Court of Owls

I suppose anyone who has ever spent part of his or her childhood anywhere in rural America has heard the story of Cry Baby Hollow.

I’ve heard the story several times, in several different places. Although in one case, the teller was from Mississippi and placed the tale in a bayou instead of a wooded ravine, the fundamentals are otherwise almost always the same: at some point in the indeterminate past, a young couple sets up housekeeping in a remote forest glade (or swamp hammock), and in the fullness of time the young woman has a child. The household basks for a while in the glow of pioneer Americana, brave, hard-working and happy. All too soon, however, usually within three or four years, some sort of disaster strikes and the parents are killed; in most versions I believe the mother is stricken ill and the father rushes off into the night for help, only to be killed in an accident en route, leaving the mother to die with no one by her side but the toddler. The child remains there, living off whatever he or she can find to eat in the cabin, until finally starving to death.

Fast forward to “the present”. Another young couple, usually in their teens — most certainly not husband and wife — wander out in Dad’s car to some remote spot after a movie date to spend a little quality time together. During the course of the proceedings, the girl (always the girl!) looks up and sees, to her horror, a tiny hand reaching up over the top of the car door, pressing against the window. She screams, communicating her apprehensions to the boy, who jumps out of the car (clutching his trousers, no doubt) but finds nothing.

The mood ruined, the unhappy pair head home. By morning the boy is convinced that the girl was seeing things, or that what she saw was simply a raccoon or opossum looking for a snack, or that she was simply playing hard to get, until Dad drags him out to the driveway to explain a set of muddy handprints on the car door and the bottom of the window — handprints clearly and unmistakably belonging to a very small child.

In at least one case, the story has a postscript. If a young couple in the throes of first love wish to avail themselves of the location without being disturbed, there is a spot where the ruins of the old chimney can still be seen: an offering of candy or a sandwich left on the hearthstone will guarantee an evening without interruptions. (It’s hard to imagine why anyone would choose such an ill-favored spot for a romantic evening, but young love is a mysterious thing in so many ways.)

I have often thought about this story, and about the places haunted by it. Here in the southern Ozarks it is not difficult to find traces of old fieldstone foundations, or the ruins of a chimney, or a bit of someone’s long-abandoned flower garden — irises, roses, daffodils — in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The same, I think, is true in many so-called “wilderness” areas of the United States.

My own paternal great-grandparents are buried in a cemetery in a place called Mountain Creek, in a remote part of western Georgia; a community whose only inhabitants today are the ones occupying those graves. All through the woods nearby are traces of a former life: old glass medicine bottles, their electric blue color still startling, cushioned in decades of pine straw and mud; scraps of corroded metal or leather, once part of tools and farm implements; broken chimneys held in place by the trees that have grown around and through them; now and then the thighbone of a dog or a mule, buried eighty years ago and eroded out of the clay for a new generation of little boys to poke at, to pick over, to wonder about.

“And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof: and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls.”

— Isaiah 34:13

These humble remains have a power that the most imposing Greek temple or medieval monastery can’t quite match. The ruined chimney speaks of winter nights and hot meals; the antique medicine bottle tells us the story of a childhood cough or a back strained by hard labor; the tangle of forsythia or spirea blooming in the spring forest was once part of a flower garden — not food, but simply something beautiful, for its own sake — a symbol of love and pride of place.

The ruins speak also of failure, of a dream broken, of hard work and good intentions gone for nothing, and we can’t help but feel the tragedy inherent in such a scene. Maybe our silly ghost stories diminish the real tragedy, but they also keep alive a sense of identity, reminding us that those bones and stones were placed there by human beings just like us, not all that long ago, real people with real lives, armed with nothing but a dream for a better life.

In the end, we’re all just ghosts, after all, and it’s the dream that lives forever.

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