That night I lay still and held my breath, trying to hear them. When I finally surrendered to the need for air, the echo of my loud exhale and gasping inhale reverberated off my darkened bedroom walls. Earlier that day, while I was walking down the sidewalk with my mom, a woman with cracked lips and hot, putrid breath had clamped onto my shoulder with bony-cold fingers.
“Your ancestors are always watching, and if you listen you can hear them,” the old woman had hissed, inches from my face.
“They mostly whisper at night,” she had cackled before my mother pulled me away.
“Never talk to strangers,” my mom said as we hurried up Main Street.
Her voice was uncharacteristically earnest, her grip firm.
“But you told me to respect my elders,” I said.
“Elders that you know,” she shot back, glancing behind us to where the old woman had been standing.
When I turned, the woman was gone, disappeared into a shop or hidden within the crowd of holiday shoppers, I supposed.
“What did she say?” she asked as we walked.
“That my ancestors are watching me and that if I listen I can hear them talking,” I said, and then added. “What are ancestors?”
My mother shook her head slowly and reached out to gently stroke my back. I slowed a little so as to enjoy the increased pressure of her warm, soft hand.
We were nearing Lyman. I loved the park because there were swings and a gazebo but mostly because there was an old cannon that had been used in some forgotten war. It stood fixed to a cement turret, its metal rubbed clean of paint by generations of children hanging from its heavy-caliber barrel. Its muzzle was now stuffed full of rocks, wads of gum and dirt.
When we arrived my mother sat down hard on the nearest bench and dropped the bags of Christmas decorations she had been carrying. A small bell jingled, its sound muffled, distant. Rummaging through her purse she took out a bright-yellow pack of gum, removed a single slice, tore it into two equal pieces and handed me one half. I removed the foil wrapping, placed the gum on my tongue and held it there for a moment, unchewed, trying to pick out each of its flavors: banana, cherry and lemon. I never could taste strawberry or some of the other flavors that the TV commercial had suggested.
“Our ancestors are the people who came before us,” she said. “Like your great-great-grandparents who settled in California more than 100 years ago.”
“You mean like people who died?” I asked, beginning to chew my gum.
“And even those who haven’t, technically,” she said. “But normally when people talk about ancestors they are talking about those who have left us.”
“Where’d they go?” I asked.
My mother chewed silently and then paused for a moment before making a surprisingly loud “snap” with her gum. I’d heard it many times before but could never figure out how she managed to make a bubble pop within the confines of her mouth.
“Well, different people think we go to different places after we pass away,” she said.
“We?” I asked.
She nodded and then smiled a small, tight smile.
“Yes,” she said. “We.”
I leaned back against the bench and chewed, twisting my tongue in an attempt to position my gum so that I might make it pop, unseen.
“Where do we think we go?” I asked.
She started to speak but stopped short and looked toward the cannon, where two older boys from school — Tom and Jim — had arrived and immediately started to play. One manned the trigger and the other stood in front, loading the muzzle with dirt, using a stick to pack what he could, all the while giving orders with a deepened voice.
“Enemies approaching,” Tom said. “Steady your nerves.”
After a brief pause Tom yelled, “Fire!” and both boys made sounds like bullets flying and bombs crashing. Tom abruptly turned away from the gun and with his stick thrust out in front charged at some unseen advancing foe, eventually falling to earth, feigning being hit by bullets.
“Well, if we are good, we believe we go to heaven,” I heard my mother say.
Jim, the one manning the gun, leapt from his post and rushed forward to help his fallen comrade, but in an unexpected twist Tom rose to his feet and charged back, apparently having been resurrected as the enemy. The two met and collapsed into a heap, twisting and yelling with their deepest voices, until they both fell back laughing.
“How do we know we are being good?” I asked, my eyes still fixed on the war play.
She popped her gum, shouldered her purse and then reached down for the bags.
“Do you know when you are being good?” she asked as we stood to go.
“I think so,” I said.
“Well, we all have our own sense of what it means to be ‘good,’” she said. “It’s that voice that guides us. There are plenty of books — and very good books — that help, but in the end you have to follow that voice inside you.”
I reached up to hold her hand and she handed me a bag.
“Is that voice my ancestors?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. Maybe she didn’t hear me. She had turned and was starting back down the sidewalk from where we’d come.
The boys had left the park and now were walking arm-in-arm ahead of us. Farther, in the distance, the old woman in her dull black dress and stringy gray hair stood motionless, seemingly bracing for the two young boys as they approached.
What happened next is another story.
Originally published in the St. Helena Star, December 2018