For thousands of years, the Appalachia mountains were home to cougars, also known as mountain lions, pumas, painters or panthers. Many tales exist of early settlers witnessing panthers drop from tree limbs onto unsuspecting victims. Their cries were said to sound like a wailing woman and struck fear into the hearts of frontier settlers.
The last confirmed eastern panther was killed in 1938. They were declared extinct in 2011, although a genetic study conducted in 2000, is leading many biologists to believe that there is no real difference between the Western and Eastern branches of the cougar family.
In spite of this, cougars sightings are reported every year in the states east of the Mississippi River. I myself saw one in 2016 while driving up Spruce Knob in West Virginia. It’s unclear whether these cats are undocumented remnants of the eastern population, wanderers from the western states, or cougars that have escaped from captivity.
Without a doubt, the memory of cougars is still strong in Appalachian history and folklore, particularly cats known as “black painters.” George Barr, a reader of The Weekly Holler from Denver, North Carolina, recently contacted me to share a panther-themed folktale his grandfather used to tell. The story was so good, I called George to learn more.
“There were 11 of us cousins, and I wrote it down before it got lost. And I’m not sure where it originated. My grandfather, Pappy, was the son of minister who had postings around various places, and I think his father probably originated that story, although I’m not certain of that.”
“So what about your grandfather then, what can you tell me about him, and maybe what you remember it being like hearing this story from him?”
“My grandfather was a civil engineer, but he loved farming. And then he had a chance to buy a farm, it’s called Barrsden, and it was about 240 acres. Originally it was slave quarters for a plantation that was about a quarter of a mile away. He had taken these slave quarters and had winched some of them around with big tripods and mules, and then he built this big rambling farmhouse between all of these things that had been strategically situated. So there could be a gaggle of us, sometimes Easter dinner might be 50 people, and he had a dining room big enough to handle it.”
“So Pappy, he liked his bourbon, and he smoked. I think he smoked from, I don’t know, probably 15 years old, or thereabouts, up to I think he was about 70 when he quit. But he had a real growl, an honest growl to his voice.
This was mostly in summer time, I don’t think he ever told it in the house, we were always outside. And he’d be sitting in sort of a swing-backed hammock chair and the rest of us would be sitting on the ground in front of him. And he didn’t have any notes or anything, he just went into it, and lit into it, and really brought it alive! It was fun to listen to even if we knew the whole thing. Not to mention that Pappy was just beloved by all of us.
So the story, it always started out really innocuously, then kind of worked its way into the deep dark wood. You know, even then ones of us who had heard it before couldn’t help but get the hairs standing up on end, and gooseflesh. We weren’t out in the woods, we were in a mostly open farm. But there was plenty of wildlife around, so whether it was owls, or sometimes we’d hear a bobcat screeching, just all those night noises, you know. And it never failed to delight. it just was one of those traditions that we looked forward too. We’d just pester him something fierce to tell us that story, and he’d usually demur, but then he got the right audience together, and the night was just right, and he’d sit down and tell us the story.
I’m sure that I’m not match for Pappy’s storytelling, but I’m honored to take a crack at sharing his legendary tale with you. So gather ‘round the fire, and huddle close, here is the story of Taie Todla:
Once upon a time, there was a young boy by the name of Billy Gumboil. During the school year, Billy went to school in the city with all of his friends, but in the summers he lived in a little town in the country. There weren’t many kids in Billy’s town, so you can imagine that he felt lonely sometimes, and when he felt lonely, he always started thinking about his best friend from school, Willy Snodgrass, who lived even further out in the sticks than Billy did. One day during the summer, while he was running errands for his mother, Billy was struck by a bout of loneliness, and he decided that this time he was going to do something about it. No more moping around town for Billy, he was going to visit his buddy Willy Snodgrass.
