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Coming from the Appalachian foothills of West Virginia, where driving to town was a big to-do, I realized at a young age that people tend to lean toward the supernatural for things that they cannot understand. The women in my family were particularly guilty of this kind of superstition – the kind that only festers among neighbors and families deep in the hollers and bottoms of the mountains.
My aunt was a self-proclaimed water witch. She would find a large, forked branch of a specific kind of tree – I can’t remember which kind – and walk out into people’s fields and wooded properties until the end of the tree branch would suddenly gravitate toward the ground, indicating that there was a natural underground spring below her feet. My mother would claim that there were always more people in the house than she could see, but couldn’t explain herself much further but to say, “I just feel them.” My grandmother used to speak of shadows in the corners of her eyes and keys that had been misplaced and replaced to their original spots, piles of small change on windowsills, and the smell of something burning during late summer nights when the stove and heat were off. My great grandmother used to pour salt just inside the threshold of her front door before going to bed each night, and once when I watched her performing her bedtime ritual with what I could only assume to be absolute incredulity on my face, her only response was, “Just in case.”
I became contemptuous of this voodoo-like behavior, and in my mind, I dubbed it “Mountain Magic.” Swinging wedding rings over pregnant bellies and bodily shivers indicating someone had just walked across my grave somewhere – it all seemed so silly to me. I am a very analytical person, and I could make sense of none of these tales, so I dismissed them. And yet, as I reflect on and discuss with loved ones outside of the women in my family the happenings of my life that have come to seem so normal to me, I realize that maybe the things that I have experienced aren’t as normal as I once thought.
My mother used to call me “gifted,” but not in the academically-accelerated sense of the word. I was not really good at math or a quick reader; she used the term to describe what I’ve come to know through some quick Googling as a “highly sensitive person,” or HSP. HSPs, according to my research, are considered to be more prone to experiencing or causing paranormal activity because, through some atypical biological and psychological development, they are more in-tune with the paranormal world. I also read that about 15 to 20 percent of people can be considered highly sensitive and that it is also hereditary. I can’t say that I’m a firm believer yet, but I have experienced some things that I have been unable to explain, and my husband has encouraged me to write them down. So here’s the first one I can remember. It’s a little unrelated to Mountain Magic as I have defined it, but it was the first of many more experiences in my life, and I find that the beginning is usually the best place to start.
My family lived in New Jersey. My father was in the Army and was stationed at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, which is no longer in existence, I don’t think. We lived on Goslin Avenue – a picture of a street, really. Looking back, it reminds me of Maycomb in To Kill A Mockingbird. I was very young when we lived there; I attended kindergarten through second grade and extremely extroverted.
One afternoon after school, a bunch of us went over to my friend Kerry’s house, which was about three or four houses down from mine. Earlier that day, Kerry had informed us that she had a miniature pool table in her basement, so we all decided that’s where we’d be spending that afternoon. I was the first to arrive and had never been inside her house before. Upon entry, I immediately knew why. Kerry lived with her dad who, to me, seemed a million years old. It was dark and cramped in her house, and exceptionally warm, with a huge, glowing fish tank in the living room filled with giant tropical fish crammed in, swimming all over each other. And the entire house smelled like that fish tank. As we walked through the living room to the kitchen, her face turned a slight shade of red, embarrassed, and I quickly removed whatever dumbstruck look I had to avoid any awkwardness.
After the group all showed up, we made our way down the stairs and into the basement. We saw the pool table in the middle of the floor and quickly took up residence in the patio chairs, boxes, washer and dryer – any place that we could find a seat – and claimed our spots for seatbacks. After growing bored of miniature pool and having caught up on all the things that happened at school that day, we eventually ran out of steam and became restless. The only solution at that point, as was logical to us and our childish minds, was to play Truth or Dare. I remember actively avoiding eye contact and communication with the group at that point because I absolutely loathed that game. Why would I want to subject myself to discomfort just because someone else said I “had to”? The premise was dumb, and the kids that thrived on it were dumb too, at least in my mind.
