Chapter Forty-Nine: Correspondence With the Dead Part Three

Editor’s Note: no body of Joan Wallace, ritualistically hacked up and decorated with Devilry or whatever the Militia was worried about, and the passage of time meant interest in Joan’s case waned. By 1990, Jeannie Wallace had lost her husband, both children, and any patience she ever had with police help. She disappeared from public life, and except for the occasional grocery delivery from a rotating, loosely-associated group of young women in Vine. A rotating, loosely-associated group of young women in Vine that happened to include Christine. 

Joan’s disappearance never resolved with me, obviously, and finally Christine told me to just go talk to Jeannie. Christine was adamant that she only sort of knew her, was cagey about details, and wouldn’t make an introduction. 

“She may talk to you, she may not,” Christine said. “At the very least, I bet you get day drunk.”

Below is an account of my trip to Jeannie Wallace’s.

A Visit to Jeannie Wallace

My fingers kept twitching. Ms. Wallace’s porch was a mint green garage concrete, just like my grandparents’. Chipped in a lot of the same places, too. No working doorbell, so I pulled back the screen door to knock and listened to the awkward hiss as the screen lazed back into place. It slammed shut just as Ms. Wallace opened the front door. 

“Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” she said. “Tea or coffee? I’m having a Bloody Mary.”

It was a humid 76 with clouds blotting the sun but no promise of rain. One of those mornings that smelled like oil. “Can’t let such a gracious hostess drink alone,” I said. It was 9 a.m.

She was wearing an old-fashioned nightgown and robe, very elegant in a crumbling kind of way. Old newspapers and magazines lined the walls. Photos of Joan, photos of all four of the Wallaces when they were alive. One daughter to cancer, one husband to the bottle, and one daughter at the hands of a murderer. How much grief can one poor woman take, if official accounts are to be believed? 

“Thought you were supposed to be in Seminary,” she said. 

I hadn’t introduced myself yet. Was her knowing that so strange, though? Vine’s a small town. Maybe Christine had said something. “Didn’t work out,” I said. “Did two years, then switched to History. My parents were thrilled.”

“Turn your tape recorder on, we’re going to get drunk. Can’t just rely on notes. Tell me about the book, former Seminarian.”

Sharp-tongued for a grieving septuagenarian. She brought me the drink, spicy with cayenne and garnished with a thick lemon wedge. Her eyes serene gray pools. A lifetime of pain lived there—she was a woman in 20th-century Vine, that meant something. Of course she deserved to know whatever she wanted to know about the book. 

“It’s a history of Vine,” I said. “Maybe an oral history, you know, like collected stories? Obviously the dead don’t speak, but diary entries, recollections from loved ones, whatever emerges from the archives. Although I’d love to have as many stories, uh, straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.”

Jeannie Wallace Asks What’s Special About Vine

“What about Vine? What about Vine? Who could ever bring themselves to worry enough about little old us so much that they feel compelled to sit down and read a whole book? Do you think writing a book will get you sitted at the right hand of God or whatever the Elders and Preachers say? Who in the outside world knows or cares about us? Don’t say posterity. What makes you think there are going to be future generations?

“Let me tell you something, former Seminarian: you dodged a beheading from the Flaming Sword that hangs over Vine. The god of the Elders, the god of the Preachers, the god of any poor sap unlucky enough to be born here spends their life adulating, suffering at the hands of, dominioning the land and animals for—that’s a god who doesn’t care about consecrated lands, or chosen people, or crop yields, or the fishes in your nets, or the volume of your hymn-singing. Or if He does—and believe me, the god of the Elders and the Preachers is a He—well, every single one of His “chosen people in the Americas” has been unsatisfactory in their worship for 200 years. 

“Vine is clubhouse that’s not accepting new members even though the old ones are dead. Vine’s a backed-up storm drain. Vine is like Eden—soon no one will know where or if it existed.”

The Editor Reflects

How is this woman 70? Was her blaspheming supposed to test me, provoke some reaction? I had heard such things before—Jonah, Christine, and I might’ve hollered similar heresies along with empty beer bottles into the quarry. Still, she was talking ominous. My fingers kept twitching and I tried to hide it. 

“How about I make the second round of drinks?” I said. “If Vine’s soon-to-be no more, maybe the cockroaches will learn to read when we’re gone. One of them comes across my manuscript. Says ‘well, that’s no way to build a society,’ and the cockroaches are better off.”

She was quiet. The paring knife made loud thuds on the marble cutting board. I scraped away the lemon seeds and wiped lime juice on my pants. Put gin in the Bloody Mary and told her it was a trick my mom taught me. She didn’t answer that either. I pressed the blunt edge of the knife into my finger tip, felt the tingle on my bone.

“What do you mean ‘no way to build a society?’” she asked. 

My turn to not answer. I handed her the drink but didn’t sit down. We stared at each other in guarded quietude, waiting for the other to ratify any shared knowledge first. 

