place-based creative nonfiction
This place-based creative nonfiction is a personal story about my experience with a local urban legend.
[Personal project; available for publication]
Waterhead Babies, A Witches Graveyard, and Band Practice
by Simone Adams
Growing up on the west side of Marietta, Georgia was a simple and predictable existence. As a teenager, my suburban social life included three options for entertainment: hanging out at the mall, going to the movies, or braving the haunted areas near The Covered Bridge.
We all knew the stories. We all had a friend who had a friend who had been to the haunted grounds and barely made it back to tell their tale. The Covered Bridge was an creepy looking one-way bridge located down a twisted road which was flanked by trees that stood tall enough to keep the area shaded, even during the height of summer. It was built shortly after the civil war and it had an ominous presence that seemed to carry the despair from the era of its origin. The long wooden bridge was almost half the length of a football field with a low ceiling and walls that only held a few vents to let in the light of day. The moment your vehicle entered the bridge you were submerged in darkness and it was hard not to hold your breath until you emerged safely on the other side. From a distance, the bridge, with its wood slat walls and rotting shingled roof was reminiscent of an abandoned barn. Consider it quant if you dare. Up close, the bridge sat in the shadows on the sunniest day and embraced its place as the focal point of many an urban legend.
The Covered Bridge straddled a deep gorge where a wide shallow creek ran through the woods. That seemingly benign creek was where the Waterhead Babies reside.
The Waterheads—no one knew for sure how many lurked around the bridge—were the ghosts of the children who were killed or drowned near the creek. One of the Waterheads was most certainly the ghost of three-year-old son of John Reed, who worked at the mill that once operated just upstream of the bridge. In 1874, young Master Reed had accompanied his father to work and wandered off, making it to the top floor of the mill where his clothes got tangled in the machinery. No one heard the poor boy's cries for help but sometime later the miller found the bloodied, lifeless body of his child wedged into the mechanism of the mill. There were other Waterheads too, other children who drowned while playing innocent games near the creek. Legend said that all of their souls still wandered the area.
Bored teenagers have rarely been able resist an urban legend and those who were either brave enough or stupid enough have tempted the Waterheads by offering them sweets. Initially, teens would leave a candy bar just inside the bridge at night and come back a few minutes later to discover it gone. Eventually, as the teens got more bold, they would park on the bridge in the dark of night and place a candy bar on the roof of their vehicle, soon they would hear the sounds of small feet running across the roof of their car and find the treat had vanished.
Tempting ghost children from the comfort of the car was unnerving, but true fear-aficionados knew that just beyond The Covered Bridge was a more terrifying haunting. No one I knew had ever seen the Witch's Graveyard, but we all knew about it. There was an old abandoned rail bed near the bridge and somewhere off those tracks, deep in the woods, was a small graveyard. It was said that a witch had been buried there and roamed the grounds at night. In the fall, when the leaves on the trees began to die, if you listened intently, just after nightfall you could hear the faint sound of ceremonial drums. If you dared to trespass on the grounds the witch would fly into a rage and topple over gravestones at your feet. As you ran away screaming, following the abandoned railroad back to the safety of your car, you might hear the whistle of the ghost train carrying the souls of its dead passengers.
I was a senior in high school before I was bored enough and brave enough or stupid enough to explore the sinister grounds of The Covered Bridge.
I was in charge. My brother, three years my junior, and a friend of the family, a girl named Nicole who was four years younger than me but at least four inches taller than me, were in my care. The pair should have been easily entertained by junk food and the opportunity to watch R-rated movies, but as the night wore on they pestered me, begging me to do something with them. I resisted and they persisted. It was late and none of us were tired but we were all bored with each other. I'm not sure what possessed me but I decided to take them to The Covered Bridge.
"Do you believe in ghosts?"
Nicole's eyes lit up and my brother rolled his eyes. My brother loved horror movies and I knew his fears included werewolves and zombies, not ghosts. Still, I was eager test his resolve.
"What kind of ghosts?" Nicole asked and I couldn't tell if the hesitation in her voice was fear or disbelief.
"The dead kind. Come on." I grabbed my keys and walked out of the house with the two of them scrambling to put on shoes and follow me.
Truth be told, my own list of fears was much longer than my brother's. I feared clowns, porcelain dolls, old people, abandoned buildings, basement stairs, and a myriad of otherwise ambiguous objects, but ghosts and witches had not yet made my list.
