I left the university campus behind to do fieldwork in the Deep South. I was studying folk songs from southern states that had neither a time or place of origin nor a known composer. Those old songs that just seem to rise out of cultural folklore and evangelical mysticism like steam rising from a swamp. Songs that had been sung for generations by slaves and slave owners, Baptist ministers and backwoods preachers, and whose chords had been strung by banjos and whistled on whiskey jugs. Those songs presented a mystery to me; one that seemed to be known and understood in the Deep South but eluded myself and others in the halls of academe.
In particular, I was seeking the origins of the beautiful ode in which the singer calls for all brothers and sisters, mothers and sinners to go down to the river to pray. Of most interest was a variation in the lyrics that I could not understand given its Judeo-Christian origins: the use in one line of the term “starry crown.”
…As I went down to the river to pray,
studying about that good old way,
and who should wear the starry crown.
More modern versions of the hymn use the words “thorny crown” to reference Christ’s crown of thorns during the crucifixion. These lyrics would appear to make the most sense in the context of the song, so the use of “starry crown” in the older and possibly more genuine versions of the hymn was a puzzle. Secondly, the term presents a question of who should wear the crown. If this were a Christian hymn, that question should never be asked; Christ would wear the thorny crown and, one would presume, any crown. So the line presents a second mystery as to why and how someone other than Christ would be picked to wear a starry crown and for what purpose. I could find no relevant Biblical references to a starry crown that made sense in the context of a baptism. Thus I was left with a mystery as to what its original meaning was and why it had been changed.
The earliest recognized version of the song was published in 1867 by G.H. Allan in his Slave Songs of The United States. But in his personal diary writings, Allan referenced an earlier and heretofore unknown version of the song, recorded on paper by Llewellyn Cobb. Allan wrote that Cobb had mailed him the song in order that he might include it in Slave Songs but that the version was “somewhat unbalanced” and he made changes to the music. Cobb had lived in that southern stronghold of South Carolina, long before the Reconstruction and interest in slavery’s subculture developed.
I traveled to that state, driving to Evanstown, where Cobb had lived. I found residence in an old plantation home turned into a bed & breakfast, Ashcroft Manor, named after the aristocratic family that built and ran the plantation. It was an effort to immerse myself in the antebellum culture, thinking that perhaps the scenery and living situation would stir my mind to new connections and insights into this era so far removed from modern life.
The proprietors, Ted and Mary Wallstone, were an elderly couple who prided themselves on keeping the plantation as close to its original form as possible.
“We finally sprung for indoor plumbing in the eighties,” Ted told me. “Can’t tell you how much business we lost before then because of the outhouses, but I just didn’t want to change the structure, putting holes in the walls and everything. To me, it would be like desecrating a church, ya know?”
I nodded in agreement but his relation of a slave plantation to a church, and the rheumy, wistful look in his eyes left me feeling unsettled.
I told him of my research project, leaving out the specific mystery of the starry crown, but hopeful that he could provide some direction in this unfamiliar place.
“Ah…that’s a beautiful old hymn,” Ted said. “My God! It stays with you, doesn’t it?”
“It was first written on paper right here in this area,” I told him.
He reflected a moment. “Doesn’t surprise me.”
“Do you remember when you first heard the song?”
“As a child, many years ago. Of course, back then, most people called it ‘Down to the Valley,’ not ‘The Good Old Way.’”
I’d read this previously. There were several names and incarnations. ‘The Good Old Way’ was the most historically prevalent, which only deepened the mystery. “I thought this was relating to a baptism, so it’d make sense, going down to the river, like it says in the song. But why would they go down to a valley to pray?”
He raised his eyebrows at me. “Well, most rivers are in valleys, city-boy.”
“Ah, of course. Are there still river baptisms here?”
“First Sunday of every month,” he said proudly.
“Where are they held? I’d like to witness one.”
“Well…the Green River is where most congregations go. But there are lots of other creeks and rivers around here too, and plenty of smaller congregations that use them for their own services, so could be anywhere. But the Green River is probably the best bet.”
I thanked Ted for his time and hospitality. He wished me luck on my search but left me with a bit of “advice”:
“Careful who you question around here. People in these parts are very private. They hold their beliefs sacred and can be pretty suspicious when outsiders come asking questions. Even if it’s about an old song.”
