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Powwows – Chapter 1

The wizard lived in a swaybacked house at the end of a narrow dirt road in the woods. He would doubtless object to the term wizard and would brandish his crucifix and ever-present Bible as evidence that he was engaged in nothing but the Lord’s work. However, for the proper “free will offering,” the wizard would cast spells, lift spells, concoct potions, divine the future, and cure illnesses. In short, he would engage in every sort of behavior associated with wizards, short of wearing a pointy hat with stars and moons on it.

The wizard was called Professor Klaus Schmuck. He lived alone outside of the town of Fester, Pennsylvania. To get to the Professor’s abode, one travelled south from Fester on the Dingletown Road. It was a scenic drive, passing lush, rolling woodlands and well-kept farmsteads. Most of the tidy red barns sported round wooden signs with colorful star or flower shapes on them. These were called hex signs, and were believed to bring good luck and keep away malign spirits. Every barn in the area had at least one, and some sported a half-dozen or more.

A few miles south of Fester, a large sign by the roadside advertised “POWWOWS.” It was shaped like an arm with the index finger of the hand pointing down a lane in the dense woods toward the Professor’s house. The house was tall and narrow, and it looked like something out of a malign comic strip. Like an accusing finger, it seemed to emerge out of the thick woods that surrounded it.

The Professor did business in the cramped front parlor. It was small and cluttered, with a large wooden desk at one end of the room. A variety of mismatched chairs were scattered around the room, most loaded with old newspapers and other bric-a-brac. The shelves were cluttered with old books—most of them Bibles—as well as odd jars and containers of herbs, unguents, and home-brewed potions. The summer light that came through the windows was filtered by the dense trees around the house, giving the Professor’s parlor a vaguely sinister green tint.

The Professor was a round and florid man, with a head the shape of a cannonball and the color of an almost-ripe apple. His complexion contrasted with his wardrobe, which consisted of a simple black pair of trousers and a matching frock coat over a shirt that had once been white. His one accessory was an ornate crucifix that hung from his neck. The cross was eight inches long, made of dark wood, and studded with tiny gemstones and gold inlays around the edges.

The Professor checked his watch, rose from his desk, and went to call in his next client. The front porch served as his waiting room. He poked his head out the front door and hollered, “Who’s next!” A scrawny farmer in patched coveralls rose from the wooden bench and followed him into the parlor.

The Professor lowered himself into the chair behind the desk and said, “What are we trying for today, then?”

“Warts,” said the farmer. He held out his left hand, where several large growths were clustered on the man’s palm and thumb. “Gettin’ so’s I cain’t hardly hold the plow.”

The Professor held the man’s hand, turning it slightly and frowning. “Well, they’re pretty big,” said the Professor. “But I’ve cured bigger, and without fail.”

“Is it gonna hurt?” asked the farmer.

“Not at all.” The Professor held his right hand over the farmer’s hand and intoned, “Christ’s cross and Christ’s crown, Christ Chesus’ colored blood, be thou every hour good. Whatever grows, does grow. Whatever diminishes, does diminish.” Then he made the sign of the cross over the man’s hand three times.

“Is that it?” asked the farmer skeptically.

“Yes, that incantation is more than sufficient to cure these warts.” The Professor squinted at the farmer. The man had never visited before, and repeat business was always a good thing to cultivate. This bumpkin seemed like he was going to need something extra.

“Here now,” said the Professor. “Just to be on the safe side, I’m going to give you something special.” He went to a shelf that was jammed with boxes and bottles, and rooted around until he came up with a small jelly jar. It was half-full with a clear liquid. The Professor held it out and gave it a little shake. “This is water collected from a hollow stump at midnight of a full moon. Put a few drops on your warts every night at midnight. Like I said, that spell will take care of ‘em, but with this you’re double-sure.”

“Huh,” said the farmer. “What’d I owe you?”

“I charge no money, for my power comes from Chesus,” said the Professor loftily. “However, if you’d care to leave a free will offering, I will gladly accept your kindness. The spirits suggest two dollars fifty.”

The farmer pulled an ancient coin purse from his coveralls and counted out the money, then left with his jelly jar. The Professor jammed the money into his pants pocket, stuck his head out the front door, and hollered, “Who’s next!”

Thus, the Professor plied his trade. In the minds of most, wizardry and witchcraft in America pretty much ended when the last poor soul was hanged in Salem, Massachusetts, in the late 1600s. However, witchcraft was still alive and well in 1930 in Fester, Pennsylvania. There, the practice was generally known as powwowing and the practitioners were called powwowers or occasionally brauchers, in German.