The moon was high in the sky when we piled into my car but as I wheeled my way down the twisted road, deeper under the canopy of trees that ushered me toward The Covered Bridge, the moon fell beneath the tree line and we were shrouded in darkness. I cut off the radio, partly to create the mood to scare my passengers but mostly because I felt the noise was a disturbance to the still energy that surrounded us as we drove further into the gully. We approached the mouth of the bridge where I slowed down to make sure there was no traffic coming from the other direction. I held my breath and drove onto the one-way bridge. My brother begged me to turn my lights off, Nicole looked at me and I couldn't tell if she was challenging me or silently pleading with me to leave the lights on. Her grown up face contradicted the fact that I knew she was only fourteen and the result was that I couldn't register her thoughts. I slowed to a stop and turned the knob by the steering wheel. We were immediately swallowed by the darkness. I exhaled to the sound of my heart pounding in my ears. The windows were down but the sounds of summer had ceased, there was only the deafening silence of fear and uncertainty. We waited for what felt like an eternity, afraid to whisper. Finally, my brother began to laugh. Nicole laughed too, although I couldn't be sure if hers was a nervous laughter. I couldn't muster up carefree laughter but I was grateful that the trance we had all fallen under was broken. I quickly turned the lights back on and sped off the bridge, turning onto the side road adjacent to the creek where the Waterheads lived.
I pulled onto the shoulder of the road into a well worn patch of leaves and dirt. There were no street lights on this stretch of road, the closest home was on the other side of the bridge and it had been dark when we passed it. The moon was still hidden behind the trees or clouds or perhaps some sinister source that was determined to leave us in the dark. My brother was vaguely familiar with the story of the Waterheads but neither he nor Nicole knew about the ghost train and the witch's graveyard. I cut off the engine and began telling them what I knew of the legend.
"There is an old witch who lives in the graveyard just up that hill," I pointed out my window even though I was unsure which direction the witch's graveyard was and how far away it might be. "Some people say the witch was buried there, others say that someone she loved was buried there, but everyone agrees that she's angry and she has haunted this graveyard for nearly a hundred years."
"Has she ever hurt anyone?"
Nicole's question was so logical and yet it was the first time I had considered it. It deflated my ghost story. Before I could come up with a response, my brother, who was much braver than I, much less afraid of the unknown than I, opened his car door and darted into the woods, disappearing into the night.
I was conditioned to my brother's stunts, but Nicole was upset. For some reason, I wanted to taunt her and I got out of the car too, running after my brother towards the woods. As soon as I crossed into the trees, the energy changed. It felt heavy. I stopped and Nicole was beside me in a moment.
"Where is he?"
She didn't seem bothered that I tried to leave her. She was excited and there was a wild look in her eyes. Nicole was the epitome of that saying, "fourteen going on forty." She had barely hit puberty but she was almost six feet tall. Her mother had caught her with a fake ID. I tried to imagine her going to clubs I was still too young to enter. She was the size of a grown woman yet she was a child. A reckless child who would not scare easily.
There was a loud noise and a figure came flying towards us. I jumped and gasped, but I managed not to cry out. Nicole just took a step back and then began giggling.
"I got you!" My brother pointed at me and laughed. But I swear I heard something else, something behind him. Footsteps?
"Hey, come look. There's a creek down here." My brother led the way deeper into the woods and we followed closely. I could only make out his silhouette but as we neared the creek, the trees gave way and the moon cast a strange glow turning everything a brilliant blue. There was a low mist hovering just above the surface of the water and tendrils of the fog reached out over the banks of the creek and floated near our feet. I retreated a bit.
"What's that up there?" I could see more clearly now in the pale moonlight at the creek's edge and I saw Nicole pointing further upstream to a high platform that crossed the creek.
"Oh! That must be the old railroad. Let's get up there. It's probably close to midnight, that's when the train is supposed to come through carrying the souls of the dead passengers."
"How'd they die?" Nicole and her damned questions. She was way too logical for me to scare her, my brother was too fearless for me to scare him, meanwhile I was terrified.
I had no idea where the story of the train originated and so I made up a story to pacify Nicole's need-toknow.
