The Ghost of my Grandad
by tobias crabtree
Proem: This piece has been brewing. It began in my head, in the woods, over the hole my buddies dug. I worked for a couple days building an outhouse over the hole, all the while my thoughts collected and boiled. It continued to steep in the woods by the creek. Down there where my rig was stuffed between the cedars and madrones like a tick on a dog’s haunch. It takes time and coffee and early morning blue to choke the words outa me. This morning things are lining up.
The ghost of my Grandfather payed me a visit today. He was in the cedars.( His blood is back in the earth now, so he goes where he pleases these days. Seems a Crabtree trait to do that — go where you please.) The day was beautiful, the woods busy. I was happy Grandad decided to check in on me.
He saw me hand cutting the cedar poles and tacking them down and measuring out the tin roof. He watched me leave my hammer on the ground and cuss and climb down and back up to the roof. This day full of estimates and guesstimates and re-conjured tricks-of-the-trade. I am, and always will be, a hack carpenter. I’m at my best with less codes and proper materials, more improvisation and crooked beams.
Gramps was there earlier, when the sky still held the stars in a belly of periwinkle. He saw me hear the owl call and he liked it. He always liked that I loved the birds. He loved the birds. He loved the birds before me, way back in 1905 when he was only 7 years old. Back when more rivers ran free to the sea, before the World Wars and Carbon dating and nuclear reactors. Before rocket ships and airplanes filled the sky. And then a more distant owl answered, muffled by the duff of the forest. Or maybe that was Grandpa himself, speaking owl speak, that one language that crosses over. Owls do cross over, you know? They don’t subscribe to petty realities. They are denizens of all spaces and they move softly on speckled wings, unfettered, with hearts that chase the midnight voles through bone-colored grasses.
Then by the creek. Gramps remembered his blood as he watched me drop into the cold pool below the deadfalls. A Blue Darner flew through the shade with the speed and patience of all great hunters. And there with the lilting trout and the red crawdad I settled in to wait for my bones to chill. From under the water I could see the sky and the trees overhead. At the head of the pool, wedged flat and quiet between the layers of serpentine, I spotted the slick body of something different: An eft, waiting to become.
And when the day came down and I headed back to the company of my people, my Grandfather stayed back. He stood at the edge, where the cedars cast their shadows. I called out loud to him and told him I loved him. That I would not forget him. He stood there with a hand full of feathers and his hair was long and beautiful and his spirit was throughout.
Epilogue: Elmer Lindson Crabtree was born in 1898. He was a native, a Choctaw. He called himself an Indian. He died sitting up in a chair with a cup of coffee in his mitt and a pair of old, worn out boots on his feet. His dog, Barney, had been used in Vietnam to spot planes, and he could still spot planes from the back stoop of the house. There were tools in his shed of all sorts. The ones without handles were waiting against the wall, while Elmer worked with shaky hands to fashion new handles from old wood. He broke his back on a fall from an oil derrick when he was in his 40’s and he lived with a shake for the rest of his days. I still remember him threading hooks even with his tremors, just kinda waiting them out, and then giving me a smile when he got it. In one of those legend-like stories that everyone has about someone, he lifted the back of a car while his brother fitted a tire back on the studs after the jack had failed. Of course, I didn’t see that happen, but I told the story like it was gospel when I was a kid. He showed me how to catch songbirds in homemade live-traps, see them up close and then set them free. He told me that being an Indian had less to do with blood and more to do with heart…and that everyone was a native from somewhere. He roams the mountains. He watches the stars. He calls to the owls from the hollow, just the other side of this life.