Friday, May 18, 2007

A Southern Tale of Witchcraft, Ghosts, and Other Human Terrors

"Pete" and I rode out into the dusk on our bicycles. It was the summer of 1992, along the Lunenburg/Prince Edward county line, a few miles east of the Green Bay, Virginia, post office.

We'd heard the stories for years, the tall tales of old white women, the legendary yarns of tobacco farmers and soybean sages. And we'd been warned by our elders, too, to never look for that old shack, because anyone who trespassed there would be doomed.

According to Pete's grandmother, the shack, whatever remained of it, was cursed - decent white folk, as she put it, never went a-looking for that nig'ra witch's place.

Despite the warnings, Pete and I had decided, in the midst of one of the hottest summers of our lives, to find out the truth. We sat out to locate the mythical witch's cabin, to investigate the rumors and legends for ourselves.

* * * *

Older people in that area knew the legend, but all of those who told it to me are now dead. I don't know if the story is still told in the 2000s, in this modern era, around campfires and at family cookouts. I suspect that those who are now the age I was in 1992 probably have never heard the tale.

This may well be the only written account of the legend of the Washerwoman Shack.

According to the versions I remember, the shack once belonged to a black laundress, a former slave. Her name has been lost to history, but she was said to have been a witch, a practitioner of the lost arcane art known throughout the South as Hoodoo. Rumor had it that her death was the result of arson, that several white teenagers had trapped her in her own home and then set the place ablaze - punishment for being an uppity nig'ra.

No historical record exists of the old midwife, or of the fire that supposedly killed her. That should shock no one reading this; the barbaric history of the Jim Crow South is full of convenient disappearances. Black people who were different from or educated beyond their white counterparts, especially in a region once known for its Klan-dominated government, tended to disappear, and people often left it at that.

To this day, in fact, there are still old white men alive throughout Dixie, family barbers and nice country doctors, kindly police officers and polite retired shopkeepers, who helped make people like the midwife disappear. And they will take their secrets to their graves as surely as they smile at church suppers and play poker down at the VFW, the face of one man or woman's unsung butcher simultaneously the face of someone's cherished grandfather or favorite teacher or beloved community leader.

With such hidden horrors of this mortal coil, throughout Virginia and the rest of the South, why would anyone be afraid of a dead woman's curse, a woman for whom there may be no record of her having ever lived in the first place?

* * * *

Pete and I didn't believe in witches, of course.

Sure, "Sara," Pete's neighbor, claimed to be a witch, a follower of something called Wicca. But she simply smoked a lot of pot, burned incense, and liked to dance around her mobile home naked, calling her acts sabbats. To us, witchcraft, at least the Caucasian version, was nothing more than a stoned redneck girl who collected dragon sculptures.

And curses? I believed in them, but, well, I'm part Cajun, with a great - grandmother who used to read my tea leaves on a regular basis. I still cross myself every time I pass a cemetery. Pete, however, did not. He was a Good Ol' Boy. He believed in the Holy Trinity of the Peckerwood - God, Guns, and the Rebel flag.

Pete and I had just celebrated our fourteenth birthdays. We were almost men at the dawn of the 21st century. We'd grown up with things like television, FM radio and VHS machines. We'd watched the Challenger explode a few years earlier, listened to Def Leppard and Winger and Warrant, and frequently shoplifted softcore porn from the local video store ...

* * * *

The Virginia dusk soaked us in sweat a few miles into our journey, so we stopped alongside Molasses Hill Road for a quick break. After carefully hiding our bikes in a patch of pokeberry, we did what many rural Southern teenagers do when there's a lack of adult supervision during the summer.

We had a pint of moonshine liberated from a local farmer's private stash. We had an ounce and a half of a certain illegal plant, rolled up in fresh cured tobacco leaves. And we had a backpack full of pimiento cheese sandwiches.

No great adventure, as a teenager, is ever devoid of a ceremonial meal. And witch hunting, in Southside Virgina, is hard work.

* * * *

We knew the legendary haunted ruins lay just off a timber road, somewhere along the county line. And by sundown, we'd found it.

