Superstition is buried in the bones of us down here. The South buzzes electric with songs of the dead. No one has been convicted of witchcraft for many years in Mississippi, but places like Witchdance, a stretch of land off of the Natchez Trace, still echo the hundred-year pounding feet of women conjuring moonlight, slips and strands of bright in and out of shadows, hair down their bare backs, wearing circles in the grass. Ghost rivers sing with the everlasting wail of drowned Indian tribes along the Pascagoula River, and bridges cry for babies birthed and buried beneath them, long discarded in the dark, wrapped in water blankets by terrified mama-hands, trembling the ground awake with their runaway feet to receive them. Rolling fog unfurls carpets of kudzu and mist hovers low over the bayou, weeping willows line lake edges and eyes blink back from behind curtains of Alligatorweed. The land lives. The water is awake. If you wait, you will feel the aliveness of it all, it hums the stale air like a lone guitar chord from an in-between place.
Legend is often indeterminable from truth around here, truth indeterminable from reality, and reality indeterminable through the fog of poverty and violence that seeps out from the ground into the very food we eat and the water we drink. Southerners ingest the mystery of the unknown, turn it spinning around in sack cloth, and put bells on it so they can better hear it staggering back up the walk to haunt them again.
Perhaps Mississippi hosts some of the most haunted places in the country because the past has not yet been buried. Perhaps Mississippians who have white-knuckle clutched the cloth of the Confederate flag, refusing to tear it in two, Mississippians who group themselves into active, present day activities of a hate-singed past with Daughters of the Confederacy dress-up days and tea parties on plantation lawns, to meetings of the KKK hiding in rural locations across the state, perhaps those Mississippians have straddled the line of past and present so profoundly that the dead are not allowed to be still, the worlds have been forced to remain merged. Perhaps every institutionalized racism slips by unchallenged, every time the state comes pin-close to closing down the one existing abortion clinic, every time some misogynist moron buys the governor’s seat, or every time a Southern Baptist preacher instructs hordes of people to model their households after Middle Eastern households thousands of years passed, we are jumbling the dates of monuments and modernity, dragging eras into one another, attempting to mesh a singular warring identity.
Perhaps each time a woman is accused of madness, of hysteria, of lying about sexual assault by a self-appointed group of judges who write their own fears across her forehead, a headstone crumbles and chains binding the terrors of the past are snapped in two. My favorite protest sign from the recent Women's March on Washington reads: "WE ARE THE GREAT, GREAT, GRAND-DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHES YOU COULD NOT BURN."
I often joke that I would have long ago been hanged or burned as a witch in days past, gone down Ann Hutchinson-style into the bowels of his-story. My startlingly brilliant best friend Holly creates blackout poetry from pages of Puritan journals and classic novels and poems, rewriting a new story out of old ones. Out of all the wrong stories that have been left in history books over the years, she pens new ones with the same bravery and purpose of one mining Truth, shifting and shaking and uncovering all new poems from the oppression of old ones. She’d be a goner by now, too. Another best friend of mine reads and writes continuously against the confines of a small town-square kind of existence, researching the weaving of Moroccan carpets, several of which now grace the floors of my home as gifts over the years. He is the same as those carpets, complex and striking against the backdrop of the everyday grey. The man that I love and have loved for several years now just wrote and performed "My City," the official song for the Jackson, Mississippi Bureau of Tourism, in which he writes, as an African American, how “no color is required” in this state, hinting at a greater Capulet and Montague romance of epic catastrophic proportion, but one that I am grateful for in too many ways to list here. I adore him, but he’d be a ghost-song by now, too, if the louder, brasher voices of Mississippi religion and politics were to have their way.
