This piece was selected as a runner-up for the MAYDAY 2022 Nonfiction prize
Halfway up a mountain, I’m desperate to see a ghost. Not the way I used to be, letting faucets drip at night, leaving light switches half-flipped; a dozen small gestures begging supernatural interference. Now I look for ghosts to understand why my body feels more haunted than any place.
I lose my footing and slide downhill toward the mine. People scavenged souvenirs from this ghost town for decades, sold window frames and chicken wire as farmhouse décor. But they never touched the mine. I told my friend we should make the hour drive and subsequent hike into the heart of the Garnet Mountains to see what’s left. I didn’t explain what I was searching for.
The ground is softer here, dense mud that sinks a few inches as I walk into the mouth of the cave. I don’t notice I’m humming until the walls catch the echo. It makes me pause, curious how far the sound can go. I whistle one note, then another. Both pitches return at almost the same time, as if someone responded on the other side of the boarded entrance. I push closer to the inner mineshaft and something thick flattens underneath my boot. By the time I look down and see the crushed mushrooms, spores are already flying.
I hold my breath on instinct, slog backward through mud, further and further until I hit the dirt path outside the cave. The whistle echoes again and again, growing louder as I remember death caps are common in this part of Montana. I see my friend waving a few cabins away and barely recognize the movement—I can feel the spores needling through my clothes as I estimate how long this will take, if there will be boils or foamed saliva or paralysis. No more than three minutes. Maybe two.
Hey, you okay? my friend asks, suddenly beside me. I nod, trying to force the fear from my body. She knows not to get too close, that I’m too far inside the panic attack to bear being touched. I pull on the mask I learned to wear in these moments, a one-way mirror with no edges, wait for the anxiety to pass. There’s only static under my skin after that.
I learn about sex the same day I learn to press yucca flowers. My father had taken me aside in fourth grade and told me I would start bleeding once a month, a prognosis delivered with the same clinical detachment used to tell his patients how long it might take for their heart to give out. Not if, but when, and how to clean up the mess. Sex, though, is still foreign at eleven.
Under the guise of wildlife biology, my science teacher taught us that girls are flowers that open for pollination and reshape themselves by making fruit. For now, we need to stay closed, the tightest buds, and one day a wonderful fruit will grow in us. The boys in the room were uninterested in the metaphor. One raised his hand, declared he would get scissors and cut up his mother’s garden. Our teacher didn’t address his comment. She assigned a field project to collect local wildflowers and press them flat, labeling all the organs of each plant. Be careful with thorns and make sure you know what you’ve found before you touch it, she said. A week later, I’ve found thirty-two flowers and still expect each to have a bee hiding inside, ready to sting.
I discover yucca doesn’t press well. Creamy sap leaks through the Freakonomics and Fannie Farmer books I used to weigh down the fistful of white bells. When the liquid spills on my forearm, my stomach drops, nauseous. According to this morning’s science lesson, this is what I’m supposed to feel inside when I have sex: a warm, sticky thing left behind. I wonder if my body will leak like the yucca, if the flowers can feel pain when the pollinator shoves its way through the petals; my teacher says there could be pain.
The next day, I make my mother pull off the highway so I can investigate a flash of color I saw from the road. I hurry through tick grass only to realize the flowers aren’t real, a silk wreath and white cross nailed to a tree. I keep thinking about it on the ride home, not because of the implied car crash, but because these flowers won’t have to change to make fruit. They can stay the same forever.
I don’t understand until years later that this is how I became terrified of sex.
Black or beige? I look at my mother, confused. She holds up the two bras, shakes their hangers to emphasize her question. I want to go see-through in the lingerie aisle, to blend in with the shapewear. I point to the beige. My mother nods, checking for matching pantyhose and underwear in my great-grandmother’s size. I don’t know why the color matters for her grave clothes, just that it’s important in ways I don’t understand yet.
