In Old Plantation Days

The Conjuring Contest

The whole plantation was shocked when it became generally known that Bob, who had been going with Viney for more than a year, and for half that time had publicly escorted her to and from meeting, had suddenly changed, and bestowed his affections upon another. It was the more surprising, for Viney was a particularly good-looking girl, while the new flame, Cassie, was an ill-favored woman lately brought over from another of the Mordaunt plantations.

It was one balmy Sunday evening that they strolled up from the quarters’ yard together, arm in arm, and set wagging the tongues of all their fellow-servants.

Bob’s mother, who was sitting out in front of her door, gave a sigh as her son passed with his ungainly sweetheart. She was still watching them with an unhappy look in her eyes when Mam’ Henry, the plantation oracle, approached and took a seat on the step beside her.

“Howdy, Mam’ Henry,” said Maria.

“Howdy, Maria; how you come on?”

“Oh, right peart in my body, but I’m kin’ o’ ‘sturbed in my min’.”

“Huh, I reckon you is ‘sturbed in yo’ min’!” said the old woman keenly. “Maria, you sholy is one blin’ ‘ooman.”

“Blin’? I don’t know whut you mean, Mam’ Henry; how’s I blin’?”

“You’s blin’, I tell you. Now, whut you s’pose de mattah wid yo’ Bob?”

“De mattah wid him? Dat des’ whut trouble my min’. Mam’ Henry, hit’s to think dat dat boy o’ mine ‘u’d be so thickle-minded!”


“Hyeah he was a-gwine ‘long o’ Viney, whut sholy is a lakly gal, an’ a peart one, too; den all o’ a sudden he done change his min’, an tek up wid dat ol’ ha’d-time lookin’ gal. I don’ know whut he t’inkin’ ’bout.”

“You don’ know whut he t’inkin’ ’bout? Co’se you don’ know whut he t’inkin’ ’bout, an’ I don’ know whar yo’ eyes is, dat you can’t see somep’n’ dat’s des’ ez plain ez de nose on yo’ face.”

“Well, I ‘low I mus’ be blin’, Mam’ Henry, ‘ca’se I don’ understan’ it.”

“Whut you reckon a lakly boy lak Bob see on dat gallus niggah?”

“I don’ know, Mam’ Henry, but dey do say she bake mighty fine biscuits, an’ you know Bob’s min’ moughty close to his stomach.”

“Biscuits, biscuits,” snorted the old woman; “’tain’t no biscuits got dat man crazy. Hit’s roots, I tell you; hit’s roots I”

“Mam’ Henry, fo’ de Lawd, you don’ mean—”

The old woman leaned solemnly over to her companion and whispered dramatically: “He’s conju’ed; dat’s whut he is!”

Maria sprang up from the doorway and stood gazing at Mam’ Henry like a startled animal; then she said in a hurried voice: “Whut! dat huzzy conju’ my chile? I—I—I’ll kill huh; dat’s whut I will.”

“Yes, you kill huh, co’se you will. I reckon dat’ll tek de spell often Bob, won’t hit? Dat’U kep him Pom hatin’ you, an’ des pinin’ erway an’ dyin’ fu’ huh, won’t hit, uh?”

Maria sank down again in utter helplessness, crying: “Conju’ed, conju’ed; oh, whut shell I do?”

“Fus’ t’ing,” said Mam’ Henry, “you des set up an’ ac’ sensible. Aftah dat I’ll talk to you.”

“Go on, Mam’ Henry; I’s a-listenin’ to you. Conju’ed, conju’ed, my boy! Oh, de—”

“Heish up, an’ listen to me. Befo’ Bob put on his shoes termorrer mornin’ you slip a piece o’ sllvah in de right one, fiat in de middle, whah he won’ feel it. You want to fin’ out how he’s conju’ed, an’ des’ how bad it is. Ef she ain’t done nuffin’ but planted somep’n’ roun’ de do’ fu’ him, why I reckon des’ sowin’ salt’ll brek de spell; but ef she’s cotch htm in his eatin’s you’ll have to see a reg’Iar conju’ doctah fo’ you kin wo’k dat out. I ain’t long-haided myse’l; but I got a frien’ dat is.”

“But, Mam’ Henry, how I gwine tell how bad de conju’ is?”

