A folktale for back porches and slow nights; a tale for my Granddaddy.
Cressie’s mama gave birth to her on the pew of the church. She lay back, split herself open for her child, then handed Cressie Girl to Big Ma before she passed on. It was a good thing everybody was already gathered there for a funeral. The church folks put Cressie’s mama in a wooden crate from a general store nearby and made room for her on the altar. They bowed their heads, prayed, and at the repast, they gossiped about Cressie over their catfish plates.
“That girl’s touched by death,” said the preacher. “She was born in it and brought it with her. Sorrow’ll follow her wherever she goes.”
“Ain’t nothin good comin from a girl that’s shook hands with the reaper man twice,” said his wife.
“Big Ma and Daddy Joe will be lying up here before sundown,” another said. “Just toss her out the cart on the way home. No one would judge them for it.”
Sundown came and Big Ma and Daddy Joe lived to see another day. But while townsfolks worried about Cressie, a drunk wandered from the funeral into the woods and was eaten up by that Creepin Woman.
Big Ma and Daddy Joe took Cressie Girl to live on their farm. They had pigs, chickens, and a pair of cows. There was an old mare, too, that had been neighing and plowing for years. With time, Cressie Girl grew big. She learned to care for the farm animals and tend the gardens under Daddy Joe’s watchful eye.
And Big Ma taught Cressie much about life and death.
“See here, girl. Death is married to life,” Big Ma would say. “When one arrives, the other is sure to follow. What matters most is balance.” Big Ma also taught Cressie about herbs, wildflowers, and how to use the power in the ground. The world was altogether vibrant as Big Ma spoke about it.
People loved Cressie’s granfolks. They would sit in town on the front porches drinking tea and laughing about what fool ran off with what girl. If people were sick, their kinfolks dragged them to Big Ma. She gathered parts of the earth and air and folded them into balms that healed just about anything. Like all women in her family, Big Ma’s prayers were a song that lit the spirit. The notes themselves could lessen pain and begin to bind an ailment. People begged her to sing or just hum.
Come take the pain away
Hold on till the morn.”
When they were done in town, Cressie Girl and her granfolks piled into their cart and rode back to their farm. Big Ma would sing the whole way. The spirits dwelling in the woods would nag her. Some gibbered in her ear. Others moaned and carried on. Big Ma’s songs kept them—and the Creepin Woman, the worst of them all—at bay. Her voice bellowed:
“Hey-o! Friends down low
See there’s a trouble I know
Hey-o! Reach up high
Bind this evil to the earth and sky.”
Big Ma taught these songs to Cressie Girl. She showed Cressie how her voice could be a hand that guided or destroyed. When the lessons finished, a note or two—tra la tra li tra la— dancing across Cressie’s tongue as she did her chores around the farm. She was careful not to loose them without purpose as Big Ma had cautioned.
But she was born with a streak of cunning—and one of daring. When one got the best of her, Cressie sang a fine tune to rile up or tame the pigs and chickens as she fed them.
After Cressie finished her chores, she snuck in the woods surrounding the farm. The oak trees were so big, folks said giants once used them to pick bones out of their teeth. And the woods were so thick, they swallowed light and a gray haze cut around them, keeping a man turned around for days until he wasn’t heard from again.
This was the Creepin Woman’s doing. She feasted on those she caught crossing through the woods. Even when folks in town were ailing, they refused to cut through the woods for Big Ma’s help for fear that they’d meet an early death by the Creepin Woman. Instead they prayed and wished and hoped Big Ma would come to town before they died.
Folks said the Creepin Woman haunted the woods for years on end.
“You’d be a fool to wander in them trees,” said the preacher. “She already got Paul and that ol’ boy from Macon.”
“Once the light turns black,” and here the preacher’s wife clapped as she spoke, “you’re a dead fool for sure. That Creepin Woman already got ya.”
Cressie was no fool, but her daring drew her to the woods. She hunted the river that cut through it for sparkling stones that had been filled by sunlight. She caught moon bugs in the dusky meadows and ran back home with her hands cupped around them.
With her cunning, Cressie put the stones and the bugs in a large mason jar like a barrel on the front porch. Together, they lit up the barrel-jar until it shone like the sun, night and day. And on evenings when they had run out of oil for the lanterns, Daddy Joe would drag it a little ways inside to light up the house so Big Ma could cook supper and he could read his evening paper at the table.
Most people knew never to head into the woods, but traveling men would cut through them. Those with a bit of good sense and luck would head toward the spot of light—the moon bugs and sparkling rocks in Cressie’s jar—flickering like the sun past the tree line. Soon enough they’d find themselves on the farm. Big Ma would fix these traveling men a meal of sweet cornbread and pork chops. Maybe chitlins and greens in the summer.
“There’s somethin out there,” the traveling men would murmur at the dinner table. “Felt like it was watchin me.”
“That’s the ol’ Creepin Woman,” Daddy Joe would say. “You betta let us drive you into town.”
But the men never waited. They had places to be. Things to see.
These men would say, “I’m not a child. I don’t need coddlin.”
