Dale Short has guest blogged here before, and he’s welcome any time. Between his writing and his radio show, he’s got a full appreciation of all aspects of Southern life, and his collection of short stories, Turbo’s Very Life, is one of the best books I’ve ever read. He’s joining us today to talk a bit about superstitions in the south and how they impact everyday life even now.
Southern Superstitions: Encoded in the Blood?
In the remote North Alabama coal-mining community where I grew up, being superstitious (which nearly all of us were) was like walking a tightrope. This was because the Missionary Baptist Church (to which nearly all of us belonged) totally frowned on what the Bible called “witchcraft and divination.”
And the church interpreted scripture broadly, so as to be on the safe side. Their prohibition against gambling, for instance, meant we weren’t permitted to own playing cards–or dice, including the pair that mysteriously disappeared from the Monopoly set I got for Christmas one year.
As a result, witchcraft and divination didn’t just cover such portals to the beyond as Ouija boards and fortune-tellers, but included horoscopes and Zodiac signs. Yet everybody I knew kept a copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac in their house or barn because “planting by the signs” was as natural as breathing; everybody who farmed had a tale to tell about some season when they’d ignored the almanac and had meager crops to show for it. The signs also specified the proper time for slaughtering a pig or a cow, and everybody knew of some ill-timed slaughter that had caused the meat to spoil.
Even without such divination devices as almanacs and Ouija boards, though, we seemed to have a complex list of superstitions encoded in our blood, and many of them involved coal mining. It was bad luck for a woman or girl to venture near the mouth of a mine. One variant even said that it was bad luck for a man on his way to work if he chanced to meet a red-haired woman on the road. Mules in the mine who became unaccountably skittish were thought to be seeing ghosts, or “haints,” that humans couldn’t. And so on.
In retrospect, many superstitions seemed to be sexist in motivation, such as “A whistling woman and a crowing hen / Always come to some bad end.” On the other hand, I’ve encountered a number of people over the years who apparently had the power of supernatural healing, and the ability to find lost objects and foretell the future, and all of them were female.
After my grandmother joined the church as a young woman, she openly scoffed at superstition. And yet our family knew that she was the seventh child of a seventh child, supposedly giving her the power to cure the oral infection known as thrush (also known as “the thrash”) that was once common among babies. She remembered, as a child, neighbors bringing their thrash-suffering infants and asking her to blow her breath into their mouths. She was embarrassed by the attention, she told me once, but nonetheless the babies were cured. As a churchgoer, she had managed to mostly convince herself the healings were coincidence.
The superstition that most sent a chill up my back during childhood, though, was birds-and-windows. If a bird tried desperately to break through a window pane, it was said that someone in the family would die soon. I’ll never forget the afternoon I was in the house alone and a redbird flew in a fury against the picture window. The bird hit the glass again and again with increasing force until its head left a smear of blood down the pane as it fell—whether dazed or dead I didn’t know, because I was afraid to go outside and see. I decided not to tell my parents about it later, in some irrational hope that if I never spoke about it, it wouldn’t be real.
Days passed, then weeks, and nobody died. But I had a new and recurrent nightmare, of bird after bird slamming against the windows of our house until the glass was covered with blood.
Not long ago I was searching through old files in my mother’s storage house and found a short story from that period of time that I had forgotten I wrote. It’s not very good. Not even a real story, more of a vignette, about a boy afraid to leave his house because flocks of birds keep attacking the windows, but eventually they stop and nobody dies. The prose style is a shamelessly Capote-esque ripoff.
The tale doesn’t claim any new literary ground, but it occurred to me that while many new nightmares have come and gone in the years since, I have no memory of dreaming about the bird scenario again. Is it superstitious for me to believe that writing fiction is an act of self-exorcism, that can actually clean old horrors out of brain cells and make room for the new?
Probably. But it appears to be a gift from what we call, for lack of a better term, the beyond. And I’ll take it gladly.