Bottled Spirits by Pamela Kinney
By Pamela K. Kinney
The trapped souls always cry out loudest at night.
During the day, they chime soft, unless heavy winds shriek through the area. But night . . . night has its own set of rules for spirits locked away in bottles hung on the bottle tree.
Jessica threw back the blanket and tumbled out of bed. Though warmth blasted from the heater, she still felt cold. Goose bumps crept along her exposed skin like gophers sticking up their heads out of the ground. She snatched her fuzzy dressing gown off the chair by the bed and drew it on, cinching the belt tight. Barefoot, she padded over to the window, lifted the bottom of the curtain, and stared through the glass at the backyard.
Something had woken her up.
It was so dark outside, she couldn’t see a thing. She couldn’t hear anything either.
Must have been my imagination, or remnants of a nightmare. No more fried chicken at dinner for me.
Jessica turned away and climbed back into bed. She had to get up early to go to work.
A sound soft reached her ears. It grew louder, as if demanding that she listen. Torturous, angry, and chock-full of pain.
Free us. Why, why, did you imprison us? Listen, the night always makes our voices heard.
The voices rose until Jessica couldn’t stand it anymore and covered her ears with her hands. But they pushed their way through, between her fingers and into her ears. Their insisting haunted her, never leaving her alone even when she was asleep. It was always worse at night.
Ghosts aren’t real, right? Her father had told her that their ancestors believed in haints, as they called them: Southern Negro speech that gave spirits a more back-country twang. As if naming them so would tame the phantoms into nothing more than fodder for folklore.
So she had believed. Daddy had, too, at least until the end, of course.
Daddy had been a professor of anthropology at William and Mary University in the eighties and nineties. He had told her that as early as the ninth century, Central African people put out bottles to capture roaming spirits. In the morning they would either cork the bottle and throw it in the river, or let the sun burn up the spirit if it was evil. When the African people were captured and brought to the slave markets in the south, this belief along with many of their traditions and stories traveled with them. Bottle trees intertwined with all their folklore. That’s all they were, nothing more than made-up stories and traditions.
The last month of his life, though, Daddy had told her that he’d changed his mind. That spirits were real and they could be caught in the bottles. That spirits in the bottles in their own tree demanded their freedom. He kept saying that until his last breath.
Jessica told herself that Daddy had lost it. She knew ghosts did not exist.
Nowadays, thanks to those paranormal reality shows, people wanted ghosts to be real. They made the shows into modern versions of ghost tales around the campfire, so to speak. But she still didn’t believe in them. Never saw or heard one peep of anything paranormal.
The voices chimed in unison again. We’re real, Jessica. Your daddy’s here, too, trapped with us. Let us and him go.
“Shut up!” she screamed. “You are nothing but dreams.”
Your father said he’s going to switch your ass if you don’t set us free.
“My father never hit me once in his life,” she retorted.
Her father’s voice, deep like dark chocolate, filled her head. Maybe I should have. Then I wouldn’t be stuck in this bottle at the top of the tree in the garden, like some memory you won’t let go.
After that, the voices let her be and she forced herself back to sleep, even if an unsettling one. One filled with dreams. When she awoke to the insistent screaming of the alarm clock on her bedstead the next morning, sleep still befuddled her eyes and mind. She toppled out of bed like a blind person, avoiding pieces of furniture in her bedroom as she stumbled to the bathroom for a shower.
No voices filled her ears with chatter; with the dawn they had nothing to say.
Jessica sat at her desk at work, trying to keep her mind on her assignments for the day. It was hard, though. Her nightmares had been getting worse for the past couple of weeks. Voices of angry people, one of them her own father as of last night, and even her nana’s, had crowded their way into her head. Strange, she couldn’t remember any of the dreams. Just the voices.
God, I need a painkiller or two. Her head pounded like little men pickaxing her brain.
“Can’t work, Ms. Pointer?”
Jessica looked up and saw her boss standing over her like some god of vengeance. His face revealed busy brows squirming like fuzzy caterpillars over icy blue eyes, a fat blob of a nose, and a slashed mouth that always looked like he’d swallowed sour lemons.
God, she hated John Franks. A pure asshole among assholes. He would have been a good plantation overseer, whip in hand. He wielded it pretty well at work. No one said it out loud of course, but they all hated the man.
The pressure in her head grew worse.
A voice whispered in her ear. Tell his ass off.
Hell yeah! She stood.
“That’s right, I can’t work. How can anybody work with you standing over them?”
The brows wiggled wilder.
“Think I bring down your work ethic, Ms. Pointer?”
“You said it, not me, Mr. Franks.”
The fuzzy caterpillars reared up in shock. “Well, then, you can just clear out your desk and go. If you can’t handle me as your boss, then I guess you can’t handle this job, either.”
“Are you firing me?”
Several voices chimed in. Bastard! How dare he fire you?
The fuzzy caterpillars danced like mad now.
“You should have thought of that before you shot off your mouth.”
Heart pounding as hard as her headache, she realized he was firing her. That she had dared to smart-mouth him. What the hell is the matter with me? In these economic times, jobs were hard to come by and one didn’t try to get oneself fired.
Hands shaking, she gathered her belongings and stumbled out of the office, avoiding even a look at her coworkers. No doubt they were glad they hadn’t done such a stupid thing.
She arrived home twenty minutes later. The house was silent. No voices broke the air.
Maybe I should get a cat or a dog. No wonder I hear voices, living here all alone.
How stupid. Like she could really afford to feed some animal now that she no longer had a job. Jessica tossed her purse and coat on the couch and thumped down in a chair. Tears formed at her eyes.
Didn’t I tell you that you couldn’t keep your big mouth shut, bitch?
