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Callaloo 23.1 (2000) 8-24

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The Boy who Played Cards with the Devil

Randall Kenan

Part 1: In the Family

My father, I'm told, from an early age, was quite fond of all sorts of animals; and, it would seem, they returned the fondness. I'm told that wild squirrels were not shy of approaching him and that once he mesmerized a crow so much so that it would perch on his shoulder and eat from his hand and would often visit his window. Snakes fascinated the boy, and he once suffered a terrible beating by his great-grandfather for bringing a chicken snake into the house, ("Do it again, Nigger, and I'll kill your ass!").

But his favorite pet of all was a rooster he named Pompano, that he had raised from a biddy and named thus for the prominence of green in its iridescent plumage, and the redness of his wattles and crown, whose colors reminded my father of the fish of that name. The rooster became the boy's constant companion--though his aunts wouldn't allow him to bring Pompano into the house: a chicken just can't be house-trained--but would follow young Elihu about the yard and gardens and fields and woods, would sit in his lap as a tamed kitten would, would defend him as a dog would. I'm told after a while it became hard to distinguish whether the morning crow came from Pompano or from my father. People about Tims Creek were enchanted by the boy and his rooster, and often laughed and asked to pet the cock.

One day, without preamble or warning, Elihu's great-grandfather went out in the yard, found the rooster, carried it squawking and scratching to the old poplar stump, chopped its head off with a rusty axe and told his daughter he fancied chicken and pastry that night. Young Elihu watched as the old man clomped back upstairs. That night at dinner the boy requested the breast meat and chewed and smiled and said nothing more of the affair.

Around the time of my father's birth, in 1943, the oaks and gum trees, the pecans and walnuts, the massive long-leaf pines to the south of the porch and the fat magnolias up by the north, not to mention all the crepe myrtles that ringed the yard, and the chinaberry by the gate, and the low holly bushes at the steps, the plums, the apples and the pear trees out back--all cast such loving and languid shadows in summertime; springtime was bright with azaleas and azaleas and azaleas, and the tender perfume of wisteria, honeysuckle and jasmine; autumn turned the maples and gums and oaks lemon-meringue yellow, bruise-purple, hell-fire red and satchel-brown; the dormant trees of winter loomed like armed guards--all so much so that the very idea of leaving such a settled place would have been enough to make a strong man weep. The McElwaines had no intention of going anywhere.

Perhaps it was the upkeep of such a place that made Tabitha seem so unconquerable, without question, despite the presence of her father, the head of the family. Unable to attend college like her own Aunt, she instead apprenticed herself to the local midwife, Mrs. Mahette Williams, then already in her 70s. My great-great-aunt learned her trade--if trade it can be called--with a zeal and a purpose. [End Page 8]

Though she had set out to become a midwife--and midwife she did become--the things she became to most folk in the county happened by mistake, and, being a practical woman, she had no intention of spitting into the eyes of good fortune, whatever its guise.

The long and the short of it is that people considered Tabitha Elsa McElwaine--who fancied a pipe, sometimes of wood, sometimes hand-fashioned from a corn cob, or sometimes just the same a cigarette--a root-worker of great power. Which is part myth and part truth. The truth: She learned...


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