Sunday Pages: "Dark Omens"
A memoir by Helena Baptiste
When our second child was born back in the summer of 2006, I went through an astrology phase. There was a literary element to this interest. Lots of really great writers, from Shakespeare to W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, demonstrated a working knowledge of the stars. And the astrological patois was, to a guy with a weakness for words, alluring: accidental dignity, void-of-course moon, midheaven, grand trine, ephemerides, twelfth house…any of those would be great titles for a short story. I wanted to speak that language. I wanted to know what Shakespeare & Co. knew.
The theory of astrology is that the movement of the planets has a profound effect on us earthlings. When we consider what the moon does to the ocean, this is not as crazy as it first seems. If a celestial body can control the tides, is it ridiculous to think that that same celestial body impacts us as well?
Astrology is, basically, two and a half thousand years of human beings trying to determine how and why the planets influence us. This stuff is old, and it’s still around, still dutifully syndicated in newspapers the world over, still an area of fascination for human beings trying to make sense of it all. And yes, sure, a lot of it is bunk. But it is bunk because the movement of the planets doesn’t really affect us, or is it bunk because we still haven’t been able to determine exactly how and why?
In my limited experience, astrology “works” sometimes. Back in 2006-07, I compiled charts of my family and friends and studied them carefully. The only thing I knew for sure is that anyone with a Pisces Rising—where Pisces, the wateriest water sign, ruled the First House—had access to the astral plane. If I saw that placement in the chart, I would ask, “Have you ever seen a ghost?” And they would fall out of the chair. Because the answer, invariably, was yes. One friend responded, “Only once.” But that’s once more than I’d ever seen one!
(This had practical applications as well. When our youngest expressed a fear of ghosts, I said, “You’re an earth sign with an earth sign rising. Ghosts will never appear to you. They’re afraid of you.” And that did the trick.)
Despite how much scientific knowledge we now collectively possess, there remain things that hard science cannot definitively explain: Why do we dream? Why do we think of an old friend we haven’t thought about in ages and get an email from him a few hours later? If ghosts aren’t real, why have so many people seen them? What happens when we die? Why does anyone take Tucker Carlson seriously?
I’m thinking about all this today because my friend Helena Baptiste—who modestly calls herself a “burgeoning” writer, underselling her talent—recently published a piece of flash fiction in Split Lip Magazine. During my days at The Weeklings, I published a number of essays she wrote, mostly about race, politics, and literature. But my favorite was a piece of creative nonfiction about her eerie experiences with the occult, a piece I had encouraged her to write.
This week, I went back and re-read it, and I decided to share it with you for today’s “Sunday Pages.” But I caution you, Dear Reader: this tale is creepier than Eliza from Dothan. You’ve been warned…
I LEARNED TO USE the Ouija board when I was in fifth grade. My teacher, Ms. Miller, introduced me to it. That year she also nominated me for the district’s talented and gifted program, and I was pulled out of regular classes to do special projects. We covered a lot of subjects—astronomy, the arts—but the area of study I was most directed toward was the occult. I don’t know why that was even an option for our school, in a southern Bible Belt state—replete with a church on every corner—but it was. I studied and did reports on witchcraft, astrology, and the histories of different types of magick.
After getting my mother to buy me a Ouija of my own, I spent lots of time alone, asking it questions and watching the planchette speed along the board with just the barest touch of my fingertips. Soon I began doing it for friends and family. They would approach me nervously, unsure if it was a hoax, trying to make their serious questions sound like jokes—disbelief and even a little fear in their eyes—and the planchette would spell out answers that always came true. No one could get the Ouija to sing like I could. Word got out. People from the neighborhood started showing up with their own queries. I would help them, eager as I was to please, and confident in the veracity of the responses the Ouija gave. Sometimes the petitioners would get angry with the true but disappointing replies and say bad things about the board. On those occasions, no matter how long we waited, the planchette would not move another millimeter. Once they realized they would not get any more answers, they would apologize and the planchette would resume whizzing across the board.
I loved being able to give people responses, even when I saw the disappointment on their faces when they did not receive the answer they were hoping for. Some of them asked about their relationships, their marriages, and the Ouija answered truthfully, even when it predicted several divorces that would not happen until ten or twenty years later and indicated that the dubious relationships of other couples would endure. I became so attached to my Ouija that I began speaking of it as if it were a person, a living entity. The more responsive I was to it, the more responsive it became to me. Then I happened upon a newspaper article about the movie The Exorcist and “Captain Howdy,” the entity Regan contacted via her Ouija, and I became frightened and threw mine away.
