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"She's a witch, I tell you! Ugly as a coot with hardly no hair. She's got monstrous red eyes and fingernails like the claws of a hawk!" Mary O'Teale paused to warm her hands by the pot-bellied stove in the one- room schoolhouse.
Her listeners crowded closer.
"Old Marthy's her name," she continued, lowering her voice to a whisper. "Late at night when the moon's as full as a pumpkin, she comes 'round, makin' mischief. If she takes a dislikin' to you, she'll sneak inside while you're a-dreamin' and put a curse on you."
As she listened from her desk, Christy Huddleston couldn't help smiling. Eight-year-old Mary definitely had a vivid imagination. Christy knew her students loved to tell each other "haunt tales." But she worried about the younger children. They were easily frightened, and she didn't want the stories getting out of hand.
"You're just talkin' to hear yerself talk, Mary," said Ruby Mae Morrison, a thirteen-year-old with vibrant red hair and a personality to match. "Ain't nobody ever seen Old Marthy."
Mary jutted her chin. "My great granny has," she replied. She inched her right foot closer to the old stove. Like most of the children at the mission school, she did not own a pair of shoes. Even now, in January, Mary and her friends walked to school barefoot.
Ruby Mae twisted a strand of hair around her index finger. "You're sayin' Granny's seen a witch, up close-like?"
Mary nodded. "Granny saw Old Marthy make someone eat a witch ball."
"What's — what's that?" asked Ruby Mae.
"A witch ball's a bunch of pine needles, all wrapped 'round and 'round with a person's hair."
"What happens when you eat it?"
"At the strike of twelve," Mary whispered, "you turn into a big, hairy old bat. And there ain't no turnin' back, neither!"
Christy cleared her throat. "You know, it's almost time for school to start," she said, giving Mary a patient smile. "Maybe we've had enough of these silly stories for one day."
"But Teacher, they ain't silly," Mary said. "They're haunt tales."
"Girls," Christy said gently, "are any of you afraid of these scary stories?"
No one answered.
"Well, let me ask you this. Are any of you afraid of the dark?"
Vella Holt, a tiny five-year-old with auburn pigtails, climbed onto Christy's lap. "Oh, yes'm, it's scary to have to leave the firelight and walk into the shadows to bed. Most nights, I put the covers over my head."
"Children!" Ruby Mae scoffed.
Christy couldn't help grinning. Christy knew for a fact that Ruby Mae still liked to sleep with a tattered rag doll.
"It gives me prickles to peer at the dark," Vella whispered to Christy. "I'm always scared for fear I'll see a ghost."
"I'll let you in on a little secret," Christy said. "I was like that when I was a girl."
"You was?" Mary exclaimed.
"I'd lie there in my bed, shivering and shaking, thinking of all the stories I'd heard about ghosts and witches and whatnot."
"So how'd you get over it?" Ruby Mae asked.
"One day they sang a certain song at Sunday school. Seemed as if it was just for me. I'll sing it for you —
"God will take care of you Through every day, o'er all the way,
Mary nodded thoughtfully. "That's right nice. I like the sound of it."
"So whenever I was scared of the dark," Christy continued, stroking little Vella's hair, "I'd sing those four lines over and over to myself. And you know what, girls? After a while, the love of God was more real to me than any old ghost. Pretty soon all the ghosts went away. Ever since then, the dark has seemed friendly and cozy."
Mary reached over and gave her a shy hug. "Sing it again, Teacher, will you? Then I won't disremember it."
As Christy repeated the song, more of her students rushed into the schoolroom that also served as a church. She watched them as they entered — ragged, pale, probably hungry, almost always dirty. And as she sang, she was reminded once again of the beauty in those eager faces, and that the task set before her was a huge and difficult one.
When Christy had arrived here just a little over a week ago, she'd been full of high hopes about her new job as a teacher at the mission school in Cutter Gap, Tennessee. She'd never dreamed her class would contain sixty-seven students ranging in age from five to seventeen. She'd never imagined that she'd be teaching in such primitive conditions, with just a handful of worn books and an assortment of borrowed, battered desks. A few of her students had basic arithmetic and reading skills, but most had never set foot in a schoolroom before.
Christy finished the song, but Mary and the others kept singing it over and over. Teaching school in Cutter Gap wasn't going to be an easy job. Christy had quickly discovered this during her first long week at the mission school. But as she listened to Mary and the others raise their voices in song, she had the feeling it might just turn out to be more rewarding than she'd ever hoped.
* * *
That noon, Mary and her older sister, Mountie, slowly climbed up the steep hill behind the school. The dinner spell — Teacher called it "noon recess" — was almost over. But Mary wanted to get a look at the new ice slide the big boys had made.
After the last snowstorm, the boys had created a long, narrow trail by packing down the snow. They'd drenched it with buckets of water, then let the slide freeze. Everyone agreed it was the best sliding hill anyone had seen in a long time.
Mary clutched Mountie's hand when they reached the top of the slide. Several of the older boys were lined up, waiting to belly flop down the icy chute. Some of them were using an old rag rug for a sled.
