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“Do you know the history of this place?” He says turning to the light-eyed woman in the expensive linen business suit. She gently dabs a linen handkerchief under her chin and each of her eyes to wipe away the perspiration, but she is careful not to smear her mascara. Her mocha skin glistens slightly as they walk through the old house; their foot falls making a loud clattering noise as they move. She isn’t an overly large woman, more curvy than anything else. As she moves ahead of him to take a look at the large grand staircase that dominates the middle of the room, his eyes move over each of those curves. It isn’t the leer of a dirty old man, but rather one who appreciates what he’s seeing and can remember a time when he himself was a strapping young buck instead of the shrinking man whose reflection he catches in the glass of one of the French doors that leads to a lesser ball room. She is ample both up top and below. A fact that she is trying to hide by wearing a business suit that is one size larger that she should take.
“No, not really.” She answers, trying to take in the full grandeur of the huge foyer. The stair case is large and divides the room in half. It’s wider at the bottom than at the top with a small landing in the middle for support. On either side at the top two rooms open with double doors. Both are open now. Light from those rooms gives the whole room a face like quality. It gives her t his uneasy feeling of a large tongue ready to scoop people up into an unseen mouth.
For her part she isn’t quite sure what she is doing here. The package that had arrived contained a letter stating that this property concerned her family. As far as she knew she had no family this far south. She wouldn’t have come at all except for the enclosed first class plane ticket and the intriguing offer to see a “grand ol Southern property done in the old fashion” the letter had stated. This coupled with the fact that she hadn’t had a vacation in over two years prompted her to verify that she was coming to which the older male voice at the end of the line replied, “Marvelous.”
She had put herself up at the finest hotel she could find and resolved herself to at least indulging herself in the local cuisine and hotel amenities while on this trip.
“After all,” she thought to herself while unpacking, “I deserve a little pampering.”
The old man walking with her appears to be an old southern gentleman in a threadbare white suit and a brand new panama hat. He too wipes away the perspiration from his brow, but it is with a red bandana rather than a white cotton or linen handkerchief that a true gentleman would use. The woman notices this, but makes no response. She does wonder why the man would go through all the trouble of putting on airs, as her momma would say. It’s obvious to her that he is a farmer or caretaker. His calloused hands aroused her suspicion when he shook her hand at their introductions. The red bandanna confirms this for her. Not that it matters to her. She wouldn’t have treated him any differently; it just strikes her as odd.
“I only know that this was one of the largest plantations of its time and one of the oldest.” Once again wiping at her brow and neck.
“Ummhmm,” he nods, his southern drawl leaking through even in his gesture.
“Not one of the largest, he corrects, the largest, ever.” The words were actually, “lawgest evea” but she knew their meaning just the same.
“It will be a shame to see the place go, but the repair and the cost are just too much for my family to bear any longer.”
Shuffling outside to the veranda he wipes the back of his neck with his bandanna, “besides, we’ve carried this burden long enough.”
“Come again?” She offers her words ringing in the man’s ears with their northern curtness.
“I said it’s a burden that my family has carried long enough.”
She nods her assent and the two move forward off of the main house towards the large barn some three hundred yards towards the back of the house property.
They stop about half way down, the old man once again wiping his brow.
“This here is all that remains of the plantation compound itself. The quarters having been torn down many many years ago.” He tells her as he points next to the barn where a grove of trees now stands.
“Seems that folks want to cover up what they don’t like to be reminded about.” He says turning towards her to meet her eye.
“Course by my take of things, it would be better to remember even if it’s unpleasant rather than forget and risk repeating the past.” His gaze is steady and his deep black eyes look through her rather than at her. It’s as if he knows that she was born poor in West Virginia and that she has spent years and countless hundreds of dollars to get rid of her southern accent. There are few these days that could tell by the way she speaks where she is from, but this man seems to be able to see through all of the trappings she has set up. It makes her uncomfortable, even more uncomfortable than the heat and the humidity.
“I can understand that the cost of upkeep on this property can be staggering. I am a little confused by the offer though? The letter read that you want to sell this property or rather give it away. You don’t want any money for it?”
“No miss…” He starts to say when she interrupts.
“It’s Ms.” She replies.
Taking her hand into his he looks once again into her eyes, “please allow an old man this one courtesy.” Again the words were “dis one coitasee.”
