Originally published in Blue Ridge Traditions, 1998
Drawings by students from Ferrum
Elementary School, Ferrum, VA
For notes on this tale and Barry Moser's Tucker Pfeffercorn, see the annotated bibliography Strong Women in Appalachian Folktales.
For comments on this story by the author and a group of elementary students, see Discussing "Ferradiddledumday."
Once upon a long-ago time, high on the side of one of the mountains in the Blue Ridge, lived a poor farmer and his blue-eyed, yellow-haired daughter. Its hard to say for sure exactly whereabouts they lived, for the mountain range extends from Pennsylvania to Georgia, but word has it that it was somewhere in Southwest Virginia. Now this man and his daughter were very poor but they didnt notice, for they had no nearby neighbors to compare themselves to and, even if they did, nearly everyone else on the mountain was poor, too. They got by, however, for they kept a cow, tended a garden, planted a little tobacco for their cash crop, and raised a few sheep. The daughter, whose name was Gillie, tended the sheep, sheared them, washed and carded their wool, spun the wool into fine yarn, and knitted the yarn into fine garmentslike socks and mittens and warm mufflersfor her old father and herself to wear.
Some say Gillie led a charmed life, for when she took the sheep down the rocky and wooded mountainside to pasture, the ticks and chiggers never bit her, the copperheads and rattlesnakes kept themselves hid, and the wild panthers that were said to lurk on the mountain gave her a wide berth. The sun never shone on her too hard and the rain rarely wet her. In early spring, it seemed as if the redbuds and the mountain laurel bloomed just for her; and just for her the shy pipsissewa peeked out from the forest floor. The maiden-hair ferns caressed her as she walked by them, and the dogtooth violets seemed to beg her to pick them. The wool she spun from what she sheared from her sheep was the finest anybody in the area had seen. Some said it took charmed hands to spin wool as fine as she did.
One late spring evening after the dogwoods had bloomed but before the daylilies came into full flower, Gillie and the sheep returned from pasture and were met by her father at the gate.
Oh, daughter, he said, I dont know what well do! The postman rode by today and brought a letter. And in the letter it says we owe a heap o money in taxes. And if we dont pay, theyll come and put us off our land!
Oh, Pa, she said as brightly as she could, for she couldnt help but be worried, surely theyd not do that.
"Ay, Daughter, they would, he said sadly. Ive heard my granpappy tell how it happened to our family long ago in Ireland.
After a supper of cabbage and cornbread and buttermilk, they sat by the firelight and figured that if their tobacco crop was good, they could just barely make enough money to hold on to their land and pay the taxes.
But, alas! In early summer, Gillie spilled the salt one morning, and a bird got into the house that afternoon, and in the evening her pa saw the new moon over his left shoulder. One of these signs would be bad enough, but three of them surely foretold disaster. Sure enough, not a week had passed before it began to rain, and the rain became a fierce storm, and with the thunder came the hail, and the hail ripped at the tobacco leaves and flattened the torn leaves on the ground. Their crop was destroyed and it was too late in the season to replant even if theyd had some seeds, which they did not.
Ah, well, said her father, at least the garden wasnt hurt too bad. At least we wont starve until they put us out.Thus, they consoled themselves with this small blessing.
The next day, while she sat underneath a persimmon tree and watched her flock graze around her, Gillie worried out loud, Whatever shall we do? If only there were some way to raise money!
Now, the persimmon tree must have whispered what she said to the black walnut, and the black walnut to the hickory tree, and the hickory to the red oak, and the red oak to the sassafras, and the sassafras to the black willow that grows down by the creek, and the black willow to the paw-paw that leans over the bank, for somehow the word got passed to a little runt of a feller who happened to be walking by the creek and heard what the trees were babbling. He was a curious feller, in looks as well as tendencies, for he was bound and determined to find who said those words.
Well, it wasnt long until he reached the edge of the woods and saw Gillie gathering up her flock to start the walk back up the wooded mountainside to the cabin where she and her pa lived. The funny-looking little man followed at a safe distance and kept himself hidden behind trees, but still Gillie had the feeling of eyes watching herand her sheep seemed skittish, as if they heard something lurking nearby. Every time she looked back, the funny-looking little man seemed to vanish, so she told herself that whatever was watching at her was only a fox or a raccoon or a deer or some other shy animal that prefers not to be seen by human eyes.