The pine log structure was charred, held up only by the crumbling red clay that filled its joints. Inside, those same logs were found to be half-consumed by whatever fire had once raged through it. In what was left of the kitchen, a rusted iron kettle still hung in the back of a river stone fireplace - the walls around the hearth had collapsed long before we arrived. The remnants of two chairs and a table rested on the ground, partially buried in leaves. Firs and maples grew up from what had once been someone's well-worn dirt floor.

Pete and I decided to make camp for the night, right in the middle of our Virginia version of El Dorado, our great archaeological find in the Lunenburg wilderness. In the morning, we'd return home to tell of our expedition, to boast to friends on the phone, and to, well, begin planning new ways to use the site as a party spot for our forthcoming high school careers.

The way I remember it, I built the fire, using some of the chimney's collapsed stones to build a decent pit. We needed light to explore by, and, like the young juvenile delinquents we were, we'd forgotten to bring more than one flashlight. For some reason, the air inside seemed cold and damp despite the lack of a roof, as if the southern summer stopped at the walls.

Pete had brought his father's .45 and a box of shells; he spent most of the time killing off the blunt we'd started earlier and shooting at what had once been the outhouse a few yards past the "back door." I tossed him the old kettle at one point, figuring he could at least practice his aim on something smaller than an outdoor shitbox.

* * * *

Shadows cast by fires can play tricks on a person, especially at night. Moonshine, of course, doesn't help matters much.

Pete and I explored the ruins carefully. There were only three rooms to the place - a front room, the kitchen in the back, and what we guessed had at one time served as a bedroom. In every room, there were remnants of life buried in the leaves underfoot. Old tin cans, broken lanterns, and even what looked to the remains of a bed frame. Everything bore the signs of one hell of a house fire.

And then we found the door.

* * * *

There were no interior doors in the ruins. And the back door into the kitchen was long gone. The four windows, which probably hadn't held glass anyway, were nothing more than gaping holes into the darkness.

But ten feet away from the front room entrance, just past the charred remains of what had once been a porch, we found a z-frame door, propped against an old walnut tree. The hinges looked as if they'd been blown apart at the pin, as if the pin itself had exploded. The door looked as if it had been carefully placed there, like a tombstone in some old cemetery.

Pete, in his eagerness, wanted to drag the door inside, near the fire, so it could be inspected. He grabbed both sides and lifted the sucker while I held the flashlight. When he turned around, the backside was exposed for probably the first time since it had been placed...

I remember the chill that shot up my spine, the numbness of shock and childish fear that enveloped my body. There were bones on the back of the door. Not human bones but animal, firmly attached with wires, dangling in the light. There were whitetail antlers and groundhog skulls, petrified bird feet bound together. There were strings of bottle tops, too, interlaced into long bead ropes with animal teeth.

Pete dropped the door, its rotten timber splitting in half at the cross brace. We ran back into the house, swearing as we ran, huddled with our backs to the fire. Suddenly, the typical nighttime noise of the woods, the crickets and owls and whippoorwills, was amplified against the night.

As illogical, as irrational, as it sounds to write now, in the 21st century, I'm quite sure there was something out there watching us, something that we'd disturbed. And I remember feeling as if we were squatting in that something's ruined house.

* * * *

Pete and I sat in silence for almost four hours, afraid of the dark for the first time since we'd been little kids, terrified to make a sound without so much as a blanket to cover our faces.

And then, without warning, Pete reached into the backpack, withdrew his dad's pistol, and started firing wildly into the night. I tried to stop him, but the weed-induced paranoia had gotten the best of his fears. Ghosts, even if they do really exist, have never been known to be afraid of a gunshot.

Pete kept pulling the trigger until he'd emptied the clip. And I started to yell, to scream. I felt it in my throat, working its way up from my lungs. But my scream died somewhere between my teeth and my ribcage, died mute and still in captivity.

There was nothing but silence. Not a sound coming from the darkness.

Suddenly, from above us, from the back of the chimney, came a shrill scream like none I've ever heard. A large black bird, probably a buzzard, tore off into the night sky. I saw nothing but a looming silhouette against the light from the fire, felt nothing but the breeze of its wings.

At least, as an adult, I've convinced myself that it was simply a buzzard.

