Curtis Leroy Cooper tooled along at fifty-miles per hour, the fastest his 1984 Le Baron would go up the grades, hardly paying attention to the bucolic winter scenery that surrounded him. Being a city boy, the sparsely placed farms and thick woods that populated the foothills of West Virginia comprised a landscape that was as foreign to his experience as the pyramids of Mars.
Curtis grimaced as he wheeled his car halfway into the oncoming lane to avoid running over the messy remnants of a dead dog. Once dead, even a cur was to be respected. Fear was the only way to gain respect, and Curtis had always had an instinctive fear of dead bodies: Once something was dead, he believed, it became the enemy of the living, and offending it was to be avoided at all costs. His absolute dread of the supernatural – an instinctive fear – had been escalated by the influence of G-man, a wrinkled and rheumy-eyed old fart who had worked in the bakery section of Alfredo’s Groceries for several months. G-man, who claimed to have once been a bass player, a session man for Motown, and to have toured the world backing up the Temptations, had game for being old school. Lots of game. At least for a junkie on the mend.
Once, sensing Curtis’s doubts about his musical pedigree, G had taken a wrinkled newspaper article from his wallet, unfolded it with a flourish and held it up as proudly as a doctor would his medical diploma. “See that shit!” he said. The faded picture at the top of the article showed the Temps on stage in Vegas, left legs high, frozen in the middle of a dance step. G pointed to a blurred figure standing near an amp and holding a bass guitar. The skinny figure could have been a thirty-year younger version of G. Maybe.
When Curtis mentioned his impending trip to West Virginia, G-man had said, while meticulously wrapping some buns and dropping them into a white bakery sack, “My rotund brother, you got to go through it to get to it. See what I’m sayin’?” Curtis always nodded his head, not about to admit that he not only didn’t see what G-man was sayin’ but that he didn’t understand it either.
“Them ole’ hills is full of spooks, the restless dead. See, it’s the real deal there. Voodoo.”
“So you be believin’ in spooks?” Curtis asked, dreading an affirmative answer.
“Sheee-it. Spooks? Gott damn. ‘Course I believe in spooks n’ witches n’ shit, boy. I been all over the world. Know all ‘bout ‘em.” G-man went on to share his knowledge of the weird ways of the hill people: little old white ladies who could, if you displeased them with so much as a look they didn’t like, whither your manhood to the size of a baby’s thumb, same as the witch doctors in Africa did.
“That’s ‘cause they learnt it from black people, see wut I’m sayin?”
Curtis blinked his eyes and nodded.
See, lot’s of slaves were captured by local tribes and sold off to America ‘cause they were witches n’ shit. You didn’t know that, did you? They didn’t want ‘em in Africa. Hell, naw. So they git over here, they eventually teach witchcraft to the white people, who turnt it into even more evil – which is natural, mind you, since white people are devil people.” In between checking out and chatting up girls young enough to be his grand kids and the old ladies buying cakes and shit, going on about this one or that one having a bit of flavor, G-man went on, talking ninety miles a minute about the restless dead and the spooky ways of the hill people.
All that was a week before G-man got fired, two days before Curtis left for the hills. G-man, who managed to stay off H but not crack, got canned when Mr. Lipsutz, the store’s general manager, came back to the bakery and found him, eyes glazed over like a cat that’s been licking the grease from the frying pan and oblivious to anyone else’s presence, casually eating bakery goods out of the display case, his mouth circled by a clown’s white rictus made of powdered sugar.
Why had he listened to the ole’ school fool? Maybe it was time, he told himself, to forget G’s weird stories and enjoy the scenery.
The question of enjoying the scenery was rendered moot when the dark gray cloud that had been looming over his head for the last hour let lose, covering everything with chilly pellets of rain and obscuring the road in front of him. Curtis turned on his windshield wipers (only the one on the driver’s side worked, making for harrowing right hand turns) and hit the heater fan before he remembered the heater didn’t work. “Damn,” Curtis cursed his luck. He was in the middle of nowhere and freezing. Well, not freezing, but cold.
