The Powwow Doctor

DESPITE the dullness of monotony, some who dwell in quiet places never lose their sense of strangeness in familiar things. These are the wise women and seers of their neighborhoods, for whom the unknown lurks just around the corner or under the nearest bush.

In a certain Pennsylvania valley lived, not so many years ago, a woman who saw the world in this fashion. There was no sharp line for her between the seen and the unseen, and by virtue of this second sight she was the ‘powwow doctor’ of her community. An old man disputed the title with her, but his was an evil magic, invoked only to ‘overlook’ an enemy’s field, or to make eggs cease in his henhouse and milk in his stalls. Old Barbara Kulp had never been known to ‘put a hex’ on anything, although no one doubted that she could if she so desired. The neighbors came to her to unspell their cattle and lift the blight from their fields. When she passed a thread of scarlet silk about a festering thumb and then burned the thread among the ashes on her hearth, to the accompaniment of muttered words, relief was sure to follow. Blood which flowed stubbornly from a sickle-cut stopped quickly when she charmed.

Yet there was nothing of the visionary about her, despite her reputed powers. The blood of generations of sturdy peasants ran in her veins, and if it bred visions they were kin to the warm earth. Her small white house, perched upon a high bank beside the road, had the marks of centuries of German cottages. The inner sanctum, open only on great days, held the final product of her creative spirit — a curiosity jar. Once it had been a mere fruit jar like any other, holding pears and plums. Then it had taken to itself a coat of putty, on which the flotsam of generations had come to rest. There were square-rimmed spectacles, thimbles open at both ends, candle-snuffers, flattened bullets, acorns, broken scissors, and army buttons from two wars. The whole was gilded brilliantly and set upon the parlor table, an unconscious symbol, in that room of funerals, of the immortal commonplace.

In the yard the last draw-well of the countryside bubbled under its sheltering roof. About it, and in rows along the narrow path that led to the front door, grew coxcomb, larkspur, petunias, and kings’-crowns. The rose-red tomatoes which glowed in her July garden were her especial pride, for they were direct descendants of the first in the county. She told, with a chuckle, the story of those pioneers.

In her mother’s day tomatoes were a wild and forbidden fruit, reputed poisonous to humankind. But the spirit of adventure was strong in Barbara’s mother, and she planted a few seedlings of the despised weed in her garden. They flourished for a time, then one morning hung limply on the earth. The cutworm had done his deadly work overnight. Another planting went the same way, despite salt sown thickly on the ground, and a third took its place. Then, looking out to the garden before daybreak one August morning, the planter of tomatoes saw a man kneeling in the half-light, carefully severing each stalk with his penknife, just below the surface of the soil. Her husband was venturing no ventures with unknown fruits.

The neighborhood babies opened their blinking eyes in Barbara’s accustomed arms, and she planned their futures according to her seeing. Her favorite belief was that a child would most deeply love whatever it held first. So she filled the hands of hour-old girls with pansies and thyme and feverfew, marigolds and tansy and bridal wreath, or sacrificed a treasured geranium-blossom in the wintertime. To her, perhaps, life was a kitchen garden, and God the Gardener, Who loved His plants.