1982 | Beaufort, SC

Receiving a Tutorial

John Berendt gets a lesson in South Carolina folk magic.

The town of Beaufort was dark and still. Jim Williams drove along the main street, passing the great old houses that faced across the harbor toward the Sea Islands—eighteenth-century mansions of brick, tabby, and wood. Halfway between Savannah and Charleston, Beaufort had once been a major shipping center, but it was now an almost forgotten, perfectly preserved, gemlike little village. We cruised along the narrow streets, passing rows of handsome white houses gleaming in the darkness. The tidy, well-manicured section of town gave way shortly to unpaved streets and tiny rundown cottages. We pulled up in front of a wooden shanty with a swept-sand front yard. The house was unpainted except for the door and windows, which were a light blue. “Haint blue,” said Williams. “It keeps the evil spirits out.” The house was dark. Williams knocked lightly and then pushed the door open. The flickering light from a TV set was the only illumination in the cluttered front room. Pungent cooking smells of pork and greens filled the air. A man lay asleep on a daybed. He stirred as we entered. A young black woman came into the room through a curtained doorway carrying a plate of food. She nodded toward the back of the house without saying a word, and we walked on through.

Minerva was sitting in a small room under a bare lightbulb. She was like a sack of flour. Her cotton dress was stretched tight over her round body. Her skin was a pale brown, and her face was as round as a tranquil moon. Her gray hair was pulled back in a bun except for two little pigtails, one hanging over each ear. She wore a pair of purple-tinted, wire-rimmed glasses. The table in front of her was piled high with bottles, vials, twigs, boxes, and odd bits of cloth. The floor was littered with shopping bags, some bulging, some empty. When she saw Williams, she broke into a broad, gap-toothed smile and motioned for us to sit down on two folding chairs.

“I been waitin’ on you, baby,” she said in a half-whispered voice.

“Well, how’ve you been, Minerva?” Williams asked.

Minerva’s face clouded over. “I been dealin’ with a lot a graveyard dirt.”

“Not again!” said Williams.

Minerva nodded. “Mm-hmmm. There’s a lot a grudgefulness and deceitfulness.” Minerva spoke in a faraway voice. It came from so deep within her that the words sounded as if they had been uttered eons ago on a distant planet and were just now reaching the earth through her. “My son’s ex-wife. She had three children with him. She drive by and throw graveyard dirt on my porch. I gets it by the bucketful. That’s how come I be blocked a lot. Business gets po’. Then my boy gets in trouble with the police. I can’t sleep. And I been raisin’ hell with my old man that’s dead.”

“Dr. Buzzard?”

“Yeah, him,” said Minerva. “I need to git me some money, and I been playin’ the numbers, so I can git some. I always go to him and I pay him a dime for him to give me a number. But he won’t give me one for shit. I cuss he ass out. I don’t know why he don’t want me to git no money.”

The Mughal’s nature is such that they demand miracles, but if a miracle were to be performed by some upright follower of our religion, they would say that it had been brought about by magic and sorcery. They would strike him down with spears or would stone him to death.

—Fr. Antonio Monserrate, 1590

Minerva put aside a small wax doll she’d been working on. “Well, it looks like we’re back in business again, you and me, don’t it?”

“Yes,” said Williams. “Now we’ve got a second trial to work on.”

“Yes, I know that.” Minerva leaned forward and brought her face close to Williams. “He’s workin’ hard against you, baby!”

“Who is?” Williams was startled. “Not Dr. Buzzard!”

“No, no,” Minerva said. “The boy. The dead boy.”

“Danny? Well, it doesn’t surprise me. He planned this whole thing. He knew I was getting tired of his damn games. He knew I had $25,000 in cash at the house that night, because I was going to Europe on a buying trip. It was his big chance. He could kill me and take it.”

Minerva shook her head. “That boy is workin’ hard against you.”

“Well, can you do something about it?”

“I can try,” she said.

“Good. Because there’s something else I want you to do too,” said Williams.

“What’s that, baby?”

“I want you to put a curse on the district attorney.”

“Well, of course. Tell me his name again.”

“Spencer Lawton. L-a-w-t-o-n.”

“Yeah. I worked his name before. Tell me what’s goin’ on with him since we got you off.”

“He’s desperate. He’s been district attorney now for two years, and he’s never won a case himself in court. He’s mortified. People are laughing at him.”

“They gonna keep on laughin’. Did you bring them things like I told you to?” Minerva asked.

“Yes,” said Williams. “I did.”

“Water that ain’t run through no pipe?”

“Uh-huh.”

“And did you put it in a quart jar? With no label on it? And no metal cap?”

“Yes.”

“And those nine shiny dimes?”

“They’re in my pocket.”

“Okay, baby. Now I want you to sit down and do somethin’ for me.” Minerva gave Williams a quill pen and a bottle of red ink labeled Dove’s Blood. “Write Spencer Lawton’s name on this piece of paper seven times. Connect the two names as one. Dot no i’s and cross no t’s. Now, you do that while I do some work over here.”

