Ya'll get first chance at this one before I send it off. Enjoy.
Born Dec 9 1848. Died July 22 1870.
May God have mercy on her Soul.
This simple but direct epitaph is hand carved deeply into a small lichen covered tombstone resting on the east side of a bluff overlooking a backwater on the Tennessee River. To describe it as being isolated is an understatement. In the spring and early summer, when the heat rises as the simmering sun slowly rises and passes over the dark green valley, the backwater becomes alive. Mosquitoes begin to lift off the stagnant water and swarm in dense light gray swarming clouds that torment any living warm-blooded creature. Blue herons wade through the tepid black water intensely searching for the slow or unwary minnow. They walk with an ungainly jerking gait that nature must have given them in jest that somehow connected their neck movements with the rising of a foot. Occasionally a large fish stirs the surface of the water with a languid fluid zigzag wave. The fish only has a short while to live. As summer proceeds and the backwaters slowly dry up he will either be a meal for a coyote or bobcat or slowly suffocate in the stinking mud.
The backwaters are beautiful but only in their own way. There are things of which to be aware. Yellow jackets build basketball sized nests in the side of creek banks. When you pull your canoe up to the bank and step out they will swarm you and attack with a ferociousness and intent to do harm worthy of a lion pride. Red hornets build light gray delicate thin paper houses shaped like a pointed cylinder so large that you can’t reach around it with both arms. A skill one quickly learns in the backwaters is to listen to nature and take the sounds seriously. The 2” long red hornets will fan their nest to keep it cool. This low hum is not a sound to be ignored. They will build their homes wherever they choose. Low hanging forked branches is a favorite for them. It is not something you want to carelessly walk into. Like the epitaph, you had best hope God has mercy. They damn sure don’t. Trying to find you way out of the backwaters in the dark with your eyes swollen shut from hornet stings is not an enviable experience. There are also huge spiders that build large webs in geometrical patterns. They hang over trails and open areas. The webs, when dripping with the heavy morning dew, reflect the prism colors of the rainbow as the sun’s bright early morning rays pass through the sticky fluid. Just for fun, find a large web, take a long blade of grass and lightly tickle the web. It is amazing how fast those huge spiders can attack. A sure sign of not being alone in the backwaters is to find broken spider webs on a trail.
So there are mosquitoes, yellow jackets, hornets, spiders, fire ants and other less than amiable animals in the backwaters. They live there. To encounter them is to be expected. If not disturbed they will leave you alone. But there is one inhabitant that will not leave you alone. He is a large, strong, silent, territorial, fearless, aggressive, and dangerous predator that will kill you if he can. He will not retreat. He is camouflaged perfectly for his environment. He can swim on and underwater, climb trees, and leap four feet in the air. He will attack again and again until you either kill him or he kills you. He goes by many names according to regions, but I simply call him the southern cottonmouth.
I have never encountered a consistently meaner tempered animal. His eyes glow with a red burning fury when he attacks. His mouth snaps open like a steel trap revealing a bloody white lining when he has you in distance to sink his two poison filled syringe like fangs deep into your flesh. The pressure of his bite will leave dark bruises on your skin. He clamps down with his powerful jaws and works them back and forth rhythmically so he can inflict the most damage and to inject as much poison as possible. He will drop from low hanging branches into your canoe. He will slide under and into you canoe when it is pulled up on a bank. He will wait at the edge of the bank while you pull up and get out and attack as you step up. They almost always are in pairs and I have encountered as many as a dozen or more together in the spring. That was a disturbingly unholy sight to encounter. If you see one there is another close by. If you see two or more you had better leave.
This particular backwater has the distinction of being a very inhospitable place in the summer. But Callie was buried there in the summer. Why? Why so isolated and inaccessible? Who was she? This is my story.