“Tuh! This child has more sense than you,” Cressie would huff.
But the men would just laugh and walk out the door, their last meal swimming in their bellies.
Cressie Girl shook her head as she watched the traveling men leave, but even then, she knew the woods had its own hold on her. Like most children, the wood’s mysteriousness chewed on Cressie’s curiosity. The rustling leaves whispered secrets to her. She would crouch in the low grass and watch the life around her build itself up and break itself down. She played in the woods so often, she knew her way in them forward and backward. Even the dark places comforted Cressie. They wicked away her troublesome thoughts.
If she lay still, the shadows wrapped around her like a warm shawl and she would disappear into them. But Cressie did not fully trust this familiarity. The Creepin Woman was known to shape shadows to her will. It was in the dead places of the forest, where the shadows were darkest, that the Creepin Woman was her strongest. Cressie Girl did not want to make it easy for the haint to catch her.
“Whatever you do in the dark, that haint is sure to see,” the preacher’d said.
“And that girl Cressie too. I’ve seen her wand’rin in the woods there,” his wife chimed in.
“It ain’t natural. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was kin to that ol Creepin Woman,” said another.
Big Ma minded Cressie often. “The Creepin Woman lives in those woods,” she said. “You watch ya’self Cressie Girl. Be brave but be smart and lightning quick.”
One day Cressie was deep in the woods where there was no more sun. She was searching for mushrooms to bring Big Ma when she saw the shadows shift. She knew the Creepin Woman was near. Cressie turned and saw her standing between two trees.
The Creepin Woman bent the shadows. She was at once tall like a pine tree and as short as a child skipping rope in the street. She was dressed in all black with a face and hands white as a sheet. Her fingers were bony. Her teeth sharp like knives and she had a long tongue that was licking her lips as she watched Cressie. Pulling at the shadows around her like flailing limbs were the souls of the traveling men. Their cries—oooh oooh oooh—trumpeted her presence.
“Hey now, girl. Whatcha doin my way?” said the Creepin Woman.
“I’m just takin a walk,” Cressie said. She faced the Creepin Woman but inched backwards. The Creepin Woman’s tongue just wagged and licked.
“Dontcha know there are things in this wood that can eat you?” said the Creepin Woman.
“Yeah, Big Ma told me so.”
“What she say?” The Creepin Woman asked. She walked closer to Cressie Girl, still licking her lips. But Cressie kept walking backwards, staring at those lips ready to gobble her up.
“She told me about the bear as big as a house,” replied Cressie. “She told me about the fox so cunning, he’d trick me into his mouth.”
The whole time she’s talking and walking backwards, the Creeping Woman was stretching the shadows, making herself long, reaching out, getting closer to Cressie Girl.
“And she told me about the hungry wolf, of course.”
“Of course,” said the Creepin Woman. She was near enough to Cressie, she could almost grab her. “But what did Big Ma say about me?”
“Oh, not a word,” said Cressie.
“Well, once I eat you, she’ll tell the whole world about me then.” The Creepin Woman jumped right at Cressie.
“Wait!” Cressie said. “Don’t eat me. Take my voice instead.” She was baiting the ole haint.
“I already have a voice,” said the Creepin Woman. “What do I want with yours?”
Cressie thought a moment. “Well, my voice is so nice, my songs so sweet, you can catch folks with it.”
“Sing for me then. I want to know you’re telling the truth,” said the Creepin Woman.
So Cressie cleared her throat and sang as loud as she could:
“Hey-o! Friends down low
See there’s a trouble I know
Hey-o! Reach up high
Bind this evil to the earth and sky.”
Blackberry roots shot up out the ground and wrapped around the Creepin Woman’s legs. Cressie didn’t wait a second. She ran through the woods—thump thump thump—to the farm, up the back steps, and straight into the kitchen.
“Cressie Girl! What’s wrong with you?” Big Ma asked.
Cressie was breathing hard as she thought about what to say to Big Ma. If she said she’d been in the woods messing with the Creepin Woman, her granfolks would never let her outside again. “I was just racing the wind,” she said.
“Well go wash up and then come sit down and feed yourself,” Big Ma said. Cressie washed up in a bucket on the porch then sat down at the kitchen table to Big Ma’s sweet apples and fresh bread. She was dreaming about playing in the woods when Daddy Joe tromped inside the house.
“Cressie Girl, go to the well and get water for the mare,” he said.
Cressie finished her lunch then grabbed the pail by the back door. But instead of going to the well behind the barn, she thought she’d go to the river in the woods. The water was cooler, and she could sit her feet in it and rest awhile. She also hoped to run into the Creepin Woman. She was tickled at having bested the ole haint and she thought to do it again.
Cressie hadn’t been in the water for more than a minute when she saw the Creepin Woman watching her from behind a tree. The shadows around her hanged like tattered rags. The souls of the traveling men were long gone. Her fingernails like hooks raked against the tree trunk—krr krr krr.
“Well now, Cressie Girl. Seems you owe me a voice and a soul to boot,” said the Creepin Woman.
