The Rudolph family of Waynesville, Mississippi gathered around the television as usual, ready for their Monday night routine of watching a children’s show that had been a bit of a running joke between them. It was a show with a simple, silly premise—a group of mischievous kids up to no good—that was somehow inexplicably captivating. Enough of a Disney feel that it placated Mom and Dad's worries about exposing their children to too much television.
Tonight, however, the show didn't come on. Instead, static filled the screen, and Virgil Rudolph began his normal troubleshooting routine. His son Andy wanted to help his father, but Virgil was old school. He had to do these kinds of things by himself, as a man should. Virgil fiddled with the rabbit ears on top of the television set, while his wife Dara checked the connections in the back, and the two children hit the side of the set in frustration.
But nothing seemed to work, and the static remained, buzzy and constant. Then, as if by some unseen hand, the static began to clear, and the image on the screen began to sharpen. The Andy and Rowena clapped excitedly hoping that their Monday night routine of watching Roger and the Blinkers remained intact.
The family's mouths dropped in disbelief when they saw the image that slowly came into focus. It was the deck of a large, broken-down ship, engulfed in flames and bobbing in the turbulent ocean. The ship was clearly sinking, its bow slowly disappearing beneath the waves.
"Oh no, Virgil! Change the channel! Kids, cover your eyes!" Dara ordered as she set up trying to prevent her children from witnessing the horrors unfolding on the television screen before them.
But Virgil was transfixed by the horror on the screen, as was his son, Andy.
Though the family knew the ship was not real—that it was simply a video playing on the television—they could not tear their eyes away. It was as if they were looking into another world, a place of chaos and destruction that seemed to be so alive and so real.
The family noticed figures in the wreckage, clinging to the bow of the ship and desperately trying to escape. Dressed in old fashioned clothing and unable to prevent the disaster unfolding around them, the wreck victims began to slide into the ocean. Children screamed for their mothers before they drowned.
It was too late: the ship was already sinking too quickly.
Soon, the image on the television changed and the family found themselves looking at a beach, with a large crowd gathered near the shoreline. The Rudolph family watched as a row of stretchers were laid out on the sand, and people weeping and consoling each other. They knew without a doubt that this was the aftermath of the sinking ship they had just seen.
The family was in shock, unable to comprehend what they had just seen. How had this footage been captured? How had it been broadcast to their living room television set?
But the questions only increased as the television changed channels again and the family was presented with an entirely new scene: a newsroom studio, with a woman speaking in front of a large crowd. She said the footage the family had just seen was of the sinking of the HMS Titanic, a ship that had sunk in 1912, over a hundred years before the development of television and video recording.
Virgil Rudolph turned off the television, but the damage had been done. The family knew what they had just witnessed. A true shipwreck, a historical disaster no less. It was clear to them that the footage they had seen had been recorded live. But how was that possible? And it was equally clear that the people in the footage had been real, and that they had lived at least until they hit the icy water and perished.
The children wept a little as they held their parents.
Yes, the Rudolph family had just witnessed a recording of a century-old event that had taken place—as far as they could tell—in the middle of the ocean. But now, their curiosity was piqued.
The family finally made their way to bed, unable to sleep. For the first time in her life, Dara Rudolph didn't pray before bed. Instead, she asked Him questions.
God, what has the world come to? Why would You allow such a thing to happen to those people?
Eventually, Virgil Rudolph drifted off to sleep, but he was awakened by a telephone call first thing in the morning. His boss at the bank said there was an emergency meeting at the bank that morning.
After the meeting, Virgil did not return home. He arrived home only at the end of the day, after work.
"Virgil? Where have you been this whole time?" Dara asked in disbelief.
"Somewhere where I could get a chance to think about the footage we saw last night on television," Virgil responded, with a thoughtful look on his face.
"What footage? What are you talking about?" Dara asked as she finished making her famous potato salad.
"The footage of the sinking of the Titanic," Virgil said.
"What? What are you talking about?" She laughed as she poured him a glass of tea.
