The Old Wives Tale
By L. Stewart Marsden
The story goes two old wives — biological sisters who were both widowed — lived up on a southern slope just east of Table Rock in Linville Gorge. It also goes the two were distant relatives of the Linvil family who had settled in the area sometime in the 1700s. The two were seldom seen away from their cabin which overlooked the gorge from its perch. Therefore they were seldom seen at all.
An approach road snaked back and forth along the northern face of the Flat Rock ridge and ended in a dirt turnaround where few visitors parked. The last mile had to be made by foot.
Pastor Handley of Three Forks Baptist Church made the trek twice a year — in the fall to make sure the old women had enough provisions to carry them through the winter, and to split cord wood for their cast-iron stove — and again in the spring to make sure they were still alive.
He would stay several days splitting the wood, which had been hauled up earlier by locals who used rickety flat wagons and mules. The sisters always paid in cash. Rumor was they were fabulously wealthy despite their choice to live modestly.
The sisters had bequeathed a tin metal box with unknown contents to the church and it was generally accepted that Pastor Handley’s trips were to ensure that happened when the two finally died. Old as they were it could be anytime.
That metal box was also the source of much speculation amongst the area mountain folk. Only Handley and his predecessors had seen it. And the wood haulers on one occasion. It was where the sisters kept a lot of cash, and was stored under one of their beds. Did it contain anything other than cash? Lumps of gold? A rare coin? Or perhaps a stamp from the 1800s? Un-muttered were opinions why should the church get the tin box and its contents. Some thought they were as worthy as the church of the box contents.
Two who held the opinion were Caleb Hilliard and his friend Dwayne Settles. Both hapless ne’er-do-wells always complained about their strings of bad luck. Each had pretty well determined their nonfortuitous futures through a series of bad choices fueled by hooch and weed.
It was during one of these inspirational meetings at the Dog Skin Café the two landed a scheme to find out just what was in that tin box of the old wives. And if the contents was valuable, how they might relieve the women of its possession.
“All alone! Them biddies is all alone up there, Dwight!” Caleb slammed his mug of beer on the table, slopping some onto the table. “It would be so easy! I wonder it ain’t been done before this?”
Dwight picked carefully though a plate of fried pickles on the table between the men.
“How you know there’s a tin box at all? Or if it has anything of value in it?” asked Dwayne wearily, grabbing a fried pickle slice and crunching down on it. “They could be just a couple old white chicks with nuthin’ to their name!” He dragged on the nearly smoked Camel pinched between his fingers, blowing a cloud of death to the side.
“Dude — I personally know someone whose cousin knew someone who was once a member of the church the old bats used to go to. She told me that person knew a guy who helped the previous pastor go up and chop wood for them. Now, if a pastor goes to all that trouble to help somebody, there’s got to be somethin’ in it for him!”
“Yeah,” agreed Dwayne. “God do help them what helps themselves.”
He took the salt shaker and generously sprinkled the platter of fried pickles, spilling some on the table.
“Don’t spill the salt, dude!” Caleb spurted, pinching the salt and tossing it over his left shoulder.
“God, man! You a trip! Talk about superstitious!”
“Yeah? Well the other day you walked completely the other way when you saw that black cat coming out of the alley.”
“That’s different. Cats are evil. Black cats? Of the devil!”
“Hmmm. Okay — we’ll hike up this Friday night. I got a pop-up tent we’ll pitch for the night and catch them by surprise in the morning.”
“Why not go ahead and do it at night?”
“You crazy? No telling what they got up there — could have guns, even. Daylight. When we can see ever-thang proper.”
“So we gonna pop ‘em?”
“What —? Naw, man! Finding the tin box is plenty enough. They don’t know us, anyhow — and it’ll be months before anyone finds out about it.”
“Won’t they call the law?”
“Doubt if they have a phone. We’ll cut the line if they do.”
“Will we tie them up? Gag ‘em?”
“They’re so old I don’t think we’ll need to do that. And besides if we did that and they didn’t get loose, they’d probably die. I don’t want murder on my conscience.”
“But won’t they go for help?”
“Last I heard they are in their eighties — maybe nineties. They go for help it’ll take ‘em two days just to get down the trail to the road, and another day to the nearest house!”
The men laughed together, and Dwayne rose from the table and drunkenly mimicked a decrepitly old person walking. He sat, and they clinked beer mugs to seal the deal.
