We protect our family

I never much liked going to my granny’s house when I was a little girl. Don’t get me wrong, Granny wasn’t mean or cruel or anything else. She was just creepy and weird and very, very hillbilly. When she spoke, it was with a thick hill accent that most folks wouldn’t understand these days. When we were together, every time she looked at me she would stare past me in a way that made me glance over my shoulder worried about what was sneaking up on me.

Granny’s house was an overgrown cabin out in Shadow Hollow. That’s where she raised my daddy and his eight brothers and sisters. That’s where she lived all by herself after the kids were grown and Papaw had died. She’d inherited the cabin and 80 acres on the edge of the trackless woods from her own granny. Family lore had it that the land was claimed by the first of our sprawling clan to arrive in the Ozarks back around about the time of statehood.

When I started high school, I didn’t pay Granny much mind because I didn’t care much for the old Ozark ways. I wanted to be one of those girls I saw in music videos on MTV, and the road to that particular sort of eternal fame and fortune (or at least what I was naive enough back then to think would be eternal fame and fortune) sure didn’t seem to run through Granny’s cabin in Shadow Hollow.

###

When you’re from a big hillbilly family, there’s always lots of cousins around. Those cousins made visiting Granny for holidays a lot of fun when I was a kid, even if she was a creepy old lady living in a strange smelling cabin in the middle of dark woods that got mighty spooky at night.

My best friend at school was Elsie Mays. Elsie wasn’t just my best friend, she was my cousin on account of she was my Aunt Susie’s youngest baby. Susie was my Daddy’s oldest sister. Elsie and I bore more than a strong family resemblance to one another. In kindergarten, the other kids and even the teacher had trouble telling us apart. It didn’t help that my name’s Eliza, and that sounds a lot like Elsie.

Aunt Susie and her husband Earl lived in town just a couple of streets over from my house, so Elsie and I got to play together all the time when we were too little for school. When we were at Elsie’s house, her big brother Ricky would pick on us by catching snakes and frogs and big bugs to scare us with. Elsie and I would squeal and run away, even if we weren’t that scared. Then one day Ricky’s best friend at the time, a boy named Jack, came home with him after school while I was there playing with Elsie in their backyard. Pretty soon Ricky and Jack were in the backyard, too, throwing a football around. When Ricky went into the kitchen to get us all some lemonade to drink, Jack caught a garter snake and put it down the back of my dress. I didn’t see it coming, and I was real scared because I didn’t know what it was that had a-hold of me. I started flailing around and screaming as that snake slithered down my back.

Well, Ricky’d seen the whole thing happen through the backdoor. In less than thirty seconds he ran out of the house, bloodied Jack’s nose, and gave him two black eyes. Aunt Susie was working in the kitchen, but she heard the commotion and came a-running. When she got into the yard, she saw her boy with clinched fists standing over Jack, who was sitting on his ass on the ground wailing something terrible with blood streaming down his face and soaking his t-shirt. Susie lit into yelling at Ricky about fighting, but Ricky stood up straight and said, “Mama, he was picking on Eliza.”

Aunt Susie stopped yelling at Ricky. She helped Jack up, and then she said to him, “Young man, we protect our family around here. You’d best head on home.”

While Jack was a-slinking off, Susie gave me a hug and said, “Let’s go inside and have piece of that cake I’ve been baking, Eliza.”

###

Every holiday the whole family would go out to Granny’s cabin in Shadow Hollow. The house was on a moderately level patch of ground about a third of the way up Silent Mountain, the hunk of rock that loomed in the west and cast the shadow that gave the valley its name.

Granny’s little house couldn’t really hold all of us, not even with the lean-to additions that’d been put on the original cabin over the years to create a maze of rooms within, but Granny had an enormous yard. We used that yard to turn warm-weather gatherings into family picnics. As Granny defined it, the yard included her huge garden alongside and in back of the house, a small field with room to park all our cars in the back of the garden, and another small field with space to play games of tag and red rover in the front of the house. The entire yard was surrounded by a split rail fence that had seen better days. The only ways in or out of the yard were two rickety old gates, one in the front and one in the back, and the driveway. Where the driveway went through the split rail fence there was a heavy duty cattle guard to drive over, even though Granny didn’t have any cattle and, as far as I knew, never had.

