DW McKinney

The Girl and the Haint

But they say that Hairy Man is still deep in the swamps somewhere. Say he is waitin’ on the right time.

-Virginia Hamilton, The People Could Fly

The haint watched me from underneath my grandparents’ house. Her sanctum was cut from the concrete foundation and sealed with leftover fencing painted red. This haint watched silently as I stood in the sunlight bathing the Kentucky bluegrass, my face tilted upward. I lived as she never could.


“Close that door and sit down a spell, won’t you?”

My grandfather beckoned to me standing in the doorway of his amber-lit den. He sat on a black couch on the far side of the room. The lone window was open behind his head, and the evening swathed the backyard like a heavy navy blanket.

A chill ran up my spine as was custom whenever I entered my grandfather’s den after sundown. I eyed the small bar near the door as I shuffled forward. Dusty liquor bottles competed for shelf space with jugs of apple juice and likely expired canned goods. I plopped into the leather recliner near the bar, ready to flee.

“Relax, sit back, and enjoy yourself,” Gran’pa said.“Did I ever tell you about haints?”

He had. “But you can tell me again, Gran’pa.”

I was five—too young and without enough sense to know I shouldn’t be listening to my grandfather’s folktales in the first place. My grandfather always had time, always when my grandmother had fallen asleep, to speak about wicked ghosts and creatures that plagued the dark. Gran’pa dragged them from Louisiana’s thickets and pine forests where he left them behind decades ago.

“Tell me about that haint woman,” I said.

“What woman?”

“You know what woman, Gran’pa! That one out there.” I pointed to the window.

“Oh, yes! The Ol’ White Woman!” The word white cracked in his mouth like lightning. “Yes that ol’ haint out there.”

“Can she hurt me?” I asked.

“Haints are, uh, they er uh like ghosts. But sometimes they eat you. Or bother you and such things. Give you trouble. Yeah, she’s back there wandrin’ around. Yeah. She’s jus’ waitin’.”

The night’s blackened eye stared at me from behind my grandfather. I didn’t dare look too long at the window, afraid I’d find a ghostly face staring back at me.

“What else, Gran’pa? What else does she do?” I asked.

“I guess she eats kids,” my grandfather said. “I’m not sure. But she’s right outchea under the house, ya know, so you better be careful.”

I did know. Still, my grandfather’s words peeled back my skin and left me ripe for sharp teeth to tear into.


There’s a Black folktale called “Wiley, His Mama, and the Hairy Man.” It’s one of my favorites, and I read it often as a child. In the tale, a young Black boy named Wiley set out into the swamp near his home to cut wood for a hen house. He took his dogs with him for protection. Before leaving, his mother, a conjure woman, warned Wiley to be careful of the Hairy Man, who was an evil creature that had kidnapped Wiley’s father sometime in the past.

Reading the folktale, I always imagined Wiley navigating thick brush and wet earth as cypress and oaks watched over him. Maybe he hummed a tune to set a gentle mood for the hard task ahead of him. Yet, the lightness of the moment broke when his dogs chased after a nearby pig. Wiley was then left alone until he realized that the Hairy Man, who had used the pig to bait the dogs, was watching him from the underbrush. In the version of the story recorded by Virginia Hamilton in The People Could Fly, the Hairy Man “was ugly, even when he grinned. He was coarse-hairy all over. His eyes burned red as fire. He had great big teeth, with spit all in his mouth and runnin down his chin. He was a terrible-lookin Hairy Man.”

Wiley abandoned his axe and climbed the tree only for the Hairy Man to use the axe to try chopping it down. Wiley then relied on his cunning—commanding wood chips to fly back into the tree trunk and pretending to pray to summon his dogs—to evade the Hairy Man. Each time Wiley ventured into the swamp afterward, the Hairy Man tried to capture him. And each time, using his mother’s advice, Wiley outsmarted the creature.

In the final act, Wiley and his mother deceived the Hairy Man into taking “the baby,” which was really “a sucklin pig” instead of the boy. Their conflict ended only when Wiley was able to trick the Hairy Man three times. “Oh, yes, child,” Wiley’s mother concluded. “Old Hairy Man won’t hurt you ever again.”

The folktale spoke to me like a prophecy. I was Wiley and the Ol’ White Woman was my Hairy Man. I carried the story with me like an armory, gleaning from it. Searching for the weapons and tricks in my own life that would protect me.


The haint cloaked herself in nightfall. She wandered my grandparents’ rolling backyard when stars stained the sky and all the shadows met in the middle to form a place where my grandparents and I didn’t dare venture. From this middle void, the haint cast her eyes on me standing in my grandfather’s den, smiling, laughing, then perched on the edge of a leather seat the color of melted caramels as my grandfather whispered about her.


“That Ol’ White Woman only comes out at night,” Gran’pa said. “She just be out in the backyard there.”

“Doin what,” I always asked.

“Oh, she just outchea in the yard. Moanin’ and such.”

When I asked my grandfather about the haint’s reasons for haunting us, he had simply shrugged.

Who knows the motivations except the ghost herself. Would she even tell us if we asked? Had anyone even bothered to speak to her instead of running away?


I watched for the Ol’ White Woman from a distance. The uneven red door of her house was just under the guest bedroom I refused to sleep in. The branches of a nearby plantain tree loomed overhead and permanently covered the wooden door in shadow. There was a hole beside the door, as if someone or something had pushed out one of the bricks. Covered in mesh, the absence appeared to be a window for whatever was in the stale dark keeping watch.

My toes in the grass, I looked at this window waiting to catch a glimpse of the Ol’ White Woman’s burning eyes staring back at me, or for a gnarled finger to reach through the mesh wire and motion for me to come closer. I refused to approach the bloodstain of a front door.