Jeannie Wallace Questions The Nature Of Vine

“Sit back down. You’re going to tell the truth about Vine? I suppose you’ve read L. James Richardson’s useless tome. I bet you even know about the unholy places in the mountains—every teenager likes to poke around those things after their first beer. I suppose you’ve got charts of which Elder was initiated when, which Elder died when. I bet you even remember some of your Book Of Vine. Well who cares about any of that? 

“Do you know about the Community of the Daughters of Charity? Do you know why the Butler House was so labyrinthine, why they kept building addition after addition until Roddy’s death? Do you know what was lost when it burned? Do you know about all of the Elder’s witch hunts, or just the ones the First Council did that got watered down into the cautionary tales you were told in Sunday School?”

An Evaluation of Previous Knowledge

Lucky for me, I wasn’t going in naked. I knew enough that she allowed me to hang around. We talked for hours. She made whiskey highballs and fried chicken in the oldest-looking cast iron skillet I’d ever seen. I’d expected her to reveal some shit, but not like this. Joan’s not dead, I’d semi-guessed that. She’d played her part on TV admirably, anguished and crying. She had the search parties going. Well. I should say it was Christine’s theory, that Joan wasn’t dead.

Now, talking with the woman herself, I wondered if some of the men in the search parties had ulterior motives when searching for Jeannie Wallace’s missing daughter. Jeannie Wallace, whose sister Joan died so horribly. Jeannie Wallace, whose daughter Joan went missing. Jeannie Wallace, whose daughter Julie was so sick with cancer. Jeannie Wallace, whose husband Greg couldn’t show up to Sunday service much less a work shift without a whiskey perfume. Jeannie Wallace, let me, Nameless Vine Man X, rescue your daughter then rescue you. Jeannie Wallace, you sultry temptress, let me protect you and be at your beck and call. 

So different from the meek, disheveled recluse she’d been the last four years since Greg’s death. I had a feeling I was the first person she’d spoken some truth to in eons. Here’s a Seminary dropout she can unload on. Joan not dead. Joan living happily as an out lesbian in Chicago. Years of letters between them and others for me to review and publish at my discretion. 

“Can I ask about Greg?” I ventured. 

Jeannie Wallace Explains the Deaths In Her Family 

“Don’t write anything about Greg,” she said. “He drank. Why do men drink? Boring reasons, that’s goddamn why. He wasn’t abusive or anything. Emasculated. He knew what I was and he was afraid. He’d spend his mornings choking back a hangover, meek like he was trying to inherit the Earth, then drink quietly until his mood improved enough to eat dinner. He wasn’t happy knowing he was far and away the least important member of his own household, so he just existed until he didn’t.”

“You can write about Julie. A girl who loved honeysuckle and herons. A girl who thought ‘we should count our blessings, Mom, we witches, for we live in one of the pockets of the world where magic can flourish. Yes, we are persecuted, yes we are second-class citizens, but where would we not be?’ Plenty of places, I wanted to tell her, but none we could get to. Not for generations. Julie, who learned to make a marvelous coq au vin, simply because she saw me excited about it one day. Julie, who could sing and play piano like had access to notes the rest of the world didn’t. Jule, who danced like it was the highest gratitude she could show her body. 

“Vine killed Julie. Cancer this, cancer that. An easy cover. Vine killed Julie. Once we started working up the plans for Joan’s escape—Julie was to follow her when she was older and enough time had passed that it wouldn’t look suspicious—we knew we’d set an egg timer on the god of the Elders and Preachers taking His vengeance. Never underestimate the Lord’s ability to hold a grudge. Especially against witches. Vine killed Julie.”

A Trip To The Garden

Before I could scoop my jaw off my shoes, she stood up and disappeared down the hall. The doorway looked like it was itching for her to saunter back. Witches, she had said. Witches, she had admitted that’s what they were. Greg, the least important member of his family. Well. That was obvious without casting any spells. 

I rubbed condensation from the highball glass on my forehead. The house was barely less humid than outside and now it smelled like fried chicken oil. She appeared at the doorway with an almost seductive expectancy. 

Aren’t you coming? I heard what I was pretty sure was her voice say. 

Ice slush in my glass and notebook in hand I followed her through the depths of the hallway. It was longer than felt like should fit in the house. It was loaded with family photos. More family photos than felt like should be enough to display one’s loved ones. 

I must’ve been buried in research too long. I heard fuzzy words of the Elders of Vine scratching around my skull. My mind. Am I drunk? There’s no way I’m drunk. Julie died at age fourteen, shortly before Joan disappeared. Greg died three years after. All of that was still more than 15 years—what year was it? 

The room at the end of the hall opened into the basement, so the first floor and the lower level were combined one in the same. Grow lights were everywhere, hanging over endless rows of various plants, none I’d ever seen in the wild. Green was all around me, and red and yellow and orange, but also colors that seemed to be unnatural: powder blue, deep indigo, sunset gold. In the middle was a stone fountain with no ceiling above it so that it could be replenished by rainwater. 

