James Dean lives in Eastern North Carolina with his wife Brenda. James has three daughters and seven grandchildren. He is very fortunate that they all live close by his home. He was born in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains in Wise County Virginia. James spent his formative years in and around Richmond Virginia. As a young man, he moved to North Carolina and became the owner of a metal fabrication business. James retired in 2011 and is now spending his time writing. He has recently published his first book, Mountain Mysteries, a collection of thirteen short stories. All are written by him and all are based on stories from the Appalachian Mountains. His love of writing keeps him busy most days.
The Raven In The Attic
This short story comes from my fascination with the mountainous area of Southwestern Virginia where I was born. I can remember as a young boy my mom would sometimes tell us stories about growing up in the mountains. We would sit on the floor at her feet on those dark nights when we were for one reason or another without electricity. We were living in and around Richmond Virginia. These were lean times for my family. My dad could not always pay the light bill on time, and many times the power would be turned off to our house. In some cases, a cold winter storm would bring in heavy snow or ice.
This would be more than the old power lines running to the house could take, and they would snap and knock out the power. On some of these occasions, my mom would ask us if we would like to hear some stories about the mountains. My answer was always, yes.
As the fire from the sooty old wood burning stove gave off its eerie glow, and the dim light from the fire danced on the ceiling of the room. We would sit quietly as the wood snapped and cracked as it burnt. We would wrap up a little bit tighter in the worn out old quilt as each story was told. I can remember that after two or three of the stories were finished, my brothers and I would snuggle down into the blankets that were spread on the floor. This would be our bed for the night. I would often dream about the mountains and the people in the stories.
To tell you the truth, I sometimes still do.
The Raven In The Attic
The Raven in the Attic is a mysterious story that is about an old house and the man that built it. The house and the man are from a time that has gone by, a time that we cannot live in, but a time that can live within us. This old house is high up on the side of Beartown Mountain. The house sits on a large piece of land that the locals call Raven Roost. The mountain people say that before the Indians were made to move off their land, and made to walk the trail of tears, to a barren land in what is now Oklahoma. This area was a very large Indian Village. It had many huts made from the hard wood of the northern red oak trees and the dark brown mud from the mountain river. The village had a large medicine lodge made from deer skins, pulled tightly over heavy lodge poles. The Indians had painted the skins with dye made from the deep purple juice of the pokeberries and the bright orange from the clay of the mountainside. The brightly colored medicine lodge stood surrounded by a large burial ground.
This Band of the Cherokee Indians believed that the dark Ravens of the mountain carried within them the spirits of the Indians dead ancestors.
The Ravens were allowed to roost on the lodges and in the tall sycamore trees around the village unmolested. The noisy black Ravens grew strong and fat from the scraps of food that they picked up from around the village. However, when any one of the revered medicine men died, the tribal chief would kill the largest Raven in the flock, and he buried it in the grave with the medicine man. These Indians believed that the spirit of the medicine man would be brought back to earth on the Wings of the Raven, to live in the medicine lodge.
The imposing white structure with its three large stone chimneys was built sometime before the Civil War. It just happened to be constructed on the very spot where the medicine lodge had stood for at least a century. At the time that my grandfather was living, this eerie old mansion was still standing although it was deteriorating. The large chokeberry bushes along with the black huckleberry and the great rhododendron had long ago claimed the beautiful fields that surrounded the mansion. The tall black walnut trees had taken the spot where the massive front porch once stood. The dreadful sight of the many, dark green, climbing bittersweet vines. That were crawling out of the once gleaming, but now broken glass of the windows and doors made the house look almost alive, as the low wind rustled through the green leaves.
It is said that the large three-story, majestic home with the floor to ceiling windows. With its square twenty-four-foot tall white columns, which greeted the distinguished visitors that once came and went so often, was built by a very rich salt merchant. The gentleman's name was James Robert Quartermaine; his family had made a very large fortune when they bought some land over in Smyth County Virginia near the town of Saltville. Salt being the only available means of preserving meat in those days, the salt from this area was a very valuable commodity.
Just a few years after the Quarterman family purchased the land they found a new set of salt caverns on their land. As the salt was taken out, the money rolled in. James grew up on the mountain and lived a privileged life with his wealthy parents. However, when his Mother and Father suddenly passed away from an outbreak of scarlet fever, and James Quartermain received his inheritance from the family, he built the wonderful place. He named it Bellevue after the family home in France where the Quartermain ancestors had immigrated from many years ago. The French name Bellevue means Beautiful View. This home did indeed have a beautiful view; the river that runs at the bottom of the mountain and the flowering dogwood trees that dotted the mountainside was just breathtaking. The fields around the place were full of native hemlock trees, wild plum, and red mulberry trees. He lived there until his death.
