The Conjure Woman of Bayou Torte
October 23, 2012
(Originally published at write-in.com)
After she moved into the home on Bayou de Torte, the first item on Chrissy Plangenet’s to-do list was calling the city about that eyesore of a house down the street. She still had boxes stacked in her kitchen waiting to be unpacked, but they could wait. Reporting that ramshackle place came first.
Three days of incessant, insistent phone calls later, a city inspector came out to the neighborhood. Chrissy stood on her manicured lawn and watched with satisfaction as the inspector fought the tall weeds on his walk around the old house. He almost broke his neck on the rotten wooden porch stairs as he went up to deliver a notice of violation.
A woman with long tangles of blonde hair opened the torn screen door and spoke with him. Chrissy couldn’t hear what was said, but she relished the scene as the inspector tore a sheet of paper off his pad and handed it to the woman before fighting his way back through the overgrown yard to his city car.
She had a housewarming party that weekend. Chrissy invited her work colleagues and some friends from her sorority days at LSU, and almost all of her new neighbors. She had no desire to meet the person who lived in the battered, offensive old house, so of course no invitation was issue in that direction, but she took special care to invite the handsome Sheriff’s Deputy who lived three houses down.
The party started off as a great success. Chrissy took particular pleasure in showing her tastefully furnished house to the neighbors and encouraging them to enjoy the lavish buffet catered by Chez Maurice and delivered all the way down from Baton Rouge by special order. The wine was flowing, the music was properly muted, and everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time until the doorbell rang.
“Ya’ll just go ahead and make yourselves at home,” Chrissy said breezily over her shoulder as she went to the door. “Mi casa and all that.”
She opened the door and froze in surprise. There, right there on Chrissy’s porch in front of God and everyone else, was the woman who lived in the old house.
“I heard you were having a housewarming,” the uninvited neighbor said with a smile. Her blue eyes, which were as pale as the washed-out cotton sundress she wore, regarded Chrissy with genuine warmth. She held out a plate covered with plastic wrap. “I brought you some of my homemade cheese bread.”
Chrissy stared at the woman and at the bread held out to her like an offering. She shifted her wine glass to her other hand and took plate. “Why, thank you ever so much. Aren’t you just the sweetest thing?” She used the toe of her patent leather pump to swing the door closed.
Beth Harding from across the street stopped in the act of spearing braised asparagus onto her plate. Her face wore an expression of disbelief. “Chrissy, was that – ” Beth broke off, apparently unable to finish the question.
“Oh, it was that dreadful girl from downstreet,” Chrissy said lightly. She dumped the bread, plate and all, into the garbage. “I swear, I don’t know what she had on her feet, but I believe it was clogs. Can you believe that? Clogs!”
Beth set her plate down and pulled Chrissy aside. “I can’t believe you just shut the door in that woman’s face.”
“Well, what was I supposed to do?” Chrissy laughed again. “You didn’t expect me to invite her in, did you?”
Sauntering over with his face happily flushed with wine, Todd from next door asked, “What are you two lovely ladies conspiring about?”
Beth looked at him, her brown furrowed. “Chrissy just slammed the door in Paulette Delacroix’s face.”
The wine hadn’t made Todd that happy. He immediately looked as concerned as Beth. “You shut the door on her face, Chrissy?”
“Why, of course I did. She wasn’t invited.”
Simultaneously, her two neighbors repeated, aghast, “She wasn’t invited?”
Chrissy stared at them as if they had lost their minds. “Of course not. I can’t believe she had the gall to show up here with her plate of – whatever that mess was. If she knew it was me who turned her into the city, well…” She trailed off, taking a sip of her wine.
“You did not,” Beth hissed.
“Of course I did. I can’t believe no one’s complained about that abomination of an abode long before I came along.” She started to sip her wine again, but something in their faces stopped her. “What’s wrong with ya’ll?”
Todd shook his head. “Hasn’t anyone told you about her?”
Chrissy looked from one to the other and at Mariel Jenkins who had wandered over to listen. “What about her?”
