#2022 Short Story Challenge: Beware the Wampus Cat #Folklore #SmokyMountains

Below is our fourth entry in the 2022 Short Story Challenge, started by A Virginia Writer’s Diary. See the original post here. The theme this year is folklore, and I’m very excited about that! My husband Doug is writing with me, so our name is Bonnie Douglas when we are writing together. We’re concentrating on Appalachian Folklore for this challenge. We are a little behind. Here is our April entry, with the May entry coming soon. My husband wrote this one by himself with just a little editing from me, and it’s about the legend of The Wampus Cat.

Beware the Wampus Cat

By Bonnie Douglas

NOTE:  There are many different tales about the Wampus Cat in the mountains.  This one is based on a Cherokee legend about a maiden who spied on one of the men’s secret ceremonies and was turned into a “demon cat.”

Yellow eyes glared balefully from deep within the seemingly impenetrable laurel thickets lining the rocky hillsides of the mountain hollow.  The leather-clad men flinched nervously as a rumbling growl reached their ears.  They clasped their flint-tipped spears, and speaking low imprecations to their ponies, they hurried down the game trail to escape an ambush by what the tribe called a “Demon Cat.”  They knew that remaining after dark could mean their families might never know what fate found them as the Wampus Cat would snatch them from beside the fire, never to be seen again.  

Grumbling, the midnight black Wampus Cat pulled herself further back into the thicket. “Fool men,” she whispered to herself.  “Always thinking they know more than me.” Hugging herself with two strong arms, she scuffled into the leaves with four more legs and settled down to await another group of more careless men. Word of the Demon Cat had spread further than she actually ever went.  With each whispered tale, she grew more fierce and vengeful.  Her hatred of men made them more cautious and more hesitant to travel the hollows she haunted.

Time passed and the Death Cat grumbled, her memories often embellishing the events leading up to her transformation from curious woman to Demon Cat.  “Curiosity didn’t kill the cat–it created one,” chuckled the Wampus Cat to herself. She recalled watching from a thicket, much as she did now, as the men held their “secret ceremony” in the shiny cave around the flickering flames. 

“Women not allowed!” she spat in fury as her tail whipped around, thrashing splinters from the tree trunks. She remembered her shock that day as a spark from the fire flew onto the puma skin she was shrouded in, causing her to stumble from the safety of her thicket of trees, swatting wildly to extinguish the deadly flare.  The men surrounding the fire were almost as shocked as she was at her sudden appearance, but they managed to surround and restrain her before she could gather herself to flee.

The leader of the group of elders looked at her with the flames reflected in his eyes.  “Why are you here, Cat Woman?” he growled. “You know women are forbidden to witness this ritual.  It is for men only!”

“Men! You think you know everything and women are good only to work and take care of babies!” Cat Woman snarled back. “Women are not afraid.  We can hunt and go to war and have secret knowledge the same as men!” Cat Woman continued to snarl as she struggled to free herself from the grasp of the men.

 “Foolish woman!” shouted the elder.  “It does not matter in the least what your role is.  Some ceremonies are meant for men and others for women! I suppose the only way you will learn is to see for yourself.”

The flames shot higher and Cat Woman heard whispers growing and swirling inside the cave. Her eyes darted wildly around the circle and the smoke from the fire suddenly seemed to fill the cavern.  Cat Woman felt strange and began to cough, her body racked by spasms as the mountain cat pelt slipped from her shoulders and draped around her waist . The men’s eyes began to shine yellow, bright enough to be seen as beacons through the thickening pall of smoke. 

Cat Woman fell to the ground as the men’s rough hands released her.  The strange feeling intensified and a rasping scream broke from her throat.

“What….is…..happening?” panted Cat Woman as her body changed and she felt the pelt begin to meld with her flesh.

 “I told you that this was for men alone.” said the elder pityingly. “This is a transformation ceremony, and for a woman it brings her true nature out, whatever it may be. Your curiosity and wrathfulness are your curse.  Now you will wear that pelt until your nature changes,” declared the elder as his eyes flashed a yellow so brightly it blinded everyone in the silica lined cave.

 Yowling a curse, Cat Woman felt her transformation take hold as two more legs sprouted from where her pelt had wrapped around her waist. Her arms remained, but were fur-covered and muscular.   Her frame stretched and contorted and she bent towards the ground. Her face changed from human to feline and a lantern-like yellow glow filled her eyes. Shrieking her displeasure, she coiled to spring towards the elders and attack.  Before she could complete her move, the elders raised their hands and as one shouted one word, “BEGONE!”

 With a rush of air the sparks and smoke of the fire whirled around Cat Woman and flung the new Demon Cat away from the cave, far into the mountain hollows.

 “Foolish men,” the Wampus Cat growled to herself, as the flood of memories raised her ire again. “I’ll show them what it means to create a Demon Cat!” Thrashing her tail wildly, the Wampus Cat settled into a thick knot of laurels to nurse her grudge.

Time passed slowly, seasons came and went.  Tales of men disappearing from around campfires spread among the bands and villages.  The elders warned men to avoid being out among the hollows after dark. Through it all, the Wampus Cat waited, her baleful yellow eyes shining in the dark, her moan of “Foolish Men!” whispered on the winds, warning men of the dangers. 

 Change was coming, she could feel it and hear it too.  Raising her head from the leaf litter lining her laurel thicket, the Wampus Cat flicked her ears toward the clamor and jingle of men moving around her hollow. The many seasons since she last saw a man had shrunken her rage, and along with it her size.  Her curiosity was stronger than her rage now, but it simmered still.  With a whip of her tail she slid slowly from her thicket, drawn by the new sounds.

