by Elizabeth Lemons
I rode silently in the carriage
An evil henchman at the reins
Towards escape, relief upon arrival
Fleeing abuse and tear-dried stains
Deeper into the ghostly forest
Near others, I would no longer dwell
For soon, my home would become solitude
A personal, but necessary hell
Seemingly, it felt like a repeated journey
A complete reversal of my way of life
Over hills, and vales, and forgotten trails
Closing the door on earthbound strife
My arrival day was misty and forlorn
Driving through stalagmite trees without leaves
Decaying on the autumn ground beneath weeping limbs
Curled dying oak and maple with moss sleeves
I felt as though I was returning
To a place where I have always been
Though I’d never walked in these woods before
Like an echo, something magnetically drew me in
Stopping the clock, this place speaks of agelessness
Suspending time, one gains all the time in the world
Making my way forward, by learning how to stand still
Sacrifice becomes all these, unfurled
Recognizing the pall of great mourning here
Arrival brought to my eyes, immediate tears
My heart wailed with overwhelming sadness
Unspoken sorrow I’d hidden away for years
Through veil and premonition’s myst
The hangman’s card reveals waters clear
Insight known by gypsy gift
Revelation scryed by ancient seer
Intuition arrives and parts the filmy lace
It calls this inconsolable place our home
It is a gateway which exists for those of us
Forgotten, afraid and left alone
I’m the Keeper, the Watcher, the One who Waits
Countless souls seem drawn to me
For they walk these hills, never really escape
Without exit, repeating eternity
Voices whisper, and moving shadows near the Willow
Require healing, clearly seen as I see you
White images, dark figures gather on this hillside
Stand with non-living wounded, I enjoy the same view
Late at night, near the woods I can often hear
Wheels of a turning carriage, as it comes down the road
Bringing more lost souls and broken hearts
To dwell in this forsaken abode
Delusion descends upon arrival
Entombed inside the deep wounded woods of iniquity
Loss promises a quiet tomorrow
Embracing this repetitious portal of necessity
~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~
HER BLEEDING HEART
a poem and short story by Elizabeth Lemons
As the night-black carriage winged its way around the curving gravel road, Madeleine was immersed in a moldy, damp leaf smell, it was earthy and mossy. A slight chill wove its way through the half-light hills, through the “holler” where two hills surrounded the road, and the sun was just a couple of hours away from setting behind the trees. The trees were not welcoming; they were tall, looming and a bit foreboding. It felt as if eerie eyes were peering at Madeleine as she drove by in the rolling carriage with an evil henchman at the reins. They were unseen, these eyes, well-hidden behind the dark pallor of fallen limbs and piles of colorful but beginning-to-rot Autumn leaves. There was a sense of oppressive loss in this place. Madeleine shivered, feeling as if she was being led to her own death, that nothing good at all could possibly come from being drawn to a county work farm. It made her want to cry.
Madeleine McBride glanced down at her young thin hands, fraught with worry. Since she was a child, she had maintained a persistent habit of balling her fingers into tightly-made fists when she became anxious or annoyed or afraid, and right now, she was squeezing so hard, that her fingers were turning crimson blood red. Riding in the back of a somber black carriage, dark-haired Maddie leaned back into the luxurious burgundy-colored leather seating and she gazed out the window. They drove deeper and further into the Tennessee backwoods, away from the smoothly paved town streets and clusters of cheerfully painted clapboard houses and were now slowly traversing down a rocky and rough country hillside road known as Rural Route 4, with scarcely a home, barn or soul in sight. This forlorn area was remote, far, far away from the gentile southern life she had known growing up with her father, Thomas Riley McBride, for the past twenty-five years. It had broken his heart when he, a small-town doctor, had been unable to come to the aid of his own dear wife. Sadly, Madeleine’s mother, Sarah, had died very quickly and tragically with yellow fever in 1814, when Madeleine had been just 7 years old.
