Below are 3 selected chapters from C. L. Francisco’s new gothic mystery, This Madness of the Heart.
1 ~ Contrary Lady Professor
Broomsedge Branch, West Virginia . . . Sunday, October 26
The large woman beside me slid to the plank floor with surprising grace, twitching and jerking on her back, eyes glittering sightlessly under half-closed lids. Worshippers stepped around her with hardly a thought. Her lips fluttered in prayer, inaudible amidst the tumbling chaos of sound rolling through the tiny church.
“Hallelujer! Hallelujer! Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Jesus! Praise-a the Lord! Oooooooohhh, glory be to God, honey! Praise-a his holy name!” The preacher’s voice roared over the babble.
“Yeah, Lord! Hallelujer! Amen! Praise the Lord! Yes, yes, yes! Hey, God! Lordy, Lordy! Ah know it! Aiiiieee!” The people yelled in response, shaking the floor with their stomping feet, clapping in rhythm to the wailing of guitar and accordion.
I rocked contentedly in the midst of a storm of joy. Ecstasy beat against me like a rising spring tide. A teenage girl started spinning in her dance, knocking against her neighbors, reeling against the older folk seated along the walls. People good-naturedly pushed her upright again, sending her careening back on course like a silver ball in a pinball machine.
“Holy, holy, HOLY!” shouted the minister as he stepped away from the pulpit and joined the dancers.
I loved my work. No matter how many hours I spent observing people celebrating their faith, their joy always lifted me up—perhaps bearing me on the wings of their prayers. And Appalachian Holiness congregations had to be among my favorites. I loved their lack of pretense, their tolerance of diversity, their unselfconscious enthusiasm. I envied how easily they gave themselves up to spiritual ecstasy. Comparatively, I was a clam, tightly sealed in a riotous bed of wave-swept anemones.
I really didn’t need to be here tonight. My research on these congregations had been completed long since. This trip was dedicated solely to collecting mountain superstition and magic. I could have headed out of West Virginia this afternoon after the last of the day’s interviews and been home by now—or better still, smiling with Jack Crispen over the latest nuggets of folklore I’d unearthed in the week’s study. But it felt downright ungrateful to refuse these friends’ repeated invitations to worship.
Maybe next trip I could talk Jack into joining me. I’d known most of my hosts for years, off and on, but sure as the hawk stooped on the ground squirrel, these old patriarchs were holding out on me—maybe volumes of material, no doubt because they thought it unfit for women’s ears. How frustrating to find sexism among people so openhearted in other ways!
Loud knocking pulled me out of my musings, and looking down, I saw that the woman at my feet was beating her head against the floor, battering her neat bun into straying ropes of graying hair. A young man stepped in quickly, kneeling beside her to cushion her head with his hands, patiently waiting for some gentler rapture to overtake her.
For a moment the congregation stilled, and then flung itself into the chant-like singing of a simple song, over and over again:
He’s a-comin’ in that day!
No more suffrin’
No more suffrin’
No more suffrin’ in that day!
Glory GLORY in that day!
Several white-shirted men carried cardboard boxes into the center of the floor while the worshippers danced close around. A middle-aged man, dripping with sweat, his shirt soaked through, skipped in and out of the crowd like a little child. A solemn-faced old grandfather hopped in place on invisible springs. One by one, two by two, three by three, coiling copperheads, cottonmouths, and rattlesnakes were scooped from the boxes and passed from dancer to dancer, man or woman, whoever held out a willing hand.
Panic knocked the breath from my body like an adder’s sudden strike. My gut clenched, writhing with the coiling snakes. Tremors shook my hands. Shadow threatened to overwhelm my sight.
I let my breath out in a long quiet stream. “Breathe, Miranda,” I muttered, dropping my gaze to the floor, visualizing sunlit rooms sealed against squirming reptiles.
I’d forgotten myself, relaxed my guard, let slip the rigorous discipline I wore like a second skin in my field studies of religious phenomena. And now, here I was, stumbling unprepared into this moment. My mind had wandered inexcusably. All I needed was for the people around me to sense my anxiety. One moment’s obvious terror could undermine years of hard-won trust and acceptance. Everything rested on my ability to set aside personal prejudices and open myself to their world.
Come on, Miranda, let go the fear. Let the panic sink away. Feel the joy! Celebrate with them. Share their confidence, move into their faith, dance with them. Forget yourself. See with their eyes. Who you are outside this room matters less than a johnny house paper roll!
It wasn’t as if they expected me to take part in the actual snake handling. Only those who felt the tingling, burning breath of the Spirit were called to that, or to the poison or the fire. But snakes unnerved me, especially in a coiling, hissing mass.
Rattlers shook their rattles in warning, cottonmouths bared their fangs, but the dancers swayed on oblivious, twining snakes around their shoulders, their waists, up their arms, inside their clothing. I prayed to whatever deity might be that this night wouldn’t end, as others had, in snakebite and pain.
“Breathe, Miranda,” I repeated, forcing myself to join in the swaying rhythm of the bodies around me as men started tossing snakes to each other across the room. I moved carefully toward the back. Hissing reptiles passed in flight, erect, writhing, deadly, yet always caught up again by waiting hands. The dance went on, and the snakes held their venom.