* * * *

The South is full of stories about black people who mysteriously disappeared, of old Hoodoo women who may or may not have met their ends at the hands of a lynch mob or group of white supremacists. While I'm convinced that whoever lived in that house probably practiced some sort of folk medicine, there will never be a way to prove or disprove the tall tales I'd heard.

Every once and a while, I'll have a nightmare about that ruined house, about that door. In the parts that I remember from those dreams, the door is almost always somehow alive, possessed by demons, the animal skulls and bird claws dancing with the strings of fangs and bottle caps.

And there's an old black woman there, too, my mind's interpretation of what she may have looked like, her white hair made of clouds and her body aflame, cursing those who killed her and crying out for justice.

And when I do dream those little dreams, I find myself hoping that I'm not cursed myself. I know, it's a silly thought. But one never knows what sinister powers exist in the World of the Supernatural.

A few days ago, I caught the smell of burnt pine drifting through my apartment windows here in Oxford Fucking Ohio, the same scent I smelled back in those Lunenburg ruins almost two decades ago. I flashed back to that night as I lay in bed. And I felt that strange chill upon me once more, that terrifying cold of the unknown.

I wonder now, as I did a few nights ago, what it would feel like to simply disappear, to become nothing more than a phantom in a tall tale?

I wonder what those surviving old white men dream about, the ones who will go to their graves knowing the true fate of African-Americans like that phantom hoodoo woman? What haunts them as they lay in bed? If there is indeed a Devil, the Judeo-Christian fallen angel of lore, I wonder what flesh-tearing things he has in store for them in his infernal pits of brimstone?

I wonder what terrifies those men? What torments those still alive who lynched innocent men across America, or burned them alive in their homes? Did their victims forgive from their disappearing graves? Or do the Undead rise like a mojo hand, returning to this world to serve as brown-skinned swords of a vengeful God?

Maybe, just maybe, that property really was cursed. And maybe we disturbed the restless spirit of a murdered black woman that night. And maybe, just maybe, Pete's gunshots were merely a reminder to her that the time had come for her to depart this world for a better, more Hoodoo-friendly afterlife.

Maybe we were spared that night because we were simply drunk, stoned children in search of adventure, not the old white men who once roamed Virginia nights in pointed white hoods?

The realm of the supernatural, if it does exist, is one a 13 year-old Virginia boy couldn't explain in 1992. And that kid, as a man, years removed, can't explain it, either.

Some of the things that haunt the sons and daughters of the American South, as real and as vivid as Emmett Till's bloated corpse, as haunting as Medgar Evers and the other ghosts of Mississippi, are much more terrifying than a simple ghost story could ever be.

- # # # -


xboxgirl said...

Two teenage boys with weed, booze and a .45 never mix well.

The ZenFo Pro said...

Lmao!No, they certainly don't! Actually, when I went clean, I used this story as a sorta mental reenforcement, thinking about that rather terrifying moment involving the gun...

cooper said...

Jason,that was impressive.

xboxgirl said...

Happy Birthday to you!
Happy birthday dear sexy zenfo pro/Jason,
happy birthday toooo you and many more!

The ZenFo Pro said...

Lol, and actually shorter than I thought it'd be. :)

That's right. The big Two-Nine.

Shit. I'm getting old.

EsotericWombat said...

Happy Birthday, dude.

Hell of a story.

Jemima said...

How the hell did you not run into the night and keep running until you collapsed? Not that i'm a big old scaredy cat myself, but nearly had me running away from the internet there!

The door reminds me of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where the scariest thing is feathers and stuff. What those fragments of life represent. Or is it just me?

The ZenFo Pro said...

Hey man, thanks!

Yeah. Didn't know if I conveyed the "I almost shit my pants" fear...good to know ;)

Lmao! Well, we had a gun, were intoxicated, and, if I remember, didn't want to be teased for being chicken...

Seriously, I don't know why. I think it had something to do with not wanting to risk riding our bikes through the rural Virginia dark. We're talking pitch-black, with no street lights...

cooper said...

God, jason I'm sorry I forgot to say Happy Birthday.

Happy Birthday...three times.

The ZenFo Pro said...

Hey, thanks. Don't worry. I tried to forget it myself.

Who the hell celebrates 29 anyway???