A Louisiana Love Song
By: Robin Lenhart
Image: Daniel Ruyter, Unsplash
The house Linley grew up in was small. Two bedrooms for five people and three dogs. It was one of those mushroom-looking Acadian cottages, with a sloped roof and front porch that ran the length of the house. If you were to look up after ringing the doorbell, there would be an eyeful of faint blue. This was haint territory, neighbors agreed, so better to be safe than sorry. Linley’s parents didn’t believe in that stuff, but they were too lazy for home renovations.
Linley was the middle child and only daughter in the family. Both of her brothers were nothing but a bunch of no-good, school-skipping bayou boys who spent most of their free time hooking lines and making bait. They could recite the anatomy of a catfish, but couldn’t add for shit. Her parents built them a small shed in the backyard and that’s where the boys ate, slept, and cleaned their fish.
But this story isn’t about them. Or about the time the boys stole the family truck and were halfway to Biloxi before their parents realized they weren’t in fact camping with cousins in Kisatchie. It’s about the time Linley and her best friend went to visit the town’s voodoo priestess, the Queen Hanna, cursed the wrong curse and then spelled the wrong spell.
It was the summer before senior year of high school. The sweltering heat proved unbearable for Linley and Mel, her best friend of close to 15 years. The two spent most afternoons with their feet submerged in an inflatable pool reading magazines to one another, until one afternoon Greg Monroe and his buddies pulled up in his beat up red truck and asked them what they were up to.
“Nothing,” Linley answered, a little too quickly.
Mel studied the truck, and the boys in it, from behind zebra-print frames and asked them the same question. “What’re y’all up to?”
Greg shrugged and pointed to the cooler nestled between two buddies in the back of the truck.
“Goin’ to the lake,” he said. “Wanna come? Have room for two.”
His smile was pure cotton candy. His hair strands of golden hay. The two girls didn’t even have to look at one another to make sure the other was on board with her decision, because after 15 years of friendship a certain telepathic wiring forms somewhere in the frontal lobe. The girls stood up, tossed their magazines aside, grabbed their flip flops and walked to the truck. Its door opened from the inside in a courteous wave.
The group of teenagers drank beer, laughed, swam, and baked in the sun. One of the boys threw Mel in the water. Greg pushed Linley on a tire swing. He looked into her eyes while they talked about movies and music. He touched her arm and then held her hand as they waded into the water. The mud at the bottom of the lake squished between Linley’s toes, but she didn’t care. He laughed at her dumb jokes and said she was the funniest girl he knew.
Once the lighting bugs came out, one of Greg’s friends said it was probably time to head back to town. Greg dropped Linley and Mel back where he found them: Linley’s front yard, which still had two chairs and a small inflatable pool on it. He said bye, and Linley blushed.
“You think he likes me?” Linley asked Mel later that night. The two girls were in Linley’s bedroom flipping through more magazines, their toes glimmered with a fresh coat of red polish.
Mel shrugged. “I dunno. I mean enough to stop at your house. How’d he know where you live?”
“I dunno. School directory?” Linley guessed. She flipped a page and stared at a model wearing a denim dress. She bookmarked the corner with a clean fold even though she knew she could never afford the dress or anything else on the page.
“Seem awfully suspicious to me,” Mel continued. “He drove out this way, in that heat. With his buddies. There’s only one reason he’d do that.”
The phone rang and both girls screamed.
“What if that’s him?” Linley yelled. She crawled over her friend, flew out her bedroom door, and flopped on the old mint-colored phone that lived in the hallway.
Linley steadied her hands, picked up the receiver, and took a breath. “Hello?”
“Oh, Linley? Hey there. It’s Mrs. Arneaux. Mel around?”
Linley let out a groan and dragged the phone into her room, where she handed her friend the phone and mouthed “Your mama.” Mel rolled her eyes.
“Hey Mama,” she said into the phone. She nodded her head and said yes a few times and then hung up.
Mel had to get home. She had mass in the morning and she wasn’t allowed to slumber party on nights before mass, at least not since the last time, when she missed her alarm and was caught sneaking into the church by Father Tish, who made sure to say something about it in his sermon that morning. Mel swung her feet in front of her and picked out the cotton wedged between each of her now pink-colored toes.