While looking through the security barred windows from inside my grandparents’ house, I avoided staring too long at the shadows gathering under the windowsills. I knew that ole haint was waiting to catch my line of sight and once she did, I would be hypnotized and drawn to her. Then out the window I’d go! Dragged into the copse of pepper trees and into oblivion. The only cunning tricks I had were hanging right in front of me. So I drew the thick curtains closed to cloak me.

The Ol’ White Woman haunted me still. I could feel her presence even behind the safety of the walls around me. My grandmother didn’t like lights on in the unused rooms of the house, so her living room was an oasis of light surrounded by darkness. I would bend myself to the floor as if readying for prayer then army crawl through my grandmother’s kitchen or the master bedroom at nighttime until I was lying on the floor in Gran’pa’s den. Gran’pa would perk up in his couch to peer over at me.

“What’re you doing down there now?” he’d ask.

“Close the curtains or that Ol’ White Woman will see me!”

He’d laugh as he shook out the curtains.

“There now. You can get up. She cain’t see you.”

I soon commandeered the yellow industrial flashlight under my grandparents’ bed. Walking around the darkened house, I waved the flashlight like a sword. Its light cut a tunnel through the shadowy rooms while I chanted.

“Safe, safe, safe.”


Even as I feared the haint, I often thought about her. I wondered who she had been before she died. She had to have been someone before she was a ghost. She had to have mattered. As my eyes skirted shadows, afraid to see the haint, they still lingered long enough in hopes that I would get a glimpse of her, and in our eye contact, I would see past the fright in front of me and find who the haint once was.

One of my younger cousins from New Jersey came to live with my parents while I was in college. As a teen, he’d already gotten caught up with the Crips in his East Orange neighborhood. Sending him out west was my aunt’s attempt to keep him safe, straighten him out. My parents took my cousin to visit my grandparents and Gran’pa didn’t hesitate to tell my cousin about the Ol’ White Woman.

I heard that my cousin, this tall Black boy like Wiley, who didn’t wield an axe but a gun, laid down on the floor, as I once did, and hid. He too steered clear of the windows at nighttime. The Ol’ White Woman became a dogging presence that chased him back across the country when he returned to New Jersey, unable to stay out of trouble no matter where he went. As his infamy grew, my cousin was still frightened of the Ol’ White Woman.

During his phone calls from the latest correctional facility, his voice would waver as he asked, “That ghost still out there?”


At what point does fear break way to reverence?

Joy has to be there first.

I stopped running from what could not chase me in the daylight. I stood on the edge of the yard, next to my grandfather’s hulking collard green stalks and stared down the Ol’ White Woman’s home. I squinted into the dark of the window and searched for shifting shadows, making sure not to stare too long and be hooked by her gaze. I held my breath so that the ghostly vapor of that ole haint would not enter my body and possess me. I kept one foot in the sun, so that I would be anchored to the earth and not so easily dragged away.

As an adult, I questioned the Ol’ White Woman’s existence, but how could I deny the presence of someone who had seen me grow up? Who had listened to my childish songs filling the air like birdsong? Who had always been a presence lurking in the background, watching over me?

The night we prepared my grandfather’s den for in-home hospice care, I walked out onto the adjoining patio and stepped down into the backyard. I thought, That Ol’ Woman will get you.

I laughed. Maybe I wanted her to get me. That way I would have some company and she might join me. In the midst of my grief and in earnest communion, I sang a spiritual.

As I went down to the river to pray

I walked to the garden’s edge. Tears fell as I shuffled past fig and orange trees.

O sisters let’s go down

I wanted to see her, to offer her my sorrow, to resonate with her own storied moaning and crying out.

Let’s go down, come on down

When I finished singing, I stood in the dark and closed my eyes. I imagined that the gentle breeze was the Ol’ White Woman’s kisses on my cheeks. I imagined that she stood there watching me now, a sister of the dark.


Before she was drained of all pigment, she lived in technicolor. Before she was white, reds poured from her fingertips, greens lined her eyelids, and deep browns beamed from her eyes. Before she was old and weathered by hate, she thrived on unlimited possibilities. ­­­Before her feet marred the ground with its heavy uneven strides, they danced in the air as she flew above the clouds. Before her eyes cast downward, she stood unbowed.

Before she was a woman scouring the darkened hillside looking for children to bleed, she seduced the tender-hearted. Before she filled the air with mournful wailing, she sang to the amber dawn and plum evenings. Before she was the Ol’ White Woman, a tale of warning and reproach, she was the hope of new beginnings. Before she was a haint, a grim shadow of death, she was a living dream.


While visiting my grandmother after Gran’pa’s death, I slipped away while she was busy to wander the property alone. I strolled the dried and dead gardens and my grandfather’s gutted junkyard. I stopped walking once I arrived in front of the Ol’ White Woman’s home. Someone had cut down the plantain tree and all the underbrush around it. The ground near the haint’s front door was bare and exposed to sunlight. The red door was now whitewashed.

I walked up to the brick hole near the door. The smell of must and earth wafted up from the darkness. My fingers grasping at the mesh covering the hole of her window, I peered closer and waited.

DW McKinney is a writer and editor based in Las Vegas, Nevada. A 2024 Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Fellow, she is the recipient of fellowships from the PERIPLUS Collective, Writing By Writers, and the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow. McKinney’s work appears in Los Angeles Review of Books, Ecotone, The Rumpus, TriQuarterly, and Narratively, among others. McKinney also serves as a nonfiction editor at Shenandoah. You can say hello at dwmckinney.com.