Thirty-one

I decided to go to the library and talk to Professor Mann. Maybe he had seen Rafe. I can’t say I much cared for his holier-than-thou, angry-professor demeanor, but he had a certain power, or presence, that was undeniable. Besides, I couldn’t think of anything else to do.

His setup in the back of the top floor of the library was the same as when I had last been there. Were those the same students sitting around the table? I had no idea, but one of them stood up from the chair beside the professor and moved down to the end without being asked, just like last time. I had the weird feeling that they hadn’t left the table in weeks, that they sleep there and live off Cliff bars while the library turns a blind eye: crazy Professor Mann, yes, he lives in the back, takes bird baths in the sink in the restroom, sends his minions out for candy bars and to do his laundry.

The prof, dressed in a blue polo and black jeans, looked at me with an expression you might describe as either blank or neutral or disinterested. Or maybe he was trying to figure out who the hell I was. “I wondered if you’ve seen or heard from Rafe,” I asked, sitting down. No point in making small talk; the prof was not a small talk kind of guy.

“No.”

We sat there for a couple of minutes, neither of us saying anything. I decided to ignore his pose, whatever it was supposed to be. I had the questions, but he was the one with answers. “How do you know Rafe?” I asked.

“He used to be a student of mine at Duke,” the professor said. “He wasn’t registered, but he monitored my classes. Informally. Which means he attended because he was interested in the material. I allowed it, welcomed it, actually. He was always the smartest person in the room.” I raised my eyebrows with the unspoken question. “Yes, that included me, much of the time.” Then he smiled, as if the thought of Rafe sitting in the back of his classroom gave him pleasure. By now I could tell he’d remembered who I was.

“He knows things, our Rafe,” he went on. “I don’t just mean facts and figures, dates, that sort of thing, but the why of things, the feelings, the reality of history. Sometimes he would tell us stories that were quite remarkable. Remember, I told you I wasn’t interested in the larger elements, the larger personalities of slavery, the men and women who became famous for escaping the system. I want to know what it was like on the ground, in the fields, in the homes, the quarters.”

“Hard history, I believe you called it.”

“That’s right.” He sat quietly for a moment. “But what of you — Allen, isn’t it? You’re on a quest, as I remember. Your house, buried slaves? Rafe is helping you. How is that going?”

This was a question I had been asking myself all week long. “Allen, yes. Allen AppeI. My quest. I don’t know,” I said, deciding I might as well be honest; beating around the story wasn’t going to help. What was one more person thinking I was crazy? “I got into it because I was hearing and seeing strange apparitions that were, as far as I could tell, living underneath my house. It turned out that Rafe was digging under there. He explained to me that what I was seeing were spirits connected to bones that were in the ground in my crawl space.” After each sentence, I paused to see if he was going to laugh at me, order me away or maybe smack me for wasting his time. He did nothing, just sat there listening. “Go on,” he said.

I shrugged. “Rafe says that if someone dies in a, I don’t know, unfair way and their body is not given a proper burial, then that person’s spirit can’t ever settle into being dead, they inhabit a kind of middle space, purgatory maybe.”

“And that purgatory exists beneath your house?”

“Are you making fun of me?”

“No. If Rafe said it, I’m not going to say he’s not right.”

“He didn’t call it purgatory, I don’t think that’s the right term, though I don’t know what it would be.”

“Purgatory implies the dead person has committed a sin while living and until the sin is expiated he, or she, will not be admitted into Heaven. In general, it means a place of temporary misery. Rafe says these, um, persons you are seeing can be released from this state?”

“He says if the bones are gathered and then properly buried the spirit will be freed.”

The professor appeared to be thinking. He was tapping a blue pen that had the Duke University name and logo on the side.

“This is a very common belief among many cultures all over the world. The Japanese, have their Onryo, the Navaho Chindi,the Chinese Mogwai; really, I can’t think of an ethnic group that doesn’t have some spirit of that sort. It was a very strong belief in slave culture in this country. You’ll find many references to dead slaves who come back to haunt not only their cruel masters, but the other slaves where they died as well.”

“So how do you get rid of these spirits?”

“I don’t know that I have any instructions for that. You said that Rafe says you have to dig up the bones and then re-inter them?”

“Something like that. I’ve been trying to find him. I was under the impression he was working on it when he just disappeared. He implied that was his job.” I decided I wasn’t going to describe the night a week ago when I saw him in front of my house. I had almost convinced myself that I had dreamed that. If I told the story out loud, I would be committing myself to it, and I wasn’t ready for that. What it implied was something I was not ready to believe. Even in a world of wandering spirits, poltergeists, Onryo, and Chindi, there are limits. At least there still were for me. When those limits were gone, what was left for me to cling to?

I realized I had mentally drifted away from the discussion. The professor was looking at me, not in a judgmental way, but patiently. When he could see I had dragged myself back from wherever I had been, he continued.

“I would suggest that you familiarize yourself with the rituals around slave burials. There might be something useful for you there.”

“Could you point me in a particular direction?”

“You seem to be doing fine on your own.”

“And Rafe?”

For the first time he frowned.  “I think you should forget Rafe for the time being. He comes and he goes and there’s no way of knowing when or where he’s going to be, and there’s no way of knowing if he can or if he is even still willing to help you if you were to come across him. He seems to have put you on a path of, at least understanding. If you’re going to proceed further down this path and eventually make a change in your unusual world, I think you are going to have to do it on your own.”

“He saved me once before.” I remembered when he dragged me out from under the house, when the spirit girl Ada had my cat. And how he took Sweetie cat and gave her to me.

“That’s good,” the professor said. “But we all know the Lord helps them who help themselves.” He gave me a big beaming smile, so big and beaming that it scared me. For the first time since I had met him, I thought to myself that of the two of us at the table it wasn’t me who was the crazy one, it was old Professor Mann. I came to several tentative realizations: this guy –the old professor, the beloved History master — was nuts. And Rafe was probably not going to save me again. Like the man said…

I was on my own.

