I can’t say how I knew the dog had gone through the tear. I just knew. The second I saw the patch was off the tear, I knew the dog had gone in there. Worse than that, I knew I’d have to go after him.
At the end of September, Bart decided he was going to go visit some friends. Alone. Without the dog. He was serious about it. For the dog’s own safety, Bart confiscated Rufus’s car keys. I knew a week with just me and the dog was going to be somewhat brutal, since I simply could not walk the dog as long as Bart can walk the dog in the mornings and still function at my job without napping.
But I thought we’d worked out a system. I walked him in the morning for my usual length of time and then I came home and walked him in the evenings until I was exhausted. He pretended to be mollified.
He also spent much of the evenings sleeping right by the back door, so that, should Bart arrive home, he’d be right there to greet him. Sometimes, he even looked askance at me, like maybe I’d done something to run Bart off.
One day it was so ridiculous with Rufus moping around and sighing deeply and looking longingly at the back door like that was the direction salvation was coming from, that I called Bart and let him Facetime with Rufus. But this didn’t actually seem to help. It just made Rufus more convinced that Bart was somewhere without him.
The next morning, I woke up and I knew something wasn’t right. The house felt empty. I tried to remain calm. I went to the bathroom, put on my glasses, and poked my head into each room. The further I got through the house, the surer I was that Rufus wasn’t there.
Now the panic set in. My heart was racing. I felt too hot but with a cold sickness in the pit of my stomach. Damn it, damn it, damn it. I can’t lose another dog. Not yet.
I threw on my overalls and a t-shirt, slipped into my shoes and headed out the back door, which was, yes, god damn it, open. Who taught him how to open doors? Who thought that was a good idea?
It was foggy out and I could see only as far as the shed.
“Rufus!” I called. “RoooOOOOOoooofussssss!” But, in the mist, it didn’t carry. The sound seemed to go no farther than I could see. I kept calling, though, stumbling across the driveway, tripping as I made my way into the yard. I squinted but there was no sign of him.
I couldn’t even begin to imagine what I was going to say to Bart. Fuck me. How could I have been so careless?
The trees loomed out of the mist ahead of me and I had some thought that, maybe, he’d just already gone on our walk. If I could get to the treeline, I could make my way toward Lloyd and see if he was up on the road. I kept calling for him.
The backyard seemed to stretch on forever, though, and I stopped, suddenly afraid I was going to fall into the creek. I stepped back, in a direction I knew was safe, and my footstep made a weird noise—too big, too crunchy.
I looked down.
I was standing on the duct tape patch.
The tear in reality was uncovered.
The dog has been having a visitor. Mrs. Jordan, who goes to the Jehovah’s Witness Hall around back and who supports Thelma Harper for state senate and who has some pamphlets on breast-feeding she just had to share, has been coming over in the afternoons, knocking on the front door, and waiting for Rufus to let her in. She’s our across-the-street neighbor’s grandmother.
She makes herself a cup of tea—which is how we first discovered we were having a visitor: tea was missing—and sits at the end of the couch, her enormous purse resting on her lap. At some point, after she’s gone through her whole spiel, whatever it’s about on that particular day, Rufus leaps up on the couch next to her, puts his paw on her arm and she places her hand over his paw. She then proceeds to cry.
After a few minutes, the dog will press his head against her head and she’ll pet his neck until she’s soothed.
We don’t know what she cries about. We only know it’s her who’s been drinking our tea because Bart set up a camera to see what was happening here during the day.
“You want me to try to get some sound on this?” Bart asked me, as we watched the video together. “I know some guys who could mic the couch.”
But even watching her feels like an invasion of her privacy, even though she’s sitting in our house, with our dog, as of yet having never met us.
She gets something from Rufus that just feels like it would be cruel to take away from her.
And it’s hard not to imagine ourselves in similar circumstances—in need of kindness and with few options for where to get it.
I woke up one night in a flat-out panic, heart racing, breath uncatchable, because it dawned on me that the ghost of Sadie must be what had torn reality out there in the back yard. I threw my overalls on over my pajamas, and stumbled through the dark, across the uneven ground, to the far back yard and the duct-taped patch. I peeled the tape back and put my head in the tear. It was cold and a slight, clammy breeze blew from beneath me.
“Sadie?” I asked. I listened but there was no noise coming from the void. I strained to see what, if anything, might be moving back there, behind the scenes, but it was just darkness and quiet and cold. As far as I could tell, the only thing over there was that slight breeze.
I put the tape back into place.
I never feel Sadie’s presence in the yard. Never hear her moving around in the house at night. Never feel the weight of her at the foot of the bed.
It’s such a great relief to me. My last fear, when it came to that old dog, was that I would not let her completely go. Even though I know I met Death in Her great hall and handed Sadie’s leash to Her and let them both turn from me and walk away, I have always feared succumbing to the temptation to say “Here, girl,” one last time, just to see if she’d still come.
But it is an emptiness that having another dog doesn’t fill. I’m not haunted by Sadie, but I am sometimes haunted by her absence.
A while back we got a little tear in reality out in the back yard. I noticed it when I was walking Rufus one morning. Back beyond the fire pit, right before the creek, there was just a little spot of nothing about a foot off the ground, maybe six inches wide, and it extended up to about shoulder height. My best guess, judging by the ragged edges of the tear, was that someone was cutting through the back yard and reality got caught on their sleeve somehow and, when they kept going, it went with them.
“Hey, Bart,” I said when we got back to the house. “Did you see that tear in reality out in the back yard?”
“Really?” He got up from the couch and came to look out the kitchen window. “No. I don’t see it.”
“Go out back and look.”
He went out, looked, and came back in.
“Yep, that’s a tear. Weird that it looks fine from the other side.”
“Did you stick your hand in it?”
“Of course,” he said, rolling his eyes at me. “I’m not chicken, unlike you.”
“What did it feel like?”
“A little cold, but in this weather? That feels nice. Nothing strange.”
“What should we do?”
“Fuck if I know.”
So, for a while, we just left it. I’d go out for my morning walk and kind of peek into the hole without getting too close and everything seemed okay. Nothing appeared to be being sucked into it or spewed out of it, which seems to me to be the biggest risks of having a tear in reality in your back yard.
But then, of course, the dumbass cats started clawing at it. Is there a thing in the history of the universe with a rough texture like, say, the frayed edges of a tear in reality that a cat won’t fuck with? So, the tear was getting progressively bigger.
“You’ve got to block that up,” I said to Bart. “The cats are going to get in there and who knows if they’ll be able to get out.”
“Yeah, I’ll get to it,” he said. And he did stack some boxes in front of the tear, which worked for a while, but cardboard vs. the rain and the cats? The barricade wasn’t super-effective after a while.
I took some duct tape to it and that worked, but I swear, sometimes when I walked by, I could see the duct tape blockade moving slowly in and out, as if it were the diaphragm of some large, invisible thing, sleeping out there in the yard.
The dog thinks the world of Bart. He follows my brother everywhere. He bought a Trans-Am just so when Bart went to the store, he could follow him. Or so Bart says. I think it also has to do with the fact that Bart never has sense enough to come home. This way, Bart and Rufus can go places together and when Rufus gets tired or bored, he just hops in his Trans-Am and hits the road.
I’m dying to ride in the Trans-Am, but, as far as I can tell, no people are allowed in it. Not even Bart. Sure, you’ll see the cats in there sometimes and, if Bart doesn’t get up in the morning to walk them, Rufus will sometimes swing by Monty’s house and get him. But never any people.
You can always tell if you see Rufus’s car around town, because he never, ever rolls the windows up and there’s a gross line of drool going all down the side of the car.
He gets pulled over all the time, as you can imagine. I mean, every other day, he just full-on stops in the middle of Briley Parkway to bark at cows. And once, he drove through a farmer’s fence and scared the guy’s goats so bad that they all got up on the roof of his house and, to this day, refuse to come down.
But every time the cops pull Rufus over, it’s always the same thing—he’s driving without a license, but a dog can’t get a license in Tennessee, so what’s he supposed to do? The car’s properly registered and that’s the important thing. He’s got himself about 11,000 hours of community service already, but he got them to let him pick up garbage from the side of the road, so that’s like motherfucking Christmas for him every day. Easy work and they cover lunch.
The only thing I don’t really understand is how he’s paying his lawyer. He doesn’t seem to work. So, I guess the lawyer has taken him on pro bono.
Pro bone-o? A dog’s lawyer?
Come on. It’s a little funny.
Bart knows everyone in town. Not even kidding. One time I was at a purportedly haunted house with a medium of some repute. She was asking “Who are you? What do you want?” and nothing, for like twenty minutes. And then, just as we were about to leave the basement, we heard a voice, clear as day, coming from the far, empty corner.
“Wait one moment, kind madam. You, there, with the curly hair. Are you, perchance, Bartholomew Phillips’s sister?”
I looked around, but there appeared to be no one else who fit the bill.
“Lovely man. We went fishing together some time ago and it was quite enjoyable.”
Later, I asked, “You know a ghost?”
“If you say so. I don’t get into people’s business like you do.”
Hobs also suffers from a cat-name problem. He’s “Hobs” because he’s orange and Bart grew up on Calvin and Hobbes. He’s “Hobs” instead of “Hobbes” because the cute chick behind the desk at the vet’s office when Bart first got him put “Hobs” down—I guess we can say with certainty that she was neither a comics fan nor a philosopher—and it stuck.
I usually call him “old man” because he acts like it, always wandering around the house or back yard muttering about how inadequate kids today are. He means us.
He’s a better hunter than Squeaky. She’s never brought down a rabbit or a bird. But he didn’t catch the dragon, now did he? And I’ll tell you why, just so you understand something about him. He could have caught that dragon the second it came down the ridge, before it burned its second house down. But no one asked him, so fuck them. He’s loyal to the people he’s chosen to be loyal to—even if he thinks we’re idiots—but he’s not sticking his neck out for people he doesn’t know who won’t come over and do a little ass-kissing in order to get his help.
Don’t think of him as some kind of aged Mafioso. Think of him as the world-weary gun-slinger. He’s got skills to handle dangerous situations, but he’s not just going to use them on anyone.