A young woman, thirty-something, with long stringing hair and a gaunt equine face, stepped up to the microphone, speaking into the melee of shouting and singing in breathy erratic sentences: “Glory be to God-a! Hallelujer! Praise God who saved my sinful soul-a! Praise God-a, he done set me free! He washed my sins away in the precious blood-a, hallelujer! He walks with me ever’whar I go, glory be!”
Her head and body jerked with a sudden hiccup. She paused for a moment in her speech, and with a quick dip of her head, she continued in an ecstatic tongue meaningful only to herself and her God.
“Hallelujer! Ha! Glory be! Ha! Hala matami tomo halama mahama tano shala dela shando mashisamana ma! Ha! Glory be! His voice speaks truth! Shando malashami sho!”
Her head and body shook, as if in punctuation, and she continued again in common speech. “Lost in sins I war ere my precious Jesus called me t’ th’ Holiness way. My soul black as death-a, my heart sunk low as low!”
She rushed on, but I lost the thread of her testimony as the snake handling started winding down. At last, the snakes were disappearing back into their boxes. I watched one of the white-shirted elders emerge from a back room holding a plastic jug of strychnine, while others lit kerosene-soaked rags dangling from pop bottles, and the congregation came together in a wide circle, preparing to celebrate their God-given immunity to both poison and flame.
Suddenly I swayed and nearly fell. Nausea threatened. I’d reached my limit . . . end of the road. Only it wasn’t. A vision of the long drive home to Canaan Wells rose to taunt me. Time to go home where I belonged. I’d fulfilled whatever social and religious obligations I had to these good people.
The winding road coiled through the mountains like the snakes in their dark boxes. I struggled against the temptation to close my eyes on it and just drift. God, I was tired!
Tired like the child I’d once been after a day picking blackberries behind my grandmother’s house in the tick-infested brambles of southern Virginia. Grandmother Lamden: odd that my childhood memories of her should be so vivid. Surely I’d spent most of my early years on the grounds of the mock-Georgian mansion my father had designed for my elegant mother. But I’d broken away from their suburban idyll with hardly a backward glance as soon as I was old enough for boarding school. Memories declared my grandmother’s rambling old house my home, with its high ceilings and gleaming hardwood floors—like her, a relict of a vanished age doomed to extinction. It had sat alone in the center of the Lamdens’ ancestral land grant, slowly crumbling beneath the onslaught of Virginia’s unquiet greenery—and like her, it was gone now.
Thin and frail as a wraith, my grandmother had been little more than a rustle of faded silk drifting through those shadowy rooms, yet somehow she remained more real to me than my very substantial parents. I still recalled humid nights troubled by childish illness, waking to find her sitting upright beside me in a straight-backed rocker, eyes closed in uneasy sleep, clasped hands glowing in the circle of light cast by a small bedside lamp.
Long miles stretched between the rolling farmlands where her house had stood and my present career as a phenomenologist of religion—miles of rough and rutted roads. Not only my early marriage, but also my relationship with my parents had fallen away, casualties of rancorous disagreement and stubborn dreams. I’d spent years in a painstaking two-step with my parents trying to restore those childhood bonds.
The Jeep’s wheels turned on the invisible pavement, their hum blending with the remembered song of cicadas and spinning ceiling fans. I shook my head and ran my fingers through my hair to clear my thoughts, grasping for one small piece of physical reality that might anchor me to consciousness. Stay awake, Miranda! My vegetarian belly seemed to offer the best distraction: it was rumbling in bitter protest at the pork fat in my recent diet, lurking in every bread, every vegetable, even innocent-looking piecrusts. I would pay, no doubt. But it was no use. Rumblings or no, the song of the Cherokee’s tires on the dark pavement threatened to soothe me into torpor.
I opened the window, letting the chill must of autumn leaves buffet my face. Kaleidoscopic colors were blazing across these hills beneath the night’s heavy shadow, if only I could see. Never mind, I’d see them from Jack’s window in the morning . . . morning in his big loft bed, warm against his long body, warm under the quilt I’d made for him last Christmas . . . Wake up, Miranda! You’ll never see the morning if you don’t hold this road.
I could see it now: Dr. Miranda Lamden, contrary lady-professor of world religions and anthropology at Obadiah Durham College, Canaan Wells, Kentucky, dead at 38. Known to her close friends as Mira, she was discovered several hours after death in a remote mountain holler, car wedged under a moldering coal tipple hidden by a heavy stand of mountain laurel. Survived by grieving kin in the Virginia tidewater. Her West Virginia hosts say they warned her that she’d come to grief if she took to bathing with the moon rising toward the full. She should’ve listened. Mourned by students, uppity female friends, and Jack Crispen, significant other and local craftsman hunk. No, not hunk: her students’ word was “hotty,” wasn’t it? Disgusting word! Freud would have been enchanted by their potty-mouth slang. Who knows? Maybe Siggy himself was the tasteless muse behind the word’s evolution.
God, what nonsense. Wake up!
