Ghost on Black Mountain
by Ann Hite
read by Amy Tapia
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Mama warned Nellie against marrying Hobbs Pritchard. She saw the future in her tealeaves, an omen, death. Mama refused to attend the ceremony, which wasn’t much to speak of, just the Baptist preacher, a Bible, and words; words that bound Nellie for the rest of her life.
But, Hobbs was so cute. His eyes reminded her of a crystal-clear winter sky; it didn’t take much to make Nellie see life his way. In those first days of sweet romance, if Hobbs Pritchard asked her to jump off a bridge, she would have done it with a smile on her face. Mama always said not to love a man too much; a woman should save some love back to care for herself. Nellie loved Hobbs with everything in her; besides, she had to marry him. He kissed her full on the mouth and ran his hand inside her shirt and that sealed the deal.
Their honeymoon consisted of one night in the back room of Mr.
Hamby’s store. Hobbs paid real good money for the privilege and decided he needed to get his money’s worth. His body hammered into Nellie, drinking that love she offered in one sloppy gulp. When it was over, he left her alone, no kiss or hug, but he wasn’t much on either. Nellie lay on the cot thinking of ways she could soften him.
Hobbs moved Nellie to Black Mountain the next day. The leaves had turned the mountain a brilliant orange, red, and gold. Mama cried like a baby. She stood in the door of the farm, twisting her long skirt in weathered worn fingers. “Nothing will ever be the same. You’ll never come back home, Nellie girl.”
They settled in a cabin two miles up the mountain from Hobbs’s family. The winter was colder than Nellie could remember, but Hobbs always brought food home. Still, the cabin walls seemed to close around her. With the first spring thaw, Nellie took to walking the paths through the woods.
Hobbs stayed gone most of the time on business. One morning a fog moved in as she walked the path. Familiar landmarks disappeared, but Nellie had a good sense of direction and didn’t worry too much until she saw a man standing in the path ahead.
“Are you lost sir?” He was ill-fit for the area, a town man, dressed in tailored clothes, but his knees were dirty.
“The fog plays tricks on people.” He looked through Nellie.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. “Well, I got to get home.”
He nodded and walked into the woods and disappeared into the fog.
Nellie’s mother in-law came to visit that afternoon after the fog burned off and the day turned cheery. Hobbs had been gone for nearly a week; Nellie began to feel his absences like a tiny cut on the end of the finger; she would forget it was there until she touched on it and then, the pain would cut right through her.
“Hobbs is just like that honey. You can’t go changing a man. If that’s what you got in your head, forget it. He’s too much like his daddy.
That man made a name for himself, a shameful name with women, but you look at me; I’m stronger for it.”
The words crashed through Nellie’s mind. “I’m sure Hobbs is not like that. He loves me.”
“Well, sure he do, Nellie. It ain’t got a thing to with love.
It’s more like a sport; you know a man’s thing.”
Nellie rushed forward with talk to shut up the foolish woman. “I saw a man in the woods today. He looked lost. I asked him if I could help, but he just spoke nonsense.”
Mrs. Pritchard grasped her chest. “Lordy be child, that’s the ghost of Merlin Hocket. He came here twenty years ago to measure the mountain. Worked for the government. Got lost in the fog and walked off a cliff. Found him dead in the creek. It preserved him right nice since the water was so cold. Folks that see him always have some kind of doom come their way. I ain’t never heard a soul say he talked to them.”
“He didn’t look like a ghost.”
“Most ghosts don’t look like ghosts. They look like you and me.”
She looked around Nellie’s cabin. “You’re spending too much time by yourself. I want you to come help us quilt. Us girls meet every Thursday.
You plan on being there.”
“What kind of doom?” Nellie thought of Mama’s tealeaves.
“Last person to spot the ghost was Mrs. Carson; her husband burned in his barn three days later. Of course, I always said he was making shine and the still exploded, but that’s not for me to say. The time before that was when the government people brought that Spanish influenza, gave it to Henry Marks. He died in two days. It like to have wiped out half of the mountain. We don’t have to worry about that anymore. All them government people have now is the depression, and Lord knows we here on Black Mountain know all about lack of money. We could teach those rich fools how to live.”
Nellie nodded hoping Mrs. Pritchard would leave.
“Now, you just plan on quilting. I’ll send Tom around for you.”
“Thank you, but I’m not much of a quilter. I like gardens. I’m going to plant me a nice one right out there.” She pointed to the flat piece of land before the yard sloped off.
