Although Morgan’s narrative is first person, this story clearly contains intrinsic folkloric value and that is how I will analyze it.
“When I was about thirteen or so, I was in a corner store in Wildwood, New Jersey (where I’ve always spent my summers) when a little metal cat caught my eye. I couldn’t look away from it; I was utterly enchanted. I had to have that cat. I had to buy it no matter what. It wasn’t that it was cute; it wasn’t. It didn’t have pupils. It was misshapen. It was bronze and smelled like money. I couldn’t put it down, though–it was like it was begging me to take it home.
When we got home, though, it felt totally different. I looked into its face, which had looked so sweet in the store, and suddenly it looked malicious. It made chills run up and down my spine to be anywhere near it, and I could hardly stand touching it. I felt nauseous and scared. So I left it upstairs and came down to the TV room–it was waiting for me. I rounded on my sister, demanding to know why she’d brought it down, but she hadn’t touched it. Its pupil-less eyes followed us around the room.
We both agreed that it was evil, so we sealed it in a little box with a rubber band and a note that said DO NOT TOUCH, DO NOT OPEN, along with a short story that I made up about its origins. We took it to the attic, where there was a floorboard that, when struck in a certain corner, could be pried open to reveal a hidden compartment. We put the box in there, sealed it, and climbed down the ladder.
It was waiting in our bedroom.
We ran, crying, to our parents, who promptly sealed it in a plastic bag with salt in the fridge while they determined what to do with it. Eventually, they decided that–since no returns were allowed–we would have to donate it. I protested, saying that I couldn’t bear the thought of passing it on to someone else and leaving them stuck with it, and this is what they told me:
“Donating it removes the curse,” they said. “By doing a good deed, you erase it.”
It never came back for us.”
I asked Morgan how her parents knew how to deal with the bronze cat, and she said that among other superstitions she had grown up with, her parents raised her with the idea that salt and cold neutralizes bad luck and curses. “We do this fairly systematically; if we’ve identified an object as being unlucky, it often gets thrown in a baggy with sea salt and put in the fridge. I once did this with the names of the people who were bullying me, and they left me alone until someone threw out the paper.”
Research revealed that this superstition is present in some form in several cultures. In the Jewish tradition, salt- because it was a pure substance- was believed to have a potency to ward off evil spirits. In the Bible, Ezekial 16:4 briefly mentions the practice of rubbing newborn babies with salt.
Among Scottish and English fisherman, touching cold iron was believed to neutralize the evil eye and protect one from demons (possibly because confronting the metal in its safer form neutralized the power that the evil could send into it).
There seems to be a dual lesson to be learned from this story. The first is the age old idea of “Be careful what you wish for.” It cautions both against the desire for material possessions and against engaging with supernatural elements whose purpose one might not know. Although there was not the traditional “wish” in this story, there was the desire for the statue, which ultimately led to the revelation of its malevolent nature. This sentiment can be found in many pieces of classic and popular culture- the Faust legend in both its incarnation as Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and as Goethe’s Faust in which an intellectual makes a deal with the devil and more recently (and more irreverently) the American film Bedazzled (2000) in which the main character sell his soul for seven wishes, but uses the last one to wish someone else a happy life. His selfless act negates the contract and allows him to keep his soul.
The information about salt in Jewish folk tradition can be found in Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion by Joshua Trachtenberg (Forgotten Books, 2008) on page 162.
“Touch cold iron” can be found in Evil Eye the Origins and Practices of Superstition by Frederick Thomas Elworthy (Kessinger Publishing, 2003) on page 222.
Full texts of Dr. Faustus and Faust can be found at Project Gutenberg.