We leave JCPenney’s and drive to my great-grandmother’s empty house to gather things before the funeral. Nearby factories make the whole neighborhood smell like bread and malt. The first thing I remember when I think of Nana is this particular smell. That, and declaring that her liver spots made her look like a tortilla, which made her my favorite person at four years old.
A few weeks ago, my mother took me to see Nana at her nursing home after my science fair presentation on Jane Goodall. I was still dressed head-to-toe in khaki with a plush monkey clipped to my belt loop. We met my grandmother in the lobby and walked into Nana’s room; her eyes softened when she saw my mother and grandmother but changed when she looked at me. Leaning forward, she swung her arm in a wide arc, saliva dripping from the corners of her mouth.
Tramp, she spat. Why did you bring that tramp, Sally?
That’s Gabriella, my grandmother said. Don’t you remember? That’s Leslie’s daughter.
No, Mama, it’s—
Tramp! she shouted, forcing her body forward as I shrank into the corner. Her dressing gown had fallen off her shoulder, revealing a shock of skin with a red seam where her breast had been. Panic crawled up my throat looking at it. My mother and grandmother snatched the fabric, laid her down, and tied the gown’s black sash to keep her from view. I didn’t know then it was the last time I would see her before she died.
After my mother goes inside the house, I look down at my shirt, at the small knots starting to form. I imagine seams there instead, half-moons I’m sure must still feel something, the stitches and the ghost of the body’s outline. I squeeze my ribs, praying nothing will ever grow there.
A decade later, I remember the seam as a man reaches under my shirt and unhooks my bra—this one black. I cover my breasts with my hands, pulling away from him. I go home red-faced and try to bundle myself into sleep, but I keep turning over the old memory. I wonder how much fear can weigh, if it’s the same as what the surgeon removed from her body, if someday it will be removed from mine.
I step backward, snow drifting through the shack like crepe myrtle petals at my cousin’s wedding, and the animal moves with me. It mirrors me as I try to leave its den, shoulder blades pushed through its fur as it comes forward. My foot catches on the edge of an upturned refrigerator, sends my hand crashing into a doorframe for balance. I bite down a scream, feel my skin rip open, but the big cat turns as a car horn blares from the highway below. In the second after the noise fades, I hear mewling—cubs. I pick up my pace, slide through the snow to the porch, past the rotting bassinet that brought me here, past the tires and shingles and mildewed floral curtains laid over the broken window like a shroud. The mother watches me leave. She doesn’t move from the doorway until her cubs yip and she returns to them. I sprint, barrel down the hill to the car, throw open the door, toss my camera in the passenger seat, and press the lock button a dozen times as my heart slams and slams again into my ribs.
Something feels wet on the steering wheel. After a minute or two, I notice my palm is bleeding. Three cuts, jagged edges pierced with splinters. The pain barely registers as adrenaline leaves my muscles, just a sharp exhale when I press to-go napkins from the glove box to the wound. There’s blood on my camera strap. Suddenly I’m laughing, heaves that come up my throat as I admit to myself I nearly died for a photograph. Once all that’s left in me wheezes through my mouth, I press my forehead to the steering wheel, let my body droop over the old leather.
I am twenty and running headlong toward abandonment. I came to New Mexico to photograph structures around Taos that people left overnight. Sheets still fitted to beds, pack-and-plays are now luxury suites for prairie dogs. I hadn’t considered the danger of an empty house. I feel more comfortable with people’s things than with people themselves. People find their way inside me and stay there; places have the residue of their lives that stains me for a moment but washes off.
Sitting up, I inspect my palm, pick out the biggest splinters. Even though I know it’s too far away, I squint and look for the big cat. All I can make out are the curtains moving back and forth in the crosswinds.
Every window in the maternity ward is smashed. Kids broke into the deserted hospital years ago and took bats to the glass. There are no incubator bells or dressing tables, just the silhouette of a crib laid on its side in thick carpet. I crouch in the doorway to look at the impressions, curious how many babies were delivered here.
Don’t go in the moss room. I jump at the sudden voice, nearly fall on the rotting linoleum before I catch myself. My guide stares down at me, barely visible in the unlit hallway as I try to keep the panic quiet. He smiles in a way I don’t know how to read.
