NOTE: This story involves the racism encountered by African Americans in the rural United States, particularly during the 19th and early 20th centuries. As such, this story may be offensive to some. Please proceed with discretion.
My family could be pretty racist. I grew up in more modern times, and always considered everyone an equal. However, it was an attitude that I had to hide from my parents. I could never bring friends home who weren’t white. Through my childhood, this attitude gave way to a lot of stories about where my parents came from; Rural, isolated Southern Ohio in the 1950’s. I was born there, in a small town outside of St. Clairsville, but was quickly moved to Cleveland when my dad got a decent job offer. They always regretted leaving their small town roots, but I was happy. I could have ended up like them.
Eventually, my dad softened his views, and started to see that good people could be good people, no matter what their skin was or where they came from. One night, we sat by our wood burning stove in the basement of our nice house in a suburb outside of Cleveland. He poured each of us a shot of bourbon. He said he needed to tell me something that he’d never told anyone, a story from when he was growing up. He seemed concerned, which was rare, because he was always very stern and composed. A look of fear was in his eyes that I’d only seen a few times. We sat down, he poked the fire a bit, nervously. He had always told me a seemingly-comical racist story about a fake restaurant near his hometown called Nigger Chicken Necks. The “joke” was that they served bad food and hated white people. Before he started the story, he looked at me, right in the eyes, which he never did, and said, “I need to tell you the truth about Nigger Chicken Necks.” He started the story.
The year was around 1971, and my dad and his friend Cal were driving around late at night, listening to Led Zeppelin 8 tracks in Cal’s big old drop-top Cadillac. They drove through Cambridge, through the small, low income town the locals called Dogtown, and made their way east. They were a little drunk, but no drugs or anything like that. They lost track of time, and ended up hitting the end of the line at the Ohio River. They weren’t sure how to get back, as they hadn’t really been paying attention, so they figured they’d head south until they found I-70 and hop on there to get home. The area they were driving in along the river became more and more wooded, and side roads began to dwindle until they hadn’t seen one for 25 or so miles.
Eventually, panicked, they pulled over for a few minutes to get their bearings, as they were both 18 and weren’t familiar with the area, as well as filled with the typical teenage paranoia. Cal saw a sign with some moss over it a few yards up ahead, so they drove up to see if they had finally found a town. They took the moss off of the sign. It was an old wooden sign that read, “Coon Holler, Ohio.” Neither of them had ever heard of it, and they’d never seen it on a map, but they figured they could call Cal’s dad and he could tell them how to get home from there. They continued on past the sign, and ended up in a tiny, seemingly abandoned town. All of the buildings and homes were extremely small by 1970’s standards, and many of them were grown over with brush. There were maybe 9 or 10 homes, a small church, a tiny wooden school building, and what may have been a tavern. No lights on in any of the buildings. They figured one of the buildings may still have a phone, since there were a few electric poles running into the town. They decided on the tavern.
They approached the shack of a place, and on the door was a sign that said, “nigger comes in, he don’t leave” handwritten on a wooden plank. They figured it was just a sign of the times from when this was a town way back when. They entered the place after a fight with the aging door, and found nothing of use. It was apparently a tavern at some point, but everything was covered with a thick layer of dust. Spider webs connected the chairs and tables like twine, and the back of the bar held several ancient liquor bottles. Cal, being funny, went and opened one of the old bottles. “This shit smells like paint thinner!” he yelled to my dad, who was still looking around, hoping for any sign of life at this point. Cal took a drink from the old bottle, and instantly jumped back with his hand over his mouth, dropping the bottle, which shattered on the floor. He removed his hand, and blood trickled from his tongue, which appeared to have been burnt by the old booze. He went to the sink behind the bar, hoping for water. No such luck. He turned the faucet, and reddish—yellow muck blasted from the tap. My dad motioned for them to get out of there, and Cal, panting like an overheated animal, followed suit.
The two gathered their bearings once more, and took a quick look around to see which way they had come from. The road, which had been directly behind them, was no longer there, replaced by what looked like 100 years of overgrown vines, thorn bushes and brush. Cal panicked. “The fuck, what the fuck do we do now?” he yelled. They jumped in the car and took off, past the single row of houses, and onto the only street. Several miles down the wooded road, there was a massive tree on the right side with a large carving in it, which had stood the test of time. It said, “DO YOU WANT TO BE SAVED FROM THIS HELL?” Under the words was an arrow pointing to the right. Past the tree, a small path stretched to the right, not quite big enough for a car, but seemingly too big for just walking. The two decided this may be their last hope, though they expected more abandoned buildings. They hopped out, put the cloth roof up on the car, locked in, and started walking down the path.
