Ghost Story from West Virginia

MY NIGHT AT JOHN NORTH HOUSE

Aha! So that’s the house I heard rumors about. Surely my family can’t believe it’s haunted?

After parking on a steep rise above the town center I stared at the rambling brick mansion with Georgian windows and a balcony that overlooked the front porch where pumpkins were lined up like sentries that day. When I peered through a window I saw a huge fireplace and an oak table formally laid out with candlesticks. It was easy to imagine the gracious lives of its nineteenth century owners.

But the house is a brooding presence over a narrow street and harbors unhappy memories. Someone looking out of the window during the Civil War could have witnessed skirmishes and heard cannonballs whizzing overhead. They might even have seen Col. George Crook leading a cavalry charge through the town, and bodies lying in the street.

Lewisburg ghost story
John North House, Lewisburg, WV

Those thoughts quickly faded when Aimee and Paul swung the door to welcome me inside with open arms and to savory aromas from their kitchen. But after a hearty meal and chatting about old Lewisburg they gave me a book, saying, “Don’t let spooky stories keep you awake tonight!” I grinned like most scientists would. I was sure they were only tales and there was always an absence of evidence, although that does not necessarily mean evidence of absence.

Afterwards I climbed a steep staircase to my bedroom on the second floor. Apparently, it had not changed much over the years apart from a few modern paintings: a four-poster bed dominated the room with a night stand separating it from a large closet. I padded across the plank floor to pull aside a sheer curtain for cracking open the window. Looking through the darkness towards the sleeping town I remembered our earlier walk through the graveyard and the tourists standing in the unlit street below.

My family was settling down for the night, but I did not feel sleepy yet. After getting ready for bed I dove under the comforter and, pushing the book aside, turned over on my back to fix my eyes on the high ceiling and recall the evening.

Following dinner, Paul had invited me for a stroll around town with his nine-year-old son while the two younger boys were packed off to bed by Aimee. I took Alex by the hand while he carried his Magic Quest wand in the other. At our street corner we noticed a group of people huddled in the gathering dusk. One of the men who was pointing at the house and speaking stopped when they turned to stare at us.

“Who are they?” I asked.

“We are on the town ghost tour,” Paul said. “It’s popular at this time.”

“They looked at us like we are celebrities. I guess they are curious about who lives here.” I was tempted to ask them if they really believed in ghosts, but not wanting to spoil the entertainment for visitors I only waved. It was just a bit of fun, wasn’t it?

We strolled down the hill to the main street a couple of blocks away. It had shut down for the night. Stools were up-ended on tables in the coffee shop and someone was locking a restaurant door. The only signs of life were customers in an Irish pub where a trombone was being played loudly.

Lewisburg, WV
Old Stone Presbyterian Church

We turned down a side street past the glow of floodlights around the Carnegie Hall to reach the gloomier end of Church Street. Paul urged us to take a short cut past Old Stone Presbyterian Church, which is said to be the oldest west of the Alleghenies, and where the Confederate dead were laid out. Alex was reluctant to cross the graveyard at that hour, but he used his wand to zap things I never dreamt of.  As we wandered among the gravestones I told him that when I was a cub scout our parents let us walk home alone and we dared each other to cross the town cemetery. We didn’t want to be called “sissy.” No one ever saw anything eerie, of course, although when I grew up I wondered if I was insensible to the occult.

Now, after propping myself up in bed with a pillow, I opened the book to the story about the John North House where I was staying.  It told of a young woman who fell in love with a Union soldier garrisoned in her home town in South Carolina during the Civil War. After she tried to run off with him, her mother sent her to stay with relatives at this house until his regiment moved away. She hoped her daughter would forget him, but the lass was broken-hearted, shut herself away at the top of the house and  refused to join the family or attend church. On a visit back home for Christmas her parents were so alarmed to see how thin and depressed she had become that they invited the soldier to see her under strict supervision. But when they were distracted for a moment he whispered a plan to elope after she returned to Lewisburg.

