This is one of seven books I read in August and September for the November edition of Historical Novels Review, the magazine of the Historical Novel Society.
In the present day, Kieran Lucas’s grandmother, “Granny Mac,” is slipping away, her memories clouded by dementia. Granny Mac is also having disturbing flashbacks of her mother’s death and the loss of her home. Hoping to bring her peace, Kieran heads to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to find answers. In 1931, Rose McCauley’s Smoky Mountain home is threatened by the creation of a new national park. Then she makes a compromise that could change everything, but will bootleggers operating near her home let this agreement stand?
This book transports us to Appalachia in the 1930s and captures the heart of the mountain people, as well as their connection to the land. The absolute upheaval when many families had to leave the area and relocate for the park is well described. The vivid pictures of the mountain scenery painted by Karen Barnett made me feel as if I was seeing the Smokies with my own eyes. For example, “Wisps of clouds draped over the forested hillsides in the distance, like so many white silk veils” perfectly describes the beautiful covering of shifting clouds draping the Smokies that we see today. This book is true to life and true to history. The meaning of the land and of family connections is so powerful and real. Rose’s determination to care for her sister and honor her late parents and family name is carried on by Kieran, who wants to honor her grandmother with the truth. There are two sweet romances in this powerful book, but the main message can be summed up by a quote from Rose: “If a bird wants to fly free, first it has to release the branch.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karen Barnett is the award-winning author of the Vintage National Parks Novels, the Golden Gate Chronicles (Out of the Ruins, Beyond the Ashes, Through the Shadows), and MISTAKEN. She lives in Oregon with her husband, two kids, and a bevy of furry friends. You can learn more about Karen’s writing journey at http://www.KarenBarnettBooks.com.
This is our seventh entry in the 2022 Short Story Challenge, started by A Virginia Writer’s Diary . This year the challenge is all about folklore, and the original post can be found here. We are a little behind, but will catch up to have twelve by the end of the year. We have kept our stories to Appalachian folklore with lots of our own twists added in. My husband Doug and I are writing them together, and we write together under the name Bonnie Douglas. This story is called A Helping Hand and was inspired by the recent search and rescue teams in Eastern Kentucky as well as the Trailblazers who first forged a way through the mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. Thanks as always to amazing author Gail Meath for her editing help.
A HELPING HAND
by Bonnie Douglas
The rain had finally stopped, and for the most part, the flood waters had receded. Although the flooding rains had abated, the mess and misery would take a lot longer to disappear.
“Well Dooley, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into,” I admonished my mud-covered, happily wagging bloodhound. This part of the mountains had been deluged by rain, causing flooding, mudslides, washed-out roads, devastated homesites, and everything else you could think of. So many had disappeared that search teams were struggling to keep up with the demand. It wasn’t the first time Dooley and I were out hunting for lost people. Dooley was practically a celebrity among the search dog crews, his nose leading him into many places that you’d never think a human could get into–let alone a bloodhound with his wrinkled hide and long flapping ears. I was just the human holding onto his lead and struggling to keep up with his mile-eating stride through whatever obstacles popped up in our path.
When Dooley followed his nose, everything else was secondary. This time it had brought us sliding down a muddy hillside and into a narrow crevice, just deep and slippery enough that there was no way we were getting out without help. I’d lost all my gear in the pell-mell slide off the edge of the trail, and in my hurry to get out on the search I hadn’t even signed in on the registry. No one would even know I was missing for far longer than I felt comfortable thinking about.
“Dooley boy, we’re in trouble for certain. If you have any ideas, now is the time. I’d love to hear them.” Dooley looked up at me mournfully, gave himself a shake, and plopped down in a heap on the muddy bottom of the crevice.
“Well I take it that means you have no plan,” I muttered to myself since Dooley was now snoring softly.
“I sure picked the wrong time to get in a hurry, and definitely the wrong time to fall off the trail.”
The modern world had barely touched this whole region. Get far enough off the paved roads and you’d never know that it wasn’t still the pioneer days. This trail was part of the Wilderness Road that had been cut through the hills by Daniel Boone and a group of trailblazers. Eventually, it opened up the whole region to settlement, and over 300,000 folks had passed through heading west and onward to what was then the frontier. So many tales of adventure were associated with Daniel Boone that it had always piqued my interest. The story went that not far from where I was now stuck, Boone himself had hidden under the flowing curtain of a waterfall, escaping a band of Indians intent on capturing him. “I sure could use a crew of trailblazers right about now,” I thought to myself, peering up into the narrow gap we’d slithered through.
Leaning back against the rocky wall, I made myself as comfortable as I could and huddled into my windbreaker. I could feel the events of the day catching up to me. Following Dooley’s lead, I closed my eyes.
“Just for a minute,” I told myself, and drifted off to a restless sleep.
Trying to sleep standing up in a cold, wet hole in the ground is not a choice I’d recommend to anyone. Jerking awake to something tickling your face I would recommend even less. Every muscle in my neck and shoulders screamed in protest when I tried to throw what I was sure was a snake away from my head.
A low chuckle reached my ears and the light of a guttering lantern cast shadows all around the narrow opening encasing my dog and me. “Tis naught but my line, young man. If you’ve a mind, I believe we might be able to get you and your hound back up where you belong.”
Craning my neck back and trying to get a view of my savior against the low glare of the lantern, I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I repeated as I scrabbled to get a grip on the slippery line dangling in front of me.
“How did you find me? No one should even know I’m missing yet.” I asked the shadow above me.
“Plenty of time for questions and answers once we haul you and your hound up out of that hole,” the shadowy figure replied. “I think we ought to bring your dog up first, unless you think he can tie a knot on his own.”
“Probably a good idea. Dooley is talented but knot tying is not one of his strengths,” I said, almost chuckling with happiness at the thought of getting out of this hole.
“Up Dooley!” I said, and Dooley raised himself up from the bottom of the hole and managed to lift his rangy frame upright enough that I could get a couple of loops of the rope around him and tied off to his harness. As I tied it off, I got a little better look at the rope in the light cast by the lantern now sitting on the edge of the hole. It didn’t look like any rope I was familiar with. It was more like braided leather than the fancy woven nylon used for climbing or lifting.
“Up ye come, hound,” said the shadowy figure. Watching Dooley slowly rise into the air and then scrabbling for purchase with his front paws at the lip of the hole, I quickly put the rope out of my mind.
“Good boy, Dooley!” I called up to the top and I saw Dooley stick his head in to look down at me and give a quick snuffle around the edge.
“I’ll be up in a minute, Dooley!”
“Your turn, lad,” said the shadowy figure. “Tie yourself off and do what you can to climb up. You’re a mite heavier than your trusty hound,” he chuckled.
The braided line tumbled down on top of me, and in the flickering lantern light, I fashioned a quick loop around my waist. With a tug, I called up “Ready when you are!”
“Brace yourself, lad. Up ye come,” the shadowy figure called. I immediately started to rise with no assistance from me. The braided line dug into my waist, and dirt showered down on my face. Rising above the edge of the hole, I clutched at the dirt and pulled myself up further, collapsing onto my back with a huge sigh of relief.
Pushing myself up onto my hands and knees, I looked around for the man who had rescued us. “What the…..” I muttered as my eyes darted around the surrounding area, finding nothing and no one in sight.
Standing up, I caught sight of what could only be the lantern flickering briefly in the woods like a will o’ the wisp, and then it too disappeared completely. Grabbing the woven line, I coiled it up quickly, stuffed it into a cargo pocket, and called Dooley to heel. Trotting towards the spot the lantern light had disappeared on the trail ahead, I called out “Hey! Mister! I want to thank you! Please! Wait up!” Dooley and I both trotted along the trail through the quickly brightening woods. As the sun rose higher, I realized we had been trapped for a long time. I guess I had slept longer than I thought. Reaching a bend in the trail, I could see no one ahead of me.
“Dooley, Search!” I said, as my star search hound snuffled dutifully around the trail. Very quickly, Dooley plopped down with a soft whine and looked up at me, tail wagging and swiping the trail clean.
“What? Nothing? You and your super sniffer nose didn’t pick up any scent at all from where someone must have walked just seconds ago?”
Shaking my head in disbelief, I called Dooley to heel again.
“Well I’m sure we’ll catch up to him at the search tent, he probably just hurried off to report that he found us.”
With that Dooley and I jogged off down the trail back to the search tent as quickly as our stiff, tired legs could take us. As we slowly covered the few miles of winding trail between us and the search tent, I pondered our situation. Lost in the wilderness, with no realistic chance of ever being found and then an even more unlikely rescuer simply disappears after ensuring our safety.
Mind reeling with equal parts exhaustion and exhilaration I stumbled into the clearing. The search headquarters tent was milling with people bustling around, busy organizing workers and search teams.
Scanning the small crowd of teams and workers, I saw no one that stood out as I expected. I began to head towards the main tent as voice called out “Ed Jenkins! Glad you and your celebrity hound could make it!”
Turning, I saw Edith Holden, the chief organizer, waving me over. “Ed, I know you and Dooley have been hard at work for the last little while but we really need that super sniffer out there on the hunt. These floods have really got a lot of folks in trouble!”
Drawing nearer, I saw Edith’s face light up with concern. “Ed you look like you’ve been pulled through a knothole by your tail! What in the world happened to you?”
Confused, I drew up to a stop “What do you mean? Didn’t he tell you that he found us and rescued us earlier?” I asked.
“Ed, no one has been in here this morning telling us anything. Why don’t you sit down and tell me what’s going on and we’ll see what we can figure out,” Edith said. She pulled a folding chair out and pointed me to another.
Almost collapsing into the chair with Dooley curled up at my feet, I launched into the whole story. I began with our rush to the search and the near deadly fall into a narrow crevice, and ended with our late-night rescue and the disappearance of our rescuer. As I finished my story and leaned back in the chair, I remembered the coiled-up braided leather rope our rescuer had left behind. Pulling it out of my pocket, I put it on the table in front of me.
Edith’s face went from concerned to smiling in an instant when she spotted the braided leather. “Ed, don’t tell me you’ve never heard the story of the trailblazer, especially after all the time you’ve spent out here on the trails,” Edith said, reaching out for the coiled-up leather.
