There were no brass bands when Sergeant Wilson Prescott came back from war . . . not that I wanted any. All I wanted was to go home.
There were no brass bands when Sergeant Wilson Prescott came back from war . . . not that I wanted any. All I wanted was to go home.
The Prescotts have had a plantation since the late seventeen hundreds. It’s called “Lebanon” named after the small Mississippi town on the Yazoo River in Holmes County. There wasn’t much left of Lebanon Plantation . . . several hundred acres of Mississippi cotton land out of what used to be thousands and a plantation house that was covered with vines. The house—situated near the riverbank—was rotting and falling in on itself. I didn’t care about that. Since my parents were both dead, I knew the old house would provide the solitude I craved. At Lebanon there were only two old family retainers . . . an aging black couple called Jobie and Bole Weevil. I can’t help it. That’s what he was called.
The bus dropped me in Cruger and I got a ride with a farmer out the Old Lebanon Road to the plantation. I was going to hide there and write about the war. I had no ambitions to write the great American war novel. I just felt that if I wrote about the war I might stop having nightmares about shooting children who were trying to kill me. My body had been lucky in Vietnam. I had received only minor wounds—a peppering of shrapnel from a mortar round. My mind hadn’t done so well. It wasn’t what I had seen that gave me the nightmares; it was what I had done.
The old house looked just the same, only slightly more rotted. After I had said hello to Bole Weevil and Jobie, and finally stopped her from clucking over me, I changed from my uniform into some old slacks, a tee shirt and some loafers. I looked in the mirror. It didn’t look like me. I looked like someone I used to know.
Downstairs, I found Jobie had made a nice lunch.
“I done made all yo’ favorites, Mr. Will,” she said.
I thanked her. She had given me fried chicken, rice and greens, but I couldn’t eat much. I pushed my food around on the plate while Jobie stood by looking more worried than ever. After a chicken leg and a glass of milk, I pushed back from the table and went to the library where I sat down at the old typewriter I had used in college. Nothing came to me. I sat there and looked at my hands . . . made green by the light flooding in through the vines that had overgrown the tall windows and French doors of the library. I was tired to the bone. Finally I stumbled over to the old horsehair sofa and fell out. I slept like a dead man.
. . . A firefight was going on. We had called in an air strike on the village at the edge of the jungle. Sniper fire from there had killed two guys in my squad. The fighter-bomber screamed in and napalm rolled—in orange-black fury—over the village. A young girl ran flaming from the village screaming. A burst from my M-16 stopped her screaming . . . I woke and sat up, tears streaming down my face. It was my first nightmare back at the plantation.
. . . Welcome home.
Three months later after writing two hundred and eighty pages, the nightmares were worse. It was the third day of August.
That day I stopped writing around noon and came out of the library for lunch. Jobie was still giving me good meals and clucking over me like chicken.
“You got to eat, Mr. Will. You skin and bones,” she fussed.
“Leave me alone, Jobie,” I told her absently for the three-hundredth time.
I had caught a glimpse of myself in the yellowed mirror in the hall. I was thin. I didn’t care. I managed to swallow something, left the table, went back in the library and locked myself in. I sat for hours trying to write, but I couldn’t get started again. My theory about writing myself out of the nightmares hadn’t held up. I knew the writing was making everything worse. There was no point in going on with it. I looked at my shotgun in the gun case between the bookshelves. I couldn’t pull my eyes away. More and more grayness filled my mind. What I had written had no meaning. Life had no meaning. Only the shotgun had meaning. It was a way out. I tore my eyes away from the gun case and stumbled out of the library. There was a bottle of bourbon in the butler’s pantry. I took it to the front porch and sat in the twilight with the bottle. Jobie and Bole Weevil had gone home. I was alone. I sat on the front porch drinking and trying not to think about the shotgun. I saw the lights of a car coming up the long gravel drive. It pulled up near the steps where I sat. The driver got out leaving the lights on. A redheaded young woman with freckles got out with a glass-covered dish. I was partly dazzled by the headlights and didn’t recognize her.
“Wilson?” she said.
