This time of the year, the 8th grade students at The Learning Center! start looking forward to their annual field trip to Hazel Creek (an area where people were displaced both by a TVA Dam and by the formation of the Smoky Mountain National Park). 8th graders study NC History-and the school makes every effort to focus on history close to where the students actually live. A trip to Hazel Creek fits perfectly into that effort. The school practices cross curricular teaching-so after the trip the students are required to write a fiction essay based on the trip to Hazel Creek.
Some of you may remember, when Chitter and Chatter were students at The Learning Center! I made a partnership of sorts with the school. They allowed me to publish the best essays written about Hazel Creek as part of my Appalachian Writers series and as a way to encourage the students to keep writing.
One chilly day last November we packed up the students and headed for Hazel Creek-only to be turned around by the first snow of the season when we reached the gap above Topton. Since the ferry rides across the lake stop during the winter months it was Spring before the trip could be re-scheduled-and unfortunately I didn’t get to tag along on that day. But the students had a great time-and learned a lot about the area and the people who once lived there.
There was only one essay submitted for me to publish from the trip. It was written by Will Coleman and is pefect for my Spooky October Series.
A Trip To Hazel Creek And Beyond written by Will Coleman
It was a cold and foggy morning, like something out of a horror movie; we were heading to the displaced community of Hazel creek. I hadn’t quite been feeling myself as of late, sometimes I would forget what I was doing, or just fade in and out of consciousness. I kept telling myself I was just tired but that didn’t seem right, and this trip was about to give me the most confusing piece of reality I’d ever encountered.
As we cruised towards Hazel creek I saw a faded, almost ghost-ish vision of the other pontoon boat flipping on a rock, I shook my head and it was gone. As we neared the muddy beach, laden with bleached white rocks, I thought I saw a little kid up in a tree, I blinked hard and he was gone, I must have gotten less sleep than I thought.
As we got off the boats and they left I saw another ghostly apparition of the water flooding in and covering the entire muddy beach. The class started off down what seemed to be an old road, there were bricks, and stones and oddly enough a Gator 4X4. Sam and Patrick tried to start it to no avail, my classmates then suggested hotwiring, but no one knew how, so we abandoned the useless machine were we found it. Walking farther down the path I saw two small stones standing vertically, it was the unmarked Indian grave, then I could’ve sworn I saw a woman with a feather in her hair, weeping over the grave and being carried away by a large man in a feather headdress. I nudged Masen and asked him if he saw what I saw, but I got the “what are you talking about?” look and I dismissed the whole thing. The Calhoun house was cool, but I kept seeing little kids running around and whenever I would ask someone about them or try and talk to them they would just disappear. That’s when we set off for the Proctor/Farley cemetery, things were about to get very, interesting I should say.
The trail to the graveyard was a tell-tale sign of the area, we climbed a steep hill, which then dipped down and then bolted up again. On the gentle descent down I wondered how far the graveyard was, a voice responded to my question, “Not much farther, just up the next hill” I bolted upright, no one was close enough to have said it that gently. I didn’t recognize the voice, but in another odd sense I knew it better than I knew my own voice, now I knew I was going crazy. So I kept walking, but this time in the company of Masen. We walked into the graveyard and looked at the graves, graves of young children, many who hadn’t lived a day, laden the cemetery. I came upon the grave of a man named James E. Russell, August 20th 1912 – June 5th 1937; he was 25 when he died. I felt kind of attached to him, like I knew him, as I walked away something pulled me back towards the grave. Next thing I knew I was unconscious, or was I?
I felt weird, I didn’t feel any pain, but I felt the grass brushing against my feet. Odd I was wearing shoes before things went dark, and my clothes didn’t itch. Then something like sunlight at the end of a long dark tunnel appeared. Then I was immersed in sunlight, enough to blind a man, soon things came into focus. I was sleeping in a sort of sitting position, my back against a tall tree, head cocked downwards. I stood up and stretched, I was wearing an itchy rucksack vest, some poorly sewn, dirty, holey jeans, and I didn’t have any shoes. I looked around, I was in the woods, then something rustled behind me, I pulled a large knife from a concealed pocket on the inside of the vest. A small boy, probably about eight or so walked towards me, not even flinching. He had an old wicker basket; it was half filled with cheap bread, berries and some stringy meat.
“Breakfast is served” He exclaimed and made himself a sandwich. I kept the knife firm in my hand,
“Who are you?” I asked. With a mouth full of food he replied
“Who else am I Todd? I’m your brother, duh.”
I stood my ground “My names not Todd, its Will.”
“You ok Todd? You never turn down squirrel and berries on bread, now put your knife away and sit down”
“For the last time my names NOT Todd, and I don’t know you!”
“Maybe you should go down to the river and get a drink that might help clear your head.”
