Saturday, October 30, 2010


[NOTE: This is a sort of Halloween piece I wrote for one of my columns a few years ago. A true story. Possibly too long for a blog…but I decided to run it anyway.]


“Your family is early mountain Irish, correct?” the old man sitting across the small campfire asked politely.

“Yes,” I said. “Every one of my ancestors—both maternal and paternal lines—came to America well before the Revolution. They followed Boone down the Blue Ridge and southward along the Wilderness Road. The old Warrior's Trail pathway of the Shawnee.”

“I thought as much,” my companion replied, before falling momentarily silent. “I’m old Irish, too,” he finally added.

We'd made ourselves comfortable in a sort of rocky hollow located just below the brow of a steep Eastern Kentucky ridge. Not far, actually, from where a number of my great grandfathers now lay in eternal rest. The night was cold and getting colder, thanks to a chill north wind which rattled the last leaves clinging to the hilltop oaks and sent the occasional swirl of orange sparks spinning into the darkness. Stars winked between scudding clouds. A waning Hunter’s Moon cast a pale silvery light throughout the lonely woods.

My host was a retired professor of Appalachian Studies who'd once taught at a small but prestigious university in nearby West Virginia. Several of his books on regional history and folklore graced my shelves. The Professor and I have corresponded for years. When he invited me down for a weekend of hill rambling, I happily complied.

We’d spent the day visiting various sites of interest—everything from the grave of Jenny Wiley to the jumbled, cliff-fringed hollow which several researchers feel is the most likely vicinity of the storied John Swift silver mine. Towards sunset, the Professor turned his battered pickup off the rural byway, jostled a hundred yards down a rutted two-track, then switched off the engine and began digging around in the duffle behind the seat.

“You’d better bring a warm coat,” he said. “I expect it’s going to turn chilly.”

He handed me a rather weighty rucksack and swung a similar bag over his shoulder.

“Supper,” he said when I raised an eyebrow.

Our destination proved to be the cloistered little pocket near the summit of the steep hill—a demanding mile-long pull from where we’d parked the truck. By then it was full dark. No matter. In short order the Professor had a good blaze going. Packs were opened—and soon we were enjoying an excellent meal of burgoo stew, corn bread, thick slices of apple stack cake, and strong coffee.

After eating, we'd entertained one another for two solid hours trading stories—starting with bits of history from the area's  early days. As the night grew darker and colder, our tales followed suite with reports of dastardly murder and incendiary feuds, sagas of battles won and lost, chronicles of star-crossed lovers, legends of lost treasures, and accounts of splendid daring-do. There was no lack of material. Eastern Kentucky is, after all, that fabled “dark and bloody ground.” Our session of yarn spinning eventually led to the Professor’s inquiry regarding my ancestors.

“Well then,” the my old friend said, “seeing as how you’re descended from such a venerable line, I’ll bet you know the word ‘Samhain’?” He, of course, pronounced the word correctly: “sow-in.”

I nodded. “The ancient Celtic term for the end of summer. November first. A feast day and festival name. The start of winter and a new year.”

He chuckled. "Yup. I figured you'd have done your research.” 

“Well,” I said, “you often hear New Age pagans, neo-Druids, and others claim it’s related to some nonexistent Celtic god of the dead—which is pure drivel.”

“True,” agreed the Professor. “Though there was the belief that during this period—the transition between seasons—the barrier between this world and whatever lies beyond weakened.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “I’ve heard those old tales of faerie mounds opening and wailing banshees.”

“And you reject them all?” my host asked.

I considered. “No. I firmly believe in things spiritual.”

“Well then,” the Professor said, “let me tell you a little story…” 

After stirring the fire and tossing the last of our wood atop the renewed blaze, he began.

“Fifty-odd years ago I was sitting on this same ledge, poking at a similar fire. It was a lot colder that night—in fact there was a light drizzle which turned to sleet and even spat a bit of snow. My father had passed away the week before. He’d worked in the coal mines hereabouts until the black dust got his lungs.”

For a moment my learned friend fell silent. Far away, back in the head of the remote hollow, I heard the low hoot of a calling owl. Finally my host cleared his throat and continued. 

“I came up here that night to get away—from the house and room where Dad spent his final hours, from Mom and my sisters who were still awfully broken up, from all the food and flowers everyone brought after the funeral…from everything.”

I nodded but didn’t speak. I’d done pretty much the same thing following my own father’s passing. 

“Sometime late that night,” he went on, “I heard something. Out there—” He nodded at the darkness. “—beyond the firelight.”

After a judicious interval, I asked. “What?” 

“Don’t know,” my companion said. “But something was there. I could hear it moving around, shuffling through the wet leaves. Sometimes I even thought I could almost catch a glimpse of whatever it was.” He shrugged. “Course it could have just been flickering shadows from the fire.” 

“What do you think was there?” I finally asked.

The old teacher stared directly at me across the flames. “I think it was my father,” he said.

“Why?” I asked, almost in a whisper in case the night still held secrets.

“Because in addition to movement in the shadows and the shuffling noises, I clearly heard whatever was out there breathing…and the sounds were identical to those labored breaths my father drew just before he died. Death rattles, Mom  called them.” He sighed. “And…oddly…because instead of being frightened, I finally felt at peace with all that had happened. As if Dad were nearby, reassuring me.”

I didn’t know what to say except that I believed what he was telling me. Men such as the Professor don’t make up ghost stories.

