The Haunting of Jezebeth
Careful and soft, downward through the sunlight, not a leaf falling, the noon breeze spread across my face. With it came a silken voice. A solitary word breathed out, the m's and the r's nascent and free. I stood at the foot of the Jezebeth Hills, my eyes striving to see the jagged rock summit. I remembered light-footed roses growing among the clefts there.
I approached the grayed house with a flip inside my stomach and rubbed it to remain calm. No garland of blossoms on the fence; no beaten path snaking to the door; no one there to squeeze my hand so tight I couldn't let go. My eyes shifted to the Jezebeth Hills. A series of mountains locked together; even the thickest clouds could not hide them. The fullest peak at the center declared herself the mightiest. On winter nights, her icy gales could flatten you without mercy. Other times, when the summer moon floated, her purple eye would grow so big that I knew she could see me no matter where I hid. That Jezebeth, she knew all.
To the east was the twisting Lantz Gorge where your shadow could not survive. A gate with far-reaching black poplars would warn to go no farther. As a child, that forbidden gorge beckoned me daily. One day I did venture beyond the gate to view the riven rocks and crags. Monstrous hawks pitched at my head. I ran screaming toward the Dunwich River for safety.
Now, many years later, the mystery of the darkened woods still expelled its awe. A sparrow fluttered. Sunlight swayed and dappled in a flick of wind as Jezebeth seemed to recognize my return. I often wondered if she zoomed her winds through my hair to enjoy watching my curls fly up in silly corkscrews. If a mountain could laugh, Jezebeth's would be winged and surfy.
The gardens sat all brown and grizzled, the shrubs tangled like wicker ghosts. In the distance, among the switch grass, the barn sagged where Aunt Margaret hung herself dressed in an evening gown of blue beads.
"You'll duck and shrink like I have in this house," Aunt Margaret would wiggle a bent finger at me. "Just like your mother has, and our mother, and her mother before that. And even if you leave one day, you'll be back, and you'll pass on here like the lot of us. And your daughter too, and her daughter. Don't you forget what I'm saying, girl. You're a Lantz woman. We keep our place here."
At the age of ten, I was smart enough to figure she meant I was inheriting some kind of curse, like an ugly mole on your face that everybody shunned. Five generations of Lantz women lived in this rambling structure with a tin roof that even the gray crows refused to land on. Granny Marta Lantz acquired this land in the late 1700s and had fooled with sorcery, myrrh, and strings of herbs, or so the stories went. The images of old Marta—of her drinking smoky potions, dancing on the ridge of Lantz Gorge, tossing grave dust and salt while packs of black hens followed her bare feet showing ringed toes—never failed to terrify me.
This house sunk deep into the earth like a vaulted tomb. No sons were ever born into this Lantz family. No weddings. No husbands. Marta Lantz begot Rosamonde; Rosamonde begot Lydia; Lydia begot Margaret and Georgianna, who begot me. All of us, home-schooled, farm-raised, grew from the land like weedy specimens with roots that could never be severed.
"Men!" Aunt Margaret would say, her voice like the blare of a trumpet. "Studs, that's what they are and that's all they're good for." She'd know of course, she'd had plenty of men in her time, even hooked up with a gangster who hid leather bags of cash in our attic. The day I saw his body turning over in the current of the Dunwich River, his head lurching helplessly, I let out a shrill. I remember shivering in my bed for hours. Weeks later the gangster was found, down river, a bullet hole in his head. That same day, Aunt Margaret dressed herself up in satin and jewelry and poured champagne into her best stemmed crystal. My mom grabbed her rifle, ran to the ridge for a three-fire salute to the Lantz Gorge.
I recall Aunt Margaret best, not because she was a favorite, but because she was clearest with her face wrinkled from too much powder and messy red lipstick. The day she died was the day I received a letter that I had won a scholarship to a small university in sunny California. So, at age 22, I left Lantz Gorge. When I rode off in the cab, I did not look back at my mother standing alone on the lawn.
