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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ghost stories from ‘Pappy’

Kaye Bryant of Oxford recalls how the stories Faulkner told to his granddaughter and her friends struck up an unlikely correspondence — with a ghost.

Spring comes to north Mississippi suddenly, sometimes violently. Bulbs and trees are forced into bloom overnight. The air is heavy with scent and birds fly slowly as if not sure the season has arrived.

It was this kind of spring when I first met Judith — a ghost. I was a third-grade student in Oxford and I had a new friend. She had just come to town to live with her grandparents while her parents were in China. She had invited me to come home with her after school and I was excited because “home” was a beautiful old Southern mansion nestled deep in the woods surrounding Oxford.

I can remember sitting there listening to the drone of the teacher’s voice being broken only by the dull thud of a bee hitting the school-room window. At last the bell rang, signaling the release of our imprisoned little souls to the world outside. My friend and I joined the laughing, pushing children and raced outside. We ran the two blocks over to University Avenue, cut down 8th Street and into the woods.

The woods were cool and dark. This was the favorite playground for all of us in those days. Long summer evenings were filled with the shouts of a game called “capture the flag.” That day the woods were quiet and we didn’t stop to play, but hurried through, coming out behind the stable at my friend’s home.

There was her grandfather with his stableman, Andrew, just putting up his horse. I thought he was one of the nicest men in town because he always seemed to have time for kids. We all called him “Pappy” and I remember that he had the warmest smile, but also the coldest stare if you happened to be doing something wrong.

He was small in stature, but somehow, then, I thought him very tall. His hair was almost gray as was his mustache and his eyes were as clear and bright as if a light burned behind them. He walked straight and tall like a soldier carrying his dignity on his shoulder.

That day my friend begged her grandfather to tell me about the ghost. Very solemnly, he asked if I was afraid of ghosts. Although a shiver was dancing up and down my spine, I shook my head hard to say no. He told us to go inside and he would come in and tell me about Judith.

We hurried inside the old mansion where it was very cool and very dark. The grandmother gave us dishes of tapioca pudding which we ate between glances out the window to see if “Pappy” was coming.

At last we were seated on the floor in his den and he began to tell me the story. It was the usual story of a Southern ghost, the beautiful daughter of a rich Southern family who had killed herself over unrequited love for a Yankee solider. In this case, the daughter’s name was Judith, and she had thrown herself from the balcony of this very house and was buried in the yard under a spreading old tree. Of course, “Pappy” told us, her soul has never been at rest and she still roams the house and the woods around it.

I’ve heard a thousand such ghost stories, but never told as it was that day. “Pappy’s” voice was very soft and quiet and we sat there almost hypnotized by the magic of his words. A delicious fear caused my scalp to tingle as each creak of the old house became Judith’s footstep.

“Pappy” told us how lonely Judith was and suggested we might try to communicate with her.

This was the start of our correspondence with a ghost. We would leave little notes tucked into the fork of the tree over her grave and back would come mysterious answers from the world beyond, in the form of little scraps of paper hidden in the same tree.

Some of our friends would tease us about our ghost, but non-believers were quickly put down when we dared them to come meet Judith. Her answer to our note was always there.

We saw her many times, a quick glimpse of a face in a window, and felt her presence in a sudden chill in the room or a door which would close by itself. Each time we would rush to tell “Pappy” and he would nod his head wisely and tell us of some similar experience of his own.
Those were the happy, carefree years for all of us. My friend moved away again, but we all kept up our belief in Judith and continued to visit her grave.

I also remember the last time we were all together before “Pappy” died. It was New Year’s Eve. I was a sophomore at Ole Miss and had joined all the old group for a party that night. Shortly before midnight, we all went over to “Judith’s.” I remember that “Pappy” made a little speech about what fine young men and women we had all become and then he broke out the champagne. As had become our little tradition, we took the first glass and filed outside where we circled Judith’s grave. Each in turn poured their champagne on her grave, and then filed back inside for a glass of our own.

We gathered in the den where “Pappy,” at our urging, began to tell some more of his marvelous ghost stories. As I sat there listening for what would be the last time, I was carried back to those childhood days and I was sad that they were gone with all their magic and wonder.

I remember looking up at “Pappy” and thanking him in my heart for opening up our minds and imaginations as children. I also remember being grateful that we didn’t know he was famous back then, for perhaps we wouldn’t have been able to love him as we did if we had known. Our magic storyteller belonged to the world now and the world was richer for his works, but for us, William Faulkner, Nobel Prize-winning author, would always be just “Pappy.”

Born and raised in Oxford, Kaye Bryant originally wrote this article for the now defunct Southstyle magazine 40 years ago. (April 4, 2012)

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