And Vinegar and Bitterness To It
A second story in the unpublished collection, O Daughter of Jerusalem
Nene Adams ©2011
Lawry’s Corner, Florida to Artemisia Springs, Georgia
Vandy threw her spent cigarette out the truck window, saying, “Stop here.”
“Why? You didn’t get nothin’ at the last post office.” Olivia asked though she obeyed the woman’s instruction, bringing the Ford Model-A truck to a halt outside the small post office in—she squinted at the ill-painted sign—Lawry’s Corner. Vandy said nothing, just got out of the vehicle, disappearing inside the whitewashed building.
Olivia sat waiting several minutes, listening to the rhythmic drone of tree frogs, glad the sun had not yet burned off the early morning mist, otherwise it would have been too hot to stay in the truck. As it was, the humidity drew a slick of sweat to her skin. Drumming her fingers on the steering wheel, she tried to school herself to patience.
When Vandy returned, Olivia raised an eyebrow in mute inquiry.
“Got us a destination,” Vandy said, waving an envelope before ripping open the gummed flap with her thumbnail. Sliding out the folded paper inside, she discarded the envelope on the seat between them.
Picking it up, Olivia noted the address on the front written in a scratchy spiky hand: Evadne Wylde, General Delivery, Lawry’s Corner, Florida. She frowned. Did Vandy have some kind of itinerary she knew nothing about? It seemed like they’d been driving aimlessly for the last week or so, sleeping rough in the truck bed, eating canned sardines and crackers, canned peaches and applesauce, deviled ham and white bread bought from little fly-specked grocery stores along the way. She longed for a proper meal and a hot bath.
“Next stop is Artemisia Springs in Georgia,” Vandy said. “As I recall, it’s about an hour south of Atlanta.”
“What’s in Artemisia Springs?” Olivia asked, starting the truck’s engine.
“Death,” Vandy replied, taking eight one-dollar bills out of the folded letter, which she crumpled and tossed out the window before Olivia could read it. Nevertheless, she did glimpse the blank face of the letter, finding it innocent of ink or pencil.
Troubled, Olivia drove a while in silence, finally attempting to pick up the thread of conversation after she thought she could speak without sounding spitting mad. “You know, sometimes I wonder if you even like me.”
Vandy seemed surprised. “Why, whatever do you mean, Miss Olive?” she asked, turning slightly in her seat. “I like you just fine.”
“Then what’s with the one word answer? Or no answer a’tall?” Olivia fumed. “Look, I get we don’t know each other that good, but we been riding around for a week—”
“Nine days,” Vandy interrupted. “Took us nine days to get here.”
“We could’ve been here in a couple of days if you hadn’t made me drive over Hell’s half acre.”
“It’s nothin’ to do with liking or disliking you, which I’m more inclined to the former, you know,” Vandy reached out, encircling Olivia’s wrist with her fingers and thumb. The warm touch made Olivia’s arm tingle. “We stay on the move, and I figure out where we’re headed. Sometimes, I get a nudge. That’s how it works.”
“Who sent you the money?”
“Does it matter?”
That sounded ominous, but Olivia pressed on. “It matters to me.”
“Okay, fine, it’s a conjure trick. When you spend it, your money goes out, hunts up other money, and sends it back to you,” Vandy said, releasing Olivia, who felt somehow lessened by the abrupt lack of contact. “S’called Look-See and Come Back to Me. Uses a lodestone and other stuff. I’ll show you how to do the trick one of these days.”
Thinking Vandy kept too many secrets, Olivia continued, “How do you know where we’re going? Why we got to go to Artemisia Springs? Why there?” When Vandy did not reply, she added, “I notice things. I’m not stupid.”
“Never said you were.”
“I’ve sold a fair amount of snake-oil in my time.”
“You have, I’m mortal certain.”
“I know when somebody’s blowin’ me off.”
“Sure you do.”
“Why’re you bein’ so…so…” Olivia groped for the appropriate word, “annoying.”
Vandy grinned. “‘Cause there’s some things got to be told in their proper time, and some questions can’t be answered till they’re asked. Now leave me be about the letter.”
Olivia blew out a breath. She had not known the woman long, but Vandy’s sheer presence made it hard to think, especially when she sat so close and smelled so good even after days of travel. “How’d you know about Kathleen McCall? About me?”
“Ah, a right question at last. And the answer is…I listened.”
“To the earth and the air, and the darkness between.”
“I don’t understand you.” Olivia could not quite hide her suspicion that Vandy was secretly laughing at her, and knowing it showed annoyed her further.
“Knowledge will come. For the moment,” Vandy said, “there’s this thing I been meaning to give you.” From the black snakeskin doctor’s bag at her feet, she brought out an object that glittered in the sunlight: nine silver Mercury dimes strung one by one on a length of braided red thread. She tied the homemade bracelet around Olivia’s wrist. “Them’s 1928 leap year dimes,” she explained, “carried by Mrs. Snyder in the year of her execution.”
“And you want me to wear them?” Olivia peered at the jingling coins, remembering the newspaper accounts. Ruth Snyder had killed her husband, been convicted of the crime, and executed by New York’s electric chair three years ago. At the time, Olivia had seen the famous newspaper photo of the notorious ‘Ruthless Ruth’ in her death throes strapped to Old Sparky, the murderess’ face obscured by a horrifying mask. The memory made her grimace.
“That there’s a powerful protection against evil,” Vandy said. “If any of them dimes turns black, you’ll know somebody’s trying to cross you, curse you or poison you.”
“Nine dimes…is there something special in the number?”
“Numbers got meaning. You heard of lucky seven? Well, there’s more lucky than unlucky numbers. Odd ones are best for conjure work.”
“How do you know which number to use?”
Vandy sat back in the passenger seat, her black eyes hooded. “I can tell you, but if you want to learn, you got to learn first to listen to the voice.”
“Voice.” Olivia took a closer look at the bracelet, realizing that not all the red was thread. Apparently, Vandy had woven some of her own hair into the strands. Could it be some kind of binding spell? A shiver made her tighten her grip on the steering wheel.