“Honey, you’re aware that you’re living in Delacroix Parrish, right?” Todd asked.
“So, the Delacroix family has lived here for upwards of two hundred years. That old house Paulette lives in was built by her great-grandfather when there was nothing for fifty miles ‘round except swamp and gators.”
Chrissy shrugged. “And it looks like it, too.”
Beth leaned forward and touched Chrissy’s arm just above the lovely crystal bracelet that glimmered at her wrist. “The Delacroix females have always been conjure-women.”
It was Chrissy’s turn to stare in disbelief. “Ya’ll are kidding me. You can’t seriously believe that woman is a swamp witch.” She laughed, but there wasn’t much amusement in it.
Mariel joined in. “Serious as a heart attack, girl. Why do you think none of us have complained about that house before? It’s not smart, that’s why.”
The chiseled face of Rob, the handsome Deputy, appeared over Mariel’s shoulder. “Holding a Neighborhood Watch meeting here in the kitchen?” he teased.
Chrissy went into instant coquette mode and tossed her auburn hair over one shoulder. “Not without the strongest, bravest man on the block.” She glanced at the others, then linked her arm through Rob’s and walked away.
The waspish whine of a lawnmower woke Chrissy early on Sunday morning a week later. She rolled over with a groan. She’d enjoyed a wonderful dinner and far too much wine with the incredibly charming Rob the night before, and her head was pounding.
“Oh, what in the hell!” she exclaimed to herself.
Throwing on a robe, Chrissy staggered to her front door. The buzz of a lawnmower down the street assaulted her aching head, but it was forgotten the moment she got a good look outside.
Chrissy wandered down the cement walkway, gasping at the lawn surrounding her house. Swoops and swirls of blanched grass were burned into her lovely yard. The stench of ammonia filled the air. It looked and smelled like some impossibly large giant had unzipped and taken an enormous piss, perhaps trying to write his name on her grass.
The landscaper who responded to Chrissy’s frantic call couldn’t explain it. “It can’t be that your water is bad, Ms. Plangenet, because all ya’ll are on city water and your neighbors aren’t affected.” He pointed down the street to the old Delacroix house. The lawn there had been mowed back, the weeds removed, and the grass shone green as emeralds. “See? It’s just your yard.”
She glared at the old house. She could almost picture that Delacroix woman sneaking over in the middle of the night, pouring some sort of industrial cleanser on Chrissy’s perfect lawn. “That bitch,” she hissed to herself. “So that’s the way she wants to play it.”
It took several more days of calling, but when the inspector arrived on the block a second time, Chrissy moved a chaise lounge onto her yellowed front lawn to watch as he cited Paulette Delacroix again. As the inspector drove away, Paulette turned to look upstreet. Chrissy smiled and waved.
Coming home from work the next day, Chrissy slowed to look at the painters who were busy on the Delacroix home. From a weathered, dismal gray, the boards of the old place were slowly being transformed to a pale peach color. Paulette Delacroix waved happily to Chrissy from the porch.
Todd was standing in his yard when Chrissy pulled into her driveway. He nodded towards the Delacroix house. “Really starting to shape up, isn’t it?”
Chrissy snapped, “If she’s got enough money to paint that monstrosity, you’d think she’d do something with her hair.”
“Some of us got together and are having it painted for her,” Todd said. “I’ve been sending my stepson over to work on the lawn.” He shrugged at Chrissy’s look of shock. “We saw what happened to your yard.”
Slamming the car door shut, she snorted, “It wasn’t some sort of hex, Todd. That bitch ruined my grass with a bottle of ammonia, plain and simple.”
Todd sipped his can of beer and shrugged again. “If you say so.”
Chrissy stalked up the walkway and let herself into the house. “Ignorant Cajun fools,” she muttered, completely ignoring the fact that there were multiple Boudreaux poling her family pirogue, so to speak.
She set her briefcase on a side table. At the same time she became aware of an eye-watering order and a litter of small white tuffs on the slate floor. “What in the world?” Chrissy stepped around the corner into the living room and screeched.
