HAGRIDDEN by Jen Julian
They called it a boo hag. It’s what Eva said was haunting her when I got her on the phone six years after I’d left Miskwa. I felt the same way every time I talked to her—nostalgic a little, but hurting with secret embarrassment—and it was always at some odd hour of the night when the city noises kept me up. I always found myself wanting to hear her talk about ghosts and demons. She was still living deep in the bog in her grandma’s old house, but she was no more Gullah than I was, and whiter than French bread. Still, the stories of the Gullah folk burrowed deep in her, and they were stuck in there just as firm as when she was four foot tall and barefooted.
“I don’t want to go to sleep,” Eva said. “See, they all knew what it was when I told them the symptoms.”
They, meaning the Gullah folk, her friends and neighbors, the men and women who came to help her weed her sandy garden in the summertime, boiled seafood in big pots and ate in each other’s yards in big crowds, I’m guessing. They liked Eva, white Catholic girl she was, though they probably thought she was fragile, that she’d crisp like a rose petal on a hot window.
“I have these awful dreams,” she told me. “And I wake up in the morning all achy, with my back on fire. Mrs. Legare says that’s a boo hag, a nightmare spirit. It gets hold of you and it rides your bones all night.”
“At least something is riding your bones.”
“Oh, Jim, hush your mouth,” she said. She laughed, but there were tired pieces to it. “It’s the bad kind of riding, not the good kind.”
I wanted to joke a little more, but she listed off what she’d put together to take care of the boo hag, everything Mrs. Legare had told her she’d need: a glass bottle, a bundle of broom straw, a cork, a needle.
“You stuff the broom straw down into the bottle,” Eva said, “and the boo hag gets distracted ‘cause she has to count it all, every last stick. When you get up the next morning, the boo hag will still be in the bottle counting, and that’s when you stick the needle in so she can’t get out. Mrs. Legare said she’d help me.”
“Eva, you should go to a doctor if you’re hurting in the morning,” I said. “Don’t let them give you voodoo fixes.”
“Jim,” she said. Her voice got weird, like dead leaves breaking. “Doctor don’t know anything about this.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Jim,” she said. “There’s one other thing they said I had to do. Please don’t let this make you sad.”
“I’m already sad. Tell me what the real problem is.”
“Jim,” she said. The fact that she’d said my name three times made me wonder if she trying to secure me in a trance. “The nightmares are always you.”
Eva never was an accusatory person, so it stabbed like a spearhead to hear her say that, to dredge up what she knew wasn’t my fault. I had to leave Miskwa. I told her that plenty times enough. My city was all brick, and my apartment was all brick, and sometimes I’d go out and pull off wisteria and put it in a vase on my table so I could smell it when I walked in. Mysterious wisterious. But it always wilted, and that was how Miskwa was. Try and put it to use and it falls apart. She knew I felt this way.
“Why is it me?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, her voice hushed. “I wanted to tell you that, because I think this has to be the last time I talk to you.”
“This doesn’t make sense,” I said. “You can’t blame me for your dreams.”
“I know,” she said.
“You can’t blame anyone for dreams.”
“I have to go, Jim.”
It was abrupt as it was ridiculous. Once she said this, she told me goodbye, gave me a kiss through the telephone and hung up. I sat on my couch feeling stung and itchy and angry. I was the boo hag; that was basically what she said, and she had to cut me out to get rid of it.
For three days, I tried calling her and the number wouldn’t go through. I let my feelings fester, let those feelings go to work saying hello and goodbye to people and places, hello goodbye coffee shop, hello goodbye parking structure. And I thought for a long time about Eva. And at the end of the week, I packed up my car and drove the nine hours back to Miskwa.
The bog was still as dark and untouched as when I’d left it, the dead railroad tracks still there, the live oaks with the Spanish moss and Mr. Tomlinson’s bookshop on the corner of Main and Redtree, the place where I’d first read all those stories with characters that leave on journeys. The idea of getting out of town had been a seed then, and as I got older, it grew, until it had rooted its tendrils. No matter what wild, scary world you entered into, leaving town was what ambitious young men did when they grew up.
