Turned into a Horse by Witches, Port Rowan, U.C., 1798
History into fiction
Dr. John Troyer was a legendary name around the house when I was growing up. My mother used to tell how he made up herbal medicines for the settlers and set a trap for witches at the foot of his bed every night before retiring. I naturally paid little attention to this, being young and an idiot. But later I got around to reading E. A. (Egbert Americus) Owen’s Pioneer sketches of Long Point settlement, or, Norfolk's foundation builders and their family genealogies, which, to my mother, was next thing to the family Bible. Owen has a chapter on Troyer, the first settler on Norfolk County’s Lake Erie shore. He was of German descent, a Tunker, and some sort of medical man, perhaps only self-professed, in Philadelphia, but came to Canada with his wife (and a supply of young apple trees) after the American Revolution. He built a cabin and planted his orchard on the Inner Bay of Long Point, very near to where St. Williams would eventually spring into being (St. Williams being where my great-great-grandfather Daniel Abiel McCall built his home, where my mother used to spend her summers with her grandmother and aunts).
What captured my imagination, as it does for most people, was Troyer’s credulous and superstitious nature, his somewhat comical belief in witches, his half-magical home remedies, and his fabulous scrying stone. Two anecdotes, especially, got under my skin. The first is that one night a witch picked him up from his bed in Norfolk County, whisked him across the lake to Dunkirk, New York, and turned him into a horse in the course of some sort of witch’s sabbath. But then he woke up the next morning in his bed as usual. Puts me in mind of this marvellous passage from Djuna Barnes’ novel Nightwood:
“Ah!” exclaimed the doctor. “Let a man lay himself down in the Great Bed and his ‘identity’ is no longer his own, his ‘trust’ is not with him, and his ‘willingness’ is turned over and is of another permission. His distress is wild and anonymous. He sleeps in a Town of Darkness, member of a secret brotherhood. He neither knows himself nor his outriders; he berserks a fearful dimension and dismounts, miraculously, in bed!
The second curious story is about his son, who fell into a coma, spent three days unconscious (during which friends and family prepared for his funeral), then woke up, claiming to have gone to heaven.
This was all too good to resist. I wrote a fictional version, which you can read below. This was published in the great old Toronto lefty literary magazine This Magazine. The editors commissioned an illustration (see above) from the artist Bernice Eisenstein, which illustration delighted me no end. So much so that I bought the print. It’s hanging on the wall opposite as I type these words. Somehow, I have always thought, the naked woman and her horse canter toward me out of the innermost reaches of my psyche. Eisenstein and I never met, but she read my little story and got me in that quiet way artists have of essentializing the unspoken in an image.
Subsequently, I reprinted the story in my book A Guide to Animal Behaviour. It was my first attempt at turning my mother’s oral histories, the family legends, into fiction. I like its attitude and streamlined economy. I like the way the jokes come in the order of the words. I like the way it subtly subverts the uncritical reverence for the past expressed in these old stories, an uncritical reverence that, by extension, extends to the mostly undeserving present.
The actual witch trap now lives in the Eva Brook Donly Museum in Simcoe.
Turned into a Horse by Witches, Port Rowan, U.C., 1798
Old widow McMichael is one.
I set a trap at the foot of my bed, a contraption of beams and pulleys bolted to the floor. It has nearly been the death of me, twice. Oncet my wife’s dog Sally got her paw caught coming to wake us in the morning.
Sometimes we wake up and there is the tell-tale smell of ashes and urine all over the cabin.
I believe there are certain precautions everyone should take. Never marry your daughter off on a Friday nor make soap when the moon is turning. Plant your cucumbers in the second quarter if you want pickles for the winter. I keep a good supply of horseshoes about the place.
Oncet I had my gun and was climbing the ravine to hunt deer, when I espied Mrs. McMichael on the path ahead of me. The dog whimpered and would go no further, so we came home. The dog has never run a deer since. It is well known that witches will ruin a good dog by peeing up its nose.
I am a medical man. I had a practice in Philly that was ruined by the rebels and you-know-who.
After the war, they took my house because I would not say the oath of allegiance. Dr. Rodney has it now, but I saved my bag and walking-around instruments.
I rowed all the way from Niagara with the wife, a cow and eighty apple trees wrapped in burlap.
The sunlight off the lake is hot and bright, and the water looks like quicksilver. Sometimes you cannot tell where the water ends and the sky begins. The first winter ice blew up off the lake and killed half my orchard. Indians took the cow, but I believe it was an honest mistake.
At first there were no other white people and even now my practice is extended.
The wife has given birth to a son, who is whole, which is lucky considering the evil we have been through.
We are for Henry Alline and the New Lights.
When he was eight, my boy fell into a trance in a field, trying to save a cow that had hung herself on a line fence — a clear case of witchery. I nailed him a box, and the wife prayed and aggravated over him for three days, after which he sat up and asked for a sup of maple syrup candy.
I was about to wallop him with a fence paling, when he espied Elder Culver on his knees at the foot of the box and cried out that he had been in Heaven talking to angels. He begged Elder Culver to baptize him and let him witness for the Lord at the next camp meeting.
The wife said, Praise Jesus and don’t beat the boy.
Prior to this, the boy had shown little inclination toward theological subjects.
Oncet I woke from a nap to see a young girl in a white shift, strolling in the orchard.
When I approached, she turned to greet me with a shameless invitation. I could see her tiny breasts and nether hair through the cloth of her shift. With a cry of dismay, I realized I had left my Bible on the table.
She made me mount behind her on a fence rail, and we flew across the lake to a place called Dunkirk, where she changed me into a horse and tied me in a stable. Through chinks in the stable wall I saw a hundred witches cavorting with the Beast around a roaring fire.
They brought me water in a bucket and fed me oat straw and carrot greens.
When I awoke I was in my own bed and the wife said I had been there all night.
But I shit oat straw for three days and my digestion has not been up to much since.
I am old now. The wife has been called to her reward and is buried under a rock in the orchard.
My boy had four sons—John, David, Michael and Cornelius—and five daughters—Elizabeth, Sophronia, Catherine, Susannah and another whose name I cannot recall but who married Edward Bowen.
My boy is a blacksmith and a deacon in the Baptist Church. In 1802, they made him constable of Walsingham. For a person who spoke face-to-face with the Lord when he was eight, he has not amounted to much.
I like the one who married Edward Bowen the best. She is named after her grandmother.
The McMichael place has been empty twelve years and there are raccoons in it.
Before she died, the old widow fell into the habit of walking to my yard gate and waiting for me to espy her. I believe she derived some pleasure from my terror and stuttered imprecations.
There are no witches in Norfolk County now. They have cut the forests down and killed the bears, and Scotch shopkeepers have covered the land like a blight. Whisky has come into disrepute. And there are too many men and women like my boy, people of middling stature who have the Lord’s ear.