During the day, Granny always let us have the run of her entire 80 acres of woods, rocks, creeks, and mountainside. She didn’t even mind if we ventured beyond her line and into the forest service ground beyond. She just always made us promise to be back in her yard by sundown, and not a minute later. Us kids always thought that was a weird rule, but like I said, we also all thought that Granny was weird for a lot of other reasons, and them woods did get real spooky at night, so we didn’t sass her over it.

Back in the summer after Elsie and I finished the first grade, the whole family was at Granny’s for the Fourth of July. By then Ricky was 14 and beginning to be a jackass in that way boys get around that age. All us cousins had spent the afternoon chasing through the old trees, splashing in Shadow Creek, and trying to ambush one another in the thorny blackberry bushes. Ricky even took me, Elsie, and the other little cousins up Silent Mountain to the lookout he insisted he’d discovered but that we all knew about already. It was a great view, no matter who discovered it. The rock jutted from the mountainside’s sheer bluff and reached out over the creek far below. Elsie was scared, but I wriggled out to the very edge on my tummy. When I looked to the east, I could see our little town out on the horizon, and I even fancied that I could see my house. I looked a long time, but I finally had to scrabble off the outcropping so we could get back to the cabin for supper. Once we ate, we set off to chase through the woods some more until it was time for us to be back in the yard by sundown like Granny insisted.

That evening Ricky made a big show out of standing just on the other side of the front gate as we were coming up toward sundown. He pretended to be scared and started to scream “help me, help me, I’m lost in the woods” as the sun slid behind Silent Mountain. Us little kids were laughing at him, but we stopped laughing real fast when the the last sliver of sun disappeared and our granny came out of the front door like a shot out of a cannon. She had fire in her eyes and a hickory switch in her hands. She sure looked like a frail old woman, but she reached across the rail fence, grabbed Ricky by the ear with her left hand, and drug him back inside the yard. Then, without ever letting go of the boy, she beat him to within an inch of his life with that switch. I thought Ricky was the toughest boy around, but it didn’t take long for him to be bawling and begging for mercy and promising he’d never do it again. As this was happening, all of our parents, including Aunt Susie and Uncle Earl, came out from around back where the cars were parked. They just stood there and watched the beating. None of them did a thing to stop it.

We stayed late at Granny’s that night, long enough for Daddy and my uncles to set off a pickup truck load of fireworks in the front yard. It was way after midnight when Mama corralled my big brother and me and loaded us into the car. Like always, as we dove away from Granny’s cabin Daddy told us to be sure that our windows were rolled up tight. He wouldn’t drive across the cattle guard until we’d checked to be sure.

The woods around Granny’s cabin were extra spooky that night. As soon as we bounced over the cattle guard and headed out onto the rutted gravel road it felt like the oak trees spreading across the road were bending down to grab ahold of us. Daddy turned up the radio, but there were other sounds in the night outside of the tightly shut car. I could hear them a-singing and a-calling.

Once we finally hit blacktop again, Mama let out her breath like she’d been holding it. Daddy turned down the radio, and my brother fell asleep in the back seat beside me. I waited until we were almost to town before I asked my question.

“Mama? Daddy?” I asked. “Why was it okay for Granny to beat Ricky like that? You’ve never raised a hand to me, not even when I’ve done something really bad, like that time I spilled juice on Aunt Susie’s new couch.”

Mama pretended like she didn’t hear the question. Finally, Daddy just said, “Little girl, there’s some things in the hills worse than a switching.”

That didn’t seem like much of an answer to me, and I was at the age when I was full of questions, so I asked, “Would you have let Granny switch me like that if I’d stayed on the other side of her fence at sundown?”

Daddy sighed and kept his eyes on the road ahead. He answered me in a quiet voice. “Little girl, we protect our family. If it was the only way to keep you inside the yard at night, I’d’ve cut the switch myself.”

###

Visits to Granny didn’t just happen for holidays. Daddy would take me out to see her when I was sick. Let me tell you, the threat of getting Granny’s medicine was enough to keep the kids in the family from ever complaining about feeling sickly. Other kids would fake a cough to get out of school, but me and my cousins would try to hide a fever for fear of the cure Granny would mete out.

