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  • Writer's pictureK. Arthur

"Ghost Stories"

Updated: Apr 1

I rode up on my bicycle and saw her gathering old bricks and arranging them in a circle. I knew what that meant. It would be a perfect night for Memaw to build a bonfire for storytelling. It was late Friday afternoon, and there was no school the next day. My esteemed Southern grandmother, who was an expert spinner of yarns, lived next door to me. She had a repertoire of ghost stories a country mile long. That night the stories happened in her front yard beneath the rustling leaves of hundred-year-old oak trees. Jupiter was high in the sky and Taurus was visible. There were six grandkids there and Aunt Lilly, my grandmother's sister, decided to join in the fun. Where I come from, it does not have to be pumpkin season for the grown-ups to tell ghost stories, and the Dixie Five-and-Dime on Hoke Street did not have to be selling candy corn and wax lips. Ghost sightings are allowed any time of the year in the South, but they are more frequent during the month of October.

We gathered around raging flames sitting Indian style on old worn-out quilts spread in layers as a barrier between us and the ground -- and the bugs. Memaw and Aunt Lilly wore scary stocking masks. They each had one leg of a pair of sheer pantyhose pulled over their entire head. Stretched nylon distorts facial features in a ghoulish way that children do not soon forget. To this day, a stocking mask is scarier than any newfangled costume you can buy at one of those pop-up Halloween chain stores.

They recited stories handed down for generations, stories like Rawhide and Bloody Bones and the axe wielding Crazy Woman that wandered our neighborhood at night. Gray smoke and orange flickering light invaded the shadows in humanlike forms that danced in the trees and bushes, threatening to do harm to nearby children. A lone whippoorwill's call could be heard in the distance. The herbal smell of variegated Monkey Grass that lined Memaw's sidewalks and driveway and anything else she could line with it kept the ghosts just far enough away, but its dense growth and moist soil attracted mosquitoes and chiggers, also known as skeeters and red bugs. Monkey Grass was used in the place of fences in our neighborhood so that children could roam freely. A few unfriendly neighbors had metal chain link fences, but those were easy to climb over.

Staying well within the borders of the ornamental plant and close to the fire was key. But despite the number of quilts underneath me or my proximity to the heat, a few of the more adventurous bugs made it through. Bites from red bugs do not show up until the next day, and it is amazing how much misery can come from a microscopic speck with legs -- and horns. If I had my druthers, I would choose a skeeter bite over a red bug any day. Red bugs itch like the dickens and seem to last for an eternity. But Memaw had a cure for that. She painted over the bites with fingernail polish because she said that it smothered the little devils. Bright red nail polish was the only color she ever had, which made it look like I had gotten caught up in a cockfight. Two decades later I learned that chiggers do not actually burrow under the skin, and nail polish does not suffocate them. Still the old remedy worked, because I believed it did -- in the same way that garlic killed vampires.

Each story abruptly ended with a loud "Boo!" and we all screamed at the tops of our lungs. Somehow we always forgot about that inevitable surprise ending, or maybe we just knew better than to ruin ancient Appalachian folklore. I suppose I could have told myself that the shadowy apparitions were just my imagination running wild, but I figured that such spine-tingling moments were building my character. Besides, there was safety in knowing that the harrowing haints would be gone by the next morning. And the nail polish would be near.


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