Back on August 8th I announced via this blog that I would be enjoying a fellowship-in-residence for almost two weeks in Sewanee, Tennessee, care of the University of the South’s School of Theology, my alma mater.
It wasn’t to be what one might consider a typical fellowship awarded from a seminary, to research and otherwise work on some translation of a desert father or some such. Don’t get me wrong. This type of fellowship has its place.
Mine was an unusual proposal: to study Sewanee ghostlore and work on a piece of fiction set in and around Sewanee.
You see, Sewanee ghostlore was something that always intrigued me during my three years as a resident there. But I never had the time to get into it. I was studying to become a master of divinity, after all, which meant (with five kids in tow) I also had to be a master of time management.
But this fellowship should give me some time, I reasoned. Twelve days, to be exact, to focus on the shadowy side of Sewanee.
The timing helped too: Halloween was smack dab in the middle of the fellowship.
So I wrote my proposal (some time ago) and followed up and begged and followed up some more and pleaded and followed up some more and wheedled and whined and followed up some more and, lo and behold, they awarded it to me.
So I went.
And it was everything I’d hoped for.
It gave me nearly two weeks to wander the campus, interview long-time residents, attend special lectures, hike the perimeter trail, enjoy meals with friends and family (two of my kids attend college there), watch some scary movies, and write, write, write.
I came home with 20,000 words of a first draft and an outline–should tap out at about 60,000 words–and hopefully enough momentum to continue the discipline in order to have a first draft by spring.
In the meantime, a story from my time on “the mountain.”
It was October 30, nearly midnight. I was attending a telling of Sewanee ghost stories in an old building on campus, the library archives building.
One of the librarians who was well-versed in Sewanee ghostlore started out.
We learned about the Perambulating Professor, an apparition who will join folks walking after dusk on Tennessee Ave., sometimes with his dog.
We heard accounts of the McCrady woman. McCrady is a dorm. Apparently several people–students and staff alike–have encountered her, always in a purple dress with long brown hair, wandering the halls.
And we discovered that there is an unpredictable poltergeist in another dorm, Tuckaway, who slams doors and opens windows and has even locked a student in his room for several hours–despite substantial efforts to unlock and even unhinge the door!
Then she told us about the very building in which we were seated, about twenty-five of us. Sometimes the stairs would creak as if someone were walking up them even though no one was around.
By now it was well after midnight and, okay, I’ll admit it, we were a little spooked.
The librarian asked us if we knew of any stories.
A few personal experiences were shared, thus intensifying the spookiness some, sure.
People seemed restless.
But I didn’t want the night to end.
Not yet, anyway.
I mean, I had to walk back across campus, after all. DARK parts of campus. Let’s keep it going, I thought, just a little while longer.
So, being a priest and a graduate of the university’s seminary I asked,
“Does anyone know anything about the chaplain blessing a building?”
And, “Oh my gosh!” a girl two seats to my right exclaimed.
“It was during orientation this year.”
And this girl, who’d not said a word all night, began to relate her experience with big, big eyes and lots of body language.
“One day when I came into my room, I saw something dark. At first I thought it was a person, so I said, ‘Hey, what are you doing in my room?’ But it just vanished. So I thought it was just my imagination. But then my roommate experienced it too!”
And she went on, telling her story, animating it with big freshman eyes–full of adventure and wonder–arms and hands waving and flailing, to get her point across; and–just when she was in the height of the suspensefullest part–she took a breath–to reload–and just as she took a breath–we all heard it–a low, loud growling sound came from underfoot!
She never finished her story.
Instead, like a clap of thunder, the whole room collectively screamed and slammed their hands down on the big table we were all sitting around, to push themselves up, grabbed their backpacks and purses and began sprinting pell-mell for the doors!
It was mayhem!
And I threw my head backwards and laughed out loud until I saw stars. This was definitely worth the price of admission!
And just then–just as the mayhem was mounting to its fullest measure–the librarian stood up and waved her arms and shouted, “Stop! It’s just the plumbing! It makes that noise all the time!”
Just the plumbing?
Well, yes, the mayhem ceased.
But within five minutes we’d all dismissed ourselves and were on our respective ways–students to their dorms and me to my room in the Inn, across dark parts of campus.
I must say, though, that I was laughing too hard all the way to my room to be spooked.
Anyway, the fellowship was wonderful! I’ll keep you posted as the book progresses.