For little kids, Granny’s remedies usually involved some kind of fat rendered off of an animal. She used to say that a poultice or a tincture or a tea could work for an adult, but that us little ones in the family didn’t have enough meat on our bones to hold the healing in without some fat to help it along. And when I say fat from an animal, Granny didn’t limit herself to lard from a hog or anything like that. Lordy, no. She kept fat from possums, raccoons, bears, and more in jars on a high shelf in her kitchen.

Granny’s cures also almost always required herbs, although she called them “yarbs” in her old fashioned accent. Granny’s huge garden was full of herbs planted alongside her vegetables. Not content with what she could grow herself, Granny would forage for other plants in the woods around the cabin. She had an old Hoosier cabinet in her kitchen filled with little vials, bottles, jars, pouches, bags, and bundles of herbs. I once asked her why she had ginseng stored four different ways, and she told me that how you keep it makes it do different things. I didn’t understand that, but by then I’d learned not to ask too many questions about my granny’s work, lest she focus her ministrations upon me.

When a sick child was brought to her, Granny would listen to a report of the symptoms. Then she would trace her bony fingers all over the patient to assess the disease. Once, when I was in the second grade I started coughing up a storm, and after she felt around my chest and back Granny ran an egg all over my body as she hummed to herself. Then she broke the egg into a bowl of cold water and watched the yolk and white for a long time.

When she was satisfied with her diagnosis, Granny would select a fat from the jars on her shelf and some herbs from her cabinet. She would mix the fat and the herbs together in an old wooden bowl she told me her own granny’d made. Granny said the wood came from a hickory tree that’d been blown over in a storm but not struck by lightning, and she’d said it like it mattered.

Once she got everything blended to her satisfaction, Granny would rub the offending body part with that concoction. Worse yet, she’d send a jar of her custom mix home with your parents. When I had that bad chest cold back in the second grade, I spent a week smelling of rancid bear and thyme. The cold cleared up the very night after Granny first slathered me with her nasty ointment, but she told Daddy that it’d turn to pneumonia if I didn’t have my chest, back, and shoulders smeared with it real good twice a day for a week. My parents didn’t miss a day, so every morning before school and every night before bed there was no hiding from that damn jar of bear grease.

###

By the time I hit high school I was watching MTV and wanting to be a girl in a music video. This was back when MTV played music videos, so I reckon you can guess at how old I am, but that’s okay. It was round about then that I decided I was old enough to refuse to endure any more of my granny’s medicine. I think Daddy was a little sad about that, but he and Mama both had jobs in town with good insurance, so it was easy for me to go and see a regular doctor on those rare occasions I was sick.

I was good at school. Mama and Daddy started to tell me that, seeing as how I was both smart and agin Ozark medicine, I should go to college and be a doctor myself. I told them that was a good idea for a backup plan, just in case being in music videos didn’t work out. I was serious, but Mama laughed at that like I’d told her a joke.

When Elsie and I started our junior year in high school, we were still the best of friends. We were both cheerleaders, and I was learning to act and dance and even sing a little bit, all so that I could be on MTV someday. Just in case that didn’t work out, I was also taking advanced biology, chemistry, and math classes so that I could go to college as a pre-med student. More than anything, I was eager to put the isolated backwaters of the Ozark hills far behind me once I graduated high school.

On the first Monday of October, Elsie just didn’t show up for school. Naturally, the other kids asked me where my best friend and cousin was, but I didn’t know. At supper that night, I asked my folks if they knew what’d happened to Elsie. Daddy looked at Mama, and the two of them stared back and forth at one another for a long moment before he answered.

“Oh, she’s staying with your granny this week to help her out,” he said.

“Why?” I asked. “Is Granny sick?”

He looked at Mama again before he said, “Your granny ain’t sick so much as she’s old. She needs a sort of help that’s hard to find, a kind of help it seems like Elsie’s the best to give. We protect our family, so your Aunt Susie called to the school to get Elsie excused this week.”

I thought about Elsie all alone with Granny in that cabin smelling of strange herbs and stranger animal fats. I thought about how dark those woods got at night. I thought of the voices I could hear singing through closed car windows when we drove home from Granny’s house after dark. I shuddered a little bit, and I think Daddy noticed.

