|Bibb Graves Bridge, First Presbyterian Church|
|Photo by Wetumpka Herald|
Story By: Patrick Brian Miller
Tourism Attractions: Cahawba state park/Wetumpka scenic river trail
Location: Cahawba, AL/Wetumpka, AL
Father Jonathan Brady snapped away from his doleful thoughts as the rusted red Bronco jolted over another jagged pothole on the dirt road leading towards his punishment. The noxious fumes of dust-laced oil saturated the steamy, unforgiving air that blasted across him through the cracked window. Behind them, a thick trail of dust kicked high into the air, blurring any thought of his retreat. Before them lay a long, twisted trail of eroded dirt and endless pines baking in the mid-August noon.
The sweat-soaked face of his driver, Nick Broder, had become more and more anxious as they came closer to the small town of Phoenix, their destination. Nick’s inane, constant chatter had become slowly sporadic and then blessfully buried underneath a gritty resolve to arrive at--and then quickly leave--the dreaded place.
Brady recalled again the ridiculous rumors and myths surrounding the isolated, abandoned town of Phoenix, empty of life save for the solitary priest whom Brady would soon replace. But despite the stories, the only fear that Phoenix aroused in him was a desperate recognition that his career was doomed. What had he done that would cause the Bishop to inflict this assignment upon him? Of course he hadn’t connected well with the rural, simple-minded parishioners who had made up his first congregation. But then why not reassign him back up North, or even perhaps overseas, where he could make a real difference?
Brady’s dream had always been to work in the Vatican, but instead he had been assigned to a small, country parish in the deep South. He had always tried to hide his disdain and disappointment from his congregation, but their beady eyes must have seen through his thin mask of cordiality. They had answered his inner thoughts by complaining to the Bishop, he was sure. And his punishment: an assignment to this awful place that time had long since passed over.
|The ruins of Crocheron Mansion in Cahawba, the|
inspirational setting for Phoenix. Click to enlarge.
Photo by Old Cahawba, Alabama Historical Commission
Phoenix had once been a thriving cotton town in antebellum days. As the county seat before the War, it had once boasted its prosperity with impressive, graceful mansions and a picturesque town square dominated by a stately courthouse. But Yankee raiders had burned much of the town to the ground. Undaunted, the town had quickly resurrected itself around a new, shiny red brick cotton gin factory that prospered for twenty wonderful years. However, a fated flash of lightning had burned it to the ground as well, leaving only a broken, brick skeleton. A single tower was left standing to guard the tomb of rubble.
Ten years after the fire, a terrible flood had washed away the remnant of inhabitants still determined to live in this cursed abode. So, around the turn of the last century, Phoenix had begun its long, lonely existence as a ghost town, visited only through the courage of teens who had lost a dare from their peers.
Five years ago, the Church had sent Phoenix its first semi-permanent resident. The small church that had once served slave owners and barely lasted long enough to see segregation had been quietly reclaimed and rededicated by the Church. The purpose of this newly consecrated church was still a mystery, even to Brady. He could only hope that Father Kelso, its first pastor, might shed some light on the matter before he left Brady with only the company of his unsatisfied curiosity.
A sudden hiss of white smoke from underneath the hood brought Brady back to his surroundings.
“Damn!” shouted Nick, with a sudden guilty glance at Brady. “Sorry, Father.”
The Bronco slid to a halt on the dusty road, and Nick stepped out and lifted the hood. A flurry of smoke shot out, causing Nick to erupt into a few more involuntary curses. Brady stepped out, too, grateful to escape the sauna of the vehicle.
“How bad is it?” asked Brady reluctantly.
Nick sighed in frustration.
“The radiator is busted bad, Father. We’re gonna need some help.”
Brady glanced around at the Southern wilderness. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out his cell phone.
“I’m not sure if this will work out here,” confessed Brady, “but it’s worth a try.”
He squinted at the hazy glare on the small screen before twisting it into his shadow. With little hope, he pressed the power button, only to be greeted by a no-service signal.
Nick looked up and down the dirt road and came to a realization.
“It should work at the top of that hill a few miles back, Father,” Nick offered.
Brady stared without enthusiasm at the still-spreading blanket of dust curling up behind them.
“Even if it works there,” continued Nick, “it will take a couple of hours for someone to meet me. Phoenix is only about a mile or so down this road, if you want to walk it. As soon as I get help, I’ll come back for Father Kelso.”
