by Joshua Heston
There ain’t no such thing. No such thing at all.
That’s what I kept telling myself, sitting on the third floor of the old, boarded-up mill.
It was deep winter and night besides. The white limbs of the old sycamore showed like a skeleton’s bones in the bright moonlight, moonlight with a ring around it. My pocket watch was ticking away in my overalls pocket, busily ticking past midnight. Midnight was when ghostly stuff was supposed to happen, but so far, I’d not seen anything except a barn owl.
And he was not terribly ghostly.
What was I doing here?
Settling a dare, something for which — at 17 — I was far too old. And I was getting far too cold in the process. I couldn’t feel my toes any longer and even the top of my head, through my cap, was beginning to chill.
The shadows, deep and dark, stretched across the rough old boards of the floor. Frost had etched designs in the windows the morning before. That frost was still there, bright in the moonlight, a testament to how cold it had been on Saturday. The afternoon sun had never warmed enough to melt it.
Yessir, I was spending the night in that old mill — a mill which stood tall and gaunt beside a tall bluff and a deep, deep spring. This mill had closed well over 20 years ago. The whitewashed siding was weathered and peeling. Green moss — in the summer — played a silvery green riot on the shingles, though in this cold the moss had turned to a dead, moldy gray. But it was still our old mill. And the old folks said it was haunted.
By what, them old folks really wouldn’t tell.
“Yer skeered, Jackson Earl, and too smart for yer own good!” That’s what Fred McAllister had told me and that’s what had sealed our dare. “And yer gonna need this to keep you warm,” he’d said, kinda nasty-like, shoving a half-empty flask of bourbon into my coat pocket and giving me a shove. I didn’t like to think where he’d probably gotten it.
The McAllister boys were an odd, mean lot and their family had a long reputation for trouble here in these dark hills of ours. Of course, it was Fred’s grandfather, Ol’ Doc McAllister, who — in a wild, night ride out to the Francis Place — had driven himself, buggy, horse and all, into the deep mill pool one dark, winter night. Folks said he must have been drinking to keep warm.
The carcass of both horse and buggy had washed up down the spring branch, but the old doctor’s body must have been pulled down into the spring.
Nobody ever did find it.
Maybe it was his ghost that was supposed to haunt the place. And old folks still talked about the time the Federals had marched down through the hollers and burned the first mill to the ground. Old Man Parker had sunk his life savings into building that mill and they said he went mad when he saw it burning, running into the flames before the soldiers could stop him. Those were dark times in these old hills. And dark times make for good ghost stories.
So here I was, 17-year-old Jackson Earl Monahan, sitting on the third floor of a boarded-up mill, all because I’d said I didn’t believe in any such foolishness. Reckon it didn’t make much difference. I’d be leaving the hills soon anyway.
All my life, when other boys were romping in the woods or on the farms, or doing who-knows-what up past the Devils’ Well, I was reading. Studying. Never did seem like I quite fit in.
Nobody else really knew what to do with me and pretty soon it wouldn’t make any difference at all. I was smart enough for schooling in the big city — St. Louis, to be exact — and I didn’t expect to be back. I must have fallen asleep in the cold, thinking on things a lot darker than ghosts, when somebody nudged me. I rolled over to see boots, prim, proper, high-laced black boots. And looked up into the eyes of a girl who couldn’t be a day over 16.
“You shouldn’t sleep here,” she said. Her tone sounded a little worried. “It’s too cold.”
She was beautiful. There was no denying that. Light, curly hair, braided. A trim figure beneath an old wool coat covering what looked like lace. Delicate face. And deep, melancholy eyes, almost black in the darkness. I’d never seen a girl like this one. She stared at me intently.
“You need to get up.”
“Come outside with me.” The words were a command, but the voice hopeful, almost sad. I nearly smiled at the thought of showing back up in town with such a beautiful creature at my side. The McAllister boys would never live that one down. “I’m Jackson Earl,” I said, remembering my manners.
“Emily,” she said at last. We were walking down the stairs of the mill in the dark. “My name is Emily,” but she didn’t sound like she was quite sure about it. Outside, we walked the edge of the mill pond, skirting the old bluff and the caves. And we talked, mostly about me. She wouldn’t tell me where she was from, though I gathered that she had known of our hills and hollers a long time. She was certainly familiar with it, mentioning old family names and nodding in all the right places.
“He was very mean to me,” she said suddenly. “But I did love him.”
“Love who?” I asked. “Who was mean to you?“ But Emily didn’t answer. We had reached the far side of the pond and she was staring across the ice, looking so sad and lonely that I couldn’t help myself. I reached out and put my arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. She took my hand in hers; it was surprisingly warm. “Look!” Emily bent down. “A snowdrop.”
It was. One lonely snowdrop, looking out of place in the rocks next to the millpond. Dawn was near. The eastern sky behind us was beginning to filter through the cedars and oak. “It’s so pretty. But when the sunlight touches it, it can only rot away.” Again, she looked sad. It seemed impolite to disagree with her, though I figured if it could bloom in this cold, sunlight wouldn’t make much difference one way or the other. Nothing, however, was making much sense anymore.
“Will you trust me?” she asked, and looked deep into my eyes.
I studied her face, perfect in the growing light. She looked so hopeful, so sad and so alone. Even lonelier than me. I could only nod.
“Then come with me.”
This warm, frail, lonely girl took my hand and stepped out onto the ice of the mill pond. When we were halfway across, she stopped. The sunlight was nearly upon us, turning the frost on the treetops to gold. Her eyes were blue.
“Remember me,” she said, almost pleading. “Please remember me!”
I kissed her. I felt the warmth of the sunlight on my face and opened my eyes…
To face a rotted corpse.
Dressed in rags, rotted skeletal hands on my arms. Wasted strands of hair blowing in the wind, eye sockets black like the caves in the hollers. I fell backwards, through the ice of the spring branch, into the cold, dark, rushing water. For a moment, I could see her, a macabre figure, a silhouette of shadow and ragged lace outlining her bones in the rising sun. And then I couldn’t see anymore.
Three days later, Sheriff Johnson pulled the body of 17-year old Jackson Earl Monahan from the Jacks Fork River, a half-empty bottle of bourbon still in his coat pocket. Monahan was buried in the old Culpepper Cemetery. His headstone was placed, by coincidence, only a few yards from an all-but forgotten corner grave, now over 50 years old.
It was the grave of a certain Miss Emily Rose Stewart, drowned in the mill pond at the age of 16 on a cold winter night by her soon-to-be husband.
SEPTEMBER 24, 2010
Photography credits: Joshua Heston, Alley Spring Mill, Shannon County, MO 2/20/09