Callie was born in Athens Georgia just before Christmas in 1848. Her father was in the general mercantile business and specialized in harnesses and transportation related goods. Horses and mules were the dominant work power of the nation and in the southern agrarian society they were king. All transport was horse powered. Her father, Mr. Emanuel Harrison, provided the tools to make this possible. His store on the east side of Market Street was spacious and carried only the best quality leather goods. The first thing one noticed when entering the store was the rich odor of the quality tanned leather products. Two clerks were employed and their comeuppance was severe if they did not cease immediately whatever task with which they were industriously occupied to greet and serve the customer. Mr. Harrison was a good reputable intelligent solid businessman. He also knew that business did not start and stop at the shop door. The Harrison family (older brother Elias, Callie, the matronly Ms. Harrison – two infants had died at birth) was in regular attendance at the large Methodist assembly located on Church Street. Their life revolved around business, family, church, and church related social activities.
Life was good for the Harrison family. Although not a slave owner, Mr. Harrison employed two domestics at home. The two women were employed in a debt repayment business transaction from a local cotton merchant. Mr. Harrison attended slave auctions as a matter of business but did not have desire to own. The Harrison’s experienced a comfortable predictable, well-ordered life of hell and brim fire sermons, Sunday fried chicken dinners on the ground, cigars, good brandy, talk of livestock and business after dinner, then bible reading before an early repose. Callie was a well-mannered, intelligent and predictable child. She studied her bible and Primer with equal intensity. She never missed a geography question or prophet’s name. She grew up to be exactly as was intended: A well-behaved, discreet, proper, socially and intellectually repressed representative of the solid southern middle class. The intended goal in life was for her to marry a young man just like her and create more of the same. All knew she would undoubtedly be successful.
Mr. Harrison knew there would be a war. He traveled several times a year to the north on business. It was the suddenness of the Fort Sumter incident and the rapidity of events that followed which caught him by surprise. Being a prudent man he began to make preparations. He purchased a small farm in an isolated rural area of North Georgia and leased it to a relative for the cost of its upkeep. He purchased Confederate war bonds publicly as did all businessmen but kept a substantial reserve of federal notes and gold coins hidden in a small safe. What he was not prepared for was his son enlisting in a local unit. The day he saw his only Elias, aged nineteen, proudly marching down Main Street with a rifle on his shoulder and wearing a gray uniform with a tinny sounding brass band spiritedly paying “The Bonnie Blue Flag” was a moment of mixed emotions. Such festivities for young men going off to war are much like the music and flowers at a funeral. The intent is to make more acceptable and to disguise an otherwise terrible occasion.
Callie understood and accepted the time and events, as did the entire community. Long casualty lists accompanied the glorious victories. Young men returned missing arms and legs. Many simply did not return. Unfamiliar names of distant battlefields became common household words. The business suffered. It was closed completely when a one eyed Army Major arrived early on a Monday morning with a writ of seizure and appropriated everything in the store for the use of the Confederate Army. The receipt he gave Mr. Harrison wasn’t very convincing. Food and items of necessity were becoming scarce. Mr. Harrison closed down his empty business, sent the two domestics back to their owner, and left for the isolated farm.
Thankfully the small farm was in decent condition. The Harrison’s were if anything practical. There was a steady supply of water and good pasture. They owned a milk cow, two mules, several hogs, dozens of chickens and ducks, rabbits, and the surrounding countryside was flush with quail and dove. Ms Harrison immediately started a late season garden. Neighbors were within a mile or so of the homestead and of course there was church. There was also constant work. They lived on the farm in a simple manner. Elias was killed at Gettysburg. Life continued.
The fall and winter passed. Spring was in full explosion when word began to be passed in a silent manner from house to house. It was whispered then immediately discounted as being untrue. Such a thing could not happen. Then later in the season it became spoken and discussed as a possibility. The Yankees were coming. And they were murdering children with bayonets, executing the men, and subjecting women to endure that which was not spoken. Of course the great southern army would stop them. But the Yankees were coming. When would they arrive? Not for weeks, maybe months, most likely not here at all. They have no interest here. Again, being a practical man, Mr. Harrison made preparations. They would go to north Alabama. Ms. Harrison had family there. They would leave on Monday. But the Yankees arrived on Sunday.
