The Ghost of Nimishillen County

by Kristin Werstler (Univ. of Mount Union)

I grew up with the corn stalks

settled into the soil of haunted farm houses,

curled around the jagged circles

of potholes left by my great

grand daddy’s six-cylinder Fiat 527.


They tell me his ghost still roams these fields

and when I look into Great Grammy’s milky eyes

which do not know mine

I swear, he’s in there

coiled around

her irises


My next door neighbor was a pump jack,

its giant metal arm rising up and down,

extracting oil, facing south west toward

the forest behind the elementary school, where Jessica

found the skeleton of a deer during recess.

We crowded around the carcass of this small deity

praying to its spirit in séances.

We could imagine the deer as a little god

protecting a world inside his skull

now buried above his ancestors,

the fuel that propels our lives’ forward.


And how could we not believe in ghosts?

Amanda hears her granddad’s cough

in her mother’s lungs,

a golden camel perched on a cardboard box,

the same way she feels her father’s rage

stomping through her veins, even as her mother

puts her whole hand to her mouth

and asks who taught Amanda to say such

foul language in polite company.


We grew into the words we didn’t know.

Into the crooked noses of our parents.

Hunter, into his older brother’s American Spirit cigarettes

then, into Red Man’s chewing tobacco.

But when Hunter’s dad caught him

with the piece nuzzled, so comfortably,

between his lower lip and gum

the old man made him drink

the water bottle of dip and spit until he threw up

along the road. And on the bus

the next day we all pointed to the spot

on the sidewalk where his vomit

had seeped between the cracks, had lingered,

we said; there, that’s where it happened

right there.


This whole town was a lesson

on lingering, shrinking

on being swallowed whole.


Jake watched his mother’s lips

grow thinner in the church’s wooden pews

and in the passenger seat of his daddy’s

eight-cylinder F-150, and at the dinner table

until one night her tongue fell, like a piece of veal

into the mashed potatoes. Everyone said

she cried and cried and boxed up

her Grammy’s framed picture,

her best pair of work boots

and poof – just like that –

Jake’s mom disappeared.


This was not our first taste of illusion.

We’d seen magic in the way Alyssa

smacked a home run on the exact moment

a bolt of lightning cracked onto the field.


The way our grandfathers’ skin

changed to leather right before our eyes,

added splotches of moles, irregular edges –

the callouses never faded, only the flush of red under the skin.

They held American Spirits between their teeth

passing down the recycled clouds of tobacco

that clung to the fabric of our little league t-shirts.

We've spent our whole lives trying to blow it out of our bodies,

but we can't seem to shake the smoke from our veins

any better than the feel of two hooked fingers

inside the eye sockets of our deer's skull,

and the weight of carrying it home with us.


By the time we figured out that quarters could be spent

on better things than soda from the vending machine

outside of the Kountry Korner Minimart,

that a bus pass could take you further than the edges

of our town map, we had already memorized

the lines around our mother’s eyes, our faces in mirrors

that have started to look the same. The back roads,

the veins of this place. Memorizing the look of dirt caked

into our knuckles. We could never scrape

this town from under our fingernails.

Even in the years after we evacuated

there was always Nimishillen County

nestled into our fingerprints, our callouses,

making ghosts out of all of us.