Taken aback by his manners she can only smile and with the gentlest of nods agrees.
Patting her hand he continues. “No money. The land the houses, such as they are, and all of the other surround property are free of charge.”
“I don’t understand. This is a large, historically valuable property. Why would you just want to give it away?”
“Because it’s cursed.”
“Cursed!?” She asks her voice taking on an incredulous tone. The very sound of the word snaps her out of her romantic notions of southern gentlemen and long lazy afternoons on the veranda sipping mint julips.
Taking notice of her change in language and tone, the old man riles him self up to his full height and looking her square in the eye he says, “Yes, cursed.”
Drawing in a deep breath he continues, “You’re not from around these parts, but I can tell by your eyes that you know to what I am referring.” She breaks from his gaze knowing that he is correct. As a little girl she heard tales of people cursing and being cursed by others and that only the strongest of magics could protect or undo a curse. These though were stories to frighten little girls. “Surely, there could be no credence to these things.” She thinks to herself.
“You have no idea the things that have gone on in this place. It’s about time someone educated you.” He said. Moving past the barn entrance to the back they come to a small unkempt graveyard. Moving to one of the largest stones the old man moves away some grass and dead plant matter so that she can read the name on the stone.
“Sebastian Beaumont.” She mutters.
“Sebastian Beaumont was the richest man in these parts. Before his family settled here they was a big success back in England. His chief exports were textiles and colored folks.” She winces at mention of slavery and the fact that this man throws it out there so casually.
He notices the discomfort, but continues. “When Beaumont came of age he already had a mission. That was to expand his influence, wealth and power. There were rumors that he was responsible for holding up the sale of the Louisiana Purchase. Rumors that he would pull his trade and take his ships, labor and merchandise to other countries. Oddly enough it was only after his death that the purchase went through.”
“This plantation here”, the old man said waving his hand to cover the property “was the model for all the others. It was the largest, most profitable and most grand of them all.”
“I still don’t understand what that has to do with being cursed.” The woman replies.
Waving her quiet the man continues. “A man of Beaumont’s appetites wasn’t content to sit here and watch money roll in. No sir, he had interests not only here but also in England and South America, which at the time was little more than a outpost. There he established businesses including the import of more slaves.”
Once again taking the women’s hand into his own he covers it and looks deeply into her eyes.
Drawing in close his voice is almost a whisper. “Colored is colored to a man like Beaumont.” He starts trying to soothe her.
“Didn’t matter what part of the world they are from. It was easier and more profitable to move slaves from South America than Africa since more of them survived the journey.” Patting her hand in comfort he lets her go and continues on his tale as he clears away more weeds from the headstone.
“One such slave come up from there that he named Isabelle. Supposedly she was the daughter of a powerful chief whose people could trace their ancestry back to the Aztecs or Mayans, I forget which. Anyway, they brought this beautiful girl up from South America and Beaumont was completely bewitched by her. He decided that he was gonna make her his bride. Some folk complained and griped I suppose, but Beaumont was a mighty powerful man. And the more powerful the man the more hypocritical he tends to be. Being the type of man that did everything in a big way he decided to have the entire house and grounds transformed for his wedding. It was to be a festival to end all festivals. To plan such an undertaking he hired a man named Murdock. I don’t recall the man’s first name. Murdock was to plan the entire affair with the approval of both the bride and Beaumont himself. For his part Beaumont had his business affairs to deal with so he left the wedding planning to these two.”
Wiping the dirt from his hands he says, “I suppose you can imagine what happened next.”
“Murdock and Isabelle became lovers. Didn’t they?” She asks.
“Yes, they became involved. You must try and understand. Beaumont wasn’t an evil man, just a product of the times. But he had an awful mean streak. He could be kind and generous, but his personality was supposedly like night and day. Well he come home and found the two of them together and in a fit of rage killed Murdock outright. Don’t know what happened to the body. I suppose it could be anywhere on the property. Isabelle though he took time with. From what my momma told me and what her momma told her and so on he violated her every which way you could violate a woman.”
“Why are you telling me this!?” The woman asks upset.
“I am sorry miss, but it is important that you know what happened here. Important that you understand.”
“Weeks he would have the others care for her. They would raise her back to health and he would come, take her and beat and cut her even worse. This went on for months until there was nothing left of the beautiful girl, but a husk of scars and misshapen bones.”
