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Black Juju

Bodies...

By C. Rommial ButlerPublished 9 months ago Updated 3 months ago 16 min read
3
The song on which this story is loosely based...

From the journal of Jim Valance:

Friday, February 4, 2022

To be an individual or a drone in the hive?

Moral traditions and social conventions come and go over generations, but an individual only lives once.

To be a value lost to time or create values for all time?

We all lose ourselves in the end. Why should we be in such a hurry to lose ourselves from the beginning?

Could it be nothing more than arbitrary conditioning?

These abstract questions assailed me as I leaned on the handle of a shovel. I just dug a fresh grave. A beam from the mid-morning sun snuck through the branches of the old oak trees around me, cradling my face like two warm hands.

The backhoe does most of the work, of course. I just jump down in the hole and clean it out, make it nice and pretty for the newly deceased. It's not a glamorous job, but it's a living.

Digging graves has become a daily meditation. The motions are so familiar that my mind is free to think while my body performs the work.

My thoughts plunge deeper than my spade now, and sometimes, as this morning, they seem odd to me, like they are not my own. Like they come from the earth itself.

I live in Corpus Christi, Texas. A diverse city. I see all sorts of burial rites, but the holes I dig are in the same earth. The same earth, blessed by many different well-wishers with many distinct ideas about what happens to us after we die.

They want to see their loved ones safely to the other side, and many of them hope for a blissful reunion. I can't blame them.

I've been doing this job for twenty years now. When I started, I was a young man just out of high school. Since then, I've lost a few loved ones of my own.

I grew up in a poor neighborhood. My family consists mostly of thieves, gangsters, and drug addicts. My mom, however, is a saint among sinners. My pop died when I was barely old enough to remember him. From the demon cancer.

I couldn't stand falling in with the crowd and disappointing Mom, so I self-isolated when I took this job. I buried myself in the work of burying others.

While many of those I grew up with lost their lives to shady street deals, overdoses, and prison sentences, I was burying bodies. Sometimes theirs.

When I dug a grave for an old friend, I took the time to recall the joys we experienced together. When we were just innocent children who didn't know the streets would chew us up and spit us back into the earth.

Bobby McGee. We slummed around the neighborhood, basketball in hand, looking for pickup games. Some days we found fist fights instead. Either way, we always had each other's back.

He became a barfly and got in one fist fight too many. A man shot him in a downtown dive bar. When I buried him, I thought of basketball instead of bullets.

Erin Easter. She was the girl next door. I had a thing for her, but we were only ever friends. When I found out she lost her life to a fentanyl overdose, that struck me deep.

Mom said, "She was such a nice girl. What happened?"

I didn't want to upset Mom, so I just shrugged and shook my head. But I know what happened.

What happened was Erin's stepdad molested her. I buried him too, and I regret that I didn't bury him sooner, after seeing to his demise myself.

Erin's mom and mine talked. They were neighbors, after all. Sheena Easter weeps every day for her lost husband, whose name she made Erin take; but conspicuously she doesn’t show quite the same level of emotion for the daughter she never bothered to find. I figure I'll bury Mrs. Easter one day too, but I won't have any fond memories of her.

When I buried Erin, I thought of a day when we were both twelve. She kissed me on the lips. It was the only kiss she ever gave me. I've never married, but I've had my share of fun over the years. Nevertheless, that was my first kiss, and I still think of it as the best I ever got.

Then there's my younger brother, Tommy Valance. At eighteen, he got caught running a racket with a local street gang, spent five years in prison. He got some education there. When he got out, he wanted more.

I helped pay. I dug graves so he could expand his mind and move up in life. He's a busy man now. A lawyer up north. But he calls and visits as often as he can.

I'm proud of him. I smile every time I realize I didn't have to bury him too. I hope one day he has kids. I'd like to dote on some nieces and nephews.

I get to thinking about how I was once an innocent child, like Bobby, Erin, Tommy, and so many others. How I couldn't have known any better than what I was taught. How I spent all these years digging graves just so I could escape my own conditioning.

What am I now? Just a gravedigger pushing forty? Or are these abstract thoughts not so abstract after all? Does my perspective have a value that could outlive this body? When I am interned in the earth, will I have left something behind other than a fading memory in my brother's mind?

I read a lot. I think a lot. I dig a lot. Reading, thinking, and digging all seem like different versions of the same activity to me.