Curtis glanced in his rearview mirror: his ride was blowing out a black cloud of oily smoke like a mechanical octopus. The Le Baron, which Curtis mistakenly thought of French manufacture, had cost him seven-hundred and fifty dollars. It sported a set of chrome mags that cost twelve-hundred dollars – a bit of financial irony lost on Curtis. The other options Curtis had added were a steering wheel made of chrome chain links and a plastic refillable deodorizer in the shape of a gold crown, which was placed on the dash above one of the inoperative heat vents. Pasted to the back window of the car were gold stick-on letters he bought from Wal Mart, a couple already peeling off, saying Curtis Leroy Cooper, Capricorn. At least this was intended: it actually read: Curtis Leroy Cooper, Capicorn; however, due to either to the dismal educational level of his friends, or their general level of inebriation, no one had yet noticed the misspelling.
His aunt, Dianette, who lived in Gooseberg, West Virginia, a small town on the other side of the mountains, had summoned him after she hit the lotto – a three-way split, but a good one still.
“Get outta the city, Curtis,” she told him. “It ain’t no place for a young black man these days.” Her new house had enough room for him and she would find some kind of a small business he and his cousin Kindrell could get into; kindrell had suggested a T-shirt-selling kiosk that could travel around to rap concerts. They could see the country, party up, and meet fine ladies. Problem was, Curtis liked the city and was doing fine there. He had held a steady job, bag boy at Alfredo Groceries, since high school: Curtis was now twenty-four.
“Listen up, boy,” his grandma had argued persuasively, “you ain’t gonna’ get rich at that grocery store, and I don’t ‘pose you going to be responsible for any future advances in rocket science, you see. So you’d best be thinking about developing an alternate career for yo’ future. If Dianette willing to help, you best hurry up and drag yo’ black ass down to West Virginny ‘fore she changes her mind. Understand?”
That was pretty much it. He didn’t argue with his granny, though he already had an ambition, a career path, of sorts. He wanted to be a rapper. Problem was, due to prodigious use of weed, which had scrambled his short-term memory something awful, he had a devilish hard time remembering all the lyrics.
The Le Baron gave vent to another tubercular cough, causing Curtis to damn French auto manufacturers once again. The coughs had started about thirty miles back, when he crossed the state line and started struggling with the hilly terrain. Curtis, though not mechanically inclined, had a strong faith imparted to him by his grandma, which caused him to believe in spontaneous remission, even in mechanical systems; hence, he had been ignoring the coughs. But the last cough was pretty loud, hard to ignore. Curtis took another toke of the massive J he had rolled at his last rest stop, then turned up the tape player and for the tenth time or more that morning, he listened to his favorite def comedy duo, Little Ray Ray and Jivey J.
“Yo. You way too fat, man,” Little Ray Ray mock chided.
“Oh yeah?” Jivey replied with his trademark sissified falsetto.
“Yeah. Just look it yo’self, You need to do sumpin’ ’bout it.”
“Oh, I am. I’m a new weight loss program now.”
“Yeah? Wuz it called?”
“Dr. Palm’s ninety-day Masturbation Weight Loss Program.”
“Yeah. Every time you hungry, ‘stead of eatin’, you spanks yo’ monkey?
“Oh my. Do it work?”
Curtis mouthed the punch line with Jivey J, “Sure. Just look how thin my wrists are,” then his laughter filled the car.
BANG! CLANGLE, CLANGLE CLANGLE.
Something metallic thrubbed as it passed under the car’s chassis.
“Damn!” The car, in it’s death throes, vibrated spasmodically. Curtis fought it to the side of the road like a mechanical bronco, where it shuddered to a halt and issued a hiss of steam from the hood – the automotive equivalent of giving up the ghost. Curtis rolled down his window and squinted as he looked back down the road.
“Mercy.” Through the downpour, backtracking the Le Baron’s recent path, he could see pieces of metal lying in the road and a trail of some kind of fluid whose purple color was being quickly diluted by the rain. The car had extruded the mechanical equivalent of heart and lungs. The Le Baron had suffered, Curtis surmised, the automotive equivalent of a major coronary. The hissing from the engine’s death throes died away and all was still, save the persistent drumming of the rain and a few pings as hot metal cooled. This was definitely messing with his buzz.
