Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 17, Mountain Mary

Yesterday my friend Bob sent me a picture of the railroad tracks that ran along the edge of the defunct dairy farm outside Glouster, Ohio where I used to live. I walked over or under that bridge with my dog every morning. And yesterday another friend, Darcy Higgins, shared her beautiful graduate thesis on conservation education in that county (which you can read here). So today on my Advent Calendar of Witches I want to talk about Mountain Mary, Appalachian magic, hex signs, acid mine drainage, and a little stretch along the banks of Sunday Creek where I keep a piece of my heart.

A well-laid hex can last a long time. Pow-Wow, or Long Lost Friend: A Collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts and Remedies for Man as well as Animals, with Many Proofs of Their Virtue and Efficacy in Healing Diseases, Etc., was an Americanized English translation of a very old book of spells and home remedies. From the German tradition of braucherai, it was translated as “pow-wow,” in keeping with the many other appropriations that would be committed by the European immigrants against Algonquin and other indigenous peoples.

In this book, the line between magic and folk wisdom is not a line, but a gauzy billowing. There are spells to make molasses and beer, recipes for eye-water, words to protect a traveler on a journey, remedies for burns and colic. To prevent a wicked or malicious person from doing you an injury, you should recite the following: “Dullix, ix, ux. Yea you can’t come over Pontio, Pontio is above Pilato.” To cure epilepsy, take a turtle dove, cut its throat, and let the person afflicted with epilepsy drink the blood. For the spell “To Prevent Gun-Barrels from Rusting,” you will need an ounce of bear’s fat, half an ounce of badger’s grease, half an ounce of snake’s fat, one ounce of almond oil, and a quarter of an ounce of pulverized indigo.

We used to live inside the orbit of all those old hex signs on the barns and whispers of this or that granny woman and what folks remember of how she used to heal. Our defunct dairy farm straddled a stretch of Sunday Creek and in that place my husband and I liked to sit on the back porch making plans for the crumble down barn on our stretch of the banks. We thought it would be idyllically pastoral to hang one of the old charm signs over the hayloft. My favorite was the good luck distelfinke, which is a stylized bird with a red feather coming out of the top of his eye that makes you think of quail. There is a curving fretwork of blue feathers down his neck like an echo of fish. The wings are a yellow plumage of jagged lightning folded close against the body. The distelfinke often perches atop a tulip that means faith but opens out petals like a kiss.

Like most everyone else in those coal boom turned depopulated and opioid-addled towns known as Little Cities of the Black Diamond, we found it hard to justify the expense of barn paint when we were being so carefully, anxiously strategic about groceries and gas. The foundation was leaking and the furnace had a troublesome rattle that echoed through the silent winter.

A local conservation group hired my husband for minimum wage to be an assistant to the water quality specialist, because he knew a something about wildlife biology and something about lab work, and because once in another watershed another lifetime ago he lost the Ozark farm of his childhood to the lead mines, who owned the underground rights beneath his family’s farm and sunk the water table during a bad drought summer. There was a spring next to the foundation of his great-grandfather’s cabin that burbled up a little creek where the cows drank. That summer the water ran yellow and then it didn’t run at all.

Sometimes our stretch of Sunday Creek ran gray and turbid like smoke and we did not know why, despite repeated phone calls to Buckingham Coal who still had a dig upstream. In Truetown, 9 miles downstream of us the creek had long since turned orange and stank of rotten eggs because of a collapsed 19th century mine. Gob piles of coal too poor to burn lined the creek banks in a tarry mess of barren sludge weeping acid for a hundred years now. 

Old timers say you can dunk your kid in the waters of that acid mine drainage, holding on tight to her ankles, to cure her of lice. It’s the kind of spell you can find in Long Lost Friend beside suggestions for stinging nettles, which are “Good for Banishing Fears and Fancies, and to Cause Fish to Collect.” The book promises, “Whenever you hold this weed in your hand together with Millifolia, you are safe from all fears and fancies that frequently deceive men.” It goes on to say, more practically, “If you mix it with a decoction of hemlock, and rub your hands with it, and put the rest in water that contains fish, you will find the fish to collect around your hands.” I read this to my husband on a day when he came home sweaty and broke-down tired after dragging a 150lb generator through a mile of brush to send voltage through their nets to shock the fish. Momentarily stunned, the creatures bob to the surface, where the scientists record their paltry numbers and the distressing absence of certain key indicator species. Before long they flicker back to life and disappear beneath the murk once more. If only he had known it could be so much easier, he says, stretching his sore arms out behind his back.