That night, last night, I slipped out of bed at 3:00 AM and went downstairs. Very quietly, I rolled up the oriental rug Sherry had put down on the floor in her office covering the slits in the floor. I stretched out and put my ear to the wood. I was afraid I was going to fall asleep, and Sherry would find me in the morning. But I wasn’t there that long before I heard crying. It sounded like a young girl, quietly sobbing. It had to be Ada, weeping, weeping, weeping.

 

Thirty

Sauza Hornitos   Corralejo Reposado   Casamigos George Clooney   Conniption Gin  Compass Spice   Compass Box Peat   Compass Box Oak Cross   Suntory  Booker  Mother Earth Gin   Flying pepper vodka   Goslings Rum   Cynar  Dominion Gin   Diplomatico Rum

 This is the drinking entry. After my unusual experience last week on my front lawn in the moonlight it has become increasingly clear that it is Rafe who holds the key to the mystery that surrounds my house. Or rather that lies beneath my house. So I decided I would go to the Penny every evening to see if he might show up. I had, as always, questions to ask him.Some nights Mark was with me, some nights Sherry, but mostly I was drinking alone. If you’re not interested in the drinks in the 69 drinks challenge, you can probably skip the rest of this entry and go straight to the last few lines.

I hate tequila. I believe I mentioned this in an earlier entry when I tried to choke one down (there are four on the list) by having the bartender mix it as a Bloody Mary, which he informed me was called a Bloody Juanita. It was terrible, so I decided to drink the rest of them straight and get it over with quickly. I know, I know, you’re going to tell me I should have had margaritas, but I hate margaritas as well. Sometimes you just have to knock this stuff back like a man and stop complaining.

The Corralejo Reposado was straw colored, due, I guess, to its being aged for four months in a wooden barrel. Four months! Why do they even bother? It wasn’t bad, I’m sure if you’re a tequila drinker it would qualify as a “sipping” spirit. The Sauza Hornitos was awful. Really, I had to clamp down on my gag reflex as I was drinking it. I seriously considered “accidentally” knocking it over, but I got it down. The Casamigos (loosely translated as “group of friends”) George Clooney wasn’t bad at all, so I looked it up when I got home. Here’s the backstory. Evidently George Clooney and his business partner were each building a ranch in Mexico and since the two of them were down there a lot and they were drinking plenty of tequila they decided they would develop their own brand, just because it would be cool. I guess this is the sort of thing you do if you’re a gazillionaire. They came up with a recipe that they liked and had it made by a distillery. The early reviews said it was pretty tame as far as alcohol burn was concerned. Also they made it sweet. This was in 2013; in 2017 they sold the brand for a billion dollars. So the rich get richer, and… well, you know how that saying goes. The Internet informed me that since George sold the brand, the tequila has been made even sweeter and more watered down. And that, my friends, must be why I could actually drink it. It no longer tastes like tequila.

Conniption Gin. This brand is distilled in nearby Durham, so it’s drinking local for me. Gin is one of my go-to drinks, and I’m usually a Tanqueray man. Tanqueray is an old school gin, heavy on the juniper. Nowadays there are lots of artisanal gins, and I usually don’t like them. Each tries to out-botanical the others which leads to flowery, often sweetish efforts with strange medicinal overtones. I’m happy to report that Conniption leans in this direction, but as yet steps back from the line. I liked it.

Compass Spice…Compass Box Peat…Compass Box Oak Cross. Compass Box produces a number of blended scotch whiskies. They have blending facilities in London and store their individual scotch in Scotland. On their website the distiller talks about modern tastes and innovation, which usually means that they’re making mild, sweet whiskeys with little character. The sort of whiskey that the young folk of today might like. The result is certainly drinkable, even though it tends to be bit too much of a kid’s drink for me. I found the Spice and the Oak Cross simply OK, but the Peat version was a true peat bomb. Tons of smoke. I liked it, but it’s too intense for everyday drinking. The odor was so strong the entire end of the bar where I was sitting commented on it.

Suntory is a well-known “scotch” whiskey crafted by the Japanese. As with all the Japanese whiskeys I have tasted since starting the 69 drinks, it’s very nice, has excellent flavors, and is very smooth. But it has no heart. There’s nothing wrong with this whiskey, you could drink it every day for the rest of your life and be perfectly happy, but you would never find yourself in love.

Booker is an American bourbon. It was served to me mistakenly when I thought I was getting Bakers. Eventually we got it straightened out after making a few corrections on the list. Hey, it’s noisy, crowded bar, it’s a wonder mistakes like this don’t happen more than they do. No harm, no foul. Booker is an excellent Kentucky distillery and the bottle is pretty pricey. It’s smooth, maybe a little too smooth for me, but it doesn’t have so much of the dreaded sweetness that I hate. I’d be happy to drink it in the future as long as someone else is buying.

Mother Earth Gin. Another local product, this time out of Kinston, NC. If you put my feet to the fire I’d probably say that I liked it better than the aforementioned Conniption, but it’s really a toss up. The problem with these artisanal products (and many others) is that they’re too damn expensive.

Flying Pepper Vodka. Another local artisanal, this time vodka. It’s produced in Pittsboro, so close to where I live I could almost walk there. They infuse a local vodka with Tobago peppers which gives the drink a vegetal taste, by which I mean a green pepper taste, without any heat. I’ve been searching for a pepper vodka since I can’t get my regular Stoli Pepper anywhere around here in the ABC stores. These days there are many bottles labeled pepper, but they all turn out to be green peppers rather than black pepper, the kind that’s in your kitchen pepper grinder. And why anyone would want to impart the green taste with none, or very little, of the heat is beyond me. I tasted this straight and then in a Bloody Mary and neither did much at all for me.

Dominion Gin. I have no memory of drinking this and the Internet fails me. I guess it was pretty good, otherwise I would have noted disliking it.

Cynar. This is a digestive like Fernet Branca, which I mentioned several blogs ago. (Fun Fact to Know and Tell: After publishing that entry I read that the Fernet Branca producers are the largest saffron consumers in the world.) Cynar is made from artichokes and is the same sort of bitter as the Fernet. I like the taste and it certainly isn’t sweet. It’s kind of a weird color.

