In Charles Hudson’s Conversations with the High Priest of Coosa, a fictionalized ethnography of the early Native people of the American South, the priest explains the four souls to the Spanish narrator. The Coosa, the ancestors of the Creeks, Seminoles and other Southeast tribes, believed that a human had four souls. The life soul, residing in the crown of the head, was the first to depart the body after death, and also the one that could linger as a ghost; the liver soul, which lingered for seven days after death and then dissipated; the heart soul, which lingered for a month and then went into the earth; and the bone soul, which stayed for year, and still connected with the feelings of loved ones. It wasn’t a ghost, but an awareness that could recognize when the living honored its memory. The people who had this belief were my ancestors on my mother’s side.
In modern world, I think we have a fifth soul. The word soul. It lives on even longer than the bone soul. It resides in papers, letters and books. A few years after my father’s passing my sister and I finally sorted through a huge box of family pictures and papers he’d left us so we could donate them to the state archives. They dated from the civil war through to the twentieth century. The letters written in World War II were touching and charming, and the vacation pictures from the nineteen-twenties, in those modest swimming costumes, delightful. Among those papers were two short stories I’d written. I’d forgotten about them. One had been published in a teen magazine when I was twelve. The other was one I’d written when I was in high school.
I felt my father’s word soul with me, not only in his letters that were in the box, but also in the love of words that made him save other people’s letters and my stories. That box was what made me get serious about writing. I had novels in progress and a head full of ideas and characters, but hadn’t thought about trying to get published. In retrospect, I realize it did it to honor my father’s word soul. He loved theater, especially Shakespeare, and he also loved a good mystery series. (His favorite was the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters.)
By writing books and short stories, blogging and reviewing, I’m honoring the word souls of other ancestors as well. My mother was an English professor. She taught mostly freshman English—my sympathies are strong now that I teach freshman health and intro-to-college seminars—but her pet project was a course on the development of mystery novel. She loved Sherlock Holmes, and Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Wimsey novels. I grew up surrounded by mystery books. When we were too young to read them, my sister I used to pull them off the shelves and look at the scary covers. If I’d kept any of those old paperbacks, I think I’d meet my mother’s word soul in them.
Her father was also an English professor, and a poet. Through some bizarre coincidence the college where I now teach has his papers. His word soul is in its museum, though he was a professor at another college altogether. I wonder if, like the bone soul, it knows when it’s being honored, and feels the nearness of a descendent.