December 2012

Lightsey Darst


A Christmas Ghost Story

I've sent my grandmother's velvet dress to be altered at last. I've had it for years now in a bag in the closet, unworn; she gave it to me before she died. Of course I was married then and everyone was giving me everything, heirloom silver from the creaking built-ins of Virginia farms, paintings off of my parents' bedroom wall, milk glass pitchers any move would shatter, everything I ever made when I was a child, in the well-meaning way that people have of saddling you with all the things that saddle them, the ritual weighting-down that joins you to the common stock. I still have the dress, anyway. I don't know what my grandmother thought I would do with it -- a high-necked frock of good velvet, knee-length, with bell sleeves tipped in black fox. For all I know, she thought her life, the life of a company man's wife, would be mine: PTA, Garden Circle, Junior League, all in full swing, art classes on weekends, entertaining, ham salad served up in scallop shells. She used to remind my mother and me that if we wanted to join the DAR, all the paperwork was in order.

Or maybe she knew better.

"Take it in, cut it short, put a slit in it, something," I said to the seamstress. "Make it fit me, make it sexy." It's a sin to do this to such good cloth -- you don't see velvet like this anymore, the seamstress told me -- but what can I do? I have to live my life. And I need a black dress to do it in.


My parents used to read a nativity story every Christmas from one of the Gospels. This they did a little at random, because they could not remember which they had read the previous year, or which they meant to read, which Gospel had the best lines and which skipped the nativity entirely. They were not biblical scholars. The mysterious story, whichever they choose, came and went without commentary, and never went any further than those few chapters.

When we stopped reading the Bible at Christmas, I'm not sure -- capitulating to our helpless heathen nature -- but we replaced it with an annual viewing of some version of A Christmas Carol, the lines from which we all know by heart now. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol amid the Victorian revival and recreation of Christmas. He was inspired by the old tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmastime, a tradition his own story has now largely blotted out -- so much so that the idea of Christmas ghost stories may sound sacrilegious to modern Americans. But, when you think of it, the nativity stories themselves are ghost stories: voices are heard, spirits draw close, the fabric of the world frays and the otherworld shows through.


I've always loved ghost stories. Lately, I've been reading nothing but them, starting earlier each day, as the days grow shorter, as the dark comes sooner. The Turn of the Screw is wonderful, M. R. James is delightful, and Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows" is one of the scariest things I've ever read, but for me the best stories are naked ones: folk tales collected in mountain hollows, first-hand experiences simply told. What do I love about them? I've never had an experience myself beyond the odd dream or cold spot in an old house. Is it terror or comfort I want?


Nothing shall be impossible. I don't remember what I felt about the nativity stories before -- probably I was so busy trying to be a good girl, trying to feel whatever I was supposed to, that I didn't know how I really felt. Now, when I reread them, I feel sympathy, sympathy for the bewilderment of the protagonists, and for their exhilaration too, for the conviction that must have run all over them like a skin of fire. Younger than I am now, they trembled at the edge of a new world. The past seemed erased; the future, a mystery. Anything could happen.


"A long time ago my mother lived on a farm in Taylor County. And one day she looked out of the window, and she saw a woman standing in a nearby field. There wasn't another house very close, and all the land was level and flat, and you could see a good distance. This woman stooped down as if to pick something up, and then slowly stood up and held her hands out. My mother thought it was a visitor who was coming to see her, and she thought she would go and do some little task before the guest got there. It was only a moment until she glanced up again, but the woman was gone." -- William Lynwood Montel, Ghosts Along the Cumberland

What comes near, what gestures to us:

"We went upstairs together, I being perhaps a couple of steps behind my friend, when, on reaching the topmost step, I felt something suddenly slip behind me from an unoccupied room to the left of the stairs." -- Celia Green and Charles McCreery, Apparitions

The most terrifying story I ever read -- I don't know where I read it -- was about nothing more than a column of light following a girl in the woods.

"One night these two men had been sitting up with a sick man in the community. One of the men had to walk home alone quite a distance in the deep of night. Something on the other side of the fence walked along beside him as he walked. If he ran, it ran too. If he walked, it walked." -- Ghosts Along the Cumberland

"Before the highway was built through Dug Hill, the old road went by the cemetery... Used to be a woman who would come out of the cemetery at night and walk up the hill with anyone who came along the road." -- Richard M. Dorson, Buying the Wind

In these stories, the beyond is close, and strangely like us.

"I dreamt one night that I saw my brother on horseback, who said to me that he was on a journey... I observed that his expression of countenance appeared very strange, and asked him why he looked so blue-black in the face? On which he made answer that it was occasioned by the new cloak he had put on, which was dyed with indigo." -- Apparitions


That last story reminds me: my grandmother's dress has come back from being altered. It hangs on my bedroom door, its velvet and fur luminous in darkness, a shadow waiting to be entered. I haven't tried it on yet.

Watching that dark shape, touching its soft cloth, I know why I love ghost stories, and why we tell them during the last part of the year. It's not for fear or comfort; it's because they are true. The past and future never entirely leave the present alone.

I have a New Year's Eve party to go to; I'll wear the dress then. At midnight, whomever I kiss, this is what will hold me close.