Recollecting Holy Ground, an Iron, and a Washtub
By Marsha Cann
See this old iron? My mother kept this iron because it belonged to her mother Annie Mae, who kept it because it belonged to her mother, Mama T – short for Thessalonia. Mama T was a slave, first in Mississippi, then Arkansas and that’s where Annie Mae was born. But let me tell you about this iron and why it’s so special.
Everybody said that Annie Mae Tuck, my grandmother, was the best ironer in the state of Arkansas. She would put that iron on the stove and take it off at just the right time, each time to get that perfect pressing, crisp and smooth. And she sang from the minute her feet touched the floor in the morning till her body lay down at night…Wade in the water, wade in the water chillun, wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water… The white woman Annie Mae worked for – Idella Poole – was always the talk of the town because of her beautiful wardrobe. Annie Mae always kept her looking to a tee.
Now you know, an iron can be used for some other things besides ironing although that’s what it’s mostly used for. But sometimes it could be used as a door prop to let a cool breeze come through.
The story was that one day – this was in the spring of 1922 – a mad dog came up in the yard. Annie Mae was washing clothes in the wash tub. Before she knew it, the dog was near about six feet away from her baby girl who was playing on the porch – that was my mama, Jessie. So Annie Mae got real still and whispered some words, then she went invisible and slipped up to the porch. She went into the core of her soul, into the knowing part, the place that folds space, freezes time, shape shifts. It happened quick. Then she came back visible and was standing between her baby girl and that mad dog.
The iron caught her eye. That day, it was being used to prop open the front door. With one fell swoop she snatched up that iron and yelled out, “Get thee behind me Satan!” She raised the iron up over her head and said some words she had heard her Aunt Callie say to protect them from the KKK when they first got free. Bi di ba da way, Ba ba du way, Aum sha sha du way… Anyway, that dog got unmad quick and went to crying and running, just as Annie Mae was about to give him a permanent headache. They say the iron must have had some kind of magical power because even though Annie Mae never actually struck the dog, there was an imprint right in the center of his forehead that matched the shape of the iron, and he never acted mad again, though he was cross-eyed from that day on.
Nobody could ever explain it. But Callie was my great, great aunt and down home everybody knows about the legend of Callie Tuck. She knew things. She was a true conjure woman. Oh, they say she could walk through storms, snatch up the lightning, and use it to heat up her medicine pot. They say she mixed her healing salve with magic from the full moon, to heal the wounds of every creature walking up on two or down on four. She was a healer.
She knew about special words and prayers and things that worked like magic. And her washtub? By day it was just a washtub, but by night she used it as a medicine pot for whatever healing was needed. So this was a special washtub and some folks say that’s why Annie Mae’s laundry came out extra clean and bright – like new every time – ‘cause she had inherited this washtub from her Aunt Callie Tuck.
Some of you may be wondering how Annie Mae knew how to be invisible. Well, she learned that from Callie Tuck, too. “First child,” Aunt Callie told Annie Mae, “This is holy ground! Wherever you are…Know that the ancestors are always here, the presence of miracles, the very spirit of God, always right here, ready to stroke, stoke, or cloak you. Hear what I say now! Whatever it is you need at the time. The ancestors can help you open yourself and receive God’s will, that’s how you invoke the power. You know what I mean? Then the spirit can come forth and do things through you… supernatural to some but natural to others.” Callie Tuck took Annie Mae’s face in her hands, “You know what I mean?”
Annie Mae felt the same energies and saw the same visions like her aunt Callie. She understood. It was something in her bones. “Wasn’t many come this way got the eye,” Callie continued, “You the only one I know of in this generation that’s got it.” Annie Mae looked deep into her aunt’s eyes and told her, “Yes ma’am, I feel it.” Callie Tuck knew it anyway. She knew Annie Mae could understand. This is what she taught her about going invisible: “See yourself moving without being seen. Shoo Shoo Shoo…Ola senna Nah tonga hey denana. Send a thought to those you need to be hidden from to freeze in time, redirect their thinking, their seeing. Kang ka buna…lili shante ife uchefuna…Shoo Shoo Shoo.” Now you remember these words I tell you, and you can go invisible when you need it.