Joint still in his mouth, Curtis pulled his parka hood over his head and got out to survey the scene. At least the heat coming off the dying engine felt good. Woods, fields, empty highway. He couldn’t be more than sixty miles from Gooseberg. He could call his Aunt for help. Yeah. Maybe his Uncle Raynard knew something about cars. Then Curtis remembered that the cell phone attached to his belt was there only as a fashion statement; the battery had been dead for a month. He could get a ride to the nearest filling station. But there was no traffic. In fact, he couldn’t remember meeting another car in the last ten miles. And there were no houses nearby – wait. He could see an old brick chimney peeking from between some trees down the way, maybe a football field away.
After he picked up the larger pieces of the Le Baron from the road and stashed them in the trunk, Curtis began walking toward the house. The angry-looking gray clouds rendered the afternoon preternaturally dark, and, to his further misery, the wind was blowing the rain straight at him as he walked. Curtis repeated his favorite quote, which he thought of during times of adversity, over and over like a mantra. It was one of the few things he remembered from high school, a quote by some philosopher that went: “What don’t kill me only makes me madder.” Or something like that.
Curtis took a last hit on the J then flipped the now soggy roach away, thinking he never should’ve left the city.
To his right, the hills sloped down to the roadway, which was cut about six or eight feet below the banks; to the left of the road the landscape dipped another few feet then stretched into rolling fields, studded here and there with small islands of trees and shrubs. The banks on the right were pouring muddy streams across the road. Between him and the house, still obscured by trees, was a lot of wet. But no more wet than he’d get standing still. With his shoes squeaking, he continued toward the house.
As Curtis got closer he noticed something at the edge of the nearest hill; a rusted tripod holding dried flowers; faded black ribbons attached to the tripod flapped anemically as the rain slashed at them. Odd. Squinting his eyes to see better, he could see a rusted iron fence in front of the tripod. At first he assumed it was an antique dog pen, until a flash of lightning revealed a dozen or so vertical slashes of dark, weather-stained marble. Half obscured by a cedar tree, a mournful hollow-eyed stone figure with wings stared down at him.
“Shit!” A graveyard! Curtis stopped, shivering from the cold, his heart pounding from having seen too many vampire pictures. He saw no evidence of a church anywhere nearby – just the graveyard, large enough to accommodate a generation or so of hillbillies. Where there hillbilly vampires? Another thing he noticed was that though everything around the fence was overgrown the graveyard itself seemed reasonably well tended.
Curtis knew plenty of city white people, but wasn’t the least familiar with country white people, save from the movies, and that wasn’t good, them being mostly stupid gun-toting red necks who roamed ‘round in pickup trucks drinking moonshine and looking for trouble – or worse yet, grabbing your ear and saying Squeal like a pig. Black people in the country, he supposed, would have enough sense to take their dead to a church and bury them respectfully. That prompted another thought: maybe there was good reason these people weren’t buried in sacred soil?
Curtis’ buzz was definitely gone now. Not wanting to go pass the graveyard he turned back toward the car; now the rain was blowing from that direction, heavy, getting under his parka hood like it was furious at him for turning around. He stood immobile for a minute as deep conflicts between evolutionary programing battled in his mind; finally, the drive to seek comfort won over fear. Hell, he rationalized, Jed Clampett was more likely to answer the door than Dracula; and It was daytime – even if dark. Curtis sighed, turned back toward the house. He crossed the road until he’d gotten well pass the cemetery, then cut back over to the other side as he approached the house. The driveway, cut into the hill, was steep, made of red mud, with deep arroyos which allowed near torrential steams of water to flow onto the paved road beneath.
The house and a barn stood on an open space, with hilly woods rising behind them. The house had a corrugated tin roof, streaked with rust; the walls were made of rustic slat boards that were weather-worn a uniform gray. If it had ever been painted, rain, sun and wind had effectively eradicated all traces of color. Curtis had seen a few like it driving through the country side. It was a place for poor folks, but a different kind of poor folks than in the city.
