Poignant Appalachian ghost story about the power of a mother’s love and how it stretches even beyond the grave.
A Mother’s Love – Audio Story
Not so long ago, many families in the eastern Kentucky hills lived in isolation from the outside world. High ridges and poor road conditions kept them miles away from modern conveniences like grocery stores and hospitals. If someone ever got sick, a family member would have to ride for miles through the hills to fetch a doctor, sometimes taking a day or more to return.
The Bishop family lived in a ramshackle farmhouse deep within a remote hollow. The steep, rocky hillsides had long given up what little sustenance they could provide, and Howard Bishop, like many of his neighbors, was forced to work for the lumber companies. A proud man in his late 30s, Howard had no love for the greedy lumber barons who forced him to work brutally long hours. He also hated to see his mountain birthplace ripped apart in the name of industry. But when the bitter winter winds would blow through the flimsy walls of his broken-down home, he knew that he had no choice but to succumb to their will for his family’s sake.
Howard’s only peace came from Elizabeth Bishop, his wife of three years. Although Howard showed a stoic exterior to the world, his heart belonged to her. Five years his junior, Elizabeth was a beautiful woman toughened by years of mountain living. Their relationship wasn’t overly affectionate, but both felt a great deal of comfort knowing that the other was nearby when the black night would fall across the hills. And to them, that was enough.
In the early spring, Elizabeth had just given birth to her first child – a little girl named Anna – when she came down with a bad fever. Howard watched with concern as Elizabeth feverishly tossed and turned in her sweat-soaked bed, her pretty face drawn and pale.
“Is Anna all right?” whispered Elizabeth hoarsely to her husband.
Howard looked over at the child, lying still in a laundry basket that served as her makeshift crib. “She’s fine – don’t worry,” he replied, trying not to betray his concern. “You just get some rest.”
“I know somethin’s wrong. She ain’t moved in her crib for hours. She won’t even let me nurse her.”
Howard tenderly wiped her brow. “Shhh. It’s all right. She’s just sleepin’. When Laura gets here, I’ll run into town and fetch the doctor.”
“Laura” was Laura Shellnut, the wife of Howard’s good friend Walter Shellnut. Since the Shellnuts lived down in the valley where the land wasn’t quite so barren, they were able to eek out a respectable living as farmers. Sometimes they even brought fresh vegetables up to the Bishops when times were really tough. But more importantly, Howard knew he could depend on them in times of crisis.
And though Howard did his best not to let it show, to him this was a time of crisis. An hour later Laura arrived to care for Elizabeth, and Howard roared down the treacherous mountain road toward town. The logging companies had torn the dirt road to pieces, and Howard’s rickety old car pitched and swerved in the furrows and mud holes cut by the lumber trucks. Sometimes the muddy road would plunge straight down the steep mountainsides without guardrails, forcing Howard to proceed at a snail’s pace. But nothing was going to stop him from fetching help.
When Howard finally arrived in town, he learned that the doctor had left for a neighboring town and wouldn’t return until the next day. By now a fierce thunderstorm was lashing the hills, and Howard had no choice but to wait out the storm overnight and find the doctor in the morning.
When the doctor finally returned the next day, Howard pulled him into his car and roared out of town toward home. The evening’s rain had made the slippery roads even more treacherous, and the two men had to occasionally get out and push the car out of deep mud holes. After what seemed like an eternity, they arrived back at the Bishop homestead. Howard leapt out of the car and bolted for the house.
“I’m home!” yelled Howard as he threw open the door. “I brought the doctor…”
He then saw Laura Shellnut sitting on his wife’s bed, tears streaming down her face. As Laura turned to face him, Howard sensed the horrible truth. He staggered over to his wife’s bed and looked at her pale, lifeless body. He was too late.
Howard wailed in anguish, his cries of pain reverberating throughout the house. He then rushed over to the crib, only to encounter a second tragedy – his young daughter lay cold and limp, much in the same position as when he left her. The dreaded “mountain fever” had claimed two more victims.
Two days later, Elizabeth and Anna were buried in the community cemetery high atop a windswept bluff. The mourners sang solemn hymns around the freshly dug grave, believing that mother and daughter were safe in the arms of God’s angels. But Howard Bishop stared angrily at the menacing skies, his fists clenched in the frayed pockets of his old wool suit. After the service, he shrugged off his consoling neighbors and stormed home, bolting the door behind him. Facing the dark and empty house alone, everything in his life taken away from him, Howard stared out the window for hours on end, wondering why the loving God he prayed to every day at church had suddenly betrayed him.
The next day down in the valley, Walter Shellnut rose before dawn to milk his cows. He lit a lantern, grabbed a pail, and shuffled outside into the frosty mountain air. The cows rose to their feet and mooed loudly in the barn, sensing his arrival.
But even as he deftly milked his cows that morning, the reassuring “ping” of the spray hitting the bottom of the metal pail, he sensed that something was different. Usually he did his chores alone, yet this particular morning he sensed that someone was watching him. He knew his wife was still in bed. Who could it be?
He turned around, and what he saw startled him. At the barn door stood a mysterious woman, covered head to toe in a long black dress. Her face was indistinguishable in the dim lantern light, but Walter could see she wore no coat to protect her from the morning chill.
“Mornin’,” muttered Walter, unsure what to say.