“You’re not actually confirming the witch rumors?” I asked. It would be derelict in my duty as a historian not to confess I was getting turned on. I threw back the whiskey slush and stared. “There really were witches in Vine?”

In The Witches’ Garden

“This is where we grow food to give to the poor of Vine,” she said. “This is where we grow our medicine. Some techniques go back to the colonizers, back to Europe. Some techniques, the Vine Coven learned from Indigenous women. A lot of the witches of Vine went to live with Indigenous tribes, did you know that? Well-groomed, quote-unquote respectable colonial gentlemen couldn’t keep them in the settlement once they saw how the original inhabitants were living. Why do you think the Elders killed so many of us right as Vine was being established?

“My great-great-great-grandmother began this garden. A way to preserve our methods for growing, for spells, to keep books and correspondence. Closest thing witches could get to a church, an archive. Mine is not the founding family of the Vine Coven—witches work collectively—but mine is the last of the Vine Coven. My great-great-great-grandmother’s husband, by the way, was James Davidson.”

Another Drink Appears

“James Davidson? The Founding Elder James Davidson? The Silent Elder, who had Silent Sons?” Un fucking believable. An Elder married to a witch? I wanted another drink. 

Jeannie smiled at me and my glass was full. To this day, I don’t know if it had been full when we walked back there, or if she conjured whiskey from the air. I was still twisted when Jeannie Wallace—standing by the fountain, stirring something without a utensil—Jeannie Wallace spoke, saying:

The Revelation of the Elders

“James Davison and sons covered for the witches. No one else in the Charter knew. Even as they rounded us up and killed us, James Davidson’s wife’s house was a place kept for posterity. For future generations. Too bad the town that James Davidson helped build killed my daughters, and many others thereafter. But I bear no ill will toward Josephine Davidson. 

“The Elders hide within their own ranks the kind of sorcery and perversions of creation that would have them pulling the skin off of someone not lucky enough to be anointed by birth like them. The hunts did not stop, and bloodthirsty shapeshifters among them gave them a real weapon. The one we couldn’t counter, though, was the one Margaret Clitherow Ruth, winner of Vine Best Garden 1964 and 1966, was able to wield so effectively: the fear that lives in the heart of any churchgoer. The violent immune system that sleeps within any community with a proper fear of the Lord. If regular people were afraid of witches, you could always kill a witch. 

“Do you know the number of nameless missing girls in Vine for the last two centuries? The number of Miracle Babies who, if you went through any kind of records, you’d assume the town simply—whoops!—lost track of? 

“The second we started planning Joan’s escape, we knew Vine would come for the rest of us, the last matrilineal line of the Vine Coven. My mother tried to fight it. I tried to ignore it. But this town was incorporated to kill witches and has a permanently whetted appetite. Don’t ever doubt the Lord’s ability to hold a grudge. 

“I suppose I should ask you, former Seminarian who is writing a history of Vine: what makes you think there will be future generations?” 

Jeannie Wallace Disappears

With that, the water rose in a calm whirlwind. It surrounded her, lifted her off her feet and turned her body horizontal in the air. The currents surrounded her like a river, like a bed made of river, and her clothes fell off her until she was naked. Her skin was as wrinkled as a 70-year-old should be, but the liver spots and purple veins and yellowed toenails were disappearing, like there was some sort of cleansing light coursing through her body. I know this isn’t very objective historian of me, but she was beautiful. Beautiful beyond sexy, but I still felt a pull to be close to her as if I was sexually attracted to her. Cosmically beautiful. Her hair was as though gold and silver combined into one. She was—her fingers looked like if she were to gesture your way your shoulders would get lighter. But I wasn’t trying—intellectually, I knew I couldn’t, and I wasn’t anyway, but these are the only terms I know to describe it in. The water held her, embraced her. It began to dip. Not like a waterfall, more like a gentle current down a hill. A soft, easy drift through warm waters, knowing a clear pool awaits on the other side. Her eyes, serene before, looked so at peace I almost couldn’t see them. She was smiling. Then she disappeared down into the fountain, the water all rushing in after her.

Aftermath of an Ascension

In her kitchen, I made another drink and waited. She was gone, I knew it, but it’d be rude not to wait at least a little bit. Plus, my tape recorder was still rolling. Our interview never really ended. I dictated all I had seen. 

The sun began going down, and if she wasn’t coming back, it seemed like an honor to her to polish off her bar. Spent her life playing the part of a miserable grieving dormouse, all the while fighting to keep her daughters safe and her craft alive. She seemed like a woman who saw her world for what it was and lived a life in spite of it. 

It was midnight. The witching hour, I laughed to myself. I emptied the whiskey and realized I’d never looked at the bottle. Davidson’s. Of course she drank James Davidson’s whiskey, distilled with Vine freshwater and Vine-grown corn, barley, and rye. I sniffed the vanilla and cherrywood notes, admired the deep amber color in the light, and drank it down. Then I hurled the bottle across the room, shattering it against the empty fireplace. It seemed like something Jeannie would’ve approved of. I walked out of Jeannie’s house and flipped off God.

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