Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ghost Stories

I took my two-year-old daughter trick or treating for the first time tonight. Ally wore a black cat costume complete with a grinning Cheshire Cat face on the front of the black plush front, a long stuffed cat tail in the back, and a hood with cat ears on top.


Initially she was more excited about being outside in the dark than visiting houses in the neighborhood, but it didn't take Ally long to get the hang of begging for free candy. Seriously, the secret to getting a good haul of Halloween candy is to take an adorably cute little girl in a great costume, especially if saying "Trick or treat!" is something of a tongue twister for her. I had to carry Ally's treat bag home for her as it was too heavy for her, but she was very reluctant to entrust me with it. Wise girl, as there will be significantly less chocolate in the bag when dawn arrives.

And now, a ghost story for your Halloween entertainment.

Once upon a time I was a graduate student in the Department of Entomology at the University of Tennessee. One of the retired professors owned a piece of property adjacent to the Cherokee National Forest, almost on the Tennessee-North Carolina state lines, and there was a tradition in the department to spend the occasional weekend at the cabin there. The oldest part of the building was a one room log cabin predating the Civil War. There were narrow slits in the log walls beside the chimney where guns could be fired to ward off marauding Indians or unwanted visitors. Over the years additions had been tacked on the original building, including a bathroom, a kitchen, and another sleeping room. Overall the cabin was in a general state of disrepair, with slanted floors and outside walls that did little to keep out the cold. Not that we minded. It was a great place to visit for the weekend and collect specimens for our insect collections. The owner was too elderly to come out with us, but we'd stop by his house for a short chat and pick up the key to the gate from him on our way to the property. I recall that we usually went in the spring as there were more insects to collect at that time of the year. The property had creeks and seeping springs to explore, open meadows and forest to walk through. It was perfect for a bunch of biology geeks like ourselves. At night you could see the stars clearly with no light pollution. I'd hate to guess how far away the nearest neighbor might have been.

You'd drive forever to get to the cabin, graduating from a main road to a black top road to a gravel road to a dirt road and eventually there would be 50-100 feet of a shallow creek bed before you pulled up at the place in the middle of nowhere. We'd get out, dump our sleeping bags and duffle bags on whatever patch of floor we'd claim for the weekend, then spill out of the cabin into the woods to commune with nature while our advisor and another professor or two would keep company on the front porch. It didn't take long for a substantial pile of green Rolling Rock beer bottles to accumulate on the porch, and after awhile we graduate students would join the professors in the drinking and shooting the breeze. We'd talk about biology and science, office gossip and whoever didn't come on the trip, and of course the upcoming football season. There would burgers and hotdogs on the grill with chips and more beer and more animated conversation. Near midnight there might be a horribly off-key sing along, or the conversation might have turned to how the cabin was supposedly haunted.

Several years before I joined the department there was a female graduate student who said she had seen the ghost of a woman inside the cabin one weekend. The graduate student wrote a description of her experience and left it at the cabin for anyone else to read. The student had been sleeping in one of the rooms when she woke up and saw a woman dressed in white sitting in the rocking chair in the corner. The student said the woman was wearing a long, old-fashioned gown and simply rocked back and forth. I don't remember if the student said the ghost eventually faded away or even if the student fled the room. The student had graduated before I joined the department, but she had the reputation of being a good student with a sensible head on her shoulders, not the type of person you would dismiss as being flakey or ditsy.

One spring weekend I wound up sleeping on the floor of the room where the ghost had been reported. There were at least two other people sleeping on the floor in the same room. Although there were two single beds in the room, we preferred to spread our sleeping bags on the floor instead of disturbing decades of dust and mice poop on those mattresses. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, probably because of someone snoring, but it may have been the creaking floor boards made by someone going outside to pee. While I had admittedly drunk a few beers that evening I was most definitely not drunk or merely dreaming that I was awake. I could hear mice rustling around in the room and the light thump-thump-thump they made jumping across the floor. Slowly I became aware of a soft, white glow several feet to the left of my head, where the rocking chair was located in the room. I'm horribly near sighted and do not wear my contact lenses to bed, but as soon as I realized that there was something white-colored to the side of me just out of my range of vision, nothing could induce me to put on my glasses and turn to see what it was.

I know I was awake because I heard someone knock a beer bottle over on the porch when he went outside to pee. I know there was no full moon that night and the windows were not positioned to let moonlight into that corner of the room even if there had been one. I know the light wasn't from a flashlight someone was using outside the cabin. I know I felt silly and even laughed at myself, but I still could not make myself turn my head to see what was producing that soft, white glow. I know I did not feel threatened or endangered by whatever it was over in the corner. I wasn't afraid of it so much as I just didn't want to face something that I might not be prepared to acknowledge. I finally drifted back to sleep after a good hour or so of lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling of the room and trying to rationalize the experience.

To this day I still do not know what that was in the corner with the rocking chair, or if I would turn my head to look at it if I ever encountered it again.

Happy Halloween, y'all!

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