I don’t say this lightly. I am still in awe.
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.”
A while ago I was talking to a woman about some of the challenges of being female in academia. She was telling me about her department chair, a lovely dude who simply would not keep his hands to himself. No one wanted to be anywhere near him, but she and her colleague made it a point to “absent-mindedly” open his office door when he was meeting with undergrads, just to make sure everything was okay, and to make excuses to hover near him when he went on the prowl for grad students.
But the whole thing was wearing on her and her attempts to bring it up with the dean had been met with, shall we say, a lack of enthusiasm for taking on this big, important professor.
What recourse did they have, then?
Here is what they did, and they swore to me it worked—they palmed his university ID and then froze it in a block of ice. Yes, like people do with their emergency credit cards. And there it sits, in her freezer, keeping the hot and horny old man unable to perform.
Or so she said.
And I believe her.
I’m not saying John was a perfect man, because he wasn’t. When he went to Afghanistan, he assured us it would be fun to kill something more dangerous than a deer. When he came home the first time, it was obvious that it hadn’t been.
We all saw he was trying to atone for something—buying Laurie that house, all the toys for their son. I always saw it as an attempt to balance the scales. He had done something so wrong over there, but he was going to do exactly right here.
Then he went back. This was hard for all of us to understand. But he told me once that he couldn’t stop thinking about the other guys who were still there. Who was watching their backs?
While he was gone the second time, Derek moved into the house John bought Laurie. For a while, none of us told him, but then I got to feeling uneasy about it. Hey, man, I emailed him. I’ve got some hard news. They broke up over Skype.
When he got home, he had a hard time of it. Being back here was boring, he said, which was both a relief and not. He had a hard time sleeping soundly, because he didn’t have anyone nearby sitting up with a gun. He was nervous around his kid. That was the hardest part. I never want him to be like me, he emailed me. When I see how much he loves me, it scares me that he will be. That he’ll want to grow up to be just like me. What do you say to that? I sure as fuck don’t know. I always thought—and I still do—that John was a good man. But when a man can’t see the truth about himself, no one can show it to him.
Eventually, he started seeing Becky. Nothing serious, just a little sweetness every once in a while. He still wasn’t sure he deserved any happiness, so he was taking it slow.
This is the part I don’t get, this next part. My wife tells me it’s because I’ve never understood women. But when I ask her if she’d ever do this to someone she loved, to someone, remember, that she cheated on while he was away, she says “no.” I believe her. I’ve known her since we were in third grade. I think I understand people just fine. I don’t understand Laurie.
It started out small. Well, not small. It started out plausible. Laurie told everyone that when John had come by to get the kid, they’d had a fight and he shoved her. Not cool. But she assured everyone that she wasn’t going to call the cops, because she knew he had problems. We were all grateful for that. It’s so fucked up, he emailed me. That didn’t happen. We didn’t fight at all. She was nicer than she’d been in a while. But I didn’t really believe him.
She said she was nervous about him seeing the kid and all of us could see why. She asked me if there was a way she could keep him away, and I said she’d have to go to court and get the visitation arrangement changed. For some reason, she didn’t want to get lawyers involved. This seemed weird to me. After all, if it’s your kid’s safety, you do what it takes. But she just wanted us to tell him that we thought he should stay away. Some of the other guys did and you should have seen how much it crushed him. It was like she was trying to take his kid and his friends away from him.
“Do what the judge told you to do until the judge tells you different,” I said to him.
A few weeks later, she got him fired. She called down to his work and told his boss that she was his ex-wife and that she heard him talking about shooting up the place. Not just talking. Planning to do it.
Now, you’d think that this would have turned more of the gang against him, but he spent a lot of time with us. He told us shit men don’t tell just anybody. He’d never mentioned any problems at work. But more than that, the last two times he’d seen his son, Laurie’d dropped the kid off at her mom’s and John had picked him up there after she was gone. When, exactly, had she seen him to hear about this plot?
Not three weeks later, she was in before the judge complaining that John was behind on his child support. Well, yeah, because he didn’t have a job, because you got him fired. But I noticed she didn’t say shit to the judge about being afraid of having the kid with John. After all, he really had missed a child support payment.
Then Becky had four flat tires. Which was weird enough in itself. They hadn’t been slashed. The shop didn’t find any leaks. Someone had deliberately let the air out of her tires. But then she noticed that her whole car had been sprinkled with dried leaves of some sort. And it smelled like someone had peed on it. Then the car started dying whenever she tried to drive it faster than 45. She’d be trying to get up on the interstate and all of a sudden she’d be trying to steer a brick out of traffic. Mechanic couldn’t find anything wrong with it. And it wouldn’t do it for him, though he could sit in the passenger’s seat and see it die when she drove.
“Ma’am,” he said, already kind if laughing, so he could play it off as a joke if what he said wasn’t going to go over well. “I think someone jinxed your car.” Becky, at first, did laugh at it. But when John woke up one day and he couldn’t see and the doctor tried to write it off as all in his head, Becky started to wonder if the mechanic wasn’t on to something. And, of course, Becky had a suspect in mind.
I hunted around and found the name of a guy down near Shelbyville who could, they said, break any curse. I had to drive them to him. Obviously.
I don’t know what I was expecting. I guess something like in a movie—a run-down old house, a line of superstitious clients outside the door, an old guy with no teeth and eyes that looked like they were focused on the spirit world and not on you.
But the address was for a really nice, large new brick house out on a good piece of land. When we drove up, three of the most beautiful coondogs you’ve ever seen were chasing a kid around an enormous back yard. We went into a clean, well-lit kitchen and waited for this guy.
“Hi, you must be John. I’m Skip,” the guy said as he entered the kitchen. He went right to John. He held out his hand, but then reached to John to guide their hands together. Skip stood straight as a board, his legs slightly apart. When he saw me looking at him, he smiled warmly. “First Gulf War.”
He examined John and Becky like a doctor might. He shined a small light in John’s eyes, took Becky’s pulse, listened intently to how they breathed. Then he took out a pocket watch at the end of a long chain and let it hang in front of him. When it stopped moving, he slowly brought it closer first to John and then to Becky. As it approached each of them, it swung widely and spun as if someone had knocked into it.
“Yep,” he said, “You’ve been bewitched. The bad news is that she’s angry and really motivated to try to screw you up. The good news is that she’s not very good at it.”
“This is ‘not very good’?” John said, motioning to his eyes. But I heard something like relief in his voice.
“We can fix that right up,” Skip said. He rummaged through his cabinets and came up, finally, with two clear marbles. “Come on over to the sink.” He guides John. He spoke some words over the marbles and then he put them in John’s hand. Skip turned the water on and squirted some dishsoap over the marbles. “Go on and give them a wash.”
“Still can’t see,” John said.
“Well, it’s magic, son,” Skip said. “It works in its own time. But it’ll work.” Skip then took out a pair of kitchen shears and began cutting all around Becky. “I’ll give you a little silver amulet to ward off the rest,” he said. “But this works to cut away big chunks of bad intentions.”
“What are we going to do about her?” Becky said.
“Well, I’ll tell you. I feel for her,” Skip said. “Just based on what you told me about her on the phone and what I can sense in the magic she’s working, she feels like you left her first, but she’s the bad guy for cheating.”
“And getting the man fired,” I pointed out.
“Well, it’s gotten out of hand, for sure, but I see how she’s ended up here and how she could be set right,” Skip said.
“I doubt that’s possible,” Becky said.