I affected my best story-telling voice, "About a hundred years ago the train was coming through this very section when a young kid wandered onto the train tracks. The train tried to stop but it couldn't and ran over him." My brother had bent over the creek and was trying to push the mist away and splash his fists in the water. For affect I added, "He's one of the Waterhead Babies that lives in these waters." I watched as my brother hesitated and then resumed waving the mist aside. "But the train had applied its brakes too hard, too fast and it caused the train to skid off the tracks and it fell off that bridge and everyone on the train died."
"It fell off right there?"
"Let's go up there." Nicole ran back towards the road and my brother started to follow but I ran in front of him. The mist had begun rising and I didn't want to be the straggler of the group.
The railroad platform crossed the road as well and met with level ground somewhere up the hill to our left. I stopped at the car and grabbed a flashlight out of my trunk. My brother wanted me to leave it, to make the scary adventure more authentic. I overruled his lunacy. We crossed the street and began to hike up a steep incline along a path that had been worn by other curious visitors. We soon met the railroad which had long been abandoned and was overgrown with weeds. We took the railroad back towards the platform that had crossed the road and the creek. The tops of the trees that had towered over us on the road were just above our heads here. However, the moon had dipped behind the clouds again and it seemed even darker than before. My brother ran ahead of us. He was fearless and I envied him. I smirked as he taunted me and teased me, silently bragging that he wasn't afraid. I let him pull me into a dare sometimes, oftentimes. Tonight, was one of those nights. I didn't want to walk over the platform. The heights, the dark, the eerie feeling that I couldn’t shake, it was all too much and yet I followed my brother over. I hadn't realized how high it was until I stood looking at a miniature version of my car. We lorded over the world beneath us.
My brother shouted into the air, "Look at me!"
The sound shattered the silence and I ducked, not sure what I was avoiding but the reaction felt necessary. Before I could rise, I heard the distinct sound of a train whistle. I shot up and looked at Nicole and my brother. Was I imagining, did I hear a train? Their faces mirrored my own shock and I was the first to move. I took off running the direction we had come, the flashlight pointed at our feet and failing to light the way. I looked back and I saw the light of a train coming toward us. My brother picked up speed and passed Nicole, catching up to me but I ran harder and faster. We had to get off the platform. I looked back again and I saw the outline of a car turning around a bend in the distance, the light disappearing with the car. I slowed down and we all recognized that we had not seen a train.
"But, didn't we hear a whistle?" Nicole reminded us and we all shared a knowing look but ignored the question.
We walked off the platform and found our way to the worn foot path where we continued away from the car and deeper into the woods alongside the railbed. My brother walked in front and I held the flashlight out ahead of us. As we walked I noticed something out of place in the treeline. I turned my flashlight towards the trees to our left as we walked straight ahead. Then it dawned on me. The small trees were broken nearly in half and the top of each cracked tree was angled towards the ground. As we walked, the shape of the trees appeared to form a natural fence.
"Hey, look at this!" My brother called and I shone the flashlight in his direction.
"What does it say?" Nicole whispered
The beam from my flashlight fell upon a large granite boulder with letters spelled out in red. My brother read the letters one by one, as if in a trance.
"S... A... T... A." As my brother read the letters I recognized the shape of the boulder. It was a tombstone.
"Satan!" I yelled. My brother and Nicole screamed out with me. Once again, I turned and ran. The moon had reappeared and lit the path in front of me. The flashlight bounced light everywhere and I looked back to see that we were all safe but I didn't slow down until I got to the car. Once on the street, the moment seemed unreal. What had we actually seen?
My brother didn't press for us to do anything else daring. We got in the car and as soon as I passed back through the covered bridge and we began our ascent up the windy road, we all began talking at once.
The next morning Nicole's mother arrived to pick her up. As I watched Nicole run up to her mother, looking like a little girl again despite the fact that she towered over her, I realized that she was about to tell her mom everything... and my heart dropped. My brother and I shared a code: we never told our parents the daring (and stupid) things that we did. Yet, here was this girl breaking protocol and telling her mother the entirety of our adventure. The story poured out of her mouth like a waterfall.
"...and then we almost got hit by the train..."
"It wasn't a real train."
I interrupted to assure her mother. "It was a ghost train," I rolled my eyes as I realized how it sounded coming out of my mouth.
"...and then we went to the witch's graveyard and we saw..."
"A witch's graveyard?" Her mother's eye lit up and she looked at me to clarify.
"Yes..." I didn't know what else to add. She seemed to want to hear more but I knew she was a bibletoting, Jesus-quoting Christian and I was hesitant to share any details of our sacrilegious adventure.
