Authors: Melissa Sanders-Self
Tags: #Contemporary, #Fantasy, #Ghost, #Historical, #Horror, #USA
Copyright © 2002 by Melissa Sanders-Self
All rights reserved.
Warner Books, Inc.,
Hachette Book Group, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017
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First eBook Edition: June 2009
This work is lovingly dedicated
to my grandmother
Mary Kathleen Self
I want to thank the Spirit in all of its forms, and my husband Nigel, and my sons Dylan and Luke. Their love and faith in
me is a great source of inspiration. Anne Edelstein has encouraged me endlessly and given me smart advice, and Jamie Raab
at Warner Books read my manuscript with a rare kind of detailed attention. Without her perceptive editing
All That Lives
would be a different book.
My grandmother Mary Kathleen Self is responsible for telling me this story when I was little and for keeping it alive as I
grew. My mother, Sharon Mayes, and David, Connie and Henry Katzenstein all helped turn my idea of this novel into a reality.
In 1997 I had the good fortune to receive an artist’s residency at the Djerassi Foundation, and I am extremely grateful to
that program. I am also fortunate many of my best friends are willing readers: Barbara Joan Tiger Bass, Jim Bier-man, Kit
Birskovich, Karen Donovan, Ann Friedman, Lindsey Roscoe and Valerie Rich read my rough drafts, and I owe them. I am also grateful
to Jenny McPhee for her early and insightful editing.
Harriette Simpson Arnow’s work on pioneer life in the Cumberland was invaluable in my research, as were the writings of M.
V. Ingram in his
Authenticated History of the Bell Witch,
published in 1894. I am also indebted to Charles Bailey Bell’s publication
The Bell Witch: A Mysterious Spirit
and also the investigations of Hereward Carrington and Dr. Nandor Fodor into the psychosomatic possibilities that might explain
the recorded phenomena.
The Foxfire Books,
edited by Eliot Wigginton, provided me with all I needed to know about hog slaughter, spinning, weaving, wild Tennessee plants
and herbs and other affairs of plain living. All biblical references in this novel come from the King James reference edition.
Finally, I want to thank all the people of Adams and Robertson County, Tennessee, those with us and those no longer present,
who kept the tale of the Bell Witch alive, passing it down over nearly two hundred years. All those people unknown to me made
this book possible.
In the autumn of 1815 when I was nine I walked into the woods past the cornfield near our stream, filling a flat garden basket
with leaves the color of cherry skins, rooster necks and Chloe’s boiled corn. My prizes dropped from the gracious limbs of
oaks, poplars, maples and elms standing tall as God above me and I was grateful, for we were soon to have our first schoolhouse
harvest pageant, and Professor Powell had requested all of us to gather fall leaves for decorations. The stream played a loud
song, running high from recent rains, and I searched carefully with my bare toes for round stones I might step to. I felt
very content, admiring my beautiful leaves, but I was struggling to keep hold of my pile, for it had grown so large, some
flew out on the breeze of my movements and when I jumped to catch them, others sneaked over the edge.
All of a sudden, I stepped into a cold spot. The air was abruptly brisk and also very damp, the way it is when you progress
to the back of a deep cave. The bare skin of my forearms began to tingle and a shiver straightened my spine. I looked about,
dusk was falling quickly on the land, the way it does that time of year. I saw the tree trunks turning black with night. In
the distance, across the cornfield and up the hill, I could see the back side of our house, faintly glowing with the lamps
already lit behind the window glass of the kitchen. Our house was hewn from the finest double logs in Robertson County and
though it was far away and partly obscured by the trees in the orchard, it was a sturdy and comforting sight.
I had the impulse to bolt away but at that moment I felt a pair of icy hands on my shoulders and I cried out in fear, for
they were real, yet there was no one there. I started forward, slipping up the bank, and when I reached the field I tore across
it and up the hill into the orchard, my precious leaves flying from my basket. I saw a few pretty blood-red maple ones caught
in the folds of my skirt. I looked over my shoulder to where I had walked by the stream and there I saw a light flash. I stopped,
thinking there must be someone there. I called my brothers’ names, suspecting Drewry or John Jr. of playing a game with me,
but I only heard the early hoot of an owl in response. The light did not appear again and I saw no movement in the darkening
woods. I stood still by the side of the road, frozen, watching to see what was coming, but then the dark wind of evening brushed
my cheek and rustled up under my skirts and I ran, lickety-split, away.
I was late for the evening meal and when I entered our hall I saw Mother, Father and my brothers waiting to be seated at the
table in the dining room. Father frowned at me and I was so ashamed, I said nothing at all about what had happened in the
woods. Our entire family was present, and my eldest brother, Jesse, took the chair to the right of Father, who sat across
from Mother, and as though we were arranged in order of age, John Jr., Drewry, myself, Richard, and Joel took our seats. Father
said the blessing and Mother said Amen, then Chloe began serving boiled hominy, cornbread and sweet potatoes roasted in the
ashes. A tense silence reigned at our table, as no one made any effort at conversation, and the only sound was the clicking
of our forks on Mother’s treasured china supper plates and from the kitchen came the hissing of the fire.
