Sleeps in Hell
R. R. Setari
I’m only going to tell you this one time, and it’ll be done. I’ll start by saying that all of us knew better than to go down to Planters’ Rest. From the time we still have milk fresh in our mouths, our mamas and grandmamas told us we ain’t have no business down there and no good could come from it. Out in that graveyard full of dead masters and they sons and other evil white folks, the mists smelled like ash and sulfur. Scratches appeared in the dirt though no dog or bobcat ever go near there. And the old folks said they could hear something walking through the trees at night. Something that walked alone.
But Mama George had it right about us children. We hard-headed and like the shine of trouble. As soon as a baby take his first steps, us older ones would take him to the Rest to play hide and seek around the blackened headstones. We’d push each other in the long wet grass and climb up the statues of crying angels and horse-riding soldiers. Peter once got the saber out the hand of a general and cut up the vines on the Beaumont plot.
We’d put out witches’ sticks to keep the spirits away while we built forts of old granite and holler that we were the planters now. When we were done teasing about the graves, we’d run over to the mossy old well and shout names down the dark hole. The names of people we thought would die next. Peter and the other children would yell Reverend Dennis because he used a switch in Sunday school, and Missus Lawrence because she’d make you bring in her washing but never gave you so much as a smile. I’d yell down my sister’s name, and my cousins would tell me to hush up and make me throw down a broken bit of footstone to blot out the name.
Just past the well, all covered in sweet gum balls and briars, was the west side of the graveyard. The part dug in the middle of the war. The stones here were green and breaking apart, narrow and too close together. A child with his feet wide could stand across four graves without strain. The shape of the place wasn’t right, so no one went over there. Not us children. Not the Mennonite ladies who used to clean the east side graves and picnic. No one touched they shoes over there. Those souls were left to the woods because of who slept there next to them. Solomon Bell was laid to rest in the middle of the west graveyard with the biggest gray statue towering over him.
When he was alive, even white folks were scared of Solomon Bell. He was a tall, mean planter who whipped his own horse for resting on a Sunday. The elder folk still tell about how he beat the midwife because his first baby was a girl. A preacher told me Solomon hung deserters from the church steeple on Good Friday. The store clerk said the man even burned his own farm and killed his own wife so the Union wouldn’t have them. Many don’t talk about him at all, and just hold they ears and pray when they hear the name. My Mama George’s mama carried jugs of water for that man’s supper table. Dying and sore afraid, she asked to be buried across water so her old master’s dogs couldn’t find her. She would’ve quicker met the devil than she would’ve the ghost of Solomon Bell.
Most of us first heard of him from the song older boys passed around: Solomon Bell sleeps in hell, and doesn’t know that Richmond fell. He’ll kill the man who dares to tell the Union truth to Solomon Bell. In any other part of the world, we would yell that rhyme to scare the babies about us. But when we were near the west side of Planters’ Rest, we shushed each other and whistled. Except for me. Because I liked the shine of trouble.
One warm evening during the last night of revival, Peter, Tracy, my sister Mae, and me were all sitting in the branches of the Tanner Grove oak tree listening to the reverend talk about getting right with God because nothing comes back from hell. The congregation said amen, but Tracy said, “Nuh-uh, some people like Solomon Bell come back.”
My sister, a white-wearing new member of the church, didn’t like anyone contradicting the Word. So, she put in her two cents. “Hush, Tracy! Solomon Bell ain’t come back.”
Tracy was older, slyer. He knew all the Bell stories, and he didn’t like being told to hush.
“He could come back,” he said. “He ever finds out his army lost, he’ll rise up and grab a little colored child to bring back with him. Maybe you!”
Mae kicked Tracy's ankles, but Peter and me were listening with big ears.
“How’s he supposed to come back?” I asked.
Tracy was ready. “My uncle says what you do is you go to the old man’s grave and you bury a penny in the dirt. He was a greedy man, he’ll smell the copper and that’ll wake him up. Then, you lie down on the grave, real flat. With your mouth close to the headstone so he can hear you, you say ‘Solomon Bell, Richmond fell’ three times. Then, he’ll dig himself right out and getcha!”
Tracy grabbed Peter. The boys shoved each other until an usherette yelled up, “Quiet chil’en!”