Curtis stepped up on to the porch. The place was creepy, even in the daylight, and looked like it had been abandoned for years; an old tractor and a plow sat rusting silently out by the barn. The wind blew impatiently around the eaves, rushed past an old soda pop bottle lying in the dirt near the front porch, evoking a protracted moan which could have been whispering “Nooooo.”
“Shit!” Curtis shivered again, but not from the cold. Some of the window panes were cracked, one was missing, replaced with a sheet of cardboard. If anybody lived here, they definitely didn’t take care of their shit. There were some raggedy-assed curtains behind the windows, but no sign of electric lights. The wind blew a curtain of rain up on the porch. Curtis huddled against the door. This storm wasn’t going anywhere soon, and if he walked back to his car he would be soaked and in danger of getting pneumonia. If the place was abandoned, surely no one could blame him for riding out the storm inside where it was dry.
Curtis pounded on the door. “Hallo? Anybody to home. Yo! Anybody in there?”
He was ready to conclude that the house was abandoned, when he heard a shuffling sound from inside the house. Then a heavy clump of footfalls as somebody – or something – approached the door. Curtis backed away from the door as far as he could, looking around as he stood waiting, wishing he was back in the city, bagging groceries at Alfredo’s. A dog howled in the distance. At least he thought it was a dog.
Why in the funky chicken did people live in the middle of nowhere like this? Through the accumulated grime on the windows he detected a feint glow as a light moved slowly through the front room.
The door opened slowly, slowly enough not to disturb a cobweb affixed to the corner of the door frame. A slight figure materialized as the dim winter light penetrated the doorway’s interior. Holding a candle in one hand, she regarded him without speaking, or smiling. As she opened the door wider, Curtis became aware of a musky, funky smell coming from the house.
Curtis’ breath caught in his throat. The girl was skinny, maybe ten years old. And she was pale. Even for a white girl. This girl, Curtis thought, put the white on rice. Her hair was flaxen, blond, very long but piled in a bun atop her head. She wore a faded floral gown that descended to the tops of her shoes; the shoes where black high tops with laces that went all the way up.
After what seemed like several minutes of no one speaking, Curtis’ finally said,
“Is . . . is yo momma or daddy to home, little girl?” She shook her head.
“Uh, my car’s done broke. It uh, come uncrunk. So I wuz like won’drin if maybe you had a phone or sum’in?”
Her eyes, which shown in the candle light like little black marbles, traveled all over him. Finally, she said, “No such new contrivances here.”
“Do you knows if there’s another place here ‘bouts that might . . . ”
“Who is it, Little Witch?” A figure seemed to materialize out of the gloom of the hallway. Another female, maybe a year older than the one who had answered the door. She wore a gown that drug the floor. The lace at the bottom of the gown was dirty and torn. With no feet showing, she seemed to float across the room as she moved toward Curtis. The pungent smell which had been present since the door opened, increased as she drew nearer.
She folded her arms and peered at Curtis as if she were an adult and on equal footing with him. She looked at her smaller companion, shrugged her shoulders,
and said, “Well?”
“Some lost soul, I suspect, Big Witch.” Curtis’ smaller host replied, holding her candle up to illumine Curtis’ sweating face. “He says his car broke down. But he may be just a restless spirit conjured up by the storm.”
Curtis shook his head. This was getting really creepy: the old clothes, the funky smell, the presence of two little girls in an abandoned house – and the graveyard just a stone’s throw away. “Look, I just need to use a phone, or sumptin’. Any adult live here with you? Any place that got a . . . ”
Lightning flashed, and in that brief interval Curtis could see how complete the deterioration inside the house was: in stark contrast to the girls with their pale faces and their lacy gowns, the room was gray, the colors of life long sucked out of it; the sofa was collapsed in on itself; the chair had a broken strut and a hole in the basket weave seat; shelves were broken and debris covered the floor. The fireplace hadn’t seen a fire in years. Nobody had lived her for a long time.