I walk most mornings, out to the far back of our yard, then along the fence-line to the AT&T yard and then up on Lloyd. I’m usually gone about a half an hour. The walk is strange in one small way—no matter how far down Lloyd I go before I turn around, the walk takes a half an hour. I could get out on Lloyd, go maybe ten feet, realize it’s raining too heavily for me, turn back around, come home and I’ve been gone a half an hour. Or it’s a beautiful, cool morning with the fog just rising up out of the trees in the hills, the stars winking out as the pink of dawn hits the sky, and I decide I’m going to the school and back. Still a half an hour. How? I can’t explain.
At the end of my walk, no matter how far I’ve gone, by the time I get back across the AT&T yard, Hobs is waiting for me. He comes out of the blackberry bramble just as I’m wondering if the orange cat is going to be waiting for me today. Then he rubs up against my ankles, meows in a friendly, happy manner, and walks back to the house with me.
He seems always pleasantly surprised to see me, like he’s expecting that one day he might come out to walk me home and I’m not going to make it to meet him.
You should take your time naming a cat. We called Pumpkin “Pumpkin” because she came to us on Thanksgiving, a traditional time of pumpkin pie. I think I told you all how this happened. We used to keep the dog food out in the garage and we noticed that something had been getting into it. We assumed raccoons.
So, right before Thanksgiving, we brought the food into the house. Thanksgiving Eve I’m standing in my kitchen doing dishes and I hear the most ungodly pissed-off meowing from the garage. It was the cat who would eventually come to be known as Pumpkin, a scrawny mess, angry that we had stolen her food supply.
Pumpkin is a stupid name for her, though. It’s the wrong name. Her name is so obviously Squeaky that no one even uses her “real” name. She’s either “new kitty” or “Squeaky.” And that’s it.
Well, until this summer.
I’m sure you all heard about the “arsons” we had up here in Whites Creek and Joelton. Unsolved, they said. Bullshit. Of course it was a dragon. But you never heard that because the police didn’t want to admit that they spent a month trying to kill that thing without any success.
So, you never heard how it all ended either. And I’m not sure myself how she did it, but it was Squeaky. I was sitting here late one night watching TV and there was a big thud that shook the whole house. I assumed it was an accident out on the highway so I ran to the dining room window. Nothing. Traffic was passing normally.
And then I heard Squeaky, singing away as she does when she’s got something she’s proud of.
I open the front door and there, on the porch, is Squeaky, sitting next to the carcass of a small dragon. Okay, come on. It’s a cat. Let’s just be honest. The bottom half of the carcass of a small dragon.
“Look at you, Dragonslayer,” I said and that’s stuck as a second name for her.
Rufus has the worst fleas. We bathe him. We dose him with Frontline every month and still, he is flea-riddled. And they’re nervy. Last month they went on strike for better working conditions. Seems I had created an unsafe workspace for them with all the flooding and the poisoning and their boss expected them to pay for their own safety equipment.
Well, why should I give a shit if my dog’s fleas go on strike? Sounds like Heaven. They refuse to do flea-things to my dog and I don’t have to think about how much money I’m spending on failing to eradicate them. Strike away, fleas.
My enthusiasm was ill-thought-out. Because, of course, they don’t need all 8,452 fleas on the picket-line at any given moment. Twenty of them would take their signs and follow behind the dog chanting their slogans and the rest of them would crowd onto the couch to watch TV. You think, well, how hard can it be to take a remote from a bunch of fleas? But then, you reach over for it and they swarm all over your hand, down in between your fingers and up your arm. It’s just so gross.
Lesley was all, “Just get some diatomaceous earth and sprinkle it on the couch. That’ll fix them.”
Oh, sure, for regular fleas. One day I sprinkle diatomaceous earth on the couch, the next day UPS shows up with 8,452 very tiny boxes. Inside each one? Protective suits. Worse? They bought those suits on Amazon using my account. Each order had its own shipping fee, so they drained my bank account. Why does Amazon even sell protective suits to fleas? I tried to get answers, but all Amazon would tell me is that they don’t pass judgments on their customers. Eventually, I got the bank to handle it—since the fleas stole my identity and bank information in order to place the order. But I know for a fact that not one of those fuckers got anything more than a slap on the wrist.
So, it ends up being me who has to go back to their boss and try to negotiate some kind of settlement, because I just can’t have all these fleas loitering on my couch. You can’t even imagine the difficulty of this. I had to sneak up on Rufus when he was asleep and then dig around in his fur to try to find the flea management that was still on the job and then talk to them softly enough that Rufus wouldn’t wake up. Otherwise, he’d put his head on my lap and insist on scratches or think we were about to go out and start hopping around. And to hear a flea, you basically have to let it crawl in your ear and then shout to you the things it wants you to know. Your ear never feels clean afterward.
But we make the negotiations happen. And I agree to issue general warnings before we bathe the dog. In return, they agree to cease trying to unionize the cats’ fleas. Soon enough, I can sit on my own couch and watch my own TV. But my dog still has fleas. What can you do?
The other day, Bart came home from the park with the dog.
“He’s got something in his mouth,” Bart explained as he rummaged through the fridge, trying to find anything that Rufus would rather have than whatever disgusting, most likely dead thing he was sucking on at the moment. Half a pizza. That would do it.
Out of the dog’s mouth plopped a wet, bedraggled mess. It looked like a pile of leaves with a large set of dragonfly wings jutting out at unnatural angles. The whole clump was about the size of a tennis ball. Bart poked at it and it flopped over. I bent down to get a better look.
It was a small man. With wings. A faerie.
“Bart, it’s a person!” I could see the tiny man’s chest rising and falling. I put my finger on his forehead and, while he appeared to be warm, I had no way of knowing if he was feverish or if faeries just ran hot.
“Mister, are you okay?” I said, trying to gently jostle him.
“No, don’t do that,” Bart said. “Haven’t you had any kind of first-aid training? Don’t move the injured.”
“Well, then, what do we do? We can’t exactly call an ambulance.” By now, the dog was back in the kitchen, sniffing around the man. “Don’t put that thing back in your mouth, Rufus!”
The little man sputtered and opened one large, brown eye, and then the other.
“Thank you, kind sir,” he said to Rufus. “If you hadn’t carried me off, that raccoon would have certainly eaten me.”
“Oh, good boy,” I said to Rufus.
“I am the king of Nashville’s hidden realm,” the small man said.
“Cool,” Bart said. But I was more skeptical. I could say I was queen of Nashville but what did that prove?
“For saving me, I will grant you one wish.”
“To win the lottery,” Bart said, without hesitation and before I had a chance to say ‘a book contract.’ Rufus barked.
And just like that, the faerie king was gone and the bottom drawer in our pantry was filled with rawhide bones and, no matter how many we took out, the supply never dwindled.
We have a saying around the house when it comes to Rufus—“All heart, no brains.” He’s not exactly inherently dumb. But it does seems as if no one ever asked anything of him or expected anything from him before he came to live with us. It’s almost as if he did nothing until he came here and now, everything that happens that he gets to participate in is awesome.
Take, for instance, his favorite pastime—eating out of the garbage. He’ll go right into the garbage and bring out whatever he wants to eat and come sit next to me on the couch with it.
“No, Rufus,” I’ll say, taking the gross bit of garbage from him. “Bad dog.”
Then he looks around, like “Where? I want to see a bad dog. Where’s a bad dog?” It simply doesn’t dawn on him that I could mean him. After all, he’s having a wonderful time with people he likes.
And he loves my dad, like a total puppy. My dad comes to visit and Rufus is all “I should sit in your lap,” even though Rufus is at least a hundred pounds and my dad doesn’t have a lap that will fit him. One time, my dad was like “Damn it, dog! How would you like it if I sat in your lap?” And the dog got so excited. If he’d had a lap, he would have let my dad sit in it all day long.
But we have to keep our eye on my dad when he’s here, because Rufus has this friend, Monty, who’s a black lab mix. Monty’s favorite thing when he comes to our house to visit—aside from barking at the cats—is to rummage through the house and find all of Rufus’s toys. He brings the all into the living room, sets them on Rufus’s dog bed, and then climbs on top of them, like Smaug on his pile of gold. So, every fucking time my dad is here and Monty comes over, at least once Monty picks up my dad, brings him over to Rufus’s bed, and climbs up on him in order to claim him for himself.
And my dad is stuck there until someone comes to rescue him. And Monty and Rufus seem to think this is hilarious. Though, sometimes, they fight about it, too.
Well, not unlimited, but I have a treat for you, dear Tiny Cat Pants, readers, all 10 of you who are still around. Oh Halloween, here on this very blog, we’re going to go back to Allendale. I have a PDF from which I am, apparently, making a “chapbook” (like a poet!). But how would you get a chapbook if you wanted to read the improved story? You don’t even necessarily live here!
And that’s when my recently acquired ability to upload a PDF to this very blog comes in handy.
“Allendale” will be the Halloween night story!
Rufus came with paperwork—a couple of pages of vet records that showed what shots he’d had and that he was born on September 11, 2010, which seems improbable, weighed 98 lbs., again, improbable, and was a “yellow Lab mix var. bunyon.” Well, when two out of three things on a dog’s records are false, who thinks anything of the third thing?
But we’d been home with him for about a month when we got a phone call from a Minnesota area code.
“Ms. Phillips? This is Arthur Gunderson. I think I owe you some money.”
“I’ve been trying to track down the family who bought Rufus and that appears to be you.”
“Oh, we didn’t buy Rufus. He was a rescue.”
“Goodness,” Mr. Gunderson got very quiet. “Was he abused?”
“Not as far as we can tell. He seems very inexperienced with regular life, but he’s not shy of people or aggressive or anything. He’s a real sweetheart.”
“Well, now I just feel terrible. I suspect that the reason I’m calling you may be the reason he was abandoned by his original owner. I own Rufus’s father and my son owns Rufus’s mother. We’re part of a small group of enthusiasts who are working to revitalize this line. My son sold the litter Rufus was a part of those many years ago and I was supposed to receive the runt. The dogs take some time to grow full size and it is obvious now that my dog is full-size. I’ve contacted the owners of all of Rufus’s littermates and they’re also full-size, which means that you must have it. Rufus is the runt.”
