Ghosts in America by Dominique Sinagra
Ghosts In America
BY DOMINIQUE SINAGRA ILLUSTRATED BY KARL FITZGERALD
There were definitely ghosts in Oklahoma. I could see them and hear them. Not literally, with my eyes or anything like that. No, I never felt a cold chill pass through me like a window had been left open nor did I ever see anything inexplicably move across the room. But nevertheless, I could see the ghosts in the soldier’s eyes and in Indian land.
Lawton was nothing like what the land used to be. It used to be where the Apache and Kiowa lived. In the 1800’s, it was settled along with Fort Sill, a military post to keep the same Apache and Kiowa at bay. I came to Lawton by myself to interview people for a project about opposites, about how seemingly disparate lives can have a great deal in common if the right questions were asked, if the right parts of their humanity were spoken to.
I was staying with Justin, a former soldier, a veteran of the war in Iraq. He was amongst the first boots on the ground in Baghdad and came back deeply emotionally scarred from the things that he witnessed and did. Justin lived with his fiancé in a small brown house with brown walls and a brown sofa. The home reminded me of the desert but maybe that was only because of the Iraq connection. Justin and his fiancé work five jobs between them. He woke up at 3am every day to sort boxes at UPS and then he worked at a newspaper office and then in the late afternoon Justin went to work as an assistant at a law office. I asked him once I how he managed on so
little sleep and he shrugged and said there are guys working a lot harder over at the Goodyear factory making tires. Because Justin and his fiancé were out so often working, I was left on my own to explore.
There weren’t any sidewalks in Lawton and no one seemed to miss them. There were used car lots and new car lots. There were chain restaurants like Arby’s and Pizza Hut and Krispy Kreme and Taco Bell and McDonalds and Wendy’s. There where chain shopping centers like Walmart and Target. There were also Korean restaurants; a lot of them because during the Korean War many Americans went abroad to fight and came back with wives who promptly set up shop. There were also “massage” parlors catering to any young lonely soldier’s need. Most of Lawton’s residents were in uniform and if the wind was right from Justin’s house you could hear machine gun practice from Fort Sill. I drove 20 miles outside of Lawton, Oklahoma in a rented car and a radio that produced nothing but static so I shut it off. A wise woman once told me that if you dug an inch down into the American soil you’d find nothing but blood. I never dug an inch down but I knew it was true. Blood and Indian bones.
As I drove I could hear ghosts talking in same low pitch as a dog whistle or maybe more like a low elephant mourning moan. I could hear vague wails and whimpers, and then deeper still in the hallway of time, beyond the wails and whimpers, I could hear singing and the sounds of eating and love making. I could hear life before death.
I arrived at a place called Medicine Creek, where I met Dorothy Whitehorse, an old, old Kiowa woman. She said she didn’t know when she was born, nor could she even remember what day it was, but she said she can remember only horses and no cars moved about on this vast brown land of hers. We met at a shop owned by a retired U.S. Army general that sold turquoise Indian jewelry and buffalo head nickels. The land in Oklahoma seemed to attract two kinds of people: U.S, military personnel, and mystics, people who believed in spirits and that the water was alive. Sometimes at certain juncture in an individual’s journey these two quests would meet and become unified in one person. For instance, this general. He ran the shop with his wife and warmly gazed at the pieces. On Saturdays Dorothy spoke, telling old stories and sang songs about ghosts. He listened wide and teary eyed, with hands clutching, white knuckled, on his chair. I know this because I was there. At Medicine Creek some ghost hunters picked up a voice. They couldn’t understand what the voice was saying. The
general played it for Dorothy to see if she could understand. “She’s saying ‘bring the medicine’ in Kiowa,” said Dorothy doubtlessly. Medicine Creek used to be home to medicinal herbs and its waters were said to cure. I wonder who that voice belonged to? And who needed the medicine?
Dorothy Whitehorse and I drove to her daughter’s land. As we drove the land around us reminded me of Africa. It was vast, beyond vast. Being in it, made one feel the smallness as one does standing beneath an unbroken dome of night sky. The land could swallow you up, consume your breath and make it its own wind. We passed homesteads that looked in some ways as though they’d been there since white settlers first arrived and in other ways like the next tornado was going to pick them up and spat them out.
In corrals there were cows and horses grazing contently, unaware that if they bit down an inch further they’d find blood; or maybe they were aware and in constant communion with their ghostly ancestors. “Did you know that horses arrived in the Americas long before historians used to believe?” Dorothy said to me. “The first horse wasn’t the mustang and they didn’t come over with the Spaniards. The first American horse was the Appaloosa, the spotted ones who can dance what is commonly called the Indian-jig. They came over with the First People’s over the land bridge connecting what is now Alaska and Russia. Lewis and Clarke knew it. Sacagawea told them that.”
Dorothy Whitehorse directed me into her daughter’s drive. It was more a road than any driveway I had experienced. It stretched into the distance and dusty and sighed red dirt from under our wheels.Her daughter greeted us along with her husband and dogs, chickens and turkeys. Their home was flat topped and one story. Inside it was dark, with a long table where we sat and talked. I don’t remember what we talked about. What I do remember was the long hallway covered with framed photographs of what are now ghosts. There were images of men and women with jet black braids and faces that resembled the vast beyond vast land of Oklahoma.
