When I was growing up, we had a creek running through our property. The Pohick Creek to be exact, a small tributary of the Potomac (although we always called it ‘Po’hick’ as if it were some kind of Southern derogatory name for a poor hick). The creek was fascinating. I spent most of my childhood following it into the woods where it meandered with fallen trees for bridges and mossy banks, snapping turtles, frogs, and fish. We even named parts of it that were especially beautiful like “Queen’s Throne” and “Witch’s Hollow.” I spent a lot of time too making my Barbie dolls dive off the stone bridge that spanned the driveway and creating jumps for my sled when winter came, only to break through the ice and get wet.
The creek was lined by heavy willow trees. There were five of us kids and the three middle ones were all a year apart. My mother was exhausted with their antics. Even having all that acreage, they still managed to get into trouble. One time, she told them to go to the willow trees and pick a switch for her to hit them with. My defiant middle sister came back with a log, in her own way daring mom to hit her with it. Mother laughed and the switch search parties ended. She took to middle child’s rebellion with a broom instead which was really quite comical and ineffective.
As engaging as the creek was, it apparently had a dark history. We learned of it in the summer time at twilight. It happened quite often on the hottest days just at that time when the sun was out of sight but the world was still fairly bright. You would hear a woman screaming as if she were trapped and needed help. The sound always came from the creek, one specific area near the fence. We would rush there to see what was up, but there was no one there. Sometimes, there would be claw marks in the muddy banks. Other times, the water would be disturbed and cloudy where it was usually still and clear. No matter where you were in the yard, whether you were at the hickory trees on the far opposite side of the 7 acres or if you were sitting at the creek, the woman’s screams were equally loud. My friends would want to rush and see what was happening, but I would stroll. I knew it was useless. We had done this every summer of my childhood and whoever produced the screams was nowhere to be found.
Being a person who likes explanations, I figured my mom the historian would be a good source. One day I prodded her to tell me about the creek’s history. She told me that the creek used to run like a river, quite larger than it was now. During the Civil War, the story was, a woman helping to nurse the soldiers in the house was overcome with anguish. The man she was falling in love with died. She went down to the creek and drowned herself. I asked her where the woman drowned herself and she said, “somewhere near the property line at the fence, I think. Why?”
I had to smile. I knew something my mom didn’t know. I knew about the screaming lady. Us siblings didn’t really talk to each other about it until one summer when a few of us heard it with our friends and all met at the same place. My brother, the skeptic, scoffed that there was a ghost doing the screaming. His friend looked rather uncomfortable with the idea. My friend was excited and thrilled to see claw marks in the mud and the water all dirty and churned up. I, however, was frustrated. Why did she scream if she drowned herself? My logical mind was active even as a child. It’s the curse of Virgos, I suppose.
“Did you hear the lady scream?” My mother asked me softly.
My eyes widened. “You know about her?”
“I’ve heard her.” She told me. “The summer after we first moved in. I was having my coffee on the porch. She screamed three or four times.”
“Yes!” I agreed excitedly. That’s how many times she usually screamed.
“I went down there but there was nothing. She didn’t scream again until a week later. I went down again. Nothing. She did it again a few days later. That time I gave up. I don’t think she wants to be found.”
A shiver raced down my spine. “Do you think she wants to scare us?”
My mom smiled knowingly. “I think when she went to the creek, she screamed out in anguish and then decided to climb into the creek and let herself drown. What we’re probably hearing is her last emotion before she gave up. That could be a powerful thing.”
I swallowed past the lump in my throat.
A week after that, she screamed again. This time I gathered up some wild violets and a few bluebells and went down the creek and tossed them into the spot where she drowned.
“It’s okay now.” I told her. “Go and join your sweetheart.”
I didn’t hear her the next summer, or the one after that. It could be because in adolescence, I tended to go out and about the neighborhood in search of cute boys rather than explore the property. She might have screamed. She might not have screamed. I’ll never know if she heard me or if we made a connection, but I like to think that sending that spot some positive and loving energy and an offering might have helped to erase its memories. Give it new ones.
Still, decades later at twilight in the summertime when the air is a bit thick with moisture and the scent of wet earth, I get a nostalgic tug. My body poises in anticipation. I can almost sense what’s going to come. But it doesn’t. Only in my memories and even time can’t seem to erase the impression she made on me. I feel restless and excited and at the same time scared and sad.
In truth, her ritual had become my ritual.