Psychically, I’m as deaf and dumb as they come–zombies and poltergeists could hold a hoedown in my lap and I’d never notice–but I do like a good Halloween yarn. This year’s is about the time I spent in a little Indiana town as a child; if you’d like to read previous years’ yarns, try a search on chicken ghosts or Esther’s chest or Halloween candy. For now, though: Read, enjoy and Happy Halloween!
Oh, and…is this a true story? Yup.
Effie Hayes was 90 years older than God, crotchety as hell and mean as they come.
Or at least, that was my impression. Since she liked my sister better than me–a LOT better–I may have been biased. Still, if anybody in Spencer ever needed a candidate for a storybook wicked old witch, they didn’t need to look farther than Effie’s spotless front stoop.
Perched on the banks of the White River in Indiana’s Sweet Owen County, Spencer wasn’t all that far from civilization. It had tucked itself between Terre Haute and Bloomington, in the woods an hour or so south of Indianapolis. Practically, though, it was centuries away.
Farming still took center stage and in fall the wooded hills made you catch your breath at the glory. There were old-fashioned quilting bees and taffy pulls in winter, the “pitcher show” sometimes had vaudeville performers after the Saturday matinee, and people still referred to making out as “courtin’.”
Of course, it wasn’t all sweet nostalgia. Trappers still got likkered up and plied their bloody wares on the courthouse steps on Saturdays, the shanties out in Prospect Park lacked plumbing and most of the kids living there had the permanently soured smell of cooties and too few baths. Ominously, the town’s last tar-and-feathering had happened only a few years back and there were rumors of an even more recent lynching.
Spencer briefly made national headlines during the Vietnam War, when Cassius Clay went to prison for refusing the draft, and changed his name to Mohammed Ali. When it looked as if Ali would prevail, a town official shut down the local draft board and vowed to keep it closed until someone “puts that n—– in his place.”
The town’s population swelled temporarily, as newsmen arrived and eagerly interviewed townspeople, looking for similarly outrageous opinions. The whole thing blew over when they discovered that few had given Ali more than a passing thought, and most reckoned the fuss was really just electoral grandstanding. The reporters packed up their cameras and typewriters and, grumbling, went home.
Just as well. When I got older I wondered what the newsmen would have made of the real story: In Spencer, you lived with witches.
I don’t mean the modern, get-naked-and-be-one-with-nature wiccans, or the warty, crook-nosed classics of Halloween. In Spencer, witches were as natural a part of the local landscape as farmers and librarians. Probably more so than librarians, who only showed up when the library was built. Witches had been there forever.
We’d moved to Spencer right before my eighth birthday, so Dad could practice medicine. At first, we lived on an old, abandoned farm out by the river. When we needed a new well, the water witch–a plump old man with a forked stick–“witched it up” for us out of the ground.
He struck water on the first try. (I recall that he found an artesian well, but my mom says that was his second attempt; on the first he found the septic tank.) In any case, his prowess sent me dashing all over our 20 rented acres with every tree branch I could lift. I never witched up so much as a puddle, which didn’t surprise the water witch. “It’s gotta be in the blood, honey,” he assured me.
When my new best friend, Cherrita, got the sniffles out in Prospect Park, she’d get a hot chest poultice from the herb witch, “because we can’t afford no doctor bill.” Cherrita had been delivered of her mother by the local midwife, highly skilled in obstetricianal witchery. The Pentecostals shrieked in tongues, the snake preachers stuck rattlesnakes in their pants to prove the Lord was with them, and my second-best friend Beryl’s house was haunted by a suicider lady.
If you were a kid in that town, you walked with witches, slept with haints and woke up thankful that no one had stolen your breath. We took the old bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep” very seriously, and used it religiously, every night. It sounds creepy to me now, but at the time I thought it no more mysterious than any other part of the weird adult world.
And Effie Hayes* was the biggest witch of them all, because Effie had the evil eye. I knew this for a fact from the kids at school, and Effie herself confirmed it. “And if you don’t behave, I’ll use it on YOU!”
Effie smelled of hair gel and talcum, wore faded old calico dresses with white ankle socks and topped the whole ensemble with a blue apron. She pulled her long white hair back into a bun so tight it narrowed her eyes into perpetually angry slits. Those eyes were a peculiar, watery blue that blazed fearsomely when she was provoked.
I provoked her a lot. Plenty of opportunity for it, since she babysat me and my sisters most every week.
There wasn’t much money in a small-town medical practice, so Mom worked side by side with Dad to cut expenses. Every day after school we’d head to Effie’s house and wait there until Mom took us home to dinner and bed. Effie would “watch us,” a task which seemed to mostly consist of telling me to sit back down and hush up.
Sometimes, if Dad was stuck late on a case, Effie fed us dinner, too. As far as I could tell, Effie couldn’t cook anything that didn’t come from a box; our dinners invariably consisted of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, which I hated, with hotdog “pennies” if we’d been extra special good.