“OK, but you’re missing pizza and also my mom said we could watch cable tonight,” Linley said, trying her best to convince her friend, who was not allowed to watch cable and rarely ate anything other than grits.
“I wish,” Mel said, shaking her head. She wiggled on her sandals, grabbed her purse and gave her friend a tap on the head. “Don’t think about Greg. Don’t think about him and that will make him think about you, OK? It’s a universal thing. That’s what Queen Hanna says.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“Mama’s witchy-witchy stuff. She’s into it as long as her rosary isn’t nearby,” Mel said as she walked into the hallway. Linley followed after her, gripping a magazine with white knuckles.
“You mean Love Shack off the 91? Call 800-M-A-M-B-O-LO-V-E?”
“Ya, she says that’s how she and daddy met. She tells all her friends to go there,” Mel said with a shake of her head. “Don’t believe in that crap, but whatever.” She opened the front door and was greeted by a choir of crickets. Mel looked back at her friend. “What are you not going to do tonight?”
It took Linley a moment, but she answered. “I’m not going to think about Greg.”
Linley did her best not to think about Greg and her perfect day with him. She baked cupcakes from a box. She ate an entire pizza. She watched hours of TV and then when she couldn’t stand it anymore, she went to her room and turned on a Janet Jackson album and danced herself tired. The clock said 12:01 a.m. and she had not thought about Greg for approximately five hours. She congratulated herself and went to bed.
Greg didn’t drive by her house the next day, or call her. He didn’t drive by the day after that either, or the day after that. Linley’s heart sank deeper and deeper. At first she made excuses. He was out of town. His car broke down. He had football practice. He was grounded. He was fishing. He was waiting for school to start back up so he could really make it official that he liked her. Mel comforted her friend as best she could, explaining that guys Greg’s age had the attention span of a puppy and the maturity of a small child, but it didn’t seem to help.
“Lin, I think it’s time to move on,” Mel said to her. The two girls were eating ice cream cones and walking down Front Street.
Linley chased after a chocolate drop with her tongue.
“I think it’s bad for your mental state,” Mel said. She took a bite of her strawberry ice cream and looked into the sky with purpose. Linley had always admired how Mel could bite ice cream using her front teeth without flinching. “Like, it’s going to fog you up.”
“Is that more voodoo shit?”
“No, it’s what I think,” Mel took another bite. “And we start school soon so you need to go in with a clean slate.”
Linley rolled her eyes. She chased after another drip of chocolate and then stopped in her tracks.
“Wait a minute,” she said, pointing at Mel with her half-eaten cone. “You said that voodoo lady helped your parents get together, right?”
Mel gave her a side eye. “What are you gettin’ at.”
“Well, maybe she can help me too. I can go see her and she can help me help Greg move things along.”
“Are you out of your fucking mind Linley Bartell?”
“No! It’s totally normal. You’re mama did it. Why can’t I?”
“That was like 30 years ago. People don’t do that shit anymore.”
Linley pointed across the street at a sign that read: Hexes, $5.
Mel sighed. “Sane people, Lin, don’t do that shit.”
“I’m gonna do it,” Linley said. There was a new sound of determination in her voice.
After a pause Mel shook her head. “OK then I’m coming with you. As a spiritual advisor.”
An hour later the two girls were standing in front of Queen Hanna’s Love Shack off the 91. A neon sign that said “Open” flickered in the front window, and on the porch a lonely rocking chair sat paralyzed by the summer heat. It wasn’t a real shack either. There stood a small house with a lawn that had a few trees dripping with Spanish moss.
“Sure about this?” Mel asked. She looked from her friend to the shack’s hot pink front door.
“Yep,” Linley said. “Let’s do this.”
Linley knocked on the door. A firm, hard knock. She half expected for the door to open on its own. But nothing happened. Mel reached over and knocked again. Another firm, hard knock. From somewhere inside came a woman’s voice and the sound of footsteps. The door swooshed opened and the two girls were face to face with a short woman wearing a frilly white lace dress that seemed to glow. She wore a white wrap around her hair and strands of beads around her neck. She squinted her eyes at Linley and then did the same at Mel.
“Mel Arneaux, why’re you coming round here? Your mama know this?”
Mel’s eyes grew wide. She stuttered a little in an effort to try and answer, but gave up in the end and looked down at her shoes instead.