“Yeah,” I answered. “Who’s that?” I must have looked pretty bad. I hadn’t bathed, shaved or changed clothes for days. I had lost weight. I had drunk half a fifth of bourbon.
“It’s me, Jan Harris.” The Harris place was next to Lebanon Plantation just up the river. She moved out of the glare and I could see her.
“You grew up,” I said. She was looking at me like she couldn’t believe her eyes.
“What happened to you, Wilson?”
“Vietnam,” I told her.
“You’re drunk,” she said.
“Yeah, I am,” I admitted.
“Momma sent me over with a casserole.” She extended the dish.
“I don’t want it,” I told her rudely. She looked at me for a minute. Biting her lip and shaking her head once in puzzlement, she got back in her car and drove away.
That night I woke after another bad dream. I lay in bed sweating. The frogs and cicadas had quit and the night was still. The moon was about to set. I sat up remembering the shotgun downstairs. It drew me with a magnetic attraction. My sweat was drying. It was hot but I began to feel chilled.
“Help me,” I sat me up with surprise. It was a woman’s whisper coming from outside.
“Who’s there?” I said, going to the window.
“Help me, Jason. I’m caught.” I felt my way down the stairs not turning on any lights. I went out the back door and moved across the overgrown lawn and into the oak trees. I felt Spanish moss brush my face. I moved quietly as I had learned to move through the jungle in Vietnam.
“Jason . . .” I heard the whisper again, near the river. I saw a redness near the bank of the river. It was a light without light . . . a transparent redness that illuminated nothing. As I approached I saw a whiteness that seemed to be a woman’s face and the redness took on the form of a dress. What appeared to be black hair streamed across her neck and shoulders . . . coils of blackness in the strange light. She turned her face to me. Except for the eyes, it was beautiful. The eyes were completely white and dead looking. A shiver prickled up my spine, but I forced myself to go closer.
“Release me, Jason.”
As I approached I saw her better. She wore long white gloves. I saw that her hair was dark auburn, not black. On dainty feet she wore black boots. I reached towards the image and it faded . . . disappeared. I must have stood there for five minutes feeling numb. Finally the coldness faded and I rubbed my eyes . . . wondering if it was the booze or if I was going over the brink mentally. For some reason, before I returned to the house, I reached up for a dead limb and broke it off. I stuck it into the soft, black earth marking the spot where I had been standing.
The next morning I popped awake with a question ringing in my mind, “Who was Jason?”
It was Jobie’s day off. After I made toast and coffee, I went to the library to the oak filing cabinets where family papers were stored. My grandmother had been a genealogy fanatic and had kept well-organized family records dating back to the early eighteen hundreds. On the way to the library, I caught a whiff of myself.
“Ye Gods!” I said out loud. “Just because I’m a wreck is no reason I have to smell like one.” After a shower and shave and some clean clothes, I looked—and smelled—better. Had I not been so gaunt, I would have been presentable . . . not that I had anyone to be presented to. Then I thought of Jan Harris. I decided to walk over and apologize to her and her mother. But first . . . the library.
As I entered I looked at the gun case. Something had changed. The gun was there but now it was just a gun. It no longer had any power to dominate my thoughts. I wondered why. Then I realized that what I had seen last night had—for the first time since Vietnam—made me interested in something besides myself.
“Well, if I’m going crazy,” I said out loud, “at least it’s an interesting way to go.”
I took out the file that said “Family Tree” and began to flip through, scanning for a Jason. I found him on the fourth page: Jason Prescott, 1803–1833. The chronological files went back to 1830, so I thought I had a chance of finding something about him.
The file from 1830–1840 was thin. There were a few letters but none mentioned Jason Prescott. There were records of crops and one record of slave births and deaths and a badly yellowed clipping from a newspaper. The masthead was missing but the date was there. I read:
SUICIDE MAY BE MURDER/SUICIDE
The body of Jason Prescott—an apparent suicide—was found in his bedroom by his manservant today. Further foul play is feared.