Years had passed, and now, her father was gone, as well. T. Riley’s life had recently been insanely cut short upon a senseless pistol duel with a foul-mouthed gambler from town named Ezra Evans. The two men had been rivals since their childhood school days. Ezra was almost always cruel and thoughtless and downright mean to everyone, while T. Riley McBride was known as being generous, kind and a good friend to all his neighbors, and so charming, even when he was being mischievous.
It seems that T. Riley and Ezra had played an “all or nothing” game of poker at the local dance hall on one fateful late summer evening, and a desperately-short-on-luck T. Riley had come up without the winning hand. Not believing that Ezra, his old school chum, (Ezra was secretly jealous of T. Riley) would hold him to their “drunken” wager shenanigans, T. Riley refused to sign the deed to relinquish his and Maddie’s lovely Southern farm and home. Consequently. Ezra had challenged T. Riley to a duel of “honour”, in which the winner would take undisputed ownership of the green rolling pastures, grand home and outbuildings.
Ezra Evans shot T. Riley so quickly that Maddie never even got to say goodbye to her father. The day had been a lovely, it was in September of 1832, on a day in which the sky was clear blue and the leaves had faintly begun to tinge golden, and the apple harvest was abundant. With the winner taking the spoils, Ezra had generously allowed Maddie just three weeks to vacate her family’s old Southern home place. Daily, she packed and sorted and gave away things to workers on the farm or to neighbors, trying to make something good out of foul circumstances, if she could.
One stormy afternoon as she was packing, Maddie was shocked to discover amongst her father’s stored-in-the-attic papers, not a death certificate of her long-gone mother, but instead, a deviously-contrived document which stated that her mother, Sarah, had been committed to an asylum for the mentally ill. Madeleine could not believe her jovial father had concocted such a blatant farce. Why had he stolen her mother from her? Madeleine had been quite young, but, even so, she remembered her mother to be gentle and kind. She had been a thoughtful and good mother, certainly not unstable!
Digging through more papers, she realized that her father had made other reckless decisions that involved their security, he was in horrific debt due to his generosity with his patients across several counties who lacked proper means for medical care, and other poor investments, and so he had been compelled to sell the 2000 acres of the good farming land that was given solely to Sarah upon her marriage to him. It would not be missed, he justified to her as he pleaded for her to sell, “we will still have another 700 acres on which to farm”. When she refused to sell her land to cover some of T. Riley’s bad debts, he diabolically plotted a way to be able to sell the property, with or without his wife’s consent. Her mother had not died of illness but had been put away, as women often were, often being deemed hysterical in those days when they challenged their husbands or felt inclined to disagree with authority, and there was no one to help her. He told authorities she had died, and that was that.
In all reality, T. Riley had had her mother committed to a County Poor House farm, basically it was a rural asylum, a forgotten residence where orphans, indigents, undiagnosed ill and insane, and in general, the county’s “unwanted” were left on their own, to muster up their own survival the best that they could off the land. As Madeleine read the description, she learned that the Poor House was where people who had no other family or money were put “aside” so that they could try to make it together instead of being alone in the world. They were expected to work in whatever capacity they could to earn their keep. The county provided land and shelter, sometimes seed, and sometimes a kind neighbor or two would gift the farm with a hog or surplus cloth, jam., vegetables, whatever they could spare. The father Maddie had loved and thought she had always admired and adored suddenly became a horrific fiend in Maddie’s mind and with this revelation, she wanted nothing more than to leave this now-empty home that she now-knew had been built and maintained upon years and years of lies.
Upon writing a letter to the County Poor House Farm overseer, Maddie made a request to be allowed to stay at the farm along with her mother for a short while, just until she and Sarah could formulate some kind of plan for what would be next in their life. She was so hurried; she did not have time to await a reply. Maddie quickly abandoned the grand abundance that filled McBride Hall, and now she had made it her only mission in life to go and find her mother’s whereabouts. She prayed that after all this time, Sarah was still alive.
