Tag Archives: halloween

Swamp Gonna Get You

 

Swamp Gonna Get You

‘Her freaks aren’t real.’

(Jane Bowles on Carson McCullers)

In a small town in Georgia, the Spanish moss cascades from the live oaks, the red earth is soft and warm; the benches are white. At this time of year, though, the grass has begun to parch and, by midday, the frames of the branches are hot to the touch. So, in such, it was good to be in the park with your Kool-Aid, sheltering in what less scorching enclaves you could find and catching the occasional spray from the fountain when a breeze came in your direction. And you want to be there rather than at the strip, with its hot respiring tarmac and its huge Piggly-Wiggly and CVS stores; but even more, you would not want to be on the other side of the town, away from the pretty centre, where green gave way to swamp and the fetid smell caught your nostrils in the summer.

At least that’s what the best ladies who lived on the best street said.

Down by the swamp lived old John Fogle; he stank, said the best ladies; he had, children said, the gift of second sight and, along with his cold, hostile wife and his unfriendly brood of  female offspring, did not like people to stray their way. The children were at school but chose to play together, shunning the company or Missy or Mary Lee or Claudia. Did well in school, though. Top of the class, summa cum laude in the creatives, though the best ladies said these girls would never be scholars. Certainly, the other girls in the class tried to be friendly—the ones, that is, whose mothers had not warned them away from the Fogle girls. The ones with the kinder, more broad minded mothers but also those who wanted to rebel against their mothers—for this was also a town in which mean mindedness and snobbishness tended to run rife. And you heard about the best ladies already.

Today, one young girl was determined. Betty was kind, but also intent on one day getting down to the house and looking more closely at the swamp. And she persisted: “Can’t I come home and play with y’all? Ma says it’s o.k.”

“No. Pa wouldn’t allow it.”

“Why not? I’d be real good.”

“Don’t matter.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. Sump’n. Nothin. Can’t tell.”

This enigmatic last answer was all she needed. So she told her mother that she had

been invited home—and Mother allowed her because she, too, was kind and kind of curious to know about this family and, essentially, believed that they would treat right if treated right. She’d been spat out, too, by the best ladies. Didn’t fit, in gardening club and proper tea. So Betty followed, the girls trying to slough her off.

“Go away. Pa don’t like it!”

“Oh go on. You yella?”

“No. Well, if you’ll go away after.”

But, to the girls’ surprise, John Fogle, who had stood up poker-straight in a menacing way (Betty suddenly shuddering and regretting coming along), said that it would okay as long as she did not stay long. And in went Betty. Sure, the house and its moss-green plot were close to the swamp; you could smell the heavy air. But this place was somehow exotic and beautiful and a breath of fresh air after the tight little corner of town where Betty lived. And the house was tatty, but oddly welcoming and, well, fun. Yes, fun. Like anything could happen. Say…like a hand you couldn’t see, come to rub your back; a gator to rest your feet on; kind time slips where you don’t know when you are. And Betty liked it. Gradually, the girls began to play with their visitor to; chase and hide and go seek and, well, anything that took their fancy. And Betty met their mother who, in a startling and untidy way, was unexpectedly beautiful.

The girl stayed for the evening meal, too. Basic and old fashioned, but substantial, too. And, while no-one said much, Betty realised that she had been accepted. Maybe she would be able to go back. Other folks sucked, with their this and their that; table conversation and hoity toity.

Next day in school, the Fogle girls continued to play together only, but now they looked sideways at her with a hint of a smile. She felt happy. It was, in its way, all rather mysterious. She wondered, too, why John Fogle looked so old: more like a grandfather or even a great grandfather than a father. A tough life? But it seemed so happy there! The best ladies said dwellers in such environs drank bone broth and moonshine, so they looked like Methuselah. Well now. So I expect you, reader, would like to know a few answers, wouldn’t you? Well, the writer Carson McCullers, who came from Columbus, Georgia, wrote that she needed to return to the South from time to time to renew her sense of horror. It’s not that I generalise here, you know, but do you think she had a point? Because John Fogle was not the girl’s’ father and he did have the gift of second sight. The, seer and mystic, was the girls’ great grandfather and he had, for reasons and by folks we cannot name, been preserved for his gifts. And whether he drank bone broth and moonshine, or ate pippins and Chinese pear, he’s still be shining through, oh yes.

