The Story Of The Curse
Long before the first white man set foot here, the local Indian tribes called this place the dead land. Young children who wandered away from the tribe vanished into the heart of these woods without so much as a footprint, and sometimes, when the moon was full and the corn was ripe and ready to harvest, a hunter would be overcome by a sudden madness and take his own life. Blood would flow into the dry creek bed, and the land lapped it up like mother’s milk. Something old and evil had awakened here. It was weak yet, but it was patient. It knew how to wait.
You ask me how I know these things. I grew up on this land. My grandmother, a Cherokee wise woman, told me of an old she-wolf who died on the banks of that dry creek bed. The wolf lurched into the nearby Indian camp, glassy-eyed and savage, maggots swarming in the flesh of its mortal wounds. It killed three of the camp dogs and mauled a young girl before the hunters separated its head from its body and burned the still-twitching pieces. That young girl was my grandmother, and it took five days for the medicine woman to sing her back to life. She traced the scars with her fingers as she told me the tale.
My folk were the Walkers, hard-working folk with strong backs and callused hands, who settled this land along with the likes of William Teague, John Edwards, John Merritt, and other heroes of the Revolutionary War. For more than a century, my forefathers passed the land from son to son. They built cedar cabins and tilled the earth, and with each generation, they grew more prosperous. But the troubles continued. A well-to-do family was found hanging in their barn as if by suicide. The miller’s child went missing near the creek bed and returned three weeks later with worms in its eyes and a thirst for blood.
The land, it seemed, was thirsty too. In 1861, Tennessee seceded from the Union, and a little over a year later, 60 Federal soldiers rode down the Murfreesboro Road to put an end to John Morgan’s occupation of a small town called Lebanon. As they passed the woods known as the dead land, two soldiers separated from the group to relieve themselves near the dry creek bed. They were never seen again. The dead land had taken them. That same year, in a battle on the banks of Stones River, the blood of 23,000 men fed the land. It drank the souls of the dead, and the evil at its heart grew stronger—but not quite strong enough. Yet.
Fate can turn on such small things—a stone turns beneath a foot, a man takes one road and not another, a wounded soldier returns from the war and passes a slave market. As he stops to beg a cup of water from a local shopkeeper, the auctioneer leads a woman onto the auction block. The soldier’s mouth goes dry. The cup slips from his fingers. Never mind that he is a poor landowner with little money and no need of slaves. He must have her!
That soldier was my great-grandfather, Herschel Walker, a Confederate Colonel with a debilitating wound and a deep, abiding fear of the ruin Union soldiers might make of his land. The woman, whose slave name was Sarai, had been sold by her owner, the master of a Jamaican sugar plantation, and brought to the mainland for resale. Even in her slave rags, she was beautiful. She was also a voudoun priestess.
If Herschel had been a kinder man, things might have turned out differently. Instead, at night, he visited Sarai while his pregnant young wife cried herself to sleep in their double-poster bed, and when the slave girl bore a child, he sold it to the owner of a nearby cotton plantation. He was unmoved by her tears.
Another season passed, and word of the Union soldiers came. They were burning everything, rumor said. Homes, crops, barns, even livestock. As if in a fever, Herschel ran to the garden, where Sarai knelt plucking weeds from the rows. She looked up at him with hate-filled eyes and wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand.
He grasped her by the shoulders and hauled her to her feet. “That witch work you do,” he said. “You’ll do a spell for me now.”
“What kind spell?”
“Keep the soldiers off this land. This land belongs to me and mine. I want you to make it so forever.”
“Forever be a long time,” she said. “There be a cost for forever.”
His fingers dug into the flesh of her scrawny arms. “Name your price, witch.”
“Fresh blood. A life.”
He cast his eyes around the farm. “Take my mule. She’s a fine one. Plow all day.”
Her laugh was bitter. “What you think the lords of night need with him mule?”
“Damn it all, take Eli, then.” He pointed toward the front porch, where his young wife rocked their infant son. “There’s more where he came from.”
The priestess smiled. “That will do. Bring that child me at midnight. And one thing more. My cost. My cost be freedom.”
He looked at her used-up body, webbed with scars, and nodded. “Your freedom, then. You have my word.”
It was a black and bloody ritual she performed that night, and when it was over, she reached for a cloth to wipe her reddened hands. When she looked up, his revolver was pointed at her head. She took a trembling breath and said, “You say you gone let me go.”
“No,” he said. “I said I’d set you free.”
He pulled the trigger.
But this is the dead land, and not all who die stay dead. Sarai lay beneath the earth, and it drank her blood and ate her flesh. It fed on her hatred, and it grew strong.
The Union soldiers did not come. Herschel told himself that Eli’s sacrifice had served a greater good. He sired more sons, my grandfather among them. They married and raised families on Walker land, and though they did not know it, they were bound to this land, body and soul, for all eternity. Herschel died at a ripe old age and was buried on the property he had loved with all his wicked heart.
And that, you say, is the end of the story? You might say so, but you would be wrong. A few weeks after Herschel’s death, young women of the town began to complain of dizziness and fatigue. They grew wan and pale, and sometimes they disappeared into the dead land and did not return.
The voudoun priestess was all but forgotten. But she had not forgotten. The ritual she performed that night cost Herschel his soul, along with the souls of his descendants. We would be forever one with that dark entity that hunts these lands. We are its hands, its eyes, its voice. None of Herschel’s line may pass from this place, not into the Light, nor even into Hell. We haunt these lands forever, caught between life and death, and Sarai guards the portal to eternity against us. But you know what they say about portals. Sometimes things slip through. Things from the Other Side.
Spirits, yes, and worse. On nights like this, when the veil between worlds is thin, they hunt these lands—these Dead Lands. Take care, Traveler, that they—and we—do not hunt you.