She stopped crying, her breathing hitched in her chest. That sounded like her ex, Leo, who had died in a car accident weeks before. She’d been glad, too. No more of his flying fists. No more of his yelling at her. No more of his abuse.
That’s right, you twit. I’m caught in one of your damned bottles! You better let me out before I—
“No, no, no,” she chanted like a mantra. “There’s no voices, no trapped souls in the bottles hanging on that tree. I don’t hear Leo—he’s dead. It’s only my imagination.”
I am not your imagination! Who else would remind you of the last day we were together. . . . You know, I had you bent over your couch, pounding away, then afterwards, I walked out the door for good. You were still reeling from the orgasm while you bawled as always and called me a no-good slob.
“That has to be me,” Jessica said in a whisper. “Not some ghost of a creep I was married to.”
Let me out of this bottle and I’ll show you what kind of ghost I am.
She got up, snatched her purse, and ran outside, not even thinking to lock the door behind her. No, she needed to get away.
Jumping in her car, she fought with her key in the ignition. When the engine finally cranked over, she roared away. She ended up at a small bar in Shockoe Bottom.
“What’ll you have?” asked the bartender as she sat at the bar.
“Anything that’ll keep the voices quiet.”
“Mmmmmm . . . a shot of whiskey?”
She nodded. “Yeah, give me the whole damn bottle!”
She stayed until the bar closed at 2 a.m. By that time she was pretty well soused. The bartender wanted to call her a cab, but she shook her head and grabbed her purse, staggering to the door before he could stop her.
“Don’t wanna leave my car here. Don’t you worry, I’ll make it home.”
“Lady, I really shouldn’t let you go in that condition.”
“No, thank you. I’m fine—really.”
She glanced over her shoulder to see what he would do next. Her vision swam, but when it settled she saw him shrug and attend to another customer.
She murmured to herself, “Least I won’t hear the damn voices tonight.”
Bleary-eyed and head pounding, she made it home in one piece. Her car was parked more on the grass than the driveway; she dropped her purse somewhere on the lawn and giggled as she fumbled around, not finding it.
“Shit,” she said, “I don’t have much in it, anyway. I’ll look for it in the morning.”
She teeter-tottered on wobbly legs to her front porch when she heard something. Like a chime.
“Who is that?” she asked.
Several voices answered. Jessica.
“No, no, no,” she sputtered. “All the drinking I did should have kept your mouths closed.”
Come on, Jessica. You think drinking would shut us up? All that drinking gets you is a hangover in the morning.
Leo’s voice blared out. Yeah, Jessi girl, remember how we both drank till the wee hours and ended up the next morning with our heads pounding like crazy?
“Leo, you hated me enough to leave my ass, didn’t you? Why bring up this memory? In fact, why the hell would you be haunting me?”
’Cause girl, I may have hated you, but damn, I loved you, too. Crazy, ain’t it?
Hey, why’s my baby girl talking to some jerk? Didn’t I raise you better than that? I should have whipped you more. You always chased after no-account bastards. And now, I’m stuck in this bottle with his worthless soul.
My worthless soul, you asshole? Your daughter was lucky to have me marry her. After all, she gave it to me for free before we wedded.
I’m going to kill you!
Jessica heard a loud horsey laugh just the way Leo always did it. Can’t. I’m already dead.
Other voices joined in. It sounded like all her dead relatives and a few friends who’d died. The fracas got louder and louder. Their noise joined the pounding in her head.
She was sick and tired of the bickering. Tired of each and every one of them. She staggered around the side of the house to the backyard. She spied the ax leaning against the house and she grabbed it, making her way over to the bottle tree. A breeze was blowing through its limbs and made the bottles jingle. The voices screamed. They were so garbled that she couldn’t tell who was saying what. It didn’t matter; she had to stop the damn noise.
She swung the ax and struck the tree with it. Just a nick, though. Once again, she hit the tree with it, then over and over. The voices grew frantic and the screaming worsened. Though they hurt her head, Jessica hacked at the tree’s trunk until she cut all the way through and it toppled over. Then she went to work on the bottles, smashing them with the ax until nothing remained but broken glass scattered like fine sand. Moonbeams caressed the glass, and the blueness glittered in the grass.
Jessica ignored it and dropped the ax, lurched around the house to the front. She even found her purse, right by the door. Confused, she stared down at it and shook her head.
Maybe she was drunker than she thought and hadn’t lost it near the car. She hit the door with her shoulder and it opened. Okay, she had forgotten to lock it when she bolted away from here earlier. Instead of a creak, it tinkled like the sound wind chimes made. That’s strange. She shook her head. I must have imagined it.
She wandered in and tossed her purse to the floor. Not even caring to lock up, she stumbled to her bedroom and tore her clothes off, scattering them across the floor. Just as she was about to fall into bed, a whisper teased her ear.
“Hi ya, Jessi girl.”
Her chest tightened. “What the—”
A looming shadow floated up to her and took her into what felt like strong arms. She struggled.
“I destroyed the bottles. You’re all free to go.”
“Nope, we’re still in the bottles.” The shadowy face drew closer until she saw Leo’s face leering at her . “Except your soul is also stuck in one of them.”
“No, no, no,” she said, shaking her head.
“Yes, yes, yes,” he said, mocking her. “You crashed your car tonight. That’s what you get for driving drunk. Now you’ll get what’s coming to you: eternity in a soul bottle. With me, your daddy (he just can’t wait to switch your ass), and everyone who’s ever wanted a piece of you.”
She screamed. The sound mingled with his laughter, other voices, and the chorus of bottles clinking in the wind.
©Pamela K. Kinney
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