Later that evening, Billy told his parents about his plans and they agreed that he was old enough to make a trip to visit his friend. So, Billy wrote a letter to Willy Snodgrass to see if a visit was convenient. About a week later, he received a letter from Willy inviting him to visit. In the letter, Willy drew two maps for Billy, detailing the two routes he could take. The first route was the long way, on a road which meant a pleasant but a tiring all day ride through beautiful rolling hills, where Billy could see the farmers at work and smell the good smells of the countryside. The second route was shorter, but it went through the heart of a deep dark forest. The route would be cooler in the summer and took less time, but the forest was known to be full of wild animals. It was rumored that a black panther haunted those parts. Billy was afraid that travel through the forest could be dangerous, even his parents’ eyes grew wide when he mentioned it, so he decided he would take the long way. Early the next morning, just at dawn, Billy put some lunch and a change of clothes into his saddle bags and saddled his horse to go. He kissed his parents goodbye and set off to see Willy Snodgrass with time to get there just before dark.
Just as Billy was leaving town, his horse threw a shoe. So Billy stopped at the village blacksmith to get the horse shod. He told Robin, the blacksmith, where he was going. Robin raised his eyebrows and said that Billy was traveling to wild parts indeed. The blacksmith reached into the pocket of his leather apron and gave Billy a curious stone on a sling to carry for good luck. After Robin was through shoeing the horse, Billy climbed into his saddle and began to ride off. Robin called after Billy, telling him that if he met a black panther in his travels, he need only twirl the sling around over his head three times and say, “One, two, three, Robin knows me.” Billy thought that this was a little odd, but he thanked Robin and went on his way.
Around sundown, Billy arrived at the Snodgrass’s house; he found Willy eagerly awaiting him, along with the rest of the Snodgrass family. They had eaten supper, but they had saved him some fried chicken and biscuits for Billy to eat before he went to bed, exhausted from his journey. Billy was so tired that he hardly noticed how strange Willy’s family appeared, although he did think that they seemed somewhat peculiar. During the night he heard the most curious noises during his sleep, funny squeaking, and chattering noises, as though someone was making quite a fuss over him in a language which wasn’t quite familiar. He awoke in the morning a little later than usual, but still in time for breakfast, so he washed up and went downstairs. And sure enough, what he hadn’t noticed in the dim light of evening and in his tired state was that all of the Snodgrass family except Willy were part monkey! Just as Robin had said, these were wild parts indeed! Billy was quite unnerved, but being the polite young lad that he was, he attempted to appear as though nothing was unusual. He suspected that the Snodgrass family didn’t get much company, and he was determined to be a good guest.
Willy’s sister was quite hideous, as her monkey-ness showed mostly in her face. Willy had a hard time to keep from grimacing as she grimaced constantly across the breakfast table from him. Willy’s mother was as nice as she could be, but her fingers were as monkeylike as could be, and Billy worried that the eternal picking she was doing was getting hair and who knew what else into the food. But the funniest feeling came when a long, furry thing curled around Billy’s neck and slid down to his plate where it picked up a biscuit and returned it to Mr. Snodgrass’s mouth! It was Mr. Snodgrass’s long monkey tail! Well, Billy barely made it through breakfast with his senses, he even found himself missing his own town. They finally finished the meal, and everyone helped clean up. Mr. Snodgrass’s tail was handy for carrying extra dishes, and the work went quickly. Billy went outside with Willy to ride an old lopsided bicycle and to while away the morning playing. When lunchtime came, Billy dreaded the thought of another meal around the table with this odd family, but he stayed as though nothing was wrong, since he was so polite. But after another meal of grimacing faces, picking hands and curling tails, he knew he must bid his farewell before the next meal and before nightfall meant he would spend another night there. So, with apologies to Willy’s family that his visit was so short, and with a farewell to his friend Willy until the start of school, Billy saddled up his horse and rode off toward home. In the distance, he could see Mr. Snodgrass waving goodbye with his kerchief held in his tail, and Mrs. Snodgrass was waving her kerchief from her picking fingers, and Willy and his sister were simply waving and making some little chattering noises.
