Grampa, like most of his siblings, was an engaging story teller. Folks loved to listen to him. I was among them and if he wasn’t charming a crowd I would sit on his lap and beg for him to tell me a story. My favorites stories were about his childhood – most of them I have forgotten except for this one, which enchanted me then and even now.
When Grampa was a small boy a witch came to his house carrying a basket on her arm. She set her basket on the kitchen table. The contents of the basket were covered by a cloth and hidden from view. The old woman bent toward him, looked straight into his eyes, pointed a bony finger at him and warned, “Don’t you look in my basket, Johnny!” and then she added, “If you look in my basket, I will know it. So keep your nose out of my things.”
Grampa admitted that her stern warning frightened him and he recoiled from her staring eyes and pointing finger. Then the old hag whirled and left the room, leaving her basket on the table. Johnny was terrified. What could possibly be in that basket that was so valuable, so important that it required such strong caution? Was it something magical? Her wand perhaps? Or did it contain a healing potion or evil brew? Maybe it was some poor creature that she had turned to stone or shrunk to near nothingness. The possibilities of what might be began to grow. Under that cloth could be magical beans, herbs or poisonous mushrooms. Witches had been known to steal babies, perhaps she had a wee babe tucked under the linen cloth. My grandfather, it seems, was a hero even then because that particular thought was enough to nudge his curiosity into action. Johnny crept quietly over to the table. He looked around carefully to make certain that no one could see him. And he listened intently for any noise that would alert him that someone was coming. He slowly, quietly, cautiously lifted the cloth taking care not to move the basket even a single inch. Then he peered into the old woman’s basket. Every time he told me this story I held my breath.
“What? What was there, Grampa?” I would ask, even though I had heard the answer many times before.
“Nothing,” was the disappointing reply.
“What did you do then?” I would ask.
“I went on outside to play,” he’d say. “But do you know what?”
“What?” I would breathe, my eyes wide and my heart racing.
“When that witch came back to the kitchen to get her basket, she knew I’d looked inside,” he would say and nod his head for emphasis.
“How? How did she know?” Surely she had a crystal ball or a magic wand that told her such things.
“Old witches just know things like that. She could probably smell where my fingers touched her cloth. Or else she saw me in her mind’s eye,” he would say.
Oh, my! I could see the old hag’s nose twitching as she sniffed the air around the basket when she entered the kitchen. I would shudder. And then I would wonder what the Eye in her Mind looked like — a Mind’s Eye — oh, Dear! Oh, my! I could see that one all-seeing, terrible eye looking out through her forehead and able to view all manner of things not within normal sight. It was more fearsome than her crooked, warty nose.
“What happened? What did she do?” I would press and every time I asked this question, I feared the answer.
“She came out on the porch and called me over. She leaned toward me and pointed her long boney finger in my face, shook it and said ‘I know you looked into my basket, Johnny, didn’t you?’ Her eyes were all wrinkled and squinty. I was scared to death she was gonna put a spell on me. But she didn’t. She just cackled and went off down the road.”
Oh, what a relief! She didn’t turn him into a toad or a rat or a pillar of salt or worse yet into nothingness — because she could have done that with a snap of her boney finger — just made him vanish away into thin air. Where would that be??? I wondered why she had given him a reprieve. Maybe because putting his hand into her basket didn’t amount to anything. There was nothing there for him to see. Oh, my grandfather was such a lucky fellow! Thank Goodness. What in the world would have happened to him if there had been something under that cloth — one of her dark secrets? What would he have done then? Sometimes as we sat rocking together we expounded on one of the awful possibilities. Our imagination about all that wickedness and his bravery would wind on for hours.
My grandfather died when I was seven. I was heartbroken. I missed his booming voice, hearty laughter, bear hugs, candy surprises, and sharing secrets. Most of all, I missed sitting with him in his rocking chair, leaning against his chest as he told me fabulous stories that enlivened my imagination. They were his legacy to me. I filled the void his passing left in my life with revisiting his stories. Certainly, his encounter with the witch and her basket was the most impressive and I was left alone to expound on the whys and what ifs of that event. Sometimes I would discuss this particular story with my grandmother or my parents but they usually smiled and dismissed it rather carelessly, I thought. They did not seem to see the depth of the mystery.
Years passing did not dilute my fascination with that moment in my grandfather’s young life when a witch had entered his world and he had bravely disobeyed her warning. And moreover that he had escaped unscathed. There came a day when I was struck by a new thought about Grampa’s story. Perhaps the event had unfolded exactly as the old crone had meant for it to. Perhaps she was only trying to lure him to put his hand into the basket. That would be just the sort of thing a wicked temptress would do to a curious boy. Perhaps his hand being inside her woven lair was the key to some other secret that only witches could know. That gave a whole new meaning to her evil laughter as she departed. She knew something that only she could know. My poor unsuspecting grampa, the innocent young Johnny, had been part of a magical spell all those years ago. And because of that moment in time the world had changed and was never the same again.
