This story is by Gabrielle Sanders and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I stayed in the attic, never understood why. The masters of the house expected me to know why, but they never spoke to me about it. They hardly ever spoke to me about anything. I was not to be seen or heard, spoken to or acknowledged. I was a little brown ghost in their big white house, though I was not frightening.
The lady of the house got angry every time she saw me. She would roll her eyes and throw her hands in the air. “Lord why do I have to be punished like this?”
The man of the house got sad every time he saw me. I saw it when I did not make myself small enough to hide behind the big armchair. He saw me and his blue eyes turned grey. He hung his head and turned away. That grey made me feel guilty for playing with the curtain tassels in the fancy room. If I had stayed in the attic then he would not have seen me, and he would not be sad.
I was not supposed to come down from the attic, but sometimes they forgot to feed me, so I would have to come down. When I was smaller I was afraid of the attic, so I would sneak downstairs more often. As I got bigger I liked it up there. The smell of the old wood was comforting. Being up there was a good place for me to be. It was away from everyone. It was dark. It was quiet, like me.
When they had people over I tried even harder to be quiet. One time they had a lot of people over and I heard children playing. I wanted to see what was going on. That was a big mistake. That night I had seen white children playing with toys. I saw children the same size as me with skin like porcelain. They were very clean and had nice clothes. Some of them even sort of looked like me. We had the same color eyes and the same shape of nose. We had those things in common. I thought, maybe we could be friends. But when the lady of the house saw me she had one of the men beat me and throw me out. When she watched them, she was happy.
The man that beat me tossed me down a hill and hollered, “Go be with yer own kind.”
I did not understand that.
When I tumbled down the hill I did not stop rolling until I crashed into a pile of firewood. The stacked wood clattered over me and covered me up. It hurt, but that was not the important part. Now I was very dirty and she would not want me back in the house. I had never been out of the white house so I was afraid and did not know what to do.
“What the hell?” A stranger shouted somewhere.
I did not know what to do so I held very still and did not make a sound. It was nighttime and under the chopped wood it was very dark. The wood smelled fresh, not like the wood in the attic, but I liked it.
Then the stranger picked up a log that hid my face. She saw me. “What the hell?”
We stared at each other for a minute. She looked like the woman that cleaned the house, but her lips looked like mine. She reached down and grabbed my arm. She heaved me up out of the wood and onto my feet. She looked at me longer and held a lantern up to see me better. “What are you?”
I shrugged. No one had ever told me what I was.
“Come here child.” She pulled me along and inside a little grey shack. Her voice was softer and her hand on my arm was gentler. No one had ever touched or spoken to me like that before. My heart started to hurt.
She sat me down on a straw bed. There were other people in the shack. There was an old man, an old woman, a younger woman, and a bunch of children playing with pebbles on the floor. They were all black. They were dirty but they were happy. They did not get mad or sad when they saw me. The woman that took me in brought me a bowl of grits. While I ate she took a rag and wiped blood off my head.
“You hurt anywhere else?” She asked and peeked at my back under my shirt. “Lord have mercy!” She gasped and pulled my shirt over my head.
The younger woman came to help. They laid me down and cleaned blood off my back. “Where you coming from honey?” She asked in a voice sweeter than I had ever heard before.
I pointed out the door.
The old woman nodded. “They’ve kept you in that house?” She spoke like she knew me so I sat up and hoped she would tell me what I was. Everyone stopped what they were doing to listen, they all wanted to know about this little brown ghost. “You don’t even know do you?” Her eyes were sad when she looked at me.
This confirmed that I was a ghost. Her dark eyes turned sullen and wet. The reflection from the fireplace shimmered in her tears. “You are my grandchild.”
I tilted my head. I thought that I was too light to be her grandchild, but then I was too dark to belong in the white house. Looking around at all the faces in the shack I could see little bits of myself, the shape of my eyes and lips, the way my eyelashes curled, the proportions of my legs and arms to my body.
“The man of the house up there took my daughter and never gave her back.” The old man grunted. He came over and looked at my face. His voice was gruff, “You a girl or a boy? Wearing pants… but too pretty to be a boy…”
The younger woman said, “Girl.” And hugged me. She smelled like flowers and happiness. She was warm and I never wanted her to let me go.
“Can’t stay here.” He grunted. “When my son in law comes back he’ll blow up if he sees you.”
“No! She should stay!” The younger woman cried and rocked me.
The one that had brought me in patted her back and spoke softly. “I know, but she don’t belong here. She’s not like us. And they’ll definitely want her back.”
She held me tighter. “They’ll sell her for—”
“This is my sister’s child.” The one that had brought me in looked at me again, but now I was a ghost to her. “I want to protect her just as much as anyone else. But we can’t afford the trouble she’ll cause.”
I nodded. It was okay. I was not supposed to have been seen anyway. Causing trouble was something I knew I was not supposed to do, so I got up. Leaving the arms of the young woman who cried over me felt wrong, but it was the right thing to do. I did not belong there. Leaving the little grey shack felt like I was leaving a part of myself. It was warmer there than in any room of the big white house.
The old man muttered as I was leaving, “Better off in the house anyway.”
I walked back up to the big white house. The visitors were still there so I waited behind the shed with my knees tucked under my chin. It was cold and dark. I tried not to shiver because I was afraid of moving around too much. Going back to the shack sounded nice, but I did not belong there. From where I sat, I could see into the house. They were laughing and telling stories. I did not belong there either.
If I cut myself in half, could part of me go to the white house and the other to the grey shack? I looked at the ax stuck in the stump. Is there any way I can be small enough, quiet enough, still enough to not trouble anyone? I looked up to the sky. Do I have a family somewhere that wants me? I looked at my brown hands that did not match any part of the people I knew.
I had so many questions and no one to ask. So like a good little ghost, I sat still and quiet, doing my best not to haunt anyone.