He patted me on the shoulder and went about his business, maintaining a home that had previously been the site of the horrendous rites of slavery.
I slept badly that night. There were ghosts in the air.
* * * * * *
Finding a Baptist church in the South is not a challenge. Rather the challenge was trying to find where to start. One could throw a rock and hit a Baptist church, and the rock would bounce off that church and hit another one right next door. On nearly every stretch of road and corner there stood a large white building with a steeple, a converted warehouse with a Christ-proclaiming sign, or some old, tiny schoolhouse that reached back into the days of the colonies, but now proclaimed, “Pancake Breakfasts and Bible Studies on Wednesdays.”
I began to survey each of them, explaining my project and inquiring as to their river baptismal services. The pastors and reverends were helpful and willing. Naturally, they all knew of the song but very few could point me in any direction as to its origin or meaning. Most said it was a baptismal hymn, but there was no mention of actual baptism in the verses. Just going down to a river or valley and pondering who should wear a starry crown. The reverends grew more silent when I mentioned the starry crown aspect of the mystery. None of them, for all their theology, could give me an adequate explanation as to the meaning of those words and what Biblical reference it came from.
I spent several days in the city hall’s file cabinets of records, researching churches and Llewellyn Cobb’s residence 150 years ago. His home wasn’t in the town but in the surrounding hills that had once been cultivated with crops harvested by slaves. An elderly woman at the clerk’s desk—a withered crone with fake teeth and the long, drawn-out manner of a former southern belle—asked what I was searching for, and I gave her a brief summary.
“You should go see Thomas Jeery over at First Baptist,” she said.
“I feel like I’ve been to every church in the state at this point,” I replied with a smile.
“Not this one,” she said. “Thomas is one hundred and one years old. His parents were children when freed after the Civil War, and his family have lived in these parts ever since. He could probably tell you something about its history.”
“Where can I find him?”
“Not around here. You have to go into the hills. First Baptist is the oldest original church in this area. It’s only the size of this here room, not like all those big churches the size of airports that keep springing up. But they have the most wonderful choir. You should hear them sing at night. You hear it all through the hills. It’s like hearing a lullaby sung by God.”
Her eyes appeared to wane and turn in the deepened sockets of her furrowed visage and she fell silent. She was smiling, but not at me. I turned to look but there was nothing else around.
Fearing that she was suffering a stroke or some other malady, I cautiously asked if she wasn’t feeling well. She did not speak but, standing before me, the old crone began humming a tune—something vaguely familiar which I could not place exactly—perhaps a gloomy bastardization of a song I knew.
“What is that song?” I asked, but she didn’t answer. Instead, her humming grew louder as if trying to drown out my voice, her eyes vacantly staring beyond me.
My skin started crawling. It felt as if there was something else in the room with us, which only she could see, and it was reaching its tentacles up over my shoulders, treading lightly on the skin of my back.
I left her standing there, unsure if she was some kind of mystic or suffering an onset of dementia, but either way the creeping sensation was overwhelming me to the point of panic, and the sound of her humming voice was stirring in my head like the rising cry of locusts. I hurried out into the humid heat of the southern summer, breathing deep and heavy, the air like smoke in my lungs. The city seemed abandoned and lonely in the pastel light of day. I turned left and right. Spun myself around looking for any sign of life until I was nearly dizzy.
A single dark sedan rolled down the street and stopped at a traffic light in front of me. I could see my features in the tinted windows, distorted and twisted into some kind of monstrous being.
The window rolled down and a wizened face scowled at me from the back seat. His face seemed abnormally long and cut with deep lines of folded flesh; his staring eyes were hazy with cataracts. A pungent smell wafted from the opened window, and I stumbled away from the car.
The old man continued to stare at me as the darkened window rolled back up and the sedan pulled away from the sidewalk.
I was disoriented and exhausted, and the feeling from the hall of records stayed with me into the evening as I retreated back to the bed & breakfast. Ashcroft Manor was filled to capacity. Elderly men and women mingled in dining rooms, they spilled out into the back patio which looked out on a field of grass and dark trees in the distance. I figured them for tourists but they all seemed so familiar with Ted and Mary. The proprietors mingled with the guests like old friends that hadn’t seen each other in an age. They were all finely dressed, glasses of wine in their hands, laughing and murmuring in the deepening dusk.