“Here’s what I’m going to do. I’ll fix each of you up a charm to wear.” The charm turned out to be four small circular mirrors glued together in a pile, each shiny side facing the same way. “She’s still going to be able to get you,” Skip explained. “Because I want her to know what’s going on, how her work is backfiring on her. So, she’s got to see that she’s doing to herself what she’s doing to you. So, it’s going to still be unpleasant for a while. But these mirrors will reflect back on her four times what she’s doing to you.”
By the time he was done making up the charms, John’s eyesight was coming back. By the time we got home, the wrecker was pulling up in front of Laurie’s house because her car would not move. John got another job, working with one of the gang, and Laurie called again to say that he was dangerous and violent and I’ll be damned if her mom and three of her aunts didn’t call her work to say the same about her.
I could see she was pissed about it. Everything she tried, it just went worse for her. So, finally, she pulled her last trick—when John was having visitation with his son, Laurie called the cops and claimed that John had beaten her up and taken the kid and was threatening to kill the kid and himself. She was determined to take from him the person he loved most.
Every cop in a three county area descended on the park where John and the boy were. The media with their cameras were not far behind. Guns drawn, kids screaming, people running from the park as fast as they could. John knelt in the soft grass, his hands behind his head, as ordered. The boy stood next to him, crying. The gal from DCS swooped in and grabbed the kid. She rushed for her car with the boy.
“Go, go, go,” the police man shouted at her. “Get that kid out of here.”
What could be worse than losing your kid to the state? Worse than having the cops called and the cameras catching it?
I would guess that what’s four times as bad as that is watching it all unfold on your local station, feeling like you won, and then, in the background, hearing a crash. All the cameras swivel to the sound of new screaming. And there in the intersection is the gal from DCS, struggling to get out of her car, which has just been t-boned on the passenger side. Watching her limp back to the car, try to get into the back seat, and then watching her sink to the ground because no one in that back seat can be saved.
I would bet that would be four times as bad—knowing you set that in motion.
But Laurie never said.
This is a grave in the Oddfellow’s Cemetery in Okolona, Mississippi. You can faintly make out the word “Lodema” painted on the side of it. That is, according to the stories Beth heard growing up, the name of the witch whose grave this is. Beth told me that the whole top of her grave was covered with this heavy concrete in order to ensure Lodema would stay in it.
I couldn’t find a Lodema in the Oddfellow’s Cemetery, but, as we discussed, Mississippi does have three fairly well-known witch stories: The Bell Witch (yes, the same one), The Witch Dance, and The Yazoo Witch. The idea of holding a witch in her grave is very similar to the Chesterville Witch discussed in my post this evening.
All this is to say that I don’t know if there was really a Lodema and, if there was, if she was really a witch. But the legend fits in with other legends in the area (and wider, obviously, considering the Chesterville Witch). Lodema might not be factually real, but she’s definitely folklorically real.
There’s always a reason—how she was dressed, if she’d been drinking, whether she was a slut or an ice-cold bitch—that lets you put your hands on her, give her what she deserves, lets you show her who’s in charge.
There’s always a reason—whether she went to church, whether she went to the right church, if she had a husband, if she had a cat— that lets you put your hands on her, give her what she deserves, lets you show her who’s in charge.
There’s always a reason—whether she dried up your cow, if she bewitched your children, if she was the Devil’s bride—that lets you put your hands on her, give her what she deserves, lets you show her who’s in charge.
You’re in charge. You do what you want. You make the rules. You are disciplined and strong. You have the authority. Not her, not her. She is nothing.
Here is a small cemetery along the Kaskaskia River, surrounded by cornfields and chainlink. In the cemetery is an unmarked grave, the only one surrounded by an iron fence. An enormous tree grows in the fence and, since it’s been so long, around and through the fence.
There she is, pinned into the earth by the roots of the tree.
Just a story, that may not have even happened how they say. A cautionary tale. An urban legend.
Not even your little bit of nothing. Someone else’s witch to be taught a lesson.
So, why can’t you bring yourself to go through the gate?
No matter what they look like—hair braided up and laced with trinkets and charms that announce their trade from yards away or bandanas that hide their faces, butcher knife or athame, in a group or alone—the witches who learn their craft on the internet are all alike at heart. They all “learned from their grandma who has passed down to them their authentic witchcraft traditions” and they all believe white sage will cleanse a space.
Everyone can’t have a Native American grandma; but white sage only grows in one spot. So, you know, as informative as their grandmas may have been, someone’s been peaking at the Great Screen of Common Knowledge.
And that’s how it goes. Something works, it gets shared. But it also means that we’re losing some of the really awesome scary stuff that used to be standard witchcraft.
One of the first things my grandmother taught me was how to conjure up a demon, catch it by the foot, and tie it to me with a fine piece of silver wire. Oh, how we’d show off—all us cousins—to each other, the red welts the wire wore in our wrists. Those faint white scars are how we recognize each other—too thin for suicide attempts and wrapping all the way around.
Conjuring a small demon was, literally kid’s stuff. Sure, sometimes it went wrong. But, if you died, then we all knew you weren’t cut out for the Craft.
But when was the last time you saw a kid with a demon? It’s been years.
So, I thought, why not teach the grand-nephew? He’s ten. That’s twice as old as I was. But a little cafeteria fire, two extra legs on a social studies teacher, and one thing his mom “can’t even talk about,” and suddenly I’m the bad guy. A danger to my own grand-nephew. He wasn’t even hurt!
So, I said to him, “Well, even traditions have to change with the times. You come to see me when you’re eighteen and we’ll get you a demon then.”
Meanwhile, I’ve been showing the demon how to use the Internet. Maybe it can help these youngsters with their old Craft.
At long last, Mary retired. We had all hoped that she would settle down with Bert, but did you know he had a wife? Yes, a famous chimney sweep in her own right, who is probably best remembered for her huge and public feud with Aleister Crowley. I don’t know if anyone can remember who started it or what it was initially regarding, but by the end, Crowley couldn’t come within five feet of a chimney without being covered in soot or, on a day when she was feeling particularly rowdy, hot embers.
This was why Aleister was more than happy to give Mary one of his infamous black daisies. He was hoping she would either “He loves her not” Bert and his wife or “He loves me” Bert and Mary. Revenge! People forget, though, that Mary had a streak of decency. She “He loves me not”ed up Bert and nursed her own broken heart and that was the end of that “nonsense” as she called it.
So, settling down with Bert was out.
“What will I do with my time?” she asked. And it was heartbreaking, but she couldn’t keep up with the children any longer and did you know we caught her just putting some children in the freezer during the day? When they overwhelmed her, in they’d go, and she’d haul them out and thaw them out right before their parents got home. Oh, no, it’s worse than that. Did you know the Banks had four children? Not just Jane and Michael, but the little twins John and Barbara? Where were they in the movie?
Stowed away in the bread box.
And that was her in the prime of her life—stowing babies in bread boxes. It only escalated from there. I’m still not convinced we ever found all of the Stewart children. Someday, someone’s going to open a closet or lift up a floorboard and find a child who should be a grandparent by now. I have no idea how we’re going to explain that.
There were always rumors that she and Bert had had a child, in secret. But no person who looked like some mixture of the two of them ever visited. I stayed with her quite a bit after she got sick and she never mentioned a child, let alone whether she had stowed it someplace.
“What will I do with my time?” That’s what she asked.
“Do something you’ve never done before,” some folks advised.
“Do something you’ve always wanted to do,” I said. But this suggestion only seemed to make her sad.
“It’s too late for that,” she said. And, of course, I thought this was regret about Bert. We’re so anxious to turn every story into an epic love story. “I can’t even walk anymore.” She slapped the arm of her wheelchair.
I didn’t know what to say.