Now it is his death that led to the ruin of his majestic home; it seems that no one knows just how he died and where his body went. The family decedents have told that it all began in the year of 1864. The South was losing its war for independence. The armies of the South needed every man that it could get. Now even the very young boys and the very old men were being called to join the army to fight the dreaded Yankees. The richest men of the south, which had been exempt from the fight, now had to go and do their part in the long struggle. James like most of the men in this area did not own any slaves. He had enjoyed a good and prosperous life under the United States Government, and he had no feelings one way or the other about secession. However, James loved his home state of Virginia, but he questioned the southern leadership that had led them into this awful war. Now he was called on to fight for the very life of this new government. James and the other rich men of the mountain now felt compelled by the new conscription laws, and most convincingly by the sharp tip of the Provost guard's bayonet, to join the army and fight for the Southern Confederacy.
Therefore, James Quartermaine Closed up the tall oak shutters of his beloved Bellevue locked the doors and went off with the army to do his duty and fight the Yankees. He marched away with his comrades in the 37th. Va. Volunteers, to join the command of General John B Gordon, Army of Northern Virginia, and take his spot in the trenches at Petersburg. It was not long before the fighting and dying around the once proud and beautiful southern city became almost unbearable. The bloody battles here led to the Yankee breakthrough of the Confederate lines. It was here at a little crossroad called five forks just outside of the city of Petersburg that; General Lee's thin defensive lines finally broke.
The army fought its way out of Petersburg and continued to fight its way across half of Virginia in a running battle that almost decimated the once proud command of General Robert E. Lee. Then the unimaginable happened, the Army of Northern Virginia was forced to surrender at
Appomattox Courthouse Virginia. By an enemy with an endless supply of war material, and that had them surrounded and outnumbered by three to one. After a little more than a year with the army and severe damage to his health, the war was over for James and he began his long trek home. Since he had access to money, he was able to hire a wagon and make his way back to the mountain.
As James made his way back to his beloved home in Bellevue on the mountain, he had to make several stopovers on the way. The painful wound in his leg from a Yankee mini ball, combined with the terrible effects of pneumonia that he had lived with for the last three months of the war, made travel very hard. At times, he could hardly breathe, and walking on the wounded leg was very painful. Without the wagon to ride in James would not have made it home. With all the stops, he had to make, some of them for two or three days at a time, the trip from Appomattox to Beartown Mountain in Russell County took him almost two months. Nevertheless, James was finally home.
As soon as he was back in his beautiful house, he hired a few ex-slaves and set about getting the mansion back in shape. He had the whole place whitewashed and had the fields around the house cleared, and the cornfields plowed and planted. He had the tobacco barns repaired, and a new crop put in the ground. The wound in his leg healed somewhat, but he still needed a cane to walk. The once very strong and hardworking man was now left unable to walk more than a short distance because the effects of pneumonia had ravaged his lungs. It was now quite a struggle for him to climb the staircase that dominated the great room of his imposing home. He had found that it was almost imposable for him to climb the steep, narrow steps to the large attic. However, on a bright sunny day late in 1865, James Quartermaine made his way up the old rustic steps and into the attic, to put away his Confederate uniform forever. The hopes for Southern independents had vanished.
The brilliant streaks of light, from the bright sunshine that was coming into the attic through the half open slats of the old attic vents, Landed on the dusty old floor, like the bright, glimmering of ice on a frozen pond.
As James's eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light of the attic, he was startled by the quick, noisy flapping of a large bird's wings. The bird flew low and right at him, as it passed over just above his head he could see it was a large Raven. It flew to the far end of the attic away from James. The shiny black Raven perched on a very old dresser with a broken mirror that was sitting just below one of the half open vent shutters. The warm sun shining on the bird’s black feathers made the sharp-eyed bird look as if he was wet. The evil-looking bird ruffled his feathers and let out a loud "Caw" that, echoed throughout the musty- smelling attic. James thought for a minute, just how did the Raven get in the attic. He said to himself in a low muffled voice, "well I was gone for well over a year, and the house did have a broken window here and there." "I guess there is not a big mystery to that."
James did not realize that there was no way for the bird to get into the attic even if it had gotten into the house. The door that went up to the dim, dusty attic had been locked up tightly when he had come home.