Oh, well, at least the coal trucks weren’t on the road on a Sunday night, belching their black exhaust, clogging the highways, hurling anthracite bullets at unsuspecting windshields. Only another hour or so, and you’ll be there, Miranda. You can make it. Hold that thought . . .
As all things do, my trip came to an end—safely, if numbly, at Jack’s door. The sprawl of his hand-built cabin lay hidden beneath mountain darkness so heavy it all but swallowed the glow of the mudroom light. Jack hadn’t waited up for me, but the dim bulb acknowledged my expected arrival. I abandoned research and luggage to the night and slipped into the cabin. Jack roused enough to pull me gently down into sleep beside him, warm and musky and deep.
2 ~ Purposes Steeped in Boredom
Canaan Wells, Kentucky . . . Monday, October 27
At 7:30 the next morning I was peering owlishly at an invisible world as I drove the five foggy miles from Jack’s cabin to an unexpected faculty meeting, feeling hostile toward bureaucracies everywhere, no matter how benign. I was on sabbatical, dammit, supposedly exempt from tedious college chores. The Jeep jounced in and out of potholes, skittered over bedrock, and descended into the holler where the blacktop highway ran beneath Possum Knob’s long ridge. Between bumps I brushed snarls out of my unruly hair and tried to smooth the wrinkles from the flannel shirt and jeans I’d perversely chosen from my stash in Jack’s closet.
Neither autumn foliage nor clearing skies touched me. The old coal mine with its derelict equipment and black slag spilling into the holler below suited my mood nicely. I had no eyes for the quaint college town of Canaan Wells, sheltering in its long mountain saddle . . . not even a caustic observation on the fast-moving construction project undertaken by our local Bible college.
Once the Jeep was parked, I scuffed through the mulched leaves, scanning the college quad for other late arrivals, half hoping to run into Marinja Baude, my one kindred spirit in a mostly conservative faculty. Assistant professor of art, woman of color and an uprooted urbanite, Djinn was an even more eccentric addition to Obadiah Durham College than I. Like several other ODC professors, she was a one-person department, responsible for the college’s entire visual arts curriculum, from painting and printmaking to textile arts and ceramics. But the quad was empty of all human life—not surprising on an early Monday morning.
Paying no particular attention to where I put my feet, I came within a feather’s breadth of stepping on a dead mockingbird. My fingers tingling in sudden reaction, I dodged aside and knelt beside the small body. He was still warm and pliable, head hanging limp, black beak closed on his song, grey and white feathers mangled by the blades of the now-distant leaf-shredder. How many times had I heard this mockingbird fling his territorial exuberance across the quad? How often had I paused for the pleasure of listening to him sing from the top of his holly tree?
If I were the sort of person who believed in omens—and mostly I didn’t, in spite of my interest in superstition—I might find this small tragedy alarming . . . It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird—they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us* . . . I might even forecast dire happenings for the college. But holding the bird in my hand, I felt only sad. I shook my head. Accept it and let it go, Miranda. Impermanence is the essence of life.
I paused and allowed myself to feel the fleeting warmth of the autumn sun on my face.
Looking at my watch, I saw that I was now well and truly late. On impulse I folded a piece of legal paper around the bird’s body, dug an old lunch sack out of my briefcase grab-bag, and took him with me to the long-since-convened faculty meeting.
Walking briskly up the steps to the yellow brick building, I smiled to see Djinn running across from the painting loft, even later than I.
“Hey, Djinn! I’m on sabbatical. What’s your excuse?”
“La, sassy gal, I don’ need no excuse! I be Djinn!”
Jamaica must be her flavor of the week, I decided, judging from the accent and carefully beaded dreadlocks. Bounding up the stairs toward me, hand-screened dress fluttering around her long legs in a sudden wind, she was exotic, beautiful. She grabbed me in a huge hug and then paused, sniffing my neck.
“Coo, ma fren, I scent a mon, a musky mon, juicy an’ full o’ sugah! Who he be, um? Yo tell ole Djinn so she tak’ a taste, too, hey?”
I laughed and pushed her away. “Give it up, Djinn! You don’t smell anything, and you wouldn’t have Jack if you found him under your Kwanzaa tree! Come on, I don’t want to be in Probeck’s hot seat today. Let’s get this over with.”
She leered and swished her skirts at me, and then minced through the doors and up the narrow staircase in a too-perfect parody of President Probeck’s fastidious secretary. I followed, struggling to straighten my face into more professional lines as I climbed. Djinn had almost redeemed the day.
The meeting room was a favorite of mine, taking up half the upper floor, its narrow-paned windows reaching from baseboard to twelve-foot ceiling and marching closely along three sides of the room. Set aside for purposes steeped in boredom and heavy with tedium, at least the room allowed its hostages a view of the real world for the duration. A hundred or so faculty and staff had already assembled in ragged rows, and President Garrett Probeck was in full spate, dressed as always in an elegant suit more appropriate to Harvard’s august halls than the in-house doings of a small Appalachian college. He hardly bothered to scowl at us as we entered.