Here the man stops as giving each of them an intermission from the ghastly details each has had to endure, the man for telling and the woman for listening.
Clearing his throat he continues, “Finally after her last beating, she could take no more. She had precious few things that she managed to smuggle with her on her journey. Amongst them was a small black leather pouch containing various herbs, stones and other things with special properties. She asked the local voodoo priestess for help and together they summoned a special fire. Into that fire she cast her herbs and roots and cast a powerful spell, a curse on the family and house of Beaumont.”
Turning to his young guest he looks her in the eye and says, “I don’t know what exactly the spell was, but I was told it scared the priestess so bad that she left the plantation that night and never returned.”
Removing his new hat the old man wipes his head, face and neck with the bandana.
“This heat will be the end of us if we stay out here. Lets go back to the house and I’ll finish up there.” He says, smiling as he readjusts his hat. The two head back up to the main house slowly and in silence. He seems to be quietly contemplating the story that he has related to this young woman. She seems to be trying to digest all that she has heard. Surely, she can’t believe a story that has been handed down from several generations. The idea of curses and voodoo just don’t make any sense. Yet seeing this place and knowing what she knows about Beaumont from the history of the area, it doesn’t seem all that far fetched.
Once back at the main house on the front porch she is given a glass of lemonade to help cool off. Looking out on to the front of the property there is a small fountain in the middle of a half circle that connects the drive way to the house road and that connects onto the main drag. On either side of the house road there are several large dead trees. They are old and gnarled, but, she thinks, they must have been quite the sight when alive.
“Ahh…Whoo, there’s nothing like a cold glass of lemonade to take the edge off the heat.” The old man says taking another sip and settling back into his wooden rocking chair.
She noticed that his entire demeanor had changed from that of the small graveyard. He had been very somber and contemplative when retelling the morbid and tragic history of this place. Now he was very much the man she met this morning; jovial and affable.
“What happened that night…after.” She asked quickly taking a sip of her lemonade.
Like magic, gone was the warmth in the man’s face. As if a dark cloud had suddenly been pulled over his very soul, she watched as he trembled at continuing the story. Even his physical appearance changed. The lines in his face seemed to deepen and obscure his features. His eyes, that only a moment ago twinkled with the delight of a glass of lemonade, grew as dark as a moonless night. His mouth seemed to parch right there on the spot. Shaking he took another sip of the lemonade and continued.
“Well she died that night casting that curse. She gave her very life’s breath to ensure his suffering for all time. Her very life’s blood was the catalyst. I have been told that at no time in the history of our people has there been so much hatred leveled against one person.” He said taking another sip.
“Except for maybe when Cain killed Able.”
“Almost overnight the man’s fortune changed. Before he could do no wrong now he could do no right. His ships all sank or the cargo they carried came here diseased and both cargo and ship had to be burnt lest the disease spread. His political influence waned and his monies all dried up. It wasn’t long before the man was bereft of everything. Everything he touched turned to ash. But that was not the end, no. Countless times he would build up only to be taken down. He eventually remarried, several times, only to have his wives up and die mysteriously or wind up in the asylum. Finally, when there was nothing else to lose he disappeared.”
“Dissapeared?” She asked in a small dry voice unaware that she had been holding the glass of lemonade inches from her open mouth for over five minutes. Slowly she sipped as the lemonade washed across every dry and parched part of her mouth. Refreshed she cleared her throat and asked, “What happened to him?”
“No one really knows. The man was a raving lunatic at the time he disappeared. Raved on about being torn to pieces by Isabelle, but he never had a mark on him. Talked about being flayed alive or slowly diseceted, but there was never so much as a scratch on him. Servents began runnin away in droves now. The last ones to leave said they would hear all sorts of screaming and carrying on coming from the place, but never did any of them set one foot in the house.”
Setting down his glass he slowly gets to his feet. Putting on his new white hat he tells the girl, “Come with me.”
She sets her glass along side one of the porches worn pillars and quickly gets up to match pace with the old man. Silently the two move around the side of the house. They walk for what seems like forever to the woman. The old man’s steps are long, steady and purposeful as opposed to her own awkward gait. Her heels aren’t made for walking in the tall grass. About two thirds of the way down the old man stops and turns to her.
