Friday, October 21, 2016

Corn Rock

Corn Rock
Bobby Derie

Out west, where the forests run down the mountains, and over the foothills, and give way at last to that endless prairie. It was a rich yet desolate country. Every neighbor in every county had tales about where the last Indian died, hanging from a naked tree or bleeding out his life in a creek that ran past the house, for the first generation on that frontier toiled and bled for the land they claimed, but not in Corn Rock. No tribe ever admitted to settling there, not even the renegades; they sang no songs about that place, nor watered their horses along the winding banks of Still Creek. Silence can sometimes speak more horror than any whispered campfire tale, and dry bones turned up by a plow a better message than any ghost story written in a book. So it was in Corn Rock.

Maud Dreyfus had come down from the Salt Lake, with three husbands and sixteen children buried behind her by the time she was thirty. Her allotment was the field with the Corn Rock, from which the town took its name, a rounded, peaked dome of grey granite carved about with signs of standing corn, long faint and weathered. Neighbors said she so hated the sight of it she left the corn to stand around it when time came to harvest, and hired a laborer to do it - a free black called Sam. Accidents come with all farm work, where sickles and knives, axes and hoes all have their part; but you don't need a blade to harvest ears of corn, so no one could ever quite figure how Sam lost three toes on his left foot out in the field that day, though none blamed him for refusing to go back to finish. When she could find no laborer to do the work, the Widow Dreyfus left the ears on the stalk for the yellow-eyed magpies.

"She couldn't keep chickens or turkeys in her yard, because of the magpies," Joel Welch once told the Corn Rock Express. "The chickens wouldn't last a minute. I saw once, she had bought three hens, and had them out by the porch; threw down some parched corns. The magpies came in from the field, a whole flock of them, must have been twenty birds, all black and yellow. They fought the chickens for the corn...and left the hens bloody. Now a magpie, it's no match for a chicken, on its own. The larger birds can be fierce - but they couldn't fly, and they were outnumbered. You ever see ants take down a caterpillar? It was like that. The Widow Dreyfus tried to shoo them away with a shotgun, but it was too late. The magpies flew away with every kernel - and the hen's eyes."

The first pioneers to what would become Corn Rock were Marbonites - an offshoot of an offshoot of the followers of Joseph Smith. The Marbonites held close to the idea of each family as a priesthood in itself; they shared a community, but there were no doctrinal disputes, nor any sort of organized church. "Each man and woman shall come to Christ through their own understanding," Jefferson Marbon said; and so Corn Rock was not founded with any sort of temple, but each homestead built their own chapel for private worship, and every married man was a high priest of his own personal religion. One of the most colorful legacies of this sect are the Marbonite bibles - which, according to tradition, each man would copy out by hand from his father's tome: errors, apocrypha, and omissions; illustrations according to their own tastes and abilities.

"Corn witches" are the dolls made of dried corn stalks made by the children in Corn Rock; they are often set on stakes out in the field, or on the ledges of kitchen windows, for the magpies have no fear of humans. They take many different forms, from the simplest star-shaped figures to true grotesques like swollen babies with evil faces. The magpies have no fear of humans, but the hunched and monstrous forms of the corn witches tend to make them hesitate, and some of the people of Corn Rock have pursued this folk art well into adulthood.

One of the best makers of corn witches was William Keffer, who lived near the county line, his house backed up to the forested foothills where a stream from the mountains fed into Still Creek. Not accounted for much as a farmer, "Mr. Bill" was known for the quality of his moonshine, and this brought him more human contact than he might else have seen living so far from the 'rock and town center. Solitude suited Keffer better, after his folks died, and he grew strange. Visitors would always remark on the size and hideousness of his corn witches, some of which were like shriveled mummies with too many limbs, that laid in the house on chairs and beds. Many thought that they kept Mr. Bill company, now that he was alone, and showed no interest in finding a wife. Stills are tricky business though, and one night a fire broke out - fortunately, when about six of Keffer's customers were over. Folks helped other folks out with fires in those days, and the stream was nearby, but the fire caught the 'shine and it was all those six could do to hold Mr. Bill back as he screamed about how they were burning... nor could anyone console him when the ashes cooled enough to sort through the ruins, rooting about with ash-blackened fingers.


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