“We need a witch.” This is what Sarah, who was in charge of the museum said. “An honest-to-God Cajun swamp witch who will can identify bad juju and curses and that kind of stuff. Gene…”
“Oh, no!” I said, waiving away the three women crowding my desk. “Absolutely not.”
“But you could pass for Cajun! ‘Gene.’ ‘Jean.’ It’s not that far of a stretch. You must know about mojo and the Devil and stuff, right? At least from your bedtime stories.” This was Judy who dressed as an antebellum Southern woman every day, in a big hoop skirt and corset, even when the temperatures topped 100 degrees, and walked people through this old house. She was from Cedar Rapids. If her ancestors had fought in the War, it was on the same side as mine. Not that you’d know it from her ill-informed love of all things Southern.
“Ladies, ladies!” I said, “No. First, the word you’re looking for is ‘Creole.’ Not ‘Cajun.’ You think I could pass for ‘Creole.’ No, I could not. Second, I am not Lafayette from True Blood,” their favorite show, “and I can’t just magic it up on a moment’s notice. Third, I am a Baptist. I don’t know anything about Rootworking.”
“That’s the genius of this,” Sarah said. “You don’t need to know anything. We just need you to look spooky and say this place is cursed and we’ll sit back and watch the tourists roll in.”
“You want me to be your magical Negro?” I asked. “No.” I said again. “Absolutely not.”
“Come on,” said Debbie, the third member of the cabal. “You’re not really Baptist. You’re gay.”
“I have work to do,” I said, but there were forces beyond my control at work—such as a terrible economy that meant I couldn’t lose this job because we couldn’t live on Lonnie’s salary alone and three women who had not been told ‘no’ often enough in their lives just ignoring it when it came from me.
Oh, what can I tell you? The house and museum are under different management now. None of these ladies still work there. Hell, I don’t work there. So, I’m not going to bother to say where this was. Suffice to say it was an old, old home with some unique architectural features built near some significant Native American archaeological sites, sitting on a sizable piece of its original Revolutionary War land grant. If you’re a hard-core history buff, you’d love this place. But it wasn’t owned by any family you’ve heard of—not the Polks or the Hardings or the Overtons or any of the folks who can still bring a crowd.
So, we had this significant home and museum and hardly any visitors. This was a problem in the best of times, but with the economy being so bad and schools cutting back on the trips they took, we were seriously looking at closing the place down. I did books for them and I can attest that they were in dire straits.
Sarah decided that a little lie in furtherance of historic preservation probably wasn’t that wrong. What you need to understand is that it was a lie, at least at first. The house, aside from its historical significance, was ordinary. Not only was there nothing supernatural about the place, there wasn’t anything strange going on there that might at first seem supernatural but which could be explained away. You didn’t get strange drafts or the unsettled feeling that comes when rooms aren’t exactly square. It wasn’t a creepy place at all. And I say that as someone who never forgot the people who were enslaved there back in the day. If the past spills all over everything, this place had avoided being stained.
But Sarah realized that, if we wanted tourists to come, we needed that stain, something people could see that made the rest of the past matter to them. So, she… oh, fine… we decided to give the place that little something not quite right.
A number of children died in the house. In the three generations that lived there in the 1800s, we counted at least twelve deaths. “We’ll say ‘thirteen’,” Debbie insisted—she did our marketing. And we had a doll that someone in the family had owned, a small doll with a porcelain head, hands, and feet, but a cloth body, arms, and legs. The doll was in pretty bad shape—a crack ran right through her face and her left hand was missing all the fingers. But I always felt you could tell the doll was well-loved. Some little kid had dragged that thing around as a dear friend, and we were going to ruin that.
“All right,” Sarah said. “Here’s the plan. We’re going to say that all kinds of strange things have happened here at the house, especially surrounding the doll, but we’ve been afraid to say anything for fear people would not believe us. But now, it’s gotten so unbearable, we’ve had to come forward and ask for help. Then we’ll have some kind of press event and you, Gene, you’re going to say that the doll was cursed by an angry slave and that’s why so many children died in the house. And people will come and see that doll. They will pay to get in here to see the doll.”
“And what are we going to say when someone points out that doll was clearly made in the 1870s and we’re talking about a slave cursing it?” I asked.
“No one’s going to point that out,” Judy scoffed. “And if they do, no one who wants to believe will care.”
Judy had this idea that, if we wanted people to believe the doll was cursed, we needed to act like it was. I think what she did was kind of brilliant, or would have been, if it had just stayed mundane. Every time she saw the doll somewhere in the house, she would move it. This meant that you might, at any moment, stumble across the doll, anywhere in the house. You just never knew.
