Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Personal Challenge: Love, Death And Carnivals

Circus arriving in Seligman, Missouri, late 19th century

Greetings dear toads, toadettes and assorted followers. Hedgewitch here, responding to my first personal challenge, which comes boldly from one of our newer members, the ever-effervescent
Magaly Guerrero. This is the gauntlet she flung down for me:

"If you choose to accept this personal challenge, I would love to read a poem set on a carnival or circus during the Autumn Equinox. You can focus on whatever you like, as long as it happens in the setting and time I mentioned."

Well, of course I chose to accept, and I immediately wrote a love poem full of masks and feathers set at the famous Carnaval do Brasil in Rio De Janeiro. Then I realized that particular festivity takes place, like our Mardi Gras, shortly before Lent. Which is not the Autumn Equinox, when night and day are of equal length, taking place, as a matter of fact, today. So....back to the drawing board.

I followed many twisting pathways down the haunted lanes of the internet before I arrived at the grisly tale below, about two lovers who met at a carnival in September and ran away together the following summer, their lives and their untimely ends, based very loosely on an unsolved Territorial murder from 1905. A fuller explanation of the facts I have wreaked havoc upon follows the poem, and there are yet more on my blog , but first let me thank Magaly for the challenge, and my dear friend Shay (Fireblossom) without whose often dark and always bewitching poetry and short stories of lesbian love I would never have found my 'solution.' 

I hope you all enjoy this little slice of grim.


Dead Woman's Crossing

When the moon was a witchboat small and tossing
in the fade-time where night can see day as her twin,
down the rough blacktop to Dead Woman's Crossing
came the carnival rolling on a dustbowl wind.
They spindled the midway, freakshow and toss-ring,
before they spiked twenty ripe melons with gin
for Harvest Home in the dark of September,      
so the marks can do what they won't remember.

There was Jacko the clown, stringy as a rat,
Ma's name and a snake his tattoo valentine,
Rudy the barker in a ten dollar hat,
talking apple butter, smiling turpentine.
The Doll from Philly worked the striped gypsy-tent;
her brown eyes had just the right mad dog shine.
Then night seemed to give a coyote-moon cough
that shook her gold earrings, and Katie showed up

with her deathrattle tale of carnival past,
how she, the schoolteacher, met the Fallen Dove
Miss Fannie, too red-haired, too ruined, too fast,
on a September midway, bent moon above;
how love like a cloudburst caught her at last      
a kiss-whisper in place of the stone cold shove,
a granite fist traded for a velvet hand
and a five dollar ring for her wedding band.

The Dove blew out of Texas like a broken branch            
running  from Jesus, Daddy Jim and the law.
When she hit Mrs. Hamm's Saloon and Hog Ranch
she knew she had almost no time left at all
but still more than Katie, hellbound for a ditch,
face pale through the water where the black crows caw.
Thru plugged ears Doll could hear the walking night moan,
thru shut eyes see the bridge where Katie talked on:

The heat lightning flickered as midnight slammed shut,
Katie in a nightmare where she was the wheat
waiting dry in the dirt for the thresher's cut;
too many whiskey hard times in tangled sheets,
one scar too many from a cheap White Owl blunt
while the tumbleweeds wrote her name in the street.
She put on her bonnet, she packed up her grip,
met the Dove smiling with her child on her hip.

They sat down stiff as strangers on the noon train,
the nights and the men left behind in the dust.
They got off at Clinton in the quick July rain
with the last of the wheat burning red as rust.
When the moon was a witchboat sailing the plains,
as diamond eyes came home to lily-white trust
in the carnival night, storm in the willow,
the teacher slept sweet with her red-haired pillow.

The next day at midday, two girls and a child      
left town in a buggy to laugh and laugh last.
Fannie screamed like a bobcat, the wind went wild
when Katie's man came up through the tall sawgrass.
The Dove saw the buck-knife draw a cutthroat smile;
all she knew was to make the scared horse run fast
from the man who had Katie back, all his, dead.
All the Dove had was poison and a red dirt bed.