“I suppose I’ll manage,” stated Brady, silently grateful to escape Nick’s company. “Well, Nick, good luck then. I will see you later this afternoon.” He handed Nick the phone and turned towards the last, long leg of his journey. He left his luggage in the Bronco for when Nick returned.
|Oak St in the abandoned town of Cahawba, Alabama.|
Photo by Old Cahawba, Alabama Historical Commission.
Brady launched into a steady, rhythmic stride, now eager to reach his destination. The automatic pattern somewhat eased the effect of the incredibly oppressive heat. The burning sun played strange tricks on his mind, and he felt himself becoming a part of the harsh, humid landscape instead of merely suffering within it, as if he were a wild animal that belonged in this intimidating environment. Cool shadows underneath tall pines beckoned to him on either side, but prickly walls of green thickets guarded the way. No matter; he was content now to walk forever along this road.
The road curved to the left about a quarter of a mile down, and he noticed a gradual change in the landscape. Lines of old wisteria began to cover the pines, and broken fence posts along with collapsed shacks began to dot the roadside. Instead of thick forests, overgrown fields and pastures began to slide into view underneath the gray canopies of draping Spanish moss. Finally, at the top of a small hill, he stopped to behold the town of Phoenix about a half-mile below.
Not much was left of the town, but he could distinctly make out the crumbling courthouse and ring of fallen buildings that had once made up what had probably been a beautiful town square. He searched for the renovated church and found its clean, white steeple in strange contrast with the rest of the ruins. The church stood on the far side of an old, magnificent bridge that still stood as a testament to the early ambitions of Phoenix. He also spotted the lone tower of the burned out factory that had briefly saved the town from abandonment. Well, this was to be his home for the next year or so. He started again with an energetic pace fueled by a powerful sense of fate beckoning him on.
He had not taken three steps before a low, deep growl of thunder rolled across the land. Brady turned and saw the dark gray clouds gathering force a few miles away to the west. He didn’t care if the storm caught him now; it would only offer relief from the dizzying heat.
As he made his way down the hill, he wondered again what purpose he was to serve here. He found it ironic that a town named “Phoenix” was to be perhaps the death of his career. Yet the Bishop had never quite stated that this assignment was a punishment for Brady’s ineffective service. The Bishop had been brief and mysterious, saying only that Brady had been chosen and to follow any instructions from Father Kelso exactly. The Bishop’s voice had been direct but not stern, and Brady still remembered the strange earnestness in the man’s eyes.
The first lashes of thick raindrops began to pelt him as he made his way alongside the factory. He gazed up at the single tower appearing ominous in the onslaught, and he wondered how long it would stand before crumbling down like the rest of the town. He also wondered how long he could stand living in this desolate place alone.
Brady had never been a very spiritual man, despite his profession. He had always been attracted to the scholarship of the Church and its rich cultural heritage rather than its emotional and spiritual aspects. But here in this place, he was as far away as possible from accessing the deep valleys of intellectualism that the Church had always provided him.
As he crossed the bridge, his eyes traced the powerful and elegant lines of the solid arches, and he stopped for a moment to peer over the side. Below, the rumbling waters of the river raced inbetween primordial rock formations that must have enchanted the Indians of long ago. Now, only a lone blue heron peered out on the beautiful scene, perched beside one of the many frothy pools that had been worn into the river rock.
The power of the storm softened by the time that he had reached the church. The building was old but well-kept, even the manicured grass that surrounded its freshly-painted walls. Brady wiped a hand through his soaked hair and made his way up the wooden stairs. He knocked nervously on the thick, dark wooden doors and then cautiously stepped through.
Inside, the church was filled with a somber silence, broken only by the soft rustling of rain on the walls and windows. Tall, stained-glass windows sent cascades of color across the rich, thick, red velvet carpets, cushions, and dark wood pews. The gold surfaces surrounding the small altar glinted in the gentle candlelight, the only sign of life in the quiet space. The pews couldn’t hold more than a hundred parishioners, yet their eerie emptiness seemed to fill the room with a thousand abandoned seats. Brady was grateful when a tall, thin figure draped in black robes emerged from a small door behind the altar.
“Father Brady,” welcomed Father Kelso in a pleasant tone that filled the room with warmth. “I was wondering when you would make it here. Where is Nick?”
