At this, all four of us were hanging onto every word she said. All piled up in her four-poster bed, we couldn't imagine how frightened she must have been. What was it like? How would we have reacted had we been there on that black, summer night, walking through a dimly-lit field with only the tiniest bit of moonlight to illuminate our path? Did it really sound like a woman's screams... the cry of a panther?
MaMaw never formally studied the art of writing, or of conveying a story using all of the senses... sight, sound, smell and touch. Some people don't require formal training. Some people, like MaMaw, were born with the gift of storytelling... a gift that is fast becoming a lost art. Each of the stories she shared with the four of us grandchildren described the setting so vividly that we were transported to the very place and time of the event. Her facial expressions conveyed all the emotions. Her odd repertoire of sound effects and her flurry of hand movements and arm gyrations set the tone of the tale. She knew just when to pause for effect; just when to lower her voice. As she would crescendo into a "Waaahaaa" with her arms raised in the air and her hands waving back and forth, we would dive head-first beneath the covers, squealing like a pack of baby piglets. And this is how she got us ready for bed... really.
|From left to right: Me, Kenneth Todd, Kim Todd, MaMaw and Linda.|
After a full day of our wandering, exploring, climbing, swinging, hiding, and generally becoming completely and totally wound-up, the last thing my cousins Kim and Kenneth Todd, my sister Linda, and I wanted to do was to settle down and get ready to go to bed and to go to sleep. We could sleep when we were at our own houses. Time spent together at MaMaw's house was too precious to waste in a state of unconsciousness. There were things to do. There was fun to be had. And time was a-wastin'!
Psychology was, no doubt, not one of the course offerings available to MaMaw in that one-room schoolhouse that she attended as a child in Greenbrier, Arkansas. But she knew enough about childhood behavior to know that there was only one way she was going to corral all of us and get us in bed, and that was with the promise of one of her famous stories. With the prospect of a treat like that, we were all dressed in our pajamas and ensconced in one of her many hand-made quilts in no time flat. There was a routine, a proper procedure to follow, and we knew it as well as we knew that we would have Chocolate Gravy and Biscuits for breakfast the next morning (I have one post devoted completely to this family favorite meal.)
We scurried up into the bed like a litter of baby squirrels scampering up the massive Oak tree that shaded her front yard, and we took our places. Linda and I shared a pillow on one side of the bed, Kim and Kenneth shared their pillow on the other side, leaving a space for MaMaw in the middle. The bedroom light was turned off, leaving only the soft glow from the dining room light to spill through the open bedroom door, casting soft shadows against the rose-colored wallpaper. We had to agree to lie down with our heads on our pillows as she told the story, and to go to sleep when the story was finished. A nickel was promised to the first one asleep.
Looking back, there are some things about those nights that dumbfound me. First of all, the fact that one adult and four children all fit into that full-sized bed. This was what we called a "double bed," the kind that was designed for two people, and no more than two people, to sleep in. King-size and Queen-size beds, if they had been around at that time, hadn't made it into any of our families' bedrooms. There were double beds and twin beds, or bunk beds. Those were the choices. MaMaw's bed was a four-poster, double bed that seemed to tower off the floor, requiring some sort of step stool for people like me with short legs and very little ability in climbing.
The second astonishing thing about all of this was the fact that MaMaw could extricate herself from among the four of us sleeping grandchildren, make her way to the edge, or possibly the foot of the bed, and ease herself down to the floor without waking a single one of us. Back in those days, MaMaw was, let's say, a little hefty. I'm not implying by any means that she was out of shape. This was a woman who could get up before sunrise and work all day alongside any strong, young man, keeping up with him stride for stride. But, in the early sixties, no one outside the scientific or medical community discussed things like saturated fats, cholesterol or carbohydrates. Especially in the South, if you ate it, it was fried, or it contained at least a half-pound of lard. This was not conducive to small waistlines.
