Thursday, October 18, 2007
The Magic Potion That Saved My Life
My good friend, Mary, sent me this beautiful Halloween card, and it's most appropriate for my Halloween story, which is about a good witch! Thank you so much, Mary, you are a dear. I hope you enjoy: The Magic Potion That Saved My Life
When I was seven and still living in a small village in my homeland, Hungary, I had a close encounter with a witch. The village was right on the Serbian border, and both Hungarians (which we were) and Serbians lived there. My maternal grandparents, who were raising me, owned the only general store in town. My grandmother ran the store while Grandfather, the towns judge, attended to his duties at the courthouse.
There was an ancient Serbian woman in the village named, Tekla, who lived in a shanty at the edge of town, and was rumored be a witch. People said Tekla had strange powers and could put curses on people who made her mad. They said she made powerful potions and chanted strange-sounding chants, and everyone knew her only friend was her black cat.
Most children were warned to avoid her, which wasn’t hard to do, since Tekla was quite reclusive, rarely leaving her shanty. On those occasions when we did catch a glimpse of her, hobbling along with her cane, a black babushka on her head, we’d run to avoid her, and then tell scary stories that we had heard about her. My grandmother didn’t approve of the stories, and told me often that they weren’t true.
“She is not a witch. She is just an odd old woman who lives differently from most people, so they call her a witch. You don’t have to be afraid of her,” Grandma would say.
Weekdays usually found me in school, but this one day I was in the store. It was raining and I had my nose buried in a book. At noon, after feeding me, Grandma got ready to take Grandpa his lunch at the courthouse, as she usually did.
“Since it’s pouring out there, you might as well stay here. I’ll be back in 15 minutes,” Grandma said. “Everyone knows the store is closed at noon, so no one will come. But you lock the door behind me, and if you get scared, run next door.”
“Uh-huh,” I nodded as Grandma went out the door, and promptly stuck my nose back in the book. My cat, Paprika, was curled up under the counter, snoozing contentedly. The rain continued pounding the roof; the door stayed unlocked.
Suddenly, I was startled by the ringing of the store’s bell. I looked up and saw the bent figure of Tekla, the witch, entering. My mouth fell open, while my heart began to race. I wanted to flee out the back door, but my feet seemed frozen; so I just stood there and stared at her.
“I’ve come to buy some flour and sugar,” she said, breaking the silence.
“We...we are closed,” I said shakily. “If you come back in 15 minutes, Grandma will get what you need.”
“It’s a long walk to the store, and I’m wet and tired. I’ll just sit down on this chair and wait,” Tekla said, lowering her bent frame down and adjusting the knot of her black babushka. .
Paprika, the cat, began to stir. His curiosity had been aroused. So he got up, stretched, and walked around the counter to investigate the visitor.
“Oh, what a pretty orange kitty,” Tekla crooned, breaking into an almost toothless grin. “Here kitty.” Paprika walked over to her and rubbed against her legs, while a bony hand reached down to pet him.
I was still on alert, ready to make a getaway, but the scenario in front of me had somehow mesmerized me.
“I love cats,” Tekla continued. “I have a cat, too.”
Of course she had a cat. A black cat! Everyone knew that.
“Cats are wonderful friends. They never care about how you look, or about the lies others say about you. They just love you for yourself.” And as she uttered those words, she sounded so sad and forlorn that I had the urge to somehow comfort her. So I picked up some candy from a box on the counter and walked over to her. “These are for you,” I said, holding out my hand, even though I felt like giving her a hug.
“You are a sweet girl, little one,” she said taking the candy, her bony fingers touching mine. “Thank you very much.” Just then, the door opened, and in walked Grandma.
“Tekla came to buy some flour and sugar,” I announced to my surprised grandmother.
"I told her she could sit and wait for you.”
“Yes, your little one has been most kind,” Tekla said, raising herself out of the chair. “Now if you could get me what I came for, I’ll be on my way.” When she walked out the door, she looked back and waved her bony hand at me.