Caleb reached in his pocket and pulled out two acorns. He slid one on the table to Dwight.
“Put this in your pocket.”
“Good luck. Not that we’ll need it — but why risk it?”
Dwight grabbed the acorn and rolled it between his fingers. He grinned broadly at his friend.
Which is how Caleb and Dwayne ended up trudging to the old wives’ house on a moonlit Friday in August. The moon had a waxy pallor and was not robustly yellow or reddish as with a harvest moon.
“Hope you brought your rain gear,” said Caleb, nodding toward the orb. “It’s gonna rain tomorrow. Pale moon.”
The two traveled in silence most the way. The area was a popular hiking spot, and Table Rock a great vantage point from which to view the Linville Gorge. They had to be careful on account with the full moon they could run into several hikers. A moonlit gorge was a great temptation to photographers, and Caleb did not want to show up in the background of a picture in a magazine.
Half-way up the trail the two began to relax. Caleb pulled a silver flask from his pocket and took a long swig when they stopped to rest. He pointed at the moon above them.
“Ya know a full moon’ll cause a man to go crazy.”
“Not to mention bring out the werewolves,” responded Dwayne, taking the offered flask from Caleb and tilting it back for a drink. At that moment a distant dog howled. “That’s bad luck, right? Someone’ll die before morning?”
Caleb snickered. “Pure superstition, Bud.”
“My dad said if you plant your high crops during a full moon, it’ll pull ‘em out rich and full. And if you plant your taters and carrots during the new moon? It pushes them deeper and they grow bigger,” said Dwayne, wiping his lips.
“And your dad was crazy,” laughed Caleb.
“Maybe he went crazy during a full moon,” returned Dwayne, adding and eerie sounding oooh-weeeee-ooooh.
“More’n likely from the moonshine.”
They climbed until they could see the top of the ridge. A thin ribbony strand of smoke wisped up from the other side of the mountain, illumined by the moonlight. Caleb searched and found a cleared area off the trail large enough for their tent. In a few minutes the nylon tent popped up like a half bubble, and the two threw their backpacks inside.
“I’ll build a fire,” offered Dwayne, bending to find twigs and brush to burn.
“No fire,” snapped Caleb. He pulled a decaying log from the underbrush and sat down, pulling out a bag of weed, and rolled a joint.
“Ahhhh!” he said with a satisfied puff. “Tomorrow our luck is going to change!”
“Definitely,” agreed Dwayne, taking the smoke from his friend and sucking on it. “Definitely.”
As Caleb predicted, the morning was misty and cool because the prevailing winds were from the north and west. The morning light, the hard ground and a nearby murder of crows interrupted their deep sleep. Hungry, they cracked open packages of beef jerky and gnawed the tough meat in silence, then repacked their gear. The summit of the ridge was only yards away, and the trail led back down the southern slope a few hundred yards before the cabin came into view.
To say the cabin was old was an understatement. It seemed rooted into the side of the steep drop, with just barely enough leveled earth cut from the ridge. The logs the cabin was built of were dark with splotches of green moss and lichen tucked down into the rolled niches. No window was cut on the north side facing them, but a galvanized pipe protruded from the tin roof just above the wall. It was the source of the trickle of smoke they had seen during the night’s ascent.
As they made their way carefully down the muddy and rutted pathway, a shape jumped from the near gable of the cabin with a loud “screeeeeee!”
“Owl,” Caleb whispered. “Not a good sign, owl in the morning.”
Dwight reached in his pocket to withdraw his acorn. “Not to worry.”
A porch extended out from the front of the cabin, which looked south toward the gorge. The edge of the porch extended nearly a foot out over the edge of the hill. Years of wind and rain had eroded the earth supporting the porch underneath. The gorge itself was masked in thick fog, and the rising sun struggled just above the rise of the eastward ridge, dulling it to a feint roundish glow.
Caleb stepped up on the porch cautiously, as though his weight might send the entire cabin down into the gorge. He motioned to Dwight, who followed at warily.
The front of the cabin was long, and a single door with a battered screened door was its only entrance. Dirty multi-paned double-sashed windows bordered the door on either side. Two granny rockers, long since washed of their original coats of paints, graying on the far side of the porch. One of the chairs rocked gently with the wind.
“Hope no one was sitting there just now,” Caleb murmured.
“Evil spirits will sit in a chair if you leave it rocking,” he said, one eyebrow raised.