Picking up the rope, she continued. “There have been stories about the missing trailblazer helping folks since Daniel Boone and his crew finished the Wilderness Road. At the very end of the road they had to take shelter in a block fort when they were attacked by an Indian war band before they managed to escape under the shelter of a storm. During the escape one of the crew got washed away downriver and was never found. Ever since then there have been stories of a mysterious rescuer helping folks all along the trail. The rescuer always leaves behind a braided leather rope like this one.” Edith explained. “I believe that was your rescuer–the missing trailblazer.”
Unable to help myself, I burst out laughing. “Edith! That’s ridiculous!” I laugh, scoffing. “You can’t expect me to believe that some ghost came and pulled me and Dooley up out of a hole in the middle of nowhere just because of this silly piece of leather.”
“Believe it, or not Ed. It’s your choice, but as far as I can tell there’s no other explanation for it,” Edith said, sitting back in her chair and smiling. “Sooner or later you’ll see, or you won’t. Now take your cord and your super sniffer dog and go home and rest up.”
Gathering up the cord and nudging Dooley awake, I called back over my shoulder as I left the tent. “Thanks for the story Edith, but I’ll just chalk it up to someone who didn’t need thanks. We’ll see you tomorrow to help find whoever is still missing.” And with that, I walked back to my truck and loaded Dooley up into his shotgun position. I climbed into the driver’s side, pitching the braided cord over my shoulder into the backseat limbo.
A few weeks later, after the rush of flood search and rescue had finally abated, I decided it was time to clean up and organize the truck and our search gear. Scrabbling around in the area behind the seats, I came across the coiled-up leather rope, and chuckling, tucked it into my pocket again.
At the end of the day Dooley and I had an appointment for a demonstration at the Wilderness Road museum so I loaded him and his gear up and headed out a little early. I was hoping to check out the museum before we began our demonstration of Dooley’s super sniffing nose. It had been a long time since I had the chance to look around the museum, but I had always been intrigued by the bravery and sheer willpower it took to settle the area we called home. As I toured the exhibits, with Dooley decked out in his search team harness, I came across an old display case tucked into the corner near the back. It held a dented lantern and a dried-up, cracked, and braided leather rope. The placard detailed a number of rescues and recounted the same tale that Edith had told me. Looking down at Dooley, I just smiled and said to him “C’mon boy, even you don’t believe that story now, do you?”
Dooley sat, and with a quiet woof, pawed the base of the display case, wagging his tail.
Once again we began a story that took a different turn as we began writing. The recent rains and flooding in the mountain towns and villages of Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia brought many stories of search, rescue, and missing persons. I’ve always been intrigued with the thought of the effort involved in settling this area, especially as we travel distances in hours that would have taken days, weeks, and months in times not really that long past.
Stories of mysterious strangers helping others abound. Growing up in the 1970s we had songs about “Phantom 309,” and even PeeWee Herman had a helping hand from a mysterious stranger in one of his movies. Tales abound of unnamed angels showing up at the nick of time for people in need. Researching the Wilderness Road is an extremely interesting aspect of our local history that helped us decide to move the story from the GSMNP to the Tennessee/Virginia/Kentucky area.
Our Dooley was half yellow Lab, half Bulldog, and sweet as can be. He was part of our life for 15 years until he passed away. We miss him so much.
The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted at the @ Caffeinated Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news and a post to recap the past week on your blog and showcase books and things we have received. Share news about what is coming up on our blog for the week ahead. See the rules here.
I’m continuing with the new diet plan and I’ve lost 7 pounds so far, and I’ll weigh in again tomorrow. There’s a long way to go, but it’s a step in the right direction. The garden we planted recently is starting to grow and we’ve got some squash blossoms already and a few flowers on the tomatoes. It’s great to see efforts being rewarded.
Happy Father’s Day to my husband Doug, the rock of our family. I mentioned he had been painting his car, and it’s finished. I’m really proud of him.
I was in Blowing Rock, NC on the Blue Ridge Parkway the other day, and here are some pictures from an overlook. I’m blessed to live in such a beautiful area.
LAST WEEK ON THE BLOG
Things were a bit quieter on the blog this past week as I was busily finishing up reviews for the August edition of Historical Novels Review, the magazine of the Historical Novel Society. I will share the covers of some of the books I reviewed soon. I can’t post the reviews until after the magazine is published.
The 2022 Short Story Challenge started by A Virginia Writer’s Diary is all about folklore, and the original post can be found here. We are finally caught up, and here is our official post for May. For our May entry, we’re focusing on the mountain tradition of storytelling, as well as Mother’s Day, to bring you a story from my Mom, who passed away in 2020.
ABOUT MY MOM
Dorothy Jenkins was born in 1931 in the mountains of Western NC. Her father, Ed Calloway Jenkins, was a farmer who took on other jobs to make ends meet, including working in a sawmill. Her mother, Edith, worked hard at home and raised 12 children. Dorothy, or Dot, only went to school until the eighth grade because she was needed at home to help take care of the family. However, she loved to read. She read a book a day when I was a kid. Growing up, her mother would read stories to my Mom and her siblings, often Grace Livingston Hill romances or Zane Grey westerns. And my Mom could tell a story. One of my favorites was the story about the jar of peanut butter. I’m calling it Death by Peanut Butter, and you will see the reason why when you read the last two lines. She wrote that story down, and I’m providing it below with some dialogue and context thrown in. I also added a bit of another story she used to tell us about The Swinging Bridge.
This is Appalachian folklore in its purest sense–Mountain parents and grandparents sharing stories of their lives with their children.
DEATH BY PEANUT BUTTER
One day my Momma asked me to go to the store and a get jar of peanut butter for school lunches. “Ok,” I said, “Can I take Ed and Bonnie?” My brother Ed was eight years old and Bonnie was only six.
“Yes, Dot,” she said, “But take care of them!”
I said okay and we went on our way. It was four miles one way to the store, and we ran along, playing and being silly, until we made our way to town.
In the early to mid-1940s, in order to get to the store in our town, which was Bryson City, North Carolina, we had to cross the Tuckasegee River. That was the scariest part of the trip. Our little town was split in the middle by that river. In order to get across, we had to use the swinging bridge that had been put up by the Carolina Wood Turning company, a furniture company where our Daddy worked in the lumberyard.
The swinging bridge had always been a scary place for me. The river could get very wild, and the bridge rocked back and forth on windy days, with only rope on the sides to hold onto. I’ll never forget the day, a couple years before, when I brought my Daddy his lunch. He had always crossed the bridge to meet me, because he knew how scared I was to cross it. But that day he did not. He sat down on the bank and called, “Dot, come over here!”
I was terrified, but I had to do as my Daddy said. I slowly stepped onto the bridge, which creaked and swayed. I stopped, shaking, afraid to go forward. He called out again, “Dot, don’t be afraid. Just look at me!”
It was the most terrible trip, that first trip across the bridge. But keeping my eyes on my Daddy and not on the water, I made it across. Ever since then, I was able to help Momma more, such as running those errands to the store, because I could cross that bridge and go to town.
Even now, each crossing was a scary event for me. I held tight to my sister Bonnie’s hand, but my brother Ed scampered across without a fear in the world.
At the store, I bought the jar of peanut butter plus some other things my Momma needed. The lady at the counter smiled at little Bonnie and said, “Would you like a peppermint stick, Sweetie?”
Her big grin and quick nod resulted in all three of us receiving candy for the trip back. What a treat!
Of course we had to head back to that swinging bridge in order to go home, so we walked across, sucking on our candy and enjoying the day. I went even more slowly because I was carrying the bit of groceries.
At the end of the bridge, a strange man was standing, swaying back and forth, and he wouldn’t let us pass. I asked him nicely to let us go past him, but he did not. The bridge was narrow, and he was blocking the exit. He kept swaying and talking unintelligibly, trying to keep us trapped on the bridge. I don’t know why. He was probably drunk.
I said very loudly “Let us off this bridge!” but he did not. I was getting worried now, so I told Ed, “When I say run, take Bonnie and run!” Again I said very loudly, “Let us off this bridge!” When he didn’t move, I yelled “Run!” and Ed and Bonnie began to run. I took that jar of peanut butter and threw it at this odd man, hitting him in the head. And wouldn’t you know it, he fell over and then rolled down the hill!
Ed and Bonnie were already running toward home, but I looked for the jar of peanut butter. It was sitting halfway down the hill and was not broken. I ran and got it. My Momma needed that peanut butter. I took off for home, catching up with my brother and sister. We never told our Momma or Daddy about this until we were grown.
My brother Ed, when telling this story, would always say I killed a man with a jar of peanut butter! I don’t think so, but I sure didn’t go back to check!
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.”
Below is my third 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 together our name is Bonnie Douglas. We’re concentrating on Appalachian Folklore for this challenge. We are a little behind. Our March entry was delayed by illness and we just missed the end of April, but here is our third entry, with two more to come later in May. This story is a combination of the vast folklore out there about a race of magical people, smaller than us but having powers that we do not. It is called The People of the Moon.
The People of the Moon By Bonnie Douglas
My family has lived in these Western North Carolina hills and hollers for as long as anyone can remember. Before that, our tight-knit clans roamed the dales and glens of Ireland, England and Wales, as well as the highlands of Scotland, with some stray Germans from the Schwartzwald thrown in for good measure.
Seems like everyone from the same regions ended up here in the wild mountains, looking for shelter in familiar climes, no doubt. Along with their language, work ethic, and hospitable stoicism, they brought their legends as well.
My family was no stranger to the myths and legends of the hills. My uncles delighted in telling scary tales of the Wampus Cat, the Will O’the Wisps, and Booger Bear to give all of us kids a good reason to mind our P’s and Q’s and pay attention to what was going on all around us. Although they were fit to keep a child in line, the older I grew the less I believed in these tall tales.
Long before my people moved into the hills, the Cherokee roamed them. There was an old war trail that crossed through the holler that generations of Williams’ had called home. The Cherokee brought their own legends of course, and they inevitably intermingled with ours. The legends of the rock people, laurel people and dogwood people combined with our stories of pixies and brownies as easily as the smoke drifting from the chimneys of the cabins.
Now that I was grown, I could afford to scoff at the tall tales and legends, although I still loved to hear my grandmother and my aunts and uncles tell the old stories with their strong mountain drawls. I knew there was nothing to them. They were just old tales.