Minerva began filling a plastic shopping bag with odd items—two trowels, pieces of cloth, some bottles. Somewhere on the table, under all the piles of stuff, a telephone rang. Minerva dug out the receiver.

“Hello. Uh-hunh. Okay, now listen to me.” She spoke in a half whisper. “She want you back, but she want you runnin’ behind her, beggin’. Remember what I told you. Before you sleep with her again, put a tablespoon of honey in the bath and take a honey bath. After you have sex, dry yourself off with that piece of muslin cloth I gave you. Hang it up to dry. Do not wash it. Later on, wrap it around a purple onion and tie the corners with a square knot. Huh? I say, a square knot. That knot I showed you. Two knots makes one. Okay. Then all you got to do is bury the cloth where she will walk over it or pass by. Uh-huh. Now, darlin’ don’t you depend on her to give you too much money. ’Cause she won’t give you none. That’s why her and her husband don’t git along. Uh-uh. She ain’t gonna be issuin’ out no money. And listen, be careful about your personal belongings—your dirty socks, your dirty undershorts, your hair, pictures of your head. She might try to take them to someone like me. Put a picture of her in your wallet in a secret place, between things, with her head upside down. Do that for me. Uh-hunh. That’s right. And let me know. Bye-bye.”

Minerva looked across the table at Williams. “You done, baby?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Okay. Now, you know how dead time works. Dead time lasts for one hour—from half an hour before midnight to half an hour after midnight. The half hour before midnight is for doin’ good. The half hour after midnight is for doin’ evil.”

“Right,” said Williams.

“Seems like we need a little of both tonight,” said Minerva, “so we best be on our way. Put the paper in your pocket where the dimes is, and take your bottle of water. We goin’ to the flower garden.”

Minerva picked up her shopping bag and headed out the back door. We followed close behind as she made her way down the lane with a slow and ponderous stride. As she approached the next house, an old man got up from a chair on the porch and went inside. A window in another house closed. A door shut somewhere. Two men standing beside an oleander bush parted when they caught sight of Minerva and withdrew into the darkness. In a few moments, we reached the end of the lane. The sliver of a new moon hung like a slender cradle over a grove of tall, dark trees. We were at the edge of a graveyard. On the far side, a hundred yards beyond the trees, a floodlit basketball court cast a pale gray light into the graveyard. A boy was bouncing a ball and taking shots at the basketball hoop. Thunk, thunk, thunkproinnng. Otherwise, the graveyard was deserted.

To blow and to swallow at the same time is not easy; I cannot at the same time be here and also there.

—Plautus, 200 BC

“A lot a people does this kind of work,” Minerva said. “But it look like we got the garden all to ourselves tonight.”

We walked single file into the graveyard, taking a winding route and stopping finally at a grave under a large cedar tree. My first thought was that this was a new grave, because unlike the others the soil appeared to be freshly spread on top of it. Minerva knelt by the headstone. She reached into the shopping bag and gave Williams a trowel.

“Go to the other end and dig a hole four inches deep with this spade,” she said. “Drop one of the dimes into it and cover it up.” Williams did as she said. The earth came up with no effort at all. The grave had clearly been dug into and churned so often that the soil was as loose as sand in a sandbox.

I stood a few yards back and watched. Minerva and Williams were like two people kneeling at the opposite ends of a picnic blanket. They faced each other over the bones of Dr. Buzzard.

“Now’s the time for doin’ good,” said Minerva. “First we gotta get that boy to ease off a little. Tell me somethin’ about him.”

“He tried to kill me,” said Williams.

“I know that. Tell me something before that.”

“Well.” Williams cleared his throat. “Danny was always getting into fights. He got mad at his landlord once and threw a chair through the man’s window. Then he went outside and tore up his car with a brick. Another time, he got angry at an exterminator who’d been hired to spray his apartment, so he punched him in the eye, banged his head on the pavement and then later, after the man had sworn out a police warrant against him, took a baseball bat and chased him around Madison Square, screaming that he was going to kill him. He bragged to me once that he’d fired five shots from a pistol at some guy on a motorcycle because the guy was trying to date the same barmaid Danny was seeing at the time. One bullet hit the guy in the foot. His mother had to get police protection from him. She took out a peace warrant against him, which meant if he came within fifty feet of her he’d be arrested.”

Minerva wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “It ain’t doin’ no good,” she said. “That boy is still workin’ hard against you.” She thought for a moment. “Tell me somethin’ good he done.”

“I can’t think of anything,” said Williams.

“All he ever done was bad things? What made him happy?”