How could her mother possibly be happy in a place so desolate, away from all she had ever known? One week after she had sent the letter, Maddie sighed and wrung her small hands once more. As her carriage slowed and then pulled into a well-worn barn lot, a man in worn denim overalls, all wrinkled, with dry dark skin that appeared to be dusted in soot ash, stood up from a large cloth laid flat across the ground where he was hulling some pecans. The cloth had caught a huge mound of brown shells, and a small red bucket held the bounty, fresh meaty pecans.
“You must be Miss McBride,” the tall dark-skinned man greeted, as Madeleine stepped down out of the carriage. She wore a sensible traveling outfit, a dark navy gaberdine skirt and matching waistcoat which was sturdy and would hold up to much wear. The carriage driver, an employee of Ezra Evans, who expected his horse-drawn conveyance to return to the estate just as soon as it dropped her off, tossed down a large black flower-embroidered carpet bag. Maddie glanced at the simple traveling bag and in her mind flashed all the remaining lovely antiques she would no longer enjoy. She was thankful that all the help had been compensated before she had vacated the McBride Hall, the monies taken from harvest crop dividends. There was some money left over to help Madeleine and Sarah make their future.
“Good afternoon, yes, I am Madeleine McBride, I have a paper regarding my mother’s whereabouts that I found in my father’s things, and I am hoping to speak with a woman here,” Maddie looked down at the crumpled document in her hand, “named Hannah.” She shyly smiled and looked at the looming tobacco barn with its hanging hands of tied tobacco that hung precariously from the rough-hon wooden eaves. There was an attached outside rock-wall milking parlor. (I don’t see any cows, she thought.) Maddie smiled when startled upon finding a small little girl unexpectedly surrounding her huge skirt with her tiny arms giving a huge hug. “And who might you be, sweet girl?” She asked the frail child who greeted her with a willing but timid smile. The tall man, who had been working on the nuts as the carriage had arrived, answered for her. “Why she’s little Charlotte, Miss, and I am Sugar Dog. Sugar Dog Paxton, they call me.” He picked up the little red bucket of hulled nuts and handed them over to Charlotte. “Go with her, follow her up to the Big House, and she will take you to Miz Hannah. I’m proud to have met you, ma’am,” he spoke as he knelt down to what Madeleine first perceived to be a loveless and forlorn child with big lost eyes and long snow-blonde hair. No telling what had happened for this child to end up here. She imagined she would soon be hearing all sorts of tragic stories about the people who had no one, no money and no place else to go except to come to live on this farm. “Now, you be careful, Lottie, don’t spill it. Take this batch to Miz Hannah and tell her I will bring another bucket full tonight.” “See you both at supper,” he smiled at both Madeleine and Charlotte, then, as the silent carriage driver turned about and headed back down the dreary chert road, Sugar Dog went back to his nut cracking task at hand.
Charlotte and Maddie silently walked up the road a bit from the barn lot. To the left, through a large patch of wild elderflower bushes, Queen Anne’s lace and black-eyed Susan blooms, up a rather steep hill, stood a solemn white 2-story wooden house, with a shabby balcony and 4 tall posts. It could use some fresh paint and a few repairs. Its countenance held no cheer, no one had cared much for it in years. Even the earth around the old home was scraggly and unkempt. It looked a bit decrepit and forgotten, most likely haunted.
“Dear God, it’s the The House of Doom,” Maddie thought to herself and she giggled just a bit at what drudgery was soon to become her life, and the thought of this seemed to urge Madeleine to suddenly teeter a bit towards insanity. Maybe it was just exhaustion from all the loss and shock recently. At the sound of hearing Maddie’s soft, fearful laugh, quiet little Charlotte, with her thin, long, colorless white hair, smiled an impish smile and eerily commented, not as a question but as a matter of fact, “you didn’t bring much with you.”
“No,” Maddie replied. “There was nothing left but me.”
“Just put your bag over there by the stairs,” Hannah said in a rather stern voice as Madeleine and Charlotte walked slowly into the kitchen of the old house. She was slicing some fresh bread with her right hand as she gestured, pointing towards the carpet bag in Maddie’s right hand. Hannah was the kind of person who got a lot done, and liked to do things her way, without any sass. “Henry, come in here and take Miz McBride’s personals up to her room.” The old kitchen was warm and something delicious bubbled away atop a big cook stove.