I unwisely announced my distaste for her menu at our first meal together, causing Effie’s eyes to narrow as she pronounced me “contentious.” Our relationship went downhill from there.
I was an avid reader, but Effie Hayes kept few books or magazines besides the Bible. She didn’t approve of little girls reading trash when they could be “improving themselves.” You could improve yourself by being quiet and staying put, or by performing chores, or memorizing a Bible verse. I couldn’t sit still–without a book–for long, couldn’t see the point in stitching or weeding and I’d already read the Bible and found it dull, a revelation which shocked Effie to the core.
“Little girls who don’t know their Bible verses end up in the other place,” she hissed.
Effie’s house, creaky and dark, had seen better days, though you wouldn’t find a speck of dirt in the whole place. She still had an old-fashioned icebox in the kitchen (supplemented with a little electric refrigerator) and a chipped old gas-fired stove that looked as if it regularly ate children for breakfast. Her shelves were stocked with every cheap boxed food known to the midwest.
We were confined to the kitchen or the front parlor or the tiny, old-fashioned bathroom on the first floor; the rest of the house was strictly off-limits. The second story stairs were locked up behind a big, black door and we were forbidden to even think of opening it with the old-fashioned brass key hanging on a hook by the kitchen stove.
Hearing Effie take down that key was a signal to dash madly for the door, peering around her ample behind as she lumbered up the stairs. “Stay out!” she’d grumble, as I’d strain to catch a glimpse of the forbidden rooms. I’d see the long upstairs hall, and oblongs of light from the bedroom doorways…and then Effie would shut the stair door in my face.
“OUT!” she’d thunder, locking it behind her.
“I don’t want to see you up there. Ever,” she’d warn, “I don’t want you messing up the place. And besides,” she’d said one day, interrupting my indignant protests, “The spirit wouldn’t like it.”
Spirit? I chewed that over thoughtfully, then snuck out of the house to consult with the neighbor kids.
Effie forbade my playing with them, which only made them more desirable. I headed to their house every chance I got, and my taste for such “trash” was another sign that I was “low,” she said, destined to end up in that other place.
The neighbor kids returned Effie’s antipathy in spades. “You walk keerful with that one,” warned Margie, at 11 the oldest of the five, “she’d witch you soon as look at you.”
Her mamma called everybody in for a rare treat–marshmallow cream spread on store-bought white bread, topped with peanut butter, karo syrup and a sprinkling of white sugar. It was exactly as awful gooey-sweet as it sounds but I’d been well-trained by my mother to “at least take a bite when you’re a guest.” I nibbled away while Margie explained.
Effie’s powers, she said, came from “witchin up” children to do her bidding. If she could catch you, she’d shut you up in the house and work you like a dog until you faded away to thin air…or caught the wrong side of her evil eye.
“Burn you up to a cinder,” confirmed the middle boy, solemnly. It was a mystery to them all that we were still alive. “Probably,” speculated Margie, “She’s saving you’uns for special.”
From past experience we knew adults would be of no help in this matter; they tended to dismiss such concerns as an overactive imagination. “We’ll work you a charm,” she decided, “And then you watch her close.”
She opened a box and pulled out out a flat grey stone about the size of a walnut, waterworn with a hole through the middle. “Wrap it times three and redden it. With blood,” she intoned, “Repeat after me…”
I had my doubts about the efficacy of such medicaments, but complied. “Witcherlady away, witcherlady away, witcherlady away,” I repeated, as I wound a grimy piece of twine through the hole, three times, then tied a knot. I picked open a scab on my knee; the resulting drop of blood reddened the twine satisfactorily.
“Keep that in your pocket or around your neck and don’t let her get it away from you,” she instructed, “Ain’t much, but it’ll make her eyes slide right over you.”
I headed back, armored against Effie’s nefarious schemes, and thereafter kept a sharp watch for witchery. The stone seemed to be working, or at least Effie’s perpetual criticisms had lessened. I gave full credit to the charm, although the skeptic in me suggested that Effie’s calmer demeanor had a more prosaic cause: Now that I had something to do, i.e., watch Effie Hayes carefully, I wasn’t pestering her to death.
It was while I was sitting quietly on the sofa, watching my baby sister–to Effie’s surprised approval–that I first heard the spirit. There was a creaking upstairs, a sound of footsteps, and a sudden metallic scrape, as if someone had put weight on creaky bedsprings.
I glanced at the door to the stairs–still locked–as the sounds continued. “Is that the spirit?” I asked.
“What?” snorted Effie, annoyed, “I never heard of such a thing. It’s just the house settling.” Shortly after, though, she took the key off the hook and headed upstairs. The noises stopped and I knew Margie was right: She had the spirit of a child locked up there.
Now attuned, I frequently sat on that sofa, listening for the spirit…and never failed to hear it. Creaks. Bumps. Moans. I’d listen a moment, then turn my gaze on the witcherlady. Sometimes I’d see a small smile glimmer on her lips, then she’d turn and bark a command.