Trying to clear my mind, I stared back across the years and returned to the kitchen, helping Granny snap beans to be canned and holding back some for tonight’s dinner. “Granny, why do you have that small bowl? You don’t need to save any of those beans. We’ll use them all up tonight, no problem”
“That’s not for canning or for us. That’s for my help.” Granny answered. “I know I’ve told you before how many helping hands I’ve got around here”
“Stop hurting my leg!” I snickered, an old expression I’d used since I was a kid who got it mixed up with “pulling my leg.”
“Tim, I know you don’t remember about my helpers, but they remember you.” Granny answered solemnly. “It’s always harder to remember once you’ve grown up. You grow up and away from the old ways, and then you call things you were familiar with a ‘tall tale’ or whatever helps it all make sense to you.”
I smiled. “I’m grown up enough to know a tale from reality.”
She shook her head. “Why, you were practically one of them until you were old enough to go school. Your Grandpa had to drag you out of laurels and that old silica mine on a regular basis.”
I eyed my Granny suspiciously. I had no recollections of any of that. I knew she was growing older, but she hadn’t seemed to be losing her faculties at all. This was getting out of hand.
“Granny, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t remember ever seeing or hearing any of your so-called helpers. Even if they WERE real, why would you let me run around in the woods with some wild creatures?”
“They are my friends and we help each other,” said Granny, continuing to break beans. “Why don’t you take these to them?” She handed me the smaller bowl of beans, a small covered basket, which I saw contained mini blueberry muffins, and a metal tea tin.
“They’re going to make tea out there?” I asked with a sardonic grin.
“Just go out to the meadow and leave it beneath the apple trees.”
I shrugged, picked up the goodies, and headed out of the house and up to the hill to the meadow. Our property spanned 20 acres and was full of hills and valleys, but the meadow was my favorite place to play as a kid. It was at least two acres wide, and the apple trees offered both a great place to hide and a snack.
When I reached the meadow, I put the treats underneath one of the trees and walked off towards the creek, another one of my favorite places to play as a boy. I decided I’d come back tomorrow and get the basket and whatever was left of the food after the animals got it. The creek was running fairly slowly today, although sometimes it was so fast when I was a kid that I could race down in an inner tube, hanging on for dear life.
“Some things never change,” I said, as I looked at the beauty around me.
I hopped nimbly from rock to rock, just as I had done in my childhood. My reminiscing over, I climbed up the creek bank and headed towards home. As I glanced at the apple trees, I saw that the basket and other items were gone. I saw no signs of animals. Instead of being plundered, all the items had simply vanished.
I walked towards the tree line and into the woods, searching for any clue of the treats I had brought, but saw nothing. As I turned to go, I heard a giggle. Turning in the direction of the sound, I saw a blonde braid disappearing into the trees.
I headed towards the trees, intrigued, but saw no sign of anyone.
“Granny, I think one of the neighbor kids took the treats,” I said when I returned.
“A neighbor of sorts,” she replied, “but probably not a kid.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, shaking my head and sitting down at the table.
“Tim!” she said, sharply, “Think…remember!”
I searched my mind, but there was nothing. “I don’t know what you think I should remember,” I said, shaking my head.
“Come outside with me, Tim,” she said, heading out the back door.
We headed towards the back of the house, where all of the wood was waiting for me to chop and stack. But it wasn’t. Stack after neat stack of perfectly chopped wood was sitting in the wood bin, although they had been unchopped logs two hours ago.
I gaped at the wood bin. “How…what…”
“My helpers,” she said. “In return for the goodies you brought them.”
I shook my head. “I just dropped those off a half hour ago. It’s impossible.” Then I grinned. “This is a joke, isn’t it? You must have had Uncle Stan and his boys come up while I was gone.”
“It’s no joke, and there’s more I need to tell you since you obviously don’t remember,” Granny said, turning to walk back towards the house. “After all, we made an agreement.”
I caught up with her. “Who made an agreement?”
“So many people. I’m not getting any younger and certain things need to be done.”
Confusion overtook me, as well as doubts about her sanity. Was it dementia? But dementia doesn’t chop a day’s worth of wood in less than an hour.
“Granny,” I began, but she held up her hand.
“Enough for now. I’m calling a meeting. Meet me at the kitchen table at 2 a.m.” She walked briskly towards the porch.
“2….” I replied weakly, but then threw up my hands. If this was dementia, we’d face it together.
Later that night, I heard Granny calling my name. Stumbling into some sweatpants, I went to my bedroom door. She was standing there wearing a terrycloth robe and holding a cup of coffee.
“Time for our meeting,” she said as she handed me the cup.
I yawned and stretched, bewildered. “Was that for real? Are we really having a 2 a.m. meeting?” Why can’t we just talk at breakfast?”
“Come on out to the kitchen,” she replied.
When I reached the kitchen, I stopped in surprise. Sitting at our oak table was a young woman with red hair. She was wearing a green tunic which shone strangely in the lamplight. Although sitting, she appeared to be much shorter than Granny and I. She gestured for me to sit down, which I thought was big of her, since this wasn’t her kitchen. But I sat.
“Hello, Tim.” Her voice was rich and musical. “It’s good to see you again.”
I was bewildered. “I’ve never seen you before.”
“When you were a boy of seven, you played in the woods with my children, and we all visited you many times here in your Granny’s house.
It was impossible to believe that this young girl had children that were my age. I snorted. She just smiled.
“I am Doralinda Casey. You always called me Dora, and I’d like that to continue.”
“How could that be? I’ve never met you before.”
She looked at me a moment and then nodded her head. Her blue eyes became stormy gray and then began to glow. They had the appearance of full moons. And my memories began to return.
“Dora, Dora!” I had yelled into the woods. Can Juney come out and play?” And eventually a little boy much smaller than me would run out, smiling.
“Juney!” I exclaimed. “He must be grown now.”
“Well, not as grown as I am,” Dora replied, laughing. He will still look like a little boy to you.”
My smile faded. “I remember taking treats to the woods now and playing with your son and daughter, but where did you come from?”
She smiled. “Where do you come from? Our people, The People of the Moon, have always been on this Earth. Our family, the Caseys, traveled with your family, the Williams, from England to the new world. She laughed. “Or I should say your grandmother’s great grandfather smuggled us in by counting us among his children. When we arrived, we found our own spaces, inhabited by our own people, as we always do. Like your people, our people are everywhere. They go by different names in different countries. Brownies, Sprites and Elves are some the names. In Norway we’re called the Nisse and in Sweden the Tomte. The Cherokee called us the Moon Eyed People, because of the magic in our eyes. So after living here a while, we started calling ourselves the People of the Moon.”
“You mean when my memory came back just now, that was magic?”
“Yes. I hid your memories as you began to grow up. It was important to see who you would become. But now your Granny wants you to take her place, so you need those memories.
“Take her place?
“Your Granny doesn’t just bring us treats. She does a great service for us. We sometimes bring her gold from our land and she exchanges it for us, so we have some money in your land.”
“Wait!” I said. “You’re from a different world?”
“It’s the same world, but we can get into spaces that you cannot, and it has nothing to do with size. You need magic to enter our world.”
“So you don’t live in the woods!”
She laughed, rocking back in her chair. “No, Tim. We have our own village in a place that would be nearly impossible for you to get to.”
I missed pretty much everything after the mention of gold. It certainly explained a lot. Every couple of years we’d have a visit from some geologist or prospector who was certain they would strike “the mother-lode” somewhere or other in our mountain hollow. Inevitably, they would spend a lot of time and money and go back home shaking their heads without even a speck of gold to show for their efforts. Now I knew the gold was there, but it was somewhere that was going to take a special effort to get my hands on it.
“Nearly impossible isn’t quite the same as completely impossible though, is it?” I asked, I thought quite innocently, but I saw a hardening glint in Dora’s eyes as she looked back at me across the table.
“So, with Granny moving to town, you’re going to need help, and I’m sure to need an assist getting used to life here in the holler. What do you expect from me in exchange?”
“We expect nothing, Timothy Williams. What we do have is a neighborly arrangement,” Doralinda said sternly from across the table. “An arrangement that is beneficial to all of us in more ways than you can imagine.”
I realized quickly that I was in danger of offending not only people who possessed gifts beyond my imagination, but my own grandmother. Quickly I shifted my avaricious thoughts away from the gold nuggets and back onto a generations-long family association.
Gulping dryly I stammered “N-n-no offense intended, Dora. “You’ll have whatever you need to continue our families’ long friendship.”
I shifted a glance towards Granny, catching the slight frown and worriedly drawn brows. I knew she trusted me, but taking over the little family farm in the hollow was really my last chance. I’d burned a lot of bridges, both personally and financially, with wild “get-rich” schemes. I had finally fallen for one that put me in a place financially that I didn’t think I could get out of.
If Granny hadn’t reached out to me with the offer to take care of the farm, I would have been in serious trouble. The last thing I wanted was to let her down. This was a chance to regain not only some stability but actually do something worthwhile. How many chances to work with people possessed of magical abilities can you really expect after all?
“Well, Dora, of the People of the Moon,” I said with what I hoped was a friendly smile, “You’ve got yourself a deal.” We shook on it.
I spent the next few days wandering through the hollow, revisiting places and events that I could suddenly remember with crystal clarity. The mountain spring that fed our babbling branch was surrounded by colored plants and twinkling lights that were never as clear. The shaded thickets of laurels were filled with the rustling of busy hands and the subtle racket of mysterious labors.
I became familiar again with a routine of daily chores assisted by nearly invisible helpers. Every labor was made easier by unseen hands, and often I could barely hear subtle sounds of singing and music bouncing around among the rocky, tree-covered hillsides.
Eventually, the day came for Granny to take a ride from the homestead and check out a more easily managed rental in town. As she traveled down the gravel road, I thought I glimpsed a few wide eyes peeking from the back of Granny’s trusty pickup.
Heaving a sigh, I climbed the wide stairs back into the little mountain house. “Dora! Let’s talk some more about what your people need.” I called out into the sudden silence.
“Dora isn’t here. She’s with your grandmother.”
Turning, I saw a shimmer, and a sturdy young child seemed to appear as if a door had opened and closed quickly.
“Greetings, Timothy Williams. Do you remember me?” asked the child.