Men who weren’t ambitious ended up like John Flynn, who was working at the front desk of the Bed-n-Breakfast. We’d been friends in high school. I’d sent him a postcard from my vacation in Fresno, and he’d sent me Christmas letters and pictures of his daughter, but we hadn’t kept up much more than that. Still, he recognized me fast as I pulled out my wallet. He stared, stood on his toes, and leaned over the countertop.
“What are those shoes?” he asked. “Those are the ugliest shoes I’ve ever seen.”
“They’re my knock-around shoes,” I said. But that was a lie. They were gray and pink tennis shoes and they had pigeons embroidered on the tongue, and when I found them in a basement space thrift store I looked them up and learned they’d been designed by a famous R&B singer and were worth piles of money. I wore them all the time in defiance. But Flynn’s smile made my ears burn, and I felt ashamed for wearing shoes in defiance.
Flynn was wearing a vest, but he looked good in it. His glasses were rimless and studious-looking, and there was a gold chain in the front pocket, a watch that had undoubtedly been his father’s. I heard its tick tick tick as he wrapped his arms around my shoulders and embraced me, the edge of the countertop digging into my stomach.
“If your folks could see you, God rest ‘em. How much money you making?”
“Enough of it,” I said.
“Why’re you here?” he asked. “How’ve you been?”
“I’ve been fine, considering,” I said. For a moment, I hesitated. Did I tell him about Eva? I had driven for nine hours and had thought of little else, and yet still I had no clear plan for what I would say to her, for how to express what I wanted. What did I want from her? Phone calls, at three in the morning. Stories about Miskwa. It would sound stupid if I said this aloud to Flynn.
Fortunately, he didn’t give me a chance to explain my reasons. He’d already gotten out the log book and was writing my name down.
“How long you staying?”
I hadn’t thought about it. “I don’t know.”
He seemed to sympathize with my bewilderment. “How about I put you down for one night, and then we can work the rest out later.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I’m putting you up with Colonel Pickery.”
“Oh,” I said. Colonel Pickery had been disemboweled by Yankees in 1864. Many war ghosts had their stories sealed in Miskwa.
“Don’t worry. He won’t bite,” Flynn assured me. “He might breathe on your face a little while you’re sleeping.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Good to see you, Flynn.”
I went upstairs to unpack my things. Flynn followed me, though I didn’t realize this until I about-faced and saw his broad-shouldered frame in my bedroom doorway, a Frankenstein’s shadow. I grabbed at my chest.
“I thought you were Colonel Pickery,” I said through my teeth.
“Nope,” he said.
“What?” I said. “Jesus, what is it?”
“My shift’s over in ten. The bar’s right where you left it. Just wanted to let you know.”
I went with Flynn to the bar. Nine hours driving, and a few drinks will sound good to anybody. I felt the pressure of everyone’s eyes on me, knowing me, not knowing me. I had changed a lot. I looked like a gawking out-of-towner in stupid shoes, and I walked behind Flynn as if trusting him to lead me, even though I knew where we were going. Then people started looking closer, and it was “Jim? Jim!” and that was an hour gone, and by the third time this happened it was dark, and I knew I wasn’t going to have time to go over to Eva’s that day.
Flynn and I hugged the bar like it was our child. He played in some of the whiskey he’d spilled.
“You should see my little girl. She is a beanpole.”
“I saw the pictures,” I said. “She’s beautiful.”
“Shit,” he moaned, suddenly recalling something. “I should’ve called the wife.”
“Probably,” I said.
“Ah well. She’ll be just as pissed if I call her now than if I wait and show up later. Another one, Richie. That’s the stuff.”
I had not drunk this much in a long time. My face flamed with love and appreciation for Flynn and his company. It was getting hard to feel self-conscious.
“Flynn, I came here because of Eva,” I said.
Flynn looked at me, one sleepy eye quivering. “Eva?” he said. “Eva?”