Caleb opened the rickety screen door, then knocked on the door.
He knocked again little louder.
“Patience is a virtue!” came a response from within. “I’m a comin’.”
The door opened back toward the inside of the cabin, and a very old and feeble-looking woman peeked around its backside.
“Mrs. Childress? Emma Childress?”
“That’s my sister. Didn’tcha see the sign?”
She pointed to the outside wall next to the door. A seran-wrapped note card was tacked to one of the front logs with a rusted and bent thumbtack.
“No Solicitation!” was scrawled in faded red marker.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” said Caleb as politely as he could muster. “I truly did not see that sign. So you are Mrs. Johnson, then?”
“Don’t matter who I am. I live here, and you don’t. Read the damn sign agin!” she ordered and began to close the door. Caleb nudged his foot forward to stop the door from shutting.
“Yes, you are absolutely right, ma’am. I do not live here. But I am not here to solicit you or your sister.”
“Then what are you here for?” she cracked back.
“Nothing much, Miss Nadine.”
“How is it you know my and sister’s name?”
“If you let me in, I’ll be glad to tell you.”
“That’ll happen when pigs fly!” she sneered, and opened the door wider and slammed it shut, the heavy door crushing Caleb’s tennis-shoed foot.
“Ow! Goddamn it!” he shouted, pulling his wounded foot out and hopping on the other. Dwight burst out laughing. “What the hell are you laughing at?”
“Let me do this,” he grinned, pushing Caleb aside. He knocked as politely as he could.
“Go away!” came the response from inside.
“Ma’am,” said Dwight sweetly, “I’m from Three Forks Baptist Church. I’m one of the deacons, and I have some bad news about Pastor Handley. I’d have called you before we came up, but I did not have your telephone number.”
“Ain’t got a telephone,” came the muffled reply. “What about Pastor?”
“Could you just open the door, please ma’am? It’s not the kind of thing I want to shout about.”
A bolt drew back from inside, and the door latch clicked and the door opened, this time with a short chain restraint evident at the old woman’s eye level.
“So?” she eyed Dwight. “You a black man?”
“Um — well, uh, yes I am, Ma’am.”
“They let a black man be deacon at the church now?”
“Well, yes Ma’am. They do,” he continued to lie. Certainly not at Three Forks Baptist, that is.
“That other man a deacon? ‘Cause ifn’ he is, he just took the Lord’s name in vain,” she said sharply.
“No, ma’am. He is actually a new convert. So he slips into the old ways a little. You know how that is. The New Man struggles with the Old Man.”
“Amen to that.”
“May I come in? Please?”
She hesitated, then unlatched the door chain and opened the door wide. Dwight looked back at Caleb and winked.
Dwight and Caleb eased carefully into the dark front room. Beside the two windows on the front, a side window on the east wall allowed the hazy morning light into the space. A flower pattern linoleum floor covered the entire front room, with a green shag throw rug under a shaker style coffee table that fronted two high-back Victorian chairs. It was a mish-mash assemblage of design and color, not indicative of taste nor affluence.
The bent lady shuffled and motioned for the two to sit down. She pulled a rocker from the wall up to the other chairs and carefully, slowly sat, the rocker dipping back with her slight weight, then settling. Dwight and Caleb sat in the two Victorian chairs.
“Well?” she asked pointedly of Dwight.
“Oh, yes. Pastor Handley died unexpectedly during the night.”
“Oh. Well, I did hear a dog barking in the full moon last night. I guess it was to be expected somebody was going to pass over. I’m glad the Pastor was a God-fearing man, at least.”
“Amen to that, Mrs. Johnson.”
“Now my Henry died on Christmas Eve right at midnight, so I know I’ll see him in heaven.”
“Gates of heaven are wide open on Christmas Eve at that time. Anyone that dies then goes straight through the pearly gates.”
“Oh, of course.”
“Now Emma’s man was a gambler and chewed tobacky. He went straight to hell.”
Caleb shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He felt something crawling on the back of his neck, and reached back and pinched a bug between his thumb and forefinger. It was a ladybug. He crushed it.
“That’s bad luck, you know,” said the woman, watching him with the bug.
“Superstition,” he remarked.
“Is it? So, I am awfully sorry to hear about Pastor Handley,” she said, turning her attention back to Dwight.
“Like I said, we would have called. But really? It’s more appropriate to come in person.”
“Nice of you. But you coulda waited. He died last night? Why the rush?”