I walked down to the river, I wasn’t sure how I knew where it was, but I did. The water was clear and cold, moving swiftly downhill, going who knows where, doing who knows what. I stood up and started thinking, when I walked back up the trail I was greeted with a firm slap on the back and what the boy had called, squirrel and berries on bread.
“You feeling better now? Have some, you caught and skinned the squirrel yourself, enjoy.”
I sat down hesitantly and tried the meal, it wasn’t half bad.
“What’s your name again?” I asked
“Its James, duh, you really must have hit your head hard yesterday. Maybe I should take you to Doc Simmons.”
“Ya, maybe you should, James.”
As I faked a limp, things became clearer, I had somehow traded places with someone from 1920; I saw a barbershop, a fully stocked café, Movie Theater, and a train depot. Off in the distance I saw a school, Ball Park and a sign that read, Town of Proctor, Population 1000. As we walked into the doctor’s office I heard a toilet flush, then a skinny man with wire rim glasses appeared from behind a door drying his hands with a hand towel.
“Hello boys, how can I help you?” he said in a surprised tone
“Well Doc. . .” James started, but the good doctor interrupted
“I told you James, call me Mr. Simmons”
“Sorry, Mr. Simmons, Todd hit his head yesterday and thinks his name is Will”
“Amnesia, give it time, he’ll come to”
We walked out of the office; I decided to just roll with the whole amnesia thing. We started walking through town; James tried to “remind me” of who I was by showing me the town. He actually was helping me build a profile of his brother Todd. I thought the two of us were very similar, we liked a lot of the same things, and I started thinking that we would’ve been good friends had we not lived nearly a hundred years apart.
On our way back to what I assumed to be the Russell house, several people stopped us to ask how I was doing after my fall. Every time James would reply in a hushed tone, “he has amnesia” they would put their hand over their mouth and with tender eyes look at me with pathetic sympathy. When we walked into the house, the sun was rolling behind the beauty of the Great Smokies. A woman stared us down with a predatory gaze, then yelled in an embarrassing motherly tone,
“Where have you two been?! You had me worried sick, and what’s this about Todd hitting his head and getting amnesia?!”
“Love you too mom” James responded casually, he walked into another room and sat beside a burly man listening to the radio, I assumed it was Mr. Russell. He sat beside his father listening to what seemed to be the News. After a fantastic meal of chicken and corn Mrs. Russell rushed us to our rooms and threatened us with gardening should we ever scare her like that again. As I drifted off to sleep I realized I hadn’t seen anything weird the whole day, and that was weird in of itself.
The next morning James and I rushed out of the door after enjoying a quick breakfast of fruit. As we ran by the Calhoun house I saw little kids running around, they were mirror images of the ghosts I saw, what had seemed to be, the day before. As we crossed the bridge leading to the ball park I noticed the river was higher, and more turbulent than usual. James didn’t seem to notice; I quickly caught up to the energetic eight year old. He had told me over breakfast that every Saturday, which it apparently was, that the field was lit up by ten large luminous lights so bright they could blind ten men in one shot. So as we rounded the bend behind the ball park and saw that no one was setting up we became suspicious, entering the locked gates with ease we snooped around. As I entered the announcer’s booth I noticed a few barrels that had an orange and red flammable sign on the side of them, James being his irksome self decided to investigate the incendiary tanks. To his disappointment they were empty, In his absence I fashioned a piece of malleable metal into a cross and found some twine, that’s when I saw something that was not for my eyes, something that could change history.
Judiciously I grabbed the concealed knife and nonchalantly walked out of the ball park, James and his guileless self hadn’t noticed my departure. I rushed impatiently towards the clearing; I stuffed the cross into the knife pocket, moving as stealth-fully as I could. As I came upon the clearing I hid behind a large oak, catching my breath, holding the knife tightly in my hand, I peered into the clearing. A large Native American man stood over a lifeless, bloody, scalped body, holding a large knife, and what I presumed to be a scalp. I gasped, and the man turned around quickly, I sized up my knife to his and as he silently crept around I prayed to God I was doing the right thing.
I caught the man by surprise, his back was turned to me and I was able to sink a good portion of my blade into the back of the arm holding his knife. He collapsed and grabbed his arm; he let out a twisted, blood curdling shriek. Then he turned towards me and fixed me with a Bilious, crude, almost predatory gaze. He tackled me easily, but I had the upper hand, I still had my knife. I jabbed it into his side, again he shrieked in pain, but he still would not relinquish his grip on me. It was starting to become hard to breath, he was crushing me. I viciously stabbed at his unprotected back, nothing changed. Then someone leaped from a tree and pulled the man off of me.
