North Georgia Gothic
I looked at the house through the girl. There the chimneys, there the dormers against a dark roof. Neglect smudged the house’s outlines, exposing a foundation stained with clay, glass splintering from frames. Warped steps led to a porch overgrown by privet and honeysuckle. A tangle of hornets buzzed against leaves and torn screens. The interior was gutted, murky, eager. I wanted in that house, and the girl was in the way.
She appeared suddenly. An empty sidewalk, then: a stretch of asphalt with a barefoot child.
Thin hands like broken wires hooked into the loops of cut-off blue jeans; a violet tank top bracketed bony shoulders. I blinked. Dusk blurred her at the edges, a purple-blue impression the same color as a North Georgia sky.
Each step crunching on glass and trash, I came to the sidewalk where she stood. Down the street, figures moved in the rhythms of summer—hose spraying a car, toddler chasing a dog, grill with tendrils of smoke rising. This grainy movie in the shape of a neighborhood caught me. Staring sideways from under a fall of dirty-blonde hair, she caught me.
“Hi, hon,” I said. The weight of keys in my hand became peculiar, a clanking chain of serrated metal, to ward or to beckon.
She moved her chin down, back up. The quiet sifted like smoke, letting in the sigh of cicadas. A door slammed in the distance. The girl stood still, barring entrance. A wash of heat slid across my scalp, my palm. Only a few steps would take me past.
“You live here?” she asked.
Her voice was country fair funnel cakes and cotton candy, the soft Southern slur I could still hear in the edges of my words.
I spun through histories, followed her question. We all live here, I wanted to say. Once upon a time. Layers lifted and fell like so many pins in a lock tumbling as I balanced the terrors: civil wars marching down this block, people bought and sold in the next town over, clan villages on the river banks in these fields. I drove this river road to get to a high school dance, my copper dress swirling around me, drove it again to run away to college.
“Used to live here,” I said. We stood awhile on that sidewalk in the heat, the girl and the house and me.
For years, I visited home in the bright light of May, the rich humidity of June, the haunting heat of July. I drove from the vast stretches of the Great Plains, following the land as it began to wrinkle and lift. I followed that addiction for mountains to my childhood home in North Georgia. Summers saturated me in that muscle-sliding heat I craved.
That summer, though, I escaped to home, then, like an animal twisting in its trap, tried to escape home itself. That summer I was there, ostensibly, to help my mother. I also came for a break from the pounding of graduate school, a Midwestern reconditioning of a Southern mind. My mother, freshly discharged from her outpatient sinus procedure, put up with my care-giving for a few days; then, she shooed me away from organizing meds and making peanut butter saltines. “Go,” she said. “Go visit friends or drive around.”
My mother picked the perfect country for forgetting when she moved us here, a young teacher with her small children. A forgetting enacted so viscerally that she was startled and pained when my brother or I asked questions. So we didn’t. A few razor slices of before-Georgia remained—white socks sliding on hardwood, a teenager throwing me into a lake—but mostly blankness until the car ride and a new life, hot and green, exploded around me. I woke up. Soaked it in. Words took on weight, my feet sank into dust, I ate corn with everything. And like all the girls I knew, I grew up and uneasy side by side.
Highway 41—the Dixie Highway—crawls down hills and hisses around curves, a ratsnake of a road until pummeled straight for a quarter mile through the center of downtown. Following the road is like the labyrinth out of childhood. A kudzu cloak covered everything, leaves chittered to a frayed lace by junebugs with pinching feet, green as poison and hurling themselves maniacally against porch lights. Occasionally a patch of daylilies—orange as fake fire on a child’s drawing—burst from a ditch, a reminder of where something used to be. Our very bodies are riven with Georgia mountains, steeped, baked, and steamed until we serve ourselves back up to each other.
