Two newlyweds meet for a Halloween picnic and a little extra.
How do you explain to your fiancé that there are dark secrets– even ghosts– in your family history. And that some of those ghosts are not fully relegated to the past.
This is a sad, sweet, tale which echoes a time that many would like to forget ever happened in this country. But it did, and the ghosts of that time live on in many families in many different ways. There isn’t a lot of explicit sex in this. It is more of a tone poem (writing which sets a mood), but it came to me almost complete in a single brilliant flash. I tried to write down what I saw and what I heard and what I felt. I hope that you can see and hear and feel some of that also.
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It was a crisp, but not cold, end of October evening in the “middle ground” just north of Vidalia, Louisiana, when Shelly stepped out of the woods and walked across the harvested cotton patch toward a small square of grass and weeds that stuck out almost like an island into the empty field. If you looked closely at that square, you could see the remnants of a brick foundation sticking slightly out of the grass just inside where the weeds gave way to a cultivated field. In the middle of that foundation was a more modern piece of brickwork.
Modern, of course, is relative. These bricks had been exposed to the elements for at least a hundred years, but they were machine-made, kiln-fired bricks rather than the hand-made, sun-dried bricks that had once been the foundation of the house. Years of wind and rain had worn those soft bricks down to the point where only one or two courses still stood above ground level. With the strength that comes from the kiln, however, and without the severe winters of the more northern states to freeze and crack the mortar which held the bricks together, the benches and supports for what appeared to be a stone picnic table still stood as solid as when they had been built many decades before. The large picnic basket sitting in the middle of the table was even more modern. The food and drink inside, although classic foods of the area from days gone by, were freshly prepared.
A young man sat waiting at the table. Harold’s dark skin and dark clothing caused him to almost blend into the shadows of dusk. His face brightened when he saw Shelly’s white dress blowing in the evening winds as she crossed the cotton patch. Her peaches and cream complection was only slightly darker than the white dress which billowed around her.
She was married in that dress. And she would have been buried in that dress had they ever found the body... or the dress. No bodies or human remains of any sort were ever recovered from the ruins of the house. By the time the fire had burned itself out, there was nothing left but a thin layer of fine, gray ash, confined mostly within the four rows of bricks which held the house slightly off the wet ground.
Not finding the bodies was probably best. That prevented an argument as to where to bury the couple. Her family was part of the elite of Natchez. His pedigree was from the other side of the river and a little more mixed. In those days he would have been called a “quadroon,” meaning that he was only one-fourth black. His grandmother was a house slave on a Louisiana cotton plantation. His mother was a “mulatto,” meaning that her father– unknown, but probably the Lord of the Manor– was white. She was technically a free woman, having been freed by her master at his death, but her life was not much better than when she was a slave. She eked out a living in one of Vidalia’s “sporting houses.” His father... also white... probably from Natchez... was also unknown. Thus, through the introduction of two generations of unknown white fathers, the heritage of his mother’s had been diluted to one-fourth.
Harold and Shelly were married on Halloween. There were several reasons why they chose that date. One was that they knew that the Justice of the Peace who could marry them would be highly inebriated on hard cider at the town Halloween party. He always was and this year was no different. With a shaky hand and slurred words, he was able to conduct the ceremony with a little help, but his mind was too muddled to fully understand what was happening or what he was actually doing.
The other reason for choosing Halloween was that it was possible to be married while still in full costume, including masks. That way the drunken JP would be even less likely to realize he was sanctioning miscegenation.
Shelly was dressed as a witch bride with a white dress, a black witch’s hat, and a black silk mask covering the upper half of her face. Her long, blond hair was tucked carefully up into the pointed hat balanced on her head. Harold wore a Minstrel Man’s outfit with an oversized black coat and a ridiculously large red cravat tied partially in a bow. All he used as a mask was a wide stripe of white grease paint smeared around his mouth. From a distance... or through a drunken haze... he looked like a white man in black face.
It wasn’t until almost midnight that Shelly’s family figured out what was going on and tracked down the JP. Shelly and Harold had used their real names in the official marriage book. The Justice became suddenly much more sober when he realized that he had just married the daughter of one of Natchez’ most powerful families to a man, who before “The War,” would have been a slave.
“She bewitched me,” he screamed out. “I couldn’t tell what I was doing.”
Maybe Shelly’s father believed him. Or maybe in his extreme anger he saw a way to rid his family of this dark stain. In any case, when a cry of “Burn the witch,” was yelled out from the crowd, he raised his arm in the air and called for horses and torches.
“The Middle Ground” was part of Missouri back then. Actually, it still is, but back then it was also on the eastern side of the Mississippi. Since they standardized the channel for the Big Muddy, you have to drive into Lousiana and go hell and gone off onto back roads and field trails to get to it. The Middle Ground was– and still is– swampy ground and several of the horses fell when they stepped into deep holes that looked like shallow puddles, but the rest kept going until they reached the small house that Harold had built on the flood plain near the river.
The newlyweds were inside doing what newlyweds do on their wedding night, so they didn’t hear the mob until the torches and the lanterns crashed against the side of the house. Apparently someone had already splashed nearly a barrel of lantern oil over the weathered clapboard and timbers of the house because everything became a roaring inferno is seconds. There were a few brief screams, and then everything was silent except the continued roaring of the flames.