Diplimatico Rum. Diplimatico distills a number of rums, and I’m not sure which version this was. Next time I’m in the Penny I’ll look at the label. I thought it was very good. My server, another big guy with a beard, told me that it used to be impossible to get in this area until he convinced the ABC stores to stock it. Then you could only buy it by the case, but now it sells so well you can buy it by the single bottle. It’s heartwarming stories such as this that keep me on my grueling quest for the legendary 69 drinks.

Seven days, 14 drinks, and no Rafe. No one in the Penny had seen him for weeks, maybe months. I know he must be around, remember, I saw him last week outside my house on a moonlit night.

Didn’t I?

 

 

 

 

Twenty-nine

I felt it was time to go downstairs. I mean at night, or more correctly, in the early morning like I used to. I had been dodging the issue, pretending that everything was just fine, that I needed to research my town, study the era of my house, figure out when the central core was dragged up the road onto my lot, attend to all the fussy little details I didn’t know and thought I could learn if I just looked hard enough. And if I did this, the mysteries would go away, or at least leave me alone. Or at least not kill me. I do not want my house to fall on me.

I woke up around three AM. Actually, it was 3:10. Now that I’ve had my cataract surgery I can easily see the numbers on my clock radio. I tiptoed into the bathroom (didn’t want to wake Sherry) and slipped on my summer robe. I missed my fabulous blue winter robe, but I didn’t miss the cold weather. For those of you who are keeping score, this robe is a flat dark blue with mid-century-modern depictions of rowing sculls and oars, depicting my years on the Yale rowing team. Oh yeah, sure.

I went downstairs, avoiding the seventh stair, the one that creaks. Looking outside through the windows in Sherry’s office I found one of those nights like we have in the middle of winter, so bright from the full moon that it seems almost a dream, a flat layer of light that paints everything silver, so bright it casts shadows outside and in. I sat in my easy chair in the living room where I usually fall asleep. Sherry has put down a rug in her office, blocking any light from below and muffling any sounds of digging. I waited awhile, but no spirits called to me. I closed my eyes. Time passed. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was soon bored. I decided to go outside, something I generally don’t do. In the winter it’s too cold, and now that the weather is warm enough I’m dressed in a bathrobe. I thought about who would see me outside at this time of night. No one. Who would care? No one.

I opened the front door into the silvery night and went down the wide block steps. That was the first clue. It took me a moment to realize that there was no extended wrap-around front porch, no brick steps. I stood in the yard, surrounded by the bright moonlight. I turned around and looked back at the house, which was now not my house, now two large rooms, log cabin rooms with heavy stone steps leading down from the door to the yard. On my left as I’m twisted around facing the house was a free-standing structure that I’ve never seen before, one small room with a flat roof. Separated five feet from the house.

I try to clear my head. My house is… the house I know is…

Gone. There is only this crude cabin with the small structure off to the side. This yard is the same size as my yard, but there are no trees, no bushes, no garden, no mailbox. The yard is rough scrubland, red Carolina clay, cool beneath my bare feet, not exactly wilderness but certainly nothing that might be called a lawn.

There is a narrow, dirt track in front of my property. Orange Street. Where Orange Street is supposed to be. To my right is an even rougher track that is simply a path. Straight ahead of me, across the dirt track, I made out a faint glow and when I looked harder I made out the dark outline of a structure almost lost in foliage, a house, I suppose.

It was warm, pleasant, and I took a deep breath; it smelled of woods and freshly turned earth. There was a light breeze. I knew I wasn’t in Hillsborough, or at least the Hillsborough that I knew. But neither did it feel unfamiliar. I thought to myself, I’m dreaming. I wasn’t frightened. In the distance I could hear a brass band, faintly, playing a tune that I didn’t recognize. I tried to remember where I’ve heard this band before. I was reminded of my childhood, sitting on the front porch of our house back in Parkersburg with my mom and dad, hearing a band playing faintly, just like this, in the nearby city park.

“Allen.”

Behind me.

Jesus Christ, I almost wet myself.

Rafe.

“Rafe? What are you doing here?” I asked. “I’ve been looking for you.” I sounded like I was greeting a casual acquaintance who I hadn’t seen in a couple of days. Like this was normal. Me in my robe. In the middle of the night.

Rafe smiled. I could see him clearly. He was dressed in a blousy white shirt and butternut-colored canvas pants. Rough boots. Workmen’s clothes.

“I think,” Rafe said, mildly, “the question is, what are you doing here?”

“I live here. This is my house.” I looked around. “We’re in my yard. You know that.”

Still the same faint smile. As if he were humoring a man who was in the throes of dementia, a man who was feebleminded, or a little child. He took my elbow.

“Why don’t you go back inside?” he said. He moved me toward the stone steps. I walked up the first two steps and put my hand on the door handle.

I opened the door and turned to him. Before I could say anything he shook his head.

“You’re not ready to be here,” he said. “Not yet.”

I looked down at him. He turned and walked away down the yard to the street. Orange Street. Maybe.

I went inside, walked up the stairs, avoiding the step that squeaked, hung my robe in the bathroom and climbed into bed.

In the morning I woke up and went to the bathroom. I remembered, and I didn’t remember.

When my son Charlie was a little boy and he wanted to know something he would always say, “I have a question. Just one question.” Then he would ask several questions.

I have a question, just one question.

Why are my feet so dirty? And…

Where have I been?

I wrote this down this morning, before I have forgotten everything. Even now there’s less in my memory than there was. Silver light. Rafe.

Just one question.

Where was I?

Twenty-eight

Woodford Double Oaked Bourbon

Ham and Cheese w/ Deli Ham, Deli Pickles, Peppercorn Mayo, Lettuce, Swiss and Cheddar on Toasted Marble Rye

I’m at the New Penny, sitting at the bar. Pretty much just like sitting at the Old Penny only there’s a feeling of roominess now, which is because the new place is roomier. At least the servers can maneuver without having to dodge and weave around their oblivious clientele. I’m here looking for Rafe; I haven’t seen him in weeks and I feel bogged down, sinking deeper into my research, feeling like I’m putting off more active involvement, confrontation, but, truth be told, since the house almost fell on me I have little desire to go back under and end up looking like the Wicked Witch of the East. West? Whatever.