This hospital was abandoned after the Air Force shut down the base and surrounding town of St. Marie. The runways went to Boeing and a meat-packing company bought the barracks for industrial hog pens. The hospital owner never had any plans for it. When I contacted her about doing a photography project inside, she forbade me from going into the hospital alone as a young woman, claiming it wasn’t safe or appropriate. A local male photographer had to come with me. This is the first time I’ve seen him in an hour.
He juts his chin toward the room next door. We shouldn’t disturb it, he says. By the time I open my mouth to reply, he’s already gone.
Shaking the goosebumps off my arms, I walk to the moss room’s doorway, toe the green edge of its threshold. FAMILY ROOM, a small sign reads; a place for children and grandparents to relax before the birth. The moss isn’t quite sphagnum, more pincushion. I had flipped through garden books with my grandmother for hours in the months after Nana died, my body casting shade on her while she tended African violets and hibiscus shrubs. I tried to understand what makes seductive entodon moss seductive and if pussytoes look like cat paws. The moss here, though, feels nameless.
I put in a new roll of film, push the old one into my camera bag. I spend the entire roll in the moss room, then another in the delivery room. A dozen angles of stirrups, clasps dangling that once secured ankles to the peeling cushions. In the flash, the stirrups look like skulls: tapered cheekbones and sockets. I refuse to touch them.
Just before we leave, my guide shows me the radiology suite and the developing studio for X-rays. Papers litter the counters and floors, medical records now papier mâché after decades of humidity. While he steals a few film plates, I look at the paper closest to me. A medical chart for a woman, twenty-nine, whose baby had died inside her a week before her due date. It had been poisoning her, so doctors decided to remove it despite her resistance—described in the chart as patient interference verging on hysteria. She had carried the baby for months, this piece of her that wasn’t her, and had nearly died refusing to let it go.
I carry so much in me I shouldn’t, fear taking up all the extra space. I don’t have room for anything else.
After a man takes my virginity, ignoring my terms of consent, I take long baths for a week, scrubbing again and again until I’m raw. I never feel clean. The water runs too hot.
I can’t admit to myself what happened for a week. The word rape would get stuck in my throat, not because I couldn’t say it, but because I couldn’t apply it to me. I had been in a relationship with him, had agreed to have sex. A few minutes in, I knew something was wrong, asked if he was wearing a condom, caught him in the lie. He had known. I forced him off, pressed my body against the headboard. Rolling my hands down my legs, a push and pull of fat over muscle, I wanted to strip off my skin and leave it there on the sheets.
My body walked to the bathroom and back without me. It slipped under the sheets, cataloging each crease of fabric. A stream of air shot from the vent onto its exposed stomach. It didn’t move until morning.
In the bath, I consider grabbing the bottle of peroxide to see if it can remove feeling. Vulnerability feels cold and wet, like a contact lens before it dries, prone to breaking if left out too long. The panic comes then. Something unclasps in the deepest part of me, hooks coming loose all at once. My body slides on porcelain, ears filling with soap. I don’t know how long it takes to surface; my body was in water and now it isn’t. There is a new outline inside me I had never felt: a hollow space waiting to be filled, a constant reminder of emptiness. This is the worst kind of haunting.
Let me know if this hurts. The nurse pauses for me to nod before attaching the heart monitor to my chest. Some people have bad reactions to the adhesive—some itchiness is normal, but call your dad if it starts to sting, he says, plugging in the wires in my father’s exam room.
Should I try to exercise? I ask.
Just do what you normally do, nothing extra. Wear loose clothing so the wires don’t get snagged.
He doesn’t mention that the test might tell us if my fast pulse and dizziness are early signs of MS, proof that the cluster of it in the women of my family caught me, too. No one wants to talk about it until there’s hard data, as if saying the name would make the disease appear.
