On Holy Ground
By Jamie Logan Benner
Mississippi is many things to Linette Ingram. Home is not one of them. She left when she was seventeen with a vow to never return. And, for the last nine years, she kept it. Her father, a man who had to be coaxed to leave even the county, had been the one to give in. He packed his pickup and drove to Nashville, first to see Linette, then to see her children.
Mercer, her oldest, is nearing three. He shreds anything he gets his fingers on and clings to those shreds with a possessive love. Lela Cate, meanwhile, can’t hold her own bottle. Linette regrets that her father will never see them grow up. She misses him.
This place, though. It’s on her shit list.
As her father’s only living child, she has inherited the house and everything in it. The kids are with her husband, their father, in Nashville. Every few hours, her body aches for them. She needs them both, but especially her girl. That’s the thing Linette loves about a newborn: Lela Cate needs her too.
Linette passes the First Baptist Church and the country club pool. The community of Edinburg is all highways and backroads, even now. She stops at the Exxon on Highway 16. She hasn’t even finished pumping gas when it happens.
“Linette Wells, my god.” She’s been seen—and recognized—for who she is. The speaker is an older woman in an overlarge pantsuit.
Ingram, Linette considers offering up her married name.
“Shit,” she says instead.
The older woman does not seem to hear her. “I’d recognize those cheekbones anywhere. You look just like your father,” she says.
Linette stares hard at the woman’s graying hair. It’s tinged vaguely pink with some sort of dye. She looks familiar. Linette tries and fails to remember her name, recalling instead that this woman was the owner of a large blue Macaw that, in her childhood, barked like a dog in the dark hours of the night until a neighbor up and shot it. Edinburg was like that, a slow and steady rhythm punctuated by small moments of unrest.
“I was sorry to hear about your daddy,” the woman says. She avoids the word heart attack. The word death. “Your mama, she’s doing all right, ain’t she?”
Linette nods, as though she knows something, anything, about her mother’s life. They have not seen each other in over a decade. The distance is not something Linette regrets.
“You back to see her?” The woman asks. “Or to take care of your daddy’s things?”
Linette feels her body move away from the woman. It occurs to her for the first time that she can’t simply clean out her father’s house and return to Nashville without encountering others. Without seeing her mother. She leaves her car at the pump, hears the nozzle click off, and keeps walking. She sees a building next door to the gas station, not new, but new to her. Something unlinked to her mother’s abandonment, her father’s death, and the accident that killed her only sister so many years ago.
“Welcome to Edinburg,” a chipper voice says. This, too, is an older woman. Linette ignores her, exploring the shop. It’s a bookstore, of sorts. Holy Grounds, the sign over the register reads, and Linette smells but does not see coffee. The scent mingles with that of used books, the rich musk of paper that smells like the skin of everyone it’s ever touched. Her mother used to own a bookstore in town, but it was nothing like this. There are bibles everywhere. But Linette is surprised to find odd texts too; an annotated copy of the apocrypha lies alongside a retelling of the life of the Byzantine Empress Theodora. Linette never finished her degree, but in college, she studied classics. She knows that Theodora was a prostitute before she was an empress.
“May I help you?” The shopkeeper asks, and Linette realizes suddenly that the speaker is neither new nor unfamiliar. She feels like she’s been duped. She tries to leave, but the woman says her name, and a spell is been cast. Linette can’t move.
The shopkeeper is tall and thin. She looks like she could have been a model, if she’d lived somewhere else when she was young. She’s past her prime, but you can’t tell by looking. She stands ramrod straight. There are tears in her eyes.
Linette wants to speak to her but doesn’t know what to say. “Grandma,” she tries. The word is too sharp in her mouth. “Willa,” she tries again.
Linette and her grandmother have never been close. This is not because they dislike each other. It is simply because both have complicated relationships with the woman who connects them.
“She’s not here, is she?” Linette asks. She hopes Willa can’t hear the fear in her voice.
“No,” Willa says.
Linette’s body relaxes.
“But this is her shop.” She motions to the piles of books and trinkets that cover each bare surface. “She’s always liked this stuff, you know, even before … ”
Before what? Linette wants to ask. Before she had children? Before she left them?
“She’s doing well?”
Willa shrugs. “There are good days, and there are bad. Medicine makes it easier. She seems happy most of the time. Content, you know?”
Medicine. Linette wants to ask what that means, but already, she is tired. She wants her husband, her son, her infant daughter. Or maybe just a drink. She leaves her grandmother with a promise to return. She doesn’t intend to keep it, but she doesn’t have the energy to fight. She grabs a bottle of vodka from the gas station, pays, and returns to her car. It’s exactly as she left it. Nothing stolen or even moved, with the sole exception of the nozzle, which has been carefully replaced on its holder.
Linette opens the bottle before she starts the car. There aren’t many people to hit on these roads, and she’s more functional with a buzz.
