Tilly Destrehan could not sleep. Every night, she lay down beside Lizbet in the bed they shared, closed her eyes, and waited. Instead of dreams, she saw only the backs of her own eyelids. There was no escaping the horrible state of wakefulness. Warm milk, hot toddies, herbal remedies - nothing worked. Tilly wanted to sleep, but she could not. She fussed and fretted, tossed and turned, until the cock crowed to announce dawn. She got out of bed, stiff and red-eyed, bone tired but unable to find peace. Tilly would have sold her soul to the Devil for a fifteen-minute nap.
At breakfast, Lizbet was worried. "Honey, you look like hell."
"I feel like it, too." Tilly tried to give her partner a reassuring smile, but it was more like a painful grimace. Her hair was like straw. She had lost weight, her clothes baggy on a painfully thin frame. "I've just got a lot on my mind. It'll pass."
"I wish you'd go see Doc Coleman."
Tilly shook her head, forced herself to get up from the table. The effort seemed tremendous. "He can't help me, dear heart."
"He could give you sleepin' pills." Lizbet rose, gathered the dishes, and took them to the kitchen sink.
"And then I'd be useless the next day. No, thank you. I'll be fine." Tilly kissed the back of Lizbet's neck, patted her plump behind. "I've got to go into town and pick up a load of feed for Bill Joyner. Be home by lunch time."
Lizbet dried her hands on a dishtowel. "Be careful, honey."
"I will." A last kiss, and Tilly was gone.
Lizbet waited until the noise of the truck engine had receded. Then she finished doing the dishes, made a pot of vegetable soup for lunch, and left it simmering on the stove while she went to visit the conjure woman. It was a hot day; the dirt road was dry and dusty, almost too warm underfoot for comfort. Even the air smelled scorched. A straggling stand of pines threw a little shade, but Lizbet was sweating by the time she had reached her goal.
Everyone who lived in and around Crenshaw knew about the conjure woman, Sarah Burdett. She was about Lizbet's age, perhaps a year or two older. Few people socialized with Sarah. She made love potions, medicines, good luck tokens; she could lay tricks and curses, charms and hexes, or remove spells cast by others. Sarah was respected, but the respect was mingled with a healthy dose of fear. No one crossed Sarah Burdett twice. She was the kind to cherish a grudge, squeeze every drop of bile from vengeance, and dance on her victim's grave afterwards.
A few bedraggled chickens pecked the bare ground near the porch of Sarah's house. The rest of the yard was hardly more than sun blasted weeds. Lizbet walked up to the porch. "Hey, anybody to home?" she called.
Sarah came out, scowling. She might have been pretty, if she had smiled. "What do you want?"
"I'm Lizbet Hardy..."
"I know who you are." Sarah allowed the screen door to slam shut behind her. She crossed her arms over her chest and stood there, glaring. "Tilly Destrehan's woman."
Lizbet nodded. "I came to see you 'bout Tilly. She can't sleep at all. It's killin' her."
"Oh?" Sarah's manner abruptly changed. With an almost courteous air, she said, "Do come in, Lizbet. I see you're in desperate need of help."
Lizbet entered the house, which was dark and musty and airless. Sarah showed her to the parlor, where they sat down on an old horsehair sofa. "So you say Tilly can't sleep?" Sarah asked.
"Yes. It's terrible, Sarah. She ain't got a wink of sleep in two weeks." Lizbet bit her bottom lip. "I'm afraid for her. If she don't sleep, she's gonna die."
"Yes ma'am, that's usually the way of things." Sarah reached over to a table, crowded with bottles and jars. She selected one, filled with ruby fluid. "Sleeplessness is a danger to body, mind and spirit. If Tilly don't sleep, she'll go mad. That's a fact."
"Please, is there anything you can do to help?"
Sarah tilted the bottle, held it up to the faint light coming in through a crack in the threadbare curtains. "Three spoonfuls of this potion will put a person to sleep. They'll sleep deep and peaceful till they're fully rested."
"What's in it?"
"Elderberry wine, herbs, dove's blood, ashes of a frog's heart, and a few other things," Sarah replied, frowning. "It ain't proper to ask me questions 'bout my work, Lizbet Hardy."
