Growing up in the foothills of the Ozarks in a house perched on top of a small hill nestled among other hills, I swam and fished, danced and flirted, and was a “hillbilly.” Many memories swarm my mind when I think about where and how I grew up. The stories Mom and Grandmother used to tell kept me entertained for hours, and the stories of buried treasure, unusual perception possessed by some, or how someone got their come-uppance were the best. So this story of Black Callie has been a perennial favorite because of all three elements.
Many, many years ago, when I was a child, there was no television in the hills and the radio was only turned on for newscasts and occasionally for a few exciting stories such as “The Inner Sanctum,” which we always called the “Screeching Door” because of the sound effects when the program came on the air. Daddy also liked to listen to the “Green Hornet,” but the rest of our entertainment was derived from telling or reading stories to each other. Our favorites were always the ones Mother told of her girlhood, or those her mother or grandmother had told of family happenings Mother retold to us.
I remember how we used to seriously debate whether God had given special knowledge to hill folks, or if people with this good common sense gravitated to the hills because they were smarter than others and recognized this part of the world as “God’s Country.” Whichever way it happened, and there is still some debate about it, there is no doubt that the hills contained some folks who knew things and possessed talents not given to just everybody. Each community seemed to have its herb doctor, water witcher, and someone who could tell you things it was impossible for them to know, but they knew them anyway.
In the fall and winter, after playing up and down the misty gray-green hills splashed with tints of lovely violet and spotted with the flames of Indian paintbrush, we would gather around the fireplace for our stories. While we became drowsy before the crackle of the oak burning in the fireplace, we munched fall apples or popped corn over the coals and listened to Mom recount her girlhood days. The lives of some ancestors never known to us personally became alive, nevertheless, because of hearing their stories so many times before.
Our favorites were generally those concerning “Black Callie.” No one seemed to remember her coming to live in the hills. She had always been there, and for as long as anyone could remember she had been an old woman. Her name was simply “Callie.” No other was known locally, and because of the color of her skin and the times in which we lived, the adjective “black” always preceded her name. Through the years it was to become part of her name itself. Everyone went to Black Callie when the regular doctor had failed to heal them. Anyone who wanted to know where to find some important possession which had been lost or stolen consulted this wise old hill woman.
Mother used to tell about her Aunt Abbey and Uncle Lee and how they regained their precious milk cow which had been a wedding present from Aunt Abbey’s parents, my great grandparents.
Aunt Abbey and Uncle Lee hadn’t been married but a few weeks when the cow disappeared. They searched the woods and fields of their own place believing at first the cow had strayed or become hung in a fence. They asked all of their neighbors to check their own stock to see if “Old Pet” had jumped a fence and joined their herd.
When several days had passed and the cow couldn’t be found, Aunt Abbey and Uncle Lee knew the worst had happened and someone had stolen the only milk cow they possessed. Everyone knew there was only one real hope of recovering the cow, and that was to go to Black Callie.
Aunt Abbey’s brother, Uncle Tom, also wanted to see Black Callie because he had a festering axe wound on his leg that wasn’t healing properly, even though he had given the doctor two chickens for a mess of medicine for it. Aunt Abbey’s near neighbor, Mr. Smith, was present when the plans were being made to go see Black Callie. He said he wanted to go along to ask the old so-and-so about the money Jesse James was said to have buried on his place. Mr. Smith stated emphatically that he didn’t believe Black Callie could tell him; he just wanted to see what she would say.
Black Callie lived several miles from Aunt Abbey’s. The trip there and back would consume most of one day due to having to make the trip in the wagon because of Tom’s leg, so plans were made to start the next morning as soon as the stock was cared for.
With lunch carefully packed under the wagon seat, Uncle Lee, Uncle Tom, and Mr. Smith set out the next morning to see Black Callie. They arrived about eleven o’clock and found her cooking a hog’s head in an iron pot in the yard. Her wrinkled face and bright black eyes gave the impression of a sharp and shrewd gnome as she surveyed the visitors from under a claw-like hand raised to keep the sun out of her eyes.
As soon as the men began alighting from the wagon, Black Callie began wiping her hands on a spotless white apron and inviting her visitors into the house. She never gave information unless she was sitting in her rocker, because, as she said, that was “where she did her best thinking.”
The men stepped into a clean but cluttered room with a faintly pungent odor due to the various herbs hanging from the ceiling beams. She used those herbs to concoct her “healing powders.” The two earnest seekers and one doubter stopped just inside the door while the mistress of the house carefully looked each one over as if assessing their very souls. Bending her sharp eyes first on Uncle Lee she said, “I know why you came here and I can help you. You think I can tell you where your cow is, and I can. You go down to the river bottoms where that big pond is that gets full when the river floods.” Black Callie paused a moment to inquire, “Do you know the place?”
Uncle Tom answered, “I do.”
Black Callie resumed, “Take a rope with you and don’t say a word. Just sit behind the big oak on the west side of the pond early tomorrow morning and wait. All of the cows on the place will come to drink at the pond and your cow will be the third one to come out of the woods. Just put your rope on her and lead her home. She’s still wearing her bell.”
“Now, for you,” said Black Callie as she pointed a long bony finger at Uncle Tom, “ You’ve got a sore leg and what you must do to make it well is boil some of this.” She took some brown powdery substance from a cracked shaving mug on the mantle, wrapped it in a clean rag with prickly pear, beets, and sweet milk to make a poultice. To Uncle Tom, she said, “Put it on your leg as hot as you can stand it and leave it on until it cools. Do this every day for four days.”
After handing the small package of powder to Uncle Tom, Black Callie settled back into her rocker and looked long and searchingly at Mr. Smith. “And you want to know about the money,” she began, “Well, it is there. It was put there in silence and it must be taken out in silence. But I won’t tell you where it is because you called me a black witch and an old so-and-so and you don’t believe I can tell you. I can, but I’m not going to. Now you three get gone.”
The next morning Uncle Lee did just as he had been told and the cows came just as had been predicted and he placed his rope around Old Pet’s neck and led her triumphantly home.
Uncle Tom applied the poultice as directed and his leg healed beautifully. (Some have said, “In spite of the poultice.”)
Mr. Smith searched for the money but never found it. There are still people who look for it today.
Yes, the hills are full of such stories and most of them are considered myths by outsiders, but the true Ozark people know that such things were possible and actually happened. But they only happened in the Ozarks.