“The runt?” I tried to interrupt.
“My son and I feel that it’s unethical to have sold Rufus for full price when he’ll never be full-sized. But poor Rufus. Clearly, when he remained so small, his original buyer abandoned him.”
“Small?! Wait. Time out. Rufus is huge. Other lab owners stop us at the park and ask us what kind of dog he is. How big are these other dogs?”
“Can he still fit in your house?”
“Yep, definitely the runt.”
I don’t say this lightly. I am still in awe.
Last night, I heard Sadie in the den, growling at something. This scared the shit out of me, as you might imagine. But I was determined to face the ghost dog myself because I have had some bouts of insanity recently and I just could not bear the idea of having to go wake the Butcher up to investigate the ghost of a dog I love. I mean, it’s not like, in death, she’s finally going to rip my throat out or something, even though, in life, she could never work up the ambition.
So, I went into the den, where the noise was ongoing and loud and I flipped on the light and the orange cat looked over at me like “What? Someone‘s got to growl at things out the window.”
Yes, it was him, doing his best impersonation of the dog. I didn’t see what he was growling at out the window, but I bet, whatever it was, it thought the cat was weird as fuck, all growling like a dog.
Cats. I just don’t know.
1. Ghost hunters in Louisiana burned down a plantation they’d broken into. So, that’s not good.
2. The other weekend, I was showing S. around some of my favorite cemeteries in town. We went by Greenwood and I pointed out the number of graves covered in white stones. And I remembered that Bridgett, I think, had told me why this is, but I’d forgotten. but then I found it again:
In addition to personal objects, some African-American graves in the South are decorated with white seashells and pebbles, suggesting the watering environment at the bottom of either the ocean or a lake or river.
Such material items are not associated with the Christian belief of salvation; they are more likely signs of the remembrance of African custom. In South Carolina, nearly 40 percent of all slaves imported between 1733 and 1807 were from the Kongo-speaking region; their world of the dead is known to be underground but under water. This place is the realm of the bakulu, creatures whose white color marks them as deceased. Shells and stones signal the boundary of this realm, which can only be reached by penetrating beneath the two physical barriers. Their whiteness remembers that in Central Africa white, not black, is the color of death.
Okay, so this happened, just now. Here’s what you need to know. My department is split between two office suites. The suite my part of the department is in is here down the hall. The other part of the department is where the fridge is. And, usually, the only person down there when I get in is B_________. So, I stopped in there first, to put my food in the fridge, and then I poked my head into B________’s office to say “Good morning.” Her office was empty. It’s the only office with a light on. No biggie. I walked back toward the front door of the suite.
I heard footsteps behind me, like B_____ coming out of one of the other rooms.
“Good morning,” I called out. Nothing. “Hello? Hello?”
I take a step back into the room debating on whether I should just make sure that B________ sees that it’s me. I decide that it’s not that important and, if she didn’t answer me, it’s because she’s got a pen in her mouth and her arms are full (which is often the case). I turn back around and open the door to a startled B______ who has been down in the bathroom.
The sight of her–a person I know to be in the suite behind me–is so fucking scary that I start to shake and tear up.
We search the suite together. It is empty.
Before we lost the contract to Duke University, the work from Fort Campbell had been pretty steady and pretty much the same—soldiers came back from Afghanistan with some kind of terrible and malignant curse and we removed said terrible and malignant curse. The important thing was that it paid well.
The Department of Defense replaced us with Duke because Duke does what I informally call “the woo-woo shit” in their parapsychology department. If the Army, for instance, wants to see if demon-infused soldiers offer advantages over mere mortals, nobody at Duke has to sit around and discuss the moral and theological implications. Since our “woo-woo shit” comes out of Vanderbilt’s divinity school, there’s a lot of stuff we won’t do if the department decides it’s wrong. Such decisions often consternated my advisor, Professor Harrison, who was certain there were important articles he alone could write about what he wanted to call “The Vanderbilt Experiments,” but, obviously, couldn’t, if Duke had the contract and thus was doing the experimenting.
I was a grad student at the Vanderbilt Divinity School, which is not cheap. I paid for school through a web of grants and fellowships and, until three months ago, money from that DoD contract. I needed that money. My parents were living in a trailer in Smyrna with my brother, where I was afraid I was about to end up as well. My step-dad hadn’t worked since ’08 and my mom was working part-time at Walmart and the Quick-Sak just to put groceries on their table. My little brother had a job at Nissan, thank goodness, but that had to support him, his girlfriend, their baby, and our youngest brother, with the extra money going to Mom and Bill when he had it.
I can’t begin to tell you both how guilty I felt, sitting in school when money was so tight, and how desperate I was to not have to go back home and find a job and get married and have a bunch of kids and sit in my little corner of the world afraid of ever venturing out.
“You don’t want to end up like me?” My mom asked, whenever I tried to talk to her about this.
“No, Mom, that’s not what I’m saying,” I said. “After all, you moved to Smyrna. You got out.”
“It’s not like it’s just a choice between getting everything you dreamed of and being stuck with everything you’re afraid of.” She paused. And sighed. And probably took a drag off her cigarette. “You can always come home. It’s not the end of the world.”
“I can’t, Mom,” I said. “I just can’t.”
“Well, you just concentrate on school,” she said. But I heard it in her voice that she felt I was judging her. “If we have to ask your father’s people for money, I will.” Neither of us had seen my dad in years. People talked like he was still around, but it was hard to tell with him.
“Oh, god, no. Mom,” I begged. “Please, let’s not involve them.”
“They’re proud of you, you know,” she said. “First girl in the family to go to college. I heard he’s telling everyone back home what a good job you’re going to have, how his girl is going to sit at a desk all day, and not have to break her back to earn her living. He understands you.” The message being that she didn’t.
“He never said that kind of stuff to me.” Actually, he never talked to me. I mean, literally, never. When I went to see him, from the time I was a child, it was always my uncle who did the communicating for both of them. Which was fine, because my dad scared the shit out of me. The less he paid attention to me, the better. These days, I was pretty sure my dad thought I’d betrayed him by leaving the mountain and I knew he was relentlessly unforgiving. Even if he was proud of me.
“He’s never been easy. That’s why I married Bill, not him. But you got nothing to worry about. You’ll get a big fancy job and he’ll be acting like he got it for you.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the job prospects of a person with a PhD in Occult Studies are limited. Teaching positions don’t open up very often and the freelance gigs don’t pay very well (which is why I didn’t dare take out student loans). The steady work, like Duke’s demon-infused soldier program, often disgusted me.
Speaking of Duke’s demon-infused soldier program, it was, judging by the evidence in front of me, not going well. They’d called us in to see if we could help get things back on track. If we could, Duke would cut us in on the grant money and the research results. Obviously, that was important to us. So, there we were in one room, separated from one Corporal Baldwin by a thick sheet of one-way glass. He sat in the other room, tied to the lone piece of furniture in the room—a wooden arm chair with thick steel legs. He wore only loose sweatpants so the extent of damage to his battered body was evident. He was missing one ear completely. The bottom of the other one looked like it had been torn off. All his toes were gone. His nose was bruised almost black and broken so severely I couldn’t look straight at it without cringing. He was missing all but his pointer and thumb on one hand and the pinky on the other.
Even though he’d been so thoroughly and carefully restrained, I saw his mouth was bleeding and, as we stood there, he was calmly gnawing on his bottom lip. If they didn’t gag him in some way, he’d surely eat it off.
I had to turn away. “Jesus Christ,” I gagged.
Putting a demon into a body that still has a soul is like putting a rabid dog in a too-small crate with an adorable puppy. That puppy’s probably not going to make it out, you know? Whatever was in Baldwin was trying to evict him to make enough room for itself. Maybe then the rabid dog analogy isn’t fair. The situation was extremely painful for both person and demon, but the demon was stronger, so Baldwin was going to lose.
Julie Zinotti was Duke’s point person on this. I knew her from the few conferences in our field. She fancied herself an occultist/scientist in the vein of Jack Parsons and she didn’t appreciate if you reminded her how L. Ron Hubbard had made a fool of him. She had some blind spots but her work was good.
“Why would you do this?” I asked her.
“I thought the demon was weak enough that a soldier could control him,” she said, fidgeting with her long, black hair. “Daisy, really, I took all the necessary precautions. The bindings I inscribed on Baldwin should have held.”
“I don’t see any inscriptions,” I said.
“He undid them,” she said, simply.
“Impossible,” Professor Harrison said. “How can a demon young enough to be captured be smart enough to undo a binding spell?”
I was watching as the thing moved across Baldwin’s face, something subtle in the difference between how Baldwin looked in his skin and how the demon wore it.
“Maybe he’s not young,” I said. “Maybe he was just injured. A coyote will let you approach it if it’s too injured to move. So will most birds.”
“Ridiculous,” Professor Harrison said. The professor and I had this disagreement regularly. He believed demons were, by definition, supernatural. Not from here, not of this mundane earth. I believed there wasn’t anything in nature that wasn’t of nature. You might not know the thing before you, but its unnatural acts only seemed that way because we didn’t know enough about nature to have the right comparison.
“I’ll go in and get set up for the exorcism,” Professor Harrison said.
“That’s not a good idea,” Julie said. “Jim died doing that last week.” Jim was Julie’s project partner and one of the people on her dissertation committee.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. She shrugged sadly.
The demon began to rock slightly in his chair and then he said, “Send me that hillbilly woman.” I looked around, but no one else matched that description.
“I guess it means me,” I said. I carried a folding chair in with me and sat across from it.
For a long while it didn’t say anything and I stayed quiet, waiting. And then it said, “I’m going to kill Baldwin here.”
“I wish you wouldn’t,” I said.
“Gonna kill him just like I killed those other ones,” it said.
“Other ones?” Ugh, what a rookie mistake. Never ask a demon a question you don’t already know the answer to. Otherwise, you’re just giving it a way into your head.