“I’m afraid that we had car trouble, Father Kelso,” replied Brady. “Nick had to walk a few miles to get help. I walked here ahead of him.”
Kelso squinted his blue eyes in the dim light and frowned, sending a ripple of creases across his old face.
“Why, you’re soaking, Father Brady. Come with me, and I’ll lend you some dry clothes.”
“Thank you, Father,” answered Brady politely. He followed the old man back through the door to a small, one-room rectory. Kelso gave him a towel and a clean set of clothes before returning to the main room. In a few minutes, Brady returned also, eager to have his questions answered at last.
Brady found Kelso gazing wistfully around the small church. He was surprised when the old man turned with tears in his eyes. Brady assumed that he was relieved to be finally leaving this lonely place.
|An abandoned shack in Cahawba.|
Photo by Old Cahawba, Alabama Historical Commission.
“So, Father Kelso,” began Brady with a sarcastic grin, “what did you do to be sentenced to this place?”
Kelso regarded him with a strange, intense glimmer of anticipation.
“I was chosen, Father Brady, just as you were. You will soon find that serving here is not a sentence but rather a special privilege.”
“Forgive me, Father, but I cannot see what privilege there could be in this place, other than for a monastic.”
“No, you will not see,” agreed Kelso, “but you will understand.”
Brady held up his hands to emphasize the emptiness of the church.
“What are my duties here, Father Kelso?”
“You will have but one duty here, Father Brady. At three-thirty in the afternoon each day, you will hear confession.”
“Confession?” laughed Brady in amazement. “I don’t understand.”
“But you will,” assured Kelso with conviction. “At the designated time, you must enter the confessional. Do not leave it until the confession is fully heard. There will be a screen between you and the confessor; you cannot breach that wall of anonymity. Beyond that duty, your time is free.” Kelso sensed Brady’s frustration and placed a firm hand on his shoulder. “I did not understand at first, either,” he admitted. “But soon, all will be clear. I must leave now, but I wish you the best of luck. Once a week, on Saturday afternoon, Nick will come with groceries and supplies. Let him know of anything you need, and he will bring it the next week. God bless you, Father Brady.”
Without another word, Kelso walked out of the church. Brady followed him outside in stunned confusion, but the old man did not turn around. Brady watched him walk through the rain until he disappeared over the hill above the town.
Brady stood outside for at least half an hour pondering what the old man had told him. When the rain finally stopped, he glanced at his watch and frowned: 3:25.
Brady waited and watched for the next five minutes. He wondered if anyone would show up, and if they didn’t, should he still enter the confessional? When the time had elapsed, he decided to fulfill his duty, on the off chance that somehow he was being watched. After all, such an occurrence couldn’t be stranger than being sent here in the first place.
He walked back into the church and listened to his steps creak into the old floor beneath the carpet. He entered the small confessional just to the side of the main door and sat down on the hard, wooden bench. He pulled the curtain closed and waited in anticipation. The confessional was dark, and he could just make out the thick screen that separated his side from the other. He wondered how long he should wait if no one appeared.
But less than a minute later, he heard the heavy doors of the church open and a set of steps creaked around to the confessional. He heard the other curtain being pulled aside and closed, followed by the sound of a person sitting down.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” panted the strained voice of a man.
“I am here,” announced Brady, surprised and intrigued. “How long has it been since your last confession?”
“I don’t know,” admitted the man, sounding very distracted, almost confused. “I have two sins to confess.”
“Go on,” encouraged Brady, wondering what sin could cause this man to travel so far to confess.
“Last Saturday night, my wife and I went to a party,” began the man. “She, Beth, asked me not to drink too much, but I didn’t listen. She was drinking, too, and I was supposed to drive us home.”
Brady’s mind cringed, for he could already guess where this confession might lead. He was used to hearing petty confessions of greed, jealously, lust, and anger, but few carried severe consequences. Already, the pain in the man’s voice betrayed the horrific crime that he had committed.
“Remember, my son, all sins are forgivable in the eyes of the Lord,” stated Brady.
“But I couldn’t forgive myself, Father,” whispered the man sorrowfully. “I had a wreck on the way home; my Beth died,” he sobbed. “My beautiful Beth.”