Four hard looking men wearing worn blue uniforms riding sweat-lathered horses carefully approached the Harrison farm late Sunday afternoon. They were skilled experienced seasoned thieves. Their duty, which they performed with great pleasure, was to deny the enemy all provisions and possible assistance. The Corporal in charge of the detail was a hard experienced war weary man from rural Michigan. He had lost his brother at Shiloh, two cousins at Cold Harbor, and a brother in law in the Wilderness battles. He knew how to hate. He also knew how to kill. The three privates accompanying him were of the same mindset. They approached the farm as they had done many times before. They first carefully scouted the premise, slowly observing and listening. Then they surrounded the house and moved in from separate directions. Each man had two Colt revolvers and a Spencer carbine ready for immediate use.
The family hound alerted everyone. He ran toward the Corporal barking, snarling, and snapping at the heels of the horse. The Corporal didn’t take time to aim his .44, and pulling the hammer as he swung his horse around to face the dog, he fired. The lead bullet struck the animal in the ribs through both lungs. The aggressive snarling and barking became a high yelping and gurgling as the animal flopped in the red dust. Mr. Harrison, hearing the shot, grabbed his shotgun and ran from the barn toward the house. The private scouting the back of the farm heard the dog and the pistol shot. This had happened before. What he wasn’t expecting was to see a man with a gun run from the barn. The private dropped the reins, raised the Spencer to his shoulder, and from a distance of twenty or so yards put a .50 caliber lead slug in the back of Mr. Harrison’s head. The momentum of Mr. Harrison running and the impact of the heavy slug propelled him another ten yards or so towards the house. When Mr. Harrison finally fell forward he collapsed beside his brains, which had been blown completely out of his head. He still had the shotgun in his hands. Ms Harrison and Callie had seen it all from the back door.
Ms. Harrison screamed and ran down the steps to her dead husband. Maybe the private thought she was reaching for the shotgun, maybe not. He fired again with the carbine. She fell dead beside her husband. By this time the Corporal and other two privates had ridden around to the back of the house. Two dead people were in the yard. The blue smoke had not completely cleared from the two shots. There was a shotgun. The corporal shrugged. Just two more dead rebels. Then they heard the front door slam open as Callie ran across the yard into the woods.
The four Yankees searched for an hour or so. Callie had run down to the creek bottom and into the swamp. It was getting late and they did not want to be in the countryside in the dark. They took the wagon, the mules, the hogs, the chickens, the ducks, the cow, and everything of value in the house and barn. They dragged Mr. & Mrs. Harrison into the barn and set it and the house on fire. Upon returning to their unit the Corporal reported they had encountered two armed rebels and killed both. The enemy residence had been destroyed. He also listed the items taken, with the exception of the safe and other valuables. The Captain was drunk as usual and no further mention was made of the incident.
Neighbors saw the smoke and found the burned bodies in the remains of the barn. They buried them in the same grave. One grave had plenty of room. They searched for Callie but it was dark and yes, the Yankees were coming. They would try to find her tomorrow. They were also worried about their own homes and families. Callie had run deep into the swamp and was in total complete shock. She rigidly sat on a small rise. Mosquitoes swarmed her. It was pitch black. A large dark cottonmouth slid through the slimy black water towards Callie. It slithered out of the mud and approached her. It halted less than a foot away from the girl and raised his wide head to strike. Its black tongue flicked back and forth, sensing, smelling, tasting its prey. But it didn’t strike. It curled against her. Then came another large snake. It did the same. Within a short while there were a dozen or more cottonmouths surrounding and crawling over Callie. The morning sun came pale and filtered dimly through the dank swamp. The snakes, numbering a dozen or more, were curled on and against Callie. They became active when the sounds of a search party were heard. In the daylight they had followed Callie’s footprints across the soft ground into the swamp. The search party leader, who was also the pastor, saw Callie on the small rise and thought she was dead when she didn’t answer their calls. As he came closer and saw the fat black snakes he had no doubt. It took nearly an hour to either kill or chase off the snakes to get Callie. Using long staffs and a shotgun they finally were able to pick her up and escape from the infested swamp. They took her to the pastor’s home. It was several days before she would talk.