When he was free to follow her, the relatives turned him away. He stood at the street corner every day hoping to see her at the window of the bedroom where I was now curled up inside. They never met again before he rejoined his regiment, though he asked local children to deliver fresh flowers to the house every day.

ghost story
The bedroom closet

As months passed without news she wondered if he had been killed in battle and sank back into despair. One day when she failed to reply to her uncle’s calling and could not possibly have left the house unnoticed, he came upstairs for her. He found her in the closet hanging by the cord of her robe. The story didn’t quite end there because a Union soldier (some say it was her lover) was shot afterwards in the street below. Passersby then began reporting the sight of a strange young woman on the second story of the house and a man’s apparition in the street, though never on the same day. The gossip continued into modern times.

Unhappy souls unable to rest during heart-rending times are usually the core of ghost stories and prone to exaggeration and invention, so it was time to put this one to rest. Closing the book, I drifted off but never sleep soundly in a strange bed and Paul’s stories kept breaking into my consciousness. Perhaps they disturbed me more because I know him well enough not to dismiss his talk lightly. The nightlight was still burning when I woke up with his stories on my mind….

He had told me that before marrying Aimee she was living in the house on her own. She sometimes heard banging at night as if doors were suddenly flying open for no reason, and a mysterious clip, clip, clip on the stairs sounded like the hard indoor soles women wore in the past. Other family members reported the same things, and a robust young man who helped them move furniture refused to enter the house because of its reputation. On one occasion she thought she heard a relative arriving late and was surprised he was gone by the morning. When she called him he denied ever being there…

As I continued to drift in and out of sleep other stories kept popping into my mind. After Aimee and Paul married, the house was flooded one day with water that seemed to come from nowhere, and a loud bang that sent their dog into a fit of barking was never explained.  On another occasion when an old transom broke in the porch where he was working and an upstairs window shattered soon afterwards he thought a boy was throwing rocks at the house, but the street was empty. Paul then decided to visit the previous owner, hoping he could throw light on these strange events.

“Neighbors sometimes saw an unfamiliar woman at the window or balcony,” the man said.  “And the young couple living in the house before you smelled fresh flowers when none had been brought in…”

I dozed off again, convinced there are always natural explanations if one only looks hard enough. Scientists are dismissive of the paranormal, just as I had been as a cub scout. But the next time I woke it was with a start, perhaps because the room was cold from a breeze billowing out the curtains. In the comfort of the bed I knew it was nothing, but perhaps one story that stuck in my mind had startled me in a dream.

Paul told me he had actually seen her one day while passing an open door. She was standing where I had sat in front of the fireplace. Barely five feet tall, the woman wore a full skirt of dark cotton gathered tightly around her waist and a light-colored blouse, her hair lifted up in an old-fashioned way. It all happened in the twinkling of an eye, but the shock sent him back to the previous owner.

“I’m not surprised,” he was told. “By the way, was she standing next to the mantel?”

I lay back in bed imagining the star-crossed lovers from long ago and wondered about it all.  When Paul described the encounter with the woman’s ghost his expression had seemed to appeal to me: please don’t think I’m flaky! I didn’t know what to think.

But then the nightlight suddenly went out on its own, making my heart race. Was it on a light timer? Now I began to feel spooked.WV South

My original story is published in WV South for Halloween

 

 

Star-struck

Few people are star-struck these days—unless you mean a movie- or rock-star. How could they be when the nightly spectacle is veiled by light pollution?

That expression might strike you as perverse, even as a non sequitur, for isn’t “light” good and “pollution” bad?  In the Bible, people who walked in darkness were the bad guys (them), while the good were in the light (us). In the Land of Mordor, the Dark Lord sat “where the Shadows lie”, far from Bilbo sunning himself at Bag End. Sadly, real human misery is still caused by labeling people as either dark or light.

Since incandescent bulbs were first turned on well over a century ago, darkness is being progressively banished around the world. Hardly anyone wants to go back to when lives were dictated by the dark hours, and our ancestors had to pore over a candle to read, sometimes burning the house down! But lighting is not quite the black and white matter it seems, although it is an uphill struggle to explain.

