It’s a place that is soaked in evil.
It comes from deep in the impoverished soil, which even with the greatest effort never quite becomes sweet. Yes, things will grow there, but never as easily nor as well as in the rest of the state. Animals will grow stunted, sicken more easily, die sooner. And the people themselves are different: they look at you, a stranger, with hostility. Mistrust is in the air; murder seems a probability.
Travel through it, and it impresses only by its extreme ugliness. Yes, there are the bluffs that line the Wisconsin River, but beyond them the land is flat. There is nothing but malevolence: husbands drink whiskey, fight with their wives, slay their families, and never feel a shred of remorse.
The mystics attribute it to a vortex: while some places shield, comfort, nurture, the energy in a vortex is reversed. The place sucks your energy relentlessly: the bizarre becomes the believable.
No one who has known it would be surprised by one of the most famous citizens of the area: Ed Gein. You don’t know him? Well, have you seen the film Psycho? The weirdo in the film was a model citizen next to Gein, who exhumed bodies, made lampshades of the skin, kept nine vulvae in boxes, and generally was crazy. So crazy that the psychiatrists couldn’t figure out whether the murder of one of Gein’s victims was intentional or not.
Yes, that’s the place I was raised: my mother came to the area in the early part of the century from Transylvania. She was young, she was beautiful, and she was gifted. She could see what others could not, as many could from her part of Eastern Europe.
Did we have gypsy blood, as my father claimed, usually when drunk? It may be, since my mother made a tidy income by offering her services as a spiritist. Yes, a spiritist, not a spiritualist. That term would come later, when what had been an honest, principled attempt to communicate with the dead was cheapened to a charlatan’s trick.
With my mother, there was nothing of that. She believed, and believed fervently, in her skills, and she had no use for those who claimed that a fortune was a stone’s throw away, or that a handsome young blade could at last enter a dry spinster’s embrace.
Only very rarely did she give advice; never, that I can recall, did she dispense practical information. Rather, she communicated the truths that those who had passed on had learned.
“Fear not death,” she often said, “for I am with you, though you may not see me. I walk with you always, and cast my loving protection over you.”
The critics scoffed, of course, and said that such platitudes were rubbish. But what if they were? What if someone, wracked with grief for a young wife passed on, got some relief that his beloved was still present? Is anyone helped by the belief that death is final? Or that it is a nullity—that an existence stops, is blown out like a spent candle?
And who can explain the events that took place in her readings? How often the table rocked, how frequently were the sounds of knocking in far, empty corners of the room? After each session, no matter how chill the air, my mother would be drenched in sweat. She would retire, exhausted but still unable to sleep; years later, when I suffered my own visions, I would understand the combination of excitement and fatigue.
They sought her from all parts of the state, and even from beyond. For Wonewoc was famous for its Spiritist Camp: people travelled for miles to see the mediums communicating with the other world. And no one who had had a reading done there left unmoved.
She had great powers, my mother, and not always were they a gift to her. She knew, for example, what woman had a cheating husband, even if the woman did not. And her breath grew short if she encountered a person with tuberculosis, even if undiagnosed. Yes, the barrier between the seen and the unseen was for her very thin, and she could not help seeing what others could not, and what she might not want.
“I hope you don’t have my gift,” she often said to me, “for whatever it has brought me, it has taken much more. But if you have the gift, I pray you use it well. Never lie, never cheat. Never dim the lights, and never claim that you are receiving a message that you are not. Don’t be afraid to say that there is silence, that no message is being received. And if you are given money, take it, but never ask. Many a good medium has lost her powers by charging for the gift.”
That was typical of my mother, who was generous to a fault. And how she paid for that generosity! For my father abused it compulsively: even when he wasn’t drunk, his contempt for my mother and her work was clear.
Far worse was when he was drunk, and really, how often was he not? He was a trucker—one of the earliest—and often on the road. When he came home, the mood in the house changed: we grew silent, apprehensive, waiting for the shouting, the accusations, finally the blows. Yes, he beat us often, starting with my mother: I can see her now, sitting at the dining room table, as he towered over her and screamed that the food was dry, or burned.
“Dammit, can’t a man come home to a decent meal? Two weeks I was on the road, and I come home to this? This is shit!”
We knew what would come, even as we knew that it would come regularly, each time he came home. For the rage entered the house with him, and grew, slowly grew. Our nerves quivered, we smelled it, we felt it as we felt the air grow charged, and the storm built up, until at last it exploded.
My mother, my mother—she put her arm up to her face, to shield it from the blows. Was it pride? Was it dread of what the neighbors would say? Was it disgust, to know that others would pity her? Or did she know that a medium with a black eye was a poor candidate for someone’s confidence?
At any rate, she shielded her face, which only incensed my father further. He would grab her arm, lift her to her feet, and throw her into a corner of the room. There, the pummeling would continue, accompanied by the insults and taunts that her carried bundled up inside him.
She would gesture to us, shooing us out of the room. We escaped, but there was no escaping the anger and fury of my father words. Nor could we deafen ourselves to my mother’s cries.
Nothing, I learned, lasts forever. The rage would play itself out; the storm would pass. At last, my father would storm out of the house, and we could breathe again, for a little while. But never fully, since he was always there, even when he wasn’t, since wouldn’t he come back? However late the night might be, the bar would close, and he would lurch home, often falling, and often unable to put his key into the lock.
We learned: better to leave the door unlocked, than to have him pounding on the door, shouting out, wakening the neighbors. No, my mother had her pride, and if everyone knew—or suspected—of the hell of our life with my father, she didn’t want it aired.
Worse, she didn’t want to see him, or hear him, as he came home drunk. For often, he would be contrite, crying, weeping, begging forgiveness.
“Aw, honey, I feel so bad! I’ll never, never hit you again! I don’t know what came over me, I was just so tired and so weary of being on the road. Believe me, darling, you’re the best thing in my life! I love you more than I can stand! That’s why I blow up, sometimes, because it hurts to think that you might not love me! Do you love me, honey? I don’t expect you to love me as much as I love you, but do you have even a little love for me? Please, honey!”
It was insufferable to hear: I could feel my mother stiffening in bed, revolted by the whiskey on his breath, by his fumbling hands trying to caress her.
“Please, Edward, the children are sleeping. Yes, I love you….”
Better it was to feign sleep, and never to hear another drunken plea for forgiveness, another liquor-drenched promise to make amends. She would lie stiffly in bed, awaiting his arrival, ignoring his clanging into the bedroom, his fumbling to take off his clothes.
She would feign sleep, but the next morning it was impossible not to see. She would be haggard, in spirit as much as in body. She moved as a person moves in quicksand; the sorrow and the rage pulling her downward, downward into a death no one could see.
No one but ourselves….