"I'm sorry." Lizbet took a ten dollar bill out of her pocket. "I got no more money this week, but I can bring more by the end of the month if this ain't enough."
"Keep your money," Sarah said. She gave the bottle to Lizbet. "I know Tilly from way back. Me n' her went to school together. I thought she loved me, till she met you." Sarah shrugged at Lizbet's surprise. "What's past is past. Tilly made her choice. So be it."
Lizbet hugged the bottle to her breast. "I didn't know 'bout you and Tilly," she said warily..
Sarah shrugged. "As I recall, you two met at a harvest dance, didn't you? What was that, five years ago?"
"Closer to seven. I hope you wasn't hurt too bad when Tilly left you." Lizbet examined Sarah's bland countenance, looking for any trace of anger or bitterness or resentment. There was none. Lizbet relaxed a little. Despite her reputation as a grudge holder, it seemed that Sarah had forgiven, if not forgotten. After all, if there was still bad blood between her and Tilly, Sarah would have refused to help.
"Young hearts heal. Tilly wasn't my first, and she won't be my last. I was a child then, hardly knew what I wanted myself. Things generally work out for the best." Sarah ventured a smile that was scarcely more than a flexing of her thin lips. "Don't you worry, Lizbet. We'll soon have Tilly fixed up proper."
Lizbet was relieved. "Tilly means the world to me, you know."
"I know." Sarah leaned over, tapped the bottle with a fingernail. "You be sure and give her the right dose, hear? Three spoonfuls before bedtime. No more, no less."
"I'll remember. How often can she take it?"
"No more'n a week. After that, if Tilly still ain't sleepin', you come back to me."
Lizbet smiled. "Thank you, Sarah, from the bottom of my heart."
"No, thank you, Lizbet Hardy." Sarah's eyes gleamed. "Thank you very much."
That evening, Tilly was reluctant to take the potion after learning that it was Sarah's work. "I don't hold with conjuring," she said. "And I don't like it much that you went behind my back, baby girl."
"I did it for the best," said Lizbet. "You won't go to Doc Coleman. I wasn't goin' to sit around and wait for you to drop dead. Sarah Burdett said it'll work. You got somethin' against her personally?"
Tilly rubbed her face with her hands. She was so very tired. The notion of getting a full night's sleep was extremely tempting, no matter the source. "Not really. It's true that Sarah loved me once," she said. "I guess I loved her, too. But she was clingy and jealous and just wore me out. We parted with hard words."
"That was seven years ago. Why, she was the soul of courtesy to me," Lizbet said. "I don't think she'd have agreed to help if she was still jacked off at you. She would've told me to go jump in the river. Look, if you don't want the stuff, I'll dump it down the sink. Only hadn't you better try it once before it's gone forever? Couldn't hurt, might help." She knelt by Tilly's chair, touched her knee. "Honey, I purely hate to see you sufferin'. You're gonna end up in the hospital or worse if this keeps on. I'm so worried. If anything happened to you, I'd die."
"All right." Tilly picked up a spoon. "Give me that bottle. As you say, it couldn't hurt. Hell, if this potion of Sarah's puts me to sleep, I'll go over there and thank her on bended knee."
Tilly downed three spoonfuls of ruby liquid, gagging a little at the taste. "What's in this?" she asked, wiping her lips.
"Elderberry wine, herbs, dove's blood, ashes of a frog's heart, and God knows what else," said Lizbet, grinning at the look on Tilly's face. "It don't matter, honey, as long as it works."
Lizbet was elated when Tilly went to bed about a half-hour later and dropped off immediately. She was slightly less happy when she went to wake her in the morning. Despite shaking, a cold cloth, and Lizbet's shouts, Tilly continued to sleep.
Oh, well, Lizbet thought, going about her chores. The poor thing's plumb exhausted. I reckon it's best to leave her be.
The sun went down, and Tilly did not awaken. She lay in bed, still as the dead, face slack and ashen. Lizbet began to worry.
When the cock crowed at dawn, Lizbet tried to wake Tilly again. Her partner did not respond.