The kaleidoscope of my delirium continued. The room seemed to spin. Ted placed a hand on my shoulder, and I told him that I thought I had too much sun. The other guests turned to stare at me, light glinting off pearl necklaces and dangling bracelets.
I saw a dress made of stars. It hung loose and breezy from shoulders of skin tanned like leather.
Beautiful music poured into my mind.
Ted escorted me to my room.
* * * * * *
When I woke the following morning, the estate was empty of the other guests. Mary brought ice water to my room and politely suggested that maybe the climate was not suited to me. I conceded that I had been in quite a state. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“Seems you’ve been working quite a lot,” she said. “Southern heat can do that to a man who isn’t accustomed to it.” I asked her where all the others had gone, and she told me that I’d walked in on one of their monthly gatherings. “We belong to a small social club,” she said. “True southern society still exists, you know.”
Then I asked her about First Baptist and the clerk at the hall of records.
“Oh,” she laughed quietly to herself. “That’s just Ethel. She’s—ah—a little touched in the head at her old age.”
I spent the morning in my room on my laptop, searching for the First Baptist Church but could find nothing. Based on Ethel’s description I wouldn’t have been surprised if it were abandoned and left to rot in the hills.
Instead, I located Llewellyn Cobb’s home, considered a minor historical site, and maintained by a small town historical society. It also had recently been the site of a murder investigation: the body of a young black male was found in the house several months post-mortem by some hikers. The investigation was pending and despite this turn of events in my research, I decided I should still visit Walker’s house.
I followed the GPS map in my rental car out into the hills beyond Evanstown, amongst winding roads, deep bluffs, shadows, and liquid light. Everywhere were creeks and rivers. The GPS became useless as the roads turned to dirt pathways. My rented Grand Am scraped its side-view mirrors against the thickening underbrush. I was forced to stop the car and continue on foot, finding a small sign pointing toward a Historical Site.
Cobb’s ancient cabin appeared as if manifested by magic from the underbrush. The forest had started to reclaim it, and any historical society that claimed to care for the property was severely negligent. The old southern shack listed to one side and brambles covered its eastern wall. The front entrance was cordoned off by yellow police tape, much of which had come unmoored and snaked through the underbrush. I climbed onto the front porch and passed through the entrance, noting a plaque that gave a brief biography of Llewellyn Cobb, a largely forgotten artist and composer. Inside was dank and dark and haunted with the smell of old meat. There was a pot-bellied stove in the living room, remnants of furniture and sleeping arrangements on the floor—an old mattress stained with blood and putrescence and tattered blankets.
I made my way through each room, trying to envision the life that Cobb had within these walled confines, with only candlelight keeping the darkness at bay, and the freezing winters huddled by the stove; fears of illness and crop shortages; loneliness to the point of insanity in the bramble forest of the South Carolina mountains. I tried to picture him running the hymns from his book over and over in his mind as he scratched out the notes onto paper.
And who should wear the starry crown…
In a small anteroom near the back of the homestead, there was a writing desk beside a single-paned glass window that looked out on the forested hillside sloping away from the house. I sat there for a moment in the rickety chair, worn weak by age, and in the light that came through that portal I saw strange decorations made of sticks hung by twine from the wooden ceiling. They turned and twisted in the gravitational vortexes of the earth.
Forest sticks cobbled together like stars and hung from strings like something a child might fashion in school. The smell of gore wafted from the living room on a warm, wet breeze.
I spoke to the empty rooms in a moment of uncharacteristic theatrics: “So you did see stars, my friend.”
I walked back out to the small front porch and looked over the sloping hillside. There was no river to be seen.
* * * * * *
I avoided the hall of records, still frightened from the vertigo that had set in the other day and the haunting, elderly clerk.
I asked Ted about First Baptist, and he replied, “Yes…out in the hills. Old, old place but they haven’t held services since the fifties. That old bat at the clerk’s office must finally be losing her marbles.”