“Huh, gal, you don’ know nuffin’I Ef de silvah tu’ns right black, w’y, he’s cotched bad, an’ ef it only tu’ns kin’ o’ green he’s only mid-dlin’ tricked.”

“How long I got to wait ‘fo’ I knows?”

“Let him wah de silvah th’ee er fo’ days, an’ den let me see it.”

Maria did as she was told, placing a dime in the bottom of her son’s shoe, and at the expiration of the alloted time, with eyes fear and wonder wide, she took the coin to her instructor. Whether from working in the field all day the soil had ground into Bob’s shoe and discolored the coin, or whether it had attracted some subtle poison from the wearer’s body, is not here to be decided. From some cause the silver piece was as dark as copper.

Mam’ Henry shook her head over it. “He sho’ is cotched bad,” she said. “I reckon she done cotched him in his eatin’s; dat de wuss kin’. You tek dat silvah piece an’ th’ow it in de runnin’ watah.”

Maria hesitated; this was part of a store she was saving for a particular purpose.

“W’y does I has to do dat, Mam’ Henry?” she asked. “Ain’ dey no othah way?”

“Go ‘long, gal; whut’s de mattah wid you? You do ez I tell you. Don’ you know dat any-t’ing you buy wid dat money’d be bad luck to you? Dat ah dime’s chuck full o’ goophah, clah to de rim.”

So, trembling with fear, Maria hastened to the branch and threw the condemned coin into it, and she positively asserted to Mam’ Henry on her return that the water had turned right black and thick where the coin sunk.

“Now, de nex’ t’ing fu’ you to do is to go down an’ see my frien’, de conju’ doctah. He live down at de fo’ks o’ de road, des’ back o’ de ol’ terbaccer house. Hit’s a skeery place, but you go dah ter-night, an’ tell him I sont you, an’ he lif’ de spell. But don’ you go down dah offerin’ to pay him nuffin’, ‘ca’se dat ‘stroy his cha’ms. Aftah de wo’k done, den you gin him whut you want, an’ ef it ain’t enough he put de spell back on ergin. But mustn’ nevah ax a conju’ doctah whut he chawge, er pay him ‘fo’ de cha’m wo’k, no mo’n you mus’ say thanky fu’ flowah seed.”

About nine that night, Maria, frightened and trembling, presented herself at the “conju’ doctah’s” door. The hut itself was a grewsome looking place, dark and dilapidated. The yard surrounding it was overrun with a dense growth of rank weeds which gave forth a sickening smell as Maria’s feet pressed them. The front window was shuttered, and the sagging roof sloped down to it, like the hat of a drunken man over a bruised eye.

The mew of a cat, the shuffling of feet and a rattle of glass followed the black woman’s knock, and Maria pictured the terrible being within hastening to put away some of his terrible decoctions before admitting her. She was so afraid that she had decided to torn and flee, leaving Bob to his fate, when the door opened and die doctor stood before her.

He was a little, wizened old man, his wrinkled face the color of parchment. The sides of his head were covered with a bush of gray hair, while die top was bald and blotched with brown and yellow spots. A blade cat was at his side, looking with evil eyes at the visitor.

“Is you de conji’ doctah?” asked Maria.

He stepped back that she might enter, and closed the door behind her. “I’s Doctah Bass,” he replied.

“I come to see you—I come to see you ’bout my son. Mam’ Henry, she sont me.”

“Well, le’ m’ hyeah all erbout it.” His manner was reassuring, if his looks were not, and somewhat encouraged, Maria began to pour forth the story of her woes into the conjure doctor’s attentive ear. When she was done he sat for a while in silence, then he said:

“I reckon she’s got some o’ his ha’r—dat meks a moughty strong spell in a ‘ooman’s han’s. You go back an’ bring me some o’ de’ ‘ooman’s ha’r, an’ Ifix it, I fix it.”

“But how’s I gwine git any o’ huh ha’r?”

“Dat ain’ fu’ me to say; I des’ tell you whut to do.”

Maria backed out of the bottle-filled, root-hung room, and flew home through the night, with a thousand terrors pressing hard upon her heels.

All next day she wondered how she could get some of her enemy’s hair. Not until evening did the solution of the problem come to her, and she smiled at its simplicity. When Cassie, her son’s unwelcome sweetheart, came along, she stepped out from her cabin door and addressed her in terms that could mean but one thing fight. Cassie attacked Maria tooth and nail, but Maria was a wiry little woman, and when Bob separated the two a little later his mother was bruised but triumphant, for in her hand she held a generous bunch of Cassie’s hair.

