Sunday, October 28, 2012

In which Hallowe'en is almost here, and I share a "new" ghost story


I tell a lot of lies.  

When you're a storyteller, lying is part of the job.  This time of year, which we refer to as "Storyteller's High Holy Month," there's a lot of demand for my kind of lying.  I've done a lot of live storytelling gigs recently, and on Sundays in October we feature all kinds of scary stories on the radio, culminating in the Annual Scary Stories Radio Program on the Sunday morning prior to Hallowe'en. 

Here's a link to a story from last year:  2011 Scary Story: Prom Night
Here's an older story:  2010 Scary Story: The Dare
In 2009, I recorded two horse-ghost-stories:  2009 Scary Stories: Ghost Horse and Devilment

And now here's a story for this year.  I'll probably tell it on the radio Sunday, if you want to listen--we air live on KSER fm  from 9 to 11am on Sunday morning.  T0 listen to the show even if you aren't local:  visit THIS LINK within two weeks of the program air date, and select it from the menu.  Isn't technology awesome?  


The Snow Woman, a ghost story

When you drive into my hometown on Interstate 5, just before you hit the city limits you’ll see a gigantic rock on the right-hand side of the road. 

This glacial erratic left from the last Ice Age has been used for generations as a non-official citizen signpost.  Political messages are strictly avoided, but sports-related missives are common:  “B.H.S. basketball RULES!”  and “GO Sehome!”  Personal messages are common:  “E loves M” or “Happy Birthday, Barb!”  One day I saw “Jessica, will you marry me?” which was painted over the next day with the answer: “No.”

If you were to get out of the car near the rock, and go behind the rock, and follow the well-defined trail leading northwards away from the rock and over the side of Galbraith, you would eventually end up at Bayview Cemetery.  Bayview Cemetery is the oldest cemetery in the county, established a year before Washington was granted statehood.  It’s a huge, pretty, old-fashioned place, with rolling hills and mature native-species trees interspersed with decorative plants brought in by white settlers.  It features old stone markers and vaults, as well as the huge statue of an angel with outstretched wings.  Traditionally, the senior boys sneak into the cemetery each year during Homecoming and paint the eyes of the angel with glow-in-the-dark paint so that, if you’re sneaking around the cemetery at night with your friends, the angel eyes will spook the heck out of you.  Which is, of course, why we went there to tell ghost stories.

My friend Stephanie’s parents fished commercially in Alaska during the spring and summer, so she lived with my family in May and June of each year when her folks went north.  As soon as school was out for summer, we’d load her on a plane to Anchorage, where she would catch a little bush plane to Yakatat or Bristol Bay or wherever they were fishing with the Royal Pacific that year.  She’d work on the family boat all summer, and then fly home a few days before school started and stay with us again until her parents brought the boat south again for the winter.  She always brought back stories, and her best stories were always ghost stories.

This story is one that she told me, and she told me that it's a true story.  Steph heard it from a Japanese fish-buyer who had heard it wa-a-a-ay up north in the Aleutian Islands, where it’s often cold and foggy, even in summer.   But this story didn’t happen in summer, it happened in the fall…just around this time of year, actually.

There was a young man, maybe 20 or 25 years old, and he was out on the water one evening with his dad checking crab pots, a couple of hours before sunset.  They weren’t on a commercial boat, just a twelve- foot skiff, picking up their crab pots, pulling out the keepers, tossing back the little ones and rebaiting. They had 10 or 12 pots out there, and figured they’d be out on the water for an hour or two, and back at home before dark with enough crab for dinner.  The father and son lived together—the father was an older man, still active enough but starting to slow down out on the water.  His son was a good-looking man in his early 20’s, with a lovely singing voice. 

They cleared and re-baited the first stretch of pots pretty quickly, but as they headed towards the last few, fog rolled in, cold as death.  The older man had brought his warm jacket and wool watch cap, but the son could see that his father was chilled and starting to shiver.  He finished re-baiting the pot in his hands and threw it overboard, and told his dad to steer them back home—they had enough crabs for soup.  But the fog rolled in thicker, and heavier, and it was impossible to see where they were going.  They listened for the surf, but the fog was so thick that it damped down the noise of waves breaking on the beach.  They headed the direction they thought was the land, but with no landmarks and no compass on board, they quickly became confused…and then frightened.

Finally, the older man spotted a dim light off the starboard side of the skiff, and directed the boat towards it, thinking that it must be the light of a house on-shore.  The gas in the little skiff’s outboard tank was dangerously low, and the young man was desperate to get his father out of the chilling fog and into a shelter, even if it meant crowding in on the home of a stranger. 