"I'm talking about seeing video footage of the real sinking of the Titanic that took place almost a hundred years ago," Virgil said, shaking his head. He couldn't believe he was telling his wife about what he had seen. But he knew she wouldn't laugh at him.
She set down the glass of tea and looked at him like he was crazy. "Virgil! Stop having me on. I don't know what movie you're talking about. I never saw a movie about the Titanic. Ugh. Never would I sit down and watch something like that. And neither would the kids."
"It wasn't a movie. I saw it happen. We all did, Dara! It may have been special effects, but it was real things! That all happened when the Titanic sank."
"Oh, Virgil," Dara shook her head and walked toward the television set. "The television set hasn't worked all week. Remember? You were supposed to take it to the repair shop this morning. I see that you forgot. Hey, any word on that cruise your brother Archie offered us? I'd love to take the kids on a family vacation this year."
Virgil stared at his wife as if she had three heads. Had he stepped into an alternate universe? Clearly, he and his wife had different memories of their recent life together.
Thankfully the house phone rang, and Virgil picked it up happy to have a moment to think about what was happening here.
"Rudolph residence. This is Virgil speaking."
To his surprise, the caller was his brother. They hadn't spoken since Christmas. "Hey, Virg. I've got those tickets. Pay me when you can and if you can't...well, let's just call it even. You've done so much for me."
"Yeah, you workaholic. You know, it's not a good idea to skip multiple vacations with that pretty wife of yours. She's a keeper and that means you need to keep her happy. By the way, you'll get a kick out of this year's cruise theme. Welcome Aboard the Titanic! Isn't that a hoot? I tell you; Kathy is pulling all the stops for this one. I'll pop those into the mail to you, Virg. Have a good one!"
Virgil woke up on the floor with Dara's worried face looming over him.
This couldn't be good...
The Grandfather’s words stirred a forgotten song that had long been hidden away in her memory. Low Feather hummed it to herself as she made her way through the Black Forest. They were going deep into the forest and the men she led had no idea how dangerous this trip would be for them. But Low Feather couldn’t worry about that. This is what they wanted and what they paid for. As Grandfather reminded her in the presence of Adam Darcy, the expedition leader. There was purpose to that. She had a sacred trust, the trust between the tracker and the people she led.
“A sacred trust, granddaughter. You must act honorably until trust is broken.”
“Until trust is broken,” Low Feather murmured back, their dark eyes meeting one another in the smoky cabin. “I go now. I will return soon. Stay well, Grandfather.”
“Stay well, Granddaughter.”
Low Feather wondered why her grandfather hadn’t finished the saying. Maybe, like many things, the second half of the mantra were for Cherokee ears only. Somethings the white man didn’t need to know. But she knew. She remembered. She always remembered the old stories and all of Grandfather’s sayings. Low Feather hid them in her heart and pulled them out when she needed them.
She needed them now. Low Feather left her home four days ago and trust had been broken. In ways she had not imagined. The men took from her. They abused her. Even Adam Darcy could not protect her, not that he’d tried beyond a few stern shouts. In the end, he’d gone to bed and left her to fend off the other four men by herself.
She had not been successful.
The sun was about to rise. She sensed the shifting of the air, the kind that occurs between light and dark, morning and night. She put her clothes on hurriedly ignoring the pain between her legs and in her abdomen. Time to deliver the men to their destiny. She continued to hum the half-forgotten song. Adam Darcy met her outside her tent. Her eyes met his without fear. He’d betrayed her, failed her. Failed to protect her from the wild men he’d hired.
“Low Feather, what…”
No. He isn’t going to pretend with me.
“Time to see what you came for, Darcy. Get the men up. Today is the day. Now is the moment.” And there I will leave you. Forever.
“Are we really that close? We should have pressed on last night. That would have kept the men happy.” Darcy wiped at his handlebar moustache with nervous hands. He wanted to ask me about last night but Low Feather wouldn’t allow it. How dare he make excuses for the savages. Yes, they were savages, although Low Feather and her people were often stuck with that label.
If they thought me a savage, wait until they meet my ancestors!