Yet another and another suddenly there were near ten Cherokee all surrounding the man. He was bleeding from multiple small, skin deep wounds on his back, a larger, more gruesome slice bled balefully from just above his pelvis. He picked up his knife and stood his ground, an eleventh man came over to me and helped me up. James suddenly rushed into the crowded clearing, terror filled his eyes, and he ran away. A young Cherokee woman went after him, and then a loud, distressed shriek came from behind me. A pregnant woman stood over the dead man, she wept feverishly over his body. She fell to her knee’s sobbing, yet another Cherokee man came over and helped her up and walked her intentionally by the man who I had attacked. I then became aware of a crowd forming on the edges of the forest, people whispering, fantasizing, and guessing. I walked by a couple of large Cherokee men, my direction was right towards the killer, he was a criminal, I’d seen it in his eyes, he was an animal who needed to be stopped and put down. As I barreled towards him a large, strong, hand caught me by my arm and lifted me into the air. I was jerked back, like someone suddenly slamming the brakes and being caught by the seatbelt. The large Cherokee man who had helped the pregnant widow up was holding my arm with a firm grip. He fixed me with a paralyzing stare, he didn’t blink, he just spoke in a deep rough tone, and sorrow dwelled in every word he spoke.
“Are you with, or against my brother?”
“The dead man! Did you help kill him, or try to stop it?!” the burly man was on the verge of tears
I shakily responded
“I saw he was in trouble so I came to help him, but when I got here it was too late, I’m sorry”
“Thank you for trying, and I respect your courage, but if we had not showed up when we did, you would have been killed”
I was trying not to think about that, then again maybe that’s how I could get home. I forbid my mind from dwelling on the morbid thought of me dying, the tall man, still fixing me with his powerful eyes, had an entire conversation in one look. He took the bloodied knife from my hand, I did not try and stop him, I turned my head and walked down to the crowd of people, to quell the rumors and tell the truth. As the mob of people surrounded me for answers a terrifying scream skipped across the Great Smokies, and justice was served. I walked back up the bank, the only one brave enough to venture up, I found three things, a motionless body, my knife stuck in a tree trunk and a hand stitched headband hanging above it. I pulled the knife out, grabbed the head band and asked for strong stomached and strong bodied men to come up and assist me with something. I motioned to the dead man and told them to dig a grave; after he was buried I place two semi-square stone at the head and foot of the grave.
As we walked into town you could feel an atmosphere of respect and idolism, as well as envy and hatred, directed towards me. I didn’t care I had learned all about the unmarked burial grave, I only had one more thing to take care of. I walked into the Russell house, as I stepped over the threshold, the house went dead silent, ironic I thought. James walked over to me, Mrs. Russell’s hand on his shoulder, Mr. Russell standing with his hands in his pockets; a smoking wooden pipe protruded from his lips. James then spoke in a disturbed voice.
“Your name really is Will isn’t it? And you’re not from here are you?”
“No James sadly I am not, but I wish I was, this is a beautiful house, you have a loving mother and a strong willed father.”
“I know, can you tell me just one more thing, when is Todd coming back?”
It was then I said something I had no knowledge of, “When you all wake up tomorrow, I will be gone and Todd will return from the west, carrying squirrels. He will have no recollection of what has happened, only tell him of a brave boy, similar to him coming and saving the town from a murderer. And should anyone ask, I was your cousin, not a hero.”
They all stood in silence, not able to say anything; they all went off to bed. I walked into James’s room; fast asleep I left the metal cross necklace I had made while in the Ball Park on his bedside table. As I walked out of the front door I mumbled to myself, “I’m sorry; I wish I could warn you. May God protect you.”
I walked westward into the moonlight; I was flooded over with the same feeling as when I arrived. Next thing I knew I was laying down on the bench at the cemetery. The rest of the day became very fuzzy, I was deciding whether what I had just lived was real of not. As we passed a falling chimney I saw Mr. and Mrs. Russell standing at what would have been the door. Then they disappeared, as we passed the burial grave I looked at the tree where I had found the knife, surely enough, just a couple inches from where the knife had been in 1920 there was a deep gash in the tree bark. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the head band, the colored beads glittered in the sunlight. Finally as we boarded the boat and headed back to one of the Fontana docks I sat down and laid back my head. That’s when I heard a familiar voice, one that scared me in the most pleasant way. It was James and he cheerfully exclaimed, “Bye Will!”
And right before my eyes he went from the eight year old I had left behind, to a twenty five year old man, he winked then dived into the icy waters of Fontana. When I returned home later that day I did some research on James E. Russell, I remarkably found a record saying he drown in the lake, saving what he exclaimed to be his good luck charm, a twisted piece of metal on string, the piece of metal was described to be in the shape of a cross. The one I had put on his bedside table before I left, my first reaction was that I had killed him, but then I remembered, I had saved him from being murdered at the ball park when he was eight. He had one daughter and a beautiful wife, which would never have happened had I not gone back, that night I slept soundly, knowing I had done a good deed.
I hope you enjoyed Will’s story as much as I did! Wow does he have an imagination or what-leave him a comment and I’ll make sure he reads it!