There is history to each old house rotting along the byways, peering out from under the stringy grip of the mad kudzu. My aunt Becky knew lots of stories, about the living and the dead. Some things she knew because she was a court reporter who spent hours looking up things in town records. Yet some of the best tales she told were just things she knew because they were woven into the very countryside we called home. And because she was the oldest aunt, she’d lived through the most stories. You could point to any old home place on our road and she knew who had lived there and how they died. We always loved the creepiest tales.
She lingered on the telling, feeding them to us in bits while she made supper. The whole family came to eat the Sunday meal in the house Aunt Becky and Grandma kept, so once a week there was a pretty big audience for storytelling. As the other kids gathered in the living room or out on the front yard to play and to bicker, I would find a place to disappear in the kitchen so that I could hear the telling. It wasn’t hiding so much as just blending in.
In the world of my childhood, you watched TV most nights. In those candy bright living rooms, toothy bell-bottom wearers gave each other high fives while canned laughs told us it was all very funny. But on Sunday evenings, the best stories to be had came from Becky.
One of her stories was about Rosie Hawkins and Duck March, whose name might sound like an annual event in the natural world. Yet to us it had a terrifying connotation. If older cousins wanted to scare you in the yard at twilight, they paused and looked into the woods, whispering, “Was that Duck March?” The story Becky told was about something that happened a long while back. This is how she told it.
Rosie Hawkins was a spinster who lived all alone on Loop Road. One Sunday evening, after she missed church supper for the first time in all her life, they found her swinging from a tree outside her house. It was said she killed herself, but there was blood on her dress. Doc Holiday said it might have been her virgin blood. Someone else asked how she got up there; they found neither ladder nor chair under the tree. Rosie wasn’t spry enough to have climbed up and jumped down. Besides, the branches were all high. Everyone knew how tidy Rosie kept that yard. Every tree a proper soldier, arms up to salute the starched little general that was then the Hawkins farm house.
And Roy Sealock made a good point, too, which was about her church cakes. Why would a woman who was planning to kill herself make three of the prettiest cakes you ever saw, lined up just so, with the basket she usually used for taking things to church supper sitting there beside? Though they would never write it up as a murder, everyone agreed nothing made sense.
Becky knew something else, too. She had written an article for the paper once, just a couple of years ago and long after Rosie Hawkins was laid to rest, about a psychic who came to live in the area. The seeing woman told Becky she lived in these parts when she was a child, but her father moved them all to California back in the fifties. She asked Becky about a sleep vision she once had far away in Santa Monica when she was a teenager, that she always felt had something to do with their old home in Virginia.
In this dream she saw a woman being raped on the floor of a small, whitewashed kitchen. She was stout and had thick brown hair in a knot on top her head. The man was wiry. He wore his dark hair a little like Hitler, but his face was whiskered over thickly. The story gave Becky pause, because the man sounded like Duck March, a local mad man who was attributed to some other unsolved murders.
Then the seer frowned with another thought and added that the man was missing a finger on his left hand. She thought it might have been the pointer finger. Then my aunt knew it was Duck. The woman told her she saw the missing finger because she saw him making a noose. She said the woman was already limp when he slipped it over her head; he’d broken her neck when they fought in the kitchen. He climbed up on a ladder from the barn and dragged the rope over a tree branch, arms straining, until she was hovering well above a perfect carpet of grass. In her dream, she was able to follow him back to the barn and watch him put the ladder away. Then just before he bolted into the woods, he turned suddenly as though startled, and she had a funny sense that he was going to look straight at her through her dream. She woke up in a cold sweat.
Becky said she didn’t know how she felt about psychics, as a rule, but the woman seemed sincere. And telling the story left her visibly pale and unhappy; she was certain the thing she saw had really happened. Becky had come to write about a psychic returning home, a light enough little piece to hold down the back page of the paper. She could not and did not write the story the woman told her.
My aunt always saved a good detail for the last. She’d get up to stir something on the stove while we mulled over what she had told us. The other grownups started along side roads that stemmed from the tale: what ever happened to the Hawkins farm; did they every find the person who finally killed Duck March; was it true that when they found his body, his parents rolled him over and took his wallet? Becky would answer each question in good time, but first she turned from the stove and added the delicious last stroke to her Rosie Hawkins masterpiece.
When she was leaving the psychic’s house – that little place with the blue door out on Airport Road near the animal shelter – the woman smiled at her and said that the queerest thing about visions was the details she sometimes remembered. Like with the rape she saw in that prim little kitchen, she’d never forgot, there were three cakes with white icing sitting all in a row on the table. They were perfect cakes, just so cakes, the kind you smoothed patiently with a cold wet knife.