The internet became widely available during my time here at the graveyard. It's nice to have the whole world's knowledge at my fingertips, in a little computer I can hold in the palm of my hand. But I still prefer a solid hard copy if I can get one, so I scout the ever-dwindling brick and mortar stores, library sales, online marketplaces, and anywhere else I can find a bound copy of a book.

It was during such wanderings, at a library sale, that I found The Death and Resurrection of Alice.

It was a book from 1891. The copy I have was a reprint from 1907. That means the tale must have been popular for a couple generations.

The author of the book, Vincent Cooper, swears that the tale is not fiction. He saw Alice Furnier come back from the dead with his own eyes. During that time, burying people alive was a big problem. A bell was sometimes placed next to the grave with a string run down into the casket, just in case someone awoke six feet under, running out of air.

Alice rang the bell. They dug her up. Cooper says that she was not buried alive, but quite dead. It was her mother who used a certain incantation to raise her, and Cooper knew the name of the arcane tome from which the evil magic was culled.

Black Juju. It was supposed to have been written by Abdul Alhazred, the Necronomicon guy.

This immediately made me doubt Cooper's account. Alhazred and the Necronomicon were fictional concepts created by H.P. Lovecraft in the 1920s.

See the discrepancy? If Lovecraft didn't invent Alhazred until the 1920s, how did Vincent Cooper link him to Black Juju in the 1890s?

Besides, Juju is West African tribal magic, not Middle Eastern ceremonial magic.

I turned to the internet first. Went down a lot of rabbit holes. As it turns out, I don't have the whole world's knowledge at my fingertips, because I found very little, other than the knowledge Lovecraft used the Alhazred pseudonym since his youth, and it wasn't a correct Arabic spelling of the name.

No one can say for sure where he picked it up, but my bet is that Lovecraft read Cooper's book.

The Death and Resurrection of Alice certainly looked old enough. The brownish yellow pages and cracked binding lent some weight to the authenticity of the year stamped inside the cover. I had to be delicate with it to keep from cracking the pages when I turned them.

I had some vacation time, so I decided to take a trip to New Orleans and poke around where my nose didn't belong. I'd been there before. I knew my way around some bookstores and voodoo shops.

Long story short, I didn't find all the answers I was looking for, but I found the book. I found Black Juju. It was a little black book about the size of a paperback, handbound in leather with vellum pages, nothing written on the cover or spine. No inscriptions on the inside but the title. No attribution as to author. Just instructions and commentary handwritten in English. A grimoire.

The shopkeeper who sold it to me made me swear never to reveal either her name or the price I paid. I can only say I paid with a favor instead of money.

I asked about the provenance of the book. The shopkeeper laughed when I mentioned Alhazred.

"The Mad Arab is white people folk legend," she said. "It bounced around way before Lovecraft. Just not a lot of those books still around by the time Lovecraft was writing, so people thought he invented it.

As to who wrote Black Juju, I couldn't tell you. Coulda been one of my ancestors from West Africa or some European alchemist. Obviously, this is a handwritten copy, but I can't even tell you if it's a translation, though I strongly suspect it’s not an original. I've only ever seen the English versions, so I got nothing to compare it to."

Then she looked me up and down, taking the measure of me, before she settled into a long gaze, holding me with her eyes.

"But let me tell you, mister,” she said, “whoever wrote this knew their business. It works. I see you have a pure heart. I sense it in you. But you also have that morbid curiosity. Beware! The purest heart won't save you from the madness of the yawning abyss. If all you do is read the book, you'll be fine."

"How do you know it works?" I asked.

"Ah, see? There's that morbid curiosity I was talking about! It'll have to remain a mystery, Mr. Valance. There's only one way you can find out if I'm telling the truth, and I do not recommend it!"

She laughed good and long at that one, then shooed me away. "I got work to do, Mr. Valance, and I'm guessing you do too."

So really, I don't know what I found in New Orleans. Is Black Juju just a fabrication like the Necronomicon? Or is it an authentic occult treatise?

The only way to find out is to try the rituals in the book. Juju refers to the charging of talismans. What Cooper described in The Death and Resurrection of Alice is a spell that brings the dead back to life.

A rose is consecrated and placed in the casket before internment. As the rose decays, the corpse reanimates.

I found this ritual in Black Juju. I bury people almost every day. I don't think much about the shopkeeper's saying I have a pure heart. But the morbid curiosity is real.

Then the demon cancer returned to take my mother. Ellis Damon, my boss, told me I didn’t have to dig her grave today, but I insisted. Mom bore me from her womb. My labor on her behalf must pale in comparison to her labor on mine.

