It's a wild and busy day; I got up too late, have too much to do, and so I offer up a free story Sunday....one from the files:
By Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
It is February and cold, a frigid morning made chill by strong north winds that shiver through bare trees. Although my daughter and I heard them yesterday, the ghosts are gone now. My husband sent them home to God last evening and they went without argument.
We are fey; Maggie and I, born with a gift that some call Second Sight. It is in our blood and etched in our souls. If a power it is one that cannot be denied. In another age we might have been burned as witches for uncanny knowledge and easy communication with the world of spirits. Communicating with the dead, be they ghost or spirit, is commonplace for us.
This incident began while I waited with my children for the school bus at the end of our long lane on a rural road. Maggie heard the crying – weeping I have heard myself. Two mornings in a row she heard the sound
of someone’s terrible grief. I knew then that I would have to tell her the story.
Katy was thirteen in the winter of 1915 but she was a woman grown. Her brief years were difficult ones and as the oldest child of a large family, Katy was as much mother as sister. Her own mother, though in her middle thirties, seemed an old woman. Once magnificent auburn hair was shot through with white strands and Katherine’s face was lined beyond her age. Years of child bearing made her belly sag and be round, protruding from a body otherwise thin.
On a very cold February morning Katy woke early because the least ones, the babies of the family, were crying, sick. She found her mother rocking the new baby, just three months old, with eighteen month old Molly on her lap and four year old Chester holding her knees. Katherine was weary, worn and frazzled after a long night up with the babies who had been vomiting.
The rank odor of puke and diarrhea filled the tiny two-room house until Katy’s nose wrinkled with disgust. She stirred up the open fire in the hearth and went outside for cedar branches. Burning them would mask the smell of illness.
The wind was out of the north and strong. Each blast made her shiver, hugging her arms against her body. Katy hurried inside to put the cedar branches on the fire. Their pungent aroma soon filled the house and mingled with the smell of cornbread baking in an iron spider on the hearth.
Without being asked, her brother Luke, eleven, went outside and cut wood into stove lengths. He had no coat so his face was red with cold when he returned. He ate cornbread dry with the other children before the others left for school. It was more than two miles to the schoolhouse, a long walk on the fairest days but a terrible journey in the bitter cold.
Katy gave them each a cold biscuit baked the previous night for their lunch along with a raw potato. That was all they could spare from the dwindling larder. When her father returned from working in Arkansas – IF he returned – Katy hoped he would bring enough cash money to buy enough food to see them through the winter.
Her mother coughed up wads of yellow mucous as Katy paused on her way out of the door. The girl frowned.
Mama had suffered a bout of pneumonia the previous winter that had almost taken her life and she sounded near as bad
now. Katy wondered if she should stay home and make an onion poultice for her mother but it was the day that Mister Will, the traveling song master, would be at school.
Katy enjoyed singing and she wanted to know about shape notes more than she wanted to stay home. Her mother would manage; she always did. As if she read her thoughts, Katherine looked up.
“Go on to school, girl.” She said, breath ragged and wheezy. “I’ll go back to bed with these least ones. I’m keepin’ Molly home from school too. She’s full of croup.”
Katy kissed her mother with a smile and dashed out the door to catch up with Luke, Daniel, Suzy, and Rose. It was her responsibility to shepherd them across the rugged hills and through the cold. She had to see them safe to school – there were too many dangers along the way for the little ones to go alone. Katy turned back from the far side of the deep hollow near their home for a last look at the house. The smoke from the chimney had become only a thin, weak line.
“Mama’ll have to stir up the fire.” Her voice was tiny in the frigid air. Heaviness weighed on her soul and when she shivered, it was more from dark portent than cold.
When I first married Tom and we moved to this land in the Ozarks, somehow I knew that there had been an earlier house located not far from our own. I didn’t have to be fey to divine that - one spot in the woods was littered with old house plunder – the remains of a rotted, rusted granite coffee pot, old cans now illegible, and rocks. A ridge of rocks that was not a natural formation told me that someone had cleared a garden here. That and the daffodils that struggled through the dead leaves in spring all indicated there had been a home place here.
That first winter I was working on a suspense novel set in contemporary Texas but my mind was bombarded with Katy Gallagher’s story. That is not her real name but the name I gave the spirit of the slender but strong teenage girl who came through to me with such clarity that I could not block it. Her story was tragic and I considered making it into a novel. I became pregnant – with Maggie –and thought little about Katy’s tragedy until after my daughter heard the girl crying.
Maggie was born with my own gifts and a few more of her own. She sees with the third eye and unnerved her kindergarten teacher because she could read her thoughts.
Maggie knew I was pregnant with her sister before I did. Her frequent companion during her pre-school days was my long-dead grandfather. She had tea parties with my Uncle Raymond just as I had in my own childhood with one difference – he was present in spirit only at Maggie’s parties.
She developed a fear of fire when she was about four years of age. We visited a child safety fair and she became frightened by an awful display. Some sadistic firefighters had taken the back of a van and made it into a child’s room, complete with neat white bed and stuffed animals. They had then set it on fire and allowed it to smolder. Children were taken in small groups to peer into the back of the van, to stare with rounded eyes at the
singed toys and burning bed as a reminder to obey fire safety standards.
It served to terrify my daughter who began to loathe any kind of fire. I realize now she may have also been tuning in to Katherine, Katy’s mother and the younger children. Because of Maggie’s fear, I did not want to tell her what happened. I thought it would intensify her terror of flame but after she heard the crying I knew I had to explain it.