“Mrs. Johnson …”
“Call me Nadine.”
“Nadine … I don’t know how to go about this other that straight out. Pastor Handley left a wife and six children behind.”
“Yes, ma’am. And you might know that the church is small, as is the budget. Why Pastor Handley was practically giving his service to the Lord for free.”
“I did not know . . .”
“Yes ma’am. He worked part-time at the hardware store down to Valle Crucis to help make ends meet. And his wife, Lord bless her, knits and sells hand-made wool sweaters to help feed those children.”
“I didn’t have children.”
“No ma’am. Well, here’s the thing . . . the congregation has got together to see what we can do for the survivin’ family — you know. But none of us is exactly flush with money ourselves. Times is hard.”
“And what do you do, Mister …”
“Settles. Dwayne Settles — I’m sorry Ma’am. I should have introduced myself at the start.”
She was not listening. She was busy counting on her fingers after he announced his name. At the finish, she looked up at Dwayne with a worried expression.
“Your name has thirteen letters,” she said.
“Does it? I never knew.”
“So does mine,” she said with a smile.
“Okay. Um —“
“You want me to help out. Me and my sister. You want us to pitch in for the Handley family.”
“To put it bluntly, yes. I know that the church is in your will when you die …”
“But sometimes the needs of the church — of its flock — aren’t so timely, if you know what I mean.”
“We knowed visitors were coming. So I suspect this is all part of the Lord’s timing — which is always perfect.”
“How did you know we were coming, Nadine?”
“Two bees got into the house yesterday.”
“Unfortunately, Emma swatted them. But you two don’t appear to be evil.”
“Superstition,” broke in Caleb.
“Maybe so,” smiled the woman. “I would expect you would like us to step up our gift to the church, and maybe not wait until after we are dead, then.”
“We’re just here to see however you can or might want to help out the pastor’s wife and children. That’s all. If you can, great. If you can’t, we understand.”
The old wife stood and steadied her rocker with her hand so it wouldn’t move.
“Let me go speak to Emma and see what she thinks. She’s abed with the ague. Been trying to get her fever down for the past couple of days. Normally sliced potatoes work pretty fast. But then I seed a white moth in the cabin last night, so I’m more’n a bit worried you know.”
She walked unsteadily down a hallway to the back of the cabin and disappeared.
“White moth?” Dwight asked Caleb.
“Sign of death to come,” Caleb grimaced, raising his eyebrows.
As they waited they heard the women talking in low indistinguishable murmurs. A cricket began to sound from somewhere near the pot-bellied stove. Caleb also noticed a small toad hop in the direction of the cricket noise. All signs of good luck.
“You notice the ivy on the cabin wall outside?” he asked Dwight.
“Well it’s all for good luck. The ivy, the cricket and the frog.”
“It’s a toad.”
“Get warts from toads.”
“Superstition. I’ll bet the beds run from east to west. North to south is bad luck.”
The old wife toddled back into the front room holding a metal box about the size of a large cigar box. It was obviously old, with black paint flaking along its edges, and a few dents here and there.
Both men stared at the old box wide-eyed.
“Emma and me were gonna give this to the church when we died. Pastor Handley knew that, as did those pastors before him. I think we’ve outlasted more than a few. Emma thinks it’s five, but I’m not so sure.”
She set the box down on the coffee table. Caleb leaned in as to take the box but Dwight shook his head slightly, indicating not to. Caleb sat back.
“I have been the absolute worst as a host,” clucked the woman somewhat perturbed at herself. “I have some molasses cookies Emma and I keep for guests. I’ll bring out a plate.”
“No need for that,” Dwight perked up.
And she scuttled about the small kitchenette near the wood stove, and reached into a large clay jar for cookies she set on a platter. Pumping the handle of the water pump, she quickly filled a tin coffee pot and placed the pot on the wood stove.
“Now it’ll take just a little bit for the water to heat enough for tea,” she said cheerily as she carried the plate of cookies and placed them on the table next to the metal box. “Please!” she said, motioning to the cookies.
Both Dwight and Caleb leaned forward to pick a cookie from the pile. The cookies were hard to the touch. Dwight tried to bite his cookie.
“Ow!” he said.
“Oh dear! The cookies aren’t stale, are they?” she asked sweetly.
“No. I bit my tongue, is all.”
She smiled. “You know what that means, right?”
“I guess not,” Dwight answered.
