As mentioned in the last post, our maternal grandmother was born in the 1910s in the mountain hamlet which we called home. As a young girl growing up, she experienced some extraordinary events which she shared with her grandchildren.
Unfortunately, she never lived to see her great grandchildren. In many ways she was a remarkable woman who could cook (she insisted that we eat our greens at least four times a week) and shoot a pistol better than any western hero. She carried a pistol in her apron pocket.
When we asked her why she carried that pistol, her reply was always the same: “You never can tell when varmints might come a-calling.”
There were times that we thought she might be referring to our step-grandfather who liked to hang out with the guys after a hard day’s work and have a few brewskies across the river at Jack’s since within the hamlet’s environs the sale of any type of alcohol was prohibited. The hamlet was founded as a temperance town in the late 1800s.
She told us about growing up and how as a young mother during the Depression she made ends meet. There was another side to our grandmother and that was her ability to tell stories, especially of a time when life was very different.
Tale One: A Pot of Coffee and the Wake
Back in the day, when a person died, their coffin would sit open in the drawing room or parlor. The funeral home or church would furnish chairs and the community ladies would provide food, ample food.
The men would sit around the open coffin and chew the fat as well as their tobacco. The women would gather together in the dining room and kitchen to prepare the food and plenty of black coffee.
Gallons of coffee must have been consumed. The children were with the women and they could hear the spittoons ringing as the men chewed their tobacco and drank their coffee.
On one such occasion, Mabel, an elderly woman, had passed away in her sleep. As she lay in her coffin, all of this activity went on around her. It was the third day.
In the kitchen Beth, her sister, took out a pint bottle from her apron. It was Mabel’s own home brew from her basement stock.
Beth poured the pint into the open coffee pot on the wood stove top. Soon the aroma of that coffee, spiced with the grains of nature, filled the whole house.
According to our grandmother, it was not more than ten minutes that Mabel sat up in her coffin and yelled, “I want a cup of that darn coffee!”
After a few moments, there was such a commotion with chairs falling and flying. The front door flew open and before anyone could recite Clement Moore’s beloved poem, the parlor was empty except for Mabel and her coffin—truly “not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”
Tale Two: The Black Panther in the Hollow
One of the strangest tales from our grandmother was the black panther in the hollow. With the old farm house sitting on a pinnacle, we could see down the hollow to the far-distant farm.
As we lay in our beds, we could hear wails, piercing ones. If you have never had the heebie-jeebies, you have missed an integral part of growing up in the old country ways.
The old patchwork quilt over our heads did not seem enough to keep us safe. Grandmother told us that we did not have anything to worry about from the creature roaming the hollows.
It seems that in the early 1800s there lived a young woman named Sharon in a cabin along a creek in the mountains. The cabin had been built by fur trappers many years before. The fur trappers were long gone once they had extinguished the beaver population in the river valley, but their cabin remained standing.
Many believed Sharon was orphaned by marauding Indians who had killed her family, but those tales of blood-thirsty savages wiping out families were more like hate speech against a people whose land had been stolen. Perhaps, it was to ease the conscience of the land grabbers.
Others believed she had migrated down from Massachusetts and was a witch. Everyone knew about the Salem witches and how witch’s blood had tainted all of their descendants.
There were those good people who believed she was the devil’s familiar. They believed this nonsense because a stray black cat was adopted by Sharon, and she nursed it back to health.
In the small rural community a plague broke out one February. Several children and elderly died, and the lady in the woods became the likely suspect of the plague. This was before people knew about influenza, and its deadly effects caused by viruses not by demons.
So one moonless night in early March, several upright members of the community surrounded the cabin in the woods and torched the place to burn out the evil. As the place burned, a black cat emerged from the window and ran off into the dark wailing.
As time went on, many believed the young woman had been turned into a beast of the night—a black panther. She wailed at night to cause those to remember what they had done, whether to an innocent or as a punishment for being the devil’s consort. Punishment was the most commonly held belief.
She seemed doomed to wander for eternity because of her association with the devil. We never ventured down the hill to the hollow even in daylight.
Perhaps, the wailing was a bobcat and not a black panther who was once a lonely young lady just living in her cabin in the woods. Why would the tortured soul of a young woman be enrobed in a panther to roam the earth at night?
Old folk tales are usually based in fact, but as time rolls over the decades fact becomes diluted with myth and legend. Along a dark path on a moonless night one could see almost any phantasm or if one had too much country gin the shadows become ominous shapes, menacing the walker on their way home.
Hope you have a safe and enjoyable Halloween.
G. D. Williams © 2015
All photos are from G. D. Williams’ collection.