by Betsy Phillips
She’s sitting behind the wheel of that old white F-150. She’s got that Mexican blanket thrown over the vinyl seat, so you can bear to sit on it in this heat. She tells me she has never driven stick before. She’s sitting right up on the edge of the seat, one long leg pressing down on the clutch, the other knee high up as if she isn’t sure where to put her foot. She leans into the steering wheel and turns the key.
She’s wearing a light green tank top with a dusty white blouse over it and white denim shorts streaked with dirt. She is brown from the summer sun, freckles dotted across her face. Her blonde hair is falling out of a loose braid. Her sunglasses sit perched on the top of her head.
There are fine, white hairs on her thighs. You wouldn’t notice them normally, but the sunlight catches them.
“You don’t say much, do you, Frank?” She smiles. The truck refuses to turn over.
“Brake,” I say. She laughs, puts her other foot down on the brake, and goes to turn the key again. Then she looks over at me, rolls her eyes, and wiggles the stick into neutral.
“All right,” she says. “Clutch, brake, stick, key.” I nod. The truck starts up. She puts it in gear, moves her right foot from the brake to the gas pedal and almost immediately pops the clutch again. We both jerk forward. “Wait, wait, wait–” she laughs “–I have this.” And she goes right back, runs through her steps. This time, the truck moves forward. She is so surprised she slams on the brakes, sending us both into the dash.
“What the fuck!” she cries.
“Shoulda kept going,” I say. But I can see she’s not going to. I reach over and drop the truck back into neutral. She stares out the windshield for a long time, with this look on her face like she’s just won at Bristol or something. We’ve gone all of five feet after working on it for an hour.
She turns to me, grabs my face, and kisses me. You know how that goes. I am already, in my mind, kissing her back, pulling her to me, reaching up inside her shirt. She smells of suntan lotion.
“I better get back to work,” I say. She’s young, twenty-three at the oldest. I was twenty-three so long ago I can’t remember what it’s like. Best to just figure their enthusiasm is innocent, you know? Even if they don’t mean it to be, they’re still too young to know what they’re getting into.
“Tomorrow, then?” she asks. I shrug and climb out of the truck. Don’t make promises you don’t know if you can keep. Might be busy. You know, sometimes I’m busy all afternoon. I leave her in the truck and I head back to the shed.
Of course, it turns out that I’m not busy. The doc is out of town all this week and the next. Without him sending me to town three times a morning, I get all my chores done by lunchtime. When she pulls up in the truck, still lurching slightly as she shifts gears, I am just finishing up watering the horses.
“Frank!” she cries and wolf-whistles at me. “Look at you!” I grab my shirt off the fence and slip it back on before I get in the truck.
“Oh, too bad,” she smiles. But she’s just teasing.
We drive around the far pasture in big slow loops. Truck won’t go faster than forty-five. I made sure of that years ago.
“I could leave,” she says, that dreamy look passing over her face again. “I could drive on out of here and be so far gone by the time he got back he’d never be able to find me.” I don’t say nothing. If she runs, I’ll have to bring her back. She can’t be hidden enough that I can’t find her.
When I first started out with the doc, girls ran all the time. Never was a one of them I couldn’t track down. She’s no different, I don’t suppose.
“What do you think would happen if I tried?” she asks, suddenly serious.
“You know,” I say.
“You’d hunt me down,” she says flatly. I nod. “But why do you do it, Frank? He’s clearly a psychopath, but you seem nice. Quiet, but nice.”
What are you going to say to a girl that age? She don’t know nothing about the world. Nothing about hunger, nothing about needing a job–I mean really needing a job–and having no one willing to take a chance on you just because you been out of work so long, nothing about how you learn to do whatever you’re asked to do, just so you can drive into Walmart twice a month and stand in line for the Western Union counter to send money off to people you’re afraid you’re never going to get to see again.
Instead, I lift up my shirt and show her the fading pink scar that runs down my chest. She lets the truck roll to a stop. Then she reaches over and touches it lightly.
“Stem to stern,” I say, gently pushing her hand away. “He got something of me.”
“Wow,” she says, mostly to herself.