Tommy flew in often when Mom was going through radiation and chemotherapy at the hospital. He took care of the bills while I took care of the physical duties. He tried to make it to see her the day before last, but his flight got delayed, so it was just me there holding her hand as the light faded from her eyes.

“I love you, Jim. I’m so proud. Tell Tommy I love him. Tell him I’m proud.”

Those were her last words. She died smiling as I wept. I bent down and kissed her on the forehead. Tears fell from my eyes onto her gaunt face.

Mom was Catholic. She really believed like I never could. She had the last rites performed several times during her ordeal with cancer.

Now I’m faced with a dilemma. I went to Mom’s house yesterday with a fifth of whiskey whose contents gradually diminished as I wandered around, looking through her things. I found a box of old photographs. One of them was a picture Mom took of Tommy and me as teens, planting a bush of Knockout Roses in the front yard for Mother’s Day. On the back of the photo Mom wrote: My Beautiful Boys!

It isn’t normal for Knockout Roses to bloom in south Texas in late winter, but it does happen. Mom’s roses were in full bloom the day after she died, and I was bound to think there was a connection.

In a bout of drunken sentiment last night, I cut a rose from the bush. I consecrated it as described in Black Juju.

In the sober light of a new day, as I undertook the solemn task of preparing my mother’s most holy place of final rest, I understood that I made a mistake.

I recall the description of Alice’s resurrection in Cooper’s book. It doesn’t sound like a life Mom would want to come back to. Alice came back a shambling zombie, was put down like a mad dog, and reburied. Mom was cancer-ridden. Even if there is no Heaven for her to ascend, what kind of Hell would I be bringing her back to experience?

Yet the author of Black Juju warned that a ritual begun must be completed. If it was not completed as intended, the consequences to the magician could be dire. There is no going back. As the author put it:

Charging a talisman is like shooting an arrow. Our intention is like pulling back the bowstring. When we charge the talisman, we let the arrow fly. If it does not hit the intended target, it will hit something. Beware! Let thine aim be true!

Yet I cannot follow through. I figure it’s all mumbo-jumbo despite the warnings of the shopkeeper and the author of Black Juju, but I won’t be flippant about it. I’ll keep the rose as a reminder of my folly.

When we love someone, we should respect their wishes.

Mom fought the cancer because she really believed that it was wrong not to fight until the end. But when the end came, she accepted it with a grace many of us, including myself, struggle to maintain, because to her part of keeping the faith meant earning the right to move on. If anyone earned that right, it was Mom.

Tommy will be at the airport soon. I look forward to seeing him even under these terrible circumstances. Tomorrow morning, we attend mass. Catholic funerals are quite an elaborate affair, but we’ll be happy to see Mom to the other side safely, the way she wanted to go.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Tommy and I talked a lot over dinner last night. The subject came up of the Mother’s Day when we planted the rose bush. I was embarrassed to admit my silly notion about the ritual from Black Juju. Tommy said I always was kind of strange, but that’s one of the things he loves about me. I showed him the rose.

“Looks the same as all the others to me,” he said, taking it from me and regarding it from different angles. “Mom really loved those roses. We should cut some from the bush and leave them with her. Just maybe not this one.” He laughed as he handed it back to me.

I laughed too.

Tommy and I decided we should personally bury Mom. Two sons, two shovels. Hard, quiet work, meditating on what we lost and how much more we gained, how blessed we are to have had her in our life at all.

Ellis also refused to allow us to pay any of the expenses. Tommy protested, but Ellis insisted. He said it was the least he could do. The man was like a father to me. I gave him a long, firm hug. We came away wiping a little moisture from our cheeks.

A lot of folks showed up this morning to pay their respects, close to two hundred in total. Some faces I’d not seen in a while. Some I had no urge to see, but I’m still thankful they made the trip. Everybody loved Mom. She gave to all and expected nothing in return. Even when she sometimes got punished for her good deeds, she never complained. Such was God’s will, in her eyes.

When the funeral was over we bid everyone to head back to Mom’s house, and we would meet them there. Aunt Celia, our dad’s sister, said she would hold down the fort while Tommy and I finished up at the grave. By the time we got there, Celia was feeding everyone, and they were all taking turns telling stories about Mom.

At the grave, I stood next to my brother. In silence we watched the casket as it lowered to the bottom of the hole. Then the other workers left us to our task. In silence, we each took a shovel in hand, and one slow stroke after another, taking equal turns, we buried the woman who gave us life. All that time the consecrated rose was in the inside pocket of my jacket.