“His Camaro,” said Williams. “He loved that Camaro. He used to zoom around in it and see how many wheels he could get off the ground at once. If he turned a corner real fast, he could usually get two wheels in the air. When he drove out to Tybee, he liked to shoot up over that bump in the road leading onto the Lazaretto Creek Bridge, because if he hit it just right he could get all four wheels off the ground at the same time. He loved doing that. He wouldn’t let anybody touch that car. It was his pride and joy. He painted it with a spray can, flat black, just the way he wanted it. He’d spend hours fixing it and cleaning it and painting those racing stripes on it. And he was very good at that, painting those stripes and the little curlicues. He was very creative. That’s something most people didn’t understand about Danny. He was an artist. He flunked every subject in school but art. He always got an A in art. Of course, his talent wasn’t developed. He didn’t have the patience. I have a couple of his paintings. They’re full of fantasy and they’re wild, but you can see he had talent. I used to tell him, ‘Danny, do something with this. You’re good at it.’ But he could never apply himself to anything. He never got past the eighth grade, but he was quickwitted and bright. One time I paid him to dismantle two crystal chandeliers at Mercer House and clean them. When he was just about finished reassembling them, I noticed he’d attached all the little prisms backward. There were hundreds of them. I explained that each of the prisms was like a diamond ring and that the flat surface had to face out and the pointed surface had to face inward, otherwise it wouldn’t sparkle. I told him he’d have to take them all off and put them back on the right way. I said I’d pay him for the extra time it took. Well, he looked at that chandelier. He looked at it real long like it was a rattlesnake. Then he climbed down from the ladder and said, ‘The hell with it. I’m outta here. I ain’t servin’ no prism sentence!’ I laughed at his pun. I thought it was delightful. He turned around and stormed out of the house, but I could see the corner of his mouth was turned up in a little grin. It pleased him that I’d laughed at his joke.”

Minerva smiled. “I felt him backin’ off a little,” she said.

“What do you mean?” asked Williams.

“I felt it just as you was sayin’ those things about him. I felt that boy ease up some.”

“Why do you suppose that happened?” Williams asked.

“He heard you say you loved him,” Minerva said.

“What?! But that’s…He tried to kill me!”

“I knew he was workin’ against you, baby, and now I know what he was tryin’ to do! He was tryin’ to make you hate him. He wants you to show the world you hate him. That way, they’ll think you hated him bad enough to kill him in cold blood. If you do that, you will surely go to jail, and he knows it.”

“I have every right to hate him,” said Williams. “He tried to kill me.”

“And he paid a heavy price for it. Now he’s tryin’ to make you pay a heavy price too!”

Minerva turned her shopping bag upside down and hurriedly spread its contents in front of her. “We ain’t got time to argue! That was the openin’ I was lookin’ for. Now I can get to work. Quick, we ain’t got much time left. It must be nearin’ midnight. Dig another hole and put another dime in it, and this time think about that boy’s Camaro! Come on! Do it! Think about them pretty stripes the boy painted on it and how good he done it.”

Williams silently dug another hole and dropped another dime in. Minerva dug a hole at her end and slipped a root into it. Then she covered it up and sprinkled it with a white powder.

“Now dig another hole, and this time think about that boy’s two paintings you got. Think how good they was. We tryin’ to keep him off your case. He’s backin’ off. Oh, he’s backin’ off. I feel it.”

Minerva took a twig and poked it into the ground several times, mumbling and chanting as she did. She sprinkled some more powder and then drew a circle in the dirt. “You through, baby? Now do it another time and think about that ‘prism sentence.’ Think how it made you laugh. And think how your laughin’ made the boy smile. Do that for me.”

Minerva continued her ministrations over the head of Dr. Buzzard, while down at the old man’s feet Williams silently dug yet another hole.

“Now do it one more time,” said Minerva, “and this time drop the rest of the dimes into the hole and think about all them things together. And think about anything else that was good about that boy that maybe you ain’t told me yet.” Minerva watched as Williams followed her instructions. “Now take that bottle and pour a little water on each of the covered-up holes, so your kindly thoughts about that boy will take root and flower and come back to bless you.”

Minerva closed her eyes and sat in silence for several minutes. A church bell began to chime the hour of midnight. She opened her eyes again and quickly picked up a pink plastic purse. She scooped a trowel of dirt into it. “Graveyard dirt works best when it come from a grave right at midnight,” she said. “This ain’t for your job, though, baby. This is for my private use.” She sighed. “Black magic never stops. What goes from you comes to you. Once you start this shit, you gotta keep it up. Just like the utility bill. Just like the grocery store. Or they kill you. You got to keep it up. Two, five, ten, twenty years.” The purse was now bulging with dirt. She put it back into her shopping bag.

© 1994 John Berendt. Used with permission of Random House, Inc.

Contributor

John Berendt

From Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Born in Syracuse in 1939, Berendt graduated from Harvard University in 1961, taking a job as an editor at Esquire the same year. He worked on both the David Frost and Dick Cavett shows in the 1970s before returning to Esquire as a columnist in 1982. He published his first book, the nonfiction Midnight, in 1994, which spent 216 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list, and his second book, The City of Fallen Angels, in 2005