“Yes, Eva. We’ve been keeping in touch for years, but she cut it off recently, and I need to talk to her about it.”
Flynn looked straight ahead. “That girl Eva. Really, that girl. I love that girl. I do, but if her gramma was still alive, she’d be shamed.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” I said.
“I know it. If the devil himself showed up at her house, she’d ask him in for dinner. I’m just sayin’. Not my place to judge her. God’ll judge us all. But I’m just sayin’.”
I could tell that Eva was still a strange bird to everyone in town. It wasn’t that they disliked her. For the most part, it seemed, they felt sorry for her, and a little disappointed in the company she’d chosen after her grandmother passed. I’d heard about how the churchgoing crowd in particular avoided her at the grocery store and watched on with stern, lemon-sucking expressions when she shook her skinny hips at the spring festival dances. They would say they were not racists, that they very much appreciated people of color so long as they behaved at least a little bit like “normal” folk and didn’t partake in backwoods hoodoo. Any pretty young girl like Eva who subscribed to such beliefs should simply know better. Their own children had gone off to school. If they were not wildly successful, they made a little money, but Eva had regressed deeper, drawn in, covered herself over with swamp vines.
“Have you heard how Eva’s been lately?” I asked. “How she’s sleeping?”
“She told you about the boo hag, I’m guessing,” Flynn said. “They say she caught it in a bottle, like a firefly.”
“It worked?” I said.
“People been going over to the house to see it. She’s been fine since. No pain. Sleeps like a dream.”
“You’re sure about this?”
“Sure as I am about anything.”
The alcohol boiled in me. Flynn began making a noise in his throat and was seemingly unaware of it.
“Flynn, come with me to talk to Eva,” I said.
“I’m thinking ‘bout it now, and I’m worried I’d lose my nerve.”
“That’s why you came back here in the first place, yeah? Nine hours, and you’re too chicken-shit to go by yourself?”
I was ashamed. Flynn spoke the truth, and I knew it. I would have to go and alone.
At two in the morning, Flynn stumbled toward the bus stop. I stumbled toward the bed and breakfast. When I walked up the stairs to my room, my skin went cold and my mind turned into all sharp edges. I felt sure for a minute I’d walked through Colonel Pickery.
Eva stole stories. She’d been that way forever, growing up with her grandmother in the bog. Her parents were dead. My parents were dead. With that fact alone, we had much in common. For three years I lived with her and her grandmother, then later with my aunt in town, who now raised horses in Montana (this had apparently been her greatest dream, as people in Miskwa often dreamed about vast, mountainous places).
I knew Eva and her grandmother had always been well acquainted with the lowcountry people, the soothsayers like Mrs. Legare, the poor drifters who came in from Charleston. Eva loved stories, particularly the Gullah folktales. She’d listen to them, lock them away inside her, claim them as her own.
These weren’t Eva’s stories, and they weren’t even Gullah stories originally. Since she told me about the boo hag, I’d read up on Baba Yaga and the old hags from Europe, archaic, centuries-old monsters. But Eva stole the stories anyway, made them real. She’d tried to steal my story too, keep me here, drink me down to make me a part of her. Because of that, I had always seen Eva as a nymph or demon that would pull me back to Miskwa, a boggy past I would have to shed like a cicada skin. I’d never imagined that she would have to shed me.
When I finally saw the old house, the wisteria had overtaken it. After six years, it had engulfed the front porch and was snaking its way up the chimney, a chokehold of thick vine and sweet blossoms. I ran my hand over Eva’s wind chimes. Soft sound.
She didn’t come to the door when I knocked, so I went around back. There, I found her in the garden.
Eva was still thin and her hair was blonder than I remembered it. She had an eyelet blouse tied in a knot at her belly, and if she stood straight, she would only come up to my shoulders. A pair of gardening gloves swallowed up her hands, and the cucumber vines curled around her feet as she walked, grabbing at her. She went stiff when I called her. Her eyes focused, then grew puzzled, not welcoming and not hateful, but cautious, feral-like. An old girlfriend from town used to hate that, calling girls in romance novels feral, but Eva was feral and barefooted.