“Juney? Is that you? You don’t seem to have aged a day since I was a boy!” I gasped in astonishment.
“Yes, it’s me.” He smiled. “Hello, Tim. My mother decided it was time for me to take a more active role while she oversees your grandmother’s move away from the hollow. Although it may not seem so, I have aged and grown. Time works differently for us than it does for you.”
“Can you explain more about what you need me to do?”
“One of the things your grandmother does for us is exchange small amounts of gold for cash.” We don’t need cash in our world, but we do need it in yours. In return, we make life easier for her, as I’m sure you’re beginning to notice.
“Why don’t you just exchange the cash yourself and then remove the gold dealer’s memory of it?” I asked. “Just like you did with me.”
Juney hesitated. “Memory changes are not something we take lightly, and we do it only when absolutely necessary. This is not necessary. Our families help each other instead. It works well.”
On the outside I smiled, but inside I was absolutely beaming. Gold was within my grasp!
Juney handed me a container, which looked like the tea canister I had dropped off earlier. He nodded at me and I opened it up. I could see tiny gold nuggets and flakes inside.
“Take this canister to Asheville. There is a dealer there who will exchange this for cash. Your grandmother knows him well. All he knows is that she sometimes finds gold in the mountains.”
“They never ask any questions?”
“No, not so far. She has a few different dealers she can go to, so we spread it around.”
“Ok,” I replied.” “What do I do with the money after I return?”
“Place it in this canister and put it under the apple trees in the meadow. We will pick it up.“
I was giddy. Money, free and clear, with no questions asked! “Ok, Juney,” I smiled. “How do I get the address of the dealer?”
“Your grandmother left it on the kitchen table,” he replied, handing it to me.
Suddenly, with visions of gold in my head, I had no time to catch up with old friends and was soon on the way to Asheville.
The exchange was fairly easy. I mentioned my grandmother and it went off without a hitch. The container held 4 ounces of gold. At $1900 per ounce. I walked out of there $6,500 richer, after paying the exchange fee. I headed toward home, but as I glided past the exit, I realized I was never going there. There was a casino a few short miles away in Cherokee. And that’s where I was headed. I’d make a nice profit and then return the $6500 to Dora and Juney. What an easy life I was going to have!
The light coming through the cabin windows was murky when I jolted awake. Something did not feel right, but I couldn’t place it. “Where are my glasses?” I mumbled as I stood up and fumbled for the bedroom light. Suddenly the mountain noises did not seem welcoming, and as I walked out of the bedroom, the house seemed very small.
ADDENDUM – Granny
Granny sat across the table from Dora, disappointment etched into her face “He lost it all?”
Dora nodded. “He headed straight to the casino and lost it in a flash.”
“What will happen to him?” Granny asked, wiping away a tear.
“His memories of my people are gone. He won’t remember the gold or anything about our agreement. He will suddenly feel an urge to get a fresh start in a new city.”
Granny sighed. “I’m so disappointed. I really wanted him to be the one. If only he knew the treasures he just gave up in exchange for a few thousand dollars.”
Dora reached across and gripped Granny’s hand briefly. “We are not angry at him. That’s why we do this test. He just isn’t the right person to continue the covenant between our families. Of course, if he had proved trustworthy, he would have found riches beyond anything he ever dreamed. ”
She smiled reassuringly. “I’m sending Juney along with him to the city for a while, but Tim won’t ever see him. Juney will nudge Tim in the right direction, without his knowing it. Tim will have a nice life, but not a magical one.” She nodded firmly and patted Granny’s hand. “We will find the right person, I promise. Our families have always supported each other, and one of your grandchildren will be the one.”
“I have a lot of grandchildren,” Granny replied. “Looks like my move is delayed for a little while.” She pushed aside her disappointment and took a sip of coffee. “Who should we invite next?”
AUTHORS’ NOTE: This folklore is based on many legends from across the world about magical little people. It also is combined with the Cherokee legend of the Moon Eyed People, who were rumored to have been small, nocturnal people with white faces and round eyes who lived underground and couldn’t come out in sunlight. In Cherokee legend, the Cherokee drove them out. In our version, they were never driven out. They are magical beings who go places on this Earth that regular humans beings cannot go, and they use their magic to travel back and forth from their home to ours. In our version, the term “Moon-eyed people” refers to their magic, which comes from their eyes, and they are not nocturnal. The 2 a.m. meeting was a nod to the nocturnal legend, however.
Many thanks to Gail Meath, who has edited all three of our stories!
This is our February story for the 2022 Short Story Challenge started by A Virginia Writer’s Diary. You can find the original post here. The theme this year is folklore and we’ve decided to set our stories in Appalachia. I say “we” because my husband Doug is writing these with me. We’re using the pen name Bonnie Douglas. This story is about the water in the mountains, and the old sayings “gift of gab,” and “there’s something in the water.”
The Gift of Gab
By Bonnie Douglas
“Blech!” erupted almost involuntarily from my mouth as I took the first sip of water fresh out of the tap. “I had almost forgotten how much I hated the taste of the water!”
I could see my Mom shaking her head and hear the laugh hiding underneath her answer.
“Well, Frances, you never were one to mince words. Tell me how you really feel.”
“Now Mom, you know I just can’t take the iron taste of that water, fresh out of the branch or not.” I huffed, exasperated. I knew it got under Mom’s skin that one of the things she loved about the mountain holler she grew up in was one of the things I disliked the most about it.
Mom shrugged. “The water is one of the things I will miss most.”
Years ago, I had decided to go to college in the city, and I had not returned permanently until now. My parents had decided to spend their retirement nearby in town, with much less lawn to mow. It also put them closer to the grocery store and hospital. By the time they offered to sell the house and land to me, I was much older and ready to make the jump from city living to the more laid-back mountain lifestyle. I was sure I could solve the water problem.
The water that intermittently trickled or flooded down the branch depending on the season was one of the reasons Grandpa had picked this holler to settle in. Mom and her whole family had grown up drinking that icy cold water, carrying it in buckets to fill the barrels that provided water to the dirt-floored cabin they grew up in, long before anyone had the means to drill a well or even think about piping water from the small town to the “country folks” houses.
“You just don’t know what you’re missing, Child,” Mom said softly. “I hope you’ll remember to bring me jugs of water ‘regular’ once I move into town. It means a lot to me. You don’t even know how much!”
“I know Mom, and I promise,” I said with determination. I remembered all the stories about the land and how hard my Grandpa had worked to not only buy it, but to keep it. It was the very definition of hard times. When most people in the little mountain enclave were lucky to have any kind of food or shelter, my Grandpa worked two jobs in town and then came home to work some more. Raising cattle and crops, cutting and hauling timber, building the little cabin and ramshackle barn, and somehow finding the time to create a family of twelve with my Grandma.
There were also whispered family rumors about certain “activities” taking place in the hidden coves and almost impenetrable stands of mountain laurel that studded the hills. These rumors involved a “special recipe” for moonshine that made it the most desired and sought after in a three-state area. That all changed after one of the younger children, Cecily, died when the rickety wagon used for illicit deliveries in the dark of night rolled over and off the edge of the mountain trail in the light of day, with Cecily playing inside.
It was then that Grandpa became a preacher. The death of his daughter brought him to his knees. The moonshine no longer flowed out of the “holler,” but the Spirit did. His sermons were famous throughout the county.
“Your Grandpa was such a good preacher he could save half the county on Sunday and the other half on Wednesday night!” Grandma used to say. “Those lawbreakers and sinners would come running down to the altar like a pack of wild dogs after a bone.”
I had always laughed at her joke, but Grandpa did have a way with words. His sermons were intertwined with stories that seemed to touch each listener personally, and they would come up the aisle, seeking the same relationship with Jesus that Grandpa enjoyed. I had admired his extraordinary ability to share God with everyone in such a personal way. Grandpa had eventually expanded that relationship, going home to Heaven.
As much as Grandpa could touch the soul of his parishioners with words, Grandma could tell a tale. When she was alive, she entertained us all with stories. Some were mountain legends, some were her own made-up tales, and some were from her life experiences. She was even part of a mountain storytelling hour at the library in Asheville, and her stories were in great demand. My favorite was The Hungry Toads, a story from her youth. I used to beg for that story as a kid. In the evenings after gardening was done, she would sit at the table with me, drinking coffee and eating pie, banana pudding, or other treats, and tell me her tales. I smiled as I thought back to this story.
“When I was 7, my socks started to go missing!” she would exclaim. “This was something of a problem, because money was scarce and socks were not free. My mother spent a lot of time darning socks to keep them wearable. It all started when one day I went to my bedroom and one of my socks was laying on the floor. Next to it was a small green toad, who hopped away when he saw me. I scrabbled after the toad, caught him and took him outside. Momma would not like a toad in the house.”
I smiled as I recalled how Grandma would sit back, sip coffee, and continue. “The next day, another sock was laying on the floor, and another toad hopped by me on his way out the door. And then I began to think the toads were stealing my socks. But where had they put them?”
I went into the kitchen and announced, “I’ve lost two socks to toads!”
Lots of giggling from my brothers and sisters followed that statement, and Momma just looked at me.
“What do you mean, Gert?” She asked.
“Two times I’ve found one of my socks on the floor, the other missing, and a toad in my room! I think they’re stealing my socks.” “Then a thought struck me as I picked up a biscuit. “Maybe they’re eating them!”
“Toads don’t eat socks!” My brother Ed scoffed. “Toads eat flies and other bugs. They don’t eat wool or cotton. I think you’re going crazy, Gert.”
“You need to find your socks, Gert,” said Momma. I promise you, the toads didn’t eat them.”
Grandma would always smile in remembrance as she thought of her Momma, then she would continue.
“This went on for two more days, as I would go into my room, find one sock, and see the inevitable toad. Eventually, I was down to one pair of matching socks, and a lot of socks without mates. This was becoming a family mystery, and Daddy was beginning to take notice, looking at me thoughtfully as I described another visit from “the hungry toads.””
“Gertie, you’re going to have to wear mismatched socks if you can’t find the missing ones,” he’d say softly. “No extra money for new socks.”
“I knew the truth of this and had not even planned to ask for new socks. When my shoe went missing, though, that was another story altogether. I went into my room on a Sunday, and one of my “Sunday best” shoes lay by itself on the floor. Next to it was an impossibly large, green toad, with a white stomach and unblinking yellow eyes.”
