11 September 2007

High Strangeness: The Four-Footed Tribe

I was gratified to receive an email from a reader yesterday which sent me scampering through a thicket of North Carolina folklore.

Down near Robeson creek, so the story goes, a witch once lived back in the woods, on the creek that runs by Johnny Burke road. Two hunters were out in this area long ago, and one shot a deer. The blood trail led them back into the woods to a tiny house. There they saw a little old lady, sitting on the porch in her rocker. To their horror, she had a gunshot wound in her upper right chest area--exactly where the deer was hit. My correspondent heard this story as a child, some 40 years ago, and it was already old news then.

It was instantly familiar to me, however, and after some searching I found my friend Roger Manley's "Weird Carolinas," which put me on the right path.

It's worth noting that deer were a rarity at this time, before some well-meaning people (no doubt related to those who thought planting kudzu would be a good idea) re-introduced them after Jordan Lake's completion. (We can thus conclude that deer should be considered fair game either because of paucity or abundance.)

The story of the unfortunate witch is reminiscent of a romantic explanation of how Daniel Boone found his future bride by wisely refusing to shoot a blue-eyed "deer" during a nighttime fire hunting excursion.

There are also echoes in the legend concerning the fate of Virginia Dare. Spurning an Indian suitor, she was turned into a white doe, and later killed. (It's impossible not to recognize an unsubtle example of white female exceptionalism here; an inverted riff on Public Enemy's "too black, too strong"--"too white, too frail." What's the first white girl to do when surrounded by amorous savages? Change species!)

The albino deer, a convenient metaphor for Ms Dare's uniqueness, has much deeper roots in North Carolina Indian folklore about the "four-footed tribes." It was, if we are to believe what we're told, the chief of the deer tribe, and responsible for ensuring that hunters made proper atonement for their kill. As soon as a deer was hit by an arrow, he was there, and "asked the blood" on the ground if the hunter had made the proper apology to the victim. If not, the blood trail would lead to the murderer, who would then be cursed with rheumatism. To atone is to make ourselves "at one" with those we have injured, as witch woman suffers the wounds of her surrogate, or as hunter "covers up" the bones of the dead with offerings to appease the bereaved.

It pains me to conclude that, in all probability, the story of the Deer Witch Woman was calculated only to spook the crap out of an impressionable lad. "It scared me that day in the woods," my correspondent confided, "especially when [my friends who told me] took off running like they just seen the little old lady." But that story, told by children, is a variant on stories told about the first colonists, even older stories told by the aboriginals who co-existed with them, and ancient stories told before humans ever set foot in this wondrous land of Caroline, as our collective ancestors scratched curious images on sacred rock walls and explained the world, one to another.

[I'm always on the lookout for Chatham strangeness--folktales, ghost stories and the like. Email me with yours: pborowest@yahoo.com]

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