We were still married then. It was 2008, and we bought an abandoned farmstead in the mountains of North Carolina, on the backside of Tennessee. We loved its 300-year-old trees — enormous white oaks with great gnarled arms — and my husband loved that it was off the grid.
In recent years, he’d begun subscribing to survivalist magazines, buying a generator and stocking up on food, sleeping bags and weapons. It turned out there was a whole subculture out there, people who were predicting imminent disaster and planning for social upheaval, using online chat rooms to compare their setups.
For him, our farmstead was perfect, because it was far from the road, and it was hidden.
My husband was a person who felt safer with loaded guns in the house, and I was a person who felt safer without loaded guns in the house. It was becoming clear to me that only one of us was going to be able to feel safe. Unfortunately for me, I had agreed to the guns years before, when I was young. I was in love, and I didn’t yet know the way that distrust could insinuate itself into a marriage.
The farmhouse huddled at the bottom of a hollow: where the wind and the sun couldn’t reach. We beat back the foliage and poison ivy and wrested open the door, then waited for our night eyes and saw that we were in a large poplar-floored kitchen. It was an eyeful of disarray: dishes strewn across the floor, a wooden high chair on its side, a feed store calendar from 1973. We opened the fridge — I don’t know why, but we did — and it was full of food, all of it black.
That fact, that they hadn’t even cleaned out the refrigerator, bothered me more than anything else. Had they really left that quickly? And why? It reminded me of the cook pots the Anasazi Indians had left behind, or of the Rapture.
In the bedroom, objects materialized out of the murk: a rodent-shredded mattress, a coal stove. More curiously, the bureau and shelves were cluttered with jelly jars. My husband opened one, and tipped the two items into his hand. The first was a folded piece of paper with the penciled message “Wilson’s truck door, 1959.” It took us a moment to figure out what the other object was, and then we did: a human fingernail. We stared at it for a second, and then he side-handed both items back into the jar and screwed down the lid, wiping his palms on the front of his pants.
We stopped opening jars then, but each of them held some treasure or keepsake: a lock of hair, a tiny animal skull, human teeth and many, many scraps of paper. Later we would find the boxes: the documents, the homework, the letters — intimate remains of a life, contained and curated for years.
The last room was a child’s, not much bigger than the twin bed inside it. “Look at this,” my husband said. He stood in the doorway fingering something on the frame. It was a deadbolt, the kind you find in a hotel room. But this deadbolt was on the outside of the door. This deadbolt was for locking a child in the room.
We looked at each other, made some weak excuses about coming back with a flashlight, and began retracing our steps through the warren of rooms, out the front door, around the poison ivy trees, and into the crashing sunlight.
House or no house, it was still the land of our dreams. When the locals learned that we’d bought it, they began to tell us stories. The farm had belonged to a couple; the husband had died years earlier, their sons had migrated to bigger towns, and the woman was left alone, until her grandkids finally moved her into an elder-care facility in 1973.
“That woman was a saint,” people told us. Everyone knew her, not least because she’d worn a splint bonnet into the ’70s. Her husband, a circuit preacher, used to set up a soapbox on the stairs of the county courthouse and preach about the end times. And one neighbor told about the unusual way the couple used to walk to church: she several steps in front of him and bearing the Bible like a platter. Another old man remembered being a newlywed, and how the preacher had called out his new wife in church for wearing jewelry, and how, after the service that day, he’d still had the nerve to come over for Sunday dinner.
Several people told us, too, about a copper braid as thick as an arm that the preacher’s wife had woven from a lifetime of hairbrush cleanings, and they wanted to know if I’d found it. When I said no, they assured me that I should “look in the attic.” I never found that braid, and I was glad, too, because of all the things she’d been so careful to save, maybe that braid was one thing her grandchildren had chosen to keep.
That same year we bought the property, a man walked into my parents’ Unitarian Universalist church in Tennessee and opened fire on the congregation, killing two and injuring seven. The shooter had written a manifesto against liberals. But it also came out that his ex-wife had been a member of the church. One day he’d threatened her with a gun, and she’d left him.
There was something about these two couples that haunted me: The husbands driven by ideology and certainty, the wives trying to carve out what emotional space they could, one by exploring a different church, one by saving a world in glass jelly jars. One wife left; one wife stayed. But I imagine they both paid for it.
My husband and I built a new house but couldn’t quite shake off the spirit of the old one. We stayed together for four more uncomfortable years, and the leaving wasn’t easy.
In the South we have a legend about a wife, a witchy woman called a boo hag, who can unzip her corporeal body and hang it up like a coat. Without the encumbrance of her skin, she can fly around freely in the night sky, at least until her husband wakes up to find that uninhabited skin. Right then he’ll know the truth, that he’s gone and married a witch, and that her spirit is away far-off somewhere. In that situation, there’s only one thing to be done. He’s got to get rid of her. One way to do that is the way you kill a slug: with salt. You pour that salt on the inside of that skin, and it’ll shrivel right up. Then, when the spirit of the boo hag returns, she won’t have any physical body to come back to.
Mind you, it takes a lot of salt. What you need is a 10-pound bag, depending on the size of your wife. If you don’t use enough, you could end up killing only part of the skin, the legs, say, and then when the boo hag comes back, and she’ll be crippled. Worse, she knows you know, and then you have that knowledge sitting right there between you for the rest of your days. She knows what you tried to do to her, and she won’t ever leave that skin again. So she’ll stay where she is, right there in that house. Where it’s safe.
THIS ARTICLE WAS SENT IN BY DENSDOME ONLINE PARTNER
Julia Franks is the author of the novel “Over the Plain Houses” and the founder of loosecanon.com, a web service that helps schools manage independent reading.
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