“They didn’t tell you?” it grinned, or at least, I think it attempted to grin. It was hard to tell with as swollen as its lip was. “Baldwin’s my seventh.”
It was horrifying, the idea that they were just letting it slaughter its way through these enlisted men in order to see if one might be strong enough to subdue it. I stayed quiet, rather than confirm to it that it’d shook me.
“You know, we have women like you back home,” it said. “‘Easy to catch, impossible to fetch.’” I’m sure I flinched. I tried not to but I was so shocked to hear that phrase that I know I didn’t mask my surprise. It took me a minute to respond.
“Did you know Jimmy Martin died?” I asked.
“Yeah,” it said. “That was a while back. Too bad. Lots of good musicians came out of Bill Monroe’s band, but he was the best.”
“Yeah,” I echoed without quite realizing it. I tried to hold myself steady, but I could feel the sweat running down my back, and I knew I had to be noticeably shaking. I tried to keep my face as placid as possible. Under my breath, I whispered, “Dad?” The demon’s eyes brightened just a bit and, slightly, so slightly, he shook his head no. “Uncle Asra?” I mouthed. I knew it had to be one or the other. They’re the only two demons I’ve ever heard of who give a shit about bluegrass.
A very slight smile crept across poor Baldwin’s face. So, Asra it was.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Just hold off on Baldwin until then.” I stood up and walked back into the other room. It watched me intently.
“What did you learn?” Professor Harrison asked. “What could you have learned in such a short amount of time?”
“It can see us through the one-way glass,” I said.
“Who’s Jimmy Martin?” Professor Harrison asked, growing exasperated.
“The King of Bluegrass,” I said. “ ‘Sunny Side of the Mountain’? ‘Widow Maker’?”
“And what’s the point of that little exchange?” Professor Harrison was now very angry, though he would never admit that to himself. Acknowledging he was angry would entail admitting there was something I knew about that he didn’t and how could that possibly be?
“Mahala Mullins was a famous moonshiner from East Tennessee, over by Sneedville, where my dad’s from,” I explained. “She was a very large woman, so the police had no problem going up the mountain and arresting her, but they couldn’t carry her off the mountain to put her in jail. ‘Easy to catch, impossible to fetch.’ I wasn’t sure at first if the demon was specifically referring to her. I mean, I guess any number of places with obstacles and criminal fat women could have that saying. But it knew who Jimmy Martin was. Didn’t even bat an eye. So, yeah, around Sneedville. If that’s not where it originated, it at least spent some time there.”
“And?” Professor Harrison asked.
“If we know where it’s from, we know who it is. If we know who it is, we have an advantage,” I said. Yes, I was neglecting to tell them that I knew it was from Sneedville for a fact, because that demon in there was kin. I was afraid if they found that out they’d either send me home due to my enormous conflict of interest, or tie me to a chair and let Harrison and what was left of the Duke team run experiments on me.
“It’s from Hell,” Professor Harrison answered. “We know what it is: the Devil’s minion. Not some redneck from some Appalachian village.” I shrugged. Demons respond to Christian iconography, but I wasn’t convinced they were actually Christian things. Not that I spent a lot of time with that side of the family, but they seemed to have their own religions and superstitions. As for the ‘Appalachian village’ dig, I’d learned to let that kind of stuff slide.
When I got back to my apartment, I found fifty dollars in my back pocket. Five brand new ten dollar bills, with nary a crease or a wrinkle but the one that folded them in half. I carry my money in my purse. And, even if I did somehow, some time ago, leave fifty dollars in the back pocket of these jeans, it’d have had to go through the wash. These were new bills.
This meant that the demon had some limited mobility outside of Baldwin. I was trying to decide if there was some way to exploit this—maybe give Baldwin some respite—when my step-dad knocked at the door. He was already a little drunk.
“Hey, Daddy,” I hugged him and let him in.
“Hey, sugar,” he slouched into one of the wooden kitchen chairs.
“You want a beer?” I asked, getting one for myself from the fridge.
“Sure,” he said, taking the can I handed him. We chatted some about how he was doing, and then he got down to business. “But listen, you know it’s your momma’s birthday coming up and I want to get her something nice, but I got no money. Now, I hate to ask–”
But I was already fishing the wad of cash back out of my pocket. I hadn’t had it long enough to miss it. I just took out three bills. I had a feeling he would spend most of it on beer and my mom would end up with gas station roses she’d pretend to love. But I couldn’t tell him “no.”
“Thank you, baby,” he said, getting a little teary-eyed.
“Daddy,” I wanted to change the subject to something less awkward. “How do you think Granny would have healed an animal?”
“You mean, nurse it back to health?”
“No,” I said, taking another drink. My mom’s mom was rumored to have had powers. I always imagined that’s how my dad came to be acquainted with the family. “I mean, something that was hurt that you couldn’t get close enough to touch. Like a fox with a broken leg.”
“Oh, don’t waste your time,” he snorted derisively. “Just shoot it. Put it out of its misery.”
“But, Daddy, that can’t be the only way,” I insisted. “You know she’d have had something.”
“Well, your Granny sometimes had more heart than brains,” he said. “You got that problem, too. And that’s saying something, because you have a pretty big brain, nerdy-girl.”
He threw his arm over the back of the chair and scratched his chin as he thought about it.
“You’d have to clean the wound,” he nodded to himself. “You could do that, I suppose, by calling whatever’s in the wound to you. That should pull it out of the animal. And then, simple enough, nine nights of a white candle for healing. That trick would be the calling out.”
“How would you do that?” I asked.
“I don’t mess with that devil stuff anymore, Daisy, you know that,” he said. Right then, I almost asked him about how he’d ended up with my mom, whether he’d married her out of obligation. But I love Bill and I didn’t want to know what kind of debt he was in to my dad.
“But how would you have?”
“Like attracts like,” he shrugged. “Think of all the things that could be stuck in that animal—probably metal, wood, glass, maybe stone? Just magnetize those. That’s what I’d try.”
My step-dad knew so much about old mountain magic, if you could get him to talk about it. And he only knew half of what my Granny Nickens had known. It’s sad to think about how much wisdom is just gone, lost for not seeming valuable or for being valuable only to people most of us think are worthless.
When I hugged him goodbye, I slid the other twenty dollars into his left back pocket, hoping he wouldn’t notice, and it would be there for my momma to find when she was doing laundry.
The next day I was late getting up to Fort Campbell from Nashville because I had a class to teach in the morning. I brought lunch for everyone, but when I saw what they were up to, I found I lost my appetite.
Baldwin was still tied into his chair, the bruising on his face and body still severe, but now he was covered in runes and sigils that Julie and Professor Harrison were busy carving into his body. I left the food in the observation room and came into the interrogation room. Baldwin was clearly in some pain, but I suppose, in comparison to what Azra put him through, it was probably improvement. He was answering a series of questions from the DoD contractor about what it felt like to share space with a demon and whether Baldwin felt he could learn to control it. Baldwin’s answers were “Terrible” and “No.” I wasn’t sure that kind of blunt honesty was going to be enough to convince the government that demon-infused soldiers were a bad idea.
I thought I caught a hint, just a glimpse, of my uncle looking out from Baldwin’s right eye, watching me while Baldwin looked at the DoD contractor.
“Listen,” I said, “Seven soldiers into this, it’s got to be clear that what you’re trying to do can’t be done. You can’t merge a demon and a man into the same being. And it’s also pretty obvious that this thing is eventually going to get loose and, when it does, it’s not going to be pretty.”
“It won’t get loose for many years,” Harrison said.
“I disagree,” I insisted. “I still think it’s injured, not young.”
“I have more experience in these matters,” Harrison countered.
“Julie, where did you guys find him?” I asked.
“At a Catholic Church in Crossville,” she said. “A local curandero bound him to a rock and the priest gave the rock to us.”
“Why didn’t we get called on that?” Harrison was insulted.
“I told you we needed someone Catholic on our team,” I said.
“You speak Spanish,” Harrison replied, as if the two things were interchangeable, as if my Spanish was any good.
“A skilled curandero, someone who can bind a demon to an object, could certainly injure it. Where’s the rock now?” I asked.
“In Baldwin,” Julie replied. Oh, lord. That was crude. I had assumed the soldiers had some occult training, but no, someone stuck a rock into them and the demon was forced to come along for the ride. Cheaper and faster than giving soldiers the skills they’d need to have any chance of success.
“We need to let it go,” I said. “Under safe conditions we control. If it gets loose itself, there’s a good chance it’ll hunt us down and kill us all.” Well, maybe not all of us.
“If we let it go, there’s a good chance it’ll do that anyway,” Julie said.
“We can make this work, Daisy,” Harrison insisted. “We could merge the two of them and get the contract and the funding back. I could write a tremendous article.”
“It would be classified,” the DoD contractor said.
“I just need to teach Baldwin how to harness the demon,” Professor Harrison said.
“And if you fail?” I asked. But I knew how his mind worked. He was already planning to submit a proposal to train the new recruits in basic occult theory and practice before infusing them. The training might take months, years even, and he would have a steady gig and enough material to last the rest of his career.
I had no great sympathy for my uncle, not really. Not even after fifty bucks and a shared appreciation of bluegrass music. His brother had been terrible to my mother and the whole family had been a nightmare toward me. That’s why I got into this field to begin with, to learn how to deal with them, like how it’s the most fucked-up people who are psychology majors, the people with the biggest demonic problems go into occult studies. But I couldn’t get those dead soldiers out of my head. Just one after another, after another, dying, and for what? So that our government could find out first-hand what governments and religions all throughout history have already learned?
You can’t command a demon. You can’t own it. You can’t bend it to your will. And if you try, it will destroy you and enjoy it.
So I ended up going back onto base after the Duke crew and Harrison had all gone home for the evening and setting up in the observation room, Baldwin and Azra remained tied in a chair in the interrogation room.
I set a table against the glass and placed on the table two white candles—one for Baldwin and one for my uncle.
“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me your name?” I asked. “Your true name. I know Azra isn’t it.” Demons don’t share their true names, not if they can help it.