The air seemed to get hotter as they moved, more humid, to the point where they were pouring sweat, and breathing became difficult. After walking for 15 or so minutes, they began to hear a commotion. It sounded like a party. People yelling, cheering, and music, singing. Instantly, they broke out running towards the sound, knowing that someone was out there who could likely help. They saw light, which turned out to be coming from a shack on the left side of the path another few yards down. The shack looked ancient. It was covered in vines, the wood appeared to be rotting its way off of the structure, and a badly rusted sheet metal roof, with pieces missing, sat on top. This was the source of the noise. Cal and my dad walked towards the shack. A single window on the front, caked in dust, showed light inside, it looked like fire burning inside of the place. The doors were no more than old, saloon-style swinging doors, so they walked in.
The place reeked of vomit and grease, as well as harsh liquor. The source of the noise sat in the left corner, where an old black man of about 60 with tattered clothes sat with a badly worn acoustic guitar. His gravelly voice sang, “Jesus is on the main line…” and a crowd of 10 or so other black men in front of him finished, “just tell him what you want!” Several others sat at tables closer to the door, eating some sort of awful looking (and smelling) fried food.
At this time, the two made several realizations. Everyone in here wore the same battered clothing, with rope around their waists. Also, the layout of the inside of this place was identical, down to the last detail, of the abandoned tavern they had encountered in Coon Holler. Finally, they were shaken to realize that all of the people in here were black. They were all large, muscular black men, none looking under 30 or so. Their teeth were all badly decayed, some completely grey. There didn’t appear to be any women, until they looked behind the bar. A large black woman stood behind the bar, glaring at them with her arms crossed tightly. She seemed to be the only one to notice their arrival. She turned to the collection of bottles behind the bar, took two of them and clinked them together softly. Instantly, the music from the back corner stopped. Suddenly, everyone in the place was looking at them.
Their looks spoke hatred. None of them moved, however, as if they were waiting for something. Footsteps from their right side. A man walked out from a back room. He was a black man, heavy set, around 6’5” with a chest-length salt and pepper beard. He was dressed nicely, in a dusty tailored suit and wide-brimmed hat, though not a cowboy hat. His face wore a grin that sent chills through my dad and Cal, and his eyes gleamed “like those of the devil.” He approached them slowly, until he was only a few feet away. He shone them a massive smile. Perfect, Alpine-white teeth lined his mouth, unlike the others in the place. He spoke calmly, in a smooth, surprisingly alto voice with a thick, unplaceable accent.
“Why’d you come?” He had a hint of sarcasm, amusement, in his voice, like he was taunting them. Cal spoke up. “We….got lost.” My dad described it as difficult to think, it was easy to get “lost” in the big man’s eyes. Neither broke their fixation on his eyes for the entire encounter, as he recalled. The big man spoke again. “Nah, nah, boys, you came here for a reason, whether you know it or not.” He grinned that big smile again, before turning to the crowd gathered around them and saying, louder, “what say we show these boys what they came here to see?” The crowd cheered as the big man turned to the woman behind the bar. “Pour these boys a drink!” he bellowed. His voice seemed to shake the foundations of the ramshackle building. Two men grabbed Cal and my dad and sat them at a table. The big woman walked over to the bar with a dented platter carrying two shots of some sort of liquor. The big man sat at the table across from them.
The two men who had so kindly seated them were now standing behind them, wielding grass hooks and old, rotted wooden boards. They didn’t appear to be threatening, however, as if their lives depended on the next word the big man spoke. The big man’s voice became much more sinister. “Drink up, boys.” Not knowing what else to do, they took the shots. It was bourbon. The most excellent bourbon my dad could ever recall tasting. He looked to Cal to see that everything around them was now faded.
