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Cymric Strain

By Una Howell (USA - circa 1880)

Chapter 25 - Happy Hollow


Copyright Scott Dunbar 2010

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 CHAPTER 25

      “Happy Hollow”

Nature has its way of tying herself into our memories. And though I have no distinctive remembrance of dogwood trailing my childhood, sometimes the sight of a bush in bloom revives a youthful experience.  Spring had a way of arriving early at our place, and once a sleet-storm caught our huge japonica tree in full bloom.  The starry pink blossoms encased in ice were like a large bouquet wrapped in cellophane – so beautiful that I will never forget the sight.

          ‘Up hill and down dale,’ might have accurately described the contour of our town, but since dale and vale were words that only poets employed, in my lexicon we called them ‘valleys.’  To the humble they were ‘hollers,’ and on our side of town, one of these regions, relegated to the Negro population, was popularly known as ‘Happy Hollow.’  My memory records it as a wholly undesirable spot, (geographically speaking), peopled with fascinating characters.  Figures with ‘Uncle Tom’ haloes moved about in ways that stirred my imagination.  I loved to go with Mother when an errand led her to drive through its narrow alleys.  Men and women seemed to burst from cabined shelters to lean over the wheels of our buggy and laugh happily at nothing.  Each dusky face was to me a singing ex-slave, rescued from the cotton fields of the Deep South by one Abe Lincoln.

          Negroes were an important element in our population in Springfield and greatly influenced me.  When we had help in the kitchen or in the yard, it was usually of the dark-skinned variety.

          Because of Father’s frequent absences from home, he taught Mother to shoot a revolver, and gave her instructions to fire an occasional shot in the air if marauders prowled our place at night.  I remember one time when she did this and we children were as scared as the black-faced intruder looked in the window and vanished into the darkness.

          There was a strong Southern sentiment in the town and the segregated Negroes kept to themselves in two regions known, respectively, as ‘Happy Hollow’ and ‘Darkeytown.’  For the most part, they were shiftless and light-fingered and had to be closely watched.  Mother liked them, however, and because of her attitude, we were less afraid of them and they came to our home to borrow food, clothing and household articles.  I well remember a big fat one who asked Mother if she might borrow ‘Miss Lilly’s’ green riding habit.  Mother employed no little finesse in refusing that rather difficult lady.  The Negroes thought nothing of wearing our clothes.  Once Mother consented to our washerwoman’s request to do the laundry work at her home.  When it was not returned she drove to Darkeytown to recover it.  She had no address but other Negroes told her where she could find ‘Hattie,’ and sure enough, when Hattie was located outside her hut washing away, she was wearing a hand-embroidered chemise belonging to Mother.

          It was not uncommon, when articles disappeared from our house, for Father to go get a search warrant, and he and Mother would ransack a cabin and return with the missing sheets, tablecloths and towels that had been hidden in old trunks and boxes.  The Negroes seemed singularly unembarrassed at these encounters.  A need from their point of view was sufficient justification.

“I was kinda short on towels and sheets and I knew you had a plenty.”

          They would say in answer.

          Mother kept on good terms with them, and to gain their respect, and insure our safety when Father was away, she employed many artifices.  One day when Suzy was helping with the housework, supernatural gifts were under discussion.  Suzy, a ‘light-saddle-culluhed-lady’ was running around with another lady’s husband and Mother knew it.  Both women were also aware that unless Suzy mended her ways she was likely to feel the blade of a razor.  Suzy decided to consult a fortuneteller and she told Mother about it.

“Suzy, why do you spend your money on a fortuneteller?  She won’t tell you any more than I can and I won’t charge you anything.”

          Said Mother, a bright thought germinating in her mind.  Suzy listened.

          “Perhaps you didn’t know that I am a conjurer,”

          Mother continued.  Conjurer was not a word to play with in Suzy’s world, and her face blanched.

          “Lawd, Miz Howell, you mean you can see things?”

          She gasped, and Mother, emboldened by credulity, gave rein to her imagination.

          “Yes, I can see things that most people know nothing about,”

          Said she taking a sly look at Suzy’s vanishing poise.

          “How, Miz Howell?”

          Suzy asked.

          “Oh, I can’t really explain it,”

          Mother said.

          “It’s a gift.”

          “Can you see anything about me?”

          Asked Suzy fearful yet longing for light.

          “You?  Oh, yes, Suzy.  I see you with a tall dark man.”

          Suzy wet her lips.

          “There’s a woman with a knife too.  I think she’s pursuing you, Suzy.”

