Fiction · 11/10/2010

The Fascinator

It was just after noon when a tall man in a dark suit rapped on Buella Dodd’s newly white washed screen door. She’d seen him coming up Standish Hill Road, making his way over the twisted and rocky path running between the trees, where the smell of mossy earth and dead leaves was strongest. He was wearing a charcoal colored suit jacket, matching pants, and a black fedora. He carried a brief case that seemed to weigh on him. Buella assumed he was a salesman, or that he was coming to talk religion. She looked around the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, and noticed the open tin of Snowdrop mints, which held a small wad of bills and a quarter sheet of sugar ration stamps. She replaced the canister’s dented lid and hid it under the sink.

Buella’s daughter Lorraine was asleep in the room behind the kitchen. The week before, she had given birth to a baby boy she’d named Edison. It had been a difficult birth, attended to by the town doctor, who had taken his time getting there and whose sour, whiskey-tinged exhalations revealed the reason for his delay. When the baby was finally born, the umbilical cord tied off with a little knotted rag, the doctor remained long enough to wash up in the kitchen sink. He was rolling down his shirt sleeves and buttoning the cuffs when he asked Buella if she might like to celebrate the arrival of her grandson with a short drink. But when she admitted she had no spirits in the house, he headed for his battered Dodge, saying “Well, I’ll be off then. Best of luck with the little one.” Exhausted, Lorraine fell asleep and barely woke for feedings when the baby cried, which was often. In fact, it had been a hard few days for both Lorraine and Buella, as the baby cried almost continuously. And he was not taking to Lorraine’s milk no matter how often she offered it. Rare were the moments when the two women had peace, which happened only when the baby exhausted himself.

After a night that saw both women pacing the splintered hardwood as they took turns attempting to soothe the child by singing, cooing, and administering warm water with whiskey, Buella, in her exasperation, said without thinking, “Good God! It’s just like Jim to leave us a horror like this before he goes and runs off!”

Lorraine turned white when Buella said this and answered, “Mama, Jim did not just run off. The war didn’t give him no choice in the matter. I don’t think he particularly wants to be halfway around the world, fightin’. And Edison is not a horror. He’s my son.” Lorraine disappeared into her room where the light was still dim. Around 6 a.m., the baby finally fell asleep and the rest of the house quickly followed.

On this day, shortly after lunch, after Lorraine again tried and failed to nurse the boy — bursting into angry tears over the fact that he was virtually inconsolable — he finally quieted, and she fell into a dead sleep under a frayed calico quilt she’d had since she was a girl. Buella could hear her snoring from the kitchen. The baby was, for once, resting silently in the wicker bassinette beside Lorraine’s bed. Buella checked on them and pulled the door closed before the man in the suit and fedora reached the porch stairs.

When he finally stood at the screen door, he surprised Buella with his pallor. His cheeks had a grayish concavity. He’d pushed his hat back so that the wide, pale plane of his forehead was on display. His hair, which she could see beneath his hat, was jet colored and slicked back with something that gave it an oily shine. His beard and mustache were trimmed with the same care gardeners paid the ornamental boxwoods Buella had seen around fine houses in town. And it was as black as bitumen, making his pastiness appear all the more startling. He smiled at Buella, and she unconsciously took a step back from the screen door. Her eyes went to the latch and saw the hook was in the eye. The man followed her gaze.

“’Afternoon, ma’am,” he said, removing his hat to expose his lacquer-black hair with its fierce comb marks. A piece fell like a wet pipe cleaner onto his damp forehead and stuck in place. He put down his heavy, rectangular satchel. It appeared to move slightly even after he released its handle.

“Afternoon,” Buella said, putting her hands together and squeezing them.

“I was wondering if you might be able to spare a glass of water? See, I got on this path here about half an hour ago… been walkin’ see, door to door, and I believe I might’ve lost my way. This road, I see, dead-ends at this property, don’t it?”

Buella was quiet for a moment, and nodded, quickly, silently. She felt a coolness at the back of her neck and realized it was because she was sweating.

“Well, yes, if could get that glass of water, ma’am, I would be most obliged. I been walking for awhile now. Guess I lost my way back on the main road, see?” The man pointed vaguely over his shoulder. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed with effort. “I’m awful dry,” he continued. “Water would do me a whole lot of good, and I’ll be on my way.”

If that’s all it takes to get rid of him, Buella thought, then all right. So while he stood outside, she poured him some water from the chipped stoneware jug on the table, from which the lunch dishes weren’t entirely cleared away. She saw, when she was done pouring, that he’d taken in this fact. And so she moved to block his view of it as she went to the door, lifted the hook from the eye, and handed him the jelly jar full of water. He nodded to Buella, when he took it, and gazed levelly in her eyes.

His eyes were a gray-green, a little like sea glass, and when he averted them for one moment, as he took a drink, the sunlight slanting onto the porch made his pupil flash as if it were composed of a hundred little sparkling mirror fragments. When the man’s eyes moved back to Buella, the circular muscle around each onyx pupil opened like gussets to reveal a surprising ribbon of red. They closed just as quickly, leaving only the color of sea glass behind. Buella stood silent for a moment, looking intently. The man said nothing. He drank his water.