 Chains rattled, leather creaked as the rickety wagon wandered into the center of the hollow. The mules leading it ambled to a stop, heads drooping.  With a shriek, children clad in homespun burst from the rear and darted around like sparks from a fire. Yellow eyes blinked from the shadows under a giant poplar tree hanging over the old war trail leading through the hollow.

These people were different from those of the Demon Cat’s past. A hiss, born of a mixture of fear and fury, whispered from the Wampus Cat’s throat as her eyes fixed on the man lifting himself from the wagon and staggering slightly. Her ears flicked erect as she heard a woman shouting from the other side of the wagon.

 “Foolish man! I won’t have you tottering about like a drunk in front of your daughters!” The shout came from a woman, taller than most, with hair caught in a bun.  She was clad in a worn homespun dress like her daughters.   “We’ve only just managed to scrape together enough to make a home here in this place, no thanks to you disappearing every time there’s work to be done!”

“Now Hester, you know I’ve got a serious injury from falling off that rope bridge on the way to work,” groused the man, aimlessly searching the hollow for some means of escape.

 “Injury indeed!” huffed Hester. “If you mean you cut your rump when you landed on your liquor jug, then I guess that counts, Bud Stiles.”

“It counts indeed,” chortled Bud. “That sawyer paid me enough for us to get this piece of land.  I don’t believe that whole ‘Wampus Cat’ business anyway.”

 “Wampus Cat? What do you mean?” asked Hester with an angry quiver in her voice. “If you’ve done something to endanger your daughters it’ll be the last thing you do!”

“Now Hester, no need for that,” Bud said with a placating wave.  “Even though the sawyer gave me a handsome sum for falling off his incredibly dangerous bridge,” Bud chortled to himself at the thought of the sawmill owner’s face,  “it was barely enough for this land.  If the elders hadn’t warned everyone off with some fable about a six-legged ‘Demon Cat” haunting this hollow and carting off every man she saw, we’d still be living in that hut down by the river.” 

Hester glared at Bud with barely contained fury, and Bud nervously began to edge towards the woods. Hester reached into the wagon and, scrabbling around, her hand found the axe.

 “Lazy Bud, you take this axe with you and bring back some firewood,” said Hester, thrusting the axe into Bud’s hands. “And try not to lose this one!”

Yellow eyes watched it all happen from the shadowed hillside.  Bud stumbled up the bank, dragging the axe blade in the dirt behind him. Soon the sound of the ringing against trees could be heard throughout the hollow.  Shaking her head, Hester went about the business of setting up camp for her and their daughters.

“Foolish man,” she muttered to herself as darkness began to fall in the hollow and Lazy Bud still hadn’t returned.  The axe had fallen silent long ago as Bud laid up against a tree “just to rest his eyes.” Low to the ground, yellow eyes glared from a thicket near where Lazy Bud lay curled on the ground, snoring.

“FOOLISH MAN!” a shout rang through the hollow and the woods surrounding it.  With a start, Bud’s eyes flew open and he grabbed the axe from the dirt. 

 “Well it’s too late to do anything about it now,” Bud muttered to himself. “Guess I’ll start a fire and wait until that woman calms down.” Scrabbling in his pockets, he found his flint. 

Piling up the little bit of wood that he had actually chopped, he struck a spark of the axe into the tinder and blew until the spark caught and grew slowly into a roaring fire. 

All the while, yellow eyes glared from the thicket as Bud warmed himself, and an angry snarl built to a howling scream. “FOOLISH MAN!” burst from the mouth of the Wampus Cat. Suddenly her eyes flared bright enough to blind anyone within the circle lit by the fire.   And Lazy Bud disappeared from the circle of light in a whirl of sparks, as men had done so many times before. The Wampus Cat’s anger dissipated as she thought of the woman and her daughters.  They were alone now as she had been for so long.  With one last snarl, the Wampus Cat settled down to sleep by the fire. 

A curl of smoke rose from the remains of the fire and the Wampus Cat stirred, opening yellow eyes at the sound of feet and many voices calling “Bud!” and “Daddy! Where are you!”

 The cat remained still, feet tucked up under her body, as Hester and her daughters staggered into the small clearing. At the sight of the humans, The Wampus Cat sprang up, back arched and snarling, but suddenly she realized she was no longer furious.   She attempted to speak, and nothing came out but a yowl.  Reaching out, she tried to touch the closest young girl, but nothing except a fur-clad paw was there instead of her formerly muscular arms. 

 “Mama, look, a kitty!” squealed the youngest of the girls “Can we keep it?”

 “Please, please, please!” chanted the rest of the girls, their missing father forgotten, as this was not an unusual occurrence to say the least.

 “Well, if she shows up at the campsite, we’ll find a spot for her, but it will have to be her own decision, not ours,” said Hester.  “Let’s pick up that axe and get back to the holler.  Maybe your Daddy will show up in time for dinner.”

Six months later, Hester sat in a rough-hewn chair.  A small black cat  with glowing yellow eyes sat in her lap and stared at the circle of young girls sitting cross-legged around her.  Bud had never returned, but they had managed without him, since he had never really helped much anyway. The one thing he had done for them was buy that land, and they farmed it and kept themselves fed.  Predators, for whatever reason, had stayed away.  Relatives had helped build a tiny cabin, and another one would be going up soon, as Cecily, the oldest girl, was getting married.

“Mama, why is the cat staring at us?” asked the youngest of her daughters.

“Now girls, you know that’s no ordinary cat,” said Hester, stroking the small, black, six-legged feline softly and staring at the fire. “Let me tell you all the story of the Wampus Cat.”

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