We tell people that there are so many churches, so many denominational headquarters in town–from the Methodists to the Baptists–because we are literally the buckle of the Bible belt. This may be true, but doesn’t is seem strange?
Why do we need a church every block and a half?
Or have you ever considered why it is that a road might need to change names three times, from, say Franklin Pike to 8th Avenue to Rosa Parks Boulevard or from Harding to West End to Broadway, or from Murfreesboro to Lafayette to 8th?
Why roads jut into each other at weird angles? Why you can get on an Old Hickory Boulevard anywhere in town, but you can’t stay on the road to circle around the whole town?
Just who, exactly, is the town trying to keep lost?
You won’t ever hear anyone come out and say it, but the truth is that folks are afraid of the Devil. Yes, the literal Devil.
Where to even start?
If we start now, it’s like this–the Devil had the shoulders of a man who was used to working. And later, he would come out on his front porch wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and a light sheen of sweat, with a beer in one hand, and all of the women on Lewis street would make excuses to walk by, to watch how his muscles moved under his skin, to measure almost unconsciously the span of those shoulders with their hands.
A woman could rest a hand on each shoulder, and put her ear up against his chest, and still feel like there was room to spare. Maybe that’s how come it was so easy for things to get out of hand–one woman, two women, three, four. Even before you got his clothes off, he seemed large enough to take it.
But the story goes back. The Devil has lived here, on and off, for a long, long time.
And this goes back before there even was a Nashville.
Back then, the gates of Hell were marked by twin elms. And if you passed between those elms after saying the right words, you would end up in the Devil’s realm. And the rumor was that they were common words, nothing so tricky as “Open Sesame” or “Rumpelstiltskin.” Just ordinary words. Two children might be running through the field and one would say to the other, “I’ll race you to the two elms” and they would take off and one would see something shiny in the grass between the trees and he would turn to his companion and say “Look here.”
And he would be gone.
For hundreds of years, people avoided the area. The trees were eventually chopped down. And cemeteries were put up where the trees had stood, as both an acknowledgment and an attempt to mitigate, to have the help of the godly dead to keep the gate sealed.
Almost no one believes it works.
They say the Devil’s front door is still just a couple of hundred feet off of Elm Hill Pike.
And that, they say, is how Elizabeth Bennett came to know him.
No one knows much about Bennett’s life before 1786. Not for sure who her people were. Not what she did to get by. Bennett is a Choctaw name, in that screwed up Southern way, but folks claimed she was from North Carolina, which would seem to suggest she was Cherokee.
My informant told me that she was taken from her family when she was quite young, twelve or thirteen, and married to a man named Bennett, that she had been a Hensley before that.
Mr. Bennett had not gotten even a mile from her parents’ home before he threw her on the ground and jammed his knee between her legs so hard she almost forgot to breathe. He pressed his hand against the side of her face and left, on one side, the red shadows of his fingers. On the other side, for an hour, you could make out the outline of the plants her face had been pressed into.
“So,” she thought as he went at her, “this is what it means to be a woman.”
He took her to live on the banks of the Cumberland among people he thought would leave them alone, not far from where she would enter Nashville history. She was uniformly well-liked, but though everyone knew Bennett was mistreating her, no one confronted him, because they were not her people.
One day a woman squatted next to her creek-side and asked her if she had heard of the legend of the twin elms. Of course she had not.
“Just send him there, as often as you can, and he may vanish. People who go there vanish.”
And so Elizabeth went there. She fished near there. She trapped near there. She collected roots and herbs and leaves near there. She walked around there for no reason. And she never disappeared.
Most likely because she never had anyone with her to say “Oh, look here,” even if she had anything interesting to look at.
But one day, she found found the Devil. He was laying half in the creek, at the end of where Lewis Street is now, and he was badly injured. She recognized him immediately. As much by the smell of sulphur as anything.
She rolled him out of the water, lifted his head onto her lap, and brushed his hair out of his face.