Odd, I thought, as Djinn and I looked for empty chairs. What could draw so many to a Monday morning meeting, called or not? What had distracted Garrett from the easy cheap shot he should have taken at our late arrival? I settled into an empty front-row seat to gather the gist of his remarks, placing my case with its tiny corpse beside my chair.
“We find ourselves at a perilous crossroads,” he intoned solemnly, letting his blue eyes sweep the uncharacteristically attentive faces, pausing for dramatic effect. “The clandestine machinations of this religious mountebank have threatened the very existence of our institution in the years to come!”
I had it now: he must be talking about the Rev. Dr. Jasper Jarboe, president of once-tiny Grace and Glory Bible College, soon to be rechristened, with true Christian humility, Jasper Jarboe Christian Apostolic University. Appalling man. What had the oily reverend done now?
“We have failed!” Probeck reproached us in mournful tones. “We have betrayed the memory of Obadiah Durham! What will become of the gifted children of these hills if our light goes out? Who of you can say he or she bears no blame for this catastrophe?”
I quirked my eyebrows at Djinn, but she merely shrugged. What possessed Garrett?
He glared down his long nose at the two of us. “If you ladies [ladies underscored, sweeping his eyes pointedly over my clothing] included punctuality among your priorities, you would understand our agenda. According to absolutely reliable sources, Jasper Jarboe boasted to his deacon board only this evening past that our founder’s only daughter has promised to alter her will in his favor! The last surviving scion of Obadiah himself has abandoned his legacy, and gone over to the side of the Philistines. [Really, he was getting quite biblical.] She has committed all of our founder’s forested land, 12,000 acres in case you fail to recall, to this mongrel institution. 12,000 acres of priceless virgin forest, adjoining our campus!”
His secretary leaned forward from behind him and laid her hand on his arm. “Blood pressure!” she whispered, and sat back again.
Garrett took a deep breath and returned to his accustomed reasoned tones. “That man has proposed a giant lighted cross on the ridge above us, opposite Indian Bluff.”
My mouth dropped open in consternation. Overlooking Indian Bluff meant overlooking Obadiah’s old chapel, and my home!
“Yes,” he grimaced, acknowledging the effect of his news, “AND a forty-foot statue of Jesus as well. Not to mention a place of worship best described as a coliseum. And,” he growled, “as any fundraiser knows, once a major benefactor makes a large donation, the next will surely follow.”
I sat in shock, unbelieving. Viola Ricketts wouldn’t do this! I’d known the grande dame of the autocratic Durhams for ten years now. She’d sold me my land and her father’s chapel with it. Yes, she was getting more conservative as she got older, people did (she had to be nearly a hundred by now). But Jasper Jarboe? She was too canny an old woman to be taken in by such a slick huckster.
Probeck scrutinized his audience, judging our reactions. The low murmur of comment crested toward a roar, and he raised his hands for silence, tapping impatiently on his microphone.
“Anything you have to say should be shared with us all, in orderly fashion, if you please.”
I tuned out the pandemonium and sank into my own thoughts. God, what a disaster! Little Grace and Glory Bible College! Who’d have thought it? They’d been lucky to enroll forty students a year before JJ took over. Retired founder Elmus Rooksby was a profoundly good man, dedicated to the school he’d founded, but he was neither an administrator nor a mega-fundraiser. He was a pastor at heart, and a good one, even if he did worry that ODC was losing sight of Obadiah’s principles. Now that I thought of it, he was Viola Rickett’s pastor.
Maybe Elmus was right, and ODC was straying. Our charter spoke clearly of Obadiah’s desire for us to tend the students’ specifically Christian souls along with their intellects. And to a certain extent we did. But today we were more apt to nurture in our students a tendency toward tolerant spiritual openness than exclusive Christian piety: thus Elmus’ original founding of G & G in the late 60’s, to raise up pastors who embraced the purity of Christian faith in the face of ODC’s encroaching syncretism.
“Dr. Lamden! Are you with us?” Garrett’s ironic tones broke into my reverie. “If you would be so good as to remain for a few moments, now that the meeting is concluded, I would like you to serve on the committee forming to address this crisis. Your relationship with Mrs. Ricketts might possibly be of help.”
I nodded: in this, his request was my command.
“Dr. Baude!” he called out.
Djinn paused at the stair-head and turned back, following him reluctantly toward the room’s corner, apparently for private conversation. Probeck spoke at length, towering over her, solemn and pontifical. Her face remained impassive, but I could sense her distress. She must be in trouble. I edged closer, trying to catch the words, but heard only his parting remark about speaking further. She left the room quickly, without a backward glance.
Damn! What a time to be summoned into one of the Great Man’s piffling committee meetings.
“Gentlemen . . . and lady,” Probeck called out, spreading his arms in a broad gesture of gathering-in. “Let us put our heads together and plan our strategy. Tempus fugit!”
Noon came and went before I escaped into the sunlight again. Gad! Few men could talk longer and say less than Garrett Probeck . . . and in a college world that was saying something. No doubt it served him well as a fund-raiser. Directness was no virtue when stalking the wary greenback.