This was a tradition that the settlers of central Pennsylvania brought with them from western Germany in the mid-18th century. It was an old tradition even then, dating back to pre-Christian pagan practices. The Lutheran Church had long since made its peace with powwowing and vice versa. Every powwower acknowledged that their work was God’s work and that their powers came “from Chesus.” Spells and rituals unfailingly invoked the name of the Trinity and passages from the Bible.

The Bible was also supplemented by more obscure tomes. One in particular—a grimoire called The Long-Lost Friend—was considered an indispensable tool for powwowers. It contained such useful information as spells to protect travelers preparing for a journey, cures for a toothache, and recipes for beer.

However, the most potent spells and concoctions weren’t written down; they were passed down from family member to family member, just as the power of powwowing was supposed to be passed down. The ability was passed on from male to female, or vice versa, sometimes skipping a generation. The Professor had learned the practice from his grandmother.

Hexes were the most powerful—and controversial—tools in a powwower’s toolbox. Any good powwower could remove a hex; it was considered a basic skill. But since powwowers claimed that their powers came “from Chesus,” very few would admit to throwing a hex because doing so would involve trafficking with the devil. Yet, anything was possible when the parlor door was closed and the free will offering was big enough.

Despite the isolation of the Professor’s house, a steady stream of clients was usually coming and going from his place. Over the last year, the amount of traffic had only increased as the Great Depression began to sink its claws into the citizens of the area. The town’s main employer, the Schmidt Pretzel Bakery, had recently laid off two-thirds of its workforce. Times were tough for the people of Fester.

However, for the powwowers of Fester, things couldn’t be better. Desperate citizens were gladly forking over their diminishing dollars for promises of relief. Hard times are always prosperous for faith healers and con artists.

One afternoon in August, the Professor had a short gap in his appointments. He went to stash the day’s takings in the Hills Brothers coffee can hidden in his closet, and was pleasantly surprised to notice that it was practically full.

He poked his head out the door to make sure the coast was clear. No one was waiting on the porch and the narrow lane to the main road was empty. He grabbed a spade and took the can into the woods where he buried it close to the riverbank.

There was a clearing in the woods even closer to his house that would have served even better. There was a distinctive rock there that looked like a finger pointing to the sky; it would have made a good landmark. However, a voice inside warned him that it was not a good idea to dig near that rock. The Professor knew when to heed these messages from the spirit world, so he found another place to bury his cans.

After the interment, he made special note of the location on a coded map he’d drawn in the back of his copy of The Long-Lost Friend. The book itself was a reputed to be a powerful charm against misfortune, so the Professor carried it with him wherever he went, even to bed. That way, he knew that he was always protected by the book, and that his treasure map was safe.

The denizens of Fester regarded the Professor’s powwows as the most effective in the area, so he was able to charge them top dollar. But he hardly ever spent money on himself or his house, and he didn’t own an automobile. At this point, the Professor had nearly a hundred cash-filled coffee cans buried in the woods. By his estimation, this latest can put his life’s savings at over $150,000.

This miserly accomplishment should’ve made him happy, but the Professor had a problem that was making him testy. His usual three o’clock appointment was a no-show. This was the third time in a row that Lorna Milkman, the wife of one of the wealthiest businessmen in town, had failed to show up. The Professor was growing alarmed at her continued absences. The thought of losing the influence and income that came with having such a prestigious client was aggravating—particularly the loss of income. Mrs. Milkman was rich and exceptionally gullible, and the Professor had been looking forward to squeezing hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars from her.

The Professor waited for over an hour, but Lorna still hadn’t shown up. He looked out the window at his porch. The only one there waiting to see him was Anneliese Lehr. The Professor shook his head. Anneliese was even easier to manipulate than the Milkman woman, but she wasn’t nearly as wealthy. Anneliese, the wife of a modest corn farmer, lived on the far side of the Black River. The Lehrs weren’t poor; they just didn’t have nearly as much money as the Milkmans.

The Professor stared out past the plain-looking farmwife and down the tree-lined track through the woods. He had a clear view down the mile-long lane but could see no one else approaching. He cursed to himself.

Deciding that Anneliese could wait, the Professor grabbed his black felt hat from the nail on the wall, jammed it on his round, red head, and strode resolutely onto the porch. “Be back shortly,” he told Anneliese dismissively and hurried down the steps.

The Professor went around to the back of the house and into a shed that had been tacked onto the rear. He emerged with a rusty bicycle that he’d received as payment for curing a local grocer of the gout many years ago. Back then, the Professor would accept almost anything as payment: livestock, whiskey, firewood, and once, even a tuba. But now, as Fester’s premier powwower, he operated on a cash-only basis.

The Professor mounted the bicycle and pedaled off without sparing a glance for Anneliese, who was sitting patiently on a splintery wooden bench on the porch. The Professor knew that she’d still be there when he returned, whenever that might be.