“Can you tell me where in the hills? I’d like to see it, maybe get a picture or two.”
“I wouldn’t even know how to get there, son. Trust me. There ain’t nothing out there that could do you much good.”
So instead I conducted an old-fashioned search through the Internet for Thomas Jeery. I finally found a listing that matched the description the town clerk had given me. There weren’t too many Thomas Jeerys that were one hundred and one years old. He was located way off the beaten path in what looked to be a trailer park. I made a phone call but the line was disconnected. I made the drive, instead.
Jeery’s residence was located in The Willow View trailer park, so named for its looking out over a swampy area that was a breeding ground for pussy-willows and mosquitoes. In early dusk, the frogs were sounding like an ancient language of grunts and guttural consonants. It was a sad, broken looking place of rust-red dirt and busted screen doors hanging from corrugated hinges; old men sleeping in lawn chairs with bottles in their hand, and cars that had sat so long in one spot the weeds had died beneath them. My passing car elicited strange and strong stares from dark faces. I thought I heard children through my open window, but they sounded far off and as if crying. The heat was oppressive here, like the blanket-weight of history had fallen over it and would never be pulled away. This was a place to die or to never live.
Jeery’s single-wide was at the eastern corner of the park, close to the bog and the swarming blood-suckers that churned in the air like a quiet storm. There was no answer at the screen door and I called out his name, peering into the darkness of the trailer. The inside was scattered with refuse and bottles. There was an old plaid cloth couch that looked like it was delivered from the seventies and a small table with a massive Bible, which lay opened beside it. I left the front entrance and began to slowly make my way around the outside of the home, catching glares from some of the residents across the dirt pathway.
I found him sitting in a chair in the small patch of weeds that looked out over the swamp. I said his name several times. He was asleep and there was a mason jar of moonshine beside him. His face was surprisingly smooth for such an elderly man, bequeathed with a solemn dignity that, even in this place as he slept off an afternoon drunk, could not be taken away. I thought for a moment of all those years—the social and cultural changes—that he had seen, that had quietly and meticulously carved their places into his memory and cast their shadows in the form of liver spots on his light brown skin.
He awoke and looked up at me as if I was expected. He sighed and then looked back out at the swamp. “You social services?”
“No,” I said.
“Good. I’ve had about enough of them pestering me. Want to put me in a museum or somethin’. They call it a ‘home,’ I call it Purgatory where I wait to meet my maker.”
“Isn’t that the ultimate goal of the believer?” I said. “To finally meet the maker?”
He looked at me long and hard. He reached down and took a swallow from his mason jar and beckoned to me. I realized that we were communing. I took it up and had a swallow that instantly burned through my sinuses and into my brain, evaporating on my tongue before even reaching my belly.
“I used to think that I’d welcome the day when I’d meet him,” Thomas said. “But now, when it’s so close, you can feel death just waiting over your shoulder like…Well, it changes your perspective a bit. This world, I tell you, it’s a terrible place. But what I fear is that the place we go to is even worse.”
“You don’t believe in Heaven?”
“Nah. All that’s rubbish. I’ve seen things in my age that tell me otherwise. That tell me maybe the maker we seek is not the kindly old man we hope he’ll be.”
“It could even be a woman,” I said with a smile.
He laughed briefly and said, “Yeah, that might even be worse for a fella like me.” I sat down beside him, and he added. “So what you want, anyway?”
I told him about the song I was researching, about the belief that it may have been an old slave hymn at which point he scoffed. “Huh! Ain’t no slave song, I can tell you that. Sure it sounds pretty when some lovely white woman sings it—and I’ve heard it sung by many a white woman—but that song should make a black man’s skin crawl.”
He looked at me somewhat incredulously, almost frustrated. “Where you think they’d find the slaves that run away, that was tortured and killed, huh? You think those white plantation owners gave those people a proper burial? No way. They’d take ’em down in the valley, toss ’em in the river. Where ya think the Klan did their lynchings after the emancipation? White man doesn’t do nothin’ out in the open. Nah. It’s all backwoods and shady deals under cover of night.”