I considered for a moment asking Mark to go under to confirm my sighting of the camera jammed into the pillar, but I couldn’t do that. Maybe the house wouldn’t fall on him, maybe the spirits are saving that particular death for me, but I can’t chance asking Mark to go under to find out.

The Big Guy served me my drink, a Woodford Double Oaked Bourbon. I asked BG if he’d seen Rafe, and he said that he hadn’t seen him since the move. They transferred his few belongings from the old place into a room upstairs that they saved for him, but his bedroll hadn’t been used and his other stuff was just where they left it. I took a sip of my drink and looked it up on my cell phone.

I had a Woodford Reserve in one of my earlier visits; it’s a good bourbon but not all that special. It’s difficult to remember what the regular reserve tasted like, but I have the impression that this is better, or at least a notch above in complexity. The Internet tells me that this is the regular reserve that has been put into a second cask and given more aging time, hence the name “double casked.” After I read that, it tasted more oaky (oakier?) to me, which makes sense but just might be because I’m susceptible to suggestion. But after a second sip I find it too damn sweet, like almost all bourbons these days. It’s like they’re making them for children, and there I go sounding like a geezer. I’ve worked my way through almost all the brown liquors, the scotches and the bourbons on my list of 69 drinks and am now facing a bunch of clear spirits, in particular the tequilas, and I don’t like tequila. And a bunch of odd-ball liquors. But I’m up to the task.

I knocked back the bourbon, paid and asked BG to tell Rafe I was looking for him if he saw him. BG nodded, but his expression said that he wouldn’t hold out much hope if he were me. Not for the first time I wondered why Rafe had been a fairly large, and inexplicable part of my life a few weeks back and now he had completely disappeared. Was he making a point? As usual, I’m at sea, over my head, in deep water, you pick whatever cliché fits.

It’s late afternoon; I trudged up the hill and stopped at the foot of the Ashburn School property and scanned the grounds, looking for Rafe. He wasn’t in evidence, but I could see Betty wielding her shears among some sort of vine I couldn’t put a name to. I hiked up Queen Street and came around behind the big yellow house to where she was working.

She lowered her shears and said, “I don’t know where he is.”

This took me aback. “How did you know what I was going to ask?”

“I saw you looking up the hill, then you came around the house. Last time I saw you, I pointed you in Rafe’s direction. Later on he mentioned he had gone to your house and talked to you. Now you’re back here looking like you’ve got a question, so I figured that was the one you were going to ask. Elementary, my dear Watson.” She gave me a smile to lessen the sting of my being so easy to read.

“Any tips on where I might find him?”

“You should probably just keep going about your business. When he wants to be found, you’ll find him. Or more likely that he’ll find you. When there’s a reason for it.” She studied the vine she was trimming, lifted the clippers and snipped off about an eighth of an inch of leaf. This tiny adjustment appeared to satisfy her sense of order and design. She moved a foot to the right and began more significant trimming. She wasn’t dismissing me, but I could tell she didn’t have any more information that she was going to add. Betty seemed to be one of those people who knew things, lots of things, more things than those around her who were supposed to be in the know. But she wasn’t going to just sling her knowledge around, she was going to parse it out when and where needed. All in good time, I thought. I heard those words in my mind, in her voice. She smiled at me again, like she knew what I was thinking. I said goodbye and walked the block up the hill to my house.

I spent the afternoon paging through the entire 1850 census, the part that listed all the slaves in Orange County (my county). Except they weren’t named, just listed as numbers under the names of their owners. Fine, it would be nice to have their names, but it was the owners I was more interested in. I was looking to see if Lemuel Lynch, the silversmith who I believe owned the original two rooms of my house that were moved onto my yard from the Ashburn School, owned slaves. If he did, this might help me figure out why there’s at least one slave, Ada, the little girl, buried under my house. I came up with nothing on Lemuel, but there was a Thomas Lynch that had five slaves, two females and three males. Thomas could be either Lemuel’s brother, who was a Presbyterian minister, or his adult son. (Could a minister own slaves? Yet one more thing to look up.) Ok, I stopped to look it up.

Could a Presbyterian minister own slaves? It turns out they sure could, and in fact there were churches that owned slaves and paid for their ministers and church upkeep by selling the slaves or renting them out for extended periods of time. Christians are able to justify any behavior by poring over the Bible and finding backup for their beliefs, no matter how outdated and/or wrong. I won’t bore you with these justifications, but the Presbyterian Church was perfectly happy with the concept of buying, owning and selling human beings. And not just in the South, in the North the Church condoned slavery as an unconditional right.

The subject of Presbyterian ministers reminded me of Robert Ashburn, the man who owned, with his wife, the Ashburn School. Robert owned 11 slaves. And John Berry, the builder who constructed the addition to the Ashburn School and hauled the original two rooms off to become my house, owned 43 slaves. And this is the man who I thought was enlightened (and praised him as such to Professor Aiden at the library) because he freed some of the men who worked for him who had learned their trades well. Professor Aiden slapped me down for that; I deserved it.

Combing through the slave census is dispiriting, yet one more concrete block in the terrifying edifice of enslavement in this country. All the famous founders of my little town – Nash, Webb, Strayhorn, et al – can be found on these pages, accounting for hundreds and hundreds of slaves. Anyone who wants to look up 1850 slave owners (check out your own family) can do so by Googling “United States Slave Census 1850” and figuring it out from there. (It’s not easy; if you are determined to do this and can’t manage it, send me a comment and your email and I’ll reply with detailed instructions.)

After I finished searching these pages I was ready to tuck into a bottle of mid-level scotch and watch TV with Sherry while trying to forget the horrors of the 19thcentury.

In the middle of the night it caught back up with me, and I found myself lying awake at 3 AM staring at the ceiling, seeing visions of men and women in chains and hearing the snap of the whip. After thrashing around for a half an hour I gave up, put on my robe and went downstairs. I had a feeling this was not wise and I would come to regret it.

It wasn’t, and I did.

Here’s a portion of the page in the slave census where I found Thomas Lynch’s name.

