Charisa Hagel’s tourism short story “Behind the Mill” won the 2016 SELTI Writing Contest, which focused on the Selma and Dallas County area. Charisa’s fictional characters brought to life the real historical attraction in Selma of Kenan’s Mill, a small water-powered mill from the 1860s. Please read the short tourism guide at the end of this story to learn how to visit Kenan’s Mill and other nearby attractions. Charisa’s first place win earned her a $500 prize from the Alabama Tourism Department and the 2016 SELTI Tourism Fiction Award, presented by Congresswoman Terri Sewell at Kenan’s Mill.
Behind The Mill
By Charisa Hagel
We were never supposed to be there, but Danny had a way with words. Little did we know the magnitude our adventure would entail. We were both eight-years-old and living in Selma, Alabama. The year was 1866.
“Elain, I’ll race you to the new Kenan mill.”
Danny walked beside me as I hung wet linens on the line. I shook the white fabric, causing drops of water to fly in the air. He backed up, dodging the small storm.
Reaching into my gingham pinafore I retrieved a clothespin from my pocket. As I turned back to the mountainous pile of laundry, I sighed deeply. I deplored hanging wet clothes. “Can’t. If I don’t finish my chores, I’m in for it.”
“Shucks. It’ll wait,” he said, gesturing to the rather large pile.
I set my lips and gave a curt shake of the head.
Danny plopped down at my feet. He let out a breath of irritation. As he fiddled with a blade of grass, his eyes popped open, shimmering with what could only be a brilliant idea.
“Hey, what if I helped you when we got back?”
My brows rose at the prospect. If I had help afterwards, maybe I could go. Besides, we wouldn’t be gone all day.
“Alright,” I said, “just for a bit. But promise you’ll help afterwards.”
Danny grinned, and we took off, leaving the linens abandoned, flapping like flags of surrender.
We raced side by side through the woods. Tall pines and large oaks watched as we scurried under them like squirrels. Occasionally, the oaks dropped speckled brown, burgundy, and golden leaves in our path. I ducked beneath a low branch half covered in maroon leaves, giving me a momentary lead. Farther along the path, a fallen log attempted to slow us. It was rusty brown with little patches of green moss living atop it. I quickly climbed over, trying not to disturb the little rabbit who darted away, but Danny jumped the log without trouble. We were neck and neck. Normally I wouldn’t mind, but up ahead loomed the swaying bridge. We called it that because any quick movement tossed the whole bridge like a twig in a storm. It was built for easier access to the mill. Unfortunately, it was not safe enough, or big enough, for us to run it in twos, meaning one would take the lead and, ultimately, win the race. Bridge to mill was a stone’s throw away. I tried to stay ahead, but knew I was failing. I was a good runner, but Danny had three inches on me, and it was all in the legs.
We raced over the swaying bridge, barely touching the boards under our feet. I felt the cool fall breeze against my face. Danny was two steps ahead. As Danny jumped in excitement, the bridge rocked left then right, causing him to miss his footing. Feet flying up, he reached out for the rough rope. He landed against the wooden panels with a thump. Seizing the moment, I dashed by, nearly tripping over him. Giggling, I dared to glance behind me. Rising to his feet, Danny bolted after me. By now, my feet were on firm ground, and I was darting to the mill. Hand outstretched, I heard Danny’s steps nearing; I was not about to lose. Focusing on the building before me, I pushed my legs on. My palm touched the cold frame as Danny slammed against me, causing us both to fall. Getting up from the dirt, I shook off the orange and auburn leaves clinging to my dress.
“Ha! I won!” I said panting. My lungs felt like they were going to explode. With cold fingers, I brushed back the strands of hair which had escaped my chestnut braid.
Laying on the ground and breathing heavily, Danny said, “Only because I tripped. If not, I would have won for sure.”
“No matter,” I retorted. “I still won.”
Danny just shrugged.
As much as Danny and I loved to play together, he hated admitting being beaten by a girl, even though he often told me, “You’re not a bad fellow.” He still had his pride, which sometimes landed him in hot water.