“Quilting is just as important as gardening. Did your mama teach you anything?” Mrs. Pritchard said this over her shoulder as she left.
Nellie marked the corners of her garden plot. Flowers in between rows of practical vegetables would be just the frame for the mountains in the distance. On a clear day, she could see rows and rows of mountains like waves rolling in on the beach. She saw the beach once as a child. Daddy took her and Mama on a trip to the Low Country of South Carolina to see his parents. Poor as they were they had the best place in the world to live.
Nellie hadn’t seen her grandparents since the day Daddy died and they came to take his body home. Mama said that was fine because he loved that country so much; she couldn’t imagine him anywhere else.
Nellie’s garden plot was rocky and hard to turn with the hoe, but Nellie put all her energy into the work. This helped keep the images of Hobbs with other women at bay. He wouldn’t do that to her. She knew this, but sometimes, he lost interest as she talked; his eyes glazed over, and he never noticed when she quit talking in mid-sentence. But, that was just his way.
Two weeks later, he came home late and jumped on the bed; he torn at her nightgown buttons. She pushed at him from a deep sleep. The back of his hand crashed across her face.
“You’re my wife. I can do what I want.” He ripped her gown away; the only gown she owned.
The smell of whiskey, sweat and something sweet-roses maybe-gagged her. “Hobbs please.”
He punched her head. “Shut up!” He forced himself inside of her.
Fear paralyzed her. When Hobbs was finished with his fun, he rolled over and began to snore. The smell drove her from the bed and she lost her supper.
Her husband was sleeping with other women. What could she do?
Hobbs came to life around two the next afternoon. Nellie heard him slamming around in the house. She worked with her hoe, turning the dirt for her garden. Planting season would be upon her.
“What are you doing, woman?” Hobbs stood in the door without a shirt, his pants unbuttoned.
She prayed to God that she would be spared from him and kept working the dirt.
“Talk to me woman! I make plenty of money selling shine. You don’t need no damn garden!”
“I’m making a garden, Hobbs.”
“We need a child, a boy to follow in his old man’s footsteps.
She looked at the man who once thrilled her and now made her sick and continued to turn the dirt.
“Did you hear me?” His voice roared.
Nellie stopped hoeing. “I want to go back to my mother.”
Hobbs covered the distance between them in three steps, grabbing the hoe and throwing her to the ground. He punched her until she became numb and accepted she might die. He shoved her face into the fresh damp dirt.
When she woke, he was no where to be seen, but Nellie didn’t take any chances. She lay still for a while, waiting. The taste of salty blood was in her mouth. Finally she struggled to her feet and walked the two miles to her mother in-law’s farm.
Mrs. Pritchard was washing clothes by the creek. The horror on her face told Nellie how bad she looked. “What in the world happen child?”
Mrs. Pritchard jumped to her feet.
Nellie wasn’t sure that her voice worked. “Hobbs beat me.”
Mrs. Pritchard stepped back a step. “What did you do?” When Nellie didn’t answer, she spoke again. “It’s just part of life, dear.”
Nellie’s ears rang. “I want to go to my mama.”
“You can’t go. You’re Hobbs’s wife. A husband can do what he wants.”
Nellie turned to leave, a dull thought knocking in her head.
“Not my husband,” she whispered.
“What did you say dear?” Mrs. Pritchard stepped forward. “Let me see to those bruises and cuts.”
Nellie kept walking. “Thank you, no.”
“Don’t cause no more trouble for yourself, Nellie. He’s probably left for a while. Fix him a real nice dinner and make yourself pretty.”
Nellie laughed at the sky and kept walking. Mrs. Pritchard kept talking, but Nellie couldn’t hear her.
She walked home through the woods, slow, thinking. The strange mad stood in the path-this time with no fog. He stared into her eyes.
“Sometimes, you think you’re lost but really you’re not.” He turned and walked away.
That afternoon, Nellie chopped firewood; over and over, she split logs into pieces. Then, she heated water and soaked in lavender Mama had sent with her. She chose a loose fitting dress and allowed her hair to hang free, flowing down her back and over her shoulders. A fire warmed the cabin; extra logs were stacked on the hearth; the ax leaned against the firewood. She waited in the rocker until sleep got the best of her.
Hobbs bent over the rocker, a hand on each arm, trapping her.
“Look at you. I guess a good beating now and then does just the thing. Makes you realize how lucky you are.”
She smiled as if in a dream and thought of the man in the fog.
