The woman in the dark

Saturday, June 15, 2024
William Northcutt is a writer for the State Gazette and former Professor of English at Dyersburg State

Several hundred yards away from the main gravel road, sat our house, its front porch light having little impression on the darkness of the thick woods.

Animals chirped, hooted, barked, howled, screeched, sang, and bleated. Nature let itself be heard, telling us that it owned everything, no matter what the land deed said.

This dark morning at 2 a.m., my siblings, my mother, and I slept deeply. My father worked in Nashville. Afternoon shift. He drove two hours both ways from our home in Clifton, Tennessee, making it home hours after midnight.

All was quiet in the house, and then it wasn’t. Violent sounds woke us. A man was screaming words we couldn’t understand. Kicks against the door threatened to splinter it.

People will say that when they are scared, they feel a tingle going up their spine. I didn’t. I felt convulsions start in my guts and travel through my chest and into my throat. Someone grabbed a gun, and we followed our dread into the living room.

Mom opened the door, and Dad stood there white-faced and confused. “Are you okay? The kids?” he said in a panic to Mom, “Who’s in the house?” That’s when Mom noticed a woman standing beside Dad.

She wore a torn and dirty nightgown. Her stringy gray hair was full of twigs, dirt, and cockleburs. She was old and fragile, her arms and shins pricked and slightly bleeding.

Dad pulled Mom aside, saying “Lucy, I came around the corner and saw her on the porch. Shocked me. She told me there was a man in the house trying to kill you and the kids.” Dad was almost breathless, had a hard time getting out the words. “She said he’d cut her and had a knife and was in here to kill every one of you. She lifted her nightgown and showed me her legs. They were bleeding, and she said, ‘He’s cut me, and he’s going to cut them too.’”

Mom replied, “James it’s okay. That’s Mamie Wooten. Her kids have been looking for her. She got away from them. She’s lost her mind.”

She turned on the lights and took the woman by the hand, seating her in a chair at the dining table. Mom stepped away and phoned Miss Mamie’s son.

We kids huddled in the doorway to watch and listen. She said that her husband had been chasing her through the woods, that he beat her and the children, made them eat raw meat. She said he had a knife and she’d been running for hours to get away from him. He was a mean drunk. No matter how they tried to please him, he’d beat them. Starve them. Humiliate them.

She gave some details, and we knew that she held back on some of the more gruesome facts. She said she’d been running from him all night, through the woods. He’d catch up and cut her again and again, and she’d break free.

In reality, her husband had been dead for more than a decade. Her kids were all grown and had families of their own. She was reliving the terror as she spoke. Eventually, the son and his wife came to pick up Mamie. They brought a jacket for her and wrapped it over her shoulders, led her to the car, and drove off.

Mom and Dad sat at the table, giving Dad some time to calm down. “She’s been running through the woods all night,” Mom said. “No wonder her legs were cut up.” “Sad life,” Dad said, “so sad.”

The next morning, as my siblings and I rode to school, we saw flimsy, tattered cloth stuck to the barbed wire fence. It was Mamie’s ripped up robe. We were kids, and it was an exciting, sensational detail, but we all felt sad for Miss Mamie and her kids and her so broken in her old age. I hope that we became more empathetic because of that night. I’d like to believe that we took that experience and somehow used it to be kinder to people who need kindness. I think we did. I think we taught our kids that.

Mom and Dad couldn’t take away the hurt that woman felt. They couldn’t ease her mind, and neither could her own children. They put her in a home. I don’t think she lasted very long after that.