Read Prayers the Devil Answers Online

Authors: Sharyn McCrumb

Prayers the Devil Answers

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For Laura Eleanor

prologue

Y
ears later, after the tragedy, someone remembered the Dumb Supper and what had happened there. That was the cause of it, they said, because the ritual wasn't a game after all. It really was magic, but magic has rules, and she broke them. Even when they call it a “senseless tragedy,” people always try to find a reason for it.

The Dumb Supper
.

The young girls who lived up the mountain in Thorn Hollow only half believed in that ancient tradition—after all, the world had come through a terrible war and into a new century unlike any other that had ever been. Surely the old ways were gone. It was a new age: an era of motorcars and flying machines, telephones and talking pictures. In light of all this mechanized magic, the old superstitions were fading into half-forgotten memories. But these traditions had been around for a long time. People said that keeping some of the old ways was a sign that you honored your forebears. New century or not, country people still nailed horseshoes above the doorways of the house and barn—a hunk of cold iron to keep out the fairy folk and the restless spirits.

The unsinkable
Titanic
went down in 1912, and Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in 1914, but despite the changing world a few
of the old ways lived on. The women in the remote mountain settlements still constructed homemade quilts out of old clothes and scraps of cloth, even though you could buy a factory-made bedspread from the mail-order catalogue for only a dollar or two. Some quilts bore intricate patterns that were centuries old. Long ago the ancestors of the mountain quilt makers had put those same designs on their coverlets, and if you looked far enough back into the origin of the tradition, those colorful geometric patterns once meant something. The designs were symbols of protection derived from ancient magic, put there to guard a loved one, perhaps a sleeping child, from whatever spirits walked abroad at night. But people had forgotten that. They kept putting the old patterns on the quilts just because that was the way their grandmothers and great-grandmothers had always made them.

The Dumb Supper was another mountain tradition, so ancient that nobody remembered how or why it had started. Some said the custom began back over the water, where the quilt patterns came from, in the birthplaces of their pioneer ancestors: Scotland or Ireland or the north of England. When people left those places and sailed away to the New World, they took with them the old customs, the tales, the ballads and fiddle tunes, and the quilt patterns, because memories and traditions were all they had left to remind them of home. After a few generations in the Southern mountains the songs and the customs began to change, as the descendants of the first settlers adapted the old tunes and the old ways to a new place.

Once a solemn ceremony intended to allow the living to contact the dead, the Dumb Supper took place on Samhain eve, when the barrier between here and the hereafter was at its weakest point. With time, as the pioneers died out and their descendants remembered the what but not the why, the tradition became watered down by other ideas, both foreign and modern.

Although the tradition of the Dumb Supper had been passed down through many generations in the mountain communities,
the women would tell you now that it was only a bit of fun. Similar rituals can be found in some form among young unmarried girls everywhere—that longing to settle what is for girls of sixteen life's all-important question:
Who will I marry?
The practice was just a quaint variation of playing
He loves me
,
he loves me not
with daisy petals.

It was only a fanciful party, people said, not really a sacred ceremony.
Just an old wives' tale, perhaps, but . . . Why not? What if it really worked? Don't you want to know?
Everybody had heard a story about a friend of a friend of a friend who had seen the image of her future husband at a Dumb Supper held in Virginia . . . Kentucky . . . southern Ohio. The details were vague, but the story was always the same. Maybe once in a while, for some people, it worked.

Only the community's unmarried maidens observed the tradition of the Dumb Supper. Nobody else needed it. The single men never hosted one; either they did not believe in the art of prophecy, or, more likely, they weren't much interested yet in the one question the rite was designed to answer. Sometimes, though, the county's more spirited young bucks would turn up as guests at the Dumb Supper, out of curiosity or as a prank to frighten their sisters and cousins. More importantly, any unmarried fellow who had set his sights on a particular girl was expected to attend to assure his lady love that she was indeed spoken for. His attendance also staked the suitor's claim publicly so that word of his intentions would get around, and then an engagement was expected to follow. The young men jokingly called the Dumb Supper “the prisoner's last meal,” because if a fellow went to one, it marked the end of his carefree days as a bachelor.

Days before the event, the girl who was being courted would give her sweetheart hints as to when and where the supper would take place, hoping that he would come. Expecting it, really. This was
more guile than superstition: the girl knew that once the community learned that the young man had claimed her at the Dumb Supper, he was as good as caught.

Frivolous party or solemn ritual, there were rules to be followed. Mountain lore decreed that a Dumb Supper could not be held at someone's home; the participants had to find a remote, empty old house for the ceremony, or better still, a long-abandoned log cabin on some forgotten farmstead, being reclaimed by the forest. The farther it was from any neighbors, the better, because magic doesn't happen in the noise and bustle of everyday life.

The ritual didn't have to take place on All Hallow's Eve, as it had in olden times, but the moon had to be full, and the night warm enough for the girls to spend the dark hours in an abandoned, unheated dwelling. The ceremony must begin at midnight, even though that hour was only the threshold between days, not worlds.

