“Who was Tate, you wonder? In Sumatra they still tell his story: how he left the frontier village at dusk a century ago with his two hunting dogs and his puppy Spark, to kill a panther that had been raiding Sumatra livestock. He carried a Long Tom shotgun and a Barlow knife, and he thought he knew where the darkening waters ran.”
– Gloria Jahoda, The Other Florida (1967)
Tate’s Hell is a Florida forest located in the counties of Franklin and Liberty.
When my 1950s-era novella Conjure Woman’s Cat came out, my publisher said that with all the book’s mentions of Tate’s Hell Swamp, how about a Kindle series of stories about the place?
Fortunately I had a bunch of things on hand, including a short story from an anthology and scene from my out-of-print novel The Seeker that just happened to be set there and in nearby Carrabelle.
I couldn’t resist the idea of taking snakes to Eden. Most of all, I enjoyed learning more about the animals and their Florida wild places environments for the folktale collection.
I’ve enjoyed coming up with three short stories and one short collection of folktales for the series.
Dream of Crows: This dark story about a businessman and a sexy conjure woman who lives next to a cemetery on the edge of Tate’s Hell is the most recent. It originally appeared in the Lascaux Prize 2014 Anthology.
If you’re prone to nightmares, be warned that this story is written in the second person and makes the reader the main character. Free June 24-28.
Opening lines: During the coroner’s inquest into the matter of your death, a well-meaning friend or relative will step forward with your affidavit stating that you read Dream of Crows because you saw it in your spouse’s copy of The Lascaux Review, heard several clerks at Barnes and Noble speculating about its deeper meanings, or—more likely—because you were intrigued by the probable connection between the short story and an odd string of assisted suicides in a Florida’s Tate’s Hell Swamp.
Snakebit: This slightly less dark short story came out just before Dream of Crows. Two college students fall in love while working as seasonal employees at a resort hotel in the northwest.
At the end of the summer, they return to their respective colleges that are far apart. When she’s assaulted on a dark street outside the college gates, she refuses to let him visit her. Finally, when he’s allowed to travel to Florida in June, he finds her much changed. The more he sees, the more he thinks he’ll have to sever the relationship. However, before he does so, the magic of Tate’s Hell intervenes.
The Dream: Then the squalling wheels in the coach’s rear truck in a tight curve fetched up the memory of the caterwauling panther of a nightmare that stalked him thirteen miles up the track. He ran between small ponds beneath a bright moon. Coowahchobee sprang out of a dark stand of hat-rack cypress and chased him through shallow water. He was trapped, suddenly, in an unyielding thicket of titi where the small white flowers exploded overhead like a dying constellation. He saw brown eyes above a deep growl that ran through his soul seconds before the claws snagged his left arm when the large cat dragged him away from the water.
Carrying Snakes Into Eden: “Eden” in this story refers to Florida’s former Garden of Eden attraction on the Apalachicola River. It’s rather a tongue in cheek story about two college students who pick up a hitchhiker with a sack of snakes he captured in Tate’s Hell. He says they’re need in the Garden of Eden.
The students learn that skipping church that Sunday morning may have long-term consequences.
Opening Lines: When John and I drove to Carrabelle on a gray Sunday morning for brunch with the Boynton sisters, skipping church was the least of our sins. Julie and Kathy were seniors, cheerleaders, and the most popular blondes in high school. John and I, mere juniors, wore clean sport shirts and Jade East aftershave. Brunch was canceled when the parents returned from New Orleans on Seaboard’s Gulf Wind a week early. They saved us from prospective sins of the flesh. But we weren’t home free. In fact, our transgression on that April day in 1961 was a first for the Florida Panhandle.
The Land Between the Rivers: This series of three folktales set in Tate’s Hell at the dawn of time is introduced by Eulalie, my conjure woman in the novella. They begin where the Seminole creation myth leaves off with stories about Panther, Snakebird and Bear–the first animals to walk the earth in the old legends.
Panthers, of course, are highly endangered in Florida. When I was young, there were panthers in Tate’s Hell. Now they’re gone from the panhandle and can only be found in central and south Florida.
Openning Lines: One day when I was just a piddling kitten no bigger than a crow, I fell into Coowahchobee Creek while helping my conjure woman look for crawfish. The cold water spun me around like pinecone. I sulled up into a snarling fit three times my normal size and swatted the rocks and roots along the bank with my claws.
“Hush, little one,” Coowahchobee whispered. “Lena, look directly into Eulalie’s haint blue eyes and your thoughts will tell her you are ready to hear our stories.”
These stories all see for 99 cents and occasionally are featured free in book sales. I hope you enjoy them even if you don’t live in the Florida Panhandle.
“Conjure Woman’s Cat” is available on Kindle ($2.99) and in paperback ($8.58) and, in addition to Amazon, can also be found at Powell’s, B&N, Smashwords and other online book sellers.