“There’s ways and ways of doing things, but the voice is never wrong.” Vandy suddenly made a disgusted noise. “You really think I’d lay Do As I Say on you? You believe that of me, better stop the truck right now. I’ll walk to Georgia, thank ‘ee.”
“How the hell do you do that?” Olivia took her gaze off the road to glare at Vandy. “Are you reading my mind?”
“No, your body. Your face. It’s all writ there, clear as day.”
“Well, I don’t like it.”
Vandy shrugged. “Don’t make no never mind to me whether you like it or not. No conjure trick, you know. Gamblers do it all the time, read each other’s faces at the card table. You’d be surprised how easy it is to tell what a person’s thinkin’ by how they frown or twitch or smile…but I don’t need to tell you that ‘cause you do it all the time, too.”
“To marks, not to you. It’s…it’s rude.”
“Go ahead and read me anytime you want, Miss Olive. Keep in practice. You never know when your skill will come in handy. Now, you want to me to learn you about gambler’s trick bags? Get luck, give luck, cool another man’s luck?”
Olivia shifted in her seat, sighing. She appreciated Vandy’s lectures, she really did, but sometimes the women’s explanations were less than helpful. “Sure, I’m listenin’,” she said. “But I don’t want to hear no more about a voice. Did I have such a thing, I stifled it long ago.”
Vandy did not contradict her, but the woman’s smirk made Olivia want to smack her.
It took four days of steady driving to reach Artemisia Springs, Georgia, a medium sized town nestled at the foot of the low-rising Loveday Mountain. The town’s main attraction was a natural hot springs and a therapeutic resort for polio patients. Spotting a wooden signboard on the side of the road advertising Rooms for Rent + Board with an arrow indicating a direction, Olivia turned down the quiet street, finally stopping outside a three-story house where the sign was repeated on the fence surrounding the property.
The neighborhood was run-down, Olivia noted, but those houses not obviously abandoned were kept clean and painted, with well tended vegetable gardens in the front. She knew the type: poor but proud, just like her parents and their neighbors. Curtains twitched along the street when she and Vandy got out of the truck.
“I want a bath and a good hot meal before we do whatever we’re here to do,” Olivia announced, hiding the nervousness caused by the unseen watchers.
“Got no argument with that,” Vandy said, swinging her rucksack and doctor’s bag onto her shoulder, and handing Olivia her suitcase. “I think I’ll kiss you, Miss Olive. It’s been a while since we did more’n splash tops and tails in a cold creek.”
When they reached the broad porch with its ‘haint blue’ painted ceiling—a traditional color supposed to keep evil spirits at bay—Vandy paused to look at a line of gritty red dust gathered along the bottom of the front door, then stalked over to the windows to peer at the Indian Head pennies nailed to each of the window frames. Nodding in apparent satisfaction, she rapped her knuckles on the screen door.
A middle-aged woman answered. Her skin was the color of blackstrap molasses, and her flower printed dress, while neat and clean, had a homemade quality. A winding of red cloth concealed her hair. “Afternoon, ladies. Can I help you all?” she asked politely. A thick Georgia drawl made the question sound like kin ah hep yawl. She kept her hands fisted in her dress pockets, a curiosity that sharpened Olivia’s caution.
In a few houses across the street, more colored people had come out on their porches to stare at the strangers. Olivia tried to take no notice.
“If you’ve a room for a few days, I’d be much obliged,” Vandy answered, not at all fazed by the woman’s frightened and suspicious stare, nor by the fact she and Olivia appeared to be the only white faces in the neighborhood. “Is that fried chicken I smell?”
The woman’s gaze shifted to Olivia, her eyes widening slightly when she spotted the nine-dime bracelet on her wrist. Taking a hand out of her pocket, she opened the screen door. “Don’t get a lot of white ladies wantin’ a room here,” she remarked. “They mostly stays at the hotel in town or at the doctor’s place over there.”
Vandy nodded. “That’s as may be, but I’m not much for hotels and as you can see, we ain’t got polio. No, ma’am, I prefer a home what’s watched over and protected. ‘For thou hast been a shelter for me,’” she said, quoting Psalm 61, “‘and a strong tower from the enemy. I will abide in thy tabernacle for ever; I will trust in the covert of thy wings.’”
“Don’t know what you mean,” the woman said, her expression hardening.
“Red brick dust on the threshold to ward off trouble,” Vandy said, lowering her voice and leaning closer, “and Indian scouts to spot that trouble comin’ from a distance. Bet you’ve got Devil’s Lye buried at the four corners of the house, too.”
The woman remained in the doorway blocking the entrance, but Olivia saw her soften a trifle. Her other hand came empty from her dress pocket. “You knows the trick of reddening?” she asked.
“Well, get on with it.”
“On a Friday without a word passing your tongue, get up at the rooster’s first crow after sunup to wash your doorstep with water of your own makin’, then lay down red brick dust to keep out the bad luck and the harmful things .”
The woman probed Vandy with her gaze, apparently looking for guile. For her part, Vandy stood cool as dammit, her smoky red hair caught back with a band. In her plain black dress—one of several she carried in her rucksack—and her buttoned black leather boots, she looked to Olivia like a traveler from another time.
“I’m Mrs. Perdita Johnson,” the woman said at last in a much friendlier manner, stepping aside to let them in the house. “Me and my sister, Mrs. Calpurnia Leclerq, we run this place. Got no other guests right now. You and your friend want two rooms?”
“No, thank you, ma’am, we’ll share,” Vandy answered too quickly for Olivia to get a word in edgewise. “I hope there’s water for a bath.”
“Shoo, we’re doin’ laundry today, got hot water plenty.” Perdita closed the door, plunging the front hall into gloom. “Fifty cents a day…each,” she added, “and you pay up front. For that you get breakfast at seven o’clock and supper at six in the evenin’.”
Vandy handed the woman ten one-dollar bills, making her eyes stretch. “You let me know when that’s used up,” she said. “Don’t worry about layin’ no fancy table for us, Mrs. Johnson. I’ll eat most anything that ain’t trying to get away from my plate.”