James stood up straight and took a few steps across the dusty squeaky floorboards of the faintly lit attic. He was standing over, and looking down at his grandfather's old trunk. He bent down and slowly opened the rusty old lid. A cold chill ran through his blood as he looked into the trunk. There folded neatly on the bottom of the trunk, was his grandfather's blood stained uniform from the Revolutionary War. He had always known that his grandfather had fought and died while fighting a war to bring independent government to the United States of America.
Now he had just returned home from fighting a war to tear apart that very government. He slowly folded his gray Confederate uniform with the bright shiny brass buttons facing upwards, showing the insignia of the state of Virginia.
James placed the uniform in the trunk on top of that of his grandfathers. He stopped for a minute and thought. There is something very poetic about the bloodstains on the pant leg of his uniform, lying next to the bloodstains on the top coat of his grandfather's uniform. He stood up straight and tall and removed the piece of clean white calico cloth from his back pocket, and gently wiped away the fingerprints from the sword and the shiny silver scabbard. He then gently placed them on top of the gray woolen topcoat and slowly closed the lid to the trunk, and locked it with the thick skeleton key.
The somber man made his way down the old steps from the attic, closed the door behind him and went to get one of the men that had been hired to help repair the home. He sent the man to the attic to chase the large Raven out and close the vent shutters. Even though, the openings between the slats in the attic vents were too small for even a Robin to get in, closing them would keep the dust out. However, when the worker went into the attic, he was unable to find the bird. He simply told his boss that the bird was not in the attic anymore. James just assumed that the worker had chased the bird out. When the home was once more completely restored to the elegance that it had been before the war, James set about making the mountain farm profitable once again.
However, always under the watchful eye of the ever-present Ravens. They seemed to shadow his every move. He hired only the ex-slaves that knew the business of plowing, planting, and harvesting in a way that would give him the largest profit.
James was called to the fields often as the men plowed; it was a common occurrence for the plow to turn up a leg bone or the skull of a long-dead Indian. He would look at the bones and the surrounding area to see if there was anything of interest to him. Then he would tell the men just to throw the bones into the woods, or just to toss them over the split rail fence into the creek that ran nearby. James noticed that every time one of these skulls was plowed up, the sky would suddenly fill with the chaotic flight of the dark black Ravens.
The long shadows of the birds in flight would darken the ground around the men as they worked the fields. Some of the old ex-slaves said that the large Ravens with the haunting orange circles around the pupils of their eyes were the restless sprites of the Indian medicine men, mourning the bones of their dead. Over the next few years, James Quartermaine tried to make the farm turn a profit, but crop after crop withered and died in what had always been, and should now be fertile soil. They plowed and replanted the corn and tobacco, two and three times in a year, always with the same results. The seedlings would sprout out of the ground and then wilt and die. James and his ex-slaves had been farming all their lives, and they did not know what to make of the crop failures. It seemed that the land was cursed.
If not for the money that still came in from the salt caverns, James would have been ruined. He heard all the rumors that the crops would not grow because of a curse on the land. A curse made by the sprites of the medicine men and that the curse was carried on by the Ravens that were always present flying over the fields. After such a hard time trying to grow crops that would never grow more than a few inches tall, everyone at Bellevue was starting to believe in the medicine man's curse. However, the man that had built this beautiful place refused to give up on the farm.
While James was lying in bed one especially dark and cold night, he began thinking about the talk he was hearing from all of the old ex- slaves, and from the people of the mountain. They were all saying that the crops that he planted failing to grow and the presence of the Ravens are connected. This talk brought back the memories of the Raven in the attic that he had encountered when he first returned home from the war. He thought. How had the Raven gotten into the tightly closed attic? Now he thought what about those strange sounds that he heard late at night when all was quiet. All the sounds that he had shrugged off as the wind or a tree branch against the window, he had always thought that the sounds were coming from the attic. He always put the sounds out of his mind when awakening in the morning. This night he would try to find out just what the sounds were.
After laying there awake for many hours with the things he had heard going through his mind, he heard the strange noise once again. As he sat up on his bed and listened closely, he could tell that the sounds were indeed coming from the attic. James slowly got out of bed, retrieved his gold-handled cane from the corner of the room. He quietly walked over to the dresser and lit the old glass oil lamp. As he made his way to the locked door that led up into the musty attic, he picked up the thick heavy skeleton key from its resting place on the mantel over the fireplace. He unlocked the door and slowly climbed the stairs, being very careful not to trip and fall. The cane made a dull thump on the hard oak stairs with every step.