I was already quiet. My head was turning over a thousand thoughts at once. By the time the benediction started, I had made up my mind to show everyone that I ain’t afraid of Solomon Bell.
In the morning, I went to the house of the only lady who did washing on Monday, Sister Mary. The scrubbing and hanging took nearly all day, but by supper I had a penny. I ran down to the feed store where all the children were playing deadman’s drop on the fence. I climbed up to the highest post and yelled to Mae and Peter and all my cousins that I was gonna bring back Solomon Bell because I was wasn’t scared of nothing!
We planned the whole thing together with sticks in the sand while Mae pouted on the fence. The next night when all the grown folks were gonna be at bible study, we would each get a lamp and sneak out to Planters’ Rest. I tossed and turned all night, clutching that penny hard in my fist. I was so excited to show everyone that there was no trouble that I couldn’t face up to. They was all gonna see how brave I was. Mae tossed and turned in the bed, too. She was mad. Mad I was going. Mad that she couldn’t do nothing about it or she’d be called a Judas snitch until her dying day. When the sun rose, we were still lying awake, thinking about the grave of Solomon Bell.
Mae was real quiet all that day. She washed the floor without looking up. She pumped water without humming. She even milked the goat without a fuss. That evening after she washed the supper dishes and put on her best hat, Mama George called us up to the door for sugar, and asked the same questions she always did whenever she left us home:
“You gonna keep the doors locked?”
"Yes ma’am,” we said.
“You not gonna take the Lord’s name in vain?”
She then turned to Mae and asked, “You gonna keep your sister outta trouble?”
Mae gave a squeak instead of an answer, but Mama George was running late and didn’t hear. She grabbed her jute bag and left for church. When the door shut behind her, Mae snatched my apron and stared at me hard.
“You best tell everyone y’all ain’t goin’ anywhere tonight. You don’t know what could come your way out in the dark, and I don’t wanna find out.”
I pulled the hem out of her hands, and pushed her.
“Stay here if you want and be a baby!”
Mae pushed back and yelled, “You ain’t special! You ain’t better than anyone! If folks be scared of somethin’, its cause there’s a reason!”
“Oh, so you do think he can come back? You believe in Solomon Bell?!”
“No! But I believe in stupid! That’s what you’re bein’ right now! You payin’ mind to stuff that should be left to dust.”
“Everyone here be scared of things that ain’t dangerous no more, even Mama George! Scared of men and families long dead. But I ain’t scared and I’ll tell that right to Solomon Bell’s damn face.”
Mae slapped me across the cheek. I shoved her out my way, changed my clothes, and took a kerosene lamp out into the night.
With the lamp in one hand and the penny rattling around a jar in the other, I walked down the dirt road between the houses. As the last of the sun died behind the woods, I shook the jar like a wether’s bell, and I sang out to the other children,
“Solomon Bell sleeps in hell, and doesn’t know that Richmond fell. He’ll kill the man who dares to tell the Union truth to Solomon Bell.”
Peter slipped out his side window and fell into line behind me. Tracy came out eating a peach and followed us with a cocky smirk. The cousins appeared one by one with dim lamps and candles in cans. Soon, we were all in a procession singing our way through the dark.
“Solomon Bell sleeps in hell, and doesn’t know that Richmond fell. He’ll kill the man who dares to tell the Union truth to Solomon Bell.”
We reached Planters’ Rest just as the stars were coming out. When we went through the stones on the east side, I skipped the whole time. I was wearing my best white dress; the one Mama George was saving for when I stood up to accept the Lord. I felt like I was glowing, and all the spirits could see me and were as jealous as pharaohs. I could hear some of the footsteps behind me beginning to slow. I turned to see that Peter had huddled close to my cousins as we drew nearer to the briar patch. He shivered like he caught a chill, but I was hot with excitement. I ran over to the old well, and with my biggest, loudest voice, I called my own name down.
Hazel and Mabel, my twin cousins, started to cry. Screaming, they dropped their candles into the wet dirt and ran out of the graveyard. Tracy laughed along with me, and we were the first ones to climb through the sharp arches of briars into the west side of the Rest. Peter and the others came through slowly. Their pants and sleeves kept getting snagged in the thorns, but they eventually met me in the middle of the lot.