At first, it didn’t seem that scary to me. After all, I knew Judy was the one who was moving it. But still, it could be startling to open a wardrobe and find the doll or to sweep under a bed and hit something hard only to find it was the doll. And then the other ladies also started moving the doll, so that even Judy wouldn’t know where it might turn up. Like I said, this wasn’t scary, but it was unsettling.
Judy also made it a point to blame the doll, which she had decided to call ‘Maddy,’ for anything that went wrong on the property. Couldn’t find where you set your car keys? Maddy took them. Light burned out right as the guests were walking by the lamp, scaring everyone? Must have been Maddy. Paper cut? Maddy. She got blamed for everything. Even in front of the guests, though we were careful to never explain. We wanted to wait for the press conference for that.
Still, word got out. I don’t know if one of the three of them did it or if it was one of our guests, but I started to see people asking about our house and ‘Maddy’ and if anyone knew the story behind her. Was she a ghost? Something else? So, we started to see a small, but steady rise in visitors.
And I admit, it was fun—not just to have visitors and a healthy bank account, but to have a secret, a strange thing all to ourselves. But when we did the press conference, that was even better. Reporters actually showed up. One of the local news stations sent a camera. I ended up not having to be a witch. They introduced me as an employee of the house and I gave some story about how I’d found evidence of rumors of the doll being cursed going back to before the Civil War.
Evidence of rumors. It hardly sounds like a lie when you put it that way. And the crowds came. For months, it was wonderful.
And then came Christmastime.
One Sunday—we weren’t open on Sundays—I came out to the museum to do some work that I’d been unable to get done during the week, because we’d been so busy. The museum was set up in a building about the size of a small ranch house and two-thirds of it was devoted to display space and a third of it was our office, a bathroom, and a space for souvenirs. Near the bathroom was an old church pew taken from a chapel that had once stood on the property. When I walked by it to go into the office, the pew was empty. When I came back out a few minutes later, to check to make sure that I had locked myself in, there was Maddy on the pew.
Now, here’s the important thing—this didn’t frighten me. Remember, Maddy showed up places. Anyone could move her around. And I’d been not really paying attention so, when I saw Maddy sitting there, I figured one of the ladies had come in to get some work done herself. So, I did what I always did. I moved her. I picked Maddy up and put her on top of one of the display cabinets.
Then I went into the office. “Hey, woman!” I said, expecting to see someone there. It was empty. I came back out in the museum, walked over to the front door, checked both that it was locked—it was—and that there wasn’t another car in the parking lot—there was not.
I turned back around, headed back to the office, and I am not even lying. Maddy was sitting on the pew again. I lost my damn mind. I screamed and ran out of the museum. I wanted to call Lonnie and make him go in and get my stuff so that I could go home, but my stuff included my cell phone, which was in the museum, so I had to go back in there.
I slowly opened the door and I slowly stepped in and there she was, sitting on the pew.
“Miss Maddy,” I said. “I knew this was a bad idea. I’m sorry and I’ll stop right now.” And I meant it. We’d had our fun and now we had something’s attention. “It’s just, you see, we thought you would be a good draw for the house.” My God, yes, I was explaining myself to this creepy, self-moving doll. But I had to keep talking, just to keep myself sane, as I walked by it. I was scared to death it was going to turn its shiny little smiling face toward me as I walked by, but I couldn’t look away from it.
I got past it, got my stuff, apologized again, and got. Out. Of. There.
You know what motivates you to find out about Rootworking and witchcraft and all that shit they tell you in church is a sin? A little doll that can move itself around your place of employment. I got home and spent the whole evening on the internet.
“What are you looking for?” Lonnie asked.
“I just want something to ward off evil,” I said.
“My great-grandmother wore a Mercury dime on a string around her ankle,” He said, shrugging like didn’t everyone know how to ward off evil?
“Oh,” I said. “I don’t suppose you have a Mercury dime?”
“Of course, darlin’,” he said. “Not like the world’s a less evil place these days. Let me see if I can’t find it.”
“I never knew—”
“You never asked,” he hollered from the bedroom. “You asked me if I believed in Jesus Christ, the savior of mankind and if I would go to church with you. And that’s all the spiritual talk we’ve had. Which,” and now he was back in the den, holding a dime with a winged helmeted head on it, a small hole drilled in it, “is fine with me.” He handed me the dime. I put it on a string and tied the string to my wrist, where I could see it and be reminded that I was protected.
