Now, thinking back, I keep hearing that haunting song, “Long Black Veil,” and especially this part of the refrain: She walks these hills in a long black veil/She visits my grave when the night winds wail…
As far as I know, there are no graveyards at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which occupies what was once a horse farm, outside of Lynchburg, Va. But it is, indeed, located atop a windswept hill, and it was nighttime, very late into the night before Halloween, actually past midnight, so it was already Halloween. And – who knows? – maybe there’s an old farm family’s graveyard somewhere in these fields or woods.
The writing studio I was assigned is more remote than some of the others, which are spread through a sprawling former horse barn. This stands alone, a small cottage. There are woods behind it, then a rural road, and then railroad line used by freight trains that rumble and roar down the tracks more often than I remember from previous stays.
And there are sounds. The hooting and screeching of owls. The yipping and howling of coyotes. The occasional shriek of what sounds to me like a bobcat. And, with the windows open on a cool October evening, there are the things that go bump in the night – weird thumps, unexplained creaks and even, a few times, what sounded like the footsteps of somebody walking right outside my window, although a quick look outside showed that there was no one there and that it was probably just a sound conjured up in the mind of writer who was sitting by himself, in a small cabin, at the edge of the woods, near the freight-train tracks, on a dark hill in Virginia, with no one around, on the eve of Halloween.
There are explanations for all the familiar creepy stories that make the rounds at Halloween – or else they’re so outlandish, told so many times as stories that “really happened to the cousin of my college roommate’s best friend,” that the stories feel safe to tell or hear once more: the ghostly hitchhiker… the babysitter who gets creepy phone calls from inside the house…the life-sized clown statue in the corner (“WHAT STATUE!,” the freaked-out parents scream at the babysitter over the phone. We DON’T HAVE a clown statue!”).
But what about when something really happens? When there’s something that’s not just some urban legend or passed-down story? What is there to say and what is there to think when it’s long after midnight, on the night before Halloween, and the crescent moon is bright, and you go to your cabin door and look outside — and there you see very clearly a slow-moving, misty form gliding softly across the lawn.
You look at it once. You look at it again. And the vision takes shape, and you realize it is a woman in a flowing white dress, and at first you wonder if it’s one of the other artists and writers staying at this place. But it’s late, and the studio across the way is unoccupied, and you just know that this figure – this woman pacing slowly in the moonlight – is not one of us…at least not anymore.
She’s a vision, she’s a glimpse of something we can’t explain and might regret explaining if we could, she’s a spirit or a ghost or some goddamned thing that I can’t explain, and if you have doubts about whether I really did glimpse this woman who walks these hills in a long white dress, then tell me why I went to the cottage door at just that moment. Tell me why I opened it. Tell me I was just hearing things. Tell me that it was just my imagination, that no one really rapped, rapped, rapped at my cabin door.