It only took a few minutes to cover the trail from his house to the road. The woods on either side were deep and dark, even on this bright August afternoon. He turned right onto Dingletown Road and headed toward town.

Almost immediately, he began huffing and puffing because Dingletown Road was practically a nonstop uphill ride into Fester. This made for a relatively easy return trip, but getting into town was always a chore. At nearly sixty years old, the trips into town were not getting any easier for the Professor, so from time to time, he thought about putting some of his money toward a used Model T. This thought occurred more frequently in the wintertime, but despite the tiring rides in lousy weather, the Professor’s avarice prevailed. He pumped the pedals on the aging bicycle as his bejeweled crucifix thumped against his increasingly sticky shirt.

At the crest of Rosewater Hill, the Professor was rewarded with the sight of the one-room schoolhouse where he’d received all of his formal education. The title “professor” was purely self-designated. In fact, Klaus Schmuck had only completed the fourth grade at the tiny schoolhouse and had just barely managed to do that. Miss Amy Figdore, the sour old schoolteacher, had estimated that young Klaus “wouldn’t never amount to a blessed thing.”

The old schoolhouse, which had been replaced by a modern brick elementary school closer to town, was now a dilapidated wreck that was falling to pieces bit by bit. Seeing the decrepit state of his academic Waterloo always cheered up the Professor. It was even more delightful to think that old Miss Figdore had died miserable and penniless and that he’d had a hand in that as well. It was actually the first hex he’d cast, and he still looked back on it with fondness.

He’d thrown the hex according to his grandmother’s instructions with all the required incantations and theatrics. Then, to make sure it took, he’d gone to a number of the biggest gossips in the area and let them know all about it. Soon, it was common knowledge that Miss Figdore was hexed. Once she learned of it, she’d withered away to nothing in a matter of weeks. She spent all of her meager schoolmarm savings trying to have other powwowers lift the hex, but it was no use. She was dead inside of a year. That would teach her not to denigrate the likes of Klaus Schmuck.

Those darkly happy thoughts gave the Professor an extra burst of energy as he pushed on into town. He passed the old mill, pedaled his way up Washington Street, and started making his way toward Milkman’s Department Store. As he passed Adolph’s Delicatessen, he noticed a small boy named Petey hawking newspapers on the sidewalk. The Professor wheeled his bike around and rolled up to the youngster.

“Hiya, Perfesser,” said Petey. “Newspaper? Hot news today from Wall Street! Find out how your investments is doin’!”

The Professor chuckled. All of his investments were safely buried in the woods behind his house. Only a fool would sink his money into stocks and bonds, the Professor thought. It was a long-held belief that had proved particularly prescient the previous autumn when the stock market crashed. His family had lost their soybean farm in the Panic of ’84, and the Professor had avoided banks and stocks ever since.

“No, Petey, I’m not interested in Wall Street,” he told Petey. “But I am wondering if you’ve seen Mrs. Milkman today. I really need to talk to her.”

“Well, I see a lot of things, Perfesser,” Petey said with a sly smile. “I’m out here workin’ hard all day, so I see lots of people—so many I can’t hardly remember ’em all.” He held his hand by his waist, palm up.

“You little bastard,” muttered the Professor. Petey was as much a pirate as he was. In fact, the paperboy reminded the Professor of his own hardscrabble youth. After the family farm got repossessed, the young Klaus Schmuck had more or less been on his own. He’d hired himself out to whichever farmer was in need of help that month. On the side, he began powwowing, at first for family and friends, and then for more people as word of his skills spread. It was tough at first, and the Professor remembered what it was like struggling to get by. He respected the young newsboy, but wasn’t going to cut him any breaks if he could help it.

The Professor dug in his pocket for a penny but only had a nickel. Grudgingly, he placed it in Petey’s outstretched paw. Petey examined the nickel closely, checking for authenticity. If he bites it, I’m going to belt him, thought the Professor.

Instead, Petey pocketed the coin and hitched up his patched and sagging trousers. “Yeah, Perfesser, I seen Missus Milkman’s Packard go by ’bout a half hour ago. It was headin’ that way.” Petey indicated the direction of the town square.

“What? Is that all you can tell me?” the Professor asked. He’d paid the grubby child an entire nickel for information, and all he got was a vague generalization.

Petey regarded the Professor as if trying to determine if he could squeeze him for an extra cent or two. The Professor’s icy stare must’ve convinced him otherwise because the paperboy just shrugged and said, “Well, if you go up by Mister Spangler’s house, you’ll prob’ly find her near there . . . y’know?”