But later, a package came for her. The box was long and relatively thin. She took it into the kitchen and spread the contents out on the table. One broom, one pointy, wide-brimmed hat, and one pitch-black dress.
“Oh,” she smiled. “Help me try this.”
I held the broom next to her chair and she lifted herself up and over onto the broom. It was wobbly at first and I found myself holding much of her weight while she figured out how to balance. But once she had it, she was as comfortable as a parakeet on a swing. She flew slowly around the house.
“All right,” she said, her grin growing wider. “This is wonderful. People could fear me.”
One evening, right before the moon rose, she put on the rest of the outfit, got on her broom, and I opened the front door for her and watched her go off into the night.
As far as I know, that was the last anyone ever saw of her. But I do believe she was doing exactly what she always wanted to do when she left.
I always liked the cauldron. When I was a child, on Sundays it was my job to climb in it and clean it out. My mom and her sisters would tilt the big black pot on its side and I would strip down—because it wasn’t a job you could do in clothes you didn’t want ruined—and climb in, like it was my own personal cave. Six days a week, that cauldron boiled and bubbled. So, even when empty, the old metal stayed warm. I loved how it felt under my hands, like an old, happy lizard.
My mom or one of my aunts would hand me in a bucket of soapy water and I would get to scrubbing. Lots of thing clung to the sides of the cauldron. You might find a toad’s leg boiled firmly to the side. Sometimes bits of hair from a love potion would wrap around rough spots in the metal and you could never get them untangled. I’d just holler for a match and burn the hair up. Then I’d scrub that spot extra well.
It was important to get it clean between spells. You didn’t want a spell to bring a storm to contaminate a spell for safe sailing weather, for instance. And so I was always careful. Thorough.
Sometimes, other witches would ask to borrow me and I would earn a shiny gold coin or a cat that could recite poetry (though only Byron, which I eventually found annoying) or other strange and wonderful things by cleaning out their cauldrons.
So, in retrospect, it’s not surprising that, eventually, the Three Sisters would send for me. They lived in the heart of the woods under the forest’s largest tree. They stirred a great cauldron all had heard about but few had ever seen. In that cauldron, it was said, bubbled the fates of everyone.
I went to see them.
“You’re the cauldron cleaner?” One asked, skeptically. “You seem awfully small.”
“That’s how I can fit in the cauldrons,” I said.
“Well, anyone could fit in our cauldron,” said another. “That’s hardly the issue.”
“Then what is?” I asked.
“We share this cauldron with our brother,” the third one said. “He takes it half the year and doesn’t stir it at all. He lets the fire beneath it burn out. He tells people it’s a well and lets them drink from it!” She said this last part with angry incredulity.
“But that’s been the arrangement,” one of the other sisters said. I was having a hard time telling them apart. They all seemed equally old and, if they hadn’t been triplets by birth, time had made the so, each in a long, gray robe, her wrinkled face framed by long, gray hair, her squinty eyes gray from cataracts. “He keeps still waters. We keep them bubbling.”
“But look here, child,” another one said. She led me over to what I thought was a great rock heap. But then I saw it was a pile of rocks with an enormous cauldron nestled inside. In order to keep it heated, they would move a large rock aside, and feed logs into hot coals. It was as if the cauldron were built right into the chimney of a crude brick oven. From a distance, it certainly could look like a well.
We peered into the rolling waters of the cauldron. Unlike any concoction that my mother and aunts had made, it was clear. I could see all the way to the bottom, just like looking through wavy glass.
“You see?” one of them asked. I looked harder and I did see. There, on the bottom, was something, rather large and round, maybe the size of a golf ball and smooth.
“What is that?” I asked.
“We don’t know. Our brother must have dropped it in there. We want you to fetch it out.” Another one of them explained.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll need a rope, some rocks, and a long rubber tube.” I intended to sink myself to the bottom of the cauldron with the rocks, breathe through the tube, and follow the rope back up when I had retrieved the thing off the bottom of the cauldron, because, clearly, there was no way to tip the cauldron over and empty it out. And, if it was true that they were churning the fates of all of us, tipping over the cauldron might be disastrous.
They procured for me the things I needed. I stripped, tied the rope around my waist, tied the rocks in my hair, and handed one end of my tube to one of the Three Sisters. The other end went in my mouth and, with a splash, I went into the warm liquid.
Down I went, past yesterdays I recognized and yesterdays I didn’t. Past great wars and pathetic skirmishes. Past more babies crying on more nights than you’d think the moon could have given light to. Past so many mornings when a man looked over at his lover and wondered at his good fortune. Back I went, past the time of cars, past the days of carriages, through the days of our own two feet, back so far I could almost feel my own knees scraping on the dirt as we crawled through the jungles.
And finally, there it was—that strange white ball—just within reach. I stretched out for it and just as I touched it, it swiveled, and I saw what it was—an eye. I was so startled that I gasped, purely by reflex, and I lost my tube and took in a mouthful of what tasted like the most ancient days.
I don’t know how I managed, but I grabbed hold of that eye with one hand, and with the other, I struggled to loosen the rocks in my hair. My lungs were burning and I yanked on the rope, hoping the Three Sisters would somehow sense my alarm and pull me up. Another rock loose. And my eyes were watering. Finally, the last rock. I struggled against my own hair, as if it were somehow not a part of me, but some stupid beast in its own right, clinging to that rock like some kind of barnacle. Against my will, I breathed in—my body so desperate for air. I tried to stop, but I breathed in again.
I watched the last rock fall free of my hair, felt myself floating up through all our days, and I could see the surface, but it was already too late. I was dying. I may have died.
“Little Cauldron Cleaner,” a deep voice said to me. “Wake up.” I opened one eye and then felt overwhelmed by nausea. I turned my head and threw up what looked like an ocean. A great hand held most of my hair back. The other hand brushed what was in my face away. I threw up again. This time, along with water, I tasted dances and first kisses and first drunken spats.
But finally, I was able to sit up and get a better look at my rescuer. He looked like an old soldier. He had that way about him of being comfortable in complete chaos. But, at the same time, he also looked like an old wizard, with long silver hair and a great long silver beard. But when he smiled, he seemed like he might be quite young.
“You saved me,” I said. “Thank you.”
“It wasn’t anything,” he said. “I saw you were in trouble and I came to help.”
“How…?” But then I noticed that he only had one eye. In the socket, where the one in my hand should have been, was a vast blackness, dotted with stars.
I handed him his eye. The eye he had seen to save me through.
“No, no,” he said. “I intend for that eye to sit at the bottom of the Cauldron of Fate.”
“I don’t think the Three Sisters want your eye in their cauldron,” I said.
“Obviously not,” he smiled and, I swear, he winked at me, closing his lid over the vast mystery of the universe that he carried around with him. “But it appears they’ve gone.” I looked around and he was right. Their cottage was dark and had an air of not having been lived in for months. Just how long was I out? “If this were your cauldron, surely you wouldn’t mind if I kept my eye at the bottom of it?”
“No,” I said, “but how can one person have a cauldron this big?”
“She couldn’t,” he agreed. And as quick as a flash, he reached in his belt, drew out his knife and hacked me in three. Then he whispered something over me and I was we.
“Oh,” we said. “This is weird.”
“Exactly,” he smiled. And, plop, back went his eye in the cauldron, where it remains.
Helen sent me this in an email and I so loved the idea of making your own shade being a kind of witchcraft that I asked her if I could include it. Obviously, she agreed.
My First Black Hat
By Helen Huntington
I’d forgotten about the First Black Hat. Many years later, I now wear big black hats all the time for sun protection. Depending on what else I am wearing, sometimes people think I look a little witchy. I think if witchiness is moving with nature by wearing portable shade rather than against nature by smearing chemicals on my face that give me a rash in the hope of preventing skin cancer, then sign me up as a witch.