At least a dozen cats froze in the act of disemboweling Chrissy’s expensive throw pillows. A white cat, two calicos, a tabby and a handful of others – her living room was full of cats, and they were destroying her furniture. The stench of their urine stung her throat.
Chrissy shrieked again as Todd came thundering through the front door. He pulled up to a stop behind her so quickly that his beer sloshed onto the carpet. “What in the hell?” he cried. “Damn! What’s that smell?”
The cats dashed as a group over the furniture. There was a small pet door in the kitchen – a remnant from a previous tenant – and they all leaped gracefully through it.
“Cats!” Chrissy screamed. The pet door flapped behind the last cat’s tail, and then swung silently back and forth in a diminishing arc until it was still. “ I hate animals!”
Todd walked over to the kitchen door and pointed. “Then why do you have a doggy door?”
Infuriated, Chrissy stomped so hard that she broke the heel off of one shoe and fell, landing plumply on her ass amidst the mass of pillow entrails.
“Are you alright?” Todd asked, running to her. He leaned down to help her up and trickled beer over the shoulder of her silky blouse.
Chrissy couldn’t breathe. She’d never been so angry. She shrugged off Todd’s hands and stalked out the front door. Her screams had gathered several other neighbors on the sidewalk and they watched in amazement as the sophisticated redhead clomped clumsily – one heel up, one heel down – towards Paulette Delacroix’s house.
Mariel Jenkins stared at Todd as he emerged from Chrissy’s house. “What happened?”
Todd threw up his hands. “She’s got too many cats, I guess.”
“That could be why her yard died, you know,” someone remarked sagely. “Urine. You’d think a woman like that would know better than to keep too many cats.”
“Some women are obsessed with them,” another neighbor opined.
Chrissy came to a halt on the sidewalk in front of the now-peach-colored house at the end of the street. A dozen or so neighbors gathered in a semi-circle behind her to watch. “You!” she screamed shrilly at the house. “Get out here!”
The newly-repaired screen door opened and Paulette Delacroix came out. Her mouth dropped open. “Why, what happened to you?” she asked. “Are you alright? Do you want to come in and I’ll help you – “
“Help me!” Chrissy screamed. “You want to help me?” She pointed an accusatory finger at the blonde. “You think I don’t know what you’re doing? You think I don’t know how you’ve got the others bamboozled? Well, you don’t fool me one bit, sister.”
Paulette stared at Chrissy as if the woman had lost her mind; which, indeed, seemed a possibility at that moment.
“I know what you did to my yard,” Chrissy hissed. Her voice had become low and dangerous. “And I know it was you who put all your damned cats in my house. Let me tell you right now, you frumpy bitch, I won’t stand for it. Do you hear me? I’m calling the police and then I’m filing a lawsuit against you. And if that doesn’t do the trick, I’ll be over here to kick your ass twelve different ways to Sunday. Do you understand me?”
The small crowd of neighbors parted quickly to let Chrissy stomp through them – up-down-up-down on her broken shoe. She stopped in the center of the street and angrily kicked off both of her shoes before continuing barefoot towards her house.
“That wasn’t real smart,” someone whispered, “antagonizing the Delacroix woman like that.”
Up on the porch, Paulette held her hands out blamelessly. “I don’t have any cats,” she said.
The call to the police didn’t produce the results Chrissy expected. After listening to her frantic story, the two officers strolled down the street to the Delacroix house. When they returned, they declined to go back inside with the overpowering smell of cat urine, choosing instead to stand on the sidewalk. Chrissy stood with Rob beside her; one of his strong arms hugged her shoulders reassuringly.
“You realize that Ms. Delacroix doesn’t have any cats,” the older policeman pointed out.
“So she says,” Chrissy snapped. She wiped at her eyes which were burning as much from angry tears as the smell of urine coming from her living room.
“There’s nothing to indicate this is anything other than an animal control issue,” the second officer said, “at least when it comes to the cats. However, there’s the harassment issue to consider.”
“Yes,” Chrissy exclaimed. “Exactly! That woman has been harassing me since I moved in.”