Her father’s house is empty. This is expected, but it still feels strange. To explore feels like an invasion of privacy. But as she treads deeper into the house, Linette realizes that her father has created a tomb for the women he lost. The ceilings are low. Enough natural light filters in that Linette does not immediately reach for a light switch. She enters her father’s room. It still smells like him, like oak and aftershave. On the bed lays an album filled with pictures of her mother. Down the hall, Orly’s room looks exactly as it did ten years ago. It smells like mothballs. Even Linette’s room has not been touched.
She stands in the doorway, feeling at once seventeen and much, much older. She knows this place has a way of trapping people, of keeping them where they’d once been as though it were the only place they could ever be. She lifts the old twin mattress slightly and pushes it against the wall. There, where she left it, sits a folded scrap of paper.
Linette pads into living room, the letter tucked under her right arm. She starts a fire as the afternoon fades to evening. The flames illuminate the words.
Dear Mama, it reads. Beneath the inscription is a list of simple questions. What’s your favorite color? Do you have a pet? Why do you live on the other side of town? Papa says you love us, but you had to leave. What does he mean? Do you have a phone? Can I call you? Why don’t you talk to us when we see you at church?
The note is signed. Love, Orly. These were her questions, ones Linette never dared ask.
Linette has kept the letter because she couldn’t let go of those last two words. Love. Orly.
Now, she needs their memory to die. She feels them. Her father, her sister. Their deaths hang over her as though they foreshadow her own. She drops the note into the fire. It burns quickly, until even the ashes are subsumed by light.
Linette does not believe in ghosts, per se. She doesn’t think that the dead remain on earth once they leave their bodies. The universe is vast and surely there are better places to go. She has never seen the ghost of her sister, nor has she seen her father since he passed away. But when she was younger, she used to feel a presence. More than one. In the corner of her bedroom next to the bookshelf stood a girl. She appeared at night. She was small and strange, her aura threatening. For years, Linette had trouble sleeping. But the girl was not the only one.
There was a boy, too. Unlike the girl, he was never still. She felt him elsewhere, too. He floated, touching down every now and then. He liked to blow still ceiling fans, watch their lazy circles with pleasure. She believed the boy protected her. Until the day she left, he kept the girl at bay.
Linette has neither seen nor felt these beings for years, not since her move to Tennessee. She understands they likely exist only in her head. She takes another swig of vodka. She doesn’t see them now.
As the weekend stretches on, she does see something. It’s 10 AM, and light filters through the bay window of the kitchen. Linette turns to the fridge, considering the meager supplies her father left behind, many of which have already begun to spoil.
There, at the stove, stands a woman. She looks like Willa, only younger. Her freckled face is less austere, more anxious. She must be in her mid-twenties. Her hands move in a familiar way, and Linette knows she’s making pancakes.
This is not a ghost.
It can’t be because the woman is not dead.
“Mama,” Linette says. She hates herself for her vulnerability. But the apparition doesn’t turn.
She doesn’t respond. She just keeps making pancakes.
Linette sees her mother in every room. She stands in Linette’s childhood bedroom, staring from the doorway. She sits on the edge of Orly’s mattress, reaching for someone who isn’t there. She opens the album on the bed she shared with Linette’s father. She stands in the bathroom. She paints her nails.
Linette sleeps fitfully on the couch. She is woken every few hours by a crash somewhere in the house as the apparition, as her mother, does something else.
Barry, Linette’s husband, calls often. She doesn’t tell him what she sees, but she tells him that this place is wrong. Something is broken here, and it can’t be fixed. Barry says, come home. Lela Cate has the croup. She could use her mother’s touch. But Linette can’t go home. She can’t be the mother her children need. So, her stay stretches on, and the simulacrum of her own mother beats a rug against the hallway stairs.
Linette speaks to her now.
“You’re getting dirt all over the floor,” she says. “You’re supposed to do that outside. Or use
Once the vodka runs out, Linette drinks her father’s supply of cheap bourbon before moving on to his expensive Scotch. “He’d be pissed if he saw me drink this,” Linette says, conspiratorially to her mom. “He hated sharing with you too. Neither of us enjoyed it enough, he always said. It was a waste of good scotch.” She isn’t drunk. Her words don’t slur. But she can feel the alcohol. It feels good. She can stay until it runs out.
On the fourth day, she gets a call. She reaches for the phone, thinking it’s Barry. It’s not.
“You said you would stop by,” Willa says. Her voice is even.
Linette’s mother works on a 1,000-piece puzzle at the kitchen table. From the box, it looks like an image of the crucifixion.
“I can’t,” Linette says.
They both know she means I won’t.
Why can’t it be a puzzle of cats? Linette wonders. Her mom always liked cats.
Willa sighs. “I told her. I had to.”
“Linette,” Willa chides.
“I don’t want to see her.”
“Then don’t answer the door. You’re a grown woman. That’s what I keep telling Maggie. It’s not that complicated. Make your own decisions.”
