The pale December evening spread a slanting curtain of darkness through the woods as I trudged over the rough wagon road up the creek and over Adair Ridge to Big Lick Mountain, on my way to John Mack Rose’s cabin. The heavy fog and piercing cold urged me along a little faster than I normally would walk. Long before I reached the cabin, the barking of John Mack’s dog had announced my arrival, and he was peering through the door into the dusk.
“Hi, John Mack,” I called, using my friendliest tone to dispel his fears. “Don’t you remember the woman who came to swap yarns with you last summer?”
“Sure as shootin’, if it ain’t Sallie Beth Smith,” he said with obvious relief on his leathery face. “Yep, I’m tickled pink to see you. Indeed, my old woman just said this very day she’d be pleased if you’d come back to see us. She’s been poorly lately, and you stayin’ a spell’ll help perk her up. Now, you mustn’t think nothin’ ‘bout me not knowin’ at first who you was, it bein’ such a dampish and early night. Then besides, we’ve been ‘spectin’ to see some revenuers since they always show up just afore Christmas. Come in the house; Lindy Jane’ll be mighty proud to see you.”
The cabin was a two-room log structure with a small porch and a large rock chimney at one end. The fire-room was typically mountaineer, with a large log fire providing both heat and light. Festoons ￼of red peppers, dried beans, small bunches of onions and strings of dried apples hung against the mud-pointed log walls. Clothes hung against the walls on wooden pegs, and a few postal cards and calendars with bright pictures provided the decoration.
Aunt Lindy Jane Rose had lived in this house all her life. She was known as the best story teller in the hills. She had folded her skinny frame into a rocking chair before the fire. Her one-piece black dress gave her figure more substance than it really had. As she puckered her friendly mouth into a smile of welcome, she bared her few remaining teeth. Her pallid face, wrinkled like a withered apple, radiated joy. Aunt Lindy greeted me in her wispy voice: “Why didn’t you come back sooner, Miss Smith? I’ve been poorly with the rhumatis ever since the cold weather set in, and this spell had made my rhumatis act up worse than ever. Pull up a chair and sit a spell.
Her crooked hickory walking stick leaned crazily against the stone chimney near a big sleek tomcat who was snoozing in front of the fire. Her clay pipe rested on a nearby table, and she took it up, filled and lighted it as I made myself comfortable. She sat there silently smoking for some moments, the puffs of blue smoke curling over her snow-white head. She stared into the fire in deep thought. I broke the silence by asking, "Granny, do you believe in witches?” The old woman struggled to her feet as fast as her stiff joints would let her, as if I had unloosed a dangerous animal in the room. She clutched the walking stick in her boney hand and her alert blue eyes sparkled with fear and excitement as she declared, “Witches, did you say? Yes, child, they'se witches. They’re everywhere. They'se human witches, they'se cat witches, or whatever else kind of varmint they want to be. They bloodies cow’s milk, blasts crops, rides folks like they’re horses, rides ‘round on brooms, and causes folks to fight and quarrel with one another.” Aunt Lindy slowly folded her stooping frame back into her rocking chair. She spat in the fire and re-lit her pipe. She was trembling and the quiver of her lips exaggerated the movement of her pipe.
As if on cue, the big tomcat roused, arched his back and bristled, gave a low wail, and vanished through the cat-hole in the door. “Now, just look at that cat,” Aunt Lindy said. “Ain’t no tellin’, maybe he’s a witch hisself.”
In the meantime, John Mack had joined us before the fire and said, “Speakin’ of cats, Lindy Jane, cain’t ye tell Miss Smith that crazy tale ‘bout the cat wife?”
“Ah, John Mack, you know Miss Smith didn’t traipse through these rough hollers and over these steep ridges just to hear a prattlin’ old woman tell wild tales like that. Anyhow, she’s a learned woman and she wouldn’t believe such stories. You don’t want to hear such rigamaroles, do you, Miss Smith?”
“Aunt Lindy Jane, besides wanting to visit with you and John Mack, that is part of the reason I came up here. You’re such a wonderful storyteller, please do tell me that story. I haven’t heard it, and it doesn’t matter whether I believe them or not,” I urged.