I wished mightily that I could visit Grampa again. We had much to discuss. I closed my eyes and imagined what that might be like: his strong hug, loud laughter and the candy from his pocket — all wonderful but nothing as sweet as crawling into the rocker with him to have our discussion. My inner vision was strong. I could feel myself there in his presence: the sweet smell of his soap, the soft denim of his overalls, the easy rise and fall of his chest. Then just as I was about to present my latest theory my memory rested on his fabulous thumb — or maybe I should say thumbs, plural — for my grandfather had, what our family called, a “double thumb” on his right hand. His large hand was normal in every way except for the two thumbs, which grew out of the place where everyone else had only one. Each thumb was fully formed right down to the joints and nails. They entwined with one another like ivy around a tree and, although they were inseparable, they could move independently of one another. I had often examined that thumb in a sort of absent minded way as I sat in my grandfather’s lap listening to his stories and songs. Sometimes I would attempt to separate the appendages and Grampa would end the struggle by pinching one of my small fingers in between his two amazing thumbs. I would squeal with laughter. Perhaps I had been looking right at the result of young Johnny’s disobedience all along without realizing it! Could it be?
My lonely introspection was too much for one young girl. I needed someone to talk to about this new perspective. Perhaps Daddy could help sort things out. And so I laid out the revelation and asked what he thought. He laughed and tousled my hair, “Honey, that old woman wasn’t a witch. She was just an old woman with a wrinkled face that scared your Grampa. She was teasing him with her basket. She knew if she told him not to look in it that would just make him curious and he would be bound to do it. She didn’t have any special powers. She just knew young boys and their natural curiosity. She went off laughing because she knew by the look on his face that he had done exactly what she’d said not to do.” I was stunned and disappointed. I knew Grampa was a wise man and he wouldn’t have believed the old woman was a witch if it weren’t true. And I said so. But Daddy remained firm.
“There are no such thing as witches,” he said as he shook his head. I could see there was no convincing him. He went on with his chores, leaving me to consider his words. Here was a man who had told me on other occasions that he didn’t believe in ghosts, evil spirits or ugly giants. And now he was saying he didn’t believe in witches. He probably didn’t believe in fairies or elves either. And yet he went to church regularly and prayed openly to God. You couldn’t see Him either so what was the difference? How did a person decide what was real and true or not? Now there was another mystery to be solved. Whenever I posed this question to the adults in my world their answer was invariably:
“You must have faith to believe in God”. Apparently, faith didn’t count in the matter of ghosts, giants, or witches. I began to think of all the incredible things adults believed in like gravity, God, a Holy Ghost, the creation of the world in only seven days, the virgin birth and germs. How could these things be absolutely true but yet other mystical creatures and magic not? What did faith really mean? Moma and Daddy shook their heads and said things like:
“When you get older you’ll understand,” or “Just have faith and you will see,” They didn’t seem to understand that I DID have faith and it allowed me to believe in all these things. It seemed my faith was different from theirs. My grandmother just laughed and hugged me. She didn’t seem too worried about my beliefs or my faith. Other adults had reactions ranging from complete perplexity to just plain horror and then they worried about my “salvation”. In a rural Southern Baptist church, even as a young girl, I knew enough to know that this was a grave concern, even though I really didn’t comprehend the idea of salvation any better than their notion of faith. And so I decided to stop asking them questions. I knew that my grandfather had been a respected leader in our church as well as in the wider community. He had studied the Bible and had been ordained as a deacon of the church. He didn’t seem to have any problem with believing in all manner of mystical things. I would have liked to have a discussion with him about his idea of faith. I had a strong feeling that our idea of faith was much the same.
So there I’d gone round and round in my thinking and was right back where I started. There was no question in my mind that Grampa had met a witch when he was a boy or that he’d had an extraordinary encounter with her. The real questions remained unanswered: Had the old crone let him go on his way unhurt, unmarked? Or had putting his hand in the witch’s basket been part of a magical spell that created his double thumb and let something loose in the world that had not existed before? I supposed I would never know the answer to these questions. What I do know is that my grandfather was incredible. He was a deeply spiritual man who loved his children fiercely and his grandchildren with abandon. He wore a suit with a vest and pocket watch on Sundays but during the week he rambled about his farm in overalls and went barefoot as often as possible. He adored his wife and even in the early 1900’s with all the work that needed doing on over 100 acres of farmland with only mules for plowing and no electricity, he took every Monday to help his beloved Bessie do her washing. It was well known among his 9 children that he regarded washing as a chore to be shared because he acknowledged it as monstrously hard work. He was a gregarious man who loved people and entertained guests of various races and creeds, graciously sharing whatever he had even during the dark days of the depression. Many folks in our community remembered his kindnesses and spoke of them long years after his death. He had great gifts of inspiration, oratory, and imagination. I felt his immense love as a palpable and solid thing. And the joy of it was evident whenever he sat in the dirt with me and pretended to eat make believe ice cream or rocked me in his front porch rocker singing hymns or weaving fantastic tales. Perhaps the old witch had changed him that day — maybe she conjured up his extra thumb. Perhaps his fabulous double thumb kept him open to other viewpoints and magical possibilities. Maybe what changed in the world that day was ………well, I can’t say for certain…….but maybe it has to do with faith – the kind that allows you to believe in people and their stories; the kind that has kept my grandfather’s story alive for me even after all these years. Whatever it was opened a doorway for my grandfather and for me……..and that’s how this story came to be……
As an adult I understand the responses of my parents about my Grampa’s witch story. But as the granddaughter of Johnny Pearce I choose to believe in magic. I believe there is more to life than we can see with the eye or explain by science.