Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Ghost Story


Ghost Story

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 diptheria,
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, Volume 77, Number 4, Winter 2003, pp. 67-79


Author Photo of R.T. Smith

R. T. Smith’s four collections of stories include, most recently, Sherburne (Stephen F. Austin U Press, 2012), and his fifteenth collection of poetry, The Red Wolf: A Dream of Flannery O’Connor, was published by Louisiana Literature Press in 2013. He serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington and Lee University, where he has edited Shenandoah since 1995. His In the Night Orchard: Selected Poems will be published by Texas Review Press in 2014, and Smith is currently working on Summoning Shades, a collection of verse narratives about 19th century Americans.