She and her sheep got home safely, however and, after she fixed supper for herself and her pa, went to the barn to feed the stock. While there, she uncovered her spinning wheel from where she kept it and started to spin up some wool into yarn while there was still enough light to see.
Ah, she said to her sheep and the cow, if only this wool were gold. Then Pa wouldnt have to worry.
No sooner than she said that, as quick as a blacksnake can catch a mouse, the funny-looking little man appeared.
Spin gold, eh? he said. What if I was to tell you that I could fix it so you could spin that hay lying there in the manger into gold yarn, what then?
I should be beholden to you, if you could do that, she said, but I know that no mortal can spin hay into gold yarn.
Beholden, would you? he said. Well, we have us a bargain, then! And as quick as a mule can kick, he gave a wink and a nod and jumped up into the loft and kicked down a small pile of hay. Then he mumbled some words that Gillie couldnt quite make out and, with that, he vanished.
For a moment, Gillie thought she was addled in her mind and had dreamed the whole thing, but there was the pile of hay he had kicked down, so she decided, as kind of a lark, to give spinning hay a try. She picked up some hay and started to spin, and sure enough it turned to gold yarn as sure as youre sitting there and Im telling this to you.
Well, she said when she was quite done, its a small skein of gold yarn, but I fear it wont be enough to pay the taxes. She hid the yarn under an old bucket and decided not to tell her pa about it until she could raise all the money they needed.
That afternoon in the pasture again she wondered aloud, If there were only some way to raise more money!
Well, the bluebird must have overheard her and sang it to the blackbird who sang to the cardinal who sang to the bluejay who squawked it for all to hear, for jays are a raucous lot, and that very evening, when Gillie sat down to spin, the funny-looking little old man appeared again. Again he asked her what shed do, and again she said shed be beholden. Again, he winked and nodded and leapt to the hayloft and kicked down a pile of hay. And again she spun it into gold yarn. When she put it with what shed already spun, she had a middling-sized skein, but it still wasnt enough to pay the taxes. Again she hid the gold yarn under a bucket.
The next day in the pasture, again she said, If only there were some way to raise just a little more money!
Well, a blacksnake must have heard her and hissed it to a toad who croaked it to a lizard who scurried with the news to a crawfish who lived in the creek, for again that night when Gillie sat down to spin, who should appear but the funny-looking little man. Again, he made his offer, and again Gillie said shed be beholden, and again he kicked down the straw that she spun into gold.
Now she had a large skein that she felt sure would be enough to pay their taxes, so she took it to her father and showed it to him. He was a mite suspicious as to how she got the gold, but beggars cant be choosers, so the very next daywhich was Court Day, so the town was filled with peoplethey took the skein of gold wool to town and sold it for a right good price. Then they took the money to the county clerk who wrote a receipt saying their taxes were paid in full.
On the way out of the Courthouse, Gillie nearly collided with the handsomest man shed ever seen. He apologized for being in her way and, being struck with her beauty, asked if he might come to court her. She asked her pa, who said he reckoned it would be all right, and soon the stranger wasnt a stranger anymore. In fact, it wasnt long until Williamfor that was the strangers name asked for Gillies hand in marriage.
Things went well for them after their marriage. William was a fine worker and the little Blue Ridge Mountain farm prospered. With William to do the hard work, Gillies pa had time now to search the woods for herbs and ginseng that he sold for cash money. William played the fiddle, too, so the little cabin was often filled with music. And, one spring, about a year after Gillie and William had married, they had a beautiful yellow-haired daughter. Because she was born at the very time the mountain laurel bloomed, they named her Laurel. Gillies world seemed perfect and again she seemed to lead a charmed life.
One day when the sourwood bloomed in the woods and Laurel was a toddler, Gillie said, Can anyone be luckier than I am? as she watched her sheep graze the pasture. An ill wind from the south must have picked up her words and carried them away, for that evening, as Gillie milked the cow, the funny-looking little man appeared.