That time it let me.
It wasn’t just Ouija, though. Years later I started reading the Tarot. I also learned to cast spells. As a protegée of our state school system’s extracurricular program for bright students, when it came to the occult, I think I did them proud.
The question that hovered in my subconscious, but one I never really thought to ask explicitly: why was I so talented in this arena? Why did the spirits come to me?
I heard the call of the occult long before I was introduced to the Ouija. As a four year-old I tried to bind my grandmother, who was deeply involved in magick, with a doll and a sweater. I had no idea what I was doing or how to go about it, but I felt power surge within me that I remember to this day. My Aunt Bonnie found me chanting trance-like in a dark room with the sweater tightly wrapped around my doll. She showed the doll to everyone thinking I had been cutely trying to dress it and had only succeeded in knotting the sweater around it. But I knew I had been close.
People always suspected there was something a little different about me. My family became convinced that I possessed precognition. My cousin’s husband, from the first time he met me, was convinced I was a real witch and told people so—not realizing that it was actually my cousin, his wife, who had put a spell on him and secretly kept an altar my grandmother taught her to make (I had been my grandmother’s first choice as pupil, but I felt a strong malevolent energy around her and refused). At my twenty-first birthday party, after drinking copious amounts of MD 20/20, I felt compelled to prophesy and phoned two relatives predicting they would die that night if they went to sleep. One cousin stayed up all night even though he had to go to work the following morning. My friends, so convinced of my ability to see the future, drove me to my aunt’s house—my second prophesy victim—and we sat with her the entire night. She patted my hand and said that it if was her time she was prepared to go, but made sure she kept her eyes open until the sun came up.
I had this guy come into my apartment years ago to replace my air filters. He was really glad to see me, knew my first name and said that we used to work at a truck stop together.
I have never worked at a truck stop in my life, or even been in one, and had never seen him before.
When I was a little girl my biological father was not involved in my life. My mother would use me to get money, usually parading me around to different well-off people’s homes where they would give me cash for being cute and smart. Another thing she would do was tell different men that I was their daughter. She had one guy convinced he was my father, and another one told everyone in town I was his biological daughter even though my mother did not meet him until long after I was born. His name was James Stall, and he was a talented saxophonist. He was protective of me and always treated me like I was his. He left our little town and moved to New York to pursue his musical career. He soloed on some albums which his parents would proudly play for me. He also picked up a serious heroin habit. “Daddy” would come home with presents for me and be his usual fun-loving self with exciting stories about his life in the big city and the famous people he had met. Then one time he came home and he was really messed up bad. He was in a wheelchair and drooling and looked like he had aged a hundred years. I was only four, but I remember us going to the airport and them taking him away to some hospital. I never saw him alive again.
I ran into my former hairstylist while out shopping and she insisted that I had come into her salon the week before and spoken to her.
I hadn’t been in her salon in over a year.
When I was little, my mother and I used to sleep in the same bed. One night we were asleep and James the saxophone player came to the foot of her bed and stood there. My mother was terrified. She said she kicked me as hard as she could to try to wake me but I remained asleep. Then she tried to sit up but couldn’t and when she tried to call for help only a squeak came out. She said “Daddy” brushed his hand across her foot (probably to let her know not to kick me anymore), started toward the head of her bed and disappeared. The next day his mom told us he had died. We went to his funeral a few days later. His face looked gray and twisted and horrible as if he had died a protracted and painful death. His mother took it very, very hard.
I went to an occult store with my roommate so that she could buy candles and herbs. When we walked in, the two guys behind the counter froze and started acting very nervous. Finally one said to the other one, in a loud, shaky voice, “Man, that looks just like Eliza from Dothan.”
The other one said, “No, man, that can’t be Eliza. Eliza’s dead.”
The first guy said, “I know she’s dead, but maybe that’s her come back,” and reached under the counter for something. The entire time we were there they huddled close together and acted really freaked out about me. I got the feeling they were terrified of the woman who was dead for some reason. We could see them visibly relax as we left.