Another friend of mine paints and draws, sketching unimaginable scenes from a blank page—I see him always alongside his work, at art shows in Fondren, cigarette in hand, a woman and a moon all in purple, a harrowingly beautiful self-portrait, naked and real. I have other artist friends who live their lives in radical ways — one who is running a ministry from her home, where people say she’s "crazy" to live because of the poverty and crime, but she found a man as crazy as she is, and raises her babies, two Rottweilers, and some chickens alongside neighbors she loves, and hasn't looked back since. I have another friend who left her husband with three babies in tow because it was time and she is brave; another who works tirelessly with the local chapter of the ACLU; two friends with whom I have traveled the world over, spanning three continents, who both went back for and adopted babies left there as orphans in the furious, frenzied way that only mamas can, bringing their chicks home; and several tenured professor friends who teach and write and speak truth at Mississippi College, Jackson State University, and community colleges throughout the state, who have taught me how to do the same, bold souls, generous souls who create a diverse academic conversation within a rigid state of existence. The leaders of the antiquated parts of our society, those in paid-for-political-seats, those invested in retaining a hateful and abrasive "heritage," would kill us all if they could, I’m sure of it. We are what antiquated society fears the most: brave storytellers wading up to our eyeballs in a sea of stories that must be told, willing to drown for the telling of them.
We are the band of witches today, our rag-tag group of off-beats, different ones, ones who are able to see. We would be labeled monsters, strung up by ropes, and left to dance in the wind, no doubt.
Of all the haunting night sounds here in the South, cicadas are one of the most unnerving to me. They rise into a great chorus of humming and legend goes that cicadas are the souls of artists who have died without getting to tell their stories. They abandon their shells in the summer, burrow underground, and return again with their incessant, high-pitched scream-singing that you cannot not hear. They make it so. It is a beautiful terror. It is how my brave artist friends with vision exist down here — they scream and scream and scream through paint or poetry or music or loving or living in such a vibrant way that, hopefully, there will be only the shells of us left when we die.
When I was a teenager, there were stories of witches in the German-named town Gluckstadt, an island of its own within Madison County, where I'm from. It was Mississippi, there was nothing to do, so we created our own excitement reviving urban legends of ghost-sightings and the supernatural: the Gluckstadt Witch, haunted woods in Lost Rabbit, Native American apparitions near burial mounds, Bloody Mary in the mirror, Ouija boards, and cemetery camp-outs.
Tales of the supernatural come easily to kids raised under the veil of any traditional religion, the Baptist denomination being one of the more oppressive in this part of the country, doing more to encourage difference than to build bridges of understanding.
Mississippi has hundreds of stories of the supernatural. There is a noted Bell Witch in Panola. There are haunted mansions sprinkled over the map-terrain of the state, Antebellum mansions where ghost-girls call out for their mamas in soundless hallways after dark, where mists of white women sing hymns and recite full sermons and whimper like dogs in the night, plantation-houses with ghosts of slaves, beaten nearly to death and left in the nearby woods, violent and angry, said to shove house-inhabitants down flights of stairs. There is one graveyard, though, that is said to be the “most haunted graveyard in the country” in Franklin, Mississippi. It is ironically called “Garden of Hope.” The haunting is said to be by two women, one named Cheryl Ann, who is peaceful, and the other named Sarah, who is said to stand in the road at night covered in blood, making drivers believe they have hit a pedestrian. Cheryl Ann often sits with mourners, it has been rumored, and places fresh flowers on graves.
There is a restored bed and breakfast inn in West Point, Mississippi called “Waverly Plantation” where the imprint of a little girl can be seen lying on a bed, and is often heard crying for her mother in the night. Images of a Union soldier appears in mirrors, and objects in the hotel move on their own accord. Much like the Bell Witch, the Witch of Yazoo’s promise at her execution to burn down the entirety of Yazoo City in twenty years was forgotten until of course, the town went up in flames exactly twenty years to the day later. The day after the fire, residents visited the witch’s grave in Glenwood Cemetery to find the chain around it broken in two. The chain and the gravestone still require constant repair, as both are often found broken in half to this day.
Of course, the majority of ghostly “others” are female, mysterious and terrifying, witches and she-ghosts. Cheryl Ann is consistent with the Victorian Era’s “angel in the house” archetype, comforting the mourning, tidying up graves, picking flowers, and the story of Bloody Sarah is consistent with the Victorian whore in the streets — a trickster, her ghost-body run down by cars again and again, as she laughs sadistically at the panic of the drivers. And of course, she is covered in blood, associated with feminine sexuality, all things unclean and unbecoming.
