Ghost story

Published 8:01 am Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Years ago, there was a lot of back-porch storytelling. Prominent among these were ghost stories and old slavery stories.

My grandmother Mary Louise Boykins-Fulgham (1880-1953) had a few old slavery stories. I remember, with a rueful sadness, a sense of shame, that she would refer to the slave owner (pardon the expression) as “the marsta.” The marsta this … The marsta that. Slavery talk from slavery time.

Stories themselves, and the culture of storytelling, are the stuff of folklore. But, here’s the thing: Does folklore and its warm embrace, its casual irreverence, rise to the occasion? Does history and its notion of “the past” … yet?

It has occurred to me that those old slavery stories were the real ghost stories, while the others were a sort of surreal therapy. The stories were prevalent before electricity and the telephone. Surely, electricity got us out of darkness, and in more ways than one.

The lantern, a relic, a hand-me-down from the discovery of fire, cast a circle of light, perhaps six-feet across.

While the flashlight projected its beam onto the footpath ahead (into the future, so to speak), the lantern, swinging from its grip, in rhythm with each step, shone on the present.

My stretch of road, a two-mile eastward expance from Doles to Diggs Crossroad, was a community in 1950, of 15 colored/Negro homes, six of which couldn’t be seen from the road. It was once rumored about as Freetown.

We got electricity (some got post-war appliances; others maybe indoor plumbing) around 1950 and telephones, a five-home party line in 1957. We received a small telephone book of surrounding communities. Rumors of pensions, Social Security, livable wages, hospitals, old age, gathered momentum, pervading the woods.

Regardless of the political, the poverty, the Jim Crow drama, the future seemed sudden.

But then, Emmit Till! That infamous bit of Americana, an August 1955 crucifixion and cortege — that has risen into a November 2008 resurrection and motorcade. “Hail to the Chief!”

A mulligan, as it were.

Putting together a good joke is a skill, itself. Being able to tell a good joke — the subtleties, the body language, the facial expression, the comic voice, the rhythm, the dramatic pause — is an even greater skill. But the life and times, the art, of the ghost story was another world.

Aunt Mag (Maggie Fulgham-Sprewell, BA. Ed. Class of 1930) had two or three ghost stories. In one story, she was right there.

The events seem to take place somewhere in the early 30s. Aunt Mag was in a car with her brother, Jonah (Larry Fulgham’s father), and they had turned onto the lane of the old Boykins farm. It is a path that exists today, right next to Junie Rick’s house (Barbara McClenny’s brother).

The old house that existed at the end of that path is gone now. Just a couple of chimneys can be seen from what is now called Seacock Chapel Road. For a time, perhaps until 1935, it served as a home for my grandparents and their youngest children. Dana, the fifth child, died there from an old menace: the dreaded “… in childbirth.”

Other families lived there as recent as 1960. Virch and Coreen Harris and their adopted son Junious lived there. That was before the imaginary Junious Carrol became real, became legend. It was also home to Bootsie Harris and family, which included the pretty Alice.

A large, two-story vacancy was probably much sought-after. These old rotting hulks have seen them come and go. Indeed, the old ways and means of farmhouse tenancy could be fatal.

The story had the ring of “…right around midnight …” In midnight you had less of a state of time than a state of mind. The spell would deepen from sundown.

The concepts “sundown” and “nightfall” grew more rational through the dawn of the light switch.

Well, just before the car reached the clearing — an open field about 300 yards from the road — a light of some sort appeared right outside the back window. Uncle Jonah, more fearsome than fearful, had the grim presence of mind to keep on driving. As they entered the clearing, the light left the car and proceeded slowly westward along the edge of the woods.

My aunt was hardly a master storyteller, but by now, I was past seeing the light and fearful of the light seeing me.

Did a faint breeze, a subtle movement, chill the stillness? Was there a quiet rustling of leaves? Did some feral, furtive thing lurk in the shadows?

A hint of decay, a musty-damp, a muffled murmur wafted across the gathering gloom. As a dismal dread rose and fell over the mind, the familiar moorings of time and place withered and fell away.

It hovered. It began to move across the field. In classical midnight genre, a bizarre chilling presence, a ghastly apparition, advanced upon an old graveyard. The dark, ever a body of mystery and intrigue, shivered and shied away.

I found, to my horror, that I, too, had moved from the edge of my seat, to the edge of the graveyard. The need to run ran through my body, but couldn’t rouse my legs . A throaty outcry rushing toward my lips, stammered in disarray.

A voice, a haunting echo, shuddered, yet seemed to say “Go in and wash up. I’m about to put food on the table.”