Madeleine should have realized just how well this old farmhouse was run by simply noting the expediency of Henry’s long legs. He immediately “hopped-to-it” when commanded by domineering Hannah. He seemed to be afraid of her. Henry had been orphaned when he was 7 years old and had lived here doing just as Miz Hannah said going on 9 years now, Charlotte whispered to Maddie. Responding immediately, he was up the stairs with the bag in just a flash and it was when she turned around that Madeleine realized Hannah was standing on just one leg. Her left side was held up by an old wooden crutch, yet the middle-aged coffee-colored woman worked about her kitchen as if it were as ordinary as rain. Hannah noticed Madeleine trying her best not to stare at her missing leg and subsequent crutch. Hannah explained, “This? This is what my rotten old man did to me. He was choppin’ wood out back, and when I came up behind him in the yard, he threw that damn hatchet at me for sumthin’ I never did. He accused me of philandering’s’, but I never did. After I crawled up in my house, with that hatchet stuck still in my leg, I grabbed his pistol and I shot him dead. Wasn’t too long after that my leg festered; gangrene set in. It sho was a terrible thing, everyone said I wouldn’t make it, but I still can do what I needs to do.”
She continued. “I reckon you will learn to like it here, most of us does. There’s a wash bowl and fresh water from the creek in your room and a clean towel,” Hannah said. “You can go up there and rest for about an hour until supper is ready, if you want. Lottie can show you up.”
“Um, thank you, Hannah. I am sure we will get along fine,” Madeleine sort of stammered. She could not believe that Hannah had not uttered the simplest of welcomes, or mentioned her mother, not even once. Hannah had just stared and stared as though she was sizing Madeleine up. Madeleine had never met anyone with a briefer introduction, someone with so few manners. At first sight, Madeleine was scared of Hannah, but she couldn’t put a finger on why just yet.
A well-built set of sturdy wooden stairs were located just out the back door, you went up on the outside of the house, though the staircase and a 6- foot wide landing were still enclosed and had a tin roof over head. “You’re lucky, you get the best room,” sweet Charlotte explained to Maddie. “this is Rachel’s old room, but she doesn’t sleep here anymore. So now, it is yours.”
“It is a very nice room, Lottie. Is it alright if I call you Lottie?” I looked around, investigating the sparsely appointed bedroom, orienting myself for really the first time since my father had been killed. “Where is Miss Rachel now?”
Lottie never told me anymore about Rachel… A little stuffed handmade rag doll with yellow yarn hair lay against one of the pillows on what was to be my old iron bed. A nine-patch quilt made from all variety of colors covered the white sheets, as I smoothed the quilt with my hand, I reached to pick up the doll.
“That’s Amy. She is mine, but you look like you need some company so she can stay with you for a bit, she will sleep with you and keep you safe,” Lottie said to me. “Put your dirty clothes here (she indicated a handmade basket that sat in the corner by the door. Annie does up all the clothes and she will check your basket for the washing on Mondays. When it’s dry, she brings it all back and leaves it in your basket.”
“Oh, well that is nice of her,” I replied. “But I can take care of my own laundry, I don’t wish to be an imposition on anyone.”
“A impo-what?” That’s her job. Miz Hannah says we all must have a job. Idle hands are the devil’s playground, Miz Hannah says. My job is to go and fetch. I take lunch down to the barn or fields for the men while they are out working. I bring things like the nuts back to the house, go get some eggs, or help Miz Hannah in the kitchen sometimes when she needs me. We all have a job. Old Annie’s is washing up dirty clothes.” Lottie dismissed me as she eased quietly out the door, shutting it behind her. I breathed in some air, determined to do the best I could with what life was now offering me, at least until I could find my mother. A roof over my head, food, and space away from the home and life that I had previously loved. I lay my head down on the pillow upstairs in that still room and instantly fell asleep. As I slept, unbeknownst to me, someone rocked in the rocking chair that sat in the corner of the small room, back and forth, keeping watch over me.