I don’t say nothing. She looks over at me. I think it might be a trick of the light, but she seems older. It gives me a shiver, because I feel like I have not got her figured quite right. I think I’ve been keeping her here, as kindly as I can. But I’m wrong. She’d been waiting.
She leans over and kisses me again. Slides on top of me, her hair falling onto my face. I can hardly think straight, her hands so quick up under my shirt. It’s off me. I am already hard, already ready to go, if she’ll just let me get myself loose. But she puts her mouth right by my ear and whispers “Be open to me” and I swear, all at once, it’s as if I’m being invaded, as if she is reaching up inside me, but both her hands are still in my hair.
“Just keep breathing, Frank,” she says. I realize I’ve been holding my breath, as if that will stop the feeling of warmth spreading all up my chest and down my thighs. I let my breath out and then in. I can still feel her, the weight of her on top of me, and her somehow spreading through my whole body, running down my legs, pulsing through my arms, climbing up my back. I start to feel dizzy, maybe a little stoned. Maybe I look it, because she tilts my head back, rests it against the back window of the truck.
I can taste her rising up in the back of my throat and then in my mouth, all sweet cunt and coppery taste of blood and something ancient, like a memory of snow and spruce.
And then I ain’t in that truck no more.
It’s dark where we are. And cool. She takes my hand and I stumble to my feet. She opens a door and I see it is night wherever we are. Pitch-black inside, but outside, the sky is so thick with stars it lights up the whole landscape.
I thought the sky was clear out on the doc’s ranch, but the sky there doesn’t look like this. Takes your eyes a minute to adjust. Yeah, there is Orion still, just harder to pick out from the bright stars surrounding it. There is the Little Dipper, still spinning around the North Star. I ain’t somewhere I recognize, but I ain’t that lost, you know?
Then she springs on me, before I can even raise an arm to fight her off. She is a warrior; I see that too late. She’s trained to drop a man barehanded, and down I go. She fishes in her pants, pulls out a knife, and begins to hack me up.
Takes me a long time to die. Seems like forever, her slamming that knife into my chest, me watching my own blood arc up and splatter across her face. My scream hangs in the air, like a vulture circling above a carcass.
Then, I’m finally dead. Or as dead as I can be, considering my condition.
“You still with me, Frank?” she asks, hacking off my fingers and toes, then my ears and nose, pulling out sinews and small bones. I can’t even nod, since she’s taken the tendons from my neck. Eventually, she has me in four piles—bones, blood, muscles, and guts.
Then she leaves.
After a long time, the crows come. I expect to end up sitting in their bellies, but no, they start to rearrange me, to trade me from one beak to the next. Sure enough, they start to put me back together. Takes them all day, clear into the coming night, but I am back together.
Feel sick, though, too sick to move. So, I just stay put, here in the strange dark, crows nestling beside me like puppies tucked up against their mamma. Sometimes I shut my eyes. Sometimes they stay open. Sometimes I see. Other times I can’t.
Crows bring me water. They stand on my chest and throw it up right into my mouth. You think it can’t get no worse than birds throwing up in your mouth. But the second you have that thought, you wish you could touch wood. You don’t want to tempt fate. Or at least, I don’t.
After a while, she comes back.
“How are you, Frank?” she asks, her voice so soft and kind.
“Not too good,” I say, though it comes out more like a croak than real words. She lies down next to me, brushing some crows out of the way. They fly up but they resettle on my empty side. She puts her arm under my head for a pillow and puts her other hand on my chest. Just before I fall hard asleep, I realize the scar that went from neck to dick is gone.
When I wake up, I’m in the truck. She’s sitting beside me, singing along with the radio.
“How are you, Frank?” she asks again. I just shake my head. “Not much for words, I know,” she says. She starts up the truck and we drive off toward the house. When she gets back by the barn, she stops.
“I know what these flowers mean,” she says. “These are graves you’ve been tending.” I nod. “What do you see?” she asks. I look and jump in my seat.
There are the fourteen girls who are in that cemetery, all standing around like they’re waiting for a bus or something. Jennifer, the littlest one–I have a soft spot for her from when she was alive–smiles and waves at me. I smile back.
