When I was a wee lad (that was more than 70 years ago!) I used to sit on the porch at night with my grandparents and listen to the night sounds on Painter Knob – rain crows, hoot owls and a wind that moaned like the one that Hank Williams sings about.
If it were the fall of the year, my grandmother might be shelling peas and stringing beans that she dropped in a tin pot in her lap My grandfather was probably sharpening mowing blandes with a whet stone, and all of this blended together into a kind of plaintive night symphony. I remember a night when my grandmother stopped snapping and stringing, and after a moment spoke.
“There was a baby drowned out there, you know.”
Well, no, I didn’t know, so I said, “Where?”
“In the spring,” she said, pointing to the little springhouse in the front yard.
“Wasn’t a shelter over the spring then. We kept the milk and butter in a trough on the back porch, and it would be a few years before your granddaddy would build that springhouse. Back then, it was just a big, deep pool that bubbled up out of the ground. The people who lived on the ridge told us that spring was hanted.” Then, my grandmother went back to her stringing and snapping.
Finally, I said, “Well, did somebody’s baby fall in the spring?” My grandmother smiled in the pale moonlight. “No, Gar-Nell, That baby’s mother held her under the water til she drowned.” I struggled a bit with that image: a baby drowning in a spring; the hands holding it on the bottom; the baby struggling. “How come that happened?”
“Nobody really knows, but I heard that her people lived at the head of the holler ’n hardly ever come out. She got pregnant. Nobody knows who the father is. Her family was ashamed and put her out. She had no place to go and every time she went home, they refused to let her in the house. She got desperate, I reckon, ’n she decided to kill herself ’n the baby.”
I was probably 9 or 10, and all of this upset me. “That’s awful!” My granny nodded and went back to the beans and peas. Finally, I said, “...but she wasn’t in the spring with the baby.” Granny stopped again. “No, it wasn’t deep enough, I guess. She walked down to the river and jumped in. They found her later.”
Granny went back to the beans and peas and I sat for a good while staring at the springhouse. Finally, I said, “What did you mean about the baby crying?” Granny settled back in her rocking chair and rocked a bit. Then, she said, “Sometimes, that baby cries and the sound comes from that spring. It usually happened in the fall, and folks used to come from all over to hear it. Upset your granddaddy a bit when folks started coming here in the evening. They would bring blankets ’n they would sit up in the woods. Lots of courting couples came, and sometimes a preacher would talk about the lesson to be learned. There were some fools, too. I remember one man that came with a fishing rod and he had a hankerchief tied on the end of the line and he would put the hankerchief in the spring..... He would wait until it got dark and he would jerk that hankerchief up ’n the women would scream. Your granddaddy complained to the sheriff and he finally put a stop to it, but it was a while before the people stopped coming.”
“Did you ever hear the baby cry?” I asked.
Granny was quiet for a while, but finally, she said, “Just once. Atter that, I stayed in the house. It were a quare sound ’n it seemed to have all the pain in the world in it. It were a sound that contained sadness, loss and betrayal ...all wrapped in one cry.”
“Well, I don’t believe it,” I said with the experience and insight of a 9-year old. “There ain’t no such thing as dead babies that cry.”
“You are probably right,” said Granny. “Just foolishness. Now, I got to go find my flannel sheets. It is going to be cold, tonight.”
She left me sitting there in the dark, and after Grandpa got up and went inside to build a fire in the fireplace, I sat, watching the fog come down. It crept across the yard and erased the springhouse and the big oak in the front yard, and then, there was just me and the night sounds and the fog.
Then, I heard it. It was a long, quavering cry, and like Granny said, it had all of the sadness in the world in it. I fled. I closed the front door and locked it.
When I got in the house, I couldn’t find Granny and Grandpa was already in the bed. I found my way to the kitchen and finally saw her on the back porch. “Where have you been?” I said. She said she was checking on the chicken house because she heard something prowling around. Then, she smiled and said, “Why? What is wrong?” I finally said, “That was you, wasn’t it?” She shook her head. “Sometimes, I worry about you. What was me? You are a quare young’en.”
When I went to college and got interested in folklore, I read a book about Ireland that said that rural Ireland was full of haunted springs and that there was a story about a drowned baby in every one of them. Now, I am living in my grandparent’s old home, and when I sit on the porch at night, I am aware of where our springhouse once stood. Swept away now, like the night sounds that have retreated to give room for car horns and sirens. Are they gone, then, or are they there beneath the noise...the night sounds and the cry of a baby?