The Old English Cemetery, Sutherland. Photo via Kambrokind Guest House.
One of the few “true” ghost stories that I know happens to have a botanical and succulent plant theme. As with all true ghost stories, it happened to a friend of a friend who shall remain nameless, many years ago, and has certainly changed with each telling, probably in significant ways, to turn it into a satisfying narrative, and to make it more frightening and inexplicable. I don’t for a moment think that the cold, high veld around Sutherland is really haunted by a shambling lich or some other, less describable terror from beyond. But still, I will be tempted to double-check the windows the next time I park my car to take a nap after a long drive.
Sutherland is far back in the mountains to the northeast of Cape Town, South Africa. I recall flying over the area on the way to the Fairest Cape one July—at the height of the southern winter—and glimpsing a dimly lit, snow-covered landscape through a break in the clouds. The sight was unsettling, ghosts or no, for someone fresh from summer in New England and contemplating a month of camping in the desert. Sutherland is one of the coldest places in Africa, with rocky plains in every direction sparsely vegetated with low scrub and hardy little succulents.
A certain respected South African botanist was doing fieldwork around Sutherland in the middle of winter. At the end of a long day of driving, hiking and collecting specimens, he found himself on a little-used road, miles from nowhere, and decided to park, get some rest and continue plant hunting in the morning. After supper out of a can, heated on a camp stove by the side of the road, he decided that the weather was going to be too frosty for sleeping under the stars. So, he got into the car, reclined the seat, and got settled in his sleeping bag.
The temperature was bitterly cold that night, by African standards if not by the standards here in Connecticut, and the botanist closed the windows tight, and wore his jacket inside of the sleeping bag. The chill was still uncomfortable, and he was awake for some time before falling into an uneasy sleep.
Some time after midnight, he awoke with the feeling that he was no longer alone. Nervously, he looked around the car, and saw a disembodied hand—emaciated, deep bloody red and faintly internally phosphorescent—reaching for him from out of the dark, right inside of the cab with him. He just about leapt out of his sleeping bag in a panicked attempt to escape the hand, but the spectral visitor vanished almost as soon as it was seen.
There are a number of possible explanations for the Red Hand: certainly, people commonly experience strange and sometimes realistic hallucinations when emerging from troubled sleep. One can’t entirely rule out the actions of living humans, though the area was very remote, and the blasted, treeless landscape didn’t offer many places where a thief could have hid when the frightened botanist searched the area around his car. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the incident was this: the night was frigid and the botanist was certain that he had closed the windows to keep out the wind before going to sleep. But afterwards, he found that the window in the direction from which the hand had approached was rolled down part of the way.