So after a few rounds of Truth or Dare and a good thirty minutes of silence on my part, I was unamused and restless, trying to think of an excuse to go home. My mom hadn’t called, dinner wasn’t ready, my brother was at his friend’s house. . . I was out of ideas. So I sat there discontent for a few more minutes, and again the conversation died down and we began to pick at our fingernails. The room went silent.
Something caught my eye.
My head shot up just in time to see one girl in our group directly across from me, on the other side of the room and long side of the pool table, frozen in fear, her eyes wide in disbelief as she stared at what I thought was right at me. I started to say something – I don’t know what; probably mocking the look on her face because that was my MO at the time – but my own voice caught in my throat as the atmosphere quickly changed from lighthearted to confused. I glanced around at everyone else to see them all staring at the green felt of the mini pool table. I followed suit, wondering why everyone became so solemn so quickly.
A ball on the table had begun to spin in place. I don’t know if this has any significance or not, but I can still remember what number it was: 9, with a yellow stripe.
We all sat in icy silence, unable to move. I, at least, was unable to breathe. I can still remember the cold aluminum of the lawn chair I was sitting in against my thigh, slight condensation from my own sweat gathering and becoming slick. After what seemed like only a few seconds, the ball began to roll.
It rolled from my side of the table, away from me and towards my friend. Slowly at first, almost like it was a struggle, and then it picked up more and more momentum. And as it rolled to the other side of the table, the balls in its path would move themselves out of the way and into the pockets on the sides.
When the 9 reached the far side of the table, it stopped abruptly, just short of the ledge. By that point, all the other balls had moved into the pockets, and all of our eyes were fixated on the last remaining ball. It paused for a long moment, and I let out a nervous sigh. I hadn’t realized I had been holding my breath and immediately felt a little silly.
But almost as if someone had flipped an off/on switch, the ball reanimated. Only this time, it moved straight up. It was almost as if someone had wrapped a piece of fishing line around the ball that I couldn’t see and was reeling it up from some secret hole in the upstairs floor. But we had all played at least one round on that table, and a string would have been quickly discovered during gameplay. I watched the ball slowly gain height until it was at eye level with my friend across the room. It then moved directly toward her face, still very slowly, with what seemed to be calculated intention. It crossed over the edge of the pool table, traveled another six inches or so in the air toward my friend, paused, and then just dropped to the ground with a light crack and rolled away under some shelves by the cellar.
The air changed – cool but chokingly humid – and I suddenly had a very metallic taste in my mouth. And without a word, I walked as fast as I could to the stairs, through that cramped, fishy living room, and back into outdoors. I didn’t stop, but I didn’t run. I walked with a purpose straight from that basement through my front door and onto the couch where my mother was sitting watching TV. I didn’t say a word. I went over it and over it again in my mind, trying with all my eight-year-old might to make sense of it. I wasn’t able to say a word about it for a lot of years because I wasn’t quite sure of what I had actually seen.
It wasn’t until I was 13 and we had moved back to West Virginia to be with family that I told my mom about it. We were sitting around the kitchen table with my aunt and grandma peeling potatoes, and not one of them laughed. She then told me of the history of that street and of the field behind it, Greeley Field, and of her own ghost stories at Fort Monmouth, which I may put on paper at a later date. Each woman took her turn explaining to me the first time they realized they were “sensitive,” and they congratulated me on inheriting their “special gift.” My aunt offhandedly suggested that it could have been my disdain for the current game of Truth or Dare that could have even sparked it, similar to a psychokinetic poltergeist-type of event.
But even now, at the age of 28, I still dream of that event and often think of my aunt’s explanation. The precision of the balls on that table falling straight into the pockets – I can still hear the muted thunks of each one. The slow and deliberate movement of the 9 ball as it moved first laterally, and then through the third dimension, into midair . . . But mostly, it’s the thick air of that basement and the metallic taste in my mouth, the thought that it could have been me all along, that haunts me.