“What you smiling at?” He smelled of whiskey.
“I’ll show you if you let me stand.”
He grinned and moved away. “Now, don’t you try anything funny, or I’ll beat you again.”
She stood and dropped her dress to the floor. Her body reflected the burses, but Hobbs didn’t seem to notice. “I want to show you what I can do, Hobbs.” She guided him to the floor on top of the rug in front of the hearth and dropped to her knees beside Hobbs, leaving the terrible compromise in the shadows. The person who mounted Hobbs turned the wind into the hot breath of the devil. She embraced the heat and opened her mind to freedom. And, for a fraction of a moment, she owned him.
When he slept, snoring on the rug, she stood, clasped the ax in her hands; the weight slung over her head nearly buckled her knees. The room spun and thunder rumbling in the distance shook the cabin. The moist air would bring a fog. She swung with all her might and splintered her prison.
Her sin spilled all over the rug Mama had woven and Nellie deeply regretted that.
A fog moved in at dawn rolling into the open windows. She worked on the clean up until the fog burned away and the sun rode the sky. The fireplace coals and ashes were sprinkled over the rich dirt of her garden.
As the hoe turned them into the ground, she repeated a prayer.
“Dear God forgive, please forgive me.”
His head was all that remained. Even she couldn’t destroy his face; instead, she pushed it through a hole in a hollow tree on the edge of the property, overlooking the garden.
Three weeks passed and the weather turned hot. Nellie gave the whole cabin a good cleaning and found time to plant her garden. When Tom, Hobbs’s baby brother, came for her on Thursdays, she went to the quilting, smiling. At night, she slept the sleep of innocence, safe. In the sixth week, she wrote a letter:
Your prediction came true. I am now free to plant my garden.
Love you forever
She walked the letter to Mrs. Pritchard’s house, hoping Tom would carry it to Mama on his next trip down the mountain.
Mrs. Pritchard held the letter in her hand. “What’s Hobbs say about this?”
Nellie shrugged. “Hasn’t been home.”
“Has he ever stayed gone this long?”
“Oh yes, he stayed gone eight weeks in the winter.” Nellie pointed to the letter. “You can read it if you like.” Mrs. Pritchard could read a flour sack.
“I can’t read your writing.” She shoved the letter at Nellie.
Nellie read it aloud. “You see, nothing bad.”
“What was your mama’s prediction.”
“Doom. She was right.”
Mrs. Pritchard looked away. “Tom said you have a mighty bad smell up there around the cabin. Said it smelled like something dead.”
“I know that smell is horrible. I had a coon hanging around, but I haven’t seen him in six days. The smell is coming from the old hollow tree.”
“Get some lime out of the shed, sprinkle it around the tree and in it. He probably crawled in there to die. Could be rabid.”
“I bet you’re right about that.”
Nellie scooped her a small sack of lime and walked home.
Two months went by and Nellie was nested in the cabin good. Mrs. Pritchard got real desperate, sending Tom down the mountain in search of Hobbs.
Nellie just smiled, shrugged, and worked her garden, which flourished. Each morning Nellie got out of bed, threw up, and went to work in the garden before she could coax a piece of bread down. Sometimes she thought of the hollow tree, but mostly she thought of the future and actions she needed to take.
Tom came home, telling his mama that Hobbs hadn’t seen his girlfriend Rose in over a month. Nellie had dropped by for some flour-she was running low-and just bit the inside of her lip until it bled. Tom started asking her questions about what Hobbs was wearing the last time Nellie saw him. She said she couldn’t remember, probably his old overalls. He wore them all the time.
“I want to come look around the cabin.”
“You’re welcome.” Nellie looked him dead in the eye.
That night it stormed. She found an old shirt of Hobbs’s and a pair of overalls. She stood in front of his shaving mirror and cut her hair until it was close to her head and she looked a lot like a boy. At dawn a fog rolled in and Nellie harnessed the horse, stuck a hat on her head, and hid her belongings under the seat. She didn’t take much, only some old dresses she could tear apart for baby clothes and the hundred dollars she found on Hobbs. She wished she could visit Mama, but the prediction had been right.
Nellie could and would not go home.
Tom Pritchard passed her on his way to search her cabin. He would find a fire burning, breakfast dishes on the table, a bright new rug, hooked by Nellie, and a note saying she had gone for a walk in the woods.
Years later when Maria begged her mother to tell a story, Nellie told the legend of Black Mountain, and how the young wife who grieved over her husband walked off into the fog never to be found.