Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Ghosts of the Living

The Indians called this place "Shaconage". The land of blue smoke. It fairly seems to cry out for misty figures who fade in the fog and leave no footsteps in the wet springs where they tread.

But the reality and history here is so much more fascinating. I have yet to hear one ghost tale related to me by someone who actually grew up here.

Once, I brought a couple of filmmaker friends from Asheville to visit Betty-Jo. They had come to visit me for the day and wanted to make a film based on Appalachian ghost stories. I really didn't have any ideas for them, but was able to get Betty-Jo to retell my favorite eerie, but true story.

There is a sheer rock face across from my house. It rises three hundred feet in the air from Betty-Jo's north pasture. The top was once cleared and a small homestead used to sit on the edge of cliff. A young woman with two children lived up there with her old father. They farmed the steep slopes on the other side with steers.

They used to plant corn in places no one could plant today. You can still see the little terraces on the sides of the mountains where the steers pulled the plows.

She was married once. But the man took off to live with another woman down in the holler, leaving her with the two babies, a toddler and an infant.

I'm not sure exactly what the grim tale was about the relationship between the girl and her father. Maybe he was just mean as a snake. Maybe he drank. I'm just not sure, but for whatever reason, the two did not get along. She was dutiful, though, and was taking care of him in his later years.

It happened on one of those cold, cold nights we have here in the mountains. The sleet and snow was hitting the tin roof of the cabin, being driven by 40 mile per hour gusts. The wind sounded like a panther cry, like a woman screaming. It was on a night like this that the old man decided to die.

As he lay dying by inches and on his last night on earth, he cursed his girl.

"Mark my words, girl," he told her, "for as sure as I'll die on this night, I'll come back and haunt you. I'll drive you mad for sure. You see if I don't!"

As the warmth seeped out of his now dead body in the middle of a cold winter night, the daughter made up her mind. She bundled up her two young ones and scaled down the cliff with them in the dark, in the snow and driving ice and wind. She arrived at Betty Jo's house seeking shelter late that wintery night.

Her hands were cut and torn from her climb down the sheer rock face. She had bruises over most of her body and was shuddering with cold. It was a miracle that she didn't plummet to her death. It was a greater miracle that neither of the babies had a scratch on them.

The next morning she left the two babies with their father and went to Knoxville. She checked herself into what was then known as the "Sanatorium" but is now the State Mental Institution. I suppose she expected her dead father to make good on his promise to drive her insane, and thought it best to be in an appropriate place when it happened.

Many years later, Betty tried to go get her and bring her home, thinking the fear might have gone out of her.

The woman looked at Betty over the steaming vats of laundry with haunted eyes.

"This would be my home now." she told her.

She lived out the remainder of her days at the Sanatorium, patiently waiting to go insane.

There are no ghosts here. The dead still live with the living.

Written by Rosie at http://smokeymountainbreakdown.blogspot.com

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