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The Curse of the Shepherdess

by Bob Brill


As Laura and Felicia stood at the display table thumbing through The Curse of the Shepherdess, they noticed that the author was seated at a table near the cash register autographing copies of her book. They each bought a copy and approached Mary Markely, aka Isabella Immelmann, who looked up and smiled at them, asking how they would like their autographs addressed.

Laura smiled back, and taking the figurine from her purse, she said, “Look familiar?”

“Oh my, I never thought I’d see that again. What a shiver it gives me.”

“Can we go somewhere to talk?”

“Meet me here at five o’clock. We’ll go for some coffee.”

“You can sign mine ‘To Laura’.”

“And yours?”

“‘To Felicia’.”

As they sat in the coffee shop, Laura and Felicia discovered that Isabella must possess some psychic receptivity, as she had transferred the emanations subconsciously received from the little shepherdess to the plot of her story.

“When you read the story, you’ll see that the curse I describe is fairly trivial compared to what you’ve been telling me. My readers like a little frisson of terror, a soupçon of murder, but they don’t like it too dark. I always add a big dollop of silliness. Hence the fatuous Peggy Plimpton.”

“I look forward to an enjoyable read,” said Laura.

“And I,” said the author, who was enjoying immensely the interplay of life and art, “look forward to learning how this plays out in real life. I hope you’ll keep me informed.”

Isabella connected them to her friend, Dorothy Malone, in Des Moines. From her they learned that the organizer of the church bazaar was Mrs. Preston Payne, who having been the one to donate the statuette to the bazaar, was able to direct them to her husband’s brother, Tobias. He in turn led them to his niece and her husband, the recently married Tollers, and they in turn sent them on to the Farleys. All this in less than a week, through the time- and space-erasing magic of email.

* * *

Meanwhile, the Farleys’ email attempts to track the movements of the pesky figurine in the opposite direction hit a wall when they discovered that no one knew who had bought the thing at the church bazaar.

But then in one day came a flurry of emails to the Farleys’ inbox. One from Mrs. Preston Payne, the dentist’s wife, one from her brother-in-law, Tobias Payne, and one from the Tollers, all reporting that a woman from California named Laura Battaglia claimed to be in possession of the shepherdess statuette and was attempting to trace the figurine back to its source.

Hard on the heels of those communiqués came Laura’s message, asking the Farleys who was the next person in the chain. The Farleys were delighted with all this news, but they were not going to let Laura Battaglia cut them out of the loop. No, they had been instructed to bring the trophy to Aunt Penelope or suffer disinheritance. They were determined to follow the old lady’s instructions to the letter.

Dear Ms. Battaglia,

We were delighted to hear from you and learn that you are intent on finding the original owner of the statuette, presumably with the purpose of returning it. We received this as a gift from the original owner, a close relative, so now we are indisputably the legitimate owners. We would be obliged if you would send it directly to us at the following address, etc., etc.

Sincerely yours,

Jack and Nancy Farley

To which Laura replied:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Farley,

I never said anything about ownership and I never said I was going to return it. This is quite a dangerous piece of mischief and my mission is to find its maker, so that it can be safely destroyed.

It seems that I have what you want, a certain statue, and you have what I want, a certain piece of information. We will get nowhere without cooperation. I suggest that I meet you somewhere, perhaps your home in Ann Arbor, or some other place of your choosing. I will bring the item in question and you will lead me to the person who gave it to you. Together we will go to this person and see what happens next.

Sincerely (in other words, I mean what I say),

Laura Battaglia

* * *

“So there you have it,” Nancy said to her Aunt Penelope, as Jack listened in on the extension line. “We’ve located the statuette, but we haven’t actually got our hands on it. What do you want us to do?”

“I told you it was dangerous and she told you it was dangerous. This Laura Battaglia seems to know a thing or two about the world. I’d like to meet her. Tell her to come to New York with the statuette. I’ll reimburse her for her airfare. You and Jack shall come to New York as well. You’ll meet her at the airport and bring her to my apartment.”

Laura agreed to the plan. Her best friend and lover, Oscar Martinez, the Argentine tango instructor, strongly suggested that he accompany her on this trip.

“My intuition says I’ll be all right by myself,” said Laura.

“You’re probably right, but you never know. You might be glad for my protection. Besides, as long as we’re in New York, we could take in a couple of shows and dance at one of the great ballrooms.”

“Good thinking, Oscar. Let’s turn this into an adventure.”

“It’s already an adventure. Let’s turn it into a vacation.”

* * *

“Let me see the statuette,” said Penelope.

Laura drew it out of her purse and held it aloft.

“Indeed,” said Penelope, “that’s the one, the very one. The vessel that contains the spirit of my sister, Cecilia. I don’t know how you knew, how you found your way to me or why. You are clearly a most remarkable and talented person, Ms. Battaglia.”

