Fiction

THE HAINT

A Novel by Richard Walkup

Prologue

Pain violently convulsed the condemned witch, Minerva Ellis.  Pain like a saw ripping through flesh and bone, shredding sensitive nerves.  A man in a black hood stood before her naked body, breathing heavily, his eyes bright with pleasure as he tore a strip of skin from her chest.   .

She shrieked as her torturer slashed again and ripped a second ribbon of flesh down to her waist.

“Why are you doing this?” she cried out. “I have harmed no one.”  Please, deliver me back to my time, she prayed to her Maker.

“Kill the witch.  Cut ‘er to pieces,” a man in the crowd taunted.

Strips of bloody flesh now hung from her waist like fragments of a living garment.  The hooded man raised his knife again, pushed it slowly into her skin, and made another long slice.

In unrelenting agony she shrieked, but what came next was even worse.  The man stripped away more flesh, and then massaged salt into the expanding wound.  Knowing there would be no reprieve, her knees buckled, her consciousness dimmed.

“Ahh…eee.  Oh God, please take me back to my time.”

But there would be no divine intersession.  There would never again be intervention from Him.

As the fifth strip of flesh was torn away, she cried out, “Oh Beelzebub, Lord Satan, I will do your bidding, I will serve you well if only you will take me back…”

– – –

Hester Morris suddenly woke up in her bed, soaked in perspiration, and shivering with terror.   She knew what she had to do.  This was the third time she had been taken back to the sixteenth century, the day Minerva Ellis had been skinned alive for practicing witchcraft.  Hester was a direct descendant of Witch Ellis; and the power of the underworld had come down through the generations to her.

The shifts in time had started the day she’d discovered in an old trunk in her basement a manuscript from the year 1510.  The trunk had been in the family for as long as she could remember, and somehow she had ended up with it.  As she read the document, she was compelled to transcribe the text into modern language and script.  That was when the trouble began.  Yet, even with the terrible consequences of trading places with her early ancestor-sharing her torture-the compulsion to read and transcribe all of it had become an obsession.

She knew what she would have to do tomorrow to save herself.  It would require appeasing her Lord Satan with a series of sacrifices.  The first would be a goat, but the final blood atonement would be a child, a male child.

Hester tried to go back to sleep, but sleep eluded her.  About 3:00 a.m. she arose and dressed.  She would begin preparing early for the atonement.  Four doors down the street, a ten-year-old neighbor boy kept a small pet goat penned in his back yard.  She smiled.  “First the goat, and then the boy.”

Well before sunrise, with a knife sheathed at her side and a ball bat in hand, Hester crept through an alley to her victim’s back yard.  After slipping through the neighbor’s gate, she tip-toed slowly up to the goat, clubbed it viciously, and slit its throat before it could bleat.  Quickly, she dragged the dying animal back to her property.  With sunrise still two hours away, she built a fire behind a stone altar in her back yard, and then decapitated the creature.

Driving a sharp stake in the middle of her garden, Hester Morrris spiked the goat’s head on top of it, then she placed the body of the animal on a sacred altar and issued the first of several incantations.

She rose and went to the goat’s head, the horned symbol of her Lord and Master.  Blood coursed through her veins, her senses heightened, her libido burning with pornographic passion.  “Oh great Lord of the Underworld, I pay homage to your power and beauty.  Please accept the offering I present.  I will serve you in any way you wish.  Come to me in my dreams as my lover and I will give myself to you completely.  If you use me as it pleases you, I too, will be pleased.”

She stood up, still holding the sacrificial knife, a smile on her face and delicious, erotic pleasure in her loins.  Turning, she headed back to the fire to finish the blood sacrifice.  If she didn’t complete each and every step of the ritual, after her death she would wander the earth with other cursed and rejected spirits.  The final deed to gain entry into Hell would have to take place in the darkness of night.  The new owner of her earthly property must invite her spirit, a hag, into her former abode.  Once inside, the new owner would take her place.  He or she would roam the earth as a rejected spirit.

Feeling like a schoolgirl in love, she danced back to the waiting sacrifice.

Suddenly she stumbled over a log, and fell face down on the ground.  The blade of her knife plunged through her heart.

“Nooo. Argggh,” she whispered as she faded into the abyss of death.