Giant live oaks, round which four fifth-graders could barely link hands, still stand in snarls of humped roots at the school with its stoplight-monitored silences. I spent most lunches under a light flickering between yellow and red. Doublewides curl around the end of a building, children coming from one trailer at home to another at school. Across town, my car speedbumps into the lot of my high school, only a year old when I entered its halls and now a hulk of brick squatting atop asphalt. The road flicks a forked tongue through hilltop cemeteries with their burials, some of whom I’d seen for the last time in those halls. Against a friend’s stone, I settle to watch the land awhile. After a time, I move down the hill to another friend and her view.
Phantoms haunt me in every street, in every building. Ghosts seem real enough in my town. Not the clanky, blurry kind in the movies. The kinds with names invoked on buildings, certain street corners staggering under their weight. The kind accompanied by nausea in an 1805 tavern at the historic site. The woman in an A-line skirt at the shop where I’d slipped through time to buy a dress the color of new pennies. Circles of cloggers at the armory on wisteria-scented Thursday nights. Hundreds of uniforms still marching down Park Street, my sepia-tinted teenage self in the Homecoming parade.
At the drive-in where I learned to coast with headlights off past the “No Cruising” signs, I buy a rootbeer float then walk a few miles in the park. The pavilion where I country-tap-dance-clogged as a child is still there, half of it cobwebbed and greasy, half of it raw lumber—rebuilt after last year’s tornado. I finally lurch to a stop at the library, sit on the curb under a glare of sunlight, ghosts of boyfriends’ past parading down the street. I ring a friend who never left. “Find another way to be here,” she advises, knee-deep in diapers instead of memories.
I stepped into premonition that morning, felt its weight increase all day. The sun’s angle slanted into the eye like a key into a lock. The mountains bent light at morning and evening. Heat came with the light, deep in the lungs, so that air became light, and both were liquid in the throat. At its richest density, I shivered, prickles rippling across my skin.
Never a private moment in a haunted house.
Straightforward in its architecture, the City-County library was just a vestibule, two wings, some offices. No darkened passages through tottering stacks. Anyone could walk around, sit a spell, read a book. Research, though, required entrance. What is your name? Who is your mama? You kin to the Harrises in Fairmount? What high school did you attend? What year did you graduate? What do you do now? What are you looking for?
This is how we know, in my town, who you are.
All around me hard-edged history covered up in church bean suppers, watermelon socials, and fifth Sunday hymn sings. I am like that house, hollowed out inside, foundations trembling, bits of me falling off to reveal truths usually kept safely hidden in books and in once-a-year reenactments.
Terror, that scuttle of awareness, starts in the space at the back of the throat then moves under the ribcage. Eyes blink, straining to keep reading, sentence after orderly sentence. Then the faintest rumblings of tectonic shift. Scholars call this threshold concepts, learning that moves us through a doorway from which we can never return unchanged, understanding the constructed nature of knowledge, for example, when one has perceived it as singular. Teachers might call this critical literacy, not just an understanding of the content of an idea but the epistemological nuances of how that idea echoes, how it has come to mean what it does. Those who don’t read closely will call this guilt. I will call this growing up southern.
The archivist, guardian of local knowledges currently satisfied with my credentials, filled my arms with account after account of our town. I poured through newspaper articles, self-published books, and the official county-city history. I learned the story that was told: Once the brave Indians had passed bravely on, brave settlers turned these fields and valleys into plantations, bought slaves, built steamships and railroads, started schools and churches. Soon, their Victorian-era courthouse caught fire and a tornado obliterated what had been missed. Much later, indifference sufficed to kill off a drugstore and a theater and small, satellite communities. Mostly, though, they burned down their trackside hotels and plantations and shops and hospitals and homes with a war.
I grew up only a few miles from the war’s cemetery. As a child wearing a white skirt and a sailor top with red trim, hair in ringlets, I clogged with other dancers on plywood stretched between graves for the yearly reenactment. As a young woman, I once accepted an invitation to the Ladies High Tea and sipped from a china teacup, uncomfortable and fascinated, among costumed belles whose husbands pretended to shoot each other in a nearby field.
The South lost every year.
“Are there histories before 1850?” I almost shouted at the archivist when she wandered into the room.