Mr. Prescott’s fiancée, Barbara Landry—the daughter of the owners of the Landry Plantation near Egypt, Mississippi—is missing and feared murdered. Under close questioning by the Sheriff, Miss Grace Landry, sister of the missing young woman, admitted that her sister was with child. It is feared that Prescott discovered this fact, killed his fiancée and committed suicide. A massive search is underway around the Prescott Plantation, but so far there is no trace of the missing woman.
The Prescott house servants told of their master—in a rage with a shotgun— chasing them from the house, thus leaving Prescott alone for some time with his fiancée.
Miss Landry is five feet three inches tall and has long auburn hair. When last seen she was wearing a red dress, white gloves and black boots. Any person having information about a woman fitting this description should contact Holmes County Sheriff, Joseph Heatherton immediately.
The date of the article was August 3, 1833! Last night had been the anniversary of the death of Barbara Landry! I had to tell someone about this. It was all too amazing. I remembered the calm, steady gaze of Jan Harris and my desire to apologize. In my withdrawal from the world, I had not bothered to acquire a car, but it was only a twenty-minute walk to the Harris place. I put the fragile article in an envelope and left the house.
“So you don’t think I’m crazy?” I asked Jan after I had finished telling her the story. Jan slid the article back in the envelope.
“Not now,” she replied. “I did the night I brought the casserole over . . . crazy and drunk. Wilson, I want to see the place where you saw this vision.”
“I think I can find it,” I told her. “I stuck a dead branch in the ground to mark the spot.”
“Why did you do that?” she asked, looking at me intently.
“I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “I just did.”
We found the dead branch.
“The vision was right over there by the river bank,” I pointed. We went to the place. There was a slight depression in the ground—about five feet long and three feet wide. We looked at each other.
“A grave . . .” she said.
“I’ll get a shovel,” I replied.
It didn’t take long to remove the soft, black dirt. The shovel hit something hard. I got on my hands and knees in the hole. It was about three feet deep. I swept dirt from a flat smooth surface. A slab of glass began to appear. I brushed more dirt away and leaned closer to examine the glass.
“Jesus!” I screamed, jumping backwards in the grave. “Jesus, God Almighty!”
There, beneath the glass, floated the dead white face of a beautiful girl with auburn hair swirling about her head. Only the eyes were ghastly and blank. They were even whiter than the face.
After I had calmed down, we excavated around the glass-topped iron coffin. The rest of the girl came into view. She was floating in some kind of clear liquid. Red dress, black boots, white gloves . . . all were perfect. Only the eyes were wrong.
Let’s open it,” I said. I went to the tool shed for a crowbar. It took our combined weight to lever up the iron frame that held the glass. We were assaulted by a powerful smell of alcohol.
“It smells like pure grain alcohol,” I said.
“Where in the world would Jason Prescott find that much alcohol?” she said, “not to mention a glass-topped iron coffin.”
“Maybe he didn’t kill her in a rage,” I replied. “Maybe he found out beforehand and had time to plan the murder.”
“If that’s what happened,” she said, “he must have been insane.”
The perfectly preserved skin of the corpse was already starting to discolor where the air had touched it.
“What now?” Jan wanted to know.
“A cremation,” I said. “I want to release some ghosts.”
I went to the house and came back with some matches and my manuscript. I fanned it out in my hand and lit the edge of the paper. As the pages caught, I placed the flaming manuscript carefully in the coffin.
“Your ghosts, too?” she asked taking my hand.
Not wanting to see the beautiful face distort from the fire, we backed away from the coffin. Blue flame spread over the alcohol.
“Yes. They’ll just be bad memories, now,” I said. “They won’t haunt me any longer.”
We smiled into each other’s eyes as blue fire spiraled into the Mississippi twilight.
Note: This story has a basis in fact. In Mississippi Off the Beaten Path by Marlo Carter Kirkpatrick, there is a factual account of the discovery of a perfectly preserved body of a young woman with auburn hair who was dressed in a red velvet dress. The body had been preserved in alcohol in a cast-iron coffin with a glass lid. The coffin was unearthed in 1969 on the Egypt plantation in Holmes County, Mississippi. Thanks to our dear friend, Father BenjaminBell, for sending me the factual story and suggesting that I write a short story about The Lady in Red.