laura packardI’m a scaredy cat, y’all.

Yep. And it’s just not about things that go bump in the night.

I am positively terrified of the cardboard encased can of cinnamon rolls, after I have carefully peeled off the outer layer, waiting for it to explode on contact with the shaky fork I’m holding like an unpinned grenade in my iron squeezed fist.

I’m frightened to death of popping champagne corks, forcing the task on perfect strangers then running out of the room, only coming back after the foam has receded and the bubbles stream up, indicating it is now safe to drink.

I cannot sleep with any extremity of mine hanging off the bed. Not one finger, foot, toe or knee. If I wake up and my pinkie is dangling off the end, I suck in a bloodcurdling scream.

It can’t just be me, can it? Am I the only one intimidated by small, cramped spaces, circus clowns, Richard Simmons, needles and oversized Venus flytraps that sing?

Don’t even get me started on basements, lone swinging light bulbs, old, electrical wiring, shower curtains and the butter-overload, cardiac-inducing recipes of Paula Dean.

Part of it, surely, is all of those horror movies I used to watch as a silly kid. Halloween, never babysat again. Friday the 13th, no skinny dipping for me. Blair Witch Project and camping, forggetaboutit…never again.

This reminds of a sign I saw not too long ago that read something like this – My friends want me to go camping, so I made a list of all the things I would need:

New friends.

But the one thing I am not afraid of is ghosts. Call me crazy, but there is something awfully romantic about misplaced souls; spirits that need something else done . . . be it the eternal quest for relinquished love that lurks in midnight shadows or lingers from within the misty froth of the coming dawn like a dying kerosene-lit lamp of what could have been.

Maybe it’s the Heathcliff and Catherine in me? The whispering winds of Wuthering Heights. The call of the moors of England hovering high above the hardhearted waters that knock obsessively– the suffocating weight of tortured passion hard against the rocky, cragged cliffs-repeating-over and over, “I want in.”

I think that is what makes the Lowcountry the stuff that ghost stories are made of, too. The Spanish moss that drips of webs and veils of secret sorrows, the haunting harmony of crickets, cicadas and children laughing that tease and tickle and taunt. Things have happened here. Blood, sweat, tears. Death, love, want and wandering. It mixes with the pungent mud and sticks. It calls this place home.

Since I can remember, I have spent my summers here. Hilton Head, Fripp, Hunting and Harbor are the islands of my youth. Stories swarm like gnats and ghost crabs across the memories.

One in particular, is the story of the grey man.

Legend goes that a young man, a Confederate soldier on his way back from the crushing defeat of the civil war, yearns for the love he left behind. Impatient for a reunion with his one true love, he steers his horse directly into the marsh on a short cut to her family’s coastal plantation and his lover’s warm embrace. Only, he doesn’t make it far. The receding tide leaves the slimy ocean bottom a pit of quicksand, the soldier and horse sucked in, never to be seen again again . . . until . . .

The soldier’s lover walks the coast, foot by foot, mile by mile, day by day, year by year. Tears roll like crest fallen waves, uninterrupted. Until, one evening she sees him, gesturing in his grey uniform from a sandy dune. She rushes towards him until she suddenly understands he is waving her, regrettably, away. With the deep understanding only to be grasped by star-crossed lovers, she flees with her family. A ravaging storm beats down everything in sight that night. Except, the family home.

From then on, the grey man has been spotted up and down the South Carolina shore, warning those who see him of an impending storm. It has been said this grey ghost has saved many from the hellish wrath of the fiercest storms.

My brother was one of them.

A few years ago Jeff set up a cooler and a few poles with some bait and beer on the beach at Harbor Island near the curve that connects with Johnson Creek, separating Hunting Island. It’s a precarious spot, known for great fishing and even greater rip tides. It’s dangerous even on the calmest of days, many swimmers losing their lives trying to swim the short distance. Dusk descended quickly that evening while my brother lost track of time. He was still casting, unaware of the beach washed out with his cooler behind him, until a man whistled from the dunes.

He turned to catch a glimpse of a man waving him in and quickly made for shore, but as soon as he reached dry land the man had disappeared. Never to be seen again.

He tells my girls the story of the grey man every Halloween and how this spirit saved his life. Though it varies year to year – sometimes the ghost is carrying a Bud Light, sometimes a Cuban cigar, others a scotch neat and a bag of Bugles – but the one thing that always stays the same is the ghost was dressed in grey and rescued their uncle from the tumultuous deadly fingers of the cold rip tides. 

What a great story.

And that, folks, is what the Lowcountry lore is all about.

Happy Halloween, everyone!