Perdita chuckled. “You sound like my oldest boy, Levi. He went up North with his daddy lookin’ for work, like a lot of other folks around here since the factory closed.”
Olivia tuned out Vandy and Perdita’s chatter as the woman led them upstairs to the second floor, to a plain but clean room with a bed, dresser, wooden washstand, and a rag rug on the floor. She put her suitcase down at the foot of the bed.
The handmade quilt covering the feather tick had been sewn in a pattern that did not seem familiar: large irregular squares and rectangles of calico and gingham cloth, appliquéd over with a number of disembodied eyes made of white and black fabric. For some reason, Olivia found the design reassuring rather than disquieting.
“That’s Calpurnia’s work,” Perdita said proudly, taking note of Olivia’s interest. “She does very fine with a needle. Me, I never could so much as darn a sock.” Before exiting the room, she turned to Vandy. “After you wash off the road dust and eat some supper, let’s talk, you n’ me. There’s things a lady like you ought to know..”
When they were alone, Vandy’s mouth quirked. She said, “I told you, didn’t I, Miss Olive, that listening to the voice inside would take you far.”
“I didn’t hear no voice,” Olivia said defiantly, putting her suitcase on the bed, and opening it to fish out a bar of soap, a towel and a washcloth.
“Then why’d you bring us to the very place we needed to go?” Vandy tugged the nine-dime bracelet on Olivia’s wrist. “Listen to your instincts. I know you got good ones.”
Impatient to bathe, Olivia said sourly, “You know more than I do.”
“Just pay attention to what’s goin’ on around you. Watch folks without them knowing. Listen when they speak, hear what they ain’t saying. Find out what’s wrong and put it right.”
“You make it sound real easy.”
“It is, but I won’t lie to you…it’s also as hard as hell.”
Shaking her head, Olivia went to the bathroom. To her surprise, Vandy joined her, prying open the little window so she could sit on the toilet lid and smoke while Olivia ran water into the claw-footed tub. After a few minutes, Perdita arrived bearing two large cans of boiling water, which raised the temperature in the tub from cold to barely warm.
When it came to getting undressed in front of Vandy, Olivia hesitated, then stripped off her dress and slip, garter belt, stockings and underwear—not quite flaunting her body in front of the woman, but not affecting any false modesty, either. Her figure was decent, somewhat flatter in the breasts and hips than she would have liked, freckled all over, and marred by a little roll of belly fat that never went away. Still, she had noticed Vandy looking sideways at her sometimes, and fancied the woman might like what she saw.
Slipping into the filled tub, she ducked her head under the water, coming up with ears popping to hear Vandy say, “…egg, baby girl.”
“Hmmm?” Olivia rubbed the bar of soap in her hair, working up rose-scented lather.
“You want me to break an egg in your hair, make it nice and soft?” Vandy’s face, glimpsed through the veil of cigarette smoke, wore an amiable smile.
“Not today.” Far more aware of Vandy’s attention than she had been when they stripped off for a hurried dip in a secluded creek, Olivia rinsed her hair, then took her time washing her body, running the washcloth over her skin while humming a tune she had heard on the radio. The scent of roses filled the bathroom.
“Wash your back for you?” Vandy offered.
Flicking her cigarette out the window, Vandy asked, “You got anything else to say?”
“Not today.” Olivia smiled.
Vandy left the bathroom, muttering under her breath, and did not return.
Later, Olivia let Vandy take her own bath in peace.
After a supper of fried chicken, biscuits, black eyed peas, and collard greens, rounded off by chunks of sweet potato pie and coffee, Perdita invited them to join her in the front room where a thin black woman sat near the window, working on a quilt stretched in a large wooden frame. When they entered, the woman did not acknowledge them.
“That’s my sister, Calpurnia,” Perdita said, settling in a chair. “She done ‘et already.”
As she drew nearer, Olivia realized Calpurnia was disfigured. Taking in the woman’s appearance, her stomach gave a quiver that left her regretting that second helping of chicken.
A thick, wide, shiny scar dragged down half of Calpurnia’s face. The scar also bit a circular chunk out of her hairline, leaving a bald patch the size of Olivia’s palm. Calpurnia’s left arm was withered, merely scarred skin warped to the bones, and she appeared to have lost her left leg as well, though her gingham dress covered the stump. The scars were much lighter than her molasses-colored skin. Clearly blind, her eyes had an unnerving milky sheen.
Olivia wondered how a blind woman could sew, but Calpurnia’s needle flashed in and out of the quilt top making neat stitches.
“Please excuse her. Quilting’s about the only thing she got left, poor soul. She married to a good man, worked at a sawmill up Tennessee way,” Perdita explained in her unhurried drawl, “but he tried to organize one of them labor unions. You heard of them? Well, some white folks didn’t like that much, set fire to my sister’s house one night after they nailed the doors and windows shut. Calpurnia lived, but her husband, her three children, they all died.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Leclerq,” Olivia said to Calpurnia, unsurprised when she received no response. Leaving the horribly scarred woman to her impossible sewing, she moved to sit in a chair next to Vandy, opposite Perdita.
Perdita sighed, picking up a fan from a nearby table. “I guess you come about them children dyin’ up at the doctor’s place.”
Vandy shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. Depends on what you tell me.”
Olivia settled in to listen.
“S’called the Meriwether Infantile Paralysis Treatment Center,” Perdita said, fanning herself. “Run by that fellow, Dr. Franklin Meriwether. He’s a big noise up North, I hear. They say them hot springs is good for the polio. Rich folks bring their children over there. Now I don’t have to tell you, a child stricken and dyin’ like that…well, it happens, bless their sweet souls to Jesus. But the last little while, children been dyin’ up at the doctor’s place more than usual. There’s folks that ought to be goin’ home to the Lord that ain’t.”
Vandy’s interest grew keener. “Is that so?”
“Yes, ma’am. They say it’s thanks to Reverend Alabaster Platt over to the True Holy Lamb of God Baptist Revival Church.”
Olivia was unsure what to make of Perdita’s story as the woman continued to explain.