“No,” it said, its voice so flat I couldn’t tell if it was angry or amused or curious or anything at all. So, I carved on one candle “Baldwin” and on the other candle “Tied to the Rock.” After I inscribed it, it wrinkled Baldwin’s brow and asked “Did you just name me?”
“Well, more like a nickname,” I said.
“Hmm,” It said. “I felt it. Tell me what you call me.”
“No,” I said, taking my turn at keeping my voice flat. I lit both candles. Then I pulled out the other things I’d brought—a plastic key, a small pebble, a glass, a stick, an antique silver dime—ordinary things I could get through security. And I spoke over them, reminded them that they each came from a larger whole and that they could, if circumstances were right, return again to that larger whole. And then I commanded them to call their brothers to them.
And then I waited. And slowly, the thing I was looking for emerged, a long, thin old fashioned hat pin, with a chunk of amber on the end. Baldwin coughed and coughed and finally, it drew out of his mouth, like the end of a sword-swallower’s routine. I had no doubt that the pin was made of silver and that this is what the curandero had used to incapacitate the demon.
But next came the thing I was not expecting—which may prove that I was in over my head—the stone, the very stone that bound my uncle in the soldier. Baldwin coughed and then burped and out it came, falling first on the wooden arm of the chair and then onto the floor.
I looked at it and then at Baldwin and Azra made eye-contact with me. I scrambled in from the other room while the demon and Baldwin were both rocking the chair, trying to get over so that they could at least try to wiggle to it. I’m not fast, but it was no great feat to be faster than them.
I’m sure Baldwin was thinking about getting even, thinking that, if he controlled the stone, he would control the demon. I’m sure Azra was thinking about getting free, since, if it controlled the stone, it just had to bide its time until it was strong enough to escape Baldwin, which wouldn’t be long at all now that it was rid of the hat pin. I was thinking about only how to prevent either thing until I could think clearly about what the right course of action was.
I reached the stone first, but I swear to you that I felt that demon’s hand on top of mine. The first time anyone in my father’s family had touched me.
I sat in the far corner of the interrogation room for a long time, trying to decide what to do. I couldn’t give Baldwin the stone. It’d just end up right back in the hands of the military and this nonsense would continue. If I gave the stone to the demon, it seemed to me I was all but guaranteeing he’d stick around and seek his revenge, which could also end up in a lot of dead people.
No, until I had this straightened out in my own head, I needed the status quo to continue. So, I did what seemed obvious. I kicked the two of them over and duct taped the stone to the bottom of the chair. Eventually someone would come in and set them upright and all would seem as it should.
I took the hat pin with me.
I won’t lie to you. All weekend I thought about going to get that stone and bringing it back to my apartment. I dreamed about the weight of it in my hand, the power of the thing tied to it. I imagined what I would do with the money a demon could pull out of thin air—how I would go down to my brother’s house on Sunday and at dinner announce to everyone that they were moving to better neighborhoods, better schools, how I would tell them about the college funds set up for my niece and my youngest brother and how anyone else who wanted to go would get my help.
I daydreamed about how grateful they would be, how relieved.
But I knew, even in my revelry, that eventually my mom would pull me aside and lecture me about rubbing their noses in my success. I knew she’d ask if the money were Godly or if I’d sinned to get that kind of cash.
No, the truth was that they wouldn’t take that much help. Or they would, but it would put more distance between us.
And I’ll tell you the truth, I also thought about how soft his hand had been on mine and I thought I could bring the rock home, just for an hour or two, and that would be alright. No one had to benefit but me. But I could get to know him, hear stories about my dad from their childhoods, if they had childhoods. We could be a real family for just a little bit, if I made him treat me like a legitimate part of it. Surely, there was no harm in that, right? But I stayed away.
What happened next was my fault, then, because I unwounded the demon and left him there.
I couldn’t get up to Clarksville until after class again on Monday and what I found was even worse than on Friday, though I was the only person who seemed to realize that. Baldwin was dead. His skin was kind of gray, his lips were bluish, and his mouth wouldn’t stay completely shut. And yet, Professor Harrison, the DoD contractor, Julie, and a Major we’d worked with before were sitting there talking to him like they couldn’t tell. He answered—it answered—of course, while untied and unbound, the runes and sigils they’d spent so much time carving into Baldwin’s body arranged in a slightly different manner and yet they didn’t notice.
In its hand, it held the rock.
“Oh, it took me most of the weekend to figure out how to do it,” it said, impersonating Baldwin. “But thanks to this gal here,” he motioned to me. I frowned. “I realized I just had to take control of the situation.”
“We need to leave this room right now,” I said, trying to remain calm. I rummaged in my bag for something—salt, sage, hell even basil at this point—but was coming up with henbane, rue, and nettles instead.
“It’s working,” Professor Harrison smiled. “We did what Duke could not.”
“We didn’t do anything,” I said. “Please, we need to leave now.” I was searching feverishly but I couldn’t find the goddamn hat pin. I swore I had stuck it in my bag, but it was gone. It might have conveniently rolled out of my bag in the car. A pickpocket might have gotten it at Starbucks. Who knows? I just didn’t have it any longer. The demon had influenced it away.
And so I was defenseless when he struck. He was mid-sentence, saying something about how this was truly the most interesting thing he’d been involved in since—and that’s when he stood up and ripped Baldwin right off him like an old t-shirt. Baldwin tore away and what remained was fearsome and magnificent. He was a dark, rich blue, the color of the sky right above a sunset, with long black hair and a beard. He looked something like a bull, especially with the horns and tail, but the length of his body suggested a mountain lion. His hands and his feet were like a person’s, but he had a dog’s growl.
The Major was the first to die. The demon just lifted him up and then tore him right in two. Entrails went everywhere and the floor became a slick mess. Then went the DoD contractor. The demon ripped his head off and then paused to drink the blood spurting from the stump where his neck had been. I wanted to vomit. Julie was screaming. Professor Harrison was crying.
And I admit, I didn’t try to help. Once I saw that he had dropped the stone in order to better grip his victim, my sole objective was slipping around on the floor until I had it in my hand. And then, I ran for the door. I left Harrison and Julie behind. Left them for dead. Which, by the time I’d been stopped by the MPs and returned to the room, they were. And my uncle was nowhere to be seen. Or at least, playing so. He had to be somewhere nearby. After all, I had the stone.
When they asked me what happened, I blamed bath salts, said that Duke had been working with the DoD contractor to see if bath salts might have any military applications and that they had administered them to Baldwin who, apparently, went crazy and then, somehow, tore himself asunder.
I think the level of gore prevented them from wanting to worry about whether the facts lined up. Obviously, I couldn’t have done it, and assigning blame to Baldwin, and ultimately Duke, tied up a lot of ends in a very tidy fashion. So they went with it.
As soon as they were done interviewing me, I got in my car and drove, one hand always clenching that rock, my uncle beside me in the passenger seat.
“You want to cry?” He asked me. “There’s a gas station at the next exit, if you need to stop.”
“No,” I said, though, yes, of course, I felt like I could cry for the rest of my life and it wouldn’t be enough.
“You cried a lot when you were a little girl,” He said.
“Well, I’m a grown woman now,” I said. “I have to conduct myself professionally.”
“I hear that grad students cry all the time,” he said. I didn’t respond. He studied me for a while. “You’ve changed a lot since you went away.”
“I grew up.”
“Maybe you forgot who you really are.” He said, like leaving was a kind of absent-mindedness, like, if not for my terrible memory, I would have stayed right where I was born, where everyone knew everyone, and the comfortable routines of life were set from cradle to grave. But, oops, I forgot myself, forgot who and where I came from, and somehow ended up in Nashville.
“Or maybe I couldn’t,” I said. After a bit, I changed the subject. “Was there really a curandero?”
“Did he really capture you?”
“What do you think?”
I didn’t answer him. Just my having asked the question must have told him what I thought.
It’s not that far from Nashville to Sneedville. Just four hours, if the traffic’s with you, another fifty minutes or so on top of that to get there from Clarksville. But the way from that little town to Vanderbilt will remain the farthest distance I ever travel. It was a journey that made me a stranger to my family and kept me a stranger to my colleagues and professors, who had never gone to those lengths. And driving back there with my uncle beside me, I kept hoping and fearing in equal measures that he’d say something to undo that change in me. He was quiet the rest of way, though, never taking his eyes off me.
Finally, we got to town, and then, in the dark, I made my way up Newman’s Ridge. When I got as far as a car would take me, I grabbed my flashlight from my glove box and headed up on foot. The whole way I could hear him beside me, softly breathing. Sometimes he would say my name, “Daisy Nickens,” like it felt good in his mouth. When I got as far as I could go, when I was looking down into the valley, with just a few twinkling lights to remind me that I wasn’t the last person in the world, I said “I can’t just let you go. I can’t have you coming after me or my family.”
“I am your family,” he said. “And you have my word that I won’t harm you,” he said. It said. God, you see how it got into my head? “I like you, Daisy Nickens. It makes me proud to see you doing well for yourself. I wouldn’t mess that up for you.”
“I can’t trust that,” I said. “I’m not unbinding you from this rock. I know you’ll be able to do it, soon enough. But maybe by then you’ll have forgotten about me.”
“Your dad and me, we don’t forget about you,” he said. “Out of all our kids, you’re the one who did something with yourself. You’re never not on our minds.” It’s so tempting to believe this, even now, recounting it. But a demon will always tell you what it thinks you want to hear. As sweet as it sounded, I tried to make it sour in my mind. “We grew up here,” he said. I don’t know if that was the truth. I don’t know if demons even grow up or from what. But I knew he knew this spot well.
“And I give you back to this place,” I said and I threw the stone out into the darkness. I thought I saw it arc out in the moonlight and then drop and I was almost as sure that I heard it hit far, far below. But I would never find it again, not if I searched for a million years. And so just like that, he was gone.
Later that summer, as I was settling into my new office at the University of Indiana—the person who’d had my job left to fill a spot at Duke, which was empty because that person had taken Harrison’s spot at Vanderbilt—I got a package in the mail, postmarked Sneedville. Inside was an old Jimmy Martin cassette, which I had no use for, since I didn’t have a tape player, and that silver hat pin with the amber top. I kept them both. I’d never gotten a present from that side of the family before. Well, unless you could the job itself. I try not to think too hard about that.