“Come in,” Buella suddenly said, stepping aside so he could pass.

“Well, I thank you, Ma’am. I’m most obliged.” He picked up his square satchel and humped it against one thigh towards the dinner table, where he sat it beside a chair. Buella vaguely registered that a noise almost like fluttering seemed to issue from inside the bag. Neither he nor she acknowledged it. Without waiting to be invited to sit, he pulled out a chair and lowered himself into it. “I know it’s probably unusual to see a man around these parts, with the war on and all.”

Buella did not answer. Instead, she commenced to take the remnants of lunch out of the icebox and began fixing the man a plate. He watched as she forked a generous chunk of ham and two large spoonfuls of green beans and potatoes onto one of her better china dishes.

“I’ll say, ma’am. You’re most accommodating. I guess some people still believe what they writ there in the Bible. It’s Hebrews 13:2 that says, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.’”

Buella said nothing. She felt nothing. She worked at her small task, and then set the plate down in front of the man, who did not wait for a utensil, but picked up the meat with his fingers.

When she laid a fork down in front of him, he put the meat back on the plate. “You’ll have to pardon me, ma’am. I suppose I ain’t too much on manners.”

She sat down in the chair adjacent to him, quietly. She smoothed the table cloth. “We don’t get many visitors here,” she said, absently.

He nodded, chewing rapidly, food falling from the corner of his mouth onto the plate and the table itself. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. Buella did not seem to notice. “No, I can imagine not. You’re pretty far back here. Took me awhile to find any life back this way.”

As the two sat there, the satchel seemed to come alive with the sound of a gentle but frenzied beating, like the content was moving around, redistributing itself. The satchel rocked from side to side, moving half an inch or so whenever the noise was audible.

“You said you go door to door?” asked Buella, with preoccupied geniality. “So you’re a salesman?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said between large bites that muffled his speech. “Of a kind.”

Again, the satchel shook. The man, focused on his plate, took no notice. Finally, the bag seemed to settle.

“What kind of samples have you got in — “ Buella began, gazing vacantly towards this oversized bag. Still, she turned her head away from it when she caught a peripheral glimpse of her daughter, who was standing on the threshold of her bedroom.

Lorraine was looking into the kitchen with an expression of surprise. When she registered her mother was looking at her, she smoothed her hair and came out of the bedroom fully. “I heard voices,” she said vaguely, touching her face. “I didn’t realize we had anyone visiting us today.”

The man stood up, pushed his chair back with his legs, causing it to screech loudly as it moved against the floor. Again, a rustling noise came from the man’s satchel, as if it were replying to the noise he’d made.

Behind the door, the baby began to cry. “Oh,” said Lorraine with urgency, before she turned around to go back inside the bedroom. Within a few moments, she came out with the little boy swaddled in a floral cotton blanket. She was clicking her tongue at him to quiet him and touching the dimple in his chin. “Shhhh… ” she said then, gently.

“Well he’s a right handsome little fellow, that one,” the man said, nodding towards the baby. “You say his name is Edison?”

Lorraine looked at the man, startled. “Did I say his name? Well,” she said thoughtfully, “maybe I did. Yes, that’s right. Edison,” she said, looking back to the baby, while bouncing him gently in her arms in an effort to calm him. She again tickled his small chin with her forefinger to distract him, but the baby continued to cry, now wailing so stridently as to turn himself a pale shade of purple.

“Mightn’t I hold him?” the man asked over the din.

“Well… ” Lorraine hesitated, held the boy a little closer to her chest. “Well, I don’t know. I, uh… see, he’s just been born last Friday. I didn’t think we’d have any visitors. I… ”

The man extended his arms. He looked at Lorraine and smiled, making his cheeks hollow still further. “I’ll tell you, I got some kinda magic with babies,” he said. “Babies take to me, like nothing else.”

Lorraine looked at him for several long seconds, during which he stood with his arms out, as if asking her to come to him. She did, and handed the baby over to him.

The baby squirmed in the man’s arms, but not with any sense of distress. In fact, the boy settled down quite comfortably and grew suddenly quiet. The man seemed to know how to handle him, holding him close, bouncing him against his chest softly, while also swaying slowly to and fro. Lorraine sat down in the chair beside her mother, as if she had none of her own will. She, like her mother, gazed with a bemused expression at the stained luncheon cloth, repeatedly running her hands across its wrinkles with the same inattentive focus of someone from the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.

“Ain’t this weather we’re havin’ something?” asked Buella of no one in particular. She finally folded her hands. Neither she nor Lorraine was considering the baby any longer.

“I’ll say,” said Lorraine, not looking at her mother. “It’s never been this sunny so many days in a row in April.”

“Is it April?” asked Buella.

“Actually, ladies, it’s July,” said the man, still bouncing the baby soothingly and looking down into his tiny, pink face.