Annie Mae repeated the words until she knew them by heart. “See what you doing, child, is asking the ancestors to open up the way, light the way for you. Just get real still, say these words and see what happen. But don’t play around with it. It ain’t nothing to play with, you hear me?” Callie admonished.
“Yes ma’am,” Annie Mae said.
The first time Annie Mae had to go invisible was when she was 12-years-old and on her way back from delivering some of Mama T’s canned pears. All of a sudden three white boys, big teenagers, jumped out from the woods laughing and hollering “Come here, gal.” The one boy reached out to grab Annie Mae, but she took off running. Her legs, though longer than most 12-year-old girls, were no match for these grown-up boys. They soon caught up to her and circled her. One of them said, “We been watching you, little gal, and we want some of that poon-tang!” The others hooted, laughed, slapped their thighs and yelped in agreement. They pushed her to the ground. Her hands dug into the dirt, dry and dusty from the August sun. Annie Mae was praying, and then she remembered. She saw herself moving without being seen, and then she shouted the special words to go invisible.
“Shoo Shoo Shoo…Ola senna Nah tonga hey denana…
Kang ka buna…lili shante ife uchefuna…Shoo Shoo Shoo!”
“What the hell is she saying?” one of the boys said. Just then Annie Mae began spinning so fast round and round.
“This nigger must be crazy!”
And with that, a sudden wind came up and Annie Mae leaped into the air, opening her hands to release the dusty dirt, which swirled like a little tornado. In their attempt to grab her, the boys collided. When the dust cleared, they didn’t see Annie Mae anywhere. Then ping, ping, ping…they started feeling what felt like little rocks upside their heads. “Ooo…ouch… Owww,” they exclaimed. They didn’t know where these rocks were coming from. Annie Mae had come back visible, but was hiding up in a black walnut tree, using her trusty slingshot (which she always carried to shoo away bothersome critters that might come along) to shoot these boys with walnuts. “I’m getting out of here,” said one boy. “Me too,” another agreed and ran off. “Go on and run,” said the ring-leader, “I’m gon’ find that little nigger gal. She can’t be far.”
Just then Annie Mae jumped down from the tree right onto the back of this boy yelling, “Get thee behind me, Satan! Bi di ba da way. Ba ba du way. Aum sha sha du way.” Then using both hands, she smashed a black walnut right in the center of his forehead. Dazed, that boy fell to his knees in pain, and Annie Mae ran off quick, glad to be getting away. “Oooweee!” The knot that rose up on that boy’s head never did go down. He was too scared to retaliate, and too shamed to tell anybody that a little 12-year-old colored gal had snatched a knot in his head. Folks called him Knot-Head after that.
But my favorite story was about the washtub and how it was used for more than just a washtub. Callie Tuck was 12 years old when she and her mama and daddy first got brought to old man Lancaster’s plantation in the state of Tennessee. Her daddy, my great, great, great granddaddy, was a seven-foot-tall man, straight from Africa and her Mama my great, great, gr…—aw you know. Anyway, she was a mahogany black woman, beautiful! Men couldn’t stand to look at her. Too stunning, too beautiful, I’m telling you. People say sometimes men lost they minds or went blind and straight out fell dead from lookin’ at her. That’s what happened when Callie Tuck and them came to Lancaster’s.
Her mama was named Bell and her daddy, they called him Fred, but his African name was Neferkara. He knew what his name was and where he come from, knew his true language and culture, and he passed that on, in little pieces as best he could to his family and all those around sensible enough to receive it. He was one who had the eye. By day he worked hard in the fields just like everybody else, but by night, he was the healer of all the brothers and sisters wherever he lived and the white folks, too, if they had sense enough to be worthy.
Bell worked at the big house, did all the laundry, ironing and such. On all three plantations where they had lived, Bell never had to work in the fields. Even though she was not light-skinned, she was treated different, better. Her beauty and sweetness was so overwhelming, it was like she would put a spell on folks. Bell was not only beautiful, inside and out, she could also sing like the sweetest bird you ever heard…Oh li li li Oh lay lu Oh lay lay lu… The sound of her voice accompanied Neferkara when he was healing and laying on hands. It’s like they were connected, one spirit working together. Her voice, her humming and wailing, brought more healing power to the situation, such that miracles were commonplace around wherever they lived.