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
“What would you do for me?” he whispered hoarsely.
“I’m making no deals with you, my friend,” she grinned in spite of herself. “I’m asking you an honest question. I don’t know how to help you, but if you tell me, I will do my best.”
“Will you make a fire?”
“I will make you a fire.” And she did.
“Now, roll me in it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course,” she paused just a second. “May I say something?”
“You’re not nearly as unpleasant as I thought you’d be.”
“I’m actually rarely unpleasant,” he grinned, wickedly.
Some will tell you that it was later (when Mr. Bennett was visiting the sulphur springs by the salt lick and was bitten by a large, black dog and got what appeared to be an extremely painful case of rabies and died), that Elizabeth Bennett’s life changed.
But I believe it was that grin that did it.
She rolled him into the fire and there was a noise like bacon in a skillet and he vanished into thin air.
When he came to her, after she was officially a widow, he said, “I will repay your kindness.”
“How so?” she asked.
“You are free.”
“I don’t know what that means,” she told him.
“You can have whatever you want.”
Possibly, he assumed she would want to be Queen of America or to return to her parents or… who knows?
“I want you to stay for dinner,” she said. And he did.
By candle light, she traced the line of his shoulders with her finger. She brushed his long hair out of his face. She looked into his black eyes. And she kissed him. She did it. She lead him.
He’s clever that way.
“What can I call you?” she asked.
“I’ve always been partial to Joseph,” he said.”I could be Joseph Durard for a while.”
When he left, she said, “I’ll wait for you.”
“Are you not coming back?” She asked. He cocked his head and looked at her.
“You are free to do what you want.”
And so she did.
When the Frenchman, Timothy Demonbreun arrived, she was like no one he’d ever met. She hunted, she trapped, she cussed, and drank, and sat with the men when it suited her, and sat with the women when it suited her. She letDemonbreun cook her dinner and when it was done, she burped in appreciation.
It was, quite possibly, the least surprising thing to happen in the short history of Nashville when she was brought up on charges for having Timothy’s bastard child in 1787. They took up together, in a cave near the two elms, some say so that she could watch for Durand.
There was a lot of anticipation in the community about Durand’s return. Not that most folks knew he was the Devil, but even now, when a woman takes up with another man while hers is away, people are curious about what’s going to happen.
What happened was that, when Durand returned, Durand and Demonbreun went out and chopped down the largest tree they could find and fashioned a large bed for Elizabeth. The three of them shared it. And then Durand and Elizabeth got married.
And they continued to share it.
Eventually, word got around about Durand, about how you shouldn’t play cards against him if you wanted to keep your money, about how his just being in a room could lead men to fist fighting, about how babies whose fat cheeks he pinched would stop eating.
There were rumors that he could dry up a cow just by looking at it and that he was always followed by three black crows. I don’t know how true those stories were, but I know folks were afraid of him.
But people were more terrified of Elizabeth. Elizabeth would chase a man from his home at the wrong end of his own rifle if she learned that he beat his wife. Elizabeth would sit in the back of the church and ask when a woman could be preacher. Elizabeth would vote in every election, just for the satisfaction of making them take her ballot, even knowing they would just tear it up once she left.
Durand would often smile and say to her, “You may, quite possibly, cause more trouble than I ever could.”
And she would laugh and say, “I doubt that.”
She lived almost a century, but as women often do, she eventually died, out on her farm half way to Ashland City.
The Devil was heartbroken. Inconsolable.
Elizabeth’s youngest son twice had to ride into Nashville and make his way through crowded inns and taverns until he discovered where the old man was slumped over a table. The young man would brush his hair out of his face, whisper, “Let’s get you home,” and bring him back out to the farm, where he could sober up and rest.
Years have gone by and still the Devil comes to Nashville. Some say that he comes with her and some say that he comes looking for her.
I don’t know which is true. But I know better than to play cards with a man who smells slightly of sulfur.