She blinked, a retired-librarian blink deciding whether to discipline an unruly student. “Well, the town was only incorporated in 1850,” she replied, walking away, looking at me over her shoulder, a woman who had once been a southern girl.
Other books and papers, ones that began to use the word Cherokee, appeared in small, medicinal doses at my table. Vague, like a silhouette half-seen in searing sunlight, I remembered New Echota, the historic site on the north end of town, and the field trip I missed with a freshly-broken arm. Our high school Warriors mascot was called Chief Winabigun. Just outside this library, a man made of copper stood in a fountain looking east, two feathers in his braid.
The knowledge had been on shelves just a few feet from me my whole life.
This is what it feels like to have one’s town, the known place, spin and shatter, every street and face and relationship suspect: A shiver of metal across the skin, a prickle of heat lightening across the scalp.
I felt these splinters, these sentences careless in their knowingness, at the place where thought quickens. This is what it feels like, no matter the age, to pull childhood off, one oozing scab at a time.
This is what it feels like to want to rip every book off the shelf.
To put them tenderly against my chest, their canvas-like covers scratching bone.
Light can blind. Light can illuminate.
Around me versions of the town began to shimmer into being one atop the other.
I knew history, big “H” History we called it in grad school: Georgia an original colony, the 1802 Compact, the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, the Reconstruction.
I had come to little “h” history now, torqued into the peculiar shapes of where events happened on specific dirt, transformed into people with the same names as my second grade classmates. I had come to the southern of feet scraped by chert, fire ant bites swelling up like pimples. The southern of living in houses just a couple shades above ruins covered in kudzu, only the chimney protruding. The southern of cheap jeans fraying at the hems, of mosquito bites big as quarters, roaches scuttling from wood piles, and volunteer tomatoes the size of gumballs from one monstrous plant that welted the skin on the insides of my wrists.
We were the southern of bloody noses, bloody panties, and bloody dirt thick and crumbly as pie dough. Of bloody scratches gouged in my seven year-old sibling’s back when the bully across the street didn’t like the way he walked. Of dogs hit and left to lay, just one more pile of roadkill. I was the southern of seedy neighborhoods, $8 for groceries each month, leukemia-stained grandmothers, and frowning faces when my black teammate and I go for a cola after practice. Feral cats, burnt-out trailers, a gorgeous moth with shredded wings, poison ivy strangling pines. The southern of chiggers like curses burrowing under the skin.
The archivist set one last book in front of me, a slim red volume with page upon page of photographs.
Abandoning the library in another flurry of pained relief, my hands full of photocopies, I took to the streets again. The front of the Arts Center was still recognizably the Rooker Hotel. The Presbyterian Church on the main street still sat quaint and river-rocked.
At a red light, where I waited with the windows rolled up, the air off, and sweat pouring, the seal above the Chamber of Commerce came into focus: A blue and white disc, the silhouette of a figure with a feathered headdress, Home of the Cherokee encircling its edges. The Chamber had given me a scholarship; I’d never looked at the seal. I was on the same street that auctioned the bales of cotton picked by bought hands.
In that light and that heat, sweat or tears, all the same.
Is this not understood—that times weeps from year to year?
Today’s corporate corn fields shifted into bushy cotton, startling scarlet flowers turning white atop baked red clay. Shifted into the gardens and cabins that came before colonial columns. Three sisters—beans, squash, and corn, still cooked and called succotash here—grew in these floodplains of the old Cherokee capital. Grew before a trail with tears forced people from their homes. Grew before—and after—white settlement when speculators rubbed shoulders with bewildered farmers, Revolutionary veterans, and war widows.
The county map, a page I copied out of the bicentennial history like I was stealing from a museum, dragged my car down backroads and dirt roads and driveways. Each time I got near the border, I was turned back, cursed to stay in these boundaries, to re-see these spaces, to pin them down for a moment until we aligned again.