“You see them?” she asks. Her in the truck, not Jennifer.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say.
“Oh, Frank.” She sighs. “You don’t have to ‘ma’am’ me.” But I don’t quite believe her about anything anymore. “So, what’s that one there?” she asks, pointing a little ways away to another mound of flowers.
“That’s mine,” I say. No need to lie. Nothing to be ashamed of. We keep all the graves where they can be watched by me and not discovered by strangers. Even mine. She’s not the first person to kill me and bring me back. She breathes in sharply, like a gasp she wants to hide. She closes her eyes. I know that look. She’s wishing she’d heard anything but that. Some of the other girls look like that, when you tell them you’re there to take them to the doc.
“What–” she starts slowly, her voice so soft “–do you remember of that?”
I remember that it’s dark in the ground, darker than you can bear. And just when you think that hot, boundless darkness will be the end of you, you start to hear the wood of the box you’re in giving way. The dirt falling down on you. In your mouth, in your nose. You can’t help but breathe it. You’re drowning, in dirt. Under the earth. And when the doc pulls me out, he says “I own you now, Frank.”
I don’t even know my name is Frank, really. I don’t know that the name I give Western Union when I wire the money really means anything to me. Doc says I’m a drifter, that I showed up on his doorstep starving and looking for work and that he tells me I murdered that first girl. That’s why he had to kill me. And now he owns me. If he goes down, I go down with him.
I don’t think I am a murderer. But it took years for my head to clear again after my first death. I go by what the doc tells me, because otherwise I don’t have no story about myself at all.
I don’t know how to say that to her, any of that. “It was terrible darkness,” I say instead. She reaches out and cups my face. Her eyes are wet, like she knows my mind and it breaks her heart.
“Oh, Frank,” she says. I press my hand against her cheek. It feels cool. “And before that?”
“Nothing,” I say. “I guess I died.”
“Well, you tell me if you do start to remember,” she says. She leans her head back. “Our memories are like our own private ghosts,” she says. “We’re all haunted by our lives. By the past.”
“Not me,” I say, and that makes me sad, a little. Whenever I’m out in the desert, beyond the far pasture, I look for tracks. Not just to follow them, but to know that I am not lost. There is a way. I just don’t know it yet. But someone does.
“Well.” She half-smiles. “We’ll see. Taking you apart like that should have given you some ghosts.” I look over at Jennifer and them, but I’m not sure that’s who she’s talking about. I nod anyway. She drives me back to the shed. I open up the cage and she goes in, no trouble. I know I should bring her supper, but I’m so tired I don’t even take my boots off when I lie on the cot. I can hear her across the shed, singing softly, and before I know it, I am asleep.
This isn’t right. I wake up in a building, but it’s not the shed. I’m used to heat, but this air feels like I’m breathing it through a hot, wet towel. I push myself up off the floor and make my way to the doorway. There’s a woman. I don’t know her, I don’t think, but I’m acting like I do. She is beautiful, her brown hair sun-bleached to blonde in parts, her legs long and strong. She’s looking out into the woods. I guess you’d call it the woods. It doesn’t look like any woods I know.
“Good morning,” I say, but I don’t really say it. I want to say “Who are you?” but I got no more control over myself than you do over what goes on the TV.
“Hey, sweetie,” she says, turning back to smile at me. I see she has a cup of coffee in her hand. Seems too hot for coffee, but I go and get some, too. “Were you up all night?” she asks.
“I have a theory,” I say, “that the symptoms we’re seeing in the people here could be a result, at least in part, of Datura stramonium ingestion—delirium, amnesia, hyperthermia, bizarre behavior. Couple that with a plant that would induce paralysis, the wounds left on the body to indicate where the soul has been removed, and a long cultural belief in zombies and, voila, you have what we have here–a whole village full of people who believe they are zombies under the control of a powerful bokor.”
We are joined by the doc. He looks younger, still has most of his hair, but no beard. “Dr. Gunderson,” he says to the woman. I don’t like how he looks at her. “I trust Dr. Frank is sharing with you his latest ridiculous theory? Please, Frank, even if a man were capable of mixing the right herbs for the initial fake death, how would he keep them enslaved for years?”