Summer breaks came and went: I worked the university book store. Five years later I tossed my graduation cap in the air and got a job as an Assistant Librarian at the local library, books being my safest haven. I went to the movies with friends, lunched with the girls, and some months after that I finally unraveled enough and met a man.
On a rainy Friday morning, Attorney Liz Barkley called me at work. I knew the news before she said the words. A picture formed of my mother: thin, pale in the four-poster bed in the front bedroom that overlooked the potato field.
Attorney Barkley elaborated that a paid companion sat nearby doing crossword puzzles when my mother died. The sound of the word died hung for a moment. Lantz women didn't die. They passed on.
"This isn't a shock, is it," Attorney Barkley said, her voice clipped.
"No. She turned 61 this year. All the Lantz women die at age 61."
"Marta, Rosamonde, Lydia, Margaret, all died at 61. Must be written somewhere in stone."
Attorney Barkley didn't have an immediate reply. Pauses didn't make me uncomfortable—my mother was famous for such controlling strategies. "Well," Attorney Barkley finally said, "I have your mother's last will and testament here. Did your mom tell you? You inherit everything."
"Actually, she didn't tell me. We weren't on speaking terms."
"None of that matters now, honey. You're the new owner of Lantz Gorge, 14 acres, and a 200-year old house. You have 30 days to sign the documents. How soon can you get here?"
"I have a full time job."
"Whether you accept or reject the inheritance, we need your signature. There is a stipulation, however."
"Of course there is."
"You have to return to Lantz Gorge and agree to live in the house for five years before full possession is legal."
Full possession. Something plucked at my heart.
"We can arrange your mom's interment for next week and take care of all the legal documents then. How soon can you come north?"
"What happens if I decline the inheritance?"
"Oh honey, that property is worth a pretty dollar. And the house was declared historic not too long ago."
"Historic? With bad plumbing, faulty wiring, and a leaky roof?"
"Renovation, renovation, renovation."
"What happens to the property if I decline?"
"Goes to the county."
"And then what?"
"With those five bedrooms, they sell it to some cute little family with a couple of sheep dogs, and everybody lives happily ever after."
Not in that house. "I don't believe in fairy tales."
Three days later I traveled north to return to Lantz Gorge, my eyes drawn once again to the Jezebeth Hills of my childhood. Jezebeth used to send me dreams where I would soar her mountaintops, my transparent arms stretched out in doubles like a dragonfly with a flamboyant pink tail for steering. These dreams became my sanctuary, my body flying swift and high over green hills, stark rock ridges, and cool river streams, banking south or west or zigzagging my course as I pleased, then touching down in the bright of a yellow morning.
Sometimes, too, Jezebeth would send me thoughts.
I slipped my key into the battered front door with the horseshoe still hanging askew. The warped wood swung open without a sound. The silence of the empty foyer came at me sticky and dark. I felt a cough come up and when I released my breath into the house, the staircase seemed to respond with its own deadly thump.
At the left, the parlor doors stood open—moldy books and antique toys catching my eye—as I moved past the dark staircase into the faded yellow kitchen. I opened the back door for fresh air, but more dust flew in than anything else. The paid companion had done a decent cleanup job; floor swept, dishes put away, kitchen table bare except for decades of scratches. Only the toaster sat on the counter. I suspected it was the same toaster that had caused the fire ten years ago when I made toast for breakfast. The ceiling still wore the scorched stains. It would be just like my mother to hang on to a faulty toaster.
A narrow hallway tracked to the back armored in pictures: a hand drawing of Granny Marta pressing grapes for wine, Granny Rosamonde digging a pond by the old choke-cherry tree. Rosamond carried bunches of dimes in her pockets and liked to click them inside her mouth at night. Sometimes while I slept, I was sure I could hear her clinking away as she lay beneath my bed.