There were plenty of Spanglers in Fester and Kerian County, but the Professor knew exactly who Petey was talking about. Paris Spangler was another of Fester’s prominent practitioners of powwowing. He was young, handsome, competent, and honest. The Professor hated his guts.

He mounted his bicycle and pedaled furiously up Third Street. Cursing to himself, he turned onto Adams and pumped his way to the modest whitewashed cottage where Paris Spangler lived and practiced. Sure enough, Lorna Milkman’s bottle-green Packard Phaeton was parked out front. The driver, natty in his gray uniform, was polishing one of the bulbous fenders while waiting for his mistress.

As the Professor skidded to a stop half a block away, his chest heaved and his vision started to blur. He wasn’t sure if it was from the exertion of the bicycle ride or the rage he felt knowing that Paris Spangler had snatched his best client. Whatever it was, he knew it wouldn’t do any good to have an apoplectic fit in the middle of the street, so he got off his bicycle and began walking it back toward Adolph’s Delicatessen.

A few blocks later, he felt better—at least physically. When his heart was no longer thudding in his chest and his breathing had slowed, he clambered back onto the bicycle and began pedaling slowly down the street. As he passed Adolph’s, Petey saw him and gave him a jaunty wave. The Professor gave him the finger.

Fortunately, the trip back home was mostly downhill, so the Professor didn’t have to labor too hard on his bicycle. Like the bike, his mind was zipping along at a mile a minute. Damn him! Damn that Paris Spangler!

Over the course of his life, the Professor had clawed his way to the top of the very competitive powwowing trade in Fester. He’d engaged in feuds, spats, and rivalries with dozens of powwowers in his time, but he’d always prevailed. He gleaned a handsome income from his practice and didn’t care to see it threatened.

Now, seemingly overnight, Paris Spangler had set up shop and had become the fair-haired child of Fester. At first, the Professor figured that Spangler was just the latest passing fad. He’d seen this happen numerous times: a new powwower would hang out his shingle, the local biddies and farmers would flock to the newcomer and sing his praises, but soon enough, they’d be back to their regular brauchers. The Professor thought there’d be a lot of fuss over Spangler at first, and the newcomer would pick up a few regular customers, but then things would soon settle down to business as usual.

However, that had not been the case. In the eight months since Spangler had set up shop, the Professor had noticed a steady decrease in his own clientele. Word quickly spread around town that Paris Spangler was exceptionally gifted and had brought about a number of cures that were uniformly described as “miraculous.”

Even worse, Spangler was scrupulously honest. He had, on a number of occasions, referred his clients to medical doctors when he felt that his ministrations would not be effective. This galled the Professor almost as much as the lost wages. He feared that Spangler’s probity was going to give the whole business of powwowing a bad name.

As he pedaled, the Professor mumbled hexes on Spangler, mouthing old formulas and prescriptions to bring down his rival. In reality, he knew they’d be useless, even against a lightweight like Paris Spangler. In his heart of hearts, the Professor was worried. He knew that the power of the hex lay in the belief of the hexed. If someone thought the hex was true and powerful, then it would be. But the opposite was also true, so if the hex—or the hexer—was thought to be weak, then the hex would be ineffective.

Usually, this wasn’t a problem with the ignorant and superstitious residents of Fester. Over time, the Professor had become a bit more subtle than he’d been with crabby Miss Figdore, so he no longer had to get gossips to spread the word. Just a sideways glance at the farmers market was usually enough for the hex victim to know that they’d been singled out.

But that might be a problem with Paris Spangler. Unthinkable as it seemed, Spangler could be too smart or too strong for the Professor’s hexes to have any effect. Spangler’s rectitude and good standing in the community might be enough for him to shrug off any of the Professor’s attacks. The thought made the Professor even angrier, and also—though he would never admit it—a little scared.

He fumed silently to himself as he turned off Dingletown Road and down the lane that led to his house. One way or another, he’d get that gottdammt Paris Spangler.

As he pedaled up to the house, he saw that Anneliese was still waiting patiently on the porch. For a moment, his anger spiked. I don’t want to see that stupid cow now. But then it occurred to him that Anneliese Lehr might be good for something more than the usual nickel-and-dime nostrums he unloaded on her. He would have to meditate on it later tonight, but already he could see the outline of a plan to use Anneliese to get at that customer-stealing Spangler. He was so absorbed in this thought that he nearly ran his bicycle into the house. He swerved and skidded to a noisy halt just before hitting the porch.

Anneliese’s head popped up over the porch rail. “Are you okay, Herr Professor?”

“Oh, I’m just fine, my dear, just fine,” he chuckled. “Now let’s see what we can do for you today.” Then he thumped up the steps, took Anneliese’s hand, and led her into the house.


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