It Came from the Sunny Side of the Mountain

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

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Guest Witch Story: THE NASHVILLE LESSON by Lora Stevenson

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.

Cuales? Socks?”

“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.”

The Fortune Tellers

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.

So, You Live in Middle Tennessee and You Haven’t Read A City of Ghosts But You Want to

Chuck over at East Side Story has made A City of Ghosts the next book in his every-so-often book club. Here’s the deal–you go to East Side Story. You tell him you want to do the book club. You buy the book from him. And you show up Friday, December 13th at 6 pm. We will discuss the book. I will be nervous and awkward. It will be fun.

If you don’t want to read A City of Ghosts, then carry on as you have been.

If you already have read A City of Ghosts, then you already know I love you. Carry on with your awesome selves, burdened only by the weight of my eternal gratitude.

 

Assorted Things

–The Butcher agrees that the afghan is basically a cloud of sleepiness.

–It’s the Butcher’s birthday. I told him he better get on it, because at this age, Jesus was saving humanity.

–There were a few moments on Thursday when it really struck me that the Butcher and I were going to have to do this kind of clean up work for our family regularly, from here on out. And it made me sad and relieved.

–I’m blogging over at Think Progress, starting tomorrow.

–Tonight is one of my favorite stories of the bunch as well as the last guest witch. I will be out to dinner with the Butcher, so let’s hope everything goes off without a hitch.

–I went to the doctor yesterday. I have, according to her scale, dropped at least twenty-five pounds since last year (this is not accurate for all kinds of reasons, but its accuracy is not germane to what I am about to say). I don’t know if you remember last year, but last year was the year that I supposedly dropped almost 20 pounds between seeing the gyno in May and the endocrinologist in June and then, when I saw this doctor in October, I had supposedly gained that all back and then some. Which I told her. And now, it’s all magically gone. She didn’t even ask me about it. In real life, it’s incredibly difficult to lose twenty-five pounds in a year. And you for sure don’t lose twenty pounds in a month unless something has gone majorly wrong. (And my endocrinologist spent a lot of time trying to figure out if something was going wrong with me or if it was possible that the scales were fucked or what. We settled on fucked scales or operator error, eventually.)

But I am a person who loves order and routine. I eat the same things every day. I wear the same clothes week after week. I go for the same damn walks. I haven’t taken up some aerobic hobby. If she had asked me how I “lost” the weight, I would have nothing to tell her. I’m not living any differently now than I was a year ago, with the possible exception of walking less because the dog wasn’t up for it as often.

I feel like, if I weren’t fat, this would be a cause for greater concern–the mysterious disappearance of twenty-five pounds. But I’m fat, so aren’t I lucky?

I feel fine, though, so… I mean, I’m chalking it up to my fucked up endocrine system and it just still doing what the fuck it wants as it feels like doing it.

But I find it a little strange that she thought nothing of it.

This Year’s Bell Witch

“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.

The Afghan Hits a Snag

Two things lead me to believe I may not finish the black, white, and gray afghan. One is that I don’t have enough red to finish it. I have enough red to come very close to finishing it, but not actually putting on a border or, perhaps, securing the last row. I have ordered some more red, though, so this isn’t the project-stopping roadblock it might appear.

No, here is the thing that’s preventing me from finishing the afghan. I’m very close to being done. Just six more rows and then the border. This means that, to properly work on it, I have to spread it over my lap and let it drape over my knees. Last night, the Butcher asked me if I was crocheting or napping and I realized that I didn’t know.

I was, perhaps, crochapping or napcheting?

What I do know is that the afghan isn’t even done and the lure of napping under it is so strong that it may prevent the finishing of it. On the one hand, I am deeply pleased to have made an afghan so conducive to napping. On the other hand, the thought of the Butcher having to box it up unfinished and send it to Jess with a warning written on the outside of the box so that she doesn’t try to wrap up in the afghan while driving or trying to do her taxes, while I fight him for just a few more minutes in its comforting warmth makes me worried that I’m making an afghan too powerful in its napping to safely exist in the world.

The Trouble with Homophones

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.

Nothing happened.

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.”

Bah, I Hate This Nonsense

I couldn’t disagree more with everything about this:

Country music historian Robert Oermann said Farr is by no means the first artist to sing a song that could be received as depicting domestic violence. But he believes it is touted less frequently in country music than in other genres, notably hip-hop.

“Country radio wants everything to be happy,” he said. “There’s a very strong strain in female country music of resisting oppression.”

Oermann explained that when relationships end violently in country music songs, it’s more often a battered woman standing up to her abusive husband or boyfriend. Examples are the Dixie Chicks’ controversial 2000 hit “Goodbye Earl” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” which turned the singer into an advocate for battered women and children.

I wish Watts and Rau had asked him to name one contemporary hip-hop song that sold 900,000 copies that was about the joys of scaring the shit out of a woman. Hell, I’d like to see Oermann name five hip-hop songs about domestic violence, period.

It’s not worth fighting about the rest, which is just an exercise in ignoring a history of country radio you don’t like so as to highlight the parts you do like. But it’s ugly to use a discussion about country music to finger-wave at hip-hope like country can’t be criticized until rap gets its act together. Especially when we all know that the person being all “look at hip-hop!” is going solely on stereotypes about hip hop.

I Would See This Movie 12 Times in a Row

Hell and Hel

I think one big problem with Christianity’s emphasis on Hell is that they’ve set up a dichotomy where Hell actually has an incredibly good quality–like the old saying about family, Hell is a place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Everyone who is lost, who falls off the path, who wanders away–all the kinds of folks you worry about and don’t know how to help or where you will meet up with them again–ends up there.