Slave inhabitants Thos Lynch

 

 

 

 

Twenty-seven

I have never understood slavery. I know that sounds stupid. I am as aware of the history as well as most people, but knowing is not the same as understanding. How could such vast numbers of people be so morally bereft, so cruel, so greedy, so unthinking? Yes, I know that slavery has existed in some form pretty much everywhere in the world throughout time, but that same much of the world rejected it in most forms long before the US fought a Civil War to end it here.

I’m from West Virginia, though it’s been a long time since I lived there, but that’s the home place for me. Most of the rest of my years were spent in Washington, DC and Maryland. I am a recent resident of North Carolina, which while not the Deep South, is still very southern. My new southern friends have families that go back for generations. I sometimes ask if any of their ancestors owned slaves. This is probably a rude question, but I always receive polite answers. In general, rather than answering the question, they tell me stories of grandparents and sometimes great-grandparents who were extremely helpful to people of color and who were greatly beloved by these people. No one has ever said yes, their ancestors owned slaves. I don’t disbelieve them, and I also believe their kin was always good to the black minority, but it does seem odd that no one has ever answered in the affirmative.

Because Rafe told me that Ada, the little girl spirit that “lives” beneath my house, was a slave child, and because Professor Aiden told me to do research into documents of the period, I discovered a cache of fascinating material: Slave Narratives, A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves. Typewritten Records Prepared by the Federal Writers’ Project 1936-1938 Assembled by the Library of Congress Work Projects Administration for the District of Columbia.

The short explanation of these papers is the WPA hired out-of-work writers during the depression to spread out across the south and interview people about the Civil War. When it quickly became clear that the interviews with those who had been slaves or who had relatives who were slaves were far more interesting that of the general public, they began to focus on just that one subject. There are thousands of these interviews, many of them from people who lived in the same area where I now live. I’m going to reproduce one of them here. While it may be shocking to some of you, these interviews were written in dialect, and in fact the writers attempted to exactly reproduce the sound of the speech; they even had style sheets showing how this patois was to be rendered into written form. I found the interview that follows riveting, filled with beautiful language and as dramatic and tragic, as filled with horror and pathos, as any Shakespearian play.

DAVE LAWSON
EX-SLAVE

MY FATHER WHO KNEW THE PRINCIPLE CHARACTERS TOLD ME THIS STORY YEARS AGO

“Yes, suh, de wus’ I knows ’bout slavery times is what dey tols me ’bout how come dey hung my gran’mammy an’ gran’pappy. Dey hung dem bof at de same time an’ from de same lim’ of de tree, but dat was way back yonder befo’ Mistah Lincoln come down here to set de niggers free. My mammy wuzn’ but six months ole den an’ I wuzn’ even bawn, but Aunt Becky tole me ’bout it when I was ole enough to lissen.

“Dis ain’ no nice tale you gwine hear. It’s de truf, but ’tain’t nice. De fus’ time I heard it I didn’ sleep none for a week. Everytime I shut my eyes I seed Marse Drew Norwood wid dat funnel in his mouf an’ de hot steam blowin’ up like a cloud ‘roun’ his wicked face an’ skeered eyes.

“Dey say my gran’pappy’s Ole Marse was de meanes’ white man de Lawd ever let breath de breaf of life. His name was Marse Drew Norwood. He was de riches’ lan’ owner anywhare ‘roun’. He owned more lan’ an’ more niggers den anybody in Person or Granville counties. But he didn’ make his money wid no farm, no suh, he sho didn’, he made his money buyin’ an’ sellin’ niggers. He bought dem cheap an’ sold dem high. He would catch all de niggers dat run away from other plantations an’ keep dem in his lockup ‘twell he fatten dem, den he would take dem way off down in Georgia, Alabama or some place like dat an’ sell dem for a big price. He would come back wid his pockets runnin’ over wid money. Some folks say he stold niggers to sell, but nobody never could catch him.

“Marse Drew lived over here on de Virginia line ‘tween Red Bank an’ Blue Wing. He owned lan’ ‘cross de No’th Carolina line too an’ lived close to Blue Wing. He treated his niggers so mean dey was all de time runnin’ off. If he caught dem he beat dem near ’bout to death. He did beat Cindy Norwood to death one time kaze she run off to Marse Reuben Jones place an’ axed him to keep her. She got pizen in de cut places on her back an’ had fits three days befo’ de Lawd took her. But Marse Drew jus’ laugh an’ say he didn’ keer; dat she wuzn’ no ‘count nohow.

“I ain’t never seed Marse Drew kaze I was bawn way after de niggers was freed, but dey tole me he looked like a mad bull. He was short wid a big head set forward on his big shoulders. His neck was so short dat he couldn’ wear no collar; he jus’ kept de neck bindin’ of his shirt pinned wid a diaper pin. De debil done lit a lamp an’ set it burnin’ in his eyes; his mouf was a wicked slash cut ‘cross his face, an’ when he got mad his lips curled back from his teef like a mad dog’s. When he cracked his whip de niggers swinged an’ de chillun screamed wid pain when dat plaited thong bit in dey flesh. He beat Mistis too. Mis’ Cary wuzn’ no bigger den a minute an’ she skeered as a kildee of Marse Drew. She didn’ live long dey say kaze Marse Drew whipped her jus’ befo’ dey fus’ baby wuz bawn.

“Marse Drew done whip Luzanne kaze she burnt de biscuits, an’ Mis’ Cary give her some salve to rub on de cut places on her back. When Marse Drew foun’ it out he got so mad dat he come back to de big house an’ tole Mis’ Cary dat he gwine touch her up wid his whip kaze she give Luzanne de salve, dat when he want his niggers doctored he gwine doctor dem hese’f, so he got to use his lash a little bit to make her remember.