Panicking, Lizbet ran a mile to Bill Joyner's place. By the time she reached his farm, she was close to hysteria. Bill's wife had to administer smelling salts and a glass of sherry before Lizbet could calm down enough to tell her tale. Bill got dressed and drove into Crenshaw to fetch Doc Coleman. He also brought Sheriff Kratt.
After examining Tilly, Doc Coleman took off his stethoscope and shook his grizzled head. "I'm sorry," he said to Lizbet. "She's gone." He turned to Sheriff Kratt and continued, "No pulse, no respiration. I reckon she slipped away during the night. Tilly's momma had a congenital heart defect, which her daughter must've inherited."
Lizbet trembled. "Tilly was strong," she said. "There wasn't nothin' wrong with her heart."
"I'm sorry, Lizbet." Sheriff Kratt had removed his hat, revealing the bald dome of his skull. "I've known Tilly Destrehan all her life. Tilly's momma passed away suddenly, too. Tore her daddy all up."
"I'll call the undertaker, make the arrangements," Doc Coleman said kindly. "And my wife to come over to stay with you for a while."
"No!" Lizbet ran to the kitchen, snatched the bottle of potion off the counter. It slipped from her hand, shattered on the floor. "Sarah did it!" she screamed. "Sarah killed my Tilly!" A shard of glass cut her foot. Blood mingled with the ruby liquid that had spread into a pool.
Sheriff Kratt grabbed her while Doc Coleman administered a sedative. Lizbet continued to scream and struggle until the drug took effect. Even as she slumped into the sheriff's arms, she whimpered, "Sarah Burdett... Sarah Burdett..."
The doctor grunted. "Superstitious nonsense. Tilly Destrehan wasn't poisoned. I'd stake my reputation on it."
"Nobody's pointing fingers at you," said Sheriff Kratt, supporting Lizbet's limp body. "Folks around here believe Sarah's got power. It's a hell of a lot easier to blame the conjure woman than admit that the Lord took your loved one in His own good time. Lizbet will get over it. You'll see."
Doc Coleman grunted again, and helped the sheriff carry Lizbet to the sofa in the parlor.
As it was high summer, the funeral was held without delay. Tilly Destrehan was laid to rest in the Crenshaw cemetery, next to her mother and father's graves. Everyone from the area attended the services, including Sarah Burdett. She showed up wearing black, but the secretive expression on her face made the mourners uneasy.
Lizbet was semi-conscious throughout. Doc Coleman kept her sedated for her own good. Lizbet moved as in a dream, barely able to acknowledge the condolences and offers of help. She had to be helped from church to graveyard, tottering where she was led like a woman who had aged four decades overnight. Only once did Lizbet rouse herself, when Sarah Burdett came to her, mouthing syrupy platitudes.
"Get out of here," Lizbet slurred, black veils trembling. "Get out. Murderess. Hypocrite. You killed Tilly."
Sheriff Kratt put a hand on Sarah's arm. "Leave her be, Miz Burdett. Lizbet ain't herself."
Sarah acknowledged him with a small smile. "Oh, I understand how a woman's mind can be turned by grief, Sheriff. Yes, sir. I understand that all too well."
For a moment, a flicker of suspicion went through Sheriff Kratt's mind. He regretted that the bottle of potion had been broken, the contents contaminated by Lizbet's blood. Otherwise, he would have taken a sample, sent it off to a big city lab to be analyzed. As things stood, he had taken Doc Coleman's word that Tilly had died of natural causes, and seen no need for further investigation. Sheriff Kratt was not a bad man, but challenging Coleman without evidence would have made him seem like a fool.
Nevertheless, he steeled himself and asked Sarah directly, "Did you kill Tilly Destrehan?"
"No, sir. I did not," Sarah replied. She fixed him with a steady look, and he knew in his bones that she was not lying.
Flustered, Sheriff Kratt let go of Sarah and stood aside to let her pass.
Lizbet moaned as she was taken away from the fresh earth mound that was Tilly's grave.
That night, Lizbet had a nightmare.
She saw Tilly trapped in a pine box, tearing at the lid with her fingernails in a panicked frenzy. Dirt trickled through the cracks in the lid. Tilly's chest heaved, her mouth wide open as scream after scream was muffled in the small space of her coffin. Her nails snapped, but she continued to claw until blood ran down her fingers. The vision was so terrifying that Lizbet woke up, shaking and covered in cold sweat.