It is said that, if your mom cuts your sandwich into an odd number of sections, and you eat it, you will meet a woman who will tell you what year the Cubs will finally win the World Series and then she will kill you before you can tell anyone.
It is not known if she’s doing you a favor or not.
“We need a witch.” This is what Sarah, who was in charge of the museum said. “An honest-to-God Cajun swamp witch who will can identify bad juju and curses and that kind of stuff. Gene…”
“Oh, no!” I said, waiving away the three women crowding my desk. “Absolutely not.”
“But you could pass for Cajun! ‘Gene.’ ‘Jean.’ It’s not that far of a stretch. You must know about mojo and the Devil and stuff, right? At least from your bedtime stories.” This was Judy who dressed as an antebellum Southern woman every day, in a big hoop skirt and corset, even when the temperatures topped 100 degrees, and walked people through this old house. She was from Cedar Rapids. If her ancestors had fought in the War, it was on the same side as mine. Not that you’d know it from her ill-informed love of all things Southern.
“Ladies, ladies!” I said, “No. First, the word you’re looking for is ‘Creole.’ Not ‘Cajun.’ You think I could pass for ‘Creole.’ No, I could not. Second, I am not Lafayette from True Blood,” their favorite show, “and I can’t just magic it up on a moment’s notice. Third, I am a Baptist. I don’t know anything about Rootworking.”
“That’s the genius of this,” Sarah said. “You don’t need to know anything. We just need you to look spooky and say this place is cursed and we’ll sit back and watch the tourists roll in.”
“You want me to be your magical Negro?” I asked. “No.” I said again. “Absolutely not.”
“Come on,” said Debbie, the third member of the cabal. “You’re not really Baptist. You’re gay.”
“I have work to do,” I said, but there were forces beyond my control at work—such as a terrible economy that meant I couldn’t lose this job because we couldn’t live on Lonnie’s salary alone and three women who had not been told ‘no’ often enough in their lives just ignoring it when it came from me.
Oh, what can I tell you? The house and museum are under different management now. None of these ladies still work there. Hell, I don’t work there. So, I’m not going to bother to say where this was. Suffice to say it was an old, old home with some unique architectural features built near some significant Native American archaeological sites, sitting on a sizable piece of its original Revolutionary War land grant. If you’re a hard-core history buff, you’d love this place. But it wasn’t owned by any family you’ve heard of—not the Polks or the Hardings or the Overtons or any of the folks who can still bring a crowd.
So, we had this significant home and museum and hardly any visitors. This was a problem in the best of times, but with the economy being so bad and schools cutting back on the trips they took, we were seriously looking at closing the place down. I did books for them and I can attest that they were in dire straits.
Sarah decided that a little lie in furtherance of historic preservation probably wasn’t that wrong. What you need to understand is that it was a lie, at least at first. The house, aside from its historical significance, was ordinary. Not only was there nothing supernatural about the place, there wasn’t anything strange going on there that might at first seem supernatural but which could be explained away. You didn’t get strange drafts or the unsettled feeling that comes when rooms aren’t exactly square. It wasn’t a creepy place at all. And I say that as someone who never forgot the people who were enslaved there back in the day. If the past spills all over everything, this place had avoided being stained.
But Sarah realized that, if we wanted tourists to come, we needed that stain, something people could see that made the rest of the past matter to them. So, she… oh, fine… we decided to give the place that little something not quite right.
A number of children died in the house. In the three generations that lived there in the 1800s, we counted at least twelve deaths. “We’ll say ‘thirteen’,” Debbie insisted—she did our marketing. And we had a doll that someone in the family had owned, a small doll with a porcelain head, hands, and feet, but a cloth body, arms, and legs. The doll was in pretty bad shape—a crack ran right through her face and her left hand was missing all the fingers. But I always felt you could tell the doll was well-loved. Some little kid had dragged that thing around as a dear friend, and we were going to ruin that.
“All right,” Sarah said. “Here’s the plan. We’re going to say that all kinds of strange things have happened here at the house, especially surrounding the doll, but we’ve been afraid to say anything for fear people would not believe us. But now, it’s gotten so unbearable, we’ve had to come forward and ask for help. Then we’ll have some kind of press event and you, Gene, you’re going to say that the doll was cursed by an angry slave and that’s why so many children died in the house. And people will come and see that doll. They will pay to get in here to see the doll.”
“And what are we going to say when someone points out that doll was clearly made in the 1870s and we’re talking about a slave cursing it?” I asked.
“No one’s going to point that out,” Judy scoffed. “And if they do, no one who wants to believe will care.”
Judy had this idea that, if we wanted people to believe the doll was cursed, we needed to act like it was. I think what she did was kind of brilliant, or would have been, if it had just stayed mundane. Every time she saw the doll somewhere in the house, she would move it. This meant that you might, at any moment, stumble across the doll, anywhere in the house. You just never knew.
At first, it didn’t seem that scary to me. After all, I knew Judy was the one who was moving it. But still, it could be startling to open a wardrobe and find the doll or to sweep under a bed and hit something hard only to find it was the doll. And then the other ladies also started moving the doll, so that even Judy wouldn’t know where it might turn up. Like I said, this wasn’t scary, but it was unsettling.
Judy also made it a point to blame the doll, which she had decided to call ‘Maddy,’ for anything that went wrong on the property. Couldn’t find where you set your car keys? Maddy took them. Light burned out right as the guests were walking by the lamp, scaring everyone? Must have been Maddy. Paper cut? Maddy. She got blamed for everything. Even in front of the guests, though we were careful to never explain. We wanted to wait for the press conference for that.
Still, word got out. I don’t know if one of the three of them did it or if it was one of our guests, but I started to see people asking about our house and ‘Maddy’ and if anyone knew the story behind her. Was she a ghost? Something else? So, we started to see a small, but steady rise in visitors.
And I admit, it was fun—not just to have visitors and a healthy bank account, but to have a secret, a strange thing all to ourselves. But when we did the press conference, that was even better. Reporters actually showed up. One of the local news stations sent a camera. I ended up not having to be a witch. They introduced me as an employee of the house and I gave some story about how I’d found evidence of rumors of the doll being cursed going back to before the Civil War.
Evidence of rumors. It hardly sounds like a lie when you put it that way. And the crowds came. For months, it was wonderful.
And then came Christmastime.
One Sunday—we weren’t open on Sundays—I came out to the museum to do some work that I’d been unable to get done during the week, because we’d been so busy. The museum was set up in a building about the size of a small ranch house and two-thirds of it was devoted to display space and a third of it was our office, a bathroom, and a space for souvenirs. Near the bathroom was an old church pew taken from a chapel that had once stood on the property. When I walked by it to go into the office, the pew was empty. When I came back out a few minutes later, to check to make sure that I had locked myself in, there was Maddy on the pew.
Now, here’s the important thing—this didn’t frighten me. Remember, Maddy showed up places. Anyone could move her around. And I’d been not really paying attention so, when I saw Maddy sitting there, I figured one of the ladies had come in to get some work done herself. So, I did what I always did. I moved her. I picked Maddy up and put her on top of one of the display cabinets.
Then I went into the office. “Hey, woman!” I said, expecting to see someone there. It was empty. I came back out in the museum, walked over to the front door, checked both that it was locked—it was—and that there wasn’t another car in the parking lot—there was not.
I turned back around, headed back to the office, and I am not even lying. Maddy was sitting on the pew again. I lost my damn mind. I screamed and ran out of the museum. I wanted to call Lonnie and make him go in and get my stuff so that I could go home, but my stuff included my cell phone, which was in the museum, so I had to go back in there.