The neighbor kids and I thought about a rescue but Margie’s vast store of witcherly knowledge didn’t encompass retrieving trapped spirits. And we didn’t know whose spirit was up there, an apparently crucial factor in rescues. “You gotta call their names. Or bring their parents,” Margie worried, but none of the kids, in the neighborhood or at school, seemed to be missing.
Impasse. Then my parents told me they were going out of town for the weekend. Dad was applying to go back to doctor school, and we’d stay with Effie the whole time they were gone.
It was my big chance. Mom and Dad dropped us off–Mom cried–and Effie told her not to worry. “We’ll have a good time,” she cackled. I shivered.
That night, I waited until the light under Effie’s door went out, then crept softly out of bed, so as not to wake my sister. I slid across the old wood floor in my stocking feet, heading for the kitchen…and the floorboards creaked.
“BACK TO BED!!” roared Effie, throwing open her door. Terrified, I made it to the bed in two giant leaps and dove under the covers, waking my sister and the baby. It took some time to settle them back down, and then Effie pinned me to the bed with her evil eye. “Stay. In. That. Bed,” she snarled.
I couldn’t move for the rest of the night and in the morning, Effie watched me like a hawk. She didn’t leave my side until late afternoon, when my little sister coaxed her out into the backyard sun and the baby was asleep in Effie’s room.
Now was my chance. I waited until the tight white bun disappeared down the back steps, then grabbed the key and made for the stair door. Turning the key took strength, almost more than I had, but I finally got the door open, slipped inside and carefully pulled it almost shut behind me.
Clutching my twine-wrapped charm tightly against my heart, I climbed the stairs and entered the long white hall. I looked in at the first door and saw a room with a four-poster bed, piled with boxes and covered in sheets. Rosy-sprigged paper decorated the walls–stark contrast to the gloominess below–and an old rocker by the open window trembled in the breeze that lifted the white eyelet curtains. I peered out the window and could make out Margie’s mother in the yard opposite, hoeing in her garden.
Nothing in here; I moved to the second room, which had a little cot pushed up in one corner. An old-fashioned Singer sewing machine, black, with a wide treadle, sat in the middle of the room. I fingered the toweling neatly folded beside it and recognized Effie’s embroidery, but saw nothing else of interest.
As I was about to enter the last room, I heard a sound and froze. Someone was humming. It was a young voice, wild and free, making music I didn’t recognize. The sound was soft but curiously penetrating, and I couldn’t locate it.
It seemed to be coming from the first bedroom. I tiptoed back, and peered inside…and saw only the rocking chair, moving in the breeze. And I grew furious. Effie was in here somewhere, trying to scare me to death.
I stomped down the hall, flinging open closet doors. “Effie Hayes, you stop that right now or I’m calling the sheriff,” I shouted. The humming continued, so I cut loose with the big guns. “I’m calling MY DAD.”
The humming, if anything, intensified, surrounding me in soft little buzzing waves. I ran back to the bedroom window, stuck my head out to call to Margie’s mother..and saw Effie in the backyard, rolling a ball to my giggling little sister.
I was alone in the humming house.
I ducked back inside, and as I did, noticed that there really wasn’t that much of a breeze. The curtains were barely moving, but the old wood rocker moved steadily, back and forth. The humming stopped.
My scalp prickled, and I swallowed hard. Playing at ghosts and captured spirits is one thing; actually meeting up with one is another. I fled, slammed the stair door behind me, locked it and carefully replaced the key on the hook. When Effie and my sister came back inside, I was seated on the sofa, memorizing a Bible verse.
I astonished Effie with my goodness the whole rest of our stay. I held her chair for her, cleared up the dishes without being told and helped my little sister dress in the morning. Effie was so thrilled that she even let me take down a Jiffy cake mix box and make silverlight cupcakes. With frosting.
Dad was admitted to the medical school program, so shortly after our weekend with Effie my parents packed up the house and moved us to Iowa City, where the only witches said “Trick or treat” on Halloween night. Later, in my fifth grade singalong, the teacher played the song I’d heard upstairs that day, an old barn-dance tune, “Weevily Wheat.”
Cherrita and Beryl and I were penpals for a year or so after I moved, but Spencer mostly faded from my mind as I grew up, and I’ve never been back. The calmer, rational, adult side of me (if there is such a thing), has pretty much explained away what happened: Margie’s mother’s garden was right under that window, and she frequently hummed as she worked. Old-house acoustics could easily have carried her voice into the house.
And the wooden floors WERE creaky. My pounding feet most likely started up the rocker as I stomped to the window. My admittedly stellar imagination was all that was needed to complete the scene.
But sometimes, I wonder.
*Effie Hayes wasn’t her real name. She’s probably long, long gone, but just in case, and not wishing that evil eye ever turned in MY direction, I’ve changed her name. And everybody else’s, except the town’s. Happy Halloween.