A WIDOW'S CURSE (Chapter One)
What was left of the Barnsley estate rose into view at the hilltop. A full moon made the mansion skeletal, something from a grotesque animal more than remains of an antebellum home: a vision to match the story of its curse. A razor of wind cut across my fingers and kicked up leaves; I thought they might have been footsteps following behind me.
Moonbeams revealed a dwarfed boxwood maze that seemed to guard the entrance walkway. Winding through a rose-framed garden knot, the path to the front door was deliberately designed to slow the pace of anyone coming to the house. A visitor was forced to take more time, appreciating the grandeur of the house. A resident would have a moment to assess the visitor from behind an upstairs curtain, or inside a hidden shadow.
That small garden attacked the senses, even in the September night. The air was filled with black crickets' bowing, the funereal scent of white gardenias, the red noise of cicadas, and the blood of roses. A moldering angel at the center, head bowed, seemed to be weeping rust tears. Tall cleome and shorter cockscomb shivered in each gust of cold wind.
I stood staring up at the house, one more visitor the ghosts could evaluate, wondering how I'd gotten to that very black moment. The process of collecting folk stories, my own psychoarchaeological exploration of the collective ancient mind, could never have prepared me for such a circumstance. I found I was having a very basic ontological dilemma: Was I actually the man standing in this dark garden?
I began to imagine myself, instead, standing in the upstairs window of the derelict mansion, looking down on myself standing in the cleome. How did the man down there, I thought, get from his perfectly comfortable life to that desperate garden, wanted by the police, pursued by a murderer?
The idea that a single phone call from a stranger had transported me there seemed insane.
The schizophrenia of that moment made me shiver.
And with each shiver, I found myself recalling, one by one, the doomed events of the Barnsley family curse.
The Barnsleys lived happily for centuries in Derbyshire, England. The first American Lord Barnsley was Godfrey, a cotton magnate who amassed a great fortune in Savannah. By the late 1830s, his wife, Julia, could no longer tolerate the heat and flies on the coast. Godfrey determined to come up from the sea to the cool, clear hills of Cass County. That decision sealed their thorny fate.
Lord and Lady Barnsley had the misfortune to arrive at the site of their home just after the Trail of Tears.
Cherokee people, who had lived happily for centuries in those hills, had been forcibly removed from their land. Men, women, and children were herded a thousand miles under the orders of astonishingly indifferent military men. Over four thousand died, compelling the remaining Cherokee families to name their sorrow Nunna daul Tsuny--literally, "the Trail Where They Cried." Each tear that hit the ground, one story said, became a binding curse, contaminating all the land around it.
Apparently, the feeling was palpable to anyone who set foot on the acorn-shaped hill near the holy springs where Barnsley would build his stuccoed Italianate mansion. So much so that he was warned many times not to build on the site. But Godfrey was a man who had been warned not to come to America, not to plant cotton, and not to marry young Julia Scarborough--all of which he had done to great success. So build he did.
He called his home The Woodland: twenty-four rooms constructed at ridiculous expense. Even in the nineteenth century, the mansion enjoyed hot and cold running water and flush toilets. A copper tank near the main chimney furnished hot water to bathrooms, and another tank in the bell tower provided cold water to house and gardens. The wine cellar was, reputedly, the most extensive in America. Doors and paneling were fashioned by London cabinetmakers. Marble mantels were brought from Italy.
And when it was done, the fortune of the entire Barnsley clan had been tempered in hell.
Godfrey's infant son died in an upstairs bedroom; his beloved Julia succumbed to tuberculosis; their second daughter, Adelaide, passed away in the front room of the house. The eldest son, Howard, was killed by no less than Chinese pirates while on a mission for his father to find "amusing shrubberies" that would complete the family garden.
The Civil War destroyed much of the house and grounds: Furnishings were burned and Italian statuary was smashed by Sherman's troops, who were hoping to find hidden gold. All the china was broken; all the wine was drunk.
When the war's end brought no relief, Godfrey moved, by himself, to New Orleans in the hope of re-creating his fortune. He left son-in-law Captain Baltzelle and daughter, also a Julia, to manage the estate, but Baltzelle was killed in 1868 by a falling tree--a bit of inescapable irony, in that his plan to recoup the family fortune lay in timber sales.
Godfrey died alone and penniless in New Orleans in 1873; his body was returned to Woodlands and buried there.
In 1906, a tornado robbed the house of its roof.
By the end of 1942, the house and gardens were entirely hidden under a green blanket of kudzu, forgotten by everyone save the many spirits who inhabited it.
That, alas, was only the beginning of the curse--or at least the start of my part in it.
Early in the twentieth century, Godfrey's granddaughter had two sons. One grew up to become the nationally known heavyweight boxer who called himself K. O. Dugan. Unfortunately, he killed his brother, Harry, and was sent to prison for the rest of his life. The family had nothing. When his mother, last of the Barnsleys, died in 1942, the estate and its few remaining furnishings were to be sold at auction.
My great-grandfather, Conner Devilin, was then reported to have been "strangely compelled" to travel from our home on Blue Mountain to the more western Cass County in order to bid on several items of the Barnsley estate that he said were of "immense personal value" to him. This made little sense to the rest of the family, as they had never heard of the Barnsley estate, or family.
Conner had been born in Wales and apprenticed in Ireland before coming to America under dire circumstances of his own. He had narrowly escaped conviction and imprisonment for murder. He was a strong-willed man, and once he set his mind to a thing, the best course of action was, everyone knew, to stand well clear of him while he went about his task.
So he traveled to the Barnsley auction, successfully bid on three items, returned home, locked the items in a trunk, and never spoke of them again. When he died at eighty-six, his possessions were sold, and some of the money was used to pay for my university education. Because of him, I was able to escape my home place at seventeen, gain my doctorate, and grow to an adult in an urban environment far from my own parents' bizarre lives.
Was it only a few days ago that I came to realize that the inheritance was the beginning of my part in the Barnsley curse? It seemed like a year.
And the curse was apparently in fine working order: I was shaken from my reverie by the certain sound of footsteps rustling the leaves not far behind me.
Someone was following me in the darkness.
A WIDOW'S CURSE Copyright © 2007 by Phillip DePoy