Here is a remedy to be applied when anyone is sick. “Let the sick person, without having converse with anyone, put water in a bottle before sunrise, close it up tight, and put it immediately in some box or chest. Lock it up and stop up the keyhole; the key must be carried in one of the pockets for three days, as nobody dare have it except the person who puts the bottle with water in the chest or box.” There are no instructions about what to do at the end of three days. Drink the water? Pour it down the drain? Forget you ever put it in that box in the first place?

There is a remedy you can use when anyone is falling away, and which, the book swears, has cured many persons. “Let the person in perfect soberness and without having conversed with anyone, catch rain in his pot, before sunrise; boil an egg in this; bore three small holes in this egg with a needle, and carry it to an ant hill made by big ants; and that person will feel relieved as soon as the egg is devoured.”

Where we lived there was talk of dangerous river witches like Nelly Noll. And there were memories of women like Mountain Mary and her legendary goodness. With her hands alone, the old timers said, she could heal you. But all you can find now of Mountain Mary is her name. It’s on a forest here, a wet weather ditch there. There are the last few logs of this or that abandoned cabin in the way-back woods people say must have once been hers.

They say she was something powerful good in the midst of these terrible hard hills, they say she walks them sometimes still like a sweet wind looking to brush past your hair and make you alright.

There is a mist every morning that fills up the hollers so thick you can hardly see, and then there comes a moment each day when you crest a high ridge and see the sun all of a sudden fully risen. You can look down the valleys to the barns, some red, most gray with age and neglect, a few very fine ones decorated by a large painted quilt square or one of the many hex signs. A red horse head in silhouette protects animals from disease and the barn from lightning. A maple leaf brings contentment, oak leaves are for strength. Often the two symbols interweave in a sunburst of fortitude and happiness. Raindrops are a call-down promise of fertility for the soil and the family. On other days there is that other haze, the one still smoking out of the earth, ever since 1884 when miners in New Straitsville had been striking hard against the poverty, the exploitation, and the dangerous working conditions. When the owners brought in scabs, the miners slipped into the coal seams and started a fire. By the time anyone who might have stopped it realized what was happening, the underground was blazing and a hundred years later it’s still burning, smoke still escaping through sinkholes to the surface every now and again.

The spell to prevent conflagration is a long and complicated affair involving a black chicken, a scrap of shirt worn by a chaste virgin and cut off according to her own terms, an egg laid on a Thursday, wax, pots, and various days of burying things beneath the threshold. Another method of stopping fire is to say these words:

            Our dear Sarah journeyed through the land,
            having a fiery hot brand in her hand.
            The fiery brand heats, the fiery brand sweats.
            Fiery brand, stop your beat.
            Fiery brand, stop your sweat.

Among the dozen ways to stop bleeding, one is to say these words:

            I walk through a green forest;
            There I find three wells, cool and cold;
            The first is called courage,
           The second is called good,
           And the third is called stop the blood

I have gone and will go to many public hearings. I know the spell “To Gain a Lawful Suit.” I know you take large leaves of sage and write the names of the twelve apostles on them, then put these in your shoes before entering the courthouse. Nevertheless, our little town and all of our neighboring towns took “donations” of fresh coal ash the companies were otherwise required by law to dispose of as hazardous waste. To save money they used the flakes instead of salt on the roads in the winter. So with spring thaws new coal ash ran off the sides of roads directly into the creeks and we didn’t even have to wait for some new disaster to turn another spring orange.

Nevertheless, treatment plans for the worst acid mine drainage sites were proposed. One city council voted the plan down because the acid neutralized the wastewater they dumped directly into the creek, as they had no sewage system. Another reason was that the passive treatment ponds full of water reeds and other plants that would filter the toxins through their roots would not look as sightly as a smooth mowed lawn. Hanging heavy in the air of so many meetings was the conviction you couldn’t trust scientists and you couldn’t trust conservationists and you couldn’t trust people with nothing more to show for themselves than pride in all their degrees and accomplishments come to tell folks what to do.

During these public hearings mountain tops were removed. The earth began to shake as fracking destabilized the balance of bedrock and shale beneath our water table. We asked ourselves if orange water weren’t the least of our worries and we knew the answer was simply that we had too many worries.

I buried a stillborn baby on the banks of Sunday Creek. Sometimes when I looked out at that orange and stinking water, I think Long Lost Friend must be a broken book. A support beam cracked, the roof collapsed, the water poured in or the fire did, the tailings and the ash everywhere. Now no one dares drink from the poison of those pages. It has spells to make divining rods, spells to lift a curse, spells for mending. I wish I believed it could do us any good.

And then I turn the page and find I must try to believe once more.

To Mend Broken Glass: Take common cheese and wash it well, unslaked lime and the white of eggs, rub all these well together until it becomes one mass, and then use it. If it is made right, it will certainly hold.

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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