Do you remember me? he said. Gillie was so startled to see him that she turned over the bucket and most of the milk was spilled.
Why, yes, Mr....Mr.... she said. I dont believe I caught your name.
With that the little man began to laugh. I never told it to you. But you recollect how youre beholden to me. I have come to collect. You must guess my name or your little daughter belongs to me. Ill even give you a hintit is not a mortals name.
Gillie was frightened, for she had no idea of what this little mans name might be. However, she thought and thought and finally gave it a try. Might it be Horace Horsecollar? she said.
Wrong! yelled the little man and danced about in kind of a jig. Then he added, with a wicked gleam in his eye, Ill be sporting about the matter. Ill give you two more guesses. Look for me again when the Mayapple blooms.
Well, Gillie could not tell her husband or her pa about the little man, for she didnt want to worry them. But she puzzled over the matter and, for the month she had until the Mayapple bloomed, she studied on it at length. She grew pale and wan, and her pa and William worried that she might be ill. She told them all she needed was a spring tonic and shed feel fine. Her pa vowed hed search the woods for the necessary herbs to brew her the tonic.
A month later when the Mayapple bloomed, the little man returned. He surprised Gillie as she was drawing water from the spring.
Well, Gillie, he said. What is my name?
She thought and thought. Finally, she guessed wildly, Is it Otis Ox-cart?
The little man laughed a most evil laugh and danced his jig so wildly that he nearly fell into the spring.
No! he said. Thats not it at all! One more chance. Thats all you have. Fail to guess and your child is mine! Look for me when the Joe-pye weed blooms! And then he vanished as suddenly as he had come.
Gillie was quite distressed, but at least she had nearly three months until the Joe-pye weed bloomed in the late summer. Meanwhile, as Laurel toddled about and was a happy child, Gillie grew more and more despondent. Her pa searched further and further in the woods to find just the right herbs that would cure his daughters melancholy, and William played merry tunes upon his fiddle to cheer her, but Gillie would not be cheered. Finally, as it grew near the time for the Joe-pye weed to bloom, she broke down and told William and her pa what had been troubling her.
You see, she concluded, if I dont guess his name, he will take Laurel and well never see her again.
Ill fight him, William vowed. Ill wrestle him down to defeat.
Hes magic, Gillie said. And youre but a mortal. You cant fight magic.
Her pa had been listening quietly all this time, but he spoke up and said, I didnt want to tell you this, for I feared youd think Id gone addled, but I was in the woods the other day when I heard a voice come from down a groundhog hole. I never heard the like before, so I tip-toed over, peeked in and listened. A strange-looking little feller was dancing about in the hole and singing a song that went, You can guess all night, you can guess all day, but youll never guess my name is Ferradiddledumday! Well, Id never seen or heard such, and I skedaddled away quickern a frog can flick a fly, for I felt sure the little feller was not of this world. Id never have told you such if you hadnt told me what you did.
Immediately, Gillie felt better, and the pink returned to her cheeks and the sorrow dropped off her like falling leaves. When the Joe-pye weed bloomed and the strange little man appeared as she was carding wool, she said, Welcome Mr.let's see, what might your name be?Ah yes, its Ferradiddledumday, I believe!
Upon hearing his name, the little man turned several shades of redending with the color of red the maple leaves turn in the fall. Then he turned green as a hillside of winter wheat in early spring and purple as the pokeberries turn when theyre ripe. Finally, he turned as gray as the fireplace ashes when the fire goes out, and he fizzled and crackled and vanished into a small pile of dust at her feet. Gillie was quite frightened while this was happening, but after he was gone, she felt enormous reliefas if spring had finally come after a long, hard winter. She ran to the cabin and told her family the news. Then she grabbed little Laurel and danced her around while William played his fiddle and her pa tapped his feet. Later, so shed never forget what happened, she dyed some wool all the different colors Ferradiddledumday had turned and knitted it into a sweater for Laurel.
As far as I know, they all lived happily ever after.
2001 Becky Mushko
page created 5/26/01