The Indian summer afternoon was sunny and warm, and the autumn leaves were at their peak. From where she sat, Miss Mills could see them dancing on the wind. With a sigh, she turned back to grading papers. Her day at the one room country school had been a long tiring one, and she had decided to stay a bit late on this afternoon and get her grading and assignments for the next day ready so she could spend the evening with her crochet.
She was hard at work when something–a noise? A shadow?–caught her attention. She looked up at the empty room to find that someone was just there.
Toward the back of the room, at one of the desks, sat a girl whom Miss Mills had never seen before. She was small–surely no more than a first grader. She was dressed in a torn, muddy dress, and her little face was dirty and streaked with tears. She had her hand raised.
Miss Mills felt something was not quite right about this child. The room seemed to have grown cold, and she noticed the shadows from the windows were getting quite long.
Still, she was a teacher, and this child obviously had a question. “Yes, dear?” she asked.
The little girl hiccuped, “Teacher, can you tell me what my lesson in my primer is?” And then she added, with the terrible intensity only a child who has lost a beloved toy can muster, “And I can’t find my doll.”
Miss Mills got up and approached the child. A book lay on the desk in front of her, and to Miss Mills’ surprise and horror, it was a primer that had gone out of use many, many years before, before even her childhood. She couldn’t speak. She could only stare, and as she stared the little girl disappeared before her eyes.
It says much for her courage that Miss Mills stayed and completed her work that evening before going to the home where she boarded. She even stayed late at the school a couple more times in the next few weeks, hoping that the little girl with the ancient primer who couldn’t find her doll was a figment of that first day’s exhaustion.
She wasn’t. She would appear out of nowhere, ask to be shown the lesson in her primer, and then mention her lost doll.
Finally, Miss Mills decided there was some mystery here, and determined to find out more. She confided in her landlady, who was a resident of the little community of many years’ standing.
“Oh, no! Do you remember–the superintendent asked you not to stay late?”
“Yes, but I thought–”
“That little ghost is why.”
There. The word had been said. The little girl was not a living child.
“Oh, it’s been long, long years ago,” the landlady continued. “Some of her family still lives around here, but they don’t like to be reminded–You know there’s a swamp there by the school. This child and her brothers and sisters used to go through that swamp on their way to and from school. Well, one day right about this time of year they were on their way home and somehow this little one fell behind the rest of them, and they never missed her till they got home. Well, the menfolk around went into the swamp looking for her and found her dead–murdered. They never found out who the killer was. They found her primer by her body, but she always carried a little doll with her and they never found it.
“The next fall, the lady who was teaching then stayed late, like you, to do some paperwork. She looked up for some reason and there sat the little girl, the little one who’d been killed the year before. She told the teacher she needed to know what her lesson was in her primer, and said that she couldn’t find her doll.
“The teacher left in hysterics that very evening, and so did the next few who came here to teach, after they saw her. It got so hard to keep a teacher here that the superintendent finally forbid any of them to stay late. You’re the only one,” she added with grudging admiration, “who ever stayed to see her more than once.”
Miss Mills rather abstractedly thanked her landlady for the story, and retreated to her room, deep in thought. Maybe there was a way. . .
That very evening, she began to crochet a little doll.
A few evenings later, she again stayed after school. Again the little girl appeared, and again she asked about the lesson in her primer, and confided with fresh tears in her eyes that she couldn’t find her doll.
Miss Mills got up and walked back to the desk. “I believe,” she said with a smile, “that the lesson is right–” She picked up the old primer and opened it at random. “–here. See?” She showed the child the page to which she had opened the book. The little girl smiled a little and nodded.
“And–” Miss Mills reached into her pocket and took out a little crocheted doll, the one she had worked on for several evenings. “I think I may have–”
The little girl let out a squeal of delight and snatched the doll from her hand. . .
and, as always, vanished.
Miss Mills stayed a few more evenings after school, but the little girl never appeared again.
She and the landlady went for a walk once, to an old graveyard. There, the landlady pointed out the little girl’s long-neglected grave. They approached closer, and gasped.
There, against the worn tombstone, lay the little crocheted doll Miss Mills had made and given to her little visitor.
They both would say afterwards that they heard a soft little voice say three words: Thank you, Teacher.”
But the autumn wind carried the words away, and they walked silently back to the landlady’s house.
This story is not a “true” ghost story, but a folktale passed down for many generations. I have based it on a telling from Ruth Ann Musick’s 1965 book The Telltale Lilac Bush and Other West Virginia Ghost Tales; I tell it, though, as if it happened to my onetime schoolteacher grandmother–like me, a crocheter who loved a good folktale.