“There was one story of a boy who did look into one of the windows and was so horrified by what he had seen that all of his hair went white on the spot. He told of seeing a man tied to a table while demons cut off pieces of the mans flesh and threw them into the fire. The floor, walls and ceiling were covered with the man’s blood. The last thing he remembered seeing was a devil woman, that’s what he called her, look right at him. He didn’t remember anything after that cause he passed out. While that night left its mark on him he left his mark on the house.” He finished, pointing up at a large paneled window. On the bottom left glass panel you could just make out the image of a small handprint. Just the tips of the fingers and the palm.
“So, it’s a hand print.” She said not fazed by it’s appearance there. She had seen hundreds of hand prints on hundreds of windows.
“That’s not just a hand print. It’s been etched into the glass right down to the finger prints. “I’ve looked at time and time again and you can see it etched into the glass. Not only that but you can feel the ridges of the prints. I have never seen anything like it.” He says, walking back to the veranda.
She lingers a moment longer squinting at the handprint trying to make out details. It isn’t until a surprisingly cool breeze shakes her from her revelry and she realizes that she is alone. Suddenly creeped out by the thought of being alone here shocks her into running back to find the old man. As she rounds the corner she spies him setting himself back down into his chair.
Her eyes linger on the old man for a moment. She doesn’t know what to make of this whole situation. She doesn’t think the man to be a liar. There is too much sincerity in his voice. Nor can she imagine what the upside would be for him if this is a con. She still doesn’t know what she is doing here!
“Why me?” She asks, picking up her glass of lemonade and taking a sip.
“Well, the land and building would have passed to Beaumont’s heirs, but he had none. As such the state seized both them and the remaining slaves and auctioned them off. Problem was that the curse didn’t end with Beaumont’s disappearance. It wasn’t long before the family that had purchased the place disappeared entirely. Once again the land and houses and slaves were sold at auction. Another family moved in and another family disappeared. The house then sat empty.” Stopping a moment to wipe his face and take another sip of lemonade he continues, “After the war the slaves scattered to the winds and the house fell into disrepair. A few families tried living here over the years, but no one would stay on very long. Because there were slaves attached to the property the government wouldn’t tear it down. So they tracked down one of the relations of one of the slaves and offered him the land and property at a severe discount. He took it and moved into the house. Now, maybe the house felt sorry for this son of a freed slave or maybe the curse wouldn’t work against another colored, but whatever the reason the curse let this man and his family leave the house, but it demanded a price.”
“And what would that price be?” She asked as fresh cold sweat broke over her body.
“This place left it’s mark on him just assuredly as the boy left his hand print in the glass pane of that window. After moving out the man had a breakdown and never recovered. He lived out the rest of his years in Juniper Hills sanitarium.” Settling back in his chair he takes another sip of the lemonade.
“Over the years descendants of slaves have owned the house and kept it safe. Now once again the burden must be passed to one who has a direct tie to the house. One who can keep it in check.” He says in an almost whisper.
Setting her drink down hard she shakes the old man out of his dream like state.
“I still don’t see what this has to do with me. Why should I take this house? Why am I here? Why does this house need a keeper or a guardian or whatever!?” She says angrily, the days heat finally getting the better of her demeanor.
“This house needs a proper caretaker because there’s no telling what would happen if it were torn down and the spell released. There’s a curse on this property so strong that it has survived intact for hundreds of years with no sign of weakening. It hungers for a vengeance that has long since been taken. It has devoured family after family not being able to quench it’s appetite. What would happen if it were to be loosed on the world? What harm would it do? And as for why you are here, well that’s simple. You my dear,” the old man leans forward on his chair and pushes up his new hat so he can look at her with those cold black eyes. Pointing a calloused finger directly at her he continues, “Are the descendant of an old voodoo priestess that helped start a blessed fire and then ran away.”
“Th…That’s not true. It can’t be!!” She says horrified by all that has transpired.
“It is true. Your great great grandmother helped Isabelle get her revenge. You are directly tied to this house. And this house always reaches out for those connected to it. It won’t be denied.” He informs her.
“Well I refuse.” She states flatly. “I won’t have anything to do with this house!”
With that she gets up and starts to walk away back to her rented car. She is nearly running now trying to get away from the horror she sees in her minds eye. Faster she moves, desparate to get away from an invisible hand that she imagines is just waiting to pull her back into the house.
“You can’t deny your destiny, child!” The old man booms after her. “Your blood ties you to this place and it will find you no matter what!!” He screams at her.
