Story Time: Sylvia

Even as a grown man, there is no name that sends the needles of dread traversing up my spine more than “Sylvia.” I’ve never seen her, but I am painfully aware of her — I know people who have claimed to have seen her, but never for myself. I consider myself fortunate to that degree.

To those who know of Sylvia, you know exactly where I mean when I say “Janesville Mountain.” To those unfamiliar with the cluster of sleepy mountain villages that I called home, picture a secluded road along a mountain pass obscured in shadow — it’s one hundred miles through pine trees and thin air from Pittsburgh, more than two hundred from the Philadelphia direction. It’s the kind of road that you hold your breath when you drive on it, that you turn up your radio when the sun is setting, and you opt for the extra length of the Interstate when night falls.

That mountain road takes sinister breaths of life for its own, the forces of mother nature coddling the beast. Shadows twist and reach for you when the sun passes through the pine branches, the winter winds howl in agony, and the curves of the mountain formation are razor sharp beneath the tires of careless vehicles. I have never seen a sweeter mercy than when that mountain road relents to the street lights placed near the old Triangle Bar.

It’s been said that the devil you know is less scary than the one you don’t — whoever said that was surely ignorant to such a haunt. The theater of headlights against shadows were ghastly to begin with, but the burden of knowledge of what may lurk in the dense darkness that headlights couldn’t divide was much worse. I’m not sure why my uncle felt it appropriate to tell me about Sylvia as we were getting ready to travel the road for the night, perhaps it was a rite of passage, welcoming me to a microcosm of maturity. Of one thing I am sure: when it comes to the Janesville Pike, ignorance is bliss.

There are a few different versions to the lore, but they all agree on a few details. Sylvia was a bride, joyous after her betrothment. Her husband, a man of ethic from Tyrone, Pennsylvania. Their wedding was modest, but abundant in love and blessing. There was an entire life in front of them: children, the foundations of family and prosperity, and time was on their side. No one knows where Sylvia and her husband were going; a honeymoon, perhaps. The story says that they were driving in a car — I can only imagine that one would sully their wedding day by negotiating passage along the Janesville Pike to get to Clearfield, Pennsylvania, and to Interstate 80* where the roads across the country were as wide open as their marital future.

Night had fallen before the couple’s vehicle entered its trek onto the pike. The cruel darkness of Janesville Pike had existed long before I or Sylvia ever had — a married couple, pledging their eternal devotion to each other in front of a man of God, was surely experiencing the unrest of mind that you and I had. There is a backhanded joke amongst the locals of the area, when someone is about to drive at night: if you hit a deer, bring it back and we’ll cook it. Wildlife is abundant along that pike. I can’t say for sure that a deer jumped in front of their vehicle, but something made the car swerve out of control. The only thing that will stop a vehicle in such turbulence is to collide with a tree or a long fall off of a sheer face of cliff.

Every version of the story agrees: Sylvia’s heart and head had been separated in the most complete way possible.

There are a lot of men and women who proudly volunteer for Fire and Rescue Services — I’m certain that they don’t want to talk about it, but I’m sure they have a story or two about a cataclysmic automobile accident. Even if you hadn’t seen the aftermath of such an event, there is a simple rule in physics: matter is neither created nor destroyed. It can, and will, change states, but will continue to exist. Neither in the wreckage, nor the carnage of nature surrounding the vehicle, was Sylvia’s husband to be found. No blood, no twisted anatomy, no evidence that he had survived and went to find help.

Every major faith system in the world has a perspective on one’s essence leaving the corporeal state and entering the hereafter. As common as the passage is the idea of unrest compelling a spirit to stay and finish one’s business. The Lord Almighty, Allah, Buddah, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster had intended for Sylvia’s spirit to leave the Earth that night — Sylvia refused to leave, her husband was missing and she had been cheated of the long life they’d promised to each other. So began one restless spirit’s search for the love lost in life.

As sweet as that sounds, consider the adverse: a spirit, tormented by loss, headless in death, to walk the abysmal night of a mountain road that had claimed scores of other lives. Think about how tales become legends: they are witnessed by many and recounted to by many more. Just one person didn’t see a bloody wedding dress, the forensic proof of a brutal decapitation, and ungodly agony in the form of a young woman’s ghost — many people did. This story has continued to live on through the decades because enough people have encountered it to give it life. Just because I’ve never seen her doesn’t mean that hosts of others haven’t.

You aren’t compelled to believe me, however. If you ever find yourself on that mountain pass, encased in shadow, blow out your match or flick your headlights, whichever ritual you think will call the girl. Her name is Sylvia, she can’t find her husband, and I’m certain that she has no idea that she’s dead.

This blog has been brought to you by “Days of the Phoenix,” the sophomore novel by A.P. Miller — available only at Amazon.Com on May 7th, 2019!

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*Interstate 80 was built in Pennsylvania in 1953; some folks put Sylvia’s story in the 1800’s, others say they were riding in a car. Cars were first mass produced in 1901, it’s hard to say if they were headed to I80 or not.

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