approx 3300 words, ~20 min read time
Freedom—a change of clothes, pomade, freshly cut hair. All I had to do was move away. Southerners didn’t like the Northern tinge to my vowels but they let me keep my secret. I was first born the day I arrived in Tennessee with my voice pitched lower and my shoulders squared like a man’s. Ellis Bright was a man; I was Ellis Bright. No one questioned it. That’s what freedom tasted like—like joy like the taste of chewing tobacco until I met Euphoria then it always tasted like her kiss.
(The taste of her lingered on my tongue for minutes after she kissed me that first time, the next time, the thirtieth time, and having never kissed someone before I wondered if it was always like this, with the taste in your mouth for so long afterward, or if she was a special kind of magic.)
We were going to run away together, go west, to Memphis where we’d take a steamboat down to New Orleans or even further west still, where we’d claim our own land and work together to build a new life for ourselves.
Suppose God already gave me my fair share of new life when I became Ellis Bright. Eloping with Euphoria was asking too much. That’s why He in all His wisdom let her father kill me and bury me in the woods. At least, that’s as much sense as I can make of it.
The blood spewed through my fingers as I put a hand to my chest. He blew a hole there the size of a fist it felt like, but still it took a long time to die. It hurts to feel your life seeping out of you into the grass. I died with my eyes open and all I could see was the branches of the hungry tree as my blood fed its roots.
Euphoria. She reminded me of a childhood playmate who was braver and wilder than any of the boys. She was like that too, wild and brave. She never flinched when her father raised his voice or his fists, and he did so often, though he was careful never to leave bruises where others could see. She never wanted to let anyone see her cry.
That first evening. I had to pass her father’s property to get back to my cousin’s patch of grass and I found her under the big oak tree we would later call the hungry tree. Call it this because of the way the branches reached in all directions searching for more, trying to block out and consume the sky itself. Its limbs reached so far from its body that they’d begin to curl back towards its trunk, too late a reminder that reaching for more than you’re allowed will cause you hurt.
It was never satisfied.
“Mr. Bright,” Euphoria said, and I wanted to hear my name, my real name, the one I chose on her lips so badly that I’d have done anything she asked if she just called me Ellis.
“I never learned my letters very well. Will you read this to me?”
Here Euphoria held the letter out to me like a peace offering. The big oak tree creaked in the wind and the skirts of her dress shifted clung to her legs. I had always known but had never let myself look, not just at Euphoria but anyone. Looking was not a luxury I could allow. Yet for the first time, I looked at her, and took the letter.
After that, if her father was gone, she’d be waiting for me beneath the tree. I’d sit and read to her until it was almost too dark to find my way home and I’d stumble and trip my way back to my cousin’s home and his wife and his children who loved me. I would go there but I knew I had left a piece of me every day with her beneath the hungry tree.
When she kissed me the first time I was too stunned to close my eyes. She laughed. I blushed. Something bright burst in my chest.
“Did you know your eyes are both blue and green?” she asked and I shook my head like I’d never known.
Her father closed my eyes before he buried me in the woods. Couldn’t bear my looking at him anymore. Dirt rained down on my face but I couldn’t feel it. Couldn’t feel anything but a dull ache in the spot where he’d shot me. I clung to the ache in my chest, it was the only proof I’d ever been alive in the first place.
One day in one of our stolen golden hours, Euphoria took me inside her father’s cabin.
“Undress me,” she said. I gaped. She put her hands on her hips and glared at me. “We don’t have much time, you heard me, Ellis.”
I told her I couldn’t and it was not only for the sake of her virtue.
Her face softened then. “What are you afraid of?”
Too much. All too much.
When she kissed me then and put her hands on my shoulders I knew I was going to give in. I loved her too much to deny her anything she asked especially with my name in her mouth. It happened fast, each of us pulling at the other’s layers until the moment she lifted my shirt over my head. Maybe she’d known all along, I don’t know, I can’t ask her now.
I had to take short shallow breaths, watching her for a reaction as she took in the evidence of my secret. I was small but the jacket made my shoulders look broad and a narrow waist was the fashion, loose shirts hid the rest. Underneath it all there was no hiding it.
I understood, I said, if she wanted me to leave.
(I didn’t want to leave but I would. I would do anything she asked, anything she asked. But I wanted her to love me anyway. I wanted her to be my wife. We’d talked about it before, but I had never told her how much I wanted it. I couldn’t let myself tell her this. I couldn’t allow it for myself, for fear that this moment would happen, that she would ask me to leave.)
She reached out a hand. I expected her to hesitate but Euphoria never did. She put a hand on one of my breasts and kissed me again.
I had to break away first. Please, you can’t tell anyone, please understand.
“Ellis…” She said, and I nearly sobbed to hear my name still on her lips.
