Our Unpayable Debts

On my dad’s side, Mary Wolcott is my 8th great aunt. On my mom’s side, Ann Putnam is my first cousin nine times removed. It’s hard for me to think about them. When I picture them, what I see are a pair of black shoes hanging beneath a skirt, like a clapper on a bell. The feet shake a little and then are still.

Sometimes, if I let the image sneak up on me, there’s piss and shit running down those legs. I can’t stand that, but it comes to me, whether I can bear the thought of it or not.

Does the shit of your victims stain your soul? If there’s any metaphysical stain to be had, that’s how it must be, I’d think.

Do you think Ann and Mary felt safer with their witches dead?

I had a dream about my Grandpa many years after he died, but I think before my Grandma died. We were at his house and I was walking up from the basement stairs, through the dining room, toward the kitchen, which brought me across the entryway to the living room, where my Grandpa spent most of my life, until he died, sitting at his game table, smoking cigars, and playing cribbage.

When I walked by, my dad was sitting in one of the chairs that went with the gaming table, a plush velvet seat on casters. He was turned toward the middle of the room. And my Grandfather, shaped like a cartoon bomb, sat on the floor between my father’s legs, my dad’s arms around his father’s shoulders, trying to comfort him as my grandfather sobbed like the world was ending.

This is when I learned something about the dead: if you stick around, you cannot help but become aware of the full weight of your life. It’s better to flee into the land of the dead, to drink from Lethe and forget than it is to stay here and see what you made of things.

This is what I learned about my Grandfather: He is so very sorry.

He is so very sorry and it doesn’t matter. His sorrow and regret make not one whit of difference. He is nothing, now. A specter in a dream. His sorry counts for shit. It changes nothing. Can’t rewrite the man he was. Can’t save the men who are his sons or their sons.

And that’s what I think about when I think about Mary and Ann—how there never can be any sorry that is enough.

Whatever sorry they feel is outweighed by those swinging shoes.

Last night I also learned that Vanderbilt is doing a steampunk version of Into the Woods, so I guess I need to figure out how to do that whole “go to the opera” thing. I think it’s customary to bring at least one Marx brother, right?

Time Out–Don’t We Know What the Harpe Brothers Were Doing in those Lost Years?

I’m going to go chat with Jim Ridley about what I know and surmise about Big and Little Harpe next week. So, I’m rereading Jon Musgrave’s article from American Weekend, because it is, as far as I can tell, the most comprehensive writing done on the brothers (which is strange, but I couldn’t find any good scholarly look at them).

Here’s the part I want to talk about:

Shortly after that, the Harpes left the British Army to go back with the Cherokees to their villages west of the Appalachians. During that trip they took part in the attack on Bluff Station (Fort Nashborough) at the present side of Nashville, Tenn., on April 1. Four hundred Cherokees took part in the raid. Nashville historians recalled a Capt. James Leiper among those who died in the assault. Leiper may have been a relative to the John Leiper who shot Big Harpe 18 years later. According to statements made after Big Harpe’s death, John Leiper and Harpe knew and distinctively disliked each other.
After the raid, the Harpes did not stay with the Cherokee’s long. About the first week of June they kidnapped Maria Davidson. A week later they took Susan Wood. After rendezvousing at a hunter’s cabin on the east side of the mountains, the Harpes, their captive and brutalized women, and four assistants crossed the mountains.
During the 20 day trip to the Cherokee-Chickamauga town of Nickjack located southwest of modern-day Chattanooga, the Harpes managed to find time to kill Moses Doss. Big Harpe apparently found a problem with Doss’ over-concern for the women’s well being. For the next 12 to 13 years the women and the Harpes stayed in the Indian village.
Twice each of the captive women became pregnant, and twice each the Harpes murdered their children.
When the British surrendered at Yorktown, not all fighting ceased. Groups of Indians including the Chickamaugas, a break-away band of Cherokee, continued to make war on the pioneers in the settlements west of the mountains. As guests in their village, the Harpes often followed them on the warpath, including the Battle of Blue Licks on Aug. 19, 1782, when a large group of British-backed Indians defeated an army of Kentuckians. They again joined the Indians in an attack on Bledsoe’s Lick in Tennessee, either on July 20, 1788, or April 9, 1793, dates of two major attacks on the settlement.
Finally, the Americans successfully took the offensive and struck back wiping out Nickajack in September 1794. Somehow, the Harpes found out about the attack through their white contacts and secreted their women out of the village the night before the battle. Taking their wives on a nearly two-day journey, they found a new camp where the women stayed for nine months. During which the Harpes pillaged and foraged in the more settled portions of Tennessee such as Powell’s Valley close nearer to Knoxville.

If what Musgrave says is true–that the Harpes were Scottish and sided with the British, isn’t it obvious what they were doing living with the Cherokee? They were probably fur trading, like the Scottish did among and with the Cherokee. And, if that’s the case, shouldn’t there be some British record of these transactions?


Last night, we were talking about premises for ghost stories. The group came up with two great ones, I thought. One is where a family goes out to investigate one of the stories from A City of Ghosts, not realizing they’re fake, and they are somehow killed and become ghosts in that spot. The other is a situation like I had last week, where the cop came by to tell me that the library is haunted, but it would turn out that there’s no ghost at all in the library. The ghost is the cop, trying to scare the people in his building out of going to the library and, instead, just hanging out all the time in his building with him. I find the thought of having to haunt where you work to be extra depressing. God, it makes you feel for the Chapel Hill lights, doesn’t it? Doomed to spend eternity walking the railroad tracks.

Chris Wage has a picture of the building at 4th and Broadway I have always wondered about. You know how there’s a whole first floor to Chattanooga now hidden under the streets, because they raised the city sometime after the Civil War? We don’t, as far as I know, have anything so dramatic here in Nashville, but something about the side of this building makes me feel like the building and the street used to have a different relationship to each other. It’s not just the bizarro heights of the windows, but how the decorative detailing ends on a stone block in one case and not on the other. I think the street may have been made slightly less steep over the years. But the ghost of the old street is still with us.