Haunted at a writing retreat.

I moved aside the wooden block holding up the ancient window and carefully lowered the heavy pane, not wanting to smash my fingers. I was in my bedroom at The Porches in Norwood, Virginia—an antebellum farmhouse lovingly transformed into a quiet, contemplative writers’ retreat.  I’d come to work on a difficult chapter in my nonfiction story about the murder of John W. Funkhouser, the geology professor who discovered the earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant back in 1970. With the heavy window closed, I turned on the air conditioner.  It was almost ninety degrees outside.  I opened my laptop and placed the binder with my files from the courthouse beside me. I clicked the only photo I had of the killer— from his senior high school yearbook.

Ray William Cook, Jr. was a good looking boy. Dark hair, sincere eyes, and perfect lips.  Hollywood lips.  Lips that could have been outlined by a professional makeup artist. I turned the page to the photocopy of his signed confession:

December 3, 1974

I, Ray William Cook, Jr., do make this statement to Det. H. M Shelton, Chesterfield County Police Dept., after having been advised of my constitutional rights and understanding these rights I make this statement freely and voluntarily…

I flipped page after page, recreating the crime. After a couple more hours with this murderer, it was time for dinner. A shared meal with three other writers followed by a settling stroll in the lush Virginia countryside. Weeks of rain had finally ended and the results were spectacular.  Colorful coneflowers, ubiquitous Virginia creeper, and trees competing for every inch of sunlight. I walked to a small church with a few gravestones. One or two cars passed by, the drivers waved and I waved back.

I returned to my room, to my computer, and to my binder. My chapter on Ray Cook’s family life, his physical and mental health, and his jumbled reasoning for shooting Dr. Funkhouser in the head was inching into existence.  Outside, the long June day finally gave in to the night.  The deeper I dove into the life and crimes of Ray Cook, Jr., the darker the windowpane became. Moths banged against the wavy glass. I dragged my fingers through my hair. His yearbook photo was still on my computer screen. My face was in the windowpane, lit by the screen. His face. My face.  I rubbed my arms.  It was too cool in here. I adjusted the temperature on the wall air condition.   Just a tad warmer, please.  I sat on the corner of my bed. The locked armoire beside the bed had a full length mirror.  I was tired and should have gotten some sleep, but I returned to my computer instead.

VIRGINIA:

IN THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE COUNTY OF CHESTERFIELD COMMONWEALTH

VS.

RAY WILLIAM COOK

The defendant, Ray William Cook, having been charged in this court at the March term 1975, on two felony charges; to-wit: Armed Robbery and Murder, and pursuant to the Order of the Court, having been conveyed to Central State Hospital at Petersburg, Virginia for observation and reported to the Court, at which said hospital he was received and the Superintendent of the said hospital having reported to the Court that the said Ray Willian Cook is not mentally ill, it is, therefore ORDERED that the Sheriff of Chesterfield do proceed to Central State Hospital at Petersburg, Virginia and take into his custody the said Ray William Cook and commit him to the Chesterfield County Jail, Chesterfield, Virginia to be there confined until he shall be ordered by this court to be produced before the Court for the trial of the crime of which he stands charged.

A deep quiet had settled over The Porches.  The other writers had gone to bed. Even the moths had stopped their suicidal banging. I had to get my mind off murder.   I showered, brushed my teeth, and changed into my nightgown. The brass bed was as soft as feathers with a half-dozen pillows.  I read for a while then took off my glasses and turned out the light.  The room glowed. I looked up.  I’d left my computer on. Mr. Cook’s high school yearbook photo was staring at me. I tried to ignore him. I built a fortress of pillows to block the light. But there he was.  I turned the light back on and walked to the desk. I closed the file and shut down the computer.  I returned to bed and turned off the lights.

It was too dark. It was too quiet.  I strained to hear anything beyond the rumble of the air conditioner. I couldn’t get Mr. Cook out of my head. Robbery. Murder. Prison.  Someone was watching me.  I sat up.  I switched on the light and grabbed my glasses. The mirror on the full-length armoire.  That’s all it was.  I stacked the pillows so I couldn’t see the mirror and turned off the light.

Mr. Cook was standing beside my bed.

Lights back on, glasses back on, I picked up my book and read until I heard the birds singing.  At breakfast, I told the other writers of my sleepless night. I returned to my room and my white binder, and wrote about a killer’s ghost stalking me in this lovely antebellum farmhouse.

Porches bedroom - legs

My bedroom at The Porches.  I should have put my robe over that mirror!

 

 

Carolyn O’Neal is a Charlottesville author.  She highly recommends The Porches writing retreat. This historic farmhouse built in 1854 on the James River offers a unique experience for authors and artists.

 

 

 

 

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