“I can sing you another song, if you’d like,” said Cressie.
“I think I’ll just eat you up and sing my own song,” said the Creepin Woman.
“That’s fine by me, but I know a haint like you still has manners.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Of course, I have manners!” The Creepin Woman was insulted.
“I didn’t mean anything by that,” Cressie Girl said. “But it seems to me like if you’re gonna eat, you need to wash up. Decent folks know to clean up first.”
The Creepin Woman hissed and spat at Cressie. “Don’t insult me, girl. I’ll clean up quick and then you’ll be a chewed-up thang in my mouth.”
The Creepin Woman bent down and reached her hands into the river. Cressie Girl jumped on top of her. The Creepin Woman thrashed while Cressie shouted like the preacher on Sunday morning near-drowning folks in the baptismal pool.
“Oh see us wadin
Oh see us wadin
We in the water
Come and wash her.”
She dunked the haint and then Cressie Girl hightailed it back to the farm before the Creepin Woman came to. Cressie got home just as Big Ma and Daddy Joe were hitching the mare to their cart.
“Cressie! What took you so long?” Daddy Joe said. “There’s no time to water the mare now. We gotta go.”
“Where are you goin?” Cressie asked.
“There’s a celebration at the church tonight,” said Big Ma. “We’re going to help out.”
“Take me with you,” Cressie begged. She knew that what she’d done to the Creepin Woman had made her mad. It was best if she was away from the house that night.
“Not this time, baby girl,” said Daddy Joe. He looked at Cressie real hard then. “It’s best to remember that when you start something, you’ve gotta finish it whether you want to or not.”
Big Ma and Daddy Joe rode off on the cart with the mare pulling them out of sight. Cressie shuffled to the garden to finish her chores. She watered the stalks and harvested the tomatoes. It got dark and the shadows pulled at her, just a little.
She looked up to see the Creepin Woman standing at the end of the row! Never had she been that far out of the woods before. She was smaller and hunched over, like the church mothers that gave Cressie butterscotch candies on Sunday mornings. But her fangs were still sharp and bared at Cressie.
“Now, wait a minute!” cried Cressie. “I can’t have guests this late. My granfolks have gone. You have to come back later.”
“You’re clever, I’ll give you that Cressie Girl,” said the Creepin Woman. “But you won’t fool me again.”
The Creepin Woman jumped at Cressie Girl, but she was small and withered now, and Cressie wrestled her on the ground. The corn stalks whipped at them and they squashed a few tomatoes, but they kept rolling around. The owls were hooting and the toads croaking as they watched. Finally the Creepin Woman was so tired, she gave up. She and Cressie lay there breathless and sweating, the moon high up above them like a dinner plate.
The Creepin Woman smiled at Cressie Girl. “I’ve never been bested like this before, especially by a child. Whatever power you’ve got in you, I can’t wait to get in me!”
“Before you kill me, Big Ma has something mighty precious that I need to take care of so no one will take it while I’m gone,” said Cressie Girl.
She squinted at Cressie. The girl was wily. “What’s she got that’s so special?” asked the Creepin Woman.
“Well, I can’t tell you that, can I?” said Cressie.
“Let me see it and I’ll let you live one more day,” said the Creepin Woman. “But I’ll be back for you tomorrow.” Cressie Girl knew this was a lie, but she waved for the Creepin Woman to follow her. They climbed up the back porch. The Creepin Woman took a long time and she wheezed as she climbed each step. When she saw the barrel-jar, she licked her lips.
“You didn’t tell me ya granmama had gold,” said the Creepin Woman.
Cressie gave a knowing smile. “Well how do you think people pay Big Ma for healing them?”
“Give me the whole thang and I’ll let you go for two days,” said the Creepin Woman.
“Alright, but you gotta help me open it,” said Cressie Girl.
Cressie hugged the barrel-jar tight and the Creepin Woman twisted the lid off with all her might. The lid popped off and a great light flooded the air as the moon bugs swarmed from the jar and the sky lit up like it was day. Cressie closed her eyes and hugged the jar. Then she opened her mouth and let her voice shout with all her might:
Rise up now
When the light disappeared, the Creepin Woman was gone and a moonbow hung in the sky. Cressie Girl was sitting on top of her barrel-jar smiling when Big Ma and Daddy Joe approached on the cart with a pile of tins in their lap.
“Hey now, girl!” Big Ma hollered from the cart. “The moon’s shining so bright, we didn’t need your ol’ barrel-jar to help us home.”
Daddy Joe laughed. “Not even the Creepin Woman can hide in all this light!”
The three of them sat on the porch laughing and eating leftovers from the tins for hours until the moonbow disappeared. Then the forest lit up with more moon bugs than Cressie had ever seen. She let them fly and flitter. There was no need to catch them anymore.
Folks didn’t speak about the Creepin Woman after that. They didn’t have much to say about Cressie Girl either. When she passed by, the preacher man and his wife nodded as their tongues itched with a song.
“Trouble’s faded away
Night has gone to Day.
Our time has come
Oh yes! Our time has come.”