“I mean your harassment of her,” the officer said. He looked steadily at the redhead. “I don’t know what you think is going on here, but it’s against the law to threaten people.”
Chrissy’s mouth fell open. “She ruined my lawn and my living room!”
The first officer spoke up again. “There’s no evidence that Ms. Delacroix has been anything other than welcoming since you moved into this neighborhood.”
“You’re lucky she doesn’t want to pursue this,” the second officer added. “We recommended a protective order against you.”
“Against me?” Chrissy couldn’t believe her ears.
Rob squeezer her shoulders. “She’s had a run of real bad luck this week, guys,” he said quietly. “She’s shook up. You understand.”
They both nodded but looked unconvinced. “Just stay on your side of the street, Ms. Plangenet,” the older one said. “If we’re called out here again, I’ll recommend charges to the D.A.’s office whether or not your neighbor wants to file a complaint.”
Chrissy turned to Rob as the officers walked away. “Can’t you do something?”
He shook his head. “We’re within city limits and I’m County. Sorry.” He released her shoulder and gestured towards to house. “What I can do, though, is tear up that carpet and get it out before you get sick. You can’t sleep in a house with carpet that badly soiled. You’d better call your insurance agent.”
She turned and stared at the Delacroix house, and was sure she saw a curtain move on the second floor. You’d better be watching, she thought. You’ve made an enemy of the wrong person.
Chrissy was determined to get revenge. Whatever she did, it had to be good. It had to be something that would get the message across to that plain, countrified Delacroix woman once and for all that she’d picked the wrong person to mess with.
She was still plotting her vengeance three days when the garage caught on fire.
The interior of Chrissy’s home was shrouded in visqueen. Sheets of thick, cloudy plastic hung in the entrance to the living room, shielding the rest of the house from the pervasive stench of cat urine, which had soaked through into the wooden subfloor. Several more sheets hung over the door that led from the kitchen to the garage to tamp the odor of stale smoke.
Chrissy sat at the dining room table, staring moodily into space while her insurance agent thumbed through a sheaf of paperwork. Beth Harding sat beside her, holding her hand and occasionally stroking it. Chrissy barely noticed. She didn’t want comfort. She wanted to kill Paulette Delacroix.
“It actually falls under your car insurance coverage, Ms. Plangenet,” the agent was saying, “since it was technically your SUV that caught fire.” The balding man shook his head. “The fire inspector said you must have driven over a piece of newspaper. The paper got sucked up under the engine, you pulled into your garage, the paper ignited, and – well – you know the rest of the story. The good news is that your policy will cover a car rental until yours is repaired – or declared a total loss, which is the most likely.” He looked at Chrissy and shook his head again. “I have to say, I’ve never seen such a run of bad luck.”
Beth patted Chrissy’s unresponsive hand. “She’s been through so much. The poor thing.”
Nothing compared to what that Delacroix woman will be going through, Chrissy thought.
It was almost nine o’clock at night when the insurance agent finally left. Beth Harding saw him to the door and went out onto the sidewalk to confer with Mariel Jenkins.
“It’s the most extraordinary thing,” Beth whispered.
“It’s not extraordinary at all,” Mariel argued. “We told her not to mess with Paulette. We warned her. You just don’t go around starting shit with a witch.”
“I have no idea why she just wouldn’t make peace – “ Beth broke off as the front door opened behind her.
Chrissy walked out into the night air. Shoeless, swaddled in sweat pants and a faded tee shirt, and carrying a gas can, she walked blindly past the other women.
“Hon?” Beth queried nervously. “What are you doing?”
Chrissy turned and gave her a ghastly smile. She held up a lighter. “I’m gonna burn that witch. That’s what you do to witches, isn’t it?”
Mariel went running towards her own house. “Phil! Phil, get out here! Chrissy Plangenet has lost her mind!”
Beth ran after Chrissy. “You don’t want to do this,” she pleaded. “You’ll wind up in jail as sure as I’m standing here.”
“I don’t care,” the woman answered. She stared at the Delacroix house with its manicured lawn and fresh paint. “It’ll be worth it.”