“But why did you ask me about my Irish lineage and my understanding of Samhain?” I inquired later, once we’d doused the fire and were picking our way back downhill through the darkness towards the truck. 

“Because,” explained my host, “I trust you, and what you might do with my story. So I wanted you to hear from the source, exactly where it occurred. And since it happened on Samhain, I figured you being a writer, and old-line Irish—a kindred spirit, so to speak—would remain faithful to the original etymology in the retellin' and not invest the date with some evil mumbo-jumbo.”

“Ah,” I said, understanding. “I promise to tell it honorably, as a possible father and son New Year’s encounter.”

“That’s precisely what I’d hoped," said the Professor, patting me on the back. “Thank you.” 

(Copyright © 2004-2010 JLM/Natural Light Productions. All rights reserved.) 


KGMom said...

A wonderful tale for a magical time of year--whether or not that time means the barrier between this world and whatever other world weakens.

I feel as though I have sat by that fire and shared in the meal, felt the nip of cold, and heard the crackle of the fire.

Jayne said...

Spooky.... but I am sure, true. Happy Halloween!!

Grizz………… said...


Doubtless it's too long a piece for most blog readers, but I didn't want to just stick the photo up. To have put you in that time and place, at the campfire, listening, was the idea. If you felt that way, I've done my job. Thank you.

Grizz………… said...


Yes, true—and spooky in the way many such tales are. I've heard countless such stories all my life, and know a few of my own. They're always best told late in autumn, after dark, in the woods…

Gail said...


I SO enjoyed this story. I was right there with you and the Professor, chilled by the night air, waarmed by the crackling fire, full of stew and cornbread and apple stacks, and so intent on hearing every word the Professor spoke. I know oh so well the 'line' between here and there is fluid. Thank you so much for this gift today.

Love to you and Happy Samhain!!


George said...

This is a great post, Grizz, especially for an old Irish guy like me. John McHenry, my first Irish ancestor to reach America, washed upon the shores of Cape Cod in 1729, when he was only four years old. He was an orphan when he arrived. His mother, an indentured servant, died from measles at sea.

Being a natural-born skeptic and having been trained — perhaps unfortunately — in rational thinking, it would be easy to dismiss your friend's tale as understandable wishful thinking that occurred during of moment of great trauma. I can't do that, however, because I have had a similar experience in my own life. A little more than ten years ago, when my mother was dying from cancer and I was facing several other family challenges, I experienced something that can only be described as a midnight visitation from my great grandmother who gave me the following assurance: "Although you do not understand all that is happening in your life right now, I am here to assure you that everything has a reason and everything is unfolding as it should."

This sounds totally weird, of course, and for that reason, I seldom tell this story to anyone. I can only say that this was not a dream, that nothing like this has ever happened before or since, and that it seemed as real as any reality I have ever experienced. The rational part of my brain would like to find a rational explanation of this occurrence. Thus far, however, it has not be able to do so.

It's a strange world out there, Girzz. With all of our education, reason, and experience, it is nothing less that hubris to think that we "know" the nature of what lies beyond our temporal lives.

Grizz………… said...


I do honestly believe that the line between here and beyond is, as you well said, "fluid," at least on occasion, though I do not believe that Halloween, Samhain, or any other specific day (or night) is more important or likely in this respect. But certainly the setting of autumn makes stories recounted easier to believe. I'm glad I "took you there."

Grizz………… said...


First off, I'm honored you felt comfortable sharing your story here. Thank you.

All my ancestors, from both lines, also came to America in the early-1700s, settling first along the east coast, and gradually working their way down the spine of the Appalachians. At least five great grandfathers (that'd be x 4 or 5 greats back, of course) fought in the Revolutionary War, one died at the Battle of Blue Licks, along with Boone's son, Israel.

I'm pretty skeptical myself, of most "supernatural" claims. Not that I don't believe in a world beyond. But many such tales are just that, tales—and even if true, have a perfectly logical explanation. Yet…there are things and events that simply defy any rational answer. We moderns like to believe we now know so very much, and think that science can explain away all mysteries. But it can't, and never will be able to. All "moderns" of whatever era have invariably believed the very same thing of themselves. Consider science-based beliefs from the mid-1950s, even. Sure, a lot of it was on the right track…but a lot was just incredibly wrong.

There is a world, a realm, beyond the physical and intellectual. A world of the spiritual. I know this for a fact—not only from stories such as yours, but from personal experience. I've bumped into the inexplicable on several occasions. Had things happen that simply couldn't or shouldn't, given the circumstances. Not often, but maybe a half-dozen times during my life.

I think your account of a visitation from your great grandmother, the reassurance given, was just what it seemed. I don't believe you dreamed, imagined, or made a mistake. Life comes with questions, mysteries, occasional meanders into that place where we bump into worlds beyond. There is a rational explanation for such encounters, but not without coming to terms of the actuality of that world beyond.

Again, George—thank you for sharing your story.

Bernie said...

Grizz I have been told a very similar story and you know what, they both just may be true.
Someday I will tell my story of unbelievable magnitude but am not ready as yet. Hope you had a Happy Halloween, sure didn't have many children here tonight....:-)Hugs

Grizz………… said...


You've certainly piqued my curiosity re. your own story. I have one or two to share, as well. Guess we'll both have to tell our tales one of these days.

Not a single trick-or-treater here, though there aren't enough houses nearby to make things worthwhile to a kid with an empty candy bag looking for the big haul. Plus I'd guess on a dark, nippy October night, this cottage by the river looks pretty spooky.

Take care…