15. The Covington Quilt

It would be best if we didn’t mistake Bettie Covington and Alice Pettis for friends. They had known each other their whole lives and they shared a common interest. Some say that Bettie was born into slavery on Alice’s father’s farm. I don’t know if that’s true. but I know their history went back before the War. I think, in their own ways, they were fond of each other, but no, not friends.

Even after Bettie got married, she would still spend at least one Saturday morning a month with Alice. They would start out in Alice’s garden, both examining every plant and reminding the other what they’d been taught it was for, and then they would wander through the field, down to the stand of trees by the creek, doing the same.

Alice had learned three sure signs of impending death–a crow that catches your eye and lifts up his right foot (his left foot means bad news), a white blossom on a pink rose, and a dream of a saddled horse with no rider–which she taught to Bettie. And Bettie know a sure way to make a person sicken and die without touching him–which she taught to Alice.

Here is one example of how they were not friends. The method Bettie taught Alice was to get a lock of hair from your victim, collect the water from your last night’s chamber pot, and put both in a green bottle, which you then stop up and bury at the foot of a September elm. As the urine slowly dries up, so too does your victim’s vitality.

It’s a terrible way to go, but almost completely untraceable back to the person who’s worked it.

When Alice discovered that Bettie was working it on the Davidsons, she beat her.

Alice thought she was saving Bettie from a worse fate. Bettie knew Alice was damning the Davidson’s housekeeper.

Still, even with her wrist still tender and her eye still purple and sore when she closed it, Bettie made her next visit to the Pettis farm. And every one after that, until Bettie and her husband moved to Nashville.

They moved back after the Davidsons died (their carriage overturned as they were headed to church. “See?” she asked Bettie. “The Lord didn’t need your help in the matter.” Bettie’s face betrayed nothing, “Yes. Miss Alice.”) and Bettie sent her daughter, Josie, to work for the Pettises.

“But you don’t even like them,” her daughter dropped her shoulders and sighed.

“Better the devil you know…” her mother said.

Once Josie was working for the Pettises, many evenings after dinner were spent with Alice and Josie quilting. They worked through quilts for all the Pettis children, of which there were many, and the Alice said “You should take these scraps and see what you can make of them.”

This quilt is now, at least in certain circles, quite famous.

It is not the quilt of Josie Covington that was most famous in her lifetime. The quilt she was most famous for in her own lifetime was the quilt that killed Alice Pettis.

And this is how she came to make it. She had just gotten into the kitchen one morning and was in the middle of stirring the coals and getting the oven going when she heard a terrible scream. She ran upstairs to find Alice doubled over in the hallway.

“Go get your mother,” Alice said.

“Are you all right? Let me help you back to bed,” Josie tried to put her arm around the woman, but Alice pushed her away.

“Now! Go get your mother, now!”

And so Josie ran as fast as she could to her mother’s home and the two of them came as quickly as they could hook the mule to the wagon.

Bettie ran upstairs to Alice’s side. Josie went to get a pitcher of water. When she got to the top of the stairs, she could hear her mother and Alice speaking.

“I can stop this,” Alice said, “with Josie’s help.”

“And his,” Bettie said. “Be honest. His help, too.”

“Yes,” Alice said, quietly.

“Then you can’t have my Josie’s help,” Bettie said. “You can’t ask her to do that.”

Alice sat in her chair for a long time, her hand pressed against her mouth. Finally, she said, “Josie will do it.” and she waited to see if Bettie was going to make her say any more than that out loud. When she saw that neither Covington was going to challenge her, she stood up and said, “I’m going to Franklin to get the things we’ll need. I’ll be back tomorrow or the next day at the latest.”

After she’d gone, Bettie took Josie into the kitchen where they could speak without being overheard.

“Miss Alice had a dream one of her children would die,” Bettie said.

“Well, that’s just a dream,” Josie said, but her mother hushed her.

“No, Miss Alice can dream the future. If she sees it, it will happen. She’s going to have you make a quilt. In the center, you should piece a seven pointed star. I reckon she’s only going to bring back black cloth, but still, you should piece it together, just like you would any other quilt. When the time comes for quilting, someone will come to help you. Now, listen carefully. No matter what this person looks like, even if it looks like me, do not believe it. Look into a mirror to see its true form. Do not make this person angry, but do not agree to anything he or she says. Listen carefully. If he says ‘May I have some water?’ do not say ‘Yes.’ Say something like ‘I can get some water from the kitchen.’ Or if he says, ‘Could you pass me that thread?’ you say ‘Which spool?’ Like that. Do you understand? Don’t agree with anything he says. Don’t agree to do anything he says. He will seem very pleasant, I have no doubt. Do not be fooled.”

“Yes, Mama,” Josie said. She was trembling, but she didn’t know why.

“And when you are done, run,” Bettie said, tears starting to fill her eyes. “Do not come to me. Do not come to a soul who knows you. Change your name.”

“Will I ever see you again?” Josie asked.

“I will find you, after I am sure he’s gone, but it may be a long while,” Bettie said.

When Alice returned, she had yards of black cloth. Josie did as her mother had instructed and pieced together a seven-pointed star in the middle and then cut the rest of the fabric into squares and triangles and rectangles, which she then rearranged back into a quilt top.

