I’m listening to Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places while I work on this afghan and it’s really good. It has me thinking a lot about how places become haunted and what it means to be haunted as well as the components Americans expect in a ghost story in order to believe that it’s true.
He’s really good at teasing out some of the racial components. I wish he were better about teasing out some of the gender components. But overall, I’m enjoying the shit out of it.
This morning, I just walked the dog up and down the driveway because the storms last night had made the ground too wet to walk across. This was my view:
Back behind those two trees is the concrete ditch the creek that runs through my yard has been forced into. The muck you’re looking at here is what remains after a night in which the creek returns to its old ways.
It feels like a ghost, like my yard is haunted by the old path of the creek. And it’s real and true. My yard is haunted by the old path of the creek. Sometimes, like last night with all the storms, a creek appears in the old spot and moves through the land in the old ways, and then vanishes again.
So much we think is gone for good, irrevocably destroyed, comes back in ways that are unsettling. Why should the dead be any different?
I took this photo because it’s hilarious. Stop bothering dead people, door-to-door salesmen.
But I just want to point out the weird smudge standing next to the sign. I thought it was a water spot on my phone screen, but it’s clearly in the picture. It may be something on my windshield, though, so I don’t want to leap to “it’s a ghost!” conclusions, but I kind of don’t want to not leap.
I made the pleasant mistake of listening to an interview with this professor at UC Irvine who has a theory that none of what we see/hear/feel is real, that we’ve all been bred over millions of years to filter an almost incomprehensibly complex reality down to the things we need to know in order to survive.
Part of his work is with synesthesia and his theory is that the phenomenon may be a different set of filters, not some kind of weird brain wiring. Or different sets of filters, I guess, depending on the type of synesthesia one has.
I keep thinking about this and the other podcast I listened to about the other professor who investigates paranormal claims and who starts from an assumption that people usually are describing something that happened to them, even if their interpretation of what happened is incorrect. He’s the guy who showed that the Kelly alien encounter was likely owls.
I guess the thing I find troubling and yet engaging is the thought that all life is like the Kelly encounter. Continually, something is happening to us, we’re giving it our best guess as to what it is, but we could be very, very wrong.
And I find myself feeling out of patience for people who dismiss paranormal claims now, because that first professor has made me feel like we don’t really understand shit about the world as it actually is.
Which is not to say that I’m now firmly in the camp that believes in ghosts (though ask me again after the sun goes down). But clearly people are having experiences and have had experiences throughout the ages. Their explanations and understandings of those experiences may be wrong. It may not be ghosts. There may be something else at play. Many times those things may be utterly ordinary (a cat! a psychological mechanism we don’t get! etc.). And sometimes we may not have a clear enough view of how reality actually works to know what’s really happening.
I don’t know. Regardless of the filtering we’re born with, it’s important to find predictive frameworks that work and don’t crush you in never-ending-depression. I mean, “people are shit and will eventually disappoint you” is a predictive framework that works. It will also give you a miserable life.
But I do think that realizing that we literally can’t perceive reality as it is, and are looking at the world through a very limited filter, makes me less patient with absolutes.
How can we ever say, with certainty, “this is” or “this isn’t”?
So, my yard is a normal width, but it’s very deep. In my mind, my back yard is divided into three-ish sections. The actual back yard, which goes to the back of the shed, the way back yard, which goes from the shed to the creek, and then the way, way back yard which goes from the creek to the pasture/field.
This morning, it was very dark when I walked the dog and as soon as he got out of range of the garage light, I lost sight of him. But I could hear him for a little bit at the neighbor’s. I stood there for a bit, waiting for him to decide there wasn’t anything good to eat in the yard, and then I called for him. He didn’t come. I got frustrated and started walking toward where I was sure the dog was. He then came running up from behind me, seemingly confused about where I was going.
So, we head together into the way back yard and he leaps over the tree, which is still there, yes, god, no no one has showed up to cut it up yet, but hopefully soon. And I follow him over and then he goes across the creek to sniff some smells and to poop.
Now, here’s the thing. It’s fall, so it’s very loud in my yard. Even if you can’t see someone, you can hear them because everything crunches. So, the dog is crunching around in the way back yard and I can hear him coming closer to me so I’m telling him what a good boy he is and asking him if he’s ready to go for a walk and I hear him come right up to the bridge, but as dark as it is, I can see the other side of the bridge and there’s no dog there. Not one I can see anyway.
And just as I’m standing there wondering if I can truly be seeing nothing or if maybe I, I don’t know, imagined hearing the rustling of the leaves and underbrush, Sonnyboy comes walking the exact same way, making the exact same noise, except, since I see him, it’s clear that I should have seen the first dog as soon as I heard him.
And, also, if there was another animal out there, it was close enough to Sonnyboy that he would have chased it.
I don’t think it’s Sadie, both because I feel very certain she is genuinely gone, for reasons that are mostly boring and woo to go into, and because she would have come across the bridge to see me. She loved me.
But I know there are at least two other dogs buried in the way back yard–Tip and Smokey. And I wonder if one of them heard me talking about a good boy and was like “Hey, I’m a good boy. That must be me!” but then was like “Oh, you’re not someone I know” when he got to the bridge?
I’m going to rationalize this into being something ordinary. I know me. I know how I work.
But I’m telling it to you as it happened to me. It wasn’t at all scary. It was just weird.
I have two spooky things, one is not very good, but I like it. The other is very good, but I don’t like it. They both kind of deal with the same thing. One deals with Hell and the other deals with Andrew Jackson, so consider yourself fairly warned about the upsettingness of both pieces.
The Devil’s Dilemma
I went to Hell to see the Devil and to ask him if he’d heard the new David Rawlings album. We talk music pretty regularly. The Devil’s a big fan.
It’s pretty easy to get to Hell. Harder to get back.
Anyway, I get down there. I knock on the door and the little imp who answered said, “The Devil’s not here.” Behind the imp, in the main hallway, I saw huge towers of bottled water, stacked in pallets. Another imp was driving a forklift, moving more water into the hallway.
I must have had a weird look on my face, because the imp in the doorway said, “Oh, that’s all for Puerto Rico.”
“Aw, damn,” I said. “Poisonous.” Because, obviously, if the Devil sends you bottled water, it’s going to be bad, right?
“No, no,” the imp said. “It’s just normal water. We’ve been sending as much as we can get along with other supplies to the island. That’s where the Dark Lord is now, helping.”
“Helping,” I asked “or ‘helping?’” I made air quotes with my fingers.
“Go see for yourself.”
The imp stepped aside and let me in. He led me down a long hall full of doors and when we got to a bright blue one, he opened it and indicated I should go through. I did and there I was, deep in the tropical forest, exhausted people before me trying to clear enormous trees from the washed out roadway.
“Hold on, Juan!” The Devil shouted. An old man, with a battered straw hat who had been struggling with a large limb turned to the voice. I did, too.
There was the Devil, lean and handsome, shirtless, but in impossibly clean linen pants, lifting a whole tree by himself, and tossing it out of the way. He brushed his hands together and headed towards Juan. As he passed by me, he winked and grinned slyly.
I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Poor Juan. No good came come from having the Devil’s attention.
But that slick old Devil just walked over to the old man, grabbed another part of the sprawling limb, and together they dragged it out of the road.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I pitched in. If any of the people clearing the road were surprised by my sudden appearance, they were too exhausted to show it. Gracias. That’s all I heard from them repeatedly. Gracias.
All day, until it was too dark to see what we were doing, the Devil worked hard, side-by-side with the people in the road, clearing debris. No sick joke, no unanticipated dark turn, no last-minute disaster to heap on misery. Just good, hard work standing shoulder to shoulder with people who needed the help.
Did they know he was the Devil?
I don’t know. They said ‘gracias’ to him, too.
He took me to a late dinner in Las Vegas and afterward, we went to a nearby hospital. He fluffed pillows and held scared people’s hands. He didn’t say “It’s going to be okay” or “God has a plan” or “Things happen for a reason.” He just listened and was sad and scared with them and they, in turn, I think were a little less sad and scared.
Later, when we lay tangled in the sheets of some impossibly white hotel room, high above the Strip, I asked him, “Okay, what the fuck is going on here?”
“What do you mean?” he asked, but with that hint of playful slyness in his voice that makes it hard for me to concentrate on what I want to say to him.
“You’re being super awesome. Kind, generous, helpful.”
“Good in bed.”
“Come on!” I made a half-hearted attempt to move his delightfully scratchy face away from the small of my neck. “What’s the trick?”
“No trick,” he insisted. “I’m on vacation. Being evil is my job, but I was born an angel. When I want to relax and get my head out of my work, I go out and get back to my roots.”
“Come on!” I said again, “The Devil can’t be good.”
“Oh, I can be all kinds of things,” he growled in my ear. And he was.
The next morning at breakfast, he said, “I’d like to show you something.”
We went back to the hospital, this time to a different wing. We were in a rehab unit and a man learning to walk on his prosthetic leg was taking his first, tentative steps. It wasn’t inspiring, like you see in the movies. It was crushing. He was sweating and shaking. Tears were running down his face. He clung to the handrails like a landlubber in his first ocean storm. Two orderlies waited, ready to grab him if he fell. And he did fall. Repeatedly.
The look on his face was utter anguish. We stood watching for forty-five minutes. He never got the hang of it.
His therapist said, “That was a great first attempt.” I think she meant it.
And that man looked at her kind of hating her and kind of hating himself and I knew, if he saw any other way, he would have taken it, because this way had in it a lot more suffering. But it was also utterly obvious he would be back.
“He has a shaky hope,” The Devil said to me. “And uncertain faith that this all will be worth it. That the doctors can do for him what they say they can do. He believes he could walk again.”
“Will he?” It was hard to believe that he would after seeing him struggle so.
“I don’t know.” The Devil paused and then seemed to decide he would tell me something maybe he hadn’t intended to before now, “That’s why I love it. I don’t know what he’ll be physically capable of. I don’t know what he’ll be able to put himself through mentally. I don’t know if his suffering is pointless or not. It’s delicious.”
Delicious? Ugh, that was a word I didn’t want to think too closely about.
“Now, come home with me. I want to show you something there.”
We walked down a hall in the hospital, turned a corner and we were in Hell. We walked to the end of this hallway, past countless doors behind which I heard unending screams of anguish. Finally, we came to a door that the Devil opened. Inside there was a man hanging by his wrists from the ceiling. A demon took a hot poker out of a nearby fire, stuck the red metal to the man’s bare skin, where it hissed and popped and smoked. The skin stuck to the poker and the demon began to pull the skin off, in long, terrible strips.
“This man kept his son locked in a trunk at the foot of his bed. When the authorities found the boy, he was so twisted from growing up in this box that he couldn’t stand. He flinched when anyone tried to touch him. He screamed and couldn’t stop if he saw a dog. He couldn’t speak, so the authorities had no idea what had happened between him and dogs, but they also couldn’t bear to ask the father. It was worse than just that, of course, but I can see you’re already repulsed.” The Devil gave the man a slight shove, so he began to swing. He screamed, of course.
The Devil went on. “This is a man who clearly belongs in Hell. It’s very straightforward. He tortured his son from his son’s earliest days until he was finally caught and he did it because he liked it, because it made him feel good to have so much unfettered power over a small, helpless thing. But look at his face.”
It was hard to look at. Parts of his cheeks had already been stripped away and he was bleeding profusely. Mixed with his blood were endless tears. He was suffering. All I could think is that no one deserves this, but being in that room with him, every time I felt compelled to go help him, I saw a flash of the suffering his son had endured—being forced to eat his own vomit, being beaten with a broom stick, and on and on.
The Devil rested a supportive hand on my shoulder, “Do you see any shock? Any surprise?” he asked.
And no, the man was suffering, terribly. The look on his face was one of utter agony. But he seemed resigned to it.
“Every night, he’s healed, so every day his tortures are fresh,” the Devil said. “But there’s only a brief time in anyone’s tenure in Hell when they’re in disbelief that this is happening to them. Those scrumptious days where the magnitude of what they’re facing becomes real are so few, so short. We’ve had this one for a long time. We’ve tried a lot on him. We tried erasing his memories so that each day was a fresh Hell, but one of the most satisfying parts is when a person realizes he or she is in Hell because of a long series of decisions they made. Memory is important. So, if we erased his memories so he wouldn’t remember the torture, we put the burden on his tormentor to remember the horrific details of his many sins and recount them back to him.” The Devil led me out of the room. I was relieved to go.
“And that’s hardly fair,” the Devil said. “Why should the guy just doing his job bear the burden of the sinner?”
“I guess you could just erase that demon’s memories, too,” I said. I was feeling slightly queasy, which the Devil must have realized. Out of nowhere, he handed me some toast with jam.
“We thought of that,” he said, “But then, either its supervisor would have to remember all the details so it could be briefed every day on why it was doing this and what it needed to tell the sinner, which seems like the same problem, but one level removed, or we were completely abandoning the best part—where the sinner has hope and then loses it.”
“So, instead, you go fuck things up on Earth only to help fix them, so that you have a never-ending supply of dashed hopes to enjoy?”
“What? No. Oh, sweetheart.” There’s something awful about the Devil calling you sweetheart. Being pitied by evil is disconcerting, at best. “You still don’t get it.”
“The political situation. The hurricanes. The earthquakes. The people lying dead in the streets.”
“That’s why I like you humans so much. You did that. You did that all yourselves. I told you. I’ve been on vacation.”
“For how long?” I asked.
“Hmm, well, let’s see. I was still full-time in the Garden. I was taking like three days off a week by the time Job came around. And I think I was already completely out of the office by the time I ran into Jesus in the wilderness. Even by then, humans were doing a fine job on their own and barely needed me. So, you know, thousands of years, give or take a few.”
We walked down a hall I hadn’t seen before. We came to a normal looking, wooden house door.
“Here’s for you,” he said and I instinctively stepped back. What imp awaited me inside? What sins had I committed or been complicit in bad enough to bring me here? Did my friendship with The Devil, such as it was, count for nothing?
He opened the door. And there was my kitchen, and my dining room beyond. I stepped through the doorway and I was back in my house, as if I had just come in from the garage.
I stumbled to the couch and I grabbed the remote for the TV, hoping to put something in my brain beside what I had seen over the last couple of days. But I couldn’t bring myself to hit the on button. So, I sat there, wondering, is this Hell, too?
A few days later, I decided that, if I was going to be a denizen of Hell, I should go exploring. After all, my hobby is going to look at things, so, okay, let’s go look at Hell.
It was terrible. I mean, I guess that goes without saying. “Hell” is the word we use to mean something as bad as it can get. So, I don’t even know what to say about it. Hell is a Hell-like world of hellacious hellishness? It’s hard to do anything more than gesture to the outlier. There’s nothing as bad to compare it to.
Just floor after floor of human suffering. People being lowered into fiery pits. People having their fingers ripped off and fed to them. People having their eyes carved out with teeny-tiny citrus spoons. And at first, I was like “Lord, I can’t bear to see this.” But later, I was like, “Okay, then, someone at least has to see this and say what’s happening.”
So, on I went, looking and looking and looking.
Then I came to the room with the elephant in it. A demon stood on a tall ladder with a hose, spraying a narrow, but strong stream of lava at the elephant, who was pressed up against the far wall, screaming in fear.
“What the fuck?!” I burst into the room and threw myself against the ladder. The demon fell to the ground. Hot lava spewed everywhere until the hose shut itself off.
“Hey, fuck you,” the demon said. “I’m just doing my job. This elephant got drunk and trampled twenty people to death.”
“Who gave the elephant alcohol?!” I shook my head. “No, no. Who fucking cares? You can’t torture an elephant for being an elephant.”
“Killing is wrong. This elephant is a murderer. Murderers go to Hell to suffer through eternity.”
It was so dumb I couldn’t stand it.
“Water drowns tons of people,” I argued. “You have a room full of water… what? Being polluted?”
The demon took me by the hand and we walked down yet another hall together. The elephant followed. We came to a laboratory, filled with demons in protective gear, their cloven hooves shoved into safety booties. They each leaned over petri dishes, sharp pins in their rubber-gloved hands.
“This is the polio wing.” The demon gestured to the lab. “Each instance of the polio virus that murdered someone comes down here to be tortured for eternity.”
“A virus?” I was confused, to put it mildly. “Can a virus even suffer?”
The demon shrugged. “Heck if I know. I’m not convinced old Gertie here knows why she’s suffering and elephants are smart. It’s not our jobs to worry about whether the punishment works. It’s just our jobs to punish.”
“That must suck,” I said, because this demon didn’t particularly strike me as a sadist.
“Well, Betsy, it’s Hell. It’s not supposed to be fun.”
“Okay, no.” I said. “No, this is ridiculous. You both come with me.” I took the demon by one hand and rested my other hand gently on the elephant’s shoulder. I led them down seemingly-endless hallways, up near-infinite staircases, and back to my house, out north of Nashville. The demon and I went and got some hay and made up a comfortable spot for the elephant in the garage.
“There’s an elephant sanctuary south of here,” I said. “I’ll call them in the morning and see if they’ll take her in.”
“She’s dead,” the demon said.
“Then she’ll be easy to house,” I said. God damn it. Things were going to make sense. I was going to put some things in order. Set a few, tiny things right. “She is done suffering.” Then I looked at the demon, deep into its large, black eyes. “You, too.”
I took it into the bathroom and helped it climb into the tub. It was tentative.
“Is this going to burn?” It asked, as I lathered up a washcloth.
“Nope,” I said.
“Will you make the water ice cold?”
“Nope.” I just gently scrubbed it while it sat in a huddle in the warm bath water. Layers came off—blood, dirt, soot, pieces of meat the origins of which I didn’t even want to remotely begin to imagine. I pulled flaking layers of old horn off, leaving shiny slick obsidian sticking from its head. I scrubbed its hooves with a fingernail brush until they also shined black. When it was utterly clean, I let the water down the drain.
“No! No!” It said. “Will I be sucked down with it?”
“Nope,” I said. I turned the shower on and rinsed the demon off one last time. I found the fluffiest towels I had and wrapped it in them. It rested its head on my shoulder. Before it was dry, it was asleep. I picked it up, carried it into the guest room, and put it to bed.
Then I went out to the elephant with a bucket of warm water and I washed her down as best as I could. I offered her some trail mix. The ancient tip of her trunk curled around each individual peanut, poked at every raisin. She liked the M&Ms the best. Is chocolate bad for an elephant? I don’t know. I don’t suppose, with her being dead it matters.
When it was clear she was asleep, I went out into the back yard and cried so loudly it startled the crows.
In the morning, I was possessed. I guess this shouldn’t have surprised me, seeing as I took a demon home, but I was indeed startled to wake up crawling across my ceiling, scuttling like a bug.
I called The Devil.
“Um, so, yeah, I felt bad about an elephant so I stole a demon and now it’s in me and I need you to get it out.”
“I don’t need a lecture. Just come help me.”
“I run Hell. I don’t help people escape Hell’s torments.”
“You’re on vacation. Doing nice things for people.”
Twenty minutes later, The Devil was in my bedroom, staring up at me on the ceiling, stroking his chin as he tried to decide what to do.
“Leonard—“ he started.
“Come on!” I refused to believe Leonard was a demon’s name. You telling me Lenny Briscoe from Law & Order shared a name with a demon? Leonard. It sounds like the demon in charge of loan sharks.
“Look it up on Wikipedia,” he said. “There’s one named Amy, too.”
“You ran out of scary cool names like Azazel?”
“Azazel is about as cool a name as Walter.”
“Walteres can be scary.”
The Devil rolled his eyes at this. He’d never gotten into Breaking Bad.
“Okay, fine. Leonard. Can you please remove Leonard from me?”
“Are you sure? You look pretty badass with three horns.”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Leonard, come on out.” When you figure how gravity works, as soon as The Devil spoke, I had to be falling back toward my bed, but I swear, it felt like the demon was pulling itself out of me and pushing me away from it. I hit the mattress, hard. But I was fine.
“Boss, I was inside her,” Leonard complained.
“Who hasn’t been there?” The Devil said.
“What? I’m glad about it. I’m just stating a fact.” The Devil had a way of making this corny, terrible shit sound charming. He claimed he learned it from Dean Martin, but that could have also been terrible, corny shit. I don’t know.
“Sorry, Boss,” Leonard said. “I’ll get the elephant and get back to work.”
“No!” I yelled. Not the elephant. Not the torture.
The Devil put his hand on my shoulder and kept me from lunging after the demon. The demon seemed deeply pleased at how upset I was.
And, after giving me one last wicked grin, the demon disappeared. Poof. I knew the elephant was gone, too.
The Devil pulled me closer to him, put his mouth right up to my ear.
“The elephant’s not real.” He whispered. “Don’t worry.”
“What? I fucking hate this shit. It’s upsetting and confusing.”
“Let me show you something.” Oh, great. Again. But off we went, through Hell, up and down corridors, past screams and cries of anguish, stepping over rivers of blood and piss and shit. Finally, we came to a nondescript door that had, weirdly enough, a smaller door in it.
“Open it,” he said. I reached down to open the tiny door. He stopped me. “No, the whole door.”
I opened it. I couldn’t see anything. There was this warm, blinding light. But I smelled my grandma’s kitchen. I heard the murmurings of far off conversations among family members who’d been dead for years. The sounds and smells of my happiest moments.
