Remembering Wart Witch Charlie Roberts
North Carolina author Nicole Sarrocco tells the tale of her great-grandfather, who possessed the power to heal warts.
Growing up, my father’s family was a church fellowship hall buffet of Southern superstition and occult experience. We painted things haint blue; said Rabbit Rabbit on the first of the month. We never removed the ashes from the hearth between New and Old Christmas, and we certainly followed the tradition of never completely finishing the building of our house. My father claimed one night in the late ’70s to have been ridden by a boo hag right in our backyard. That’s the story of the whole South: hidden rituals, inherited traditions, debts passed down.
My mother’s family had no time for such things. Staunchly religious, punitively pious, run through with Scottish skepticism and resentment for distracting ornament.
“I think he prayed ‘em off.”
“Naw. It didn’t have a thing to do with religion. I never heard him say nothing about praying. He just said, ‘I’ll take care of ‘em.’”
And yet here I was, coaxing information out of my mother and my aunt about my great-grandfather the wart witch. Evidently an open family secret, since my great-grandfather’s minor superpower seemed to be something he offered as a community service, like a public notary.
“Oh, no. He didn’t charge nobody. He just said, ‘I can take care of your warts.’”
Charlie Roberts, my great-grandfather, lived so long and knew so many people, the town of Youngsville used to take the day off on his birthday to have a party. My memories of this tall, somber, thin man in suit jackets with sleeves softened from age and wear from years of never-missed Sunday school and church service, did not match the word “witch.”
“Did he heal a wart for you?”
“He healed everybody’s warts. I had 13 one time. I missed one, and it didn’t heal.”
I asked if he put anything on them—I’d heard of cutting potatoes in half and then burying them in the ground. Some people claimed rubbing warts could activate healing.
“No, he didn’t touch you once. Not at all.”
“That’s right—you just had to count them. And it had to be the right number. He was particular about that.”
“And you had to believe. For it to work, you had to believe. And we believed everything he said.”
Mom and Vicki acted like nothing about this story was strange, though they admitted that other than his wart magic, Charlie Roberts was about the most, well, boring person you could meet.
“He never told a lie; never said an ugly word.”
“Hated it when Mammy did.”
“Well, she did all the time.”
I asked them what kinds of things he did, other than clear the county of warts, like Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. The answer: he farmed, and he went to church. Sometimes he’d get up out of his chair, even into his eighties, and walk to perimeter of his farm, checking the tobacco and cotton.
“I picked cotton once,” my aunt says, and Mom raises one eyebrow.
“You cheated, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. Jeff showed me how. Grandaddy fired me.”
Whenever I think the native surrealism of my home region can no longer surprise me, something else hops up. Last week, I was over at the Nasher Museum at Duke University visiting (again) their Southern Accents exhibit, staring at those William Eggleston photographs, lured in by the saturated color and frozen in place, sure that there was some piece of something outside the frame of the picture that would make what I was looking at make some kind of sense.
“Oh, it gets handed down. But you can only give it to one person, the secret. Grandaddy gave it to Pattie. She didn’t want it and tried to give it back.”
Pattie is dead. Phone calls to other relatives are yielding no more information, though the number of healed warts is climbing into the hundreds. I can’t corroborate anything, though the insistence on the correct number fits with some recorded Appalachian practices of tying a knot for each wart into a red string, making notches on sticks to bury on the north side of your cabin.
But I’m also thinking about King James of Scotland (and later England) and his witch fixation. In his Demonology, he describes the marks of witches, the birthmarks and warts. Even Anne Boleyn was retroactively accused of having the mark. Maybe all the way back to those humorless Scots, my great-grandfather was practicing a decidedly not-frivolous self-preservation tool.
“So here’s the obvious question: who handed it down to him?”
Both of them look at me.
“Well, damn,” Mom says, looking at Vicki. “I don’t think anybody ever asked that.”
To be, rather than to seem—this state’s motto, but it could have been Charlie’s. You had to believe for it to work. And that was the real question I should have asked: what, exactly, did you have to believe?
Featured image by Tom Lee from Flickr Creative Commons.
Nicole Sarrocco is the author of Ill Mannered Ghosts, part of the “Occasionally True” series of novels, and Karate Bride. Her poems have appeared in various journals, most recently in Kakalak and forthcoming in North Carolina Literary Review 2017. She lives inside the Beltline but outside the city limits of Raleigh, North Carolina, in a haunted house with her husband, daughter, son, dog and groundhogs. Most days you’ll find her teaching English and History to the high school students at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. Besides novels and poems, she’s been writing essays, memoir, plays, screenplays, critical reviews, weird little songs, polite letters of complaint, manifesti, epigrams, mean-spirited rhymes, extended dance screeds, knock-knock jokes, fortune cookie messages, charming anthems for imaginary nations, and detailed lists since about 1970 or thereabouts. Her deviled eggs are worthy, but her pound cake will make you cry.