He paused for a breath, working himself up. “If you was going down to the river to pray—like it says in that song—you was praying that you were only gonna come out with a beatin’ and not be swinging from a tree. My mother and father were slaves just before the emancipation and they told me good. A white man wants to take you down to the river, down into the valley, you don’t go down there, you run!”
“Isn’t this a baptismal hymn?” I said.
“In a way, I suppose. Black man goes down into the river, he comes up into the embrace of God. Nothin’ but a spirit. But, like I said, that’s only if you subscribe to those kinds of notions…”
“What notions do you subscribe to?” I asked.
“Oh,” he nodded with almost a smile, “there are other notions, son.”
I looked at him closely. “What is the starry crown?”
He looked back at me with a look of quiet foreboding. “Now you onto somethin’, son. Now you onto somethin’.”
* * * * * *
I went down. I went way down into the valley. Down to the river to pray for my soul, to pray that what Thomas Jeery had told me wasn’t true. But it haunted me, pulled me in an inexorable flow through the muddy darkness of history.
“You want to know where that song come from,” Jeery had said to me, “then you gots to see for yourself. Nobody can see it for you.”
“The rite of the Starry Crown. There be men and women that pray to it. They pray to the crown. And they make a sacrifice.”
“What kind of sacrifice?” I’d asked.
“The same kind that’s made every day across this country. The same that you read about on page ten of the paper. You look at the lost black kids in this country. You look at them and you’ll see the crown, all souls gone to their resting place up in the sky. What ‘good ole way’ you think they’re singin’ about anyway? The song done come out after the Civil War. Use your college-educated brain, son.”
It couldn’t be, though. It seemed impossible, so into the valley I went, stepping another foot in the rich loam of the South Carolina river valley. The land was flat, the earth black with tall ghostly trees that shot straight up into the abysmal night. It was dried floodland, devoid of underbrush that got swept away in the spring when the river would overflow its banks and send it all downstream. Overhead was a full moon, and its ghastly light reflected on the white bark of the trees.
Up above, standing guard over this sacrilegious land, I found the old First Baptist Church. Tiny, rotted, and being pulled down to the earth by ropes of kudzu vines. It was barely visible even in the full light of day.
“Once that church was gone,” Jeery had said, “it was free reign for the Starry Crown again. They wanted their sacred ground back, and they got it. Land deals, real estate prices, offers of big, brand new churches down in the town proper. It wasn’t the congregation’s fault. No one knew. No one remembered.”
“Except you,” I’d said.
“Except me. I warned ’em. But I’m just an old fool, see? The congregation took a deal for a brand new church down in Evanstown, and the realty company took hold of First Baptist’s land more’n twelve years ago.”
“What are they doing with the land?”
“Well, that’s what you want to find out, isn’t it?”
He looked out at the swamp and took a sip from his jar of white lightning. “They haven’t come for me yet,” he’d said. “They just letting time run her course. Nobody believes an old fool anyhow.”
After my visit with Jeery, I’d returned to the town hall of records and looked up the land purchase for First Baptist Church. The crone was gone that day. In her place were fat and friendly clerks with teased-out hair and big, white Jesus-lovin’ smiles. They showed me to the proper files and I dove in for some tedious reading. First Baptist was purchased by Old Pride Realty in 2002 for an extravagant amount of money plus the building of a new Baptist church in Evanstown, just as Jeery had said. Old Pride Realty was actually a collection of real estate agents, owners, and attorneys throughout the state that pooled resources to purchase land and historical sites considered part of the Antebellum South’s heritage. They owned and operated estates and manors, plantation homes and historical sites clear across the south from Illinois to Florida and west to Arkansas. It was a new Confederacy, a quiet Civil War, and Old Pride Realty was buying back the south in one of the largest private land grabs since the Homestead Act.
Down in the valley, standing before the moonlit First Baptist Church, I thought again of what I’d read. Nearly all of Spartanburg and the surrounding counties belonged now to Old Pride Realty, including Llewellyn Cobb’s crumbling house. The smell of that place came back to me. The blood-stained mattress, the stars made of twine, and sticks turning in the light.
The First Baptist Church—the first black church that had been erected after the Emancipation—and the adjacent river valley seemed to move around me, to spin in the ghost light of southern high-summer night.
