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A Poultice and a Prayer

Yarrow, sassafras, spicewood—Mamaw knew the secret behind the healing powers of these ordinary plants.


Mamaw Clark’s faded homespun skirt trailed in the leaves as she walked along the creek at the forest’s edge. Mamaw bent down beneath a cedar sapling and picked a handful of wild mint.

I took a handful myself and breathed in the sweet, cool scent.

“Don’t go eating that there mint,” Mamaw warned me. “It’s still green as grass and will upset your innards. You can chew on a sprig, but don’t swallow a drop or you’ll be sorry.”

Mamaw was a fourth generation medicine woman. Her own mother was full-blooded Cherokee. Mamaw didn’t talk about that much, because when she was growing up a lot of people looked down on her heritage. But she did learn all her mother’s secrets about home remedies and nature’s healing.

Deep in the Great Smoky Mountains, professional medical care was scarce and expensive. People swore by Mamaw’s cures, even if they didn’t understand how they all worked.

I thought Mamaw could cure just about anything. She was a small woman, but even in her late 60s she held herself straight as a young hickory sapling. She wore her long black hair, streaked with gray, up on her head, emphasizing the high cheekbones she’d inherited from her Cherokee ancestors.

I tried to pay close attention as she gathered up yarrow, sassafras and spicewood for the sack I carried over my shoulder. What was so special about the plants she chose? How would they be used? What was her secret? It was a mystery to me.

Back home Mamaw settled in her rocking chair on the porch and set me to washing all the dirt from the roots and laying them out to dry in the sunlight. Once they were ready they’d go into her fixens bag, the one she brought with her when she went to heal people. I’d just about finished when Jim Reed, one of our neighbors from over in Hickory Holler, came up the path. He rarely made it over.

“How’s Ida Mae and all your little ones?” Mamaw asked him.

“That’s why I came to see you,” Jim said. His face looked grim. “Our little Sally is powerful sick and ain’t getting any better.”

Mamaw frowned. “What signs is she showing? Is she eating or drinking at all?”

“She’s wheezing like a steam engine and coughing her little head off,” said Jim. “She can’t keep a thing down. We don’t know what to do.”

Mamaw turned right to me. “Doug, get me my fixens bag and put your shoes on. We’re going with Jim.”

I could hear Sally wheezing before we even got inside Jim’s cabin. Ida Mae sat beside her bed, dipping a rag in cold spring water and pressing it to her face.

Mamaw examined Sally. She handed her mother some herbs and told her to boil them in water. “Cover the pot to make sure no wellness gets out,” Mamaw said. She told me to gather firewood. “We’re going to sweat the poison from her body.”

All afternoon we sat with Sally, who was wrapped in blankets next to a roaring fire. She didn’t seem to be getting any better, but surely Mamaw had some secret way of helping her. I waited and watched.

Late in the day, Mamaw sent me home to tell my father that we would be spending the night—and to collect stump water from a chestnut tree on my way back. This she used to make a poultice for Sally’s chest. “Now we wait some more,” she told me. “And, of course, pray.”

As the sun set outside and the cabin grew dim, the only sound we heard was Sally’s labored breathing. The moon rose and set. I struggled to stay awake, but the heat of the cabin made me so drowsy I dozed off.

I woke up just after daybreak. Sally was sleeping peacefully, her fever broken, and breathing as if she was never sick at all. But how had it happened? I had missed the secret!

Ida Mae wanted to do all Mamaw’s cooking and cleaning to repay her, but Mamaw refused. As we walked back home I just came out and asked her how she had managed to make Sally well.

“It wasn’t only me who made Sally well,” Mamaw said. “Angels came and stood beside her all night. They guided my hands.”

“Angels?” I said. “In the cabin last night? Really?”

“Of course, child,” she said. “Angels are all over these old hills. They tend the plants, the trees, the roots—all the abundant vegetation God put in this part of his good, green earth.” She paused for a moment and looked me in the eye. “You’ll cotton to that idea soon enough. All it takes is faith and willingness to believe.”

I had finally discovered Mamaw’s secret. And of course, I believe.

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