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Fiction #243
(published September 8, 2005)
Hoo Doo
by Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
Sometimes in the warm twilight of a Ozark summer my grandmother would talk about hoo-doo in hushed tones. Hoo-Doo. Same as Voo-Doo: ancient powerful magic, black and white, evil and good. She believed in it as much as she believed in sweet Jesus the Savior of man.

Her aging voice would tumble over the tales of hoo-doo women and hoo-doo spells long past, making them real. She would rock her cane-bottomed chair across the weary boards of the porch, her voice low-pitched and soft while hoot owls cried from the tops of the tall trees.

An almost eerie mood would settle over the porch. No one ever interrupted Grandmam when she talked of hoo-doo. No one dared. Shivers of intrigue backed by a repulsion that fed upon the dark tales would run the length of my spine. I believed, too, in those childhood days. Sometimes snakes would come twisting across the ground to curl against the porch. Because snakes and hoo-doo go together we never touched them. If it was a snake in the garden at high noon it met instant death with a sharp hoe but snakes at night were different.

Hoo-doo seemed simple. To bring trouble upon some hated neighbor you placed a piece of paper bearing their name in the beak of a dead bird. The bird would bring bad luck, sometimes death to the named person. We were always careful never to leave our fingernail cuttings around the house. Anything that came from your body—nails, hair, skin, sweat, saliva, even clothing—could be used against you in a powerful spell. Hoo-doo women would make them in some secret ceremony in the dark, dead hours of the night. I imagined hoo-doo women to be gnarled, wrinkled, ugly crones dressed in awful rags and reeking of herbal potions.

Perhaps I had them confused with storybook witches for later, when I was older, Grandmam would name suspected hoo-doo women and they were always ordinary. You didn't have to be a hoo-doo woman to practice hoo-doo once in awhile but hoo-doo women were devoted to their magic.

There was one story I always wanted to hear that I never grew tired of. The conjure supper was sometimes called the dumb supper because it must be served in silence. This ancient hoo-doo rite conjures—summons—a girl's future husband across miles, space, times. Grandmam had seen a conjure supper in her girlhood, participated in it, I suppose. I was intrigued by the idea of glimpsing one's future mate. Then you could watch for him, saving precious courtship time by knowing in your heart that HE was the one.

At sixteen I dreamed of marriage and babies. I was growing up with a romantic notion of living happily ever after. My cousin Sallye Beth, seventeen, did too. One languid summer afternoon we concocted the idea that we would hold a conjure supper, thus identifying our husbands-to-be. We would save hours of flirting with the wrong youthful Romeo. We did not know with what darkness we dabbled. We did not understand what lines we crossed or what powers we called upon.

Sallye Beth and I planned to spend the night with a friend. Ruby's daddy was a drunk and her mama was dead. We had their three room house to ourselves, ready to enact our conjure supper. We knew the method by rote, having listened to Grandmam's tales from an early age. Our preparations were made in secret during the night and when dark fell we were ready to begin.

We set a table for two. I was the girl seeking the face of my future mate. Like zombies we moved backwards in silence, vital to making it work. I set the table in reverse and placed a special heirloom knife at the place for my dinner guest. The bone handle was hand whittled from a deer's antler and carved with the initials of a great-grandfather long dead. A single candle burned at the center of the table as we murmured words we knew not the meaning of. Then we waited.

The silence grew heavy. The single taper's flame wavered than faded into a tiny spark. The darkness dwelled around us, a deep darkness that made us afraid and had a life of its' own. A blacker shadow clustered in the chair reserved for my future mate. It grew larger, slowing gathering the darkness into it. It gained dimension and shape as it thickened into a shadow, then a faint figure. As the minutes passed the form became clearer until the features clarified. We could sense a strong current in the air and the frightening sense of an alien presence. The candle flame flickered then flared back into flame.

He sat there, a pale and wooden caricature of a man. His brown eyes bored into my very soul and his features were alive with bewilderment. He remained transparent, a thin shadow of a human. His face was fine and his hair appeared dark. The quiet candlelight was kind to his features and despite my fear I felt my heart sing with soft joy. On impulse I reached out and touched his hand. He recoiled, his face contorting as if he felt intense pain. His fingers clutched the heirloom knife and grasped it.

His mouth rounded in a horrible scream of terror. His eyes cast about wildly at unknown horrors. His fear touched us, too. We felt it snake through us, communicable as disease. I withdrew my hand and felt it tingle, charged with energy from an unknown source. He began to fade away, dissipating into mere shadow before disappearing into the unknown darkness from which he came. Until he was completely gone, his whimpers of fear echoed in our ears.

Sallye Beth scrambled for the lights and frantically flooded the room with brilliant electric light. The darkness withdrew and we trembled with aftershock. I found myself weeping without knowing why. We were each quite drained our bodies, hearts, and souls, all barren of strength. We made small talk to chase away our fears as we cleared away the table where we served our conjure supper.

I did not see him partake of the meal nor did I think I had but the food was gone. Sallye Beth and Ruby served the conjure supper—dessert, then meat, then coffee. They said I had eaten and the stranger as well. Perhaps I did. I do not know and never shall. What I do know is this—our supper seemed to take place in a span of minutes, no more than thirty. The clock that read nine o'clock when we sat down at the table had displayed the hours of another day when we finished.

We were too frightened, too shaken to speak of our conjure supper, of our initiation into hoo-doo. I longed to confide in Grandmam but did not. Some secret, inner inkling kept me silent. I could not speak of it, fearing scolding or even worse her wrath. After the night of the conjure supper Sallye Beth and I seldom listened to the hoo-doo talk. Instead, we would slip into the house and listen to the radio, letting those faraway voices banish the darkness of the night.

Sallye Beth married within a year of our experience to a farm boy from across the county. Before I married, she was the buxom mother of three children. Ruby's dad drifted to another state in search of relief from his unpaid bills. She went along and I did not care for after our conjure supper made hoo-doo so real, we seldom spoke.

I married when I was twenty-six. He was an attractive man from the northern states. I would not compare his features to those I remembered. I could not for I was too afraid of what I might see. That was two years past. We had a good relationship without children although we were considering making that step soon. We lived up North for the first year before returning to the rural South of my birth. We came home to the county.

One sultry summer evening we sat with Grandmam on her porch. The conversation turned from weather to crops to hoo-doo. I pretended to listen as I watched the clouds roll in for a toad strangling thunderstorm. My husband did listen. She began to talk of conjure suppers so I excused myself and went inside. I waited in the dim bedroom and listened to the radio.

He came to me in darkness. In his hand he carried a familiar object, an heirloom knife that vanished at a conjure supper years ago. His face was harsh and hard. His brown eyes were unforgiving. In the darkness that grew heavier and heavier I sensed his emotions. When he spoke it was without understanding.

"It was you." He said, tonelessly. "You witch. That night I walked through hell."

He plunged the knife deep into my chest and was gone. He did not return and I did not die. Grandmam knew what to do for me. I recovered and realized where my conjure spell had taken Doug.

I live and I stay with her.

She still speaks of hoo-doo and now I listen as I did when I was a little girl. I believe now just as I believe that the sun rises in the east each morning without fail. I know the awesome power that hoo-doo has and so it is I who learn what to do with fingernail clippings from my Grandmam, the hoo-doo woman.

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