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From the sunny, gentle wave-caressed beaches to the gray, wild storm-ravaged shore, Hatteras is an island of contrasts, a characteristic that makes it so appealing.  For many, it is the brilliant days that stimulate an adventurous independent spirit and the dark nights that for some spark apprehension and dependency.  This was the case with Aunt Katie.  When her husband, Monroe,  died, she never spent another night at home alone.  Understanding her anxiety, Grandmom invited her sister, Katie, to spend the nights with her, Pop Pop, and Sister, my unmarried aunt who was a surrogate mother to me and my brother during our annual summer visits.

As soon as Aunt Katie finished eating supper and cleaning her dishes, she would check her house for any signs of fire that she may have left in the kitchen or elsewhere, pick up her white cotton nightgown, and cross the road to spend the night with us.  The next morning before breakfast she always returned home.  

Every night at our house after everyone had gone to bed, Aunt Katie would make one of several nightly fire inspections.  To say she was compulsive is an understatement.  Her greatest fear was fire consuming the house in which she was staying.  Without fail, each night when everyone had settled in bed for a peaceful night's rest, Aunt Katie would get up, and beginning with the rooms downstairs she would search for fire.  When that part of the house passed her scrutiny, she proceeded with her investigation to the rooms upstairs.  It made no difference to her who was sleeping in a room. Without hesitation, she entered, looked under the bed and sometimes under the covers of the sleeping occupants.  How she found her way around the darkened house without falling and hurting herself will forever baffle me. Both my brother and I were frightened more than once when we were suddenly wakened from a deep sleep by her plundering while she searched for fire.

Her appearance was unnerving to us. She always wore a floor-length, white, cotton nightgown that flowed behind her lean bony body as she walked.  Her ashen face, wrinkled from more than 70 years of exposure to the Hatteras sun, was framed by fine neck-length, straight white hair.  When the rooms of the house were dimly illuminated on a bright moonlit night, she looked exactly the way my brother and I visualized an apparition that Pop Pop told us about seeing one night along the road as he was walking home. When Aunt Katie leaned over the bed and raised the covers in search of fire, her appearance could startle the bravest individual.   

One night she scared my brother so bad that he spent the rest of the night sleeping with Sister.  Pop Pop, Grandmom, and Sister took her nightly routine in good stride.  They never exhibited any signs of fear. My brother and I were horrified. We never knew if what we were seeing was a spook or Aunt Katie.  We found it was best not to go to sleep until she was through with her vigil. That way, we were not awakened to any surprises. After her first round of observations, she returned to her bed only to repeat her performance 15 or 20 minutes later.  Generally, after two inspections, she was satisfied that there was no danger of fire and she would drift off to sleep.

On one particular night, the mosquitoes were unusually thick, and instead of sitting on the piazza until dark to enjoy the evening breeze, as was our after supper custom, everyone, including my brother and myself, settled in the sitting room to escape the blood-thirsty pests.  

The conversation began by centering on the day's happenings.  Sister, who worked at the local grocery store, shared some of the news she had learned that day while at work.  It seemed that there was always someone who was either sick, who had an accident, or who died.  Pop Pop told about his day at the fish house, informing us of the day's catch and how many boxes of fish he had iced that day.  Grandmom told Aunt Katie what she had prepared for dinner, and Aunt Katie did likewise. Grandmom always served bacon, eggs, hot yeast light rolls, apple butter or a fruit jelly, molasses, and coffee for supper every night. So that meal was never discussed.  My brother and I called that menu a "Hatteras supper," and we still enjoy it as an evening meal today.

Clifford, my brother who was named for Pop Pop, and I were always intrigued with any story he had to share, and he had an inexhaustible supply of interesting tales in his repertoire. This night he told us about the time he was walking home on a dark evening and saw in front of him a white apparition fly from the road and disappear over the adjoining marsh.  Both my brother and I were curious and anxious to hear this kind of story but we always wished afterwards that we had not.  Aunt Katie was not amused at all.  She was scared of her own shadow.  At the conclusion of Pop Pop's yarn, fright was written in big bold letters across her wrinkled face. Grandmom was fearful of storms, but aside from that, my grandparents and aunt were not frightened by anything.

My brother once asked Pop Pop, "What do you fear the most?"  His reply was, "I'm not scared of anything."  My brother said, "Well, I am."  To which Pop Pop replied, "Then you're not living right" --a profound statement that lives with both of us today.  

A lull in conversation followed his story.  Sister broke the silence as she took the fly swatter that hung on a nail in the sitting room wall beside the entrance to the kitchen, and she began an assault on every mosquito that she could find in the room.  They usually landed somewhere near the upper wall adjacent to the ceiling, and if Sister saw them, that is where they died.  Each of us pointed out one or two of the pests for her assault.  The celedon colored walls were stained with dried, squashed, blood-stained mosquito bodies from former attacks.