It’s easy to put your faith in the magic properties of a dime when you didn’t even put your faith in a doll and you managed to somehow make it magic. If a doll, why not a dime?
But I couldn’t convince the ladies something was wrong.
“We have pissed something off,” I said.
“Nonsense,” Debbie said. “Even if what you’re saying is true, a doll returning to a pew doesn’t mean something’s angry. It could just be that the doll wants to play.”
“Do you hear yourself?” I asked. “This was an inanimate object six months ago. And now it ‘wants to play’? We have violated some law of nature. We have let something into this house that wasn’t here before and I just can’t believe it has good intentions. I mean, we’ve been blaming it for everything. No, I’m done.”
“You’re being such a drama queen,” Judy said. But a drama queen would have slapped her upside the head for that little dig and I kept my temper.
“Fine,” I said. “But I’m done. I’m not going to disrespect something that could be evil.”
They carried on without me. And then, right after New Year’s, when Lonnie and I were at his mother’s house, I got a phone call.
“Very funny,” Sarah said. “Come out where I can see you.”
“Stop joking and just come out. I’m not mad.”
“Sarah,” I said, “Listen.” I held up the phone so she could hear the noise of Lonnie’s family. “I’m not anywhere near there.”
“What’s going on? Are you okay?” I asked.
“I just stopped by to drop off some more t-shirts. We’ve been selling them so fast. And when I came in, that stupid pew was empty and Maddy’s there now.” She sounded like she might cry.
“I told you,” I said, because I am not always the person I strive to be.
But that wasn’t enough to stop those ladies. They still attributed every bad thing in the place to Maddy, just now they believed it. And believing it made it worse. Debbie fell down the stairs in the house and broke her leg. Judy’s husband left her. And Sarah started losing her hair, and no doctor could figure out why.
“You have to fix this,” Sarah told me.
“I don’t know how to fix it,” I said. “You all have to stop messing with it.”
But what could they do? People came to see Maddy. When she moved around, visitors noticed. They even claimed they saw her hands move sometimes, that her eyes followed them around. Visitors also complained that Maddy was scratching them. And now we did feel cold spots and hear noises we tried to tell ourselves was just the old house settling.
Then there was the fire in the museum. It was small, and we were just all scared, not hurt. But the pew somehow caught fire and burned to ashes. Nothing else in the museum was damaged. And the fire department never could figure out how it started or why it stopped. But we all went around with the smell of smoke in our lungs for days.
“All right,” I said. Because, honestly, if a doll can just become magic by us wishing it so and a regular old dime can somehow also be a protective charm because Lonnie’s grandmother said so, why couldn’t I be a witch if I wanted it enough? So, I read up some more on the internet.
“You finding anything useful?” Lonnie asked me.
“Well, I don’t know,” I admitted. “A few sites recommend making a mirror box, with the mirrors are facing inward and putting the doll in there. And that would cause the curse to reflect back on whoever laid it.”
“Aw, hell,” Lonnie said, a frown settling on his face. “Don’t be doing that.”
“Oh?” I was beginning to have suspicions I should have just directly asked Lonnie about this months ago.
“For starters, you all laid the curse. You don’t want it reflecting back at you,” he patted my shoulder, and, for a second, I felt like this must have been something his grandmother would have done—delivered bad news in as supportive a manner as possible. “But also, if it really is some kind of thing—something that’s never been human—you surely don’t want to give it access to mirrors. You don’t want it to figure out how to move out of the doll and into the mirrors.”
“So, what can I do?” I asked. “What do you think would fix this?”
“I don’t know,” Lonnie said. “But Granny will. Let me ask her.” His great-grandmother had been dead for twenty years. But I guess I didn’t have to tell you that.
So, Lonnie, my ordinary, normal, church-going ex-Marine husband, who would rather fall asleep on the couch watching tv together than sit around and discuss God and ghosts and the afterlife, went into the kitchen to talk to his dead grandmother. I thought I had married a man who never talked about this stuff because he thought it was foolish. Turns out he didn’t talk about it because it was boringly ordinary to him.
I stood in the doorway and watched. He pulled up the rug by the sink and handed it to me to set aside. Then he rummaged through the utility drawer until he found some birthday candles. He pulled one out, grabbed one of our left-over biscuits from dinner, and put the candle in it. He pulled the Morton’s salt out of the cabinet and poured a large ring around him. Then he sat down and set the candle in front of him. He lit it.
