Hell’s Belles by Allie Marini Batts

The air is green, like corroded copper, and smells of it too. I sit down at the kitchen table, after double checking to make sure I remembered to latch every window shut and draw the drapes together, double knotting the sash to keep them closed, and rattled every doorknob twice, to make sure the locks were secure. The distant growl of motorcycles circles closer, then pulls away, the madness of their shrieks like a sickness. There’s a hammering at the doorframe, the panicky sound of Sammy’s fists coming down—and I know it’s not really there; it’s just an echo in my skull that comes with the smoke and the engines. Those psycho bitches are tearing up the county road again on their bikes.

They come with the smoke, and the mists like emerald vapors that appear without warning. When those ladders of smoke start rising in rungs to the moon, it won’t be long before the sound of motorcycles start rumbling down the dusty county roads, throwing gravel and grit in their wake. You can hear them from Apalachicola all the way out to Wakulla Station, engines gnashing like the devil’s teeth. Every momma for a hundred miles makes sure her kids are inside and every door and window’s locked up good and tight. Any good-for-nothin’ husbands who don’t have sense enough to get back home are on their own. Ain’t no one gonna feel sorry for them if them bitches drag ‘em back to Hell, because they oughta know better and hightail it on home when those engines start gunning up. You never know where they’re headed to or where they’re coming from, and they know these woods and dirt roads better than anybody should, like there’s a compass and map at the center of the withered little black stumps where their hearts should be. Nobody who’s ever seen them has come back to speak of it. We only know they’re the devil’s daughters from the old stories.

If they were ever really women, human women, it was so long ago that they don’t remember it. They’ve been something else for so long that being human is just a skin that they put on, like they put on their leathers when the green mists and smoke start belching out of the swamps..The swamp’s a door—front door, back door, I don’t know, and I ain’t gonna go knocking to find out. When those demons get on their bikes, they’re out hunting. When your stomach starts to somersault from the smell of rotten eggs burning, and a column of sulpher and smoke builds a tower to the sky best act like a buck in season: lay low, stay still, and be quiet— because if you’re out and those engines start rumbling up behind you, they’re dragging you back on home with them at the end of the night.

Back before this was American land, before the Spanish came here and built missions and whatnot, back when the Seminoles and Apalachees and the alligators and mosquitoes were the only ones who wanted to live in Florida, the door was here then, too. In elementary school, they teach us that it’s called Wakulla, because that’s the Indian word for “mist” or “smoke”. Maybe back then they wrote it down on cave walls or carved it onto trees. They might have burned the stories onto strips of leather, or painted it on pottery that’s lost or broken—things that have been chopped down or washed away now. Wherever or however those stories were recorded or lost, that door has always been here with Hell under it, burping up black smoke and sending those girls out to hunt on foot.  Then the Spanish came, and the pirates and outlaws, the settlers, and the she-devils came with the smoke. People went missing all the time back then, I suppose; it was easy hunting, they could have started off as nuns, galley wenches, cooks, or pioneer wives and daughters. Or they might never have been human; they might have just carried the women off and took their skins. Ship girls came to port and never went back to sea, nuns fell in love and ran off; whores disappeared when the men and money moved somewhere else. It was always easier to blame the Indians for stealing into a settlement in the dead of night and taking the women and children than it was to consider that devils rose up from the darkness and took them, just because they were there for the taking.

Now, everybody with half a mind knows that there are some things that the heart and soul knows, that the spirit understands, but the part of us that’s all brain and logic just can’t wrap itself around. It’s why people go to church. Because they’ve got faith that there are things that exist that make us and our lives seem indescribably small. Even—and especially, sometimes—people who have that faith, they forget that faith doesn’t just move forward, it moves in reverse, too. God and saints and holy things aren’t the only things that make humans feel small. She-devils on motorcycles are good for that. That thing that people understand, in the place that’s beneath logic and reason, that’s the thing that gave the forest its name. That’s how it got to be called exactly what it is, without there being a sound reason in the world why anyone would name a piece of wooded land and stretch of swamp Tate’s Hell, and keep that name for centuries after the man who first came to call it that was dead and buried and just about forgotten.

