Harboring Ghosts by Christina Butcher

     You’ve been gone for one year, one month and eleven days. You don’t send me any letters. No long-winded explanation folded and pressed into an envelope, waiting for me in the mailbox. No email, either, despite the perk of complete emotional detachment our digital world offers. No phone calls. No friends dropping by at odd hours to pick up your clothes or books, all eyes and hands stumbling over each other, avoiding confrontation at all costs. Nothing. You simply vanished.
     So tonight, after one year, one month and eleven days, I burned the barn down. I watched the blaze from the fence line, building and collapsing over and over again as it fed on the crisp winter air. Its walls cracked and spit like a cornered animal, lashing out in its final moments before the roof groaned and the tin bowled from the heat. From where I’d parked on the road, I could smell the smoke. It was a sharp reminder that the hay hadn’t been properly dried before baling. Nothing proper remained on this farm, only memories.
     I thought it fitting, too, that the barn crumbled as quickly as our family had, despite our careful planning all those years ago. It only took one death, four matches and a woman gone missing to unravel it all: our barn, our house, our marriage. We ruined them all after Cassie’s death. Two I dragged into the fire; one you left behind.
     As I watched the fire, I thought about how small Cassie’s hand was when we turned the machines off. I could still see the chipped, purple polish on her nails and the sweat of your forehead on her nightgown. Her fire burned longer than the barn, at least, but smoldered once the they removed the machines. She only lasted twelve minutes after that.
     It might not seem that long, twelve minutes, but you’d be surprised all the memories your brain can drudge up in that time. It was an eternity. A blur of your mouth on my collarbone when you mumbled “I’m pregnant”; Cassie’s birth in the backroom of the farmhouse, where we kept the grain; her little fists balled and shaking while she screeched, open-mouthed and toothless as an old man; our hands shaking as we signed for fifty acres on the kitchen table, the barn’s blueprints collecting coffee stains and cereal; the horses bolting from the pen after I left the gate open and almost trampling Cassie in the muck; the smudged darkness of summer nights spent sleeping on the porch, Cassie in your arms. Cassie.
     We were rooted then, and happy. But then she died, and you and I became ghosts. We moved and breathed and shuffled from one room to the next, stuffing the guilt down into our stomachs like we were gourds, trying to hold it all. We hollowed ourselves for it. And then you left me, too.
     You walked out the back door after breakfast exactly one year, one month and eleven days ago. Nothing but a secondhand t-shirt on your back and your blue jeans tucked into your boots. You left me with her ghost.
     I saw it on your face, then, that you weren’t ever coming back, but I still clung to the hope that you would. Because that’s what we do, right? We hope. And I hoped and held on as long as I could, until today. Today, when the sheriff called to tell me they’d closed your case.
     The chances of finding a missing person alive in Kluane after a whole year are slim to none, you know that. He said, All we can hope for is a body.
     I was collecting ghosts. I was swollen with them — with you — but my stomach couldn’t hold them anymore. I couldn’t keep you both inside of me. So I walked to the coat closet, pulled your jacket from the hanger and padded out the door as silently as you had one year, one month and eleven days ago. And then I burned the house down.
     I took the sharpened memory of our family and the last of the matches from your jacket pocket and I set the house on fire. I burned the landscape with your ghosts, then the barn. I even pretended you were beyond the tree line, looking out at me and saying, Do it. Then come away with us so we can finish what we started, together.
     But you weren’t there.
     And you aren’t here, either.
     And now the rain is pattering against my head, drumming me with memories that can’t be washed away as if my hands were stained orange from clutching the rusted railing of the pickup. The smoke is burning my throat and all I can do is watch the barn burn. But I’m glad to have this small triumph before I leave, to have put our family to rest, finally, under the glowing embers of our home, our barn, our land.
     And I know I’ll never outrun your ghosts, but maybe I can build you a mausoleum elsewhere, somewhere outside my body. Somewhere away from here.

Christina Butcher is a freelance writer and veteran from Chaparral, New Mexico. Before serving as a linguist in the U.S. Army, she worked on cultural-preservation projects and developed a passion for storytelling and community involvement. She holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from New Mexico State University and a certificate in storytelling and content strategy from Washington State University. She lives and writes in Tacoma, Washington.