“Supperti-i-i-ime!” Lottie hollered from downstairs. My eyes immediately jolted, opening wide as I quickly tried to remember where I was. I was lying in my “new” bed, in my “new” room, here on the County Poor House Farm, I recalled through my disorientation, and my mind began to rehash my first brief moments here, when I suddenly realized there was someone there with me in my room. Sitting in a small rocking chair by the window, a beautiful, dark-haired girl with very pale skin, she was just a few years younger than my own 25. She stared right at me, her eyes seemed trouble, haunted, even. “Hello,” I said to her. “I am Maddie, I just got here a bit ago. What’s your name? Are you Rachel?” A startled look crossed her face and as I turned to put my feet onto the poplar hardwood floor, a small cry emitted from this young woman, and then, she vanished. Into thin air, she completely disappeared, leaving behind the faint scent of lavender.
Well, blame that on being somewhere unfamiliar, with losing my home so tragically less than three weeks ago, with the very fact that I was destined to live here in this destitute home, for at least a while until I could figure out a way to get back on stable financial feet, and make a home for myself and my mother. This was temporary, I wouldn’t be staying here forever. I surely was exhausted as my trance-nap had just proven, and now I had just imagined a pleasant-smelling apparition in my room…Probably because the last words I had heard before I fell asleep was Lottie mysteriously saying that Miss Rachel no longer needed my room with no clue whatsoever as to why. That HAD to be it, I wasn’t seeing things, I was just imagining them. The sweet smell of lavender must have filtered in through the open window.
I splashed a bit of cold water over my face, tried to comb my hair smooth, then I headed down the stairs to the dining area. A very long home-made bench style table filled a room, and already there were people sitting there waiting to eat. “Come on in here and find a seat,” Hannah said.
“Lawd, girl, you look like you done gone and seen a ghost! So pale! Are you alright?” Sugar Dog inquired as I made it down to the dinner table.
“She’s fine,” Hannah brusquely replied from the head of the table. “Pass some of these green beans and those good fried apples down to her”. “The girl needs to eat.” “David, you go run out to the spring house and get Madeleine some of that good moss lemonade I made”.
I slowly sat down, taking it all in. As the sliced bread made its way around the table after we all had hefty servings of fresh-grown vegetables piled on our plates, each so-called “inmate” of the County Poor House began to introduce themselves as they took their bread from a round chipped plate.
“I got your letter, child,” Hannah says. Just like that, the friendly faces gathered around the long table suddenly became silenced, they seemed distant, distracted as if they existed in some other world. They didn’t want to hear about Miss Sarah. “I can tell you some about Miss Sarah,” she continued, “but you ain’t gonna like what there is to tell”.
“I’m sorry to share with you at dinner time such fretful news, but you’re a grown woman, and well, child, the truth is that your sweet mamma was beaten and raped by an escaped convict, name was Stephen Crory, who was running and hiding up here in these woods years ago. The law and some other men caught him, hung him high in an old tree near the top lookout on Crawly Ridge. He had murdered another man, and was on the run, and had been living in a cave down by the creek. Your mother made the mistake of wandering off on her own one day, though I told her more than once not to, she was gathering some wildflowers for our table when that bastard Crory found her.”
“Did, tell me, did she die?” Maddie hesitantly inquired. She held her breath.
“Poor thing woulda been better iffn she had,” Sugar Dog spoke.
“Then, she IS alive? You’re saying she is still alive?” Maddie was incredulous at the news. “Where is she?” Maddie stood quickly beside the table, anxious to reunite with her long-lost mother.
“Now, hold on, sit back down, Miz Madeleine,” Hannah calmed her. “There is more you need to know.”
“But, I want to SEE her!” Maddie passionately insisted.
“You will, you will, child.” Hannah patted Madeleine’s soft warm hand with her icy cold one, in an attempt to console Maddie’s disappointment. “Your mamma,” she continued, “is not the lady you remember, miss. She has never really recovered from her woes. Being abandoned by your father, a fine lady such as her hidden away in these haunted dark woods with strangers. Miss Sarah was wild with despair over this tragedy, far before she was later attacked.” “Doc Wakefield (oh, he drives through about twice a year to check on us down here,” Hannah said while air tapping at her missing leg), “says all that shock and fear she endured brings the fits she suffers from today.”