I waggled my shoulders, arching my back like my marmalade cat, and took a deep breath. The sky was a brilliant autumn blue—the bluest of the whole Kentucky year. Yellow maples in the quad stood like mirror images, fallen leaves pooling around dark trunks in golden mimicry of their boughs. From our pseudo-gothic chapel tower, bells chimed the half hour, and suddenly my bag weighed heavy in my hand. I glanced down, remembering the small body awaiting its last rites. It wouldn’t be getting any fresher. Unfortunate as it was, he’d just have to wait: I couldn’t very well dig a grave in the college common.
If I were a superstitious woman I’d certainly see this morning’s calamity echoed in the mockingbird’s death. And who could say it wasn’t? What was the word Carl Jung liked to use for happenings with no causal connections, yet related by more than coincidence? Synchronicity, that was it . . . the non-rational interconnectedness of universal consciousness. Alas, a difficult concept to prove.
Well, much as I might like to head home and philosophize with my cats over lunch, first I needed to find Djinn. Her tenure evaluation was due this spring, and now of all times she couldn’t afford to be ruffling Probeck’s feathers.
“Mira!” Her voice rang out across the quad, and there she was, running out the door of the art studio.
“Djinn! I was about to mount an expedition in search of you.”
“No need, Mir, I’m not lost yet. But if old Probity doesn’t grow some balls, I could be. Join me for lunch, friend of my bosom, and let me cry into your beer,” she added with a flicker of her earlier warmth.
 from To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, 1960.
* * * * * * * * * *
18 ~ Between the Devil and a Black Banshee
Blackoak Manor, Virginia . . . Friday night, October 31
Narrow trails crisscrossed the thickets at the rear of the plantation’s grove: clearly not all the locals feared these ruins. Swirling eddies of dead leaves danced among the unsavory remnants of uncounted midnight trysts. But after we penetrated the ring of wild growth into what had once been the garden, only one broad path remained, and the litter tapered off.
Something else changed as well, something I couldn’t quite pinpoint. I stopped and took a deep breath, discarding the psychic armor I wore to shield my senses from everyday overload. Carefully, like a bather stepping into icy water, I reached out, feeling for any hint of presence in the shadows. Something touched my mind, but distantly. Instead, the silence itself spoke.
“Djinn!” I whispered. “The wind! There’s no wind here!”
Djinn froze. I stood listening. Wind blew fiercely across the fields. Treetops tossed around the fringes of the grove, branches creaking, shrieking against each other. Leaves rasped in flight. But here, close to the heart of Blackoak, not a leaf stirred. Not a branch moved against the dark sky. Neither did any other human sound reach our ears. Djinn and I turned to look at each other, though what light remained revealed no more than gloom cast over shadow.
Djinn hissed through her teeth, but said nothing.
I squeezed her shoulder and moved on, briefly flicking my light to be sure of the way. My senses strained like blind eyes in a black tunnel, seeking any hint of the greedy down-sucking energy that attends evil.
Yews untrimmed for 150 years crowded the path. Honeysuckle rambled everywhere, burying God-knows-what under hummocks that snagged our feet at every step. Ahead of us deeper blackness blotted out the sky: my light picked out the glossy foliage of a great-grandmother magnolia stretching her dense canopy over our heads. A dark cavity gaped where her heavy limbs spread wide. The squat trunk, surely five feet in diameter, rose from a mass of exposed roots overrun with English ivy. Spidery branches sparsely grown with small leaves writhed along the underside of her bulk, stifled by shade. Hanging vines thicker than my arm weighed down her boughs and lay in careless loops along the ground, twined in the wreckage of uncounted seasons of deadfall.
Suddenly, that distant presence was all around me, a sluggish river of cold air pouring like black breath from the tree’s rotten heart. Terror immobilized my body and threatened to overwhelm my mind. In the space of a pounding heartbeat, my chilled flesh crawled beneath my clothes, drawing up like a plucked fowl’s. Psychic hackles bristled. Something cruel dwelt in this tangled garden, distilled by long years into pure malevolence.
Calling on every reserve of spirit I possessed, I grabbed behind me for Djinn, clutched her sleeve, and dived headlong away from the magnolia’s strangling shadow, as oblivious to the crashing noise of our passage as to the thorns tearing at my face and hands.
The gentle malice of a honeysuckle vine tripped us in the end, and in good time. When we picked ourselves up we could just make out a broken wall lit by the flicker of an unseen fire. We froze in place . . . caught between the devil and a black banshee. For interminable anxious seconds we waited, but the only sounds were the distant wind and an indistinct murmur of song from the fire. I let out a shaky breath and turned to Djinn. The faint reflected light picked out a hint of her features.
“Did you feel that?” I whispered.
“Dambala preserve us, yes!”
“This is hardly the place to be calling on vodun gods, my friend!”
“Stuff it, Mira, this is exactly the place! And those gods were African long before they were voodoo, so just drop it. They might be the only thing between us and whatever’s in that tree. By the bones of the Mothers, I never felt anything like that before! Screw that not-staying-together shit!”
I took several deep breaths and tried to call up lessons learned long years before. An image flashed through my mind and was gone: an old woman, bent and gnarled, wrinkled with the passing of uncounted years, flames leaping across her face as she sank into visions.
