Creature story of a Depression-era farmhand who will take just about any job – even at a strange and deadly Mississippi farm.
When the Great Depression hit the South back in the 1930s, it hit the South hard. Thousands of people wandered from town to town hoping to find a job, sometimes even leaving their families behind. But most of the time, all they would find was another group of people just like them, waiting desperately for the next job to appear.
Some would say Jack was a lucky man. He was a rebellious young adventure-seeker who left his family a long time ago to ride the rails, and to see as much of the world as he could. But even a journeyman had to eat sometime, and Jack’s stomach had been rumbling like an angry bear lately. So he knew it was time to finally hop off the train and find himself a job – at least for the time being.
One day, Jack’s train pulled into the small town of Abel, Mississippi – although it would have been generous to call it a “town.” It was really a small speck in the middle of an endless sea of dry, barren farmland. Jack carefully hopped out of the dingy boxcar that had been his home for the past few days, and wandered toward a small general store. On the wooden porch, he could see a small gathering of men; all looking tired, hungry and lost.
“Howdy, fellas,” said Jack as he sauntered up. “You hear of any work ’round here?”
The men stared blankly at him, as if that was the most ridiculous question they’d ever heard. After an awkward pause, one of the men reluctantly spoke up:
“Well, you can always go out to the Davis place.”
The other men whirled around and looked at their friend in disbelief. “What kind of work is it?” asked Jack.
“Old man Davis is looking for a farmhand. He’s gotten too old to do most of the work. I hear he’ll give you a room and food and everything…”
One of the other men suddenly interrupted him and said to Jack, “I don’t think you’d want that job, mister.”
“Why not?” asked Jack. “Sounds like a good deal to me.”
The men looked at each other again before the second man replied, “‘Cause everyone who’s taken that job ain’t lived to tell about it.”
Jack studied the group for a moment, trying to figure out if this was a joke, or if maybe they were trying to scare him because they wanted the job for themselves. But the grim looks on their faces told Jack they were dead serious.
“Why’s that?” Jack finally asked. “Is this Davis fella some kind of slave driver?”
“Nobody knows,” said another one of the men. “All we know is, everyone who’s gone up there has been found dead the next morning. There’s some strange stuff goin’ on up there.”
Now Jack wasn’t scared easily. Even as a child, ghost stories and superstitions that scared other kids seemed silly to him. He flashed a confident grin and said, “A little hard work doesn’t scare me. I think I’ll take that job. And I’d be mighty obliged if one of you fellas would give me a ride up there.”
One of the men shrugged his shoulders and pointed Jack toward his wagon. An hour later, they were riding across the flat and vast Mississippi landscape toward the Davis home. The surrounding farmland was so barren and drought-stricken that Jack thought it looked sort of like the Arabian Desert. After all, he’d seen it for himself in an old magazine somebody left on the train.
Before long, Jack was surprised to see an oasis in the distance – a small cluster of lush oak trees in the middle of the brown fields. A dirt path stretched from the roadside into the center of this odd, tiny forest. The driver pointed at the trees and said, “There’s the Davis place. Sorry, but I’m gonna have to ask you to walk the rest of the way.”
Jack could see a flash of fear in the driver’s eyes. He smiled and thanked him, then hopped off the wagon toward the Davis home. The walk up the path seemed to stretch on forever, but as Jack neared the grove of trees, he saw an ominous sight. On the side of the path was a tiny graveyard without any headstones, only hastily carved crosses. What’s worse, each of the graves looked freshly dug.
Jack finally entered the grove, and compared with what he had seen so far, it looked to him like paradise. Under the cool shade of the oak trees stood a pretty white farmhouse, a wide veranda sweeping around the front. A small stream gurgled behind the house, giving the place a relaxing, otherworldly feel. Excited about his discovery, Jack marched up to the door and knocked.
After awhile, the door creaked open to the darkened house. Standing there was a feeble old man in weathered overalls, his skin tan and leathery from years in the fields. He looked through tired, bloodshot eyes at Jack and said, “Can I help you?”