Callie was never the same. She would not speak unless directly asked a question. Her answer was direct and brief. If left alone, she would spend hours simply sitting and staring off into the distance, as if there was something to be found. There wasn’t much time allowed for worrying about a teenage girl. The Yankees were coming. The Yankees arrived like a swarm of locusts and descended on the region like a biblical plague. The Southern citizenry were held responsible for the three years of war and made to suffer. Callie was simply another mouth to feed. The pastor was eventually able to locate Callie’s relatives in north Alabama. Letters were exchanged, transport arranged, and she was unceremoniously sent to Jackson County with a family escaping the ravaged North Georgia region. Callie arrived at her mother’s cousin’s farm on a hot September afternoon. She was given a bed in a small room shared with three cousins. She worked with the women and caused no problems. She rarely talked and never smiled or laughed.
Time passed. The war ended. Reconstruction began. In 1868 while on a monthly trip to Bridgeport the family remained overnight at a campground with several other families in similar transit. There was a middle aged unattractive man named Samuel Derrick present. He provided foodstuff to Callie’s family in return for the women cooking him dinner. He was in the hardware and implement business and traveled extensively. His family was in South Carolina. He was not married and had avoided the war because of a lung ailment. Much to Callie’s host family’s pleasure, he expressed an interest in the reserved mildly unattractive Callie. His interest was immediately welcomed and arrangements for a visit enacted. Within five months a wedding was arranged, and Callie was married to Mr. Samuel Derrick. Her interests and desires were not greatly considered. Samuel bought a house and small farm near Scottsboro, furnished it with necessities, installed Callie and immediately went back to his business. He was generally home for a few days a month. Understandably, this suited Callie just fine. His constant coughing and wheezing due to the lung ailment was annoying.
Neighbors quickly learned that Callie was not sociable or interested in much of anything to do with people. She was a stranger in the area, married to a stranger, and acted strangely. Attempts at proprietary sociability were coldly rebuffed. Even the carousers, young and not, (who somehow always know when a young female is alone much of the time), were put off after encountering the odd Callie. She simply had a way of staring into your soul with a cold intensity reminiscent of a reptile. One visit, always made to the occasion of a false unnecessary pretense, was enough. That Callie was odd was not in doubt, but she minded her own business and on the occasions Mr. Derrick was home provided the necessities as required. He obtained several hounds for Callie but they always died or disappeared. Finally he realized that Callie was content to be alone and who was he to deprive her of that contentment. Business was important. So he traveled more frequently.
What neighbors did find disturbing was Callie’s almost daily walks. She left midmorning and without distraction steadily went to the backwater swamps off the Tennessee River. She would return late in the evening and sometimes even after dark. She never carried a lamp. The backwaters were inhospitable at best, intolerable most always. She carried a large woven basket with a cover. But then when you are considered odd a little more oddity is irrelevant. Any greetings or encounters were answered with a cold distant stare. She held the basket closely, protectively away from anyone encountered. Dogs would become wary and agitated when around her. They would snarl and raise their hackles and become very defensive. Callie just ignored them and returned to her house.
Mr. Derrick was gone the last two weeks of June and the first three weeks of July. He returned to his home late on a Wednesday evening. He had been on the hot dusty road all day and was tired. He drove the wagon into the barn, unharnessed the horse and let him loose in the fenced corral. Callie did not greet him, but that was not unusual. He tiredly walked across the yard and halted suddenly. He thought he had heard something. But then he was tired and continued up the three steps to the door. Again he stopped. He opened the door and stepped inside the dark room, closing the door behind him. He opened his mouth to say Callie but the syllable transformed into a scream that began low in pitch and increased in intensity to a high earsplitting terrified outburst. Mr. Derrick knew he had stepped into a room full of snakes and they were attacking him. He had several hanging on his legs and as he bent over to pull them off several more struck his arms and face. Their weight pulled him to the floor and he writhed over and over as more attacked. Thank God it was over quickly. It was not a pleasant death.
His scream was heard far into the still summer night. Two neighbors immediately rushed to the Derrick house. They carried lamps and saw several cottonmouths in the yard. They sent for help. More men arrived with brightly burning pine torches. Armed with shotguns the men killed several large cottonmouths in the yard and one man with a stern constitution stepped up on the porch and held a torch to the window. He saw Mr. Derrick on the floor covered with snakes. Every room was crawling with them. They then knew what Callie had been carrying in her basket. There was no sign of Callie. They surrounded the house and set it on fire, shooting the snakes as they tried to escape. The stench of the snakes and Mr. Derrick, the sight of the cooking swelling sizzling cottonmouths, the heat from the fire and the flames rising high into the hot summer night, such are the images of nightmares for long times to come.