These stories have all been so good. And you guys are in for a real treat tonight with Lora’s. Plus, I am glad to have a curandero introduced tonight, since we’ll need one again before this is all over.
The Nashville Lesson
by Lora Stevenson
A curandero named Urzua bought a sad guy in a bar another round.
That might make a great opening line for a joke. Except, the curandero is a male witch whose number one concern is finding a city he can live in anonymously…and that guy he bought a beer for? Well, his life’s goal is to be a star.
Urzua knew better. Every day, he closed the garage before sunset and headed to the same Nashville neighborhood pub as he had every night for the last seven months. So far, things were working out. The pub he frequented wasn’t fancy, and while it was only passably clean, that suited Urzua just fine. They didn’t refer to themselves as a “pub,” and that, too, was a point in their favor. Urzua thought of it as his place, which meant he didn’t draw stares still dressed in dark gray chinos and the matching work shirt he put on each day, no matter what city he found himself in after being forced to move the repair shop. He counted on no one at the bar remarking on or remembering his appearance. He slouched in, slouched at his stool, and tipped just enough–not so much as to draw attention and no so little as to draw ire. Another brown-skinned working guy here was not remarkable, and yet different enough from the usual white-collared after-work office crowds and rowdy college sports enthusiasts to remain apart and solitary without drawing speculation.
The Nashville musicians who frequented the bar, now, they were another story. Urzua knew them to be an unknown factor in his remaining under the bar management’s radar. He’d learned the hard way back in Austin that at times it could be impossible to tell whether some guitar player was high or happy, whether the drummer was drunk or sober. Musicians, like Urzua, tended to be comfortable on the fringe of any place they found themselves. They’d talk to poor, rich, ugly, beautiful, black, white, and every shade between. They always had an angle: to be known, and regularly worked any crowd to raise their profile. They were likely to see Urzua. That made them dangerous.
At first, that Monday night, Urzua went through his usual routine. He ordered a beer and a shot. Reviewed the checklist for closing the garage. He’d turned off all the lights inside and out. Locked the front door. Secured the bays. All that didn’t mean some lonely woman, passing by with the windows down on this cool autumn night close to All Hallows’ Eve, might not smell his work. As a result of catching the smell, as they had done so many times before, the woman would pull into the lot of Urzua’s Auto Repair, remembering a cracked tail light or the sticker the quick lube place had put on the windshield. Oh–how long was it ago? She would think. Then, she’d have to pull over a while to consider when the next oil change was due, or squint at the sticker in the corner of the windshield to make out the mileage and do the math. After that, Urzua would have a hell of a time getting rid of her again. They came from dusk all through the night, these women. Urzua could do little to prevent them. He’d barred the garage parking lot for years with gates, traffic cones; even buckets of tar. It mattered little. In Urzua’s experience, a lonely woman would move mountains to get to something she thought smelled right. They caught the scent that trailed after his repair work, and that was that. Once they pulled in, they had to investigate the heavy whiff of loamy, sweet growing things. Urzua drowned everything he ate in hot sauce to muddy that smell. Poured cayenne pepper around the garage and office. Yet they found the scent of growing things and burnt sugar that came just after Urzua’s hands had been on a car long enough to see where the manifold needed to release more oxygen, or the contaminants from hot roads had laid a film over circuit boards–oh, he loved removing that film; like the scab coming off an itchy, dry wound long healed. He left things so well repaired a machine was likely to run ten times its typical expiration date. As a result, Urzua never had to advertise or look for more clients. They found him. He just had to keep the women and the cats at bay with enough efficiency to drink and sleep in peace.
I love to fix things and I am not going to stop, he thought. It doesn’t matter about the women. It doesn’t matter about the cats. Urzua told himself again that Monday night, we’ll find the right city. Don’t give up. Nashville may just be it. The smell created by his repairs wasn’t something he could change. It simply was. We’ve gotten better—really good, in fact, at hiding odors. Maybe I should be in the perfume business. Being able to sense what needed fixing was the witchy curandero talent Urzua had been born with, though. It was life, that smell, not because he always made things better or returned them to the way they had been, but because, as Urzua had learned moving from place to place all his life and trying to repair cars and things and people along the way, healing was a very complicated but persistent effort of anything that grew.
Urzua had come north out of Mexico as a teenager, not long after the cats became an unavoidable plague. They found him everywhere, still, whether he worked at healing something or not. They were drawn to him from his birth. His padre had said they clustered outside the door of their small house with his first cry in this world. His mother didn’t mind so much, having chosen to marry an old-school curandero, oddities were simply part of the world. In the rural countryside where they had met and Urzua had grown up, the curandero was a community pillar. Every little town that had one boasted about it. A community with a specialist curandero was an even bigger point of pride. Before medicine was a profession, a male or female curandero might study and share herb lore, tobacco healing, special prayers, or even what rich Americanos would call “therapy.” Before there was a great divide between those who could afford to pay a doctor and those who could not—there were the curanderos, like Urzua’s padre, with a country garden and open door. While many larger towns counted their blessings and boasted of having their own priest, it was a Curandero rural folk relied on to keep the community well.
After his father died, Urzua and his mother had moved to town. Guernavaca was a nice place to be because his mother’s sister was there and Tia Maria was a connector of people. She found his mother work cleaning offices down by the river, even small jobs Urzua could do for hasty, tight bundles of cash without drawing the city priest’s attention. There was regular electrical power in Guernavaca, so Urzua had the opportunity to gather trash–broken toasters, radios, other small appliances–and quickly progress to more complex machines. It was in Guernavaca, not far south of the U.S. border, that Urzua found his ability to feel the wrong and incompleteness of things. Far away from official hubs of commerce and security, a used car or truck equaled status and freedom. Urzua learned to repair automobiles and discovered grateful people would simply mutter: Eh, el niño comprendes las máquinas. No one questioned if something Urzua had laid hands on kept running.
But Urzua had been caught climbing a neighbor’s fence one day. It was only the first time the cats would ruin everything. Climbing the fence was no offense for teenage boys, but drawing hundreds of cats from all over town while dangling from a tennis shoe caught at the top of the cathedral’s postern gate, was. Tía Maria had come and dispersed the crowds, but not before the presence of a Curandero had been noted by the neighborhood. It was just a matter of time before murmurs became trouble.
So, with his mother and a satchel of cash, after mending a cracked engine block and bringing a border guard’s favorite four-wheel-drive back to life, Urzua left Guernavaca behind and began his search for a city where he could fix things and also have peace.
That was many cities ago.
It’s particularly true that Monday evening, the week of Halloween, though the guy at Urzua’s regular pub seemed lost and in shock, his defenses should have been on higher alert. He remembered the guy hadn’t smelled bad or sick or drunk. Urzua got a good sense of his scent wafting its way from the bar’s overhead ceiling fans. He remembered hints of minty aftershave and a deep, tangy note of BBQ sauce hidden somewhere on the guy’s really loud, red shirt. The man’s hangdog expression was in sharp contrast to this bright red shirt. It featured parakeets and some vegetation that in the dim bar light might have been the huachera palm. Urzua, ever alert for the mystical and overlooked ordinary, knew it was unlikely some gringo dude wearing loafers with no socks and sporting a bad comb-over would be wearing a shirt covered in the sacred plant of Urzua’s own people. But it was dim. And it had been a very bad day.
The morning had begun with a “HIE! You guardians of hell!” shouted by the Professor, Urzua’s garage assistant, former patient, and, he supposed, best friend. Urzua had attempted a few college classes in Athens, Georgia. Now, that had been a good town. Good enough for his mother to stay behind in, when it came time, as always, for Urzua to move on. For better or worse, Urzua’s smart mouth had led to trying to heal his favorite professor, this guy who spoke seven languages and somehow, still, kept a sense of humor. That humor was the other side of depression, which the professor couldn’t shake. To make a long story short, Urzua had a coffee with his favorite professor one morning. A coffee that lasted all day, and ended with no more depression, but a passenger on the trip out of town. That was the last time Urzua had tried to fix a person.
That was sixteen cities ago. So, when The Professor called, Urzua left the buckets of milk he’d been carrying at the creek’s edge. It was good to have a guard for the garage, though what the thin, whispy-haired old man could do if a horde of ladies or cats decided to come in, he wasn’t sure. Leaving buckets of milk at the creek down below the shop each morning normally meant he could distract the cats long enough to open for business, get the mail, and answer a few calls.
“I’m burning some things in the front parking lot. I think the smell might be cover for us.” What, Urzua wondered, could he possibly be burning that would make a difference?
“I took some of your petty cash and paid a very amused group of local scholar- athletes for their hosiery,” replied The Professor, without Urzua ever uttering the question.
“Used socks. Rather black . . . not sure they began life that way. Very used. Socks they practiced football in. I also gave an extra ten dollars to any of them who would give me the garbage from their lockers. The reek would wake the dead.” The Professor was gleeful, and perhaps deservedly so, not because it wasn’t a bad idea, but he couldn’t help adding a warning–
“Don’t say that. Good thinking, but don’t say that.” Urzua gave the old man his best stink eye.
“Lo siento, mi amigo–forgot the season.”
Urzua slipped into the garage’s back door as they spoke. The three bays were empty, the last repaired cars sitting in the parking lot with keys and a very heavy hex against thieves laid on the ignition.
“We are too close to Halloween to be joking about raising the dead,” and with that admonition, Urzua left to open the first service bay. Unfortunately, what he’d found there was a fifty-something librarian with a wrench in her hand.
“Lady! . . . madre de . . . , Ma’am! Good morning. Can we help you with something?”
They had spent the rest of the day trying to convince the woman, of course—her name was Eleanor, that no, her Ford Focus didn’t need new tires. The engine sounded just dandy. All the belts were secure. Yes, her odometer was working . . . and so on and so on . . . He’d had to pull The Professor aside and warn him to stop flirting, and that yes, continually making veiled references to books Eleanor the Librarian may not have read but should, constituted flirting.
