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“Y’all give it up for Magda the Story Spider,” the announcer said as the woman strode offstage with a grin and a wave. The crowd beneath the huge tent applauded and whooped its approval. Even though it was nearing midnight, they weren’t the least bit ready for things to end, especially knowing who was next on the bill.
The announcer mopped his face with a handkerchief; the old-fashioned gesture felt entirely appropriate in this setting. “Reckon it’s hot enough?”
A good-natured chuckle went through the crowd. Although it was October in the Smoky Mountains, the weather was unseasonably warm. Almost everyone clutched a bottle of water and swiped at the bugs drawn in by the lights. Many fanned themselves with their programs. The odors of sweat and citronella mixed in the heavy air. This was the midnight cabaret, a special late-night event at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Here the festival’s normally family-friendly fare gave way to more adult tales that touched on some of the darker, but usually no less humorous, aspects of life.
“Well, I suspect it’s about to get hotter with our next performer,” he continued. “Y’all might know her from her world-famous musical group, the Little Trouble Girls. Or maybe her Oscar-nominated role in that movie Fire from the Heavens. Well, she’s back here tonight as one of us, a storyteller, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Folks, let’s give it up for a young lady who grew up right down the road, Janet Harper!”
A slender black-haired woman in a long Roma-style skirt, with a bright blue electric guitar over her shoulder, strode out to center stage, where a barstool and a microphone waited. She carried herself with the certainty of someone used to being watched by a crowd. She paused to give the announcer a perfunctory hug and kiss on the cheek, then settled on the stool, one leg straight to the ground, the other propped on a lower rung to provide support for the guitar. The announcer slipped discreetly away, the applause ended, and the whole crowd leaned forward expectantly in their chairs.
She looked down at her guitar and strummed the instrument once, a minor chord that rippled through the watchers like waves from a stone, quieting and settling them. At last she looked up and said, “It’s hotter’n two squirrels fornicatin’ in a wool sock, ain’t it?”
Laughter broke the tension, but not the spell.
“As y’all can probably tell from the way I talk, I really am from around here. I grew up in Needsville, which is just over that way as the crow flies. One reason I love coming to this festival, besides hearing all the great stories, is that I also get to go home and see my folks and my friends.” She strummed again. “But enough about me. I reckon I should tell you a story, then, since that’s why you’re here, and what I’m here to do.”
She began to pick on the guitar, idly and softly, pretending to think as she went through her carefully rehearsed routine. She let her voice shift into a drawl, a much heavier Southern accent than her normal one. “I think on a night like this, a love story is the right thing to tell. The lady taking this stage after me, Sheila Kay Adams, likes to say, ‘It might be about murder, suicide, dismemberment, or coming back from the dead, but if it’s got a man and a woman in it, it’s a love song.’ Well, the same thing’s true about love stories.
“This story I’m about to tell you happened back when I was growing up over in Needsville. It didn’t exactly happen to me, but I was involved just the same, and most of it is stuff I saw for myself. But it ain’t a once-upon-a-time kind of story. It’s the kind of thing that’s probably going on between and among some of you good people right now. But I ain’t judging, understand: it’s just a story about some of them fundamental things that make us human. Of course, like Sheila Kay says, it can leave a trail of murder, suicide, and dismemberment behind it, which is why it’s powerful and why we tell stories about it.”
Her guitar noodling segued into a melody that most of the audience felt like they’d heard before, even if they never had. It was called “Handsome Mary, the Lily of the West.” After she’d gone through the music a couple of times, she leaned close to the microphone and began to sing in a high, pure voice.
When first I came to Louisville, some pleasure there to find,
A damsel fair from Lexington was pleasing to my mind.
Her cherry cheeks and ruby lips, like arrows pierced my breast.
They called her Handsome Mary, the Lily of the West.
No one watching would have guessed that another song, with a completely different melody and lyric, ran through her head at the same time, fighting to be heard. But that song was not for this crowd, or anyone else. It had been played once, sung once, and would never be heard again. Its curse was that it also could never be forgotten.
By now the only motion in the crowd was the flutter of fans and programs trying to move the still air. Every face glowed with both sweat and concentration. Given that this audience came from all over the world, it was doubtful many of them had heard the stories of the Tufa, the allegedly strange and mysterious people who claimed Janet as one of their own. But not knowing about the magic didn’t keep it from working.
She continued to pick the melody as she said, “This story begins with a girl. She ain’t named Mary, her hair ain’t brown, and her eyes ain’t either. She’s a shapely girl with jet-black hair that you might think came down from some Native American ancestor, kinda like mine. But just so you know, she ain’t me; my part comes along later. As the story starts, she’s walking alone in the woods. It’s a beautiful late-summer morning, the birds are singing, the wind is blowing, and she ain’t got a care in the world.”
She stopped playing. “Well, that’s not strictly true. She does have a care. It’s the boy she’s been dating. Or I should say, one of the boys she’s been dating.” She began to play again. “This girl likes boys, but no particular boy. She’s young, been out of high school for a couple of years, and she’s just starting to learn about herself and what her being a woman can make happen in the world. And you know what? There ain’t nothing wrong with that, despite what the tight-asses try to tell you.”
Some pockets of laughter came from the rapt audience, although a few faces pinched tight with disapproval.
“So this girl’s been practicing for a honeymoon she ain’t planning yet, with two different boys,” Janet continued. “But only one of them two boys knew about the other one. And on this day, that other boy, the one who thought he was the only dipstick checking this young lady’s oil, was the one on her mind. Should she tell him? Should she break up with him? Or should she just smile and keep going ’cause it’s so much fun to hop back and forth between the two of them?”
She wasn’t going to use the real names as she told the story, but of course, the actual people now moved through her memory: Kera, Duncan, Renny, Adam, Mandalay, Bliss, Popcorn … they coalesced in her mind, looking just as they had over a decade earlier, and waiting to take part in the reenactment she was about to describe.
“That’s what was going through her mind that morning as she strode through the woods. And she might’ve made her choice that day, one that changed the direction of her whole life, if she hadn’t run into the monster.…”
Copyright © 2017 Alex Bledsoe