          Mother was warming to the subject.

          “Pursuin’, what’s that, Miz Howell?”

          Questioned the terrified girl.

          “Oh, that means she’s after you, Suzy.  She’s trying to get you.”

          Mother amplified.

          Poor Suzy was in a terrible state as Mother proceeded to reveal her past and present, throwing in a dash of the future for good measure.  After that had proved successful, she delivered some good down-to-earth advice topped with a few impressive quotations from Blackstone.

          All day Suzy committed culinary errors.  She sugared the potatoes and burned the steak.  Then, at the end of the day, she made a full and free confession of her sins.  It had such a salutary effect that Mother, through rationalization, felt justified.  Suzy not only reformed but also reported her findings to her neighbors.  Consequently Mother was listed in the “Who’s Who” that Happy Hollow consulted, as a good shot, a conjurer and a delver of the supernatural, to our everlasting protection.

          We children loved to listen to Negroes’ conversation, though it constantly scared me.  One of my near-fears was Aunt Hannah.  Aunt Hannah lived in Happy Hollow and along about four o’clock in the afternoons, leaning on a cane, she thumped along the sidewalk near Central School just as the children were dismissed.  Occasionally she poked her stick, which had a spike on the end, into the gutter searching for cigar stubs.  She was a misshapen, comma-backed creature, less than five feet tall and very old.  A twisted lip gave her mouth a distorted expression and sometimes, between toothless gums, a big black cigar pointed outward like a gun.  She was said to be crazy and, as she drifted by the school, aggressive urchins would yell out,

          “Hi, Hannah, how’s your head?”

          The old darky resented these comments and brandished her cane at the tormentors, but the boys were always able to outdistance her.  She was usually barefooted and lame.

          As she walked through the public square she would address every one she met.

          “Give me a nickel, Marse (or) Missa,”

          As the case might be.  She was a familiar figure to all the merchants, and kindly ones gave her liquor and the big cigars she loved.  On the Fourth of July each year Hannah celebrated her emancipation by donning fancy clothes and shoes.  With a polka-dotted parasol poised over her head, she promenaded around the square to display her elegance and attended the speechmaking with appropriate dignity, but the next day returned to her role as the town’s old crone.

          In arresting contrast to Hannah was a little old lady known as Aunt Ceilly, a dainty, religious figure with dark eyes and thin, white fuzzy hair peeled back with a round comb.  She was the only Negro whose home Mother would allow us to enter.  Her daughter was our maid at one time, and once Mother let us stay overnight in her clean, two-story cabin.  Aunt Ceilly found comfort in smoking a clay pipe as she sat outside on an open porch at the back of her home.  Her house was immaculate.  Bright-colored geraniums bloomed in baking-powder cans at her curtained windows and when we said goodbye and told her what a nice time we had had, she gave us wax flowers to take home with us.  Even as children we were aware that Aunt Ceilly was gentle and distinguished looking, the well-bred slave of Civil War days.

          The dramatic manner in which Negroes conveyed information shocked it into my mind when I was small.  Ede, the Eberhart’s cook, was the most talented of this group.  I swallowed hard just at the sight of her.  For that reason I kept away from her, but our intimacy with Nellie took us frequently into the Eberhart house where Ede ruled as the majordomo.  Once when Mary had a wart on her wrist, Ede with much mystery and eye-rolling told her that if she would go at midnight to the old oak tree on the corner of Mount Vernon and Campbell Streets and walk around it chanting:

          “Barleycorn, barleycorn, Injun meal shorts,
          Spunkwater, spunkwater, swaller these warts.”

          The blemish would disappear.  It was a great temptation, but there was a drawback to its consummation.  That was the hour set for the ceremonial.  Ede insisted it must be at midnight.  We were not allowed to stay up at night and we were too scared to do our chanting and ‘dryading’ surreptitiously and the wart was obliged to await Mother Nature’s convenience.

          Ede’s spell over me had a golden opportunity on my tenth birthday.  I had dashed over to the Eberhart’s house early in the morning to display my birthday gifts and she called me from the kitchen.  I had never liked her.  As I hesitated, she came somberly into the living-room and stood before me.  She wore, a dingy, calico wrapper open at the throat, and belted by a faded kitchen apron that bore the marks of too many hand-wipings.  Her head was encased in a soiled towel and, altogether, she presented an unlovely appearance.  It was April and the world was singing as I stood with ten-year-old arms heavy with birthday booty+.
     