“Imagine that,” said Buella, spellbound, “July already.”

The calendar on the wall beside the screen door read May 1942.

Neither Buella nor Lorraine was conscious of exactly what happened after that. When they became aware of their surroundings, they realized the man was gone. Still, they felt no sense of distress. And without any sense of urgency, Lorraine got up to look for Edison. She saw he was back in his bassinette, quiet for once, as if he’d never been woken. When she pulled the cotton blanket from his face, he opened his milky blue eyes and stretched his mouth wide enough to show off his wet little gums. Lorraine expected him to begin wailing. She braced herself for it, picking him up and putting his face against her chest to stifle the noise. No noise came.

The most curious thing to Buella was how fast time had passed. Hadn’t it just been noon? Buella thought. Now, the clock said it was ten after two. She thought of their visitor and wasn’t entirely sure when he had left. His empty plate and fork were thoughtfully carried to the side of the sink, where her discolored, sudless dishwater still stood. She put her hand to her head, trying to remember, but her mind felt foggy and gray, like some internal rain had come and washed away the recent past.

As Buella stood there concentrating, a dull navy Ford pick-up—its arc-shaped fenders speckled by rust—came bumping over Standish Hill Road. She heard its motor and went to the porch. The truck door opened before it actually reached the house, and from the passenger side jumped her neighbor, still in her house apron. “Buella-Belle!” the stout woman shouted, breaking into an awkward run.

“Kitty, what is it?”

“Has he been here yet?”

“Who?” Buella said, putting her hand to her collarbone, unconsciously.

“There’s a man goin’ around in a suit. Got a big suitcase full of crows.”

“Crows?” said Buella, her hands suddenly at her neck. “Live crows? I… ” Buella began, but stopped.

“He’ll say he’s a salesman or that he can fix pots. But don’t let him in, Buella.”

“Why?” Buella said, stricken.

“Cause,” Kitty, said, panting as she tried to catch her breath. She held herself steady by one stair post as her own daughter, Luanne, who parked the truck, came up behind her.

“Because he wants your baby,” Luanne said, finishing what her mother could not. “Or the baby’s soul anyway. He’s what them Eye-talians ‘round here call a Fascinator of Infants. He’s got the evil eye.”

Buella shook her head sharply to clear it. “But he was here,” she said. “He didn’t take the baby.”

“He was here?” Kitty shouted. She struggled up the stairs by pulling herself along the make-shift banister. She pushed her gray hair out of her eyes, and moved rapidly past Buella, who had stepped forward to help her. “Where’s Lorraine and the baby?”

Buella followed her in, “Why, she’s fine, Kitty. They’re in the bedroom.”

When Kitty and Luanne got inside the kitchen, Lorraine came out of the bedroom with the baby in her arms. She looked pale and frightened. “He’s so quiet, Mama. I ain’t never seen him like this. And I can’t feel nothin’ but his little bones through the blanket.”

Kitty grabbed the baby from Lorraine, who did not fight her. Luanne had a little yellow envelope that she emptied into her mother’s palm. The contents looked like a series of little crosses and flames all strung together on fishing wire. While Kitty held Edison with one arthritic arm, she pushed the charms against his small chest. “We gotta draw it out of him, Buella, and then he’ll be all right.”

“What are they?” Lorraine asked, her eyes showing little slices of white.

“Coral flames and crosses made out of steer horn,” Kitty said, now pressing firmly against the baby’s stomach. “Most powerful charms I know against his kind of witchcraft.”

As soon as Kitty stopped speaking, an enormous crow with feathers as black and glossy as anthracite landed on the front porch and pecked crossly at the screen door. He cocked his head sideways and cast one sulfur-colored eye at the group of women huddled around the child. He opened his beak and cawed loudly, showing a tongue so scaly it looked reptilian.

Kitty got down on her crooked knees then and said without looking at Buella or Lorraine, “Oh, Buella-Belle, now we got to pray. Lorraine, honey, you too. Get down with me now. Come on. It’s worse than I thought. Now we got to pray real hard.”

Lorraine’s chest, which felt, over the previous days, as if it were filled to her collar bones with lead shot, was struck now by a sharp burst of white heat, by a sudden alertness. She wobbled as she lowered herself towards the floor and knelt reluctantly beside Kitty, who was already mouthing a nearly inaudible prayer and pushing the charms into the baby’s flaccid, ashen flesh. When Lorraine looked at her mother and saw that she, too, gazed open-eyed and without praying at the pine boards beneath her, Lorraine knew that Buella was thinking the same thing. Behind the heavy dread they both carried, out of the sudden radiant terror Lorraine experienced, there came an expectant relief and a damnable hope for freedom.

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Savannah Schroll Guz is author of American Soma (2009) and The Famous & The Anonymous (2004). She edited the fiction anthology Consumed: Women in Excess (2005). She is fiction editor of The New Yinzer and co-directs Pittsburgh’s TNY Presents reading series. Find more here: www.savannahschrollguz.com.