“It means you’ve told a lie recently,” she laughed. “Aren’t superstitions funny that way?”
Dwight and Caleb laughed uncomfortably.
“You never told me what it is you do, Mr. Settles.”
“Right. Well, I am a mortician. That’s one of the reason I knew about Pastor Hendley’s death. I’m also the local coroner.” He bit into the cookie again, and again bit his tongue. But this time he winced, and avoided saying anything. When he looked up, the old wife was staring at him, a slight smile spreading.
The coffee pot began to steam and she noticed it and got up, again steadying her rocker.
“I’ve some wonderful raw honey I can add to your tea, gentlemen,” she said over her shoulder as she poured out the hot water into teacups and sank teabags into the cups.
“That’s fine,” said Dwight.
“Me, too,” said Caleb with some difficulty, having bit his tongue as well.
She carried the cups in on a tray, on which was a small oriental bowl with a top. A porcelain spoon protruded through a space in the bowl’s top. She spooned heaping globs of the thick honey into the cups, and handed each man their drink, and then a spoon.
Outside the cabin a sudden downpour ran through the gorge, and wind whipped the side of the cabin, whistling about its eaves and corners. Loose panes in the windows rattled.
“Oh, my! Quite a storm!” she said, smiling.
“You’re not having tea?”
“I’m not a morning tea drinker,” she smiled again. “Please … drink up!”
The men tested the drinks with sips, then drank them fairly quickly in the pervading silence of the room. The storm continued to ravage outside.
“Well, Mrs. Johnson,” Dwight announced as he carefully placed his teacup back on the tray, “may I assume this metal box is your gift towards the Handley family need?”
Dwight picked the box up.
“Do you mind if I open it?”
“Um — I’d prefer you didn’t, Mr. Settles. It should be opened with the leadership of the church. Don’t you think?”
“Yes, Ma’am. That’s perfectly fine.” Caleb smiled broadly from his seat and nodded in agreement.
The wind and rain whipped and howled outside.
“Mr. Settles, I’m going to insist you take my umbrella with you to protect you from the rain when you go. It’s really large enough for the two of you.”
“Oh no — we’re fine!”
“I won’t take no for an answer,” and she carefully crossed to the front door where an umbrella was propped up against the wall.
“All right, thank you Mrs. Johnson, we’ll take it. God bless you, Ma’am.” He stood along with Caleb, and picked up the metal box. The two followed the old wife to the door.
“Are you both okay?” she seemed concerned. “You seem a bit wobbly.”
“Wow, I am a little woozy,” Dwight admitted. “But I’m all right. Don’t worry.”
She opened the door and a gust of wind blew through the crack, knocking the umbrella to the floor.
“Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “Do you know what that means?”
“No idea,” said Dwight groggily.
“Nope. I do not know,” added Caleb, weaving a bit back and forth and picking the umbrella up.
“It means that someone is about to be murdered!” she said as the men sidled past her onto the front porch.
“Ah! Superstition!” returned Caleb turning to her on the porch, and opening the umbrella. Both he and Dwight grabbed the umbrella shaft, the metal box tucked under Dwight’s arm.
The wind blustered and the rain scattered across the tin roof loudly. The men turned one last time to the old wife, who was peeking out a small opening of the front door, about to close it.
“Thank you again, Mrs. Johnson,” Dwight spoke in a loud voice against the wind and rain. “You’ll never know what this means to us! God bless!”
At that moment, the wind, which had been blowing from the north, suddenly reversed its direction. The two men were holding the umbrella bent low into the face of the wind. A huge gust shot into the open umbrella, which caught the wind like a sail, pulling the two men, the umbrella and the metal box over the front edge of the porch and up into the wind whipped sky over the gorge. Up they sailed for nearly a hundred yards. Out over the rocky gorge below. Then as suddenly, the wind stopped, and the two ne’er-do-wells plummeted down like a wounded crow.
The old wife shook her head slowly and regretfully and closed and latched the door.
“Is it done?” came a voice from the back of the cabin.
“It’s done. That’s another metal box we’ve lost,” she said, turning back to the table to pick up the tray and its contents. “I think the mandrake honey is losing its potency, by the way.”
“Yes. If it hadn’t been for the wind catching the umbrella, who knows?”
“I’ll work on it in the meantime.”
“You do that, Dear.”
Copyright © by Lawrence S. Marsden, 9 April, 2015