“And who’re you?” Hanna asked Linley.
Linley found herself speechless at first. She cleared her throat and contracted her hands into small fists.
“I’m…Linley Bartell. Mel suggested I could come and see you…”
Mel shot Linley an eye.
“I mean, it was my idea to come and see you. I heard that you help people with relationship problems.”
“You’re having problems with your boyfriend?” Hanna eyed her.
“He’s not really my boyfriend, yet, but there’s something there and I was hoping you could…”
“Cast a spell and make him fall in love with you?” Hanna cocked her head to the side. “Tsk Tsk, you teenagers are all the same. Come inside.”
Hanna opened the door and mumbled something under her breath that didn’t sound like English. Linley felt drawn over the threshold where the blue porch met the house. The inside of the house was dark and smelled like church on Palm Sunday. There were rows and stacks of candles, melted into one another and onto the mantles and tables that scattered Hanna’s Love Shack. To Linley’s surprise, one by one they flickered to life. She didn’t ask how, but shot Mel a glance and by the look on her friend’s face, she seemed to be wondering the same thing.
“The first thing you must understand about my practice is that I am not a devil worshipper,” Hanna said. She led the two girls down a dark, candle-lit hallway and then into a windowless room with a small table and a few mis-matched chairs. Tapestries hung from the wall and the floor was carpeted with old, tattered rugs. “You must also understand this is no joke. My practice is real. You must be fully realized in this ceremony and not second guess it.”
Hanna lit two candles and placed them on the table. She motioned for each of the girls to sit down. She set a box on the table and opened it, allowing both girls to peer inside. Trinkets, powders, liquids, and more candles lined the interior.
Hanna clapped her hands. “Now, we begin,” she said. She produced a small pouch and began filling it with contents from the box, reciting words with each dash of powder and throw of a trinket. “You must wear it on you at all times for the next 24 hours and at the end of the 24 hours you must recite this spell and then bury this in your love’s front yard.”
Linley nodded enthusiastically. “What is it?”
Hanna closed the small pouch and held it in both hands over the candle flame. She began to speak: “To thee broken heart be bound. From home to the burial ground. Seek thee, find me.”
She said it again and then clasped her hands over her heart and bowed her head.
“This is your love gris-gris. Remember, you say that three times. Then bury this pouch,” Hanna handed the small bag over to Linley. It was much heavier than she thought it would be. Linley nodded in acceptance. “Recite it for me. It’s important you don’t mess it up,” Hanna said as she lit a small brown cigarette and exhaled, the smoke casted an eerie dance of shadows across a tapestry.
“OK. To thee broken heart be bound. From home to the burial ground. See me, find thee.”
“NO!” Hanna cut her off and pointed the cigarette at her. “NO. You must, must get this right. To thee broken heart be bound. From home to the burial ground. SEEK THEE, FIND ME.”
“OK. To thee broken heart be bound. From home to the burial ground. Seek thee, find me.”
“Better. Better,” she said turning her attention over to Mel. “And Ms. Arneaux, anything I can assist you with today? Heard you finally passed Algebra. Let me know if you need help this year.”
Mel’s eyes widened further.
“Oh what, cher? You didn’t know. Your mama came in to see me,” Hanna howled. She took a long drag off her cigarette and laughed again. “You’re cute.”
“We should probably get going,” Linley said. She stuffed the pouch into her pocket and pulled out a crumpled $20 bill. “Here, is this enough?”
“Whatever you feel is enough, is enough,” Hanna rasped. “You can get me next time.”
“There won’t be a next time,” Linley assured her. “This is gonna work”
“Oh cher, there’s always a next time,” Hanna snickered. “Always.”
Linley set the bill on the table and then fought her way through a forest of tapestries, spilling out into the hallway with Mel at her heels. They looked at each other and then walked as fast as they could out of the house with Hanna’s laughter chasing after them.
Back at Linley’s house the girls examined the contents of the bag, though were unable to determine what exactly Hanna had put in there to make it feel so heavy.
“Can you help me tie this on?” Linley asked Mel. She held out the gris-gris, which had two ropes of twine attached to it. Linley flipped up her hair so her friend could tie it.
“Kind of looks like you’re wearing a padded bra, but in the wrong place,” Mel said, admiring her work. “Jesus I can’t believe we went in there. That place gave me the creeps.”
