Novel of the Bell Witch
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 cottonstockinged 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?Copyright © 2002 Melissa Sanders-Self
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)
In the tradition of the classic American ghost stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Shirley Jackson, this is an extraordinary first novel based on one of the most famous supernatural legends in American history, the Bell Witch of Tennessee. It is the tale of a young girl and her family whose lives are forever changed when they are forced to fight an unspeakable darkness from without-and within...
For young Betsy Bell, a girl coming of age in the early 1800s, life is a time of unquestioning innocence. Headed by her stern, hardworking father John Bell, the family is, to many, the very model of Southern respectability. With their prosperous tobacco plantation and uncompromising dedication to their religious beliefs, the Bells seem a bulwark of society that nothing can destroy.
Until the night Betsy Bell hears something tapping at her window. Before long disembodied voices begin whispering in the darkness, terrifying lights are seen floating over the fields, and it becomes cleareven to the men of religion and science who try to intervenethat an unearthly force is haunting the Bells. It grows stronger, taunting and mocking them, most of all Betsy and her father, calling them by name, pulling Betsy's hair, flinging rocks, and slapping their faces. As the spirit's assaults escalate into an all-encompassing nightmare, innocent neighbors of the Bells find their most private thoughts heard by family and friends, ghastly creatures appear on the village road, and people begin to die. At the center of the attacks, the Bells struggle to save themselves. But it will be young Betsy who must confront the Bell Witch and uncover the deep, terrifying truths her family members dare not face. Matchlessly evocative in depicting a place and time at the heart of our history, ALL THAT LIVES is far more than a masterful rendition of a classic American legend. It is about the secrets we don't want to encounter, the sins no one can hide, and the forces inside and out that make the human heart the most unfathomable mystery of all.
Melissa Sanders-Self was born in Tennessee and currently resides with her husband and children in Santa Cruz, California. She was educated at Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she received her BA with highest honors in Creative Writing and Literature. She produced and wrote the documentary film, Writing Womens Lives. It aired nationally on PBS and is currently available from Films for the Humanities. She was awarded artist-residencies at both the Djerassi Foundation and the Ucross Foundation. She has previously published short fiction with New Rivers Press.