The next morning, I wake up with my hand caught in the monitor wires. All the leads are still attached, though some are barely hanging on. My wrist aches, prickly from the awkward position. It’s the same hooked-back shape my aunt’s hands would get stuck in before she died from MS complications. I first saw it when she handed me a chocolate bar and couldn’t keep a firm grip on the wrapper, fingers jutting toward her chest. The next time I visited, she was in a powerchair, stiff and folded in the seat with her hand bent around the joystick. She was buried somewhere in her body no one could see. I couldn’t go to her funeral, never saw how much smaller she became. I just have the image of her hands.
Right now, I can feel all my edges and the hauntings between them. I need to memorize everything I can, even the parts I don’t want to admit are there, before the shape of me becomes something else.
I’m careful with the image of my body, still not used to giving it away. Before my current partner kissed me for the first time, he asked permission, for my mouth, then my neck. A few times of slipping out of my clothes with Rick and I let go of control, let him see me bare without hiding any part of me. Now we share a bed so often our mattresses keep impressions of both our bodies, changing clothes in the morning without a second thought.
Halfway through winter, I wander into a four-story antique mall, searching for a gift for him. I head to the basement first, passing a circle of dust where an old camera used to sit before Rick bought it, adding to his collection of analogue machines.
A shiver runs over my skin as I find porcelain dolls filling up a stairwell, all their eyes on me. One is naked with a blue smile scratched into her stomach. I realize that the smile is in the same spot as my mother’s twin c-section scars—I photographed them for a project on motherhood years ago. Leaning over her with my film camera, I suddenly remembered holding her hand at five years old when a nurse removed surgical staples from her stomach. The seam had been bright and uneven and made me sick looking at it, imagining my brother living inside her. At twenty-three, though, it seems strangely comforting, holding someone like that even though they’ll never be that close again.
I go back to Rick’s apartment, a small baroque tin hidden in my bag, and sit and talk with him for hours. At some point, he asks if he can use his new camera to take a photo of me, says that he’s been trying to learn. I let him, staring into the lens, trust is a solid cord between us. He advances the film, but something scrapes inside the camera. Two fingers in the body, he fusses with the mechanism, but I hold his hands, feeling each ridge of his fingers. They’ve already changed shape slightly since I first met him. Skin to skin, there is only this feeling and nothing else.
When I return to the ghost town in Garnet, I bring Rick with me. Things have changed: it’s May, snow waist-high as we trudge past what used to be the general store. Rick points out an old gramophone, flannel long johns still on wall hooks. We don’t go near the mine.
Hey, if we get married, we can live rent-free!
I snap my head toward him, a few feet behind. What does that mean?
Newlywed hut! He taps the plaque peeking out from the snow next to one of the cabins. We just have to go back to 1917, get married, and Frank Davey will let us live here while we build our own cabin. You get the time machine and I’ll get the ring?
I shove his shoulder, laughing. He smiles and kisses me before heading toward the next building. I hang back, step into the cabin. A metal bedframe, a washbasin, an old coat by the doorway. Three months ago, I told him I was ready to have sex, that I couldn’t guarantee anything, but I would try. He made sure to ask if I was okay with each boundary I let him cross, kept me on top so I could see I was in control. After we finished, he held me, ran his fingers over my bare hip. I could feel that outline inside me again, but this time I liked learning to recognize it.
I imagine us living here together, having sex on the bed when there was a mattress and pinstriped sheets and a kerosene lamp. The wound is there, but it blends in with the background. If my body shrinks inward with MS, I will re-learn its shape and how to share it. A body is a place haunted by a thousand different versions of itself. I want to know them all.
GABRIELLA GRACEFFO is a graduate student at the University of Montana pursuing her MFA in Poetry and MA in Literature. She is an Associate Editor at Poetry Northwest and previously worked at the Southwest Review, The Boiler, and CutBank. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Rattle, Poets & Writers, Cordite, Autofocus, Chestnut Review, and more. She is the recipient of the Goedicke/Robinson Scholarship in Poetry, the David R. Russell Memorial Poetry Award, and the Ridge Scholarship. You can find her curled up with her two cats in snowy Missoula, MT.