I admitted to Tommy on the way home the distinct feeling that our personal burial rite this morning nullified my stupid intention of two nights ago. He said he was sure it did, though I doubt he believed any of it was a real cause for concern. He was always more practical than me.

I suppose for some of us, especially in times of grief and stress, our superstitious minds will imagine such things to cope with the reality of our short lives. To prop up our belief that we do have power over these tragic events. Sometimes, even if it’s not real, and even if it’s bad, we’d prefer some control to none.

Tommy is sleeping off the day on the living room couch at Mom’s house as I write this. I left him there snoring after a few drinks and walked down the street to my own home. I never could stand to be too far away from Mom, so I made sure to snap this place up when it hit the market.

Tommy said I could sell this place and move into Mom’s house. I don’t want that, though. Mom’s house is too big for me. I told him I’d rather find the right buyer. A family that needs a good home. I’d even sell it for less than it’s worth in that case. It’s all paid off anyway, so whatever comes from the sale is extra money. Tommy said he was fine with that.

We’ll have breakfast in the morning, and I’ll take Tommy to the airport. He’s got a case he can’t miss on Monday, and this is Saturday. A tough turnaround, I said, but he said it’s all part of the job. He likes his work. It’ll help get his mind off the grief for a bit.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

I got Tommy to his flight and gave him a long hug before he departed. He said he’d shoot me a text when he landed. It’s a two-hour flight. It’s been four hours. I hope everything is okay.

When I came home I remembered the rose. When I took it out of the inside pocket of my jacket, it crumbled to dust in my hand. It seems like it should have wilted slowly, and now my mind is working overtime on the implications.

I’m sure it’s nothing though.

Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Saturday, February 12, 2022:

Local Family Tragedy Becomes Morgue Mystery

James Valance was found dead by what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his home on Monday. He recently buried his mother, Bertha Valance, who passed from cancer. His younger brother, Thomas Valance, was a lawyer in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His plane went down in North Texas on the flight home after Bertha’s funeral last Saturday. A body has yet to be found.

To add insult to injury for the Valance family, James Valance’s body was somehow stolen from the morgue.

James worked for the Damon Funeral Home and Cemetery for over twenty years.

“Jim Valance was like a son to me,” said Ellis Damon, owner of the mortuary. “His pa died of cancer when he was only six, and I always tried to help his ma out after that. His ma and his brother and him were all good people. It’s a shame that so much pain should be visited on such good people. I never thought Jim would take his own life like that, but to lose his ma and his brother in less than a week? I just wish he’d talked to me. Then someone steals his body! I just don’t understand what this world is coming to.”

If you know anything about the abduction of James Valance’s body, call the local police.

***** * *****

Afterword:

I originally wrote this for an Alice Cooper charity anthology, but it wasn't selected. However, upon review I realized that this would make a great introduction to a full-length novel, and perhaps a Great American Novel.

Anyone who doubts that a horror novel can be a uniquely American classic need only read Shirley Jackson's House on Haunted Hill, Robert Bloch's Psycho, or Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. For what all of these novels explore about the American ethos is the very question Mary Shelley explored in Frankenstein, which has become a staple of the genre:

Who's the real monster here?

As for Jim Valance, dear reader, you might argue that his story is already over...

...but is it?

More horror from C. Rommial Butler:

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About the Creator

C. Rommial Butler

C. Rommial Butler is a writer, musician and philosopher from Indianapolis, IN. His works can be found online through multiple streaming services and booksellers.

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Comments (3)

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  • Veronica Coldiron9 months ago

    I was afraid the plane would go down, but when Tommy got to the funeral I thought he was safe. LOL! I love the way this pulls you in. It is especially close to my heart, having worked at an acquisitions company that owned funeral homes and cemeteries up and down the eastern seaboard. You have truly captured the deeply infective and quietly patient sort that do the heavy work. (I had a few loud, free spirits in the crews, but most were a lot like Jim). The Livecraftian lore was a nice touch and your musical choice was spot on. This would make a great American novel! I hope you write it! LOVED this! 😍

  • Omgggg, I never expected Tommy's plane to crash or Jim to shoot himself. But then again, that rose is not to be forgotten. Where did Jim's body go? Who took it? Did it walk out on it's own? I hope you continue this story! I loved it!

  • Mother Combs9 months ago

    <3 :D

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