Back around the turn of the century, there was a young man named Joshua who moved from New Orleans, Louisiana to his Grandpa's farm in rural Mississippi. As a child, Joshua loved to visit his Grandpa's farm. It was so quiet, peaceful and simple - not complicated and noisy, like New Orleans. Joshua told himself that, when he got old enough and became self-reliant, he'd move to Mississippi, find himself a pretty local girl to marry, and settle down in the land he loved so much.
When Joshua moved in with his Grandpa, he immediately started helping him out with the daily farm chores. These chores included helping out in the fields and taking the produce into town Saturday morning. On that day, farm folk would load up their mule-drawn wagons and travel for miles through flat, sun-scorched farmland toward the nearest town. There, they'd set up their wagons on the town square and sell their produce to the town folk.
One hot Saturday morning, Joshua brought some peas, tomatoes and a little okra to sell in town. Later that day, as he headed back on the long dusty road toward Grandpa's farm, he began to get a little tired and thirsty. He then saw a shady spot under a cluster of magnolia trees that he thought he remembered passing on the way in to town. He stopped, sat under the trees and had a drink out of his water jug. By his recollection, he figured that this cluster of trees must be halfway between Grandpa's farm and the center of town.
The sun was setting by the time Joshua finally returned to the farm. Grandpa came out the door to greet him and said, "Son, I know you're tired and you've had a long ride from town. But Obediah sent word that he needs a load of hay come first thing Monday mornin'. But you and I got chores to do 'round here Monday morning. And you can't do it tomorrow 'cause tomorrow's Sunday, and the only work we do on Sunday is church work. So you're gonna have to load that hay now and take it on over to Obediah's house tonight. You're gonna need to take a lantern with you, 'cause it's gonna be late and gettin' dark on the road. When you get to Obediah's place, he'll fix you some supper and let you stay with him for the night. That's just the way we do things 'round here."
Grandpa then handed him a lantern and said, "Now listen, Joshua - be kind to ol' Obediah. He's known 'round these parts as a talker. He'll tell ya' some wild tales, and he's pretty superstitious."
Joshua didn't look forward to getting back on that wagon, but he wanted to help his Grandpa any way he could. "All right, Grandpa," he said, "I'll be okay."
So Joshua headed back down the road toward town with a wagon full of hay, looking for the turnoff that led to Obediah's house. As darkness fell and the night took on a chill, he could barely see the road in front of him in the dim lantern light. The strange, unearthly sounds of insects and wild animals seemed to surround him. Joshua noticed that sounds carried easily over this flat, open land - so much so that he couldn't tell if the creatures were far away or right next to him. At one point, a creature darted across the road in front of the wagon, and Joshua thought he could see its red, catlike eyes flashing angrily at him. Although Joshua came from the wild streets of New Orleans, he found himself getting a little scared out here all alone.
Finally, Joshua spotted a familiar landmark - the cluster of magnolia trees that he had stopped by earlier in the day. Suddenly, as he came by the trees holding up the lantern, he swore he saw a shadowy figure jump down from one of the branches! Joshua nearly jumped out of his seat before regaining his wits and pulling the mule to a halt. To his surprise, he could see that it was a young girl, walking toward his wagon.
"Ma'am, what are you doing out here at night by yourself?" Joshua stammered, still in shock.
"I'm all right," she replied in a sassy voice. "Besides, no harm will come to me."
"But ma'am, it's late" said Joshua. "You never know what's out here this time of night. There's wild animals about. Let me take you home. You do live around these parts, don't you?"
"Yes," said the young girl. "Just up the road - the Simmons property. It's not that far, but I guess you can give me a ride."
Joshua held up the lantern so she could get in the wagon, then snapped the reins and got the mule moving down the road again. Joshua looked over at the young girl sitting beside him. She looked kind of pale, but she was still beautiful, with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail with a pretty bow. What a nice girl this would be to marry, he thought to himself.
"Ma'am, my name is Joshua. What's your name?"
"My name is Rose," she replied.
Joshua smiled to himself, so proud that a pretty girl like Rose was riding with him. But after what seemed to Joshua to be just a few short minutes, Rose suddenly blurted out, "This is where I live. Pull over here."
Joshua pulled the wagon over to the side of the road. He held up the lantern and saw a big gate covered with wild roses. By now, the night was so dark that he couldn't see the girl's home beyond it.
Rose hopped off and hurriedly walked toward the gate. "Wait a minute," hollered Joshua. "I can open the gate and drive you right up to your door."