I slowly opened the door and I slowly stepped in and there she was, sitting on the pew.
“Miss Maddy,” I said. “I knew this was a bad idea. I’m sorry and I’ll stop right now.” And I meant it. We’d had our fun and now we had something’s attention. “It’s just, you see, we thought you would be a good draw for the house.” My God, yes, I was explaining myself to this creepy, self-moving doll. But I had to keep talking, just to keep myself sane, as I walked by it. I was scared to death it was going to turn its shiny little smiling face toward me as I walked by, but I couldn’t look away from it.
I got past it, got my stuff, apologized again, and got. Out. Of. There.
You know what motivates you to find out about Rootworking and witchcraft and all that shit they tell you in church is a sin? A little doll that can move itself around your place of employment. I got home and spent the whole evening on the internet.
“What are you looking for?” Lonnie asked.
“I just want something to ward off evil,” I said.
“My great-grandmother wore a Mercury dime on a string around her ankle,” He said, shrugging like didn’t everyone know how to ward off evil?
“Oh,” I said. “I don’t suppose you have a Mercury dime?”
“Of course, darlin’,” he said. “Not like the world’s a less evil place these days. Let me see if I can’t find it.”
“I never knew—”
“You never asked,” he hollered from the bedroom. “You asked me if I believed in Jesus Christ, the savior of mankind and if I would go to church with you. And that’s all the spiritual talk we’ve had. Which,” and now he was back in the den, holding a dime with a winged helmeted head on it, a small hole drilled in it, “is fine with me.” He handed me the dime. I put it on a string and tied the string to my wrist, where I could see it and be reminded that I was protected.
It’s easy to put your faith in the magic properties of a dime when you didn’t even put your faith in a doll and you managed to somehow make it magic. If a doll, why not a dime?
But I couldn’t convince the ladies something was wrong.
“We have pissed something off,” I said.
“Nonsense,” Debbie said. “Even if what you’re saying is true, a doll returning to a pew doesn’t mean something’s angry. It could just be that the doll wants to play.”
“Do you hear yourself?” I asked. “This was an inanimate object six months ago. And now it ‘wants to play’? We have violated some law of nature. We have let something into this house that wasn’t here before and I just can’t believe it has good intentions. I mean, we’ve been blaming it for everything. No, I’m done.”
“You’re being such a drama queen,” Judy said. But a drama queen would have slapped her upside the head for that little dig and I kept my temper.
“Fine,” I said. “But I’m done. I’m not going to disrespect something that could be evil.”
They carried on without me. And then, right after New Year’s, when Lonnie and I were at his mother’s house, I got a phone call.
“Very funny,” Sarah said. “Come out where I can see you.”
“Stop joking and just come out. I’m not mad.”
“Sarah,” I said, “Listen.” I held up the phone so she could hear the noise of Lonnie’s family. “I’m not anywhere near there.”
“What’s going on? Are you okay?” I asked.
“I just stopped by to drop off some more t-shirts. We’ve been selling them so fast. And when I came in, that stupid pew was empty and Maddy’s there now.” She sounded like she might cry.
“I told you,” I said, because I am not always the person I strive to be.
But that wasn’t enough to stop those ladies. They still attributed every bad thing in the place to Maddy, just now they believed it. And believing it made it worse. Debbie fell down the stairs in the house and broke her leg. Judy’s husband left her. And Sarah started losing her hair, and no doctor could figure out why.
“You have to fix this,” Sarah told me.
“I don’t know how to fix it,” I said. “You all have to stop messing with it.”
But what could they do? People came to see Maddy. When she moved around, visitors noticed. They even claimed they saw her hands move sometimes, that her eyes followed them around. Visitors also complained that Maddy was scratching them. And now we did feel cold spots and hear noises we tried to tell ourselves was just the old house settling.
Then there was the fire in the museum. It was small, and we were just all scared, not hurt. But the pew somehow caught fire and burned to ashes. Nothing else in the museum was damaged. And the fire department never could figure out how it started or why it stopped. But we all went around with the smell of smoke in our lungs for days.
“All right,” I said. Because, honestly, if a doll can just become magic by us wishing it so and a regular old dime can somehow also be a protective charm because Lonnie’s grandmother said so, why couldn’t I be a witch if I wanted it enough? So, I read up some more on the internet.
“You finding anything useful?” Lonnie asked me.
“Well, I don’t know,” I admitted. “A few sites recommend making a mirror box, with the mirrors are facing inward and putting the doll in there. And that would cause the curse to reflect back on whoever laid it.”
“Aw, hell,” Lonnie said, a frown settling on his face. “Don’t be doing that.”
“Oh?” I was beginning to have suspicions I should have just directly asked Lonnie about this months ago.
“For starters, you all laid the curse. You don’t want it reflecting back at you,” he patted my shoulder, and, for a second, I felt like this must have been something his grandmother would have done—delivered bad news in as supportive a manner as possible. “But also, if it really is some kind of thing—something that’s never been human—you surely don’t want to give it access to mirrors. You don’t want it to figure out how to move out of the doll and into the mirrors.”
“So, what can I do?” I asked. “What do you think would fix this?”
“I don’t know,” Lonnie said. “But Granny will. Let me ask her.” His great-grandmother had been dead for twenty years. But I guess I didn’t have to tell you that.
So, Lonnie, my ordinary, normal, church-going ex-Marine husband, who would rather fall asleep on the couch watching tv together than sit around and discuss God and ghosts and the afterlife, went into the kitchen to talk to his dead grandmother. I thought I had married a man who never talked about this stuff because he thought it was foolish. Turns out he didn’t talk about it because it was boringly ordinary to him.
I stood in the doorway and watched. He pulled up the rug by the sink and handed it to me to set aside. Then he rummaged through the utility drawer until he found some birthday candles. He pulled one out, grabbed one of our left-over biscuits from dinner, and put the candle in it. He pulled the Morton’s salt out of the cabinet and poured a large ring around him. Then he sat down and set the candle in front of him. He lit it.
“Do you need me to turn off the lights?” I asked. But I don’t know if he was ignoring me or if something had already happened and he just couldn’t hear me.
He said something, which I am not going to get entirely right, but it was like “We all make one promise when we leave—that any help asked for will be given. And we all make one promise when we let you go—that we will not ask for help except in the most dire circumstances. Granny Tate, this is my husband, Gene. I love him and he loves me. Now, you might not approve, but you told me to find someone who loves me to marry, to not make the mistake you did. You might not see it now, but I honor you by following your advice.”
Lonnie went on and explained to her what had happened at work. Was she there? I can’t be certain. Things felt strange, but I couldn’t be sure that wasn’t just how off-kilter I felt discovering that Lonnie could even do this.
Then he reached up, pulled open the silverware drawer, took out a handful of spoons, and held them above his head. He seemed almost to be in some kind of trance and his whole body was swaying back and forth. He moaned a little and I was worried he might be about to pass out or something, but as I reached for him, he let the spoons drop.
The lights went out. The candle got knocked over and went out. The whole house was dark. And I swear, in the pitch black, I could hear his grandmother. I’ve thought about this many times—what exactly I thought I could hear. A third person breathing? An old hymn being hummed? Footsteps when neither of us were moving? I don’t know. Just that I knew she was there. Standing right in front of me.
Then Lonnie laughed.
“What?” I whispered, though why I felt like I should whisper, I’m not sure.
“Go throw the main breaker,” he said. “Get us some light in here so I can finish up.”
“Why are you laughing?”
“Granny’s pitching a fit that I’d think she’d have any problems with me marrying a black person.”