“The door is never locked.” The Devil said. “Anyone here can get there at any time.”
“Then, my god, why don’t you? Are you embarrassed? Is this a pride thing?”
“I give the denizens of Hell what they expect—to suffer and to inflict suffering. When I don’t have enough to suffer, I dream up sufferers for my minions to torture. This, then, for them, is a kind of Heaven. They are doing the hard, necessary work they believe Goodness won’t or can’t do.”
“But there are some real people here.” I said.
“Oh, yes, but many fewer than you’d think.” This wasn’t true as I’d long been something of a universalist, figuring either everyone was in Hell, and rightly so, or no one was.
“Dude, right there… right there.” I put my arm through the doorway and into Paradise. My hand felt like it had been clasped by a new love. “It’s just right there.”
“I have to run Hell,” he said.
“Or what? No one will be miserable? We’re all miserable sacks of shit. You said yourself we’re fine at doing evil without you. Empty Hell. We’ll still be bad.”
But he just turned and walked away. I shut the door and stood in the dark for a long time. So much misery. It felt a little suffocating. I slumped down to the floor and put my head in my hands. After a minute, I felt the tiny knob of the second, smaller door to Paradise poking in my back. I scooted over and opened it.
This time it smelled like a summer evening, right before rain. And I heard a voice, a low warm voice, saying, “I miss you, Luc. Come on home.”
But here’s the thing, Dear Reader, that haunts me to this day. Was that Heaven beyond that door or just the thing The Devil needed to hear to give him hope that his suffering would one day end? Is he King of Hell or its only prisoner?
My Boyfriend, Andrew Jackson
I met Andrew Jackson in the basement of the Tennessee State Library and Archives. I was lost and stumbling around in the dark, trying to find my way back to the elevator. He was standing in front of a box that contained his papers, just standing there, eyes shut, hand on the box. I didn’t recognize him at first and the immediate thought I had was “Oh, hey, weird. It’s Del McCoury.” Followed by, “Come on, Betsy, why would a bluegrass musician be standing in the semi-dark basement of the TSLA on a Saturday?”
“Sorry,” I stammered. “I’m lost. I’m not supposed to be here, I know, but I got off on the wrong floor and I got turned around.”
He slowly turned toward me and I recognized him immediately—the tall shock of silver hair, the narrow face, the way he held himself like a precarious stack of books.
“That’s all right, ma’am,” he smiled. “I’m not supposed to be here either, but I haven’t tried the gate to the place I want to be and I prefer to avoid the place I don’t.”
“Are you a ghost?” What other question was there?
“Not really,” he said. “I have a body.”
There was a divot, still, on his forehead from where a British officer had whapped him with a sword when he was a young teenager. And the scars from where he had been shot. When I put my ear to his chest while he was sleeping, I could hear the rattle of some bullet against bone when he breathed and the beating of his heart, like an eternal drum-beat to war.
What he liked best was to lay on me, each sharp, fragile boney corner of his body resting on a soft, warm part of me. He slept well those nights. And I didn’t mind it. I liked to see him happy.
Other nights he screamed in his sleep or sobbed or he didn’t sleep at all. He paced around my room, jumping at every passing car, muttering under his breath. I told him that there are veterans’ support groups now, people he could talk to who would understand. I even volunteered to drive him. But he insisted it was too different now.
At first, I was embarrassed to take him places. I was afraid, you know, based on his reputation that he’d be ugly and racist or loud and sexist or that he’d shoot someone. But even now, he was still trying to be a good Christian, whatever that might mean for a man with sins as grave as his. We went out and he was quiet and charming. He held my hand. He said “sir” and “ma’am.”
Only one time did I see him get angry. We were having dinner at a bar and some drunk asshole stumbled over to me and said, “Fatty, I can’t believe you’re eating in public. It’s disgusting.” Well, he didn’t even get the whole last word out. After the “eating in public” bit he put his hand on the President to steady himself and Andrew Jackson snapped like a rat trap. One second he was in his chair. The next the drunk was on the floor and Jackson was punching and punching and punching and I don’t think he would have stopped until the dude was dead if the bouncers hadn’t pulled him off.
“If I see you again, sir,” he hissed at the broken pile of man on the floor at my feet, “it will be for the last time.”
I cried the whole way home and Andrew Jackson fumed.
Later, in the dark, he said, “I would have liked to have made him sorrier.”
Over back is Whites Creek Pike. I didn’t think about that when I brought him home from the library. But one morning, he said he was going to take the dog around the block and at most, it should have taken him an hour to walk the perimeter of the old farm my subdivision sits on. And he wasn’t one to dawdle. I put my coat on over my pajamas and my feet in untied shoes. I stumbled into the winter morning the sun not quite up yet, flurries dancing past me.
“Andrew,” I called, staggering through the back yard, the air freezing my legs. I got up to the road and hollered for him again. He wasn’t there. When I came over the hill I saw him, just standing, down below at the intersection, the dog already so bored he was laying on the sidewalk behind him. I started to call again when I saw what he was looking at. Across from the school, the houses that line the creek were gone. Instead, there was an open field and a camp in it. A thousand people or more, maybe more, were just waking up. Horses snorted, their breaths making clouds in the cold air. Men half dressed in old military uniforms came out of their tents, scratching their bellies, wandering off to pee or splash water from the creek on their faces.
I walked up next to Andrew Jackson. He was transfixed. I didn’t know how to read the look on his face and, looking back, I’m afraid I wanted so much to see regret there that I willed myself to see it. I can’t honestly say if he was sorry, at all.
If anyone in the group noticed us, they didn’t show it. The women stoked small fires and made breakfast. Children cried. Already people were in bad shape and it was still so far to Oklahoma.
“These people die,” he said. I started to say, ‘not all of them,’ but that wasn’t true. By now, they were all dead. “Hmm.”
That night, when he settled in on top of me, he looked into my eyes and asked, “What are you thinking about? Those people at the creek?”
“No,” I lied. “I was thinking about your mother searching for you and your brother during the war and finally finding you, sickly prisoners of the British. I was thinking about you walking behind her and her up on the horse, trying to keep your brother upright and alive. I was thinking about her having to choose one son to try to save and leaving one son to luck or fate or whatever. I was thinking about her watching your brother die and her knowing she invested too much energy in saving the wrong son. I wonder how she lived with that. I wonder what it did to you to live through it. Andrew, I was just wondering if you’ve ever done anything in your whole life that wasn’t done to you. And I wonder, I can’t help but wonder, if it ever helped.”
“I don’t understand,” he whispered, but the quiver in his voice told me he might.
“Was there any time you shot someone that made you feel better about being shot?” I ran my fingers through his long, soft, silvery hair. “Did anything you’ve done ever bring you peace?”
He didn’t answer me, which was probably for the best. I’m not sure I could have lived with any answer he would have given.
Even now, sometimes, I wake up sure I feel the weight of him on me and it makes me sad and relieved in equal measure to find myself alone.
I have all the vertical rows connected, but only that top horizontal row. I like the little hint of green at the corners.
I had a dream last night that I had gotten a chance to interview “Mrs. May” about the JCC bombing and I went to this ritzy old folks home that, in my dream, I had been to before for some reason and thought I knew well, but I couldn’t find her apartment, 167. So, I was late and finally I found a front desk to ask and they sent me across this courtyard. But there wasn’t anything on the other side of the courtyard.
Then a flash of something caught my eye and I realized that there were, in fact, these mirrored buildings in front of me, that looked invisible because the trees around them were reflected in them.
So I found her building and I went to knock on her door and again, there was nothing in front of me. At which point, I realized “Oh, I’m dreaming. This is a dream. So, just roll with it.” I reached forward and my hand hit something. I knocked. And her door opened and it was just a normal small apartment inside. At which point, I thought, “Okay, so this isn’t a dream, because this is real. I must just be stressed from being late and lost and disoriented because I’ve been so tired this week.”
Y’all, I realized I was dreaming and then I talked myself out of it.
Anyway, she told me what she knew about the bombing, which wasn’t anything more than I did. But she did keep telling me to talk to… someone… she had a nickname for her, which I can’t now for the life of me remember. A black woman who, I got the feeling, had been Mrs. May’s housekeeper. She also repeatedly said the real name of this woman, but whenever she said it, it sounded like she was mumbling.
So, I was really glad that I was recording everything on my phone, so I could get back here and try to make that name out.
Then she proceeded to tell me how “they”–a bunch of people from The Temple, I think–had just been together at a dinner the night before talking about the bombing and who they thought did it and that nice reporter was there from the paper.
At which point, I was like, “Motherfucker, I will be so pissed if someone from the Tennessean is also working on this.”
Then she showed me a paper. I thought it was going to be the paper, today’s edition, with the story of all these old people sitting around talking about the bombing.
But it was from 1975.
Y’all, it wasn’t until I was out on my walk with Sonnyboy this morning that I thought to wonder if “Mrs. May” was really dead.
Anyway, so, that was weird. And I did check Newspapers.com. No story matching my story from that year.
I believe some strange things, I guess. And I have become more reticent in recent years to talk about them. So, I’m a little nervous to have y’all listen to this, because I’m afraid, maybe, I sound like a complete loon.
And yet, it’s October and I love to talk about spooky things and the spooky things I know best are the things that happened to me.
So, enjoy! I’m guessing by the length almost everything made it in but I haven’t listened to it myself yet.
“If a bunch of men did what you gals do, you’d lose your shit,” Ray slammed his beer on the bar to punctuate his point. She closed her eyes and touched the small sledgehammer charm on her necklace. Ray was, at this moment, wearing khaki pants and a button-down shirt and a lanyard with an id card that would let him back into his nearby office building, if he was truly going back there after a few drinks with the boys to finish up some work. Sometimes, when they had this discussion, he was in camouflage, with bright orange accents, just come in from unsuccessful turkey hunting. One time, he was in a tux, just snuck away from his brother’s wedding reception to have a drink with some people who did not have thirty years of tales to tell on him.
Polly, this Polly, didn’t think Ray was a bad guy. She even liked him, in spite of how tedious it was that the conversation always, always came back to this.
“Men do do it,” Polly said. “I told you that before. “Not a lot, but sometimes a man feels compelled to do something for his grandmother or for the woman who lives at the corner or, you know, they just heard the song and felt compelled to make sure that woman was okay.”
“No, I mean, if we went out and punished women for every song they sing about fucking over men.”
“First,” she said, taking a long gulp of her water to remind herself that she didn’t want to be mean to him. “It’s not about punishing men. It’s about the women, making sure that they’re not forgotten or unseen or assumed to be only made up. No one would care if people were also doing this for men.”
Ray snorted and turned away from the bar. Polly threw his bottle in the recycle bin.
“So, you’re going to tell me that you think it’s fair that a bunch of man-haters are ruining music?” Ray asked. This time, he was drinking mid-priced whiskey on his boss’s dime. They were celebrating a big deal of some sort. Ray’s whole office. Polly saw twenty-four men and three women.
“How is it ruining music?” Polly asked. Ray had some bullshit reason, and as soon as Polly realized it was bullshit, she stopped paying attention. She wiped down the bar. She set a glass of wine in front of a woman waiting on her husband. Ray wandered off.
Later, right before he left, he stumbled back over to the bar to tell her he was going to leave his car in the parking lot and get a ride home.
“I think that’s wise,” she said.
“You think I’m a dick, because I listen to Eminem.” He blurted out.
“Ray, I don’t know anything about you outside of what happens in this bar. I had no idea you were a fan of Eminem.”
“They’re just good songs. I don’t want anything bad to happen to Kim.”
“But something bad already happened to Kim.”
“But I’m not a dick for liking a song about it.”
“I never said you were.”
“I’m not. It’s just a song. You can like a song without liking how it came about.”
“I know, Ray.”
“You ruined those songs for me.”
Oh, there’s the heart of the matter.
“Bullshit you’d be fine with men doing this,” Ray said. He was shit-faced. He’d started drinking during the early game and there was now only a quarter left in the late game. He was wearing an old Steve McNair Titans jersey. Polly knew the jersey was part of his larger point.
He was pointing his finger right in her face.
“You find the song,” she got right back in his face and hissed at him. “You find one song about a real-life murder of a man by a woman and I will leave this bar with you and not return until we’ve made it right. But you better not show your face in here again until you have that fucking song. You’re banned.”
“You can’t ban me.”
“Watch me.” She motioned to the bouncers. They removed Ray.
The next Saturday afternoon, the bar was empty. Polly was mopping. Ray opened the door.
“You have the song?”
“No,” he said. She pointed behind him.
One beautiful, cold Sunday, he opened the door.
She yelled, “What song?”
And he turned around and left.
Way late in the spring, when the roses were all in bloom, he tried one last time to return to Polly’s bar. He opened the door. He stepped in.
She looked at him, exasperated. “There’s got to be one, one song about a real life murder of a man by a woman.”
“You find it.” He said.
“Oh, hold on. You criticize my work because you think I wouldn’t like it if you were doing the same thing—like I’m some kind of sexist jerk—and then, when you can’t even find one example of a need for some kind of opposite-Polly group, you want me to spin my wheels looking for it instead of doing work I know needs to be done? That’s bullshit, Ray.” She slammed her towel on the bar.
He just stood there, though, in a way that made Polly deeply suspicious, like she was giving him way, way too much credit.
“You never looked for a song,” she said, her eyes widening in understanding. “You just criticize something that’s important to me because I made you a little uncomfortable. You don’t really give a shit if there’s some real dead guy who’s been so mythologized that no one remembers he’s a real person people loved.” She squeezed the bar towel like she wished she could squeeze Ray’s neck. “And you think I have to eventually get over it and let you back in my bar.”
He kind of grinned, like now that everyone saw where everyone stood, why couldn’t they just get back to normal?
“I’m cursing you, Ray,” Polly said, grabbing her tiny gold sledgehammer in one hand and shaking her bar towel toward him with the other. “You find those songs and you help those men or you die trying.”
“Curses aren’t real,” he said, looking suddenly confused and worried.
“You’d better hope not,” she growled. But just then, the chair at the table nearest to where Ray stood, just inside the doorway, crumbled, as if all the nails and glue holding it together had picked this very moment, coincidentally, to give way.
“Holler when you’ve found one,” Polly said as Ray ran out of the bar.
She shrugged to herself and laughed as she thought of the things Ray could rhyme with Polly, if it ever occurred to him to write a song about how she set him up to die. She’d be happy enough to pay, she decided, if he was smart enough to realize that a song about his own plight and then helping himself would, indeed, break the curse.
But she wasn’t too worried about hearing from him again.
It’s always the Devil to blame. When it comes down to it. When a man is on his knees, begging for his life, it’s always the Devil made him do it. That’s the explanation.
I can sympathize. When I begin to think of killing a man, when I wonder if this one could be the one, when I listen for Polly’s little whisper in my ear—“Oh, yes, him.”—I sometimes wonder if it is Her at all or if it’s the Devil in disguise, just telling me what I want to hear, what justifies my work.
If some vigilante ever comes for me, stands above me, gun to my head, demanding I explain myself, when I have realized I have made some grave miscalculation and now I’m going to die, die, die, what reason will I give for my actions? What justification?
Old Satan seduced me.
I might try that.
It won’t be the truth, but you don’t tell outsiders about Polly. Not even ones about to die and the man about to murder me will be moments away from being murdered himself, believe me. I have contingency plans.
But women like me, we don’t get caught. Not usually. I’ve been reading up on it some and mostly we get jobs where death is expected—hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, jails—and when death comes, no one thinks to check to see if it was summoned early.
My methodology, so to speak, is more straight-forward, more old-fashioned. The Steel Spike Savage, who authorities figure is a man in his late forties, early fifties, probably with a family and a respectable job, due to the unique specificities of his kills and the time between them—that’s me. The I-40 Killer, who’s been offing truckers, who’s suspected of being a drug dealer or a disgruntled lot lizard, probably a young drifter—that’s me, too. The Denver Vigilante, who killed that man who killed his wife and kids and tried to kill himself, but chickened out, that’s me. And, as they say, I have other, secret, names which you do not know.
No one suspects me because women like me don’t kill how I kill. I am invisible. Not really. Though, you know, sometimes it can feel that way.
I don’t kill only for Polly. But I kill for Her when She needs it. I know She’s got a crowd of women, a whole cult. I don’t know them. They don’t know me.
She finds occasion to need my services and She whispers in my head, a description or a crime or a song or sometimes, like this time, a name: John Carter.
John Carter, from some small town in northwest Georgia, whose wife had gone missing forty years before.
That’s how I came to see what I’m about to tell you. I had come to his home to kill him. I didn’t know of any song about his wife, but sometimes the songs stayed local, only got sung at backyard campfires or open mic nights. They can’t all be hits.
But I trust Polly. She says “Him,” it’s him. He’s the one.
So, there I am, standing in his kitchen, rechecking the floor for dog bowls, just to make sure I haven’t missed any complicating factor, listening to him in the other room, first, snoring, then, grunting and struggling to get out of his recliner. I could, I know, even step into the doorway and he’d never look over, never bother to see me, but I like to take a moment to be alone with my thoughts, to make sure that I am more excited than afraid. Him in one room, me in the other.
The lights in the living room go out. The television goes silent. He sighs. He shuffles to the bathroom. I wait. He pees. He brushes his teeth. He flushes his toilet. That’s a weird order, but who’s he got to complain about it? To even make note of it? I’m probably the first person in years who gave enough of a shit about John Carter here to pay attention to him flushing last thing in the bathroom.
Off goes the bathroom light and, in the dark, he shuffles to his bedroom. I give it a few minutes and my eyes adjust. I think about how I’m going to do it. I like to be poetic. To match the original death. But they never found his wife’s body. Hell, they didn’t even think there was a body. She just “ran off.” And then never used a credit card or applied for a loan or enrolled in school or left any kind of paper trails for the next forty years.
And can we talk about that for a moment? John Carter was never arrested for the disappearance of his wife. When he said she ran off, as far as I can tell, everyone he knew believed him. Now think about how fucked up this is. A dude’s wife disappears without a trace, there’s been no hint of her in four decades, and, okay, sure, you don’t want to accept that your friend did something to cause that. You don’t want to believe he murdered her. But you’re cool with him being so bad that his wife would leave him and then hide from him for the rest of her life?
But, as far as I can tell, he’s still got lots of friends. Never remarried, though. I guess I don’t know if that says anything about him or not.
Okay, so finally, he’s asleep and I’ve settled on smothering him. He’s an old man. If he dies alone in his sleep, no one will think twice about it. I slip as quiet as I can across the living room and I get to the bedroom.
I take a step through the doorway. I look toward him, to make sure he’s truly asleep.
There’s a woman there, at the end of the bed, just standing there.
I was so surprised I had to literally throw my hand across my mouth to keep from crying out. I didn’t know that was a real thing until I found myself doing it. I had checked this house thoroughly. I went through every inch of it while John Carter was at work and I watched the house all evening until I reentered it.
No woman was in that house. No woman could be in that house. None but me.
Here she was, though, her long hair hanging loose, looking a little messy, maybe a little matted. She wore a long, cotton nightgown. I’d guess she was in her mid-twenties, maybe, not too old. She just stood there, facing him. I stared at him, too. In the moonlight he looked like a great white mountain, snoring like a grizzly bear.
“John Carter,” she said. I think she said it. Somehow it sounded like her voice was coming from the bed, like she was laying right next to him, even though she was clearly standing at the foot of the bed.
He woke with a start. Just sat straight up.
“Oh shit,” he said. And she began to laugh. It scraped out of her throat and sounded raw and wet. And then she began to shake her head slowly back and forth. I could see, finally, when she turned enough toward me to make it clear, that she didn’t have a face, just a hole where her face hand been.
I had made enough of those holes myself to know what cause them. Still, when she shook her head harder and the bullet rattled loose, fell to the floor in front of her, I wanted to join in with John Carter at screaming. I felt like I was losing my damn mind, seeing something that couldn’t be real.
Then she began to sing.
Fuck me. She began to sing. The dead woman.
The song sounded like a sob and its own echo in harmony. She sang of her dead baby, cold in the ground, cradled in the cage of her hip bones. Did you know you killed your baby, John Carter? Is that why you killed her?
And she sang of her great love for John Carter, how she had not lived, not really, until she met him and how, even as he shot her, she thought, “No, no, no, it can’t be,” because how could her dearest man, her whole heart do this to her?
As she sang, she made her way to her side of the bed. You don’t need a face, I guess, to navigate around a room you know. He was still screaming, but I couldn’t pay attention to him. The song was the only thing I heard, this great, sad thing coming from across the great divide.
And then she laid down next to him.
And then he died.
Yeah, wow. Yeah. I went over to him to be sure, put my hand over his mouth and nose, but yeah, he was gone. My work done for me. Or, no, that’s not it. She did her own work.
I took that bullet. Wear it on a chain around my neck.
I try to remember the words to that song. I feel like, if I could sing it, I would know a secret truth only the dead know. But I only heard it the once and I can’t wholly remember how it goes.
“Janice! Janice! Is it true that whoever holds the statue has the gift of prophecy?”
“Is this proof that Vikings visited Illinois?”
