Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Ghost Story

Ghost Story

By R. T. Smith

Mother smoked and breathed the wax gardenias.
The peach trees were weeping rotten fruit.
I asked who was the girl in the mantel's photo.

"Your aunt Clara, who took diphtheria,
a wraith, your father's sister, the family beauty,"
and it was true. In an oval frame made

of heirloom silver she smiled. Her dress
was lace and mist, the image faded amber
from some old-fashioned process. I'd whisper

to her my creepy secrets and ask advice.
She never answered from her distance
until one night I woke, cold in mid-summer,

and saw that face shining across the room.
"I could sing," she said, "just like an angel.
I could recite my tables and Latin

lessons, but river germs formed a cobweb
of skin across my throat. I lost my breath
and took fever. Death loves a shining mark."

At breakfast I told the story, but ghosts
were not allowed to live in our house.
"Hush," said mother, "that time's behind us."

The picture disappeared, but the frail voice
came back when I tossed on sweaty sheets.
Mother kept her skeptic poise, smoking,

breathing the evening gardenias. "She was
too delicate for our world. Forget your dreams."
But Clara came back, claiming kin, begging

for a kiss, asking for her proper place
on the parlor's driftwood mantel. I never
saw her photograph again, and father

reaching out of his deepest silence,
told me the most precious hopes we have
are fragile as breath and sure to be lost.

"That's what beauty is," he said, "a ghost."

Prairie Schooner, Vol. 77, No.4 (Winter 2003), pp. 67-68


R. T. Smith

R. T. Smith is Writer-in-Residence at Washington and Lee University, where he edits Shenandoah.  His poems have appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, Missouri Review, Best American Poetry, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology.  His most recent collections are The Red Wolf: A Dream of Flannery O'Connor in 2013 and In the Night Orchard: New and Selected Poems in 2014.  He received the Carole Weinstein Prize for Contribution to Poetry from the Library of Virginia in 2014.  Smith lives on Timber Ridge in Rockbridge County, Virginia.

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