The Secret of Tate's Hell

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: True Confessions  |  House: Booksie Classic

The moss-draped cypress cloak the truth about how Tate's Hell Swamp really got its name....

Submitted: May 29, 2018

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Submitted: May 29, 2018



As the name overtly suggests, Tate’s Hell Swamp is not a destination often sought out by tourists visiting the Sunshine State.  Quite the opposite, the festering bogs of Tate’s Hell are seething with biting stinging insects, tarantula-sized yellow-web-weaving crawling spiders, and deadly creeping fanged pit viper moccasins - not to mention horrors not of this world.  All these irksome grotesque terrors stealthily compose what is quite possibly the most uninviting maze on Earth.  Even though Tate’s Hell is an official state forest, I have never in all my visits to the twisted tangles of the vast confusing swamp ever seen another human being there besides myself.  Deep in the planted pine acres of the swamp-head uplands there’s a recreational pavilion which proves state employees built a structure, but when I have no idea.  I never saw them in that gloomy haunt of the alligator, the snapping turtle, and the bull shark.  I didn’t go as a maritime thrill-seeker.  I went in search of the truth.

The first paranormal weight one feels pressing down upon the soul after entering Tate's Hell Swamp is the sinister revelation not to anger the spirits.  Most of us don't have this fear to worry about because from birth we are naturally attuned to the subtle sublime nuances of nature, yet for the scoffing skeptic let not this warning go unheeded.

A witch coven, the members of which are only local females who have been born within twenty-four miles of the swamp (I have not yet figured out why, but 24 is a significant number to the Tate’s Hell Coven) carries out unspeakable acts of ritual witchcraft at an undisclosed location within the shadow-coves of the immense dreaded morass.

Their sacred totem is the Swallow-tailed Kite.  Because of this elegant raptor’s graceful love of slash pine flatwoods dominated by an understory of Saw Palmetto and cypress swamp bottoms interlaced with Tupelo Sweetgum, (the two primary timber ecosystems of Tate’s Hell) the witches of the cryptic dangerous wetland spiritually identify with the sleek gorgeous white-feathered Swallow-tailed Kite.

The coven took me in a small convoy of pirogues up the Crooked River deep into the heart of the brooding swamp.  I was blindfolded and told not to speak a word.  When we arrived at their consecrated ceremonial ground, which was a sooty hummock surrounded by slime green swamp water of unknown depth lurking with who-knows-what bog monsters, my blindfold was removed.  I saw strange objects hanging from moss-laden tree limbs, some of them dark gray and brown, others brightly colored.  There were ominous sculptures of salting flora and fauna carved out of hulking cypress logs.  Before me my wandering eyes were awe-struck to perceive a ceremonial stage built of newly hewn Eastern White Pine.  Seeing such cult organization in the middle of a godforsaken muddy thorn-vine wilderness is truly a shock to the logical faculty.  The hypnotic aroma of turpentine and honeysuckle filled the damp muggy swamp air.  

With a “laying-on” of hands (ostensibly for healing, yet I suspected a hidden occult motive), it was explained that this privilege was being extended to me for two reasons - first, because I was born on the Florida Gulf Coast, and second because of the cancerous disease that is eating away at my insides.  The witches said that as I understand the tidal salt marshes and live on a diet of backwater seafood which I catch myself, the slow agonizing death I’m facing from incurable disease mystically purifies my spirit, making me honest and strengthening me with the power to closely guard old and venerated secrets.

I don’t know how the coven found out that I’m dying from a malignant tumor.  I didn’t tell them.  I suppose witches know things about people - even things left unspoken.

So, I can say this much: I was permitted to witness a young witch apprentice as she was initiated into the swamp coven.  A very wrinkle-faced wizened gray-haired hag, what I (in my ignorance of sorcery) would describe as a Matron Crone, began speaking to the adolescent girl, saying something in the fashion of “The first foundation of the Craft in Tate’s Hell is to never anger the spirits.  When the spirits are angered, they don't come instantly directly at you.  They observe, and they wait.  They begin to unravel you.  The spirits don't merely lash out in brutal rage-driven vengeance, they coldly calculate the naive offender's most vulnerable susceptibilities.  The spirits plot corporal punishment based on darkest secrets of the psyche - weaknesses totally unknown to the narcissistic trespasser.  To the spirits, settling the score is not an act of justice, but an art form perfected throughout ages that span epochs of time immemorial and when they finally do come, they come at what you love most.