Doc Coleman's wife was no longer in the house. She had gone home, sure that Lizbet would continue to rest undisturbed because of the sleeping pill she had administered. The doctor's wife was wrong. Some things are too strong for medicine to hold at bay.
After a few moments, Lizbet threw back the covers and got out of bed. The cut on her foot throbbed, but the doctor's stitches held. A feathery pulse beat in her temples. She walked outside, pausing only to take a shovel from the tool shed. Lizbet was inhumanly calm, her emotions as muffled as Tilly's screams. In some distant part of her mind, she knew what had happened. Acknowledging the truth was another matter. Lizbet was driven to confront the horror, even as she desperately wanted to deny it.
She walked three miles to the cemetery, her way lighted by a crescent of new moon. The wind ruffled softly through pine trees; that sound always reminded Lizbet of crisp taffeta skirts, the kind she had worn at the harvest dance when she met Tilly. She shuddered away from the memory, otherwise she might have gone mad. Lizbet was hanging on to sanity by the thinnest of threads.
Before she had gone a mile, Lizbet's foot was bleeding again. She did not notice. Pain meant nothing now. No sensation could pierce the shell that surrounded her. When Lizbet reached the graveyard, she went straight to Tilly's grave and started to dig. Her hands blistered, the blisters breaking to slick the oaken handle, then blood came. It did not matter. All around her was quiet and still, save for the cold scrape of shovel against the earth. Lizbet moved mechanically, her breath chuffing out between parted lips.
At last, the shovel blade thumped against the coffin. Lizbet scraped away the final layer of dirt. She was standing in a deep hole, the top of which was higher than her head. Glancing up as she wiped sweat from her brow, she could see the sky, the moon, the stars; a picture framed with crumbling clots of earth. It was like being at the bottom of a well. A worm wiggled out of the wall nearest her, plopped onto the coffin, and whiplashed away.
Lizbet used the shovel to pry up the lid. Nails creaked, wood splintered and gave way with a loud crack. She was strong and determined, although her grip kept slipping because of her raw bloody palms. Lizbet continued, thrusting the iron blade beneath the rim, exerting muscle to lever it up. Her lungs burned with effort. A final tearing crunch, and she shoved the lid over.
"Tilly?" she asked, staring into the coffin's interior.
Lizbet was no doctor, but she knew that Tilly was truly dead this time. Her partner's face was frozen in a horrific snarl. Blood droplets gleamed wetly on her cheeks, forehead and chin. Tilly's fingers were curled inward, but Lizbet could see claw marks on the underside of the coffin lid. She reached down, turned over the dead woman's hand. Tilly's nails were gone, her fingertips worn down almost to bone. The wounds were still wet, glistening blackly in the faint moonlight.
"Oh, Jesus!" Lizbet breathed. She staggered, almost fell, caught herself on the side of the hole. She was too late. The shovel dropped, clanged against the coffin. Her eyes went wide, full of madness and despair. Sarah's words came to her unbidden: "Three spoonfuls of this potion will put a person to sleep. They'll sleep deep and peaceful till they're fully rested." The ruby liquid had not been poison, but an agent that had sent Tilly into a coma, undetectable from death.
Tilly had been buried alive.
Suddenly, Lizbet turned her back, began to pull herself out of the grave. She was frantic, keening shrilly, scrabbling into damp soil with fingers and toes. Her nightgown ripped at the shoulder. Lizbet sobbed, dirt falling into her open mouth, her eyes, her hair. By some miracle, she managed to gain the top and rolled out of the hole. Lizbet lay there, face and body smeared with filth. Gritty earth in her teeth, the taste of it on her tongue. She vomited, great heaving spasms that ripped through her body. Tears turned the dirt on her face into mud.
The soul of courtesy. Sarah Burdett had waited a long time to get revenge against Tilly's slight, and had used Lizbet to do it.
After a while, Lizbet rose and walked home, the sound of taffeta skirts in her ears.
