We’re pleased to present a sample from Thayer Berlyn’s dark fantasy / supernatural suspense novel The Evangeline Heresy, about a mysterious woman and the doctor who is determined to uncover the truth.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
The notes of Dr. Ethan Broughton
It was the morning some kind of holy sprite dropped from a flowering hawthorn tree.
In the spring of 1935, Dr. Leland Broughton and two colleagues were hiking alongside the Cutler creek in search of a rare botanical, known in mountain lay term as blue poke: a delicate wild plant with a velvety sapphire blossom resembling a small pouch. When squeezed between the fingertips, this scarce bloom produces a warm, purplish juice with acute antiseptic properties. Broughton discovered reference to the plant in the writings of one Dr. Charles Holt from Durham, who, himself, described an observation of its curative powers in 1928, at the hands of a “granny” in East Tennessee.
The wonder of either testimony or madness came when the adventurous Dr. Broughton clipped the backside of a nesting pit viper with his boot heel.
Flushed under the maturating toxin spreading from his inner thigh, Broughton waited alone for his comrades to return with aid, by way of a homestead not a quarter mile down creekside. Through a sediment of increasing delirium, he watched the milky figure of a strikingly pale young woman slip from her hidden perch on a nearby hawthorn branch and, with preternatural calm, move closer to assess the wound with a critical eye. She whispered, then, an unusual inquiry, which brushed against Broughton’s ear like the swaying fronds of a wild fern. He breathed a heavy gasp in response, nearly losing consciousness when the woman’s front teeth molded into the grooved fangs of the deadly serpent. He cried out, in agony, when those hollow spears tore deep into the injury.
Extracting the blood from the wound, with a force so voracious it seemed the very bone and sinew spattered on the earth and woodland foliage, she spewed the lethal venom in one cyclonic whirl into the humid air. The ghostly creature then slithered away, as would the serpent, the sound of her body sliding through the brush until there was no sound beyond the buzzing swirl of insects and the single call of a cat bird, somewhere in the surrounding forest trees.
And this is how the good doctor’s two colleagues and three local woodsmen found him: asleep and the tourniquet removed; the wound salved with a purplish and gummy liquid.
“The Evangeline,” one of the local men said. “The witch.”
When pressed for an explanation, the men offered none as they silently devised a rudimentary stretcher to assist the injured man down to the old gravel road, and the back end of a dented Ford pickup truck. The departing advice, however, was clear: that it was unwise for strangers to trespass these hills; that the blue poke was an elusive bloom and not simply for the taking; that a man might live a hundred years, yet never come across one.
With this unlikely tale, came the scar my grandfather bore until his death in 1981, a scar too deep for the initial tear of a pit viper at that water’s edge so long ago. It is the sort of yarn one files in the ledgers of family lore and I would have willingly done this but for a similar account recorded in the diary of a Union soldier, left for dead after a twilight skirmish in West Virginia in 1863. Saved by the auspice of, “…a monstrous pale angel,” my grandfather kept a facsimile of the diary entry in his own private journal, as perhaps a talisman of an amorphous and disoriented brotherhood whose mortal salvation came down to shared mystery.
Perhaps I might have continued to dismiss either chronicle as a mirage born from trauma, but a chance introduction at a biodiversity seminar in Chicago in 1996 stirred an old ghost. It was during that summer conference, I met a teacher and former Vista volunteer who made mention of Appalachian folk tales; a blue poke botanical and an unusual healer living on Porringer Hill in East Tennessee.