“Miz Hannah says Miz Sarah’s got the Devil in her,” Lottie giggled, then shyly smiled, as she lifted up the top piece of bread, then took out from under it another slice that she deemed more suitable and laid it onto her plate, then she passed the bread on to a couple of boys who looked to be about 12.
“Hush, Lottie,” Hannah interrupted.
“I will take you to see her in the morning, Miz Madeleine,” Sugar Dog vowed.
The introductions continued. “I’m Henry, I’m 12. Me and David are twins.”
Madeleine saw great sorrow in their young faces. “Miz Hannah wants us to gather up wood for the fireplaces, kindling, and take out the ashes, and I run back and forth from the hands, to the field workers, to the house. And I have a pet fox named Wiley and …”
“Okay, that’s enough for now, Henry,” Hannah laughed. She was creepy and a bit harsh, but still, she could smile, I noted.
Next was David. “You won’t see me and Henry much, usually just at supper time, for every day we apprentice down at the blacksmith shop in the little community over the ridge.” He pointed past where the barnyard stood. I nodded an acknowledgment towards both of the twins, who, coincidentally, smelled like smoke. They had the greenest eyes, those two.
A blacksmith shop? Maddie hadn’t seen a blacksmith shop as she had driven through the nearest settlement where there was general store which also served as the post office. She also had never seen paler skin on human beings, with unruly shocks of Irish red hair. These orphaned boys both could use some time out playing in the sunshine, instead of hard hours laboring inside the smithy’s. Some heartier meals wouldn’t hurt the thin twins, either, Maddie thought.
Next, a yellow-skinned sickly woman sat at the side end, next to Hannah. She had very little food on her plate and passed on the bread. “My constitution can’t handle much food,” she told us. “I am Annie, I came here because my man died when he was cutting down trees and I didn’t have any family living near here. It’s not fancy as I suppose you are used to, but it’s alright… I couldn’t work a regular sort of job due to my constant stomach troubles, they ain’t much to do for a woman with no schooling anyway, so the county folks brought me out here. I take care of the launderin’.” When she spoke, Annie gasped each of her words out, as if each one might be her final breath. She was weak and she was at death’s door.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Annie.” If we could find some milk thistle near here or slippery elm nearby, maybe we could make a tonic from these that might help you feel better”.
“Slippery elm, is it?” Hannah muttered as she cut her eyes quickly toward Maddie. “And what do YOU know about slippery elm and milk thistle?” “You’re not a bit witchy, are you, Madeleine?”
“Oh, no! I used to spend a lot of reading an old Medical encyclopedia in my father’s library,” Maddie replied. “Father had a small pharmacy at home. I sometimes helped him as he created remedies for his patients.”
“That is very interesting, sho is,” Hannah allowed. I could see she was already formulating in her mind what my jobs would be. She didn’t like me.
On the opposite side of the rustic table sat David who had returned with a large glass of the chilled lemony moss lemonade just for me.
Sugar Dog beckoned for me to come and sit on that side of the table by him, so I did. “David, here, he is learning to be carpenter when he is not at the blacksmith’s. He likes building and wood working of all sorts. I am teaching him all that I know, which ain’t much,” Sugar Dog laughed.
“Thank you for the lemonade, David,” I greeted.
I had never dreamed that being “sentenced to the Poor House”, as it were, would be filled with so many people with no family or means or that there would be such an abundance of food on their impoverished table, but from perusing the kitchen shelves and items hanging from the ceiling, I could see that they dried what they could, canned some and thus were able to preserve all matter of edibles. A few stories were told around the table about that long day of happenings and troubles, seems the menfolk were quite worried about the lack of rain.