Something precious that fed the human spirit for eons has been extinguished by universal lighting—a pristine night sky. Few people mourn the loss. Gazing from your window, yard, or a local park in urban North America, Europe, and Japan, you can only see a tiny fraction of the stars and planets that were visible to naked eyes in the past. Two-thirds of Americans now live in places where our own galaxy, the Milky Way, cannot be seen because of sky-glow and air pollution, and the fraction grows as more and more lights go on around the globe. Does it really matter?

Isn’t it another dimension in which we are becoming spiritually disconnected from nature? Richard Louv was thinking of life on our planet when he coined the expression, “nature deficit disorder”, in Last Child in the Woods, and I wonder if we are also impoverished by missing the experience of seeing the wild sky except through the lens of electronic media and science. The philosopher, Immanuel Kant, said, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe … the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Stars were heavily used as metaphors by writers of the Bible and Quran, but are more familiar today as expressions in conversation and literature than as heavenly bodies in plain sight: how often do you hear star-turn, starlit, star-dust, stardom, star-crossed, Star-Trek, Star-Spangled Banner, etc? Until recently, voyagers used celestial navigation to reach their destination, but a star (read supernova/ comet/ conjunction of planets) can no longer lead the Magi to the manger if it was, say, in Brooklyn.

Detail of Nativity Window. Trinity Church, Boston. Edward Byrne-Jones
Detail of Nativity Window. Trinity Church, Boston. Edward Byrne-Jones

In the past, a night sky studded with stars and planets was familiar to everyone, and those who could interpret mystical meaning in the constellations were hoisted up to become sages. Ever since the Babylonians, people have consulted astrological charts to predict their fate, and farmers and gardeners used the lunar calendar. I read that I should plant onions under a waxing moon and they, like me, are under the sign of Libra.

The brightness of the night sky is reckoned by astronomers on the Bortle scale up to a maximum of 9. Metropolitan corridors, like Washington DC to New York, register 8 to 9, and small developed countries, including England and the Netherlands, are high on the scale even in rural areas. Our small town of Williamsburg in Virginia is 4-5, and most of our National Parks have significant light pollution from the glow of distant cities. National observatories were created in the early Twentieth Century for optical astronomy in dark regions of California, but have had to be moved to mountaintops in Hawaii and Chile.

A perfectly dark sky is hard to find anywhere in eastern North America now, but there is a dark spot rated 1 or 2 on the scale in West Virginia where we have a home in the Monongahela National Forest. The night sky there owes its continuing virginity to a low population density and the fact that most homes and highways are not ablaze with lights. The only places I remember with more dazzling starlight were in New Guinea and Africa, which is still a dark continent and something to celebrate.

If you sat on our deck in West Virginia for half-an-hour after night settles in the forest your eyes would be fully dark-adapted and able to see the faintest celestial glimmers. I recommend sitting inclined on a bank to avoid getting a stiff neck for viewing the azimuth. I’m told that at least 15,000 stars are visible in the Milky Way, plus planets, and other stars and galaxies at distances that defy comprehension. You don’t have to pay or be an astronomer to enjoy this show, although binoculars or, better still, a telescope enrich the spectacle.

Even on moonless nights, there is enough starlight to pick your way along a forest trail or across a meadow, but when clouds are too dense to be pierced by stars or a ghostly moon, it is so dark that you cannot even see your hands or feet. That is Pitch-dark.

The blackouts in European cities during bombing campaigns in World War II and the widespread power outages in north-eastern USA and Canada in 1965 and 2003 were urban lessons in what darkness means. When I lived in a West Yorkshire village the residents refused to allow the council to install street lighting. The main street was pretty dark, but still about 4 on the scale. It is likely, if somewhat exaggerated, that outside lighting helps to deter crime, but the villagers were adamant even during the years when the Yorkshire Ripper prowled the district.

Most people probably won’t object to a darker sky, and some might welcome it. Since thirty percent of outdoor lights point upwards, more directed lighting would reduce sky-glow, save money, and have other benefits. Migrating wildlife is disoriented by nightlights, and perhaps plant growth and even human health are affected. There is increasing evidence that our sleep rhythms are affected by excessive light, although most of it is admittedly from indoor lamps and glaring TV screens and computer monitors, which I am using as I write.