“Do you need me to turn off the lights?” I asked. But I don’t know if he was ignoring me or if something had already happened and he just couldn’t hear me.
He said something, which I am not going to get entirely right, but it was like “We all make one promise when we leave—that any help asked for will be given. And we all make one promise when we let you go—that we will not ask for help except in the most dire circumstances. Granny Tate, this is my husband, Gene. I love him and he loves me. Now, you might not approve, but you told me to find someone who loves me to marry, to not make the mistake you did. You might not see it now, but I honor you by following your advice.”
Lonnie went on and explained to her what had happened at work. Was she there? I can’t be certain. Things felt strange, but I couldn’t be sure that wasn’t just how off-kilter I felt discovering that Lonnie could even do this.
Then he reached up, pulled open the silverware drawer, took out a handful of spoons, and held them above his head. He seemed almost to be in some kind of trance and his whole body was swaying back and forth. He moaned a little and I was worried he might be about to pass out or something, but as I reached for him, he let the spoons drop.
The lights went out. The candle got knocked over and went out. The whole house was dark. And I swear, in the pitch black, I could hear his grandmother. I’ve thought about this many times—what exactly I thought I could hear. A third person breathing? An old hymn being hummed? Footsteps when neither of us were moving? I don’t know. Just that I knew she was there. Standing right in front of me.
Then Lonnie laughed.
“What?” I whispered, though why I felt like I should whisper, I’m not sure.
“Go throw the main breaker,” he said. “Get us some light in here so I can finish up.”
“Why are you laughing?”
“Granny’s pitching a fit that I’d think she’d have any problems with me marrying a black person.”
“Oh, that’s not the problem I thought she’d have,” I said.
“Me, neither, darlin’,” he said. “Me, neither.” And we both laughed, softly. If his grandmother did, as well, I didn’t hear it.
I made my way into the laundry room and got the electricity flowing back into the house. When I got back into the kitchen, Lonnie was studying how the spoons had fallen, how many were outside the salt circle, how many were inside. Some he picked up, examined, put back down. Others he just held his hand over, leaving an inch or two between his palm and the metal, like he was feeling for heat coming off them.
“All right, then,” he said, finally.
“Here’s what Granny Tate says,” he said, gathering up the spoons. “That doll belonged to someone, who is still at the house. Not stuck or anything, just comes back every once in a while to sleep in his old bed, to think how beautiful his mamma was, and to remember what it was like to be young and alive. But you all broke the bond between the doll and its owner. Which is fine. Those things happen. Most of us don’t get to own a doll for 150 years. But you broke the bond and then, in a way, set out a welcome mat for something else.
“So, the solution is easy enough. Give the doll back to the boy and the new owner will leave.”
“Why would this thing do that?” I asked.
Lonnie shrugged. “This is a strange old world. And so many break rules just to see if they can be broken. Who knows why the folks who follow them bother? But I suspect that everybody’s got something and that thing would want his back, if it were lost or stolen. So, he’ll honor the boy’s claim to the doll.” Lonnie paused and gave me a pained grin. “If it doesn’t work, you can just quit. That thing feels like it has an understanding with you. It won’t bother you if you leave.”
“I can’t leave the ladies,” I said, but the truth is, maybe I could have, if I’d needed to.
“All right then,” Lonnie said. “Granny says it’s simple enough. You sit in the cemetery, where that boy is buried, and you figure out how to get him to take his doll back.”
So, that’s what I did. I took a wooden chair, Maddy, and myself out to the small family cemetery down by the road, and I sat there with the doll on my lap. And this time I talked to the boy about how we hadn’t realized anyone still owned the doll and we were sorry to have taken it from him. But here I was, to give it back.
And then I waited, and wished to God I had brought Lonnie with me, because he would know if someone was with us. I didn’t. But by mid-afternoon, I thought I’d figured out whose doll Maddy was—there was only one child born in the 1870s who died and was buried there. A seven-year-old boy named James Madison S_________.
“Oh, Jesus,” I whispered, when I read the name. We had not thought we were haunted before, but how else did we name the doll after its owner? I set the doll on his grave and I said, “My name is Gene and it’s nice to meet you.”
When I got back to the office, the doll was in my chair. My first thought was that I had failed. But then, right behind me, I heard the sound of a little boy laughing. And I laughed, too.
And we never could stop that doll from moving around, now that it was in the habit of it. And I never felt sure if it was little James moving it or if the doll and James were playing together. But the bad things stopped happening. And I guess that’s about all you can ask.
When I got another job offer, I took it. I’ve never been back.