“Let’s have a peek around,” Danny said rising to his feet.
I shook my head, although I followed his lead as he maneuvered around the mill.
“We’ve got to get back. Remember, you promised you’d help with laundry.”
Danny paused, watching his feet. “Did I say promise?”
My mouth opened, and I took a step forward, hands on hips. “Oh yes you did, and I’m holding you to it.”
Danny rolled his eyes. “Oh come on. Just for a bit.”
I sighed. I knew I should be getting back, but hanging laundry paled in comparison to exploring. Seeing my hesitation, Danny raised his eyebrows.
I yielded. “Fine, but we have to be quick.”
Danny jumped and a smile spread across his freckled face. He grabbed my hand and led me up the small mound of dirt which rested alongside the bricks at the base of the mill.
As we neared the top, we flattened ourselves against the wooden boards which framed the mill. Danny peeked around the edge, scanning the scene.
“There!” He said in a harsh whisper. “By the kiln.”
I scooted closer, peering out. Walking toward the redbrick kiln, which always looked like a beehive or an upside down pot to us, was old man Kenan. He wasn’t really that old; we just called him that, and the name stuck. As he neared the doorway to the kiln, we slithered around the corner of the mill, climbed atop the porch, and reached the door.
At the front, beside the door, hung a silver bell. The structure was crafted in the shape of a cow’s head. The horns extended out and up, creating a frame from which the bell hung. It was installed to be heard across the creek, where old man Kenan lived. While the mill was a common place for folks to come, snooping children were not welcome. So, naturally, Danny and I snooped.
The wooden door creaked as we slipped inside, threatening to give us away. We tiptoed in, staring at the structure before us. Large dusty, wooden beams towered above us. Some formed the shape of a slanted “Y.” Carefully placing our feet, we moved deeper into the mill. The building itself was not that large, but to us it appeared palatial. Danny wandered around poking his nose into this and that. Strange wheels with nobs interlinked with each other stood off to one side. These wheels caused the millstone to turn, which ground the corn into meal. These wheels were powered by the turbine under the mill which moved with the flowing water. I slowly approached the millstone, which dwarfed both Danny and I together. It looked like an odd saucer. Its coarse features were smoothed by repetitive spinning. I reached out to touch the rickety invention, but stopped as my attention was drawn to an open bag of meal. I fingered the dust-like powder. My fingers brushed the meal – what a fine supper it would make.
Danny climbed into a window along the back wall when suddenly footsteps sounded outside the door. Mr. Kenan must be at the porch steps. It wouldn’t take long for him to arrive; the porch wasn’t that big.
“Hurry!” Danny motioned, arms flapping.
Alarmed, I backed into a barrel of corn. The impact and crash echoed in the mill. I looked up at Danny. “He knows we’re here!”
“Come on. We’ll climb out of here before he sees us.”
Grabbing my skirts, I lifted myself atop some bags of meal under the window. Danny reached out and grabbed my arm, lifting me up into the windowsill beside him. I glanced down. A small patch of earth covered by some golden-red bushes sat below us. The dancing water rushed beside it. I shook my head. “I don’t think –”
“It’s our only chance if we don’t want to get caught, Elain.”
The door screeched open. We could hear old man Kenan’s boots hit the floor beneath. I imagined the whole structure shaking with each step.
Danny shook my shoulders, staring into my face.
I looked from him to the water and then back again, my eyes as huge as a scared rabbit’s. I swallowed and whispered, “I can’t. I’m afraid.” My sense of adventure fled when I was petrified.
Danny pinched his lips and shook his head. “Just follow my lead.” Swinging his feet out the window, he let them dangle a moment. Placing his hands beneath his body, he pushed off and was out the window. He hit the water with a splash.
