This is an American folktale, collected in the Appalacians by Richard Chase. There is a similar story in the Uncle Remus collection, and elements of it appear world-wide. The oddity of this story is that the god, Odin appears in an American folktale. It is doubly odd since Odin, himself is, in other contexts, not above a little business with witchy women. I do not have a text of the story before me, and so tell it from memory, but that, after all, is the proper way to tell a folktale.
One time Jack got bored with hanging around the homeplace, and decided to go try his luck for a while someplace else. Times weren't so good, and no one was hiring, but after a time he came to a big farmhouse and asked the farmer if he needed a hand.
"Don't need no hands," the farmer says, "but I got a good mill down on the creek standing empty. If you want to run it you can keep half of what you take in. There's an empty house down there too; you can live in that."
That didn't sound too bad to Jack, so he went with the farmer down to the mill and looked it over, and decided he would take the job.
"Now you keep your eyes open for anything strange, and be careful," the farmer said, and Jack told him he could take care of himself.
It was still early in the day, so Jack opened the mill up, and in a little while word got around. There wasn't another mill close, and so he was kept pretty busy until just about dark. Finally there wasn't anyone else waiting, so Jack turned the water out of the mill race and shut everything down. He had been too busy to eat anything all day, and he was ready for supper. He was just locking up when an old, grey-bearded, one eyed man came up to the mill with a little sack of grain over his shoulder.
"Everything's shut down, and I'm headed for supper," Jack said, "You come back tomorrow."
"I've come an awful long way," the old man said.
Jack gave the old man a look-over and figured it would be about all he could do just to make it back to wherever he came from, so he said, "All right, you just go on in and sit down." He unlocked the door and went around the building to turn the water back into the sluice. He got the mill going again, and in about half a minute ground out the little dab of grain the old man had brought.
"What do I owe you?" the old man asked.
"Don't bother about it," Jack said. He didn't figure a job of that size was worth more than a couple of cents anyway.
"Look here," Jack, the old man says, "I've been to this mill many and many a time, and you're the first one that ever treated me right. I'm going to give you a present."
"You don't need to do that," Jack said.
"Don't need to, but mean to. " The old man took a little silver knife out of his pocket and gave it to Jack. "You keep hold of this knife," the man said, "and it will come in handy some time."
"I sure thank you," Jack said, "but you didn't need to give me anything."
The old man got up, slung his sack over his shoulder and started down th road, and it looked to Jack like he had got a lot spryer than when he had come. Jack didn't think anymore about it, though; he shut everything down and headed across the road to fix himself some supper. It was a one-room house with a big fireplace at one end. Jack got a good fire going, then got out his skillet and put some bacon in it and was holding it over the fire. It was clear dark by now, but there was some light from the fire, and the moon shone through a row of nine little windows up near the ceiling.
Jack was busy turning the bacon and tending the fire, when all at once it got dark in the room. Jack looked up, and there in each of thos nine windows sat a big black cat. Pretty soon the biggest of the cats jumped down and went right over to the fire. It watched the bacon frying for a little while, then reached out its paw toward the skillet, and made a cry like, "Sop-doll."
"No you don't; you're not sopping your doll in my supper," Jack said, and made a cut with that little silver knife at the cat's paw.
JACK AND THE WITCHES
That cat sat and watched for a while, then pretty soon it stretched out its paw toward the skillet again, and cried, "Sop-doll."
"Look here, I told you about that," Jack said, and made another cut at the cat's paw. The cat drew its paw back, and sat watching some more. All at once it screamed "SOP-DOLLLL!" and smacked its paw right down in the middle of the bacon."
"You been warned," Jack said. He took a cut at that cat's paw, and sliced it right off. The cat let out a shriek and leaped up into the window. A moment later and all the cats had jumped out, and the moon was shining through those nine windows just like before. Jack went outside and dumped the bacon out, then took the skillet down to the creek and scrubbed it out with sand. When he came back he saw that the cat's paw had turned into a woman's hand with a diamond ring on it. He wrapped it up in a piece of cloth and laid it on a shelf, then cooked up another batch of bacon for his supper.
The next morning the farmer woke up and asked his wife why she wasn't up.
"I'm not feeling well," she said. "You get your own breakfast today."
"All right," the farmer said. "Then I'm going down to the mill. I reckon I'll have to bury that boy like the others. It makes me feel kind of guilty. He seemed like a nice young fellow."
But when the farmer got down to the mill, it was already open and wagons were backed up with grain waiting to be ground.
"I didn't figure to see you alive," the farmer said. "Did anything strange happen during the night?"
"Yes, something did," Jack said. "Come over to the house and I'll show you."
The farmer looked at that hand and said, "You know, I suspected something like that." Then he went back up to the house and found his wife still in bed.
"Hold out your right hand," he said, but she held out the left one.
"No, I said your right one." She twisted around in the covers a little and held out a hand again, but it was still the left one. He reached down and caught her wrist and pulled it out from the covers and the hand was missing.
"What happened to your hand?" he asked. "You need a doctor to see about that."
"No, I don't need any doctor. Just send for some of my friends to come over and tend to me," she said, and named off eight other women in the neighborhood.
The man sent for the woman, then went back down to the mill and got Jack.
"It's just what I thought," he said. "There's a coven of witches here, and they were using this place for their meetings. That's why everyone else who set up here died. She probably had poison on her paw."
"That's what I thought too," Jack said.
Then they went up to the house and barred the door, then set the house on fire and burned all the witches up. Jack ran the mill for several years, and never did have any more problems.
Since the hero of this story is my namesake, perhaps I feel a certain fondness for him, though my primary reason for recording this story was to connect it to my Odin page, since this story is such a good representation of the god in his role as Odin the Wanderer. Besides, it's a good story--mysterious deaths, darkness, black cats, witches, all the standard decor. And burning witches is politically incorrect these days, so there's another reason to like it. More seriously, though, burning down a hall with one's enemies inside is such a standard thing in Northern stories that this may be another element connecting the story to Odin and Northern tradition.t.