This is a post-apocalyptic love story about the day of the rapture. It occurred in Tennessee, on October 28th, 1964. This is the story of how the witch saved me.
History threads like a needle in the South. Southerners are more conscious of the thread than anybody. Our ancestors are pulling on one end, our grandchildren on the other. The pattern's ours to sew. Truth becomes what it needs to be over time, and with a strong hand it can be manipulated to what the body and mind need. It's the same everywhere, of course. But other places don't keep track of the threads like we do.
Sewing is a woman's last resort. It's an attempt to make a pattern out of something that has fragmented. It had been a year since Robert's death. I'll tell you a secret about him. We didn't hold hands. When he died Robert and I had locked arms. That was our way. And he said to me, “Straight as an arrow,” which is what he always said when I was sad. We locked arms and then he died.
I nearly overdosed on pills after that so we could be together. I had the bottle of barbiturates, tiny blue octagons, sitting by my bed. But then I had begun to attend the widows sewing circle and heard the same stories warped over time like fabric. It was there that I came to realize the value of lies.
Women reimagine their lives with needles and quilt patterns because they have to. The names of the children on the blankets never changed, but their achievements did, or their failures. The men who had become graveyard memories took on stature they never achieved in life, except for the ones who had disappointed us who descended deeper into the dirt with every recounted failing.
So I chose sewing over death, for a time.
Of course we had heard that day about Cuba and the Russians and everyone was upset and talking like lunatics. The church bells were ringing out regularly above us. None of us had a radio which the women regretted loudly but I did not. Then Barbie Murphy started talking about how crazy Dottie Dotson had bought a radio to communicate with ghosts. “Oh, that's pitiable,” I said.
Barbie said she heard aliens had come to visit Dotty and brought her meals every day. Barbie was touched by idiocy. But at least you could go confront Barbie and at least she seemed to care when there was talk behind her back about how stupid the things she said were.
It was different with Dottie. Dottie did not join the country club, did not go out and apparently did not ever have her hair or nails done, had no interest in Rotary, had no interest in men whatsoever. She lived alone in a country palace, and had for years, with the rumor being that her late husband Casey Dotson had died and left her a fortune as well as madness. No one seemed to wander in or out of the home. Yet she had perfect rosebushes in the front yard. No such rosebush would ever grow by human hands. She seemed perfectly happy to be left alone. The wilder the rumors got about whatever she was up to in that palace Casey had left her the less she seemed interested at all in refuting it.
But Barbie was the only one who could say anything about actually confronting her. She had taken the bold step of trying to sell her Avon, years ago, and she had dined out on the story ever since. “Coming up to the door,” she said, “I ring and knock and knock.”
“Whatever possessed you to do it,” an old woman asked, gasping.
“I ring and knock and I'm about to leave. Finally the door opens and-”
The women open their eyes.
“Not a stitch on. Naked. Head to toe.”
There's gasping and sighing.
“And then she's rude,” Barbie said. “While I'm sitting there gaping and I have to look at – that – and I'm begging her to get dressed. She tells me I'm interrupting her time with Casey. I mean, Casey, dead, now ten years.”
A few of the women sigh with pity. “Even a dead man isn't desperate enough to want to see that with no clothes on,” one of the women said, and a few laugh.
“For the love,” said Judy Rikert. Judy was new, from somewhere Eastern, and had no idea how to say anything useful. Mrs. Rikert had been the wife of the new county commissioner, but he had died unexpectedly in a dreadful auto accident two weeks before, meaning she was newly present in the circle. She did not know how to carry herself, or how to sew. I had to show her on the fabric how to cut straight pieces of cloth, firm lines. “Does she take medication?” Judy asked.
“She's beyond the repair of any pill,” I said.
“But you don't know her. And surely there must be resources for the mentally ill near us.”
“She had six years spent in the Western States Asylum for the Insane,” Barbie said, twisting a long needle in her hands. “For witchcraft and spells and making animals talk. Did her no balance. Still sees every imaginary ghost you can think of. I heard she conjured up the ghost of Thomas Jefferson.”
“And who cooks her meals? Who helps her with the laundry? And who's comforting her on a day like this?” Judy asked. I felt genuine sympathy from Judy and that was very irritating.
The discussion was growing tiresome. “I suppose Satan himself assists her when he isn't busy serving communion at St. Boniface,” I said, giving the obnoxious woman a winking chance to drop the affair altogether.
“Oh it's horrific,” she said. “I'll bring her a casserole this evening. And perhaps see to her washing. Christ went among the lepers and prostitutes, ladies. Aren't we all terrified today for the future? Why aren't we doing the same?”
“She's a sorceress,” I tried to say, but no one listened. And now I will tell you a thing about insanity. It catches, like smallpox. Once one woman decides to draw from the bubble-bath of generosity in her heart, surely a flock of hens will follow. They began foaming amongst themselves about it. Never underestimate the idiocy of a herd of women with nothing else to do. Don't you know they began to agree with her? One begins clucking and here come the rest. Soon it was casseroles, pies, and a ham-hock all being planned for the lunatic, and for that evening.
“We're all scared about the missiles so maybe being of Christian comfort would be an easement to her,” Judy said. Well, there it stood. Those widowed women scurried home in frilly dresses to confused cats and dogs who would not get supper that day because Dottie Deloris was being confused with Mary Magdalene.
I objected sternly. It was, however, a chance to investigate those rose bushes. I did do my part and offer my car.
We walked to the door, five big Methodist women and also myself, in the chill evening. It was raining, just a little. There was more talk of the missile crisis.
The front yard was lined with pine trees, straight needles but bending into arcs in the wind. Her house was an old plantation, white wooden beams and a giant front yard, and somehow still in excellent repair. An old wind chime rung out notes with the night air and the evening bent the chimes into spirals. The door had no bell, just a knocker in the shape of a crescent.