The woman did not answer. Instead, she pulled out a shiny tin cup and set it down on a bale of hay. It took a moment for Walter to realize that the woman wanted milk. This wasn’t an unusual request – neighbors in the area frequently borrowed milk from one another. But the nearest farm was miles away, and from what Walter could tell, he had never seen this woman before.
He filled her cup and put it back on the bale. The woman took the cup, nodded gratefully and walked out the door. Walter’s cow suddenly became restless and kicked over the milk bucket, distracting him for a moment. When Walter finally got up and looked out the door, the woman had vanished into the darkness.
When Laura woke up, she and Walter discussed the morning’s strange events. Eventually they came to the conclusion that she must be a lost traveler, and an odd one at that. So Walter didn’t give it much thought until the next morning, when the woman suddenly appeared again in the same black dress, holding an empty tin cup. Like the morning before, she didn’t speak a word, but nodded gratefully when Walter filled her cup, then mysteriously vanished.
Like clockwork, the woman appeared every morning for four days. On the fourth day, Walter’s curiosity got the best of him. As the woman walked out the barn door with her milk, Walter sprung up and followed her. To his surprise, he saw the woman run into the surrounding forest without benefit of a light. Without thinking, he grabbed his lantern and ran after her.
For hours it seemed, Walter chased the woman through the dense forest. Walter was a healthy and strong man, but no matter how fast he ran, he could gain no ground on the swift woman in the distance. As the morning darkness gave way to eerie gray light, Walter felt that his eyes were playing tricks on him. For at times it seemed the woman wasn’t running at all, but was floating above the ground like some giant raven.
Walter emerged from the forest onto one of the logging roads. After the long run through the forest, Walter was surprised to see the woman run straight up into the hills at the same breakneck pace. Out of breath, Walter nevertheless continued after her. Without warning, she veered off onto a side road that cut through a dead forest of brittle, claw-like trees up toward one of the windswept bluffs.
Walter was now truly baffled. Why was she going up to the cemetery?
Walter reached the rusty iron gate of the community cemetery just in time to see the woman standing over one of the headstones, her black dress flapping in the fierce wind. She then knelt before a newly dug grave and, to Walter’s shock, vanished into thin air!
For a brief moment, Walter stood frozen in terror. He had heard the old-timers tell stories about haints and witches in the cemetery ever since he was a little boy, but had always just chuckled at them. Had they been telling the truth all along?
But then something dawned on him. Ignoring his fear and exhaustion, he sprinted all the way back down the mountain. He burst through the front door of his home, scaring his poor Laura to death. She looked at his panicked face and said, “Walter Shellnut, what’s wrong with you?” “Where are the shovels?” gasped Walter, almost out of breath.
“They’re out back by the barn,” answered Laura, still taken aback by his disheveled appearance. “Why?”
“I need your help. Hop in the truck. We gotta go up to the cemetery.”
“What on earth for?” Laura chuckled. “Are we grave diggers now?”
Walter grabbed her arm and yelled, “I ain’t got time to explain. Just do it. Please!”
Minutes later, the Shellnuts roared back up the old cemetery road and climbed to the top of the bluff. As they stopped at the gate, Walter leapt out, grabbed a shovel and ran toward one of the headstones. Laura’s jaw dropped as he saw Walter dig like a madman into one of the fresh graves – Elizabeth Bishop’s grave to be exact, buried only days ago.
“What are you doing – are you crazy?” she screamed.
“Just git over here and help me!” yelled Walter. “Hurry!”
Giving her dear husband the benefit of the doubt, Laura reluctantly grabbed a shovel and did something she never imagined she would do in her wildest dreams: dig up a grave. As the two dug deeper, both heard a strange sound. It started out as a muffled whimper, which Laura thought must have been carried by the howling wind. But as they dug closer to the coffin, the whimper became a high-pitched cry, then a frightened wail. The two looked at each other, their blood running cold.
“There’s a baby in there!” screamed Laura.
They finally struck the wood coffin. Frantically clearing away the dirt, Walter ripped open the lid.
Inside laid the corpse of Elizabeth Bishop, the mysterious woman in the black dress. On her chest laid her precious daughter Anna, very much alive, crying wildly.
And clutched in Elizabeth’s hand was an empty tin cup.
Hours later, Howard Bishop remained boarded up inside his darkened home when he heard a truck roar into his yard. He instinctively grabbed a shotgun and bolted out onto the porch. As the truck skidded to a halt in front of his door, he recognized it as the Shellnut’s. When he heard a baby crying in the truck, his face flushed with anger. What kind of sick joke was this, bringing a baby up here after all he’d been through?
“It’s me, Howard,” said Walter as he hopped out. “Put the gun down.”
As Howard did so, Walter walked over with the baby. Howard’s face softened as they approached, his eyes flashing a joyous and disbelieving spark of recognition.
“This is your baby,” said Walter, handing Howard the young daughter he thought he’d lost for sure. “She woke up from her fever. I don’t know how, but she did.”
Howard gently cradled the infant in his arms, his eyes welling with tears.
“It’s a miracle,” said Walter, smiling at the sight. “You see? Sometimes the Lord does work wonders.”
This story of the mother who returned from the grave to rescue her child is still told in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
– THE END –
Teachers can download instructional materials based on this story and others on our Lesson Plans page.
A Mother’s Love – Story Credits
Audio story told by Cathy Kaemmerlen
Music by Moira Nelligan
All Photography by Jon Kownacki
Sound Design by Henry Howard