Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. IXXI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 18611889
Aunt Beckey Kunjured
By Katharine Sherwood Bonner McDowell (18491883)
[Born in Holly Springs, Miss., 1849. Died there, 1883. Suwanee River Tales. By Sherwood Bonner. 1884.]
WHILE we were at breakfast, Aunt Beckeys niece, Leah, came running in. Leah was a queer little darky, with her hair tied in countless pigtails pointing in every direction, and her eyes continually rolling about like beads in a socket.
Jes what I say, Mars Charles; an its Gods trufe Im speakin. When I saw ole Sini at de camp meetin I mistrusted dat she meant ter work me a mischief; an I kep away from her jes as much as I could; fur, as sholy as de devil lives an trimbles befo de face o de Lord, dat ole witch ooman hes got de Evil Eye. But I couldnt keep my thoughts offn her; an I wus a-wishin her evil in my heart all de time.
Curses, like chickens, come home ter roost, moaned Aunt Beckey,come home ter roost! Mebbe if I hadnt been harborin sech wickedness an ill-will in my heart, de good Lord would have protected me from her deperadations on me. For Ill tell you, Mars Charles, what happened,and Aunt Beckey half raised herself in bed and fixed her great black feverish eyes on my fathers face.
Las night I was a-lyin here, wid my eyes wide open an all my faculties broad awake, when in come ole Sini, a-slippin an a-glidin, like de snake dat she is. I tried ter jump up an scream, but she hel me ter de bed wid dat witch eye of hern, till I wus jes stagnated, an couldnt a moved an inch. No, not if it had a been ter have slipped my neck from de hang-mans noose.
Drink dis, she says, bendin over me, an hissin hot in my ear. An she hel out a cup of water, witch water, full o somethin like wrigglin hairs. I knowed dey wus snakes, but I had no power ter push dat cup away. I jes drunk it down like a baby, an from dat minnit I wus lost. Ole Sini laughed, an a sort of blue flame busted out all around her, an dar was sech a smell of brimstone dat I fainted clean away. When I come to, Sini wus gone, but dem snakes wus wrigglin through me in streaks of pain, an from dat on, Mars Charles, I aint had one minnits peace.
You should have sent for me, Beckey. I might have given you something to relieve that pain at once. You have evidently taken a violent cold; and your trouble is caused by your old foe, rheumatism. As for the rest, my poor soul, you have had a bad dream. Old Sini couldnt trick you if she wanted to! The good Lord never gave one mortal that power over another.
Snakes! snakes! cried Aunt Beckey frantically; and then to our horror the poor creature went off into convulsions, foaming at the mouth, clinching her hands until the nails drew blood, stiffening and relaxing her form, resisting all attempts at quieting her, until forced to yield to the effects of an opiate.
During the next two weeks three doctors in turn were called in to see Aunt Beckey. Through their skill, perhaps, the attack of pneumonia or inflammatory rheumatism with which she had seemed threatened was warded off; but she grew no stronger. All sorts of remedies were tried in vain. The doctors declared they could do no more for her, and that there was no reason why she should not, as it were, take up her bed and walk. But poor Aunt Beckey! There she lay, tranquil now, sometimes even smiling, saying little, losing flesh daily, looking out on the vanishing world with big solemn eyes glowing strangely in her gaunt face,dying as surely as though Aunt Sinis imagined draught had been in truth the deadly Italian acqua, the introvabile poison whose traces could never be discovered, though one drop sufficed to kill with slow and nameless tortures.
It was a strange, gloomy time. The place was never so quiet. No more dancing to the banjos ting, nor singing on moonlight nights. The negroes moved about silently, and talked in low frightened whispers. Every evening the little cabin was filled with visitors from the adjoining plantations, who mourned and sang over Aunt Beckey, I believe, the entire night through. Some of their songs were fine old Methodist hymns, which were rolled out with grand effect; others must have been improvised for the occasion, as for instance:
During the fourth week of Aunt Beckeys illness, my father was called away from home, to be gone some days. But for his absence, the audacious piece of roguery I am about to chronicle would never have been attempted, and I should have had no story to tell.
True, said my mother with a sigh; he told me, the night before he left, that, although he believed her disease purely imaginary, yet he had given up all hope of saving her. But what can you do for her, Henry,a mere boy like you, though you are a saucy medical student?
Fancying myself very wise! laughed Henry. Go on, Aunt May; I know you want a rap at my conceit! But I am not going over the old ground with Aunt Beckey. I fancy the wisdom of the schools has been exhausted in her behalf. Im so liberal in my views that Ive no objection to a bit of quackery, when I can gain a point by it.
