We Benders got headaches in our blood, the way some people got brains or beauty. Me and Katie are both sore afflicted, not only with the headaches but also with dizziness and fainting spells too. And sometimes we get to feeling sick in the stomach, and sometimes we even get bright, blurred colors, right at the edge of our seeing, like watching a rainbow through window glass.
Katie makes use of hers because she’s the actress of the family. That’s what Pa says. She calls herself Professor Miss Katie, and whenever we move to a new town, we put out that she is a soothsayer. And when one of her fits comes on her, she makes sure to faint right near a crowd of folks and come up talking about some spirit what is trying to contact a loved one nearby. Everybody knows somebody dead.
That’s how we drum up business. That and also Pa and Ma put out some tables and chairs on one side of our cabin, and string up a bed sheet so customers can have some privacy, and there’s a cot if they want to sleep as well as dine. And Professor Miss Katie is also Doctor Miss Katie and if folks want a healer, she’s good for that, too. Katie Bender is full of the talents that never get born in other people, that’s what Pa says. And Ma frowns and says nothing at all, but that’s just Ma for you.
How it works is this: One of the townsfolk don’t trust doctors, and maybe they got a good reason not to, so they come and ask for Doctor Miss Katie instead. They know that title don’t mean doctor like schooling, but doctor like healing, helping folks get well. Katie has a lot of different charms and spells she uses. Her favorite is something she calls the Quick Healer – it’s supposed to speed up the getting-better part of being sick. She has a little cherry-wood cabinet that Pa made before he got hurt, real pretty with carvings of fruits and nuts spilling from horns of plenty. She’s got it filled with dried herbs, and she chooses different ingredients from different drawers depending on what ails you. She grinds them together with a mortar and pestle, and mixes that with soap and ashes to make a paste. Sometimes she sort of sings while she mixes, her yellow hair hanging down in sheets over her face, her arms twitching with the effort of all that grinding and stirring. She sing-hums charms against death, against poison and rot, against the damp and cold and the evil that lurks outside the door. I don’t much like the song and I don’t like watching her sing it, like a backwoods witch. It makes my skin itch and my head hurt, but I always watch anyway. It hurts not to watch her, that’s how bright she is, like light off glass. She mixes all kinds of things: waybread, cockspur, chamomile, nettle. Fennel and crab apples and lamb’s cress and dandelion. Milk and honey and burdock, to make the crops grow and the livestock strong.
I think she makes most of it up. I used to think Katie really was some kind of healer, until one day I watched her humming and muttering and mixing, her hair down and her back to the anxious little fellow waiting for his ma’s medicine. And just for a second the front of her face poked through the hair and she winked at me, bold as brass. How it works is this: Katie Bender is a good liar and a very good actress and how it works, also, is people will believe just about anything that comes out of a pretty girl’s mouth.
I’m not much for acting, and not much good at lying, so Pa says it’s best to pretend I am dumb and that is just what I do. When we get to a town, we put it out how Katie’s a seer and we put it out that I’m not right in the head. It helps because people say all kinds of things around an idiot that they wouldn’t say around anyone else. Idiots must have an awful lot of good secrets. I’m a good listener and I remember most things people say; I tuck them away in the drawers in my head and label them careful so later I can go back and pull out the things I need to know. Like who has just come into a large inheritance, or who has money socked away under the mattress, or who has lost a loved one and would pay good gold to speak to them again. So I come in useful, too, even though I can’t act for beans and I can’t do the German accent, neither.
The accent was Pa’s idea. He said nobody in these little frontier towns would know Germany from Georgia so it’s fine if it don’t come off perfect. It’s easier to explain why we came here so sudden, too, with a decent bit of money and no people to speak of. Katie taught us the best way to speak, funny and short with sounds like you’re choking on a bite of beef. Pa and Ma are pretty good, and Katie sounds positively foreign. She is forever making us proud, plus she’s real pretty too, with lots of yellow hair and teeth what look like rich folks’ teeth, white and straight and shiny. Half my teeth have fell out already, and Pa has only two teeth left in his whole head; he uses them to open cans and crack nuts. Which he does pretty often. He likes to show off them teeth, as Ma says, like a sideshow freak. Ma doesn’t believe in being prideful. Katie’s a lot more like Pa. Pa says whatever you do, you should be the best at it. And I think we are.
How it works is this: We set up something called a seance in the dining room. It sounds fancy, but it just means a meeting with dead people. We move all the tables out, and Pa and me drag in the big table and the medium’s chair from the shed out back. Pa built that chair special for Katie, with a false back where she keeps the things she needs. I always sit next to Katie so we can both keep a hand free. I’m an important part of the seances. When all the people come in – no more than six because our little cabin just ain’t that big – we get them sat down and douse all the lights. It’s always at night because it has to be real dark, black as molasses hung right over the moon, so nobody can see a thing except for what we want them to. Katie’s got a whole bag of tricks. She can do voices, so sometimes she’ll speak in a high, soft child’s voice. Sometimes she’ll do a woman, but deep-voiced and brassy, a warm, twangy kind of voice. That voice always makes me a little sad, because she sounds like someone it would be awful nice to know – someone kind and with a sound of home about them.