Shelly sat across the table from her husband of one night... and of over one hundred years.
“Who do you think built it?” Harold said, pointing to the table. “And why?”
“Why do you wonder that after all these years?” she asked.
“Strange thoughts that come to me in the moonlight,” he answered with a smile. Then more seriously he added, “But I still want to know. Who? And why?”
“My sister,” Shelly replied, rubbing the worn stone top of the table. Then she reached across the table, grasped his hand in hers, looked him in the eyes, and said sadly, “Guilt.”
“Guilt?” Harold asked. “She wasn’t part of the mob.”
“No,” Shelly said softly, “But she was the witch in the family, not me. The crowd knew someone had been celebrating the Witches’ Sabbath in the river bottoms on Halloween for the past couple of years. So when that poor, confused, Justice of the Peace said I bewitched him, they thought they had found their witch.”
“They’d have burned us anyway,” Harold said with a huff. “That’s the way it was back then.”
“She also enchanted this place,” Shelly said, looking around, “so that as long as someone leaves food for us, we can return for one more day.”
“And,” Harold said as he stroked her arm, “for one more night.”
“Yes,” she said with a light laugh, “there is that, too. But let’s eat first.”
When they had finished the chicken, greens, and corn bread and washed it down with cool, clear, water, Harold opened the wine. “They’ve gone back to including a cork screw,” he said as he pushed it into the top of the bottle. “But the corks are some strange sort of material.”
“Times change,” she said as she held out her glass. “Everything changes,” she continued. “Natchez has become so large. So has Vidalia. If this wasn’t so low and wet, there would probably be houses all the way out here.”
They each finished one glass and part of another before Harold set the basket on the ground and folded the thin tablecloth so that it was three layers thick on the tabletop. “Just as hard, but not as lumpy as a corn cob mattress,” he said as he arranged his coat to provide just a little more cushion on the table top.
“You know that we don’t feel things like that anymore,” she said as she slipped her dress down her legs and folded it onto the bench.
“But I can see it,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “so it’s like I can feel it.”
In a few minutes, they were naked in each other’s arms on the strange table that was now their bed. Their lovemaking was slow and deliberate, as if they had all the time in the world. Afterwards they lay in each other’s arms and watched the moon move across the sky.
They held each other lightly throughout the night as they relished the feel of another human body alongside them. As they lay entwined, they both imagined that there was true warmth between them and the cold feel was just because of the crisp night air.
“It will be light soon,” Harold finally said.
Shelly pulled herself partially up on top of him, kissed him and said, “If we time it right, we can finish just as the sun comes up.”
“I’m not sure I can time things that well,” he replied softly.
“That’s why I’m going to be in control,” she answered and finished pulling herself over him so that she could impale herself on his maleness. She then began a slow rocking motion that sometimes sped up and sometimes slowed down as they both moaned softly. Just as the sun broke over the horizon, there was a loud groaning shout and they both disappeared.
About an hour later, a beat up, gray jeep rumbled down the dirt path to the small cotton field on the edge of The Middle Ground. It stayed close to the trees as it wound around the edge of the field and up to the square patch of grass and weeds with a picnic table in the middle of it.
“Let me get this straight,” the young woman in the passenger seat said. “Your great-great-great grandmother set up a trust in your family that requires that you bring a picnic basket out here every Halloween night?”
“Yup,” the man answered.
“And then you come back out in the morning and pick it up?”
“I thought all that Day of the Dead stuff was set out on people’s graves for the day after Halloween,” she said, sounding slightly bewildered.
As he picked up the basket and started putting the plates, wine glasses, and the empty wine bottle back into it, he said, “This isn’t Day of the Dead stuff. It goes back before that was ever heard of around here. And this...” gesturing to the area outlined by the brick foundations... “IS a grave.”
He stood silent for a moment and then continued, “Besides, somebody, or something, actually eats the food and drinks the wine. Some of the locals brave enough to come down here on Halloween even claim that they can hear voices and moaning coming from here throughout the night.”
He started folding the tablecloth, but then stopped and held it out in his arms. Looking at it, he said, “And they always refold the tablecloth so it just fits on the top of the table.”
“They?” she asked.
“My great-great-great grandmother’s sister Shelly and her husband Harold,” he said softly, trying to keep his voice normal. “They got fire lynched on their wedding night.”
When she asked what fire lynched was he pointed to the foundations. Even after the many decades, there was still a scorched look to the inside of the bricks, and the ground inside the foundations looked... different... from that in the field.
She shivered and gripped herself with her hands nearly digging into the flesh of her upper arms. Then she stood looking at the ground between the picnic table and the brick foundation for several minutes. Finally he lifted her head so that they could look each other in the eye and said slowly, “I said you needed to know about the family ghosts before you made your decision. You needed to know the kind of family you would be marrying into if you say yes.”
When she didn’t say anything, he continued, “Well... Do you have anything to say?”
She took the tablecloth from his hands and re-folded it so that it would fit inside the picnic basket. Then she turned to him and said, “Yes, I will be your wife. And next year, when we pack the picnic basket, I will put in a thicker tablecloth... or even a thick yoga mat.” She smiled at his confused expression and said brightly, “After all, they are newlyweds.”
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END OF STORY
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