After the older children left for school Katherine lay the babies down on their pallet. She dragged it from the bedroom where it was so cold that the wash water in the basin had frozen. The thin walls of the shoddy house were little protection from the strong winds that blew chill from the north. The children fell asleep huddled together, their body warmth warming them more than the tattered quilt their mother placed over them.
Katharine sat down in the rocking chair with another quilt about her shoulders. She meant to stir up the fire, to make it burn warm and bright but in her fatigue she fell asleep. She did not sleep long but awakened in confusion. By then, the fire had almost smothered with the cedar boughs Luke placed on it before leaving for school
Little warmth seeped from beneath the boughs but they smoldered and the smoke from the green branches made Katherine cough. She caught the chunks of phlegm in her hand and wiped it on the quilt. Other hard, dried stains demonstrated it had often been used in place of a handkerchief. Katherine rose with stiffness and fatigue in every line of her body. She thought she might have a fever although she felt frozen. Her fumbling hands poked at the fire and tried to stir it into flames.
Her hands were so cold she could not feel them. After a few efforts to get the fire to burn she became desperate and reached for the kerosene t Tom had brought home. There was enough to pour two inches of kerosene into an empty tin can, which she flung onto the fire.
After so many years there were no physical marks remaining to indicate fire but I knew. I once lived in a very old house with a friend before I married. That house had been heated with an old wood stove and when there was not enough heat to warm Patsy’s thin blood she used kerosene. She measured it into a tin can and would
open the stove door to toss it onto the fire. After an awful pause the potent liquid would burst
into flame. The stove’s mouth would be a mass of fire, burning so hot that the stove turned red.
Fire made a rattling sound as it raced up the stovepipe; it glowed with heat until it seemed transparent. Patsy’s actions frightened me and I feared she might burn down our simple home. I was relieved when she married and I could rent a nice, safe apartment with central heat. As Katy’s story came to me, I remembered Patsy’s method and shuddered. Her method had been an old-fashioned gamble and a dangerous one. Katy’s mother could have vouched for that had she lived.
Katherine started to lie down with the children when a sound that wasn’t right caused her to look back. A huge orange ball of fire burst into being as the embers ignited the kerosene. It filled the hearth and exploded into the room, spilling fire to the walls, to the sparse furnishings, then to Katherine.
Her gown caught first, then her hair. Intense agonizing pain seared Katherine and she screamed. Her cries woke Molly who began to cry but the others
were already dead before the flames began to lick the edges of the pallet. She hoped that they were dead
with her last conscious thought, prayed that they were to spare them her pain.
Although my husband is accustomed to my fey ways, that psychic awareness inherent in me, he was not always so. Baptist born and bred he looked askance at such dealings when we wed. I had not told him the story of Katy and her mother until last evening. When he went out into the bitter black evening he asked their lingering ghosts to go home to God. He smoked a cigarette to lift them on their way and asked his own spirit guide to lead them. He is Baptist no more, having converted to my faith of his own free will. Catholics such as I have always been are of broader mind and scope although I know that my church would not condone much I do, although my gifts are from God.
My youngest child, just three, told me that there were no more scary ghosts in the woods. That confirmed my feeling that the shades of those that suffered, died, and were buried are at peace. They crossed that boundary that separates the living from the dead and are safe at last, from flame and sorrow.
I still see them, though, in my mind and feel their pain in my own. Although their essence has departed
an imprint of their tragedy remains. It is etched into the trees and sky and space here, patterned as part of this patch of earth. I may yet write that girl’s story, write her life into a novel so she will not be forgotten. Katy Gallagher deserves it for she was brave.
She was uneasy at school that morning, her thoughts turning again and again toward home. Katy could not concentrate on her lessons nor could she put her heart into her songs. Blackness shadowed her thoughts and made her afraid. She left at morning recess, chiding her siblings to mind themselves and she would return for them when school was over. Katy did not take her books or her lunch but ran through the woods until she was winded.
Her side ached from exertion as she climbed the hills that would take her home and her breath came harsh. She had been suffering from a cold herself and her drawn breath hurt like knives as the frigid air entered her lungs. Katy did not stop to rest, however, but ran on.
She saw the smoke and smelled it before she topped the last hill. She felt the awful knowledge of what had
happened in her heart like a rock but denied it and ran harder, hoping to find her mother and the children. Katy
wished it so much she thought she could see them standing by the now empty garden, faces stained with soot and eyes red with weeping.
When she reached the yard, however, they were not there but a smell that reminded her of the roast venison her mother sometimes cooked told her that they were within. The house was in flames and she could not save them. There was no way and moments after she fetched up in the yard, bent double in her efforts to catch her breath the structure crumbled into a heap. Four walls gave way and folded to the ground as the roof fell through.
Katy watched the fire consume her family without tears and when she had her breath she ran again. She went over the hill and down to the big farmhouse in the valley overlooking Shoal Creek. She told the farmer who lived there that her mother and four siblings had been burned to death in a fire. Only then did Katy collapse to the ground, fainting with the import of her news and then wake to an awful grief, old as the rocky hills.
Although the farmer’s wife tried to keep her and ply her with fresh baked molasses bread and cool milk Katy would not stay. She ran back to her home place to
watch as the blackened bodies were carried out of the still smoking ruins.
“They’s burned black as niggers.” She heard one man say, with awe and horror in his voice.
“Black as pitch.” Someone added.
“Yup, black as burned wood.” Said yet another man.
It was then Katy began to cry.
My daughter heard those sobs and so did I. Katy is silent now, a blessing as her spirit moves forward to soar in joy.
We wept too, Maggie and I, as I told her the story as I received it from the ethers, from the spirit country.
We are different, my daughter and I, but we are not evil. The Bible says that he who has an ear, let him hear.
We were blessed with a different ear than most and so we cannot help but hear.