Reverend Janice Lindstrom recoiled from the microphones shoved in her face. She was trying to get from her car to the side door of the New Sweden Lutheran Church and had hoped to remain unnoticed. It was a simple enough question—was the stone statue sitting on the desk in her office a Viking-era relic and, if so, what did it mean about the history of Vikings in North America that one of Janice’s congregants found it on his farm? Janice had no good answer. She’d told five newspapers that on the phone that very morning.
But Janice was still shocked that all three news stations from the Quad Cities—and wasn’t that red-headed gal from Peoria?—would bother to send anyone clear out to New Sweden to ask her in person questions she declined to answer over the phone.
“No, no, no,” she said. “No to all that.” She struggled through the wall of media.
“Is it true Unexplained History is coming to town to do a show on the statue?”
“Oh goodness,” she said, visibly flustered. She shoved her key into the white church door. “I hope not.” She slammed the door behind her and slumped into a nearby chair.
Thou shalt not lie. That was one of the big ten. The most important of the Thou shalt nots. Sure, have a cheeseburger. Get tattooed. Sleep with your wife while she’s having her period. The minor Thou shalt nots haven’t been worth getting worked up over in thousands of years. But the big ten still matter. She told herself she technically wasn’t lying, but she didn’t quite believe it.
Young Orion Sanderson—Orion being pronounced in the manner of Midwesterners raised on WGN’s farm report, not like the constellation—had come to her a week ago and told her about the odd statue he’d found on the family farm. That was technically the truth. He had found it in his great-grandfather’s dresser drawer as Orion was filling a suitcase full of the undershirts and underpants and great grey cotton sweatpants the old farmer would need at the hospital as he was recovering from shoulder surgery. Samuel Sanderson, ninety-five years old and still fit as a fiddle.
“So, like, he told me he found it in the mud in a creek bed outside of Arboga right after World War II,” Orion had explained to her the week before. “I did some research online.” Orion stopped. He had been standing in front of Janice’s desk and now he sat in the chair across from her. He kept slapping himself on the chest, as if to confirm that he was real and not in some nightmare. He continued in a whisper. “I think he’s fucked.”
“Excuse me?” Janice leaned forward.
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to swear,” Orion dropped his hands into his lap.
“No, I mean, I can’t hear you. You’re mumbling.”
“Okay, yeah, well, I mean, I think this statue is really old. Like really old and Grandpa Sam, like, he stole it. I mean, God, he doesn’t think of it as stealing. It was lying there and he just took it as a souvenir or something but you can’t take old stuff out of the ground like that. I was all like ‘Mom, we need to give this back to Sweden’ and stuff, but since the one-percenters have been like, you know, there’s a huge market for this kind of stuff and like because of pagans and witches and shit and, oh, yeah, sorry, but Sweden does not screw around when you have their stolen stuff. They, like, aren’t forgiving. And Grandpa Sam is too old to go to prison.” Janice took a minute to decipher the teen-speak and try to understand what Orion was saying.
She should have told the boy that Sweden wasn’t going to put a 95-year-old World War II veteran in jail for picking up a stone statue 75 years ago. But the Sandersons, at least the older male Sandersons had been leery of sitting in pews in front of a woman preacher. These old men, whose fathers and grandfathers had built this beautiful building brick by brick, whose uncles first painted the white trim around each window, door, and arch, whose siblings had climbed up into the bell tower to attach the rope to the bell the congregation had saved so long to purchase, these old men who were the living embodiment of the history of the church stopped coming to church when she became pastor.
She wanted them back. Maybe that was pride, another big sin. But she wanted Orion Sanderson to feel like she had heard his family’s plight and understood and supported them. She wanted more than three Sanderson men to come to church every week.
“Well, you found it on the farm, right?” she asked. Orion nodded. “I know Anne down at the paper. I’ll give her a call and you just tell her that. She’ll put it in the paper and, if it sparks anyone in Sweden’s interest, well, it’s not like you didn’t come forward as soon as you found it. You just don’t have to be too specific about where you found it.”
That had been how this whole mess started and now, now the world thought that stone statue, standing about a foot high, that seemed to portray a figure in a dress sitting on a throne, came out of the dirt on the Sanderson farm. Anne at the paper, damn it, had contacted someone at the community college who was happy to go on the record saying it looked Viking era. And well, soon enough, everyone wanted to know how a Viking statue had gotten to central Illinois. Had there been Vikings here? Was little old New Sweden about to rewrite history as we know it?
Pride and lies of omission.
Her phone rang. “Reverend Lindstrom? I am Professor Angstrom from Stockholm University. I am flying in to Chicago on the day after tomorrow. I believe I will be at your church by three o’clock, if the train is on time.” This Angstrom spoke clear English with a slight accent and he barreled through what he wanted to say as if he would brook no interruptions. Janice opened her mouth to tell him they weren’t accepting visitors, but Angstrom has already hung up.
That was two days ago.
Now Janice was alone in the church. She shut her eyes, breathed in the deep, pleasantly sour smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap and old wood, and listened to the silence. Yes, on the other side of the door, she could still hear the reporters milling about. But she could tune them out. In here, in the nook between the outside world and the back staircase, she tried to find stillness and order in the chaos she had caused.
“Dear Lord Jesus,” she prayed. “Please show me the right way through this mess and give me the strength to follow your will. Amen.” She was hoping this would be one of the rare occasions she had read about in the Bible where God would speak to her directly and she’d know what to do. She listened for long minutes, but she heard nothing. “Well, then,” she said. She stood up, straightened her collar, and started toward her office. Right before she came into view of her secretary, she wiped her eyes.
Professor Angstrom, when he arrived, settled himself on the edge of Janice’s desk, his back turned toward her, while he examined the statue. Every time she tried to engage him in conversation, he grunted and sighed as if he could barely stomach her stupidity. Eventually she gave up. She considered leaving the office, but the idea that he could barge in, perch on her desk, and make weird noises until she left her own chair offended her. Still, she wasn’t getting any work done, so she opened her Bible and skimmed for soothing words that would speak to her current predicament. She found none.
“This is Odin, the All-Father, sitting on his great throne,” Angstrom finally pronounced. “In appearance, it looks authentic, which is, of course, impossible. I will need to send it out for testing.”
“Well, you can’t,” she said. “Not without the permission of the owners.” She was nervous, always nervous when she had to be stern with someone. She liked the parts of the job where she got to be nurturing and tender. “Plus, that figure is clearly wearing a dress.”
“By the time this statue was carved, if it is authentic, which is impossible, Odin had taken on some of the more dramatic traits of his wife,” Janice wanted to interrupt right here, to ask if a dress was really a trait, but Angstrom barreled on. “What we understand now is that, by the time Christianity arrived, the original pantheon of gods was splintering. The great Wodanaz had become Odin, wandering husband of Frigg, and Odd, wandering husband of Freyja. Even you must see that Frigg and Freyja were the same goddess, originally. But why did the Norsemen split the goddess? Was the early Christian influence already suggesting the importance of the Virgin/Magdalene archetype to them? Was it, perhaps, a realization about the nature of women they were coming to independently of the Christians?”
“There’s no historical basis for the tradition of Mary Magdalene being a whore,” Janice said. She glared at the back of the large, old, blond man in front of her. “And so what if she was? That’s not one of only two character traits available to women.” But Janice was a single woman pastoring a church. On the rare occasions she did date, she drove clear to Springfield to spend time with a Methodist minister who’d lost his wife to cancer. She didn’t want her congregation to know she had a boyfriend, because she was afraid they thought there were only two choices and once you’d shown evidence you didn’t belong in the ‘virgin’ category, where did that leave you?
It didn’t matter to Angstrom. He droned on about women and gods and the necessity of debunking forgeries like this.
At long last, he was interrupted by Orion’s arrival. The teen was breathless, alarmed.
“Reverend Lindstrom, you can’t give that statue to that guy!” Orion’s eyes were wide with shocked betrayal.
“No,” Janice tried to assure him. “I’m not.” Damn it. Her secretary must have called the Sandersons the second Angstrom arrived. Must everyone in this church be working to secretly undermine her?
“I certainly have the right under the Antiquities Act to repatriate a stolen relic.” Angstrom announced. “I could have the whole church thrown into prison.”
“It’s a fake!” Orion hollered. Angstrom narrowed his eyes and snorted with derision, even though he had floated the forgery theory not five minutes earlier, himself. He brought the statue to his lips and, much to Janice’s and Orion’s surprise, he licked it.
“This is the taste of my homeland,” he said. “You will all be arrested. Every one of you.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Janice said, reaching for the statue over the desk. She and Angstrom struggled for it for a minute and then Orion got in on the fight. “No, no, Orion,” she said, but youth is quick and stupid. The teen and the old man grappled in front of her desk for the statue and then Orion let go of it. Angstrom had been tugging on it so hard that the loss of resistance sent him careening back. His head hit the desk with a sickening thump.
“Is he dead?” Janice asked, staring at Orion, who had turned a kind of yellowish-gray. Oh, right, she was the adult here. She was the one who needed to answer questions, not ask them. She came around the desk and knelt in front of Angstrom. He was breathing. He didn’t appear to be bleeding. He clutched the statue so tightly Janice couldn’t budge it.
“Are the women here for the potluck yet?” Back in simpler times, when she’d learned Professor Angstrom was coming, she and the ladies of the church had decided to throw him a welcoming supper. It was to start at five, meal time for old Midwesterners, so at least some of them should have been there already, setting up tables, counting out chairs, making sure the path from the food to the drinks to the desserts was clear and easy to navigate. “Go see if we’ve lucked out and a nurse is here.”
Orion bolted from the office, screaming, “Help, help. Oh, God. Help.” Janice turned back to Angstrom.
“Angie,” she called out to her secretary, “You’d better call the paramedics.”
“Let’s wait and see if we have a nurse,” she called back. “Orion Sanderson is a good boy.” Janice hung her head and shut her eyes. Small town politics. You don’t jack up the “good boy’s” life over a stranger unless you had to. Janice squatted there, in front of the unconscious man. She had a phone on her desk, too. She didn’t use it.
Finally, Orion returned with an elderly woman who, if she had been a nurse, it had been decades before. Still, the woman had a nurse’s competence about her. She evaluated the situation, ordered Orion and Janice to help her move Angstrom so he was flat on the floor. She loosened his collar and his belt and propped his legs up with a nearby chair. After a few minutes, Angstrom began to come around.
“Oh, thank God,” Janice said. Orion stood nearby, looking like he wasn’t sure if he should run or cry.
“Oh now, what’s this?” Angstrom asked, struggling to sit up. Janice took the statue and placed it back on her desk.
“You had an accident,” the nurse said.
“Are you okay?” Janice asked. Angstrom narrowed his eyes and looked at her carefully.
“Are you the priest of this temple?” He asked.
“I think he’s having some memory issues,” she said to the nurse.
“How hard did he hit his head?”
“Hard, oh, God, so hard,” Orion answered.
“Then confusion is normal,” the nurse said to Janice. “Just clear things up for him for now. It’ll come back.”
“Okay, then, yes,” Janice said, wiping her hands on her pants and then extending her hand to Angstrom. He shook it. “I’m the pastor of this church.”
“And whose church,” he said the word like it was new to him. “Whose temple is this?”
“God’s?” She wasn’t sure how to answer. “I mean, we’re Christian, so Jesus’s? Is that what you’re asking?”
“How can you be unsure?” He asked, now pulling on Janice and the nurse to rise to his feet. He was still a bit wobbly. They set him in a nearby chair. “Don’t you recognize Him when He’s here? What does He look like?”
“Well, God doesn’t really look like anything,” Janice tried to explain. “Or maybe He looks like everything. Jesus, I guess, well, He’d…”
“Look here!” Angstrom pointed to the antique reproduction painting of Jesus kneeling in the garden, praying. “I would recognize Balder anywhere. Are you Balder’s people?”
“I admit, I don’t socialize as much with the others as some. Thor, now Thor will meet anyone, share a drink, slap a back, hang on as long as he can, but not me. I left as soon as I realized what was happening, that they’d all become Christian. So I don’t know for sure, but I was under the impression that Jesus was a Middle-Eastern man.” A smile teased at Angstrom’s mouth.
“Who…who do you think you are?” She was mortified to find that she was blushing in response to his delightful grin.
“Why, Odd the Wanderer, of course, come to see who among the descendants of my followers might be ripe for reconversion.” He winked at Janice. She smiled back at him, realized what she was doing, and then fixed her face in a more neutral position.
She held up her finger, asking for a minute. She grabbed the nurse and they stepped into the secretary’s connected office. She shut the door so Angstrom couldn’t overhear and spoke low enough that Angie had to stop typing in order to not miss a word.
“He thinks he’s a minor Norse god,” Janice said. “Should we take him to the hospital?”
“No!” Angie said.
“Butt out!” Janice snapped. To the nurse, she said, “I don’t want anything bad to happen to the Sandersons, but I can’t stand by while a man is suffering.”
“Well, you’re not going anywhere anyway,” Angie said. “Look outside.” Before Janice even got to the window, she heard the noise. A hundred rumbling motorcycles surrounded the church. Down Main Street, she could see more arriving.
“What the fuck?” Janice meant to keep that to herself, but judging by Angie’s gasp, she had said it out loud. “Okay, everyone sit tight.” Janice straightened her collar, touched the cross that always hung around her neck, and went outside.
“Hello!” she called. “What can I do for you?” She had never, outside of an actual herd of cows, seen so much leather in one place before. Black leather covering mountainous men with fists like ham hocks, black leather encasing slim, wily men with long moustaches, black leather draped over the shoulders of the occasional feral woman draped over the shoulders of one of these men. Many of them wore Maltese crosses. The knuckles on the man sitting nearest to her were tattooed “1488.” She knew from her prison outreach training that this wasn’t a date, but a kind of white supremacist code—14 for the white nationalist slogan, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” and 88 because H was eighth letter of the alphabet and, thus, Heil Hitler. She scanned the bikers again. They were, indeed, all white.
She sighed and hoped Angie would have sense enough to call the police. Not that it would do much good. New Sweden had two on-duty police officers during the day. In the whole county, there were maybe fifteen available officers, if you counted sheriff’s deputies and the cops in other small towns. The nearest state police headquarters was either the Quad Cities or Peoria, both over forty-five minutes away. Even if Angie did call, there simply wasn’t a big enough police presence in the county to deal with, oh, gosh, easily two hundred bikers now. And still, yes, from the sound of it, more coming.
“Send out the Jew-worshipper,” the man with the racist tattoos said. No conversation in the history of the world had ever started out that way and ended productively, but Janice saw no way out of the impending talk.
“I’m the pastor of this church,” she said. They laughed. “It’s not a joke. Women have been ordained by our church for fifty years.”
“Well, good for you,” the biker said. “Defying nature for half a century.”
Janice whispered, “God, give me strength.”
“We’ve come for the statue,” he said. “We saw the story on the news and, well, fuck it. If the Vikings left a statue in Illinois dirt, it was so the Folk could have it when we needed it.”
“We’re trying to sort out right now where the statue came from and who it belongs to,” Janice said. “But I can assure you, as soon as we do, it will go home with its legal owner.”
“Screw ‘legal’ owner,” the biker said. “We’re the rightful owners. You bring it out here or we’re coming in to get it.” The threat made Janice queasy. Worse, when she looked back toward the church, she saw a steady stream of her congregants, who could not park in the church parking lot, since it was full of bikers, parking at the bank across the street and walking, arms heavy-laden with covered dishes, toward the church.
“Okay, wait,” she said, rubbing her hands on her pants, trying to come up with something to say to the bikers that would get them to leave. Fortunately, at that moment, the reporters who’d accosted her earlier came around the back of the church to see what the commotion was about. The Tattooed Jerk looked at first surprised and then delighted. Engines revved menacingly. Women shrieked. Men yelled. The Tattooed Jerk swung off his bike and walked toward the cameras. Janice fled toward the side doors and, when she got inside, locked them behind her.
“Orion!” she shouted and he sprang out of her office. “Go around and make sure all the doors are locked. I’ll get the sanctuary doors.” She sprinted as fast as she could up the stairs, through the entrance into the choir loft, down past the pulpit, over the communion rail and up the aisle. She could see church members coming in the front doors and heading down the side stairs to the basement. “Hurry, hurry!” she called to them.
Luckily, two of the men in the vestibule were regular ushers and their church training kicked in. They began to move people through the doorway as fast as they could. Janice got to the door and struggled to catch her breath. When she looked out, her blood ran cold. She could see more potluckers standing in the bank parking lot, uncertain how to get through the ever increasing swarm of bikers. Janice waved to catch their attention and then she tried to wave them off. But they had their hot dishes and cheese boards! They held them up to her like the obvious evidence of their preparedness outweighed the angry horde blocking the street. Janice shook her head and pulled the door shut. It locked with an old, thunderous click. Well, she thought, this is terrible. In saving those parishioners in the parking lot by locking them out, she had probably added to the number of people in the congregation who thought she was unfit to be pastor.
After checking to make sure that Orion had indeed locked the rest of the doors, Janice headed down to the church basement. The great main area was filled with people sitting around long tables. Children scurried from one table to another. A gaggle of teens stood in the far corner gossiping. Through the pass-throughs into the kitchen, she could see old women already doing dishes. Always and forever, doing dishes. They hadn’t even eaten yet. What dishes were there to be done? But then she saw them passing serving spoons to younger women who dried them and then brought them out to the tables along the far wall and stuck them into dishes.
She saw Professor Angstrom sitting at one of the tables in the middle of the room, holding the statue. Damn it. He’d gotten it back. By the way he was gesturing, he appeared to be deep in explanation of some point. The men and women around him paid him such close attention that Janice felt a moment of true envy.
Then, Angstrom saw her and smiled in genuine delight. Janice cringed. The friendly face could only mean that he was still under the impression that he was some minor Norse god, which mean that she and her congregation—all people who were supposed to be good people, or at least trying to be—were still failing to get him the medical help at least some of them knew he needed.
“Pastor Janice!” A woman a few years older than her had suddenly appeared by her elbow. “If you will pray, we can eat and then the professor is going to tell us about the statue.” The woman turned to the sixty or so people who were in the basement. “Pastor Janice is going to pray.” Everyone fell silent. Janice looked out over her congregation. Most of the adults had closed their eyes and bowed their heads. Many of the children took the moment to make faces at their friends.
“I’m afraid we’re in big trouble,” she said. Some in front of her looked up and she saw frowns on their faces. Of course, she thought, no one wants a long prayer before a potluck. Is this a prayer? “I’ve asked the Lord to be with us, but I also asked Angela to call the police.” She looked over at Angela and it was plain by the look on Angela’s face that she had not done so.
“What are you talking about?” One of the old farmers shouted.
“Oh, pshaw, no one is going to come into a church to cause trouble. Not in this town.” The farmer seemed disgusted by her lack of faith in how things were done.
Someone else shouted, “This is God’s house.” And it seemed like everyone but Janice found this a convincing argument.
Janice started to insist again that they call the police. But look at them. They were in God’s house. They were safe. Okay. Fine. “God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for our food.” Every kid in the basement knew that prayer. She could hear them piping up as it went on. “Amen.”
As was custom after the prayer, everyone stood and the children rushed toward the food as their parents shouted half-meant words of warning about holding back. The picky kids had just started complaining that most everything on the table was weird when Angstrom came up to Janice.
“Why don’t you lead them?” He asked. She almost wished she’d heard some contempt in his voice, but he seemed genuinely curious. “Just tell them what to do and punish those who don’t?”
“That’s not how it works” she said. “I lead them to the extent they agree to be led. If they decide not to listen to me then we’ll all know I’m not really their leader. I’ll lose this job.” Angstrom nodded in consideration.
“You could give an order,” he suggested. “And then, when the order is not followed, you could have your god punish them.”
“God doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t even punish people for not obeying Him. He’s not going to punish people for not obeying me.”
“You agree to meet the spiritual needs of these people. You are with them as they cross into this world and cross out of it. You sooth them in times of crisis and carry the burden of knowing the most terrible things about them. You stand present with them in the great Mystery and they won’t even listen when you try to warn them of trouble? Why would you do this?”
“Because I love them.”
“Do you?” He looked at her with true concern, with a kind of true understanding she had, in the past, only felt among other ministers. Okay, well, he was a professor, right? That’s like being a minister in some secular way. Maybe it’s not so weird that he seemed to understand more of her struggle with this church knowing her maybe an hour than the people in the congregation who had known her five years did.
“No,” she whispered and she felt shame stab through her. But then, unexpectedly, she felt relief. Somehow the relief was worse. “But I do this because God loves them.”
“Does He?” She opened her mouth to say she didn’t know, but once she realized that was what she was about to say, she shut it again. It’s just stress. This man needed to be at the hospital. She needed not to have mislead everyone about the provenance of that stupid statue. Her congregation needed to have the sense to flee from the bikers. She was only having such grave doubts because she was in so far over her head. But yes. “Yes.”
“I have an idea,” he said. “Why don’t you tell these people what to do? I think the motorcycle people are likely to try to get through the glass doors by your office. You could send people out of the church up the back staircase, out the wooden door. They would probably all be safe. Tell them what to do and, if they won’t do it, well, then, let this god handle things.”