Once a suitable gathering place had been chosen, the young hostesses would spend the better part of the daylight hours making preparations for the meal. Somebody's father or brother would bring six chairs and an old wooden table to the empty house; another one's mother or older sister might contribute the cutlery or a starched white tablecloth. While the sun shone, the girls laughed and chattered as they went to and fro, bringing boxes containing the plates, the glasses, and the flatware, all borrowed from home. Late in the afternoon each girl would bring the food she had cooked herself —a pot of beans, salt pork and turnips, a pound cake, or whatever her family's specialty was—that is, the same dishes they would have taken to a church supper. All these things were left in the kitchen or in a corner of the cabin, for the table would not be set, nor the food served until the stroke of midnight. Each girl tended to one setting at the table, although they would not be at the table themselves, nor using the plates and silver, nor eating any of the food. Generally, they skipped dinner altogether, perhaps from some dim memory that
fasting preceded a ritual. The meal laid out at midnight was intended only for the guests, spectral or otherwise, and when the hostesses served the meal, they piled an equal amount of food on the plate of an invisible guest as they did for a mortal one.

During the daylight hours, as they laughed and talked nineteen to the dozen, making the preparations for the night's adventure, they kept an eye on the setting sun. After dark, all talking must cease. In order for the charm to work, they must keep an unbroken silence throughout the long hours of the evening until the ritual was ­complete.

There were six girls that night at the abandoned cabin in Thorn Hollow: the Greer sisters, who had proposed the Dumb Supper to begin with, even though they were both as stout and plain as piglets, unlikely to attract the attention of any man, living or dead; Sarah, the minister's daughter, who was only able to go because she'd told her parents she was staying the night at her best friend's house, though, of course, the best friend Ann was also a participant; Aurelia, the girl who was considered by everyone, including herself, to be the beauty of the settlement, attended in order to see how many eager young men would turn up on her behalf, perhaps even adding to the evening's excitement and the luster of her reputation by fighting one another over the single place at the table tended by her. Since it would be too dim in the candlelight to see anyone clearly, the beauty left the berry stain off her lips and the lampblack off her eyelids, but throughout the evening she made frequent use of the comb tucked in the pocket of her apron.

The last girl among them was not particularly beautiful but not quite plain either. Small and dark-haired, she was a quiet girl who never had much to say for herself, always a follower of the more strong-minded ones in any gathering, and, although she laughed and talked easily among her close friends, she was painfully shy around strangers. No one expected any young man to turn up for her.

The only thing unusual about the quiet girl was that her name
was Celia, an uncommon name for then and there, chosen by her mother out of an old book of plays. As her contribution to the feast, Celia brought a pot of stew beans and fresh-baked cornbread. She was assigned the last place at the table after the others had already chosen where their suitors would sit.

The dark came, and with it the necessary silence. Outside, the wind picked up and clouds scudded back and forth across the full moon. When the cabin became cold, the girls huddled together, wrapped in their wool shawls, staring into the flickering lamplight and wishing they could have a fire to keep warm by, but the Dumb Supper rules forbade it. Even so, they might have been tempted to light it, but that afternoon, after inspecting the premises, the father of the Greer sisters insisted that the fireplace not be lit. The stone chimney of the old cabin was crumbling and would no longer draw. The danger of an outbreak of fire was too great for them to risk using the fireplace. The night air was chilly, but the cold lantern light would have to do.

Time stretched on as they waited for midnight, silent and still in the deserted cabin. Sarah, who had brought her father's pocket watch along, went out into the moonlight every now and then to see how much time was left before the Dumb Supper would begin. (Lamplight would have done just as well to illuminate the watch face, but she welcomed the excuse to stretch her legs and go outside, away from the temptation of forgetting the rules and talking. Anyway, moonlight was more in keeping with the spirit of the ancient tradition.) Because the participants were forbidden to speak, or else all would be spoiled, Sarah would come back inside after checking the time and hold up her fingers to indicate what hour it was. At last she held up both hands, fingers spread. Then closing one fist, she raised only the forefinger of her right hand. Ten plus one. The girls looked at one another and smiled. Not long now.

The last time Sarah came back, signaling that midnight had
come, each of the girls picked up the dish of food she had brought from home and carried it to the table—walking backward
.
This was the other rule of the ritual; besides keeping silent, the girls had to do everything backward, never turning to face the table. Some of them had practiced at home, because it was awkward and difficult to walk backward with a bowl of food held behind your back without spilling it or tripping. They found that it was best to walk backward slowly until you came up against the edge of the table, then you bent backward and eased the bowl onto the table, careful not to turn around or drop it.

They moved like shadows in the lantern light, as, one by one, they slid their platters and bowls to the center of the table. The practicing and the care they took to walk slowly served them well. No one spilled anything. That, too, might break the spell. Next they carried the earthenware water jug to the table, then the drinking gourds. Last, each girl carried a plate to the table, setting it at her appointed place, taking care not to turn and look as she did so. The last things put on the table were the knives, forks, and spoons. Each girl held the cutlery in one hand and felt behind her to locate the edge of the table and then the plate. Slowly and deliberately, each one eased the flatware into its proper place: fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right.

Finally all was ready.

Suddenly, a noise broke the silence, startling them all, and—careful not to look toward the table or to cry out in alarm—they peered over their shoulders to see what had made the sound. Nothing moved. They kept still and waited for something else to happen, but all stayed quiet. They looked at one another and shrugged. Perhaps it had been a mouse somewhere in the shadows. After a few more moments of listening, the girls went back to watching the doorway, hoping to hear the sound of arriving guests.

At her place at the corner of the table farthest from the lantern, Celia had been holding her breath, hoping that no one would realize
that she was responsible for the disturbance. When it happened she nearly cried out to let the others know, but, remembering the rule of silence, she bit her lip and waited. They would be so angry if they knew.

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