Landscapes covered the opposite wall; photos of birthdays and sabbat circles; a pitch black painting of the stone entrance to Lantz Gorge. Then watercolors of great purple irises on stalks as tall as me. I traced my thumb over the plumped heads that edged the pond with Granny Lydia perched on a rock wall. Lydia worshipped flowers with daily incantations designed to draw their color into her eyes like some shimmering abyss. Famous for decorating the furniture and windows with geraniums, flocks, and black-eyed Susans, Lydia wore abundant wire garlands of bluebells in her hair—some flowers she even wired to the mattress and headboard. When she tossed and turned in her sleep, the wire twisted on the bedpost. She strangled to death in the front bedroom. No one heard a sound from poor Lydia.
As a child I saw Granny Marta walking the apple orchard with a stick in her hand, her hair a pulpy red shine, her face ringleted above a stiff collar. Her wavy image could melt in the sun if I blinked hard and long.
Granny Rosamonde had painted the florals that hung in all the bedrooms, but in this hallway, there was one of water maidens in a swift-flowing tide. She had drawn the horizon with brittle horns as if a herd of cattle were poised to attack. What powers had she conjured into such darkened waters? Rosamonde used to stand waist-deep in the Dunwich River, calling me in to swim with her.
At the far end of the hall, a photo hung of Margaret and Georgianna, arm in arm, like a pair of bookends. And another portrait followed in sequence—a painting of me in a black cape with a garland of flowers round my neck.
Upstairs, the crooked floors creaked under my steps, dust and discoloration everywhere. Both bathrooms were in shambles of cracked tubs and crumbling tiles. Mirrors hung with rust. I examined my profile and with my left hand rubbed my extended belly. My little Evangeline. Doctors confirmed it was a girl. And here I was, back at Lantz Gorge, standing in this house, daughter in womb, just like Aunt Margaret predicted.
Was this curse in the blood?
I would have married Evangeline's father, had he asked—but he was commanding his unit in Kuwait. Of all the places in the middle east that an American soldier could be deployed, Kuwait was less dangerous than most. He didn't know about Evangeline. Like most men, probably didn't care.
Not a single man worthy. Aunt Margaret sang that mantra till the day she hung herself. Had any of them ever been in love? Even my mother never spoke of my dad. "Railroad man" was all I got out of her.
Suddenly the years stretched out before me, corpses of Marta, Rosamonde, Lydia, Margaret, and now Georgianna, keeping vigil in this house. Would I some day have to warn Evangeline not to play near Lantz Gorge? Would Marta appear to her in the orchard? Or Rosamonde, with half a grumble on her lips, paint Evangeline's portrait for the wall? I would certainly have to tell Lydia not to dress my child in wire garlands of her chaunting flowers. And Aunt Margaret, her bitter strength would infect every room in the house—I could practically smell it.
I walked downstairs, my hand palming the banister like all the Lantz women's hands had on this staircase. Was I walking in their footsteps now? I paused at the bottom step and looked up. They were not my heroines.
In my bag I had a cheese sandwich and the last of the summer peaches I bought at a roadside stand. I stood in the yellow kitchen and ate the cheese and the peaches. The two slices of bread sat on the counter next to the steel toaster. I tugged at the plug. One corner of the rubber had melted. Two of the wires lay exposed. The wall outlet hung loosely with a screw missing.
Slowly, savoring the moment, I placed the two slices in the toaster slots. Smooth dark pools of thought ignited. It was an odd feeling, temptation. Like a test of endurance or intention. Was this feeling inspiration or impulse? I was near smiling, for now I was free to choose. Was it even possible to change the Lantz pattern? Could I burn it all away?
My hand hovered over the button. Dare I?
But then I felt a push and stepped back. The screen door banged open. Not by the wind, I knew that. The sun cast itself brightly on the porch and I leaned out to see. One of the steps had caved in as if someone stamped too hard on the rotted wood. The footprint went deep and round. Clearly, a boot. That would be my mother.