As darkness set in, there was a knock at the front door.  It was Millard.  He stood at the door brushing the mosquitoes from his clothes with a small branch with leaves from a myrtle bush.  He used this weapon to fight the mosquitoes as he walked from his house up the sandy road to ours.  He carefully brushed the mosquitoes from the screen door before he let himself inside.  We knew it was Millard as soon as he stepped on the piazza.  Millard was a deaf mute whose only means of verbal communication were guttural sounds and laughter.  When he stepped on the piazza, he made grunting sounds that were unmistakably his, as he knocked the sand from his shoes by lightly stomping on the floor.  Everyone on Hatteras recognized the sounds peculiar to this beloved island native.  I always enjoyed his visits.  

Grandmom and Aunt Katie had a sister who was a deaf mute and who died when she was 13 years old.  Grandmom learned to sign so she could communicate with her.  Actually her self-taught form of signing was limited, since she only knew how to represent on her hands the letters of the alphabet.  Since Grandmom was one of a few people in the village who knew any form of this language, Millard frequently visited our family, so he could have someone to "talk" to.  

I was fascinated with the exchange between Millard and Grandmom.  It was a show that kept everyone's constant attention.  Millard signed to Grandmom, and she translated to everyone else in the room.  Any comments that we had to make were relayed to Millard through her.  For me, trying to understand the words they were relaying to each other was an engaging challenge.  Even though Grandmom had taught me how to form the letters of the alphabet on my hands, I seldom could interpret the words being spelled by their rapidly moving digits. Sister conversed with him by writing on a tablet Grandmom kept in one of the drawers of the sideboard. She passed him the tablet with her one sentence statement or question.  He replied with either a gesture or a one- or two-word note.  Millard always had some village news that none of us had heard.  He stayed about an hour, during which time Grandmom served everyone a piece of "penny" candy that she kept for special occasions in the upper right-hand drawer of the old sideboard in the sitting room.

After Millard left, Grandmom started her nightly ritual before going to bed.  She began by saying, "Young’uns, I think I'll turn in."  She turned to Pop Pop and asked, "Clifford, have you brought the buckets in?"  He made no response but got up from his wooden rocking chair and retrieved the buckets from the back porch.

We had no indoor plumbing.  There was an outdoor toilet behind the house but it was somewhat inconvenient to use at night. It was also a bit scary to use the toilet at night.  It took all the courage my brother and I could muster to use it in the daytime.  There were spiders and insects lurking in all kinds of hiding places. But the most alarming sight was the maggots that lived in the pit below the seats.  The buckets in the house at night were a most welcomed sight.  Aunt Katie, who slept downstairs, had a bucket in her bedroom, and the other one was placed in the hallway and was shared by the rest of the family who slept in the two bedrooms upstairs.  Grandmom and Pop Pop had a bedroom on the southwest side of the house. Sister, my brother, and I slept in the northeast bedroom, which was directly over Aunt Katie's room.  Clifford and I shared a bed on one side of the small room. Sister's bed was on the other side.  

Grandmom went in the kitchen and filled a glass with water from the water bucket that sat on a corner table by the door that led to the back porch.  She filled a second glass with water in which she placed her false teeth.  She carried both glasses into the sitting room and sat them on the sideboard.  

Sitting in front of the mirror of the sideboard was an Aunt Jemima cookie jar in which she kept her medicine.  Her entire apothecary consisted of a bottle of camphor, a bottle of mercurochrome, a vial of Carter's Little Liver Pills, a jar of Mentholatum salve, and a roll of Tums.  She retrieved the jar of Mentholatum, unscrewed the cap, and stuck her little finger in the Vaseline-like contents.  She proceeded to rub a thin coat of the methol-laced salve in both her nostrils.  She said "it opened up her head" and she could breathe better.  After returning the Mentholatum to its proper place, she picked up the two glasses of water, one of which contained her teeth, wished everyone a good night, and climbed the stairs to her bedroom.  

Sister made another fly-swatter attack on the mosquitoes that managed to slip past Millard when he opened the screen door on his way out.  After returning her weapon to the nail by the kitchen door, she reached under a table in the corner of the room by Grandmom's wooden rocking chair and pulled out a spray gun.  It consisted of a glass jar filled with an insect-killing liquid.  The jar was screwed to a metal handle that contained a piston like plunger, which forced air through an atomizer at the end of the handle above the jar.  A fine mist emerged from the device when the plunger was forced inward.  She soaked each of the screens in the house with the insecticide whose odor lingered for most of the night.

Aunt Katie and Sister were the next to retire.  Pop Pop joked around with my brother and me for awhile before we followed the others to bed. When we heard the ringing sound caused by a liquid hitting the bottom of the white porcelain bucket that was upstairs, we knew Grandmom was not long before getting into bed.

I was intentionally the last to leave the sitting room.  With no one looking, I opened the Aunt Jemima cookie jar, reached in for the bottle of Menthalatum, and placed it in my pocket.  I walked to the middle of the sitting room, stood on my tip toes and reached for the string that hung from the on/off switch of the ceramic light fixture attached to the ceiling.  I pulled the string cutting off the electricity to a bare 60-watt bulb. Light from another bare bulb in a similar fixture in the upstairs hallway lit the steps well enough for me to see to make my way up to my bedroom.  