Once there, she took a coil of rope from the toolshed. Lizbet calmly went inside the house, where seven years of memories slid past in a blur. Her searching uncovered a little wax doll beneath their bed, hidden under a floorboard. Tilly's insomnia had been manufactured, too. The doll had a needle stuck through its head. Lizbet went to the kitchen stove, where the fire had been banked for the evening, and threw the doll into it.
No one locked their doors in Crenshaw. Sarah could have gotten inside to work her mischief when the place was empty.
Moving without haste, almost tranquil though her face was devoid of color, Lizbet fashioned a noose from the rope she had fetched. She tied one end of the rope to the upper banister of the staircase. The noose fit snugly around her throat. Coarse hemp fiber scratched her skin. Climbing up, Lizbet closed her eyes. "I'm sorry, Tilly," she said, and stepped into space.
The snapping of her neck was drowned out by the grandfather clock in the hall, chiming three o'clock in the morning.
When news of the tragedy swept through Crenshaw, Sarah Burdett stayed aloof in public. In private, however, she celebrated the delicious culmination of her vengeance. Lizbet Hardy's suicide was an unexpected bonus. Her real target had been Tilly Destrehan, the woman who had wronged her seven years ago.
"Throw me over for a fat, freckled, no-count girl, will you?" Sarah mumbled to herself as she sat on the horsehair sofa in her parlor. "Ah, Tilly, I waited till you'd had a good long while of happiness, then I took it all away from you. Too bad you ain't around to appreciate it. The dead don't suffer, more's the pity. But you got what was comin' to you. Yes, ma'am. Nobody makes a fool of Sarah Burdett."
Sarah had delayed the plot for years, not wanting to act too soon. She was a patient woman. Sheriff Kratt suspected her, but he had no proof. "No, sir," Sarah said aloud, "I didn't kill that woman. She took a potion to help her sleep, that's all. Can I help it if Doc Coleman can't tell sleep from death?" She began to laugh. Her giggling triumph was an ugly sound.
The conjure woman hugged herself, thinking about Tilly's terror when she had woken up and realized that she was in a coffin. Her imagination supplied her with vivid details, which she savored over and over again. At last, because it was getting late, Sarah went to bed, still smiling.
It seemed that she had only just gotten to sleep when a woman's voice said next to her ear, "Wake up, Sarah."
Sarah bolted upright, her heart pounding, fingers clutching the edge of the quilt. "Who's there?" she said, eyes scanning the dark.
The mantle clock in her parlor chimed three o'clock in the morning.
Sarah got out of bed, lighted an oil lamp, and took a piece of kindling from the fireplace to use as a weapon. She searched her house, but found no sign of an intruder. Grumbling about bad dreams, she returned to the bedroom and burrowed back into the quilts.
A woman's voice said next to her ear, "Wake up, Sarah."
The mantle clock in the parlor chimed three o'clock again.
This went on all night. No sooner would Sarah try to sleep when she was awakened again. Several searches of the house revealed nothing, nor could she find out what was wrong with her clock. It kept time all right, but didn't chime the correct hour. Just before dawn, she fell into an exhausted slumber on the horsehair sofa. Once more, a woman's voice said, "Wake up, Sarah."
Sarah suddenly recognized the speaker. It was Lizbet Hardy.
Having gotten no rest at all during the night, Sarah tried to nap during the day. That proved futile, too. No sooner would her eyes close and she would start to relax, than something would happen to wake her up. A plate falling from the china hutch. Scuppernong vines rattling loudly against the window. Sometimes, Lizbet Hardy herself saying, "Wake up, Sarah." And always, the chiming of the clock that began to seem like a death knell.
Sarah battled the unwanted presence with all the knowledge at her command. She covered up all the mirrors in her house with thick black cloth, it being known that spirits used mirrors to travel from the underworld. She bargained with the knacker man for a big wad of horsehair, which she wove into nets that were hung over the windows to trap the ghost. She heated water for a bath, into which she placed black pepper, salt, rue, hyssop, dried devil's shoestrings and three silver dimes. Sarah washed herself thoroughly to remove any traces of the hex that plagued her.
It did not work.
Each time she went to sleep, Lizbet Hardy was there. "Wake up, Sarah."
