A song sung in Tennessee often has two meanings–one apparent to whomever listens to it, and one coded for a deliberate audience. You probably learned about this in school, how a field full of people picking cotton might sing “Follow the Drinking Gourd” to direct a man hidden in the stand of trees to go north in the direction the Big Dipper points, while the overseer sits on his horse, oblivious.
That’s the way the story of the witch goes, too. Some folks tell the story as if it’s a story about an old woman angry about being cheated in a slave trade. Others tell it as if it’s a story about a man who couldn’t keep his hands off his daughter, and the embodiment of her unspoken fury.
It is a story about revenge, at least the way I heard it; that much is true.
And it is a story of a young mother, but not the Bell woman. This is the story of a young mother sold to a new family, away from her babies, who swore to always hate the whole family, to destroy them all, starting with the father, the worst, the one with the sharp tongue and the quick fist. But those were strange times, and, eventually, she softened towards the women. Helped keep them safe as she could, as safe as she could.
She could wander around the house unnoticed. She knew what plants in the wilds of Robertson County could kill. She could slip the poison into the food. She could work the foot magic that hobbled the old man. She could speak without anyone noticing her mouth moving. She could make an animal do her bidding. She could stop a president in his tracks. And she could read, though no one knew that, but her.
“Do you know Marie Laveau?”
“Yes,” I said.
“This woman could have been like that, if she wasn’t stuck out in the country. If you know the Work, you can recognize a Worker. And the Witch was a powerful Worker. You hear that story, if you know what to listen for, and you hear the story of the greatest hoodoo woman in Tennessee. Hands down.”
“Do you think she still haunts that place?”
“Sure I do.”
“Have you seen her?”
“Oh, no. I don’t mess with things that powerful. Now my grandmother, in her day, she might have. She was fearless. But not me. I know better. There’s trouble.”
“Why do you think she’s still there?”
“Because that’s her land, now, sweetie. That’s the point of the story–You do the Work; you get the reward.”