A dark hue fell over the room they were in. Everything was the same, except that there was some commotion outside. They looked out the window. A wooden cross stood, burning, in the street in front of the building. Men in white hoods stood around it, mumbling, in unison. It was tough to make out, but my dad’s Catholic schooling told him that it was Latin. Suddenly, the big man brushed by them, looking out the window. He didn’t seem to be aware that they were there. A woman crying. Cal and my dad turned to the bar, where they saw the big woman slumped over the bar, crying. The big man turned to her, “let them sweetie. They don’t know what they messin’ with.” He chuckled. He didn’t seem concerned in the slightest. The big man walked to the door, reached in his pocket, and retrieved a handful of orange powder. He tossed it to the floor near the doorway. The woman yelled, “he ain’t gon’ be here! No, no, this ain’t gon’ happen!” The big man spoke back, “oh, he’ll be here, but he ain’t gon’ hurt nobody.” He seemed coldly confident in whatever was about to happen. He took a seat at a table, he seemed to look at Dad and Cal, and said, “now, we wait.”
They turned back to the window, where a hideous……thing had its face nearly pressed against the window glass. A frightening morph between a human and…a goat, maybe? Its face was long, very long, and thin, with a pointed chin, and very small, emotionless, animal-like eyes, a tiny, featureless mouth, and a ring through the two black dots that made up its nose, like a bull. Dad and Cal jumped back in fear. The big man seemed unfazed. He sat, sipping a small glass of whiskey, as if this was nothing new. He looked to the door he had walked out of when Dad and Cal first saw him, and yelled, “Grandmama, he’s here.” A black woman began to walk out. She looked ancient, probably in her 90’s at least, with a tattered white scarf around her head, resting on her forehead. She wore a similarly tattered white dress, with some sort of symbols painted crudely in black paint around her waist. She didn’t speak. She was clearly having a lot of trouble walking, but she moved slowly to the window, where she came face to face with the creature, which had not moved. She seemed to stare it directly in the face, and for what was only a few minutes, neither of them moved, though it seemed like hours.
Finally, the creature began to move back from the window. It stood on two legs, and was rail thin. It had the body of a man, except it had no feet, only stumps, and its hands had four long fingers each with long, brown, rotted fingernails. Its skin was a very pale off-white, and had occasional tufts of stringy, grey hair. A commotion began behind the creature outside. Cal and dad refused to move, but my dad mentioned at this point that the presence of the old woman was strangely comforting, as if she was his own grandmother. He nudged Cal, and pulled him down into a chair next to him at a beaten, round wooden table, opposite the big man, who sat sipping his drink and chuckling to himself with confidence.
The chanting outside became louder. My dad’s head began to clear, and he listened closely to what the chants were. The phrase, “give him strength,” over, and over again. It grew louder and louder until the group sounded as if they were in the room, rather than yards away on the little dirt path. The old woman, who still stood at the window, staring defiantly at the creature, gave a little cough. She began to rasp, a harsh, hacking cough, and suddenly fell to her knees. The big man’s confidence disappeared at that moment, and he jumped from his seat and went to her side, where he attempted to lift her into the chair he had previously occupied.
My dad could see that she was now coughing up blood. This entire time, the old woman hadn’t said a word, but now, she looked up at the big man, who held her in his arms similar to a child, and a frail voice began speaking. It was a different language, which the big man responded in, tears welling in his eyes. The old woman scratched out a few more words, followed by a harsh cough, and it became clear that she had died. The big man laid her down on the floor, wiped his tears, and promptly flew into a rage. He grabbed the table Cal and my dad had been leaning on, which easily weighed several hundred pounds, lifted it like a piece of plywood and hurled it out the window in front of them, which shattered along with the shoddy frame around it. He approached the window, looking like he could take on the devil, and shouted in the language he shared with Grandmama.
The creature, which had backed up about 30 yards from the window, was now slowly walking forward with its arms outstretched (like Frankenstein, my dad said.) The big man shifted out of his language, and his voice brimmed with rage. “Come on, then!” he shouted at the thing, which drew closer to the open hole in the wall that used to be a window.
Dad and Cal had grown used to the big woman’s sobbing, drowning it out amidst the chanting and the big man’s shouting. Now, she looked up and shouted at the big man, “Kay, you old fool, you ain’t gon’ stop ‘him!’” She placed a sharp emphasis on the word, “him.” By this point, the creature had reached the window, its outstretched hands nearly at the big man’s chest. In a swift motion, the creature lifted its arms. With that, the big man lifted off his feet, suspended by nothing, and was thrown back against the stone fireplace on the opposite wall. In a liquid motion, the creature slithered in the window like a snake, its arms still outstretched, and seemed to focus towards the big woman, who had begun hurling liquor bottles and ceramic bowls at the creature, none of which affected it. The creature let out a hoarse, inhuman cackle, and the big woman’s eyes grew wide as her hands reached to her throat. The creature, several feet away, was somehow choking her. She slumped to the ground with a final gasp.
