In old New Orleans there was a young man named Soot, a blacksmith’s son, a young man totally without fear. Soot was fond of taking his lunch in the graveyards around the French Quarter, a tombstone for a back rest. If the townspeople needed someone to search the crypts their lost children they would send in Soot. In hurricanes when the people of the village would run for cover, Soot stared into the sky and would say “So much fuss over a little rain.”
One day Soot’s father sent him into the world. “You’ll soon enough discover fear on the road, and when you do return home.”
Soot traveled the swamps of the bayou by punt until he came to a Cajun village. As it was late at night and raining he took refuge beneath a gallows which had been built over the water like a high boat dock. He was nearly asleep when he noticed a body hanging above him.
“Now, what are you doing up there?” Soot asked.
“I was left here as an example for the people of this village, but I am innocent and deserve a decent burial ceremony with my people,” said the hanged man. “The Preacher stole from the church collection but he is a revered man in the village and I am a Houma so the people believed him when he accused me of theft. Perhaps you can help me.”
“What can I do,” said Soot, who was not afraid to be talking with a dead man.
“The Preacher hid what he stole in his attic, beneath a board on the floor marked with an X. Bring this information to the attention of the Judge and he will set things right.”
And right then, in the middle of that rainy night, Soot found the Schoolteacher’s house and banged on the door. When the Preacher refused to open up Soot kicked the door in, threw the Preacher over his shoulder, and carried him to the Judge’s house.
“Judge, here is your thief. There is a board in his attic marked with an X and beneath it is what he stole from the church. You must take down that poor Indian who was hanged and give him to his people for a proper burial.”
Everything was as Soot had said, the Preacher admitted to accusing the Houma, and was hanged himself the next day. Soot was invited by the Houma tribe to the funeral ceremony where he was given a tea to drink that gave him visions of the man whose name he cleared.
“For what you have done, I thank you, and in appreciation I have left a staff in your boat that will beat away and vanquish any spirits you may come across.”
The next day Soot continued his journey on foot when he soon came upon a plantation owner crying by the side of the road. Now, Soot’s family had once been owned as slaves on a plantation but he did not know the fear his relatives had known so he approached the man.
“What troubles you, sir?” Soot asked.
“I was forced out of my house so the army could use it in battle, but so many died in there and their spirits won’t let me enter to collect my family possessions. I would gladly give my house for the photos and family mementos inside.”
Soot wasn’t certain this wasn’t some sort of a trick but if there was anything to fear in the house he was determined to find it. “Give me a day and I will clear the house for you.”
Now Soot hadn’t reckoned on finding over two dozen ghosts inside, but that’s what he found there. The spirits charged at him as he entered, their uniforms in tatters, their ghostly bodies blackened and charred, some still carrying their useless weapons. As they drew near Soot held out the staff the Houma had given him and stamped the floor with it. At once the spirits fell as if struck down by the loudest bell ringing around their ears. Soot found an old ammunition chest that he stuffed the enfeebled ghosts into like so much cotton batting, then found the lid and nailed the case shut. At night he walked around the Southern Gothic mansion and found it to his liking. The next morning he met up with the owner and invited him into the house.
“You’ve driven away the spirits?” he said.
“Come, collect what you want without fear,” said Soot.
The plantation owner was cautious at first, but soon realized he was able to move around freely without fear of a haunting.
“However can I thank you?” the owner said.
“I do believe you said you’d give your house for your family possessions…”
The plantation owner was struck dumb. “That was merely a figure of speech.”
“That may be, but I’ve done as you’ve wanted, and this house is how you can thank me.”
“This house has been in my family since it was built, I won’t give it up so casually as all that,” the owner said, growing more indignant.
“Very well. I’ll just release these spirits I’ve rounded up–”
“No! No! Take it, take the house, take the whole plantation!”
Soot was well pleased that he had not been so easily taken in by the plantation owner and he had planned to send for his family to join him there when he had finished his travels. That night he spent the night in the softest feather bed the mansion had to offer when, in the middle of the night, he awoke to a clatter of noise outside the house. He went to the window to investigate and saw a very large cross burning in front of the house, with shadowy men in white gowns and white hoods on horseback nearby.
“Oh father, now I know, fully know, what fear is,” said Soot.
Soot gathered up all the valuables in the house, loaded them along with the staff the Houma had given him into trunks on a carriage, with plans to leave at first light. One last thing he did before he left, he pried open the ammunition crate and let loose the spirits he had stuffed inside. The groggy ghosts didn’t seem to remember how they had ended up crammed into the crate. Soot was more than happy to inform them that they had been placed there by the owner of the house who was due to return any day. The soldier spirits thanked Soot and with that he returned to his father’s blacksmith shop.
Freely adapted from “The Young Man Who Went Out in Search of Fear,” story number 244 in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, edited by Jack Zipes. New Orleans came up in conversation as I was reading the original story and suddenly I could see how parts of the American South could easily fill in for the forests of the Grimmoire.