One

Nine ninety-nine Chelsea Lane was the third house Mr. Taylor, the realtor had shown me.  The moment I saw it I knew this was the house I was looking for, and I was sure Julie Upton, my girlfriend Jewels-would love it too.  I pulled the disclosure from my briefcase listing the official description, problems, and history of the property.  I checked the date of construction again and still found it hard to believe that the house was over a hundred years old!  A smaller version of the classic gothic mansions of that long ago period, it had aged beautifully.  A single conical spire on one corner of the roof gave evidence of its ancient character.  A recent coat of paint protected the wood from wear and tear inflicted by the elements.  A large porch adorned the front of the house, and like two shiny eyes, second floor windows reflected fluffy Cumulous Clouds and the bright blue sky.  Above the windows a cupola jutted out over the porch roof.  The lawn needed to be mowed, but my neighbors had set a high standard for lawn care, ensuring I would be shamed into adopting the same values.  The things that most impressed me, though, were the magnificent old magnolia and oak trees in the yards and along the street.

“Can we take a look inside?” I asked.

“Of course,” the realtor said, and he led the way.

While Mr. Taylor showed me the second floor, I asked, “Why such a good price?  Compared to the other homes we’ve seen, it would seem you could get more than your asking price out of this one.”

I caught the briefest hint of a sly smile before he answered.  “This house was owned by Hester Morris, who recently passed away.  I suppose her relatives are trying to dispose of her estate as quickly as possible.”  With a look of reluctance in his eyes, he sighed and averted his gaze.  “I shouldn’t be saying this, but since I’ve already told you this much, I’ll tell you what I know.  She was estranged from her family for years.  They probably would have given the property away if it wasn’t for back taxes owed.”  An awkward silence settled between us.  Then he asked, as a diversion I suspected, “Will your family be joining you soon?”

“Oh no, I’ll be alone until my girlfriend quits her job in New York and moves in with me.  She’s given her employer notice, and if there are no hitches, she’ll arrive in about a week.”

“That will be quite a change, moving from big city New York to small town Mississippi, won’t it?”

“She’s a very adaptable lady.  I think she’ll make the adjustment just fine.”

After Mr. Taylor showed me the house, we went back to the office and closed the deal.  The realtor suggested that I wait a couple of days before taking possession to make sure that checks to the state and city for back taxes were received.  That was all right with me.  It would be three days to a week before my furniture arrived.  Until then, the décor would be nearly non-existent.

The day before I was to move in was a sunny, warm autumn day-a great time to be outside.  I left the motel and drove to my new property.  Age aside; it was a lovely structure.  It resembled the home I was born and raised in.  As I stood on the sidewalk eyeing the front of the house, an elderly gentleman approached and greeted me with a curious smile.  “You jus buy dis house?” he asked.

“Yes sir.  I’ll be moving in this week.”

His smile faded, and he cast me a strange look, lips slack, eyes squinting.  Then his demeanor softened and he extended his hand.  “Name’s John Banks, ah live three doors down,” he said with an unmistakable south Mississippi drawl.

“Have you lived here long?”

“Bout thirty years,” and then he chuckled.  “But I guess after all this time I still ain’t lost my south Missislowhoopi accent, have I?” he grinned sheepishly, shifting from one foot to the other.  “Left there when I was thirty-five and ain’t never looked back.”

“Do you still have family down south?”

“Nope, none I know about.”  He lapsed into silence for a moment.  “After I move upstate, rest the family either died or moved away.  Great-Great Granddaddy and Grandma was slaves who was freed and stayed where they was let loose.  It was maybe a fine place for dem, but dere weren’t much dere for me.”

“Did you know the lady who lived in my house?”

“Yeah, ah knew her.  At one time, years ago, ah was the only friend she had in da neighborhood.”

“What was she like?”

He looked at me curiously.  “Ah don’t know if’in I should say,” He was quiet for a moment, shifting nervously from one foot to the other.  “Okay, ah probably shouldn’t, but ah tell you.  She tol’ me once her great, great, great grandma…somewhere way back when, were a witch.  Ah think it was in fifteen hundred and somethin’ she were convicted, and then, as punishment, skinned alive.  Miss Morris tell me she was one, too-a witch, ah mean.”

My jaw dropped and my stomach did a cartwheel.  I was silent for a moment trying to grasp the meaning of what my new neighbor had just said.  “Do you really think she was a witch, or maybe just crazy in the head?”