“Maybe prolonged Datura stramonium ingestion,” I say, though I don’t use words like “ingestion.” I don’t know what Datura stramonium even is. “Which might lead to eventual brain damage and keep the victim in a state in which he’s easier to control. It’s not like you can get a grant to test this on humans. We’ll have to either catch him dosing them or somehow procure the secret from him.”
“Gunderson,” the doc says. “Your husband….”
“No,” I say. “No, no, no.”
“Frank,” a voice says. “Frank!” I sit up, and I’m back in the shed. She’s still in the cage. “You were having a dream,” she says. The breeze from the fan is cold on my face. I touch my cheek. It’s wet from tears.
“I can’t remember doing that before,” I say. I sit there for a long time, my mind racing. “Do you think it’s real? My dream?”
“What did you dream?” she asks.
“I have a wife,” I say.
She scrunches up her face and looks away from me. Her eyes are shining. I know there’s some way this fits together. I can feel it tickling along the back of my mind, an idea, a big clumsy idea. I want so badly for it to come out of the shadows, where I can see it.
“What do you remember about her?” she asks.
“Nothing,” I say.
“But in the dream?” she asks. I don’t say nothing. I just grab the key out of my pocket and let her out of the cage. “But what’s she like in the dream?” she asks again.
“Fine,” I say, shifting uncomfortably, moving my shoulder away from where she’s reached out to comfort me. We walk up toward the house together. One of the other women, looks like Twenty-Seven, is already out hanging laundry on the line. I grab her arm, the gal from the cage, so it looks like I got control. We’re about at the back steps when I say softly, “I don’t like how the doc looks at her.” And I see a look, maybe relief, pass over her face.
“No, Frank,” she says. “You wouldn’t.”
I open the door and another one is at the stove.
“Breakfast, please, Twenty-Five,” I say. Twenty-Five is crying. The doc says she’s a failure because she’s always crying. Says he’s thinking about putting her out with Jennifer and them, because it hasn’t taken. But she’s the best cook. So, he doesn’t.
I’m eating Twenty-Five’s eggs and bacon, thinking. And I feel that tickle again, deep in my brain. I see it often enough. The girls with names drink the doc’s drink and they go in the ground. After three days, the doc pulls them out again. If they seem right to him, they get a number instead, and they get to work. If they don’t seem right, we put them down. That’s how it goes, for as long as I can remember.
It is the doc that pulls me out of the ground. Now I am rocking back and forth, like I’ve got a hard shit working its way down. I can feel it, this idea, and I groan with the weight of it. I see what the doc does to those girls. All of it.
It is the doc that pulls me out of the ground.
“Oh,” I say. The noise of it startles me.
“Are you okay?” she asks. My head is a churning tornado. I feel that if I stand up, I will just fall over. So, I stay still, the knife and fork clutched in my fists. I look at her again, really look at her, try to see if I know her. But I can’t clear the twisting in my head enough to tell if she can spark another storm.
“He…” I say. But what can I say? “I been robbed, I think,” is what I finally come up with. She just nods. “Do I know you?” I ask. She nods again. I can see she’s upset. I turn back to my meal. Twenty-Five pours her some more coffee. “Thank you, Twenty-Five,” I say. I like to make things as easy as possible on everyone.
I think that being polite, accommodating, makes it easier on them, but maybe it just makes it easier on me.
“What would my number be?” she asks.
“Thirty-Three,” I tell her.
“You want to drive the truck some?” she asks.
“I got my chores,” I say. But I wonder why I do chores for a man who stole from me. “Let me get the keys,” I say.
And here I am again, sitting in the passenger seat of that old white F-150. She is in the driver’s seat and she starts the truck and drops it into gear with only a slight hitch.
“You’re older than you look,” I say. She smiles at me.
“You remember when we first met,” she says. “We were so young.”