Perhaps Urzua was in a weakened state. He had bought the man at his favorite Nashville pub a beer, but knew—just knew—he’d used the universal male sign for “You’re welcome, now go away.” He acknowledged the man’s thanks with a nod of his head and a quick full-body turn in the opposite direction. Yet the guy had sidled up and fenced Urzua in by leaning on the bar. Next he knew, he was listening to crazy-red-shirt-guy’s story of how the Greatest Woman in the World had cheated and taken off with a car salesman. Shortly before thinking to himself, estupido, Urzua realized the man was telling him this was the third wife to go and–Urzua realized with no small amount of horror–it was an out-of-work musician he was talking to.
Dios mío, Urzua muttered under his breath, and began backing his barstool away. The man didn’t pause in his telling, though Urzua could have written the man’s story himself. He’d spent enough time in Nashville to have already heard this tale many times before.
He was supposed to be a star. But life is so unfair, and the music industry machine had gobbled up his good years on cruise ships and in late-night honky-tonks where the band’s bar tab and the night’s pay never came out in his favor. The tours had left him tired and spent, so that he lost track of time and money and other people living lives that involved trips to the dentist and the grocery store without a soundtrack or spotlight. He grew older as the new guys had come in: boys and girls in boots with enough daddy money to hire the best studio and players. Pretty enough for billboards and TV. They couldn’t play, they couldn’t sing, they couldn’t write, but they made the best puppets for crossing into pop and adding another layer of waxy shine to Disney Nashville.
And then–really, Urzua was still unsure what happened–he made another big mistake. Since he was leaving through the parking lot anyway, he didn’t stop this musician guy in the questionable red shirt from following him out the bar’s main door and across the dark lot. When he beckoned to Urzua from a restored ’87 Cutlass, how do these musicians with no cash all have sweet rides? despite of all the things that Urzua could have guessed, he found himself at the Cutlass’ passenger door. He got in and listened to THE SONG that should have been a hit. And though Urzua had only one shot and one beer, he found himself laying hands on that song. He didn’t think about the consequences. The melody sounded hurt and lame. When he should have asked more questions, like “What’s your name, red-shirt guy?” When he should have thought of the man as a patient, and done an assessment of his physical and mental health, right then and there; Urzua hadn’t. He had simply reached into the song with his heart and mind and talent. He set it to right, took a deep breath, and then reeled out of Red Shirt Guy’s Cutlass and away to his own car.
The next Urzua knew he was back at the garage, parking his ’41 Chevy in the third bay and throwing the keys down before hitting the small corner sofa in the office. He slept, long and deep, unlike other nights, somehow lighter and more peaceful as the song he’d fixed made loops on itself in his head.
“Mother-freaking cats!” Urzua heard the exclamation, followed by yowls and screeches. It was still dark out; he noted the single streetlight on Foster Avenue as he squinted through the office’s dusty front plate glass window. He paused for a moment and drew a deep breath, to prepare for blocking out the cats—and the Professor. He looked down at his watch, expecting to see “Tue” in the little window.
“Gatos malditos y puta canción!” he screamed and threw himself at the door with a roar to scare the felines. He snatched the Professor’s tweed jacket and yanked him into the office, calling over his shoulder,
“Get the radio on. A COUNTRY station. ANY country station! Ahora! Ahora! If country radio has a hold of THE SONG, we’re screwed. They’ll have it on repeat. It’s just a matter of time until someone tracks us down.”
“What?” the Professor called, even as he was jerking a radio from under the front counter and plugging it in. “What did you do? Tell me, you horse’s petard. I LIKE this town. I don’t want to leave.”
As if to echo Urzua’s words, the evening jockey from local Lightning 100 erupted in a voice that echoed into the first two empty bays–LOCAL HERO RICK JOHNSON WROTE THIS NEXT TUNE. KEEP DREAMIN’, Nashville. THE NEXT HITMAKER COULD BE YOU!”
With a heavy sigh, The Professor dropped his head to the desk and mumbled, “When do we leave? Tonight?”
“Yes. Tonight.” And with that, Urzua launched into action, grabbing blue fifty-five gallon drums from the shop’s back corner and waving to the Professor to come help remove lids.
“Scatter these potatoes and apples everywhere you can. It has to be tonight. Don’t forget to slit them with your pocket knife–they’ll absorb odors faster that way.”
“Of course I will not forget. Did I not arrange to have the barrels delivered this time? I’m not the one who forgot that people shouldn’t be fixed.”
“I didn’t fix him; I fixed a song, dammit.”
“Same thing,” was the Professor’s quick reply.
“Misterio. How the fuck was I supposed to guess that?” Urzua exclaimed, stopping to rest, hands on hips and chin thrust forward.
“Let’s head to Memphis next,” replied the Professor. “I know a blues man there. For a decent used car, he’ll probably tell you all about it.”
Our dad owed a lot of money to The Wrong People. That’s how this started. He couldn’t have paid them back in a hundred million years and they were going to kill him. In a fit of desperation, he offered up, “My daughters can read fortunes and make them come true.”
My dad named me “May Marie” and my sister “June Marie.” So, where he came up with this bout of creativity, I’m not sure. It was utter bullshit. I mean, it’s how fortune telling works in the movies, not in real life.
But we were young, so this didn’t piss us off. We were relieved to have a way to help our dad and not yet old enough to understand what a terrible thing it was to put us in this position in the first place. And who knows why The Wrong People would have believed this was even remotely possible? I can only guess that maybe they were as desperate as our dad.
The Wrong People hooked us up with a guy named Paul, who was built more like a piece of furniture than a man. If you’d laid him on his side in your living room, you could have used him as a couch. We never learned much about Paul. He knew how to walk so that the floor never squeaked under him and he moved with a kind of grace you don’t normally see in guys that size. Before we did anything, he ate–usually a steak cooked pretty damn rare–and what we didn’t eat, when we ate with him, he finished.
The sum total of words I heard him say were “I’m” “we’re” “here” “sit” “shut” and “up.” He never said “shut up” to June or me. That was reserved for the people we went to see. He seemed to like the teenage chaos we brought with us everywhere–the gossip about crushes and which teachers were stupid and can you believe who said what seemed to comfort him. I always wondered if he didn’t come from a family of sisters.
I don’t know how old Paul was. To us, he seemed old like our dad was old. But our dad was the age I am now–thirty-seven–when he got in this jam. And thirty-seven seems too young to have the burdens my dad and Paul had. He handled his gun with confidence, but with caution. Maybe he’d been in the military. But maybe not ours. I thought he had an accent. June wondered how, from the six words he ever said, I could tell.
So, this is how it worked. Paul would park outside our apartment building or our school, depending on what time it was, and call one of us.
“I’m here,” he’d say and, no matter what, we’d go and get in that car. Then we’d drive all over the city, into the shittiest neighborhoods you can imagine or up some of the nicest drives you’ve ever seen. Paul would park his car and he’d lead us into our destination. I know, looking back, that he must have picked the locks or busted down the doors, but in my memory, it’s always very quiet when it comes to Paul.
June and I would wait right by the door once we got inside. We’d already checked a million times to make sure that we had our cards, but this was the point we checked again. We’d nod at each other, just to reassure each other that we had them. Meanwhile, Paul was sneaking through the house to collect our querent. He’d come back with the querent either walking ahead of him at gunpoint, or tucked under his arm like the Sunday paper.
“Sit,” Paul would say to the querent and he would shove him–they were almost always men–into a chair, usually at the kitchen or dining room table. “Shut up,” he would bark next.
One of us would sit across from the querent. Usually June went first. She would pull three cards.
“Oh, I see you just came into some money. Your family is thrilled. You intend to use it to benefit them,” she would say, kind of making up a story based on the pictures on the cards. I leaned over her spread. And then I put my three cards right on top of hers.
“You have a lot of nerve,” I might say. “You think you can fuck whoever you want, but your wife better never stray. Too bad for you we came along. She’s going to take a lover and spend your money on him.”
Rarely, very rarely, the people we gave new fortunes to squared things up with The Wrong People and we went back and gave them another new fortune, one that overrode the one we’d given them.
This went on for years. I was in junior high when it started and I was a senior when it stopped. Here’s what happened. As usual, Paul came and picked up June and me. We went to a restaurant, ate, and then made our way out into the suburbs to a house we’d never been to before. We went inside. Paul went to grab the querent and we went to the dining room to get ready.
“Paul!” we heard a voice from the other room shout out. “How are you, old friend?” Then a man thin and wiry, but as tall as Paul came out with him into the dining room. He was not afraid until he saw us. “Oh, man, are those the witches? No, Paul, you have to understand, I can get them the money, I just need a little time.” But Paul just put his enormous hand on the man’s shoulder and pushed him into the chair.
June turned three cards–the Hanged Man, for a man who is trapped, the Five of Cups, because all is lost, and the Ten of Swords, because there’s going to be a murder. June hadn’t ever gotten a spread for someone’s current fortune that was so dire. And before I could turn over my cards, to rewrite his fortune–and I sometimes wonder if we were there to deliver bad news, or if we might have given him a better fortune and he just freaked out before he could see what cards we would pull–he pulled out a gun and shot Paul, and then turned toward us and shot June.
He aimed the gun square at me, right in my face, but before he could pull the trigger, Paul shot him, dead. Good thing Paul’s friend was such a bad aim. Both Paul and June were hit, pretty bad, but Paul and I were able to get June to the car and I got them to the hospital, where they were stitched back together. They were both still back with the doctor when my father arrived.
“How could you let this happen?” He screamed at me as soon as he saw me. He ran over to me, both hands raised like he might strangle me when he reached me.
How could I let this happen? I was seventeen. My sister was fifteen. A hitman regularly carted us around town and we couldn’t say ‘no,’ or our dad would die. Let. As if I could ‘let’ anything happen. As if I had that kind of control over my life.
“Fine,” I glared at him. “It’s too dangerous. We’re done.” I let that sink in and then I turned away from him. By the time he got over to me, he was deflated.