It was colder on this side. Thick trees full of Spanish moss blocked the sky and you couldn’t see the moon. The grass stood as high as my waist, but there were no gnats or crickets about. The ground was soft, and my shoes sank little by little when I stood in place. The headstones were jagged and mismatched. Many were small granite squares, some were crosses, and a few were wood. One, worn with time, looked like a lamb laying down. It didn’t take any time to find Solomon Bell’s stone. Like the story said, it was tall, dark gray, and looked like a pyramid that was too long.
Tracy threw his peach pit at it. It hit the carved name with a thud and bounced down onto a bare patch of soil.
“Well, go ahead girl,” Tracy said.
I pulled the penny from the jar and handed my lamp to Peter. He wouldn’t look at me. I stepped over the footstone and stood on top of that old devil.
The ground here was even wetter, and I could feel the cold damp creeping into my shoes. Dead narrowleaf and jessamine snaked across the plot, and the arms of the oak hung low enough to scratch the top of my head. I stepped close to the headstone, reading the words under Bell’s name: May no one take my Dixie. There was something not right about the engraving. It was too white, too new. Dust gathered in the corners as if we had just missed the mason.
“We’re waitin’,” Tracy whispered.
I knelt down and dug a little hole in the dirt. After I dropped the penny inside and slid the soil back over, I lied down flat on top of the grave with my head brushing up on the edge of the strange pyramid. I could feel the cold mud staining my linen dress all the way down to the slip.
“Is she gonna do it?” I could hear Peter whisper. I made sure I said the words loud enough for the whole lot to hear.
“Solomon Bell, Richmond fell. Solomon Bell, Richmond fell…”
I could feel everyone holding their breath. I don’t know why, but even I got all nervous as I repeated the words the last time, “Solomon Bell, Richmond fell!”
I kept still and waited. Still nothing.
“Is she dead?” Peter whispered.
I laughed as I stood up. My dress was ruined, but I didn’t care. I soaked in everyone’s amazement.
“Jesus Christ! Y’all see?” I said, raising my arms to the sky. “Nothing can happen! There ain’t no ghosts! Solomon Bell can be dead here all he wants. He can’t hurt anyone!”
I skipped off the grave and onto the cracking footstone. But my shoe came down wrong. I don’t know how else to say it. It fell wrong, and I landed wrong. As my weight hit, the stone sank deep into the mud, splitting the soil open. The ground gave way. The small stones gave way. A mouth had opened up. Coughing up dust, it widened as its jaws of earth fell down to swallow me.
I clung to the side of the hole, holding briars and devil grass in my fists until they bled. The grave under me kept sinking. Tree roots and rocks toppled into the void with a sick wet roar. Branches broke, and heaps of leaves and moss covered me and scratched me up. But I held on. Then, the Bell stone caved in. The top of the pyramid dropped sideways, the jagged tip caught my sash. The weight was pulling me down.
I screamed for Tracy to grab me. I yelled for Peter or the cousins or somebody to get a stick. But they were gone. They run into the woods to escape Solomon Bell. As the big stone weighed me down and my hands slipped, I just cried. I cried for my mama. I cried for Mae. I cried for the Lord to save me from the dead man’s grave. But my hands were weaker than my prayers, and I fell down.
I don’t know how long it took me to dig my way out. By the time I stumbled back to the houses, so black with grave dirt I looked a demon, the sun was long up. The neighbors were all struck dumb, letting their work sit idle as they watched me drag myself to my house. When I knocked on the door and asked to come inside, Mae fell to her knees and Mama George fell out. Tracy had told everyone I got pulled to hell, and the grown folks had given me up for dead. I didn’t care to say nothing to him. I just crawled dirty and weak into the bed, and stayed there for three days.
The whole west side of Planters’ Rest now sits inside of one great grave. It's a dark pit of tangled bones and rotting silk mixed with crosses and dead flowers. The reverend took the congregation there that night to burn herbs and bless the ghosts away. Then, the men from town came, and fenced the lot off from the world. Since that day, through all these years, we never spoke of that man or sang his rhyme again. And I am telling you this now, child, because I need you to know the story of that fenced up graveyard. I need you to know you don’t dare cross the road to it. You don’t dare look at it. I know that nothing good can come from there because I spent a night of hell with the bones of Solomon Bell.