“You know they need to flee. You know it will be bad if they don’t. Lead them.” He reached over and patted her shoulder, the way a coach pats the shoulder of a player he is sending back in the game in a difficult situation. See what you can do, that pat said. Angstrom must have been an extraordinary teacher, Janice thought, though, it was possible he wasn’t like this at all. How weird if your best self is the self that remembers nothing about you? That thinks itself someone else? She kept a small laugh to herself. Maybe that wasn’t so weird. Maybe all our best selves are strangers to us.
Janice walked across the basement and up the back stairs. She unlocked the door and peered out. She could hear the motorcycles in the distance, but truly, the way was clear. If the people in the basement escaped through this door, they could be gone before the bikers noticed. She went back downstairs.
“Okay,” she said, loudly. “We need to leave now. Everyone, just leave your plates where they are. We’ll come back when the danger’s passed and clean up. But now is our chance to get out of here safely.” Everyone turned toward her and then, much to her frustration, they turned back to eating. “People, God is not your fairy godmother. He’s not going to solve problems for you that you won’t solve yourself. Let’s go.” Only Orion stood, and only long enough for his uncle to reach over and give him a slight tug on the arm. He sunk back into the seated crowd. “Now! Let’s go now!”
None of them moved. She threw up her hands and looked pointedly at Angstrom. See? What did I tell you? I can’t make these people do anything? She had only thought those things, but he nodded, as if he had heard her and agreed.
The people in the basement pointedly ignored her for what seemed like an eternity. Everyone in the basement was silent, stubborn, and angry. Then, there was a crash, which Janice couldn’t place at first, but suddenly she realized, oh God, the glass doors by the office. Then came a great noise, which sounded at first like an unscheduled freight train rumbling through town. It grew louder and there was another great crash, which everyone in the basement seemed to immediately recognize as the sound of the large gold cross hanging above the altar coming down. Outside the basement a vast cheer went up, which started directly over their heads and then echoed through the hallways above them, even outside, though that was muffled, and then, oh then, they heard that cheer in the stairwells.
The bikers poured into the basement like frenzied grasshoppers before the blade of the combine, jumping up on tables, overturning casseroles, breaking plates as they made their way toward the statue, which Angstrom had left on the table in the middle of the room.
For a moment, one surreal moment, it seemed as if the horde might pass through the potluckers without incident, like they might fill the basement, take the statue, and empty the basement without anyone being hurt. Who swung first? Who can say? Suddenly the bikers shoved old ladies, punched old men. One child got wrenched up by his arm and flung into his sister, who had already been elbowed. One of the Halderman twins got burned by a cigarette. The man who held the butt end laughed when the boy screamed. Orion’s uncle was holding his own in a fight with a biker wearing a horned helmet, until a skinny woman with blond braids came up behind him and stabbed him in the thigh. The Ostrander baby who Janice had baptized last month wailed in its high chair, blood dripping down its face. Janice at first couldn’t tell if it was the baby’s or its mother’s whose nose was practically a fountain. It was the baby’s own blood. Someone had punched the Ostrander baby.
These grand brawls were happening all at once, all around Janice. She looked for Angstrom and there he was, in the middle of the chaos, standing on a chair, looking very satisfied. Christ, he must have really gotten a screw knocked loose, Janice thought. She pushed her way through the fights to get to him.
“Professor Angstrom!” She shouted as she approached him. He paid her no mind. “Odd!” she tried again. “Let’s get you to safety.” He smiled at her and raised the statue, which he now carried, like one might make raise a wine glass to make a toast. To you, dear Janice. Just as she was within arms’ reach of him, three bikers grabbed him, threw him over their shoulders like a log, and carried him out of the basement.
“To Rudy’s!” one of the bikers shouted.
“To Rudy’s!” some replied. And that appeared to be the signal to leave. The bikers poured back out of the basement. Punches were left unthrown. Women’s faces left unslapped. Children checked their heads to find their hair suddenly unpulled. The congregation laid on the floor or sat slumped over tables or they stood, wobbly, uncertain what to do with themselves now that the brief chaos had ended.
“Angela,” Janice shouted. “God damn it. Go call dispatch right now. Tell them we need ambulances and police.” Janice looked around at her people and began to attend to the people closest to her. Bloody nose? Tilt your head back. Stab wound? Can we tie it off? Okay let’s tie it off. She directed the less severely injured to help the most severely injured. No one was dead, thank God. The nurse who had helped Angstrom earlier moved through the crowd as well.
The severity of the situation slowly sunk in. Racist bikers now had a priceless Swedish artifact she’d alerted them to the existence of in the first place. Half her congregation was in the basement of the church in a bloody heap. This poor Swedish professor who’d had some kind of traumatic brain injury earlier in the day had just been kidnapped by said bikers. And there wasn’t a whole lot of help coming.
When the first cop arrived on the scene, Janice pulled him aside to ask him was Rudy’s was. A bar over on the river is what he told her, but once he saw the carnage in the basement, he stopped saying anything but “Grandma,” to one of the kitchen women who was still bleeding quite a bit from where someone had hit her with a cast iron pan.
“We need to go rescue Angstrom” she said to Orion’s uncle.
“I need to get to the doctor,” he said. “No one here is fit for rescuing anyone.”
“I’ll go,” Orion said.
“You will not,” his uncle said.
“This is my fault,” Orion said, “and, like, I’m going to fix it.” He turned to Janice as if to see if she was going to tell him he couldn’t come. “Your eye,” he said to her. She reached up and, yes, at some point, she had been hit in the face and she could now feel that her eye was swollen shut. She hasn’t noticed. “I’ll drive.”
“Thank you,” she said.
When they got in the car, Orion asked her, “So, what’s the plan? We drive over there, they murder us, and…?”
“Well, let’s hope that they’ve haven’t killed Professor Angstrom. We’ll let them have the statue.” Even with only one good eye, Janice could see Orion flinch when she said this. “Orion, I’m sure that your family would much rather have you in one piece than that statue. We can concede the statue to them. We just need their prisoner.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
But when they got to the bar, it was clear the situation was much stranger than they’d anticipated. The small shack couldn’t hold even a quarter of the bikers present, so most of them were crammed around picnic tables or milling near fires set in old trash barrels there in the parking lot. Angstrom stood, freely, in the middle of the crowd, a beer in one hand, a woman on his other arm. The statue stood on a nearby table. Janice and Orion had parked up the road a ways and walked through a field of beans to the back of the bar and they were close enough to hear what Angstrom was saying to the Tattooed Jerk, who Janice had pegged earlier as their leader.
“You don’t let women into any leadership positions?” Angstrom asked.
“A woman is put on this earth to be the servant of men,” the Tattooed Jerk said. “A woman leading a man is unnatural.” Angstrom wrinkled his brow at this.
“Then who in your tribe sits on the high seat and tells the fortune of your people?” Angstrom asked. “I mean no offense, but in my brief time with you, I haven’t heard anything to assure me that you all would be very tolerant of the kind of men who could do that.”
“Oh, we don’t do any of that kind of witchcraft bullshit,” the Tattooed Jerk said. “We honor our ancestors and we drink and fuck and kick ass.”
“Hmm,” Angstrom said. “So, what’s the difference between your lives now and before? I assume most of you were Christian, at least nominally? What’s changed for you, about you, since you adopted this worldview?”
“Nothing,” the Tattooed Jerk said. “We were always doing things the right way for us. We just didn’t know until Odinism that we were giving credit to the wrong Guy. White people need a white religion. Now we’ve got it.”
“But you changed gods and nothing changed?” Angstrom face grew more troubled. “You don’t even have a volva.”
“Oh, I got a vulva, honey,” a woman shouted from across the way. “Smooth and hairless. I’ll let you touch it, if you want.” The crowd burst into laughter. But the discussion gave Janice an idea.
“This is it. This is what we do.” Janice whispered to Orion. “I’ll go up on the high seat and tell them that Odin or whoever says Angstrom has to come with us, but they can keep the statue.”
“What if that’s not what Odin says once you get up there?”
“I don’t know,” Janice shook her head. “But I do know that these guys are really dangerous. If they decide to hurt Angstrom, we can’t stop them. And if he tries to keep that statue, they’re going to hurt him. If Angstrom’s going to get out of here in one piece, we need to do something and this is the only thing I can think to do.” Janice stepped out of the shadows and, as if he had known she was there the whole time, Angstrom smiled at her.
“Here,” Angstrom said. “We can send the priest from town up and she can tell us the fortune of your people.”
“Okay,” she said, before the Tattooed Jerk or any of the rest of them could object. Angstrom came over and grabbed her arm. He nodded at Orion who ran to catch up with them and the three of them walked into the bar together. Many of the bikers seemed interested, but only the fifty or so that the Tattooed Jerk indicated to be in the bar stayed. The rest waited outside.
Angstrom placed a chair on the pool table and then placed a barstool on the chair. When he came down to retrieve Janice, he had the bartender set seven shots in front of her. Before she lost her nerve, she downed them.
“Usually, you’d eat the heart of one of every animal on the farm, but the only animals here are a few field mice and a couple of crows, none of which belong to them, so it’s not great sacrifice for them. We’ll do without. You will need a song to get you over.”
“You’ll see. What Viking songs do you still know?”
“My dad taught me ‘The Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin,” Orion volunteered. “That’s about Vikings, right?”
“Will these gentlemen know it?” Angstrom asked.
“I’m not sure you’re legally allowed to wear this much black if you don’t have most of Led Zeppelin’s catalog memorized,” Janice said. Angstrom stared at her blankly. “It’s a joke. But yes, I think so.”
Up she went onto the pool table. Then onto the chair. Angstrom held her hand as she balanced herself on the bar stool.
“I’m going to get you out of here,” she whispered to him.
“I’ve no doubt,” he smiled at her.
“I mean, I’m just going to fake it.”
He shrugged and checked to make sure she was firmly seated. He handed her a couple more shots. She did them. He stepped back and regarded her with interest. Was he proud? She thought he might have been proud of her daring. But what was she daring? She was just going to moan and wail and tell these jerks to let this guy leave and tell this poor delusional fool to come with her. The brave part was climbing up on this rickety seat with her head spinning like this, not anything else.
She must have been so lost in thought that she didn’t notice the crowd around her had started singing until they got to the second set of “ooo-ooo-ooooooooooooo-oo”s. She didn’t mean for this to be real, for it to mean anything, but there she was, hanging between heaven and earth. There she was not quite here, not quite there. Things were different in this state. Each person in the bar appeared as a bright knot to her and from those bright knots came many strings that tied them to their compatriots, stretched out of the bar and tied them to unseen others, and she could see those strings, those knots.
It must be a metaphor, right? A vision brought on by prolonged stress and seven, no, nine shots of terrible whiskey. But the people before her did seem to be clearer to her now, not as people but as these bright knots and the threads between those knots. She studied them closely.
Oh, yes, and below them—or is it above? Directions up here seemed to lose all meaning. Here was the great fabric all those tiny knots are but the slightest decoration for. Here, thick between her fingers was their fate, the completed fabric the fixed fate of what has happened. And there, ahead, barely coming into the light, the warp and weft, the shuttle passing through them, what was happening. And once you know what the pattern is, can you not guess what’s to come? Janice squinted harder. There, yes, there in the shadow, a woman worked the loom.
The hairs on the back of Janice’s neck prickled up. She shivered. She could still hear the men below, but she felt she was no longer truly in the bar. She was in this simple room, wooden walls, dirt floor, in front of this grand, intricate loom. In some true sense, she understood she was a child, a baby, really, being shown something she couldn’t possibly yet understand. The woman before her was so beautiful it made Janice swoon. The woman was dressed for weaving—hair back in a braid, no rings, simple sleeves—but she wore something shiny draped across her breast, perhaps a necklace? Janice found she couldn’t look square at the woman. She couldn’t make out precise details or, if she could, she couldn’t hold them in her mind.
“What should I do?” she cried out before she’d even realized she’d formulated a question.
“Send him home,” the woman answered. The statue? Wasn’t she trying to find a way to get the statue back to Sweden without anyone getting hurt? “No, child. Odd. Send Odd home.” The woman knew what she was thinking. Of course she did.
The room shifted or maybe Janice shifted in her seat high over the bar and there she was, back before the angry bikers. Angstrom’s eyes glowed as he looked up at her. Pride. That’s what it was. He was proud of her.
“This is my priest!” He roared to the bikers. “Who among us could do that?”
My priest. Odd was real. That’s what the vision of the weaving woman meant. Not the only thing it meant. Some things Janice was going to have to ponder for a long time. But the thing that she needed to know now was that Professor Angstrom was not having some kind of break. Odd was real and in that poor man. It sounded ridiculous, but what supernatural truth doesn’t sound ridiculous if you haven’t experienced it?
Janice sat taller on the bar stool which wobbled unsteady beneath her.
“Odd,” she shouted. Blood poured out of her mouth. She had the feeling this must have originally been the point of eating the hearts, so that when you started to spew blood onto the people at the ritual, you had some good explanation of where it came from. “Show yourself.”
“Here I am,” the Professor reached up to her.
“No!” she bellowed. “Come out here and stand before me.”
She felt a surge of power coursing through her, like the small string that tied her back to the weaving room, that cord of fate that had brought her to this evening, was acting like a wire, streaming energy into her. She flung her head back, her chest out. The tower of chairs she sat on shook again.
She closed her eyes and felt the energy of the room, these men so quick to violence, so easy to anger. She thought of the frightened children in her church and the bloodied old ladies whose only “crime” was doing dishes and gossiping about the women they were jealous of. The harm these men had causes to the people under her care.
“Stand before me, Odd,” she demanded, again.
She had some idea of what she was asking. She’d been to seminary and she knew, at least theoretically, what it meant when a god appeared before people undisguised. She shut her eyes. She hoped Orion has the sense to shut his eyes.
And then Odd stepped out of the Professor and stood before her. He shone so brightly she could see him, plain as day, through her closed eyes. She threw her arm in front of her face to block the light. She could still see him through the blood and the muscle and the bone. From the screams she heard around here, others had not taken precautions. “My eyes, oh fuck man, my eyes.” She couldn’t tell if that was one voice or many.
“Here I am,” he said and the bikers standing closest to him cried out as their eardrums burst.
“Go home to your wife,” Janice said. She straightened her back again, faced him as squarely as she could, but she also pissed her pants and clenched her nails into the palms of her hands.
“Did you talk to her?” Odd asked, his voice softening, each word filled with fondness and longing.
“Yes,” Janice said. “She said to send you home.”
The light in the room dimmed. Janice opened her eyes and slowly put her arm down. Odd stood before her, up on the table. He reached out and grabbed her hand. She slowly, carefully, climbed down from the tower of chairs. Like his wife—how did she know the woman was his wife? Where was this knowledge coming from?—he was impossibly handsome and she found it hard to look directly at him.
Odd pulled her to him. She didn’t remember him wearing a long robe, but somehow that’s what he wrapped around her when he embraced her.
“Tell me this,” he whispered in her ear. “Would your god ever come to visit you? Like this? So you knew without a doubt it was Him?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, truthfully. “No, I guess, probably not.”
“Just something to think about,” he laughed and it rumbled in his chest like she was hearing a joke he’d been laughing to himself about for a thousand years.
“Are you trying to recruit me?”
“You did kind of ruin the followers I did have here,” he said. She stepped back from him and looked down at the men in the bar. It was a horror show of bleeding ears and liquified eyeballs. Janice had, of course, seen dead people, but the sight of the Tattooed Jerk, who looked half broken and half melted, took her aback.
“Orion!” she called out.
“I’m fine,” he called back. “I hid in the bathroom once you disappeared.” She was so relieved that the boy was safe, she only heard that he had answered, not what.
“Not my follower,” Odd shrugged. “Not mine to ruin.”
“But why would you do this to them?” She asked. “What a waste. My god. What a terrible waste.”
“You hated them.”
“Yes, but I didn’t…I don’t want this. It’s so stupid. It’s so horrible. So much suffering.”
“Come with me and be my priest.”
She stood there in shock and confusion. “Are you kidding? Do you think I want to end up like this?”
“No.” Janice said. “Go back to your wife.” She grunted. “And take your damn statue with you.”
“That’s not my statue. Look. The figure is wearing a dress. A necklace.”
“Professor Angstrom said it could be you in drag.”
“Could be,” Odd grinned and winked at her. “But it’s not. A woman can sit in the high seat and see what she can see. You know that.” He pulled the statue out of his jacket. He was wearing a jacket now? No, an actual suit coat. Or maybe he was wearing something her mind couldn’t make sense of and so was just tossing out suggestions. He handed the statue to her. “Do with it what you will.”
“Wait,” she said, as he jumped down from the table. He stopped and looked back at her. “Will I see you again?”
He seemed taken aback by her question. Like those conversations in the church where he didn’t seem able to understand why a congregation would be satisfied with so little. “Yes. If you want to. Of course.” And then he did leave, muttering under his breath. She found his answer unnerving and she paced in a circle up on the pool table until Orion grabbed her foot and motioned her down. He led her to the car. She handed him the statue. Twice, on the ride back to town, she reached for it and then decided against it.
Saturday passed in a blur of statements to police and the avoidance of statements to the media. Some townspeople came by to help clean up the church, righting overturned pews, patching holes, rehanging the giant cross. All told, fifty-six people were hospitalized, twenty from her church, the rest bikers. Seven bikers, including the Tattooed Jerk, were dead. Some number of people, though Janice didn’t know how many, had been injured, but not severely enough to wait for the strained emergency room staff to get to them. Angstrom, she heard, had been uninjured, but he had insisted on an ambulance taking him to Chicago, to “real” medical help.
Sunday morning, Janice was supposed to stand in front of her congregation and say something that made sense. She needed to explain why this had happened, why God had let this happen. A baby got punched. In a church. Who stands idly by while babies are getting hurt? If You’re omnipotent, why don’t You help? And yet, had she not tried to help? And was she not here doing God’s work? How can you say you want God’s help and yet dismiss the help He sends? Or was it typical earthly bullshit that kept them from recognizing her as help God had sent? Was that egotistical for her to believe she was God’s help?
These were her thoughts as she stood at the door behind the altar, waiting for the organist to play the cue for her to enter. These were the thoughts she let herself have. They seemed like hard questions, questions worth wrestling with. But she knew they were distractions from the real questions she didn’t want to ask herself—mainly, if you meet a god, shouldn’t it change you? But also, what if all the gods are real, but they’re all like Odd? Then what the fuck was she doing with her life?
When she stood before the congregation, three steps up from them, behind the lectern, she gripped the Bible before her tightly. They were quieter than she’d ever heard them. No one rustled their bulletin. No one hushed their antsy four-year-old. There were no antsy four year olds. Even the children sat quiet. Seventy-two people looked up at her, some of them bruised and battered, many of them afraid, some defiant and angry.
In the light filtering in through the jewel-toned windows, she saw, faintly, the threads that tied them together. Even now, here, without the proper ritual, without the proper preparation, she saw how these people fit together, the pattern they made. Some Sandersons sat in the middle of the sanctuary, on her right. She saw from them ties going outside to the men who still refused to have a woman preacher. She saw ties going off to the east.
This was not the first thing the congregation expected her to say to them and they shifted uncomfortably. Orion’s aunt especially seemed taken aback.
Janice asked again. “Where’s Orion?”
“He’s gone to Sweden,” his other aunt answered. “To return the statue.” Of course he had. Who was the only person in this town who would act with decisiveness? He’d go to Sweden, damn the consequences, if he thought that was the right thing to do.
And what was she going to do? Stand here and pretend nothing had changed for her?
She shut the Bible. She stepped down from the lectern. She walked out the door. The congregation sat there for a good twenty minutes before they realized she wasn’t coming back.
The tall woman looked like a skeleton someone had carefully folded a paper bag over. She had creases in her face, next to her mouth, and at the base of her neck, but creases, not wrinkles. Her skin mostly stretched smooth over her skull and clung to her long bones tightly.
“That’s how it is in the Estes family,” she said. “Feast or famine. Hard or soft. Skinny or fat. You don’t meet a lot of in-between Esteses.”
Were it not for the heavy work boots that weighed her to the earth, it was easy to imagine her floating away on a strong breeze, like some kind of seed birthed from a mysterious, unknown flower.
We were in the parking lot of the McDonald’s just off I-40 in Brownsville. Across the way, we could see the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, but Ms. Estes scoffed when the old, long-haired British white guy said he wanted to see it.
“Go on your own time,” she said. “I’m supposed to take you to Durhamville and to show you something true, not to be your local tour guide.” She didn’t sound mean when she said it, just frank. And then she laughed, so the British white guy laughed, too.
His name was Bob. I’d driven him to this parking lot because my boyfriend, who worked for a record company in Nashville, was sick. Okay, hungover, and couldn’t do it and also couldn’t call work and tell them he couldn’t do it.
“You’ve never heard of him?” my boyfriend asked me.
“No,” I said.
“I might have to break up with you.”
“Then who’s going to drive him?”
End of discussion.
We got in my boyfriend’s car—Ms. Estes in the passenger seat and Bob, once again, in the back. Once Ms. Estes was in the car, though, he didn’t answer his phone or worry about his texts. He seemed enraptured by Ms. Estes.
“How are you related to Sleepy John?” Bob asked.
“Turn left up here, honey,” she said to me. And then, this was weird. She reached over and brushed my arm, not obtrusive enough that Bob would notice, but enough so I looked over at her. She gave me a big wink and then she said, “He’s my daddy’s cousin.”
But the wink meant that was a lie, right?