"That's okay," she said. "No harm will come to me."
"But I'd be happy to do it, ma'am," Joshua replied, none too anxious to watch this beautiful young girl walk away.
"I gotta go," she said, "my folks are callin' for me. Besides, I don't think they'd like for me to be seen with a stranger, especially at night."
"All right, then," said Joshua. He reluctantly snapped the mule's reins and slowly went back down the road, leaving Rose standing at the gate. As he turned the corner toward Obediah's house, he looked back at the gate for one last glimpse of Rose. The young girl had vanished into the darkness.
Joshua finally got to Obediah's house, unloaded the hay and put the mule up for the night. As he walked up to the screen door of the farmhouse, he could see Obediah standing there waiting for him - a tall, graying, cantankerous-looking man. "Come on in, son, and sit down for supper," hollered Obediah. "There's a room all ready for you."
Later, as Joshua and Obediah ate supper together, Joshua decided to ask the old man some questions. "Mister Obediah, sir, are there any pretty girls in these parts?"
Obediah flashed a near-toothless grin. "Sure there are!" he said. "Say, you lookin' for a girl to marry up with? Why, all you gotta do is follow the flight of the red bird. Yessir, everybody knows if you follow the flight of the red bird, it'll land right where there's a girl lookin' for a beau. That's a great place to start, boy."
"Mister Obediah, you know a girl round these parts named Rose Simmons?"
Obediah hesitated for a moment, then said, "Why, sure. She'd of been around 19 by now, I believe. She was a real pretty girl, yessir. Kinda sassy, but pretty. Had long black hair, always pulled back in a ponytail with a pretty bow. She was one of the prettiest girls in the area from what I remember."
Joshua was starting to get confused. "What do you mean she was pretty? You mean she don't live 'round here no more?"
Obediah looked at Joshua strangely. "Boy," he said, "Rose Simmons is dead."
The blood drained from Joshua's face. "Are you sure 'bout that?" he said, almost in a whisper.
"From what I remember," Obediah said, "she used to play in that cluster of magnolia trees up the road toward your Grandpa's. One Saturday evening, her parents called out for her to come home and do her chores. Even though the trees were a-ways down the road, she could still hear 'em callin' her since this land's so wide open."
"Rose went in the kitchen to churn the butter, and her Daddy left to feed the cattle down at the far end of the pasture. Her Mama went with him to look for the milkcow, 'cause if you don't milk a cow regular, the milk will just dry up. So Rose was all alone in that house. And before you know it, there came a lightning storm, and it struck a pine tree right next to the house. Set that house on fire, it did, and burned that girl up inside. Her folks never did find her body. And they were so grief-stricken that they were never seen again 'round these parts."
By this time, Joshua had turned white as a sheet. Obediah stopped telling his story and said, "Boy, you look like you seen a ghost."
Joshua said, "Mister Obediah, you believe in ghosts?"
Obediah suddenly glared at Joshua and gruffly replied, "Let me tell you what I think. Folks in these parts tell stories of Rose Simmons's ghost up in the magnolia tree tryin' to get on home 'cause she hears her folks callin'. Now, I reckon her spirit ain't restin' on account of the way that she died. But just as sure as the Pearl River runs through this town, I'm tellin' you that dead folks don't belong in this world. Folks shouldn't be talkin' about 'em like they're walking around with the living. And that's all I'm gonna say 'bout it, boy."
With that, Obediah got up, pointed at the room where Joshua was to sleep, and blew out the light.
The next morning, Joshua hitched up his mule to the wagon and started back down the road toward Rose's house. After a sleepless night, he had talked himself into going back to the Simmons place and seeing it for himself. After all, he'd been warned that Obediah was a superstitious man, and he'd surely seen Rose sitting beside him in his wagon just as plain as day.
As he reached the Simmons property, Joshua left the mule and wagon on the roadside, opened up the rose-covered gate and walked up the drive. His heart was pounding in his chest, for there was no telling what he might find.
Sure enough, at the end of the drive, he found a burned out homestead. Joshua walked around the ruins in disbelief, cold sweat forming on his brow.
Then he saw it - beside the home, sticking out of a little mound of dirt behind the home, was a crude wooden marker with two words painted on it: "Rose Simmons." And behind it was planted a baby magnolia tree.
Joshua was so frightened that he ran back down the drive, snapped the reins and took off toward Grandpa's. He then packed his bags as fast as he could and got back to New Orleans in a flash.
And Joshua was never seen in those parts of Mississippi again.