Quickly she fumbles for her keys desperately trying to get into the car before the old man chases after her. Finally she is able to get into the car, start it and floor it leaving a rooster tail of dust and debris in her path.
For his part the old man just sits back and chuckles to himself as he sips his lemonade. In a moment he is singing a little ditty while rocking back and forth on the big porch, “Froggy came a courtin, he did ride uh-huh, Froggy came a courting and he did ride, uh-huh.”
The song and his voice are carried out over the property on the wind until they are one.
With the radio playing top 40 and the air conditioning blasting she is starting to feel silly about the abrupt way that she left the old man.
“Old southern superstition.” She thinks as she turns up the volume on the radio. Speeding along humming in time with the music she has nearly shaken the feeling of dread that had nearly overwhelmed her just a short time ago. She laughs at herself for being so stupid as to fall for an old ghost story.
She reaches over and is about to move the rearview mirror to check her makeup when a light blue pair of eyes belonging to the darkest woman she has ever seen makes her blood run cold. A dark hand reaches for her and she lets out a scream that would shatter glass. Slamming on the brakes she nearly loses control of her car. Compensating then over compensating she winds up in a ditch just inches from a telephone pole. Quickly she leaves the car sobbing, near hysterical. The humidity and heat quickly wraps itself around her like heavy woolen blanket. Shaking uncontrollably she moves back towards the back of the car to look into the rear seat. There’s nothing there.
Forcing herself to calm down she gets back in the car, checking the rearview several times, and then gets back on the road. This time the music and the air conditioning do little to soothe her nerves. It’s only after breaking open the mini bar in her hotel room and downing sixty dollars worth of scotch that she does start to relax.
Setting her drink down on the night stand she moves to the bathroom and starts to draw a hot bath. Her neck and back are sore as well as her feet. She pulls back the spread on the large bed, kicks off her shoes and massages her throbbing feet. Fumbling for the remote she turns on the TV and sips a bit more scotch, waiting for her bath to come up a little. The weather man talking about a storm front coming in is the last thing she sees before drifting off.
Her sleep is deep and troubled. Marked by the flashing of knives and the spilling of blood. She tosses and turns as beating drums and chanting haunt her sleep. Suddenly, she is awakened by the whispering of her name.
Groggily she comes awake in a darkened room. Suddenly, remembering the bath she had been drawing she jumps off the bed only to fall on a dirty musty floor. What she was lying on wasn’t the bed she had climbed into at the hotel.
“What the?” she thinks getting to her feet and wiping her hands off. The room is pitch black. Slowly she moves trying to find a wall her fear growing with every step that she takes. Soon she finds a wall or the remnants of one. Plaster is flaking everywhere and slat boards poke through like the ribs of a dried corpse as she makes her way around the room. Following slowly, she whimpers softly at each sound that the house makes. Each creak and groan sends her to new edges of hysterics. By the time she finds the door she is just about broken down. Only the coolness of the doorknob in her had gives her fresh hope. Slowly she turns it and pushes out. The room she enters is the overly large foyer that she had walked through today with the old man. Shadows flicker over the large area, dimly lit by a single candle on a table. Lightning flashing through the broken doors and missing slats at the top of the giant staircase now gives the house the look of a giant menacing maw ready to engulf her. Gone are all the ornate coverings that she had seen earlier today. Everything is broken and half hanging. The walls are covered with graffiti and floor is littered with refuse and bits of glass.
Quickly she runs over to the candle only to find a large parchment like envelope lying next to it, sealed with red wax and an ornate “B”. Breaking the seal she opens the envelope and a pours out its contents; a large well worn key and a note written in delicate female handwriting. As she reads the contents her eyes go wide and she starts to scream, “No, No, No,” over and over as peals of thunder starts to engulf the house and drown her out. She collapses there on the floor, the note besides her, it’s writing reflected in the candle light as terror finally over comes her and she runs screaming through the house.
“Welcome home child.” Is all the delicate script says.
Screaming she runs from room to room trying to find a way out as the storm outside rages. On its winds you can almost hear an old man singing a little ditty, “Froggy came courtin and he did ride uh-huh, Froggy came courtin and he did ride, with a sword and a pistol by his side, Froggy came courtin and he did ride uh-huh…”
February 26, 2006
November 16, 2006