It seemed Reverend Platt’s six-year old daughter, Lucy, had been afflicted with polio last year, but after much prayer and studying the Bible, God had effected a miracle and healed her. In addition, Rev. Platt gained healing powers of his own. Every Sunday since Lucy came home, he held a revival meeting at the church’s fellowship hall where he miraculously cured people suffering diseases and injuries.
“Folks come from all over to let Alabaster Platt lay his big black hands on them,” Perdita continued, looking as if she did not approve. “Crippled, blind, sick of body and soul, not right in the head…don’t matter the affliction, he can heal it.”
“True healing?” Vandy asked.
Perdita nodded sagely. “True as true can be. Rev. Platt ain’t no fly-by-night preacher man, in town one night, gone the next with the takings. Mmm-hmm, he’s a man of the Lord with more money in the bank than the mayor, enough money to burn a wet dog, they say. Drives a fancy car. Gonna have a new house, I hear. A new church, praise the Lord, paid for by the faithful. But I wonder…” Her voice trailed off. She gave Vandy a significant glance.
“I hear what you don’t want to say,” Vandy replied. A breeze from the open window stirred her hair, now worn loose on her shoulders.
Falling silent, Perdita switched on the radio to listen to the news broadcast.
A little while later in their bedroom, Olivia asked, “What’s that about? How come she don’t want to tell you what’s going on?”
“Mrs. Johnson don’t want to say nothin’ that can’t be took back entire,” Vandy explained, undoing her black dress and hanging it up to air. The thin, slippery fabric of her black shift outlined her full breasts and clung to her hips. “Some folks believe if they misspeak, if they say what ain’t true, then the lie will become the truth.”
“Crazier than a man kilt by a spirit? You seen that happen with your own eyes.”
Olivia pulled a cotton nightgown over her head. “Could have been a ‘gator in that lake,” she said, pretending denial to get a rise out of the other woman.
Vandy paused, giving Olivia a chance to study her in the oil lamp’s gold-tinged light . Unlike many redheads, she had no freckles at all, just smooth skin tanned on her face and arms, the rest of her sturdy body as pale as milk with a tracery of blue veins under the surface.
“You really believe that?” Vandy asked, sounding incredulous. “After what we did, laying that poor girl’s trouble spirit to rest?”
“Does it matter what I think?” Olivia sighed, sliding into bed. She had been teasing, even flirting if she was honest with herself, but now weariness seized her. At the moment, she did not care if Vandy took offense or not. She had a hard time reading the woman, finding the effort exhausting as well as frustrating.
Putting out the lamp, Vandy came to bed without answering Olivia’s question.
After breakfast the next morning, Olivia walked out of the boarding house to find a policeman standing on the sidewalk outside the fence. An older man in a blue double-breasted uniform tunic, he held his hat under his arm, waiting for her to approach. Olivia scrutinized him from beneath her eyelashes. His salt-and-pepper hair was parted in the middle and slicked back with pomade, swatches of pink sunburned scalp showing through the thinning strands.
“Good morning,” he said in a bluff, hearty way that did not fool Olivia. He was a man on a mission, his eyes lit with a cold pale fire. “Chief Cahill…and you are?”
She decided not to give him her real name. “Miss Olivia Stillwater,” she told him. “Pretty town you got here, Chief Cahill.”
“Well, I don’t see how you’d know that, Miz Stillwater, considering you’re on the wrong side of Artemisia Springs, and I have to wonder why.” Visible under a neat graying moustache, his neat little mouth pursed in distaste.
For a split-second, she thought of feigning ignorance, but realized that would cut no ice with the suspicious police chief. “Well, you see, me and my cousin was just passin’ through,” she said, and would have gone on except Vandy came out on the porch.
“How can I help you, officer?” Vandy asked, walking down the steps.
“You can tell me how come y’all are staying in Mrs. Johnson’s house in the colored part of town instead of the hotel like decent white ladies ought,” he said, not mincing words. “Or are you two mulattos?” His narrowed gaze flickered over them.
Olivia affected silent outrage, her heart banging in her chest with apprehension. To her horror, Vandy did not placate Cahill, instead confronting him with a challenging smile. “I might ask why it’s any of your business,” the woman said, her chin lifting.
He flushed, a hand clapping to his sidearm. “Ma’am, do you know who I am?”
Vandy looked him coolly up and down until the police chief’s flush deepened to an alarming hue. “Seems to me like you’re a God damned nosy fellow,” she said in her most nasal twang. “And I don’t got to tell you a God damned thing.”
“I’m gonna ask you to come with me, ma’am, and I suggest you don’t resist,” Cahill said darkly. He opened the gate, motioning Vandy through. “As for you, Miz Stillwater,” he said to Olivia, “I’ll be holdin’ your cousin for questioning down at the station. Don’t leave town. If there’s anythin’ you want to tell me, now’s the time, ‘cause I will be checking on you both for outstanding warrants and such-like, you hear?”
Olivia knew better than to protest. When a cop rousted the carnival, it meant he was looking for a bribe. However, out of the familiar context of her gypsy tent, she was unsure if she should offer him money. Vandy winked at her so she said nothing, watching Cahill drive away in his police car with the red-haired woman in the backseat.
“That there Cahill’s not a bad man as they go,” Perdita commented from the porch, “but he’s almighty stubborn. He ain’t gonna rest till he’s sussed Miz Vandy out.”
“Well, I guess she knows what she’s doing,” Olivia said, returning to the house with grave misgivings. What the hell was she supposed to do now? Go rescue Vandy? But the wink seemed to indicate Vandy could take care of herself. The thought of doing nothing did not appeal. In the bedroom, her eyes lighted on the doctor’s bag. Recalling the lessons Vandy had taught her as they traveled, she decided to visit Dr. Meriwether at the polio treatment center to see if she could obtain any further information on the children who had died.
To prepare, Olivia asked Perdita for some hot coals from the kitchen stove. When the black woman returned, she set the pan on the floor, sprinkling the coals with a powder chosen from Vandy’s bag. Smoke rose in lazy spirals, scenting the air with burning wood and spices. Straddling the pan, she ‘bathed’ in the smoke, letting it wash over her arms and legs and under her dress while Perdita watched with frank interest.
