My parents didn't believe in ghosts, even though it is universally acknowledged that an old house where someone has died under suspicious circumstances must be in possession of one.
Such was the case with the farm house on Old Bourque Road in Jefferson Davis Parish when we moved there the summer after my sixth-grade year. I loved everything about the house, from its cornflower blue siding and wraparound porch to the tree swing in the Live Oak near the driveway.
Not much happens during the summer months in southern Louisiana besides mosquitos, ice cream, and visiting. The latter provided me with my first and only friend in my new home town. Tina, or Tatee as most knew her, was the daughter Mom's childhood classmate. When Tatee and arrived with her mom one languid Tuesday afternoon, she waited for me on the porch as our moms drifted into the kitchen.
"Don't you wanna come in?" I asked her.
She stared past me, her complexion pale. "Let’s play outside. I want to try out your tree swing."
We “passed a nice day” as the Cajuns would say, swinging and sipping lemonade on the front porch. Between us, the exterior of our glasses beaded with condensation and seemed to glide across the table of their own volition.
I didn't realize Tatee was afraid to enter my house until the fifth time she came over. "Why do you always want to stay outside? Come see my room."
"Are you sure it's safe?"
"Why wouldn't it be?"
"Because.” She worried her lower lip between her teeth. “Your house is haunted."
I would have laughed except for the fear brewing like storm clouds in her eyes. I grabbed her wrist and pulled her inside. "C'mon."
We sat on my four-poster bed and she told me about the house’s history. It turned out at least one family member had died for every family who lived here. Sometimes they all did.
"How—" My voice cracked. I swallowed and tried again. "How did they die?"
"No one will say. At least, not to me."
What had my parents been thinking moving us into a death house? I pushed the thoughts aside. This was the first time Tatee had come into my room and there was something I wanted to show her. I wasn’t going to waste it worrying over some Louisiana superstition.
I pulled out a worn oblong box from my closet and placed it between us on the bed. A puff of dust made both of us cough. "I found this when we moved in. Do you know what it is?"
She lifted the lid and removed a wooden board game. Her fingers slid across the glossy surface where the alphabet was arrayed in two arcs. The upper corners bore the word oui or non, and the bottom center held adieu.
"It's a Ouija board. A really old one, I think."
"How do you play 'Ouija board'?" I asked.
She replaced the lid and pushed the box back to me. "You don’t play it. Not really. You ask it questions and it gives you the answers. It uses voodoo magic, I think, to talk to the dead.”
I let that sink in until the inevitable conclusion lodged in my brain. "Maybe we could talk to the people who died here. Find out what happened to them." I grabbed Tee's hands. "Do you know how?"
"I played once at a sleepover." Her teeth found her lower lip again. "We'd need to find the planchette if you want to try it. I didn't see one in the box."
A planchette, she told me, was the board's steering wheel. It was a separate piece shaped like a comic strip talk balloon used to point to the letters.
Before we had a chance to search for it, the shriek of squealing tires crescendoed into a sickening crunch that sounded like the world's largest soda can collapsing. We rushed to the window. Outside, wrapped around the oak tree where we liked to swing, was my father's crumpled car. I've had an aversion to sodas ever since.
I found a journal on my pillow when we returned from my father's funeral. While friends and relatives mingled in the living room speaking in sepulchral tones, I curled onto my window seat and tucked my long black skirt beneath me. The yellowed pages crinkled as I turned them.
Entries dated back one hundred years, to 1879. The first several were in French so I couldn't read anything beside the dates. Then I got to Sunday, May 8, 1939, Mother's Day:
We buried Mother today.
The next few entries were in the same handwriting:
May 15th - Peter has taken ill. Father has called the doctor.
May 17th - Peter grows worse. The doctor believes his humeurs are out of balance. Perhaps tea will help.
May 22nd - We buried Peter today, but now Father is ill. The doctor says it is the curse and urges us to leave, but Father is too weak to travel.
May 29th - We buried Father today. I would leave, but I have nowhere to go.
May 31st – I am unwell. Philanthrope says it is only a matter of time before I see my family again.
Then the entries switched to a different handwriting.
November 20, 1941, Thanksgiving Day - Papa died today when one of the bulls gored him. Mother says we can't afford to stay here. We shall move in with Mamaw and Papaw after the funeral.
December 25, 1941, Christmas - Would that Mama had moved us when she had the chance. She didn't, and now she too has fallen to the curse. Mamaw and Papaw can't bear to stay in the house where Mother grew up, so now they will come here and make Alphonse and I stay in the house where she and Papa died.
January 8, 1942 - Mamaw and Papaw are both ill. Philanthrope says once they are gone, Alphonse and I will be safe if we leave. Alphonse agrees we should go as soon as the funeral is over.
The journal was filled with similar entries. Sometimes whole families died and there was a lapse of years between entries. Other times only one person perished and the survivors vacated the house shortly before the next family arrived. Sometimes the victims died in bizarre accidents. Other times entire families fell to sickness.
Cold fingers of dread wrapped around my heart as I closed the book. Taped to the back cover was the missing Ouija planchette.
Mom's eyes were puffy and red when she came to tuck me in. I showed her the journal and Ouija board and explained about the curse.
"Who gave this trash to you? Was it Tatee?" She grabbed the board and book from me.
