Hoodoo, Haints and Hexes: From a Country Doctor Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 0 Comments
“Hoodoo” is most often described as a southern folk practice, chiefly among descendants of slaves in the Mississippi Delta. Voodoo, as practiced in New Orleans, is considered more of a religion.
Some say Voodoo is the religion, while hoodoo is the magic. They share many traits, like the use of gris gris, or charms, to achieve the practitioner’s wishes. A talisman, amulet or fetish of some sort — cat bones, a hank of hair, a few twigs — the gris gris is sometimes kept in a bag, or placed near the subject of the hoodoo spell.
But what does hoodoo really smell like, taste like, feel like?
It smells like kerosene and sweat. It tastes like old rags. And it feels like the fear of your own death.
I learned about hoodoo from my father, who practiced medicine in the Mississippi Delta up until the late 1960s. Fitz birthed them, buried them, stitched them up and listened to their troubles real and imaginary; he treated every one of them, rich and poor, black and white, the same — with respect and grace. He made house calls to plantation mansions and sharecropper shacks. He was paid in cash, or… other things — a freshly butchered side of beef, a brace of antique rifles, a basket of summer produce. I went on house calls with him, sometimes playing in the cotton fields with the sharecropper’s kids, whom I’d never see at school, sometimes staring at — but not touching — the fine china displayed in the nice white lady’s big house. This was back in the day… when farms were still called plantations.
Fitz was a great storyteller, but he was as honest as they come. He preferred history to fiction and didn’t like movies because they were “made up.” He was pathologically incapable of “making things up.” So maybe I should just let him tell the story…
“This was back when I had a contract with some of the plantations to take care of their workers. I got a call from Dockery Plantation about a sick worker. [Dockery is just off Highway 61, between Ruleville and Cleveland, Miss., and the former home of Charlie Patton, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson, among others.] The night was black and stormy as I drove to the plantation. The plantation owner met me at the edge of the road with an extra horse to ride in to the farm. The rains had turned the rich Delta dirt into gumbo mud — almost impassable.
“At the patient’s cabin, I found a man lying in bed sick. I examined him thoroughly but found nothing wrong with him. His dark skin was ashy and he complained of aches over his entire body. His pulse and temperature were normal but he kept moaning, ‘Doctor, lay yo’ hands on me. Heal me.’ I asked how long he had felt this way and he said ‘Sunday week.’ Unable to do more, I gave the man some aspirin for his aches and pains and departed. Over the next couple of weeks I had another call from the plantation owner that the man was still sick. I went back again. Again I found nothing wrong with him, but he was visibly worse. He had lost weight and had even less energy than on my first visit. His eyes were glassy and darted nervously around the bare room. An uneaten meal and full glass sat on the floor next to his bed (there was no nightstand). His breathing was shallow and he was anxious and agitated.
“I noticed an old, old woman standing in the shadows of the room. I asked her what she thought was wrong with the man. ‘She done put the hoodoo on him,’ she croaked, nodding her head toward the open window. ‘She done put the hoodoo on him and he gwina die this here.’ She then put her old crooked finger on a faded calendar tacked to the wall. There was a date circled on the calendar: five days from today. ‘She done put the hoodoo on him and she got only five left.’ The old woman pointed to a small bundle of twigs on the hearth of the fireplace. There were five twigs in the bundle. ‘Das her gris gris. She say she put one in de fire every day. She only gots five more.’
“The old woman pointed out the window. I understood. In the distance, a pretty young woman cavorted with a handsome young man under a pecan tree at the edge of the cotton field. The woman was my patient’s wife. She had put a spell on her husband so she could get rid of him and be with the other man. Five days later I had a call from the farm owner that the man had died. He died on the day his wife had circled on the calendar. I wrote on the death certificate: Cause of death unknown.”
History? Fiction? Power of suggestion? I can’t answer that, but in return ask, “does it matter?” A woman desired something so badly she was willing to tread in the realm of the unknown, dance with the shadows, to get it. A man died from unknown — and unknowable causes. A victim of his own weak mind, or of a more powerful spirit than he possessed?
All I know is that Fitz just couldn’t make stuff up.
Bill Fitzgerald loves to write, and he’s been fortunate enough to make his living at it for 20+ years. He is Creative Director at Heifer International in LIttle Rock , Ark., loves guitar, crawfish, his children, a good Malbec and rock climbing, though not necessarily in that order. He has met and interviewed Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah and Shelby Foote.