Not many people talk about light pollution though I am not alone because an International Dark-Sky Association exists with chapters in sixteen countries. Perhaps more widespread use of directed lighting will help to reverse sky-glow in future, and janitors will turn off lights in skyscrapers after work. But I doubt that we will ever again hear someone banging on our door like the A.R.P. wardens during the Blitz in London, “Put that light out!”

Next Post: Nose to Proboscis

Bertie’s Latest Poem

The first time we met Bertie she was sitting behind bottles of apple butter and pickled vegetables laid out on a wooden table in the green outside Sharp’s Store in West Virginia. The bottles were lined up in serried ranks, just as I imagine soldiers in gray uniforms had probably stood there when Robert E. Lee was served tea by the Sharp family.

Sharp's Store, Rte 219, Slaty Fork WV
Sharp’s Store, Rte 219, Slaty Fork WV

“I’ll have one of those,” I said, pointing at a bottle reflecting the golden afternoon of early fall.”

“Y’all from otha parts?”

“Not at all.” I said, before realizing my reply must’ve sounded really stupid with a BBC accent. “We have a place down Dry Branch where we love spending time.”

She noticed Lucinda was flicking through pages of a little book from a pile carefully laid beside the bottles. It was titled, Poems by Bertie Jane Cutlip, on the lemon yellow cover.

“They’s ma poems.”

When Lucinda paused at a page, I craned to read over her shoulder.

“I’d like to buy one of your booklets too,” I said. While opening my wallet she inscribed the title page: Thanks, your friend Bertie Jane.

After I read the poems at home I squeezed the thin booklet on a shelf where it was lost from sight between tomes of my favorite poets – Tennyson, Eliot, Frost, among others. I had almost forgotten our casual encounter with the country poet on the Seneca Trail until last week when I returned to the store.

A gray-bearded man in leathers whose Harley was parked outside was checking something in a display on the counter. After he had finished I drifted over to see what had caught his attention. It was a collection of Bertie’s work. There was the original volume in the same yellow cover, and beside it were four more volumes containing over seventy new poems in all. I opened the original book first, remembering how it had triggered the memory of a book I had once made for a school project, stapled inside a paper cover and complete with typing errors. There was an imprint on the title page of her book, © Bertie Jane Cutlip, which she was probably advised to add as the minimum flag to protect her rights.

Five poetry booksThe covers of her new books were in different colors and inside there was some artwork and grainy photographs. They were more polished productions than the first volume, although still looked home-made. I opened a random page from Book 4 to read a poem called, Sago Mines. The sixth verse goes:

There has been an explosion

At this mine as the miners were going in

Some of them got back out

But some were trapped within.

One of Bertie’s sons was working in the mine that day, but not on that fateful shift. Something about her art tugged at me, so I took copies of all four new volumes to the counter where Tom the store owner, a friend of ours, was waiting.

“Last time I heard Bertie reciting her poems a big, grizzly-looking mountain man was reduced to tears,” Tom informed me as we closed the sale. It didn’t sound from the description that he was an aficionado, but the image of the man was more touching than amusing.  After hearing that her poems can move mountains I asked Tom how Bertie was doing, but he hadn’t seen her since she had been in the hospital in Charleston. He hoped for the best as she was a sweet lady whom he said should be nominated as poet laureate for the state.

After that endorsement of her poems, or perhaps it was after reading the new ones, I felt a strange impulse to call Bertie. I didn’t have to wait long for a reply. Yes, she was feeling better, thank you, and recovering slowly after surgery. No, she wouldn’t mind signing the other books if I visited her the next day.

Bertie lives along a quiet country road which is barely wide enough for vehicles to pass (nearly all trucks). It had recently received its first coating of asphalt over the gravel, which I heard was intended to make it safer but had in fact raised the average speed by 30 mph! The road wound round the low mountains following a bubbling creek lined by low trees and long grass where the sunlight broke through the canopy. Anyone who knows Appalachia can imagine it.

