It is said that wild places like remote mountains and hidden groves are alive with magic leftover from an older world. Although this unseen world has passed into legend, some remnants still cling here and there. A mere glimpse of this world can be a life-changing event, filling the viewer with a sense of wonder and awe at the marvels of the universe; or it can be a terrifying confrontation, shaking them to their very core.
Such was the case when Martha and her mother made a midnight journey through the ancient hills of eastern Kentucky. In the 1950s, when Martha was a girl, she often accompanied her mother on evening treks across the hills. The pair delivered the clothes that Martha’s mother had mended and cleaned in order to earn a little extra income and put food on the table.
On one clear summer night, Martha and her mother had more deliveries to make than usual. By the time they were headed home, the sun had long ago set and the deep night shrouded the hills.
The direct path home took the pair along the belly of Big Run Mountain, home to one of the largest coal mines in the region. The mountain path was dark and narrow but Martha’s mother held tight to her hand. She hummed an old mountain song as they picked their way in the waning moonlight.
As they rounded a bend, the path steeply dropped into a thickly wooded vale. Dominating the view was an enormous oak tree that the local Cherokee claimed was the home of a powerful spirit. They called the tree the Thunderwood because the spirit liked to dance in the lightning that was said to strike the tree during the strange storms that haunted the mountain.
Martha and her mother walked on until they came under the ancient tree’s canopy. Martha looked up and saw the arching branches vein against the pale night sky. When her eyes returned to the ground, she stopped, frozen with fear at what had suddenly appeared in the dark around her.
Crowding the shadowy ground under the massive tree, a great throng of gauzy, ghostly figures had appeared out of thin air. They stood quietly and almost motionless in tight knots or alone, some with their blank faces turned to the high limbs above.
To her horror, Martha realized that the mountain path ran straight through the phantom host. “Mama!” the terrified girl shrieked. “The tree, Mama!” She refused to go on.
Her mother gave her a perplexed look and tried to pull her along. Martha understood that her mother could not see what she could see; she did not perceive the swarm of souls, the bright raw spirits that blocked the way forward.
Martha’s mother, worn out from the long journey home, gently cursed her daughter and then hefted her over her should and continued down the mountain.
Martha’s mother strode unknowingly into the ghostly crowd. Martha’s eyes were closed as tightly as possible, but a part of her burned with a child’s curiosity, and she opened her eyes just enough for a quick peek.
The faces of the dead were obscured and blurry, but their bodies were outlined in a soft spectral light. Their forms seemed insubstantial and translucent, but when the dappled moonlight struck the ghostly bodies, it illuminated something of their true forms.
Here Martha saw a man in overalls, and, over there, a pair of sad blue eyes watching the ground. Some turned their heads and seemed to look at Martha as she passed them. Others seemed lost in their own thoughts.
As Martha spied on the ghostly throng, she heard a rustling in the branches of the great tree above her, and, forgetting her fear, she opened her eyes wide and turned her face up.
High in the black branches a figure moved. Martha could not see it clearly but, with the silver moonlight behind it, she could tell it was large, maybe the size of a very large bear. It gracefully moved among the branches, looking sometimes like an enormous panther and at other times, Martha could see the black feathers of a giant bird.
A pair of silver eyes watched the spectral swarm with great interest, and Martha was worried that the strange creature was some kind of afterlife predator, but when the silver eyes briefly met her gaze, the young girl saw there a benevolent, albeit inhuman, nature.
As Martha’s mother stepped out from under the Thunderwood’s sheltering limbs, the ghostly figures vanished and the untroubled night returned to the mountain.
Martha told her mother she was ready to walk, and the pair quickly made their way home. That night, Martha confided her story to her grandmother. Martha’s grandmother was a worker of granny magic, the folk magic of the old hills, and she knew right away what her granddaughter had seen.
The Cherokee said that the Thunderwood was home to a powerful and wise spirit, a great hunter of evil and guardian of souls. Anyone who died in the mountains, it was said, must appear before the spirit of the Thunderwood. The guardian spirit would root out the evil souls, keeping them from paradise, and send the rest along the path to the spirit world.
Martha’s grandmother was deeply troubled by the girl’s vision, and the next day, the family learned the awful truth. In the night, there had been an explosion in the Big Run Mine and several dozen miners had lost their lives. It seemed that Martha had witnessed the earthly departure of the miner’s souls.
In the years to come, Martha would see more spirits and ghosts, but, as she grew older, her visions became mere glimpses of another world until, in her senior years, she was left with a vague sense that something she could no longer remember was irrevocably lost.