The story goes that around 1875, there was a farmer named Cebe Tate, whose livestock was getting picked off, night after night. Some versions of the story says it’s his wife that was out hanging laundry on the line who disappeared when the smoke came; other ones say it was his daughter that went off to pick blueberries and was never seen again. No matter. What’s important is that every account of the story agrees that Tate went off into the swamps to hunt what he thought was a panther, and that all he took with him was a shotgun and his pack of black-mouth curs. For seven days and nights, Tate was lost in the swamp—and what happened to him in there is anyone’s guess—some of the stories say he was bitten by a water moccasin and drank muddy swamp water to keep from dying of thirst, and that may well have been true. The other thing all the stories agree on is this: Tate dragged his half-dead body out of the swamp at a clearing near Carabelle, and made himself keep living long enough to tell the first human being he saw, “My name is Cebe Tate, and I’ve just come out from Hell!” It’s said that in those same seven days and nights out there in the swamps, that the smoke started to rise, and that Tate’s dogs got picked off, one by one, by whatever it was stalking in the shadows. And they say that it wasn’t just thirst that made Tate drink from the swamps. It wasn’t just because the swamps were thick with snakes that Tate got himself bit. Them devil girls were out there in the swamps with him, taking his dogs in the nighttime. Singing him irresistible songs of death and despair, when the wants of the body made his grasp on this world start to slip. Tricking him into seeing clear and cool spring water in the murky filth of a stagnant swamp. Some say even bewitching him into kissing their copper lips, and melting into a knot of pit vipers as he touched his mouth to theirs, striking him with just enough poison to kill, but not quite enough to kill him quick. They say that the suffering is part of their game. It’s part of the hunt. They also say that’s why in the eighties, the bitches took to bikes—because the grinding echo of those motors makes us afraid, and we taste better when we’re scared. The hunt’s more fun if we know that they’re there, they’re coming, and they’re taking some of us back with them.

After Tate, the county had scientists come out to survey, to try and find an explanation for the smoke—a boiling spring, a geyser, burning peat fires, an underground volcano, or fumaroles. County officers and even the preachers wanted some hard evidence that it was anything but the devil stirring his tar kiln and letting his daughters out to play, out there in the woods and peat bogs. First expedition out, a reporter from the city got swamp fever and died, trying to pinpoint what made the marsh start smoking green mist and brimstone. Then a scientist broke his neck falling out a tree, looking for a crater that no one ever found, or a ring of rocks that shouldn’t even be in Florida in the first place. After that, the county clammed up and said that the smoke stopped. Whatever ecological phenomenon must’ve burnt itself up and gone out. Nowadays, the geologists don’t come out here but maybe once a generation, and no one from town ever tells them anything, except that no, they ain’t never seen no smoke, nothing strange; no sir, that’s all just old folks tales.

My boy Luke’s tucked up in bed, sheets swaddling him like the baby he used to be, snoring soft the way little boys do. Got the drapes pulled together across all the windows, and there ain’t one light to be seen all the way up the street, or any other, for that matter. Only dark, the smell of smoke and smoldering pine straw, maybe a hint of gasoline on the thick green nighttime air, and the faraway close sound of Harley engines rolling in and out like sea fog and riptide, threatening. Familiar. Storm weathers, the lullabies of the Hell’s Belles, tearing up and down the empty county roads. I won’t sleep till the sun comes up, so I sit down at my bare kitchen table with a bottle of Wild Turkey and pour myself two fingers, listening, smelling the copper air, just waiting. I knock back my drink, pour another one, close my eyes, and brace myself for the pounding on my front door. It don’t come; it hasn’t come for about three years now, but when I see that column of smoke start pitching its way up the sky, I’m always sure that tonight’s the night I’ll hear Sammy at the door again, thumping his shoulder against the lock, hollering for me to let him back in, that he’s learned his lesson—Goddamn it Misty, open the door, them girls are out tonight!

Luke ain’t never met his daddy and for that, I’m thankful. He’ll grow up to respect his woman, treat her right, and listen to his momma. Because for once I stood my ground. The perfume coming off the lip of my glass is as smoky and firey as the air; I swirl it around the thick glass of the base like the skirts of a ballerina ablaze, and it’s like a thrush of amber flame when I send it down my throat and into the cold pit of my belly. I never knew that the last gift Sammy would have given me was cruelty, but I learned it from him, and I learned it good. All I’m fit for anymore is being Luke’s momma. Ain’t never gonna’ be fit again to be anybody’s wife.