###

That night, I dreamed of Elsie. She was wearing an old fashioned dress that she’d hitched up above her knees to wade across Shadow Creek. She was walking in front of me in the moonlight, shaking with what had to be fear because the dark night was warm around us. I wanted to scream at her that we weren’t allowed outside of the yard after sundown and that she’d bettered get back to the cabin right away, but some part of me knew that I had to stay quiet. As I slipped deeper into the dream, the cold of Ozark spring water sluiced around my bare feet and then crept higher as I waded, rising until my knees began to ache from the cold in a way that I’d never felt before. I reached out a hand for Elsie to steady her as she came up the creek bank on the far side. She was sobbing with a terror I understood but couldn’t explain. My hand between her shoulders was liver spotted and wrinkled.

Then the night broke around us with a howl that balanced between a horrible beast gone a-hunting and a woman being brutalized.

I woke up screaming so loud that Daddy came a-running into my bedroom. He was a-holding the pistol he keeps in his nightstand in his shaking right hand.

###

Elsie was back at school Wednesday, and she was looking terrible. She had bags under her eyes, and there was a sallow cast to her complexion that would have made her a prime candidate for one of Granny’s remedies in our younger days.

When I arrived before the start of school, she was standing at her open locker and just staring into it with a vacant look on her face. I was so happy to see her that I rushed and hugged her from behind. Before I could get a word out of my mouth saying how glad I was to see her, she wriggled out of my embrace and planted her back against the wall of lockers. Then Elsie wailed, almost like the woman-part of that howl from my dream, as her eyes flitted wildly up and down the junior hallway. For a moment, I could see creaking sycamore trees and whispering underbrush around us instead of our very confused classmates.

“It’s okay, Elsie, it’s okay,” I whispered to her. “It’s Eliza. I’m here. It’s okay, Elsie.”

Then her eyes finally focused on me, and she collapsed into my arms. She sobbed through first bell as all the other kids gave us weird looks on their way to class. Finally the counselor found us. Mrs. Mason was my Daddy’s cousin, but she’d never treated Elsie or I any different than any other students before that morning. She took one look at my cousin and said, “We protect our family.” Then she wrote us both excuse slips for being tardy to first hour without any questions.

I took Elsie to the restroom to clean her up before we went to class. After she’d dried her eyes and fixed her mascara, Elsie said, “I’m sorry, Eliza. It’s just, I forgot where I was and who you were there for a moment.”

“It’s okay,” I told her. “I’m just glad that you’re back. Daddy said you were going to be at Granny’s all week.”

Elsie looked like she was about to cry again, before she said, “Yeah, I wanted to help her, but I guess it didn’t work out.”

“What were you helping with? Is Granny sick?”

“Well, it’s just—“ Elsie began before stopping with her mouth dangling open. “It’s just, I promised not to tell anyone about it, not even you.”

Then she took me by my shoulders with both hands and looked me in the eyes. I saw terror in her face. I smelled a creek at night. Tears welled up out of her eyes and started to streak her makeup again.

“Eliza,” she said to me between fresh sobs, “I’m so, so sorry.”

“Oh, Elsie, you’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”

I held her close again, and as she heaved against me, she whispered, “Yes, I do. I couldn’t protect our family.”

###

I had cheerleading practice after school. Elsie was there, but she kept breaking down and crying so often that our coach sent her home. All of the stopping and starting to deal with Elsie made practice run late, so by the time I’d walked home both Mama and Daddy were back from work. My big brother was away to college—not exactly a first in the family, but certainly a rarity—so I figured that after dinner I would have some privacy to ask Daddy what the hell had happened to Elsie.

I never got the chance to ask him.

It had been a beautiful, warm day that clung to the last vestige of summer, so the windows were open in the house. Inside the kitchen, I could hear Mama crying.

“How could it be?” she asked Daddy. “I thought the talent only goes down the female line.”

“I don’t know anything about it,” Daddy answered in the same voice he’d used two years before to tell me that my cousin Ricky had been found dead on the bridge over Shadow Creek. “All I know is that Mom said she felt Eliza with her when she took Elsie out, and that it has to be Eliza.” There was a catch in Daddy’s voice. “We don’t have any choice.”