The unbearable pain in the man’s voice singed Brady with pity and compassion. Brady had never felt comfortable with emotion, and dealing with this man’s inner torture was almost too much to stand. He felt a sudden, powerful impulse to run from the confessional rather than help this poor soul overcome such incredible grief. After all, what could he, even as a priest, say that could possibly help this stricken man to overcome self-guilt when the man was, irrevocably, guilty? This man would never live another day without remembering his crime.
“My son, I would be lying if I told you that there is some way to take away your pain. But perhaps, with God’s love and forgiveness, your pain can be softened. Life is a precious gift, and each day of your life now is an opportunity to please the Lord.”
“It is too late for me, Father,” moaned the man. “I couldn’t bear to live without Beth. Every second was torture for me.”
“It is never too late for forgiveness, my son,” countered Brady, summoning all of the confidence he could muster. He felt sweat beginning to pour out from his forehead. “Your life can still be used to bless the Lord.”
“No, it can’t,” lamented the man. “For that is my second sin, Father. The day after my Beth was killed, I took my own life.”
Brady’s mournful eyes hardened. He immediately bolted up, tore through the curtain and ripped open the other side to reveal . . . emptiness. He scanned the confessional for some hidden speaker but found only solid wood. He stepped inside to examine the walls more closely, but he was filled with a harsh chilliness. He gasped at the coldness he felt inside and stepped back out reflexively.
Brady stood, panting in confusion, for he knew that no one could have escaped that fast. He also knew that there was no speaker. Or perhaps the speaker was inside the screen. He reached his arm slowly back into the confessional, but the same severe cold immediately shivered up his skin. He pulled his arm out and noticed chill bumps rising before his eyes. Brady stepped away from the confessional now and stared at the empty seat with horror. He could still sense the presence of the man, despite what his eyes were telling his brain.
“No,” he whispered to himself, unable to believe. No, this could not be his duty. But he knew that it was. Now, he understood.
Brady’s body shook as he reentered his side of the confessional. With trembling hands, he closed the curtain again and sat. For the first time that day, he prayed. He asked for courage, for guidance, for anything that could get him through the next terrible minute of his life. Then he spoke again.
“I am here,” he began.
“It is so dark,” moaned the voice. “So empty.”
“You are a child of God,” Brady reminded him firmly. “You were sent here for forgiveness, and forgiveness you shall receive. Are you sorry for your sins?”
“Yes,” whispered the voice.
“Then the Lord forgives you, my son.”
“What of my penance, Father?” asked the voice.
Brady’s eyes welled with stinging tears as he placed his hands on the screen.
“You have already suffered your penance, my son. Go in peace; the Lord will light your way.”
“Thank you, Father,” whispered the voice. Brady heard him gasp in amazement. “Father, I see the light! I see it!”
“Follow the light, my son,” instructed Brady, wiping his tears away. “Follow the light.”
"The Last Confession" Tourism Guide
|St. Lukes Church in Cahawba, circa 1854.|
Photo by Old Cahawba, Alabama Historical Commission.
Many stories created through fiction are inspired from real places, events, and people. “The Last Confession” is no exception. The town of Phoenix, Alabama, is symbolic of a person whose rise to fortune in the material world has fallen away into decay, as evidenced by the ruined mansions and the brick skeleton of a once-prosperous factory. The only thing “alive” in this abandoned town is the renovated church, or “soul” of the person, symbolized by the freshly-painted walls and manicured lawns contrasted against crumbling ruins. Father Brady himself, despite his vocation, is a man who suffers from intellectual vanity and is governed by worldly ambitions. The town of Phoenix, his dreaded assignment, will ultimately reveal that his true personal value lies not in his intellectualism but in his human compassion.
Although the town of Phoenix is fictional, the setting has a definite inspiration in the real world. The creative spark came from a visit I made a long time ago as a 15 year-old to the abandoned town of Cahaba, Alabama. Cahaba was the original state capital of Alabama, but it was abandoned shortly after the Civil War. A series of mishaps and bad fortune allowed this town to literally crumble away, even though at one time it was a thriving town with great promise. I particularly recall the image of an antebellum tombstone of a 17 year-old girl and the sad inscription that read “Everything Bright Must Fade.” How little her parents must have realized on the day of her burial that one day the town itself would become the neglected tombstone of a long-forgotten dream.
