Tate's Hell - A Short Story by Me

(This is a fictional account of a folk story from my native Florida and (c) 2009 to me.)

Sumatra is a dying memory. Homesteads built by grandfathers, faint paths to neighbors’ houses, even the plywood-covered Sumatra Baptist Church, are all of little value now. Every last, living inhabitant of Sumatra has packed up and gone, headed out like the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. Those that aren't living probably would have wanted to come too. They wouldn't have wanted to be left all alone in the swamp, with its vapors and miasmas, and animals screeching devil songs. But there was no hope for it.

The townspeople had been stubborn for 60 years. After that, the hunger gets to you and maybe so does the dirt, and the poverty, and the hardwork that never seems to go anywhere. Then, there were the fevers, and the storms. It was always hard to believe anyone wanted to live there. But wanting to leave was another thing entirely.

Tallahassee is much nicer even if we have the fevers and sometimes the storms. At least we also have the dripping spanish moss, and the cool breezes, and very refined people coming through with new clothes and hats and songs to sing. And we don't have gators either.

My great aunt Magdalen remembers Sumatra the way it was before. But she never finished that sentence when I was a little girl.

"Before what?" I'd crinkle my skirts in my sweaty palms and look up at her hoping maybe this time she would tell me. Maybe I could go to school the next day and tell all the children about the place where my family came from and how come we decided we liked Tallahassee better. I remember I hoped I could wear my hair in two braids and my green apron and go skipping over to Jamie and say, "You know what? You ain't never been anywhere else, but my family has. And we CHOSE to live here. You just got born here." I suppose I thought that would be a pretty fine thing to do to Jamie, since he always teased me about my green eyes and puffed chalk dust in my face.

"Before things changed," Aunt Magdalen snapped at me. But I didn't pick up on her meaning. Instead, I had a dozen questions about what things, and why did they change, and Aunt Magdalen would start wringing her hands and tell me to hush up before she whopped me one good and then I would learn why children shouldn't speak until they are spoken too.

That was so many years ago. It was only this year, now that I'm a grown woman, that Aunt Magdalen called me to her side before she passed. She said, "You had better learn the story of why we left Sumatra, because after I go to Jesus, no one else will know. And we wouldn't have just given up our land for no reason. No one gives up their land for nothing. But it was the devil, I tell you, he drove us out. And you mark his name in case you ever run by him. His name is Jeremiah Nabors. And he wanted to marry this innocent young girl named Mary Tate."

To be continued....


Olga said...

ooh, is this a start of a romance/mystery novel!?!??

I love how you used "ain't" :)

ficwriter said...

Beautiful southern images. I want more!

Sun Singer said...

This is a wonderful post for many reasons...mysterious, entertaining, well written.

But there's more. My novel in progress--which has been in progress for a decade--includes scene set in Sumatra and Tate's Hell. When I discuss these places with other writers, they think I'm talking about fictional places, and that even includes McLeaen's song with the famous lines about old man Tate:

The sun was not shining,
The mist it was thick;
“Oh Lordy!” Tate holler’d,
“I’m lost up the crick.”

I grew up in Tallahassee; Tate's Hell was at the edge of the area we explored on short trips. We often went from Alligator Point to Dog and St. George islands by boat, I almost don't want to know what the area is like now. It's so rare for me to find anyone on line who's heard of the place.