I carried the ham-hocks in a rectangular casserole dish and so I allowed Judy to beat on the door. She won't be home, I thought, and then we'll be done with this. I kept my eye on those roses and imagined plucking a single petal just to see if they were even real. They were certainly not plain.
I was hopeful we could just leave our dishes at the door. But then tiny eyes peered at us from a peephole that slid open and then smacked shut. The door creaked open and there before us was a spindle of a woman. Dotty Dotson. I had to admit never seen her up close, not really. She had withered little hands and beady little eyes. This was the kind of woman you point out, from a distance, to teach your children that Lucifer is real. You didn't want to touch her or get too close because it seemed like her skin might make the jump and crawl onto you.
She looked up at us through her nostrils. When she opened the door the chorale of warm voices from the sewing circle started to present themselves but she shushed the “Oh hellos!” with a withered hand.
“Quiet!” she said in a whisper. “Come in. You're late.” And she gestured to us to enter with a bony witch finger.
Everyone looked at each other. I suppose you could criticize us for not leaving immediately, for entering the home of an evil looking woman who had rumors of witchcraft about her. But we entered, for several reasons. First, you can't stand in a doorway and still claim Christian charity. It seemed better than standing in the rain outside, which was falling sharply in rapiers of water now. Also, in case I need to state what should be obvious, women of the south find evil witches, or really any women uglier than they are who look like they might be witches, quite fascinating.
Judy put her hand on my shoulder in the dim light, and slowly we walked forward like miners walking down a tunnel. There were beads and chains lining the sides of the hallway that looked like it stretched for miles. The hallway stretched down into the dark.
There was a radio in a distant room. The tone was more urgent than I had heard earlier in the day. Nuclear missiles, he said, something about a naval quarantine and to hide under a table if you didn't have a basement. He used the word “imminent”.
As we crossed into the hallway I became disoriented. The darkness and the scent of what smelled to be incense was wafting in the air. It felt like there might be multiple rooms, deviating out on each side, like the hallway might be an endless circle rather than a line. I also had the distinct sense that we were traveling downhill, though I couldn't see any stairs.
And then Dottie waved us into a dark room just lit enough to visualize a round church style table. It was dim but there were chairs. Enough for all of us. I was still carrying the tray of ham-hocks. I felt shaking from above and thought of the Beast of Revelation crashing from the sky.
“Tonight's the last night of the world. But you can be saved,” she said.
In the center of the table was a radio. It was tuned in to the news where they were anxiously speaking about the Soviets. Kennedy was saying something.
And next to the radio was a bowl of blue pills. Round octagons.
“Please,” Dottie said. There was an enormous crash outside and the whole house shook. “Take these and live. The only way.” The crash was like thunder, shaking my skeleton.
I noticed Dottie was bleeding from her mouth. Her eyes were red. I felt the urgency of death drawing near. We had come down, and now I wondered if we would ever go back.
I had to choose. I put down the ham hock tray. And I took the pills dry, a whole handful. We all did. Great handfuls of them.
The radio changed. A man's voice. Judy turned to linger on it.
Bob Rikert. I knew that voice. Coming from the radio. The voice of the dead.
Tears lit up that frail woman's eyes. Did it matter that witchcraft was at work? Or that some illegal drug had come through the walls and enraptured our senses? Bob was dead. But there he was. I had attended his funeral. But it was his voice, from the radio.
And then one by one. The husbands. All of them. Mark Phillips who had died of a heart attack a year before. Lonnie Talbert, dead from a fire on the farm. I didn't know how Jim Craburn had died but I listened to him explain to me about falling from the second floor of the barn and breaking his neck. The witch stood and watched the weeping women, one by one. Then the dial turned and there was the next one. That god damned devil woman. We weren't going anywhere if we could talk to our husbands on her mystical radio.
And then to me. My Robert. That raw, stern, loving man. Somehow conjured out of a radio through black magic but I didn't give a damn. It didn't matter to me what was happening outside. It was the voice of the man I had loved. He spoke to me about the oak tree that we had married under at my parent's farm. I knew it was him. If it was illusion and if God was damning me to hell for a church potluck turned to seance then it did not matter.
The world went to fire in October 1964 but I tell you, we were not affected.
I hope I'm not confusing you. Did you come from a place where those missiles from Cuba didn’t end up falling? Where that handsome idiot in the White House worked out some kind of deal? Are you from of state, somewhere ? The South has always been about our own history.
We did enjoy sitting and speaking with our men, in the dark. What spell that woman used to salve our souls, I cannot say. I am not a spiritualist. I do know that I had a chance to speak with my husband, one last time, while I was still in the body that I knew all my life.
Did I tell you what Robert asked me to do? It was quite lovely. I was very frightened because of the noise and the flashing and the rumbling from upstairs which was getting worse. He said to me over the radio, don’t you be afraid, just back come outside. It's alright. I’ve prepared a special picnic for you.
I said, where did you make me a picnic? And he said, out there, out in the yard of that woman’s lawn, I brought sweet potatoes and fried chicken and tomatoes. Just come on out and let’s have a picnic. Bring the other ones too, now. Just come on out and meet me. Let's celebrate. Straight as an arrow. All the men are here.
Don’t you know I did? I said goodnight to everyone and walked back out that hallway just as I had came. I had made my choice. He showed me the way. I stepped out into that bright sunshine. Just like he said, he had laid everything out for me, chicken and beans and slaw all deeply blackened and delicious. It had become swampy hot and grew warmer the longer I was outside. I felt the electricity and heat through my bones and soul. Something profound had changed.
Perhaps I had arrived at the end of the thread of my life. If I had arrived in Hell, I would choose it at least over the pain of widowing in Tennessee.