“Let us retire to the parlor,” Mother said, folding her napkin by the side of her plate. She stood, leaving the lamps for
Chloe, to aid with the washing up out back. Some nights Mother and I cleared the plates but most often Chloe managed it alone.
I was happy not to do it and I quickly rose and followed Mother across the dark hall.
Father pushed his chair back from the table and came after us, taking one of the two lamps. I watched him carry the light
to his handsome writing desk that occupied the front corner by the parlor window. Reaching inside, he withdrew his silver
whiskey flask, his book of accounts in which he documented the running of our farm, and his quill pen and ink. I watched as
he took a long drink and prepared to write.
“Take this candle, Betsy, and bring me out the hairbrush.” Mother passed the light to me before settling in her chair with
the velveteen cushion by the fire. I obediently went into the dark bedroom she shared with Father off the back of the parlor.
I found the wooden brush with the wild boar bristles on her bedside table and I gripped it tight, hurrying from the room,
for the dark shadows in the corners reminded me of the coldness I had encountered in the woods. I wanted to tell Mother what
had happened. I returned and knelt in front of her on the hooked parlor rug before the fire, tucking my legs under my skirt.
“Betsy.” Mother bent forward and whispered in my ear while untying and loosening my plait. “Your father cherishes your yellow
tresses and the rest of you, as if you were real gold. He adores you so, try to be worthy of his affection.” Her hand rested
on my spine, warm as the box iron. This was a gentle reprimand, but I drew my chin closer to my chest. I knew Father loved
me in a special way and I did repent my lateness, but into the silent atmosphere I could not tell my story. Even Joel and
Richard, who often had to be prevented from wrestling after supper, sat quietly on the wooden bench by the entrance to the
parlor, swinging their cotton-stockinged feet from their dresses, loath to provoke Father. I focused my eyes on the carpet
as Mother gently began to brush my hair. The rug had a bright border of red and blue flowers entwined and I found the pattern
lovely to contemplate. Father put his flask, book and pen back inside his desk and closed the writing leaf with a bang. He
stoked the fire with another log, then sat beside it in his hickory rocking chair, opposite my mother. He liked to read to
us from the good book after supper.
“Darling daughter,” he looked to me and I saw a certain brightness in his eye that told how he loved me like no other and
would protect me always. Maybe I could tell him about the cold place in the woods. “Come and sit beside me, here.” My hair
was all undone and fluttered like the yellow flames of the fire when I stood. He bade me turn and kneel and he positioned
his chair so the hem of my skirt was trapped under its wide legs.
“Tonight we shall hear no less than salvation history, for it shall instruct us on the right true path, eh, Betsy?” He placed
his hand on my head and pulled my hair gently back so my neck twisted slightly and my chin tilted up. His eyes met mine.
“Yes, Father,” I answered, feeling his genuine loving concern for my welfare and education. His fingers stroked the line of
my jaw and came to rest on the nape of my neck. Perhaps I would not mention why I had been late. I wanted nothing more than
to be worthy of his love.
“God,” he cleared his throat and began to read, “at sundry times and in diverse manners spake in time past unto the fathers
by the prophets …” He stroked my hair between the turning of the pages and his fingers grew heavy on my head. My movements
were greatly restricted by the trapping of my skirt and soon my legs turned numb to pins and needles, but I did not protest,
for it was Father’s will that I should sit that way and I felt blessed to be his darling daughter. The words of the good book
in my Father’s deep voice acted like a lullaby on me and I began to feel myself drifting away. As I passed into sleep I wondered
if perhaps I had imagined the cold place in the woods, for how could there be such a thing on God’s good earth?
Our family was destined to be forever associated with the horrible evil that visited us, and yet it was not always that way,
and it was not all we were. For years we lived as the other upright families in our district of Adams, Tennessee, sharing
in the wealth and abundance of nature, in accordance with the laws of the Divine. Truly, our troubles simply unfolded, as
if God spread a great black sheet across the bed of our lives. Our trials were not anticipated and the harmonious time before
did not seem so very special, or precious, as it most certainly was. Four years of bountiful harvests followed that afternoon
in the woods before our family experienced any further unusual disturbances.
It was a mild spring night, near my thirteenth birthday, and a soft breeze blew in my open window, bringing the smell of warmer
days to come inside my room. I was lying in my bed curled into a ball with a cramp in my stomach preventing me from drifting
into sleep, when I heard a sharp
on my window glass. I wondered what it was but remained squirming in my position under my spring quilts.
It came again and I had the feeling it needed my attention, so I got up and went to the window. The moon was new and there
was not much light, only the brightness of stars. I looked for a twig caught by the wind, or a squirrel confused, banging
a nut against the glass, as that was how it sounded, but there was nothing there.