I don’t remember very much about what happened after this vexing elucidation.  A bonfire was blazing nearby, crackling and snapping, producing delicious fumes that were apparently intoxicating.  The macabre primeval scene around me waxed ghoulish, becoming wavy and uncertain like a dreamscape.  Next thing I knew, I was alone back at my tent camp on the west bank of the Crooked River where Tate’s Hell empties its murky backwater into the gleaming salty Gulf.  I had apparently done myself a mischief.  I had suffered lacerations.  There were numerous scratches or claw-marks on my arms, legs, chest, and back.  I felt totally drained, so weak I could barely move.  My compass was missing and so was my sleeping bag.  According to what I’ve read, witches shapeshift into swamp beasts in order to abscond with personal belongings of one whom they aim to target with charms, spells, and hexes.  That night was the first time I saw the eerie blue lights.  They burst out of thin air just above the tops of the towering slash pine and bald cypress.  Sometimes they drifted earthward slowly, almost as if hovering; other times the glimmering sapphire spheres dropped rapidly out of sight into the grim obscura of the ancient coastal swamp.

I don't know what the blue lights over the marsh are.  Some of the more interesting residents of the nearby fishing village (Carrabelle which is Spanish for ‘beautiful river’ if you can believe that) like the plague whisper all sorts of rumors and superstitions.  At a clapboard seafood eatery on the leaning barnacle-encrusted pilings of a rotting wharf at Alligator Bayou (a rustic dockside joint named Crawldads), a pot-bellied shrimpboat captain, Lem Tharp, wearing faded tattered bib overalls and scuffed white rubber boots that reeked with the pungent odor of seaweed told me not to look very long at the strange blue lights because staring at the mystical puffs of blue luminescence can break the rational mind.  Eighty miles north, the florid-faced old salt said, the Florida State Hospital, a/k/a insane asylum at Chattahoochee, is populated with unfortunate victims who gazed too long at the soft alluring blue lights.

On most nights, the fairy lights start glowing immediately as the gloom of dusk begins to fade into that surreal realm known as twilight.  The hypnotic effect is similar to a lethal dose of scopolamine or Dead Man's Fingers.There’s an almond smell, like cyanide.The lethal danger of the delicate blue lights cannot be over-stated.  Diary cattle must have blinders put on at sunset, because gazing at what have become known as Mermaid Tears dries the fattest udders.  The bewitched cows simply stop giving .  They graze and moo and lie in the cool shade under the sprawling oaks at noonday just as all the other Jerseys and Holsteins do, but after their eyes have been helplessly transfixed by the spectral blue lights, the spellbound cows never again produce even so much as a single drop of milk, but then again, there aren't very many diary cattle near the grim quagmire of Tate's Hell.

To augment what has been previously stated (as I have tortuously verified during an agonizing 3-week vigil in that stifling humid den of bloodsucking Yellow Flies and swarming clouds of infection-carrying mosquitoes) Tate’s Hell Swamp is a lonely remote and seldom visited region along a sparsely populated stretch of swampy Gulf shore known as Florida's Forgotten Coast.There are no sugar sand beaches at Tate’s Hell, no high-rise condos or five-star gourmet restaurants.  What the misguided trekker finds at Tate’s Hell are fierce flesh-slicing pincers of big blue crabs, dagger-sharp barbs of humongous stingrays, and miles upon miles of sand-gnat saturated salt meadow needle rush.  The pain of sand gnat venom is utterly maddening.  For as long as half an hour after the last stinging bite, the excruciating discomfort lingers, no matter how vigorously one digs at swollen red skin with finger nails or other sharp objects.

I didn't dare stare too long at the Mermaid Tears, because my objective was to determine the source of the mysterious blue lights.  During 21 frightful days and terrorizing nights of exhausting laborious life-threatening forays into the heart of the great boggy wilderness, I was unable to ascertain the exact point of origin of the spooky blue lights, yet I did find something  the superstitious locals had not previously been aware - and that was the sad singing.