“There’s a lot I still don’t know,” replied Laura.

“Would you let me hold it?”

“Not till I know what you intend to do with it.”

“Very well. I’ll tell you my story. Please, just set it on the table so that we can all see it. I won’t touch it.”

Laura hesitated, then set the little shepherdess statuette on the elegant coffee table before her.

Five people sat around this table in Penelope’s living room: Jack and Nancy Farley, Laura and Oscar, and the aged Penelope. It was a small New York apartment in the east 30s, furnished in an old-fashioned style with consistent and expensive taste. But for the electric lamps the room could have originated in a Europe that disappeared before the turn of the 20th century. On the intricately carved mantel stood a host of ceramic figurines, much better looking than the little shepherdess, who seemed worn out by her travels.

“My niece can tell you, Ms. Battaglia, I’m a strong-willed person. Always have been. Jack can also confirm it. Right, Jack?”

“Yes, Penelope.”

Laura noted how uncomfortable the man looked.

“My aggressive nature first showed itself in the womb. My mother conceived twins, but I hogged all my mother’s resources and shoved my puny sister aside. Her embryo withered away. However, she had a fierce will to live and her spirit, which is all that remained of her, entwined itself with my spirit, and we entered the world together, two spirits in one body.”

Nancy quickly stood up. Her purse fell off her lap and hit the floor. “I had no idea, Aunt Penelope. You never told me a word about this before.”

“Sit down, Nancy. There’s more to come.”

Nancy took her seat. Her eyes darted around the room, passing quickly over Laura and Oscar. She reached out for Jack’s hand.

Penelope continued. “All during our childhood my sister and I battled. I was the prim and proper one and struggled to maintain decorum. She was the wild one and at times she wrested control of my body from me and committed outrageous acts. As we approached womanhood she grew in strength and embarrassed me with her wild ways. She would go out and get drunk and I would wake up with a hangover. I saw that the danger of a disaster was growing. Something had to be done. Stop fidgeting, Nancy.”

Jack squeezed Nancy’s hand.

“Then when I was sixteen I was introduced to Madame Kolgonitsa at a séance. I could tell you so much about her. I’ll just say she was a powerful magician. She suggested a solution. She would find a body for my sister, a body of her own. We could each go our own way. No more battles. We agreed. Thus she enticed my sister to loosen her grip on my spirit and emerge, only to be trapped into the shepherdess figurine.

“I protested that this was not what we had agreed upon. Madame Kolgonitsa laughed. ‘Where would I get a body for her? Not so simple to find an uninhabited living body. I couldn’t tell you that beforehand as she would not have come out. Now you’re well and truly rid of her. Isn’t that what you wanted?’

“‘Yes, I need my freedom,’ I told her, ‘but I want the same for her. Don’t you know how close we were in spite of all the fighting and the problems?’

“‘What’s done is done. Put the figurine in a closet and you’ll soon forget about her and go on to live your own life.’ But I could not forget about her, locked up inside the figurine. So I went back to Madame Kolgonitsa and she wove a spell of forgetfulness and took the figurine off my hands. At last I was at peace and free to live my life. And this I did to the best of my ability.

“It was only this year, a lifetime later, that I came across the figurine in a curio shop in Greenwich Village. I had no memory of it, but something about it appealed to me and I bought it. I soon grew tired of it. It seemed to weigh on my spirit. I sent it off to Nancy and Jack.

“A few weeks later all my lost memories suddenly returned. In agony I sought out Madame Kolgonitsa. I entered her establishment to discover that I had come to her funeral. With her death her spell of forgetfulness unraveled. It was then that I knew I had to retrieve the figurine and set my sister’s spirit free and once again share my body with her.

“So we are gathered here for that purpose. Nancy, you may notice changes in me after this. Don’t be alarmed.”

Laura Battaglia spoke up. “If you are thinking of smashing the figurine in the hope that your sister’s spirit will rejoin you, it would put all of us here at risk, as she may decide to choose one of us to join. After all, you are old. She may prefer to inhabit a younger person’s body. She may choose a male body.

“And I’ll tell you something else. She is not the same person you knew. Her years of captivity have embittered her. I can sense her spirit and she is ready to take control of a body and use it to vent her wrath.

“What’s needed,” Laura continued, “is a purging ceremony.” She reached out to protect the statuette.

But Penelope was quicker. She snatched up the figurine and rose to her feet. “I know what’s needed,” she cried, as she hurled the little shepherdess against the wall.

Laura slapped her hand over her mouth and pinched her nostrils closed. Oscar, seeing her action, did the same. Only Laura could see the thin violet stream of mist shoot up from the smashed statuette and pour into Penelope’s nose and mouth. The old woman staggered backward, crashed against the wall and slid unconscious to the floor.

All four of the spectators rushed forward to aid the fallen woman. Oscar got there first. He lifted Penelope’s inert form and laid her on the couch.