Father and grandfather? Gone. To the swamp one day. John Fogle saw what they would become.Told you that old brackish water was fetid. Not just that: it lived and breathed and did what it would do. And John Fogle was its custodian, being no murdering sort himself, exactly. Betty would be just fine because, as I told you, she was kind and looked without arrogance – only with spirit, love and curiosity at the world, in the way child and adult should. The Fogle house was a home of purity and spectral intelligence and out there, on the screened porch when the crickets sang? No finer. And those hoity toity mothers, the best ladies who lived on the best street on the other side of the park? Well, better not go the Fogle way. Swamp gonna get you. And Old John Fogle he gonna push you in and your Sunday glove come floating to the surface

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Feasting and Fasting at the Great House

 

The old house, in the sleepy French village, is tall and dusty looking. Once, it must have been vibrant, but now, bindweed curls around it and ivy reclaims the windows and the stone of the house. It must be hard for the quiet inhabitants to see out. Sometimes, there is post for the house and the postboy makes a swift passage towards the door because the house alarms him. There is a housekeeper, an old crone who will not give you the time of day and, curiously, a gardener—though he never tends to the front gardens, so fallen into disrepair they must be. The villagers wonder whether there are beautiful and well tended lawns and pretty herbals to the rear of the house.

It is said that a lady lives at the house, some say two sisters, and that they never need company. But that this is a house of shadowy presences; a place where melancholy hangs thick in the air. And at night, sometimes—in summer when the top windows of the house are opened—one hears music, from a curious assortment of instruments: flute, cello, but also mandolin and dulcimer. And an inhabitant of the village making his way home could be stopped in his tracks because the music is so extraordinarily beautiful. And even so it sends a shiver up the spine which is not so pleasant. A death song you’re frightened you might not resist. A tune to lead you up the tenebrous dark spiral staircase of the self.

But today is different. People do not come and go readily in this village, but a new person has come, from the city, and he wants to enquire about the tall, great house. He thinks he might like to buy it: a retreat. It has great potential and he knows excellent architects and designers in Paris, where he lives now. He is bold, so he knocks at the door and it is answered. The rumour held true. Two women come to the door, so similar facially it is immediately clear that they are sisters. They are not beautiful, but they are arresting—I am sure you know the quality of which I speak: striking and sensual women, with poise and grace; exquisite manners, too. They seem pleased to see him and—he is surprised to entertain this peculiar thought for a moment—as if they knew he were coming.

Over tea and dainty little cakes, he explains to them what it is he is looking for. They are clearly amused by something but do not elaborate. And to his delight, they indicate quite clearly that, indeed, they were thinking of it, of perhaps finding somewhere smaller because the great house is too much to manage and they realise parts of it are in a poor state of repair. They tell him that they will be in touch, that they have a solicitor in Paris who attends to matters of estate and finance for them, and so the visitor takes his leave. His watched step brags.

So he waits and, sure enough, within weeks he hears from them again. A sum is agreed and the solicitors are instructed. Within two months, he is in the house, removing dust and grime and revealing the lovely house (he thinks) under the crumbling plaster and neglect. He has a lady in Paris and she becomes his wife. So taken with the house is he that he decides to move from Paris; it is a fair trip but he thinks he can make the journey once or twice a week to conduct his business. And during these times, his new wife is left lonely at home. The dream becomes more to his liking than to hers and, eventually, resentment begins to settle in the house.

The new wife sits and sulks; loathes her abode because he carved it. And her new husband. Sees herself deposited there, commodified. In time she rails aloud. After this, there is nowhere she can go. She is not of independent means. To return to her parents would be shame abominable, though she was never loved since cradle days. Her tears are insistent.

And so they come to her. The two sisters who are still there for, of course, they did not move out—just retreated into the deeper recesses of darkness until they saw a purpose. The housekeeper and gardener are there, too. They will never leave because the house is alive: it is a living breathing organism and they, hungry for blood and for dim, mysterious life, are part of its darkness. The house may be trimmed and tidied and made pretty but, underneath, it will not change. And so the young wife is taken to be with them. And when her husband, upstart from Paris, comes back, he will not find her. Eventually the house and its inhabitants will claim him too. For the new wife, it will be kind. Never loved since cradle days, she now finds company and subtle delight. And the satisfaction of this: knowing that his, her husband’s, will not be a quiet taking, for the sin of presuming to buy what belonged for ever to somebody else. For seeing only his own conspicuous consumption. Buying something that was never for sale. And all those who live in the wings of the house and in the fine rear garden will play their music, jangle the gold of our upstart, kiss the new wife and she them, and do what cruel things they must to survive and laugh. You could hear them if you went to this village on a summer night when the music is played. But keep your pride in check.

