A Tennessee Tall Tale
Retold by Meredith Dixon Haynes
Martha and I are on a retreat in the Great Smoky Mountains. Our log cabin is cozy with all the comforts of home even though we are deep in the woods, and it’s a couple of miles from another cabin.
Tonight as we are cleaning up after a late supper a knock on the door startles both of us. We can’t see the front door on the porch. “Who’s there?” I call.
“It’s Aingeal Markham, dearie. I’m bone weary from walking. Please let me come in for a spell.”
I look at Martha and we silently assent to let her in. Cautiously I unlock the door and allow a bent, ancient looking woman to enter. Even though she looks like a weathered prune, she has a gentle aura, and we relax and settle her in a rocker by the fire.
“Would you like a cup of sassafras tea?” I ask. “Carl at the store in town told us it’s good for all kind of ailments.”
“Aye, he’d be right. I use to dig my own sassafras in my younger days.”
“Did you say your last name is Markham?” Martha asks.
“Aye. We come from Galway where the name is Marchachain. After the family settled in Nottinghamshire, folks started calling us Markham.”
Martha, sits down on the cane bottom chair next to her as I hand her a mug of tea. “The reason I ask, our family name on our grandmother’s side is Markham.”
I sit in my usual spot on the floor and nestle in a pile of pillows. “What brings you out this far in the woods, Miss Markham.”
“Call me Granny, dearie, everybody does. I come to find you and give you a warning. You mustn’t go out after dark. You need to keep your door barred and windows locked tight. And it’d be a good idea to keep a small fire going all during the night, like you have now.”
I glanced at Martha and wondered if she felt the same icy fingers of chill down her backbone as I did. “Miss, ah, Granny, why do you say this?”
“Child, the Wampus Cat roams about looking for revenge.”
Martha said, “What’s a wampus cat?”
“I was afraid you all hadn’t heard. That’s why I came as quick as I could. Long time ago when the Cherokees were the only living souls here, the men did all the hunting. Women folk stayed home to tend children, cook, and make a garden.” Martha and I are listening intently caught up in the story Granny told us.
“One pretty young thing was jealous she couldn’t go with her husband and the other men. She wanted to see where they went, what they did. Finally, she couldn’t stand it any longer. She wrapped herself in a mountain cat skin and set off some distance back from the hunting party.” Granny paused to sip her tea.
“Soon the men came to a clearing and stopped. They set up camp and started a fire as dusk settled. The woman hid behind some rocks, hunkered down into the mountain cat skin. Soon the men started to tell their sacred stories. The medicine man started doing his magic. The woman stayed quite, but fear began to rise in her breast. She knew the laws of the tribe. The men held sacred the hunts, the stories and the magic. It was for their eyes only. It was forbidden to the women. Panic caused her to scream and run back toward the village.”
Granny paused, very still. “Go on,” Martha and I said in unison.
“The men followed her and caught her in the woods. By now it’s pitch black except for a torch carried by the young woman’s husband. They all made a circle around him, her and the medicine man. The medicine man takes a rope, wraps it around and around, tying that cat skin so tight to the woman. He speaks the magic into the night, ‘Forever you will be half woman half cat. You will roam the land with no home.’ And POOF she becomes a terrible monster,” She said with a flourish of her hands. Martha and I both jump.
“Since that time she is out in the woods looking for someone to take out her revenge. Some can hear her howl. Some say she tries to get in any opening she can, even down the fire-place. Some say none have lived to tell of seeing her.” She stopped, finished her tea. As she rose from the rocker she said, “And now I must hurry back it will soon be getting dark. Don’t forget what I told you about locking tight and a fire all night.”
Before we could say come back, she was out the door and gone. It was as if she vanished into the deepening shadows. Martha and I closed the door of the cabin. I locked the door as she checked the windows.
Please come back for the rest of the Tennessee Tall Tale.