That must have made Mama mad, because next thing I knew she was yelling at him and using words I’d never heard pass through her lips before.

“What the fuck do you mean, we don’t have any choice?” Mama screamed. “That bitch Elsie made a choice, and here we are because of it!”

I made a lot of noise on the front porch, and by the time I’d opened the door and come inside Mama had run off to the bathroom. Daddy was just standing solemn in the kitchen.

“Eliza,” he said to me, “your granny needs your help.”

I thought of Elsie and the way she sobbed at school. I thought of her terror in my dream the night before. A shiver crawled up and down my spine as I thought of Elsie’s apology to me that morning.

“What is it that Granny needs me to do?” I asked him.

Daddy looked like he was about to cry, but he managed to answer me.

“I don’t know, little girl,” he said, “but I want you to remember that we protect our family.”

###

Daddy drove me to Granny’s that very night, right after a silent dinner with my parents. It was like Mama’d seen a ghost, or maybe, I thought, that I was the ghost she was a-seeing. It was dark by the time we got to Shadow Hollow. We kept our windows up as we bounced down the rutted dirt and gravel that the county called a road. I could’ve swore I heard whispers out amongst the trees. Daddy turned the radio up loud until we rattled over Granny’s cattle guard.

Granny’s cabin has had electric since the REA finally got to it ‘round about 1955, and Granny was making use of all the electric she could that night. The light’s were on outside both front and back, and I could see the glow of incandescent bulbs from behind the heavy curtains on every window.

Before I could get out of the car, Daddy put a hand on my wrist.

“Wait a minute, Eliza,” he said. I waited, and he reached under his seat. “I want you to promise me that you’ll carry this with you tonight.”

He handed me the pistol he always kept at his bedside.

“Daddy, I don’t even kn—“ I began.

“Hush, Eliza,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I don’t know, but I know that I’m going to do the best I can to protect my family. Take the gun.”

I hefted the gun and felt its weight in my hand. I saw that it was loaded. Then I nodded, reached across the door to give Daddy a hug with my free arm, and went into Granny’s house.

###

I was scarcely out of the car before Granny opened the door to her cabin. She was as quiet as Silent Mountain, so I didn’t say anything either.

Once we were both inside, Granny closed the door with a gentle push.

“Eliza,” she said, “I got som’thin’ here ya need ta see, child.”

“Yes’m, Granny,” I answered her.

“Oh, and while I’m a-gettin’ it, wontchya lay that pistol down? It won’t do you no good in har.”

I laid the pistol on the counter of the Hoosier cabinet while Granny opened a cupboard by her sink.

“That’s a good girl,” Granny said. “Your daddy’s a good’un, and he’s the brightest of all my chillun even if he is the baby o’ the bunch, but he don’ know nothin’ ‘bout granny work if’n he thinks a pistol’s a-gonna help ya.”

“He made me promise to carry it tonight, Granny. I don’t know why.”

Granny snorted as she reached a box out from way in the back of the cupboard.

“I reckon it won’t hurt none, so you go ahead and keep your promise to ‘im. Just don’ ‘spect it to help none, neither.”

Granny plopped the tattered cardboard box onto her kitchen table. She opened it up and pulled out a large manilla envelope. From the envelope she drew out a photograph . . .

The picture was black and white and ancient looking, but I knew it couldn’t be more than a few months old because it showed Elsie in a fancy flapper dress. I figured it was some sort of novelty photo, but I didn’t know why Granny would have it. Elsie was so beautiful and happy in that picture that it cut me deep to think about how she was when I saw her at school that day. Granny handed the picture to me and gestured at me to sit down at the table. I did.

“I’s showin’ ya this so’s ya know that I know what it’s like, bein’ a granny so young.”

I looked at her across the photo, and I’m sure the confusion showed on my face.

“That ain’t your cousin in that picture, child,” she said. “And it ain’t you, neither. That’s me, just a little bit before my granny showed me what it is I’s gonna have to show ya t’night.”

I looked at the girl in the photo, so much like Elsie, so much like me, and then I looked up at Granny.

“What do you mean?” I asked her. “You couldn’t have been a granny then, you were too young. And I can’t be a granny yet. I’m too young, and I haven’t even been with a boy like that yet.”