“Shh…she can probably hear you!” Linley covered her friend’s mouth. “OK so you heard her, 24 hours. So this time tomorrow let’s go to Greg’s. You’ll have to keep a lookout.”
“What’s that? Worried neighbors will get freaked out that you’re burying a pouch of powder and bird bones in someone’s yard?”
Linley rolled her eyes at Mel.
“Yeah, yeah I’ll be there,” Mel said. “I have to go. Call you tomorrow and then we can go cast your love spell,” she said making kissy faces.
Mel left Linley to admire herself in the mirror. The small pouch was just a lumpy rise underneath her shirt, which still had a chocolate stain on it from the ice cream she’d eaten earlier that day.
Linley’s sleep was restless and fevered that night. Her dreams were foggy and she felt a weight on her chest. Early in the morning, she woke up sweating and out of breath. Outside rain slapped her window and the wind had whisked her inflatable pool away to a neighbor’s yard.
Later that day she phoned Mel. “Let’s meet in 30 at the corner and then we can walk together. This crap weather might be a great camo for us,” Linley whispered into the phone. She was hiding in a hallway closet, careful that her parents couldn’t hear her.
“Sounds good. I have Mama’s trowel,” Mel whispered into the receiver. Linley got the impression she was also hiding from her parents.
Thirty minutes later, two girls wearing heavy raincoats were at the corner. They ran a few blocks and took a right and ran a few more blocks past Front Street before making it to Greg’s neighborhood, which looked like Linley’s, but nicer and with more signs boasting, “Yard of the Month.”
Linley pulled out a sheet of paper and navigated them to Greg’s two-story home on Ridell Avenue.
“OK, ready?” Mel said. “Dig!”
Linley crouched down and burrowed a small hole in the Monroe’s front lawn. She stood up and untied the pouch from around her neck. She closed her eyes and began to recite the spell aloud.
“To thee broken heart be bound. From home to the burial ground. See me, find thee,” she said it once and started over. “To thee broken heart be bound. From home to the burial ground. See me, find thee. To thee broken heart be bound. From home to the burial ground. See me, find thee.”
When she opened her eyes, she saw that Mel’s mouth had fallen open.
“What?” she asked.
“You said the fucking spell wrong,” Mel hissed.
“No I didn’t!” Linley hissed back. “Here, I have it on this paper. I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget.” She pulled out the same paper that had Greg’s address on it, but any writing that was left on the page was now smeared in rain water.
“Oh fuck me,” Mel hissed. “It’s “To thee broken heart be bound. From home to the burial ground. Seek thee, find me. You said it the other way around! And you said SEE not SEEK!”
“What? No way, no I didn’t. I definitely said seek…”” Linley said defensively, though the more she thought about it, maybe Mel was right.
“Just bury it. We’re fucked now anyway,” Mel looked around. “And hurry, the rain is letting up.”
Linley was a little bit dazed, but she knelt down and dropped the pouch in the ground, covering it up with wet soil and grass. She stood back up and gave the house one last look from underneath her raincoat hood. Then, the two girls decided to promptly get the hell out of there and ran all the way home.
It was another night of rain and strong wind and fitful sleep, but in the morning Linley woke up to sunshine and the songs of birds in the trees.
“Lin!” her mother called from outside her bedroom door. “Phone for you!”
It wasn’t even noon yet. Who could be calling? Linley rolled out of bed and grabbed the phone in the hallway. Her voice was groggy and deep, she cleared her throat.
“Linley?” said another voice on the phone, which was also deep but clear.
“It’s me, Greg,” he said with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader.
“Oh shit,” Linley said, her eyes about to pop of their sockets.
“Sorry, is this a bad time?”
“No, not at all. What’s up?
“I just wanted to hear your voice. What are you up to today? Want to go to the movies?”
They went to the movies that afternoon, followed by dinner. The next day while she was out getting her nails done with Mel, he showed up at the salon. He called her every morning when he woke up and at night before bed. It went on like that for the last two weeks of summer. On the Friday before school started, Linley got home from shopping for supplies and spotted Greg’s red truck was in her driveway—and Greg in the kitchen helping her mom make dinner.