Bertie homeAs I pulled up on the grass verge beside her mailbox I saw an arm waving in a window, and returned the greeting. I admit I was surprised to find her living in a mobile home, but it was a foolish thought because so many folk in those parts do and many are comfortable. Yet I felt sad that in old age, and now infirm, she was confined in that remote spot, and often cut off by heavy snowfalls in winter. But on that warm summer day it was a pleasant, even inspiring, arrival, with a nicely clipped lawn and orchard trees fringing the creek – perhaps the very ones that yielded fruit for the apple butter.

Bertie didn’t recognize me as she swung open the screen door, nor should she after a brief Bertie closeupencounter long ago. She nevertheless beckoned me inside without hesitation like a friendly neighbor, leading me past bottles of fruit and beans readied for sale to the sofa beside a window.

When she disappeared for a minute, I had an opportunity to look round at the framed pictures hanging on her walls, wondering how many of the subjects had figured in her poems. Was that her mother who now rests in the family cemetery at Silver Creek? Were those her children, two who had already passed away, and Chad the foster boy who was killed in a road accident? Surely there was the son who worked in the mine? And perhaps that was her Sunday school, and over there the old abandoned home where she grew up?  If tragedy and loss lubricate a poet’s pen, she had plenty of ink. And the heartbreaking history of Appalachia at large provides so much more to write about – from early entanglements with Indians to the Civil War which split West Virginia to the carpet-baggers arriving afterwards to mining and logging disasters, and now the despoliation of beautiful landscapes by blowing up mountaintops for coal.

Bertie had been in her tiny kitchen and when she reappeared she offered to prepare something for me to eat. I begged her not to go to any trouble because I had only come for her signature and to check how she was doing. It is so much more rare and precious nowadays for strangers to be received with such natural hospitality, and without any trace of suspicion.

I began to feel guilty because she was still recuperating, but she put me at ease by saying that I had come on an important day. It was the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of West Virginia, her beloved state.

“Did you read ma Ode to West Virginia?” she asked.

I knew it was one of the poems in the yellow book, composed in the 1970s, so I nodded. Without more ado she took a deep breath, lifted her head, and began to recite the poem, giving her whole heart to it, like the hermit thrush that sings outside our home. Afterwards she told me she knew all her poems by heart, nearly a hundred of them, and had recited most of them to other patients in Charleston. On the day she had packed her bag to leave the hospital four doctors lined up in the corridor refusing to let her go until she had recited “just one more.”

I then remembered Tom’s remark about making her a candidate for poet laureate and wondered if she really was qualified.  If creativity and productivity were touchstones, then, yes, she was worthy. And if admirers were needed, then, sure, she already had plenty. But if the laureate must write in a fashionable or erudite style that required a second or even a third reading to “get a poem,” then she would never be given a place on the short list of candidates. Anyway I mused, I am rather glad she probably doesn’t even care to know that she composes her work in heroic couplets of rhymed lines of iambic pentamer, or that she often writes in the common ballad meter. She expresses the pure and unaffected feelings of a country woman for things she cares deeply about – nature, joy, grief – her art tumbling out spontaneously in old-fashioned rhyme. She’d get my vote every time, for she has the poet’s heart.

She casually mentioned that she must go back to the hospital again soon. I tried to make light of it by saying that her doctors needed her as much as she needed them, but perhaps she was hiding a concern because she had lost a lot of weight and her old energy was gone. When I stood up to leave, she held up a hand to stop me while the other reached for a sheet of paper that had been carefully placed in advance close-by.

“I’ve got something for you,” she said, passing it to me. I sensed it was important so I read it aloud to make sure I understood her unfamiliar hand-writing. It was a poem titled, A True Story.

“I like this story about the raccoon very much,” I said, handing it back.

“It’s my last poem”, she said, refusing to take it. “I want you to put in book number six.”

“Not your last – you mean you’re latest poem? I can’t possibly take something so precious.” But she was quite insistent. I don’t know why someone who is almost a stranger to her should have been given this commission, but the poem now rests in a more honored place than the original book on my poetry shelf.

[Bertie approved this post. The following is my favorite poem]