After my brother and I put on our pajamas, he was next to "use the bucket" that sat outside of our doorway.  The ring was much sharper and louder when the males of the family used the bucket.  It lacked the hissing sound that accompanied the ring created by the females.  When he returned to get in bed, it was my turn at the pot.  When I finished, in an effort to control the odor of what was now a bucket one-fourth full of waste, I placed a lid over the top.  

It was a ritual before getting into bed for me to go into Pop Pop and Grandmom's bedroom and jump between them into the fluffy feather bed, which was especially plump in the middle because the feathers and air had been shifted from each side of the bed where they lay.  The sheets were damp from the ever-present summer humidity.  

A light, sweet, sour musty odor from our unbathed bodies filled my nostrils. It was not an offensive aroma but one that distinguished us from others -- one that implied similar chemistry, one that suggested we were family. Since our only source of freshwater was from rain, water had to be conserved.  A once-a-week Saturday bath was the custom.  

Nowhere have I ever felt safer than when I was snuggling between my grandmother and granddaddy engulfed in that feather bed.  Pop Pop and I giggled and laughed while Grandmom pretended to be asleep.  A hissing ring from the bucket signaled that Sister was soon to settle in her bed.  When I heard her replace the lid, I climbed out of my grandparent's bed, being careful not to kick over the glass of water containing Grandmom's false teeth or her drinking water, both of which she had sitting together on the floor beside the bed.   I do not know how she distinguished between the two in the dark room when she would awake thirsty in the middle of the night. I quickly crossed the pitch-black hall, entered my room, and climbed into bed with my brother.

Both my brother and I remained awake until Aunt Katie finished her final search for fire in our room.  Shortly, we heard a muffled ring from the slop bucket downstairs, which signaled that she was about to finally retire for the night.  We waited about 15 minutes to make sure that she was asleep.  Sister was snoring in the bed across the room from us.

I whispered to my brother, "Did you find some twine?"

"Yes," he replied in a hushed voice as he retrieved it from under his pillow and passed it to me.   "Grandmom had some in one of the drawers of her sewing machine."

"How long is it?"

"Long enough."

I reached under my pillow where I had stashed the Mentholatum jar that I had taken from Aunt Jemima, unscrewed the top, placed one end of the string in the jar, and replaced the lid.  The jar was firmly secured to the end of the string.  

Very quietly we sneaked over to the window and peered into the dark obscurity beyond. It was a typical Hatteras night before the convenience of streetlights. The only source of light outside the homes either came from the stars or the bioluminescence of some of nature's local creatures.  All we could see was a spectacular light show created by fireflies darting over the marsh in the moonless void beyond the cheesecloth screen that covered the opening of our raised bedroom window. It was a night so dark that it was impossible to see one's hand in front of one's face, a night whose mysterious sounds could easily be magnified into legendary stories of unexplained phenomena. Stories that could make one's hair stand on end in response to the apprehension they created.

We pushed out one end of the insecticide soaked screen, and lowered the Mentholatum jar below the downstairs window.  When the jar was swinging like the pendulum of Grandmom's chiming clock, we directed it to rake and knock against the side of the house.  Then we stopped and listened.  Silence.  It was after a second round of knocks and rakes outside Aunt Katie's window that we got the response from her that we were hoping to achieve.  

With terror in her voice, Aunt Katie yelled, "Merciful Father, what on earth is making that racket?"  

We heard her bolt across the dark bedroom, kicking the slop bucket as she made her way to the doorway that lead into the sitting room where just a few hours before Pop Pop had told us the story of seeing an apparition.  We quickly retrieved the Mentholatum jar, and jumped into bed pretending to be asleep.  

In record time, Aunt Katie was at the top of the stairs standing in the small hallway, wringing her hands, and breathlessly shouting, "Mag, Clifford, wake up.  There is something outside my bedroom window."

By this time everyone was awake.  Grandmom and Pop Pop quickly emerged from their room as Sister hurriedly crossed our room towards the door.  With a convincing look of innocence and concern on our faces, Clifford and I followed Sister.  There standing outside our bedroom door was Aunt Katie. Her white, flowing, floor-length nightgown, now saturated with the contents of the slop bucket, stuck to her legs. Hysterically she told us about the knocking and raking sounds she had heard outside her bedroom window.

Grandmom, Pop Pop, and Sister followed her downstairs and outside into the pitch-black Hatteras night to investigate the situation. While everyone was outside, I rushed downstairs and returned the Mentholatum container to Aunt Jemima. Without wasting any time, I made a mad dash back up the stairs and into my room where Clifford and I laughed and joyfully danced about in celebration for having paid Aunt Katie back for all the times she had frightened us.  When we heard the adults return after having found no signs of what caused Aunt Katie's distress, we quickly jumped into bed and spent the rest of the night with dreams of sweet revenge.


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