“Some fellas in town told me you were lookin’ for a farmhand,” said Jack.
“I do need a hand ’round here,” said Mr. Davis. “But did those fellas tell you ’bout the problems we’ve been havin’ with the help?”
“I heard about it, but I ain’t scared,” answered Jack with a touch of brashness. “I worked on a farm many a time. And I’d appreciate the opportunity to work for you.”
Mr. Davis sighed and walked out of the house. “You look like a strong young man. If you wanna work here, that’s fine with me. But don’t say you weren’t warned.”
Mr. Davis then showed Jack to an outbuilding beside the creek. Inside was one large, comfortable room with a bed, a couple of chairs and a fireplace. A row of windows stretched across the top of the room, filling the space with sunlight. The sound of the water outside was gentle and soothing. This is the best deal I’ve found yet, Jack thought to himself.
“We’ll bring you some food to cook on the hearth,” said Mr. Davis as he slowly turned toward the door. “There ain’t no power out here, but when the moon’s out, you’ll get plenty of light. You’ve had a long journey, so just make yourself comfortable and you can start work tomorrow.”
He then turned around and said in an ominous voice, “Just make sure you’re careful.”
Jack was so tired from his trip that he went straight to bed, not giving a second thought to whatever strange things might be happening on the farm. The next day, he went out to work in the fields. Hard work never bothered Jack, but the hot Mississippi sun eventually wore him out. He returned to his room that evening and collapsed into a chair.
Beside the fireplace, Jack could see that the Davis family had left a fat meatbone, along with some rice, biscuits and fresh vegetables. Jack hungrily put the meatbone in a pan and cooked it on the fire. He noticed that Mr. Davis was right about the moonlight – between the fire and the bluish shafts of moonlight streaming into the room, one didn’t need a light bulb.
When the meat had finished cooking, Jack took out his prized carving knife, cut the meat into thin slices, and poured the gravy onto the rice. Mr. Davis had left a kitchen knife with the food, but Jack preferred his trusty silver knife – a knife his grandfather in Georgia had carried with him while serving in the Confederate army. Jack didn’t have many possessions, but his knife was one thing that stayed with him.
Jack leaned back in his chair and slowly ate his food, savoring every morsel. In fact, he was so intent on his food that it took him a while to notice that a black cat had somehow entered the room. The cat sat at Jack’s feet and started at him as he ate – looking at him more with curiosity than hunger. Being a kind fellow, Jack cut off a small piece of meat and dropped it on the floor beside the cat. But instead of eating it, the cat jumped onto the arm of Jack’s chair, staring down at his plate.
Jack shrugged his shoulders and resumed eating. The cat stared at him for a moment, then tried to stick its paw in the gravy. Annoyed, Jack swatted the cat off the chair and said, “Get out of here, cat. I just gave you some food!”
The cat growled at him and whispered, “Sop Doll.”
Jack suddenly stopped chewing – surely that cat didn’t just say something, he thought. He then shook his head and resumed his dinner. Once again, the cat leapt up onto the chair and tried to stick its paw into the gravy. Jack swatted him away, and the cat whispered again, “Sop Doll.”
Now Jack knew he wasn’t hearing things. But talking cat or no talking cat, he wasn’t about to let anything ruin his hard-earned meal. So he took out his silver knife, pointed it at the cat and said, “Now you listen here. I ain’t had a good meal in days. You try stickin’ your paw in my dinner again, I’m gonna whack it off! You hear me?”
The cat stared at him, seemingly amused. Jack shook his head and turned back toward his dinner. Sure enough, the cat jumped back onto the chair and tried to stick its paw in the gravy. Enraged, Jack whipped out his knife and whacked off the cat’s paw, sending the cat screaming into the night. Jack looked down at his plate and saw the cat’s bloody paw floating in his gravy. Disgusted, he set the plate aside and went to bed.
