Madame Sabat's Grave
by Corey Mesler
Madame Sabat, the witch of Midtown Memphis, died on September 18, 1970, the same day as Jimi Hendrix. Some Memphians, God love em, date the end of the sixties from this day, for Madame Sabat you see, the same way some other equally misguided Americans date the end of the sixties from the death of the guitar god Hendrix. Others, and this is a widely accepted proposal, date the sixties from 1963—the first time the holy word Beatles became part of the lopsided American consciousness or for those with darker dispositions, the year our handsome president was killed by a coterie of gunmen (don't get me started)—to the seminal year 1974, when the hobgoblin in the White House was forced by the outcry from society's colorful and purposeful corners to end the ignominious war in Southeast Asia.
Madame Sabat was dead. That was for sure. The coroner said it was a heart attack but they always say that. She died from black magic as sure as I'm telling you this, as sure as Mr. H died from Mr. H.
Most folks say she fell afoul of a certain evil sybill from down Alligator, Mississippi way who went by the name of Joukahainen. Could be. Madame Sabat got along with no one, not the motley assortment of Memphians who came to her many eccentric yard sales, not her neighbors whose plants she killed with just a grimace, not the musicians who came to her for potions to improve their grooves and make them stars, who treated her like she was Satan at The Crossroads, not other archimagi. She was a cross old witch, no fooling. She was an odd-duck, a spook.
But this is a little hypotyposis about what happened after she died. It involves Johnny Niagara, his gal Iris, Styx Ygg the drummer for the BamBam Five, and a couple of other members of the Memphis movement, such as it was. For Madame Sabat died without family or friends, and, say what you will about Johnny and that ragtag crew of troublemakers and firebrands, they could not let an acquaintance, even so tangential, so extravagant and possibly flagitious one as Madame Sabat, go to her final resting place in some pauper's graveyard. This is to their credit. I believe so.
According to official records—and after the sixties who trusted such?—Madame Sabat's body lay in the Baptist Hospital morgue for six days, longer than usual for an unclaimed corpse, until administrators ruled it must be buried. No one wanted to go near it, see. Rumor has it that on the third night it sat up and talked to an attendant there, asking for directions to New Jerusalem. Probably didn't happen, but who's to say?
Johnny Niagara got a call from an old girlfriend who worked as a candy striper in the hospital. She remembered that Johnny had known the old witch woman and might be able to head off her mortal coil being thrown into a landfill and covered over with tired refuse of the city by benign bulldozing crews.
"Johnny, that poor woman's body, they're fixing to throw it out like it's a burnt out Pinto," Chiquita said, for such was the young striper's moniker.
"What can I do?" Johnny rightly asked. Johnny had a cool head. This was known.
"I don't know," Chiquita fidgeted. "Steal the body or something."
And thus it was born, the Plan to Snaffle the Remains of the Witch of Midtown Memphis.
Johnny called Iris and Styx, Styx called Robert Gordon, the young chronicler of the dying Memphis music scene, Robert called Lon, who wanted nothing to do with it and the plot was underway.
Five or six or seven cloaked figures—no one telling the story tells it the same way—approached Baptist Hospital in the post-midnight inky obscurity, admitted to the great Pesthouse by a back entrance by one Chiquita Enos (who would late deny all knowledge of such goings on, of course), and made their way through back hallways dank with disinfectant and that other smell, putrefying flesh or somesuch, that hospitals contain like smoke in a jar. Down these corridors the five or six or seven figures glided, gently pushing open a door unmarked, though few of the conspirators could help but think of the "Room for One More" episode of Twilight Zone with its sign reading "Morgue," as if pushing open a door on the other side of which might be the flames of hell.
There were no flames. There was metal, gleaming silver metal, walls of gleaming silver metal and drawers like God's final filing cabinet. Chiquita, who would not enter, stood outside, a nervous lookout. She had told them all she knew, the approximate placement of the remains of Madame Sabat.
Still the gang had to open numerous wrong doors like some bad short story in a book of stories written by Old Scratch himself. What they saw we will not record. Dead people, that's as much as we can say. Too many dead people.
"Here," Johnny finally said standing over an open drawer.
"Jesus," one of the other colluders muttered.
"She looks like she's just sleeping," Iris said.
And, in some versions, the corpse was seen to nod its balding head. Agreement from beyond.
And now Johnny unrolled the children's wading pool they had brought to carry the body back with them. Its Bulwinkles and Rockys and Natashas and Borises and Mr. Peabodys and Shermans colorful against its sea-blue background, a surrealistic shroud. We should all be so carried home, in a plastic Wayback machine. God bless Jay
Once wrapped the body felt weightless as if they had forgotten to put old Madame Sabat inside the package. They almost decided to unroll the pool just to make sure. Perhaps all they would find would be hickory vine inside.
"We got her," Johnny reassured his compatriots. "Let us make leave."
And back the way they came slunk the five or six or seven. Chiquita turned her pretty head as they passed her, a single tear sliding down her face like an unatoned for sin. Back down the darkened passageways and out into the Memphis night went the five or six or seven, carrying the remains of the Witch of Midtown under their arms like a rolled up tent. Maybe they were only going camping. Maybe they were headed out to Shelby Forest to pitch camp and tell ghost stories and roast marshmallows.
But no. They were bent on illegal doings, a nefarious but equitable plot to properly pay respects to a woman who, when alive, was only a stranger in their midst, stranger even than most, but a woman still deserving of a proper rest. This is what they believed, the five or six or seven.
And it was to Shelby Forest they were bound. It was Iris' idea to bury the old witch woman there, among the tangled roots and vines and hackberry branches, to place the wild amongst the wild. And they could only agree.