Curtis felt his legs turn rubbery. “You . . you girls say you live here? Do you?”
“Little Witch and I don’t actually live here. We live nearby, and come up to visit the family now and then.”
“Come up to visit?”
“Big Pa let’s us come up here on occasion,” Big Witch said, a smile finally breaking out, “and takes us back home.”
“Ba . . Big Pa?” Curtis said.
“Big Pa is . . . old. The oldest one in the family . . . he’s what you’d call the caretaker around here.”
“Big Pa sees to everything ‘round here ‘bouts,” Little Witch said. “He knows everything.”
“Big Pa will take us home, I suspect. He’ll take you home too, if you want,” Big Witch added.
“Yes,” Little Witch said, “over the hill and down to home.”
Down to home? Not sure what to do next, Curtis asked, “Any other folks live nearby?”
Big Witch said, “Not so’s you’d notice.”
“Is they a store near by? A filling station?”
“Oh, I don’t know. When Big Pa gets here he’ll help you see to your trouble. Or if you want, maybe we could conjure you up a telephone. We are witches, you know.”
“No . . . I just think I’ll be leave . . . ”
The back door slammed. Though he figured it was probably just the wind, Curtis’ jumped at the sound. Neither girl flinched.
“Where’s my girls?” a thunderous voice boomed above the storm. Big Witch turned to Little Witch and hissed, “Big Pa’s here!” The girls then squealed in gleeful unison, “Big Pa’s here! Big Pa’s here!”
The board’s in the old floor creaked as something large moved from the back of the house forward. Peering down the hallway, his legs turning rubbery, Curtis got a glimpse of something tall – and covered in glistening red from head to foot. He couldn’t see if it had a tail or not, but suspected as much. Before it could turn the corner into the front room, Curtis screamed, then broke and ran, knocking the tattered screen door off its hinges as he fled.
Pulling down the hood of his red rain coat down and shaking the rain from his face, Big Pa said, “Jesus! What was wrong with that colored fellow? He took off like the devil was after him. Was that Otis, who works on Mr. Parkers’ spread?”
“Nope. A stranger.” Big Witch answered. “Didn’t know him. His car broke down, and he wanted to use a phone.”
“That old Le Baron I passed? Well, why the heck didn’t he wait? Did you tell him I’d be ‘round shortly? I’d been glad to take him to get a tow truck.”
“I think maybe Big Witch put a running spell put on him,” Little Witch suggested.
“I ‘spect he was bewitched by the storm,” Big Witch said.
“So y’all are witches today? Not princesses?” Big Pa waved his hand in front of his nose. “Phew. Well, y’all some smelly witches. How many times I tell y’all not to play with them old clothes? It smells like a mothball factory in here. And you know better n’ to play with candles. You burn this old place down and yo granny’s gone skin me alive. Now, get your good clothes back on and git your raincoats. It may be a short walk,” Big Pa and Granny’s house was just on the other side of the hill from the old homestead, “but I ain’t taking no chance on bringing you silly witches home to yo granny with no pneumonia.”
X – X – X
Surprised by a newfound athletic ability, Curtis ran. G-Man had been right: the two dead witch girls, the vision of the devil moving through the hall and coming toward him – it was true. This was all the motivation he needed. But in spite of his intense motivation, sloughing through rain and mud, lungs wheezing from too many years of smoking herb, and carrying an excess of poundage, all began taking their toll. After a hundred yards, Curtis began to wind down like a mechanical doll. However, as he drew even with the graveyard the tripod of dead flowers blew over; one of the faded black ribbons protruded through the iron fence and flapped at him like the black tongue of a corpse doing a death-rattle. Figuring the graveyard had emptied at his passing and was about to release a devil’s horde of bony wraiths to pursue him, Curtis found renewed inspiration. Let them pursue. He knew he would out run the hordes of hell. He didn’t need the broken Le Baron. He didn’t need herb. He didn’t need a share of his aunt’s lottery winnings: He just needed to get the hell away from the witches of West Virginia.