“Jim?” she said. “Jim, it’s you?”
“It is,” I said.
I stared her down, from the crown of her head to her dirty ankles, and my organs went like stone. I’d thought about plenty of things to say on the way over there, but I now I found myself hung up on “It is” like a fool. Eva looked down at my shoes.
“Those are nice.”
“No,” I said.
“No, they’re hideous,” I corrected her, and I told her about the R&B singer who’d designed them, but she didn’t understand.
“Oh,” she said. She looked around her at the garden. It hurt me that she seemed so uncomfortable. “I’ll get tea,” she said. But when I tried to follow her into the house she spread out her hand against my chest and her fingers sparked against the bone and it hurt.
“No, you—” she said, harshly at first but then recovering with politeness. “You stay out here. You don’t want to see my messy kitchen.”
So I sat on her back porch and waited for her. The place smelled like musk and turpentine, and there were some paintings sitting around: trumpet flowers, crab pots, sunsets on the swamp and such. Eva hadn’t told me she’d picked up painting, but if she had, if they were hers, she’d probably be trying to sell them in town. That kind of stuff would sell here. I didn’t like the paintings and I couldn’t figure out why—normally I’d be endeared by them. Then I heard Eva moving around in her kitchen and I realized I was feeling kind of annoyed with her. She was keeping me out because she didn’t want me to see the boo hag.
She came back out with a bamboo tray of ginger tea.
“Why’re you here?” she asked.
I sipped and winced as the tea burned my tongue. “I wanted to see you. After you hung up, I didn’t like how it ended.”
“That it ended,” she said. “You didn’t like that it ended.”
The correction was cool, no rancor behind it. This bothered me.
“That it ended,” I said.
“You didn’t want it to end,” she said. “What were you getting out of it?”
“I am getting plenty. I’m getting plenty now. I like that I’ve come to see you, that I get to see you. And you haven’t forced me off your property and that’s a good thing. It’s good that we’re talking, that I came back here.”
Eva looked at her hands. She looked toward the paintings. “You came to hear about my dream? Nobody wants to hear about dreams.”
“But I do,” I said. “They say you caught that—thing. The boo hag.”
“I did. It’s on a shelf in there, in the kitchen. But I don’t want you to see it. It’s—” she smiled slightly, maybe the first trace of irony I’d ever seen from her. “It’s pretty ugly.”
We sat apart from each other and an old warm static came up. When we first made love, we were both twelve, and maybe that’s young, but there wasn’t much to do in Miskwa besides sex and storytelling. We did both. It hurt her, but she stayed my girl all through high school, right to the very end. End of the world. Now I could feel my edges tugging; if I let her, she could pull me back in easy, but I wouldn’t let her.
Eva tilted her head and closed her eyes. “Do you remember the night we stole whiskey from Flynn’s freezer? When we drank all the way to the bus stop and we got on, like we were going to go somewhere?”
“I remember. You got sick and passed out.”
“I got sick and passed out,” she said. “But in the dream we’re on the bus, and it goes off the road into the swamp. And we’re sinking, right, we’re sinking? And the water and mud are coming in. And you’re an eel.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Eva gave me a warning look.
“I realize on the bus that you’ve always been an eel,” she went on. “You’ve got—little hands, little wiggly hands. And I knew in the dream that they were eel hands. You slipped into the water and disappeared, and I was still stuck in there drowning. And I remembered, ‘It’s like the time you told me we should go to Memphis together, and I panicked because I was afraid, because I knew I couldn’t swim the roads.’ That’s what I thought—in the dream. Then I’d wake up still feeling drowned.”
When she had finished, I applauded quietly. She stared as if I’d cursed her mother.
“Real heavy symbolism,” I said. “But sometimes an eel is just an eel.”
“You’re not taking this serious. You’re making fun of me.”
“No,” I said, laughing. “No, honey. It’s serious, I know.”
“I think you should go.”