“And you never married?”
“Of course I did, but who else was there to marry hereabout but another Estes?” Then, I swear, she winked again. “We’re not so close as to make us hillbillies. Oh, here, child, take the north fork in the road.” I maneuvered the car in the right direction while Ms. Estes looked me up and down. “What kind of music do you like? You’ve got that fancy hair, so I’m guessing Valerie June. You know she’s from around here. Oh, you have to take the jog here. We want to get over to Fulton Road.”
“I’ve been loving that new Beyonce album since it came out this spring,” I said. I didn’t know who Valerie June was, but Ms. Estes’s interest in her made me curious.
“Well, now,” she smiled. “Beyonce’s an interesting choice. She knows a thing or two about real and myth and how to keep a foot in each one. You remember how everyone heard ‘Daddy Lessons’ and they all had opinions about whether she was saying too much about her relationship with her father. But a lot of those feelings came from Ms. Gordon, one of the other songwriters, and her feelings about the men in her life. See, Beyonce knows how to make something personal when it isn’t and how to make that personal thing sound universal.” Ms. Estes waved her right hand back and forth in the breeze from the air vent. “That’s one important motion. Then you heard that song she did with that pale gentleman? ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself.’”
“I quite like that one,” Bob chimed in.
“I bet you do,” Ms. Estes said. I didn’t understand the exchange.
“Now you’ve got Beyonce using the music from a song, ‘When the Levee Breaks,’ that Led Zeppelin stole—”
“Covered. Borrowed. Recreated.” Bob shouted out less harmful synonyms for “stole” from the back seat.
Ms. Estes rolled her eyes, but she smiled kindly back at him. She didn’t dislike him. That was clear, but she didn’t seem as taken by him, or maybe as deferential to him as he was used to. He seemed pleasantly unsettled by her.
“Took,” she reiterated, “from a woman who lived right over here in Memphis about a hundred years ago. Just think on that. Oh, and watch this curve up here. The locals take it fast from the other direction. They’ll slide into your lane.” I slowed down and approached the curve with more caution. “Beyonce uses a white man to steal a song back from some white men who stole it from a black woman who took a thing that happened to real people right nearby here and made it legendary.” She paused and regarded me again. “Were you supposed to be here?”
“No, my boyfriend was supposed to drive, but he’s sick.”
“Hmm. Then fate has brought us together. That’s nice. That’s good.” She was now moving her left hand in the air stream of the over vent. Both hands twisting and turning. “Make real things myth. Move myth things back into reality.”
Until now, trees had lined the sunken road, but suddenly, we came over a ridge and the fields we had been too low to see now spread out before us. Short plants. White cotton.
Then, to my surprise, my throat wouldn’t open back up. Wouldn’t let me breath. I slammed on the brakes without even realizing I was doing it. I tried to take my hands off the steering wheel so that I could put the car in park, but they wouldn’t let go. I felt like I was falling, except I also knew I wasn’t even moving. I was having some kind of attack. I was losing my damn mind.
I had come to Nashville for college from Chicago. There were things in Nashville that you had to learn not to see or you’d go mad—the antebellum homes, the old stone walls built by hand by people enslaved on the plantations those homes presided over, the occasional Confederate battle flag. But they were rare enough or innocuous enough that you could learn to ignore them. And you don’t see this by Nashville.
Field after field after field of cotton.
That’s why we were headed out here. Sleepy John Estes’s family had been enslaved out here, had worked these very fields, and then sharecropped on them, and then…what? Money and suffering. All around. Money for some people. Suffering for others.
Ms. Estes leaned over and dropped the car into park.
“Just breathe,” she said, as gentle as can be. “You’re fine. Look.” She leaned back so I could see past her. “No one lives out here anymore. Machines are going to pick it. It can’t hurt you.” I started to cry. Crying meant I could breathe again. Bob leaned forward and handed me a bottle of water. I’ve never felt more grateful to two people than the two of them sitting with me while I was overcome and then recovered.
After a few moments, the strange vertigo passed and I drove on.
“Up here,” Ms. Estes said. “Take a right.” We drove on another five, maybe ten, minutes until we came to a cemetery. “Go a little farther,” she said and, when we passed a stand of trees, there was another cemetery, a nicer one, gated off, in front of a church. “Turn left just past this graveyard.” We went by the big white church and then, up the lane, was a smaller, more humble church. It was surrounded either by a third cemetery or the first cemetery we saw had stretched around the gated cemetery, made its way through the tree line, and spilled around this church. “Back in the day, this was the black Baptist church and that fancy church was where the white Baptists went. Park here.” I parked halfway between the two churches, facing the tree line. We all got out of the car and began walking back towards those trees.
We came to a headstone. Sleepy John Estes.
Bob was delighted. He took a million pictures of the grave stone and of the grave yard. We went tromping through the trees and he laughed every time we came upon the grave of another Estes. Here’s another weird part. He knew almost all of those folks. This old white British guy had somehow learned the identity of everybody in this country cemetery and knew how each of them was related to Sleepy John Estes. Who were his siblings, who were his parents’ siblings, and the generations above them. He knew all the cousins and step-cousins and who grew up in which household.
As I stood there watching him cavorting through the headstones, taking pictures, making notes, shouting out facts about the names he recognized when he knew them, I realized, he either damn well knew who Ms. Estes was and how she was related to Sleepy John when he asked her that, which was rude, or, and the second I realized it, I thought it seemed right, he damn well knew she wasn’t an Estes at all and was letting her know he knew. I turned back toward her. At first, she didn’t notice me. She just stood there, he face turned to the sun, a contented smile teasing her mouth, her gray hair sparkling in the light. When she sensed I was looking at her, she looked back at me and winked again.
What the hell is going on here?
“You good, Bob?” she asked after he seemed finally to be headed back toward us.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “Just fantastic.”
“Well, wait until you see downtown Durhamville.”
We got back in the car and went up the road another mile or two. We came to a small group of abandoned buildings just south of a crossroad. On the west side of the road were three empty storefronts, dilapidated, hollow, overgrown. I parked in front of a squat log building on the east side of the road. Maybe it had been a post office? It, too, was abandoned.
Is it a shame Durhamville is a ghost town? I can’t decide. It’s good news for the people who were trapped here in life that their descendants don’t have to live here anymore, but it bothered me for reasons I didn’t quite understand that no one had bothered to pull the old buildings down.
The three of us stood in front of the car, surveying the uninhabited ex-town.
“Now, let me show you something,” she said. She plucked Bob’s phone out of his hand and the car keys out of my hand and messed around hooking the phone into the car’s stereo system. An acoustic guitar. Then a weird kind of growling. Then a man with a scratchy voice, singing, “Going back to Brownsville, take that right hand road.” Ms. Estes sat in the driver’s seat, her leg propped up in the door frame, her foot tapping in time with the music.
Bob and I stood near here.
“I’ve always loved this song,” Bob said. Ms. Estes raised an eyebrow and I waited for her to say something, but she let it pass. “We think that the voice is the most essential part of a song, the words the thing that touches a listener. But John can’t even finish words. Brownsville gets lopped off into ‘Browns.’ He mumbles most of the verses. I think it’s because he thinks the most important part is the melody on the guitar. The words are just decorations to draw your attention to what the guitar is doing. It doesn’t matter if they’re complete or if they’re only groans or merely grunts. The guitar’s the thing.” He paused, lost in some thought. “I think we got that. We learned that lesson.”
“Well, surely, you wanted people to understand what you were saying, though,” Ms. Estes said.
“Yes, but I didn’t fight with the guitar about it.”
“All right then,” she laughed. When she smiled, she looked both incredibly young and impossibly old. “I promised you a truth.” We stepped back and she got out of the car, Sleepy John Estes still singing “take that right hand road” from the car. Ms. Estes fiddled with her necklace. I saw now that what I thought was a gold cross was actually a hammer, a tiny golden sledgehammer. She walked to the intersection and she stood facing north. She extended her right arm out, gracefully, like a dancer, right palm up, fingers extended. “To get back to Brownsville from Sleepy John Estes’s ancestral village, you take the right hand road.”
I don’t know if I can adequately explain how I felt in that moment. It was a simple statement of fact. It was, indeed, a truth. To get from Durhamville to Brownsville, you take that right hand road. But, when I heard it, when I saw it, I felt like, for a brief moment, I saw another America draped over the normal one, stitched to it in some places, billowing away from it in other places. Some other America, a shadow, no, not a shadow, a lighter place, a dream America, where, if you could get to it, you could escape this real place, full of dead and forgotten towns and dead and forgotten people. In the dream America, things lingered, people remained remembered.
What Sleepy John Estes had done, somehow,—and if you’re familiar with any of the rest of his music, you know he did this all the time—was to take this real, ordinary thing, this stretch of road in this case, and move it into that legendary America. It didn’t matter if real Durhamville dried up and blew away. This road, this right hand road, was safe in that other place.
“You can’t let them get too far apart,” Ms. Estes whispered to me. “But it’s not good when they’re too close together. They have to dance with each other. That’s why music is so important.”
It didn’t dawn on me to be confused by how Ms. Estes knew what I was thinking. The revelation was so profound that, of course, she must have known it. I stood there, mouth agape, looking, somehow both at this ordinary spot and this myth. How long did I stand there? I can’t say. Only that, when Bob finally rested his hand on my shoulder and said it was time to go, the song had stopped playing.
When I turned toward him, he was smiling, but tears were pouring down his face.
“Thank you,” he said. “I had always wondered if I would ever get to meet her. I thought perhaps I had fucked things up so much I never would. But I think she came to meet you. Look.” He pointed at my collar. “She left you a present.” I reached up. I was wearing her tiny gold sledge hammer necklace.
“Ms. Estes?” I looked around, but she was gone. I looked back at Bob. “Who was that, really?”
“That, my dear,” he smiled in a way that made me feel like he would have been something else in his younger days, possibly, still was, “was Miss Polly Ann.”
“Polly drove steel like a man.” He waited for it to register with me. “No?”
“No idea.” I said.
“Well, you will, I imagine. I must say, I’m jealous of that. I doubt I’ll see her again.”
The moon was a small hairline fracture in the night sky. The bare trees scratched at the cold wind. One lone light from the boat ramp cut through the dark. The oars slicing through the ink-black Mississippi made the only noise.
“Tell the Sheriff he’s going to want to check the trees out on Jug Island in the morning. Something’s tangled up at the north end.” That’s what had come squawking across on the police scanner.
The Mississippi had been high that fall. Not high enough to top the levee, but high enough to deposit that familiar fear in people’s throats. The current now pulled hard, but Melody had been training for years to be strong enough to fight the river, trusting that the time would come. Tree limbs and dead deer floated past her. Other things, darker shapes, never resolved themselves, but moved on downstream just out of her field of vision.
Jug Island wasn’t large under the best of circumstances. When the river was high, it was maybe thirty yards long, ten yards across. The sandy south end, where generations of teens had camped and fished and swam and drank and fucked, was completely submerged. She came ashore somewhere in the middle.
The branches of the bushes she had to push her way through stung as they slapped at her. Every few feet, a thorn or a sharp stick would catch her jacket and she had to pull herself free, half walking, half wrestling.
She wanted off Jug Island as quickly as possible, but she dreaded arriving at the north end, dreaded seeing what was waiting there. The sliver moon hid behind a black cloud and Melody stumbled in the blackness. Hands first, into the mud. The swollen river quick to fill the holes her hands had made.
“Okay, this is it,” she said to herself and then, immediately, she regretted making any sound. She held still. The night noises continued. No one had notice her. She tensed and listened for any sounds coming from shore. Nothing.
The cloud moved and Melody’s eyes adjusted. There was something in the bushes. Someone. A girl in a long, black nightgown, her brown hair dyed pitch black to match. Melody remembered the mess they’d made in the bathroom to get that hair color. Jennifer Parker. Finally, after all these years.
Dansburg was a nothing town, had been less than nothing twenty years ago when Jennifer Parker went missing. No stoplight. No high school. No industry. There had been thirty-six people in their graduating class. That’s thirty-six high school seniors in the whole county, not counting Jennifer.
Dansburg had three claims to fame: the meth the Gale family made was pretty good, the guys working the line at John Deere third shift swore by it anyway; once every ten years or so, there would be a catastrophic five-hundred year flood on the Mississippi and the whole damn town, except for the people rich enough to live up on the bluff, would be under water and the Corps would always have some dumb answer for how the town could get a five-hundred year flood every ten years, “just a bad streak;” and Kevin McDonald, now the huge recording artist/record producer/fashion impresario KMD, grew up three houses down from Melody, four blocks over from Jennifer.
People in town scorned him for not admitting he was from Dansburg. In interviews, he always said he was from the Quad Cities. And people in town blamed him for Jennifer’s death. There was, of course, the song. His song. His one mention of the town that wanted to claim and condemn him. Seven weeks at number one. “The Dansburg Girl.” NPR called it “A murder ballad with a heart. A genius retooling and indictment of one of the darker sides of popular music.” Melody never believed it was an artistic reaction to murder ballads. She thought it was his confession. “Pushed her down in the mud to drown.”
But you can’t put anything in the Mississippi and expect the river won’t vomit it back up eventually.
Still, when faced with a twenty-year-old corpse that shows no sign of rot, you’re faced with certain truths. Jennifer had not been in the river this whole time. Melody was struck with uncertainty about who had murdered Jennifer, but she felt sure in her bones that the only way what she was seeing was possible was if someone had kept her in a freezer chest all these years, tucked away between the yearly deer and the five-for-twenty beef specials.
Kevin McDonald’s family didn’t have a deep freezer.
Later, as the dawn clawed its way across the dark sky, Melody took two shots of whiskey to steady her nerves and then dialed the last number she had for Kevin McDonald. To her shock, he answered. He sounded groggy, half asleep.
“Kev,” she said. She stopped. She had no idea what she wanted to say to him.
“Melody?” He asked, his voice scratchy and hesitant.
“Jennifer’s dead,” she said and then she coughed and shook her head. “No, I mean, they’re going to find her body this morning. Of course she’s dead.” Melody started to cry. She hadn’t realized how much she had held out some slim slice of hope that Jennifer was still alive, that she’d run off with a band or escaped to her cousin in St. Louis, that she’d changed her name and might be out there, somewhere, living some ordinary life and that, some day, Melody might turn down an aisle at a Walmart or come out of a McDonald’s or sit down in a Starbucks and there she’d be, her old best friend, fat and happy and alive. “Who did it?”
“You think I know?” Kevin asked. His voice was resigned, flat. Finally, after all this time, someone had asked him the right question about Jennifer, about that song.
“Yes,” Melody said.
“You know there’s no justice in Dansburg, right?” He asked. “I will tell you the truth, but you have to promise me first that you know how it is.”
Of course she did. The Gale kids sped around town with trunks full of meth. None of them went to jail. The Mexican family that lived down by the liquor store was run out of town five years ago for not being “real Americans.” Dansburg was a corpse of a town. The only thing that still animated it was spite and a kind of corruption you couldn’t get away with in places where people still gave a shit.
“It was Deputy Miller.” He said. “My dad and I both saw it. She was doing something at church with the kids. I don’t remember what, or if I ever knew. But my dad and I were out shooting hoops and she was across the street at the church, making sure everyone was gone and that things were locked up. Deputy Miller came by and he grabbed her and she pulled away. She fell. She hit her head. He put her in the back of his car and told us he was taking her to the hospital. Obviously, that wasn’t true.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
Melody stifled the urge to snidely call him “college boy.”
“We had to live here,” he tried to explain again.
“No, you didn’t,” Melody said. “You left as soon as you could.”
Melody still hated him. Twenty years. Wouldn’t she have liked to leave at some point along in there? But, if she had, who would have watched and waited for Jennifer’s return? She felt robbed of that time. He was right, though. That’s what really burned. Who could he have told? Who would have believed him?
But she liked the song now—“The miller was the thief/who stole poor Jenny/shook like a leaf”—could hear it for what it was, an indictment, not a confession.
But Deputy Miller was Sheriff Miller now and the body hung up in the bushes on Jug Island barely made the gossip at the grocery store, let alone the nightly news. No one but Melody, and, by extension, Kevin, knew it was Jennifer’s body. Melody waited for Jennifer’s parents to call her with the news. They never did. The body sat in the morgue as a Jane Doe, though Melody knew, in her bones, that anyone who saw her, who had known her when she was alive, would have recognized her.
So, what do you do for your old, dead, best friend when the world is ready to forget about her? When justice can’t be done because the Sheriff is the bad guy?
Melody’s heart softened a tiny bit toward Kevin. She went up in her attic and found her old guitar. She hadn’t touched it since Kevin left town, but somehow the strings were still okay. She tuned and strummed. Then she sat down in front of the camera on her computer and sang “The Dansburg Girl.” She uploaded it to YouTube.
The next day, she went and got herself new strings and a better microphone. She sang the song again and uploaded it again to YouTube.
Two and a half months later, Kevin called her and asked her to stop, that it was upsetting his record company.
“Sue me,” she said. “You already got the good life, though, so I don’t know what more you think you can get.”
He didn’t call again.
Four months of recording that song, uploading it to YouTube, each version slightly different than the last, some slower, some faster, some as sad ballad, some as loud protest. Jennifer had been here. Now she was not. How ordinary. How terrible. Every night, as they say, three chords and the truth.
Then, a new comment on one of her videos. “The Pollys have heard your cries and they will answer.”
It wasn’t even the weirdest thing that someone had written beneath her performances, but she shivered when she read it.
That promised answer was swift and dramatic. That weekend, a thousand women arrived in Dansburg, some three to five in a car. The town was too small to hold all of the cars, but the women parked in every parking spot, along every street, down all of the country lanes that led to town. They dressed all in white, except for their work boots, which were brown or black or tan or pink, depending. Some carried shovels.
Some carried sledgehammers.
They gathered in front of the church, the last place Jennifer had been seen and everyone in town came out to see them, two women in white for every person in Dansburg. Melody hung back, at the edge of the crowd.
She had brought them here.
The women began to walk east out of town, toward the cemetery. At first, they were silent. The sound was the soft shuffling of their feet on the asphalt. And then they began to sing Kevin’s…no, Jennifer’s song. There were so many women that, from where Melody stood, the song sounded like a round—the women already farther east way ahead of where the women still at the church were.
They poured into the cemetery, filled it with no room for anyone else, and the townspeople stood outside the iron gate, watching as the shovels shook the ground. That unmarked grave for that unclaimed girl, that poor Jane Doe found tangled in the bushes, split open under the efforts of the women. Still, they sang.
They were so loud that the sirens on the cop cars were impossible to hear until they were right at the cemetery. Sheriff Miller burst from his seat. Melody could see he was shouting to the deputies, but, in the whole county, there were six officers of the law. Six men against a thousand women.
Melody laughed. Where, even, could he put them if he did arrest them? How would he arrest them? Were there a thousand handcuffs in the Quad Cities, let alone here? The men struggled to break into the crowd, to thrust their way into the cemetery, but the grave was open.
The smell. Oh, god, the smell. Everyone recoiled. But the women redoubled their singing. And then, up over their heads, they held Jennifer. The women poured back out of the cemetery, rushed down the lane toward the river. They formed a long line, two across, and they passed her between them, this poor long-dead girl.
Everyone in town saw that body.
A woman from the white-dressed group finally spoke as the body made its way toward the levee.
“Who will speak for this girl? Who will name her?”
Melody heard a gasping, choking cry. Jennifer’s mother. She waited, but the old woman could not do it.
Okay, then, this one last thing.
“That’s my best friend, Jennifer,” Melody said. “I would recognize her anywhere.”
“And do you know what happened to her?” The woman asked.
Here was the moment. Finally. No oblique song lyrics. No hidden conjecture. Just the truth. There was a girl who was deeply loved and this man, this man, Melody began to cry, took her from us. She couldn’t say it out loud. Her voice betrayed her. She pointed.
She pointed at the Sheriff.
“Did you do this?” The woman asked him. He nodded, very slowly, almost imperceptibly, and Melody saw that he was frightened, but also relieved. Finally, the truth is out.
They set Jennifer’s body gently on the levee and then the women, these Pollys, all one thousand of them, swarmed the Sheriff. They kicked him and hit him and tore him limb from limb. Still, still they sang.
They sang and their voices carried over his screams. They sang and their voices carried over the cries of the crowd. They sang and their voices carried over the gut-wracking sobs of Jennifer’s family. They sang. They sang. Oh, they sang.
When they were done, there was nothing left of him, except his blood soaked into the white clothing of the Pollys who had been close enough to kill him.
The blood-stained Pollys climbed up on the levee and stripped themselves naked. They tossed their bloody clothes into the cold, brown water. When they came down the levee, the other women handed them new clothes.
And then, as quickly as they had materialized, they vanished back into their cars and then out of town.
Only then did Melody notice that they had taken Jennifer with them. Rescued her from oblivion in a town determined to forget her. They would remember Jennifer.
Why, Melody wondered, had they not taken her, too?
You want the truth. Just tell you the truth. Connect point a to point b. Cause to outcome.
But the truth cuts a jagged line. You can’t follow it like a well-marked trail. You have to get down in the mud, at eye-level with the sticks and twigs and stones and bones broken in its wake. You have to guess, sometimes, which way the truth went.