“It’s too much,” Linley whispered into the phone later that night. Mel was on the other end crunching down on what sounded like popcorn. “He happens to be everywhere I am. Like, remember when he was in the parking lot of Wendy’s and we were inside? I didn’t tell him we were going there. He just…showed up.”
“Well, you asked for it,” Mel said in between crunches.
“Technically yes, but this is a little overboard. I think I have to break up with him.”
“It’s only been two weeks!”
“I know, but he’s so annoying! I can’t start senior year like this,” Linley slapped her palm to her head. “I need to go in with a clean slate, remember?”
“Clean slate my ass. I gotta go, Mama’s yelling at something again. Talk to you tomorrow,” Mel crunched off the phone.
Linley stopped receiving Greg’s calls. She told her mom to tell him she was at Mel’s, but when he showed up at Mel’s and she wasn’t there, he came looking for her at home. Linley crouched in her closet and listened to her mom cover for her. Later that night she heard a tapping on window. It was Greg; she could hear him asking her to open the window, but instead she lay perfectly still, pretending to be asleep.
The next afternoon the phone rang, and it was for Linley.
“No, it’s not him it’s Mel,” Linley’s mom said from the other side of the bedroom door. Linley took the phone from her mom. “What’s gotten into you? He’s such a gentleman. You should be so lucky,” she said with the shake of her head.
“Yeah yeah,” Linley yawned. She grabbed hold of the receiver and leaned against the wall. “Heya, what’s up? Oh God, he’s not over there looking for me again is he?”
“No, Lin. I just got off the phone with Trisha, who heard from Stacey. Lin, Greg’s dead,” Mel’s voice dropped.
“What? Are you kidding?” Linley said in shock. Suddenly she felt awful for ignoring Greg. Greg with the golden hair. The cotton candy smile. Who thought she was the funniest girl he knew. But she also felt a sense of relief.
“No. He got in a car accident last night. I’m so sorry, Lin. I know you were whatever, but I can’t believe he’s gone,” Mel trailed off.
“Me neither,” Linley whispered back. She let the receiver slide out of her hands and hit the floor, but she could still hear Mel talking on the other end.
Over the course of the day the Bartell phone rang nonstop. Linley found out that the funeral would be later in the week and that school would be postponed so students could go to the services and get over the shock. She also heard that Greg’s car had been totaled to the point that it was barely recognizable, its mangled frame was wrapped around an old oak tree on a road not too far from her house. Skid marks hinted that his car was speeding when it went around the curve. He’d lost control. Linley couldn’t shake the possibility that he had been speeding over to her house, or from it. She knew it wasn’t her fault, but she felt some degree of guilt. And still that sense of relief that she no longer had to deal with him.
Mel came over to spend the night and keep Linley company. They watched Family Feud and tried to eat pizza, but neither of them could stomach dinner or TV. They were both emotionally exhausted from the day and turned in early. Sometime after midnight Linley heard a noise. It sounded like the crunch of grass underfoot. Was someone walking around on her front lawn? She nudged Mel awake and the two girls slipped out of bed, tiptoed down the hallway, and peered out the dining room window. There, underneath the moonlight, she saw someone standing still and looking at her house.
“Who is that?” Mel whispered. “I think it’s a guy.”
“No idea,” Linley whispered back, shaking her head. “Why’s he swaying like that?”
“Should we go out there?” Mel whispered.
“Fuck no,” Linley whispered, her voice a little louder that before.
It was as if the man heard them. His head whipped in the direction of the dining room and he began a slow, ached walk to where the girls were standing. His feet dragged across the grass but he stopped clear of front the porch. Mel and Linley swallowed their screams and moved back against the wall. The man got closer and tapped once, twice on the window.
“Lin?” he said.
Linley leaned forward in disbelief. “Greg?”
“Lin?” he said again. “Is that you? I just wanted to say hi, and that I love you. I’m sorry if I did something wrong. Can you hear me?”
“Oh fuck no,” Mel said in a panic. She covered her mouth, then covered her eyes, then covered her ears, and sunk down to the ground.
Linley moved closer to the window and with a shaking hand moved the curtain. There in front of her, on the other side of the glass in her yard, was Greg Monroe, but not the Greg that she knew. This Greg was pale and hollow eyed. He had a gash down the center of his chest which had been stapled back together. A spider trail of stitches ran across his forehead. He smiled a toothless grin and waved at her with a floppy hand. His neck was purple and bruised.
