All Hermits Died on Thursday
The six hermits of the Nantahala region of North Carolina died mysteriously yesterday. On this day, March 20th, 1899, the town elders had planned to gather the hermits together for the first time to beg their collective advice on the planned railroad and various omens of the new century.
Beard of the Ages
March 21.—The hermit of Granite City, Hoyle Thompson, choked to death on his own beard on Thursday. Mr. Buell Mae found him in his cave, at the back of the boulder field, and proceeded to pull the beard from the old timer’s mouth. According to Mr. Mae, it took three hours to pull the entire beard loose of the hermit’s clenched teeth. The coroner measured the beard at 45.8 feet long. It is the longest beard ever measured in North Carolina. He was 89 years of age. The hermit left the following note addressed to the inquisitive, dated Midnight, March 20, 1899:
“In three hours I shall be gone, feasted to death on my own magnificent beard, the pride of my life. I’ll ride the moon all the way down to hell to meet my mother and Mr. Price, my Latin teacher. Bad bowels are the cause, a phantom knife in my bladder that twists deeper each time I inhale. No one knows of my troubles. It’s my fault that no one knows or cares but I couldn’t be other than I am. I’ve loved this valley and these rocks. They’ve protected me from thieves, well-wishers, and the law. Do what you will with my carcass. Grind it, mince it, flatten it, plant a tree in it, sell it for meat, give it to science, parade it through town, cradle it, shit on it. I’m in pain, desperate pain, but I’m canny enough to know when to make an appointment with the wind.”
Last Cherokee in Nantahala
March 21.—Transylvania County, bordering near this town, has claimed for many years the only Cherokee hermit in Nantahala, in the person of James Cuttawa. Those who attempted to parley with him on Jocassee Mountain were met with a strange sight—the hermit hovering upside down, his legs splayed, his white hair touching the floor. This affrighted those coming to inquire about his health and the veins of gold reported to fill the caves beneath his cabin.
When the writer of this column opened Mr. Cuttawa’s door to beg his attendance at the hermit council, he was met with a similar sight. The hermit, clothed in deer skins, hovering upside down, his hair a white waterfall, and a string of frozen saliva running from his mouth to the floor. No pulse was detected. The writer searched for a means by which Mr. Cuttawa was suspended in the air but located none. On the boards near his head were etched or burnt these puzzling words: “Those strong footholds. For what reason did they place them beyond me?”
March 21.—Dame nature provided Imogene Bascom with all she needed. She lived for forty-nine years in the hollow of a great American chestnut tree, to which she affixed a door on rope hinges. She was well-known in the vicinity of Ellicott Rock for her herd of turkeys which numbered two dozen or more. She drove them about here and there and they flitted to the treetops whenever a thunderstorm was about to break. Reputedly, ten turkeys drowned over the years, so hypnotized were they by the storm that they gazed up at the falling rain, opening their beaks with amazement, forgetting to close them even as they brimmed with water.
A natural historian might catalogue the following curious facts about Ms. Bascom:
Hair: white as snow. Beard: only on her neck. Birthplace: Wales. Diet: berries, nuts, and sassafras tea. Favorite pastime: licking the rocks in the vicinity of her tree and the items within her tree in order to keep everything clean. Clothes: the same coonskins for forty-nine years. Literacy: Wordsworth during the day and the Bible at night. Slept on: turkey feathers and leaves, usually on her stomach. In this position she was found dead. The turkeys gathered in a circle around her tree, their heads bowed. Today they were rounded up by Mr. Willoughby to be plucked.
March 21.—Doctor Beardsley Drake, a gentleman famous for physick, philosophy, and his lust for curiosities, set out Thursday to meet the wonderful old hermit of Bearwallow Falls, aged 389 years. Soon his spyglass revealed the hermit, bathing in nothing but God’s clothing in a pool beneath the remote waterfall. In a strange accent the hermit welcomed Dr. Drake and led him along a narrow ledge behind the roaring water to his haunt. The cave was exceedingly damp with spray. The hermit’s beard resembled a giant fox tail coiled around a leather belt.
