Eula was last person I’d expected to meet in the small Pennsylvania college town of Sheshequin where I was spending a week helping a friend paint his house. I did a double-take upon seeing her in the plaid skirt and crisp white blouse of the town’s small private college, but her lazy eye convinced me it was her.
“What the hell are you doing here, and what’s with the get-up?” I blurted out.
Eyeing me with wry amusement, she then took on a more serious expression. Her mom’s rapid decline and their land’s expropriation by the Power Authority had left her motherless and homeless, if comfortable. My uncle, thankful for the service she had rendered his son, had seen to it that nothing impeded her admittance to the college’s self-directed studies programme.
“How you findin’ school?” I asked -- “bit of a change for Miss Grizzly Adams?” I added, rather untactfully.
“Dunno when to make like a clam, do ya? I get by. School’s got a tract o’ bush just for me,” she said sarcastically, “out that way, on the Susquehanna shore,” she pointed. Our conversation was interrupted as a police car went screaming off in that very direction.
We agreed to meet the next day, but upon reading the morning paper’s headline, “State Worker Assaulted in Forest Reserve,” I was serious concerned. I gave Eula a big hug when she arrived outside my friend’s place.
“I was worried,” I said sheepishly and showed her the newspaper. “It doesn’t seem the police have much to go on. ‘...woman working overnight at new USFS Research Facility...dozed off...woke up to find herself in the hands of an intruder.’”
“If they’d have given a damn about the forest, they wouldn’t have dug that ugly trench across it to run water and power out there. I’ll pick you up at five, we’ll go have a look.”
I would have argued but she’d already left.
A little after five a battered F-150 pulled up, and there was Eula as I remembered her: work boots, heavy canvas shorts, a worn T-shirt, and sweat-stained ball-cap. We drove out to the forest. The contrast between the forest’s leaf cover and the newly grass-covered soil along the trench was obvious. Ignoring the “Do Not Enter. Crime Scene” signs we approached the building. A single broad-leaved plant had grown up among the grass near a pile of stony fill. Eula looked at it carefully.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Shouldn’t be here,” replied Eula, looking puzzled, “shouldn’t be here at all, worn river stones in this spot, sand and silt everywhere else.”
“What’s not right?”
“Mandragora...shouldn’t be here, and those stones should be in a river bed”
“You mean like Mandrake root, like Mandrake the Magician?”
Eula sighed and added, “Let me deal with it.”
Two mornings later Eula rapped at my friends door. She looked haggard, strangely dejected. Her legs and face were scratched.
“What the hell happened to you?”
“Spent the night in the forest, should’ve known better and asked you to come.”
“You didn’t get hurt by...you didn’t go out there alone! did you?”
“Things didn’t get that far, least ways I don’t reckon so, I just dunno.”
Opening a book and pointing, she said, “read!”
“Mandrake, Range limited to Europe...”
“So what’s it doin’ out there? Now look at this.”
“‘Map of the Susquehanna River 1835’ and one from 1911, so what’s that tell me?”
“Here’s the forest, here’s the building — 1835— the land was a swampy low-lying ox-bow, see? now, 1911, the channel’s shifted, the ox-bow’s been buried in silt by the 1904 flood.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Look at the first book, where do mandrake’s grow?” she pointed to a passage.
“Hmmm, ‘Crossroads, under gallows’...oh c’mon you don’t believe this crap, do you? Besides there’s no crossroads, no gallows.”
“Haven’t figured that out, but I’ll damn sure let you know when I do...c’mon, let’s go,” she indicated her truck.
The rear of the truck was heaped with fresh earth. We got out to the woods. Turning the truck around, Eula backed it roughly all the way to the building. Getting out I noticed the mandrake had been torn up. Getting closer I saw Eula’s boot tracks, the imprint of her knees where she’d torn up the plant and a dark stain beside the wilted plant. I looked at her questioningly, but “made like a clam” — Eula was crying. She pushed me away, adding, “cover the ground, especially there,” wincing perceptibly as she pointed to the wilted mandrake.
I spent a couple of hours making sure everything was covered.
“I’m all for landscaping the place, but what was wrong with the ground here? Where’s this dirt from?”
“They’re excavating behind the church new rectory. It’s a hunch, just a hunch, just pray it works -- just pray,” and she collapsed to the forest floor. I took her in my arms, put her in the cab and took the wheel. I left her with her roommate, telling her I’d come by the next morning to see Eula.
The next day, unable to track Eula down, I reluctantly left. Anytime I got in touch with my friend I’d ask if he’d seen her or if any other incidents had occurred -- none had. A couple of months later I heard Eula had been hospitalized for acute ergot poisoning, but had pulled through. Odd though, she’d never struck me as a druggie. I tried to contact her at the college but she had apparently dropped out.
A couple of weeks later I received an envelope with no return address and a Buffalo, NY postmark containing pages photocopied from a book, but no message. It was an account of the reprisals led by Col. Hartley following the Battle of the Wyoming. A diary entry dated Sept. 14, 1778, related that a soldier who had ‘dishonoured’ three settlers’ daughters was summarily hung where the Sheshequin Path reached the swampy shore of the Susquehanna.
Copyright: © 2010 Georges Dodds
Published in strong competitors to The New Flesh like International Agrophysics and Estudos de Literatura Oral, Georges Dodds has until recently kept his weird writing under mouldy cerements. His recent genre activities include textual resurrection for a publisher of Gothic novels, unearthing and presenting in an e-library some thematic precursors of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes, translating early French science-fiction to English, and preparing a collection of American dime-novelist William Murray Graydon's earliest adventure stories. Georges and his 3-species family (4 with the goldfish), lives in a former bus garage, on the now relocated site of an18th century cemetery -- so far tilling the garden hasn't revealed its past.