In a moment the old woman’s eyes opened. “Oh, Penelope, sister dear, I’ve waited so long for this moment. It’s so sweet to have you in my power. What? You agree? So much the better. My willing slave. Oh this is rich.” She looked up. “Who are all you people?”

“Aunt Penelope,” said Nancy. “Are you all right?”

“Can’t you see I’m not your Aunt Penelope? Who are you?”

“I’m Nancy. Don’t you know me?”

“How would I know you? I’ve spent sixty years in a ceramic prison.” She looked up at Oscar. “What I want to know is: who is this beautiful man?”

Laura stepped in. “There’s so much you need to learn. You’ve been locked up for so long. The world of today is radically different from the world you knew. You’re going to need help figuring it out. Try to relax. Take a few deep breaths.”

The woman who was not Penelope swung her feet off the couch and tried to stand. “Oh my God,” she said, “this body is decrepit.” She sat down again. “I think you must be the one who brought me back to my sister. I ought to thank you for that, but I’m not in a thankful mood. Why should I thank anyone for anything? I’ve been cheated.”

“It’s not about thanks,” Laura said. “It’s about what’s next.”

“You’re right about that. Oh, shut up, Penelope. It’s a little too late for remorse. Who’s this other man? I have a great desire to know a man. I’ve known so few.”

“I’m Jack Farley. I’m married to Nancy, Penelope’s niece.”

“Oh yes, Penelope is telling me all about it. She says you’re a good man, whatever that means, but a weakling and a fool. Nancy could have done much better, but for better or worse, she picked you. Maybe I should have taken your wife’s body. That would be fun, wouldn’t it, Jack?”

“Penelope,” cried Laura, “you’ve got to get control!”

“Maybe I could still ... let go, Penelope. I love having you as my slave, but I need a better body.”

“Nancy, get out of here,” cried Laura. “Jack, take Nancy and go.” The couple looked at each other and ran from the apartment.

The old woman turned to Laura. “There’s still your body. You look to be in pretty good shape for your age. And your guy looks like a real man.”

“Penelope!” Once again Laura clapped her hand over her mouth and squeezed her nostrils closed.

Oscar strode forward and did the same to the old woman. “Penelope,” he said quietly. “You were always the strong one. Your remorse has weakened you. You must stop your deranged sister from doing any harm. Take control and make her stop.”

The old woman struggled to breathe. Oscar realized that if he didn’t release her, she would suffocate, but if he did, the malevolent spirit of the sister might escape. He tentatively released one nostril and the old woman sucked in a deep breath. Then he closed the nostril again.

“Penelope, are you there?” asked Oscar.

In spite of her struggle to breathe, the old woman nodded her head vigorously in the affirmative.

Laura took her hands away from her face. “Oscar, let her go. Penelope is back.”

The woman shook herself and sat up. “I’m sorry, Ms. Battaglia. I did a stupid thing, ignoring your warning. She caught me by surprise, but she’s no match for me. It’ll be just like the old days. Oh, shut up, Cecilia. I’ll treat you well. I’ll take you on a world cruise. I’ll keep you safe. Believe me, it’s better this way. You’d only get in trouble on your own.”

* * *

Laura and Oscar danced the tango in one of New York’s famous ballrooms. Under Oscar’s tutelage Laura had become quite good at it. More than one couple stopped dancing to watch them.

When they took a break for refreshments, Oscar said, “All’s well that ends well, but it could easily have ended badly. How did you let her get hold of the statue?”

“Well,” said Laura, “The old girl was quicker than me. I was about to fight her for the statue, but I realized that a purging ceremony was not going to work. It must be done by the one who made the spell. The maker of this mischief, this Madame What’s-her-name, is dead. No help there. To leave the spirit in captivity was too dangerous. It’s a miracle it didn’t smash in all its travels. Sooner or later some innocent would have fallen victim to the malicious spirit.”

“I see what you’re leading to,” said Oscar.

“Yes, I had to take a chance, banking on the supposition that the sister would unthinkingly go for revenge on Penelope.”

“The scary part,” said Oscar, “was when the sister tried to change bodies. Could she have actually done that?”

“She could indeed. Luckily for us, Penelope’s strength prevailed and we must pray that it will till the end.”

“And then, when Penelope dies, what then?”

“And then, their spirits will go wherever spirits go, and that we won’t know till we go ourselves.” Then she added, “I have heard it said that spirits of the dead will sometimes enter the bodies of living persons, when there is unfinished business to be done. If this is possible, then here is a case where it might come to pass. The poor soul never did have a chance at life.”

“I shudder to think,” said Oscar, “that this affair may not yet be ended.”

“It’s out of our hands now, dear Oscar. We’ve done all we can. I’m quite ready to go home.”

Copyright © 2010 by Bob Brill

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