Thirdly, I am amazed at the fact that we could have fallen asleep before any of her stories ended. We certainly weren't limited to one story per night. With a repertoire of tales like MaMaw had, that would have been unforgivable. As one story would end, four small voices would beg for more... "Tell us another one! Tell us another one, MaMaw! Pleeeeeaaase! Just one more!" We each had several favorites, and we'd ask to hear some of those again. I particularly liked to hear her story about how a "big, ol' mean hawg" they used to have got after her one time, and how she slipped and fell in the mud and it almost got her. She always ended that story with a chuckle as she told how that hog ended up as ham, bacon and sausage that lasted them all winter long.
There was the story about how Uncle Pat, Kim and Kenneth's dad, pulled a prank on her with a couple of snakes he had killed. While MaMaw had been away from her house, he placed the lifeless snakes strategically in the path she would take to get to her back door. That story involved much moving, jumping, waving of arms and a plethora of hilarious sound effects.
She would tell us about how she dealt with that old mule that my daddy had at the barn, after it had kicked me. She was so furious that she took a piece of two-by-four to whack it on the "bo-hunkus" as she called it. But our favorite story was the one about the panther (PAIN-thur as she pronounced it). We made endless fun of the way she said some of her words. You must admit, when you use words like "bo-hunkus," you're just begging to be ridiculed by small children. Ah, yes... the panther that sounded like a woman screaming, and her family's encounter with it... that story was our favorite.
One of the things that endeared that story to us was the fact that our "Grandpa Payne" was in it. We never had the opportunity to know MaMaw's husband, because he was killed in an automobile accident before he ever reached his fortieth birthday. It was one way we had of getting to know him. The panther story involved MaMaw, Grandpa Payne, Wanda Lee (her daughter/Kim and Kenneth's mother/my Aunt Wanda), and Max (her son/my dad). It also involved other family members who we'd never had the chance to meet, such as Uncle Tom Payne and his family.
MaMaw and her family had been to visit Uncle Tom and his family. They had enjoyed a visit, a few games of cards and dominoes, and it was time to return home. For whatever reason, the family had walked to Uncle Tom's house. I'm sure the reason was in her story, but that wasn't one of the more exciting parts and as far as we grandchildren were concerned, it really wasn't important. Money was always tight in those days, so perhaps they didn't waste precious gasoline on trips that were short enough to be made by foot. At any rate, the visit lasted into the night, making for a dark walk to return home.
The part of Eastern Arkansas where MaMaw and her family lived is still a rural area. But in those days, back in the 1930's and 1940's, it was even less developed. The only paved highway would have been Highway 70 that connected Memphis and Little Rock. Any roads that splintered off the main highway and wound their way through the countryside would have been either gravel, dirt, or what was simply referred to as a "pig trail." What few houses there were would have been randomly dotted among the patchwork fields of cotton, the stands of hardwood trees, and the pastures for the cows. It was one of those pastures that the Payne family walked through that night on their way home. Though it proved to be a shorter route than walking down the dirt road, that shortcut became the longest walk MaMaw could ever remember taking.
There were a multitude of little ditches and sloughs dividing the fields and the pastures, and winding their ways along the edges of the stands of trees. These waterways were havens for snakes. The snakes that were native to that part of the country included some very deadly varieties, like the Cottonmouth Water Moccasin and the Diamondback Rattlesnake. MaMaw and Grandpa Payne were very aware of the expansive snake population and knew that any snake would be difficult to see with the minimal amount of moonlight available on that particular summer night. They proceeded slowly, constantly reminding their daughter, my Aunt Wanda, and their son, my daddy, Max, to stay close and not wander off.
MaMaw never took off for a trek across any stretch of pasture without her stick. She would find a fallen limb, between four and five feet in length, with a diameter similar to an axe handle or a small baseball bat, and she carried it like a warrior prepared to strike. It always reminded me of the rod that I saw Charleston Heston carry with him when he portrayed Moses in "The Ten Commandments." Each of them carried their stick in the same manner. She held it about two-thirds of the way up toward the top, and with each step she took she would thrust the bottom end of the stick into the ground a couple of feet ahead of her. Any snake that dared to remain in her chosen path would be impaled or beaten to death. And let me tell you, nobody ever loved killing a snake better than MaMaw did.
