Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lingering Shade Lane: A Ghost Story

            “Did you see that street sign?” my husband asked me.

            “Lingering Shade Lane,” I answered. “What a great name!”

            “It looked like there were a lot of big trees with branches overhanging the road. It would be great to linger in the shade there, wouldn’t it? Swinging gently in a hammock, listening to the Braves game on the radio, sipping sweet tea. Heaven on earth.”

            “mmm....” I nodded. We’ve been married forever, but it’s our differences that keep the relationship interesting. I was looking at the creepy dead kudzu draped over the tall trees along this stretch of I85 in South Carolina. It was nature’s Halloween display, and Morticia Addams would have approved. “I think it was named for the shades of people who have died that linger there.”

            “You do, huh?” My husband smiled. “What kind of ghost would linger along that beautiful, tree-lined road?”

            I thought for a moment. “About a hundred years before the recent unpleasantness (called the Civil War by Yankees), there was a small farm not too far beyond those trees. The farm produced just enough to support Arnold Moon, his wife, his mother, and his seven children. They all had to work hard, though, and life wasn’t always easy.”

            “Guess Arnold didn’t linger in the shade listening to the baseball game on the radio,” my husband commented.

            “No, he didn’t. Arnold and his 4 sons plowed and planted the fields and harvested the crops. They watched over the peach and apple orchards, and took care of the horses, the cow, and the ox. The women worked just as hard. They cooked and preserved food, made the clothing and blankets the family needed, and tended the chickens and the pig. His wife, who had been the village schoolmarm before she married Arnold, taught all seven children to read and to do sums at night by the light of tallow candles. His mother cultivated herbs as well as vegetables in the kitchen garden, and was often called on to help the sick and injured with her poultices and other natural remedies.”

            “Sounds like a hard life.”

            “It was a hard life,” I agreed, “but it was happy, too. The family was close, and they depended on each other. The oldest girl had just married and moved south to Georgia, where her husband owned some land. The two oldest boys were courting girls from the nearby village, and Arnold was planning to give each son a plot of land on his wedding day so that the new couples could build their homes.

            “And the ghost…um…shade?” my husband prompted.

            “I’m getting there. Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” I answered. “You see, Arnold’s mother had a secret.”

            “Dum dum dum.”

            “Exactly,” I said. “Arnold’s mother was very close to his youngest daughter, Charlotte. Charlotte was interested in learning about herbs and healing, so she spent a lot of time with her grandmother. Now fourteen years old, she had started accompanying her grandmother when she went to tend the sick.

            One beautiful fall Saturday afternoon, Charlotte gathered the last of the blooming flowers in the garden and headed for the church in the village. It was the Moon family’s turn to prepare the altar for Sunday’s service, and Charlotte was happy to help.

            She was surprised to find the preacher sitting in the front pew when she arrived at the church. She shyly greeted him, and then went to the altar to remove the dead flowers from the gold vase and replace them with the fresh ones she had brought. It was only when she stepped back to look at the display that she realized that the preacher, hunched over with his hands covering his face, was sobbing as if his heart was broken.

            Charlotte sat down next to him. ‘Sir? Is something wrong?’ She reached out a hand toward him, and then let it fall back into her lap. He was much older than she was, with a wife and grown children and grandchildren. He was highly respected in the village, and Charlotte had always been somewhat intimidated by him. However, she had a strong instinct to help those in pain, and it was obvious the man was in pain.

            She reached out again, and gently patted his shoulder. The preacher dried his eyes with his handkerchief. ‘I have tried to follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus,’ he said gruffly. ‘And yet I have done terrible things, things I am ashamed to admit, things that not even Jesus could forgive.’

            ‘But sir,’ Charlotte protested. ‘You tell us that Jesus will forgive anything if we truly repent. Surely that is true for you as well.’

            ‘You’re a good girl, Charlotte,’ the preacher replied. ‘Thank you for your comforting words.’ He took her hand in his and brought it to his lips. ‘You look just as she did at your age,’ he murmured. ‘How could I not have noticed the resemblance?’

            Charlotte frowned in confusion.