"No one. I found it in the house when we moved in—"
"Promise me you will never use a Ouija board, Marilyn. Nothing good can come from them." Her gaze skewered me, daring me to defy her.
"I won't. I don't even know how." At least not all of it was a lie.
“People pretend the boards are children’s games, but they’re evil. This is the witchcraft the Bible warns us against.” Mom crossed herself before leaning down to kiss me on the forehead.
“Are we going to move now that Daddy’s gone?”
“I’m not sure we can afford to move anywhere else.” She smiled sadly, then left my room taking the board, journal, and planchette with her. "I love you, sweetheart."
I waited until she was asleep to dig the Ouija board and journal out of the metal trashcan outside. She might not want to move, but I wasn’t sure we could afford to stay here.
The first time I the ghost conversed with me was after my shower the next morning. The words GO AWAY appeared in the fog on my bathroom mirror, spelled out one letter at a time.
"Who are you?" I asked aloud, but the invisible finger was silent.
Tatee came over after lunch to help me use the Ouija board. Mom had taken to her bed to fais do do, take a nap, so it was the perfect time to see what the board could tell us.
Tee and I sat across from one another on the window seat, the Ouija board propped on our knees. The letters faced me but they were upside down to her.
"Place your fingertips lightly on the planchette and relax."
I did as she instructed.
"Now, what do you want to ask?"
That part was easy. "Who can help us break the curse?"
The planchette moved. It hovered over the letter P, then H, then I, then L.
"Are you doing this?" I hissed to Tatee.
A ... N ... T ... H ...
She shook her head.
R... O ... P ... E ...
The planchette stilled.
"Philanthrope," I said. "That was the name in the journal."
"It's also French for philanthropist."
She gave me a sheepish grin. "I’m not sure."
"Where do we find Philanthrope?" I posed the question to Tatee, but the planchette moved again.
H ... E ... R ... E ...
"Are you Philanthrope?"
The planchette slid to the word oui — yes.
I spoke the next query carefully. "What do I need to do to get my mom to leave this house?"
The response: Oleander Tea.
After the strange look Tatee's mother gave us when we asked her if she had a recipe for Oleander Tea, we headed to the public library.
We didn't find a specific recipe, but making tea from leaves didn't seem difficult. Once we discovered oleander was a type of bush and there were tons of them around the library, we had everything we needed. And while we were on a roll, we looked up philanthropist in the dictionary: a person who seeks to promote the welfare of others. Perhaps Philanthrope was a guardian angel.
I stuffed my pockets with leaves before Tatee and I returned to our separate houses. Since tea and coffee were basically the same, I loaded the coffee pot with the tiny Oleander leaves and set it to brew. After it finished, I squirted honey in the bottom of a mug and filled the rest with my concoction. Steam from the mug swirled into a smiling face for a moment as I carried the tea to my mother's room. Philanthrope was pleased.
Mom wrinkled her nose at the smell but said it didn't taste bad. She seemed touched that I'd gone through all the trouble to make her "surprise tea." I didn't tell her what kind it was in case she refused to drink it.
Afterward, I regretted the omission.
Three days later, I updated the death log journal.
July 4, 1979 - Mom died at the hospital. It turns out oleander is a poison, Philanthrope is a liar, and I’m a fool.
On July 5th, I set the house on fire to make sure no one would ever live there again.
My hopes doused with the flames as volunteer firemen put out the fire before it really began. Instead of igniting like a tinderbox, the old Cypress siding had simply smoked enough to alert the neighbors to my plan.
No one believed me about the ghost despite the journal, the Ouija board, and Tatee's testimony. For the next six years, I split my time between mental health and juvenile correction facilities around the state of Louisiana. I wasn't idle though. Like all accomplished ladies, I learned French. As a juvenile delinquent, I learned to not let others manipulate me. I also became something of an expert on Jefferson Davis Parish history.
Philanthrope Fortuna took possession of the farm house in 1871 when the original owners, the childless Bourques, died of a wasting sickness. As their beloved housekeeper, Philanthrope was the sole beneficiary of their will.
Known far and wide for her benevolence, Philanthrope took in boarders free of charge and hosted weekly séances with her Ouija board to reconnect those in mourning with the departed. She lived until 1877 when one of her boarders bludgeoned her in her sleep.
At eighteen, I was released from the correction system. I returned to the house to find windows broken, cornflower paint faded and peeling, tree swing gone, and weeds obscuring the wraparound porch. No wonder the house never sold. I removed the For Sale sign from the yard and brought it inside, stepping over leaves and skirting scurrying bugs, until I reached my bedroom.
Around midnight, a transparent figure appeared. Unlike her happy visage in the steam of the Oleander Tea, this time Philanthrope scowled at me.
I rested the For Sale sign on my lap just like a Ouija board. "You’ve killed or run off everyone who has ever lived in this house, probably including that old couple who left you the house in their will. You’ve murdered moms and dads, daughters and sons. You’ve even tricked children into poisoning themselves or their parents.
“Here’s the thing, Philanthrope. Haunting works both ways. You think you deserve to live here alone and in peace. Well, guess what? I’m not going anywhere. And you can’t trick me, because I already know all about you."
When she disappeared in a puff of smoke, I smiled for the first time in six years.