The Legend of Spanish Moss
Author: Paul deVere
A Hair-Raising Halloween Tale
I stare at the faded photo. I am wearing one of my dad’s old homburgs, or, because he was a second generation Quebecer, his “chapeau,” as he called his hats. I also have on my older brother’s overalls, about four sizes too large. It looks like the shoulder straps are pinned up. My mother has applied burnt cork all over my lower face in a bad imitation of a beard. I have a yardstick over my shoulder with a cloth bag attached to the end, in theory, the depository for my haul of treats on this favorite night of nights at the end of October. In the picture I am five years old and a hobo.
My brother, who is five years my senior, stands next to me. He’s in cowboy boots. His jeans are tucked in to show off the fancy scroll design in the leather. The boots were a Christmas present from one of our Arizona uncles, as is the six-shooter and holster my brother has wrapped around his waist and felt cowboy hat he wears—very authentic. You can only see his eyes because the bandana he’s wearing covers most of his young face. He’s an outlaw, though I don’t remember which one. His treat bag is cinched to his wide western belt.
Our parents have purchased nothing for our Halloween get ups. They are all “found” objects. We will be gone two hours but will never be further than three blocks from our home.
When we return, hyper and exhausted at the same time, we are in for one final treat. My dad will tell us a very scary story.
While Halloween has changed dramatically since those ancient times, one tradition somehow made it though malls giving out candy and CVS packaged costumes: the scary story.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. To truly appreciate one of the oldest celebrations around, and why the scary story is so important, you need a little background.
Our Celtic friends, the Druids, are said to have “invented” Halloween a few millennia ago, except it was really their version of New Year’s Eve because for them, November 1 signaled the dawning of the new year and the dark winter months that lay ahead. For the Druids, October 31 was sort of wormhole in space where unworldly spirits could enter and get pretty nasty. To ward off these evil spirits, the Druids lit great bonfires, burnt crops and animals, and basically waited out the night, bunched up together in a corner of their little Druid hut, hoping nothing would happen, i.e., no “tricks.” To keep the kids from going out, they told them very scary stories about the goblins lurking outside.
Then the Romans came along, in about A.D. 40, and added their own touch to Samhain with Feralia, a day they celebrated to honor the dead and to honor Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol for Pomona, kind of like her trademark, was the apple, hence the very old tradition of bobbing for apples on Halloween.
About 600 hundred years later, the Catholic Church got into the act when Pope Boniface IV created All Saints’ Day on November 1 to counterbalance the pagan Samhain. Then, for good measure, about 400 years later, the church made November 2, All Souls’ Day to honor the dead. Kids dressed up as angels, saints and devils, and they had bonfires, but without the animals. Putting all three celebrations together, it was known as “Hallowmas.” The word “Halloween” comes from the Middle English, the “Eve of All Saints’ Day.”
The “trick or treats” business probably started about the time Christianity hit the Celts. To avoid any “tricks” from the ghosts and goblins, folks left food and other “treats” outside their doors on October 31 to pacify the scary creatures who ventured forth in the evening on All Saints’ Eve.
By the time Halloween reached America’s shores in the late1600s, it was a time for celebrating the harvest, dressing up in costumes, and retelling stories of the dearly departed. It was more popular along the South Atlantic coast (that would be Hilton Head Island, etc.) because, as everyone knows, there are more ghosts and goblins in the South than any place else in the U.S.
Hallmark and all the costume manufacturers didn’t start seriously marketing what is now the second largest commercial holiday in the U.S. until the 1920s. Around that time, parents and kids started going door to door collecting treats. Older kids started getting serious about the tricks about the same time, including tipping over the outhouse while Uncle Henry was still in it.
Things change. With the demise of outhouses (which Uncle Henry greatly appreciated), the most common trick was to “tee-pee” (toilet paper) somebody’s front yard, usually the most unpopular kid in school. I remember streamers of Charmin clinging to trees, bushes, lamp posts, even over the roofs of single story houses. You couldn’t do two-story houses because (take my word for it) you could break a window in an upstairs bedroom.
But what has not changed is the telling of scary stories. I remember telling one several years ago to a bunch of kids who had gathered in from the Stoney-Baynard ruins in Sea Pines. Candles were strategically placed in the little cubbies throughout the tabby foundation of the old plantation house, and more candles lined the pathway to the ruins.
About 30 or so small children gathered to hear spooky stories. I was a last minute substitute storyteller and had to quickly come up with something scary. Since it was really last minute, I had to think of something close at hand for a prop. (Note: you always want to have at least one scary prop for telling a scary story.) As I stood at the ruins awaiting my turn (talk about LAST MINUTE) I looked up at the darkening sky, and I immediately knew the story I would tell: how Spanish moss got its name.