So anyway, like I said, some men would straight out lose their minds from looking at Bell because she was so stunning. At first sight, the Lancaster’s boy, their only child, Therlow, fell in love, or what he thought was love, but he had just went crazy. He went into some type of mania, not sleeping, not eating for a week, that’s how long Bell had been there. This wasn’t the first time somebody went crazy over her, so she just tried to stay away from him. Give him a chance to settle down. At the end of that first week, that fool told his folks he was going to take her away and marry her. His daddy laughed and told him, “Boy, you done completely lost your damn mind…what you talking about marrying a nigger gal, a slave? I’ll disown you, boy, write you out the damn will and throw your ass in the crazy house. I’ll see you dead before I see you running away with a slave, disgracing this family! You better get your head straight.”
But he didn’t. That very day Therlow shot Bell dead cause he knew he could never have her. The sound of the shot cracked through the still sky like a slave-driver’s whip. Neferkara was almost a mile away tending the tobacco field when his heart shuddered and he saw Bell as in a dream melting into the earth. In his trance, he leaped into the air, became a black raven, and in seconds was back to a man standing at Bell’s side. Callie and the other slaves came running from the fields as the Lancasters dragged Therlow away, screaming Bell’s name.
It seemed that time stopped. Neferkara quickly lifted Bell from where she had fallen on holy ground just beside the old washtub. He gently kissed her open mouth with his and sucked in her last breath. With Callie at his side, he carried Bell deep into the woods, two of the slaves who also had the eye silently followed with the washtub. They moved with urgency, followed by the wailing women who, when they arrived at the hush harbor, walked seven times around the space, speaking Bell’s name, being her voice, singing her song, claiming holy ground. The men stood, left foot forward so hearts could go forth and stamp out any evil blocking the light, and when the women wailed, the men moaned in accord. Neferkara placed her in the center of this holy ground the others had prepared and laid on hands.
Aum sha sha du way, Shoo, Shoo, Shoo
He then breathed in the light from all the healing ever had, connected with all the healers ever healed while he walked around her seven times. The women brought water from the nearby stream, and after blessing it, prayed as they poured it into the washtub.
Callie Tuck’s knees were shaking, but she stood still as the tree next to her. She dare not wipe her tears, but just let them fall at her feet onto the holy ground. Neferkara instructed her to bring the special herbs and oils, the frankincense, hyssop, leaves from the never-die-tree and more. Callie returned with it all, everything for the transformation, the blessing of her mother Bell.
Neferkara bathed her in the blessed water, herbs and oils. The others circled him. All was quiet except the women who sang for Bell and wailed according to God’s will for resolution. Then Neferkara breathed Bell’s last breath back into her. All that could be done had been done. They prayed for divine order. It was time to leave things alone, time to let God. They wrapped Bell in the never die leaves and left her for the night.
Next day, they were awakened by singing, a beautiful, glorious song was coming from the woods, from the hush harbor. Neferkara, Callie and all who could hear the song rushed to see. Bell! It was Bell’s voice. Yes, my great, great, great grandma Bell Tuck come back to life. Bell stood straight up, right there in the washtub, light glowing all around, over, under, through her, nothing but light. Everybody said it was that last kiss, the breath he held and gave back to her, that did the final magic. Neferkara had visualized her transformation, and his wish, that she would not leave them, but become a bird in the morning, singing evermore, was about to come true.
She had left that murdered body and flew away as the most beautiful bird, singing the most beautiful song ever heard. The bird Bell watched over Callie and came every night to the willow tree where Neferkara would be waiting to listen to her singing, to spend time with her. They would comfort each other all night sometimes.
He died a year later, they say from a broken heart. Callie knew, though, that it was just his time to move on, be clothed anew according to God’s plan. Not to leave but just to change and become an ancestor. He was buried under that same willow tree where Bell sang to him. Folks said late at night you could still hear Bell’s song and sometimes see two birds sitting in the willow tree. Callie Tuck saw the birds all the time, she knew. She kept doing all the things her parents had taught her and grew in her skill as a healer. She also grew to be over six-feet tall, taking after her daddy Neferkara, also known as Fred Tuck. Callie took over doing the laundry for the Lancaster plantation, taking great care of the washtub that had been part of much healing, much magic.