About a year after the ghost incident, my mother, her friend Wanda and I walked three miles from our house to James Stall’s gravesite. When we got there my mother and Wanda stood around looking at his tombstone and talking about his life. I felt tired so I sat on his grave. After they finished discussing what a shame it all was, they were ready to go. My mother told me to get up and I tried to but couldn’t. My body felt so heavy I couldn’t even move my legs. I felt like my body was stuck to the ground or like something was holding me down. My mother got angry and started yelling at me, and I was afraid she was going to hit me but I still couldn’t get up. She tried to pull me off his grave but I wouldn’t budge. By this time I was scared and crying. Her friend Wanda grabbed me by the other arm and started pulling, too, but neither of them could get my skin-and-bones five year-old body off the ground, they couldn’t even move me one foot in any direction. My mother was really scared as well as exhausted. She just started praying and told her friend Wanda to pray with her. They were praying the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm over and over. I tried to pray with them through my tears. Suddenly I just felt the strength return to my body and I felt light as a feather. I stood up and walked off the grave. My mother grabbed me by one hand and her friend grabbed me by the other one and we hightailed it away from there as fast as we could.
My mother told “Daddy’s” mom about the experience a couple of weeks later and a very strange, worried expression came over her face. She told my mother to never, ever take me back there again.
I had gotten in the habit of reading the Tarot for my friends and I was good at it. My best friend, Carrie, asked me to bring my cards when I went to have dinner with her and her husband. After our meal she asked me for a reading, wanting to know what would happen with her job. I went through the ritual and laid out the cards but every card clearly pointed to an extramarital affair. I saw nothing about her career. Knowing that sometimes the Tarot will warn you about something rather than answer the specific question you ask, I told her this. Her husband became belligerent, so I ended the reading. Later, Carrie told me that she had had an affair and that was what I had seen in the cards.
But after the reading, Carrie became suspicious and started checking on David’s activities. It turned out that he was having not one, but several dalliances simultaneously. He eventually left Carrie for a girl who was just barely out of her teens, siring a child by her. They tried to reconcile at one point, but after a particularly violent incident, Carrie filed for divorce. When further threats and extreme acts of violence did not convince Carrie to take him back, David broke into her home, produced a gun and blew his brains onto her living room wall while she watched.
I lost my enthusiasm for the Tarot after that.
A colleague I had never met or even spoken to on the phone before came up to me at the airport, back when I was working for the federal government. He embraced me warmly. “Hey girl! How did you beat us here? We just left you in Ohio.”
I looked at him, puzzled. “I’ve never been to Ohio.”
He stared back, his eyes wide and his mouth agape. “But I’ve worked with you for two weeks.”
I smiled tightly but said nothing more. I had gotten used to it.
Several years ago on a whim I bought another Ouija on eBay. Immediately after paying for the item I had a change of heart and emailed the seller and told him to keep it and the money. A week later the board was delivered. I started playing with it by myself, even though I knew solitary use was a no-no. Dating a couple of guys at the time and wondering if either relationship would turn into a serious commitment, I asked the Ouija if I would marry either of them. The planchette quickly slid to NO. I asked it who would I marry, and it spelled out SHAX. I asked it again, it spelled SHAX again, then went on to spell out YOU WILL MARRY ME. This made me feel creepy so I put the Ouija away. A couple of days later I was on the internet and googled “Shax.” It led me to several websites on demonology that said he is a high-ranking demon and a Marquis of Hell. I took the Ouija outside and put it in the trash and felt a sense of relief when the garbage truck came and took it away.
A few months later I was rummaging in the back of my large bedroom closet and came upon that same Ouija board, the one I had thrown away.
It’s still in the back of my closet now.
I just ignore it.
It is in the heart of every man to try to change his fate. But one has to be careful how one goes about it. I’ve learned that it’s best to let what’s meant to be be. We’re right to be afraid of the dark.
I finally decided I was through with occult activities and gave it all up. I didn’t see where it enriched my life any. Foreknowledge of an event won’t alter the outcome. In order to change something that will happen, we have to be able to change ourselves—and who among us can truly do that? As long as we are who we are, we can’t change the future, we will bump into it no matter what we do, so if we are given glimpses of it, will that really make anything better?
That’s a rhetorical question, but if I ever go back to the Ouija board, perhaps I will ask it of Shax.