The creature, who didn’t seem to be aware of Cal and dad’s presence, turned and looked straight at them, a featureless, emotionless glare that gave my dad “the feeling of a cold hand squeezing his lungs,” and brought its hand to its featureless mouth, lifted a bony, dead finger, and gave them the “be quiet” signal. Cal and dad both felt their blood run cold at the possibility that this thing was aware of them, but instead, it walked past them to the dented silver drink platter on which the big woman had brought them their bourbon, which was now sitting on the bar. It picked up the platter, and held it out, as if looking into it like a mirror. The creature in front of them wasn’t in the reflection, instead was an even more terrifying sight.
Staring back at the creature from the platter was a beast that can’t be properly described with words. It had a long, triangular face, but with more curved features. It had massive, maniacal, bulging eyes, and a large, upside-down triangular mouth, stretched into a freakishly wide grin, it’s rows of pointed teeth exposed as it stared back at the creature. The beast in the reflection was bald, with thick, purple veins running across its head, and behind the beast, glowing fire whipped and whirled. Within a second, the beast reached an arm out of the reflection, wrapped a blistered-red hand around the thin creature’s face, and yanked it into the platter, which clattered to the floor without a trace of either being. My dad turned, his mouth open in shock, to Cal, who shared a similar expression. The old shack was suddenly quiet. No more chanting, not a sound.
The next thing either of them remember is waking up, laying on their backs on the dirt path. It seemed to be around the morning, as the sun was rising. They got to their feet and looked for the shack, which was no longer where it had once stood. Instead, a single, burning plank of wood sat crackling where the shack had been.
“Man, I thought you guys were goners,” a voice came from a few feet away. They turned to see a young black guy, probably around their age, who was sitting on the ground, but now jumped to his feet. “You guys smell like some strong booze. I came walking down here and tried to wake you when I found you, but I figured it might be safer to let you sleep it off.” Dad and Cal looked at each other, confused. The black guy reached out his hand. “Kema Isiuwa Jr., nice to meet you.” (My dad had to ask how his name was spelled, it was pronounced, “kay-mah.” that’s how I know.) Both shook his hand before he spoke again. “I dunno how to ask you this, if I’m wrong, you’re gonna think I’m crazy.” Dad and Cal looked at each other again, somehow knowing that he knew about what they had seen. “Papa Kay gave you two the shots, didn’t he?” Kema chuckled uncomfortably. Dad and Cal both nodded in affirmation. Dad gathered himself, and asked, “what the fuck was all of that?”
Kema nodded in understanding. He turned to a well-kept brick red International pickup. He walked to the bed of the truck, dug out several wooden folding chairs and a paper bag. He set up the chairs in a wide triangle, before pulling out a brown leather-covered flask and several small glasses. “There ain’t no easy way to explain this without a drink,” he chuckled, his voice lacking the southern twang common to this area. Dad and Cal each took a seat, with Kema taking the third. He poured each a shot of what looked like whiskey. They stared at the full glasses uncomfortably. Noticing the looks, Kema chuckled again. “Don’t worry, it ain’t quite as sweet as what Papa Kay gave you.” Assuming he understood the situation, they both took a small sip. Jim Beam.
“You boys know where Benin (bay-neen, it’s pronounced) is?” he asked. They both nodded, “no.” “It’s a little country in the west of Africa, where voodoo comes from,” Kema started. “The big man you saw, that was my dad, Kema senior. My family all come from Benin. I’m third generation.” Dad and Cal waited anxiously for some explanation for what they experienced. Kema pulled out a brown envelope from the passenger seat of his truck, opened it, and carefully removed what looked like a newspaper in a plastic sleeve. He handed it to my Dad, who held it so he and Cal could both read. The front page had a big picture of a group of black men huddled together, wearing the torn clothing dad and Cal had seen the men in the shack wearing. In the center were the big man, the big woman, and Grandmama, smiling. The headline read, “local slave watering hole burned after mysterious fire.” The story explained that a bar owned by local freeman, Mr. Kema, and his family was burned to the ground, though no cause of the fire was listed. The paper was dated August 17, 1874.