We drive out to the back pasture, over the rise so we can’t be seen from the house. She gets down out of the truck and pulls that old blanket with her. She spreads it out in the grass and sits down on it. I am standing by the back of the truck. I don’t know if I should join her. She looks back at me and pulls off her shirt. She looks at me again and then wiggles out of her white shorts. And then her underpants. She’s sprawled on the blanket buck naked, looking at me like her heart is breaking. All of a sudden, I am on the blanket, crawling up between her legs, burying my nose in her, reaching my fingers up into her, putting my thumb right where she used to like it.
“What?” she asks. “Why’d you stop?” I shake my head and kiss on up her belly. She’s wrestling with the button on my jeans and then she’s got me in her hand and her legs go up over my back and I am as deep in her as I can get. Like breathing. Like a beating heart. This is natural. This is how we go together.
This is my way back, and maybe I am not so lost.
When we are done, she says “Oh, God, Lee,” and I know that’s my name. She doesn’t say anything else. I get the feeling that I know what she’s thinking anyway. Maybe I have missed her, too, and just didn’t know it.
“It’s so hard to see you like this,” she says. “Listen,” she says, and I can’t think of nothing else I’d rather do but listen to her. “I think you’re right, that this is Datura stramonium poisoning. And, if it is, that means Physostigma venenosum seeds might cure you.”
“Physost-what?” I ask. I guess these words used to mean something to me. It makes me feel mostly excited, but a little afraid to think they might again.
“The calabar bean,” she said.
“A bean? Where you going to get that?” I ask. She reaches up and fidgets with her hair. She’s pulling on something tucked way up at the back of her head, hidden in the base of her braid. She lets out a tiny yelp and she’s holding in her hand a small sachet, her hair still tied to it. She unties her hair and three beans fall into her hand.
“I’ve been studying for a decade,” she says. “I learned how to fix your soul. I learned how to fix your body. I tracked down every lead and I ran down dead ends, until I found you. I even let that fucker think I was in love with him, just to get him to bring me here, hoping against hope that you’d be here. And here you are.”
“What happens when I eat these?” I ask. She looks troubled.
“You could die,” she says. Again. Though she don’t say that. “You could be worse off than you are now. Or you could be more like your old self.”
“What about you?” I ask.
“Any way it goes,” she says, “I’ll try to escape. I hope I can take you with me.”
“I do things for him,” I admit. “I filled those graves.” I’m quiet for a long time, because it’s hard for me to say things and I want to be sure I get this right. “You can’t get out of here without me,” I say. “You don’t know the land and it’s harsh.” I wait to see if she understands what I’m saying, working up to this next part. “I think I’m a good person. But there ain’t much about me I can say for sure is the truth. And I filled those graves. Shot those girls the way I shot lame horses, sick dogs. Even if I get the part of me you love back, I still got this new part.”
“I know, Lee,” she says. But you can’t say for certain what a person knows. I’ve come to learn that much.
“All right, then,” I say. I put out my hand to take the beans.
“You’re probably going to piss yourself,” she says. “Maybe even shit.” I hand her my clothes to put in the truck, in case. I don’t know that he will kill us if he catches us. As far as I know, he’s never pulled a trigger himself. But it won’t be good, anyway, if he does catch us. He’ll take our souls from us and we won’t know each other anymore. No sense in being sad about that, though. We won’t know to miss each other.
I can see why I love her, all brave and reckless. Her beans are dark brown, like chocolate, with two red ridges running down the back. When I put them in my mouth, they don’t feel no different from a regular bean. Even when I bite down, they’re just beans. It’s not until I swallow that the bitterness comes back on me. I shudder, but I keep them down.
I settle back onto the blanket, staring up at the blue sky. I have some notion that this has been done before–the lover who walks into Hell to try to bring someone back. I wonder if that’s us or someone else. I wonder if I’ll get a chance to know. To remember.
She’s singing. I feel tired, a little sick, and then I’m asleep.
Betsy Phillips lives in Whites Creek, Tennessee. She is the author of the book A City of Ghosts and blogs for the Nashville Scene‘s political blog “Pith in the Wind.” She also knows all three final resting places of Timothy Demonbreun, where local occultist Ben Allen is buried, and which fields Frank James farmed when he was hiding in middle Tennessee. The Haunting of Hill House gave her nightmares.