The adrenaline was receding. My prickling skin relaxed. Soon the shakes would come. Relax, Miranda. Let it flow away. No fear. Handle it.
Slowly my confidence returned. The garden-dweller couldn’t have meant us any real harm, or she’d’ve demolished us where we stood. She’d caught me unaware, my guard down. I’d been at her mercy. She could’ve done anything. Maybe we’d merely intruded on her space: leave her alone and she’d leave us alone, right? Maybe.
A few more deep breaths, and then I turned to Djinn.
“We’re OK, Djinn. No harm done. If we respect her space we’ll be fine. We’ll just keep our distance. I don’t feel it now, do you?”
“No, but I don’t feel wind, either . . . Mira, I wasn’t bargaining on aggravating angry ghosts. I never believed it was real. This is too damn weird!”
“OK, hold on . . . hold on, let me think.”
I made a sudden decision.
“I’m going to tell you something. Not a word to anyone, right?”
Djinn nodded reluctantly.
“You know those research trips of mine? Well, I wasn’t just observing, I was learning, too. I stumbled across a group of wise women in Africa who insisted that I had a ‘gift’ and taught me some very strange things. So I have a plan.”
“A plan,” Djinn repeated.
I could tell she was not impressed.
“You don’t have to do anything, Djinn. Just watch me. Pray when I pray. Or ignore me. Your call.”
“I’m an artist, Mira, not a scientist! I don’t do the observation thing. I become the experience, and this is one experience I don’t plan on becoming!”
“Well, unless you’d rather sit the night out in the Jeep, just follow along behind me and keep your head down.”
I could see her stepping slowly backwards, toward the outer ring of trees.
“Come on, Djinn,” I whispered, “it’s not that weird. Really. People deal with this stuff all the time: they pray for protection, keep their distance, show respect, and offer gifts to soothe angry spirits. You can’t reason it out, it just is. Trust me. I know what I’m doing.”
I was getting impatient, edgy. The thing needed doing, and soon.
“I figured this might happen, Djinn, but being a vegetarian, I had no intention of slaughtering a chicken, so I brought along a little coffee, some meal, and brandy.”
“Don’t mess with me, Mira, I’m not in the mood! Gifts? You’re talking about the loa, woman!”
Even in the shadows, I could see her scowl.
“That’s the plan, Djinn. I’m serious. Now’s the time to bail if you can’t handle it.”
She didn’t answer, but I heard her trailing behind me as I turned and retraced our steps until I felt a frisson of deadly chill. I stopped, backed up a couple of paces and took off my pack.
“First I’m going to pray,” I said, “and I’m going to do it out loud.”
I stood on the threshold of the spirit’s space, letting my mind sink into silence. Breathe . . . exhale . . . breathe . . . exhale . . . I could feel myself dropping into silence. Currents rolled around me like the ebb and flow of a great sea. Carefully I reinforced the walls that kept my space my own, and focused on the task.
I pulled out a little twist of woman sage I’d picked in Montana and lit it with a lighter. Then I prayed softly with the rising smoke, holding it up to each direction in turn.
“Creating Spirit, Word of the universe, Dweller in every grain of matter, protect us from fear and violence tonight. Give us wisdom, guide us in paths of peace. Soothe the angry spirits around us. We ask your blessing as we move into this unhappy place, to heal the wounds of ancient evil, to bring justice to the oppressed.”
I crushed the sage into the dust of the vine-covered ground and set out the tiny brandy bottle, meal, and coffee beside me.
“Spirit who comes in cold darkness, we mean you no harm,” I spoke softly. “We greet you as sisters, seeking justice for a life cut brutally short. We honor your place. We seek only truth. Let us pass to do what we must and return safely to our homes. In token of our goodwill, we bring you the gifts you desire. Accept them from our hands.”
I poured each one out on the dusty ground and waited, holding to my prayer like a candle in the darkness. Eddies of spirit stirred against my spirit flesh, and I saw the branches of the ancient tree writhe in the glow of a distant fire, bowing into a tunnel woven of their own twisted limbs, a tunnel clear of snags and pitfalls, leading directly toward the ruins of the old house. I waited, but my focus was slipping, straining to return to the ordinary world. I had my answer. No point asking for guarantees.
Did I feel any lessening of malice? Any dilution of threat? I couldn’t say. I could only trust what I’d seen.
Struggling to focus my eyes, I turned and looked at Djinn. At last she spoke.
“I think you’re full of shit, Mira, but it’s not as cold as it was. Let’s go. Please.”
So we went, exploring what we could of the old house before JJ’s show began.
After an age of creeping through brambles and stumbling over half-buried brickwork, we found ourselves back at the edge of the fitful shadows cast by JJ’s small fire. Maybe the chamber where it burned had once been the root cellar of the plantation house, or perhaps the in-house kitchen. I looked forward to coming back here in daylight. We’d seen flashes of stately chimneys soaring four stories above the ground (one with a small red juniper growing out of its capstone), partially intact walls with beautiful brick detailing, broad stone steps leading up to the emptiness of an arched entryway, and foundations honeycombing the interior like crumbling walls in a riotous garden.