When the moon's a hook, a witchboat, a sickle
when the last of the wheat stands brown in the ground
while Orion runs after Hecate the fickle
above the dwindling lights of a dying town,
the Dove does her dance to a penny whistle
and a dead woman calls her child with that sound.
The next fall, when Doll's carnival topped the ridge
it rolled without stopping past Dead Woman's bridge.

 ~September 2014


Process notes: The bare bones of this story are true, if extremely conflicting, anecdotal and incomplete. Katie De Witt James was a schoolteacher seen boarding a train in Custer City, Oklahoma Territory, with her fourteen month old daughter in July of 1905. She had just filed for divorce from her husband Martin James on grounds of cruelty, and was supposedly going to stay with relatives in the small town of Ripley, about a hundred and twenty miles away. She never arrived.

Instead, she left the train in Clinton, a town only about fifteen miles further on, with a reputed prostitute named Fannie Norton, who also went by the sobriquet of 'Mrs. Ham' (which I decided to use in a wordplay on the frontier practice of referring to a brothel as a 'hog ranch.') Katie spent the night with Fannie at Fannie's brother-in-law's house, and the following day the two women and child rode out in a rented buggy to the countryside near Weatherford, the location of the creek and bridge in the poem, saying they would be back in a few hours. Fannie returned, after dropping off a baby in blood-stained clothes with a passing farm boy, but Katie never did.

After not hearing from his daughter for some weeks, Katie's father hired a detective to find out what happened to her. He traced her movements, and finally tracked Fannie down in Shawnee, where  Fannie vehemently denied killing Katie, saying Katie had 'met a man' then dissolving into incoherent tears. Later that night, Fannie took poison, killing herself. The divorce never went through, and Katie's husband, fitted up with an unbreakable alibi, and with suspicion diverted to Fannie, filed for custody of their daughter, inherited Katie's estate, which he subsequently sold, and left the Territory.

After Katie's body was found at the end of August  by two men fishing along the creek, with a bullet through her skull, her head severed from her body and a 'five dollar gold ring' on her hand, the tales began. The ghost of Katie is said to haunt the bridge and creek, calling for her daughter, and the sound of buggy wheels on wooden boards is often reported there, despite the old wooden bridge being washed out and replaced with a concrete one in 1980.

I totally made up the part about the two women meeting at a carnival in September and falling in love, though I think it explains some of the baffling aspects of this story, like why Katie might have left the train long before her planned destination with a supposed stranger, and a prostitute at that. Logic leads one to think  Katie may have been killed by someone who stood to lose everything if she lived, but benefited greatly by her death, someone who might easily have followed her, then later cobbled together an alibi. Her husband. But that is something only Katie and Fannie would know.

Regardless, the carnival doesn't stop there any more, toads. Thanks for bearing with me, and with this long, long September story.


Magaly Guerrero said...

My sweet word-weaving goddesses, Hedgewitch, this is gloriously fantastic! I love the balanced dance between the lines and between misery and hope...

I'm more than taken by the way you've portrayed that carnivalesque feeling, which I love so much. This lines, for instance, left me wanting to dance:
"There was Jacko the clown, stringy as a rat,
Ma's name and a snake his tattoo valentine,
Rudy the barker in a ten dollar hat,
talking apple butter, smiling turpentine."

Thanks so much for accepting the challenge, and for turning it into this yumminess! ♥

Magaly Guerrero said...

Um... disregard my types. I'm just overexcited. ;-D

Magaly Guerrero said...

My goodness! Typos not "types," lol!

Anonymous said...

Agh, so sad. Really well conveyed, and the roll of the ottava rima underscores the ups and downs of the story, the carnival, the coaches, the swoons--just too sad a story, really--the menace very swiftly and powerfully depicted. Can't write more as need to work, but wonderful, sad tale, Joy, powerfully told. And too topical. k.

hedgewitch said...

Thanks, Magaly--I am really grateful for this challenge, as it was mesmerizing for me, too. I felt as if I was 'in the skin' of those women, and I'm so glad you liked the carnival aspect, which of course, is completely outside the known facts, but which I think adds a lot.