“We have a huge patch of pumpkins that we take and sell down by the store but if it doesn’t hurry and rain, they are gonna be puny and too dry inside!” spoke Peter who was about 80. He resembled a Gothic Father Christmas with his big old belly and long white beard and wonky glass eye. Peter sat away from the table, more comfortable in his own larger chair away from the rest with a small table beside to put his drink and plate on. “The kids count on us for their jack-o-lanterns,” he stated.
“Almost pumpkin pie time!” laughed David. Despite my utter exhaustion, my first night and first meal turned out to be mildly pleasant amidst strangers who seemed a little bit familiar by the meal’s end. And even though I felt myself warming to this makeshift spooky little backwoods family, not once did I make mention of my earlier upstairs vision. I didn’t want them to think I was crazy or something.
Night darkness descended, and everyone went their own way to their gloomy little bedrooms throughout the house. Sugar Dog kept his bedroom in the milk shed located behind the old barn and he left the table first. When Maddie questioned the remaining diners, no one seemed sure why Mr, Paxton was known as Sugar Dog. Lottie took Maddie by the hand and led her up the stairs. “Don’t be worrying none, you have the softest feather bed.” I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.
Slept came immediately. But later, in the wee still hours after midnight, Madeleine’s eyes flew open as she was jolted from sleep. A piercing scream had come from outside, she supposed it must be a wild cat, maybe a panther or bob cat.
“Come on, I will show you.” Little Charlotte had heard the terrifying noise and rushed up to Maddie’s room, in case she was frightened. She reached out once more for Maddie’s hand. After slipping on her shoes and a crocheted warm shawl, Maddie and Lottie tip-toed together down the outside stairs.
Once they stepped off the wooden landing, Lottie turned and held her pointy finger to her lips. “Shhhhh!” Striking a match, Lottie lit a metal lantern, and the two together stepped lightly down the hill, walking back towards the barn.
Eerie was the chilling, golden full moon that night, though clouds edged its light with lacy dots in the shades of darkness. An underground stream could be heard as it trickled through one side of the old barn. Inside were stalls that held 2 pigs, a work mule for the garden and haying, and an old nag of a horse that was used for the only farm buckboard wagon they owned.
“This here is Buck,” Lottie gestured towards the reddish-brown horse. “He got some new shoes today, didn’t ya, Buck? And this old mule here, this is stubborn Jack, watch out for him, he is a kicker.” She continued to whisper about the mule, but I had tuned out her tiny voice. As I had been reaching out to pet the horse, my eyes discerned an oddly shaped box against the far back wall of the barn.
“Lottie, what IS that?” Before I could finish my question, we suddenly heard a wild animal mewling from inside the box. It sounded like it had been hurt. I began to walk towards the wretched sound, but Lottie held tightly to my arm and sleeve.
Lottie wailed, “No, Maddie, don’t! We shouldn’t have come; this is a bad time! Sometimes it’s not so bad, we gotta go. I’m sorry! Sugar Dog is gonna keeel me!! We have to go, NOW!” and with this, Lottie turned and flew out of the barn, running as fast as she could back towards the big house, taking our only lantern with her. Now, with clouds passing over the moon, only the slightest light illuminated my destination, I could barely see my hands in front of my face.
I reasoned, “why would Sugar Dog keep a hurt animal in a pen without seeing to it?” I planned to give him a strong talking to first thing in the morning. This seemed inhuman to let a creature suffer so. For now, I wondered if there was anything that I could do to help the tortured animal in its misery.
As I slowly made my way nearer to the tall box, a horrific foul stench filled my nostrils, bringing the waste odors of urine or worse. I was almost right beside the large container when I spied what looked to be Lottie’s little rag doll, lying forgotten on the barn’s dirt floor, with its yellow yarn hair all mussed in the muck. Perhaps Lottie had brought it to comfort whatever hurt creature suffered inside?
I bent to retrieve the doll, intending to return it back to the box, but when I raised my body up, holding the doll, suddenly, a piece of hard metal struck a piercing blow through my unsuspecting heart. In horrific disbelief, I was stunned as my head turned up towards that wooden cage to look into wild, frenetic eyes. Dear God in heaven, they were the beautiful violet and quite dead eyes of my Mother, trapped in hell on earth in this damning cage.