Sheer exhaustion might have allowed Sarah to rest despite the nagging voice, but she was pinched, slapped and jolted out of sleep by needles being driven into her flesh. After three days, desperation drove her to the graveyard. Sarah dug up Lizbet's body and sewed her lips shut with strong thread. Using an ax, she dismembered the body. The arms and legs were laid over the torso in a double cross pattern, while the head was placed on top. This was a sure-fire method of ensuring that the dead could not rise.
Filthy and dizzy with fatigue, yet triumphant, Sarah returned home and fell into bed.
No sooner had she dropped off when the voice said, "Wake up, Sarah."
Sarah screamed herself hoarse. The next morning, she went to Bill Joyner's place to buy a black chicken that had twisted, deformed feathers - a frizzled fowl to keep evil at bay. Bill commented on how ill she looked, and Sarah snarled at him. She hung burdock root necklaces and bay leaf wreathes on the porch. She nailed up horseshoes. She buried cans of Red Devil lye at the four corners of her house. Finally, she went to bed.
"Wake up, Sarah."
As she burrowed deeper into the quilts, her eyes bloodshot and burning, Sarah considered that maybe she was not being haunted by Lizbet Hardy at all. There were other conjure women in the county. Perhaps someone was jealous of her power, and had laid a trick against her.
She bought a beef heart at the butcher's, and boiled it on the stove, pricking it with a two-pronged fork all the while. While it cooked, Sarah recited the names of all the other conjure women she knew. This spell would give the one responsible a great deal of pain until they came to her and admitted their guilt.
"Wake up, Sarah."
No one came. The haunting continued. The clock struck three o'clock at every hour.
"Wake up, Sarah."
After a week, Sarah Burdett's nerves were shattered. She no longer bothered to keep herself clean. She jumped at the slightest sound. She could not eat.
"Wake up, Sarah."
She lost weight.
"Wake up, Sarah."
She developed a nervous tick in her left eye.
"Wake up, Sarah."
Finally, Sarah decided to take her sleeping potion. It was dangerous, as she might never come out of the induced coma, but by this time, she was almost insane from lack of sleep. Sarah took three spoonfuls, and barely managed to make it to bed before the potion began its work. For the first time in seven days, the conjure woman slept deeply and peacefully. Nothing disturbed her rest.
Doc Coleman, who had been told by Bill Joyner that Sarah Burdett was looking poorly, called at her house the next morning. Finding Sarah in her bed, he attempted to rouse her. When she would not awaken, he checked her pulse. Sadly shaking his head, Coleman sent for the undertaker and signed the death certificate.
"Natural causes," he told Sheriff Kratt. "I reckon she just slipped away in her sleep."
Sheriff Kratt, who had re-buried Tilly Destrehan's body himself and sworn the pastor to secrecy, said, "Are you sure?"
Doc Coleman drew himself up, the picture of offended dignity. "Of course I'm sure. I could order Sarah's body held at the funeral parlor, if you'd care to send for a second opinion."
Sheriff Kratt paused, considering. He would have to pay a doctor to come all the way from Decatur. That would generate a lot of ill will from Coleman. True, the man had mis-diagnosed Tilly Destrehan - dear Lord, he would have nightmares about her open grave for years - but Coleman was generally an efficient and skilled physician.
The sheriff had kept the truth about Tilly Destrehan hidden, because he knew that it was not Coleman's fault. He did not want to destroy an innocent man. The pastor had agreed with him. No one else in Crenshaw knew that Tilly had been buried alive. Kratt still thought that Sarah was responsible, but he would never find evidence to support his theory.
He glanced at Sarah, lying cold and pale on the bed, and made up his mind. He was a simple man who believed in simple justice.
"You've always done the best you could," Sheriff Kratt said to Coleman. "I ain't going to tell you how to do your job."
"Good," said Coleman, putting the stethoscope back into his black bag. "I'll tell Pete over at the funeral parlor to get a coffin ready. With the weather like it is, we'd best get her buried quickly."
The funeral was not well attended.
Sometime later, at three o'clock in the morning, a woman's voice said, "Wake up, Sarah."
Sarah Burdett woke up in a pine coffin, buried six feet deep in the ground.
No one could hear her scream.