Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

SHORT STORY WEDNESDAY: THE CONJURED KITCHEN

 "The Conjured Kitchen" by "Octave Thanet" (Alice French) (first published in Harper's Bazaar [date unknown]; reprinted in Thanet's collection Otto the Knight and Other Trans-Mississippi Stories, 1891)


An old Arkansas plantation house has been repaired and is now fit for living.  The family has hired Aunt Callie, a former slave and now well-respected member of the black community, as  their cook -- a move that everyone applauded since Aunt Callie is said to be the best cook in the area.  Aunt Callie, her daughter, and the black handyman Jerry [a fine and noble name, says I] spent two weeks getting the place organized before everyone moved in.  Now, a week after moving in, there is trouble in the kitchen.

The bread refused to rise for Aunt Callie.  Also, her rolls came out to sour and were fed to the pigs (they were too sour for the calf) and her puff muffins were spoiled and hade to be fed to the chickens.  The hindquarters just delivered by the butcher was not cut into usable pieces as had been the usual practice.  Milk won't churn properly.  Butter, ordered a month before, had still not been delivered, reducing the family to using lard and tallow.  The weather had turned surprisingly cold, freezing things.  The damper on the kitchen stove turned wonky, causing things put in the oven to burn.  Mice got into the raisins.  The shelf holding the coal oil broke, spilling the oil into the mince-meat.  The carpenter who was to put the door on the barn was called away. leaving Jerry to nail the cows in every night and to remove the boards each morning, causing a cow to rip her leg on one of the nails.  Minks got at the chickens.  A custard meant for the family was eaten by the dog.  

The cause, according to Aunt Callie, was that she and the kitchen had been conjured.  While roaming the fields looking for sassafras, she came across Old Man Maggert, the local conjure man, gathering herbs.  As everyone knows, herbs gathered for conjuring had to be gathered in private or else the conjuring won't work.  And, as everyone knows, Old Man Maggert was a nasty, mean cuss.  The conjurer raged at Aunt Callie and put a curse on both her and her kitchen.  As a conjurer he could have done much worse.

Aunt Callie's daughter, Jinny Ver, was an educated and beautiful woman who held no truck with her mother's superstitions.   Slowly, she, too, became convinced of Old Man Maggart's power.  It was suggested that the family contacted Uncle Rufe Lemew as one who had the power to remove conjuring.  But Uncle Rufe had had an argument with his "here" wife and had taken his rifle and clothes and moved to Tennessee to be  with his "main" wife.  That left the local black preacher who, they hoped, would be able to talk Aunt Callie out of this superstitious belief, but all did was to strengthen Aunt Callie's belief in both conjuring and the preacher's foolishness.

Jerry the handyman was a good-natured, but uneducated soul.  Despite a hard life, he retained a good sense of humor and self-deprecation.  Naturally clumsy and shy, Jerry developed a strong liking for Jinny Ver and tended to stammer and trip whenever in her presence.  Somehow he managed to get up the courage to ask her to the festival, but Aunt Cassie put the kibosh on that, saying that Jinny Ver was too educated for the likes of Jerry, despite the fact that Jerry owned two mules and a wagon, had a banjo and ten dollars in the store account.  Jerry knew his alphabet and could write his own name, as well as read and print a bit.  While Aunt Callie was telling him this, Jerry had gotten his legs all twisted up so when Jinny Ver came in in her new dress, Jerry tripped and spilled a soup tureen all over the girl's new frock.  Well, that did it for Jerry.  Both women refused to speak to him, shouting work orders to him as if he were far away, even though he was right next to him.

Both situations -- the conjured kitchen and Jerry's ill luck with Jinny Ver -- continued.   One day, Jerry came in and excitedly told Aunt Callie that he knew how to lift the conjurer's curse.  According to what he had overheard at the grocery store, one had to go up to the conjurer, him enough to draw blood, and catch the blood before it hit the ground.  Jerry was determined to do this for Jinny Ver and Aunt Callie, even though Aunt Callie and he both believed he might be killed in the attempt.  Jerry dictates a will leaving his mules, wagon, banjo, and money to Jinny Ver, and goes off on his quest.

While Jerry is gone, the stove in the kitchen catches fire and threatens to destroy both the kitchen and the house.  The handle to the pump is broken.  (Part of the conjuring?)  Everyone brought whatever jugs of water they had in their rooms to try to extinguish the flames.  Suddenly the fire goes out and Aunt Callie believes this is because the conjuring has been lifted.  Jerry must have defeated Old Man Maggert!  (Everyone else thought that the water poured on the fire did the trick.)  Aunt Callie told Jinny Ver to clean herself up, put on some good clothes, and add some scent to her handkerchief because she was going to marry Jerry -- who may not be educated but he surely was brave.

There was never a problem in the kitchen or on the plantation ever since.

The conjuring may or may not have been real, but they story itself is fascinating in its exploration of superstition.  Off-putting notes lie in the use of stereotypical black dialect whenever many of the characters speak and in the tacit acceptance of black and roles of the time.  Neither should detract from the tale given its ancestry.

Alice French (1850-1934) used the name "Octave Thanet" for all of her writing.  Much her writing came from winters spent in her home in the Black River swamp country of Arkansas.  She prided herself on her accurate description of the area as well as the customs and dialect of her characters.  Her stories relied on local color and proved popular with readers of the day.

She divided her time between her home in Davenport, Iowa, and "Thanford," the Arkansas home she shared with her lover, Jane Allen Crawford.  Thanford was the site of many glamourous literary parties.  French also established a wood workshop and a photography studio there (she did publish one book on photography).  She and Jane Crawford gave up Thanford after fifteen years (in 1909), and she travelled extensively throughout the United States, speaking on conservative causes and against women's suffrage.  According to Wikipedia, "Her point of view remained fixed in the era of her youth."  She lost contact with literary and social developments shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century, later developed diabetes and lost a leg and became blind, dying just two years after Jane Crawford.

He attention to detail and her exploration of local folkways and superstitions still make much of her work readable today.

This story is available to read online in the collection Otto the Knight and Other Trans-Mississippi Stories.

2 comments:

  1. I don't think I've ever read her, and this story either is an early or primary example of a common trope (the educated character Learning Better about foolish superstition).

    Also remarkable that a "Boston marriage" participant's also an opponent of feminism. "Not for me, thank you."

    The former more commendable than the latter, by me...thanks.

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