Low Feather walked into the woods ignoring Adam Darcy’s pleas for her to wait. She would not wait. They would find her, she would make sure of it. She broke a branch, tied a piece of fabric to it. She kicked over rocks, piled up twigs. It was taking the men some time to catch up with her. Last night’s drunken behavior had left them in a stupor apparently. She had no pity for them. They had taken her honor.
Trust had been broken. The debt must be paid.
It did not take long to come upon the cave. This had been a sacred place for her people. It was not a burial ground but a Place for Dying. Once death was achieved, the bones would be collected and gathered in a Place for Rest. No, this was a place to give up the ghost and there were many ghosts here waiting for them. The white men believed it to be a treasure house for plundering. A place that held silver and gold, but they were fools. The people of the red clay, the Cherokee cared nothing for silver and gold. Life was their treasure. The life of their tribe. The life of the people.
She was about to be one of them.
Low Feather allowed the hot tears to flow as she sang her song. The men had savagely cut her braids, keeping them as souvenirs after their dark deed. She was a maiden no longer. Her virtue stolen, Low Feather would walk into the shadow realm and seek justice there for she would find no justice in this world. But in the other world, her ancestors would deliver what she needed. All she needed to do was join them.
And when they found her, when they found the Place of Dying they would join her. They would have no choice for the dead among her people were stronger than the living among theirs.
An hour later, Adam Darcy, the Langley brothers and Arlo Tavistock were standing before the cave entrance. It didn’t take long for their eyes to make out the hanging woman.
“Oh no! Oh God! What have you idiots done? What have you done? She’s dead! Low Feather, no!” He dropped his sack of tools. This was bad. This was really bad. How would he face the Old Man now? An assault he could pay his way through that but not a death. Old Man loved his granddaughter.
He inched closer as Arlo lit a torch that lay on the ground. Maybe it wasn’t too late. Maybe he could rescue her. No, the time for rescuing was last night but he’d been afraid. Afraid of the drunken men. Afraid of what they would do. They were a murderous lot.
“Low Feather! No!” He raced toward her, Arlo beside him holding up the torch. But she was dead and already stiffening. He wanted to cut her down but something was wrong. Her head moved, the dark hair fell over her open eyes. “Did you see that?”
“What? Cut her down!”
That’s when her body swung around in a heavy movement. Suddenly, she was on the ground, on all fours, the rope still attached to her neck. She cocked her head up at them as all the men swore in unison.
Adam Darcy couldn’t move. He couldn’t run. And they weren’t alone. Low Feather rose to her feet, her head crooked to the side. She screamed like a dead wild thing.
It would be the only warning they had before the ghost swarm descended upon them.
They were never seen again.
Here's a sample!
I had kept an eye on the balcony entrance as best I could between thanking my guests, but I had not seen him step back inside. I tugged his jacket around me tighter as I ventured back out to the balcony. Besides a few potted trees and a sitting bench, I saw nothing and no one at all. I glanced around in hopes of finding my treasure, but there wasn’t a trace. Perhaps Father had collected it and planned to force me to confess the loss. That must be it! He must have it in his possession!
“Father?” I called as I stepped out a bit further. Could I have missed his return? There was no trace of him out here.
Except his shoe. Where would he have gone with one shoe? I picked it up and clutched the leather protectively. Yes, this was certainly his shoe.
I walked to the edge of the stone balcony and looked across the forested area toward Rockville. Strangely enough, the fog had lifted, disappearing as if it had never arrived. Never covered the town. Had an ocean breeze blown it away? Had I dreamed the fog? That could not be true; I wore my father’s jacket, and this was his shoe. That was no dream.
That’s when I heard a scream—a long and terrible blood-curdling scream rose up from the driveway below. A woman by the sound of it. I peered over the side of the balcony and, to my horror, saw my father’s broken body sprawled on the ground. His head was turned around backward, and his eyes stared up at me. His legs and arms were akimbo, flung out wildly like a marionette cut from his strings from a very great height. A scream of my own erupted from my lips and seemed to last forever. I cannot say how long I leaned there, over the side of the balcony staring and screaming at the sight below, but it seemed like forever.