Lindy Jane tapped her clay pipe lightly against the hearthstone to dislodge some ashes. Then, she filled it, lighted it from a hot ember, and sat back, puffing hard to get it going. She began: “Well, it was nigh onto a hundred years ago, accordin’ to my mammy, when a very fine young man by the name of Lonnie Abb Dixon come to the County, nobody knew from where nor why. He’d saved his earnings, so he bought a parcel of good land from Old Skinflint Carter and his neighbors had a big house raising for him and helped him build a smokehouse and barn besides. Soon, he had stocked the place with horses, sheep, cows, chickens and hogs, and put out a big plantin’ and raised some good crops. He lived by hisself, and done his own cooking and housework and appeared to get along mighty well, though it was lonesome-like.
"Then, one blustery winter night he was a-sittin’ by his fireplace, downfaced and lonesome, when a purty spotted cat came though the cat-hole in his door. It meowed and purred and rubbed itself against Lonnie’s leg for a whit, but when he reached down to rub it, it ran fast as the wind for the cat-hole and vanished. After that, most every night that cat had come into the cabin and run off again afore Lonnie could touch it. Now, Lonnie’s cat had been killed by a panther, and he wanted this’n for company, so the next time the cat come, he stopped up the cat-hole. Then he caught the cat and started a rubbin’ it’s back.
"Well, bless my soul, if all of a sudden that spotted cat didn’t turn into the purtiest young woman you ever laid your eyes on. She stood there by his side, looking down into his face and smilin’. Naturally, bein’ a single man and so handsome, he started a-buckin’ up to her right then and there. Nobody ever knowed how long this went on, but after a while it was narrated ‘round that Lonnie was a-goin’ to marry up with a purty woman.”
Lindy Jane paused, puffed on her pipe, shifted her boney frame in the chair, and continued: “He left his place and was gone for a short spell, and when he come back, he had married up with this purty woman and brought her back with him. They was mighty happy, and in time she brought two young'uns into the world. They worked hard a-makin’ crops and the young'uns kept ‘em busy, so nobody seen much of 'em.
"But, one dark night afore Christmas, when it was too cold to work outside, a whole passel of young folks had a gatherin’ at Lonnie’s place. They talked, guessed riddles, told stories; played games and drunk cherry bounce, persimmon beer and moonshine ‘til it was time to go home. But, an awful winter storm come up, with the cold wind whistlin’ through the bare trees and screechin’ round the cabin like all the haints from the graveyard and all the witches of hell was yellin’ at once. The cabin trembled, and it set in a snowin. And, in a short spell, it had snowed so much that they’re all afeard to try to go home. So, they just ‘lowed they’d sit up and talk by the fire all night. They was havin’ such a good time a-drinkin’ and swappin’ yarns and some of ‘em had too much tongue and got to swappin’ yarns ‘bout how each of 'em found, sparked and married their mates.
"After they’d all gabbed 'bout their courtin’ days and bragged ‘bout their infares, it come time for Lonnie to tell his story. They was all curious since they didn’t know anythin’ ‘bout Lonnie, so they listened real hard. Now, Lonnie was 'bout three sheets in the wind, so he started by sayin’, that the way he’d found his woman made him call her ‘pussycat.’ When he said this, his old woman gathered their two young'uns close to her, and squirmed and twisted and made funny faces to get Lonnie’s attention, and shook her head at him to get him to shut up. But, Lonnie Abb paid her no mind, but took another swig of persimmon beer and went on with his yarn.
"He got up and staggered to the door to show ‘em how the cat had come in through the cat-hole. A mighty blast of wind hit the cabin and rocked it like it was a cradle and scared the livin’ daylights out of everybody. The wind howled so loud that nobody heard Lonnie’s last words, but a purty yeller and white spotted cat and two kittens darted out of the hole. Lonnie Abb’s wife and young'uns was never seen nor heard of again after that.”
This story was adapted from a version printed in “The Silver Bullet and Other American Witch Stories” edited by Hubert J. Davis, and published by Johnathan David Publishers Incorporated 68-22 Eliot Avenue Middle Village, NY 11379. It is used here with the publisher’s permission.
Next week’s issue features The Man Who Lived In Three Centuries.
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