Thursday, June 12, 2008

More Panther Tales

Stories can be almost as elusive as panthers. Take, for instance, the account of Granny Pop Colwell, the Cataloochee woman who shed her clothes to evade a persistent panther. I knew that her story sounded familiar to me, but it wasn’t quite the story that I remembered from years ago. It could be that I haven’t found that old story yet, but let’s try this one…

Fifty years ago, Dorothy Ferrell started collecting stories in the vicinity of Andrews, North Carolina – by getting to know elderly folks in communities like Nantahala, Snowbird and Shooting Creek. Ms. Ferrell had a real flair in the way that she wrote about panthers:

Panthers, and plenty of them, inhabited these regions long after the pioneers hewed logs from the forest, raised their tiny cabins and announced that they had come to stay. The great beasts were uneasy about the intrusion of this new creature and his rifle, and the panthers crept up to the cabins at night, silent and stealthy on padded paws, to lie on their bellies and stare at the works of man with unblinking eyes like smouldering coals.

Hot diggity! Eyes like smouldering coals! I don’t think I’ll be stepping out past my back porch tonight! Ms. Ferrell went on to recount a curious habit of the panther:

It was our part Cherokee Indian friend Tilly, who told me that the panthers would dig a hole with their front paws, exactly as a dog would dig a hole, then put their tawny muzzles down almost against the earth and, as she said, “holler in it.”

“What is the panther’s object in screaming into the hole it digs, Tilly?” I inquired, puzzled.

“I think hits the painter’s way ter pertend he’s fer off”, Tilly replied deliberately after a moment’s reflection. “Ef nobody thinks he’s near about, they come out an’ he kin git ‘em.”

Big cat ventriloquism comes to mind, a most useful skill...

We could stay in that farmhouse near Kyle where Tilly’s great-grandmother protected her children by nailing a panther, a live panther, to the log cabin wall. But that’s another story for another day.

Ms. Ferrell shared a story told to her by Amanda, whose grandmother was a midwife who often traveled alone, on horseback, in the Tusquittee section of Clay County. Once, on her way to attend to a birth, the grandmother observed that her horse was becoming increasingly uneasy and agitated. She thought the horse had sensed a wolf following them, but when she turned around, she saw instead a large panther trailing her.

Here the story takes a familiar turn:

As the distance between the beast and the horse gradually decreased, the nimble witted mountain woman tossed a rag behind her, and gained headway upon the panther as it stopped to sniff and claw at the unfamiliar object dropped on the trail under its very nose. This device was repeated again and again, each time serving its purpose.

Finally, the animal closed in, and leaped at the horse and rider.

“That’s when my gran’mother rammed her walkin’ stick thet she always had to take with her ‘cause she was old and lame down the painter’s throat”, Amanda concluded in a perfectly commonplace tone of voice as if she were speaking of nothing out of the ordinary.

“Did it kill the panther?” I asked excitedly.

“Laws, she never did know what becum of thet thar painter. She jest galloped off fast as she could git.”

[While we're on the subject, this is starting to remind me of another story that was quite a favorite back during my very politically incorrect childhood. Click here for a blast from the past.]

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