There was a woman in somewhere down my familial line who was kidnapped by the Mohawks in Massachusetts. I think her name might have been Mary. She kidnapped and refused to go back to Puritan life – who can blame her? This was not uncommon, as you might already know. Many women were kidnapped and when their release and
return was demanded by their men-folk, the women simple said no. The standard of living was more or less the same and women were respected. Mary married and raised three children Dorothy led me outside to their old family home. It was dugout, dug inside of a sloping hill and held up with pole. Inside, on the dirt floor, was an old mattress with spring sticking out and in the ceiling was a whole where smoke from fired could be let out.
Dorothy told me that they used the space now only used for ceremonies. She told me about recently they held a healing ceremony for women and whilst the women were sitting together in prayer, they all heard singing. They realized the singing was coming from outside somewhere in the black expanse of a night. The women walked out and saw nothing, but the singing continued. Each woman came from different tribes and each woman heard the singing in her own language. I never saw Dorothy again after that. I assume that she too is now a ghost, as that was a long time ago and even then she was old, old.
I spent a few more days in Lawton. I interviewed Justin about Iraq. He told me about a little boy he befriended who died from a suicide bomber’s blast. The blast didn’t kill him on site, but burnt the boy’s whole body. Just tried to raise money to pay for his treatment, but his fellow soldiers wouldn’t give. They thought maybe the boy’s family was pulling their leg. One night towards the end of my stay, Justin took me out drinking with his friends. A wise woman once said to me that ghosts lurk in corners of bars. These ghosts are not the good kind of ghosts that sing during ceremonies, but a seedy kind of spirit, more like a goblin, that waits in the corners sucking on unguarded life forces. The bar where Justin took me with his friends had a blow-up palm tree and flashing lights and I am sure many ghostly goblins in the corners. Maybe some ghosts brought back from foreign places like Justin’s Iraqi boy, hanging on to Justin by his boot strings.
I have come to know that ghosts exist everywhere. In every corner of the world, where women and men and their horses and dogs have lived. I know that if you dig an inch into most any ground you’ll find blood and bones.I felt the mourning moans of ghosts in other countries too, not just my own. I felt them in Palestine, their moans mixed in with the called to prayer, and along the roads in Uganda. They are in New York City Subway and sometimes in the rays of sun filtering through the
Metropolitan Museum of Art and God knows they lie unrested in the Thames. But Lawton, Oklahoma with me especially as a place of ghosts because the ghosts there go unacknowledged. The Native ghosts have been swept under Arby’s and Taco Bell and Justin’s ghosts have been suppressed under three jobs and stale beer at a bar next to a “massage” parlor. Will there ever be a day when the blood under the soil is wiped clean? Or is that blood, the horrible very real blood, part of the fertility that make new and better things grow?
Beat literature captured the vastness of America and delivers it as a boundless sea possibility for elevated thinking. I wanted to make the land almost another character and explore the ideas of geographic memory – the idea that the land remembers past and especially traumatic events. I also wanted to acknowledge the emptiness and time for reflection while driving across this land, the way Kerouac does, through phrases like ‘the radio produced nothing but static.’ Kerouac captures such feelings in On the Road, and pushes to deliver a text that relentlessly opens the dialogue between an intimately personal account and an existential yearning. A comparison could also be made with Tennessee Williams’ creation of Tom in The Glass Menagerie as he stares widely into the moon.
I wanted to acknowledge that a land holds that history. The ‘wise woman.’ a character we never meet in person and whom stays ethereal, gives magic and mysticism to Oklahoma. A spirituality that isn’t tangible. This is highlighted in ‘I never felt a cold chill pass through me like a window had been left open.’ I want the reader to feel that possibility of other worlds, just beyond our immediate consciousness. This was inspired from The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, where climbing a mountain links spirituality and the environment closely and we as readers are able to feel ourselves as spiritual beings. For me, I wanted readers to feel themselves as spiritual beings as well as, spiritual beings linked in a larger history. The superficial and blunt description of Lawton’s ‘chain restaurants like Arby’s and Pizza Hut and Kirspy Kreme, and chain shopping centers like Walmart and Target’ is in conscious juxtaposition with the spirituality of previous paragraphs that contain ether in ‘if you dug an inch down into the American soil you’d find nothing but blood.’ I consistently decided to juxtapose
images of American consumerism, with observations and of the existential and energetic as well as acknowledging America’s previous realities.
I intended to use nature and animals to give a sense of connection with the earth and the life-death cycle where the horses and cows ‘were aware and in constant communion with their ghostly ancestors.’ By making the animals in silent communion with their surroundings I was able to juxtapose it with the current general American relationship with the Earth, seen often playing out in the news in cases like Flint, Michigan and the Standing Rock protests. I was also inspired by the confessional poets such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. My prose our unashamedly in the first person and I drew on my own personal experiences and observations to tell shed light on the issues I wish to shed light on. I also touch on physic issues and perceived reality. As well as the trauma the country has faced. Jung speaks about the collective unconscious and I feel that through speaking about personal consciousness, we are also able to reflect the larger consciousness of a group or groups. The reader is aware of the writer’s position in the story, expressed through such rhetorical question as ‘refused to go back to Puritan life – who can blame her?’
We follow Dorothy Whitehouse through her stories of the origins of horses, to her healing dugout and beyond, therefore hinting that the unnamed wise woman at the start of the story is in fact Dorothy. She is presented as ethereal and timeless; ‘She said she didn’t know when she was born, nor could she even remember what day it was.’ This purposely places her outside of contemporary convention, and therefore gives permission for the reader to feel the same and empathise with such statements as ‘Being in it, made one feel the smallness as one does standing beneath an unbroken dome of night sky.’