“Mis’ Cary got so skeered dat she run ‘roun’ an’ ‘roun’ de house, but Marse Drew run after her, an’ every now an’ den he th’ow out dat plaited whip an’ curl it ‘roun’ her shoulders. Every time it hit it cut clean through her clothes. Mis’ Cary got so skeered dat de baby come dat night befo’ ‘twuz time. De baby wuz bawn dead an’ Mis’ Cary went on to glory wid it. Dey say she was glad to go. Yes, suh, everything on dat plantation, animal an’ man was skeered of dat whip—dat whip dat never lef’ Marse Drew’s wris’. It was made of home-tanned leather plaited in a roun’ cord big as a man’s thum’. All day it swung from a leather strop tied to his wris’ an’ at night it lay on a chair ‘side de bed whare he could reach it easy.

“It was jus’ befo’ de Yankees come over here to fight dat Marse Drew bought Cleve an’ Lissa Lawson. Dey was my gran’mammy an’ gran’pappy. My mammy den was a baby. Marse Drew bought dem for fo’ hundred an’ fifty dollars. Dat was cheap kaze de niggers was young wid hard farm trainin’. Ole Marse didn’ buy mammy. He said a nigger brat wuzn’ no good, dey wouldn’ sell an’ dey might die befo’ dey growed up, ‘sides dey was a strain on de mammy what breas’ nussed it. Lissa cut up powerful kaze he made her leave de baby behin’, but Marse Drew jus’ laughed an’ tole her dat he would give her a puppy; dat dey was plenty of houn’s on de plantation. Den he snapped de chains on dey wris’ an’ led dem off. Lissa an’ Cleve never seed dat baby no more. Aunt Beck Lawson took an’ raised her an’ when she got grown she was my mammy.

“Yes, suh, Marse Drew bought dem niggers like he was buyin’ a pair of mules. Dey wuzn’ no more den mules to him. It was early summer when he brung dem to de plantation, but when wheat cuttin’ time come Lissa an’ Cleve was sent to de wheat fiel’s. Dey was smart niggers, dey worked hard—too hard for dey own good. In dem times ‘twuz de smart, hard workin’ niggers dat brought de bes’ price, an’ nobody didn’ know dat better den Marse Drew.

“One day Cleve seed Marse Drew watchin’ Lissa. She was gleamin’ de wheat. Her skin was de color of warm brown velvet; her eyes was dark an’ bright an’ shinin’ like muscadines under de frosty sun, an’ her body was slender like a young tree dat bends easy. As she stooped an’ picked up de wheat, flingin’ it ‘cross her arm, she swayed back an’ fo’th jus’ like dem saplins down yonder by de creek sways in de win’.

“Cleve watched Marse Drew on de sly. He seed him watchin’ Lissa. He seed de lustful look in his eyes, but ‘twuzn’ Lissa he lustin’ after; ‘twuz money he seed in her slender swayin’ body, in de smooth warm brown skin, an’ de quick, clean way she gleam de wheat. Stripped to de wais’ on de Alabama auction block she would bring near ’bout a thousan’ dollars. Cleve ‘gun to sweat. He turned so sick an’ skeered dat he could hardly swing de scythe through de wheat. Marse Drew done took his baby away, an’ now sumpin’ way down in his heart told him dat he was gwine take Lissa. He didn’ keer if he parted dem, ‘twuz dollars he seed swingin’ ‘roun’ his head—gol’ dollars shinin’ brighter den stars.

“‘Twuz de nex’ day dat Marse Drew went to Cleve’s cabin. He walk up whistlin’ an’ knock on de door wid de butt of his whip.

“Cleve opened de door.

“Ole Marse tole him to pack Lissa’s clothes, dat he was takin’ her to Souf Boston de nex’ day to sell her on de block.

“Cleve fell on his knees an’ ‘gun to plead. He knew Ole Marse wuzn’ gwine take Lissa to no Souf Boston; he was gwine take her way off an’ he wouldn’ never see her no more. He beg an’ promise Marse Drew to be good an’ do anything he say [HW: to] do if he jus’ leave him Lissa, dat she was his wife an’ he love her. But Marse Drew hit him ‘cross de face wid his whip, cuttin’ his lip in half, den he went over an’ felt of Lissa’s arms an’ legs like she might have been a hoss.

“When he done gone Cleve went over an’ set down by Lissa an’ took her han’. Lissa ‘gun to cry, den she jumped up an’ ‘menced to take down her clothes hangin’ on de wall.

“Cleve watched her for a while, den he made up his min’ he gwine do sumpin’, dat she ain’t gwine be took away from him. He say: ‘Quit dat, Lissa, leave dem clothes alone. You ain’t gwine leave me, you ain’t gwine nowhare, hear me?’ Den he tole her to make up a hot fire while he brung in de wash pot. He brung in de big iron pot an’ set it on de hearth an’ raked de’ red coals all ‘roun’ it, den he filled it wid water. While it was heatin’ he went to de door an’ looked out. De sun done gone down an’ night was crowdin’ de hills, pushin’ dem out of sight. By daylight dat white man would be comin’ after Lissa.

“Cleve turned ‘roun’ an’ looked at Lissa. She was standin’ by de wash pot lookin’ down in de water, an’ de firelight from de burnin’ lightwood knots showed de tears droppin’ off her cheeks. Cleve went outside. ‘Bout dat time a scritch owl come an’ set on de roof an’ scritched. Lissa run out to skeer it away, but Cleve caught her arm. He say, ‘Don’t do dat, Lissa, leave him alone. Dat’s de death bird, he knows what he’s doin’. So Lissa didn’ do nothin’, she let de bird keep on scritchin’.

“When ‘twuz good an’ dark Cleve took a long rope an’ went out, tellin’ Lissa to keep de water boilin’. When, he come back he had Marse Drew all tied up wid de rope an gagged so he couldn’ holler; he had him th’owed over his shoulder like a sack of meal. He brung him in de cabin an’ laid him on de floor, den he tole him if he wouldn’ sell Lissa dat he wouldn’ hurt him. But Marse Drew shook his head an’ cussed in his th’oat. Den Cleve took off de gag, but befo’ de white man could holler out, Cleve stuffed de spout of a funnel in his big mouf way down his th’oat, holdin’ down his tongue. He ax him one more time to save Lissa from de block, but Marse Drew look at him wid hate in his eyes shook his head again. Cleve didn’ say nothin’ else to him; he call Lissa an’ tole her to bring him a pitcher of boilin’ water.