Mary cringed when she heard the familiar voice. She turned to see Lundy Taylor approaching.
"We ain't chicken," Mary replied. She squeezed her big sister's hand a little tighter. "We just don't want to."
"Don't want to 'cause you're chicken," Lundy said with a sneer.
Mary watched as her big brother, Smith, sped down the steep icy path. He slowed to a stop at the edge of the schoolyard.
"Besides, Teacher said only the big boys could go," Mary said.
"So how's come you're up here?" Lundy demanded. "You and Mush-mouth?"
Mary stared up at the big boy looming above her. Lundy was seventeen and she was only eight, which was bad enough. It didn't help that he was the biggest bully in the state of Tennessee, maybe even in the world. It was too bad Lundy and her brother were friends. Still, she had to stand up for her big sister. People were always picking on Mountie because she couldn't talk like everyone else.
"Don't you go callin' Mountie names," Mary said. She put her arm around Mountie's thin shoulders. Mountie was two years older than Mary but needed a lot of protecting.
A bell clanged loudly.
Mary looked down to see the new teacher on the porch, ringing the bell. She was so beautiful! After four days of school, Mary still couldn't get over it. Maybe it was because Teacher came from a big city. Or maybe it was her fancy clothes — shoes of real leather and a red sweater so soft you could melt for the feel of it.
But Mary was pretty sure there was something else that made Teacher so beautiful. It was her eyes, wide and blue as a June sky. Every time Mary looked into those eyes, she felt safe and warm, the way she felt all wrapped up in one of her granny's quilts. Those were magic eyes. Pure magic.
The bell clanged again.
"The dinner spell's over," Mary said.
Lundy held up a hand. "Not for Mush-mouth, it ain't."
Mary could hear trouble in his voice, but by the time she yanked on Mountie's arm, Lundy's strong hands had already clamped onto her sister's shoulders.
Mountie's eyes were bright with fear.
"Let her go, Lundy!" Mary cried. "You're hurtin' her!"
"Whatever you say," Lundy said, shoving Mountie aside.
Mary grabbed Mountie and turned to leave, but suddenly Lundy's big foot was in the way. Mary felt a slight push on her back.
She tumbled forward, Mountie's hand slipping from her grasp. Mary landed hard on the ice-covered slide. It felt as if someone had punched her in the stomach. The ice was slick, and Mary could feel herself gaining speed. She grabbed for a bush as it whizzed past, but she couldn't hang on. Faster and faster she went, flying down the mountain, screaming hard, and her voice lost in the cold wind.
She reached out her hand again, hoping for something to slow her fall. Her palm smacked hard against something, and then she was flipping in an endless somersault, 'round and 'round. The school and the trees and the sky went topsy-turvy. Somewhere, up high, she could hear Lundy's dark, loud laughter.
Then she hit, plowing head first into the trunk of a big oak. The world was very quiet. Lundy's laughter had vanished. Mary's arm burned like fire. And though she'd stopped tumbling, her head was still spinning. She could hear the shouts of other children ... then everything went black and silent.CHAPTER 2
As Christy ran across the schoolyard with Mary in her arms, she said a silent prayer. Please let Mary be all right. Please, God.
Thank goodness Miss Alice was home today. Alice Henderson, who had helped found the school where Christy taught, lived in a small cabin near the main mission house.
"Miss Alice!" Christy called as she made her way up the cabin steps.
The door opened to reveal a lovely, regal-looking woman wearing a crisp blue dress. "Christy!" Miss Alice exclaimed. "What on earth —"
"She went down that icy slide the boys made," Christy said breathlessly.
Miss Alice held open the door, and Christy carried Mary into the cozy warmth of the cabin. Several of the local women were gathered by the fire, sipping tea from china cups.
"Prayer meeting," Miss Alice explained.
"That's my Mary!" cried a wiry little woman. Her thinning gray hair hung in a long braid down her back. She wore a drab brown skirt and a faded calico blouse buttoned high on her neck. Her milky blue eyes were set deep in skin crisscrossed with fine wrinkles. And her lips were stained by tobacco juice.
The woman bustled over, leaning on a wooden walking stick for support. "Put her down," she said to Christy. "She ain't your kin."
"I'm fine, Granny," Mary mumbled, still dazed by her tumble down the hill. She had blacked out for a moment after hitting the tree. But she'd regained consciousness by the time Christy reached her.
"Christy, this is Mary's great-grandmother," Miss Alice explained. "Granny O'Teale, this is Christy Huddleston, our new teacher at the mission school."
Granny did not answer. She tried to tug Mary out of Christy's arms, but Mary hung onto Christy's neck, refusing to go.
"Put her down, I'm a-tellin' you," Granny commanded. "Lordamercy, what have you done to my little Mary?"
"Some of the children said she was tripped," Christy said. "Is that what happened, Mary?"
The little girl nodded but refused to meet Christy's eyes.
"Who tripped you, sweetheart?" Miss Alice asked.
Mary buried her head on Christy's shoulder.
"Lundy Taylor," Christy muttered. "I've no doubt. He was up there with her."