I kissed her then and we lay together each of us learning the shape of what would make the other gasp. It wasn’t simple and it wasn’t easy but we laughed as we fumbled together, learning this new and secret feeling. The memory of her hands in my hair (her hands on my chest) would make me ache for days. Afterwards I asked if she would still want to be my wife.
“Ellis, my love,” she said, and touched my cheek with her hand much the same gentle way she’d touched my chest, “of course.”
So we made our plans.
The worms came too soon. I wasn’t prepared for the way it ached to feel them crawling around in my skin, I’d become so used to the numbness. It took a long time for them to become flies. This was when everyone still thought I was missing. They were yet to find my body. I wondered if they ever would.
Euphoria with her head in my lap, Euphoria’s fingers laced with mine, her hands on my shoulders under my shirt, in my hair, all the places where her body had touched mine and now never would again.
Euphoria catching my arms when I would go to cross them over my chest when I undressed. Euphoria telling me I was the most handsome man she had ever met. Euphoria asking me not to hide, and pressing a kiss to each of my breasts like they were lovely and not something I loathed and had to hide.
I had so much. I had so much. I had so much.
Opened my eyes and found myself beneath the branches of the hungry tree in the same spot I died. I sat up, put a hand to my chest, and found the hole was still there. I was still dead, then, though there were no gates of Heaven waiting for me. There was only the hungry tree. I stayed there in the grass for a long long time waiting for Death to come and take me. He didn’t.
Up the hill I could see the cabin Euphoria’s father built. I made up my mind to go up there to see if he still had the blood on his hands or to see Euphoria one last time, I don’t know. I expected the tree to hold me back. It didn’t.
(Euphoria’s father had built the cabin, claimed the land, planned a new life for himself and his wife. Yet the Lord gives and takes away. Euphoria’s mother died in childbirth. Made him a father and a widower in one motion.)
I lifted my hand to knock, realized I didn’t have to, passed right through. There was an odd tugging sensation in the pit of my stomach as I moved through the wood. I came face to face with her father, who saw me and stumbled back, dropping the bottle of whiskey in his hands. It shattered. The smell burned my nose.
He went cotton-white as he stared, dropped his gaze to the hole in my chest, took one more look at my face and ran, passing through me. The tugging sensation again, and the memory of dragging my body into the woods. Not my memory. His.
I could hear Euphoria crying through the walls, and there was nothing I could do to comfort her.
I used to hold her when she cried. Her father would hurt her and I would hold her and she would cry and I would try not to and it’d all be a mess, but she was alive and I was alive and it all made sense. We had such plans. We had such grand plans.
(Here Euphoria would tell me the story of her mother as her father told it. Euphoria was to blame. If she’d never been born, he’d still have his wife. Yet. Euphoria was all he had left, he couldn’t let her go. She was never allowed to marry. She looked so much like her mother. He loved her and couldn’t bear to look at her all at once. The Lord gives and takes away.)
Her father could see me. Euphoria couldn’t.
I didn’t mean to terrorize him. Sometimes I would stand at the foot of his bed and wait for him to wake up. I didn’t mean to. I just wanted to be seen. I wanted to know I could still be seen.
(He’d pass through me and I’d see more than what I was supposed to. Euphoria, screaming and wet, just born. Her mother’s chest going still. The unending pain of his grief. I saw Euphoria, growing up, growing to look more like his wife, and I saw how desperately he wanted to keep her close for fear God would take her too. Most damning I saw him see Euphoria and me from a distance. Watched him watch her press her lips to mine. Felt him know I was going to take her away.)
Souls aren’t meant to stay for long after the death. I know that now. But I couldn’t go on. I was stuck and I could feel my body still out there in the woods. I could feel the breeze that rustled the leaves of the hungry tree. I could feel so much and still nothing at all.
It wasn’t long before I realized I could only walk to the edge of her father’s property. I could make it twenty or so paces towards my cousin’s home before the tree tugged me back. I could feel its roots reaching for me and something in my chest or what used to be my chest would grow tight then tighter still. Take one step further and get yanked back by your throat. These were the rules now.
I missed the space I’d carved out for myself in this world so much I dropped to my knees under the tree and wept.
“Do you ever think about going back to where you came from?” Euphoria asked, once. “Up north?”
No, I said. Thinking of the way my father called me his “girl” and how it felt like wearing one shoe on one foot and nothing on the other. Something was always off balance. Thinking of the many skirts and corsets and layers that I so loved to help Euphoria in and out of, but hated cocooning myself in. Thinking of how brave I had to be to leave, how scared I was.
(But why do I have to wear this? I’d ask my mother. She would tell me it was only proper. This is what young ladies wore. Later, without my father’s knowledge, she would write the letter to my cousin that said I was her youngest son and needed a place to stay.)