As soon as he had reached the top of the stairs and stepped into the attic, he held the lamp up high so he could see the far end of the room. As he did, he was terrified when a large Raven was suddenly flying straight at him, the wild bird let out a sound that made his knees weak. He stumbled backward; his cane dropped down the attic steps. The weak leg with the old bullet wound could not support his weight, and that foot slipped on the dusty old floor. James fell hard and almost went tumbling down the steps, but caught himself with one hand. As he laid there dazed, the sooty black Raven attacked him and began pecking at his face. The man struck the bird hard with a balled up fist; the black demon retreated. The oil lamp had broken on the hard wooden floor, but the flame had gone out when it hit; the wick wet with coal oil laid smoking on the floor. James dragged himself down the attic stairs in the dark and found his cane. He closed the attic door and locked it behind him. With the help of the cane he made it to his room to gather his senses, he slowly laid down on the bed to quiet his trembling nerves but was soon fast asleep.
As soon as the sun came up the next morning, he went to the field hands quarters behind the main house and woke up the men. He told them about what had happened the night before. He showed them the swollen wounds on his face and sent two of the men to go and clear out the attic. He told them that he did not care if they had to take everything out of the attic; they were to find out how the bird had gotten into the place. When they found the Crazy Raven, they were to kill it. The two men picked up a garden hoe and a shovel and went off to do what they were told to do. The men worked all day clearing out the attic, but they did not find the Raven or a way it could have gotten in. They put everything back in place and made their report to James.
He told the men they must be mistaken; the bird had been there and had attacked him. He told the two men that they must look again the next day. Bright and early the next morning the men went back to the dimly lit dusty attic to look for the elusive bird or at the very least how it was getting into the attic. They worked all morning but with no results.
When they told James that they still could not find the Raven or a place of entry, he just sent them back to the fields. The two men went back to work in the field and began the day's plowing. Late that evening as the sun was going down behind the tall chestnut trees and casting long shadows on the mountain. The old mule got spooked as he was plowing near the last row, when it walked up on a large black snake. The mule broke and ran pulling the now tipped over plow behind him. As the mule ran, one of the men ran over to stop him, but the man became tangled in the long leather plow lines and was run over by the plow.
As the man lay helpless in the freshly plowed field, he was suddenly and viciously attacked by a frenzied flock of Ravens. It seemed that they came from all directions, their loud cawing sounded like the call of a dying man. Some say it sounded like the chanting of an Indian medicine man. The other men ran to help their friend but when they got to him, it was clear that he was dead. The man had not died from being injured by the sharp old plow, but he had died from the large chunks of flesh that had been torn from his face by the Ravens. This man would not throw any more Indian bones into the woods for the Coyotes to drag off and sharpen their teeth on and leave laying in the sun. As the men approached their friend lying on the ground, the wild Ravens dispersed as quickly as they had appeared. The men carried their friend over to the big house and called James. They relayed to him the scary event that had just happened. James was certain now that something very strange was going on at his once happy Bellevue plantation.
It was going to be very important for James to rid the place of the Ravens. He knew that the birds had been there as long as anybody could remember. Nevertheless, something was very wrong, and they had to go. He instructed the men working for him that they were to kill every Raven that they saw. The men knew that this would be hard work because the Ravens could seemingly melt into the dark, dense forest when even a single shot would be fired from their rifles. That night the old ex-slaves talked about how their friend had died the horrible death that day. They came to the conclusion that they must all leave the place, or the same thing could happen to them. Sometime during the night, they all gathered their things and packed them into the old saddlebags from the barn. They stole five of James's best horses and left Bellevue forever.
That night James thought about the way that his worker had died. He thought about the way that the crazy cold black Raven had attacked him in the attic. He thought about how the men never saw the bird that was in the attic, and how they never found a way in or out for the bird. He thought about what the people around the mountain, along with the ex- slaves were saying about the Ravens being the spirits of the dead medicine men. He just did not know what was going on anymore.
However, he would try to find out. The now aging man went to the large old dresser, put out the smoky old oil lamp, and crawled into bed. He would try to get some rest tonight and work on the strange problem tomorrow.
As he lay there, he could hear the Raven in the attic. Just before daylight, James was awakened from a deep sleep by a strange sound. He opened his eyes and looked around the room; it was lit only by the bright mountain moonlight. The bright North Star was shining through the tall window beside his bed. His heart was in his throat as he listened for the sound again. As he lay there trying to stay awake listening, his eyelids became very heavy, and he was just about to drift off to sleep once again. Then his eyes flashed wide open when he heard the sound of a chanting voice. His mouth was dry, and his heart was beating faster under the heavy nightshirt he was wearing.