He stroked his chin and slipped into thought for a moment before he answered. “Ah don’t know for sho, but I don’ think she crazy.  Ah tell you this, if’in she a witch, she be a hag after she dead.  Wouldn’t be surprised if’in she showed up at your door or window at night, wantin’ to come in.”

A chill went through me.  “What do you mean she’ll come back?  She is dead, isn’t she?”

“Shonuf, but like ah say, if she be a witch, ah bet she be hainting your house soon.”

“Hainting.  What does that mean?”

He cast his gaze down, and then he looked me right in the eye.  “Down in south Mississippi, where ah come from, if’in a woman be a witch in her life, or practice Voodoo, when she die her spirit sometimes come back, only it be an evil spirit, or what we call a hag.”

“But…,”

“If’in she come to your house some night,” he continued. “She try to come in.  Don’ let her.  She come in, she put a curse on you, or worse.  You’ll regret the day you buy her house.”

“Are you really serious about this, or just putting me on?”

He frowned, and appeared indignant.  “Best I say nothin’ else.  I don’ want no part a her now,”

I caught an unmistakable glint of fear in his eyes.  Before I could ask any more questions, he turned around and walked quickly away from me.

– – –

That was yesterday.  Today I spent the afternoon cleaning and setting up a few pieces of furniture I’d purchased this morning.

I bought Chinese take-out at a local deli and arrived at the house at five o’clock.  I was famished and needed to eat.  As fast as chopsticks would allow, I wolfed down the Kung Pow and rice.  Should I crack open the fortune cookie?  See what my future held?  No. I had never been superstitious, but when I thought about what ominous secret it might hold something dark and sinister seemed to awaken in me.

My cell phone rang; I checked the Caller ID and snapped it open.

“Hey, Jewels, sorry I haven’t called.  I’ve had a lot of loose ends to take care of today.”

“No problem, sweet cakes, I’ve been busy, too.  Just thought I’d check in to see how you’ve been doin’.”  Her musical voice held a hint of familiar laughter, filling a well of loneliness in my heart that had gone dry since we’d last been together.

“I just moved in.  Tonight will be my first night in our new house.  The furniture hasn’t arrived yet, but I did pick up a bed to sleep on, a small table and chair, and a few other odds and ends.  What about you?  When are you gonna join me?”

“I can hardly wait, honey, but it’s going to be a little longer.  I promised my boss one more week, and then I’m out of here.  Tell me about our new house.”  Her voice edged up with excitement.

“Sweetheart, I got a great deal-actually it was more like a steal.  It’s an older home, over a hundred years old, but in fantastic condition.  The address is 999 Chelsea Lane.  Be sure to make a note of that.  It’s a beautiful neighborhood, streets lined with old oak and magnolia trees, and the homes are neat and well-kept.  Some of them are about the same age as ours.

“Have you met any neighbors yet?”

“I have met one, a long time resident whose name is John Banks.  He’s a very nice older gentleman.”

“It sounds like a nice neighborhood.  Did you find out why the house was so cheap?”

I thought carefully before answering.  I wasn’t ready to reveal to her yet what John Banks had told me.  “I don’t really know for sure.  The realtor mentioned that the previous owner was an elderly woman who had been ostracized by her family for years before she died, and they wanted to get rid of the property as quickly as they could.”

“Sounds kind of spooky to me.  By the way, have you called your folks yet?”

“No.  I’m not quite ready to deal with Mom.  I think we’ll wait until the house is ready before I call her and Dad.”  I shifted the phone to my other ear and slowly released a sigh.  “Damn, I really miss you, sweetheart.”

“I know.  I miss you too.”

“The worst part is sleeping alone, especially in this empty house.  I lie in bed thinking about you every night.  I think about touching you, making love to you.  Before long I get…well, you know….”

“I know sweetie.  Be patient.  And I don’t want to hear any rumors about you sharing our bed with anyone else,” she warned in a half seriously tone.  “Listen, I’ve got to go.  Take care of yourself.  See you in about a week.  Love you.”

“Love you too,” I said, and snapped the phone shut.

I sat staring into space, a lump in my throat, feeling empty and lonely.  Finally I said to myself, “I’ve got to stop this, got to get up and do something.”