All the while, you have to keep in mind that History is a grand conspiracy to keep the truth hidden. To make sure that you may never know what really happened, may never be sure you know what’s really going on.
Delia’s dead. Oomie’s dead. The Girl from Knoxville. The Girl from Wexford. Delilah. Jenny. Mary. Poor Rose Connolly. Poor Ellen Smith. Even Laura Foster. And the nameless ones. All dead. All art.
Here’s how it goes. It sounds like a fairytale, but it isn’t. Women in love. So in love. Women killed—drown, stabbed, pushed out of the way, off cliffs, even. Men singing, singing, singing. “I can’t forget the day I shot that bad bitch down.”
Before she was just a “bad bitch,” she was Little Sadie.
My girl, my girl. Don’t lie to me. Tell me, where did you sleep last night? When King Cudi sings it, do you hear it as a remake of a Nirvana song? Do you know it goes back to Ledbelly? Earlier than that? How long has that girl been in the pines?
There’s a woman in the pines now. That I can promise you. Tall, slender, with the wide shoulders that come from old-fashioned farm work. Her scuffed, brown boots lace way up. Her dress is simple, but sturdy. She carries a nine-pound hammer. And she will find that girl in the pines. Dead or alive. Real or not-real. Fiction or fact.
She will not be forgotten.
Not the girl in the song. Not the woman with the hammer.
That woman, swinging thirty pounds from her hips on down, she had a good man. She knows what it’s like to lose someone and then hear your tragedy in song, like there’s nothing going wrong.
There’s a break in the trees. A break in the clouds. A silver streak of moonlight shines down into the pines. For a moment, you see her, clear as day—the simple braid at the back of her head, the high cheekbones, her eyes so brown they look black, the hammer. His hammer. Her hammer now.
A cloud crosses the moon. You glance away. She’s gone.
In the distance, you hear chanting.
“Polly drove steel like a man.”
“No, no. Ain’t no man drives steel like John Henry can.”
“Polly drove steel like her man. Yes. Lord.”
“Polly drove steel like her man.”
That’s the direction the truth seems to lead, toward that chanting, deeper into the pines. That’s the way you head.
If I hadn’t chosen to half-ass it in the Halloween department this year, we would already be having stories, but no! You have to wait until tomorrow night.
But you can read old spooky things at the Oooo. Spooky! hashtag. And then tomorrow we will start our journey through a strange cult and old-timey music together. Did I mention this year has a soundtrack? This year has a soundtrack.
I forgot to say, we do have Halloween plans! Not a lot because I’ve been busy moping around and having a strange summer and failing to sell this novel. But yes, something will be going on at the end of the month, in the penumbra of Halloween. We’ll have a short series of linked short stories (with music! which I’m really excited about) and one non-linked interlude long short story about a god, a preacher, and some baby-punching bikers.
Good times. I forget when it’s scheduled to start. The 25th or the 26th. But it is happening and some of them are good.
When I was ten, I broke my back. There was this big rusty metal dome out on the playground. We weren’t supposed to climb on it, but we all did. No teacher stopped us. I fell from the top. It knocked the wind out of me, but I didn’t even know I was hurt until I tried to get up and couldn’t. Then I was scared.
My grandpa heard it on the scanner when they called it in. Beat the ambulance to the school. And I remember seeing him lumbering across the playground, his big hunting knife in one hand, a squirrel in the other.
“Louise!” He shouted. “God damn it. Don’t you move.”
No problem, Grandpa. No problem.
Everyone in town hated him. Which was fine with him. He hated them right back. His whole life people called him “Spooky Jones” behind his back. Every once in a while, they’d slip up and call him that to his face.
Like, right at that moment, when my teacher, Mrs. Burch, was rushing from the blacktop across the grass, trying to intercept him before he got to me with that knife. And that squirrel.
“Spooky! No!” she shouted. I remember, too, that she was wearing these kitten heels with a really sharp point, so she sank a little into the ground every time she took a step. In a way, it was like watching two horrors—my grandpa, some ancient giant, his hands out in front of him like Frankenstein’s monster, taking each step almost in slow motion, and Mrs. Burch and her herky-jerky steps, arms bent like bat-wings, steady as the rest of her shook. “Don’t kill her, please!”
This did seem to get my grandpa’s attention. He stopped for a second, but then shrugged, as if it was too much effort to explain. By now, there were sirens and the daytime cop, Bill Evans, and a handful of volunteer firemen had arrived. They, too, were now racing toward me. My grandpa stood over me, slit that squirrel’s throat, and yelled out, “Make her lucky, motherfucker.”
I know it sounds crude, but it felt like a prayer. Squirrel blood rained down on me.
I was lucky, too. So very, very lucky. I cracked six vertebrae and two ribs, but just bruised my spinal cord. I lost most of the feeling in my back, but I wasn’t paralyzed. I did have to wear this big cast that wrapped around me like a plaster corset. My mom wanted to take me into the city to the hospital, to see if there was something more that could be done for me. But there was no way my family could have afforded that.
As it was, my mom had to take another job at the gas station just to pay my medical bills. Everyone said we should have sued the school, but we didn’t have the money for a lawyer and, looking back, I doubt the school system could have afforded my medical bills either.
This meant I spent a lot more time with my grandpa. Someone had to watch me. First thing in the morning, my dad would carry me out to the car, drive so slowly and gently, like he was afraid I might break, and lift me out and put my on his dad’s couch. Grandpa would be cooking breakfast.
“Want some?” He’d ask, while my dad was back out at the car getting my books. And that might be all he’d say to me until lunch time. Sometimes he’d go out. He drove an old rusted-out pick-up that didn’t go into reverse anymore and that farted big black clouds of oil-tinged smoke when he came to the four-way stop. When it started up, it sounded like the end of the world. I could hear that truck for a good five minutes after he drove away and get that much warning when he was on his way back. When he got back, he’d always ask me, “Been snooping around?” But early on, I couldn’t get off the couch without help. During those afternoons when he’d leave, I was always afraid that I’d have to go to the bathroom. And how would I get up?
I hadn’t snooped.
Sometimes, he’d bring home groceries, a can of Coke for me, a six-pack of beer for him, a whole raw chicken for the one-eyed dog that sometimes roamed his back yard. That dog. He didn’t listen and he didn’t obey. No use naming him, he wouldn’t come when you called. He was a mess of scars and he was missing not just an eye, but part of an ear. He was the size of a Rottweiler and broad like that, but he was white, with black spots. I always wondered what kind of monster had taken his eye and his ear. It was hard to imagine who could have bested him. His tail had a weird bend to it—when he wagged it, it only went about half-way. And the dog always, always smelled like beer, like he must have sat in a bar when he wasn’t with my grandpa, though I never saw him around town.
My grandpa never smiled. Never had a kind word for anyone, though he wasn’t always mean. He just wanted the world to leave him alone and resented when it didn’t. He never hugged me, never played with me, and never, that I could remember, even touched me before I needed help getting off his couch to go to the bathroom. He didn’t let me die while I was under his watch. He fed me, gave me something to drink when I wanted it, and make sure I didn’t pee myself. That was the extent to which he could do for others.
My mom told my dad that she couldn’t believe my grandpa had managed to father seven sons.
“Just obligation,” My dad said. “He’s his father’s seventh son and his father was his father’s seventh son and on back, for generations. He did what he had to do to make sure the tradition was carried on.”
“Is Uncle Matt supposed to have seven sons, too?” I asked. My dad didn’t answer me. My dad had a hard time with his family, sometimes.
Early on, when I was still pretty unsteady on my feet, Grandpa had gone out in the back yard with the chicken. I heard a noise like someone was trying to play an accordion that hadn’t been used in years. Grabbing various pieces of furniture to steady myself as I walked, I made my way to the back door. My grandpa sat on the stoop, the broken-up raw chicken spread out on a paper grocery bag on the porch next to him. He threw a wing into the air and that old boulder of a dog jumped up to snatch it right out of the sky. That strange noise? My grandpa was laughing.
One afternoon, a month or so before I went back to school, Grandpa got a call from Bill Evans, the daytime cop, that Uncle Matt had been arrested.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to get this straightened out,” he said. He was pulling some things—his knife, a rusty pistol, and, weirdly enough, his wallet—out of his pockets and putting them in one kitchen drawer. Out of the adjacent drawer, he pulled a rabbit’s foot, a red flannel bag about the size of a pouch of chewing tobacco, and a small, thick, gnarled root. He put those things in his pockets. He patted himself down, as if to make sure he had not forgotten any weapon he might be carrying on him, and then he headed out the back door. I waddled after him.
His truck smelled like the dog. The vinyl seats burned the back of my legs. I couldn’t get the seatbelt to latch and my grandpa struggled with it a while. “Fuck it.” He finally said.
The jail was the newest thing in our town, built just a couple of years before. It had twenty cells and a set of double doors that had to be opened remotely by a guard behind a bullet-proof window. We weren’t that dangerous—the people who lived there. Sure, people got beaten up and accidents that didn’t really seem like accidents happened. But, for the most part, our problems were not that bad and the people who had those problems, in turn, were also not that bad. The jail wasn’t really for us. The county made a lot of money handing the overflow from the city. Some of those guys really were dangerous.
That time my uncle got arrested, he was one of three prisoners in the whole place. When we talked to him, they let us have the whole visitation room. Not counting the guard, the father of a girl in my class, we were the only people in there.
At the time, I adored my Uncle Matt. He wore his hair long and shaggy, even though everyone at school called him a commie. He also liked to read and he gave me books he thought I would enjoy. When I finished them, he wanted to talk to me about them, wanted to hear what I thought of them.
Looking back, it’s obvious that he must have been miserable in that town, lonely and bored, too smart for his own good. It’s easy enough now to see how tempting anything that seemed interesting, that staved off the boredom must have been.
But then, sitting in that room, across that table from him, watching him run his fingers over the gouges someone had already carved in the tabletop, I was upset and afraid for him. He looked like hell. His eyes were sunk into his head and there were dark circles under them. The jumpsuit they had him in was too big for him and it made him look thinner than he was, so thin you’d think he might break.
My grandpa sat next to me, his hands folded in front of him, his head down. This upset me even more. Could he not see that something was terribly wrong with Uncle Matt? What kind of man doesn’t hug his son when that son is in such obvious distress?
They were quiet a long time, as if they were trying to remember whose turn it was to speak first. Finally, my Uncle Matt broke the silence.
“You have to get me out,” he said.
“I should leave you here!” My grandpa growled before Matt was even finished.
“Okay, okay,” Matt said. “Leave me here. That’s a good idea.” He meant it, which I found confusing. “The longest they’ll hold me is a week. Then I can come by your house and get the bail money.”
I didn’t get what he was saying. Why would he need the bail money once he was out of jail? But I got to grow up with Matt pulling this kind of shit on my parents, too. I came to recognize it. He was always scheming. Once he decided that you were going to give him money for something, he considered that money his. Once it was his money in his mind, he then felt no qualms about telling you what to do with it.
“I don’t have the money to bail you out,” my grandpa said.
“Well, you’ve got to get it, Dad,” Matt said. “I owe some bad—”
“You always owe some bad people!”
“I know. But these guys are really bad.”
“How much do you owe them?”
Now, this was the other thing I came to learn about Matt. He thought everyone in the family’s wallets should be open to him, but it seemed to offend him when you asked questions about his financial situation. He bristled at the question. But he answered it.
At the time, this seemed like the largest real number I’d ever heard of. I couldn’t imagine anyone in town had that much money, let alone in my family.
Then Matt leaned over, like he was making some great and wonderful deal with Grandpa, letting him in on some secret that would benefit the two of them. Maybe Matt should have been a used-car salesman.
“They’ll take the dog.”
“What?” I blurted out. Grandpa scowled at me, but he nodded at Matt, because I’d asked the question he had as well.
“If they get that dog, they’ll wipe my slate clean. I won’t owe them nothing.”
“My dog,” Grandpa said.
“They’re going to kill me, Dad.”
“Then help me, for God’s sake. I’ll get you another dog. What’s the fucking big deal?”
“It’s my dog. How’s taking my dog clean your slate? How’s that a deal you can even trust?”
“That’s what they said.” Matt shifted in his seat. He looked at me and winked, like this was just some bullshit he had to go through before he inevitably got his way. “That’s the deal. They get the dog and I’m free and clear.”
Grandpa sat defeated next to me, his shoulders slumped, his chin in his chest, his hands hanging limply by his side. Matt tried hard to give the bad news the time it needed to sink in but he was giddy, already anticipating how Grandpa would help him off the hook.
“No,” Grandpa said, so quietly both Matt and I looked at each other to check if we’d heard correctly. “No. You got yourself into this mess. You get yourself out.”
“Louise!” Matt cried out. He wanted me to come take his side. I was frozen between them. I said nothing. When Matt realized Grandpa wasn’t going to change his mind, he shot up out of the chair and began to pace furiously back and forth.
“I’ll get you out of here,” Grandpa said.
“I don’t want out of here,” Matt snapped. “I want the god damn money or the dog.”
“No,” Grandpa said, again, this time louder.
“Fuck you,” Matt said, rushing at my grandfather. I don’t know if he would have actually hit the old man, but the guard stepped in before I could find out.
The guard took Matt back to his cell and my grandpa sat in the chair as still as the dead. His breathing sounded pained.
Finally, he reached in his back pocket and pulled out a white handkerchief. He shifted in his seat and wrestled in his front pocket. I expected he was getting something strange, but he came back with two old mercury dimes. He spread the handkerchief out in front of him on the table. Then, he tied a knot in the two corners closest to me. In the folds of each knot, he slid a dime.
He whispered something to it. I couldn’t make out anything but “in the whole round world, there is only one” and then that handkerchief stood up. The corners where the knots were stretched out toward me like rudimentary hands and the other two corners folded just enough to make the thing some feet. It took a few steps toward me, turned and took a few steps toward the way Matt had gone. It bent forward, and, with a great leap, it flipped over backward and landed.
“Can I touch it?” I asked, but I wasn’t paying any attention to the answer. I reached toward it and it slid, deftly, out of my way. It strutted around the table and, when I put my hands flat on the table top, the handkerchief came over and reached down with its knotted hand and touched my finger.
It felt ordinary. Like cotton against my skin. I looked for the trick, but I could find no wires, no mechanism that made the thing move like that. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. But just as I felt I was making a new friend, Grandpa snatched the handkerchief back. I probably slumped down in disappointment as he untied the hands. I know I didn’t realize until later why he was pressing the handkerchief to his face before we got up and left.
In the truck, I asked him, “How did you do that?”
“Can I do that?”
“It’d make my life easier if you could,” he said. “But no. I never heard of anyone in our family being able but the seventh sons.”
“I keep waiting for him to show signs.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Drugs. And he’s an asshole.”
When I got home that evening, I related everything that happened with all of the enthusiasm of a kid who knows something important the adults don’t.
“Your Uncle Matt is not on drugs,” my mom said, but I could hear in her voice that it was a lie. “He just has some problems. He’s sick and he needs our help.”
Later, as I laid awake in bed, straining to hear what my parents were talking about in the other room, I heard my dad say, “Well, it is just a dog. What kind of man wouldn’t do whatever it takes to help his own son?”
My mom answered, “It’s always just something.”
The next day, my grandpa never left the house. He didn’t come out of his room until nearly lunch. He looked rough, like he’d been drinking all night. When he put my peanut butter and jelly sandwich in front of me, he said, “Sometimes I pray that one of those girls I ran around on your grandma with got knocked up. That there’s another son out there, older than Matt, I don’t know about. That maybe your dad is my seventh.”
My dad was furious that he said that to me. I liked that he talked to me like I was an adult, though. And what could my dad do? The medical bills being what they were, he and Mom had to work. Someone had to look after me. Who else could do it? Uncle Matt?
The next day, when Grandpa left, he said, as usual, “Don’t be snooping around,” and this time, I took it as an acknowledgement that there was something to find if I did look. For the first time in my life, I went into his bedroom. It wasn’t big. The double bed that sat on the far wall took up so much space that I had to turn sideways to get between it and the Walmart pressed-board bookshelves that sagged into broad grins under the weight of all his books. Next to the bed, he had a record player and a few, very few records—Willie Dixon and Johnny Rivers are the ones I remember.
On the other side, there was a huge old chest of drawers, but the bed was so close to them, I couldn’t get the bottom drawers open very far. Only enough to see that they were full of clothes. In the top drawers, though, I found a couple of things that seemed important. One was a picture of my grandfather as a young man, not much older than me, maybe early high school, with his six older brothers—at least that’s what it said on the back. I never met any of them.
Uncle Matt told me once that the Joneses who could leave this place did and never looked back.
“I imagine your folks and you will be gone before long, too,” he said, but it took them a long time to get the money. My accident set them back, the town took a downturn, and then they spent a while being the ones Matt hit up or stole from. But, yeah, eventually, we left, too.
Anyway, the photo. All of them were smiling except my grandpa. He had a huge black eye and he was holding his arm like it hurt. He glared out of the picture.
Maybe if I saw that picture now, I’d understand something different about it. Maybe there was some indication that his brothers were concerned for him. But I remember being so pissed at them. Could they not see that something bad had happened to him? Was there nobody to look out for him? He seemed so alone.
The other thing I found was a small black book. I don’t know where I got the idea that it ought to hold all of the names of Grandpa’s girlfriends, but that was the kind of book it was. The leather binding was cracked and the spine was broken. A piece of butcher string kept the whole thing together. I opened it up and I didn’t recognize the handwriting. My only guess is that it must have been my great-grandfather’s based on the content.
It was full of observations of the weather and about which moons marked the best times for planting, Bible verses with notes on their uses next to them—“Ezekiel 16:6 will stop any bleeding”—and names of relatives in my family going back eight generations with comments about them. Josiah Jones, my great-great grandfather, was marked “useless and unreliable.” Uncles, at various remove, sometimes shared the same description. It seemed to be a family trait, passed down for generations, even more common than all the seventh sons.
There were a lot of seventh sons. By my count, twelve. And the rest of the Jones men seemed to have tried their damnedest to have that many—a lot of families had five or six sons.
I remember flipping through those pages, and how itchy my cast was while I was reading, how it hurt pressing into my thighs when I leaned forward, how hot it was. And then I remember how an ice-cold chill ran through me as I realized I was the first girl in the family. Whoever had written in the little black book knew of none and I knew of none. I hadn’t met all my cousins, but the ones I had met were all boys. No one ever mentioned there being another Jones girl.
I was it.
Young girls daydream about being special, about how, one day, her real parents, who are kings and queens or astronauts or at least rich enough to buy her clothes anywhere other than Walmart, will show up and take her away, or about how she’s destined to save the world. I knew I was not special. Life had made that pretty clear. But I was one of a kind. That must be worth something.
That’s why I took the two dimes out of the tray on my grandpa’s dresser and that’s why I slid them into the knots I made in one of his clean handkerchiefs.
“Stand up,” I said to the linen heap now on the dresser. And it did. That handkerchief stood up just like the one at the jail had. I wasn’t even surprised. I was only disappointed that I hadn’t seen my grandpa doing other tricks, so I didn’t know anything else to try to do.
I sat back on the bed, watching the handkerchief dancing around, the knots bobbing around like hands thrown in the air. I felt satisfied, like much of the experience of breaking my back sucked but this might have made it all worth it.
Just then, I heard someone trying to open the front door. I knew it wasn’t my grandpa. I would have heard the truck and the only neighbor close enough to walk over never did because she was afraid of the dog. My parent were both at work and, anyway, they would have called to make sure Grandpa and I were home before coming clear out here. The bedroom was on the wrong side of the house to sneak a look out the window.
But I knew something was wrong. I don’t know why I did it, but I slipped the black book down the front of my cast. I stood up and felt satisfied it was wedged in there firmly. I was just about to leave the bedroom when I turned back and grabbed the photo of Grandpa and his brothers. I shoved it down my cast, too, and then straightened up my shirt. I darted into the bathroom just as Uncle Matt was coming in the front door.
“Louise?” He said it so quiet that I almost didn’t hear him. I came out of the bathroom and was about to ask “What?” when he hushed me and dragged me into the other bedroom. “Louise,” he whispered. “You get into the closet and hide under some blankets and you don’t come out until I tell you.” He was plainly terrified.
“Is Spooky here or not?” A voice from the front room asked. I recognized it immediately. Bill Evans, the daytime cop.
“No,” Uncle Matt said. “Yeah, I think it’s too emotional for him, giving up that dog. He probably went to grab a beer.”
Officer Evans hollered, sounding like he was in the kitchen now, “You sure he’s giving up the dog? I don’t need the old man putting a curse on me.”
“It’s cool,” Matt said, waving me into the closet. “He’s fine with it.”
“No he’s not!” I said to Matt, but quietly, because I was afraid. He was making me afraid. Matt glared at me, but walked out of the room.
I’ve thought about this next part a long, long time. I’ve wondered if there was ever some time when Grandpa kept the dog tied up in the back yard, maybe when Uncle Matt was a kid, and that’s why he thought the dog would just be there whenever he showed up? But my dad says, no, the dog always roamed free and mostly only showed up in the back yard when he heard Grandpa’s truck. That was his signal to make himself available for food.
All I can figure is that Matt, so desperate to get out of trouble with whatever mysterious people whose interests were being represented by the daytime cop, thought he could just manifest that dog with his magical powers, even though he’d never shown much propensity for magic.
