Of Blackberries and ‘Panters’

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Miz Lusby lived on the street that ran the length of the ridge that defined the southern edge of Burlington, a block or so from our house. She was, according to word around the neighborhood, a bit of a witch. Because of that reputation, and because of the tales she told, she was popular with the kids.

During warm weather, after supper when twilight was deepening, she could often be found sitting on her front porch in a rocking chair that appeared to be even older than she was. And often we would be gathered around, waiting for one of her stories.

She liked to scare us with accounts of in-house wakes, the honoree stretched out in his or her coffin in the parlor, mourners gathered around in the dim light of candles or lanterns. The memories that were shared by the mourners in attendance would invariably involve a violent act, sometimes following a mysterious night-time chase. One such chase, one of the more memorable, involved a “panter.”

Panters—panthers or cougars—were a particular favorite of Miz Lusby. Though they had not been spotted officially in East Tennessee for decades, she was sure they were still around. “A panter is smart,” she would say. “He learns how to stay away from human beings, only coming out at night to raid a barn or a pig sty, grabbing a baby pig or a newborn calf for his supper.”

So, according to her, panthers were responsible for the mysterious disappearance of farm animals, or, she would imply, somebody’s dog. “They wouldn’t mess with cats,” she contended. “Some people say it’s because they’re too small, not worth messing with. But the real reason is because they’re cats, too. They’re kin, so the panter don’t mess with ’em.”

And, she liked to emphasize, “a panter’s cry is just like a baby’s—if you ever hear one in the middle of the night, it’ll sound just like a little baby crying.” Of course we all knew the sound of the neighborhood tomcats as they made their nighttime rounds, wailing at each other, so we could easily imagine the sound of a panter. And, just to make sure we understood what she was talking about, she would demonstrate, executing a long, drawn-out cry that sounded just like a baby.

Miz Lusby was a “widow woman.” Her husband, according to neighborhood lore, had disappeared not too long after they were married, then turned up dead in Texas. Some said he had been shot. Miz Lusby had lived alone ever since, with a dog and a house cat or two. No one ever said anything about how she survived, except that she took in sewing. And she had a garden during spring and summer. We weren’t interested in such details. We only wanted to hear her tales.

Sometimes, we would ask about how to keep a panter away. She would say that it didn’t always work, but there was a spell you could use. She would then tease us. If we could find her a black-cat bone she would tell us how to use it. “It takes some practice, and it don’t always work,” she would insist, “but it’s your best chance.”

Once, Earl Presley brought her a small bone he’d found, claiming that he was sure it came from a black cat. She took one look and said, “No, that’s from a ’possum.”

About the time I got a decent bicycle and was getting old enough to start scoffing at her stories, she delivered the tale that topped them all. She delivered it so believably that I forgot my recently acquired skepticism and sat up and listened.

She had heard, she said, a panter the night before, and it was so close it had to be in the Holler, several acres of bushes and weeds that began only a couple hundred yards behind her house. We were all familiar with the Holler—it was full of blackberry bushes as well as rabbit tobacco and hidden spots for smoking it.

Eyes widened as she demonstrated the panter’s cry, and provided details of her two cats trying to get out of her house when the wailing began. “They were wanting to go join it, I reckon,” she said. “I didn’t sleep another wink, I can tell you.”

Then, a few days later, at the height of blackberry season, I saw Miz Lusby in the Holler, busy filling a pan with berries. She had the entire place to herself, all the kids staying away lest there be a panter present.

Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

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