As storyteller and friend, Jimmy Littlejohn, finished up his really scary version of the Legend of the Blue Lady, I pulled up the storyteller’s stool and held a flashlight up to my face. When all was quiet, I began the tale.
“This story is about the very early days of Hilton Head Island, maybe even before it got its name. Spanish pirates used to sail these waters in search of other ships to pillage and plunder, and when they were thirsty, to visit the island to get fresh water at the place we know of as Spanish Wells.
“The most blood thirsty and evil-looking of them all was a pirate captain by the name of Gorez Goz. He was a large man—well over six feet tall, with muscles bulging from his arms that made him look like a giant. His face was deeply scarred from many battles, and his eyes were black as coal. Because he was a giant of a man, he had a giant beard—some say it grew down to his bulging waist. Like his eyes, it too was black as coal. It was his great pride!
“One fine October evening, as Gorez Goz crew was carrying water from the Spanish wells on Hilton Head Island to be taken to the pirate ship, a small group of Cusabo Indians quietly approached. There were three of them—two old men and, standing between them, a beautiful young girl. They stood motionless, hoping the pirates would not notice their presence. The Cusabo knew the reputation of these men, knew they respected no one and put no value on the life of a Cusabo. They were all evil, but none more so than Gorez Goz.
“Just as the three Cusabo began retreating into the trees around the wells, a knife whistled by the head of the oldest Indian and sunk deeply into a tree trunk inches from the old man’s head.
“‘Hold!’ a man cried out. It sounded like thunder. The pirates stopped loading. Great blue herons flew up from their rookery nearby. Deer skittered deeply into the forest. The Cusabo trio didn’t move.
“Gorez Goz approached them. It was he who billowed out the command. Even in the dimming light, the Cusabo could see the evil smile on the pirate captain’s face. He was looking at the young girl. She was fifteen and lovely. Her eyes were like large pools of the richest amber, her beautiful cheeks high, almost austere. Her long black hair sparkled in the twilight.
“The pirate captain came close to the girl, his stale breath reeking of rum and garlic.
“‘I want this girl,’ he said.
“‘You cannot,’ the oldest man said. ‘She is my daughter and I am the chief.’
“‘Not for long,’ Gorez said, with a sickening smile, as he pulled out his sword, thinking he would end the old man’s life quickly.
“‘Wait!’ the young girl said quickly. ‘I have an offer for you,’ she said, giving Gorez her best smile. ‘Spare my father and I will let you chase me. If you catch me I am yours.’
“The pirate captain roared with laughter. ‘Then run my fair maiden!’ he said, laughing even louder and watching her go. The rest of the pirates joined in the merriment, but when Gorez Goz turned back to the chief and his ally, they had disappeared.
“Gorez Goz cursed but took off after the girl, thinking of what fun he could have. For a big man, he could move fast. He was sure he could catch the girl in moments. He saw her through the trees and began the chase in earnest. The light was dimming quickly so he carried a torch with him to guide his way.
“Trailing the girl was easy: a broken twig here, a footprint in the soft forest floor there. It was as if she wanted the ugly pirate to catch her. But the chase soon took its toll on Gorez Goz. He had been at sea for weeks, and all the running started to slow him down. But just as his pace slowed, he heard the girl’s soft voice calling to him from a giant oak tree just ahead.
“‘Here, up here, you ugly oaf; climb to me,’ the girl sang.
“Gorez Goz looked up at the tree. The girl was in the high branches of the massive live oak. The pirate captain’s anger rose; he jumped to a low branch and began his climb. Higher and higher he went, and as he did, the girl climbed higher still. Gorez Goz cursed her under his breath but kept going up and up until he was almost within reach of the young girl.
“‘I have you now!’ the pirate hissed, the tree’s tiny branches at the top of the tree prickling his face.
“‘No, you ugly toad, I think the tree has you now,’ the girl laughed; and, to the amazement of Gorez Goz, she jumped from the tree. It was only then he noticed the creek below and heard the splash.
“Gorez Goz attempted to climb back down the giant oak, but the small branches held him in place. He couldn’t move down. So he decided to follow the girl into the water. It was the only way!
“But as he flung his body away from the branches, the branches held tightly to his huge beard and would not let go—would never let him go.
“The funny thing is that long after Gorez Goz died, his beard would not stop growing. It continued to spread to all the oak trees along the coast and into the forests. We now call the pirate’s beard, Spanish moss.” (Here is where I pointed the flash light up into the live oak above me and a huge mass of Spanish moss hung directly over my head. Great prop. The kids screamed.)
“And if you don’t believe me, take a piece of moss, remove the grey scales that cover it and you will see the moss itself as a black as coal!”