"It might —" Mary began. "It might have been an accident. I can't rightly recollect how it happened. We'uns was all up there, and it was mighty slippery-like."
Christy exchanged a glance with Miss Alice. Mary was probably afraid to accuse Lundy. He terrified the younger children. Even Christy felt nervous around the hulking bully.
Miss Alice led Christy to her bedroom. Christy set the little girl down gently on Miss Alice's quilt-covered bed. Granny trailed behind, muttering something Christy couldn't quite make out.
"Why don't you two give me a minute to examine Mary and make sure she's all right?" Miss Alice said.
"I promise I'm fine, Miss Alice," Mary said quickly. "My arm's pretty banged up, is all."
"Looky here," Granny said. "Any doctorin' needs doin', I aim to do it."
"I'd be proud to have your help, Granny," Miss Alice said. "Why don't you let me take a look at Mary first? Then you can take over."
"I need to get back to the other children," Christy said. She hated to leave, but Mary did appear to be all right.
Mary's right arm was badly scraped. The beginnings of an ugly bruise were already visible. And there was a small knot where she'd bumped her head on the tree. But Mary was smiling calmly, apparently enjoying all the attention.
"I'll let you know how Mary's doing," Miss Alice said. "You go back to work."
Christy knelt beside the bed. "Mary, you take care of yourself, understand?"
Mary nodded. "Will you keep watch on Mountie for me? The others ... They like to pick on her."
"Of course I will," Christy said. She took the little girl's tiny, cold hand in her own.
Suddenly another hand, withered and spotted with age, grabbed hold of Christy's. "Don't you go near my girl, you hear?" Granny cried.
"But I was just —"
"You're nothin' but trouble, and that's for sure and certain," Granny said, releasing her grip. "We don't need no brought-on teachers comin' from clear across state lines to learn our children all kinds of citified notions. Flatlanders don't belong around here. Who asked you, anyways?"
"Granny," Miss Alice said firmly, "Christy is a wonderful teacher. She only meant to —"
"If'n she's so all-fired wonderful, how come my little Mary's lyin' here all black and blue?"
"It was an accident," Christy said. "It was recess, and I was watching the younger children playing in front of the school. I told them that only the biggest boys could slide down that hill —"
Granny pointed a long, yellowed fingernail at Christy. The old woman's eyes had a wild brightness in them. "An accident, heh? And how about Bob Allen? Were he an accident too?"
"Granny," Miss Alice soothed as she gently examined Mary's arm. "You know what happened. A tree fell on Bob Allen on his way to pick up Christy at the train station."
"And how come is that, I'm askin' you?"
"Probably because the branches were weighed down by snow. That was a very big storm we had, you remember."
Christy shuddered, remembering Mr. Allen's pale, nearly lifeless form. She'd felt so guilty, knowing he'd been hurt while trying to reach her. After Mr. Allen had been found, she'd helped the local doctor operate on him to relieve the bleeding inside his head. On her very first day in Cutter Gap, she'd ended up playing nurse in the most primitive conditions imaginable. It was truly a miracle that Mr. Allen had survived.
"Maybe it were the snow and maybe not." Granny narrowed her eyes. "Maybe this girl brought a heap o' trouble with her. Maybe she nearly killed Bob Allen with her comin', and now my little Mary."
"I'm right as rain, Granny, really I am," Mary protested. She cast Christy an apologetic look.
"Bob Allen is fine, Granny," Miss Alice said. "And Mary's going to be, too, from what I can tell."
"She's trouble, I'm tellin' you," Granny said, her voice trembling. She pushed her way past Christy. For a tiny old woman, she was surprisingly strong. "I can tell from a mile off when a person's cursed. And you, my girl, have the touch of it on you. The signs are all there."
"Cursed?" Christy repeated, half angry, half amazed.
"More'n likely ain't even your fault," Granny said. "Folks get cursed for all kinda reasons. Old Marthy coulda done it."
"You don't actually believe that, do you?" Christy asked.
"Seen it happen with my own eyes a hundred times. But mind you this, once you're cursed, you pass it on to everyone you're near. You best be headin' on back to where you came from before you do any more damage."
"Granny, I wish you'd give me a chance," Christy pleaded.
"Maybe you should be getting back to the other children," Miss Alice advised, sending Christy a look that clearly meant there was no point in arguing with Granny.
Christy sighed. "You take care, Mary," she said. As she turned to leave, she met Granny's eyes. "Nice meeting you, Granny. Maybe sometime we can get together and talk some more."
The old woman glared back at her with such a frightful look that it was all Christy could do to keep from running from the cabin.
* * *
Later that afternoon, Mary returned to class.
Christy was relieved to see that the little girl was all right, but the accident on the hill had left Christy feeling unsettled. First of all, she had to decide what to do about Lundy. No one would directly accuse him of anything, and Christy knew she couldn't punish the boy without proof. She finally decided that her only option was to keep a close watch on Lundy and his friends.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Silent Superstitions"
Copyright © 1995 Marshall-LeSourd, LLC.
Excerpted by permission of Gilead Publishing.
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