You suspect, when you’re a teenager, that your parents don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. But when you’re confronted with the full truth that they can’t rescue you, that they don’t know any better than you how to fix things, it’s a terrible blow. You lose something between you that you can’t ever get back. Even if you suspect this is the great secret of adulthood, it doesn’t prepare you for knowing it.
And so it was on me to save my family from this terrible life our dad had given us. I knew Paul wouldn’t want to stay in the hospital any longer than necessary. He didn’t want to talk to the police and gunshot wounds would certainly have been reported to them. And I knew there was no way my dad would let the police talk to my sister. Fate had bought me some time.
I waited by Paul’s car for him to show up. Sooner, rather than later, he lumbered over, still wearing his hospital gown.
“I’ll drive,” I said. “Just get in.” How could a man who only spoke six words argue with me? He got in. “Point me to them.” I said and he did, motioning at the lights which way I should turn.
“Here,” he said, quietly.
“Paul,” I said, trying to muster all the authority I could, “stay in this car. I’m going in there to fuck these guys up and I don’t want you caught up in it. Promise me.”
He nodded. As I got out of the car, I noticed he was sweating and grimacing in pain. He’d left before they gave him any pain killers.
I went into the bar we had parked in front of, a dingy rat trap that, even from the curb smelled like smoke. I checked to make sure I had my cards and I pushed open the door.
They all turned to look at me, every man in the bar, and with the exception of a working girl near the pool tables, they were all men.
“You lost, little girl?” One of them hollered. I reached into my deck and pulled out a card. It was The Devil. I held it up for them all to see. And, watching their faces, I saw it quickly dawn on them who I was.
“I will pull three cards for the fortune of this organization, unless I have your word that my father’s debts up until this moment are forgiven and my sister and I will be forever left alone. Right now, your fortune is your own, to make or lose how you wish, but you know, when I turn three cards, that fortune cannot be undone unless I undo it.” I paused to let that sink in. “Here is your first card, gentlemen–The Devil. You know that can only mean betrayal. You will never be able to trust each other, because you’ll know everyone is looking for a chance to sell the rest of you out. You want me to go on?”
“I’m not afraid of some little bitch,” one of the men said.
“Shut up, Dima,” another snapped. I pulled a second card.
“Justice,” I showed them. “I hope you have good lawyers.”
“Fine,” Dima snarled. “Your father’s debts up until now are cleared. You and your sister are free to go. But good luck keeping your father’s nose clean.”
“I didn’t ask for you to ignore the things he does wrong in the future,” I said. “I expect my sister and I will not be dragged into it. I expect, no matter what my father offers, for you to keep your word to me.”
“Give me the third card,” Dima said. “Face down, slide it along the bar to me.” I did as he asked. Dima took out an enormous knife and drove it through the card into the bar. “Someone go get a hammer and some nails.” I heard later that the card was so securely nailed to the bar that you couldn’t even get a corner of it up.
When I got back to the car, where Paul was waiting, I flipped through the cards and saw it was the Five of Swords that was missing–the outnumbered man who defeats his opponents. I laughed when I saw that. I was their fortune all along.
I picked out three cards for Paul–The Fool, for new beginnings, the Knight of Pentacles for seeking and finding his fortune, and the Ten of Cups for a happily ever after. I handed them to him face down and said, “When you’re ready, you can have this.”
I don’t know if he ever flipped them over, but I never saw him again.
“All right then, Danny Boyd is it,” Mayor Hamilton announced, drawing a small piece of paper out of a hat and reading the name on it.
“Danny is four years old,” his father objected.
“Donny,” Mayor Hamilton said, slowly, as if he were explaining both for the benefit of the father and the son, “you know that everyone in Adams is eligible to be the Bell Witch. Everyone’s name goes into the hat. Everyone has an equal chance of serving. And, hey, he gets it out of the way now. Look at what happened to Jackie Gardener—got it when she was in college. Her parents had to fly her back here once a month for a whole year to fulfill her duties and she was at Princeton. Danny isn’t even in Kindergarten.”
Donny felt like arguing, but the townsfolks all knew it could be worse. If someone didn’t do it, she might come back and do it herself. If you had a choice between having a good Baptist man hide in a cave and make whispering noises in the dark as you walked by, wasn’t that preferable to having some ancient evil messing with you? That’s what the people of Adams thought. That was the deal they’d made.
“Okay, son, you’re the witch,” Donny explained to him. Danny took this in remarkable stride. He insisted on a broad brimmed black hat, a black robe, and a broom, which he wore to church every Sunday because those were his “work clothes, like the preacher wears.” He also wanted to be allowed to bring frogs into the bathroom even though Donny’s girlfriend thought they were gross, and that was agreed to. And then, he went around town being the Bell Witch.
The thing that surprised everyone is that Danny was great at it. He hid in the cave and giggled when the tourists were listening for ghostly voices. He jumped out at them right as they were coming out of the cave and everyone screamed and then laughed and took their pictures with him. He had a spot he liked to stand at right on the bluff overlooking the Red River where he could be seen by passing tourists in canoes. He would wave at them when they went by and then always be sure to keep waving as they passed, as if there were another canoe or two behind them. Of course, there wasn’t, but this was sufficient for giving them the willies. But his best known trick was to stand in front of the old boarded up church downtown, glaring at the passing cars, as if he could see into the soul of each driver.
“You’re an excellent witch,” Mayor Hamilton told Danny one day after church.
“I know,” Danny said, nodding his head with the confidence of the young.
“How do you come up with so many good ideas?” Mayor Hamilton asked. “Does your dad help you?”
“No,” Danny said, “I like to think of things and Miss Kate helps me.”
“Is that your dad’s friend?” Mayor Hamilton asked.
“No,” said a distinctly female voice, which seemed to come out of nowhere.
“That’s her,” Danny said. Donny was livid. How could the town require him to let that phantom menace have access to his son?
“Well, what are you going to do, Donny?” Mayor Hamilton asked. “Christy Clark moved away when she got it and look what happened to her. Sucked right into the mirror. You want that for Danny? You don’t have a problem no one else has had. If there’s something to be tried, someone’s tried it. The best thing, for all our sakes, is for you to keep your mouth shut and to let Danny do his thing.”
And so the year went by and Danny’s term came to an end. Everyone gathered in the town hall, all names were placed into a hat, and Mayor Hamilton drew. “Danny Boyd. Wait. Danny Boyd? No, his name doesn’t go in any more. He’s done his service.” Mayor Hamilton drew again. The name on the next slip of paper was also “Danny Boyd.” And the next and the next.
“Screw you guys,” Donny said. “Put your own god damn names in the hat!”
“We did,” Mayor Hamilton said, his voice trembling.
“I want Danny to do it,” that disembodied voice said.
“You can’t have my son,” Donny yelled.
“Stop me,” the witch said. But no one knew how.
Danny Boyd is still the witch, year after year after year. It’s always his name that comes out of the hat. And he still does a fine job of being the Bell Witch. But the scariest figure in town is Donny Boyd, all gaunt, and hollow, and defeated. As empty and hopeless as that three block abandoned downtown.
“What good is a father who can’t protect his child from the likes of her?” He asks, often. But the only person who could answer was old John Bell, dead as can be. And he isn’t talking.
Old Daddy Turner was not anyone’s father, at least as far as the people in town knew. Maybe he’d had children once upon a time, a hundred years ago, but no one had ever seen any children at his house. Thought, who knew how old Old Daddy Turner’s children would be? It’s possible some of the endless line of old visitors he had were his children, all in their 70s and 80s. But people called him Old Daddy out of respect.
Old Daddy Turner, it was said, could cure any ill by giving you a mixture of milk, tea, and whiskey, which he spoke some words over. Everyone joked about this, because who wouldn’t feel better, with enough whiskey?
It was how he got the milk that made some folks uncomfortable. Every morning, he would take a dishtowel and go out in the back yard, near his cow pasture. He’d shake that towel in the direction of the cow pasture, and then he’d go back in the house. He’d tie a knot in each corner of the towel, and when he wanted some milk, he’d just give a little tug on one of the knots. At least, that’s what people at church said.
“Well, I can do that,” said little Sarah Hanson.
“No you can’t,” Jennie Melvin scowled. “It’s magic and you’re not a witch.”
“Old Daddy Turner’s not a witch, either,” little Sarah Hanson said. “Boys can’t be witches. So, if he can do it, why can’t I?”
So, all the kids from the town, at least it seemed like that many, followed little Sarah Hanson out to Old Daddy Turner’s house. She carried with her, flapping like a flag in the wind as she pedaled on her bike, one of her mother’s dish towels.
When the children got to his property, they left their bikes by the side of the road and sneaked into his back yard. They hid behind his garage.
“Okay,” little Sarah Hanson said, her heart racing. Right when she felt like she might chicken out, she ran across the open lawn, past the clothesline, and up onto the porch. She stood there for a second, catching her breath, trying to calm herself.
And then she held out the towel in front of her, walked toward the cow pasture, and whispered the word she was pretty sure she’d heard Old Daddy Turner say. Then she tied her four corners and pulled on one.
She pulled on another and another and the last and nothing.
“Well, shit,” she said to herself, trying to make up for her disappointment in the magic not working with her pleasure in cussing. It didn’t work. She threw the towel down in disgust.
And then she heard a noise, just a little squeak, and she squatted down next to the towel, which was now squirming. She picked it up and found a tiny gray kitten. She screamed.
Old Daddy Turner came running from the kitchen, where it’s very likely he’d been watching this whole thing, to see what might happen. He stopped short at the sight of the cat.
“What’d you say?” he asked her. He didn’t sound mad, but his voice was serious. Little Sarah Hanson wanted to be any place other than in that back yard with that grouchy old man. But here she was, so what could she do but continue to be brave?
“Your word,” she said. “Malkin.” He wrinkled his great grey brows, and then snorted loudly.
“Melken. My word is ‘Melken.’”
“Oh,” she said, scooping up the gray kitten in her arms.
“You’ll have to try that word next,” Old Daddy Turner said, “Because your kitten will need some.” And then, as he turned to walk back toward the house, he said “Young Momma Hanson.”