There is a story my mother likes to tell me over and over. When she was a little girl, a witch lived down the road from her. The witch's name was Huldie, and she read the fortunes of her neighbors in the coffee grounds left at the bottoms of their cups. She was rumored to float through the holler woods at night with the soles of her feet not touching the ground. In daylight, my uncles threw rocks at her shack in a clearing so shady that no grass would grow there. My mother would run past Huldie's place on the way to school each morning with her head down, sure the old woman would be standing in the roadside weeds waiting to snatch her up. She and my aunts were warned by their parents to keep away from Huldie. My mother was small and scared enough to mind them, but my aunts were older and braver. They knocked on Huldie's door and gave her trinkets in exchange for having their fortunes told. Now my aunts have both passed away and they never spoke of what Huldie saw in the bottoms of their cups. But I can always imagine.
Bloodroot, Huldie takes the form of Lou Ann, a hateful crone who makes love potions and charms for neighbor women desperate to bewitch a man, to have a child or lose one, to be granted long life, or for someone else to die. Lou Ann also puts a curse on her cousins that won't be lifted until there's a baby born in their line with haint blue eyes. It's said that haints (what we call spirits, here in the mountains) are unable to cross water, and this limpid shade of blue is intended to fool them away. One day, a baby is born with those haint blue eyes — a girl called Myra Lamb — who ends up causing so much heartache that her family doubts the power of haint blue to ward off evil spirits and curses. But there are many people where I come from who still believe in it. Driving the back roads of East Tennessee, I've seen more than one old house with its flaking doors and windowsills painted that color.
I began writing Bloodroot to tell the stories of the characters I had created, people whose lives I wanted to learn more about. But as I did so, I found myself focusing as well on the tradition of superstition and folk belief I grew up with, which seems to have been preserved by the isolating mountains, dating all the way back to the 1700s when the first settlers came over from Scotland and Ireland, bringing their mysticism across the ocean. At one time, every holler had a witch like Huldie, sometimes called a granny woman. They were respected healers and midwives, known for their spells and herbal remedies and powers of divination, whose wisdom has been passed down for centuries. I've heard the same advice from my elders as generations of women have before me. Don't rock an empty cradle. Eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day. Cover mirrors in a house where someone has died. It's a side of Appalachia that people in other parts of the country might not be familiar with, and a part of my own history that I'm compelled to explore.
When someone is born here with a sense of magic about them, perhaps a special connection with animals or a knack for predicting the future, they are said to have "the touch." Much like the color haint blue, mountain people still believe in these mysterious and most often inherited powers. In Bloodroot, I gave the touch to Myra Lamb as a gift passed down from her great-grandmother, the ability to escape from anywhere by sending her spirit back home to Bloodroot Mountain. I've been interested in this sort of granny magic ever since childhood, when my parents began telling me their stories. Even in my own family there are those said to have the touch. My great-aunt, who removed warts by rubbing stones in a circle around each one and then throwing the stones away. My grandmother, who is rumored to have once raised the kitchen table off the floor just by looking at it. My aunt, who was believed to heal by laying her hands on the sick. I wasn't born with any such gifts myself, although I do feel that writing is a bit like magic.
Before now I have only left Tennessee a handful of times, but in the coming months I'll be traveling. I've been asked what I'll take with me, what of Appalachia I'd most like to share with the world outside. I think it's this heritage of folk belief I've been enchanted with since I was a little girl, so much a part of the beauty of where I'm from. While the passage of time and what's going on in the rest of the country might have less impact on our culture than it does elsewhere, even here in the mountains things are changing. There's a new generation coming up now, one that is more reliant on science than mysticism, and the old granny women are dying off. I wonder sometimes if my daughter, now seven, will leave here when she grows up. If the young people move on and the old ones die, then folkloric characters like Huldie might be forgotten. I want my daughter to love this place where she was born. I want her to know the holler woods as well as I have, where the moonshine stills are chopped up but remain, where the limestone caves are marked with Cherokee letters, and where the magic of witches can still be felt. Maybe if I write it all down for her, she'll be more inclined to stay. But if she does choose to leave, I'm hoping she'll look back at these hills, where her mother's mother's family comes from, and find her own way of loving and remembering them.
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Amy Greene is the author of the national bestseller Bloodroot and the new book Long Man. She was born and raised in the foothills of East Tennessee's Smoky Mountains, where she lives with her husband and two children.
Books mentioned in this post
Amy Greene is the author of Long Man