By Matt Fitzgerald
“If I were alive today, I would be scraping the hood of my coffin.”
This is what’s written on Rosalia Becker’s gravestone. A ghastly epitaph indeed. She lived only twenty-four years, until 1615.
My name is Theodore Quint, and I was dispatched to the town of Monroe, Louisiana, by my editor, Mr Cronkite, to delve into the strange goings-on in the area.
With a chill, I made my way to a Motel 6, where the keeper of the establishment, a Mr Wilbur Wingate, had arranged to meet me. He was a portly fellow who smelled like a wet dog. I inquired into the history of the town of Monroe and the brutal killing of Rosalia Becker, the last woman in the then American colonies convicted of witchery. He was more than obliging.
“Well, Mr Quint, Rosalia was not mercifully burned in the sticks, she was buried alive. Before internment, her nails were plucked to stop her from clawing her way out. The helpless soul never stood a chance. Some folks say they can still hear Rosalia scraping the bonnet of her casket with the bones of her dead fingers”.
With a whiff of cynicism, I asked, “Her wailing, have you heard it, sir?”
“I have, Mr. Quint. I drowned a cat in a stew pot last fall. Who could have thought an animal could cut steel so deep? That gnawing, that screeching, that scratching; that’s Rosalia Becker, Mr Quint, so you hear that squeal, you best give Rosalia a wide berth.”
I observed that Mr Wingate did not have nails of his own. “What happened your nails?” I asked.
“We have a saying here in town: fingernails short, sleep sound, sleep well; fingernails long, well, Mr Quint, you best prepare for hell.”
Shaken, I decided to pay a visit to a relative of Rosalia Becker, a Miss Emilia DeVille. Bearings, which Mr Wingate was so kind to impart, led me to a dirt road. In the season of complicity, leaves had shrouded my route, and I sank ever deeper into a blend of mud, leaves, and water. I approached Miss DeVille’s house, and I was soon met with a yelp of derision.
“Don’t you bring that shit on my porch, boy, or else you’ll be feelin’ a pocketful of lead.”
With vigour, I removed my shoes. As I ascended the staircase of this rustic bastille, Miss DeVille was sitting in a rocking chair, stroking a Winchester, as you would a cat. Dressed in her morning gown, formerly white but now a sickly yellow, she took on the appearance of Dracula’s grandmother with ominous ease. I was not perturbed.
“My apologies if I startled you. I lost my way in the foliage. Mr Wingate told me I could find you here. I’m a reporter from the city. I’m investigating the death of Rosalia Becker. Do you recognize the name?”
“Sure, I do. I can also mark an accent when I hear it. That ain’t Louisiana, by damn sight.”
“Irish? My third husband was Irish. He’s buried out back—along with my first and second.”
“I understand, according to Mr Wingate, you have a journal belonging to Miss Becker? I would dearly love to see it.”
“You would, would you? Well, it’s upstairs somewheres. I haven’t been upstairs in thirty years, on account of my hip. Up yonder, second door on the right. Should be in the armoire.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“And don’t take nothin’ else, you hear, or I’ll cut your pecker clean off”
With that in mind, I climbed the heavily dusted treads. Each step diarized the way back. I left the door ajar and entered the scantily lit room. The curtains were drawn. Beams of light shone through the gaps, and in these beams, dust danced like a gathering of mayflies. There were more rods of light, filled with the dregs of the dead days gone by, and they blazed from every corner. One of these light-bars perched on the armoire. With haste, I rifled through an open drawer like a hound in search of game. To my horror, a gust of wind forced the door shut. I lunged, speedily, toward the door, but my gaucherie threaded my swiftness, and I straddled the floor.
“What are you doing up there? What’s all the racket?”
A muzzled thud stirred the floor, no doubt from the stock of her Winchester. A misshapen pool of light blinked on the ground; it blinked again. “Is there someone there?” I said. The air bred a stinky acrid scent; it burned my nostrils. The thumping of my heart echoed in my head. “Does my scent poison thee, Mr Quint? Does your blood flow thicker? I shall peel your rind first. I should think.”
With pace, I lunged for the door, pulling the handle from its moorings. As I descended the stairs, I glimpsed a second set of footprints in the dust. They were not whole and distinct, but dented and furrowed.
“Did you find it, Mr Quint?”
“I did not, Miss DeVille. Thank you for your hospitality. I must be off. Feeling unwell.”
“Oh, yes, her rank can do that, Mr Quint! You take care now. And keep those fingernails nice and short, you hear?”
With a chill, I retired to my motel bedroom, still quivering from my encounter with Miss DeVille and collapsed on the bed. The wind chimes clanking on the veranda made my slumber a little uneasy. A candle, in the last throws of life, burnt itself out. Before long, a peculiar sound came from the doorway. A skunk foraging, perhaps? My mind scurried after those things the eyes cannot see; it was a tumultuous wreck of ridiculous assumptions. There was no stopping it. Thinking the vilest and most terrible outcome awaited me, I dared not turn about to witness it. A decay then hung in the air. It was as pungent as it was nauseous. Or was it the stench of wet fur? Then, a voice trembled no more than a few inches above my head.
“Mr Quint, I have a telegram for you.”
“Mr Wingate. What a pleasure it is to see you.” Never had I been so relieved to see a two-hundred-pound man share my bed? “God bless you, Mr Wingate.”
Myth, legend, truth or fiction, they all need momentum, and Rosalia Becker’s has four hundred years of hearsay and gaudy opinions. But that does little to stop me from clipping my fingernails, just to keep the cat from the door.