I crumbled to the dirt. My poor Mother and I were at last reunited. I cried out to her one last time as I expired. I would never rescue her.
~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~
As the Full Moon tumbled quietly behind the obsidian trees, the sun cheerfully arose on another crisp October morn. It was Sugar Dog who found my body after having his breakfast at the big house. He and Hannah had remarked over coffee how I needed the extra sleep, after my previous day’s journey when I didn’t come down and join them.
He gave a loud shout when he walked into the barn. Soon, everyone made their way down to the old tobacco barn. Possessing my new form, I had now become what my mother used to call a “haint”. I sat on the edge of the hayloft, with my ghostly feet dangling back and forth, and I watched as all the other apparitions tried to figure out what had happened in the night while they were “sleeping”. The other lifeless inmates had walked down to witness the death scene of their latest “family” member who now would remain trapped here on this land forever, just like all of them, at the County Poor House farm, hidden away for eternity in the dark, silent backwoods of Tennessee.
“I guess Maddie couldn’t wait for me to bring her down here, she must have somehow stolen her way down to the barn in the night to find her mamma.” Sugar Dog had suspicions about how Miz Madeleine had made her way down to the barn by herself and he quickly glanced over at Charlotte, but little Lottie was busy pretending to talk and giggle with Buck. “Miz Sarah must have been waiting for someone to come. Only this time, instead of harming herself as she had previously done many a time, she instead volleyed her fury at Madeleine. She must have found her weapon lying forgotten on the barn floor. Sarah had easily stabbed Maddie with one of the horseshoe nails. Its long, sharp, hand-forged shank must have fallen within her reach, too near the protective pen meant to keep her from harming herself or others, when the farrier had come to put new shoes on the horse named Buck yesterday.”
“Oh, Sarah, how lonely you must be, to murder your own daughter.” Sugar Dog shook his head in pity as he handed, from his pocket, to Sarah a biscuit he had brought from the kitchen. It had just a little bit of honey spread inside. She was sitting in lotus position inside the wooden box which had been her sanity’s undoing. Sarah reached for the fresh baked morsel being offered, took a bite, then, while rocking back and forth a little, she smiled.
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Most of this story is based on true facts and a real place. I made up the tale, but the characters are based on names and descriptions of real souls who lived and were buried here and were mostly forgotten in this southern holler. “Holler” is dialect for “hollow,” which perfectly describes the valleys between hills or mountains.
One hundred and eighty-seven years have now passed since this partly fictional story took place (we now know that our sweet Sarah was afflicted with what we now call PTSD and epilepsy, which was a disease sadly undiagnosed until the year 1929). Sarah suffered from seizures, anxiety, bit her tongue, she would fall suddenly or her limbs would jerk, she reached out to hurt others, she lost consciousness sometimes and suffered from incontinence and confusion, aka “The Devil’s in her”, as Charlotte put it. She was not crazy when she had arrived at the Poor House, but the desecration and abandonment and lack of light over the years had entirely squelched her soul. They just didn’t know what was “ailing” her in that time period. The County Poor House Farm really existed with indigent residents, orphans, the undiagnosed sick and a farm “warden” overseer up until the 1950’s.
On the land that once was the County Poor House Farm, there remains today a “white” burial ground located at the top of the Ridge above the old house where only the white folks rest, and past the barn and on up into the next field on the hill where I now reside,
the “black” cemetery is mostly consumed by overgrown brush beneath looming cedar trees. There are rocks that serve as head and foot stones there. Sugar Dog has been seen on more than one occasion as he walks by in his overalls, headed down the lane that leads to the underground spring. He is quite tall. The shabby old house where they all lived eventually burned down and cheap little shanty houses were built as replacement dwellings for the inmates.
If you sit quietly on a chilly October evening after a cold rain, you might sometime still hear the creaks and splashes of an old carriage as it makes its way down the old chert road through the holler and towards the old tobacco barn that stands in the bend down on Poor House County Farm.