“Eva,” I said, leaning forward so that I seemed more serious. “You can’t just push me out. It’s too sudden. You’re the only real tie I have left to this place, the only deep tie.”
“It wasn’t sudden. I’d been telling you for years that it hurt to keep talking to you.”
I could have told her what she said wasn’t true, but honestly, I didn’t remember.
“You didn’t listen,” she whispered. Then she said again, “I think you should go.”
As I looked at her with her little white dress and dirty ankles, I got a strange image of me picking her up over my shoulder and carting her back to my car like a cartoon caveman. Man kidnap woo-man. Man keep woo-man in apartment, drink coffee, shop at basement thrift stores. Then I was laughing again, even though she’d hurt my feelings, and I could feel Eva getting angrier and angrier as we sat there.
“What can I do?” I asked. “I want it to be there still. Our connection. Tell me what I can do, please.”
“Stop begging,” she said. “It’s all sealed up. It’s done.”
She folded her arms, and I hated her so much that I had to laugh at that too. When I returned to Bed-n-Breakfast, I told Flynn I was staying another night.
Under cover of darkness—I’ve always kind of liked that phrase, as if you get to wear the night like it’s a hooded cloak or something—I returned to Eva’s house. From her driveway, I saw that all the lights were out, the wisteria vine protecting everything from the stark moonlight, and the only sounds were the crickets and the quiet clink of the wind chimes. On the porch, I found the key hidden above the lintel, where it had always been, unlocked the door, and went inside.
I trembled as I moved through the house, hoping I was being quiet but it was hard to tell—all I could hear was the thump of my heart in my ears, scary-exciting. At this point, I knew what I wanted from Eva, and I figured out she’d told me how to get it. Maybe she wanted to give it up, some part of her at least, though I knew what I was doing was hateful and selfish, I knew that—maybe city-living does that, or maybe it’s always been in me, the way every place where we live is in us. The inside of Eva’s grandmother’s house had stuck with me especially because those were the grieving and growing years, and I knew every worn patch of shag carpet, the woman’s paisley furniture and linen curtains, the ceramic owl where Eva used to hide cash and cigarettes, brass umbrella stand, amber ashtray, all those precious objects we’d use as our prizes in questing games. So little had changed.
In the kitchen, I saw the boo hag on the windowsill above the sink. There it sat between a pink conch shell and a rag doll Eva’s grandmother had sewn for her. I took the bottle and held it up to the moonlight.
The thing inside, half-hidden in its bundle of straw, was gray and stiff, shriveled to the point where you could make out the bony limbs and body, but not the face, which had sunken in. Her arms hugged her ribcage. Wisps of yellowish hair, frail as onion skin, clung to her scalp. She was like an old woman, as threatening as a moth pinned to corkboard. As I pinched the needle that held her in, her smushed face flinched. One white eye opened and trailed up to meet mine.
I heard a cry. Eva was there, standing in the kitchen doorway, dressed in a long cotton night shirt.
I held the bottle up and shook it a little. “This is it?” I said. “Kind of remarkable, really. Kind of…sweet. I mean that for real, I think it looks sweet.”
“Jim, give it to me,” she said. “Give it to me, please!”
She grabbed my wrist. Around we went like dancing partners and she put up a good fight, but still, I was taller than her. I pulled out the needle. I pulled out the cork. The creature inside uncurled like an insect from its cocoon, twisting, squeezing herself out the bottleneck until she disappearing in the open air. Eva screamed. She searched around for the creature, but she had gone, flitted out the open window to hide in the garden. Eva took the empty bottle from me and smashed it in the sink.
“I hate you,” she said.
“You don’t really,” I said. “Or maybe you do. But you won’t always.”
“I can’t stand it,” she said. Already, she looked far more wretched than she had looked earlier that day, with the sun shining on her white dress.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
I was sorry, for real, but even so I slept good that night. Even with the Colonel Pickery breathing on my neck, I slept like stone. The next morning, I felt very awake and very sober as I drove the nine hours back to the city.