“By den Lissa seed what Cleve was gwine do. She didn’ tell Cleve not to do it nor nothin’; she jus’ filled de pitcher wid hot water, den she went over an’ set down on de floor an’ hol’ Marse Drew’s head so he couldn’ move.

“When Ole Marse seed what dey was fixin’ to do to him, his eyes near ’bout busted out of his head, but when dey ax him again ’bout Lissa he wouldn’ promise nothin’, so Cleve set on him to hol’ him down, den took de pitcher an’ ‘gun to pour dat boilin’ water right in dat funnel stickin’ in Marse Drew’s mouf.

“Dat man kicked an’ struggled, but dat water scalded its way down his th’oat, burnin’ up his insides. Lissa brung another pitcher full an’ dey wuzn’ no pity in her eyes as she watched Marse Drew fightin’ his way to torment, cussin’ all niggers an’ Abraham Lincoln.

“After dat Lissa an’ Cleve set down to wait for de sheriff. Dey knew ‘twuzn’ no use to run, dey couldn’ get nowhare. ‘Bout sunup de folks come an’ foun’ Marse Drew, an’ dey foun’ Lissa an’ Cleve settin’ by de door han’ in han’ waitin’. When dem niggers tole what dey done an’ how come dey done it dem white folks was hard. De sheriff took de rope from’ roun’ Marse Drew an’ cut it in two pieces. He tied one rope ‘roun’ Cleve’s neck an’ one rope ‘roun’ Lissa’s neck an’ hung dem up in de big oak tree in de yard.

“Yes, suh, dat’s what happened to my gran’mammy an’ gran’pappy in slavery times. Dis here cabin we’s settin’ in is de same cabin whare Cleve an’ Lissa scalded Marse Drew, an’ dat oak tree ‘side de paf is de same tree dey was hung on. Sometimes now in de fall of de year when I’se settin’ in de door after de sun done gone down; an’ de wheat am ripe an’ bendin’ in de win’, an’ de moon am roun’ an’ yeller like a mush melon, seems like I sees two shadows swingin’ from de big lim’ of dat tree—I sees dem swingin’ low side by side wid dey feets near ’bout touchin’ de groun’.”

*

Those of you who would like to read more of these incredible interviews can find them at:http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31219/31219-h/31219-h.htm#Page_1

Anyone who would like to tell me about ancestors who owned slaves, please send me your stories in the comment section.

Those of you who are offended by the language of Dave Lawson in the interview, send your comments to the Library of Congress.

 

 

 

Twenty-six

Good-Bye, Lead Penny, Hello

Fernet-Branca

Local Burger w/Chipotle Curry Sauce, Muenster Cheese, Bacon, Tomato, Mayo, Red Onion.

The Lead Penny is closing! I was shocked to see the announcement of its last day on Instagram. I was aware that the restaurant group that owns the Penny was opening a new place three doors north of their present location, but I thought this new bar/restaurant would be in addition to the Penny and that the Penny would remain open. That’s what I get for leaving town for two weeks. I had plenty of questions, primarily would they continue the 69 drinks challenge? Like I said, I was shocked.

I don’t like going out of town and leaving my house. It’s a bit like leaving an aging mistress. (Not that I would know.) There are many things with the various systems that can go haywire — cooling, heating, plumbing, electric — events that could prove disastrous if I’m not around to catch them early. The house is old: everything old is prone to problems. Now add the strange occurrences that I have been chronicling here: the little girl apparition, Rafe digging up bones, the lights, the possibility of an even more malign being under the house, cat kidnapping, killer squirrels, the moving of the camera into the pillar, the house shifting, the fact that my phone camera no longer works under the house, the increasing number of nuisance computer problems. (The Hell to Pay type is still there, I can work around it, but I can’t remove it.) The fact that I found the base of the remote camera inside the house sitting on my keyboard upstairs in my office. This is perhaps the most disturbing element; we lock the house every night, but something, someone, is able to move freely inside when I’m sleeping a few feet away. What are they doing when I’m not here?

So I depend on the Penny as a place of refuge. It was with some trepidation Sherry and I went to the last-night celebration. It was crazy. The place was jammed, people were standing on tables shouting, taking picture, drinking toasts. I looked for Rafe, but he’s hard enough to spot on a calm night. I had a Fernet Branca, which is an Italian liquor, a type of amaro known for its bitterness. I have a long Fernet Branca story from my youth, which I sometimes tell if I’ve had enough to drink. I had originally thought I would recount it on these pages, but I’ve changed my mind. It’s indeed long, too long, involves a beautiful Englishwoman I met in Rome, a night of epic drinking and a terrible hangover the next morning whereupon the English lady taught me about the restorative powers of Fernet Branca; then she took me on a trip to a black-sand beach down the boot of Italy where the ladies strutted around the sand wearing bikini bottoms, no tops, and high heeled shoes; promises were made, promises were broken. If anyone passes through my town and we end up at the New Penny, buy me a few drinks, maybe I’ll tell you the story.

It was not my finest moment; or maybe it was.

For some reason Fernet has become a hipster drink, beloved by chefs for after-work drinking. Bitter is the operative word, but I like it and keep a bottle in the back of the liquor cabinet for those rare occasions when I need a hangover remedy.

Here’s a picture of me and the Big Guy grabbed in the midst of the craziness of that last night.

me and the Big Guy

 

The New Penny has opened. Here’s a report.

Beefeater Gin

Steelhead Salmon Tacos w/slaw, Creamy Dressing, Cilantro

They debuted the new bar just a few days after they closed the old one, three buildings up the street in what was originally a drug store. The new version looks pretty much like the old, only cleaner and bigger. All the old “art” is on the walls, including a line of the plaques honoring those who have entered the pantheon of 69 drinks. All the handwritten chalkboards announcing the changing lineup of food and drink are back up. There’s more room inside and a nice outside seating area. The only drawback is that with more people it’s extremely loud. You have to shout to be heard over the crowd noise and the music. This may sound like a geezer complaint and it may quiet down if there are fewer people, but it was REALLY loud. I may have to become an outside drinker, at least until it gets too cold.

