A Homespun Ghost Story

September 23, 2015 | By | Comments (4)
Illustration: Jack Unruh

Illustration: Jack Unruh

The unsettling tale of the silver-haired old woman who watched over the mill . . . and everyone in it

Ghosts peered down from the rafters, people said. When the old mill finally shut down, after shaking the earth of my hometown for a hundred years, workers who stayed on to dismantle its machines said they heard strange things when they walked the vast, echoing rooms. They heard footsteps and an unsettling, whispering sound, as if generations who had worked themselves to death refused to depart just because the rich men closed the doors. The place had always been haunted, old people said. Spirits swirled in the air white with cotton dust, and the machines seemed hungry. Some say the mansions are haunted down here, but if ghosts linger anywhere, I believe, it is behind the padlocked gates of the redbrick monoliths you find, crumbling, in many Southern towns. I know it is foolishness, but sometimes I ride past the place our mill stood and think of her, and wonder if she haunts this place, and if she looks over her people, still.

My friend Homer Barnwell told me about the old woman and promised to tell me more, but he walks with the angels now. I often think of her in this season of the black cat, the glowing pumpkin smile, and boys who shout “boo” from under bedsheets, and sometimes I wish I knew more, but usually I don’t. The point of Halloween is to know enough to scare you a little; and never look under the sheet.

A child of mill workers here in Jacksonville, Alabama, Homer told me of a woman tall as a man in old-fashioned hook- and-eye shoes, with silver hair that hung to the hem of her black dress. Her face was like cut pine, and her eyes were like honey. They say she had Indian blood; that’s where she learned her remedies, and charms. She came, like everyone in the village, from the mountains, among the starved-out hillbillies who took their stations at the machines.

Homer was a boy the first time he saw her, on a street paved in soot and cinders, and his mother warned him not to stare. She would turn a rude boy into a doodlebug, or at least that was what the little boys lied about when they were getting dog sick on rabbit tobacco behind the cotton shed. But as he got older, he saw the truth of it: In a place where the company owned the doctor, being sick meant being fired, and the old woman made medicines for men with brown lung and picked herbs to help women with morning sickness, so they could keep their places at the machines. She protected them the best she could from the Yankee outsiders who had no respect for them or the magic of the mountains.

The mill owner was not good to his people. He paid them near nothing and did not weep when the machines wrecked their bodies. He starved them to break a strike in 1933 and watched them suffer from his great house. The old woman watched, too, with her amber eyes.

In time, the rich man began to wither and fail, and his great house rotted around him, and all fell to death and ruin. The people worked on. And some said she aided in this, somehow, but of course it was just the passing of time.

Just foolishness of course, just a story to tell, on a night when the bedsheet beasties walk the earth.

Rick Bragg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and author of several best-selling books, including Ava’s Man and Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story. His newest book,
My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South, is on sale now. 

COMMENTS

  1. Barbara Compton

    I am in love with Rick Bragg. So much of what he writes is part of my life story.My folks were Millworkers near Rockmart and Aragon, Ga.Farmers and a hard life.He makes me think of home and my Mom & Dad.I have read most everything he has published and love it all.

    September 25, 2015 at 8:32 pm
  2. Elizabeth Fox Webber (Libby)

    I am in literary lust with Mr.Bragg! His eloquence evokes every sense I have of home,my home,The South.I have relished his memories in written word and laughed at his self deprecating recollections with humor and nostalgia,taking me back to my youth.He makes the sights and smells real to me,coloring each essay with the rich red clay of our Motherland! I too,prefer to enjoy the feel of solid editions in my hand,rather than on an electronic device and hastily beat my way to Barnes& Noble after work on the release date of My Southern Journey!!! I was not disappointed and will share with my loved ones this delightful collection come Christmas! Please Mr.Bragg,do not stop writing,ever! Thank you so much for bringing a huge smile to my face!

    September 25, 2015 at 10:24 am
  3. Jennifer

    Very cool and creepy story. Thanks for sharing.

    September 23, 2015 at 11:41 pm
  4. Kathleen

    I really enjoy your stories!
    Here’s a true story but I don’t know if it’s just an odd coincidence or something more:
    We used to live in a very old house a mile & a half off the road.
    One day, late afternoon, I was by myself working in the garden & looked up to see a man with dark hair & pale bluish white skin leaning or half-way lying down against the stone chimney on the side of the house. He looked like he was ill or drunk.
    It was just for a second & then my vision kind of adjusted & I just saw the stone chimney & the usual junk stored around it.
    I didn’t give it much more thought until I met an elderly neighbor who’d visited our farm as a child decades before when there was still a wolf trap hanging on the shed. He said the original owner was a decent man in most ways, but he was known as a terrible drunk. People would find him passed out in all sorts of random places after a drinking spree.
    I’ve always wondered if I could locate an old photo of him whether I’d recognize the drunk man leaning against my chimney. So far, I haven’t found a photo. Maybe one day.

    September 23, 2015 at 4:21 pm

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