“Now they’re eating my shoes,” I yelled, running out into the front room. Daddy looked at me skeptically but said nothing. A missing sock was one thing, but a pair of new shoes was impossible.”
“A couple of hours later, I saw Daddy walking down the hill with my brother Rufus, his fingers clamped tightly over Rufus’s left ear. Rufus was howling, his ear redder than the embers in our woodstove. He was carrying a bundle of socks. And Daddy had in his hand my other Sunday shoe!”
“Rufus will be washing your socks, Gert, and doing your chores all next week.”
Grandma would laugh as she thought of that day. “Rufus would steal a sock, replace it with a toad, and hide the socks up in the woods. When he advanced to taking a shoe, Daddy had had enough! He followed Rufus up into the woods and caughthim trying to hide it in a hollow log. So that’s how I learned that toads can’t eat socks!”
Grandma was full of tales like this. Like many other mountain storytellers, she could keep the listener mesmerized and leave them begging for more stories.
My mother had her own way with words. She wrote poetry and short stories and submitted them to contests, often winning. She had recently finished a book of poems and submitted it to a publisher.
I did not seem to have inherited the family talent with words. Though I would have loved to have written a book, I was always more comfortable with numbers, and owned my own accounting business. I had already factored all the costs involved with getting water from somewhere that didn’t involve drinking something I simply didn’t like.
“Mom, just so you know I plan to have well-drillers out here as soon as you move to town.” My plan was to avoid that spring water by drilling deep enough to get into a completely different water supply.
“Good luck with that, Girly,” Mom almost giggled. “You think you’re the first one to try? There isn’t a well in this entire holler that produces anything but a lot of cash for the well driller. That’s just one more reason everyone drinks that branch water you turn up your nose to.”
“We’ll see Mom. We’ll see.” I answered determinedly.
Well, we did see, that’s for sure. Three months and four different drilling companies found nothing. I even hired six dowsers, all walking around with their “witching sticks,” and all claiming to find water. Not a trace, not a trickle of anything remotely resembling water fit to drink was actually found.
I’d spent every bit of the money I had earmarked for well drilling and even more besides.
Disheartened, I scrounged together some more cash and built a reservoir and all the filtering and purifying equipment I could find. I purchased advanced oxygenators, UV sanitizers, multiple stage filter systems and technical equipment I couldn’t identify. It was all sold to me by a “water adviser,” who assured me I would have nothing but the best quality H2O that human intelligence could deliver. If I had to drink that branch water I’d be darned if it was going to taste like anything but pure, fresh water.
It had taken a couple of days for the reservoir to fill from the branch and for that wretched brew to begin making its way through the convoluted intricacy of the purification system into my completely re-piped and re-plumbed little cabin.
With my hands quivering, I turned on the tap for the first time and filled one of my moon and stars patterned goblets with the first taste of the water I labored so hard to get.
Sniffing the goblet carefully, I could detect not a hint of the iron scent that generally accompanied a glass of branch water. With trepidation, I lifted the goblet to my lips and let the merest trickle of water onto my tongue. Swishing it around like a wine connoisseur, I tasted nothing. Not a hint of the dreaded iron or the tiniest fleck of grit from the rock-filled branch. Chuckling with glee, I filled a pitcher and poured a stream of delicious iron-free water into my coffee maker. This sure beat trying to get a water delivery company to make the journey up the rutted gravel path that was commonly known as a road in the holler. I finally had it made! Water I could drink, cook with, and everything else that modern life required, all without an unpleasant iron taste.
Today was the day I usually visited Mom and Dad in their rented little bungalow in town. I had a jug of Mom’s branch water already in the car. I grabbed my keys, and with a grin, I picked up an empty jug and filled it from the tap. I’d take this along with me and slip it to Mom instead of her usual branch water, just to see if she could tell the difference.
Whistling cheerfully, I jogged up the path to the house, carrying my substitute jug of water for Mom. Letting myself in I hollered into the kitchen “Mom, I’ve got your water!”
I could hear Dad plucking on his banjo on the back porch and crooning a song to Mom as she worked in her garden patch. I stepped onto the porch and listened. For as far back as I can remember, whatever house we lived in had been filled with music, jokes, and stories.
I walked up and listened as he sang “Carolina Sunshine Girl,” to the woman he adored. His voice was wonderful, and he was often in demand to sing in church. He’d never had any voice training that I know of, except from his mother. As a boy, he had had a very pronounced stutter, and his mother figured out that if he sang his thoughts instead of speaking them, the stutter was greatly reduced. Later in life, after he met Mom and came to live in the mountains, he lost the stutter completely.
“I brought Mom’s water,” I announced, after he finished his song. “And I love your singing,” I smiled.
“I have great inspiration,” he replied, gesturing at Mom. “Emily,” he called out, “Your water’s here.”
“Oh good,” Mom replied walking up to the porch. “That chlorine city water they have here in town is just not cutting it.”
I handed her the jug, watching carefully. She sipped it and smiled. “I see you’ve been trying to change the taste. It’s not quite what I remember, but it’s much better than the city water.” “And,” she grinned, her eyes twinkling at me, “You haven’t changed the soul of it.”
“Water doesn’t have a soul.” I replied.
“Oh you might be surprised!” she answered. “But time will tell.”
This was not the first time I was unable to decipher one of Mom’s cryptic statements, so I didn’t even try.
As time went on, I acclimated to the cabin and basically forgot my battle with the water, checking that off as done and won. I was operating my business right out of the cabin, having amazingly secured working internet, and my little gravel road even greeted the occasional client who wanted to talk in person.
One such client was Jeannette Crisp, who preferred to do her business face-to-face. I had been helping her settle up the estate of her late mother, who had died before I arrived back home.
Jeannette came in the door, appearing flustered.
“Well, I’m at my wit’s end,” she said, taking a seat on the sofa in my little office that used to be a spare room. “I just heard from the County. Momma left five thousand dollars in property taxes unpaid. They have extended it three times, but they can’t do it anymore.”
I was a little concerned. Jeannette’s mother had left her the house and land, but there was nothing else of value, and no money. We had used any extra cash paying off outstanding debt.
“If I can’t come up with the money by next month, I’m going to lose the house and land that’s been in my family for 100 years!” She twisted a handkerchief in her hands as she almost sobbed. “I don’t know what to do.”
We talked about options and possible items she could sell, but there was nothing that would bring anywhere near five thousand dollars.
“I guess the only option is to talk to the bank about a loan,” I replied. The house and land are paid off and worth a lot of money. You can get an equity loan and pay the taxes with that.”
Jeannette sniffled and nodded. “I was trying everything I could to avoid getting a loan against the house. Momma was so proud when she paid it off. She would hate getting a loan against it for any amount of money.”
Agreeing that it couldn’t be avoided, we looked up interest rates for some of the local banks and settled on a course of action.
As she gathered up our research and prepared to leave, Jeannette said, “Thanks, Fran. You’ve made this a little more bearable for me.”
“She kept a savings bond,” I blurted. “It’s in the house. She forgot all about it.”
Jeannette whipped around, paused, and looked at me strangely. “What!” She paused again and said, “What!”
I began to stammer. “I—I don’t…” I took a deep breath. “I don’t know where that came from. It just came out of my mouth.”
“O…Kay…” Jeannette walked slowly to the door. “Okay, Fran, I’ll talk to you later.” Her voice was falsely bright and she scurried to her car.
“Well I think I just lost a client,” I said out loud after she was gone. “What was that!” I had never lost control of my own voice before. It had taken on a life of its own. I gave up and went to lie down. Maybe I needed a rest.
A few days later, while at church, I was soaking in the sermon, still unnerved by the incident with Jeannette, and trying to find some peace. I watched the family in the pew in front of me. Clive and Mary Sanders and their three children. They were all so beautiful. Clive, son of a local banker, immediately caught the eye with his chiseled chin and brown curls, cut and pomaded into a style that models would envy. Mary’s blonde hair hung down her back and she wore the latest designs well on her trim frame. The children were all perfectly beautiful combinations of them both, and so well behaved. I was sure they didn’t blurt out inappropriate things for no reason. As the sermon wound down, I felt guilty for being distracted by my own silly predicament.
Mary came up to me, smiling, as we all began our exit after the final prayer. “Hi Fran! How are you doing?”
“Leave him,” I said. “You deserve better.”
Mary’s face paled and she stood stock still, her eyes filling up with tears.
“I’m sorry,” I began. “I don’t know why…”
She reached for my arm and pulled me into an empty corner. “How did you know?” The tears were spilling down her face now.
“I’m sorry!” I repeated, wiping at tears running down my own face now as well. “I don’t know why I would say such a horrible thing.”
“But it’s true.” Mary began to pull herself together. “It’s true, and I haven’t faced it.” She smoothed her hair and looked me in the eye. “He cheats on me over and over, and then blames me for it. I thought I should keep the family together, but your words just now seemed to shake me out of it. How did you know?”
“Would you believe I didn’t know?” I said, putting a shaking hand out to her. “It just came out of my mouth.”
Mary sighed. “Maybe the Lord works in mysterious ways after all, especially in church. Thank you, Fran, for making me face this.”
She dried her tears and had a firm look in her eye as she walked away. I, however, was a mess. I was even less prepared for Jeannette, who was waiting for me at my car.
“How did you know?” seemed to be the question of the day, and she greeted me with a smile and a hug.
“Know what?” I asked, still struggling to process my conversation with Mary.
She was waving something at me. It was a savings bond.
“After I met with you last Wednesday, I thought you were strange to say the least! But I still couldn’t resist looking around the house for a savings bond. I found it in a frame behind Grandpa’s old picture up in the attic. Momma bought a $750 savings bond when I was a little girl! I looked it up and now it’s worth $7500! I can pay off the taxes and have a little left over!”
She hugged me, ecstatic. “But I can’t figure out how you knew.”
I threw my hands up in the air. “I didn’t know!” I exclaimed. “It just came out of my mouth.”
Jeannette paused, thoughtfully. “Maybe Momma’s spirit was with us.”
“Maybe,” I said, still thinking to myself that I might be going crazy.