“Oh, that’s not the problem I thought she’d have,” I said.
“Me, neither, darlin’,” he said. “Me, neither.” And we both laughed, softly. If his grandmother did, as well, I didn’t hear it.
I made my way into the laundry room and got the electricity flowing back into the house. When I got back into the kitchen, Lonnie was studying how the spoons had fallen, how many were outside the salt circle, how many were inside. Some he picked up, examined, put back down. Others he just held his hand over, leaving an inch or two between his palm and the metal, like he was feeling for heat coming off them.
“All right, then,” he said, finally.
“Here’s what Granny Tate says,” he said, gathering up the spoons. “That doll belonged to someone, who is still at the house. Not stuck or anything, just comes back every once in a while to sleep in his old bed, to think how beautiful his mamma was, and to remember what it was like to be young and alive. But you all broke the bond between the doll and its owner. Which is fine. Those things happen. Most of us don’t get to own a doll for 150 years. But you broke the bond and then, in a way, set out a welcome mat for something else.
“So, the solution is easy enough. Give the doll back to the boy and the new owner will leave.”
“Why would this thing do that?” I asked.
Lonnie shrugged. “This is a strange old world. And so many break rules just to see if they can be broken. Who knows why the folks who follow them bother? But I suspect that everybody’s got something and that thing would want his back, if it were lost or stolen. So, he’ll honor the boy’s claim to the doll.” Lonnie paused and gave me a pained grin. “If it doesn’t work, you can just quit. That thing feels like it has an understanding with you. It won’t bother you if you leave.”
“I can’t leave the ladies,” I said, but the truth is, maybe I could have, if I’d needed to.
“All right then,” Lonnie said. “Granny says it’s simple enough. You sit in the cemetery, where that boy is buried, and you figure out how to get him to take his doll back.”
So, that’s what I did. I took a wooden chair, Maddy, and myself out to the small family cemetery down by the road, and I sat there with the doll on my lap. And this time I talked to the boy about how we hadn’t realized anyone still owned the doll and we were sorry to have taken it from him. But here I was, to give it back.
And then I waited, and wished to God I had brought Lonnie with me, because he would know if someone was with us. I didn’t. But by mid-afternoon, I thought I’d figured out whose doll Maddy was—there was only one child born in the 1870s who died and was buried there. A seven-year-old boy named James Madison S_________.
“Oh, Jesus,” I whispered, when I read the name. We had not thought we were haunted before, but how else did we name the doll after its owner? I set the doll on his grave and I said, “My name is Gene and it’s nice to meet you.”
When I got back to the office, the doll was in my chair. My first thought was that I had failed. But then, right behind me, I heard the sound of a little boy laughing. And I laughed, too.
And we never could stop that doll from moving around, now that it was in the habit of it. And I never felt sure if it was little James moving it or if the doll and James were playing together. But the bad things stopped happening. And I guess that’s about all you can ask.
When I got another job offer, I took it. I’ve never been back.
Here is one thing you did not know about Hecate, but which will not surprise you. Late, late, late at night, so late you can almost smell dawn coming, she still sneaks into Donovan’s bedroom and sits on the bed next to him. She runs her fingers through his curling hair, like a grandmother doting over her first grandson. He grows older and she whispers, “Soon.”
Some days, he wakes up feeling unsettled. Some days he wakes up feeling great relief. But often he wakes up like any other normal day. He seems to have no idea she visits.
And yet, what would Jimmy Page give for that? Do you have any idea how many pairs of pants he has with incantations and prayers to Hecate sewn right into the seams?
Okay, me, neither. But I bet it’s more than one pair.
But before you feel too bad for Jimmy Page, never visited without knowing it by Hecate, keep this in mind: While he was at Boleskine House, pitch black daisies with yellow eyes—like inverted Black-eyed Susans—grew along the back wall in the shade. Among their many peculiar properties—a scent like puppy’s breath, the slight moaning sound they make in a strong wind, the toads that congregate beneath them, etc.—the most upsetting is that, if you play “S/he Loves Me, S/he Loves Me Not” with these black daisies, the last petal is, inevitably the truth. Even if your loved one is with someone else, a black daisy that finishes on “s/he loves me” will bring that loved one to you. Fifty-years of faithful marriage? A last “s/he loves me not” petal is an ending unavoidable.
It is said that Jimmy Page is the only person who ever got these black daisies to go to seed and that he has a whole peanut butter jar full of those seeds.
Every time Donovan runs into him, he asks Jimmy for just enough seeds to start his own garden. Jimmy always says no.
So, you see, it’s fair, in a way. Each has something the other would love to have.
Oh, good. You’re awake. Congratulations. You have been appointed the witch detective. No, sorry. It doesn’t matter that you don’t want to be the witch detective. There must be one, the old one is dead, and it has fallen on you to take up the work.
Like all witch detectives, your first task is to investigate the death of your predecessor. Why, yes, I suppose you could call the police and report that you’ve kidnapped. If you can get a signal. This spot in the woods is a dead zone. Do you even have a phone? And perhaps they’d believe you. Perhaps not. Wouldn’t you at least like to take a look around first?
Of course, you could refuse to investigate. But the change is upon you. The door to the cottage sits half open. I could take you away, but you would be back again. Maybe this evening. Maybe in a year. Maybe only in your dreams. But a mystery does not exist without someone who wants to solve it. And here we have a mystery. It will work on you until you cannot bear to leave it undetected.
What can I tell you? We found him just like this. The front door was slightly ajar. The curtains were open and light streamed in through the dirty panes as well as it could. The whole downstairs is open, just as you see, the kitchen and the fireplace to your right, this seating area as you come in, the stair case curving up to the landing, where you’ll find two bedrooms and a bathroom, and under the landing—go ahead, shine your flashlight back there—there’s a desk and a series of bookshelves.
Your predecessor is there, by the back door, his feet near the door, which was found also slightly ajar, his head pointed toward the couch. It appears to us that his attacker was waiting at the back door with the knife that you’ll see sticking out of his back and, when an opportunity presented itself, pushed open the door, stabbed the detective, and fled out the back. We have detained two people we found in the back yard, a gardener and his grandson. They claim they saw no one flee the scene. If that is true, then it makes them our most likely suspects, does it not?
Oh, me? Right. Excellent. Are you sure you haven’t previously done detective work? You have no reason to believe me, since we have just met, but no, if my men and I were going to kill the witch detective, we would confess immediately, because our actions would be justified. No, no, you have nothing to worry about. You seem like a lovely person. I’m merely saying that we are your check and balance. If we needed to kill the witch detective, there’d be no secret of it.
In the upstairs bedroom at the end of the landing, you’ll find the detective’s wife. She claims she slept through the attack and awoke to find him like this. She contacted us immediately. And we began searching for you.
The man outside the cabin is a local anthropologist. He had been working on a case with the detective. Shall we start with him?
Okay, excuse us, everyone. Dr. Nar? Dr. Nar? Will you speak with the witch detective, please?
What Louis Nar told you:
The Detective was helping me track down a witch doctor. I mean, sure, it sounds ridiculous, but why shouldn’t a witch detective be able to find a witch doctor? We were supposed to meet this afternoon to go over his findings, but when I knocked, no one answered. I waiting a few minutes and was just about to leave when I heard a scream. I entered the house and found the detective’s wife standing over him.
It’s not unusual to not know what to make of a witness’s statement at first. Let us go talk to the wife, shall we? Marguerite, dear? Do you think you can speak with the detective?
