I grew up in the Appalachians of Western Pennsylvania, enfolded in these ancient, forested mountains. It’s a place of constant drenching rain and mystic fogs. Oaks and maples, emerald in the summer, blaze out come October frosts, before waning to spindly bare branches beneath the snow. The roads through my mountains turn and swerve every which way. Our friends from Texas hated them, missing the gridlines of their home. Their mother said Pennsylvania roads must’ve been plotted by “a drunk snake who’d been put on a leash” then led the surveyors around the valleys. But I love these roads, where I learned to drive, drifting lazily through their bends, stomping the gas to climb steep cliffs before then careening into watery ravines.
These mountains and their hidden valleys hold an odd conglomeration of peace and fear for the people living there. I grew up amidst whispers of haunted spaces. A childhood friend had seen a spectral man, surly and unwelcoming, in one of the many places she’d lived. The associate pastor at the nearby parish told of house blessings, how he’d find ouija games hidden under attic floorboards and tarot cards on a shelf in a closet. (Local superstition dictated that you couldn’t get rid of them, so people would find them ominously sequestered in odd places all throughout their homes.) I remember, once, our neighbor lady H, a woman in her 70s, told me about the carnival right before her senior prom. Despite her Catholic upbringing— she said she’d known better— she visited the fortune teller. That woman in scarves had described the gown H would wear, the car she’d drive, the fellow who’d ask her . . . and how, the night of the prom, she’d die. My neighbor’s eyes gleamed as she described it to me, how her father had sold the car, burned her gown, and kept her home from prom that year. “Never go to fortune-tellers!” she warned me, bony finger wagging.
And at the Flood Memorial, things are said to move in the night. I think the spirits grow restless, bitter in their 777 unmarked graves at Grandview Cemetery, overlooking the valley floodplain.
Meanwhile, I was homeschooled, raised in a traditionalist family full of the lore of demons and damnation. Sheltered from horror movies and barred from the Goosebumps section at the library, I had no real fears as a child. So I created them for myself: I wouldn’t put my foot over the side of my queen-sized bed, for I’d convinced myself Satan lay in wait underneath it, hoping to grab my unwitting limbs and yank me down to his wretched inferno. My younger brother envisioned something similar. He refused to sleep on the bottom level of his red bunk bed, believing that this lower bunk was an elevator down to hell.
In those days, we spent most of our time exploring the endless woods near our friends’ house out in the country. Their home was a place of sanctuary, where I could escape the control seeping through my house, trading my family’s unspoken rage for forests, the silence of trees. We would meet for homeschool activities, prayers and talks from local priests, Saints’ Day celebrations. They moved into that house, burrowed between strip mines, when I was perhaps ten. The coal companies couldn’t use the land surrounding my friends’ home (being too close to residential areas); but neither would the companies sell the land, for fear more residences would further impinge upon their mining exploits. So the forests became their stalemate, which farmers rented to raise crops or pasture their cattle.
My friends’ family had permission to wander these fields and woods at will, and wander we did. We camped under those trees, sang Irish folk songs during the tractor-pulled hay wagon rides around the fields, hiked at midnight through the farmers’ corn and washed our hair in the sulfur-orange creek. But even here in my sanctuary, ghosts drifted close by. My friend’s house was new, built recently and hastily sold by a carpenter whose wife had left him. Perhaps the ghouls from the original foundation had scared her off. Were they bitter about the burning of their home?
I never learned the full story behind its incineration, but we did hear whispers from the neighbors, warning that the old foundation was haunted. I overheard murmured tales of the disembodied hand, which the elder girls (who were not prone to melodrama) had seen in the upstairs bathroom; I still feel apprehensive in there after all these years, watching the two mirrors for anything uncanny. The basement door used to open and shut itself, with no explanation and no sound.
They had the house blessed a few times by a priest friend of ours, and the occurrences stopped for a few years, until their mother kept finding drenched towels on the bathroom floors every morning. Her children remain adamant that they’d been asleep all night each time a towel was found. I think they all eventually chalked that one up to an unspoken suspicion regarding the youngest’s sleep-walking proclivities.
I remember one night, when I was perhaps sixteen, I was sleeping over. I lay nestled beside their youngest daughter in her oversized bed, drifting off, when their eldest son –one of my closest friends– returned home. I’m not sure what roused us, but I recall standing huddled in their upstairs hallway, watching the panic slowly relax from his strong face as he told us about his drive home. He’d been driving the back roads, past the one farm, you know, the one with the horses, the one that’s dilapidated and overgrown with crab grass? Suddenly he’d been overcome by the presentiment that a demon was sitting in the passenger seat beside him, inside his tiny olive drab truck. I still remember the look on his face, this muscular young man I’d known since birth, whom I’d never known to be afraid of anything. He said he’d been paralyzed by the fear that drifted through him, cold and seeping. Finally, he’d glanced forward toward the small crucifix glued to his dash, and prayed (was it the Lord’s Prayer, or the Hail Mary? Perhaps the Prayer to St. Michael. I can’t remember anymore). And he felt the presence leave. He relaxed, as he narrated his experience to us, but it simply transferred his fear to us all.
I’m not sure I slept that night.
I returned to those roads recently, drifting amongst the realms of my childhood with my college roommate. Around us, trees loomed like the trapped nymphs of myth. As I drove by that farm, the same one my friend had described, I was chilled by the memory of his story. My roommate didn’t seem to notice when my breath caught as I glimpsed the crumbling barn. Was it nostalgia? Or does the presence lurk there, sinister still? I made the Sign of the Cross, and we passed the farm with the horses, the one overgrown with crabgrass.
Marie Kopp remains a Catholic (she thinks…probably), an unmotivated student, aspiring academic, and inept writer. She has a deep love for Platypuses (those majestically nonsensical creatures), is sometimes called Eloise, and usually introduces herself as The Evil Baroness of the State of Denial (because to be a baroness one must be evil, and because Calvin and Hobbes). She has a deep platonic love for the nuances of booze, and can’t wait for the Ohio weather to realize autumn really is preferable to summer (so get your shit together and cool off, dammit). She unreliably blogs at lukewarmstilllong.blogspot.com. Read more of Marie’s work for Sick Pilgrim at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sickpilgrim/2017/10/4753/#8iSCyH5KkTW4Bl0g.99
“Approaching Mystery” is a regular feature on Sick Pilgrim curated by Joanna Penn Cooper in which we post vignettes that dwell on the mystery of the everyday, that hang in an unresolved (and unresolvable) space of wonder and unknowability.
Read more of “Approaching Mystery” at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sickpilgrim/2017/07/approaching-mystery-timekeeping/#25ffBLsikCcEjKBZ.99
Learn to write flash fiction that approaches mystery–and submit the results to the editors here for our Thursday feature–by enrolling in Joanna’s online writing workshop.