She walks the farm roads and roadsides around Knightsen on land named after the pioneer family, Veale. As is her habit, she walks at night enjoying the cool and the stillness around her. She starts at Orwood Tract; the spot where the Werner Dredge Cut extends Rock Slough to the Point of Timber on the Byron Tract. The land is low: 10 feet above sea level. Taking the dirt roads the farmers still use to go from field to field, she moves north towards higher ground. Tonight’s destination: Sonja’s Tavern – the only drinking hole in Knightsen. It used to be owned by that fair lady who, upon her death, bequeathed a swimming pool for the children. In the heat of summer their joy can still be heard at that pool which was built at Knightsen Elementary School just across the railroad tracks.
The hour is getting late as she crosses Veale Tract. The air is heavy with moisture and the Walker can feel the tule fog about to form. It is quiet. An owl flies past. She knows what it is but is startled anyway. There was nothing, only silence. Then an intense sound of beating wings very close to her, a blur, then nothing again. She pauses a moment. Then … she continues.
The walking is pleasant. Her body is warm and snug in the Vietnam War era pea coat. Her mind is free to wander and so her memory takes her. She remembers stories from childhood. Stories of fog and things that appear out of that cold gray mist. Some tales she has forgotten. Others, she does not wish to remember. The one her mind plays for her is that of the Horseman who lived on the Tract after the peat land was claimed from the San Joaquin Delta. He was not a farmer but a man who worked with animals. He raised, sold and traded horses. As things sometimes go, a disagreement arose. This caused the Horseman to meet with a speeding bullet and, although quite a man, he was not Superman. There he died on that foggy night somewhere on Veale Tract, by a bullet he could not see.
As she walks, she feels the time is approaching. That moment when all is right. The air is cool and full of moisture, the ground is warm. This is the time when air and water make love upon the earth. She is blinded by the pairing, as a great gray fog ascends from the ground and forms around her. It clings to her. It clings to everything filling in all the empty spaces. She knows better but she moves forward anyway. As she moves, it moves; the tule fog. It swirls around her taunting, always taunting and beckoning her forward.
In Knightsen, the folks say, “The tule fog is so thick you cannot see your hand in front of your face.” These people are not known for their exaggerations. When the fog is heavy, like tonight, she can hear sounds a very long way away. Tule fog is that way. The moist air holds and carries the sound. This type of fog forms because the ground temperature around the Delta is warmed by the high water table. When the cold moist winter air sinks into the San Joaquin Valley, tule fog is born. So named for the reed-like grasses native to these marshlands. It can be very dense and last for days or weeks. The air is now full of moisture and she can feel the fog as she walks through it.
Suddenly, she begins to feel a rhythm. It is not her rhythm. It grows stronger, she begins to feel a beat. At first she is not sure, then the dense fog brings the sound to her. It grows louder, then louder still. The shroud is coming towards her now. She cannot stop the coming. It keeps coming pushing the fog around her. She pushes up her collar, as if to protect her neck from what? She does not want to know. She does not want to see. She cannot see, her hands before her face. The rhythm is intense now, pushing the fog and her forward. She desires to run, to avoid the inevitable encounter.
Without warning, a dark horse in a silver bridle catches the corner of her left eye. The glint from the silver turns the water vapor into tiny, jeweled lights as the horse rushes towards her. She sees the rider astride. He is close now. She can see that he wears a long, dark, wool greatcoat with a stand-up collar. He wears no hat and is riding fast, his hair flowing out behind him. The horse and rider are upon her now. She can smell the wet wool. She can smell the horse.
He is past. Nothing left now but the hollow space in the fog where he used to be riding. Could it be he: the Horseman? The legend headed for Sonja’s Tavern. Sonja’s is always open for the Horseman, his drinks are always on the house. Although customers are always welcome, they never seem to be there. It is always just Sonja and the Horseman.
She peers into the Tavern through the neon-tinted window. There, leaning on either side of the bar across from each other is Sonja and the Horseman, smoking and drinking. Rolling papers and tobacco on the bar. The two tumblers contain generous pours of the golden-brown spirts from Tennessee. The bottle, with its proud label, remains close at hand, ready. She leans against the wall to watch the scene through the window. The Horseman is doing all of the talking, becoming more animated and moving his arms about. Sonja is smiling and drinking as he speaks. Finally he throws his arms up and stops talking. He takes his glass off the bar and empties it in one swallow. He sets it back on the bar and starts laughing out loud. Sonja laughs and pours another round. Although the sign is flashing open, she decides not to go inside, it seems like a private party.
Walking back across Veale Tract to Orwood Tract she takes a different route. The fog is so thick now she cannot see her hands in front of her face. She will not be able to see what comes towards her in the fog.
It will just have to come.
Ghost Stories from the San Joaquin Delta: Mystery, History and the Unexplained, published by Fonthill Media LLP will be available from Arcadia Publishing, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your favorite bookstores beginning June 28, 2021. Anthology editor, Carol A. Jensen, brings the often stranger-than-truth tales of Brentwood, Byron, Knightsen, Oakley and Bethel Island to the local history reader.
Doreen is a native of eastern Contra Costa County and knows the tule fog well. She has lived close to the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta for all but ten years spent teaching on the Navajo Reservation, New Mexico. She is a graduate of San Francisco Bay Area schools and universities and is an experienced instructor who imparts her love of photography to the classroom. Her images have appeared in the New Mexico Vacation Guide, Navajo Nation and New Mexico Magazine. Doreen Pierce Forlow currently serves as President of the East Contra Costa Historical Society.