When she and Alice had finished getting the back, the batting, and the top all onto the frame, there was a knock at the front door.

“Why don’t you get that, Josie?” Alice said.

“Yes, Miss Alice,” Josie made her way to the front door and opened it. A very tall, very slender blond woman with a large bustle that made her look almost like an ant stood before her. “Please come in,” Josie said to the woman. “Miss Alice is in the parlor.” As Josie turned to indicate the way, she caught a glimpse of the woman in the large mirror in the front hall.

In the mirror, he had black eyes and long, black hair, tied up in the same fashion as she had her blond hair in front of Josie. In the mirror, his shoulders moved under the fabric of her dress like a cat stretching up from a nap.

Before she could stop herself, Josie was imagining herself under those skirts, his hot thighs in her hands. He caught her eye in the mirror and winked so long and slow Josie felt her knees give way beneath her. He licked his lips.

Josie turned away, embarrassed.

“So, you see me?” the blond woman asked.

“Ye–” Josie caught herself. “I see who you are, ma’am.”

The woman purred to herself, just a little. “Well, best not get distracted. We have a long night ahead of us. Have you ever made a quilt before?”

“I know what I’m doing,” Josie said, though, in truth, she wasn’t sure.

“Hmm,” the woman grinned. “It seems so.”

And so they sat down, the three of them, and began to quilt. The blond woman told long stories about the strange things that happen near her home in Nashville. Alice made polite small talk. Josie said nothing.

They worked for hours, though Josie never got tired or hungry. And when the quilt was finally done, Josie remembered her mother’s words, and stood up, “Excuse me,” she said.

“Don’t you want to stay and see what happens next?” The blond woman said, and though Josie did, she just excused herself again and then ran off into the early dawn.

Years later, Alice’s son, Samuel, was shot in a hunting accident. It looked as if he would surely die.  He was brought back to the house and set in his childhood bedroom. His mother went to a chest, opened it, and pulled out the black quilt. She laid down in the bed with Samuel, who had his whole life ahead of him, and pulled the quilt over them. They both fell to sleep.

In the morning, he woke up. She did not.

That very same morning, a few miles away, Bettie Covington was just getting out of bed. She was startled, but not surprised to see Alice Pettis in the doorway.

“So, you got what you wanted,” Bettie said.

“I am truly sorry,” Alice said.

“Not as sorry as you will be, Alice,” Bettie said, “when he catches up with you.”

Alice was a bit taken aback. Their whole lives, Bettie had always called her “Miss Alice.”

“Will you take the quilt?” Alice asked. “Bring it here and destroy it, if it can be? Hide it, if it can’t?”

“Your troubles aren’t my problem any more,” Bettie said.  She shuffled through Alice into the kitchen. She rummaged around, grabbed a pinch of salt, and threw it at Alice. “Now, leave me be.”

For many years, the quilt stayed in the Pettis family, though it remained in a locked chest. Whenever anyone would take it out, a woman’s voice could be heard, plain as day, “No, no,” she would say, “No, no.”

Rumor has it that the quilt spent some time in the basement of the Triune Methodist church before being donated to the Tennessee State Museum. The museum tried, once, to display it, but so many people asked about the docent in period clothing, standing by the quilt that the corporeal employees demanded it be put away.


I got a call from a friend yesterday who is looking for a photo. If it exists anywhere else in the world, they can’t find it. And it’s sitting on my computer. I have to figure out how to go about figuring out who holds rights to it, but it still exists. It is not lost.

Right now, I am the one person in the world who knows that this image of Doc Bates’ Possum Hunters is still available to scholars.

I haven’t yet emailed her to tell her I have it. I want to be able to tell her something about the rights, too.

But I’m also waiting a little bit because it’s so very rarely that we get to have such an important secret that we are about to get to share.

My favorite book I ever worked on was Lost Delta Found. That was a book full of this same feeling, secrets you get to share. (Man, for a second, I am distracted by the reviews on Amazon. You’d get the feeling from the reviews that the book is mostly about Lomax, but it’s not, actually. The book is mostly a collection of primary source material. Most of the arguments in the reviews are about the introduction, which is interesting, but I think it gives you a false impression of the book, which is not for blues enthusiasts, but for really hardcore music nerds, who delight in it).

But this is another thing I love about Nashville. There is always something on the verge of being lost that you can luck out and be the person whose job it is to save it for a little bit.

I have been lucky, a couple of times, to get to be about to share something folks thought was gone forever.

Ear Aches and Belly Achin’

I had better not be getting sick. I have too much going on in the next couple of weeks. But damn, if I don’t have that slight ear ache that leads a gal to want to ask smokers to exhale right down in her head. I don’t actually know if having people blow cancerous toxins in your ears is a good idea or not, but it’s an old home remedy and who am I to argue with old homes?

I’m hoping it’s just a little sinus crap from the change in the weather.

And damn, may I just say that weeks like this make me so glad to live in Tennessee? It’s so beautiful.

I sold three books yesterday through CreateSpace’s “extended distribution channel” which means they went through a wholesaler, which means they either went to a bookstore or libraries. So, I wonder, librarians, could one of you check and see if A City of Ghosts is available through your regular channels? I’m curious.

I wish I could stay home on the couch, but I don’t even feel quite bad enough to justify that. I’m not ill just ill at ease.