Woods are haunted places. The blackened stump staring down from the ridge. The white of a deer’s tail, not leaping but drifting, like a candle carried between the trees. An old television half buried in leaves, the dead eye of its screen shattered.
The woods where the dog and I walk were once a dairy farm. Our neighbor is the last of that family. He tells the stories: a house fire, an entire hillside collapsing after a wet spring, pastures where every year there were more saplings and fewer cows. Finally, the brother-in-law who shot himself in what’s now our front yard, only a few weeks after selling his garden topsoil to buy beer.
Old farms are haunted places, too. We knew that when we moved here.
But it’s only after walking the land for three years that I learn about the Studebaker bus.
It’s the first day of rifle season, and four strange cars are parked at the end of our driveway. Today our walk ends at the mailbox. Our neighbor joins us there; his dog wrestles with mine. The humans are more taciturn, but we talk about the cars, how early we saw them pull in. Not early enough, my neighbor says, for the men to reach their deer stands before dawn.
“When I used to hunt? I’d spend the night up there.”
I try to imagine this. It sounds like something Pa Ingalls would do: roosting in a tree, dozing over his rifle. “Up in a deer stand?”
“Oh, no. I had a Studebaker bus.” He gestures up the wooded slope with the hand that’s missing two fingers (crushed under a tire while wrestling a friend’s car out of the mud – I’ve heard that story, too). “Parked way up there. Used to sleep in it when I needed to get away. It was quiet. A Studebaker bus.” I can hear in his voice how he must have loved it.
“Still out there, I suppose,” he adds suddenly.
“Where?” The farm is only two hundred acres, and the dog and I walk them every day. Surely we would have seen something as big as a bus.
“My nephew. He had no place else to go. Well, he started living there. Used to smoke in bed. One night, he fell asleep and burned the whole thing down.”
I’d heard he had a dead nephew. Drugs, someone said.
“I was angry at him!” My neighbor seems to have answered the question I didn’t dare ask. Or maybe not: it’s possible to be angry at a dead man.
“It’s still out there,” he insists. “Look for it sometime. A Studebaker bus.”
I haven’t found it yet.