Although I had inspected the house with the realtor, I wanted to check it again more thoroughly.  It wasn’t any concern about what that irrational old man had told me.  I’ve never been superstitious, but I’ve always been curious, and this evening I had a strong urge to explore.  Old houses and the secrets they held had always fascinated me. Starting with the first floor, I searched the living room, dining room, and hall, then I went through the cabinets and cupboards in the kitchen.  Finally, I went through two more chambers off the dining room and kitchen.  I decided that one of them would be my office.  My main focus was secret places-hiding places-normally unseen unless a person specifically looked for them.

After a thorough search of the first floor, I went to the basement.  It was musty, dimly lit, and cluttered with old newspapers, furniture, a couple of ancient looking trunks, and boxes filled with stuff that should probably have gone to the dump years ago.  Mr. Taylor had told me that the family members who had come to take the previous owner’s belongings had failed to clear out the basement.  With so much to go through, I left the trunks unopened.  I’d check them out later.  I could see, with this accumulation of junk, it was going to take some time to clean this place up.

The second floor was next, but after a careful inspection, I found nothing out of the ordinary and certainly no secrets.  The bunk bed that I had assembled this afternoon in what would be one of our guest bedrooms looked as lonely in that empty barren space as I felt.

Was there any place in the house I hadn’t explored?  Then I remembered the realtor telling me that Miss Morris used to spend a lot of time in a small attic room with a cupola.  She was disliked by her neighbors because much of that time was spent spying on them, especially at night.  It seemed odd that Mr. Taylor hadn’t showed me that room.  I looked around for a stairway, hidden or otherwise and finally found a small door in the upstairs hall that I had thought was a closet.  Behind it, a narrow staircase led to the attic.  It was dark in the cramped enclosure, but after running my hand over the wall, I found a light switch, flipped it on, and went up the stairs.

I found another switch at the top of the steps that also controlled the same lighting.  A naked overhead bulb and a lamp next to an old easy chair provided the only artificial illumination.

I stood a moment, scrutinizing the small room.  It was about ten by ten feet, with a sharp slanted ceiling on the street side.  The sparse furnishings included an easy chair with an end table and a floor lamp next to it.  A stool was positioned before a small telescope on a tripod pointing out into the falling night.  It wasn’t a conventional telescope that you looked through with one eye; this one was configured with an eyepiece for both eyes, like binoculars, focused through a single barrel.  It was the kind of instrument used by amateur astronomers.  When I went to the window to see what had piqued Miss Morris’s interest, the curtain of night had nearly descended. The attic room of my two-story house became a third story.  It overlooked a rambling two story structure directly across the street.  No curtains adorned the windows; the shades were wide open.  Although darkness reigned within, I thought I saw shadowy movement swimming through the gloom.  This was most intriguing and I made a mental note to check it out later.

At first I didn’t find any secret hidey-holes, but then noticed a wood panel about eighteen inches square located on the wall at floor level not far from where the slanted ceiling met the floor.  I crawled beneath the low ceiling, slid the panel sideways, and discovered an entry to the unfinished part of the attic beneath the conical spire.  Beyond the opening there was deep darkness and the smell of musty pine.  I would need some light.  I backed away, and went downstairs in search of a flashlight.

Five minutes later, my heart pounding, I returned to the sliding panel.  When I switched on the light and swept the beam through the attic, it flicked across two books lying on the floor just inside.  I reached in and pulled them to me.  One looked very old and quite fragile, deteriorated with age.  The other was a spiral notebook.  I carefully dragged the documents into the room and took them to the chair.

Oddly, the older manuscript seemed to crawl in my hands-and my flesh tingled where the parchment came in contact with my skin.  I scanned the older one first.  Brown with age and crumbling at the edges, it looked centuries old.  When I opened it, the ancient script appeared to be some variety of Middle English.  It was handwritten and illegible to me.  I placed it on the end table and picked up the notebook.  Inside, in neat easy to read script, was a story that started in the year 1510.  Hands shaking with excitement I began to read and was immediately drawn into a strange and violent tale.  It was a diary that appeared to have covered a large part of someone’s life.  It seemed a good guess that Hester Morris had translated and copied the old text to the notebook.

It was a sad and violent account of a young woman accused and convicted of witchcraft.  She had a young daughter, and at the time of her sentencing, the infant was taken in by kind town folks who protected and raised her after her mother’s death.  It was clear that these first pages contained the daughter’s account of the end of her mother’s life.

As I continued to read, my reality-the world around me-dissolved, and I was transported back in time.

* * *

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