“Lick Paw, Lick Paw, come in Tom..”
I’m sitting on the front porch swing of my Mamaw’s in the mountains of NC, windchimes tuning from their perch, and the water in the brook bubbling past between the garden and the barn. My grandmother is recounting another of the old witch stories from our family, about my 3x great grandfather Sid, a circuit rider who stayed with a witch and was tormented all night by black cats. He stopped to rest and she offered him a place in the shack out back; wasn’t nothing but a little room with a mattress and a window in it. “It’ll make due,” he said. “Breakfast’ll be ready in the morning.”
Well during the night he opened the window to get a breeze. As he was laying back down, a big black cat jumped on to the window sill. It cleaned itself a little and looked at him and said, “Lick-paw lick-paw come in, Tom,” and jumped down into the shack with him. Well, right after that another one jumped up.
“Lick-paw lick-paw come in, Tom.”
After that, another one jumped in.
“Lick paw lick-paw come in, Tom.”
Soon the shack was plum full of black cats. Well, the first cat jumped up on his chest: “Lick-paw lick-paw come in Tom.” He grabbed for his pocket knife just as the cat went to attack his face and sliced its front paw clean off. All of the cats jumped out of the window and were gone in a flash. My grandfather wrapped that paw up in his hankie and put it in his pocket.
Next morning, it was breakfast time and the woman was in the kitchen fixing stuff up when he came in. He sat down and noticed her hand was all bandaged up. He asked her what happened and she said she cut it while washing dishes. He pulled out that hankie and opened it to show the black cat’s paw, “I say, better yet, you’re a witch!” That ends the story as we’ve always been told, not much more to it than that. I grew up on these family stories, devils getting alcoholics to do right, black cats and witches, women who turn into bo’ hogs, and more.
Folklore surrounding the black cat is far more profuse than that of the black dog. Black Cats are surrounded by superstition and stories of witches and demons, good luck/bad luck, the Devil, healing, and protection. The most common was the tale of the Black Cat Bone.
Back in the day, a large percentage of Americans believed one had to sell their soul to the Devil in the process of acquiring this bone. Specifics and modes of the practice differ substantially throughout the south, but more often than not the stories called for the black cat to be boiled alive. Some even called for nine black cats!
Others detailed by Hyatt in his volumes of Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft & Rootwork only call for the carcass of an already deceased feline, “with nary a speck of white on em.” After this universal boiling of the cat, the bones were often dumped into a running stream. The following methods of finding THE bone differ greatly after this. When dumped in the river it was either the one bone that floated to the top and went in circles, it would come back to you on the bank, it would be the fastest bone flowing down stream, or it would be the only bone to float and go against the current of the water, no matter how strong it was.
When the stream is subtracted from the process, other means were used to fill the void. Folks say the bone would either be the size of your own tooth, fitting perfectly over one of your teeth; it would be the first to rise while boiling; or you was to run each one through your mouth and the right one would make you blind for a few seconds and someone would tap your shoulder saying to meet them at the crossroads. Another method was to fry the cat and eat it alone in a dark room and when you bite the right bone, there’ll be thunder or a flash in the room. Other ways of telling are based on the location or appearance of the bone, like the front right paw or a rib bone from the left side, or even some kind of bone “in the head.”
After acquiring the bone, it had to be dressed in a number of ways. This would also “get it working” to bring money, hide you, give luck in gambling etc. There are multiple methods such as wrapping the bone in a piece of new red flannel or going to a graveyard to the oldest grave and, at the strike of midnight, marking an X into the dirt over the heart of the grave. The tales and beliefs are as varied as the folks who told of them.
We’ve always owned black cats in my family, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned a couple of times now. It was always purely by accident. Our tabby cat would give birth and every time she did the first born was always a solid black cat, all three times. Even before that we would take in stray black cats, such as Blue (my first cat ever who had deep blue eyes), Salem (his purr sounded like crickets!), and Bear (my mother’s old cat).
We had heard stories of black cats just “being” bad luck period, but never believed it of our own. Only others. If a stray black cat crosses your path going right to left or you see it walking away from you, it was walking off with your luck. If a black cat comes to your homeplace and stays, it’s a sign of prosperity because the black cat is a securer of wealth and luck, either coming or going, and it’s best when it comes cause that brings the blessing to the homeplace, which is why we kept every stray black cat that came. Calicos are also good luck, but a male calico will stop up your luck, it won’t go nowhere cause the males are impotent and can’t breed.
The black cat also featured greatly in Appalachian folk medicine. I learned real young that the black cat can pass it’s healing benefits onto other things: a house with a black cat can’t be conjured and any water/milk from which a black cat has drunk is a good cure for things, specifically whooping cough, thrush, and that hand-foot-mouth sickness according to my mama. This also isn’t the first example of water or drinking sources being “blessed” by animals, another cure was to drink water out of which a solid white horse had drank.
The rest of the black cat was also beneficial: the tip of the tail, hair from it, or blood from the tail was rubbed on the eyes to cure a sty and a fresh killed black cat was drained and it’s blood sprinkled over shingles as a cure; other variations call for the skin of a fresh black cat to be bound to the person’s chest. Back then, before the germ theory had even developed, many mountaineers were their own doctors and thought most diseases started in the chest cause of all the mucus and moisture. The chest was also the common place where “bad blood” settled.
There’s many other tales of the black cat as well, including talking ones which are more frequent than in the lore of its canine counterpart. One tale I remember is about a black man back in the day who had a bet with his friends that he could stay in a haunted house over Halloween night. Everything went smooth til about three in the morning when he realized he wasn’t alone: there was a solid black cat sitting at the foot of the bed looking at him. The cat spoke and said, “Looks like it’s just you and me here ain’t it.” The man bolted out the house and ran to the end of the driveway. The cat was suddenly next to him: “Where we off to?”
The man started running again and kept running. He was well out of the area, couple miles down when he stopped and rested on a log. Again the cat was next to him: “Ain’t you gonna tell me where you’re heading off to?” He ran some more until he got home and the cat wasn’t seen again.
The legends of the black cat live on in family stories of shadows amongst the hills and sitting on witch graves, big yellow eyes peering from domestic window sills and whispers in the night. They show up unnoticed and leave a spirit behind with you.
Photo by Juan Borja, https://www.artplode.com/artwork/Juan-Borja/Black-cat-in-old-window/345