Monday, October 25, 2010

An Appalachian Ghost Tale

The Woman from the High Mountain

© Linda Goodman, 1997

(What follows is my adaptation of a story that my father told. He claimed that the story was true, but I believe that he meant that in the storytelling sense: i.e., just because it did not happen does not mean it is not true. There are many cultures that have a variation of this story. This story is written as a monologue in a modified version of the Appalachian dialect.)

When my daddy was a young’un, his best friend was Rufus Gilliam. Rufus and my daddy grew up together, and when they was boys, you never saw one without the other’n. And when they was growed, they even worked together in the mines for a while, until Rufus come into this inheritance from his mamaw.

Rufus used that inheritance to buy Gilliam’s General Store over in downtown Norton. Now Rufus never did make much money off of that store, but he did get by, ‘cause they won’t no other such place in them parts and folks would give Rufus all their business just to keep him going.

My daddy was at that store ever single day. In fact, he was there when Rufus proposed to Reba May Tackett, his very best customer. And then Daddy was best man at their weddin’, and a year after that he stood godfather to their adopted daughter, Clara Gay. And it was my daddy who told me the story I’m a fixin’ to tell you now. And, like as not, when you hear it, you’re gonna say, “Huh! T’aint so!” All I got to say to that is, my daddy never told a lie in his life!

Now it seems that one Friday, ‘long bout eight o’clock of the evenin’, closin’ time, Rufus was fixing to lock up his store, when in come this woman he’d never seen before. She was right tall, he said. Fact is, he had to look up at her. She had long stringy, black hair and she was wearin’ a frock that looked more like a nightgown than a proper dress, and she was barefooted. And she was covered with dirt from her head all the way down to her feet. Why, Rufus said it looked like she’d crawled through miles of mud to get to his store, yet it hadn’t rained in weeks.

And then he looked into her clear, gray eyes, and it was like the held him hypnotized. All he could manage was to ask, “Kin I help ye?”

She didn’t say nothin’, just pointed to the milk in the dairy case behind him.

Rufus went to that dairy case and he took out a quart of milk and handed it to her. The next second, she lit right out the door! Didn’t pay for that milk. Didn’t even say, “Thank ye.” And Rufus, well, he didn’t have the heart to go after her, ‘cause he knew that this was a woman who’d been hit by hard times, and he figgered that she needed that milk more than he needed the money to pay for it.

After that woman had gone, Rufus locked up his store and went to open up the door to the back room. See, Rufus, my daddy, Rusty Mullins, and Orville Rittenbury got together in that back room for a card game every Friday night.

That night, as Rufus was dealin’ cards, he told them boys about that woman that’d come into his store. My daddy listened to him, thought about it for a minute, and said, “Now, Rufus, the way you talk about this woman being covered with dirt and all makes me wonder is she’s one of them people that live up on the high mountain. You know, them that’s called Melungeons. ‘Cause they don’t have water right handy up there like we do down here, and I hear tell that they don’t take a bath but once a week or so. You reckon she could be one of them?”

Rufus scratched his head and said, “I never thought about that, Ted, but I reckon she could be.”

Then they got back to the matter at hand, which was that card game. And my daddy had a real good game that night. Fact is he won two dollars! So he took all them boys to the Starlite Café after, for some cold beers.

Now the next night, that’d be Saturday, right about the time that Rufus was fixin’ to close his store, in come that woman again. Once again, Rufus looks into her clear, gray eyes and all he can do is say, “Kin I help ye?”

Once again, she don’t say nothin’, just points to the milk in the dairy case behind him. And Rufus gets the milk from the dairy case and hands it to her. And once again, that woman lights right on out of there lickety split!

This time, though, Rufus decides to go after her and he runs out the door. But he looks this way and that, and he don’t see hide nor hair of that woman. Why, it was like she just disappeared into thin air!

Well, that spooked Rufus, so he locked up that store right quick and went straight to see my daddy to tell him all about it. “I’m a telling you, Ted,” he whispered, “they’s somethin’ unnatural about this woman, somethin’ that just ain’t right!”

My daddy didn’t think nothin’ of it. “Now, Rufus,” he drawled, “this is just a woman that’s been hit by hard times. And it’d be agin the Code of the Hills for us not to help a body like that, right here in our own midst. But how kin we help her if we don’t know who she is or where she lives?