When they finally touched shore, the only shelter the men could see was a little fishing shack, long abandoned, with no people—and no light—anywhere around.  Still, shelter was shelter, and the young man helped his shivering father into the shack.  It had been well-constructed against the weather when it was built, but now the windows were cracked, and the door hung sort of wonky in the frame so that it wouldn't close all the way.  Everything was dusty and smelled of mice, but there was a fire laid in the woodstove, and a vermin-chewed blanket on the floor beside it. 

The young man then lit a fire as quickly as he could.  The wood was dry, and caught quickly, and the little room soon lit with a cheery glow.  However, the stove was old, and leaked smoke into the room, so the young man didn't dare build up the fire as much as he wanted.  Still, it was shelter from the cold… and from the snow that had started to fall.

The older man fell asleep quickly, but the younger man was fitful, waking frequently to check the fire.  But finally he, too, fell asleep.

He was awakened by a shower of snow in his face.  The door of the shack had blown open and by the snow-light, he saw the shape of a person—a woman, dressed all in white.  She was bending over his father, and at first he thought that she was blowing her breath on his face, because he could see a thin stream of white vapor between them.  But then he realized that she was breathing in, and that the vapor was coming upwards from his father’s mouth like bright white smoke.  When she looked away from the father at last, the young man could see that he was not moving.

He could not speak.  He could not move.  In fear—in desperation—he began to sing.  His grandmother had always taught him to sing when he was afraid, and he had never been so afraid in his life.  At first, his voice was high and squeaky from the cold and from his own terror, and he could only hum.  But gradually, his song got stronger, and the strange woman in white watched him without drawing nearer.  He sang all the verses he could recall, and repeated the chorus, too…and then, at last, he fell silent, waiting.

For a little time, the mysterious woman continued to look at him…and then she smiled.  Then she whispered, “I intended to treat you like the other man.  But because of your sweet song, and your sweet face, I will spare you.    But I warn you:  if you ever tell anyone what you have seen this night, I shall know it, and I shall return for you.  Remember what I say!”

As she spoke, her voice became higher and thinner, until it sounded like the wind whistling through trees.  Then, she turned from him, and passed through the doorway. 

After several minutes, he was finally able to move, and he jumped to his feet and ran to the door.  But the woman in white was nowhere to be seen, and the snow was driving in through the opening.  The young man thought that he had been dreaming, might have imagined the white woman.  He called out to his father, but there was no answer.  He put out his hand in the dark and touched the old man’s face.  It was ice.

They found the young man the next morning, wrapped around the icy body of his father.  They took him back to the village and warmed him and fed him and healed him.  But though he grieved his father, the young man never talked about that terrible night, and never mentioned the woman in white.

Time passed, and it was springtime.  The young man was out chopping firewood, and he met a young woman on the road outside of town.  She was walking, carrying a backpack, and singing as she went.  He greeted her, and she answered him back, and they talked for a while.  There were no young women in his village that weren’t his cousins, so of course he wanted to spend time with this woman who was a stranger and not a relative.  She said that she was from a village further north, that she was the daughter of a fishing family, recently orphaned, and that she was going south where she hoped to find work.  The young man invited her to his home for dinner, and she accepted.  They stayed awake all night, talking and singing.  She had no family, and neither did he. 

You know what happened next: she stayed with the young man, and they married in mid-summer, and their first child was born the following spring.  In time they had ten children, boys and girls, handsome children all, and very, very pale, like their mother.

One evening, after the children had gone to sleep, the woman was mending clothing by the light of a lantern, and the man, watching her, said, “To see you sewing there, with the light on your face, makes me think of a strange thing that happened before I met you.  I thought I saw someone as beautiful and pale as you are now—indeed, she was very much like you.”

Without raising her eyes from her work, his wife answered, “Tell me about her.  Where did you see her?”

Then the man told his wife about the terrible night in the fishing shack—and about the white woman who had stood over him.  And he said, “Asleep or awake, that was the only time I have ever seen someone as beautiful as you.  Of course, I have never been sure if it was a dream I saw…” 

He was not watching his wife as he spoke, and did not notice that she had thrown down the sewing, had come to stand over him, until she snarled, “It was I  -- I   -- I who told you that I would kill you if you ever spoke one word about it!  If it were not for the children asleep in there, I would kill you this moment…and now you had better take very, very good care of them.  For if they ever have a reason to complain of you, I will come back and this time, there would be no mercy for you! “

As she spoke, her voice became higher and thinner, like the wind whistling in the trees, and then she disappeared.

Never again was she seen. 

But they say that on the wedding day of the youngest child, after the churching and the dancing and the feasting and the singing was done, and everyone had gone away home, the man went home to his empty house. 

The next morning, he was dead.  And though the night had been warm, his body was frozen solid—and his arms were outstretched, as if embracing a wife who had been long-gone, and much loved.

1 comment:

To err is human. To be anonymous is not.