After Jeannette’s many thanks, and a promise to come see me at tax time, I got into my car and headed home. My mind was racing with the events of the day. Instead of heading out of town and back to my cabin, I found myself driving to Mom’s house.
“Fran!” Mom hugged me after I arrived, and then stepped back, taking in my somber face and desperate eyes.
“What’s the matter?”
“Mom, I’m going crazy! I’m blurting things out to people who are just acquaintances, things I couldn’t possibly know!”
She put her hands on my face. “Try and calm down,” Her soft whisper held so much strength that I did begin to relax.
“Now tell me, “What things?” “What do you mean.”
So I related my encounters with Jeannette and Mary, and their surprising conclusions. Her face relaxed into almost a smile as I finished.
“Well, I’ve never seen it manifest itself exactly this way before.”
I started in surprise. “Seen what!” I exclaimed.
Instead of answering, she picked up a letter. “It’s from Blankford and Dunn.”
I recognized the name of the famous publisher instantly.
“They say I’m a unique talent and they will be pleased to publish my poems. I’ve been offered a contract for four books, with the option for more.”
“Don’t you see, dear, that this family has a special talent for words?”
“Not me,” I said. I can’t write a coherent sentence or tell a story. I certainly can’t write poetry, like you. But I was balancing your checkbook at the age of 10.”
“Well, Fran,” she said cautiously, piercing me with her gaze. “Think about it and tell me what’s different about you.”
I started to feel a little self-conscious, even though I knew my mother would never insult me. I shook my head, bewildered.
“You rarely drank the water.” My father’s deep voice boomed behind me, making me jump.
He put his hand on my shoulder and came around to face me. “Sorry to startle you, but think about it. You took a couple sips when you were little, declared you didn’t like the water, and avoided it whenever you could. You drank milk, Mountain Dew, Orange Crush, and anything else that wasn’t our spring water.”
I laughed. “But what does that have to do with anything?”
In answer, he grabbed my hand. “I first met your Mom in the city, where I grew up with a pretty bad stutter. My mother, as you know, taught me to sing the words I found it difficult to get out. But I still stuttered quite a bit and I couldn’t go around singing all the time. Then Emily brought me down here.” He grinned at Mom. “In a few weeks, my stutter began to ease, and within a couple of years I found myself with a pretty good singing voice.” Then he smiled and tipped up my chin. “And what was different about being here, Fran?”
It couldn’t be. I didn’t believe it, but there was only one answer. “The water.”
Mom piped in, her voice taking on a musical quality. “You ever hear the phrase, “There’s something in the water?”
“Did you ever wonder why we have such a storytelling tradition and so many great tale-tellers here in the mountains, all with the “gift of gab?”
“You’re telling me it’s the spring water?” I asked. My voice had taken on a higher pitch as I struggled to take in what I was hearing.
“Well, have you ever done anything like this before?” Mom asked. “Before you began drinking the water regularly?”
I shook my head, my mind reeling.
Mom smiled. “The closest I can recall to it is my father’s gift for preaching. He had a sincere desire to help people and he always seemed to be able to say the right thing. It’s close to that with you. You have been given the gift of helping others, not with eloquent speech or writing, but you’re helping them all the same.”
“But how do I know these things?”
“Well, maybe you’ve just been given the ability to sense things that the people you are helping already knew. Jeannette may have a forgotten memory of that savings bond from her girlhood. Mary certainly knew her husband was cheating on her. You’re just helping them remember or deal with the truth. Or maybe it’s more than that.” She shrugged. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
“But I’m not consciously doing anything!”
She shrugged and smiled, putting her arm around Dad. “There’s something in the water. Filtered or not, that water is changing you. We’re living proof as well, and it’s been going on for generations. I really wasn’t sure until your Dad came down here. Some people, for some reason, have a “gift for words” that is magnified when drinking the water. Your father’s speech was healed by these waters. Your talent is different, but look what you’ve done with it! You’ve already helped two people.”
Again, without any control, I blurted, “You need to move back!” They looked at each other in surprise. I looked back at them, just as disconcerted.
“Well, the water has spoken again,” I laughed. “You don’t really want to be in town. We can build another cabin on the land and you can come back home. I can help with the shopping and take you to medical appointments. We’ll find someone to mow the grass. It will work out.”
After they promised to think about it, I once again hit the road for home. I knew when I said the words that they were the truth. My parents were moving back onto the land, and that was the right thing.
I thought about my situation. What was I going to say next? What embarrassing predicaments would I end up in? But I knew that if it helped people, it was worth it. I knew as sure as that branch traveling down the mountain, that if I could make others happy and help resolve their problems, I was all in.
Come to think of it, I felt a little thirsty.
Author’s Note: For this story, we took the tradition of mountain storytelling and combined it with the sayings “there’s something in the water” and “gift of gab.” A branch runs through our property in the Smokies, and Bonnie’s Mom drank from that branch as a girl. Bonnie’s Dad actually did have a stuttering problem as a child. He lost his Mom at the age of eight, and it was a nun in the orphanage he was sent to who helped him overcome the stutter by singing.
Below is my first 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! I have decided to concentrate on the folklore of the Appalachian Mountains. My husband Doug then agreed to co-write with me, so this is a great project for us this year. We’ve decided to combine our names when we write together, so our pen name will be Bonnie Douglas. Below is a tale called “Will O’ The Wisps,” which combines Irish and Scottish folklore with Smoky Mountain legends from the U.S. Even though it’s Feb 1st, this is my January entry. I think that’s close enough.
WILL O’ THE WISPS
by Bonnie Douglas
I flipped through the notebook, fascinated. When I came to Granny’s Smoky Mountain cabin to pack up her possessions, I had hoped to find some history, and I did. I went through boxes of family pictures, newspapers dating back to the 1930s, and letters between Granny and Gramps when he was in World War II. But this notebook—simply laying in a drawer on her night table—was the most fascinating of all. Every inch of this old composition book was filled with notes, memories, recipes, and sketches.
I was interested in some of the remedies, using plants that grew right here on the land. Granny had sketched the plants in detail, and I knew I would go out looking for them. One page particularly fascinated me. She had used color—the only page in the book to do so. Bright fuzzy creatures—or were they lights—dotted the sky. Were they lightning bugs? At first I thought so, but the lettering underneath seemed to contradict that. In bold capitalization were the words DON’T FOLLOW THE WILL O’ WISPS!
Scoffing slightly, I chucked the notebook onto the “keep” pile. Granny had always been a bit “loopy,” and it got a lot worse after Gramps failed to come home from a day hike in the National Park just down the road. He was never found despite many searches by loved ones and the police.
Granny kept going, and would always tell me tales as we sat on the porch snapping beans for supper and for canning later. She definitely had the gift of gab. Her tales of the Wampus Cat and Mothman were usually enough to keep me out of the woods at night when I was a child, camping out in the yard. Even as a teenager I was hesitant to get too far out of sight of the house at night. I just chalked it up to my “city” upbringing, giving no credit to Granny’s stories or the chills that chased up and down my back at the sight of the bobbing lights in the thickly wooded hills.
Walking out of the bedroom, I called my fat little dachshund Daisy from her snuffling around the empty canning closet. “There’s nothing in there, you goofball! Come on we’ll go outside for a walk!”
Daisy knew that walks equaled treats, and charged out of the dusty closet, heading out the rickety doggie door and bounding down the old ramp that Gramps and I had built as fast her short legs could carry her. Gramps had always kept dogs, and while they had the run of the land all day, he was always careful to make sure they were safe at home well before nightfall in their pen up against the edge of the woods.
“You never know what them fool dogs will chase up, especially at night,” He always told me.
I knew he had had a soft spot for his pack of rowdy hounds, and I felt the same for my little city-dwelling dachshund. I knew she would be poorly suited to roaming these hills and hollers, as would I after so much time away. I had spent every summer here with my grandparents, my folks insisting it would be good for me to be here with all the relatives we never saw outside of this little mountain enclave. Summers were full of hunting bugs, lizards, turtles, and snakes, and chasing around the small garden plots with my cousins and whatever pack of strays Gramps had collected from the side of the road or other farmers.
The only time I ever saw Gramps lose his temper is when, on a “triple dog dare” from one of my cousins, I snuck out of the tent where we were “camping” in the front yard. I smiled as I thought back to that night. I had headed up to the small waterfall on the spring-fed branch that trickled by the house to fill up our canteen with “moon water” for some secret my cousins were giggling about.
“Bunch of crap, if you ask me.” My ten-year-old self had thrilled at the illicit, forbidden profanity, although I heard Granny use it a hundred times a day. I crept stealthily up the hill and had barely reached Gramps’ dog pen when the dogs, woken by my not as stealthy as I thought approach, raised a chorus of barks, yips, and howls that I knew would bring Gramps running. He investigated every creak, bark, or unexpected noise regardless of how deep into the night it was.
“Shush, you stupid mutts!” I had hissed as I hurried past the pen onto the well-worn path up to the waterfall. My little pocket flashlight flickered dimly, but the water of the branch seemed to glow in the moonlight as I stumbled across roots and rocks with the canteen clanking by my side.
I was less than ten yards onto the path when my light flickered and died. Sucking in a shivering breath, I pounded the cheap plastic flashlight against my leg, willing it to flicker back to life without success. Standing in the dark with chills chasing up and down my spine, I gave myself a little pep talk. “C’mon Carl, don’t be a baby! You know Granny just tells you those stories to keep you out of trouble.”
With my spine a little firmer, I had pressed on slowly up the suddenly unfamiliar path. “Everything sure looks different in the dark,” I muttered as I stumbled, tripping over another root. The trees seemed to edge in closer to the path. As my eyes adjusted, I could see what looked like big fireflies skimming around the trees, all through the woods. “Man, I’d sure like to catch one of those!” I thought as I turned off from beside the dimly glimmering branch and began to head up the steep hillside.
Faintly behind me, I heard my name called “Carl!”
Ignoring it I pressed forward, grabbing handfuls of roots to pull myself up the hillside.
“Carl!” echoed again up the hills, faintly as if something were smothering the sound.
Looking back over my shoulder I could see a bright stream of light shooting back and forth over the path I had abandoned.
“CARL!” This time the sound of my name shook me as if from a dream. I had heard my Gramps yell my name a million different ways but never with a sound like the fear I heard resonate in his call up the dark holler. Slithering down the muddy bank, I tried to shout back.
