And I have made void the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem in this place, and have caused them to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those seeking their life, and I have given their carcasses for food to the fowl of the heavens, and to the beast of the earth.
Folks have forgotten it used to be called Hinnom’s Gulch, but I wonder if the place itself still remembers. It’s almost pretty these days. Pastoral; that’s the word the Gatlinburg tourist bureau would use. Presentable is the word I’d use.
The trees along the ridge of the Gulch are trimmed neat as a toothbrush. A starched collar of tarmac fits right against the other side. Daffodils and bottlebrush drizzle down the steep sides like a teenager’s peach fuzz.
Teenagers change. They grow up. I wonder if the Gulch will. I wonder if it’ll still be trouble for my family.
Of course, it wasn’t always about me. All places on this planet were untamed once. I feel this holds especially true for East Tennessee. We got forests here that just won’t quit.
All over the Smoky Mountains where Gatlinburg sits, armies of trees march down from the dark purple massifs: Holly, Elm, Pine, Oak, pouring from that deep band of empty sky that the trick of the horizon plays with the peaks—how it looks like the summits are severed from the Earth. Back in that time before time, all places were part of a single force: The Wilderness.
People were at war with it then. They knew to distrust it.
The Cherokee distrusted the Gulch so much that they had but one purpose for it: Killing ground.
The Scotsman who wrote about it called the Cherokee “savages.” Given what he says they did down in the Gulch, I would not argue that. The Cherokee wouldn’t hunt game there, even though the Gatlinburg woods were once swarming with deer. The Gulch was for ending people.
People of all types met their end down in what would be Hinnom’s Gulch: Brit soldiers with their unwashed Canuck guides, on the stalk against the Cherokee. Rival Chickasaw braving their way too deep into the holy hunting grounds. Dumb white interlopers who knew no better.
All met their end under a cross of arrows between the Honey Locust trees. The Cherokee would draw them into the Gulch with shadow play or false trails or animal calls—right into the ragged scar in the earth, fifteen deep and twenty-five wide and curved so there’s no telling where the end is. Then down would come the arrowheads from between the thorns of the Honey Locust, out of the mist and silence.
Could be it was on account of those sharp trees that the Gulch got chosen as a killing site. Even the limeys used Honey Locust for their forts. I reckon otherwise.
I figure to be “savage” means more than just a slur from a Christ-abiding white man. A certain sense for nature comes with letting the wilderness so deep into yourself—a certain way of listening. The Ani-Kutani, the priestly class that once dominated the Cherokee, said that any kill in Hinnom’s Gulch would lay where it fell. It belonged to the worms and the buzzards.
I figure the Cherokee were savage enough to hear what the wilderness up in the Gulch had to say, and they wanted no part of it. They just fed it and let it lie.
Wouldn’t be surprised if the Ani-Kutani themselves, when their people finally revolted against them, ended up being picked to rags by the Gulch.
When my people, the Cartwrights, moved onto the land by it, the Cherokee had been driven out. The savagery remained. Jebediah Hinnom owned the land but he preached against its evils in the Baptist church every Sunday. My great-great-grandfather and all his fellow Gatlinburg settlers needed a dump site.
It was fine by hawk-faced Jeb Hinnom that they used the Gulch.
Maybe that’s when it turned real mean.
It had been mean before, I’m sure of it. Born with Honey Locust on its jaws and a deep belly. But for five generations, Hinnom’s Gulch got a diet of rotten hides, broken glass and busted machines.
You don’t feed a dog only gristle and expect it to grow up to lick your hand.
It took a crazy shitbird like my grandfather, Enos, to build by it.
The wood blockhouse Enos built as his Top Hat Honky Tonk looked about ready to fall down from the moment he raised it. Its two stories tilted about sixty yards of pasture grass and bramble away from Hinnom’s Gulch.
It was still a dump site. Just for dumping of another kind.
All the bad shit in people got dumped there: A week of soul-killing work got puked up in the yard. A childhood of rage knocked out in blood by brawlers. Tears over a loveless life, running down from the back step.
In granddaddy Enos’ Top Hat shack, man pounded the bruises and fuckings they wouldn’t give their wives into women; women yelled and slapped at their brats. Soon enough, some of those brats turned up in the Gulch.
Most had just gone missing, from ’35 to ’48. These were high times, what with the TVA work nearby, and carpetbaggers and new labor poured into the area. The worst ended up at the Top Hat. Missing children were a tragedy, but nobody had a face to blame.
Then one night in ‘52, some farm boys thought they’d have their fun by throwing a whore named Daisy into the Hinnom’s Gulch dump site after they’d done with her. Daisy ended up landing in more than bottle glass and car parts. She crawled out crying about a lake of little bones.
Newspapers stopped counting after awhile, but they’d put together forty-two skeletons by then. Ages ran from 6 to 14. Lots of parts were left over.
One of those skeletons belonged to Enos’ daughter.
He left. The Top Hat closed down and was torn down a lick after. My family stayed.
Heaven knows why. Maybe because it’s easier to blame a person than a place.
Asphalt covered the field. Paint organized the asphalt into a parking lot. A Waffle House sits there now, courtesy of us Cartwrights. None of us would work there, though. My sister, Martha, still collects revenue from its use—enough to amass a pile of Newport Lights and Wal-Mart DVDs while living on her Disability.
We all knew better than to work by Hinnom’s Gulch, though.
Until my sister sent her daughter, Ali, down there. Ali had been straying a bit. Martha told me some time working the counter would teach her discipline. Broke my heart to accept a world where a free-smiling, platinum-haired angel like Ali needed to learn discipline. I protested, but it was Martha’s say, not mine. She said I’m like our granddaddy; that I get strange ideas.
I want to believe Hinnom’s Gulch forgot itself.
Nobody knows where Ali is now, though. She went into her eighth night of work and never came home. They’ve checked her friends, her regulars, her Oxy-head ex-boyfriend.
It’s just a matter of time before they check Hinnom’s Gulch.
I know that’s where Ali will be. I know that’s not thinking right. I know places aren’t supposed to be like people.
But I hear them say every day on FOX News that something’s wrong with kids these days, chemically. Science determined some kids are born a certain way. Just like some kids are born retarded, some are born bad.
The scientists say this world is 4 billion years old and the politicians say it’s 6,000 years, give or take some dinosaurs. As long as the Earth’s going to be around, I reckon that puts places on it at about teenage.
Teenagers can be reckless. Like Martha said about Ali, some got to be tamed.
I think some just can’t.
I want to think otherwise, but I believe Hinnom’s Gulch is going to be bad all its days.
I wish I had grown up elsewhere. I’d have chosen a place born retarded over one born bad. It could have kept its innocence forever.
I know too much at my age to know Hinnom’s Gulch was never innocent and never will be.
Read the more stories in our 7th Installment of Black Lantern, available now at our Web Store.