|Where I'm From|
by Jim Allen
A Co-op I was in last week had all its fall and Halloween decorations out. Inside the store they had three life-sized witch dummies made from old depart-ment store mannequins all wrapped up in black landscape fabric, huddled around a Crystalyx tub that someone had thrown some sticks (firewood) under. At the sight of it, I feel sure Shakespeare would have been proud of his creepy bit of prose that inspired the display; words reminiscent of a time when people believed that earthly evil doers, like witches, were the cause of their woes…
What a gruesome sounding pot of stew! In reality, what the Bard was, for the most part, referring to were various herbs used in this soup by their folk names. "Fillet of a fenny snake," for example, refers to a fruit of a certain species of arum known as "Snakes meat." "Eye of Newt" simply means any of the ‘eye’ flowers, such as daisies, bachelors’ buttons and the like. "Toe of Frog" is another name for the humble buttercup; "Wool of Bat" refers to holly leaves, "Tongue of Dog" is Houndstongue (Cynoglossum Officinale) and adder’s fork is a fern. Unfortunately it’s not a totally vegan hell-broth; the blind worm is a small snake, that’s a leg from something like a horned toad they’re talking about. And, yes, there’s an owl somewhere who had to learn to out-run field mice.
Out in the garden center of the Co-op was a pile of pumpkins, just waiting for someone with a sharp knife to turn them into jack-o-lanterns. I’m sure you could care less, but did you know that people in ancient England carried jack-o-lanterns made from big turnips with faces carved in them on the 31st of October to ward off evil spirits. I have no idea why the bogymen were out only the 31st. Kind of like them being out here on the 15th of April, I guess.
Like the beliefs of the turnip carving scaredy-cats of old, many of our Southern superstitions, some that have been around since way before there was a U. S. of A., are vanishing…rebuffed by literacy, homogenization, urbanization, mobility, and the influence of the mass media.
But not all are lost.
I know full-grown people, with supposed good walking-around sense, who still grab a button every time they see a hearse…and they won’t let go until they see a dog! Now what the heck is that all about! Some won’t walk under a ladder or step on sidewalk cracks; won’t borrow an opened pocket knife and give it back to you closed; won’t hang a horseshoe with the points down for fear of pouring their luck out onto the ground; or won’t pass you a shaker of salt for fear of giving away their luck…they place it next to your plate. Of course, anything that itches means something; itchy ear, someone’s talking about you; itchy nose, you’ll have company; itchy right palm, you’ll meet someone new; itchy left palm, money’s coming, itchy feet, you’ll soon go on a trip. There’s other parts of my body that itch. Do they all mean something?
These same people think breaking a mirror is bad luck; a black cat crossing in front of them is bad luck; or the number 13 is bad luck. Of course, carrying a rabbit’s foot brings good luck (except for the rabbit) as do keeping a penny in your shoe, seeing a shooting star or finding a four-leafed clover.
Back where I’m from, it’s a known fact that if a hog-nosed snake bites you or if a bat flies into your hair, they won’t let go until it thunders. People throw pea hulls in the road in front of their house or whip their okra plants with a switch to make the plants keep bearing.
They also use preventative measures to avoid bad luck. It’s not uncommon to see broken mirrors on the porches of small country houses. Supposedly, the haint in question will see its reflection and run off in fear before coming in. At barber shops men will often ask for the hair that’s been cut from their heads just in case someone who had something against them got it and used some ‘hoodoo’ against them. You never, ever cut hair (or your finger/toe nails) on Sunday for fear of being made a toy of the devil for the whole next week.
Another way to keep the will of others from harming you or your children would be to wear a greegree. This is a strip of leather or string that might have a small chicken bone tied to it but in most cases had a little bag tied shut with something in it (I never asked what).
A lot of women there don’t whistle because it will cause you to grow a beard. Certain pregnant women go to the next county over to dig for a hand-full or so of some pink clay that’s found there. They eat just so much of it every day until their baby is born. All anybody could ever tell me was that ‘it made for a healthy baby.’ Eating dirt made for a healthy baby…go figure.
Those same women took care never to insult anyone or speak low of anyone while in a motherly way for fear that their child would be ‘marked.’ For instance; if a person jibed someone else about an infirmity, malady, shortcoming or something as simple as the color/texture of his or her hair, the baby could be born with that same perceived flaw. If you dared go so far as to say someone was ugly, you would most likely have an ugly baby.
My momma apparently wasn’t warned about ‘marking.’ I wonder if she was at the zoo....