“I can’t let you do this,” Beth shouted. She put her hands on Chrissy’s shoulders to stop her, then drew them back and shrieked.
Startled, Chrissy turned to look. Beth was holding up her hands and laced around her fingers were auburn tresses. Chrissy dropped the gas can and reached for her hair. She began to pull away long handfuls. “No!” she screamed. “No, no, no, no, no!”
It took four of the neighborhood husbands to subdue Chrissy until the ambulance arrived.
* * *
The repairs on the house were complete by the time Chrissy was released from the hospital. She stood in the foyer, looking at the lovely hardwood floor that had been installed in place of the old carpet, and she sighed. Later that afternoon, Beth was going to drive her downtown to get a much-needed manicure and pedicure, then over to the dealership to pick up a new SUV. Then everything would be back in order. Well, almost everything. There was one more thing she had to take care of.
She picked up the blue cardboard cake box from Chez Maurice and walked outside. Chrissy hadn’t gotten where she was in life by being stupid, and she certainly hadn’t effected her release from the hospital by any lack of smarts, either. She told the doctors what they wanted to hear: That she had been the victim of several unfortunate coincidences. That stray cats had ruined her living room and a stray piece of newspaper had started the fire. That it was all just a sad series of unconnected events. That she had not been cursed by a swamp witch.
That’s what she told the doctors. But she knew better.
If the Delacroix house looked lovely and amazing, Paulette looked even more so. She opened the screen door and stepped out onto the porch, staring at Chrissy. Paulette’s blonde hair cascaded thickly over her shoulders. Her smooth bosom swelled in the v-neck of a silky dress.
“Chrissy!” Paulette exclaimed softly.
I had no idea she was so pretty, the redhead thought jealously. “I need to talk to you,” she said. “I need to – apologize.”
Chrissy held out the cake box as a sort of offering. “I was unkind to you when I first moved in. Very unkind. I’d like the chance to start over. I’d like you to forgive me.”
Paulette took the box and smiled. “It’s all water under the bridge, isn’t it?” she asked sweetly.
“Is it?” Chrissy’s mouth was drier than her medications could account for. “So, you’ll take it off?”
“Take what off?”
The two women stood on the porch, looking at each other. There was a long silence, then Chrissy continued, “Just take the curse off, please. I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll never bother you again. I’d like to be – well, I’d like to be friends. Just take the curse off.”
Paulette shook her head slightly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She turned to go inside, but Chrissy’s hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. “Ms. Plangenet, you’re hurting me.”
“Just take the damned spell off!” Chrissy hissed. “I know what you are. I know. Everyone was right. You’re a swamp witch, a conjure-woman. Please take the spell off. I promise I’ll never say another word against you.”
Rob, the handsome deputy, appeared in the doorway behind Paulette. His hands came down lovingly on the blonde’s shoulders. “Is everything alright, darling?”
Paulette nodded. “Everything is fine, sweetheart.” She continued to stare at Chrissy. “Ms. Plangenet, I’m Roman Catholic.” She reached for the gold chain around her neck and pulled a crucifix out of her ample cleavage. “Isn’t this lovely? Rob bought it for me. Turns out that he’s Catholic, too.”
Chrissy stared in disbelief. “You and Rob – “ she began.
Rob stepped out and shut the front door behind him. “We’re going to be late for mass, pumpkin.”
Paulette smiled at Chrissy. “Funny how things work out, isn’t it? But I’m so glad you’re feeling better.” She stepped down the porch with her arm linked through Rob’s.
Chrissy shook her head. “So, you’re not – “
Paulette stopped. “Not what, Chrissy?”
“You’re not a witch?”
Rob and Paulette laughed gaily. “I’ll go start the car,” he said.
Paulette watched as he walked away, then looked back at Chrissy. She tucked the crucifix back between her breasts and said, “Surely you know there’s no such thing as witches.” She winked. “By the way, it sure is a shame you’ll be moving. You will be moving, of course.”
Chrissy watched the Delacroix woman saunter down the sidewalk, dropping the cake box into the garbage can on the way.