For the most part, the voices sounded female.  The haunting chorus didn't begin at the moment the disturbing blue lights first appeared with the evening star, but a few minutes later when the sky overhead was completely dressed in the deep shades of night.  The only place I could hear the ghostly harmony was on a certain hump of humus which was only accessible via the little  I rented from Bait Shack at the last turn of the Crooked River where the ominously silent slow-moving current flows into the shallow shark-infested bay before reaching the abyss of thebriny Gulf.

On the last day of my second week in Tate’s Hell, late one afternoon just before sundown, I heard the sound of heavy fabric rustling hard in the wind then being suddenly yanked tight with a thunderous snap almost directly above my head while drifting toward the uncharted interior of the festering marsh forest.

To my utter dismay, I saw a large unidentified object dangling from a colossal orange and white parachute.  The unearthly object was irregular in shape and seemed to pulse with light from the inside in iridescent flashes alternating through every color of the rainbow.  It reminded me of a lava lamp, yet it was encrusted with a mysterious green covering as if it had been dipped in swamp muck which had dried to the exterior of the odd pulsing thing.  In a way, it was remarkably similar in appearance to an oyster shell.  The unidentified object was about the size of a 30-foot trawler.  It drifted slowly down into the swamp approximately half a mile northwest of my lonely little campsite.

This was of course such a suspicious occurrence that I immediately hopped into my rented pirogue and paddled downstream to the small village harbor where I disembarked at the dockside seafood eatery for the purpose of acquiring a cell-phone signal.

The military public relations office I contacted requested all information I could give concerning the incident.  The liaison officer, Airman First Class Stephanie Hunt, told me she'd call me back when she had located the exercise about which I was inquiring.

She never returned my call.  When, after four tense days of anxious nail-biting waiting I finally called her back, I was told that no one by that name had ever been assigned to public relations.  I was passed from agent to agent until finally, someone claiming to be head of public affairs for the Northwest Florida Air Superiority Division, a gruff and very rude fellow, Command Chief Master Sergeant Barton Briggs, informed me that the military had no knowledge of the incident I was describing.  

Though the nearest military installation is 100 miles to the west of the remote foreboding swamp, w with active Air Force bases such as Tyndall, Eglin, and Hurlburt Field with high-tech radar towers and F-22 Raptors flying sorties every day of the week covering the Gulf Coast from Panama City to Pensacola, the military could not possibly be unaware of what I had seen, the call was terminated.

Needless to say, I didn’t have the opportunity to ask about the reddish-orange flickering light that emanates from an utterly impenetrable mire of the swamp into which something similar to, but unlike any helicopter I’ve ever seen apparently lands for several minutes at the time before rising again to disappear into the fog-shrouded night.

Now I’m not aware of any swamp creature that looks like a genetic hybrid between a salamander and a primate, but beginning on my very first night in Tate’s Hell, just such an inscrutable thing slithered from the marsh to forage around outside my tent, apparently for food.  I had been out on the bayou with my lantern, pen, notebook, and digital camera watching the night sky for paranormal sightings.  It was well after midnight when I returned to my quiet isolated camp.  One of my dry boxes which I had neglected to lock was overturned.  The slimy slithering creature had eaten a whole ten-pack of my Reese’s peanut butter cups.  That was all the candy I had brought with me.  The next night, the hideous ravenous marsh-beast had twisted off the lid to my jar of peanut butter.  All but a small amount in the bottom of the jar was gone.  The bizarre freakish thing had eaten a whole entire family-sized container of peanut butter in a single sitting.  I could see evidence of where its webbed digits had scraped away at the inside of the jar in the small amount of peanut butter remaining in the very bottom.

There’s a deep shadow conspiracy which I have inadvertently stumbled into via my investigation of the reports of paranormal mysteries occurring in and around Tate’s Hell Swamp.  It will take several weeks for me to bring my scraps of evidence into a focused comprehensive account.  I morbidly fear that I have tumbled into the chaos of a supernatural labyrinth that will consume what remains of my life with an obsession to uncover the cloaked and desperately guarded hidden agenda of this broad-sweeping enigma of the swamp occult.  This is the beginning.

What shocking truth have I really revealed in the novels I have written?  What spiritual chain reaction have I set in motion that cannot now be stopped?

© Copyright 2018 Sean Terrence Best. All rights reserved.

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