When the incense dissipated, while reciting the 75th Psalm she sprinkled the fragrant powder a second time, and a third. The smoke from the third sprinkling was different: it rose around her thicker, stronger smelling, with a cloying but slightly bitter sweetness that coated her tongue like rancid honey. Fat blue-gray coils puffed and piled up around her, starting at her feet and rising higher until they swallowed her from toe to head. Blinded by the smoke, unable to hear anything except the pounding of her pulse in her head, she tried to breathe but found it was akin to sucking soup through her nostrils.
Suddenly, the coils tightened around her, as substantial as if she had been embraced by a python. Olivia gasped, her lungs convulsing. Despite the discomfort, she managed to murmur, “In mysteries and hidden powers, in God’s glory and might as He lent to the Sword of Moses—Franklin Meriwether, ye shall not refuse to obey the mortal who conjures ye.”
After squeezing her for another interminable second, during which Olivia feared she might suffocate, the smoke dissolved, blowing away in a thousand wisps that hung in the air for an eye blink before vanishing. An invisible residue lingered on her skin, light and dry but discernible nonetheless. She fought not to shudder, more from creeping horror that the magic actually worked than any other reason.
From her place in the doorway, Perdita nodded, looking thoughtful. “Mmm-hmm…I never seen Obey Me worked with the Righteous Justice Psalm. Miz Vandy teach you that?”
Breathing deep to clear her head, Olivia could not reply. When her lightheadedness passed, she reached for her hat, gloves and purse, asking “Ma’am, can you tell me where to find the polio treatment center?”
Perdita grinned, a toothy white crescent in her round dark face. “Go south and follow your nose,” she advised. “Them hot springs, they stinks like the Devil’s own backside.”
Driving her truck across the railroad tracks to the ‘white side’ of Artemisia Springs, Olivia did find a rather unpleasant eggy smell hanging over the town. Continuing south, she soon came to the Meriwether Infantile Paralysis Treatment Center, with the great green bulk of Loveday Mountain looming over the sprawling structure.
The treatment center seemed less like a hospital and more like a library or government building, Olivia thought after she parked the truck. Walking under the classical marble portico with its soaring pillars, she entered the center. Everything looked new and ultra-hygienic: the nurses in their crisp white uniforms, the linoleum floor polished, every metal surfaces shining like silver instead of steel or chrome. Next to framed newspaper articles, discreet plaques on the walls attested to success stories. Wherever Olivia went, she also saw wizened children lying unnaturally still and silent in their beds, small huddled blots of helplessness and hopelessness in the midst of a modern temple to medical competency and sterility.
A discreet inquiry brought her to the office of the great man himself, Dr. Franklin Meriwether. Olivia had already decided on an approach, so she took a notebook and a pencil from her purse before rapping on the door.
“Good morning, sir,” she said after being bidden to enter, “I’m Olivia Stillwater from the Atlanta Journal of the Medical Arts, and I’ve come for our interview.”
Meriwether frowned. A solidly built man, he affected a mane of white hair brushed back from his broad forehead, and a pointed Vandyke beard on his chin. “I’m sorry, miss, there must be some mistake,” he said in a well modulated baritone that reminded her of a soap opera announcer on the radio. “I have no interviews scheduled today.”
“You mean my editor didn’t call you to confirm the appointment?” Olivia pretended to be stricken. “Oh, not that I blame poor Mr. Manning, what with his wife’s troubles and all, but I came all the way down here, and what the Chief’s going to say about this, I don’t want to know.” She shuddered. “He’ll probably fire me. Please, Dr. Meriwether, I know it’s an imposition, but could you possibly answer a few questions? I won’t take much of your time. It’s just…what with Daddy laid off, I’m about the only one bringing home a wage, and I really can’t afford to lose this job. Please, I’m begging you, sir. It won’t take a minute.”
He appeared indifferent to her appeal, but he did seem taken with the idea of an interview. “The Atlanta Journal of the Medical Arts, you say?”
Olivia was banking on the man’s vanity rather than his compassion. In her opinion, private treatment centers like this were a racket designed to separate desperate people from their money. Besides, she had taken Meriwether’s number as soon as she clapped her eyes on him—vain, too sure of his own genius, and a blowhard if given the chance. “Yes, sir. Circulation 50,000,” she said, making up the facts on the fly. “Sister journal to The Lancet.” She had spied a copy of the medical journal on the doctor’s desk.
“You don’t say…” Meriwether smiled, standing up to smooth his palms down his immaculate white doctor’s coat. “Well, I don’t see why I shouldn’t oblige a lady in need. Come and take a walk with me. I’ll show you our facility.”
He came round the desk. Olivia made as if to precede him and stumbled, landing against his body. His hands came up in automatic reflex, catching her by the upper arms, bared by her dress’ short sleeves. As soon as he touched her skin, Olivia felt the spell snap into place, an unpleasant twanging sensation like being popped with a giant rubber band over her entire body. Meriwether faltered, relaxing as she glanced up at him.
“Tell me the truth…how many children have died in the last two months?” she asked.
“Eleven,” he answered with an absent air, as if he was not entirely in the moment.
“Were all of them expected to die?”
“The other nine deaths were unexpected?”
“They happened without warning?”
Olivia sighed. While the Obey Me spell worked, the doctor answered her questions literally. She considered what else to ask him. “The nine children who died…tell me their names, their histories, and what happened to each in the day before their passing.”
His dull recitation yielded dry facts. She scribbled down the particulars on the off chance something might prove important. When he finished, she asked, “Is there anything else you can tell me about those nine deaths? Anything connecting them together?”
“The deaths happened in Ward 3,” he replied, “during the night shift.”
The tidbit caught her interest. “Who else is in Ward 3?”
“The night shift nurses: Elizabeth Gunn, Mary Sweeney, and Wendolyn Platt.”
She found the last name in the list significant, since Platt was the surname of the faith healing preacher. “What have you done about it?”
“I had secret autopsies done by a specialist in New York who owes me a favor. He found no poisons, no drugs, no signs of foul play in any of the cases.”
“How many children are in Ward 3 right now?”