The two extreme examples of the residents of the “Garden of Hope” cemetery are the binaries by which women are judged in the present day South as well. One is either “the angel in the house”, constantly cleaning up after and nurturing others, or one is a Jezebel, separated as defiantly as the iron fence around the cemetery itself: two spheres of existence, one to be praised, the other’s blood to be licked up by dogs in the street.
I accidentally bulldozed the whole damn iron cemetery in 2015, two years after I had divorced my now ex-husband, turning my tiny little section of the world inside out, rattling the chains on witch’s tombs and opening flood-rivers of secrets, leaving everyone close to me in a philosophical quandary. When my daughter was at her father’s house, I lived as a free woman for the first time in my life; I was Bloody Sarah laughing along highways of the dead. On the other hand, I am a mother of a young daughter whom I adore, I have a lovely home that I clean and decorate with care, I cook for my child, I garden, I teach: Cheryl Ann, Victorian angel in the flesh, kind, pleasant nurturer, marrying domesticity at the altar of all that is socially acceptable. The problem was, I combined the dichotomy into one free, authentic, organic space.
It did not go well.
People freaked the hell out, far worse than the reaction from any ghost story or Mary-in-the-Mirror tale. I had gone too far, I was mixing up the stories they had so carefully separated. This (civility, the engaged by college-end, babies-by-twenty-four-sort-of-existence) was Real, that (my newfound freedom) was Sin, bad, threatening to black-and-white thinking.
I would like to tell you, listener to this postmodern ghost tale, that eventually everyone around me dropped their singular, dichotomous ways of thinking and accepted me for who I am, the same woman I’ve always been, just with a few less chains. That, of course, is not at all what happened.
My entire family shunned me, attempted to have me committed to a psychiatric ward, friends turned their backs on me, people in general backed away slowly, unsure if I had gone insane or if I was simply becoming my true self. I had had enough of the insanity of their way of living and the obedient, deeply religious housewife inside me hung herself from a chandelier, my Gatsby pool a rope around the neck. I had dissolved the divide only for myself, and I had dissolved into the divide itself in a sense. I was interrupting no one else’s narrative, I just wanted my own. That’s a hard thing to wrestle down here, one’s own voice. In an effort to refuse looking honestly at their own lives, the others burned me at the stake, and continue to. They are making me pay. I became overnight an Unfit Mother, a Dangerous woman. Nothing they did or said could force me back through the cemetery gate to the deadlands, though. Nothing.
So now in Mississippi, Faulkner's ghost still roams Rowan Oak, footsteps are heard on plantation house stairways, glass breaks, doorknobs turn, mirrors image apparitions, children cry, housekeepers dust, all in the adjoining world that aligns with the present, time made mute, the separation of years marked by mixed up numbers, meaningless dashes on tombstones that tumble in on themselves, what is concrete mocked by what is abstract.
I know without a doubt they would have hung me by now if it were any other era than the present. And they are doing so now really, it is just all camouflaged in metaphor and dressed up in formality and the faux-civility of court, a great ruse.
I hope when we do all die, my friends and I, that we will already have screamed our stories too loudly to return as cicadas. I hope my story, my song, and not my body, sings over the Mississippi River waters as all of the legends turn back to dust come sunrise, and people move about in the in-between place we call a state, both with both fondness and with ache. The heartbeat of the state of Mississippi, all the artists and the wild ones, all those who refuse easy conformity, we will never disintegrate. Our stories will burn up eternity as fireflies, not cicadas. Indeed, we are phoenix-fire, the stuff tougher than history. And we will not stop singing.
Megan Ainsworth is a Southern United States essayist and memoirist who teaches writing and literature at a community college in Jackson, Mississippi. Her work has been published in the Brick Street Press 2008 and 2010 Short Fiction Anthologies, on Elephant Journal, The Good Men Project, and on her blog site; she was a finalist in the “Lorian Hemingway Short Fiction Competition.” Madgirl Elegies is a six month installment column for Corporeal Clamor. She is interested in gender politics and race relations, particularly at the intersection of faith and spirituality in the Deep South. She shares a home with a precious and precocious four year old daughter, three rescue pups, and a fish named Steve. She is completing a memoir and a novel-length work of fiction.