But that dog wasn’t in the back yard.
They waited for, I don’t know, it felt like forever, and I waited, too, sitting in the back of the closet, hiding behind hip waders and ancient snowmobile suits, my legs sore from resting on hard-soled boots. But that dog never showed up.
I was about asleep when I heard Uncle Matt screaming. I jumped up and ran out of the closet. My legs were tingling and I had to use the hallway walls to support myself, but I rushed to the back of the house. Out the window, I could see that one, huge police officer kneeling over my uncle, beating him to a pulp. If Matt had tried to fight back, that strategy had failed him before I got to the porch. He was whimpering and crying, but making no efforts to even protect himself.
The words “Stop or I’ll call the police” were out of my mouth before I could catch them. Here was the police, the only one on duty. Bill Evans, a man I had known my whole life, looked up at me and I swear, he was sorry. Not sorry he was trying to kill my uncle, but sorry that I had witnessed it.
“Oh shit,” I said, next. I turned and ran back into the house. I locked the back door and then hurried to the front. I thought about trying to run for the neighbor’s, but I wasn’t very fast, especially not for long distances. I locked the front door. Then, I went into the bathroom, locked that door, and climbed into the tub. It was all I could think to do—this was an emergency so I treated it like a tornado.
I could hear him pounding on the back door. He was yelling my name, yelling how he wasn’t going to hurt me. That was the last thing he said before he broke the glass out of the door and let himself in. He shook the whole house as he stomped through it. He only pounded on the bathroom door three times.
Thud, thud, thud.
I was shaking, I was so afraid. And, I don’t know why, but I thought of my grandpa the day I broke my back, him lumbering across the schoolyard with that half-dead squirrel. “Make me lucky, motherfucker,” I said, being at a loss for all other words.
Officer Evans kicked the door. But it wasn’t solid. It was just one of those cheap old hollow pressboard doors. The handle and the hinges were the most firm thing about it. His foot went right through the plywood almost to his knee. He tried to pull it back out, but the door had broken in toward me. Pulling his foot back out caught his sock and shoe in the plywood splinters. He lost his balance and I heard a crack that made me feel nauseous. His foot was still on my side of the door, but it hanged in an unnatural way.
I wasn’t sure what to do next. I could hear Bill moaning. And then, thanks to whatever god answers a prayer that goes ‘make me lucky, motherfucker,’ I heard him call dispatch on his radio and ask for an ambulance.
I’m sure Grandpa heard it come across the scanner. He beat the paramedics and the volunteer fire department to the house.
“Louise?” He asked through the door. “You all right?”
“Uncle Matt,” I said.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Grandpa said. Then he said, “Bill, I’m going to make this simple for you. From here on out, whatever you do to my people is going to get done to yours.”
I heard Bill pull his gun. That’s not a sound you mistake for something else. I know he was ready to kill my grandpa.
“This what you want for your granddaughter when you have one?” Grandpa asked him. “To hear you gunned down in your own home? You got no mercy for my family, have some for yours.” The house was quiet enough that I could hear Bill holster his gun.
Of course, everyone has to test a curse. That’s one of the first things you come to learn about human nature once you can curse. So, after the ambulance dropped Bill off at the hospital and they came back for Matt, we were both herded into the back to accompany him, even though Grandpa told the paramedics that Matt could “fuck himself.”
After we were out of sight, the other two cops set Grandpa’s house on fire.
Before we even made it to the hospital, Bill’s house caught fire. You can probably guess which one the fire department saved and which one burned to the ground.
Later, Grandpa and I stood in front of the ruins of his house. I cried to see the place I’d spent so much time reduced to char and stink. Grandpa stood motionless, his hands hanging at his side. I reached for one, held it as tight as I could. He did not grasp back. I looked up at his face and I shuddered, without even meaning to. He looked so alone, like he might not have even known I was still by his side.
I wanted him to be angry, to burn the whole rest of the town down around us, just by wishing and making it so. Seeing him sad was unbearable. How much is a person supposed to just take, before he breaks? I didn’t know the whole story of my grandpa’s life, but I knew, as powerful, as spooky, as everyone thought he was, forces beyond his control had left him without a home. I wanted to make it better. To make it right.
“I did snoop today.” I reached down the front of my shirt, into my cast, and pulled out the book and the picture. He took the picture from me and gave it a little shake, like he was making sure it was real. He nodded, which I believe was the closest he could come to saying thanks.
He didn’t take the book, though. “You should probably keep that.”
My stomach sank. They’d even ruined magic for him.
There wasn’t really anything for us to do until my mom got off work, so Grandpa sat on the tailgate of his truck, drinking a beer, waiting to see if the dog might show.
I stood in the front yard, staring at the neighbor’s house, thinking about the daytime cop and my uncle and the couch and the day I saw my grandpa, sitting on his porch, laughing at that dog. The one time I ever saw him anything even remotely like happy. I was pissed again for him. Fuck this place. Fuck these people. Fuck a son that never stops taking so much from his father. Fuck a hard world that makes men into this. Fuck having so little and losing it so easily.
Just then I saw smoke on the neighbor lady’s roof. Not a lot, just a small tendril, like someone had thrown a cigarette onto a pile of leaves and the leaves hadn’t yet decided whether to burn or just smolder out.
And I stood there, squeezing that black book in my hand, uncertain myself.
Obviously, if you were reading Tiny Cat Pants last year, you know the backstory to this. It got rejected twice, which, in the grand scheme of things is nothing, but I realized it was too close to my heart for me to be able to continue to send it out. The rejections felt too much like someone was saying that what happened to me just wasn’t that interesting.
The City Under Your Skin
The drugs make you tired when you want to be alert and awake when you want to sleep. So you lie there in the dark of your room, staring up at the ceiling, waiting for time to pass. You run your finger absentmindedly along the bandage. You’re constantly touching the bandage, trying to make yourself used to it. It takes you some time to realize how much of your breast has lost feeling in it. You watch the shadows move across the wall. Your belly rises before you like a soft and giving mountain.
Maybe you should be careful with it—your big old body. If these long weeks have taught you anything it’s how surprisingly easy we are to fuck up. A few wayward cells here, a little dark spot on a mammogram there, and the next thing you know, you’re cut open and your mom is bathing you again and pretending she’s not crying while she brushes your hair.
But the night is long and you’re bored so you poke at your belly, watching it jiggle and then settle in place. You push into the bulk of that soft expanse. You flick your belly button. And that’s when you feel it. No, not another lump. Thank goodness. Not another lump.
But a divot. You press harder, right where you imagine your liver to be, and, yes, beneath your skin, just below a thin layer of fat, is some kind of structure. Or the absence of a structure. You feel it, this low hard spot running down the length of you in a line nearly as straight as the incision on your breast.
Your first thought is that this is just that— a trace of some old, forgotten surgery, maybe even something that happened when you were too young to remember, and here is the evidence of it, just now coming to the surface. A scar. But, then, you realize you have not come to the end of this divot. There’s a flat spot and then the ditch continues.
That’s the word that makes sense of what you’re feeling in there. You come back to the flat spot and press at it. Yes, you’re convinced you can feel the edges of a metal culvert. A tiny one, sure, but a culvert. Which means that the flat spot is a path or a road going over the ditch.
Now you’re certain that you’ve lost your mind, that the drugs are making you hallucinate. But what’s the harm? There are still four more hours until dawn and surely that road goes somewhere.
You follow the road up the great hill of your belly and, at the top, a city awaits you. The skyscrapers poke at your fingers, the streets and parking lots feel smooth, barely hidden under your flesh. You inch your finger along, trying to make out any familiar landmarks. Is this a place you know?
Your house is quiet. Your husband lies next to you. Your daughter snores slightly down the hall. Your mother is on the pull-out couch in the basement. All the real people are asleep. You get up and go to the den. In the morning, your husband finds you in the chair, a map pulled up on the computer in front of you.
He wakes your mother and the two of them come back into the room where you’re slumped over, drool running down your chin, dripping onto the keyboard. They try to wake you, but the drugs, the damn drugs. By now, they’re both crying, though they don’t tell you that until later. They manage, somehow, to get you down on the couch. You sleep until long after lunch.
“Visiting my grandmother?” Your mother looks over at the computer, which has gone to sleep. There’s nothing to gain by looking at it, except to be reminded that there was once something there worth looking at.
That blankness, you think, is like the scar on your boob.
It annoys you to be constantly thinking of your boob. You can’t think of anything else.
Over the next few days, you want only two things—to poop and to drive to the city your body has placed a map of in your belly, a city you now realize is one you’ve been to a million times, where your mother’s family is from. The drugs keep you from both and you’re not sure you could survive the trip to make the second thing happen if you somehow cannot make the first thing happen.
You must wait.
Later, you’re sitting in the doctor’s office as he tries to explain that they do not know what they pulled out of you.
“It’s a dysplasia,” the doctor says. “The tumor is not cancerous, but it did appear to be forming,” he pauses, searching for a way to put what he wants to say in language that sounds appropriate for a doctor, language that suggests he knows what he’s talking about, “small, calcified areas. Perhaps made of bone. We need to run further tests.”
“Will it come back? Is it dangerous?”
“I don’t know and I don’t think so.”
He’s sitting down on the stool in front of the exam table you’re sitting on. You can see right down onto the pieces of paper he keeps in your file. Even upside down and in his atrocious handwriting, you read, “Stones?”
This is the moment for you to tell him about the concrete in your belly, the asphalt under your flesh. A body that can make rocks can make windows and steel I-beams. Is it so hard to believe that a body that could make a daughter could make a city? He has seen the stones, how your body creates. Tell him. Just tell him.
But you don’t, because you don’t want to be cut open again. There’s a limit to how much fear a person can comprehend. You can’t face another round of tests, more poking and prodding, another surgery. You know you should be scared of the strangeness in your belly, but you already thought you were going to die once this summer, from one thing growing in you. You don’t have it in you to be properly afraid of something else. Not yet.
You have some vague sense that this is not rational behavior, that this numbness is putting you in danger. But it’s a quiet voice and you can barely hear it over the unrealness of what you’ve been through.
“So, you’re fine?” Your daughter sounds disappointed when you get home from the doctor. “All this for nothing?”
Your husband snaps at her. Your mother packs her things and returns home. You are still sore and tired, but now that there’s nothing to worry about, you can’t imagine anyone is worried about you.
You go to the city. You don’t tell your husband or your mother. Just like you don’t tell them what a hard time you’re having believing that everything is all right. They cut me open. You want to say to them. I thought I would die. You should share those thoughts with them. They want to understand, they want to support you. They’re not the bad guys.
There is no villain. That’s the rough part. You’ve been squeezed and pulled and disfigured, by people who were trying to help you. They ran a wire into the tumor—you were wide awake for it—and it felt so awful you almost don’t know how to describe it. It wasn’t pain. It was pain’s worse brother, a feeling so wrong your body can’t even resolve it into pain. And later they followed that wire down to the tumor, to cut it out. So, even the wire, the worst thing, served a good purpose. You want to be angry and insulted and traumatized by what happened to you.
But angry at whom? Insulted by what? That, you think, is the biggest mind-fuck. All this sorrow and no place to put it. People die. They get cut open and it is cancer and then they die. Why are you being such an ungrateful fucker? Why can’t you be a gracious winner?
Oh, lord, how long have you be sitting at this stop sign? Long enough that your face is wet with tears you don’t remember crying. Too long. You pull into a gas station parking lot, close your eyes, and try to get your shit together.
You reach under your shirt and feel for the city under your skin. You follow with your fingers the same route you have just driven in your car. The parking lot you’re sitting in is hot under your thumb. You sneak a glance out the window. There’s nothing peculiar about the day or the sky above you.
With your hand flat against your stomach, you feel another warm spot just south of your belly button. You decide to go there in real life. You follow the roads you can feel in yourself with your finger. You follow those same roads in your car. You come to a small, gray house on a block of small, rundown houses. An elderly woman is sitting on the porch.
You get out of the car, though you’re not sure what you’re going to say to her. As you come up to the front steps, she smiles and points her crooked finger at you.
“I remember when we bought this house from you,” she says.
“I never lived here,” you say.
“Oh, well, you have the same eyes as the woman who lived here before me.”
“I think that was my great-grandmother,” you say. You think you should ask your mom for sure, but then, again, it hardly matters to you.
“It was a long time ago,” the woman says. She nods to herself, as if that explains something, and then she gets up and goes back in the house.
Now what? You turn from the house and feel around for another hot spot. There’s one, not too far from where you are now.
You like having something to do, even if you don’t quite know why you’re doing it. You follow the contours of your body and you end up in an industrial part of town. You keep driving and you come to a white bridge over some train tracks. On the other side of the bridge is a massive iron gate. Behind the gate is a cemetery.
You drive in.
The cemetery is enormous and ancient. The oldest stones jut up along the road and up the hill like crooked teeth. They crowd together as if there’s safety in numbers. Some graves sit in perfectly straight lines with identical headstones—these are Masons or Oddfellows. A sign tells you that this vast bare spot is where the city buried all the yellow fever victims.
Your mom calls.
“Honey?” she asks. You can hear the worry in her voice. Your absence has not gone unnoticed. “Where are you?”
“I’m in the Elmwood Cemetery.”
“You went to Memphis by yourself?”
When she says it out loud, it does sound like an incredibly stupid idea. That you thought you were okay to do it probably proves that you are not. You don’t know how to respond.
Your mother sighs.
“Your great-grandmother. She’s buried there.”
You check at the office and the woman behind the desk tells you exactly where your mother’s grandmother’s grave is. You find it as easy as can be. You stand under the yew, in the shade, next to her and you try to figure out what to say to her.
But all you can do is imagine what it must be like to be laying in that grave.
You look around and the part of the cemetery you’re in is empty. So, you climb down onto the ground and stretch yourself out next to your ancestor.
“I don’t know how to go on,” you tell her. Not her, of course. Just yourself. The slight breeze in the tree. The bird watching from the mausoleum across the way. The empty air. Your mother is wrong. This visit has nothing to do with her grandmother. There’s no voice from beyond, no secret meaning to what you’ve been through, no lesson the dead are trying to teach you. But you understand why your mother thinks there should be.
“I thought I would die. I thought I would lose my husband, leave my daughter without a mother. I felt like I was betraying my mom. And for what? Nothing. It was all for nothing.” Saying it out loud lets you sob, the kind of gut-wrenching ugly crying you haven’t done since you were a kid. You wail, because there’s no one to hear you and, even if there was, if you can’t break down in a cemetery, where on earth can you?
Let them think you’re mourning for this dead woman you never knew, whose name is familiar to you only because of an occasional mention by your mother. That’s fine.
It’s easier than trying to explain that you are crying because you lost something of yourself you don’t even know how to put into words. You’re crying for the wire and the scar. For the pain and for the spot the size of a softball that might never feel anything again. You’re crying because you thought you would die and now you’re not.
Once you’re done crying, you lie there quietly, your hands folded just below your breasts. The day is gorgeous. The sky is blue. It’s too early in the year to be terribly humid, but it’s warm. Pleasant. You look up in the sky, trying to see as deeply into it as you can. Willing yourself to see farther and farther. Like maybe, if you see far enough, you will see the curve of your own soft belly arching above you.
You absentmindedly run your hand along your stomach, following the path you took to the cemetery again, running your finger over the white bridge.
And then you feel something odd. There is no gate. You move your finger a little closer to your actual location and you feel no grave stones. It’s a vast, empty meadow.
There is no cemetery in the city under your skin.
When your finger is right on top of your location you look up again. You don’t see anything. Of course, why would you? But you close your eyes and reach up with one hand as you press down with the other.
And maybe, just maybe, you can believe you felt both fingers touch.
For the first time since you saw the mammogram technician’s face fall all those weeks ago, you feel that you, yourself, are a real thing in the world and not just a flimsy, malfunctioning barrier between life and death.
Last night, the little old ladies in my audience told me two ghost stories. One was about a woman whose son died in World War I–Bobby. He had gone to Vanderbilt, before dying in the war, and she became convinced that he was possessing or being reincarnated into a squirrel on Vanderbilt’s campus. So, she would come to campus all dressed in black and call out “Bobby, Bobby!” until a squirrel came up to her and she would know that was her son. She would then feed him and hang out with him. And then she died, but, of course, this didn’t stop her behavior. A couple of the women swore they’d seen her in the 40s and 50s on campus.
I love this story both because of the possessed squirrels, which, I’m sorry, is just awesome and because the hauntings double up. She is haunted and then she haunts.
The second thing they told me about was the Bell Witch. But not any part of the story I’d ever heard before. Apparently the Bell Witch used to haunt the streetcar lines. The drivers would all the time see a dark haired woman riding to the end of the line, but when they stopped at the end of the line, she’d vanish.
I have many feelings about the Bell Witch and the story of what happened in Adams has been debunked to my satisfaction. (In short, I think it’s clear that the first book about it was a piece of fiction kind of in line with what I do–taking real historical figures and making them legendary. Some clues to this effect are that Andrew Jackson never mentions traveling to the area or confronting the witch and, most importantly, that the whole way the witch works is far more Victorian than early Republic. In other words, the witch haunted like fictional Victorian ghosts haunt, not how people really understood the same phenomena before the Spiritualist movement. But that fiction was taken for fact and here we are.) But I’m growing more and more sure that debunking the story of the Bell Witch really misses what’s going on here.
Because, after all, why would the Bell Witch, a supernatural entity from Adams, a good hour north of Nashville, haunt the Nashville streetcars? Why would she appear in the mirrors of anyone who said “Bell Witch” three times in a dark mirror? Folks from Middle Tennessee don’t have “Bloody Mary,” they have “The Bell Witch.”
I think the hint is in the rise of the importance of the Bell Witch Cave. Pretty much any time you have people of European descent talking about a woman who lives hidden under the earth, they’re telling you, without knowing it, why the story has staying power.
The Bell Witch, I think, is, at least functionally, an American hidden folk. There are lots of hidden folks in European folklore. They’re not all the same. An elf is not a huldr is not a troll is not… and so on. But the very general idea that there’s someone to whom this land is important, who lives on it with you, and who’s responsible for the success or failure of your time on that land, who might steal your children, and who lives under or in the ground is wide-spread and old in European folklore.
There are theories, too, that most of the sky gods in European pantheons are actually the same god whose name got mangled as languages changed–Zeus is Ious Pietor is Jupiter is Tor is Tyr, etc. But their wives are not at all alike. Even in pantheons that we think of as being really closely linked, like the Greek and the Roman, Hera and Juno are different in really, really important ways. And Frigg is not much like either of them. The theory is that, much like the Catholic church came into an area and said, “Oh, those gods you’re worshiping? Those aren’t gods. They were just very holy people. They’re saints! Keep on worshiping them, just put your money in our collection plates now!” that the Indo-European sky god’s followers ingratiated him with local tribes by figuring out which local land spirit was beloved enough to function like a goddess-consort and then, in those communities, the sky god became her husband. A wandering Jovial (ha ha ha) dude with a local gal in each place he traveled for business.
In other words, the notion of a supernatural woman-ish land spirit who has a sacred cave and a set boundary of land she cares for and bad stuff she can get up to if you cross her is ancient. And since it can be talked about as if it’s a metaphor and not in conflict with Christianity, it’s the kind of folk belief that lingers.
I think that’s what the Bell Witch is doing for Middle Tennessee. True or not is almost beside the point. She is now the spirit of the place. The female energy we sense in the landscape.
I love this story with my whole heart, but I never could figure out where to try to sell it.
Sweet Pauline, the Pirate Queen, Governor of Tennessee
By Betsy Phillips
Andrew Jackson had a cussing parrot. If you believe nothing else of what I’m telling you, believe that he had a parrot who cussed like a sailor and that parrot attended his funeral. The bird had to be removed from the President’s funeral because of its prolific cursing—which, all things considered, probably shouldn’t have been surprising. It was, after all, Andrew Jackson’s cussing parrot. But in this anecdote is the revelation of a more surprising detail: when the slaves rushed to remove the cussing parrot from the funeral, they were appalled by its behavior because it was usually so subdued at funerals.
I repeat, it was usually so subdued at funerals.
This was not the first funeral the parrot had attended.
The parrot had a social life the likes of which we might envy today. It went to funerals, weddings, the inaugurations of at least two governors (more on that in a minute) and the swearing-in ceremonies of every Nashville mayor it hated.
Oh, how the mayoral candidates wooed that bird so as to not end up on its bad side if and before they became the leader of the city. No one had forgotten how that bird had harangued Felix Robertson at his first swearing-in, calling him a jackass and a poltroon and “the last tobacco leaf in an otherwise empty barn,” which was an insult that didn’t entirely make sense, but the vehemence with which the bird spoke it made all the prominent men of Nashville fear being referred to as such.
There are some scholars these days who will tell you that the Jackson family’s most trusted slave, Alfred, was probably behind the bird. In later years, it was obvious to visitors that Alfred’s competence and wit masked a great deal of misery. Perhaps, these scholars speculate, Alfred taught the bird phrases to repeat and gave the bird some signal for when to say them, so that the bird was, itself, just a mouthpiece for the informed opinions of a man who would be sold or killed for expressing them himself.