The hermit pointed out a bit of rusty armor at the back of his cave, which he claimed he wore in the days of Hernando de Soto, when the Spaniard sought a fortune of gold in Western North Carolina. He recalled how he had crossed the Little Tennessee River with that great conquistador, found that its waters flowed westward, and concluded that the New World was much vaster than anyone supposed (it was he, a young though brilliant soldier, who had first elaborated this idea to de Soto). In his strange accent the hermit lamented how he had been left behind in a small fort to protect the Spanish interest, learn the native language, and convert the Cherokee to Christianity—all with a promise that de Soto would one day return, which he never did.
The hermit drank nothing but water from Bearwallow Falls. Dr. Drake, in search of more detailed information, and desiring to study the hermit’s teeth, loins, and forehead more closely, plied him with whiskey. Upon the first gulp of liquor, the hermit fell into spasms, foamed like a dog and died.
Astronomer No More
March 21.—For thirty-nine years Anson Ham lived alone near the headwaters of the beautiful Tuckaseegee River. He was an astronomer of no mean repute. Mr. Ham, a freedman, left the vicinity of Charleston after the War, seeking a space free of the mental and physical chains of the past, where he could pursue his research without threat or calumny. Mr. Ham maintained a twirling mustache rather than the customary beard of the Appalachian hermit.
Anson’s house resembled a metal boat. It lay deep in a pine and hemlock forest, but in a great clearing in those woods, so that his lenses could pierce the night sky without obstruction. Scores of telescopes of different lengths poked out from his land-locked boat, like pins in a pincushion. He hypothesized that Saturn’s ring is not liquid, nor a single solid ring, but rather thousands of tiny ringlets made of particles of ice—a radical theory at odds with accepted science. He also hypothesized that there is a massive body, possibly a planet, beyond Neptune.
He catalogued his discoveries in a tome kept on his mantel. When I visited him on Tuesday, Mr. Ham appeared well and in good spirits, until I casually took down his book of wonders from the mantel to peruse its contents. Upon seeing me do this, a change came over his face. I did not ask permission to read it, yet my purpose was benign: a mere friendly interest. He snatched the book from my hand. He ripped out a page and ate it. He ripped out another page and ate it. I hastened from his abode. On Thursday Mr. Ham’s body was found glutted with paper, his belly a massive balloon, ink leaking from his eyes—thus taking his discoveries with him to the grave.
March 21.—The impossible has occurred. Musidorus, the Ur-Hermit, this region’s first creature—appearing before the Scotch-Irish, Germans, Spanish, Cherokee, panthers, bears, and foxes—has died. He did not occupy a particular mountaintop or valley, as many readers of this obituary doubtlessly know. He occupied all mountaintops in Nantahala. This is why some called him the All Hermit, rather than Ur-Hermit, though those fondest of him simply called him Musidorus.
It was a familiar scene. Panting, with a stitch in your side, you finally crested a particular summit. Say that of Whiteside Mountain, Big or Little Green Mountain, Chinquapin or Satulah Mountain. You’d come across a sweeping view of the tangled knots of mountain, valley, hollow, and hill that distinguishes this corner of the world. If you felt the landscape deep in your bones your eyes might swim with tears—so many old memories, such intricate webs of flora, fauna, and rock; so much past and future. It was then, as the light refracted through the glaze of your tears, that you’d infallibly see Musidorus sitting on a warm bubble of sparkling rock, caught in a ray of light, even when the heavens dumped snow or at midnight—yes, even at midnight you would see that ray of honey-colored light break the darkness. And there he’d be. His beard pouring down the mountainside in waterfalls, the strands twirling around and grasping the distant hills like tentacles. He would sit in a full lotus posture, meditating, his hands resting in his lap, his thumbs lightly touching, breathing, simply breathing, the most placid expression on his face. His eyes would open just wide enough to see you. Slowly he would un-touch his thumbs and raise a palm; and just as you touched that palm, and the stars circled around your heart, he would vanish.
After the tragedy and ominous coincidence of the five human hermits dying on the same day, every journalist of the Nantahala Herald and every community member worth their salt sought the mountaintops at dusk to beseech Musidorus’s council. Through our tears, we all saw the same thing. And we mourn this curse. Instead of a ray of light from outer space, and that peaceful ancient at its far end, barely touching the earth with his rump, there was something else: a gash in the air, viscera on the rocks, and tiny hairs spreading outwards like a beard detonated.
Gregory Ariail lives and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, The Offing, Diagram, Juked, and others.