“You foun’ out a way to git de ha’r,” said the conjure doctor to her that night, “an’ you ain’t spaihed no time a-gittin’ it.”

He was busy compounding a mixture which looked to Maria very much like salt and ashes. To this he added a brown thing which looked like the dried liver of some bird. Then he put in a portion of Cassie’s hair. The whole of this he wrapped up in a snake’s skin and put in a bag.

“Dat’ll fetch him,” he said, handing the bag to Maria. “You tek dis an’ put it undah his baid whah he won’ fin’ it, an’ sprinkle de res’ o’ dis ha’r on de blanket he lay on, an’ let hit stay dah seven days. Aftah dat he come roun’ all right. Den you kin come to see me,” he added significantly.

Clasping her treasure, Maria hastened home and placed the conjure bag under her son’s bed, and sprinkled the short, stiff hair as she had been directed. He came in late that night, hurried out of his clothes and leaped into bed. Usually he went at once to sleep, but not so now. He rolled and tossed, and it was far past midnight before his regular breathing signified to the listening mother that he was asleep. Then with a murmured, “De conju’ is a-wokin’ him,” she turned over and addressed herself to rest.

The next morning Bob was tired and careworn, and when asked what was the matter, responded that his dreams had been troubled. He was so tired when the day’s work was over that he decided not to go and see Cassie that night. He was just about going to bed when a tap came at the cabin door, and Viney came in.

“Evenin’, A’nt Maria,” she said; “evenin’, Bob.”

“Evenin’,” they both said.

“I des’ run in, A’nt Maria, to bring you some o’ my biscuits. Mam’ Henry done gi’ me a new ‘ceipt fu’ mekin’ dem.” She uncovered the crisp, brown rolls, and the odor of them reached Bob’s nose. His eyes bulged, and he paused with his hand on his boot.

“La,” said Maria, “dese sho’ is nice, Viney. He’p yo’se’f, Bob.”

Bob suddenly changed his mind about going to bed, and he and Viney sat and chatted while the biscuits disappeared. Maria discreetly retired, and she said to herself as she sat outside on the step: “Dey ain’t no way fu’ dat boy to ‘sist dat goophah an’ dem biscuits, too.”

Bob’s dreams were troubled again that night, and the next, and as the evenings came he still found himself too tired to go a-courting. All this was not lost on the watchful mother, and she duly reported matters to Mam’ Henry, who transferred her information to Cassie in the following manner:

“Hit sholy don’ seem right, Sis’ Cassie, w’en Bob gwine ‘long o’ you, fu’ him to be settin’ up evah night ‘long o’ dat gal Viney.”

And Cassie, who was a high-spirited girl, replied:

“Uh, let de niggah go ‘long; I don’ keer nuffin’ ’bout him.”

Next time she met Bob she passed without speaking to him, and, strange to say, he laughed, and didn’t seem to care, for Mam’ Henry’s biscuit receipt had made Viney dearer to him than she had ever been. Up until the eighth night his dreams continued to be troubled, but on that night he slept easily, and dreamed of Viney, for Maria had removed the conjure bag and had thrown it into running water. What is more, she had shaken the hair out of the blanket.

The first evening that Bob felt sufficiently rested to go out skylarking it was with Viney he walked, and the quarters nodded and wondered. They walked up to the master’s house, where the momentous question was asked and favorably answered. Then they came back radiant, and Viney set out some biscuits and preserves in her cabin to clinch it, and invited Maria and Mam’ Henry to share them with Bob and her.

That night sundry things from the big house, as well as lesser things from Maria s cabin found their way to the “conju’ doctah’s.” The things from the big house were honestly procured, but it took the telling of the whole story by Maria to get them.

When she had gone, her master, Dudley Stone, laughed to himself, and said with true Saxon incredulity: “That old rascal, Bass, is a sharp one. I think lying on Cassie’s hair would trouble anybody’s dreams, conjure or no conjure, and if Viney learned to make biscuits like Mammy Henry she needed no stronger charm.”


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This work (In Old Plantation Days by Paul Laurence Dunbar) is free of known copyright restrictions.