by Bridgid Cassin
This is what happened.
Jed, the older boy, doubled over at dinner, his eyes fluttering open and shut. He fell out of his chair to the ground with a thud and at first his stepmother said, “Jeduthan, quit horsing around” before Judah, the younger, shrieked and darted away from the table in terror.
“Christ!” the woman muttered upon standing. From her new vantage point, she could see the boy coiled up on the floor, writhing, dribble and food bits falling from his mouth. It was a wonder he hadn’t yet choked.
She hollered for her husband and knelt on the floor beside Jed, grabbing him by the shoulders. “Be still,” she told him sternly. “If you flail, you will hurt yourself and me!” In spite of her efforts, his arms and legs thrashed around as if on their own accord.
The boy’s father came in from the back of the house and saw his eldest, lying prone, and his youngest cowering in the corner behind the tea table.
“What on God’s good earth…?” he began, genuflecting besides his wife and laying his hands on Jed, to hold him still.
“Flossie,” cried Judah in the corner. “I want Flossie…” The word transformed into a high, keening wail, but until Jed, finally exhausted, lay motionless on the ground, no one paid Judah any mind.
Flossie Pumpkinpile was a dark woman, a tall woman, a broad-shouldered woman. She could have been twenty, or she could have been forty-five. Her dimensions were such that if she wore pants, she could be easily mistaken for a man, both from the front and the back. Her people, men and women alike, kept their black hair long and straight, according to Pa, and there was nothing in her face that would readily betray her gender. Her people, according to Pa, had once lived all over Marion County and beyond, before the white settlers came in. Her people were Jed and Judah and Pa, according to Jed and Judah.
Flossie worked for the Boatwells, who lived a few miles outside of Asaph town proper, for as long as both boys could remember. She came into their service, in fact, just a few months before their mother died, to take over the cooking and cleaning and the other household duties. Their mother had been sick with a cancer, said Pa. It was a mercy when she’d finally been taken.
Flossie was not strict with the boys but neither was she lax. She expected them to come back to the cabin from the woods for all three meals of the day with clean nails and without having to holler. If they tore a button off their jacket or pants, she taught them how to fasten it back themselves. She did not make them attend service on Sundays, even when she knew they were playing ill to avoid it. Once, when a foam-lipped raccoon wandered around their cabin, Flossie lured it close with a bowl of lunch leftovers and then killed it with a rock against the back of its skull. She taught them the native names of all the birds and snakes and bugs they caught and brought to her. The boys loved her more fiercely than they loved one another.
After several years, Pa met a woman in the city and decided to remarry. This is what started the talk of sending Flossie away. The woman didn’t want people to think she wasn’t up to the task of keeping house and raising children, even boys. There was no need for two women to do one job.
“And wouldn’t she be more at home with her own people?” Pa had asked Jed and Judah that night, tucking them into bed for the first time in their memory. “She’s been living with white folk too long.”
Their new mother wasn’t bad to them, but neither was she good. She fixed all their torn and ripped clothing herself, and babied them when combing their hair or wiping their teeth. She chattered throughout meals and scolded them if she didn’t like their table manners. Her cornbread was dry. She didn’t even know the white-folk names of birds, and she shrieked if they brought her anything else. When a strange dog appeared outside, skinny as a stick and mewling with hunger, she shut the boys in the cabin with her until after dark, when Pa came home, and by then the dog was gone.
That was all before Jed had fallen over at the dinner table, taken with a fit as though possessed. The doctor could find nothing wrong.
“Let me call on the pastor,” the woman said.
“Pa,” Judah said, “I want Flossie.”
Jed shot him a look from the bed but Judah continued, “Flossie always knew what to do.”
“Has this happened before?” Pa said, sharp suddenly where he was soft before. “Has this gone on longer than I have been aware?”
“I just mean Flossie took good care of us,” Judah said.
“I don’t like the idea of her coming back here, John,” said the woman, their stepmother. “That’s what she wants.”
Pa sighed and left the room, and Judah got to sleep in his father’s bed beside his brother for the night.
The boys asked all the next day if Flossie could come to nurse Jed, but the woman said “You seem fine now,” and that was the end of it.
When they were supposed to be asleep, the boys leaned over the edge of the loft and watched their father and the woman discuss the matter over tea for her and whiskey for him.
“I didn’t want to say it before,” said the woman. “I didn’t want you to think me a silly, superstitious woman. But there’s always been talk in town that she practices some kind of native magic. Hexes and spells and the like. Killed the Penhams’ cows, because they would not sell her milk, and stunted all of Nancy’s dog’s whelps just by giving them the evil eye.”
“Ridiculous,” said Pa, and the boys were relieved to hear him stick up for her. “That is nothing but foolishness.”
“She came to you, and then your lawful Christian wife died,” the woman said, “and then you were a bachelor with two children for far too long. The whole town knew you lived like heathens in these woods.” And then she grew bold and asked, “Were you fucking her?”
Pa remained silent. Jed and Judah pictured the pigs in the yard, how one would heft itself over another and grunt, grunt, grunt until the act was done.
“You were under an enchantment,” the woman continued. “That’s what they say in town. And now she’s cursed your boys since she’s been cast aside for another.”
“I warn you, darling,” said Pa, “this is treacherous territory. Mind where you walk.”
“Did you promise her marriage?” asked the woman. “Did you promise her children? Now she’ll pay you back for breaking those promises by taking those you already have.”
