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Friday, April 07, 2006

Mountain Ghost Stories

I was not raised by a superstitious set of people. The Shelor clan is by and large a pretty level-headed, pragmatic bunch, and my mother's mother was a woman with a great deal of common sense. Most of my neighbors felt the same way and we didn't hear anything about ghosts, haints or witches, except as fairy tales in books. An adult might tell a scary story by the fire at night, but as children we understood the difference between fact and fiction, and if a story caused bad dreams, it wasn't because we thought ghosts were real.

We loved to go just down the dirt road to the next farm and visit the Burnettes. They were an older couple, with children long grown. My brother and I were probably a nuisance at times but they never let us know it. Mr. Burnette made delightful toys: a dancing sam, as he called it, called elsewhere a "limberjack", gee-haw whimmy diddles; and other whittled items. He made apple cider in the fall and they probably made apple butter. They had a garden and kept a few cattle. I remember one beautiful gray calf that was a bit of a pet because it had a heart murmur.
Mr. Burnette had a story for every occasion, and he told us so many. I was too young and foolish to remember many of them, but the story of "The Haunted House" stuck in my mind. Told in the beautifully musical voice of a man gifted with the art of storytelling, it sent chills up our backs and made us run straight home afterward, even though it was broad daylight and we knew better than to believe.

The house was located just across the Blue Ridge Parkway from my present home, on a prosperous farm. As with many families, Ann and Pete (names changed to protect the innocent) were a hardworking couple, with no time for foolishness such as ghosts or haints. But odd things had happened on the farm. One night members of the family saw a woman and girl walking across the fields, dressed in early 19th century clothes, where no woman or girl was expected to be. When the men went down to offer help, there was no sign of anyone; the women had vanished without a trace. Strange noises were a commonplace around the house, but Ann and Pete just went on about their business. If the noises didn't bother them, they wouldn't bother the noises.

Hay time came around, and Pete hired a couple of hands to help him get the hay cut and stacked. Ann's duty was to prepare a big mid-day meal for the helpers. She probably got up early; everything was made "from scratch" and it took time and talent to put a meal together with a wood stove on a hot summer day. She had gathered vegetables from the garden the day before, putting them in the cool cellar to hold until she was ready to cook. Imagine her annoyance when she discovered that the nice potatoes she had dug the day before had been replaced by stones. She took the pan outside and tossed the stones over the fence, then headed for the garden, put out by the occurence but there was no time to investigate. She hastily dug up more potatoes, put them in her pan, and hurried back to the kitchen. She turned away to get her knife and when she turned back the pan was full of stones again. Pan and all went over the fence, and there were no potatoes for dinner that day.

The men came in from the fields at noon, and headed for the porch to get washed up for the meal. A wash bowl and basin stood ready, with a rough towel for drying. As one of the men bent over the bowl, a knife whistled by his head with such force that the point buried deep into the wood of the wall before him. He turned, startled, to see nothing but his two innocent friends, gazing at him in the astonishment he felt. Washing up was hasty and with little comment, and they headed into the kitchen for the meal.

I think there were other occurences during that tense dinner, but I can't remember the details. I can imagine the jumpy housewife, watching warily to see that she served vegetables rather than stones, and the sheepish watchfulness of the men as the skin prickled on their backs while they thought of flying knives. As they headed out onto the porch after the meal, Pete invited the men to sit on the bench against the wall and, "rest a spell." The two fellows politely refused, preferring the safety and work of the hayfields to the dubious shelter of the porch.

Mr. Burnette swore solumnly that the story was true, but there was always a twinkle in his eye when he told it. But then, there was always a twinkle in those bright eyes, so full of life and mischief. He is long gone, but he will always be remembered for his kindness to two grubby-kneed children. And for his stories.

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