Sometimes I’m supposed to open the false panel and pull out the fishing pole, and attach a letter or a handkerchief or some other white thing to it, and wave it about until the visitors all go into hysterics. Katie has a lever she works with her foot – it hooks into the bottom of the table and she can make the table tip this way and that, and the ladies all scream and gasp at that one. My favorite, though, is the bell trick. Katie puts a little gold bell smack in the middle of the table, a little glass dome over top of it. You can see it all through the seance, not moving, even while you hear the muffled sound of a bell ringing out. It’s a pretty spooky effect, and of course nobody thinks that maybe Katie’s got a bell hidden away in that panel, wrapped in a piece of muslin so’s to make that muffled sound. It’s a real good trick.
After the seance, the women usually cry and the men shuffle their feet and look at the floor, and everybody calls Katie a miracle and gives her lots of money. She just smiles and smiles, my pretty sister, and all the while you can see her green eyes filling up with cash.
At bedtime Katie used to tell me stories about how we were, us people, a long time ago. How we were all holy once. How the earth was full of plenty, how everybody loved everybody, and how there was no sin. And how nobody went hungry, and how people were kind and gentle, even to the animals. And how a woman went and ruined it all for everybody else.
Ain’t that just like a woman, I would say, and roll my eyes like Pa when he talks about God. And Katie would laugh, and pretend to cuff me, and instead she’d muss my hair and tell me to be off to bed. Ain’t it just, she’d say, and she would smile the kind of smile she uses for the strangers who come to our place and do not leave.
How it works is this: When a guest comes to stay the night, Ma and Katie string up the curtain splitting our little cabin in two. Pa and I bring the tables in, and Ma and Katie make them look real nice with clean white tablecloths and fresh cut wild flowers from the field out back. Ma makes a hearty dinner, with fried potatoes and steak and soda biscuits and a dried apricot pie for dessert. Katie brings out a glass of good whisky, wearing the kind of dress barmaids at the Blue Saloon would blush at. But Pa says it’s for the greater good. He says everything is for the greater good, and that we shouldn’t feel bad about these men, these fat, lonely men who worship nothing but money and God. I’m too afraid of Pa and his black pinprick eyes to ask him anything. But once I asked Ma what he worshiped and she scowled at me and said I was a fool. So I think maybe he doesn’t worship anything, and I suppose that I don’t either. Or maybe I just worship Pa. Maybe worship and afraid is the same thing.
Anyhow there’s Katie in her tight blue bodice, making sure the men’s eyes are on her all the time, and she’s pouring whisky down their gullets. And there’s me, opening the trapdoor right behind the chair and there’s Pa, coming up swinging his sledgehammer, and there’s Ma with the rope, binding their hands, and there’s Katie with the big butcher knife, slicing the throat clean open just like you’d kill a hog. And I suppose in a way, they are like hogs, and ever since we fell down from Eden we’re animals, all of us, turning on each other every day. Only some folks like us Benders just do it more direct. Or maybe we’re just better at it.
If we fell so long ago, Katie says, it could hardly be our fault that we went bad. But long ago seems like not that long ago to me. Long ago, Katie and I went to school, and we studied hard, and I thought maybe I would be a carpenter like Pa, or that maybe I would go into the army and learn to fight and use a gun. And long ago the world was small enough, and big enough, and we had friends and Pa did a good trade and even Ma would smile now and then. I’m not too sure when long ago became just now, but it happened too quick for me to notice. Sometimes I think maybe it was when Pa hurt his hand, or maybe it was when our little sister Susan died so sudden of the measles, or maybe it was when me and Katie started fainting, and the townsfolk started giving us the sideways eye. In any case, somewhere in between long ago and now we learned how it works. We got smart.
How it works is this: They come for us at dawn, sunup like an egg, the raw, angry posse with fists around guns and torches and knives. But we clear out in time, because we’re smart, we’re Benders, and we’re always one step ahead. We leave behind the bodies in the orchard and we take the money – some ten thousand by Pa’s reckoning and we light out in the wagon just before daybreak. Later they brag, that posse, they tell all kinds of tales: they found us and they beat us all to death; they found us and they skinned us alive; they found us and they shot us or burned us or fed us to starving coyotes. They gave us to the savages who beat time with our bones.
But none of this is true. How it works is this: We’re always going to be one step ahead. We see things most folks can’t. We see the dead, and we see the real ugly souls of the living. And we see better in the dark than you.
Photo © Mario Arruda, Untitled, 2012