What Marguerite, the previous Witch Detective’s wife, told you:
I was asleep right here on this bed when I heard a knocking on the front door. I didn’t know we were expecting anyone, so I stayed here, thinking my husband would answer the door. The knock came again and this time I did get up, figuring that maybe my husband had gone out back and so there wasn’t anybody but me to answer the door. I went out on the landing and was just about to start down the steps when I saw my poor darling lying dead. I screamed and ran down to him, but it was too late.
Excuse us just a moment, Marguerite. Oh, yes, I see what you’re saying. You would have to be leaning quite far over the railing to see the body below, as close as it is to the back door.
Yes, let’s go talk to the two men in the back garden. People, we need to get this body out of the way so that we can get out the back door! Let’s move this thing! Oh, yes, you’re right. Not a thing. It used to be a person.
All right, here is Tamuka Santos and his grandson, Anesu. Mr. Santos is your predecessor’s gardener. His grandson can act as your translator, if you have questions for him.
What Anesu Santos said to you:
Detective, do you know what the difference between a witch doctor, a medicine man, and a shaman is? If you want to be a successful witch detective, it would be in your interest to learn. It’s sloppy to look at the actions of a medieval English witch doctor, an Ojibwa Midew, a Tungusic shaman, or a N’anga such as my grandfather and conclude they are the same things. It’s insulting. We tried many times to explain this to your predecessor, but he lacked any curiosity. He wanted to detect only exactly what he had been asked to detect.
No, we had never had any complaints about the previous detective. But, perhaps, this is unsurprising. Few know we exist, so who would know to complain to us?
All right. Here is the fly agaric you will need to solve the case.
Don’t be silly. Of course it’s dangerous. It is a poison toadstool. But you are a witch detective and you simply must do both parts of your job equally well in order to do the job at all. Eat this, sit here on the couch, and then go over into the spirit realm and see what you can see.
What You Learned from the Fly Agaric:
The moon is a coward, most of the time. It slips into the sky often unnoticed until it is out of reach and, even then, it keeps a star nearby. Always a star nearby.
A daisy is just a small earth-anchored sun.
What insults a young man amuses an old one.
The detective’s killer gained from his death.
Have you solved it? Well, then, very good. Why don’t you get washed up and we’ll go grab some dinner and discuss your new position in more depth.
They used to say that dry grass in the morning brought rain in the afternoon. Used to. Before the rain stopped coming at all. The small streams dried up. The crawdad towers crunched beneath boot heels. The noises at night changed from the quarter notes of frog croaks to the unending drone of bugs to, finally, a quiet interrupted only by a bored dog or amorous coyote.
The church stayed full. The crops were brown in the fields and people were watching their livelihoods dry up and turn to dust. What could you do but pray in circumstances like this?
Steve Collins was the lone hold-out. He sat in the rocking chair on his porch, one hand on a mason jar of white whiskey and the other gently resting on his shot gun, and he passed the time daring anyone to come back up to his house. Come on, you motherfuckers, he thought. Come while I’m home and see what happens.
After church, there was sometimes a brief discussion of sending the Sheriff up to talk to him. To try to tell him, yet again, that his wife’s death was an accident. That talk lasted only until one of the old men heard it and he would spit, “If it was right to do, there’s no need to lie about it. No need to apologize for it.” And then those old men would turn and look at the pastor until he blushed with shame.
The old men might be considered brave, since they effectively stopped any further harassment of the Collins family, what there was left of it—Steve and the baby.
But how brave can you be if you never ask about the drought? If you never point out that the night you burned the witch and then staged it to look like a car accident was the last time it rained?
The minister had an answer ready—that this was a trial, a test of their faith, not a divine punishment, but he was glad he never had to use it, because he didn’t quite believe it himself.
What he said to himself was We may have screwed up here. He never said that out loud, though, because thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. And if you are punished by God for following the Word, then what kind of sense does the world make?
A pastor is over his flock like a man is over his family, like God is over them all. If it was wrong, then why not strike the pastor down? Let a new man rise up to head the church?
This was the pastor’s reasoning—that, if the judgment he’d passed on the Collins woman was wrong, then God would hold him accountable, not punish his flock. They were just doing what they were told. And so, if he still stood in power here, what they did was right with God. So the drought was a test or the Devil’s work. That was the pastor’s reasoning—it just didn’t always satisfy him.
The land stayed dry, the rain remained elusive. Wells turned to mud and people, already poor, had to divert food money into buying bottled water at the store.
Mrs. Collins, before she got married, was Tammie Walden. Her grandfather, old Duck Walden, had been the one to sink most of those wells. The old men remembered how he’d find a willow and cut himself a branch with a y shape and, holding on to the two short ends, was guided by the jerking and pulling of the long end pointing out in front of him to where water lay beneath the ground.
People were scared, but no one was surprised when Walden’s wells went dry. But still, no one went to the pastor and insisted they figure out a way to set this right with Steve. And what right could be set? They couldn’t bring Tammie back.
And, finally, people stopped going to church. It took months. But when they had no crops to take to the elevator, they had no money to put in the plate, and the pastor had no money with which to pay the power bill and who wanted to sit around in a cold building?
The next spring, those who could afford it moved away. It was just too strange to see spring come and be met not with green, but with a repeat of fall. The weather was cool and beautiful, but the grass was pale and broke under children’s bare feet.
So, finally, the pastor did go out to talk to Steve, who was still sitting on the porch, whisky jar in one hand, shot gun in the other, the baby squatting in the yard, poking at pill bugs.
“Haven’t seen you in town much,” the pastor said. Steve stared at him a long time, gently running his thumb over the cool metal of the gun. The pastor knew—and it was true—he was contemplating shooting him.
Instead, he answered. “Haven’t had any need to be. Prices are better at the IGA,” which was in Millersburg, the town to the west.
“Trees look good,” the pastor said. He’d already noticed that the closer he got to the Collins place, the greener things got.
“Yes, sir,” Steve said.
“Well, you know,” the pastor said. “We’re really suffering.” And just then the baby laughed. Both the pastor and Steve looked over at it. Steve also gave a slight, bitter snort that almost sounded like a laugh.
The pastor had intended to discuss what they could do to fix the situation, but the laughter made him angry. “You think this is our fault?” he asked, his voice raising. “Your wife was a witch, a bride of Satan. You think this is bad? What do you think the town would have been like if I had let her live?”
Some idea Steve had been toying with resolved itself. And he looked back to the pastor and smiled.
“Don’t you worry, Reverend,” he said. “This will all take care of itself. Folks over in Millersburg told me it’s going to rain all next week.”
A week’s worth of rain was not enough to undo the year of drought. But the waterways filled up again and, before long, the ditches and creek beds were lined with lacy white flowers at the tops of tall, deep green stalks. These were the first signs of plant life in months. The church was surrounded by them, a sea of white, a sign from God. People showed up for Sunday service, to rejoice. The church full again after standing mostly empty all winter.
After church the children ran through the flowers, their arms outstretched so that their fingers could brush against the parasols of blossoms. One child discovered that the stems were hollow. How delightful to sip fresh water out of the stream with your flower straw! All the children, even the teens, usually too cool for such nonsense, joined in. Some chewed on the stems just for the wetness within. The cows and horses all hurried over to eat something living, for once, finally.
Young women braided the long flowers in their hair. An impromptu church picnic was declared.
And one of the old men thought how nice it would be to show the children the tender wild carrots that grew at the root end of those flowers. And so he yanked a plant loose from the dirt.
“No!” He started yelling, “No!”
Steve Collins could hear the ambulances on the main road from his porch. But whether it satisfied him, I couldn’t tell you.