Now Shelby Forest at night is a tad offputting, let it be said. It's scary as Banquo's ghost to be honest. Dark dark, with overhanging ghost trees and spirits walking about as if they had as much right to the place as the living and of course they do, it must be agreed. More than once one of the conspirators murmured small prayers as their car slid along the winding roads deep into the forest primeval. Sleepyhollowville. At any moment they expected dancing in their pallid headlights Bram's Bones.
"Where for Godsake?" one of the men insisted after a few windings and divagation, a tad more strongly than he wished to speak, nerves brittle now.
"A little further," Iris insisted. "I got a spot."
Iris's spot was a small grassy knoll just off the winding pavement, a place made holy once by the animal estrus experienced by herself and Johnny, in the broad light of day during a hike. On the this small rise, where anyone could have happened by, she and Johnny suddenly were struck with a passion so intense they could not stop to consider from whence it came. Suddenly they were tearing at each other's clothing, Johnny literally ripping Iris's cotton panties from her as if her were Samson and she a Delilah in heat. And Iris, for her part, rent zipper side from zipper side to get at the engorged organ straining at the front of Johnny's trousers. There, on that grassy knoll, they fucked like angels, like teenage explorers.
So it was a halidom and, for Iris, the only place where the earthly remains of the witch of Midtown could rest comfortably.
Johnny couldn't resist a wry smile when he saw his catamite's plan and, despite the sobriety of their mission, found himself aroused again, if only by memory, a powerful enough aphrodisiac.
"Dig," Iris said.
"Wow," said Styx, through eyes made hazy by boo.
"No, dig," Iris said again. "Get the damn shovels."
"Right," the conspirators said.
And there under the world's only moon, along a twilit corniche, on a knoll made holy by copulation, they dug a hole a full six feet deep, though its sides were cattywumpus and irregular, rough as the butter spread on stale bread. It was a handsome grave, in its way, a right fitting place of rest. A secular cenotaph made of correctness and the love of man for man.
They then, the five or six or seven, fetched the mortal remains of old Madame Sabat, wrapped in their plastic pool, cartoon characters squirming around on its surface in their inappropriateness. To a figure they thought, we shouldn't be here, no sir.
And as the holy fossarians gravely carried her toward the hole she grew lighter and lighter, her body seemingly made of ash, until, as they stood over the pit they had dug, they thought they had an empty swimming pool. They thought they had lost Madame Sabat.
Johnny insisted on pulling back the plastic covering to check. He didn't want to have come this far to inter a child's swimming pool. They laid their package on the edge of the grave and Johnny, his hand shaking like a politician's, slowly pulled back the synthetic cerements.
Believe this part or don't. It's true or it isn't. Like everything, like everything.
As they pulled back the unlikely shroud sure enough the body of Madame Sabat lay peacefully inside, wrapped up like leftover turkey dinner. Her face looked fetching in the moonlight, a slight smiling rictus making her appear a younger version of herself, the way she might have appeared at the cotillion dances when she was a young debutante. And, here, as the boys gazed at that lovely visage, it happened. Madame Sabat opened her eyes and smiled at the stunned circle of faces.
The five or six or seven were struck dumb but they were not afraid. This was Madame Sabat. It only seemed meet and right that death should sit lightly on her, like a bluebird on her wizened shoulder.
And, in a voice made whispery with death, she spoke as if from the heart of the night itself. "Thank you," she said.
And she re-closed her electric eyes.
So what else could they do? Johnny and his gang of conspirators solemnly re-covered the witch's comely face and, as gently as possible, placed her deep within the confines of the welcoming ground.
And that's where she is today. Madame Sabat's graveyard is in Shelby Forest, a grassy hillock which looks like any of the hundred grassy hillocks in Shelby Forest, except that under this one lies the spirit of the witch of Midtown.
And if you find yourself and your paramour, some misty Spring afternoon, on a slight grassy rise in the forest primeval and concupiscence interrupts your ham sandwiches and sodas, if the ages-old human itch begins in your vitals, consider the spot where you have chosen your repast and honor it with a kaddish. It may be the spot, it may very well be. But, picnic away, sweet Pyramus and Thisbe of futurity, and forget the story of those last few moments.
Forget how the Beldam of Midtown opened her grey-blue eyes and made love for a witchery moment to a gaggle of gravediggers with a smile from the other side. Madame Sabat is laid to rest. It is said Joukahainen came looking for the site, unhappy with the outcome of her thaumaturgy, but peace reigned, the everlasting peace, the one we said our itinerarium for.
Requiescat, you know, in pace.
We believed it in the sixties and we believe it now: love and justice are stronger, children, than death.
About the author:
Corey Mesler is the owner of Burke's Book Store, in Memphis, Tennessee, one of the country's oldest (1875) and best independent bookstores. He has published poetry and fiction in numerous journals including Rattle, Pindeldyboz, Quick Fiction, Black Dirt, Thema, Mars Hill Review, Poet Lore and others. He has also been a book reviewer for The Memphis Commercial Appeal. A short story of his was chosen for the 2002 edition of New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, published by Algonquin Books. Talk, his first novel, appeared in 2002, garnering praise from Lee Smith, Frederick Barthelme, John Grisham, Robert Olen Butler, and others. His latest two poetry chapbooks are Chin-Chin in Eden (2003) and Dark on Purpose (2004). He has a book of short stories, The Booksellers' Beautiful Daughter, coming out in 2004. He also claims to have written, "Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves." Most importantly, he is Toby and Chloe's dad and Cheryl's husband.