Sammy’s knocking on the door, it’s not really there, and I know it’s not, it’s more like an echo—something I only hear sometimes, like the distant growl of motorcycles, circling closer, then pulling away, the madness of it like a sickness. Sometimes the whisky quiets it. Sometimes it makes it echo louder. Either way, it always gives me a headache. But when Luke comes ambling down the stairs like a hungry little raccoon, asking for Rice Krispies, I put the bottle back up on the highest shelf, close the cupboard door, and set his favorite dinosaur cereal bowl on the table for breakfast. The echo disappears for a while, drowned out by the babbling of a three-year old, telling me about who’d win in a fight between spacemen and a T-Rex. Right now, though? I got hours till daylight yet.

Now, you could argue that Sammy and I were too young, and he wasn’t ready to be a daddy, but that’s hardly the point. I had a squalling baby and no one to help me, while he closed down the bars and poolhalls and stumbled into other women’s trailers, stinking of beer, and only coming home days later, reeking of Charlie perfume and bubblegum lipgloss. Let his wife and baby boy sit in the dark because he pissed away his paycheck and the lights got cut off. He knew better, growing up out here, knowing about the Belles and their bikes. He’d been out for almost a week when the green fog started crawling around, and the smoke started threading up the sky. On a Tuesday night, I asked him to run to the store and pick up some diapers for Luke, and when the smoke came, it was already Saturday, with not a sign or a peep from Sammy. Until the choppers started grumbling. I threw all the deadbolts and chained every lock, pulled the curtains, and drew me and Luke close together in the corner, small and folded like one of those paper cranes. Sammy pounded away at the door, yelling at me to open it and let him in, and the shriek of the Hell’s Belles on their bikes got louder and louder as they circled the roads, pinpointing where he was, using his own voice to close in on him. Everything got so loud, so quickly—all of a sudden the engines that seemed like they were miles off were in the front yard, coughing and yowling; Luke was wailing like his lungs would burst, Sammy’s fists were thundering down on the door, and there was a tight keen, like steam hissing and rattling out the neck of a copper kettle, swirling and yanking all those sounds together into a thick quilt of noise. The more Sammy pounded, the more I tucked back into the corner, and I realized the shriek stitching all that racket together was me, it was the burning death of my love for him bound to the stake, like a witch. His begging turned my heart into a knot of charcoal and made any tears I had left for him splatter like delicate flakes of ash onto the bald head of my son. Then all I could hear was the piercing wailof those girls and their bikes in the yard. And then, suddenly, nothing. The thumping on the door stopped as quick as it’d started, and the quiet thrummed in loud as a white ripple of nothing, floating through the kitchen like a ghost. It echoed, that silence, bounced off the walls, and settled on the floor with the dust and dirt to be swept up later. I swear Luke heard it too; he stopped crying, eyes wide, listening to the swirl of his daddy’s echo as it rode away, when the motorcycle engines started purring again. This time, the sound was miles off, far away from our yard—just an echo, really.

Them girls, they scare me, because I owe them, even though they were just out hunting, not out to do me no favors. I can call it even because they probably don’t even remember me, let alone Sammy. Upstairs, I swear I can hear the billowy fan of Luke’s sleeping breath, though truth be told, I’m probably just inventing it for some company. At the door, a quiet echo, the memory of knocking, flutters like the wings of a singed moth; dies on the floor, over and over again. There’s about an inch of deep, gold flame covering the bottom of the bottle, promising me another headache in the morning, while it muffles the snarl of engines, the siren song of Hell’s Belles, racing over county lines, out hunting. It carries on, from one end of the humid thicket of swamp marsh, and on through to the end of night.

Allie Marini Batts holds degrees from both Antioch University of Los Angeles and New College of Florida, meaning she can explain deconstructionism, but cannot perform simple math. Her work has been a finalist for Best of the Net and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is managing editor for the NonBinary Review and Zoetic Press, and has previously served on the masthead for Lunch Ticket, Spry Literary Journal, The Weekenders Magazine, Mojave River Review & Press, and The Bookshelf Bombshells. Allie is the author of the poetry chapbooks, ‘You Might Curse Before You Bless’ (ELJ Publications, 2013) ‘Unmade & Other Poems,’ (Beautysleep Press, 2013) and ‘This Is How We End’ (forthcoming 2014, Bitterzoet.) Find her on the web: https://www.facebook.com/AllieMariniBatts or @kiddeternity

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