No one is lost forever. They are someplace.

Hell works as something to fear if you feel certain that you are or could be good enough to get out of going there. And it works if you want to believe that you’ll get to gloat in the suffering of your enemies.

But for people whose pain is great or for people who’ve always been outcasts, doesn’t Hell at least hold the promise of there being some place that cannot turn you away?

I heard a story about a nun who lives in a prison, so that she can be there for her flock, so to speak, whenever they need her. This is the other problem with Hell. If Heaven is as truly wonderful as they say and Hell as truly awful, what good people would be in Heaven? You see suffering you think you can alleviate, don’t you try?

I’ve also been thinking about Hel, who a lot of scholars don’t think was always a person. Like, first it was a place and then, later on she became an entity. This is often framed in a way as to discount her “real”ness.

And yet, scholars also think that, way back in the day, the sky god would drift across Europe and get paired with every local land goddess, which is why Tyr and Jupiter have similar qualities, but Hera and Frigg don’t. So, if Frigg can be the personification of land, why can’t Hel? I don’t get it.

Tonight’s story is kind of how I imagine Coble’s childhood would have gone, had she been a witch.

The Recourse Left

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.

Four Times

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.

And I Have a Cold

I can’t even be mad about it. It’s just one more ridiculous thing. Plus, I just don’t think you can put your body through “Here’s bad news. Here’s good news. Here’s a death and burial. Here’s some exciting crap!” and not have your body be all “And here’s something to knock you off your feet for a few days.” I’m reading a story at the East Nashville Boofest this afternoon. If you’re there, come on by. The other storytellers seem like they’re going to be awesome, too. We’ve been encouraged to wear a costume, but I just didn’t feel well enough yesterday to go buy one.

I’m pleasantly surprised to find that “Bad Maddy” is, so far, the most widely read of the witch stories. I definitely thought that was one of the better ones in the bunch, but I wouldn’t have put it among my favorites. Still, it’s gotten some nice link love and spread far and wide. That’s really cool.

I’m debating whether to put a border on the black, white, and gray afghan when the time comes. I’m also worried that I’m not going to have enough red yarn to finish sewing it together. But I am loving it. I really hope Jess likes it, too. But I am so pleased with how it’s turning out.

The black, white, and gray afghan might be a bit out of control. That's my foot down there and this is the afghan turned lengthwise. If J. ever needs to share an afghan with seven people, I will have her set.

The black, white, and gray afghan might be a bit out of control. That’s my foot down there and this is the afghan turned lengthwise. If J. ever needs to share an afghan with seven people, I will have her set.

Guest Witch Photograph: LODEMA by Beth Downey

Lodema by Beth Downey

Lodema by Beth Downey

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.

The Witch in the Cemetery

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?

It’s a Little Weird

So far, the parts I’m having the hardest time with are all the annoying parts. I felt lost when I didn’t have anyone to let out first thing in the morning. After I fed the cats, I wasn’t sure what to do with the cat food can, because no one was going to try to steal it out of the recycling if I didn’t let her lick it clean before I put it in there.

I had prepared myself for the end of cuddles and cute snores and car rides and all the things I loved. But fuck it, I even miss all the mundane crap.

I’m hugely sad, I can’t even begin to tell you, but my second largest emotion is relief. I’m so relieved that we were able to do this for her before she was really suffering and that she went so well.

She went very quickly, kind of. They told us we’d have about ten minutes after they administered the anesthetic to sit with her and feed her treats and such, before she went to sleep. But she fell asleep in just a minute or two. The vet said that was probably a sign that she was in worse shape than we even knew. She snored and we all cried and it took them a while to find a vein because, of course, she had to go out with some level of ridiculousness. And she just went away.

It was very comforting in a sad way.

I feel really, really grateful. Grateful to have gotten a chance to know her and grateful for everyone’s love and support. And I’m so grateful the Butcher is here. The things he was able to do for her at the end–dig her a hole, carry her to it, put her in it, and cover her up–he was barely able to do emotionally, but I would not have been able to do them physically, I don’t think.

The vet and her assistant were amazing. They’re not normally the mobile vet that comes to this part of town, but that vet was on vacation. This is who they recommended. And I can’t even begin to tell you what a great comfort it was to have them come to the house and to spend time just openly loving and getting to know Sadie and putting her at ease.

Anyway, I’m just babbling, but I wanted to tell you that as heartbreaking as this is, we didn’t get screwed out of anything. She had a big, full, happy life full of people who loved her and she died before the worst things happened. It’s sad because she’s gone, but it’s not a tragedy. Everything went as well as we could have hoped for. We were very lucky with her, always.

The End of the Adventures with Mrs. Wigglebottom

Mrs. Wigglebottom had a real name, which I didn’t use on the blog in order to preserve her anonymity. It was Sadie. Her name was Sadie. She died how she lived–well-loved, fed ridiculous shit that wasn’t good for her, and, in keeping with her recent habits, peeing on the Butcher.

Her death was sad, but she died here on the couch and it was just like they promised. She went to sleep and then she died. And then the Butcher dug a hole and we put her in it.

It’s so sad I can’t even tell you. Coming home this evening and not having anyone to let out just about brought me to my knees. But I’m also feeling great relief. The vet told us she had a huge mass in her abdomen and, if it had burst, her death would have been messy and unbearably painful. So, I’m very grateful that we were able to spare her that.

And now I’m tired and frazzled and heartbroken.