|One of the wells at Cahawba.|
Photo by Old Cahawba, Alabama Historical Commission
Today, there isn’t much left of Cahaba. A few columns are all that remain of a once glorious Southern mansion. Lonely wells still offer water to a population that has long since perished and faded away. Silent streets are lined by overgrown ruins along the banks of a whispering river. However, the town is still accessible. There are historical markers and a small park for picnics. The historic St. Lukes Church (built 1854) is still standing, along with a two-story building that once served as slave quarters. The town's antebellum cemetery and a freedmen's cemetery are also still open to the public, and both have a detailed guide to the graves at their entrances. I encourage anyone who loves history or even just the allure of a real ghost town to visit this beautiful, quiet place. A visitor center has been opened to help tourists fully enjoy the mystical experience of one of the few remaining ghost towns in America. An excellent guide to Cahaba can be found at www.cahawba.com/. The helpful staff at the visitor center will also answer any further questions.
Cahaba is also nearby to Selma, Alabama, home to the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge and National Voting Rights Museum. If you’ve never been to Selma, I highly recommend the trip. The first time you cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a chill will run through your body as the dark images of that seminal moment in American history reach out and touch your soul. Selma also offers some excellent lodging and dining for anyone on their way to Cahaba.
A few recommendations: the historic St. James Hotel is the best place to stay. Hancock's BBQ is just a few minutes from Cahaba on Highway 22 West (you will pass it on your way to the park if driving from downtown Selma). A walk through Live Oak Cemetery in downtown Selma (also on Hwy 22) is thoroughly recommended. This historic cemetary is easily spotted on the left of the highway by its low stone wall. Both Selma and Cahaba have legends of real ghosts attatched to their tourism sites, even the St. James Hotel. The Black Belt Ghost Trail will soon detail these stories on a web documentary being filmed now (http://www.alabamasfrontporches.org/2010/06/ghost-stories/). For more information about Selma and all its attractions, please visit http://www.selmaalabama.com/.
The factory in the story has another inspiration in the town of Prattville, Alabama. In 2002, the 143 year-old Gurney building was destroyed in a blazing fire that lit the sky of Prattville all night and continued to smoke for days afterward. The Gurney building was part of the old Pratt millworks that manufactured cotton gins since before the Civil War. Fortunately, the brave firefighters of Prattville saved the rest of the historic factory and the nearby downtown buildings. After the fire, I took pictures of the haunting, skeleton-like brick tower that stood tall against the broken remains of the building. The tower is gone now, but the downtown district and factory are still amazing places to visit. Excellent pictures of the fire and the tower standing over the ruins can be found at http://www.pratthistory.com/prattville_cotton_mill_fire_9_11_02.htm. (Note:The pictures there are not mine.) Prattville is also home to the premier Legends golf course, part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. For more information on the golf trail, please visit http://www.rtjgolf.com/.
|If you enjoyed the suspense of|
"The Last Confession," try my
suspense novel Blind Fate, the
nation's first interactive tourism novel.
Wetumpka is also home to Jasmine Hill Gardens (http://www.jasminehill.org/) and Fort Toulouse National Historic Park (http://www.forttoulouse.com/). The gardens will offer exceptional examples of classical Greek sculpture and architecture. Fort Toulouse offers a fully reconstructed colonial fort complete with buildings and cannon. Along the walking trail by the river bluff, one can also discover an Indian burial mound nearly a thousand years old. For an overview of all that Wetumpka has to offer tourists, please visit http://www.visitelmoreco.com/.
I am not directly associated with any of these sites or places. I am just like you, a person who enjoys visiting unique and out-of-the-way places. Despite today’s hard economic times, Alabama is dotted with getaways, both big and small, where a tourist can have a stimulating or relaxing adventure for a very affordable price. Rather than just visit one place, follow a path that offers new and intriguing turns at every step of the way.
To learn more about all that the area has to offer (the above examples are just a highlight of what is available), please visit the website links for more information. If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy the suspense in my novel Blind Fate, a riveting tale written from the unique perspective of a blind protagonist. Blind Fate was was the first novel in the world with an interactive tourism guide, allowing Kindle and iPad users to instantly click on the tourism websites from inside the novel.
"The Last Confession" was originally published in the anthology Southern Gothic Shorts by PJM Publishing in England. "The Last Confession" was also published in November 2010 on The Moonlit Road, an online site with many chilling ghost stories from around the South. The Moonlit Road has the added feature of many audio presentations of the stories done in a dramatic style by professional storytellers. Please check them out here and browse their many haunting stories: http://themoonlitroad.com/the-last-confession/