“I want zhir to taste me in zhir mouth,” the young woman said to the witch. She had been heartbroken by a short-haired kid in worn Chuck Taylors who worked on the line at Olive Garden. “Whenever zhe kisses anyone else, and zhe will, believe me, I want zhir to taste me.”
“I’ll need a kiss, first,” said the witch, “so that I know what I’m replicating.” The young woman, so pissed, so insulted at this heartbreak, leaned in and kissed the witch like she was trying to suffocate the old woman. “That will do.” The witch said.
After the girl left, the witch got on the internet, went to Google Witch (witch.google.com), spoke some magic words, typed some Latin phrases, and got access to a search engine that would make the NSA fall over in jealousy (though the NSA should take heart, because we all know Google will kill Google Witch sooner or later, since it has such a small, albeit loyal, userbase). She typed in the short-haired kid’s name and was able to see the short-haired kid through any reflective surface zhe went by—blurry in the stainless steel fridges at work, sharp but dark in the tinted windows of zhir car, and finally, clear as a bell, in the mirror in zhir bathroom, zhir flank long and smooth, zhir fingers lingering right at the softest bit of zhir slight belly.
And there was someone else with zhir, a tall artist in his white briefs. He came up behind zhir and leaned around and, just when he was about to kiss zhir, the witch opened her mouth, gently eased her tongue out, and set the artist’s mouth to tasting like the witch’s angry, jilted client.
On this went for weeks, the witch ruining a string of sweet kisses for the short-haired kid. She would never venture far from her laptop, carrying it with her to the bathroom so that she wouldn’t miss even a sneaked smooch. Every one of them, ruined for the short-haired kid by the taste of zhir old love.
But as must happen (or this wouldn’t be much of a story), the witch saw something on her screen she hadn’t expected. The short-haired kid went for a drive (the witch watching in the mirrors) and ended up at a small house on the other side of town. Zhe knocked at the door and, eventually, a little old lady answered. The witch couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but she watched as the short-haired kid changed a lightbulb for the old woman, helped her get her garbage to the curb, and then sat on the couch with her while she went through some old photo albums.
The witch called for a crow to come to her aid. “Go find out who that old woman is!”
While the crow was gone, the witch continued to watch as the short-haired kid did dishes after the old woman had fixed them lunch. Say what you want about zhir catting around, zhe was very good to this old woman.
“What’s their deal?” the witch asked the crow when it returned.
“That’s your client’s grandmother,” the crow said. The crow had learned the old woman’s name, so the witch opened up another tab and began to watch the grandmother. She learned that the grandmother was very popular in her neighborhood and that the neighbors were as good as one could hope about checking up on her. She learned that the ladies from church would drive the grandmother to services and to the supermarket. The short-haired kid visited once a week, usually the day before garbage day. Zhe took the cans to the curb. A neighbor brought them back. And the witch learned that her client seemed to never go to her grandmother’s house.
“Well, perhaps she’s sweet now, but was a tyrant when my client was younger,” the witch said to the crow.
“How much younger could your client be?” the crow scoffed.
“Go check on that short-haired kid,” the witch waved the crow away, caught up in the charming dullness of the grandmother’s life.
But then there was the short-haired kid, once again, on the grandmother’s couch. “Does she have a cat?” the witch wondered out-loud to herself as she typed the question into that enchanted search engine. Yes, two—Jerry Garcia and Ken Kesey. “Oh, Granny,” said the witch, “you must have been fun in the 60s.”
Then the witch turned her thoughts to the cats and, just by thinking about it a little harder than you’ve ever tried, poof, she was listening to the grandmother of her client and the short-haired kid talking about life.
“Here’s the thing,” said the short-haired kid. “When we were together, I felt like I was drowning in her. Everywhere I went, there she was. If she wasn’t there, she was calling or texting or sending one of her friends to keep an eye on me. And, finally, I was like, well, fuck it, if I’m going to get treated like a cheater, I might as well cheat. And, for a while, that felt like freedom. But now, I still feel like I’m underwater with her and I can’t stand it.”
“Listen,” said the grandmother, who was more fragile than we’d hope someone who had been so vibrant and free could ever become, “when spreading yourself out to so many leads to heartache, take some time to be alone, to regroup. Think of your own metaphor. When you think you’re drowning, the first thing to do is not to grab a hold of others and drag them down with you, but to put your feet under you, and see if you can’t touch bottom. You’ll be surprised how often the water is more shallow than you realized.”
The witch slammed her computer shut. She looked around the house for anything that could be reflecting her, but she was careful. There was nothing. So, how could this grandmother have spoken words that would hit the witch so close to home?
The next time the short-haired kid went to kiss someone, the witch did not interfere. She was busy making her way to the grandmother’s house and knocking on the door and waiting in uncertainty, hoping she’d be let in.
Whatever came of it, her client never knew. She was already in love with someone else, always already too busy to visit her grandmother.
When you first set out to meet Him, you imagine Him as a grand stag in the clearing at dawn, looking at you with great antlers that stretch like arms to the heavens. You imagine how you will approach him, quietly, like you are a secret to be shared only with Him. You read, you study, you initiate.
And still, when your moment comes, when you stand in that clearing, the early frogs already singing, no matter how long you wait, you’re alone.
“Was He there?” The High Priestess asks.
“No,” you say, confused. “No.”
“Then you are on the right track,” she smiles kindly at you.
When you get older, you see how it is, when you catch a glimpse out of the corner of your eye of that same old flannel shirted dirt-dragger who always shares your bed teasing your daughter with an antler he found out in the woods, and you turn, sure that, for a second, it was Him.
This story comes to us courtesy of long-time commenter W. , who blogs over at Because I Can. I love this story so much. The narrator has a great Lovecraftian tone and it ends so awesomely. Oh, I just got the title! A little slow on the uptake, here. But that is also awesome.
It has been 83 days since I got a good night’s sleep. Eighty-three endless days since Mother brought the witch home.
I have no idea why Mother would bring such a hateful thing into our peaceful home and can only conclude that it has bewitched her. Her behavior around the witch is very odd. When it leaves its nest in the small room among the coats she constantly follows it around and struggles with it for control. On rare occasions even Father struggles with the witch and its hell spawned tentacle. Yet the enchantment is so strong that they both shame me when I try to warn them of its evil, sometimes even humiliating me with their laughter and ridicule as I try to scare the witch into fleeing.
I have tried to predict when the witch will come rushing out of its nest among the presents Mother thinks we don’t know about, but I have not yet been successful in predicting its behavior. There is rarely any warning before it is suddenly roaming the house filling the air with its unholy screeching, its single cloudy eye suddenly bright with an infernal glow. It knows where I keep my treasures and constantly takes them. You no doubt will judge me harshly for cowering in the corner as the witch steals my treasures, but the memory of its waving tentacle grabbing me and trying to suck my soul down into whatever hell it comes from haunts my dreams and makes rational thought difficult when I hear the screeching.
Sleep eludes me and I fear for the children. Thus far the witch has only come out in the daylight, but I know its kind. One night soon it will charge from its nest among the broken action figures and stray blocks to try and take the children. I tried to sleep by the childrens’ door, but Mother and Father insist that I sleep in my own bed so I must constantly sneak into the hall and back to bed before they discover me out of bed. The lack of sleep is becoming a problem and I am showing the physical toll. My tail sags listlessly, my ears droop pitifully, and I no longer have the energy to play Get The Ball with the children. I can barely even eat the bread balls Mother gives me when I feel unwell.
Others are starting to notice my difficulties as well and I feel that I must put an end to the witch before the Squirrels notice my laxness. I fear I must attack it the next time it rushes screeching from its nest in the dark under the stairs. I will die soon, but I will protect my family from the evil witch Dyson to the very end.