Nicole began telling her about seeing the word "Satan" written in blood.
"It was probably spray paint." I admitted, a detail I had figured out last night once we were in the safety of the car but I had kept the thought to myself.
Nicole was impatient and wanted to finish telling her version of the story but her mother interrupted her to ask me more questions, "Was it an actual graveyard? Did you see the gravestones?"
"Only the one, but it’s supposed to be a real graveyard."
"Would you take me there?" A request I hadn't expected.
There was something about the curiosity in her eyes that led me to agree to take her to the witch's graveyard. My own mother, who had listened to this whole conversation, declined to go traipsing through the woods in search of the source of teen folklore.
Once again, we all piled in my car with Nicole's mom beside me, asking for more details and explaining her interest. She told me that witches weren't typically buried in consecrated grounds. That led me to ask her if she believed in witches. I had images of pointy nosed wild-haired witches and it seemed silly that a grown woman would believe in that idea. Nicole's mom told me about a different kind of witch, the kind of women who was more of an herbalist and understood nature better than men understood science, so they were called witches and executed. I was having trouble comprehending that she thought the witch's graveyard was simply the grave of an actual woman. That seemed too simple of an answer to this urban legend that had resisted to fade for decades.
"I thought you said we'd hear ceremonial drums," Nicole said, adding to the doubt.
"That's only in fall." I winced, hearing how suspect it sounded. I don't know if I believed in the urban legend, but I wasn't ready to give it up. I had grown up on these stories. They made The Covered Bridge special. Without the stories, it was just a covered bridge.
We drove down the winding road and across the bridge. It was overcast and the bridge felt uncharacteristically dark for the daytime. I turned down the road near the creek and we walked up the hill toward the fence line I had noticed the night before. We were halfway up the incline when I stopped short. I heard the blare of a train horn.
"Mom, hear that?" Nicole's mom asked.
Her mom paused and listened, it sounded again. She smiled at us, "That's the train that runs by the highway."
It was feasible.
We kept walking and I noticed the downed trees again. I tapped Nicole's mom and pointed towards the fence but kept walking. Just ahead of us was the tombstone. Even in the dim light of the gloomy day, the red dripping letters were obviously spray painted.
"I bet you it's a bunch of kids who claim to be devil worshipers." Nicole's mom stated with confidence.
Again, I felt a twinge of regret as I realized I was participating in debunking the only urban legend I was a part of. I followed Nicole's mom past the tombstone and then the trees opened up to a small cemetery. There was no church nearby, no building, just dozens of headstones and the patchy remains of an ironwork fence.
There was a stillness in the plot of land that was unnerving. I don't know if anyone else felt it so I kept my thoughts to myself. I saw lots of gravestones in shambles and I repeated the part of the legend about the witch getting angry and toppling over gravestones at your feet.
"The kids probably kicked them over. Look, look at this."
We ran over to where Nicole's mom was kneeling beside a small circle of stones surrounding melted candles, wicks recently burnt. There were also a few beer cans nearby.
"So, it's a bunch of teenagers?" I pouted.
Nicole had been quiet up until this point. "Awww, man. It woulda been cool if it was real."
My sentiments exactly.
My brother ran around the graveyard finding more evidence of vandalizing teens. There were other headstones that had been spray painted with uncreative graffiti. There was litter scattered throughout and most of it was beer bottles and soda cans.
We looked at some of the headstones, trying to read those that hadn't been completely weathered. There were no headstones after 1967 but it looked like only a few years ago that the place had been allowed to become overgrown. The was low ground cover choking back most of the grass so it was easy to see all of the graves. We saw the graves of couples and families, those who had seen long lives and those whose lives ended almost as soon as they began. The moment was somber, but all the ghoulish energy had vanished and the Witch's Graveyard simply became a place where people had buried their loved ones. A place that disrespectful teens had violated and made the source of urban legend to justify their destruction.
When we got back in the car my brother asked, "But what about the ceremonial drums we're supposed to hear? I know we didn't hear it, but its part of the story, right?"
I didn't have an answer for him, nor did Nicole's mom. It wasn't until a few months later that Nicole's mom called me to say she figured it out.
"Yep," she said, satisfied with herself. "You only hear the ceremonial drums in the fall because that’s when the high school down the way has band practice and the sound of the drums would carry that far.
My urban legend was gone. Like the mist that faded in the night, the legend of The Covered Bridge was no more.