Treason in the home camp! cried Henry. What would uncle say to such a speech? But do let me try to help poor old Beckey, aunty dear. If I could save her life, would you object to any means by which that good end came about?
Henry had the grace to blush a little at this, but he skipped off quite cheerfully to Aunt Beckeys cabin. Of course I went with him. Where Henry led I usually followed in those days! What a torment I was, to be sure!
Im not so sure of that, said Henry cheerfully. Ive studied this subject, and I know the ins and outs of it. Ive read more books about demons than there are hairs on your head; and Ive seen sights to make your heart jump out of your body. With my own eyes I have seen water blazing like a tar-barrel on fire; and I have seen a dead man rise in his shroud and thrust out his cold arm as if to seize you
Of course I can. I would have offered to do it long before, but these grand doctors were so sure they could cure you! But mind, Aunt Beckey! if I take you in hand you must obey me in everything. The least slip in following my directions might prove fatal.
Henry drew a hideous little wooden image from his pocket, and gave it to Aunt Beckey with the injunction that she should wear it over her heart night and day. It is a very powerful fetich, said he, and will protect you from any future harm.
Put plenty of red pepper and rice in it, said he, and feed her exactly one pint every three hours; not a spoonful more or less, or I cant answer for the consequences. To-morrow I shall call at the same hour, and I will see to the snakes that have caused you so much trouble. I suppose you are willing to suffer some pain in order to get them out of your system?
The next day, at dusk, Cousin Henry led the way to Beckeys cabin, followed by mother, Ruth, Sam, and myself. Aunt Beckey looked better and brighter. She declared that she felt strength flowing into her from the little wooden idol that she held clasped tightly to her bosom. And it did not occur to the good simple soul that the chicken-soup might be responsible for this new-born strength! The backyard was densely packed with negroes, but not one was allowed to enter. Inside the cabin, the scene was worthy of a painter. The primitive lampan iron bowl of lard-oil, with a wick floating on the surfaceburned with a black smoke above the flame, and cast strange, flaring, hobgoblin shadows on the whitewashed walls. Henry drew a chalk circle in the middle of the floor, marking inside of it ridiculous designs, which it pleased him to call cabalistic. Then he swung a lighted censer, chanted a Latin hymn, and was withal so grave that even I dared no longer smile, though the pungent odor of the incense set me sneezing.
Aunt Beckeys dark figure lay motionless on the bed; but her great hollow eyes followed Henrys every motion with painful eagerness, until at a signal from the impromptu doctor, my mother stepped forward and tied a cool bandage across the hot lids.
Granmammy bared her daughters swollen rheumatic limbs, and Henry rubbed them gently for about half an hour. Then he said: I find, Aunt Beckey, that the snakes are now all in the right leg. The fetich has troubled them so much that they are trying to get out. The only thing to do is to cut open the foot, and they will drop out of themselves. Are you willing?
I saw a twinkle in the small boys eye, and I crept pretty near myself, unrebuked by my absorbed cousin. He pierced the foot with a sharp lancet, and the blood flowed freely. The light was so dim that for all my efforts I could not quite see what was going on. But I noticed that Sam held the oblong box in one hand; and from time to time an exclamation from one of this precious pairThere is another! Dont let it get away! Four, is it? or some such significant cryset us all quivering with excitement.
Then he held the basin, so that she could examine its contents; and there were at least six wicked-looking little snakes. Those who have eyes to see, let them see, said that wretched Henry, without so much as the flicker of an eyelash!
I can hear Aunt Beckeys scream of joy to this day! Then how she wept! What blessings she called down on the head of the arch impostor! What shouts of Glory! Glory! resounded through the little room! How the darkies outside took up the strain, and all night long praised the Lord in singing and in prayer.
As for my dear mother, she was so divided between indignation and laughter that she had to hurry away. She was so conscientious that she could not reconcile herself to such a tremendous fraud as that which Henry had practised; and yet, when she saw our dear old Aunt Beckey fast getting well, how could she help being grateful to the clever and mischievous boy who had brought it about?
Certainly, Aunt Beckey did get well, and appeared better in mind and body for her strange experience. She has not been tricked since; thanks perhaps to the fetich that she wears like an amulet over her heart; or to the charitable prayers that she is in the habit of offering for Aunt Sini.
No mo curses shell come home to roost on my head, she says, with slow, solemn words; fur I bless, an I curse not, an I pray fur dem dat spitefully uses me; an dis I shall do forevermo, as long as I live on de earth, an my name is Beckey Bonner.