I figured that JJ’s group had executed a frontal assault, finally choosing this sheltered subterranean den as their safe place, never even stumbling into the garden’s dark heart. Me, I liked knowing where danger lay, not sitting by a bright fire, inviting it in at its leisure.
Djinn and I settled in the trees out of reach of the light. Our vantage point was lousy. As long as the group sat inside the cellar we could see and hear almost nothing. Moving closer was too risky, and anyway, they were only singing. I sat scratching at what I hoped were imaginary insects, wishing for the previous night’s brilliant stars, and hoping the rain would hold off. It was ten o’clock.
“Please, God, don’t let him wait for midnight,” I sighed.
Scarcely a moment later I was on my feet, whispering, “OK, Djinn, here we go!”
JJ and his cohort milled around briefly before picking up kerosene lanterns, lighting them, and straggling out into the darkness. They looked as if they were dressed for church, or canvasing with Jehovah’s Witnesses, rather than creeping around derelict buildings. JJ wore his de rigueur cloak of office: dark suit and tie, white shirt and dress shoes; tonight he’d completed the ensemble with a dark raincoat.
Once they reached the level ground between the rear of the house and the garden, JJ gathered the boys around him, lanterns flickering dimly at their feet. I motioned for Djinn to follow as I moved closer.
The lanterns made a surreal nightscape of the little gathering: black trouser legs against black night, pale flickering hands, wavering shadows swallowed up in tangled weeds, faintly illumined bodies bisected by dark ties, glinting eyeglasses, the intermittent red flash of JJ’s ring, and a sonorous voice from the upper darkness proclaiming light where no light could be seen.
“We stand here t’night, on the brink o’ vic’try, our race almost run, crowns o’ glory within our reach,” he intoned. “Only a little further! The very angels in heaven are holdin’ their breath, waitin’ t’ see if we will struggle on t’ be victorious soldiers o’ the cross!”
Djinn tapped my arm, holding up the recorder. I looked at her and shrugged, then nodded. How I despised JJ’s sanctimonious claptrap!
Dark legs shifted, shuffled, anxious in the angry darkness. Maybe they felt it now, out of their shelter, nearer to its source.
“Ohhhh, God o’ righteous wrath, we stand firm in your armor, our loins girt about with truth, snug in the breastplate o’ your righteousness, shod with your holy gospel, helmeted with your sweet salvation, a-wieldin’ the shield o’ true faith and the sword o’ your word! We are your chosen warriors in a holy cause, Lord, standin’ ready t’ do your will, t’ begin a mighty cleansin’ o’ the scourge o’ God-mockin’ unnat’ral women, o’ witch’ry and black magic. Let your anger burn, O Lord! Glorify your name in retribution! Smite this house with destruction!
“Show no mercy, Father, for the murd’rer who had no mercy on your poor children! Damn the witch t’ eternal hellfire, sweet Jesus, t’ the gross darkness and gnashin’ o’ teeth reserved for those who defy your will!
“Oooohhh, Righteous Terror o’ the Heavens, hurl your lightnin’ down from on high! Consume her limbs! Deliver us from the curse of her presence!”
We could hear JJ’s every panting breath in the grove’s cone of silence. I imagined him staring up into the cloudy skies, chest heaving with zealous indignation, puffed up with his own oratory. But his companions were strangely silent: few choruses of amen, few hallelujah’s.
What next? Clearly, JJ wasn’t drawing on Roman Catholic tradition here.
Then in a hushed voice, almost too low for us to hear, he spoke again. “Go quickly now t’ your assigned places, my sons. Take up your posts around this den o’ darkest night. Guard it carefully. Let no evil thing escape! Tend your lanterns well: bring light int’ darkness! The strong hand o’ the Lord is upon you!”
If they were out to destroy the presence we’d met in the garden, these boys would need a divine hand. JJ’s rants just didn’t pack the necessary wallop. I almost pitied them. Their crisis of discovery was fast approaching: JJ’s self-serving bromides were about to burst like gas-filled carnival balloons.
“Watch and pray, my children, watch and pray!” he exhorted them. “Pray without ceasin’! Pray in pow’r and strength! Pray with me, pray for me, while I’m a-penetratin’ the black heart o’ this vile stronghold t’ wrestle with the demon herself!
If, as many people hoped, some sustaining presence did hold creation in a benevolent hand, would this deity hear such hate-filled prayers? I had my doubts.
In silence the little group broke up, the young men straggling out singly, lanterns bobbing, to their assigned positions around the outside walls of the house. JJ appeared to be making his way across the interior’s crumbling foundation walls to some central spot.
I turned and pressed Djinn’s arm, whispering gleefully, “That holy hangman’s noose is going to close around empty air. They’re in the wrong place!”
“No shit, Sherlock! What do you think’ll . . . ?”
Whatever she said after that was drowned by a screaming wind that swept through the grove like a hurricane, obliterating all other sound. Branches whipped above our heads. Vines and leaves slapped against exposed skin, stinging like lashes. And above it all we could hear the angry clamor of the magnolia’s leaves, clattering like a hundred hooves closing fast in a cobblestone alley, like a forest of snapping claws.