The following week, on a lovely fall day, my grandparents and I went to visit a relative in the country who grew grapes. While the adults were busy in the house, I stayed outside and got reacquainted with the resident chickens and ducks. After a while, I came to some stone steps leading into the cellar, so I snuck down those steps and entered the cool, sweet-smelling world of the cellar. There, I discovered something forbidden-fermenting wine filling the air with a sweet musky scent from some barrels lined up like soldiers.
One of the barrels had a long, tube-like object conveniently on top of it. I pushed it into the barrel and sucked up the sweet liquid, smacking my lips in appreciation. Then I sucked up some more of it, and more still. Suddenly, my world began to spin, and then everything went black!
When I opened my eyes again, I realized I was back in my own bed. I could hear people talking to each other in hushed voices, while my grandmother wailed pitifully somewhere in the room.
“She has alcohol poisoning,” a voice I recognized as our doctor's, was saying. “And she is not responding to treatment.
“Someone go get the priest,” Grandma wailed. “I don’t want her to die without the Last Sacrament.”
I realized they were talking about me, and tried to sit up. But I couldn’t move or talk. I seemed to be imprisoned in my own body. Then I lost consciousness again.
I was told later what happened next. Tekla had heard the news that I was dying, so she hurried to our house carrying something. When she knocked at the back door and Grandfather saw her standing there, he almost slammed the door in her face.
“I have a potion. It will help the little one get well,” Tekla announced loudly.
“Go away, old woman,” Grandfather told her gruffly, but Grandma came to the door just then. Tekla told her about her potion, adding, “It will help the little one get well.”
So my desperate grandmother took the jar containing the dark liquid and-despite the objections of both the doctor and priest, administered it to me on the spot.
“It wasn’t easy to get it into your mouth,” she told me later. “We had to pry your mouth open and spoon it in slowly. Then we laid you down again and began a prayer vigil at your bedside.”
The following dawn, I opened my eyes. I heard murmuring in the room and realized people were praying. Then I heard Grandma crying softly somewhere nearby. I turned my head to see if I could see her and realized I could move! I wiggled my fingers and toes. They all seemed to be working again! But what was that strange feeling in the pit of my stomach?
Then, recognizing the feeling, I suddenly sat up and cried out, “Grandma, where are you? I’m sooo hungry!”
“It’s a miracle!” someone in the room shouted, as Grandma ran to my side.
“It’s Tekla’s magic potion,” Grandma said joyously, holding me close. “It worked just as she said it would.” Then she hurried to the kitchen to bring me something to eat.
A few days after my “magical” recovery, my grandparents loaded some groceries, and me, into our wagon, and we went to thank Tekla for saving my life.
When we got to her shanty, she seemed very surprised to see us.
“Thank you for saving my life,” I told her self consciously, looking down at her wrinkled face.
“Yes, we are most grateful,” Grandma said, while Grandfather unloaded the groceries they brought along. “If there is anything else you need, just let us know,” he said.
“Oh, but you are not beholden to me in any way. I was happy to be able to help,” Tekla said.
“People say you gave me a magic potion. Is that really true?” I asked her.
“Well, little one, my potion is just an old remedy taught to me by my dear, departed Papa, a long time ago. He had a lot of old remedies that I have used over many years, and they have kept me healthy for over 89 years.” Then turning to my grandparents she explained, “I mixed the charred pieces of some wood with a little water. Nothing to be concerned about.”
“I wasn’t concerned,” Grandma said firmly. Then, as we were leaving, I looked back at Tekla and waved. It was the last time I ever saw her, because World War II intensified in our region and we left the area for upper Hungary. We finally were able to flee our war-torn country in the fall of 1947, eventually immigrating to the United States in 1951.
Years later, I was having coffee with a friend, when I told her the story about the magic potion that saved my life.
“Interesting” the friend said, jumping up from the table we were sitting at. “I have to show you something.” She lifted a huge book from her bookshelf and laid it on the table. It was a Medical Encyclopedia. She opened it to the first page and showed me the first entry. “Ancient Universal Antidote for Poisoning.” It listed charred wood mixed with some water as the ingredients.
Of course, today the potion is well known as Activated Charcoal. But in 1943, when I was seven, it was still considered a magic potion that only a select few, like kind hearted witches, knew about.
Have a safe and Happy Halloween, everyone!