MaMaw and Grandpa Payne were focused intently on each step they took. MaMaw, with stick in hand, plunged its pointed end into the soil to clear the path ahead. They were just about a third of the way home, with all of their senses on high alert and focused downward on the grassy carpet of pasture. That's when they heard it... at least MaMaw and Grandpa Payne heard it. One shriek coming from the direction of the woods along the edge of the pasture. Their kids were laughing and discussing the fun they had enjoyed with their cousins. They didn't hear it. At least not at first. But MaMaw and Grandpa Payne heard it and it caused them to stop dead in their tracks.
"Did you kids hear that?" Grandpa Payne asked his children.
"Nothin. It ain't nothin." was his response. "Let's keep movin' and get on home. You kids get in a line behind your Mama and follow her. Don't go wanderin' off. Stay right behind her," he warned them.
Maybe they noticed the slight sense of urgency in his voice... or the way it seemed a little softer, a little quieter, and a little less light-hearted. Maybe they were so wrapped up in the fun of the day that they just didn't give it another thought. Either way, they fell in a single-file line as they were told and followed behind MaMaw. Up until that point, Grandpa Payne had been walking alongside all the others, his eyes scanning the ground as best they could. But with this change of events, he dropped behind to the back of their line. This, MaMaw would tell us every time, is because a panther will always jump on the one in the back. Grandpa Payne was our hero because he was willing to sacrifice himself for the safety of his family.
She was a true master at sound effects, our MaMaw. This is where she really revved it up and gave us that blood-curdling panther scream. All four grand kids would squeal in unison, pull the quilt up to our eyeballs, wriggle a little farther down in the safety of the bed and kick our feet as fast as we could, as if we were helping to ward off the attacking creature. We had all known it was coming. It was exactly the same every time she told us the story. Still, she never failed to thrill us and terrify us at the same time. It was another panther cry... and it indeed sounded just like a woman screaming.
This time MaMaw and Grandpa Payne's children heard the terrifying sound. This time, MaMaw and Grandpa Payne were aware that it was louder... sounding even nearer.
"What was that?" my daddy and his sister asked their parents.
Their children's fear was obvious to them, and they knew they needed to keep them calm. "That was a panther," my grandfather answered in a matter-of-fact tone. No need to lie to them, but no need to frighten them anymore, either.
"We heard it when we was back yonder a-ways, and that's why we got you walkin' in a line behind your Mama. Just keep facin' front and keep walkin'. That panther don't care nothin' 'bout us no-way." But MaMaw and Grandpa Payne, they knew better.
More sound effects. More panther screams. More grand kids squealing and wriggling beneath the patchwork quilts that were beginning to become twisted and strewn all across the big four-poster bed. Occasionally, our undercover gymnastics would force MaMaw to pause her story long enough for a, "Oowww, shucks! You kids are wigglin' and squirmin' and beatin' my legs to pieces. Now y'all settle down and hold still if you wanna hear the rest of this story." If we kicked really hard, the "shucks" might be replaced with a stronger word beginning with the same two letters... which inevitably sent us all into a chorus of giggles and "Oooh! MaMaw said a cuss word! Ooooh!"
Every time the story was re-told, the panther cries would follow them, paralleling their trek homeward; the panther always managing to stay just out of sight beyond the tree line. With every re-telling, the fear steadily grew in the pits of MaMaw and Grandpa Payne's stomachs, as they wondered at what moment that creature of the night would break from its hiding place and race toward them. But, each time, the family would make it to the safety of their home, unharmed by that menacing, stealthful monster and its terrifying cry.
As an adult, I often recalled that story. I heard her tell it more than once to my children. She had all the details down pat. She should have; she'd told it often enough. Had it really happened? Or, had it been fabricated... artfully and masterfully woven and spun for the entertainment of her grandchildren, and later her great-grandchildren. I had begun to doubt the story's authenticity. Perhaps we, as adults, become too suspicious. It's a shame, but it's true.
A couple of months ago, during a visit with my mother, my sister, and my Aunt Wanda, someone mentioned something about a panther. Immediately, Aunt Wanda asked, "Did you hear it? Have you ever heard a panther? If you've ever heard it, you never forget the sound... just like a woman screamin'."