Olivia asked for and received their names and histories, continuing to write in her notebook until her fingers cramped. When she finished, she said to Meriwether, “Listen to me…you will not remember answering my questions. Instead, you’ll remember giving an interview to a nice lady reporter for a medical journal in Atlanta. You’ll be in a hurry to get rid of her because it’s lunch time, and you’re hungry. Do you understand?”
Carefully, she stepped away so he no longer touched her.
It took a long moment before he blinked, awareness flooding back into his face. “Are we finished, Miss Stillwater?” he asked, giving his wristwatch an ostentatious glance. “I do have other appointments.”
“Thank you, sir, I’ll be sure to get in touch when the article’s printed. Ah, since you kindly offered me the chance to take a look around the place,” Olivia added on the spur of the moment, “I think I’ll do just that.” She left him staring after her with a hint of confusion, in her haste almost bumping into a dark-skinned nurse standing in the hall outside Meriwether’s office. She walked around the nurse, the hairs on the back of her neck prickling as she sensed hostility. Turning around, no one was there. Shrugging, she went on.
In Ward 3, white enameled hospital beds were lined up on both sides of the room with military precision, but only the two beds closest to the window were occupied. The children—a boy, Bobby Nesbitt, five years old, and Sally Finch, seven years old—slept deeply despite the muted sunlight filtering through the curtains. Olivia approached with caution, hoping the clicking of her shoe’s chunky heels on the floor did not wake them. Neither so much as stirred. She supposed they had been sedated.
Under the sharp odor of disinfectant, the room stank of sickness, the air flat and stale. Both children were too thin, their bodies wasted by illness as well as inactivity. Breathing heavily, Sally rolled on her side, away from Olivia, while Bobby remained flat on his back, clutching a worn baby’s blanket by a knotted corner.
Olivia laid a hand on Bobby’s head. His skin felt papery dry and warm. His bottom lip had cracked open, a spot of blood staining his chin. She would save him if she could, but only from a human murderer. Death was close to him, she thought, an angel with a smile as mercifully sharp as the blade it carried to sever soul from body.
Returning to the pickup truck, she debated driving to the police station, but decided Vandy could cool her heels a while yet. After pausing at a drugstore lunch counter for an egg salad sandwich, she returned to the boarding house. A brief search showed Perdita was not downstairs, and Calpurnia was absent from the front room. Curious, Olivia stepped over to the wooden frame to look at the quilt top stretched on it.
Exactly how blind Calpurnia managed to sew was a mystery, but the woman had no difficulty making straight stitches. This quilt top, like the one in the bedroom, had been pieced together from fabric rectangles and squares with other cloth shapes laid out and appliquéd over it: a black devil’s head with horns, more of those disconcerting eyes, a white angel and a crucifix. Embroidered all over were tiny flames in white and purple, as well as spider’s webs.
“Beautiful, ain’t it?” Perdita said coming into the front room. “Shoo, Calpurnia can’t see in this world, but in the next, that girl sure got clear vision. When she knows there’s a need, she makes shift to fill it, bless her heart.”
“How does she do it?” Olivia wondered out loud.
Perdita shrugged. “Don’t know how. Don’t care much, neither. Calpurnia lost everythin’ except her life when that house burned. What she got left, I don’t argue with.”
Leaving the quilt top as well as the subject of the fire-scarred woman, Olivia asked Perdita about Reverend Alabaster Platt’s recent healings.
“Well, I hear tell how Mrs. George Lomax got cured of the throat cancer last Sunday,” Perdita said. “And then there was Mr. Avery’s boy got his withered arm fixed, him and his daddy comin’ all the way from Durham in a big ol’ ambulance.”
The names were familiar to Olivia. George Lomax owned a large and profitable string of grocery stores in the South, while Duncan Avery had inherited millions in tobacco money from his father, a real North Carolina robber baron. “So Reverend Platt cures someone every Sunday? Just one person,” she clarified. “Always somebody rich.”
“That’s right,” Perdita replied, her mouth pursing. “Been that way since his girl was healed. Alabaster Platt don’t hold with charity no more. Or maybe I ought to say it’s that wife of his ain’t got much kindness in her heart,” she added. “Wendolyn Platt’s what you might call a disappointed woman. She had plans, that one. Dreams. Thought she’d marry an important man, but Alabaster ain’t what you’d call ambitious. Wendolyn went to school, trained as a nurse. She used to be in charge of whole ward at a colored hospital in Atlanta till it closed. Now she works the night-shift under white nurses at Dr. Meriwether’s place, though you’d think with money in the bank, she’d have quit that job by now.”
Feeling as though Perdita might be pushing her in a certain direction, Olivia checked her notes, finding another obvious connection: each of the nine children had died on a Friday, and on the following Sunday, Reverend Platt healed someone using his miraculous gift. Wendolyn Platt worked on Ward 3…abruptly, she realized it was Friday afternoon. If the current pattern held true, tonight another sick child would die.
“Mrs. Johnson,” she said, trying to convey a sense of urgency, “I have to get into that ward tonight, and can’t nobody can see me do it.”
To her relief, Perdita cackled. “Shoo, Miss Olive, I reckon I can help you, easy as kiss my hand, and it won’t cost you a dime.”
Later that evening, when the sun had gone down and the moon come up to hang in a pearly crescent above Loveday Mountain, Olivia walked to the glass-fronted door of the Meriwether Infantile Paralysis Treatment Center. Around her neck she wore a leather thong; suspended from the thong was a small bone—a ‘black cat bone’ Perdita had told her, along with instructions on how to use it. Lifting the bone, she put it in her mouth, holding it under her tongue while wrinkling her nose at the rancid taste.
In the glass panel, her reflection vanished.
Olivia’s heart fetched a thud, but she went inside and followed the remembered path until she came to Ward 3, entering the room when she thought no one was looking. The last thing she needed was a witness giving the alarm about doors opening by themselves.
A nurse entered the ward, making Olivia gasp softly around the bone in her mouth. She pressed against the wall as the bustling white figure checked on the sedated children, tweaking a sheet here, smoothing a blanket there. Once satisfied, the nurse left, walking so close to Olivia she caught a whiff of the scents trailing behind the woman, a mixture of soap, disinfectant, beer and cigarette smoke.