            ‘Your grandmother, child. You are remarkably like her.’ He moved closer to her, so that his leg brushed against her skirt. Charlotte was extremely uncomfortable. She pulled her hand from his and stood up.

            ‘People tell me that I resemble her, sir.’

            The preacher also rose to his feet. His eyes blazed and Charlotte wondered if he had gone mad. She backed away, but he followed her step for step. When she turned to run, he grabbed her and pulled her tightly against his body. His head came down over hers, and she could smell the peppermint and tobacco on his breath just before his mouth took hers in a hard kiss.

            Charlotte kicked him, her soft slippers doing little damage to his shin, but startling him enough that she was able to break free. She tore out of the church, guilty and embarrassed. She didn’t know what she had done to make the preacher behave so oddly, but that it was her fault she had no doubt.

            Her grandmother’s sharp eyes didn’t miss anything. ‘You were at the church, child?’ she asked, taking in the tear-swollen eyes and guilty expression that her granddaughter wore. ‘What did he do to you, Charlotte?’

            Charlotte looked away, too embarrassed to answer at first. Finally, the whole story came out in a flood of words and tears.

            ‘Charlotte, look at me,’ her grandmother said sharply. ‘You did nothing wrong. I have never lied to you, and I’m not lying to you now. You are completely blameless and you should think no more about it. Now go and wash your face, child, and I’ll join you inside after I check to make sure the poultice on the cow’s leg is still in place. Go on, Charlotte.’

            Charlotte’s grandmother found the preacher where Charlotte had left him. She closed the door to the church with a loud thump. ‘I thought you had learned your lesson years ago,’ she said. ‘I see now that you still haven’t learned.’

            ‘Mary.’ The preacher whispered. His eyes drank her in for the first time in too long. Pretending that she was just another parishioner all these years had been hard. He had always loved her, and he loved her no less now.

            ‘Charles,’ she said curtly. ‘You’re a fool.’

            He nodded penitently. ‘I know, Mary.’

            ‘I was her age when you took my innocence,’ Mary reminded him. ‘How many other young girls have you ruined?’

            ‘None, Mary, I swear to you. I loved you, and I thought you loved me.’

            ‘I was too young and you were married, Charles. What you did to me was wrong. What you did to Charlotte was evil.’

            ‘She looks so much like you,’ Charles answered wistfully. ‘I still love you, Mary.’

            Mary shook her head sorrowfully. ‘I had a good life with Shelby Moon,’ she stated. ‘I grew to love him and I still mourn him. He was a good man, devoted to his family.’ She paused. ‘I wish I had been able to give him children,’ she murmured, almost to herself.

            ‘He was proud of Arnold. He grew up to be a fine man, Mary. I know Shelby felt he was blessed to have you both. He told me so more than once.’

            ‘I never told him the truth, though,’ Mary answered.

            ‘The truth?’

            Mary gave a harsh laugh. ‘You never once suspected that Arnold was your son?’ she asked.

            Charles sat down abruptly, and covered his eyes with his trembling hands.

            Mary turned around and marched down the aisle of the church to the door. She pulled it open and then turned back to face him again. ‘Or that Charlotte is your granddaughter?’

            A groan of mortal pain followed Mary out the door. She pushed the door shut and set off down the tree-lined path. It didn’t surprise her to hear the gunshot a few long minutes later. She kept walking. He couldn’t be saved, and she wouldn’t have saved him even if she could have.

            Since that day, people walking along Lingering Shade Lane at twilight report seeing a man dressed all in black, his face pale as the moon, wringing his hands and moaning plaintively before vanishing into the darkness.”

            “So the ghost is the preacher?” my husband asked.

            I nodded. “He couldn’t forgive himself. He saw the light of heaven at the moment he died, but he truly didn’t believe that Jesus would let him in. He felt that he didn’t deserve forgiveness. He turned away from the light, and chose to atone for his sins by lingering here forever, a shade caught between the land of the living and the land of the dead.”

            My husband thought for a moment. “OK, you managed to make a creepy story out of a road sign and a beautiful tree-lined road. Kudos, Morticia.”

            I grinned. “Merci.”

Happy Halloween, my friends!