“Slavery didn’t quite go away when it was supposed to,” Kema laughed. “The farmers around here still used all kinds of slavery. You gotta have police to uphold the laws, and there was never a police force in Coon Holler.” Dad looked at him, “you still haven’t explained what the hell happened to us.” Kema laughed and told them, “I’m getting there, white boy, just hang on, it’ll all make sense.”
Kema started again, “my family practiced voodoo for hundreds of years in Benin. That was our Christian, you know? They and the other slaves brought it here with them. Before you get confused, it will be easier to just accept that anything crazy you think you know about voodoo is probably true, and it does happen. Now, my father was freed after an uprising that saw a family of white farmers slaughtered.” Kema sighed quietly. “I’m not proud of it, but I get that they did what they had to do.
My dad opened up that little watering hole that you saw to try and provide for the local workers, give ‘em someplace safe, you know? You know sure as hell the farmers weren’t givin’ them any booze. The locals called it ‘ol Nigger Chicken Necks, because the food was just about anything they could get. Anyway, they kept on practising voodoo, and the local Klan figured it out. The Klan around here weren’t just your old hillbillies, neither. All of the school board, the police from the surrounding towns, all of them were in on it. However, they sure as shit didn’t wanna start a fight in a bar with a bunch of farm workers with muscles big as their bellies, did they? They heard from somebody that guns don’t work on black men, ‘cause of the voodoo.” He laughed again before continuing, “so, they decided to try using some of that voodoo against them. They went to the slaves and beat and tortured the rituals out of them. They wanted to summon a demon.” Kema’s jovial tone took a dark turn at this point.
“I still don’t know what they did, but they succeeded. One night, they rolled up on Papa Kay’s place, full as it coulda been, man. They start doing their stuff, sayin’ their chants, and this little demon come walkin’ outta the woods. They didn’t think it was gonna work, so they just pointed to the bar. The little demon went walkin’ up to the bar, and Grandmama, she sent him back where he came from. Now, I don’t know the truth, but my family always said that Grandmama had a ‘direct line’ to whoever she needed to talk to, you know? Nobody knew what she did to keep that little guy away, but she did, a couple different times.” Kema’s eyes began tearing up, tears streaked down his cheeks as he continued.
“Then came the night you saw, the night Papa Kay want everyone to see. Those boys called up that little demon, but each time they’d done it, he got stronger. That was the night that Grandmama couldn’t fight him anymore. I don’t know for sure, but the demon those men brought up was old Scratch’s right-hand man, you know? He supposedly idn’t the smartest, but god damn, if he ain’t mean. He went and tore that place to bits, as you saw, and the rumor is that Scratch took him right back when he was done.”
Cal and my dad looked at each other, trying to process what they were hearing. The story made…too much sense. They’d seen the demon, the thin creature who was supposedly the devil’s most trusted servant. They both shuddered when they realized, the beast in the reflection, was the devil himself. Smiling maniacally with pleasure at the destruction and misery his own slave had caused.
Dad finally spoke up. “Did they all really die that night?” Kema gave a heavy sigh. “Yeah, he got ‘em. The local black man’s doctor said that Grandmama’s heart had failed, Papa Kay’s spine shattered, and his wife, Mama Kay, had her windpipe crushed from someone chokin’ on her.”
All of them sat back, quietly pondering how all of this transpired. Kema spoke up, once more. “Listen, guys, I’m sorry you had to go through that. I’m still not sure what to tell people, so I live nearby and come visit every now and then to make sure Papa Kay don’t make nobody go too crazy.” They all gave a laugh before he went on. “I don’t know how to ask you this, but were they good people? Cal and dad gave each other puzzled looks. “I’ve never seen it. Papa Kay don’t want me to see. Too much pride, I think.”
Cal spoke up, finally freeing his tongue, and gave my dad a knowing glance before looking back to Kema with a warm smile and saying, “best damn whiskey we’ve ever had.”
Kema gave them a lift back to their car, and they made it home by early evening. Their parents, perhaps too confident in their children, hadn’t called the police and figured they’d make it home.
As my dad wrapped up the story, I found myself wondering how he could have ever been a racist after seeing what people like Kema’s family had gone through. It disappointed me a little bit, honestly, and over time, I’ve thought about it a lot, but I still don’t feel like it’s right to ask. As my dad knows all too fucking well, some things aren’t meant to be explained.