Slumping in relief, Olivia almost knocked over a wooden visitor’s chair. She sat down, certain she would be out of the way, and settled in to wait. An hour passed. The bone made her salivate, so she constantly had to swallow or wipe her chin with a handkerchief. The uncomfortable chair had her squirming and shifting as her muscles protested. Hot and sweaty from the oppressive atmosphere, she wished something—anything—would happen.
At two o’clock in the morning, as Olivia fought the heavy gray drowsiness threatening to pull her under, the door swung open, admitting a different nurse into the ward.
Olivia stiffened, recognizing the woman who had stared so hatefully at her that afternoon. She bit down on the bone in her mouth when she saw the name tag pinned to the nurse’s uniform top, stark black letters on a white background reading W. Platt.
Wendolyn did not creep into Ward 3. She strode inside the room with confidence, yet something about her attitude suggested stealth. Her sharp gaze swept around, lingering a few unsettling seconds on the chair where Olivia remained seated and silent.
To Olivia’s relief, Wendolyn passed her by, headed towards the bed nearest the window where Bobby Nesbitt slept.
Olivia rose as quietly as possible, hyper-aware that the tiniest sound in the quiet ward would be magnified a hundredfold. However, caution gave way to haste when Wendolyn rolled Bobby on his side. The child remained in the completely limp, boneless sleep of the young, not so much as twitching when his pajama top was rolled up to expose the pale curve of his back. Seeing the glint of metal in Wendolyn’s hand, Olivia crossed the room in a few strides, arriving in time to recognize the old-fashioned, steel hypodermic syringe.
Somehow, she understood the syringe was not normal medical equipment.
As Wendolyn prepared to stick the syringe’s appallingly long needle in the base of Bobby’s spine, Olivia grabbed her hand. The woman’s eyes widened at the invisible force preventing her from inserting the needle.
Spitting out the black cat bone, Olivia almost smiled at Wendolyn’s shock. “We should talk,” she said, giving the woman’s wrist an emphatic twist.
She was not prepared for Wendolyn’s reaction. Lips skinning back from her teeth in a cat-like snarl, the woman wrenched herself loose from Olivia’s grip, the syringe sweeping up like a weapon poised to stab. A streak of light gleamed on the steel cylinder.
Lacking a weapon of her own, Olivia tried a move she had learned from a carnival roustabout. Taking a step closer, she drove her balled-up fist into Wendolyn’s stomach, putting the weight of her shoulder behind the blow. The woman folded over, gasping. Olivia snatched up an empty bedpan and hit Wendolyn on the head with it, sending her to her knees. The syringe clattered to the floor.
Stooping, Olivia retrieved the dropped syringe. The instrument felt weighty and far too warm, the metal almost slick. Her skin itched with the urge to throw it away. Instead, she closed her fingers around it and stood, looming over Wendolyn. In his bed, Bobby murmured, sticking the knotted corner of the baby blanket in his mouth.
“Look, Mrs. Platt,” Olivia said, keeping her voice soft, “I don’t know what you’re planning, but it ain’t gonna happen tonight.”
Wendolyn inhaled, sighing out the breath. Her nurse’s cap was askew, some of the bobby pins holding it in place dislodged by the strike with the bedpan. Blood stained the collar of her uniform, dripping from her bitten lower lip. Holding out her hands, she rose to her feet. “Don’t hit me no more,” she mumbled, each word dribbling more blood.
“You tell me right now what the hell’s going on.” When Wendolyn did not answer, Olivia added, “I figure you’re killin’ these kids so your husband can heal folks and make money, buy you a new house and a mink coat.”
“Not here,” Wendolyn said desperately. “Please, I’m beggin’ you…not here. I don’t want nobody to hear us.”
“Fine, we’ll go outside, but you lead the way. I’ll be right behind you. Don’t try nothin’ stupid, Mrs. Platt, hear me? ‘Cause you’ve seen my power, and I know where your little girl Lucy sleeps at night.” Olivia meant to frighten the woman, but Wendolyn staggered and nearly fell as if she had been struck again.
“Okay, okay, don’t hurt my baby,” she said, trembling, “please don’t hurt my baby.”
“Go on, then,” Olivia said more harshly than she meant, but standing exposed in the middle of the ward in the middle of the night had her spooked, and she was slightly ashamed of the threat she had made. She put the bone in her mouth, amused by Wendolyn’s start when she vanished from view.
Alert for trickery, Olivia followed Wendolyn as the nurse left the center, walking beyond the parking lot to a place where staggered clumps of pines grew along the edge of the asphalt. In the dark, under the moonlight and star shine, Wendolyn’s white uniform glowed. A warm wind blew Olivia’s hair around her face. She shook her head, letting the bone drop.
“Talk to me,” she said to Wendolyn.
“My Lucy was dyin’ of the poliomyelitis,” the woman said, her head bowed. “I see them children in the center, sometime they get better, but my Lucy…we couldn’t afford no good doctor, no medicine, just the charity hospital. You ever been in that place? They don’t care about no little colored girl. And Alabaster, he just wanted to pray,” she added bitterly. “Said the Lord would heal Lucy, or if she died, well, that was His will.
“But I sure wasn’t waitin’ on God to take my baby, so I went to the crossroads.”
Olivia’s hackles rose. She had heard things in her mother’s kitchen, stories told in whispers. “You called on the dark man,” she stated, the need to get rid of the hypodermic syringe becoming more urgent by the moment. She fancied she felt it squirming in her grasp. Had she glanced at it, she would not have been surprised to find the steel cylinder transformed into a snake or something worse. Gritting her teeth, she kept hold of the instrument.
“Yes, ma’am, I sure did.” Wendolyn looked at her, a gaze filled with anguish and wild despair. “I called on the dark man at the crossroads, and he give me that syringe. Said if I took the milk of life from another child, I could give it to Lucy and save her. It made sense, you know. Most of them kids in the center, they gonna die anyhow or end up crippled and useless, and what kind of life is that? It made sense,” she insisted, more to herself than Olivia. “Take life from one that don’t need it, give it to one who does.
