“Oral Tradition”

Genre: horror
Year written: 1999
Year first published: 2010

Where You Can Find It

Pseudopod Podcast, December 2010.

Chatter

  • “Loved it. Those characters were alive for me, and the dread visceral.”
    • Lia Keyes, author of YA speculative fiction

History

This story was inspired by the local legends, myths, and ghost stories that I heard when I was living in Pulaski County, Virginia. There, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I was soaked in rural atmosphere. Many of the scenes are drawn from my own childhood. My grandparents on my father’s side were farmers who raised their own chickens, and I’m no stranger to outhouses.

One scene in particular, the one with the chicken, is drawn directly from my memories. My mother, a city girl who was a bit out of her league on a farm, had a run-in with a headless chicken that left her traumatized for some long while afterward. My father and grandparents, of course, got a big laugh out of it.

So, I hope you enjoy this story. I’m quite proud of it. It deals with the weighty issues of family traditions that die in a modern age as well as the importance of remembering the awful things folks did to slaves and those who took their sides.

The Story

The main character is a modern black woman who has just lost her grandmother. As a result, she’s looking back on all the familial and cultural stories she lost when her grandmother died. She discovers, however, that the women in her family have a long oral tradition of storytelling, and it’s her turn to step up, whether she’s prepared or not.

Excerpt

My granny had only two teeth, in the front, on the bottom. They sat crooked, pitted and decaying, and her lips fell inward, into the chasm of her mouth. Faded and splotchy, her black face had the contours of a dried-apple doll, molded with a bulbous nose. She had eyes like drops of molasses swimming in bloody egg-whites, and her skin matched her home-made dress, a wrinkled sac without enough meat to fill it.

Once, when I was very small, I asked her why she had only two teeth.

Granny replied, “Honey, I ain’t got enough room for all them teeth. There’s too many stories in here. They done pushed all my other ones out.” She put a seasoned finger in her mouth, tapped the dual bits that remained and added, “These two, they’re the only ones that matter.”

My granny knew so many folktales. Something always reminded her of one: an old tree or the railroad tracks, a thunderstorm or the hoot of an owl. “Girl,” she began so many times, with her earth-husky voice, “did I ever tell you the story about….” When Granny told a story, she licked her two teeth. She sucked at them, making wet, slurping noises that punctuated her accounts of castrations, eviscerations and lynchings.

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