“Gramps” came out, barely a whisper. As I slid further down the bank, the trees seemed to move to hide me from the beam of light Gramps was swinging wildly around.
“CARL!” I heard more clearly as I struggled to stand up against a ropy mass of sticker thorns wrapped around my legs. Where had that come from? I didn’t remember passing through them on the way up. The thorns bit deeply into my flesh, and even through my blue jeans. They dug deep enough to draw a stream of blood and stain deeply into the tops of my white socks. Wrestling my way free, I finally managed to draw a breath and shout, “GRAMPS!”
Gramps’ flashlight picked me out of the shadowing trees, like a spotlight finding an escaped convict. Rushing through the woods, Gramps charged towards me, his bright light never leaving me. “Carl, don’t move! Stay still until I get there!”
After Gramps reached me, he had clucked softly as he carefully pulled the thorns from my legs. I gasped after each one but refused to cry. As soon as he was sure I was okay, he gave me an earful and a couple of wallops as he led me down the trail and back towards the house, my camping adventure over. “Moon water!” he scoffed. “Whoever heard of such a thing? Your cousins have been pulling your leg. Remember when they told you to go pet that hen that was walking with her chicks? What happened then?” They like a good joke, your cousins.”
Back in the present, I grinned as I remembered that old hen flying at my face. My cousins knew I wasn’t used to the country and never could resist poking fun. There may not have been such a thing as moon water, but it made a good memory. My mind flew back to the giant lightning bugs. I had never seen them such a size before or since. Were they lightning bugs? I didn’t ponder long before deciding to head in the same direction again. Why not head towards the “moon water?” Maybe I would see the lights again.
It was growing darker, but I had my flashlight with me. I also had Daisy, though, so I knew her short legs would only take her so far. I headed towards the waterfall, making sure to pay attention and look for thorns. I walked as carefully as I could while scanning the sky. There was no more dog pen and, sadly, no more Gramps. The night was deathly quiet save the chirping of crickets and the occasional tree frog. I remembered the lights I had seen that day and was more and more convinced that they were not lightning bugs. The colors had ranged from yellow to pink to green and blue, and they were larger, much larger, than the normal firefly. As I plodded along, I could hear the waterfall in the distance, but could see nothing unusual. The path was growing fainter, Daisy was slowing down, and I considered turning back. Whatever the lights had been, they probably didn’t exist anymore.
My tiny dachshund began to growl softly. She was a couch potato whose belly sometimes dragged the ground, but now she was on alert, woofing softly. “What do you hear, girl?” I asked, bending down to pet her. Instead of settling down, she darted forward, and with a speed I didn’t know she possessed, began to run up the hill. “Daisy!” I yelled, frantically trying to catch up with her. She would be no match for a coyote if there was one about. Her stout little body disappeared in the woods, but I ran after her, calling her name.
Suddenly a light appeared by the corner of my eye. Green in color, it was about ten times the size of a firefly. It flitted away and up the hill. Another light, pink this time, came from the opposite direction, zig-zagging through the sky before it disappeared. Several blue lights followed. Although I was fascinated, I was determined to find Daisy before I investigated this further. To my horror, I began to hear yelping at the top of the hill. Armed with only a walking stick, I rushed towards the sound, determined to fight off any predators who had hurt my dog.
The yelping stilled. I reached the top of the hill, sick at what I might find. I saw nothing at first, then a glowing light in the distance. Were there people up here? I ran towards the light, calling Daisy’s name.
I pulled up short when I saw her, tail wagging, but standing in the middle of what looked like a circle of mushrooms. They were no ordinary mushrooms, as they were all glowing brightly white. Darting back and forth over Daisy and the mushrooms were the mysterious, brilliantly colored lights. As I walked forward, I could see they were definitely not bugs. Their little faces were surrounded by waves of hair, and their thin bodies were held up by gossamer wings. They looked like beautiful little angels. I stood, transfixed, amazed at what I was seeing.
I found my voice, and croaked out “Daisy..” She turned towards me, tail still wagging, but didn’t move. Then I heard a tiny musical voice in my ear. One of the creatures—was it a fairy, a sprite, or something else—was speaking to me!
“Daisy has entered our fairy circle,” the voice said. The tiny form flew around my head. She had an abundance of red hair and green eyes in a pixie face. “She cannot leave without answering our riddle.”
“Riddle…” I stammered. “Who..what..who are you…?”
“Some might call us fairies, or sprites. The old woman who lived in the house below called us Will O’ Wisps,” she almost sang in her high, musical voice.
“That was my Granny,” I whispered.
“You are kin to Dorothy?” the tiny creature sang. “She is a noble woman.”
“She was,” I sighed, “But she’s gone now. Passed away.”
A tiny laugh sounded from the creature, somehow a blend of soft music and rushing water. “Nobody is ever really gone.”
Eyes narrowed against the sudden brightness of the wildly flickering creatures, I started towards Daisy, intending to grab her and run as far and as fast as I could back to the safety of the house. Before I could take more than half a step, the creature zoomed into my face, her gentle demeanor gone.
“Naughty, naughty,” she chirped, shaking a tiny finger in my face. “None may leave our circle without answering our riddle.”
Resisting the urge to swat the creature out of the air, I looked around the circle. There didn’t appear to be an opening anywhere, although I knew I had just walked into it. “Well, you can’t really expect a little dog to know the answer to any riddles. She’s just a dog after all.”
With a tinkling chuckle ,the creature zoomed in a loop, winding up right back in my face. “You’d be surprised what a little dog knows, although you may be correct. This one has a head full of fluff and speaks only of treats and warm beds.”
Zooming off to hover over my Daisy like a light bulb, the creature continued, “Of course we may be able to make a deal for the both of you. If you can answer three of our riddles we will allow you and your small friend to leave our circle unharmed.”
Pulling myself up straight with shock, I sputtered, “Well, that’s hardly fair! Three riddles in exchange for the two of us!” Laughing derisively, the fairy zoomed back into my face.
“Fair or not, that’s the bargain! It’s always been known to all who dwell here that man or beast, flower or tree, all that enter may not leave, unless we cede.”
Looking down at my happily wagging dachshund, I began to question not only my sanity but my commitment to Daisy. Sinking to the ground that was softly carpeted with springy moss, I sat cross-legged, put my head in my hands, and sighed, closing my eyes. My mind was whirling. I knew it had to be real, but what in the world had I stumbled into?
I muttered to myself, “I should have listened to Granny.” I suddenly felt a warm breeze and a scent I hadn’t smelled in too long. It was that smell of cut grass, wood smoke, and peppermint that seemed to follow Gramps wherever he went. Looking around I couldn’t see anything remotely human, but I swore I could almost feel his presence.
“Gramps? Are you here? How can you be here? You disappeared!” I croaked, scrambling awkwardly to my feet.
Whirling around wildly, the lights of the wisps pulsated, almost strobing in their intensity.
“Quiet you be! No help from thee!” shrieked the pixie. “We caught you fair!”
From the corner of my eye, I caught a faint glimmer and saw the shape of a man. Turning slowly so as not to lose sight of the faint image, my heart thudding, I whispered “Gramps?”
The shadow glimmered and strengthened slowly and I could hear his voice, barely a whisper. “It’s me, Boy. Trapped by those damned pixies.”
The flickering shadow approached and I could feel Gramps’ presence, and smell that scent I missed so badly. “Don’t trust them, Boy, they cheat,” he said, his voice harsh and hopeless. “Granny tried for years to bargain and riddle for me but never could wheedle me out of their clutches. The best she could do was get me here, close to home.”
Tears sprang to my eyes as I pictured my Granny, crouching outside this portal to who knows where, trying to free her beloved. “Gramps, I’m trapped now too! I’ve got no choice but to try.”
“Do your best Boy, I’ll do what I can to help but I’m almost gone now that Granny isn’t around to lend me her strength.
I squared my shoulders and puffed out a shuddering sigh. “Alright pixies, it’s a deal. Three riddles for me and mine.”
The lights whirled wilder and brighter, and a shriek filled the air, loud enough to make me cringe, and drawing a wild “Ark!” from a trembling Daisy.
“The bargain is made!” the fiery sprite danced in front of me. “Prepare yourself and let us see if you are smart as your Granny be!”
Smiling to myself, I knew I had this won. I had sat at the knee of some of the greatest riddlers and storytellers that the mountains ever made. Granny and all her kin had a way with words that made me wonder sometimes, and while I didn’t have that gift I did have a good memory. I could recall every riddle or story Granny and all my aunts and uncles had ever shared.
“Let’s do this then, pixie! I need to get home.”
The pixie flittered into my face again, causing me to flinch slightly “Proud you are and humbled you’ll be if can’t answer our riddles three.”
Rolling my eyes slightly at her penchant for rhyming, I sighed, “Let’s begin.”
The pixie swarm whirled faster and shot straight up into the air, and with a flash shining words appeared in the night sky. Squinting slightly against the brightness, I read,
Very thin, she grows each night Many sailors seek her light She lures them in with glowing face But then is gone without a trace
A smile spread across my face as I answered, “The moon, of course.”
Again there was a whirl of fire and a shriek, and a spear of fire struck out and hit a nearby toadstool, instantly igniting it.
I heard a whisper from Gramps’ slowly wavering form, “Well done, Boy!”
“Thanks, Gramps!” I whispered back. Not wanting to draw this contest out any further than was necessary I drew another breath and, addressing the Pixie leader, said “Let’s go.”
The pixies swarmed and whirled again and with a brighter flash another riddle appeared in glowing letters hovering in the middle of the circle,
I come out every night without being fetched I show you the way without a map I am in motion without even moving By day I am lost without being stolen
I smiled again, as this was almost too easy. “The Stars,” I said, a note of triumph evident in my voice.
The whirl of fire, a shriek, and another burning toadstool lit the ring around me with its glittering light.
“One more riddle and we’re done here, pixies! Let’s finish this!” I said, trembling despite myself.
Gramps’ shade drew closer, and I heard his thin whisper in my ear “Careful Boy, they are as proud as they are tricky. They’ll do their best to find a way to keep you here, don’t doubt.”
