This story is by Andrea Charman and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Searching for Sally
Seldom is local history with its cultural specificity a conscious critical feature in people’s default collective beliefs, superstitions, and mythologies. The result is that few challenge or mine the origins of their community’s ‘shared fixations.’ They simply take on board popular legend passed on to them, usually orally, generation to generation. We may well not give credence to all the tales we are ‘taught’ in youth; we are often ready to ‘buy in;’ indeed, reluctance to dismiss our ‘folklore’ out of hand, is common. Just in case!
Oral history is a universal phenomenon, part of human DNA. Legend and folklore passed across the centuries, undergoes adaptation, changes, additions, subtractions, influenced by linguistic relativity as the tales become increasingly detached from their origins. Collective memories across generations, are edited, embellished, and certainly impacted by changing contexts and linguistic adaptations. Shifts in population composition, the result of migrations, of climate, habitat or political change, of war and exposure to hitherto unknown ethnicities, unfamiliar religions all bring yet further adaptation.
This was a grey English morning. Shinkai sat in the University’s Senior Common Room with his large mug of strong coffee thinking through his past 36 hours. Bombarded with visual flashes of the tales of his childhood; tales of spirits, ghosts, and haunted spaces, flooded through his mind like a film reel or the rushes for a series on the supernatural, the paranormal, the inexplicable. The stories about ‘obake’ – shapeshifting, floating ‘good’ spirits that he had learnt about; ‘creatures’ with no feet, no fingerprints were overtaken in his mind by cautionary tales of ‘yurei,’ ghosts believed to be the haunting spirits of deceased humans. Did what he knew from his native folklore inform him at all about what he had just experienced? Do good English ghosts have feet, for example? Indeed, was he certain ‘good’ Japanese ghosts do not? What was clear to him…feet, tanners, leather signal an association with carcasses, death, grave diggers, in fact, Japan’s bottom social class, ‘eta’ untouchables. But, his mind was digressing; he must focus on the issues at hand…..
It was Halloween, the ancient Celtic festival marking the end of summer with the November harvest approaching, a time when were fires traditionally lit to ward off the ghosts of the dead said to return home at this time. Shinkai’s academic supervisor had invited him, plus other research fellows and friends to a Halloween bonfire party at his rural home just 30-minutes from the city. Halloween was often overshadowed by another bonfire and fireworks festival in England a few days later, November 5. Bonfire Night remembers the seventeenth century plot to blow up parliament. People light bonfires, burn an effigy of the ‘traitor’ Guy Faulkes, let off fireworks across the nation, enjoying bonfire baked sausages and jacket potatoes Today, glowing pumpkins of Halloween often appear alongside family and community bonfires merging the two celebrations.
Halloween this year occurred in concert with a full moon offering an even brighter sky already enhanced by the light of the fires, fireworks, and firecrackers. About 30 people had gathered to enjoy this Wiltshire countryside bonfire party; a wonderful opportunity for Shinkai to participate in England’s traditions gaining more understanding of a culture quite removed from his own. Arriving by car, he had had to limit his enjoyment to one large glass of local wine. That notwithstanding, he had enjoyed the bonfire cooked food and other traditional dishes while chatting with other guests. Ghost stories and haunted houses were common themes. Time flew so around 11pm he decided to head home. Guests suggested he avoid the main roads and take a quiet hedgerow lined road that ran high up through the woods, back into the city. It might take a little longer but was a more pleasant, quieter ride especially with today’s addition of the full moon’s glow.
Shinkai bid farewell, left the party for his short journey home. There was no traffic on this quiet road, just the occasional streetlamp, the illuminated farmhouse gate entrance. He noted there were no road markings, only the odd signpost denoting a concealed entrance or bridlepath. The hedges on both sides prevented his seeing the woods and fields beyond, except when the odd ‘passing place’ offered a break in the hedges. As his car slipped along, his mind wandered back to the party, its Halloween costumes, the conversation, the ghostly garb some guests had donned; the spooky decorations around the property, the fun of the silvery sparklers, everyone’s favourite ‘illuminator.’
The road was straight; Shinkai noticed he was now travelling up a slight incline, with a long clear slope ahead towards what he assumed was the junction into the city. Then came the thud. A loud dull sound. He braked, plus, his old Citroen had a manual gearbox, so he quickly changed down to first gear to halt the car. What had happened? Had he hit something? It sounded very much like it, but he had seen nothing. Was it a rabbit, a hare, even a small deer? No, he really doubted that. He would surely have seen it!
Quickly checking for other travellers on the road, he got out of the car to look. Important not to leave a wounded animal to suffer. What he saw was a huge shock! No sign of any animal or of any other object for that matter; just a broken headlight with a lot of shattered glass, the broken bulb still in place. He looked to see if something might have slipped through the hedgerow, possibly injured; there was nothing. No sign of a gap through which an animal might have passed. He looked under the car, checked the surroundings, but to no avail. Before moving on, Shinkai cleared the broken headlight glass and took a good look around once more. No sign of life at all. No bird or owl murmur. Nothing. A mystery! Just what had happened? Driving home, he thought back to his drive across the hillside, the bright sky, the silence of the night, the total absence of other travellers. What had broken his headlight? There seemed no obvious explanation. He had been travelling so slowly, alert to his surroundings on a road that was not familiar. Now it was so late, tiredness had set in so once home, he dropped into bed after a hot chocolate. Tomorrow – now today! – he would try to sort all this out.
He was up early. The priority was to call the Citroen Garage where he was well known. He arranged to bring in the car for repair right way. He jumped into his vehicle and in 15 minutes was on the forecourt of the garage. The owner, Jim, came right out to see what the problem might be. He saw the headlight and immediately asked what had happened. Shinkai tried to explain that he must have hit something, but he was sure that he had not, in fact, hit anything! As he stumbled to get his words out, Jim asked him where all this had occurred. Shinkai was not totally sure, he said was coming from a place named Bathford through the woods with the hedgerows, driving back home after a University Halloween party. Jim knew immediately what had happened. To Shinkai’s amazement he told him categorically that he had hit Sally. Sally, who is Sally thought Shinkai? No doubt at all, Jim insisted. Indeed, he must actually have been driving through Sally in the Woods, a place named after a deceased girl of that name. This was not the first car headlight Jim had had to repair because of a collision with Sally!
Shinkai stood speechless. Was this another Halloween fable? A ghost story? Jim invited him in for coffee and outlined the legend of Sally. Maybe he would understand ‘Sally,’ put his mind at rest. Legend says Sally, a murdered girl, haunts these Wilshire woods at night, causing crashes when she appears from the trees. For many the story of Sally is centred on a nearby tower known as Brown’s Folly, where a certain Sally, a young girl, was imprisoned by a wealthy landlord in the 18th century. Left to starve folklore has it that since then she restlessly roams the woods at night straying onto the road, causing a long history of well-documented and often mysterious accidents, some of which the police have never managed to solve.
Jim went on to explain that there are other ‘Sally’ theories. One that involves the murdered wife of a gamekeeper. Another, the English Civil War theory, when in 1643 a small battle took place nearby. The term ‘sally’ then meant ‘a sudden rush of soldiers from a besieged location attacking the enemy. So, the longstanding name of the area, Sally in the Woods, may date back to this clash or ‘sally’ between those loyal to the King, and the opposition, Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians.
Shinkai had a lot to ponder.
Do spirits really exist? And just who is Sally?
November 12, 2023