James got out of bed, found his cane and went over to the bedroom door. He unlocked the door and stepped out into the hall. All was quite. He went back into the bedroom and went straight over to the long dresser with the very tall mirror. He found the oil lamp with the smoky old glass globe. Then he fumbled with the small sliding drawer, reached in, and got a single match. He lit the lamp and stood there looking in the mirror. He nearly passed out but steadied himself on the old dresser.
Suddenly over his right shoulder, he could see behind him the painted face of an Indian medicine man. James turned quickly, but he saw only the picture of his grandfather hanging on the wall. He breathed a sigh of relief.
Now he had gathered his thoughts. He walked into the hall once again but this time with the lit oil lamp. He walked down the hall to the door that led to the attic; he stopped and pressed his ear against the cold wooden door. There it was. He could hear the faint sound of a man chanting, or was it the low cawing of a Raven? James unlocked the attic door and started up the steep old steps. When he reached the top of the stairs, he entered the attic and walked a few steps across the squeaky old floor. Holding the lantern high above his head so he could see the dim shadows of the entire room, he moved slowly.
Behind him, he heard that low chanting again. He turned to see where it was coming from, for a minute; he thought he saw the face of the painted Indian again. However, when he raised the lantern higher, he could see that it was a Raven. James froze in his place. As he watched, the Raven flapped its wings and lifted from the perch on the old spinning wheel where it had been sitting. The large sooty Raven with the strange orange rings around its eyes landed on the floor just in front of him.
James could not move. He could still hear the low rhythm of a man chanting.
The Raven took a step toward James and then another, Then the bird spread its wings out to their full length as if to fly, but it just stood there staring at the man. Then all at once, the bird seemed to turn pale white. Then as James looked on the shape of the Raven changed to the face of a medicine man. James started to back away; he moved very slowly, moving one foot and then the other, taking very deliberate steps. He thought, "have I gone crazy," "have I lost my mind," what is happening? As he backed away from the strange bird, he could see once again that it was just a Raven. He lowered the oil lamp and took another step backward. Then all at once, the floor seemed to fall out from under him.
He had stepped into the opening of the stairwell. He was falling backward down the steep stairs. As he fell the glass globe from the lamp fell off and shattered when it hit the hallway floor, the flame of the lamp went dark. James could feel the painful thump of each step that his head hit on the way down the stairs. Then he was laid out, sprawled on the floor in the hallway. He got to his knees and with the help of a nearby door pulled himself up to his feet. He heard the dreadful sound of a Ravens wings beating, he turned and saw the large bird flying out of the attic doorway. The half-crazed black menace flew right at him and hit him in the face, as the bird hit him it made a hard peck on his face.
James felt the sharp beak drive into his right cheek; he felt the blood flow down his face. The weak and dazed man fell limp to the floor, as he fell he hit his head on the white marble doorknob. Everything went black. His last thought was that all he ever wanted to do was live quietly there at Bellevue. Instead, he died violently in his beautiful home.
James's body laid there on the cold hardwood floor for two days. The Ravens came to roost on the rooftop and in the windows of the large mansion in large numbers. They roosted in the attic and the hallway. On the fourth day after the master of the beautiful mountainside home had died, a neighbor from over the mountain found a horse that belonged to James in his field. It was one of the horses that the workers had stolen when they ran off into the night. The neighbor brought the horse back to Bellevue, finding the front door open but no one answering his calls he went into the house and started looking for James. He made his way throughout the house and into the upstairs; there in the hallway the man saw the bloody outline of a body. He looked around and found a few scraps of cloth and a few locks of hair, which is all he found. He went and got the local sheriff and some of the town people, they went to Bellevue and searched the house and grounds, and they searched the woods and the creek. They did not find the body. The sheriff organized a large manhunt, but nothing more has ever been found of James Robert Quartermaine.
Over the next few years, the wonderful home place was sold to three different families. All of them reported hearing strange sounds in the attic. None of them could make the crops grow, even in this fertile mountain soil, and none of them could tolerate the aggressive Ravens that were always present.
When the last of these families’ left the once beautiful white mansion on the beautiful piece of mountain land, it was left to nature’s elements and the Ravens of Bellevue.
The mystery of James Robert Quartermaine's death and what happened to his body has never been solved. The people of the area said that the Ravens picked the flesh from the bones of the man and that the coyotes carried off his bones into the woods and sharpened their teeth on them.
So if you should ever go to Russell County Virginia, and find yourself on Beartown Mountain, and come across the remnants of a once beautiful Mansion. Do not go inside. The Raven in the attic may not let you leave.