she saw before the heat madness took her was the restored library of Zealandia.  She reached for her mother blindly and she burned until she was nothing but dust.

            “Please forgive me,” Amy said back at the bridge before she stepped off the side.  The rope around her neck snapped tight as her weight hit the end.  Her trachea crumbled inward like crushed wax, the rope burning a red line across her throat.  She kicked her feet erratically, her fingers clawed at the rope, and warm urine trickled down her leg to splatter on the the road below. 

Another woman hung beside Amy, her cheeks wet with tears, her grief infinite and terrible. 

Photo credit to Pexels

Mommy Guilt

I am in a low-residency MFA program, so most of my course work is done independently and packets of critical and creative work is turned in once a month to my faculty advisor.  Once a semester, about every six months, the faculty and students meet on campus for a ten-day intensive residency, although, so far, all my residences have been remote thanks to COVID.  Ten whole days of screen time while my children are strategically on break from school and so, so bored.

During the first residency of my MFA, I attended a reading by a well-known poet and in the Q&A that followed, another first semester mother asked the poet how she balances her writing career and raising children.  It turned into a touch of a joke, as men are never asked that question, but the inquiry was well-intended and relevant to all the mothers in the audience.  The quest to balance childrearing with ambition resonates with women, as society is constantly tugging us around with rivaling expectations of what makes a mother “good.”  The poet ultimately said she doesn’t balance it, that balance is never possible, she just makes time for her writing. 

            At the time, I took her advice as something of an easy answer, almost annoyed by her unwillingness to give us prescriptive advice on how to do it all and be successful at it.  My first residency, I was strict about keeping my kids out of my office and out of my webcam’s background.  I was obsessed with appearing professional and serious, despite how often my little dog would jump on my lap and spin around to show the whole Zoom her butthole. 

I was also just coming off a year of facilitating virtual school with four elementary aged daughters and was desperate for the opportunity to be seen as professional and serious; as literally anything but a mother.  Coming into that first residency, I even made the conscious decision to not lead introductions with my status as a parent, as I realized how frequently my motherhood was the first, most prominent fact I shared with other adults.  I finished residency burnt out and frustrated with the conflicting demands being thrust upon me, still stubbornly determined to find a proper balance between my time as a serious writer and as a good mother. 

Even though I bumbled and struggled through my first semester, when the second residency came around last June, I was more confident in my writing, in the program and the remote format itself, and, of course, more comfortable with the faculty and my cohort.  I didn’t want to be frustrated and burnt out by my professional and maternal obligations.  Coming into my second residency, I was still pitting these two sides of myself against each other, and I thought again of the poet’s dismissal of the myth of balance. 

I ultimately made the conscious decision to embrace that I am in this MFA program because of my daughters, not despite them.  I am motivated by the chance to show my girls that a woman is more than just a mother figure and that there isn’t an expiration date on accomplishing her goals. 

I decided to blur the lines between the different parts of myself. 

During my second residency, rather than steadfastly keeping them blocked out of my writing life, I let my daughters get involved when appropriate.  I let them sit in on my lectures if they wanted – most of the time they drifted off about two minutes in, declaring it boring and “like school” – and they loved listening to student and faculty readings, even when they didn’t exactly “get” what the reader was trying to say.  My youngest liked to just sit in my office with me and she drew rainbows with my highlighters and passed me encouraging love notes that I kept as bookmarks.  Quiet and stillness was all I required, not tolerating visual or audible distractions for the rest of the class, remaining conscious that just because I can tune out the chaos doesn’t mean others can.

I discovered that by opening this side of my life, my children are now more tolerant of the time I spend in my office writing.  There isn’t as much conflict between us when I ask them to quiet down or to give me a few more minutes to finish my thoughts.  While I don’t let them read what I write yet, I have become more open about what I am writing about, especially if it involves them.  Now they tell me ideas of their own and even show me stories they are writing themselves.  We have started bonding through my passion for writing, and they offer far less resistance when I need to make time to write.

Yet the guilt remains; of course, it does.  Society tells us that a mother should put nothing before her child, and the reality is that my writing absolutely takes time away from my children.  I am almost always reading or writing when I am home with my children — or cleaning or folding laundry or cooking dinner or playing with the dogs.  My focus is rarely completely on just one child, but, when it is, the moment is magical and memorable for both of us.  I believe giving them early permission to choose goals for themselves including and beyond having their own families someday will serve them far better in life than if I continued trying to pretend there was the chance for perfect balance. Children are always watching, and I am showing my daughters who are growing into their own womanhood that a woman is not just a mother or just a caregiver of any kind.  They are bearing witness to my dreams coming true. 

Is it balanced?  No.  It’s chaos most of the time, but it’s real and we are in this together. 

Art from Summer Residency 2021, drawn while I was on Zoom

Originally shared with HerStry for Babes Who Write as a guest editor.

Featured image credit to Erica Mueller.

100 Word Essay

A Writer With Kids In Virtual School During a Pandemic

I never realized how many words I would have to spell.  I have so many words that live inside of me, swirling until they convalesce into sentences.  I dream in words, beautiful symphonies of letters ordered to create something profound.  Yet, spelling them is probably what I do the most.  Random words, on the fly, as children’s brains are also full of letters that turn into words.  Words that grow into sentences.  Sentences that don’t always make sense, but the words need to be spelt anyway and that is my job. 

Until the house is quiet and I am alone.

My Least Favorite Job

I am a survivor.  I wrote that word on my byline to help other survivors find me.  I have survived some terrible things and I want to help other people survive them too.  It is important to me that people know I am willing to bear some of their emotional weight on my shoulders, that I will put my arm around them and help them limp over the finish line.  I will not leave a survivor behind. 

No one wants to be a “survivor,” but it is an easier burden when it is shared.  Yet, I don’t want to talk about it.  I will tell you that you are not alone and that you have no reason to be ashamed.  You have no reason to be ashamed! – but I don’t want to talk about me.  I will just say “it is what it is.”  Talking, in the open air, words out of my mouth, makes the thing real.  I will help you with your burden; just let me shoulder mine alone.

I am a builder of walls.  My self, the deep self, is hidden away inside of me, surrounded by a stone wall, brick by brick placed for my protection.  This deep self peeks through the cracks my written personas creep out of, but there is a wall all the same.  My impulse is always to diminish, to excuse, to try to make my pain less than.  I was taught to hide my emotions.

I am a mother now too.  I don’t want my daughters to grow up to be survivors.  I want them to be conquerors.  I want my daughters – the daughters of all mothers – to stand on top of the smoldering ash of their oppressors, gasoline and lighters in hand.