No, I said, I don’t miss it. Not once.
My mother would not know for months that I was dead or missing, letters take so long to travel from place to place. I knew this even without knowing if my cousin wrote to her when I disappeared and I was growing restless. Euphoria’s father would watch me pace through his house finding which rules I could bend or break. I couldn’t leave his property, but I could leave ripples in the water in the washbasin. I couldn’t lift a pen but I could splatter the ink. Each night when he returned from the fields he would find the evidence that I was still there even if he pretended not to see me.
(He did pretend, but he couldn’t hide the recognition the way his gaze would slide across the room but catch on me. He knew he could see me. I knew he could see me. Yet it wasn’t enough.)
Euphoria’s vision wasn’t very good. I could see the moment when I approached the hungry tree that she would recognize me when I was no longer a blur and a shape but a blur with a smile and a face she loved and one green eye. A smile would burst across her face, shining bright. “Ellis, my love,” she would say. “Ellis, my love.” Always Ellis, Ellis, Ellis.
Euphoria couldn’t see me but she could hear me, almost, just almost. I would try to speak to her and she would hear but it always made her panicked. Her father would see me standing in the corner of his home and he would go white and sick and leave, always returning blind drunk and stupid. I never tried to talk to her when he was around. I didn’t want him to overhear.
I whispered her name and knelt beside her as she prayed.
(I didn’t pray anymore.)
I probably shouldn’t have interrupted her as she tried to convene with God, but I wanted her to hear me. She would open her eyes but look right through me. I would cry wishing she could see me.
Her eyes roved around the room but she whispered “Ellis?” and I cried then, yes, yes, I’m here. “My father mumbles about you in his sleep. Why are you still here?”
I said I didn’t know. But I thought I did.
“Yes,” she said, “I think so too.”
Be brave, I told her. She listened.
I used to pray with fervor. Thank you, Lord, for giving me my freedom. Thank you, Lord, for giving me escape. Thank you, Lord, for keeping my secret for just a day longer. I always knew one day I’d be found out, but every day I wasn’t made that inevitable discovery worth it.
There was no moon the night I died. I watched it wax, wane, disappear again. The next morning, the men brought Euphoria’s father to the hungry tree with a hood over his head. I didn’t know what was happening but Euphoria did not seem surprised. I went to her in wonder and looked into her face, found grimness and determination there I had not seen before. I touched her arm and beyond a well of grief, found bravery. Saw the moment she’d told them, finally. Her father had told her what he’d done. She had told them and now this was justice.
It did not feel like justice to me. I was fading fast and everything was beginning to blend together one moment to the next. I was sick with time, too much time. It did not feel like justice to me, because I would feel the moment when they found my body. It did not feel like justice to me, because they didn’t know what name to put on the marker, and finally settled on Mary. It did not feel like justice to me, because that’s when I started to shred.
Pieces of me ripped away in the wind and turned to ash.
“How do you choose it? Your name?” Euphoria had always been Euphoria, she could not hold the idea of a different name for herself in her hands. I told her it was easy. The other name had never been mine, though it was the name my father gave me, and if I had been born a boy he would’ve named me Abraham but that was not my name either.
(I would never be the father of nations, but I was kind. I always tried to be kind.)
“But there are so many names in the world? How did you know what was yours?”
I knew it in the same way I knew I loved her. It was like coming home.
My eye was missing, my fingers were missing, my teeth were beginning to fly away too. I expected it to hurt, but it didn’t. It was like taking off your clothes. But I didn’t want anyone to see me like this—I no longer wanted to be seen at all—I avoided Euphoria as much as I could. She would be leaving soon, anyway, off to that second chance with some cousin of her mother’s who was going to take her in and together they would go west. I no longer went inside the cabin. Euphoria would stand in the threshold in the evenings and call for me. I would walk to the other side of the hungry tree and cover my ears, or what was left of them, but I could still hear her calling my name, my name, my name, my name over and over again. My name, my name, my name.
(I ignored it. It was surprisingly simple to do so. Nothing ever felt like home anymore.)
Before she left, she came one last time to the tree.
“Ellis?” She said, with no hesitation, though she could not see me. There was so little left to see. “I know you’re still here. I can feel it.”
I didn’t try to answer.
“I have something for you, my love.”
I watched her place a tiny wooden cross beneath the tree, painted white. With her father’s knife, she’d carved my name into the wood.
Auden Patrick (he/they) is a genderqueer writer and future ghost who thinks too much about time, identity, and—lately—Hamlet. His work can be found in Beaver Magazine, among others. Find him online at audenpatrick.com or on twitter @patrickauden.
Photo by Johann Siemens on Unsplash