“I done what the dark man told: put the needle in the bone at the base of the spine to draw off the milk of life. That’s what he said, and it worked. My Lucy got well. Alabaster called it a miracle, thought he could heal people. There was some of that milk stuff left, so I gave it to a blind woman that Sunday, told that fool husband of mine to pray over her. Her sight come back. Her grandson paid us some money, and I thought…why not? Why shouldn’t I have nice things?” All of a sudden, Wendolyn’s voice became a tight, spittle-laced whisper. “How come I got to wipe these rich kids’ asses when they shit all over themselves? How come I got to clean up puke and piss every God damned day, change sheets, mop floors, fetch and tote till my back aches, get bossed around like I been put here on this earth to serve white people alone. I deserve a nice house, a nice car, nice clothes to wear. I deserve all that, I do.”
“You’re killing children,” Olivia said, a pang in her chest reminding her that she had been indirectly responsible for a little girl’s death.
“Suffer the little children, that’s what Jesus said, and they was sufferin’, I tell you. I seen it every day. They was gonna end up in the cold clay anyhow, no matter what.”
“Sounds to me like you was just lookin’ for an excuse.”
Compressing her lips tightly together, Wendolyn said nothing further until at last, under Olivia’s steady gaze, she licked her lips, looking nervous. “You got to give me that syringe back. You don’t, the dark man, he’s gonna kill me…maybe worse.”
Olivia refrained from slapping the woman, though it took an effort not to raise her hand. “I ain’t giving you a God damned thing,” she retorted, tightening her grip on the syringe. What was she supposed to do now? Turning Wendolyn over to the police was not an option. Vandy had told her about the need for retribution, but she wondered how to get that for Wendolyn Platt’s young victims.
Wendolyn suddenly darted into the trees, moving fast despite the lack of light. Following the pallid flicker of the nurse’s uniform, Olivia crashed through the woods, cursing under her breath, until she was certain Wendolyn had gotten away, then she returned to her pickup truck. At least she had the syringe, she thought, locking the thing in the glove compartment. No other child needs to die before their time.
Breaking dawn painted the sky in broad strokes of magenta and pink. A liquid copper line of sunlight glimmered on the horizon. Not knowing what else to do, Olivia drove to the police station, parking outside. She closed her eyes, wanting to talk to Vandy, although that seemed impossible unless she staged a jail break.
“You got a cigarette for me, baby girl?” a familiar voice asked.
“Speak of the devil.” Olivia opened her eyes, concealing her surprise behind a smile . “Sure do, hop on in,” she answered as Vandy opened the passenger side door. “Where to?”
At Vandy’s direction, she drove to the boarding house to pick up their things, already packed and sat out on the sidewalk, one of Calpurnia’s bizarre quilts folded on top. Perdita did not come out to tell them good-bye. As when they first arrived in the neighborhood, Olivia sensed they were being watched by more than one pair of eyes, but she felt no hostility. After loading the suitcases and quilt into the truck, and looping the thong holding the black cat bone over the fence, she got back behind the wheel.
“That police chief weren’t such a bad fellow,” Vandy said as Olivia continued driving out of town, passing a ‘Thank You For Visiting Artemisia Springs’ sign. “Mean pinochle player… Cahill like to have won every single matchstick we was playing for.”
“He let you go, just like that?” Olivia asked.
“Not exactly, Miss Olive.” Looking smug, Vandy lit the cigarette given to her by Olivia and took a drag, her hair whipped into a tangle of smoky red tendrils by the wind. “I’ll tell you someday how I did it, but for now, let’s say Cahill will have a new mystery to solve come the morn.”
“How come you let him arrest you?”
“Because I had to let you go.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You helped me out with Kathleen McCall, but you was savin’ your own skin ‘cause that haint would’ve taken your life had you done nothing. Now things are different. I needed to know your intentions, baby girl. This life of mine ain’t fit for anyone got doubts. Either you want it or you don’t. You accept it or you don’t. You embrace it or you don’t. Besides, I notice the way you look at me, and I know you notice the way I look at you.”
Olivia’s stomach fluttered. She considered denial, but in the end, simply shrugged.
Vandy went on, “I had to set you free so’s you could make your own choice.”
“It was a test?” What if she had run away? Or failed? What if she had not been clever enough to figure out what was going on at the treatment center? What if Bobby Nesbitt had died tonight? How dare Vandy risk a child’s life on a whim! But the questions withered on her tongue, the indignation fading, too, because she had made her choice—for once in her life, she had chosen to do the right thing.
“You done good,” Vandy said, patting her hand. “You done good.”
“What about Lucy Platt?”
“She’ll be fine. That child’s healing was bought and paid for in blood.”
Olivia spied two figures walking down the side of the road. She slowed the truck, ready to swerve, but the tall thin black man—truly black, his skin the color of Kentucky coal—did not seem likely to jump in front of a moving vehicle.
Like a dandy from another age, the man wore a swallowtail frock coat and trousers, a stovepipe hat cocked on his head, a silver-topped cane in his hand. A dark skinned woman trudged behind him, her pale dress tattered and stained, her bare feet kicking up dust, her hot-combed hair straggling in her face.
Passing the couple, Olivia felt her heart freeze mid-beat as the headlights beam caught the man’s eyes, which reflected flashing bright gold like a cat’s. At the same time, the woman lifted her head, staring at the truck with a dull dead gaze. Recognizing Wendolyn Platt, Olivia almost stood on the brake, but Vandy shook her head, popped open the glove box, withdrew the hypodermic syringe, and tossed it out the window where it was lost in the underbrush.
Olivia touched her foot to the accelerator, her gaze shifting to the rear view mirror to see the tall thin man—the dark man—tip his hat to them as he receded in the distance.
Vandy propped a booted foot on the dashboard. “I reckon there’s worse places to be tonight,” she remarked, flicking cigarette ash on the floor. “Drive on, Miss Olive. We got places to go. And if I was you, I wouldn’t look back no more.”
Trying not to listen to the faint despairing wail growing fainter behind them, Olivia did not have to be told twice.