“Now what I aim we do is this: your store‘ll not be open tomorrow, it bein’ Sunday and all. But on Monday, why don’t me and Rusty Mullins and Orville Rittenbury come on over around closin’ time and wait. Like as not, that woman‘ll come in again and one of us will recognize her, and then we’ll be able to give her the help she needs.”

Rufus allowed that sounded like a right good idea to him.

So that Monday, long about seven-thirty of the evenin’, my daddy and Rusty Mullins and Orville Rittenbury went on over to Gilliam’s General Store. They was standin’ around the pickle barrel, jawin’ and tellin’ stories and such. Finally eight o’clock came, then eight-ten, then eight-fifteen. Finally Rufus threw up his hands and said, “Well, boys, it looks like she ain’t comin’ tonight. I’m sorry to have led you fellers on a wild goose chase of a Monday evenin’.”

Well, those words hadn’t nor more than come out of his mouth til that woman came in the door. Daddy said it looked like she floated more than walked! And he said she looked just the way that Rufus had described her, all covered with dirt. Them boys just watched with their mouths open while Rufus looked into her clear, gray eyes and asked, “Kin I help ye?”

Daddy said that woman was shiverin’ like she was about to freeze. Why, he could have sworn he heard her bones rattle as she pointed to the milk in the dairy case behind Rufus!

Rufus got a quart of milk and handed it to her. And that woman lit out of there so fast, Daddy said she looked like a streak of lightning leavin’ that store!

Well them boys just stood there for a second or two, and then Daddy cried, “Let’s go after her, boys!”

They took off runnin’ in the direction they had seen her headed. Finally Daddy yelled, “Look, boys, there she is, fixin’ to run up the high mountain! I told you she was one of them Melungeons!”

Then Daddy and Rufus got their second wind and picked up their speed. Daddy said he was runnin’ so fast he thought his heart would beat clean out of his chest. And yet that woman stayed way far ahead of them, and her lookin’ so weak and all.

Finally Daddy and Rufus closed in on her, almost close enough to touch her, when she ran behind a tree. But when Daddy and Rufus ran behind that tree, she was gone! And they stood there scratchin’ their heads, tryin’ to figger how that woman got away so quick that neither one of them had seen what direction she was headin’.

About that time, my daddy heard a sound comin’ from the ground beneath his feet. It sounded like somethin’ whimperin’. Daddy looked at Rufus. “You hear that Rufus?”

“Sure do, Ted!” he declared.

And my daddy and Rufus started diggin’ in the dirt with their bare hands. Then Rusty Mullins and Orville Rittenbury caught up to them and they helped dig. They dug about two feet down, until they came to a big pine box.

Daddy took his pocket knife and pried the lid of that box loose and opened it real slow. And there, layin’ right on top of its dead mommy’s chest, was a livin’, breathin’ baby girl!

Well, Rufus always did set great store by young’uns. He gently picked that baby up and held it to his shoulder. “There, there, sweet one,” he cooed.

And then my daddy said, “Rufus! Look at the face of that baby’s mommy.”

And Rufus looked down at that mommy’s face, and he saw starin’ back at him the clear, gray, lifeless eyes of that woman that had been comin’ into his store night after night.

Then Daddy said, “Look at her hand, Rufus! Look at her hand!”

And Rufus looked at that woman’s right hand. And in it he saw a fresh bottle of cold milk labeled “Gilliam’s General Store.” And at her feet, they was two empty bottles just like it!

Well, Rufus took that baby home to his wife Reba May, and they called the doctor. Rufus told the doctor where he found the baby, but he didn’t tell him the rest of the story.

That doctor examined that baby, and he allowed that it had been right sick and that it must have lapsed into a coma, so its people took it for dead and buried it with its mommy. Them Melungeons, you see, don’t set much store by doctors.

Rufus and Reba May raised that baby as their very own and named her Clara Gay. And I kin tell by the looks on your faces exactly what you’re thinkin’, “Ain’t no such thing as haints!”

Well, I don’t blame you none. Sometimes I’m apt to think that way myself. But then I look into the clear, gray eyes of Clara Gay Gilliam, my daddy’s goddaughter, and I know they’s more things in heaven and earth than mere mortals can understand. Life, you see, is a mystery.


  1. That's the best telling of this story I've ever encountered. Thank you for posting it on this windy evening when clouds are skimming across a moonless (at the moment) sky.

  2. HA! Thanks for sharing this! I LOVE IT when you share about family stories and such. Anyway, I thought about you after encountering this blog: Enjoy! (((((HUGS))))) sandi