At the table, Apparition Maggie sighs. In her hands, she holds a fragment of the cross. She drops it on the table, rises, and leaves the room.
“Look, Willa, I don’t have time for her right now. I will see her eventually. I promise.”
Promise kept, she thinks, I’m seeing her now.
Linette hangs up the phone and follows young Maggie to the living room. Maggie paces. Her discomfort is clear, but Linette cannot place the source. Maggie remains this way for the next few hours. Linette watches.
Then, the doorbell rings. Even after Willa’s warning, Linette doesn’t quite believe her mother stands on the other side of the door. After all, her mother already stands on this side of the door, pacing from the refrigerator to the couch and back again. Apparition Maggie opens the fridge and stares in aimlessly. Linette does not know what her mother expects to find. Maggie, the flesh-and-bone Maggie, never tried to see Linette until after her sister’s death.
Linette harbors what her therapists have called anger. She is angry about many things, but mostly about the fact that she has lost her sister and her father while mother remains alive and breathing. Perhaps this is the reason she opens the door.
“Hi,” Real Maggie says, predictably.
Linette looks at her mom. Maggie’s hair is as dark as Linette remembers, but her face is fuller and there are lines around her mouth that Linette has never seen.
Linette turns to look over her shoulder. There are two of them now, one in her early twenties, one middle-aged. They don’t look quite like the same person, more like mother and daughter.
But Linette is surrounded.
“What do you want?” she asks.
“Can I … ? Can I come in?”
Linette steps back. Shrugs. “You know your way around.”
One Maggie sits on the couch. The other stands, retreats. She moves to the kitchen, watching with catlike eyes. Linette sees fear there and feels relief. She is not the only one who understands the stakes.
“What do you want?” she says again.
“I want a lot of things,” Maggie says. “To have been a better mother to you. To … to your sister …”
She can’t say Orly’s name.
“That ship has sailed. That’s not why you’re here.”
Maggie takes in the room. For the first time, Linette notices the empty liquor bottles she’s left on the coffee table. Does she smell like booze? Should she be embarrassed? For some reason, she isn’t. Maybe she’s a little drunk.
“Maybe this isn’t the best time,” Maggie tries.
“It never will be,” Linette says.
She hates that her mother does all the polite things. Maggie is careful, contrite. She maintains this politeness despite the bite of Linette’s voice. Most of all, Linette hates that part of her needs this woman. And that her mother won’t damned well go away.
“I want to apologize.”
“You’ve done that before.”
“I can never say sorry enough.”
It’s all so genuine and yet so useless.
“What’s your favorite color?” Linette asks suddenly.
“Excuse me?” Maggie clearly doesn’t know if she should answer.
“Do you have a pet?”
The Maggie in the kitchen stirs. She comes closer, and both Maggies stare at Linette with something like longing in their eyes.
“Why do you live on the other side of town?” Linette asks. “Papa says you love us, but you had to leave. What does he mean?”
The silent one speaks for the first time. “What do you do when you can’t give the one you love what she needs from you?” she asks.
That pisses Linette off. “You fucking get it together, that’s what you do.”
Linette is not sure which Maggie speaks this time. Both look at her accusingly. She has not showered in at least four days. She has been living on canned beans and peanut butter. She stays here, in the house, that reminds her of the two people she loves most, both of whom are gone. She is falling apart but cannot bring herself to exist alone.
The younger Maggie makes eye contact with Linette as she says, “You do the only thing you can. You learn to live with the guilt.”
Linette opens her mouth. She closes it again.
Then, there is only one Maggie. She says something kind, something like, “I’ll give you your space, but I want you to know that none of this is your fault. You did nothing wrong.”
Linette can’t tell if she’s talking about the death or the leaving, but she realizes it’s the kind of thing you say to a child.
“You tried,” Linette says. “To be what we needed. I know that.”
“Still, you were better off with your father. The way he loved you … you deserved that.”
“He tried to be everything to us.”
“To make up for me.”
Linette shrugs. “He was there.”
The statement is pointed. Maggie understands.
“Too little, too late,” she says. “I know.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I just wanted to see you.”
The impulse is selfish. “You’re still not thinking of us,” Linette says, as though her father and her younger sister live. “You never did.”
“I always did,” Maggie corrects her. “I did what was best for you. Sometimes that means saying goodbye.”
Linette doesn’t know what to say again. Her mother doesn’t seem to be listening, even now, and Linette has reached the end of honesty. They make small talk for thirty minutes. Maggie lets herself out, leaving Linette alone. She moves from room to room, seeking out ghosts, but they, too, have abandoned her childhood home.
Jamie Logan Benner splits her time between home in Louisiana and school in Mississippi, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Southern Mississippi and is associate editor for the Mississippi Review. She has served as managing editor at The Pinch, Product and BreakBread magazines and has work published in or forthcoming from the New Ohio Review, Barrelhouse, Rougarou and elsewhere.