That Old Woman

By: Jerry Barksdale

It was 1935, smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression, when she showed up in the East Limestone community and occupied an abandoned sharecropper’s shack near our house.  I was 10 years old at the time, but I remember it well.  No one knew her, nor any of her folks, nor where she came from.  She just appeared one day with a pack of cur dogs.  She didn’t attend church, didn’t associate with neighbors and didn’t appear to have a source of sustenance.  She didn’t even have a name so far as anyone knew.  Folks just called her “that old woman.”

Mama worried that she didn’t have enough to eat.  Daddy was bent over the breakfast table sopping up “Hoover gravy” with a biscuit while Mama poured coffee.  “I hate to see anybody go hungry,” she said.

“Lot of folks are hungry these days,” Daddy said.  “I’ve eat so much Hoover gravy my socks slide down my legs.”

“Well, at least we have something to eat.”

“If it don’t hurry up and rain we’ll all starve to death,” Daddy said.  “There won’t be enough cotton to plow under.”

Mama examined the calendar hanging on a nail on the wall and flipped the pages.  “My word!  It’s been two months since we’ve had a drop of rain.”

Daddy stirred molasses in his coffee to sweeten it and took a sip.  “Didn’t that old woman show up about two months ago?” he asked.

After breakfast Daddy hitched up the mules to our wagon and headed off to cut firewood for the cook stove.  Mama scooped cornmeal from the bin into a paper bag, then we went to the garden and picked a mess of peas, squash, okra and tomatoes.

“Com’on Punk’n let’s take this to that poor old woman up yonder,” she said.

It was July 3rd and scorching hot.  The cotton plants were drooping in the heat and little clouds of dust rose from our footsteps.  The sharecropper shack was tiny with a rusty tin roof and tar paper siding and sat on a foundation of stacked rocks.  No one had lived there in years and weeds had grown waist high.

We walked up to the front porch and Mama called out: “YOO HOO!  ANYBODY HOME?”

A pack of hounds scrambled from beneath the shack, barking and snarling. After sniffing us, they backed off.  The old woman, wearing a ragged black dress, pushed open the torn screen door and looked us up and down. She was bent over with age like a crooked old tree.  Her eyes were black as tar; curly hairs grew on her pointed chin and nose, and long gray hair fell past her hunched shoulders.

I moved closer to Mama and I clutched her arm.

“What’che want?”  The old woman demanded.

Mama held out the sack of cornmeal and vegetables.  “We’ve got plenty and I hate to see food go to waste,” she said.  “Cornbread sure would taste good with fried okra and squash.”

The old woman eyed us with suspicion.

“Here, please take it,” Mama said.

The old woman inched out onto the front porch and snatched the sack and disappeared inside the house without a word.

The next day it came a gulley-washer rain. Mama rejoiced and said the Lord sent rain because we had been kind to the old woman.  The same day, Bossy, for no apparent reason, didn’t give any milk.  The cotton crop was saved, such as it was, but we had no milk to drink.

When the rain stopped, Army worms came marching across our cotton patch eating the squares that would eventually develop into cotton bolls. Bossy, didn’t give enough milk for Daddy’s coffee.  Our neighbor’s cow also stopped giving milk. “It’s that old woman, I tell ya,” Daddy said.  “Our problems started when she showed up.”

Later I was fishing in Johnson Branch when she appeared out of the woods and offered me a hunk of cornbread.  “It’s mighty good,” she said.  I refused it and ran home.

One of the Smith children, who lived nearby, went missing.  The following month another child disappeared.  They were never seen again.

Late one night I woke when I heard Bossy bawling at the barn.  Daddy fumbled around in the dark, slipped on his overalls, and went out the back door holding a lantern.  I snuck from my bed and peeped out the window where a quarter moon illuminated the landscape.  When Daddy neared the barn, I saw a pack of hounds run off.  Later that night I overhead Mama and Daddy whispering.  “My word!” Mama exclaimed.  “Don’t dare tell that young’n what you saw.  It would scare ‘em to death.”

The following week the old woman was spotted near Fairmount School on Nick Davis Road talking to children walking home.  She was seen giving a hunk of cornbread to Sally Turner.  Sally was a beautiful child with blue eyes and red hair, but the other children made fun of her because she had a terrible limp.  A kicking mule broke her femur which wasn’t properly set.  Little Sally disappeared and was never seen again.

Later, Bossy woke me bawling.  Daddy dressed and loaded his 22 rifle and slipped out the back door.  The moon was full.  I saw Daddy shoulder the 22.  POW-POW-POW.  Dogs scattered.  One dragged off in the bushes and disappeared. Again, I overheard Mama and Daddy whispering.  “Them dogs have been sucking Bossy dry,” Daddy said.  “That’s why we don’t have any milk.”

“My word!  I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Mama whispered.

“Yeah, and there’s more dogs than before,” Daddy said.

“Where you reckon they come from?” Mama whispered.

“I don’t know, but there’s one less.  I shot ‘em in the hind quarter.”

Several weeks later, hunters discovered the old woman’s body in the woods.  The coroner determined that she died from “natural causes.”  No family ever came forward and the investigation ended.  Afterwards, Bossy began giving milk and no more children disappeared.

Years later, I stopped at Vinson’s store on Nick Davis Road to drink a Coke and catch up on local news from the “spit and whittle” club who were sitting on the front porch.  They were discussing the drought – it hadn’t rained in over a month – and boll weevils were eating the cotton crop.

“It got just like this back in nineteen thirty-five,” a fellow said.

Abner Allen said his cow had quit giving milk.

“That’s odd, mine too,” another fellow said.

Shortly, a middle-aged, blue eyed, red headed woman, followed by a pack of cur dogs, limped up and went inside the store.

“I’ll swear,” Abner said.  “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that’s Sally Turner who disappeared forty year ago.”

“Reckon who she is?”  someone asked.

The woman emerged carrying a sack of cornmeal.  An alarm went off in my head. Somewhere in my memory… yes – yes!  Now, I remembered.  Fear shot through me and the hair on the back of my neck extended like a wire brush. That old woman was back.

“For God’s sake,” I said, “Never – never take cornbread from her or you’ll end up on all fours and scratching fleas.”

I don’t accept cornbread from strangers. And neither should you.

By: Jerry Barksdale