          “And so yo’ is ten years old,”

          She said, apparently weighing each word with the gravity of a preacher.

“Well, Honey, beginnin’ today, the responsibility fo’ yo’ soul is on yo’ own hand.”

She leaned over and shook her head to make her words more impressive.

“Yo’  motha’ and fatha’ cain’t be held responsible for what yo’ does no mo’.”

Having uttered this pronouncement she slowly walked back into the kitchen.

Though she had disappeared she had left something behind her.  A gloom descended on my spirit.  April had suddenly become November and, try as I did to regain my buoyancy, her words kept resounding like the knell of Judgment Day.

“Yo’ is responsible fo’ yo’ soul.”

All the selfish acts I had knowingly committed as far back as I could remember came and sat on my spirit.  If I had told Mother she would have been able to clear the matter and exorcise that ‘ole devil conscience,’ but I didn’t.  I kept it to myself and life was no longer carefree.  I was afraid the Almighty’s eye was on me and, sometimes in watching my spiritual step, I did a right-about-face.

Ede had given my conscience a stiff dose.  Though she could definitely cloud my horizon for a time, there was one what had power to lighten it.  That warm and rich personality was “Kumby,” ‘Columbia’ was her given name and she had been a slave of one of the choleric citizens, a heavy, red-faced man who breathed audibly and swore with every sentence.  The legend had it that before the war, baffled overseers of plantations used his name as a threat to restore order among the slaves.

“How’d you like me to sell you to Joe Christopher?”

Accompanied by a crack from the blacksnake, was said to have quieted many a potential uprising.

“Kumby’s back was rutted and seared from the whip.  Mother had seen the scars.  Her back supplied a generous area too; for stripped of her dry goods she tipped the scales at two hundred and twenty pounds.  Her services to us, though intermittent, were of long tenure  She was first the caterer for dinner parties, fit for the gods,- and later, our maid-of-all-work.  With her head swathed in a gorgeous bandana and her apron burgeoning with starched ruffles, she swung her hips sideways through our narrow doorways.  Mother was afraid her tray and would scrap the doorcasing and precipitate dishes on the backs of her guests, but Kumby dealt us no humiliations.  She affected an hauteur on grand occasions that not only had no chilling effect on the guests but instead added an atmosphere reminiscent of colonial hospitality.

Kumby was too fat to be handsome, but she had a rich contralto voice that substituted for pulchritude, pleading and full with the quick vibrato native to her race.  Her singing of ‘Roll, Jordan Roll’ while she made a pudding made my eyes burn in their sockets.  We had a Jordan River in Springfield that dried up in the summer, and I tried to imagine it overflowing its banks, and flooding the stores on Boonesville Street.  The aroma of food was to Kumby what a bathroom is to the modern male.  It called for a burst of song and Mary and I haunted the kitchen when she was there.  In her quieter moments we plied her with questions.  One of the unsolved mysteries was the number of children she had had.  She was never sure.

“Don’t know their names?”

I would ask, and she would reply,

“I can’t seem to remember, Honey.”

It was a staggering admission to make, from my point of view, and checked all paths of information.  Once Mother overheard us and, since she was opposed to our probing, she tried to satisfy our curiosity.

“You see, her babies could be sold for money, so as soon as they were born, or when they were a few months old, the overseer would take her baby away so she wouldn’t get fond of it and be unwilling to part with it. 

“Then she would have another baby,”

Mother told us.  That satisfied me for a time, but I was always secretly sure that I would have counted my children.

The only child we had proof that she counted was ‘Arch,’ and I wasn’t sure that he couldn’t have been skipped with profit.  He must have been about fourteen when Father had him help with work about our place.  One freezing winter day when he was idle, he had an idea.  All teasing boys had ideas where Mary was concerned, for two reasons; she could be made to believe anything and she ‘couldn’t not take a dare.’

“Mary, if you put your tongue on the axe you’ll learn somethin’,’

Arch said hoping she would bite.

“What will I learn?”

Mary asked, weighing the proposition.

“Try it and see.”

He replied, showing the whites of his eyes.  He knew full well Mary’s capacity to fall for a dare, so he added:

“Of course, a girl would be afraid to try.”

“I would not,”

Mary wrathfully rejoined, and headed for the barn and the axe.

