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Brigitte N. McCray

American Chestnut Blight

The Dead Chestnut by Ross Eugene Braught

It is late September, 1985. Outside, the lone American Chestnut tree in my grandparents’ yard drops its small, brown nuts the way it has for decades. My nine-year-old self is sprawled out and watching Fraggle Rock, with my face a mere five inches from the screen of their living room television, my head cupped in my hands. If I were to sit up, I could see some of the nuts dropping because the tree is just visible from the window above, but I find the show’s natural caves more interesting than the tree that spews nuts from spiny husks.

A stack of brown paper bags lands next to my body. My grandfather gently hauls me up. I moan.

At least he lets me collect the chestnuts barefoot, my preferred way to walk around the yard.

“Careful where you step,” he tells me, but before long, a spine sticks my foot and sends me crying to my grandmother.

She carefully doctors it with a warm towel while whispering how a fungus hid in the bark of most of the other Chestnut trees in Appalachia. The blight started in the early 1800s with a spore, tiny but mighty, floating through the air, probably landing on one of the tree’s teeth-shaped leaves. Maybe the wind picked it up and carried the spore to the bark. It would take time, but before long, the bark cracked and orange-red spots appeared. A few trees still exist, magically resistant to the blight. But most are what old-timers call “grey ghosts.”

“Then our tree will die soon,” I say. “Won’t it?”

She shrugs, says, “Those old-timers think all the others will come back in a hundred years.”

As she tweezes the spine from my heel, I imagine and hope a fungus will take root in my foot, keeping me inside because I don’t care much for that tree, but I’ve been taught to mind my elders, and, so, when my grandfather calls, I limp back outside, mostly faking.

Later, we ride in his golf cart half of a mile to the town square, where neighbors purchase the paper bags of nuts. I’m embarrassed–by the golf cart with tiny American flags sticking from its roof; by the large, floppy straw hat he wears; by the way some of the kids from school turn their noses up at the nuts. Don’t you have any cashews? Peanuts?

As an adult, I learn that, years before the blight took strong root, Appalachian kids would buy school shoes with their chestnuts. Their parents would use the nuts to pay off property taxes. Thousands of nuts from a single county were shipped to New York and Philadelphia and the nuts sold in grocery stores. Appalachia, famous for more than poverty.

I never understood the point. Later that night, I sit on the couch and scratch and scratch until the skin under my nails is sore, just to eat one lousy nut. They’re sweet, but don’t seem worth the effort. In his recliner, my grandfather lounges and peels the bitter brown skin off in two finger scratches. He piles nuts on his end table. He offers me a handful after I’ve labored for a half an hour over my one nut.


Nut collecting stops once my grandparents’ cancers begin to eat at them like a blight. As my grandparents slowly die, the tree seems to thrive. The burrs keep opening and dropping. The nuts remain on the ground, to rot beneath the coming snow.


I haven’t been back in years. When I do return, I refuse to drive by my grandparents’ old home, fifteen minutes from my mother’s. I’m afraid to find the tree a grey ghost. I read about scientists finding ways to grow blight resistant trees and watch a YouTube video with a scientist hiking through Appalachian hills. He finds an old tree spitting nuts from its husks before it dies. Sometimes I buy Chinese chestnuts at my local Co-Op. They’re close to the ones I remember, but not as sweet. The skin under my nails gets red from peeling them, but they taste so good, like I’m swallowing a grief Appalachians don’t know to name.

About the writer:
Brigitte McCray’s fiction, essays, and poems have appeared in PopMatters, Mystery Magazine, LampLight Magazine, Syntax & Salt, where her story “All the Ugly Things” earned an editor’s choice award. Brigitte has also been published Devilfish Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Mythic Delirium, and elsewhere. Brigitte has been nominated for a Best of the Net award and twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University and a PhD in English with a minor in women’s and gender studies from Louisiana State University. She is also a 2014 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop for Fantastic Fiction.

Image: The Dead Chestnut by Ross Eugene Braught (1898-1985). Oil on canvas. 54 x 60 1/8 inches. 1927. Public domain [?].

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