The morning revealed a scene from hell. As the hot July sun rose the stench became overpowering. A search party was organized to find Callie. They knew where to look. She had worn an easily discernable path into the deepest part of the backwater. Four men armed with shotguns entered the swamp carefully. Their progress was marked by the repeated sound of their shotguns firing at the numerous cottonmouths. Callie was found leaning against a cypress tree. Her head was uncovered and face as pale as the finest alabaster. There were two puncture marks on the left side of her slender neck. She was dead. They carried her out of the swamp, again killing snakes as they went. The cottonmouths did not want her to leave. Their attacks increased with ferocity. But shotguns were effective and they finally were able to depart.
Callie was wrapped in a funeral shroud, placed in a wooden casket, and after a very short service deposited in an isolated corner in the church cemetery. All hoped the episode of the Derricks would quickly be forgotten. A week or so later, while playing with other children behind the church, a ten year old boy was bitten by a cottonmouth. He died. The next day another large cottonmouth was discovered in the outhouse. A search was made and nine snakes were killed. Several were under the church steps, others under the church, and two more in the outhouse. The men had an emergency meeting that night. The decision was unanimous. Early the next morning Callie’s body and tombstone were removed from the cemetery and placed on an isolated inaccessible bluff well away from the community. It has remained there mainly undisturbed since.
This should be the end of Callie’s story. But it hasn’t ended. In the spring, when rains are plentiful and the backwaters are full, occasionally a canoeist like myself will venture into the isolated backwaters. It is a place you have to want to go. The best time is early in the morning. As the sun ascends it heats the surface of the water and fog rises in twisting gray tendrils of mist that dance snakelike in the air. As the tendrils rise the sun strikes them and they reflect all the colors of the rainbow. They slowly dance and float spirit like across the smooth water, ascending and disappearing as they rise. Also in the mist, on the bluff side of the bank, I have seen a figure moving slowly on the bank. It is small and feminine in stature and enveloped in a shroud that seems to float around its lower extremities. As I came closer, it receded into the foliage. I banked my canoe, stepped up on the bank and was immediately attacked by a cottonmouth. Using my paddle I flipped it back, and stepped forward. I shot the snake with my revolver. I followed the figure up the bluff. This is where I found the tombstone. I shot two more cottonmouths on the return to my canoe. I haven’t been back.
WOW, What a kewl Story......Is this your Story????.....I mean, if anybody is in the backwaters of the TN. during the early hours of the morning, its you.....Is this something you wrote????.......I would say "Take me there and show me the tombstone" but I don't think I want to go.....or maybe I do..........anyway, what an awesome story..........Where did this story come from and what do you intend on doing with it?
Callie sure had a way with snakes......Until the end, that is......
And I wish those snakes would've gotten those Damn Yankees!!!!!!!!!!!!!!..........
I love stories like that......Thanks for posting it...
Just something I do for fun. As much time as I'm out in the middle of some godawful swamp or on a mountainside hunting it gives me something to do. This is my first actual attempt at writing for an editor. Sent it off today. Just thought some of ya'll might enjoy it. And thanks for the kind words. I've been working on about ten of these. Range from retard axe murderers to ghosts in Vietnam and women who bring corpses home to keep them company. I'll post them here before I send them off, will be a few weeks. Takes a lot of time.
So when you say your writing for an editor, do you mean a book?????.......Do you have more of this story, enough to fill a book???....That would be great if you can get a book published......or maybe even a book of short stories like this.
tag for the morning. I didn't know you were a fellow writer too :)
(I do stories too, but lately have been editorials as pissed as I have been becoming at the left)
damn, fine writing, axl....
This is a true story, right????????? So what revolver/load combo did you use to shoot the snake? Keep it up, heck I stayed glued to the screen until I had it read. So when's the movie coming out:)? Damn Yankees