I tagged along, determined to see the thing through, though I was less easily convinced of its expedience than was Mary.  We found the axe in the barn and while I stood by to witness her acquisition of knowledge, she laid as much of her tongue as she could manipulate on the ice-cold blade.  I was utterly unprepared for the revelation that took place as she vigorously pulled her bloody tongue from the cold metal.  My legs fairly flew to tattle to Mother.  Mother was furious with Arch, who had long since faded out of the picture.  She plopped flour on Mary’s bleeding tongue, and Mary’s speech, if not her anger, was corked for the day.  One thing she had learned.  If all Kumby’s children were as mean as Arch, she could understand why Kumby had forgotten them.

Kumby was full of stories and appreciated an interested audience.  One that she had been persuaded to tell us concerned one of her uncounted offspring.  At night she slept in a cabin with her young baby, but through the day she worked at the mansion.  There was so much work to be done and she was so young and weary that one night she forgot that she had a baby and fell asleep at her task.  When she awoke toward morning it all came back to her and, in terror, she ran stumbling to her cabin.  As she picked her way in the dark she cried and moaned by turns,

“O, Lord, don’t let them rats eat my baby.  Lord save my baby!”

Perhaps the Lord too had had misgivings.  At any rate, the rats had dined elsewhere.

Among other endowments Kumby had a temper that blazed gorgeously under provocation.  She struggled valiantly to keep it in check but quite regularly met with defeat.

“It’s the devil in me,”

She’d apologetically admit to Mother.  She had a militant maternal attitude toward us children, and kept a wary eye on our activities when Mother was absent.  Sometimes big boys came to see Mayne, and they would engage in rough and tumble fights outdoors.  Kumby never interfered so long as the score was in Brother’s favor, but the minute the tide turned, she’d sally forth armed with a rolling pin or a potato masher, eyes blazing.

“You git off that boy or I’ll crown you, shore as I live,”

She’d roar, and sheepishly the boys would untangle themselves and with sickly grins retire behind the barn to laugh off the encounter.

Kumby believed with the poet, whom she never met, that ‘our little life rounded with a sleep,’ and lapsed into its erasures early and often.  Emotions are devastating and as she grew older her outbursts, though less frequent, took a higher toll.  At those times she fairly wallowed in remorse, and the consolations of religion alone comforted.  She would hurry through the serving of supper with the mien of a gravedigger.

“In trouble, Kumby?”

Father would commiseratingly inquire as she removed the dishes from under his nose.

“God knows,”

She’d reply.  Then rolling her eyes upward she would murmur,

“He’ll wash me in de blood of de lam’.”

After she had passed through the narrow doorway, clack would go the dishes as she whammed them in the dishpan; the quicker to speed to the meetin’ house in Happy Hollow.  On the following day she would be limp and steeped in piety, till every-day-ness restored her starch.

Kumby was scaled by nature to a more commodious background than our cottage afforded, yet no one gave the subject serious attention.  As we grew older and crowded the house, Father and Mother gave fewer parties and we saw less and less of Kumby.  Our arms, legs and activities finally pushed out the walls, and Father was faced with the responsibility of providing ampler housing for his growing family.

Cymric Strain, by Una Howell (USA - circa 1880)

Chapter 1 - Introduction
Chapter 2 - Father

Chapter 3 - Dartmouth

Chapter 4 - Killolog

Chapter 5 - America

Chapter 6 - Arrival

Chapter 7 - Gracious Living

Chapter 8 - I Am Born

Chapter 9 - My Name

Chapter 10 - Neighbors

Chapter 11 - The Cyclone

Chapter 12 - The Old Cemetary

Chapter 13 - Music

Chapter 14 - Religion

Chapter 15 - The Circuit

Chapter 16 - Hero No. 1

Chapter 17 - Pageantry

Chapter 18 - Mommy

Chapter 19 - Mental Quirks

Chapter 20 - Decoration

Chapter 21 - Domestic Animals

Chapter 22 - Episode

Chapter 23 - Barn Life

Chapter 24 - Vanities

Chapter 25 - Happy Hollow

Chapter 26 - New Horizons

Chapter 27 - Disciplines

Chapter 28 - An Experimenter

Chapter 29 - Health

Chapter 30 - Murder

Chapter 31 - Misunderstandings

Chapter 32 - Charm

Chapter 33 - Problems

Chapter 34 -Coming Events, Etc.

Chapter 35 - The Wedding

Chapter 36 - At Home

Chapter 37 - Cross Currents

Chapter 38 - A Baby

Chapter 39 - Dr. Winston

Chapter 40 - The Visitor

Chapter 41 - Buffetings

Chapter 42 - Agenda

Chapter 43 - David

Chapter 44 - Exit