“They got that land again, they’s coming out of the shadows,” Jeery had said. “Now they got that river and that valley, the sacrifices been happening again. They found who should wear the Starry Crown, all right.”
Halfway down the list of real estate agents and lawyers that made up the governing body of Old Pride Realty had been Theodore Wallstone, owner and proprietor of Ashcroft Manor Bed & Breakfast. I didn’t return to my room that night. Instead, I drove down into the valley, directly to the forgotten, black land of First Baptist.
I walked from the church to the river, its banks still muddy from the spring rains. I could hear it flowing up ahead. And then came a music, a beautiful music from behind me in the darkness. It sounded like it was emanating from the kudzu church itself, as if a forgotten choir had broken in and begun to sing. I stopped and listened to the dirge: solemn and reverent, growing in tone and intensity. Ahead of me the river glinted moonlight across its slow waters. I glared into the darkness, searching for the source of the low hymn.
Then lights began to appear. Flickering flames of candlelight dancing between the trees; first one, then two, then a multitude growing in number and intensity. At first they seemed apparitions, will-o’-the-whisps that were beckoning for me to touch them, to become enchanted. But the dirge grew heavier and more intense. My momentary flight into fancy turned suddenly terrifying as I returned to my senses and realized that these were candles being held by people, hundreds of people, and they were appearing out of the darkness like ghosts of Confederate soldiers passing across Gettysburg.
They were all-too-real, walking amongst the thin trees of the river bed with candles, chanting a vaguely familiar rhyme that was beginning to worm its way into my brain.
Panic set in. Jeery was no old fool. He told of those infernal rites of the Starry Crown taking place on full moons, of a cult finally able to again practice on their most sacred ground.
I was trapped between the hundreds of moving bodies and the turbulent river beyond. I considered running under cover along the river bed, but I was overcome suddenly with the urge to know. So much of anthropology, archeology, and folklore is guess-work and estimation, tall-tales, and fabrications gleaned out of cultural cloth. It was my only chance to witness. It was my one chance to see, even if what I saw was horrifying.
I found a thick tree with branches low enough that I could shimmy up the trunk and grasp them. I pulled myself higher and higher, dripping sweat and choking back my straining breaths till I was confident I was out of eyesight. Like Zaccheaus sneaking a glimpse of Christ, I was trying to catch of glimpse of some secret satanic messiah.
The lights began to pass beneath me, flames held in lanterns by white-robed men and women who walked serenely toward the waters chanting their hymn, a strange version of “The Good Old Way,” but sung in low octaves, the rhythm and meter changed so that the soul of the song transformed from a quiet, heartfelt prayer to a dark, unrelenting march.
My first thought was that this was some kind of Ku Klux Klan rally but this was so different, so much more reverent, quiet and insidious. It wasn’t the hooded back-woods abortions that light fire to crosses and wave flags, croaking protests in bad English. This was organized, religious. Its darkness contained a certain beauty and ancient depth that even modern Christianity had difficulty recreating. I could make faces out in the glow of the candlelight. They were pale and serene, well cared for, bright and clean. They appeared to be from the upper echelons of society and, based on my research into Old Pride Realty, I had a feeling that these worshippers were of a class much higher than your typical Klansman or Neo-Nazi.
The number of robed men and women still continued to swell, a sea of glowing candles that spread out beneath me, stretching to the river’s edge. They deftly raised their voices to some dark god that I did not know, growing louder and louder as one in resonant chant until suddenly stopping as if a switch had been thrown. Everything along that river had turned silent.
There appeared a figure on the river’s other side, seemingly clothed with light. He stepped out from the trees, glowing with a luminescence that radiated from his robe like a lunar aura. He was adorned with a great crown upon his head that reached many, many fingers up to the starry sky. The gathered crowd stood silent and unmoved, but below me in the mud and patches of river-grass, terrified small animals scurried away.
Then the radiant creature came, gliding across the surface of the river without ever setting foot in the water.
And he was tall, much taller than anyone there. The stars on his crown glowed with a pulsing brilliance, and though his face resembled a human’s, it were as if carved into an old oak tree—some product of psychological pareidolia—rather than the face of flesh and bone. The creature’s mouth opened long and wide and was hollow with darkness while he remained suspended in the air inches above the muddy bank.