Cave Venus et Stellas

Cave Venus et Stellas

It is a strange place; a cold street, in which the temperature seems to drop as you round the corner. You feel the breeze cut into you; sometimes you think you must have imagined it, but no: there it is again. A street that looks the same as the last but inescapably and unfortunately, irresistibly different.

The young man, lean and callow, has been called upon to work for the shadowy residents of this street. There, every day, post is delivered, collected from doormats, papers from drives and houses and gardens maintained in apparently pristine condition. And yet, we see no one, telling ourselves only that the street’s inhabitants must keep, exotically, rather bohemian hours than ordinaries.

So, the young man is called to the fifth house on the street, a tall house, as all the others, with imposing gables and a tall, tall chimney stack. He rings the bell and a lady answers, ivory and willowy, with intense blue eyes. She sees him start just a little, as one does when confronted by such intense beauty. “Won’t you come in? So much to do.”

Inside, it is a world away from the modern suburban street, all billowing drapes, vast cabinets of dainty phials and bottles, Venetian mirrors and candelabra. And little cups; so many little cups on narrow shelves. With fluted saucers, Japanese and Chinese designs, lacquer work. His eye is drawn everywhere all at once and she senses this. “Yes: I am quite a collector, as you see.”

“Well, I’m wondering, Miss—is it Miss? (it is)—which jobs you need doing.”

“Ah, yes. But first, won’t you have some tea? Come through.”

The kitchen is through the long narrow hallway with its unusual intricate pattern of hexagonal tiles. The room has a surprisingly vast azure ceiling, upon which are painted many tiny gold stars. He would have thought it exquisite, had it not already begun to make him dizzy just looking at it for a short while. On the floor he thinks, counting quickly, that he sees hexagons, limned with a pretty language he does not know.

She boils water in an old fashioned urn (strange, he thought: why no kettle?); rather too much for tea for two. She makes tea in a lovely, highly polished silver tea pot—again it seems disproportionately large of scale.

“I need more shelves, Long thin shelves for my display. I am such a magpie, as you saw. And shallow cabinets for the walls. Like you could see in an old fashioned apothecary. For my pharmacopeia. Ha! But not so deep and, you know, with drawers. Can you picture what I mean?”

Yes, for the first. That shouldn’t be hard but her second request  would be more difficult. He is too shy to say he cannot translate all her words. But, as he drinks his tea, he feels he wants to please her, so he agrees to start the job the next day. Although really, his other commitments tell him he should wait. It is something about this lady—and she amuses him too, he thinks as he drinks the tea from more of her little cups.

Next day, he begins and, in a day, the narrow shelves are cut and fitted for the rather bare little anteroom off the kitchen. “This will be my dining room,” she says, “You are decorating it for me.”

He drinks more of her tea, even eats some dainty little sandwiches she makes him, and begins work on the cabinets. The work seems to flow from him; oddly, some of his best work to date. Invisible joints and beautifully conceived design. He has surprised himself. But then, standing back from the room, as it begins to come to life with its first fittings, he feels suddenly tired and this she sees.

“Come and sit down. In the kitchen.”

“She looks more beautiful than ever today,” he thinks. But she’s his customer, so he must not say it aloud, though to think he might thrills him. And look at her milk-white tapering fingers; ancient, young: long nails. “Yes, I had better. I had better sit.” He is not himself, while her beauty swirls and fizzes stars.

He sits, closes his eyes for a moment to rest. He feels worse. Looking up at the ceiling and so at the fine golden stars, he becomes dizzier and dizzier.  His extinction deeply pleasurable, before he sees and remembers no more. “Orris root and henbane, my darling” says she, stroking his cadaver and removing the cup and saucer from the still warm hand.

And now. The shadowy inhabitants of the rest of the houses in the street come through interconnecting doors -they are corporeal, after all—and they feast and they drink him dry from the little fluted cups as they sit under the stars. And what they cannot digest, they grind for their medicines  and potions, even a dainty cosmetic for the ghostly pallor, and this they place in the shallow apothecaries’ drawers. Their pharmacopeia. Ha! And thus they retreat to their own homes and the lady with the lovely blue eyes is alone. Until, that is, she crosses her hall to the next visitor who will come to her, while she is floating, as she will be, across the fine encaustic tiles. And the tiles show not hexagons (oh poorly counting man!) but pentagons—no pentangles—and say, in the Latin inscription which our carpenter did not know how to read, “Cave Venus et Stellas.” And if you, too, cannot read this, then you must find out—just in case.