But I know for a fact that Alfred and the bird did not get along. One night, when Alfred had come into the study to tidy up, the bird squawked “Coward!” at him and Alfred, it’s said, snarled the same ugly word back at the bird. They never spoke to each other again.
No, for better or for worse, the parrot’s opinions were its own. That they likely didn’t differ much from Alfred’s just goes to show that anyone could see the truth of most matters. Most Nashvillians just chose not to.
The parrot once laid a clutch of three eggs and it was said that there wasn’t anything that those eggs did not know. Ask them a question and they would answer it. The trick was that one of the eggs could only answer truth and one of the eggs could only lie and one of the eggs could tell the truth or lie and you had to figure out what questions to ask them that would reveal to you the honest egg before you asked any question that mattered.
Two of the eggs have been lost over the years. But one is at the state museum. It’s not on display so you have to ask to see it. It’s small and white and unremarkable, except that, yes, it will answer any question you ask it.
I asked it, “Are you the egg that lies?”
It said, “Yes.”
And I felt like I had been the butt of a very old joke. I was embarrassed, but a little proud.
People used to believe that the parrot was that old New Orleans pirate, Pauline Lafitte, cursed by a witch to have to live in the form of a parrot until she forgot every word of French she ever knew. This had the effect of making her practically immortal, for who can forget her own name?
I don’t know if you know this story, so forgive me if I’m repeating something you already heard, but there were three great pirate siblings, Jean Lafitte, his brother, Pierre Lafitte, and their sister, Chère Pauline. Sweet Pauline the Pirate Queen, as the song goes. She ran the Lafitte warehouse in New Orleans, through which their smuggled and stolen goods were sold. But she was arrested shortly after the Embargo Act of 1807 and, as women tend to do, she disappeared from history.
Not from legend, though. The legend was that Sweet Pauline had taken a lover, a prominent politician in New Orleans. It’s said that his wife and his placée, who normally passed their days refusing to acknowledge the existence of the other, joined together to hire the witch to get rid of Sweet Pauline. Some now say she died and still haunts old corners of New Orleans. But a century ago, everyone just accepted as fact that she had been turned into a parrot.
According to that story, Andrew Jackson had gotten the parrot from that witch after the Battle of New Orleans and brought it back to Nashville because the man was always bringing oddities home—nephews, Creek boys, charming daughter-in-laws, Alfred, a slave girl who could count to thirty-three in twelve languages, a wife who smoked a corn-cob pipe, the ghost of Charles Dickinson, a mule that could win any race as long as a left-handed jockey rode her, and so on—but it’s also possible that Jackson had ulterior motives. To say he could be cruel is akin to saying that rain is wet.
The best evidence I have for the parrot being a person under some form of enchantment is that it attended the first mass held in Nashville, in the home of that old fur-trading French diplomat, Timothy Demonbreun, and all who were present and who left records, report that the parrot was very familiar with the ritual.
Was it truly Sweet Pauline Lafitte? Well, they did call it Poll.
And Poll was clever. Very, very clever. The kind of clever a woman might learn to be if she had taken a lover who made the laws she and her brothers were breaking. It was, for instance, Poll’s idea for Sarah Yorke Jackson, Andrew Jackson’s daughter-in-law, to sell The Hermitage to the state on the condition that the state let her live out her days there, after Andrew Jackson Jr. squandered all the Jackson family money and goodwill down in Mississippi.
There’s one story about Poll that has all but vanished from history, though it is as true as all the others and truer than most—how she became governor. It goes like this: On June 24th, 1861, Tennessee’s Governor, Isham Harris, best known at that point for having the state’s most magnificent mustache, dissolved Tennessee’s obligations to the United States of America.
At that moment, Harris was no longer Governor of the State of Tennessee of the United States of America. As far as he, and everyone who voted to secede were concerned, Tennessee wasn’t a part of the United States of America. But, of course, the United States of America still considered Tennessee to be a U.S. state.
But Harris wasn’t the governor of a U.S. state. The U.S. state of Tennessee had no governor.
So, Poll called in some favors and her backers declared an emergency election. In order to vote, you had to prove you hadn’t supported secession and still considered yourself a United States citizen, but it wasn’t clear what other laws still applied. So, everyone who opposed secession, and who dared admit that in public, voted. Men, women, black, and white. Poll received 178 votes. She had no opponents.
She was the Governor of the U.S. State of Tennessee.
When Harris demanded to meet with her, she reported told his messenger to tell him to “make his tongue acquainted with my sourest hole.” Harris then hired three men from Spring Hill to assassinate her. Apparently Harris had forgotten how long she had lived with men who believed the first and best solution to any problem was murdering. Poll quickly dispatched each of the three assassins and sent their bodies back to Harris covered in bird poop.
Harris gave up and fled Nashville for Memphis.
Perhaps the only real accomplishment of Poll’s short stint as Governor was her grand Inaugural Ball. She held it on the public square so that everyone in the state who wanted to could come. Very few people wanted to be seen at the Inaugural Ball lest they be mistaken for some kind of threat to the Confederacy. In fact, the only attendees I can confirm were present was Mrs. Polk, whose loyalty to the country that elected her husband president was considered a mild, but understandable, eccentricity, and Mrs. Acklen, who told Poll that she had not wed that “goat” and suffered through the deaths of her children just to put herself back in a position where men told her what she could and could not do. I assume the “goat” is her first husband, the notorious slave trader, Isaac Franklin. I also understand that Poll gave Mrs. Acklen some useful advice, when the time came, for how to best smuggle her cotton out of New Orleans. There’s all you need to know about Mrs. Acklen—that was her cotton, not her current husband’s.
The ball itself was a marvel. A hundred thousand birds descended upon the city—scarlet cardinals, jays the color of ripe berries, whole delegations of wild turkeys followed by armies of wives and poults, ducks of every design, enormous swans, bobbing peacocks and quail, hawks dancing in grand, tall circles above the city, joined by eagles and vultures, all surprised to see that, though their folk dances were different, they were not so strange as to be incompatible, and brightly colored finches leaping from rooftop to rooftop, giving an impression similar to twinkling lights.
And the noise! Everyone in town who remarked on it left incredibly similar descriptions—it was like a grand symphony warming up, all noise and chaos, but each note lovely in its own way.
When Poll came forward to greet her revelers, she smiled, spread her wings in welcome, and then said, “Well, shit.” The whole crowd tittered quietly as birds who understood English whispered translations to those that didn’t. And then a roar of laughter, as loud as close thunder, rumbled through the streets.
The people of Nashville who had not dared go to the ball all hurried to secure their windows from whatever madness was about to overtake the city.
But the madness was not to come that evening. Later, when Poll surrendered the keys to the governor’s office to Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s appointed military governor, the city would learn what it meant to live under strange rule. But that evening, there was only feasting and dancing and laughing until the wee hours of the morning.
After the War, Poll’s trail runs cold. There was a parrot in the Women’s Pavilion at the Centennial Exposition, but there were a number of birds in many of the buildings. I’m tempted to believe that might be Poll, but there’s not enough evidence to make me feel certain.
I found some stories about how Prentice Cooper took a parrot with him to Peru when he was appointed Ambassador to that country just after the Second World War. Obviously, I cannot prove that parrot was Poll, but I ask you, why would anyone need to take a parrot to Peru? Doesn’t Peru have enough parrots already?
And after that? Nothing.
I never gave up looking, though. I wanted to believe that a woman like that, proud, defiant, so alive, was not destined to be forgotten. Better a parrot than a footnote, right?
Yesterday, I was walking up by the State Capitol right at dusk, when I saw three state senators and two lobbyists standing under tree, waving their hands around furiously as they conferred about some obviously important matter. I paid them hardly any mind, when I heard a voice—that distinctive squeeze-box voice—impatiently asking, “Well, who the hell cares what the God damn Democrats want? There’s not enough of them to fill a car. I’ll give a fuck about them when they’re back in power.”
I stopped dead in my tracks.
“They’re not going to be back in power in my lifetime,” one of the lobbyists laughed.
“Sucks to be you, then, doesn’t it?” the strange voice asked. By now, the group noticed I was staring at them all conversing with whatever was in the tree. I flushed with embarrassment. I wanted to say something, to ask something, to just let her know that I knew, that I know, but what?
So, I sang, “Sweet Pauline, the pirate queen. Prettiest woman that I’ve ever seen. Quick and mean and good with a knife, she’ll never be a gentleman’s wife,” which was not the oldest version of the song, but the one I was most familiar with.
And I swear, out of the dark green leaves, came a streak of lighter green, almost the color of a pear. I thought I heard laughing, but that may have been wishful thinking. But I saw a parrot. I know it.
It flew off to the west, into the setting sun, and though I tried to shield my eyes to watch it, I lost it among the reds and yellows of the sunset.
A Woman With a Mason Jar Walks Along the Natchez Trace Mumbling to Herself
by Betsy Phillips
Wiley Harpe, Wiley Harpe, the pike they put your head on is long gone, and your skull is also missing, its final resting place forgotten. But the wind and the woods, they still remember the sound of bone on bark and the last noise that still means you in this world–knock, knock, knock.
You heard there were witches here and every place their feet touched earth, the grass refuses to grow. And you, you hopscotched those bare spots, placing your feet in the footsteps of those women, daring them to come and get you.
And then bad luck got you instead. If there was one thing you must have thought, when you were standing on the gallows waiting for your last fall, it was that witches were no real worry. A man’s enemy is more often just his own misfortune. No witch did you in. It was just the coincidence of you and a man who recognized you standing in the same crowd.
That’s a mighty big coincidence, don’t you think, Wiley? If you do still think, out here in the woods, you being mostly a memory of a bad time and a knocking noise most folks mistake for a lazy woodpecker.
No, your downfall lay in your predictability.
Your brother. You remember him? Big ol’ Micajah Harpe, shoulders broad as an ox’s back, fists like two hot anvils? They say he killed at least two babies, just out of the blue. Once upon a time, a baby cried and he grabbed that baby and slammed it into a stone fireplace or a cave wall or the cold, hard ground. It varies from telling to telling–how many babies, what he broke those small, delicate skulls open against. But the point is the same–he was an impulsive man.
He knew what he wanted and the moment he wanted it, he did it, being used to facing no real opposition to his whims due to his size.
That’s not a man who plans. He’s never had need of learning how.
You know what kind of man learns to plan, to scheme, to double-cross? Sure you do, Wiley, sure you do. The one who cannot win without a strategy learns to be strategic as a matter of necessity.
Do you think your brother ever suspected? When the posse was on your tail and there were two ways to safety–over the hill and through the swamp–you sent him over the hill and took all your wives through the swamp. You knew, yes, yes, you did, that, when given a choice between a swamp and anything else, men will choose to chase the evil-doer who stays on dry land.
Sure, maybe you thought he had a chance of escaping. But you had to know you were probably sacrificing him to save yourself.
There are so many stories about that moment and in almost every single one, it’s him, your brother, who is said to have urged you and your shared women into the swamp. Because who could have believed you would have planned against him? That you would choose your own life over his? The mistake they make is assuming you had honor.
But we know better.
A man who escapes with you will, soon enough, wish he’d escaped from you. First that murderous brute, your own blood, Micajah, and then that old land pirate, Charles Mason, who busted out of jail with you and then met his end when you chopped off his head for the reward.
Too bad about that man in the crowd. Yes, too, too bad. But you and your brother traveled with three women, and you had to know, from that old Scottish play, three is the smallest coven that works. Three women sleeping with devils.
Doesn’t always work out well for the devils. And stories get passed down, Wiley. Yours came to me. And I knew I would find you out here in the deep woods, little more than a cold shadow, a shiver that runs down an occasional spine.
Do you think a man can be redeemed? You must have given it some thought all these years, sitting out here among the trees, watching time pass, waiting on those angels or devils who’ve neglected to collect you. Do you think a man who kept his women sick and lonely and afraid can change? Can a man who can’t be trusted near a baby be trusted to raise a son? And, even if a man could become someone different, someone a woman could love without pain, do you think he would?
I’ll be honest, Wiley. I don’t. I think there are kinds of evil that pretty much carry through. And worse, I know it doesn’t matter. Learning the truth about a man? Well, a woman’s not always allowed to protect herself or her child. There’s always some judge, some preacher, some cold-hearted father saying “you made your bed, you lie in it.”
You kill the men who give you freedom, Wiley Harpe. That’s what I know about you. It’s almost like you can’t resist.
So, what do you think will happen when my husband comes home and he finds it empty–no furniture, no drapes, none of the plates we got at our wedding, no sign of me or the boy at all—nothing except for an oddly decorated Mason jar sitting on the kitchen counter?
I don’t think he’ll be able to resist opening it, maybe hurling it at a wall in anger and breaking it into a thousand sparkling pieces. And, if not, I have no doubt you’ll convince him to twist the lid. To let you go.
And what happens when you get loose in that house with him, Wiley Harpe, what then?
This one sat in my “almost done” folder for a long time, but, upon rereading it just now, I really like it. I don’t know what I thought wasn’t quite done.
By Betsy Phillips
The kids handled the changes better than the adults. We were floundering. Not for answers. We had answers, terrible answers no one wanted to hear. We were floundering for a new set of superstitions that would keep us safe. We got rid of the dogs—not sure if they were carriers—but then we had nothing to alert us except our own eyes and ears. So, we brought dogs back from the verge of extinction.
There were a lot of sleepless nights back then. Every knock and creak woke you. Was it something in the house? Near the house? But if none of the dogs were troubled, you told yourself there’s nothing to worry about. Another superstition. What if the dogs were in league with them? And why wouldn’t they be? That’s what the women at the grocery store asked. What had we done for dogs so great that they wouldn’t have sold us out?
But we didn’t do another extermination. And most of us were glad for the folks who kept their dogs hidden. Glad for the strays that could be coaxed back into town. We put our trust in them once again.
And the kids played with puppies like we never made the grave mistake of trying to get rid of them all. Like we might not have been making a grave mistake keeping them with us now. I guess that, when you’re new to the world, you don’t have any expectations for how things should be. For all they knew, there was nothing strange about learning to handle a silver dagger almost as soon as you were old enough to close your hand.
Like people who got their ears pierced as infants and don’t remember the pain, they didn’t remember how they got the scars from learning how to handle the blade, just that such scars were common.
We adults had no words for what had happened. Not words we were willing to say to each other. We didn’t want to be reminded.
But the kids, well, like I said, they handled it better. When my nephew, Evan, was younger, I found him at the park, talking to one of his little friends about some other little kid who had fallen off his bike. Evan said, “Oh, yeah, and then he wolfed all over” and he demonstrated by shaking and lolling his tongue out to the side.
“He what?” I asked, trying to keep my voice light.
“Aunt Jen, he wolfed all over, bleurgh!” and then he stuck his finger down his throat and wretched.
“That’s how my mom died,” the other kid said, growing more serious. “She got wolfed all over and bam!” The kid mimicked stabbing someone in the chest. My heart leaped into my throat and I reached for Evan, almost without thinking.
“Oh, Karen,” I said, so quietly I almost wasn’t sure I’d said it aloud. If Evan heard, he didn’t seem to notice. He laughed and mimicked the same motion and then the two ran off, playing monster killer.
I remembered how my sister Karen had been with Evan and I tried to be some of that for him. Strong, brave, loving. Tried to at least fake it, for his sake.
After I lost Jimmy and the kids, I was done, you know? I respected the government’s request that no one in my situation kill herself. I understand it makes it too easy for everyone who’s lost so much to just check out, once they see how it is, how peaceful, and calm and over.
So, I kept on breathing. I just quit living. I stayed in my house and let life go on without me.
Until Karen called.
I could barely understand her. It was still mid-afternoon, but her voice was already gravelly and her words sounded like they were coming through the wrong mouth. “Please,” she begged, “Come get Evan. Say he’s been with you.”
When they found someone who changed, they killed everyone who was with that person that day. That’s how I lost my Jimmy and the kids. Little Meg picked it up from someplace and that was the end of them. I was in Ohio helping my mom with my dad. That’s the only thing that spared me. And my dad got found out anyway. And I lost my mom and dad, then, too. Our mom and dad. I guess what spared me then is that they didn’t find my dad until the next month and they didn’t realize it wasn’t his first time.
After that, I kept to myself, half-mad from grief. But when I got that call from Karen, I went to her house and sobbed into her misshapen arms, already prickly with coarse hairs, and I took that boy to my house and I pretended like I babysat him all the time. No one ever questioned me about it.
And then I had to go on living, because he needed me to, because his mom couldn’t be there for him. And so I did my best for him.
When he was fourteen, the Sheriff came to our door.
“You doing all right here by yourself, Jen?” He asked. He looked over the top of his sunglasses at me.
“We’re doing okay, Sheriff,” I said, trying to seem friendly, but making no move to invite him in, even though, judging by the sweat on his brow, he could have used some water or an ice tea.
“Notice anything peculiar?” He asked. He squinted at me, as if he could, if only he adjusted his eyes right, see if I was lying to him. I tilted my head toward the interior of the house, like I didn’t want to talk to him about it in front of Evan. I stepped out onto the porch with him.
“Cooper down the road says your herd is looking smaller,” the Sheriff said. “You know you’re supposed to report any loss of livestock.”
“Sheriff,” I said. “I lost three cows last month and if you call Arlene and ask her, she’ll tell you I called it in. I’ve got a carcass I found a few days ago, yes, and I didn’t call it in, but it’s not my cow.”
“Cooper says you’re way down.”
“Sheriff,” I sighed. “It’s just me and the boy. We can’t handle a herd as big as Jimmy had. I sold half this spring. I can show you the receipts.”
“Well, show me that carcass,” he said.
“I think it’s just coyotes,” I said.
“You can never be too sure,” the Sheriff nodded. “Seems like those things are gone, but you know it’s cows first, then humans. We need to be vigilant.”
That’s a superstition as well. Cattle kills and human attacks have nothing to do with each other. But we want to pretend there’s some way to tell if they’re back. Some forewarning before the bad times.
“DTR,” I said as I smiled. Duty to report.
“That’s right, ma’am,” he said. I showed him the carcass and he looked at the bites. Too small to be our husbands and wives. “Coyotes,” he agreed. After all, how could a child take down a cow?
“Have you seen anything suspicious?” I asked. “I haven’t heard of anyone… you know… no families…”
“Not in years,” the Sheriff said.
“Good,” I said and I meant it. I walked him back to his truck.
“I just always thought this stuff was made up in Hollywood,” he said. I nodded. “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
“What?” I asked.
“If that was true, what else is?”
It wasn’t much after that when we found out. I was asleep, three dogs in bed with me, when Evan shook me awake one black night. I could hear the nervous pacing of his dogs out in the hall.
“Aunt Jen,” he said. “I heard a noise.” I sat up, groggy. Like he did when he was little, he crawled up onto the bed with me.
“What did it sound like?” I whispered. But then I heard it, a loud thump, like something large had landed on the roof. I fumbled for my glasses and Evan worked to keep the dogs calm. When I found my way to the window, I peeked out into the darkness. The moon was not quite full, but it was large enough that, when the clouds parted, I could see by it. And there, in the trees, perched like buzzards, were gaunt, lanky bald men, their red eyes glowing, their sharp teeth long and glistening.
“You have your knife?” I asked Evan.
“Of course.” I could hear the hint of teenage disgust that I’d even thought the question was necessary. “What are they?” He asked.
“Something bad,” I said. “Something really bad.”
First thing in the morning, I called the Sheriff’s department. It took the Sheriff no time to get to my house, because he’d been with the county coroner up at Cooper’s place. Cooper was no more. He’d been torn limb from limb.
“No blood, though,” the Sheriff said. “Not like back then.”
“I saw them,” I said. “They weren’t. These were something else.”
Then the Sheriff got a call. It wasn’t just Cooper. Most the families in this part of the county were gone. Butchered and drained of their blood. Probably not in that order. I had to bring the Sheriff in the house, though I hated to. Poor man was heavy with grief.
“You are about the only ones who are left out this way,” the Sheriff said. “It makes no sense. Why would they leave you be?”
I shuddered. “I don’t know. They were on the house and in the trees. I don’t know.”
But after he left, it was all I could think about. Why were we spared? It’s not like we’d had advanced warning. My dogs hadn’t even woken up, before Evan came in.
Oh, I thought. Oh.
I went down to the basement and moved the far shelves away from the wall. I knocked on the door hidden back there and a soft voice said “Come in.” I undid the padlock and entered the small room.
“Karen?” I asked. “How’d you sleep last night?” She looked rough, so I guessed her answer before she gave it.
“Not well,” she said. “It’s not even the full moon yet, and I wanted to be out. I had a dream of killing. You have to be sure I’m locked in here tight come this weekend.”
But I tell you, I left her door unlocked, from that day on.
Okay, I have a plan for October. Not as awesome as previous Octobers, but, in my defense, I was farting around and trying to write a novel. So, here at Tiny Cat Pants, we’ll be having Spooky Saturdays. Five previously unpublished, spooky, though not horror, stories. Fun for the whole family, if yours is the kind of family who says “fuck” a lot and has trouble with the police.
So, every Saturday, six o’clock in the evenings my time, throughout the month.
If you also have a Twitter account, you can follow it here. I’m not going to have time over lunch to get stuff set up how I want, but I think I’m going to schedule posts for the midnight hour. Stuff from the book, maybe some photos of relevant locations, we’ll see.