Civil War ghost story of a Georgia plantation haunted by a broken heart. Adapted from folklore and told by Sherry Norfolk.
The Civil War had ended, and the weary, defeated Southern soldiers had straggled back home to what was left of their families and farms. The slaves had been freed, but some had stayed on in the places where the family had been kind, or where the family had scattered and never returned.
There was one such place in South Georgia – a once-beautiful plantation that had been abandoned before the war had even begun, and where the slaves had stayed in safety during the war, and had remained when freedom came. The land was rich, and Thomas, the young master of the plantation, had said it was theirs to farm and live off of until he came back came to claim it. So many of his former slaves chose to stay.
The memories and the story of the plantation had stayed, too. The story of the young master who had built the house for his beloved bride. The story of the sweet-smelling flower garden that his bride walked in every day from spring till fall.
The story of her ghost.
Melviny was only a young girl living in the slave quarters when Thomas lost his bride. She had held onto the memory of the young bride’s beauty and kindness throughout the dark and ugly years of war.
Melviny had held onto the other memories, too. The memories always began with laughter – happiness seemed to come out of the windows and doors of that house, seemed to be part of the very walls and floors. It was the happiness of Thomas and his bride that made the plantation a good place to be: happiness breeds kindness and gentleness, they say.
The story starts – and ends – in the flower garden of the big house. Every fine day, the young bride found time to come and sit in her garden, to smell the fragrant blossoms and cut the prettiest ones to decorate the house. Every day, Melviny worked in that garden, pulling the weeds and picking off the dead blossoms.
“Melviny,” the young bride would call, “just come and smell this rose! Isn’t it the prettiest thing you ever did smell?”
And Melviny would run to the rosebush and inhale deeply. “Oh, yes, ma’am, you’re right! It is the prettiest smell in all the world!”
Or, “Melviny, you take some of these dahlias to your mamma. She likes pretty colors and these are the brightest I’ve ever seen. Run, now!” And Melviny would run with the handful of brilliant flowers, grinning to her mama, who would put them in a jar of water on the mantelpiece.
But one evening, when the moon shone full and bright, a screech-owl began to make a terrible noise outside the cabin where Melviny and her mama lived. Melviny ran to her mama in alarm at the screeching, unearthly sound, and her mama held her close.
“Never mind, child,” she soothed. “Just an ol’ screech-owl calling to his kin.”
“But, Mama, I’ve heard the others say that when you hear a screech owl keep hollerin’ and carryin’ on like that, someone’s gonna die!”
“No, child, they’re just trying to scare you. Now you settle down and eat your supper. Nothin’ to worry yourself over.”
But Melviny wasn’t comforted. She watched everyone she loved, fearful of the screech-owl’s curse.
Two days later, as Melviny worked in the garden, she watched Thomas and his bride stroll out arm-in-arm. She saw the young lady bend to smell a new blossom, and she saw her drop to the ground in a dead faint.
Thomas cried out for Meviny, and she ran to his side, staring stricken at the lady’s pale face. “Melviny, run to the house and tell your mama I need her to bring smelling salts,” Thomas gasped. “And tell one of the men to go for the doctor! Run, now!”
And Melviny flew off to the house, while the master came behind with his bride in his arms. Melviny and her mama stayed at Melinda’s side with cold compresses and smelling salts, and they heard her weak voice when at last her eyes fluttered open: “Thomas, Thomas are you there?” Thomas hurried to her side. “Yes, my love, I’m right here. Are you feeling better? You gave us all quite a scare!”
“Thomas, I’m dying. It’s true – I know it is. But nothing can take me from you forever. Our love is too strong. Thomas, I’ll come back to you. I’ll come back as a white bleedingdove and live in the snowball bush in the garden.”
“No, my love, you’re not dying, you’re not!” Thomas pleaded.
But three days later, his young bride passed away without saying another word, and her grave was planted over with the flowers that she loved. Melviny and her mama felt sorry for Thomas, and watched him grieve until he himself was almost in the grave beside his bride. But finally his grief forced him to close up the house and to go away to Europe, where the sights and the scents and the very air would not remind him of his beloved. He told Melviny and her mama and all the rest of the slaves that the land was theirs to work and live off of until he came back. And he went away.
Melviny continued to work in that garden every day. And every day, she looked for the white bleedingdove, but it didn’t come. War broke out, and the master stayed away. Then freedom came, and Melviny and the rest of the slaves were freed. But Melviny and her mother stayed on at the plantation, harvesting a good garden crop that year and fixing their cabin snug against the winter winds. They had stopped expecting to see the master again, but they hadn’t forgotten the snowball bush, still living – though not blooming – in the otherwise ravaged flower garden.
Then one day a letter came, announcing that Thomas was returning with a new bride. Melviny and her mama made the house ready for his return – and Melviny did her best to straighten up the garden, pulling the biggest weeds and pruning back the rampant growth. She was surprised to see that the snowball bush was in full, glorious bloom – the first time it had bloomed since Melinda had died. But she didn’t have time to tell her mama until they stood together at the end of the drive, waiting to greet Thomas and his new bride.
“Mama, did you see it? The snowball bush is just covered all over with flowers this morning! You think maybe because Mr. Whitledge is coming home today? You think we’ll see the white bleedingdove?”
“Hush, girl, you can’t still be dreaming about that white bleedingdove. There’ll be no such thing. Look, now, there’s a carriage coming this way!”
And there was. Thomas stepped out, and helped his new bride from the carriage. And as she was lifted down a mournful sound came from the garden. Melviny turned to see a white bleedingdove, sitting amid the blooms of the snowball bush.
“Look, Mama! Just look there!” But her mama shook her head, and greeted the couple and ushered them into the house. The white bleedingdove came every evening after that, and sat moaning in the snowball bush. The sound could be heard plainly in the big house, no matter how loudly Thomas’s new bride played on the piano or how far away she tried to get. It seemed to pierce her heart, and she cried all the time, and she never went into the garden.
“Make it stop,” she pleaded to Thomas. “Make that bird stop crying!”
Finally, Thomas had had enough. He took his gun and marched into the garden. And when he came near the bush, the bleedingdove rose up out of the bush and fluttered right in the air above his head. He raised the gun, and fired.
“THOMAS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” A human scream sounded over the garden, and the bleedingdove flew away with a red stain over her heart. That night, as Thomas lay in his bed, he died suddenly of a heart attack. His new wife left, her heart also broken, but with grief.
The old house is still sitting there, neglected and decaying. A snowball bush still blooms each summer in its ruined garden, the petals foiling like tears into the rampant weeds. And flying in and out of the broken windows, nesting in the snowball bush, are dozens of white bleedingdoves with red stains over their hearts, grieving all the time.
-THE END –
The Bleeding Heart Dove – Story Credits
Adapted and Told by Sherry Norfolk
Directed by Craig Dominey
Illustration by Madison Henline, Savannah College of Art and Design
Sound Design by Henry Howard