@Karin--thanks, and yes, when I first read this story I thought how little has changed for too many women. Katy obviously came from a fairly affluent family, and was well-educated, yet she couldn't escape domestic violence, as prevalent then as it is in the news today.

Gina said...

Oh that totally gave me goosebumps(which I consider a good thing). :D XXX

Kerry O'Connor said...

Stunned amazement!

What a tale, spun by the magic hand of the story-teller (in ottava rima no less!). I think the impact lies in the nuances, the recurring moon, the juxtaposition of male and female relationships.. and above all that ghostly presence. This narrative will remain with me - such images are not easily erased.

Maude Lynn said...

Hedge, let me just applaud and offer you the last hairs from my head, my broken pencils, and my retirement. Damn.

Weeping Siren said...

Amazing, beautifully tragic story! I am mesmerized by your writing! MORE! I want MORE please! I was there, I saw everything, thanks to you.....

Sherry Blue Sky said...

What a SPECTACULAR poem, a tale told as only you can tell it. I love the witchboat which sails through this poem, and the dark mood with which the tale is imbued. Fantastic writing, and the sad story it is based on, told below, is as gripping. I, too, of course suspect the husband. Though Fannie's suicide is a question mark. I worry now about the baby daughter, raised by her cruel father, and totally understand why her mother's ghost would haunt the shores of that creek, calling for her. What a tale. What a fantastic write! I am replete, from having read it.

Sharon Rawson said...

You spin golden words with the skill of Rumplestilskin! Wonderously!

Margaret said...

You hooked me with "grisly tale" … LOVED LOVED the whole thing - it should be a movie :) So impressed … The third stanza from the end might be my favorite… Love "When the moon was a witch boat sailing the plains…" but it is closely rivaled with the whole stanza above "The heat lightning flickered…"

hedgewitch said...

Thanks everyone. I'm truly grateful for your input, and glad you were drawn into this tale, which now is just something that is mostly told by college kids to scare themselves when they go out to the bridge to party--but which was the sum total of those two young women's lives. Thanks for taking the time to read this long autumnal story.

Fireblossom said...

You have outdone yourself. The language is beyond glorious, the story spooky and as real as dust kicked up by wagon wheels. Thank you so much for the shout out, but I had nothing to do with the creation of this wonder. "Wowww" is all I can say. I will be back to read this again and again.

Grace said...

I was riveted to the story, imagery and fast paced unfolding of adventure to death ~ I can't pick a favorite part but will reread and marvel at the beautiful verses ~

Susie Clevenger said...

I love this! Your story telling is amazing...I was taken in from the first sentence. Love the process notes...what a sad, creepy reality.

Jim said...

This is a delightful little read, Hedge. The first time through was a bit hard because of all the characters. Most were background setting props to add action and personality to the story.

Second time plus it read nicely because I knew the characters. I don't think you told that Katie was a teacher although we could surmise that at the end in your wrap-up. It didn't bother me that you had a July rain in September, that happens. Though I did pause there for a minute.

The "a cheap White Owl blunt" line I could identify with because smoking a White Owl blunt and drinking a 42 is on my bucket list. At my age that might kill me, so be it. I was born too early, I missed all the good stuff in young life. :)
Could I possibly have been Daddy Jim from Texas? It was a short part but I'll take it.

Jim said...

Sorry about the "Katie, the schoolteacher." You told us, I missed it (how could I, it was there in plain sight--I found it over at your site, I read better from verse and line format).

Anonymous said...

You filled in the blanks shiveringly well. Love this tale.

Marian said...

Joy, this is just over the top. the big top, hah! it's clever and fantastical and well-strung. love it. i can't remember that form, either... running off to look it up.

Helen said...

Epic write! Immensely enjoyable. ~~ I find the entire carnival milieu fascinating. HBO's "Carnivale" lasted two seasons and I would have, could have watched forever. Your piece brings to mind the darkness of the series, the characters, the darkness, the desolate feel of that landscape. ~~
This was a gift .. thank you!

Anonymous said...

damn. :) ~

brudberg said...

Wow.. I missed Reading this earlier.. like a broadside murder-ballad.. Lot of such poetry, and I can imagine Nick Cave singing this.. would have made perfect sense...