The crowd met him with bowed heads and silent reverence.
And then there was a boy. A black boy who was brought to the front of the horrid congregation by a man in a robe. I recognized the old, wizened visage as he led the boy before the creature with the starry crown. I had seen his face before in my delirium outside the town’s hall of records glaring at me from the back seat of a dark sedan.
There was no other sound but for the boy crying: an adolescent, I estimated, by his voice and build. The glowing figure moved to him through the air, and the boy screamed in terror. A great and terrible blade was handed to the starry king, and it was raised up over the screaming boy and brought down into him over and over again.
The boy’s body was dumped in the river. Baptized, like Jeery had told me, where no one would see his blood in a river of black.
* * * * * *
The sun was rising over the eastern mountains when I was finally able to come down from my tree and make my way to the car. On the hood was placed a single lantern, its candle burned down to a nub. A warning.
I snuck into my room at Ashcroft Manor. I gathered my computer with all my work, dumped my clothes into my suitcase, and made my way back down the stairs.
“You heading out already?” Ted stood at the reception desk, neatly dressed, clean and pressed from head to toe, friendly and warm smile on his face. “You weren’t going to leave without checking out, were ya?”
I smiled but I was sick in my stomach. “Of course not.”
I signed his ledger and signed for the bill. Ted crossed his arms and looked out the window at my rental car. “That’s a nice car they gave you.”
I only kept smiling.
“Should get you back to New York without a hitch,” he said. He clapped a meaty hand on my shoulder and escorted me to the door. “Y’all come back now, ya hear?”
I nodded but kept my head down, unable to bring myself to make eye contact. I saw the residue of dark river mud on his boots.
I returned the rental car to the nearest return lot and took a different car home. I drove without music, only my thoughts streaming through my head, dark and churning and winding their way to an ocean of reality. I could not remove from my mind the glowing figure with its crown pointing to the stars and its impossible parody of Christ walking on the Sea of Galilee. I could not shake off Ted’s smile and the sensation of his touch on the back of my shoulder. This was something larger than any one man could comprehend, too fantastic to be believed. I would be laughed out of every Ph.D. review hearing and torn to shreds in a culture awash in skepticism. My story would be discarded as either the rantings of a lunatic or lies by an attention-seeking folklorist in an age of racial strife. My story, though I had lived it, would be banished to fiction.
Those people had my address, my phone number, email, and even my credit card number. But they didn’t need to kill me. If I spoke I’d be relegated to the swampy backwaters of society like old Thomas Jeery, a man to be laughed at and ridiculed, left to die in a trailer park.
I did not stop.
I did not sleep.
I drove through the night till I reached the safety of my apartment.
I sat down and erased my dissertation, and in the darkness began a new work that would surely be called fiction by all those who could not and would not ever see: I left the university campus behind to do fieldwork in the Deep South…
Marc E. Fitch is the author of the novels Old Boone Blood, Paradise Burns and Dirty Water, as well as the books Paranormal Nation: Why America Needs Ghosts, UFOs and Bigfoot and Shmexperts: How Power Politics and Ideology are Disguised as Science. His short fiction has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, including Best Horror of the Year vol 10.
Marc received his Master of Fine Arts degree from Western Connecticut State University and has worked as a bartender, psychiatric technician for in-patient behavioral health hospitals, and most recently as an investigative reporter for a public-policy organization. He was the recipient of the 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship and the Leslie Leeds Poetry Prize. He is the father of four children and lives and works in Connecticut.
“This is what true horror is meant to be, quiet and thoughtful, an eerie sense of something lurking just ahead in your path with no way of escape.” — Eric J. Guignard, award-winning author and editor, including That Which Grows Wild and A World of Horror
Ten years ago a mysterious and tragic hunting accident deep in the Adirondack Mountains left a boy buried in a storied piece of land known as Coombs’ Gulch and four friends with a terrible secret.
Now, Jonathan Hollis and brothers Michael and Conner Braddick must return to the place that changed their lives forever in order to keep their secret buried. What they don’t realize is that they are walking into a trap — one set decades earlier by a supernatural being who is not confined by time or place: a demon that demands a sacrifice.
FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launched in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.
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