The Lights On The Hill
Jean Thornton Senn, SC, USA
The following are recounts of an accumulation of stories passed down by my grandfather, Edward Holmes Davis and my mother, Sarah Davis Thornton, for untold years. They involve eyewitness accounts of things seen and heard around the "old homeplace" as it was called. I am narrating for my mother in first person, for purposes of retelling in the fashion that she had often retold these accounts to us.
And the story begins...
When I and this century were young, my great-grandmother Kinsler's old two-story white Victorian frame house stood as a beacon on a stretch of land on Old Dunbar Road in what is now Cayce, South Carolina. The house has long since burned, but the old family cemetery still remains as a melancholy testament to a time that exists only in memory's haunts. Ironically, rumour has it that "The Kinsler Homeplace" and "Kinsler Quarters" were situated not very far from an old slave cemetery where warehouses and manufacturing plants lay directly atop their final resting place; the headstones gone and with them gone the last registry of their veritable existence.
As a fanciful teenager in the 1920s, I remember frequenting the spacious old house and huge rolling tract. I had been living with my maternal grandmother and grandfather (Dovie and Joe Pa) until they died, and, upon returning from Brevard College, I began to live there with mama and papa. From the very beginning, I remembered sensing there was a forlorn, dream-like dimension about the house and grounds. Something foreboding. Surreal. Enigmatic. But I was at a loss to define or put into words what troubled me about it. To me, it resembled some huge doll house long abandoned by its inhabitants. It was hard to heat and as stark and emotionless on the inside as it was the outside. A home void of soul and coziness, if this is possible.
Perhaps it was not to come as a surprise to me the events that were to transpire there, sensing the foreboding as I did. One night in particular stood out in my mind. As many stories begin: "...It was a dark and stormy night..." And likewise, it was! A summer storm of such magnitude I had rarely seen. The raging rain and coughs and shudders of wind assaulted the timbers with a brawling, boasting vengeance. And there, in the corridor I was a free standing hovering light. Not a harsh glare, but a lovely incandescent glow. I looked to see if somebody had lit a hurricane lamp, or if by some freakish chance, it could be some odd refraction of moonlight. But in this storm? How utterly absurd that must sound! But it grew brighter and more opulent as the moments passed. It seemed to spread from a care and radiate outwards. It was then that, to my horror, the light in the hall drifted into my room, making it as bright as day. And what did I do? The only thing I could, of course! I dashed for the bed, shoes and all, and pulled the covers over my head, almost too scared to breathe. And when I did breathe, my laboured breath came ricocheting back on my face from the cotton sheets. I dared not look out until the light of a new day replaced the light in the hall, radiating from a source.
In the months and years to follow, I recollect any accounts of the front door opening and the otherwise normal sound of footsteps echoing on the eerie, acoustics of the stairs, and interior doors opening and closing. Some accounts were mine and some were eyewitness accounts of my visiting cousins. Because the rest of the world would surely think us crazy in that day and time, we had that common thread to bind us together and reaffirm our sanity. Having the knowledge that we had all seen and heard the same things gave us that much peace of mind and commonality.
Every time we would investigate, and every time we would consistently come up empty-handed. Was it someone's juvenile prank, the sheer impersonality of the house, or was there yet another explanation nobody dared admit aloud?
Many times, my Papa, Edward "Eddie" Holmes Davis would come back from the farmer's market in Columbia, or from whatever business he had in town, on a one-horse wagon. He would travel Charleston Highway, making a right turn onto what is now Old Dunbar Road, at the crest of the hill. On one occasion, my terrified father was visibly shaken upon entering the front door. He confessed later that up through the plank floorboard of the wagon, he, too, saw something glowing. After making sure nothing was on fire, he finished the journey, with that same strange illumination fixed directly below, in the undercarriage of the wagon. Moving along with the wagon. (This, you may note, was long before automobiles were heard of by most folks.)
On yet another occasion, Papa noticed the horse was straining and struggling hard against his harness, as if pulling a mighty burden. The buggy's frame, he recants, sat low to the ground, and the wheels whined and protested with tension. Bound and determined to get to the bottom of this, Papa hopped off the wagon to see to the horse, checking the bridle, reins, etc. To his shock, when he attempted to lead the horse, papa, too, could feel the tug of some formidable weight of an empty wagon as, likewise, did Charlie Boy (the good-natured tan and white-maned plow horse). Suddenly, the buggy jerked, raised up quickly, and the sound of a thud unmistakably hit the ground alongside the front left wheel, as if somebody had dismounted the wagon, taking his leave of Papa's company.
At that very instant, Papa heard the church bells chime in the distance, which he thought chillingly inappropriate for nightfall. (And yet MORE inappropriate as it was not Sunday or meeting night.)
Papa interjected that he wasn't on an incline at the time, having already made the crest and traveling Old Dunbar. Charlie Boy was in good health. They hadn't traveled far enough to weary the horse and were within a stone's throw of the Homeplace. Trying to ward off his mounting panic, poor Papa and Charlie were on foot the rest of the route. No, Papa was not ABOUT to get back on THAT possessed wagon anytime soon. To his dying day, Edward Holmes Davis insisted it was as if the buggy were heavily, but invisibly, laden by forces unseen.
Weeks afterwards, from the front porch many family members witnessed fire and smoke rising from the woods interspersed amongst and beyond the orchard across the road. Upon closer investigation, we would come up empty-handed when trying to find the burning brush or any evidence of cinder or smolder.
And on this Halloween, I offer this last bit of testimony. One day when I came up into the yard, I saw a radiant young woman, dressed in a straight, white dress, honey blonde braided hair, standing at the upstairs balcony, gazing intensely across the road at something beyond. I looked and couldn't see anything on the other side but woods, farm, orchard, burrowed field and sand, as far as the eye could see. I called to her and she did not as much as look in my direction. I hurried up the steps to see who it was. But to my disappointment and confusion, there was no trace of her. No elusive footsteps. I leaned over the balcony to see if she had perhaps jumped or had shimmied down the colossal trees embracing the house with hugs. Nothing.
With determination winning over my anxiety, hands and jaws trembling, I searched the entire house from top to bottom with no results. How I wished I could open a bedroom closet and see a young girl crouched in the corner. Perhaps subconsciously I knew what I had seen and what it probably meant, but I was hoping against hope that I was wrong. However, this was not to be. Besides, considering my past track record at "chasing the air", I perhaps didn't really expect to find anything. No. Not really. I asked a few people who would not make fun of me or think it strange, who this young woman might have been or, in fact, they had seen a similar person loitering about in the neighbourhood.
But to reiterate, that gracious, stately old house went up in smoke and ashes on a self-imposed funeral pyre of sorts. Scattering to the four winds, a released soul. Since the fire, a succession of failed businesses and night clubs have resided on the site, with the family cemetery and granite wall just a few paces from the parking lot. Or, my friends, to be more precise, the cemetery was perhaps a sentry, guarding the secrets of its sacred homeplace.