Granny gave a thin smile and shook her head.

“Child,” she said, “I wish i’twas that simple. I’ll explain it all to ya, but for now you’re gonna need ta get ready. Ain’t much time.”

###

Granny had me scrub in her old cast iron tub with some harsh lye soap that I’m pretty sure she’d made herself. Then I put on an old fashioned dress of a sort that would’ve been out of style by the time Granny was my age and wearing flapper dresses. She gave me an apron with big pockets to wear over the dress so that I could put Daddy’s gun in it. As I started to put my shoes on, Granny shook her head and lifted up the hem of her own dress. Her old, gnarled feet were bare.

Then Granny told me to follow her. She led me out of the cabin to the gate where she’d whipped poor Ricky so many years before. She stopped with her hand on the gate and looked at me long and hard.

“Eliza,” she said, “whatever happens tonight, you be sure to do what I tell you.”

“Yes’m,” I answered.

She nodded her approval at my answer.

“We’s gonna have to cross the crick and hike plumb up to the lookout on Silent Mountain, so’s before we start you’s need to know that ain’t nothing out there can hurt you tonight whiles you with me, you understand that?”

“Yes’m.”

“And no matter what sorts of haints ya see, no matter what them haints tell ya, don’t you show them one bit of fear, you understand me? That’s what sets them off, the fear. If ya give ‘em that, you’ve done give ‘em everything ya got.”

I hesitated a moment at that, but Granny just kept standing there with me, just inside her gate, until I swallowed hard and nodded again.

“Yes’m,” I finally answered.

Then she opened the gate, and we went out into the terrible night of Shadow Hollow together.

###

I was worried that my bare feet would find every stick and stone, not to mention all of the snakes, along the way, but somehow the ground beneath my feet was smooth and soft for every step of the walk to the creek. Granny led me along the bank where the creek had cut towering bluffs into the mountain until we got to the stretch where the cliffs dwindle down to a steep but climbable slope. Then Granny motioned for me to stop.

“We have to cross here, child,” she said. “And now you’s got to lead the way, single file. Remember what I said. Don’ give ‘em your fear. That’s what they’s like best of all.”

I looked across the cool water of the creek. I recognized the sycamore trees clawing at the sky above us from my dream of Elsie. I could smell the lingering terror of my cousin mingled with the scent of fresh water and the timber of the mountainside.

I hitched up my skirt and started to wade across the cold water. As I scrabbled up the bank on the far side, the first howl split the night. I felt my granny’s comforting hand between my shoulders.

###

It was a long, winding walk up Silent Mountain, and despite its name the mountain was anything but silent. Voices and cackles rustled through the trees like a breeze. Autumn leaves fell like evil laughter around us. A tree branch crashed down so close that I almost jumped out of my skin, and Granny responded with another comforting hand on my back. Every quarter mile or so that howl would come from high up on the mountain. It would begin like I’d always imagined a wolf sounds, only deeper and bigger somehow. Then it would sidle up to the high pitch of a woman being savaged so brutally that she doesn’t fear angering her tormentor because he just can’t do anything worse to her than he already is doing. There was a fury in the howl that mingled with hunger.

After hours of hiking barefoot through the moonlight, we drew nigh to the lookout that juts out over the Shadow Hollow below, the place where on a clear day you can see clear to town if you’re brave enough. I was still in front and about to round the final bend before the outcropping.

Then came another howl. I remembered what Granny’d told me about not showing them haints any fear, so I tried to walk steady on my bare feet even though I wanted so bad to throw myself over the bluff face, just to escape whatever it was that was out there in the night with me.

There was a thing standing on the outcrop, looking out into the darkness towards town. Each of its four legs was as big around as the trunk of a fifty year-old black oak. Its body hulked with the shape of a bear, but it was so large that it blocked out the sky before me. It seemed too large and somehow too dense for the rock of the mountain to hold. I tensed, waiting—hoping—that the thing’s weight would tear the outcrop from the mountainside and take it crashing into the creek’s cold water below. The moon setting behind the peak glinted off of two horns that curled back over the beast’s head. The horns dripped with a power I could sense but could not see. Its eyes glowed red in the night. Even in the warm air, steam rose from its flanks.