At that moment, Mr. Kenan’s firm hand landed on my shoulder. He spoke to me, but I don’t remember what he said – I was screaming too loudly. Grabbing me by the arms, he succeeded in lifting me from my perch. I swung my feet and arms. “No! Let me go!” I screamed, thrashing for release from his hold. With a sudden thump, I fell to the hard floor. I rubbed my rear end as he dashed out the front door. That was strange, I thought. I walked out of the mill dazed. What could’ve caused old man Kenan to act like that? Stepping off the porch, I peered around the corner to the water. Mr. Kenan stood before me – Danny motionless in his arms. Water dripped off Danny. His arms hung free, swaying with the movement of Mr. Kenan’s steps. A blanket of mud covered his body. I slowly reached my hand to wipe his forehead. I looked anxiously at the limp figure. He was as still as a dead stock of corn after harvest.
“Danny?” My eyes travelled from Danny’s body to Mr. Kenan. “What’s wrong? Danny?!”
Mr. Kenan sighed heavily. His deep voice touched my ears. “No use.”
“What? No.” I whined, shaking my head. My hands mindlessly clasped over my heart.
In a husky voice, Mr. Kenan gently instructed, “Come child. Take me to his mother. She must be the first to know.”
The tiny church was crowded with black figures. A fog of disbelief covered me; I prayed hoping Danny would pop his head up and ask me to play. I searched his ghostlike face. His familiar smile was gone. His dancing eyes were glazed over and vacant. His hair was combed back; Danny never wore his hair like that. Laid out in his Sunday best, he pulled no little creature from his pocket; his pockets were empty. I listened to the preacher. He spoke of life after death and seeing Danny again in heaven. He said we are like a mist that comes and is gone; life is a gift that only lasts a moment. Little white handkerchiefs trailed from laps to eyes and back again. I wanted to cry, but no tears trailed down my face.
Men lowered Danny into the cold ground. I opened my mouth to say goodbye, but bit my lip. The words never came. A single tear slipped down my cheek as I tossed a bouquet of colored leaves atop his grave.
Ten autumns have passed. Falling leaves of red and gold still remind me of Danny. The mill still stands. The water still flows. Every fall I make a bouquet and place it beneath the back window, the window Danny sat in. When I go, I can’t forget the past. But no matter how much it hurts, life goes on. I listen to the water, and my heart churns as I hear the turbine crushing corn. Life is but a moment, and we never know when it will be over. But we must continue like the grinding of the millstones.
Kenan’s Mill in Selma is the site of an annual festival celebrating rural life and traditions in the Black Belt of Alabama every October. The small mill complex located beside a scenic creek can also be rented out for weddings and special occasions from the Selma-Dallas County Historic Preservation Society. The mill was built in the mid 19th century and operated for over one-hundred years before being donated to the Historic Society.
Kenan’s Mill is only one of many attractions that have inspired writers visiting Dallas County. Selma is the site of Bloody Sunday in 1965, where an annual bridge crossing by thousands commemorates the original crossing that helped lead to passage of the Voting Rights Act. The National Voting Rights Museum and Institute helps educate visitors on the importance of the Civil Rights Movement and Selma’s significant role in that fight. The Civil War-era Battle of Selma is also reenacted every year. Outside of Selma, unique attractions such as the ruins of Cahawba, Alabama’s first state capital, attract visitors and writers. Please visit the tourism links below to learn more about visiting this fascinating county whose history and people have been woven indelibly into the fabric of our national history.
SELTI would like to thank everyone who participated in this year’s contest, including the finalists listed below. Also many thanks to Landon Nichols of the Selma and Dallas County Chamber of Commerce for his indispensable help in supporting this year’s contest and Janet Gresham for providing such beautiful photos of the real area.
Charisa Hagel is a 2016 graduate from Faulkner Christian University in Montgomery. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with a major in English, emphasis in Creative Writing. Currently working as a tutor, Charisa enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with her family. In the future, her desire is to write children’s literature.
2016 SELTI Writing Contest Results
First Place: “Behind the Mill” by Charisa Hagel
Second Place: “Mind the Flowers” by Steve Dorning
Third Place (tied: “Cemetery Ladies” by Anne Fuller and “Spirit in the Yard” by Ashley Potvin
Fourth Place: “A Curious Occurrence at the Old St. James” by Walter Moore