And so the saga of the Lead Penny, and my 69 drinks, continues.

Next week: Things get serious.

 

 

 

Twenty-five

I’ve been back for several days, and I’ve been busy. And now I’m worried.

I have to say, being on the road for two weeks was in many ways a relief. When you’re staying at a motel somewhere in Arkansas you don’t have to think about spirits knocking around underneath your room. But you always have to come home, eventually. Did I hope that maybe they’d just leave while I was gone? Maybe a little. But they didn’t leave. Nope.

The camera I ordered from Amazon arrived while I was away.  It’s a Wyze Cam 1080p HD indoor wireless smart home camera with night vision, about four inches square and comes with a detachable base. It streams directly to my phone and turns on when it detects motion up to 30 feet away even in total darkness. It records sound and has free rolling 14-day cloud storage. All for the magnificent sum of $25.95. That’s one hell of a deal

.Screen Shot 2018-06-30 at 2.13.05 PM

I studied the directions for the camera until I got bored then went ahead and set it up. It worked fine while I was sitting on the front porch. I recorded several minutes of boring footage of my neighbors walking their dogs on the street in front of my house. I then crawled under the house, about five feet in and settled the camera into the dirt, pointing at the area where I had seen the little girl spirit when she was trying to abduct Sweetie.  (See post # 19) Toward one of the dozen or so pillars that hold up the house. I tested it again; all good.

Could I see a show of hands from those of you out there who believe in spirit photography?

Not me.

I had originally planned a post about the history of spirit photography when I ordered the camera, but I’m not going to bother. I emailed my pal Dan Stashower who wrote a book about one of the most famous and credible spirit photographers of all time, Arthur Conan Doyle. My question to Dan was simple: did Conan Doyle — one of history’s supposedly most rational men — actually believe one could photograph ghosts and fairies? Really? Dan’s answer: yes.

So I’m going to give it a try, as a number of you suggested I do. Or rather, I gave it a try. Remember earlier in this post I said I was worried? Well, here’s what happened.

I set up the camera. I tested it, it worked. I went to bed.

In the morning, this morning, I got up early and the first thing I did was look at the camera app on my phone.

Nothing. A series of black screens. Fifty of them, one after another. Something triggered the camera, a sound or motion, to take a picture, but nothing was recorded. Well, I didn’t really think it was going to work the first time. I needed to check out the camera and see how I screwed up. Is this what’s worrying me? No.

After I looked at the camera phone failure, I dressed, went downstairs and had breakfast on the side porch. After, I went back upstairs to my studio. Now you’ll see why I’m worried.

Sitting on my computer keyboard was the detachable base of the camera. Dirt was scattered around my desk. I had to look hard and think about what it was that I was seeing. I needed to process what I was looking at. It took a few minutes.

Let me say it again: the base of the camera that I had carefully set up to record any activity under my house was now sitting inside the house. INSIDE THE HOUSE!

I stood there like a mute fool, I don’t know how long, until I worked up the courage to pick it up. It seemed intact. Just like it had when I took it out of the box, except it was dirty. And there was no camera.

The next step was obvious: I was going to have to go look under the house and see if the camera part was there.

By now I was running on autopilot. There was no use in mentally asking the obvious questions (how did it get upstairs, etc.) It was inexplicable, and would be until I had more information.

It wasn’t 7:00 AM yet and Sherry was still sleeping. I went downstairs (bringing the camera base with me) and went outside. It was sunny; the skies were clear with nary a single ghost or malevolent spirit to be seen. I walked around the side of the house; the low wooden door to the crawlspace was open. I sank to my knees and squeezed through the door, dragging myself along on my elbows. I was trying to keep my mind blank. I could have easily stopped and backed out if I gave what I was doing a minute’s rational thought. It was dark, or rather darkish under the house, but there was plenty of light coming in around the edges of the crawlspace to see.

No camera.

I pulled myself over to the spot where I knew had planted the camera; I could see the shallow depression where I had buried the bottom of the base. The ground was dug up a bit.

No camera.

I lay there, trying to keep my head up so I wasn’t sucking in a century’s worth of dirt. I was breathing kind of hard. After a few minutes, I noticed something odd about the pillar that was another ten feet in front of me. I had pointed the camera at this pillar when I set it up, so I would have something solid, something real in the pictures if the camera was triggered.

There was something white in the side of the pillar, three-quarters of the way up the base. The rest of the pillar was made up of the usual: old bricks, stone blocks, all of it covered with the grime of a hundred plus years. I crawled slowly toward the pillar.

Halfway there I could see that the white object was the camera I had bought and set up the night before, even though it was impossible to believe. I kept crawling.

This was the furthest I had ever come. I was right at the base of the pillar. I took out my phone and used the flashlight. The camera was buried in the pillar; its front, the lens side, was flush with the stone block above and below. I wondered if this was where the inspector had found the old bottle jammed into the pillar. I couldn’t see any way this four-inch cube of plastic could have been crammed into where it was. I reached up and touched the camera to see if I could remove it.

When I put my hand on the camera, the pillar seemed to shift, as if I had pushed a critical block, a key. The entire pillar shifted away from me and a thin cascade of grit sifted down on my head. I could hear a grinding noise. I was convinced it was coming down.

I scrambled backwards faster than I thought I could move. I had a vision – was it a vision? – of the entire house sliding forward and crashing down on me; for just a second I imagined the scene from the Wizard of Oz, the one with the Wicked Witch’s demise, but this time it was my family and friends standing and looking at my legs protruding from beneath the house. Cue the munchkins.

I made it out. I stood up, trying to brush the dirt off my body. It was quiet. No grinding and groaning foundation, no falling bricks and stones, no teetering house, no spirits laughing at me. Just the bright sunshine of a North Carolina summer day. Had I imagined it?

I went upstairs, quietly. Sherry was still asleep. If the house really did teeter it hadn’t knocked her awake. I took a shower and changed clothes.

Now I’m sitting here typing this. I’m numb.

My phone just made a little buzz, indicating some function. I looked at the screen. There was a picture of me, looking into the lens, under the house, a terrified expression on my face. As I watched, the picture faded away. The screen went black.