“Mind your manners, man child!” the pixie leader shouted, flitting into my face again. “We’ve kept your elder here, and not even your noble Dorothy could wheedle him free. One last riddle for you and yours, and then we shall see!”
The Pixies whirled even faster and higher than before, the flash of light an intense red so bright I was almost blinded. Spots swam in front of my eyes. I could feel Daisy huddled against my ankle, trembling. Reaching down, I grabbed her firmly, in anticipation of our walk to freedom. Blinking my eyes to clear the spots, I could see a fiery scrawl shimmering in the center of the circle,
My heart opens the door to a tree When I reach the ground the answer you’ll see Though it sounds absurd I can fly like a bird
I could feel the answer tickling my brain, but it seemed just out of reach. Sweat breaking on my brow, I wracked my brain. I couldn’t recall ever hearing anything about doors or trees.
The Pixie leader swooped in close again, eying me angrily. “The answer and be quick! Time grows short.”
Sputtering and clutching Daisy even tighter, I closed my eyes. Suddenly I felt a calm wash over me, and like in a movie, I saw the maple seeds floating down from the tree that Granny had planted in front of the house when I was a child. That tree shaded the house and played host to many a squirrel and woodpecker, not to mention kids climbing into the waving branches.
Opening my eyes and looking around the circle I could see Gramps’ wavering shadow glimmering a bit brighter.
With a smile, I knew the answer and who had provided it. “A key!” I said, “A maple seed!”
The pixies swarmed around me angrily, plucking at my clothes and skin, and raising welts along my face and arms. “Wrong, wrong, wrong!” they chanted gleefully. “There is only one answer, not two! You belong to us now, all three!”
I swatted them away and glared at the leader. “It was one answer and you know it. A maple seed is called a key! Let us go!”
She crossed her arms, fluttering in the air and not responding.
“If there are rules for this circle, let us go!” I demanded. “We broke the rules by entering the circle. You are breaking the rules by ignoring my correct answer. If there are consequences for breaking rules, then you must have to pay them too!”
She shook her tiny red mane, sparks flying off of her. “You offered two answers, not one. Your answer be wrong.”
“You lie,” I shouted. “If you don’t need to follow the rules, neither do I.” I grabbed Daisy and tried to move, but to no avail.
“The spell should be broken,” whispered Gramps. “You answered correctly. She’s doing something else to keep you here. I believe you broke the magic of the circle, at least for yourself.”
A whoosh sounded overhead, and a dark shadow swept by me. I looked around, confused.
“Let him GOOOO…”, a ghostly voice sounded. The voice was across from me now, and above. I looked slightly up and saw a brown owl, illuminated in the moonlight, with glowing eyes fixed on the pixie. I have no idea how I could understand him and figured it came from the magic of the fairy circle.
“Away with ye!,” she snapped, flying into his face.
“Release him now,” the owl ordered.
“Why should I?”
“You told a lie, Darenda, and insulted the Great Maple. This man’s answer was correct. The Maple knows her children are called by many names, and one of them is “key.” As you know, I live in her branches and do her bidding. She sent me to warn you.”
I wondered what a maple tree could do to this magical being, but I saw fear flash in the leader’s eyes. Apparently, she was called Darenda.
The owl hopped a bit on the branch. “Let him go or she will not release her elixir to you.”
The other pixies started flying about in alarm, their lights flashing. I did not know why this was such a threat. Was maple sap their main source of food, or of their magic?
I looked directly at the owl. “I had no idea the trees were listening.”
“The trees were here before us and will be here after we are gone. They know and hear many things. And the Great Maple feeds and shelters the creatures of the forest.” Again the owl directed his gaze at Darenda. “You know the penalty you must pay now. What is your decision?”
Darenda sulked, and sparks of green light began to sputter out of her thin form. She glared at me. “You and Daisy may go, but don’t come into our circle again.” A flash of red light burst forth, and a third mushroom ignited.
If owls could nod, this one did, and he flew away, presumably back to his leafy home.
I stepped out of the circle and turned back to Darenda. “What about Gramps!” I demanded.
Her green eyes blazed. “He owes a debt much greater than a riddle. He owes me a life.”
I turned to my grandfather’s shadowy figure. “A life?” What does she mean?” I asked.
If his gray form could turn grayer, it did. He slumped toward the ground, and I felt his sadness. He whimpered softly, and began his story.
“Many years ago, before you were born, I was walking in these woods. Granny and I had lived here a long time, and I knew these mountains well. I had no fears here, and no trouble walking around at night. As I was walking, I saw a light. It was green and dancing around in the air. It was much too big to be an insect. As I watched it, another one, blue, came in and hovered in the air above me. I did not know what could cause such a light. I’d heard stories of unexplained lights at Brown Mountain, but that’s over two hours away. I saw no cars or machinery that could cause these lights.”
“So it was them,” I said, gesturing at the horde of listening fairies.
Gramps nodded and continued. “Wanting to explore further, I picked up a branch and took a soft swing at it. I felt it catch something. It was then I realized it wasn’t just a light. The blue light flew into a bank, fell to the ground, and went out. I ran to it and found the form of a tiny woman, beautiful as can be. And she wasn’t moving. The air started to fill with brilliant colors, and then this one—he pointed at Darenda—started screaming that I killed her sister.
“That you did!” Darenda responded in a sob.
Gramps was sobbing too, but kept speaking. “I ran. There was no circle to keep me there. I didn’t know of fairy circles then. But they followed me, and that’s how Gran met them. She learned of my crime. I had killed a living thing—one of their sisters—Sapphire. They wanted justice and demanded my life.
“That is a fair return,” hissed Darenda, before Gramps continued.
“Gran insisted it was an accident, but they wanted payment. She bargained for years, with berries and concoctions she made from plants that grew all around. She battled them with riddles, too. Riddles that she taught you. All those years you visited us in the summer, she was bargaining for me. That’s why I kept a close eye on where you and your cousins went at night. But one day they trapped me in their circle. They can create them anywhere, and they tricked me into it. Gran eventually found me, answered their riddles, and bought me time, but they wanted a life. And mine was fading.”
Gramps gestured his skeletal arms. “Eventually Gran had to say I disappeared because so little remained. She came to this circle every day, begging for my freedom. But it was never granted.” When she stopped coming I knew she had passed. He sighed as only a shadow can, and I felt his gloom. “I won’t let you spend your life trying to get me released. Take Daisy and go.”
I hesitated, then picked Daisy up. “I’m going to take Daisy to the house, and then I’m coming back.” He nodded sadly, and I wondered why he didn’t object. “Will the circle still be here when I return?”
Darenda laughed. “The circle is wherever we want it to be.”
“Well, then I can’t leave. I can’t let my Gramps die.”
“Nobody’s ever really gone,” a soft and very familiar voice sounded behind me. I whirled around, startled, and began to tear up. I would never forget that voice.
“Gran!” She was younger than I ever knew her, and she glowed with a light that I could feel as well as see. I felt an immense peace pass over me. I knew she had died, but this was no ghost. She was more alive than ever.
“Dorothy!” Gramps’ voice was stronger than ever before, but he remained a shadow. “Oh how I’ve missed you, but why are you here? Nobody can save me.”
“Ah, but you’re wrong. It’s time for you to come home.”
Darenda flew forward, emitting red sparks of rage. “He can’t go anywhere! He owes us a life.”
“His life on earth is over.” Gran did not appear angry as she looked at the furious sprite. “ Your debt is paid.”
Gran reached out a hand, and a thin, shadowy limb grasped hers. As she pulled him out of the circle, he transformed slowly, and the skeletal figure gradually became a much younger version of the Gramps I knew. Soon he was glowing, radiating happiness.
I looked at Darenda. Emerald tears were running down her face. “What about my sister!”
“She flies happily in a place with more magic than you can ever dream, and she is at a peace you don’t yet understand. Now you go.” Gran pointed at her. “Your power over my family is at an end.”
Darenda shot up into the air, followed by her brilliantly colored horde of sisters. She hovered there for a moment, and then called out, “The debt is paid!” They gathered above me in a circle of glorious color, then flew off like a flock of vibrant birds.
“Always be on the lookout for them, Carl. They could come back at any time.” And don’t let your dog or children run free during the night.”
Gran and Gramps smiled. “Have a beautiful life, Carl. We will see you soon, and will never be far away.”
As they walked away, I heard Gran’s voice softly in my ear “Tell them the story of the Will O’ Wisps,”
As I bid them farewell, I knew I was never leaving this place. I watched their lights fade into the mist, my heart bursting with happiness.
With Daisy beside me, I headed back to the cabin to unpack.
We combined fairies, pixies, will ‘o wisps, and sprites into one creature. We also added in the North Carolina legend of the Brown Mountain Lights. You can read more about the Brown Mountain Lights here. My uncle told us many stories of the wampus cat, so he is mentioned here as well. While researching, we found a legend that said the “owl guards the maple tree,” so the owl made an appearance here.
Here is the mountain view from my future retirement house in Bryson City, NC. My grandfather bought this land in the 1930s and passed it to his children. I bought my Mom’s house in 2009 and will get to retire here in a couple years. I got to thinking about families who have been on their land for a long time and how you can just feel their presence. So that inspired the story poem below. At the bottom of the page are more shots of our property. All photos by Doug DeMoss.
Welcome Home, Rosalie
I was born here In a rough cabin knocked together Cold wind screeching through
But my mother kept me warm and safe In these mountains all her days
My children ran through these hills We sweated the fields and hunted the ridges. We struggled but we thrived
When my end came they gathered round to say goodbye And my soul rushed away, content.
I came back to visit often Watching over them as they laughed and cried Until they joined me, one by one Now there are no tears.
The cabins are fancy now The mules gave way to “cars” The way of life changed as I watched And before long my great-grandchildren met me.
Now another Rosalie has arrived Named after me, my daughter, and many other kin She walks through these hills, not exactly knowing But feeling all of us as we walk beside her
She can sense but not see Our hands on her shoulders as we welcome her home
We’re so blessed to have this view from our future retirement home in Bryson City, NC. I always love when the fall colors come out and had to share it with you. Below is an Autumn Tanka I wrote this morning for you to enjoy along with the picture.
Harvest is over Creatures have gathered their stores Time for rest has come.
The trees put on their loungewear Of glorious reds and golds
I hope you are all enjoying the Fall season! It’s my favorite time of year.
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