October. All Hallow’s Eve. Samhein. The time when the veil between this world and the other is thin. We decorate the interior and exterior of the house with jack-o’-lanterns and approximations of supernatural beings. This is the month to recall that phrase attributed to Scottish poet Robert Burns: “From ghoulies to ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, good Lord deliver us.”
This month, Janet and D.Z. have two very different takes on the season. In D.Z.’s story, Cora Countryman, the protagonist of her Wanee Mystery series, has a strange encounter in New Orleans. In Janet’s story, a new homeowner and her cat discover they have a resident ghost that must be appeased.
D. Z. Church
Cora Countryman came upon the body quite suddenly. The alley was a horrid thing, filled with sewage running toward the sea, and rats the size of rabbits. The air hung in sheets, swaddling Cora in its fetid humidity. Warehouses lined the waterfront. And fragile buildings with ornate wrought iron balconies lined what had been the central district of the French town, Bourbon Street. All foreign, frightening, surprising.
Now, this. A young woman. Dead at her feet.
Cora wished to inspect, but to lean forward meant letting her paduasoy skirt meet whatever effluvia flowed down the gutters of the street. She studied the body. The girl held an object wrapped in red flannel in her fist, a black cord unraveling at two ends trailed from it as though it had been torn from her neck. Cora placed a handkerchief over her nose, dropped her skirt, and reached for the artifact.
“Stop,” a female voice, buttery soft with a Louisiana accent, called. “Do not touch her. You do not know how long she has lain there. She may carry disease.”
“Not long, no vermin have been attracted to her.”
“Oh, Cora, how disgusting. You must cease to spend your time with those who work with the dead.”
“She holds an amulet that may be a clue as to her death.”
Mrs. Charlotte Kanady, her skirt and petticoats raised, walked ginger down the alley to join Cora. She poked the girl’s hand with the pointed toe of her high-laced shoe. “A gris gris!”
“It is but a pocket of red flannel.”
“It is voodoo. It is black magic. Our slaves believed in the power of it. I have seen men reduced to whimpering maggots by it. Time and again. Men hale one day and near death the next. I have seen gris gris placed on the gravestone of vicious slave owners bring misery to the master’s family. Do not touch it. The spell will rub off on you and there is none to reverse it.”
“That is madness.”
“Sebastian Kanady would not think as you do. My brother would not. He has seen the dancing, heard the rituals, and knows the truth of what I am telling you.”
Cora leaned closer to the dead girl’s hand. “It is but a small cloth bag. I believe there are items inside. And look, she wears a bracelet of woven hair on her wrist. Also, a prettily decorated bottle lays broken near her cheek.” Cora straightened, turning to where Charlotte Kanady stood.
A shadow loomed behind Mrs. Kanady; its grotesque shape repeated on the wooden wall. It incanted. Foreign words. Cora raised her skirts, and in very unladylike fashion trod through puddles of sewage, leaped over small rivulets of rain, and thundered out of the alley onto Bourbon Street. Charlotte followed with some decorum, but not much.
Safe under a guttering streetlamp, they clung to each other.
“Did you see it?” Cora panted.
Charlotte gasped, “It was most monstrous. I felt its words spill down my back.” With a prayer on her lips, she placed a lace gloved hand on her chest and clutched a medallion representing her faith.
As one, they turned to peer down the alley. The monster was gone as was the body. No, no, it was not! The girl rose to her feet. She turned, her eyes dead, her soul fled, and ambled toward them. Not an amble, an odd gait, stiff, unhuman.
Cora shooed her with her hands, but the girl’s eyes were unseeing.
“I believed she was a bokor, but she cannot be. She would have warranted herself from becoming revenant. The bottle?” Charlotte questioned.
“It bore an intricate, delicate design.”
“Then she has breathed another’s soul and so she walks among us. We must leave her on her way and be on ours lest some magic be transmitted in her exhaled breath.”
Cora wished to challenge Charlotte’s beliefs but wished to live a life of freewill more. She raised her skirts and tore down the street, Charlotte fast behind her. When a tall man in an evening suit cornered the street, she ran into his outstretched arms. “Oh, Sebastian!”
“Oh, my, I take it you chers have had a scare.”
A Bowl of Apples
The face was long and narrow, almost chalk-white, silver hair radiating out from the skull. Dark eyes like stones lurked under thick brows.
I stared at the apparition, mesmerized, as it hovered over the empty bowl on the kitchen table.
A wide-lipped mouth opened, as though to speak, but I didn’t hear a sound.
The only noise came from my cat. She jumped onto the table, arched her back and hissed. She skittered sideways, into the empty bowl, nearly upending it. Then she spat and yowled. The face disappeared.
What did I just see? I felt cold, not just because I was standing in the kitchen in my nightgown. Surely it was a trick of the light. But how? Some errant signal from a TV set? A streaming beam gone rogue? Could that happen? Try as I might, I couldn’t explain that face.
The moon, maybe that was it. I crossed the kitchen to the window over the sink, looking out. Yes, the moon was full. I’d glanced at the October calendar earlier today, seeing that Halloween was in three days, thinking I still hadn’t gotten any candy for the trick or treaters that were sure to be ringing the doorbell. I stared at the bright orb in the night sky, then I turned and stared at the kitchen table.
Apples. What was it my neighbor had said?
I thought back to yesterday afternoon. Earlier in the week, I’d moved into my new home, a two-bedroom cottage on a quiet street where every house was decorated for Halloween. The furniture was mostly in place, but the rooms were full of boxes. My cat sprawled on top of a box in the living room, snoozing, as I unpacked boxes in the kitchen, finally unearthing the glass bowl that I put on the table.
Morning gave way to afternoon. I realized I was hungry and took a break for a late lunch. I’d bought several packaged salads. I pulled one from the refrigerator, along with a bottle of lemonade. Grabbing a fork, I went outside.
As I ate, I looked at my new backyard, contemplating where I was going to put the raised beds for my garden. There was an apple tree on the left side of the yard. It was way too big for the small yard and far too close to the house. Its branches were so loaded with apples they nearly touched the ground. The neighborhood squirrels had littered the ground with half-eaten fruit.
Salad finished, I took a swig from my lemonade bottle and walked out into the yard. I wanted to put in raised beds to grow vegetables, but the apple tree took up lots of space. It needed to be pruned. Maybe I should even have the tree removed.
“Don’t even think about it.” An old woman stood on the other side of the fence, white hair piled into an untidy knot on top of her head. “I’m Esther. You’re the new neighbor.”
“I’m Lee,” I said. “Think about what?”
She smiled. “That apple tree. You were thinking about taking it out. You can’t. It was Dolores’s pride and joy.”
Dolores? The deceased owner of the house? I waved a hand at the overloaded branches. “It’s too big and too close to the house. Besides, what am I going to do with all these apples?”
“Call the senior center. They’ll send someone to pick apples. And be sure to leave a bowl of apples on the kitchen table. For Dolores.”
I stared at her. “For Dolores?”
“If you don’t, she’ll haunt you.”
Now, twelve hours later, I stood in the kitchen staring at the table. Wondering what Dolores looked like. Though I was sure I’d just seen her. And I didn’t want to see her every night.
I picked up the glass bowl and opened the back door. Then I went outside, heedless of the chilly night and my bare feet. I pulled apples from low-hanging branches. When the bowl was full, I carried it back to the kitchen and set it on the table.
“Okay, Dolores, we’re good.”
As I turned off the light and padded down the hallway, the scent of apples followed me.