I called mom, told her I thought I found the Old Mission School, in a snaky tangle of vines—honesysuckle and kudzu, muscadine and blackberry—that hid junk cars and the burned foundations of a cabin. “Oh,” my mom said, “that was the Mission School? The Nesbitt kids burned that down years ago.” Turned out the Nesbitt kids, fending for themselves most of the time, liked being warm in the winter. Turned out 180 year-old cabins burned quickly. Now, the school where Cherokee boys were taught English and the Bible was just a chimney protruding from a rumpled blanket of green hiding rocks and ankle-breaking sticks, nails and glass and bones.
I fixated on an image of the Norton House. A ramshackle remnant, it was the weird old house on the way to the ballfields at the abandoned elementary school. The house sat primly behind its porch in the picture. I can go there, I thought. I can get into that house. I wanted the Norton house like I wanted light and heat. An anchor in time, a structure that survived, a spar jutting up against the years. The desire was like lightening, a reflexive, startled grasping.
“You live here?” the girl asked.
Her voice was country fair funnel cakes and cotton candy, the soft Southern slur I could still hear in the edges of my words. There is joy here. Libraries with wrought-iron, spiral staircases. The drugstore with packets of hair braids where no one ever told me to clean up when I slid them off the hook by the dozens, searching for a perfect shade of lavender. The sounds of hundreds of clogging taps practicing on slick cement. Standing with a horn to my lips, inside the brassy blare of marching band at halftime. Layers lifted and fell like so many pins in a lock tumbling.
“Used to live here.”
“You gonna buy this place?” she asked.
A picture flashes in my head: Me walking on re-planked, 1800s floors and setting up 1940s typewriters. Me planting tiny tomato plants and gourds, ancient crops in this dirt. Me having too many cats and being haunted by little girls at dusk. I wondered how Duncan Norton chose this spot, and how many people had to hurt for him to get it. Who might have loved the way light fell through the rooms. How it must have pained someone for this home to fall into ruin. How soldiers might have paused and asked for water on that porch. How someone won this land in an illegal lottery. How Cherokee families were rounded up by soldiers and sent to concentration camps, their cabins left empty all over this valley, so that Duncan’s gothic cottage could be built.
This house splintered time, shredded the boundaries of complicity and compassion.
I wanted to tell the girl these terrible truths of how we, she and I and this town, came to stand in this place, in this summer. How we inherited the fine and terrible tradition of seeing without knowing.
“I just saw it in a picture,” I said.
She raised an eyebrow. The house, mute as light, disintegrated under the weight of dusk. She pressed the balls of her feet in the fine red dust of summer. Words formed, cracked, reformed in my throat.
“You live around here?” I asked.
It was as close as I could come to asking if she was real.
She waved a hand behind her, perhaps at the next house with its hose-grill-toddler-dog pantheon of summer, perhaps at the Norton house.
A shiver passed through me and into the keys.
The sun had almost set; a horizontal light filled my eyes. We stood on the edges of a quiet moment already ending. We stood in front of a house that survived a war only to be forgotten. I felt the words in my mouth. Her face, pinched and sharp-chinned, still twisted sideways to watch me, kept my lips shut, the curse continuing to cover and cloak. Childhood is always in the way, always blurry, filled with ghosts that can’t be understood and strange women shaking keys at girls on a perfectly ordinary day.
I don’t speak. She’ll find out on her own someday. She’ll know by the angle of her body held against the world.
The ancient, worn mountains bend light at morning and evening while, in between, the sun pulls free from horizons and strides through blue in a North Georgia summer.
Houses and histories and children forever stand on sidewalks: They must be held, all together, their serrated edges pressed into the palms, into the ribs. They must be held, as many as I can for as long as I can.
I didn’t need to get into that house; I’ve been in it all along.
Rochelle L. Harris Cox is from Northwest Georgia where she currently teaches writing and literature at Kennesaw State University. Her essays and poetry have appeared in such journals as Pedagogy, symplokē, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Writing on the Edge, Crab Orchard Review, Rappahannock Review, and Fourth Genre. She lives on a smallish mountain in the foothills of the Appalachians with seven-and-a-half cats, a big garden, and a fledgling vineyard. Read her blog, Why Memory.