“Come on, Djinn, let’s see if we can get inside their circle. I want to keep an eye on JJ!” I yelled into her ear.
Sneaking past JJ’s prayer warriors was no challenge at all. The wind buried all sound of our passage, and the pitiful flicker of their lanterns did little but locate their positions for us; eleven boys encircling the overgrown walls of a large plantation house didn’t exactly close up the gaps. We strolled unseen among them, even flashing our lights now and again to check our footing.
Once inside, it got tricky. Within the ruined walls, we were exposed to eleven pairs of eyes scanning the same space for spectral refugees. As long as we stumbled around between foundation walls, tripping over vines, tearing flesh and clothes on rioting brambles, we were safe enough. We went unnoticed as we blundered into animal burrows and subsidence holes, or cracked our shins against fallen masonry. But each time we reached one room’s juncture with the next, we had to scramble up over broken walls decrepit with rotting mortar—and into plain sight. Without the gale masking our clumsiness we wouldn’t have had a prayer.
When we finally glimpsed the light from JJ’s lantern, it was on the far side of the massive interior chimney, close to the center of the house.
“Damn!” I hissed in Djinn’s ear. “We came in from the wrong direction. We can’t see him from this side at all, and I wouldn’t give us a ghost’s chance if we tried to sneak around. Ideas?”
“Yeah, quit while we’re ahead. If he starts bellowing we’ll hear him. No way I’m going to go sprawling over any more walls just to get a better view, waggling my tail in the air like a target for these paranoid prayer jockeys.”
Hoping that my recorder could pick up his voice over the howl of the wind, I crept to the wall closest to the chimney and left it running in a sheltered recess. Then we hunkered down, making a nest in the lee of a wall. We waited.
If anything, the wind picked up. It wailed through a thousand crevices in the ruined brickwork, screamed through the broken chimney flues, roared round and round inside the thrashing grove. Although the back of the towering chimney blocked our view of JJ, we could see its dark silhouette backlit by his lantern. The little juniper on top reminded me of a forlorn child, staked out like some ancient sacrifice to the phantoms of the sky. Her wailing cry overrode the wind, even from this distance.
I shook myself awake, unnerved by the bizarre fantasy conjured by the windy darkness. How long were we going to sit here, staring at nothing, recording wind noise on a $300 digital recorder? I wasn’t sure what I’d expected, but not this exhausting nothingness. Djinn appeared to be dozing, or maybe just becoming the experience. That was just as well. The more we tried to talk over the wind, the more chance of being overheard in a lull. Except that there hadn’t been any lulls.
I’d imagined ritual exorcism, fancy dress, objects empowered by special blessings, dramatic power struggles between good and evil. But good and evil were a little tricky here. Which was which? In my book, JJ wasn’t exactly on the side of the angels. And I hadn’t really expected any spiritual entities to manifest themselves. I’d figured JJ would come, strut around, do silly rituals, and go home puffed up with his own importance.
The strutting and silliness he’d managed easily enough, but I was puzzled by this inactivity. His disciples would fall asleep at their posts, seek out some shelter from the wind if nothing happened soon.
“Ahhh,” I breathed softly. “Got you, you bloated turkey buzzard!”
In a sudden flash of insight, I knew exactly what he was doing, as surely as if he’d put it on a theatre marquee: JJ’s Agony in Gethsemane. The clichés should have warned me. “Watch and pray,” indeed! He’d wait until they all gave up and let their attention wander, and then he’d come staggering in from the darkness, haranguing them with some mighty spiritual victory: over evil, over women, over the dark-skinned races of the earth, over all religions but his own.
Abashed by their inattention, his little army would pretend to have seen it all, and the drama would grow with each telling. He could wreak incalculable damage, riding the emotions roused by such a tale.
I had to stop him! Now, before the damage was done!
I never even got to try.
Like a sullen current of arctic air pouring through a cracked door, cold snaked down over us, coiling around my senses, freezing my anger, congealing my blood: an implacable sister to the malevolence in the garden. I ground my teeth to stifle the scream begging to be born. Even so, a small voice spoke from outside my fear, detached and curious.
“This cold is not the same,” the voice observed. “There’s a difference. It’s not threatening so much as warning, ‘Keep off! Stand clear! Don’t interfere!’”
Immobilized by fear, I was incapable of interfering.
At first I thought my teeth were chattering. A split second later I realized the wind had dropped, the riot of sound had ceased, and a clicking sound had filled the darkness. “Tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch,” the sound ran on and on—no more than a field of insects, of snakes, singing in the night.
The light from JJ’s lantern brightened, bloomed, and died, shooting soft rainbows into the night. Cold weighed even more cruelly upon my breast, pressing me against the rough wall at my back, blotting all light from my eyes. Then the clicking stopped, and in the utterly empty dark, I heard the sound of stone rasping on stone, of crumbling brickwork tearing loose from rotten mortar, and the hollow thunk of heavy masonry falling ponderously onto yielding clay.
A soft sigh whispered through the grove. Then there was silence.