This time Billy had gotten a late start in his journey. He could ride the road he had come, sleep under the stars, and continue his journey tomorrow, or he could ride the short route through the deep dark forest and be home in time to sleep in his own soft, warm bed. By the time Billy arrived at the entrance to the wood, he had decided to take the short way home. After all, he could rely on the speed of his trusty horse. When Billy entered the wood, he noticed that what had once been a road was now barely a path; no one had traveled this way for a long time. The trees had overgrown the roadway, so that there was a natural cover which blocked most of the daylight almost immediately. And the deeper he went into the wood, the darker it became. Billy’s horse pricked up its ears as they went, it snorted, shivered, and rolled its eyes as if to say that it liked the other route better.
Billy urged his horse along the gloomy trail. They rode into the heart of the forest, and Billy thought he heard a faint sound in the distance, his horse’s ears pricked up again. Billy listened carefully, and through the other woodland sounds he could make out something that sounded like,” te, te, tl, tl, tl, la…”
They pressed on, and Billy’s horse became more skittish, its nostrils flaring and eyes rolling wildly. Again, Billy heard the strange sound, clearer now, it had grown closer. “Taie ah, taie ah, todle lodle, todle lodle, todle lodle la…”
Billy’s mount snorted, and his flanks quivered. Billy tried to swallow the lump in his throat and encouraged the horse to step up his pace once again to a fast trot. Without warning, they heard the strange growl again, even closer now, “Taie Ah, Taie Ah, Todle Lodle, Todle Lodle, Todle Lodle Ah…”
Billy reached into his saddle bag, clutching the stone and sling with trembling fingers. He spurred his horse onward, ever watchful of the forest around him. Within a few minutes, the cry was even louder, “TAIE AH, TAIE AH, TODLE LODLE, TODLE LODLE…”, and Billy knew that the wild beast was hot on his trail. Billy spurred his horse on faster and faster to a gallop, until again he heard the roar “TAIE AH, TAIE AH, TODLE LODLE, TODLE LODLE…” It was nearly on top of him. He looked up into the trees and saw a huge black panther with fiery red eyes just ahead crouched on an overhanging limb. It was too late to rein in his horse, so Billy twirled the stone around over his head, and shouted, “One, two, three, Robin knows me,” as the panther sprang toward his horse’s neck. And just as the huge panther’s claws brushed the horse, the panther turned into a beautiful fairy and landed gently on Billy’s saddle horn.
It took quite a distance before Billy could slow down his panicking horse, but he finally got him to walk and cool off slowly. It took quite a while for Billy to calm down enough to talk with the fairy. She told him that the stone in the sling had saved his life. She was a wood fairy and had once given it to Robin’s grandfather, who’d lived in the forest, for his kindnesses to all the animals there. Robin’s grandfather used to wear the stone when he was in the wood, so that all the animals would know that he was there with the wood fairy’s blessing to take care of them. Billy explained that Robin had given it to him for good luck, and the fairy said that he was lucky that she had seen the stone, for she had thought Billy was a hunter, and she was going to rip him apart before he hurt any of the animals under her protection.
As the fairy began to trust the goodness of the boy, she said that she would ride to the edge of the wood to keep him company and to be sure that he would be home safely before dark. And as they rode, she would snap her fingers, and little bumblebees would fly in single file with little tiny thimbles of lemonade for Billy and water for his horse. The thimbles were small, but between all the bees, Billy and his horse both had enough to drink. And the fairy snapped her fingers again, and the procession of little bumblebees brought Billy little tiny cakes until he was no longer hungry, and little bits of oats and corn to his horse until it was satisfied too. By now they were getting closer to the edge of the wood near Billy’s village, and Billy and the fairy bade each other farewell. The fairy invited Billy back into the wood whenever he wished, as long as he wore the stone so that all the animals would know that he was welcome. And as the fairy flew to the ground, she changed at once to the ferocious black panther with red flashing eyes, and growled as she padded away softly, “taie ah, taie ah, todle lodle, todle lodle, todle lodle ah…”