A droning hum began to build in the air as I stood awestruck and terrified. When the sound was more than my ears could bear anymore, it kept right on growing until, finally, it became words that reverberated down and then echoed back up from the valley below.

“Elizabeth, Granddaughter of Emily, what brings you so far from your threshold on this moonlit night?”

Granny squeezed beside me on the trail and practically shouted her answer.

“I come to introduce this girl to you, as my grandmother brought me to you so many years ago.”

The beast continued to gaze across the valley with its ominous red eyes. A sound like a steam engine came from within it, and then the steam engine was speaking.

“What is this woman-child’s name?”

“She is Eliza,” Granny answered, “and she is my granddaughter.”

I felt the heft of Daddy’s pistol in the apron I was wearing, and I confess that it occurred to me to try and shoot the thing that loomed before me. I didn’t do that, though, because I knew that Granny was right about how useless the gun would be. The thing before us was older and more powerful than bullets or steel or even people. There was nothing an old woman and a teenage girl could do to harm it. To draw the gun would be nothing but foolish fear, and fear was just what it wanted from us.

The roiling and thrumming in the air focused on me, truly focused on me, for the first time then. It was as if thousands of cicadas were all over me, and inside of me, churning and buzzing, all of them seeing me and tasting me and smelling me from the inside out.

“Eliza,” the voice rumbled. “That is a strong name. You may make the choice.”

Somehow, from deep within me, words came.

“What is the choice?” I asked.

The beast’s attention churned in the air around me.

“The choice is simple,” the voice reverberated from the stone beneath my bare feet, up through my bones of my toes and shins, shaking through my thighs and hips until my spine carried the power and contempt to my ears. “Your foremothers violated my domain. The just reward for their trespass is death. Death to them, and death to all born of their line. Horrible, rending death that takes them in terror and anguish. Death that stalks them wherever they may dwell or wherever they may hide.”

Beside me in the last of the moonlight, Granny grasped my hand tight and gave a squeeze. The voice continued to resonate around us and in us and through us at a deliberate, almost casual cadence. The force of the voice could have ground the very mountain into dust as the creature continued.

“I will continue to forego my justice upon the spawn begat by your foremothers if you choose to dwell here amongst my kind to listen to our whispers and our songs, voluntarily and of your own free will. For as long as you and your line dwell with us and do not disturb our nocturnal work, we shall respect your thresholds, and we shall not harm those tied to you through blood unless they violate our Night in these woods.”

The creature continued to look out over Shadow Hollow as it spoke. Its eyes glowed brighter as it rumbled on.

“When your eyes dim and your form grows old, you may bring a willing granddaughter of your very flesh to take your watch. If you break your vow to dwell among us, or if you fail to bring a granddaughter to take your place, my kind and I shall rend each and every relation you have, wherever they may dwell upon this ancient Earth. We shall drink their blood and gnaw their bones. Their skulls shall decorate our trees. We shall fly their skins as pennants over these woods that belonged to us before your grandmothers’ grandmothers looked out into our dark Night with terror.”

The horizon to the east glowed with the barest pink as the beast lowered its massive body to lay upon the rock. It continued to stare out over the valley below and the people within it with a malicious hunger. Its thick tongue licked its lips.

“What say you, Eliza, Granddaughter of Elizabeth?” the throb asked me. “Will you deal with me as Elizabeth, Granddaughter of Emily has for so many years? Will you deal with me as have all the Grandmothers of your line have since they first violated my woods? Will you give yourself for the families your grandmothers’ wombs brought into this world? Will you give yourself for the children of your womb, yet to be brought forth?”

I could feel the world spinning around me on that mountain top. I saw Daddy and Mama ripped apart by dark, wolf-like monsters with blood trailing from their terrible jaws. I saw my brother’s entrails strewn about a dorm room and him staring at the mess, wide-eyed and terrified before his end. I saw Elsie savaged by corpses animated with a darkness deeper than the roots of the Ozark Mountains. Or, I saw me, in living in Granny’s cabin, growing old and more than half mad listening to the voices in the woods. I knew that both visions were true, and I knew that I held the choice between them.

I gathered my courage and spoke as clear and loud as I could.

“I will protect my family.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s