I half expected to see her walking the yard, rifle swung over her shoulder. Georgianna was the hunter: rabbits, deer, grouse. She scorched a snake once and smoked its ashes in a pipe to raise a rain storm. What was she hunting now? I shut my eyes for a long moment then opened them. Something shuttered behind me. I turned.
My mother's blue cup and saucer sat on the kitchen table. A small garland of orange snap dragons hung on the chair.
"Come take your place at the table, Deborah."
I heard it sharply, as if my mother were speaking directly into my ear. I lifted the wire garland. The other chairs at the table all drew back expectantly.
Their voices came in like a chorus of young maidens.
Tomorrow, you will bury Georgianna in the Lantz family plot. Tomorrow, you will move into our home. Tomorrow, you will climb down the Lantz Gorge to kiss the rocks, to build our strength, to carve your name into stone.
Dizzy with the spell and the aroma of ash and dust, I lifted the garland, placed it over my head. The snap dragons draped across my breasts causing my heart to pound. My chest rose, the breath surging out my lungs. I could hear them inhaling draughts with their trembling tongues.
One by one, the chairs drew close to the table. Marta. Rosamonde. Lydia. Margaret. One chair for me stood apart from the others. Georgianna waited at the screen door, hand over heart, face full of hope.
My eyes filled but found sight beyond the door to the Jezebeth Hills. There in the clefts, I saw masses of light-footed roses.
Jezebeth's thought marched up. Tomorrow.
And my blood kindled. They were not my heroines. Not dead, not sleeping, not even gone. I pressed down the toaster button.
The coils glowed red. What a lovely aroma, the bread toasting just like any ordinary day. A weak tail of smoke rose. Then the tail grew darker as I knew it would. There, black smoke curled up and the smell of burnt bread filled the room once again. With a toss, I set the garland on the hot toaster and stepped back. The toaster shot burnt crust into the air. At the electrical outlet, the sparks burst. A black haze lifted to the ceiling. Making steps backward, each footfall cracking the wooden floor, I feared the house might break open and swallow me whole.
Holding my belly, I ran. Crackles and a searing crash rumbled overhead as I flung open the front door. Newspaper couldn't have burned any quicker. I followed the path of the slanting sun, careful not to trip as I crossed the dead grass, through the rocky strip of woods up to the dirt road.
There I stopped on a flat boulder and caught my breath. Black smoke gurgled in rapid curves above the house. Raging billows leapt like horned bulls galloping the tin roof. Flames tumbled at the windows. I let my eyes harden on each flame as it roared, the mountain winds driving them wider, rising and falling, shifting and rolling. In a minute the whole house became a wall of crimson beauty, a funeral death pyre of the breathing hosts past and present.
A sudden fresh wind cooled the burn of my cheeks, the immediate air around me a calm clarity, almost cold in my lungs. A leaf fell. The Jezebeth Hills bathed me in her weightless winds, her rock summit wise beneath the ageless sky. Walking away, I inhaled Jezebeth's delicious blue air while my sweet Evangeline gave a grateful stretch in my belly.
Paula Cappa is a published short story author, novelist, and freelance copy editor. Her short fiction has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Every Day Fiction, Fiction365, Twilight Times, and in anthologies Human Writes Literary Journal, and Mystery Time.
Paula’s writing career began as a freelance journalist for newspapers in New York and Connecticut. Her debut novel Night Sea Journey, A Tale of the Supernatural launched in October 2012. The Dazzling Darkness, her second novel, won the Gothic Readers Book Club Choice Award for outstanding fiction and was awarded the Ebook Cover Design Award for May 2013 by Joel Friedlander (Gina Casey, cover designer). Both ebooks are available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble receiving five-starred reviews.
She writes a weekly fiction blog about classic short stories, "Reading Fiction, Tales of Terror," on her Web site http://paulacappa.wordpress.com/
Published by permission of the author.