“Lin?” he called out again. Just like the day before, Linley ignored him. She crept back to the wall and crouched down next to Mel.
“What’d we do?” she said.
“You have to call Hanna,” Mel said, her head still hanging low.
“And say what? There’s a zombie outside my window?”
“Lin?” Greg called out again. He pounded on the window.
“He’s going to wake up your parents,” Mel threatened. “Then what’re you going to say?”
A minute later and Mel and Linley were both in the hall closet with the phone. Mel held the flashlight while Linley dialed 1-800-M-A-M-B-O-LO-V-E. After a few rings, Linley began to lose hope, but then Hanna picked up.
“Do you know what time it is, girl?” she said into the phone, her voice was deep. “This better be important.”
“Hi, Hanna? This is Linley Bartell, I was in your shack…er…house…a few weeks ago and I think something is wrong? Terribly wrong. That spell you gave me, it worked, but then the guy died…”
“I didn’t kill him,” she snapped.
“No of course not! No, nothing like that. It’s just that he’s dead…but he’s still here. With us.”
“Spirits are always among us, cher,” Hanna said.
“No, I mean he’s physically here. He’s outside of my window calling for me,” Linley stopped talking and realized there was silence on the other end. She wondered if Hanna had hung up. “Hello, are you there? He’s banging on the window.”
There was the snap of a lighter and then Hanna exhaled slowly.
“Did you do what I said? Wear the gris-gris, say the spell three times, bury the gris-gris?”
“Yes, I did, just like you said,” Linley said, muffling a grunt as Mel kicked her in the shin. “OK, I might have messed up a tiny bit at the end of the spell.”
“I said see not seek and I might’ve reversed the order,” she admitted. “But, does that really change much?”
There was silence again and then Hanna let out one of her howls.
“Oh you fucked up good girl,” she said. “Real good.”
“How so?” Linley asked. Mel sensed the alarm and began chewing on her nails.
“What you did just bind him to you for eternity. He is physically dead, yes. His soul was bound to that body and now that the body is gone, his soul is free to move on to the afterlife. But, the spell you cast is so strong that his soul still desires you, still loves you with such a fierce will that it’s pulling him away from the land of the dead. Death can’t even fight back. He’ll keep coming for you until you go with him.”
“Go with him where?”
“I hear the afterlife is cold,” Hanna said and let out another howl. “Pack a coat.”
The look on Linley’s face almost drove Mel to hysterics. Linley took a breath. “Surely, um, surely though there’s a way to stop it. Or reverse it?”
Hanna exhaled into the phone again. “You remember where you buried the gris-gris?”
“Yes,” Linley stuttered.
Hanna hissed a series of instructions and before she hung up, she made Linley swear not to go to Greg’s funeral. “Death is very punctual and does not take kindly to wandering Dead,” she warned. “It’s better not to be around since you’re the one who set this chaos in motion.” Linley agreed and then promised she wouldn’t ask for help ever again. Hanna let out another one of her raspy laughs. “Have a blessed day.”
Greg was still swaying outside the dining room window when Mel and Linley snuck out of the bathroom window. They ran a few blocks and took a right and ran a few more blocks past Front Street before making it to Greg’s neighborhood. All of the grass in the Monroe’s yard was dead and yellow except for one patch at the corner, which was a vibrant green. Linley fell to her knees and sunk her fingers into the ground, digging for the small bag. It didn’t take long for her to find it and when she did, she tore open the pouch and dumped its contents on the lawn.
“OK don’t fuck it up this time,” Mel said. She held the flashlight with trembling hands.
Linley read from the paper. “Rest ye, for you are done here, spirit. Take your trinkets as tokens for good keep, spirit. See the doors. Open them and walk with good faith.”
“That sounded right,” Mel whispered. She handed Linley a hammer and watched as her friend pounded the powders and objects deep into the Earth.
The two girls walked home in silence. Each knew the other one was dreading the possibility that Greg could still be swaying on Linley’s front lawn. When they rounded the corner, they both let out a sigh of relief. The yard was empty. “Thank God,” Linley whispered and gave her friend’s hand a squeeze. They crawled through the bathroom window and collapsed into bed.