“There’s no such thing as witches,” Pa said finally.
“With God,” said the woman piously, “all things are possible.”
The next day the boys sat taciturn at the breakfast table, so solemn their Pa was afraid Jed might keel over and topple to the floor again. But this time, the problem was his other child, Judah the younger, who turned pale and suddenly vomited onto his plate.
“What in the ever-loving—” Pa began, but he was interrupted when his wife gasped and dropped the cast-iron pan to the floor, nicking it.
“Judah!” Jed cried, grabbing his brother by the shoulders and pulling him close. “He’s sick, Pa!”
“I can see that, Jed,” Pa said, attempting to remain calm, leaning towards the boy’s plate with an air of confusion and curiosity. He plied apart the sputum; it was a wad of wet feathers.
“It came on sudden,” Judah said. “I don’t feel so good.” And then, pitifully, plaintively: “I want Flossie.”
“I told you,” said the woman. “You know.”
Pa said nothing and took no action.
Every day Pa did nothing, the boys got worse. Jed fell to the ground and thrashed at intervals, knocking furniture over and spilling a bucket of water. He struck his head against the foot of a desk and bled. Judah kept spewing up an assortment of objects—the feathers, the nutmeg grater, the lid to Pa’s snuffbox and the writing well that went missing several months before, as well as all manner of rocks and pebbles and twigs and leaves. “Flossie,” Judah cried. “Pa, we need Flossie.”
“Flossie won’t break the hex,” said the woman. “She’ll come back and curse us all.”
Pa called on the doctor, but the woman came back with the preacher from Asaph Church. The two men examined the boys together as the woman watched; speaking in low whispers they thought the boys wouldn’t hear.
“Flossie Pumpkinpile would make us well,” Jed told them, his voice wavering with weakness. “Why won’t anybody call on her?”
“We want Flossie,” Judah added. His face was drawn and his eyes bloodshot from his vomitous trials.
The adults spoke to one another in another room, while the boys lay in their father’s bed, holding hands.
The doctor and the preacher and the woman agreed among themselves that, even if there was no such thing as witches, there would be no harm in taking chances either. Pa no longer had any objection. He sank into the nearest chair and spoke not a word. There were things in the natural and native world that they didn’t understand, but they sought no understanding either, and that was when Pa reached his limit and grew too tired to protest any longer.
They knew where to find Flossie Pumpkinpile. She’d found a new position keeping house for another family in Asaph town proper. The doctor, the preacher, and the woman mounted horses and rode into town in a hurry. The woman arrived first, her filly dripping snot from its nostrils and shrieking from overexertion. “Flossie Pumpkinpile is killing my sons!” the woman screamed into the night, and men poured out of their homes and the public house like ants from a hill when Jed and Judah poured water into the hole, while their women held candles at their windows and looked on. Flossie Pumpkinpile was pulled from her bed by her new master, who was so frightened by the mob outside that he offered her up quickly.
This is what happened.
That first time, when Jed finally went limp, Pa carried the boy into his own bedroom instead of up into the loft, where the boys normally slept, and laid him across the quilt tenderly, like a lamb. Jed’s breathing was slow and ragged, and his stepmother fanned herself with one and twisted the fingers of the other through the laces of her corset. It was clear she didn’t know what to do and kept her hands busy to put off the panic.
“Judah, come here,” Pa called, and the boy appeared in the doorway, still trembling. He turned to his younger son and said, “You keep your brother company while I go call on the doctor.”
“John, what should I do?” asked the woman. It was clear she was not capable of doing anything, so he advised her to clean up the mess they had made in the kitchen.
Judah listened to the door close, the horse whinny as it was saddled and mounted, and the dull thud of its hooves on the swept yard. He listened for the sound of the dishes clang together, the scraping of the cast iron pan. When he was confident that Pa was gone and the woman was occupied, he leaned in close to this brother’s face and shook him good.
“I think you done it,” he said.
“Stop shaking me, you fart-catcher!” Jed whispered harshly. “I had enough of it on the floor. I got so dizzy I thought I might shit my mouth.”
“They believed it,” Judah said. “Do you think Flossie will come back now?”
“She might,” said Jed. “When Pa finds the doctor can’t mend me, he’ll bring Flossie back to nurse me back to health, and then maybe she can stay.”
Just as Jed predicted, the doctor was unable to do anything substantial for him. He found no signs of fever or injury. He prescribed a tincture to be administered in correspondence with the movement of his bowels and advised that he be called first thing should another episode occur.
The boys waited a few days for another opportune moment. When their Pa was chopping wood out back and the woman was tending to the garden, they trundled a hoop back and forth between one another until Jed fell and Judah screamed, and they began their play-acting all over again.
When they realized Jed alone couldn’t bring Flossie back, they decided Judah needed to be stricken as well. “But not with fits,” Jed said. “I’m already doing fits.”
Judah had already been pulling the down from his pillow out of nervousness, and that gave them a start. It was a bit fun, swallowing things, and Judah gladly tried anything they could find that would fit in his mouth.
They were confident now that once Pa convinced the woman, Flossie could come back and stay with them forever.
This is what happened.
She was buried in an unmarked grave outside town. On one side was a nameless vagrant and on the other a suicide. They lay beneath a gnarled choke-cherry tree, where the Penhams sometimes grazed their cattle.
Bridgid Cassin has been an instructor at Stark State College and Walsh University. She is currently a NEOMFA student at Youngstown State University.