The next morning as Jack got ready for work, he grabbed his plate to wash it in the stream. As he looked into the gravy, he saw a horrible sight. The cat’s paw had transformed into a human hand – an elderly woman’s hand, to be exact. And on one of its fingers was a wedding ring.
Jack figured he should tell Mr. Davis about what he found. So he wrapped the hand in a towel and brought it up to the main house. When Mr. Davis answered the door, Jack told him about the cat, then showed him the hand. Mr. Davis’s eyes widened in terror as he said in disbelief, “That’s my wife’s wedding ring!”
As Jack ran this gruesome information through his head, he remembered those spooky old stories his father used to tell him about witches and haints. He figured they were just silly tales that old folks used to keep kids in line, but now he was starting to wonder if they were real.
“Where’s your wife now”? Jack asked Mr. Davis.
“She’s upstairs in bed,” he answered. “She’s been feelin’ poorly since last night.”
“Let’s go up and see her,” said Jack. “I think I may know what’s wrong.”
The two men climbed the stairs toward Mrs. Davis’s bedroom. As they entered the dark and musty room, Jack could see the old woman cowering in bed, her wrinkled skin pale and sickly looking.
“This is Jack, our new farmhand,” said Mr. Davis to his wife. “He says he thinks he knows what’s wrong with you.”
“Show me your hand,” said Jack to Mrs. Davis.
Mrs. Davis hesitated, fear filling her eyes. She then stretched her left hand from beneath the covers and showed it to Jack.
“How about the other one?” asked Jack.
Mrs. Davis refused his request, sinking deeper and deeper under the covers, as if trying to get away. Jack waited a moment, then suddenly flung the covers off the bed. Sure enough, they could see that her right hand was completely cut off!
“There’s the problem!” yelled Jack to Mr. Davis. “Your wife is a witch! She changed into a cat last night and tried to poison me by sticking her paw in my dinner! And I bet that’s what happened to all your other farmhands!”
Jack then pulled his trusty knife out of his pocket. “The only reason I’m alive is because my knife is made of silver. Witches can’t stand silver.”
With that, Mrs. Davis let out a horrifying, high-pitched scream that could have only come from one place – the depths of Satan’s lair. She then floated slowly off of her bed, her screams growing louder and louder. Jack grabbed a stunned Mr. Davis and rushed him out of the house. Even outside, Mrs. Davis’s screams were everywhere. Birds flew out of the trees, and the horses and livestock ran as far away as they could.
“What are we gonna do now?” asked Mr. Davis.
“There’s only one thing we can do,” answered Jack. “You got any gasoline?”
Mr. Davis brought Jack to the work shed and pulled out several cans of gas. Slowly and methodically, they soaked every last building and tree. As Jack pulled out a book of matches, he was surprised to see Mr. Davis turn around and walk back toward the house.
“Where are you going?” yelled Jack after him. “We gotta burn this place down before she kills anybody else!”
“Just do what you gotta do,” answered Mr. Davis. “Don’t pay me no mind.”
“But you’ll die in there!” yelled Jack frantically.
Mr. Davis stopped, turned around and, with a shrug of his shoulders, grinned at Jack. “Well, I promised the good Lord ’til death do us part.’ So I guess I’m stuck with her.”
And with that, Mr. Davis went back into the house and shut the door. Jack stood there for a moment, unsure what to do. He then went around the farm, opened each gate and let the animals loose. Then, with shaking hands, he struck a match and dropped it into the gas. A wall of fire quickly raced around the farm, consuming every building and tree. And it was said that for miles around, you could not only see the black smoke rising from the Davis farm, but you could also hear the horrifying shrieks of Mrs. Davis as she succumbed to the flames.
Jack quickly left Abel, Mississippi on the next train. And for the next few years, he continued wandering from town to town until he finally found a woman who settled him down. But ever since his run-in with the Davises, he gave his old family ghost tales and superstitions a little more credence – especially the one about a black cat crossing your path.
-THE END –
Sop Doll – Story Credits
Adapted from Folklore by Craig Dominey
Told by Jim McAmis
Sound Design by Henry Howard