#2022ShortStoryChallenge #Bigfoot #SmokyMountains

This is another entry in the 2022 Short Story Challenge, started by A Virginia Writer’s Diary. See the original post here. I’m a bit behind and have a few more to post so I can have 12 for the year. The theme this year is folklore, and I’ve teamed up with my husband Doug to write 12 stories featuring Appalachian folklore with a twist. Together we write as Bonnie Douglas. Thanks to Gail Meath for editing this for us!

By Bonnie Douglas

It was a simple Fall day in the mountains when I met Ted.  Even a simple autumn day is a sight to behold in the Smokies.  Orange and auburn leaves decorated the ground and drifted softly from the glowing trees.  The mountains above were golden domes decorated with blankets of clouds.  I was driving in my Chevy truck, having just interviewed the leader of a local group for my blog.

I was an IT professional by trade, and working from home gave me plenty of time to pursue my hiking and blogging passions in my off hours.  The interview I had just completed was going to be a great comedy piece for my blog, The Mountain Dweller.  Jonah McCleary, leader of a group called “Bigfoot Lives,” had warily agreed to speak with me, provided I added a request for volunteers in their ongoing search for Bigfoot.  That’s right.  A group of 30 people was actually spending days camping and scouring the mountains for a large, hairy, Wookie-like creature.  Jonah was friendly enough, but firm in his conviction that Bigfoot exists.  He showed me fur samples and pictures of footprints and images of a tall, shadowy, out-of-focus something that could have been a very tall man or an animal.  I certainly didn’t think it was enough proof to abandon a normal life and scour the mountains for a mythical creature, but Jonah did.  He was crazy, and I planned to paint him that way in my blog.   But for now, I headed towards my favorite parking spot, looking forward to my hike. 

He came out of nowhere, a large blur, and I’m not sure if I hit him or he hit me.  But suddenly I was at a stop.  My airbag had not deployed, but I had heard a crunch of metal, and somebody was lying on the ground.  I did a quick self-assessment as I got out of the car.  I seemed to be okay.  Then I stared.

Even lying on the ground, he was enormous.  He was probably at least 8 feet tall.  His body was covered with auburn-colored fur.  His large head, hands, and feet were very much like the depictions I’d seen of a Neanderthal man in one textbook or another.  I also couldn’t get away from the one word that was screaming in my brain—Bigfoot!  He began to stir, and I stumbled backward.

As he stood up, all my estimations about his height seemed to be true.  I continued to gape and tried to speak. “Are…you okay…?” 

“I think so,” he replied in what seemed to be a perfect Southern Mountain accent.  “I’m not bleeding and I don’t think I’m injured.”  He saw my face and added, “I won’t hurt you.”

I was still rooted to the spot.  “What..why?…Where?…I managed to stutter out, and I wondered why that infamous fight or flight reflex was not kicking in.  “Are you…?”

He sighed.  “Yes, I’m Bigfoot, I guess.”  I am being pursued by some people who I would rather avoid.  Can you give me a ride?   I can pay my way.  I won’t hurt you.”  He repeated, “But I could really use that ride.”  

I didn’t see any pockets, or any pants for that matter,  so I wasn’t sure where he would keep money, or how he would get it in the first place.  Should I jump in my now-dented truck and drive away?  Maybe.  But when he lifted his shaggy arm to check a very large Timex watch that was lodged there, I swayed. How could I walk away from this?  I cleared my throat and tried to square my shoulders, a move which seemed tiny and insignificant next to this giant.   “Okay.  Let’s go.” 

He stopped then and grinned.  “You’re the Mountain Dweller, aren’t you?”  He stuck out his big, fur-covered hand.  I’m Ted.  I follow your blog.”

I shook his hand, assuming that to him it felt as though he were shaking hands with a child.  I took a deep breath, and said  “I have many questions.”

And so I ended up driving down the road with Bigfoot wedged uncomfortably into the passenger seat of my truck. He seemed to be perfectly fine and expecting my barrage of questions.  Before I could begin, he held up a huge hand.  “I’ll give you the basic story, and then you can ask more questions.”  He began his tale:

“I live in comfort underground in these mountains.  Living in the national park seemed the best idea, so the land would be undisturbed most of the time.  The way I manage to do that is another story in itself, but I will simply tell you right now I’m not of this world.”

I gaped. “You’re an alien!  But your English is perfect.” 

“I’ve learned many languages during my time here.  I spoke to you as anyone born in Eastern Tennessee might.”

I was astounded, but a little less scared.  The queries began to tumble out.

He held up his hand again.  “First you need to know why I’m in trouble.  There is a Bigfoot research group called…

“Bigfoot Lives,” I interrupted. 

“Yes, exactly, he exclaimed. They have arrived in my part of the woods.  They are camping much closer to me than I would like.  They’re scouring the woods for any trace of me, and they’ve found much more than they realize right now.”

“What did they find?” I asked, mesmerized.

“They collected some of my hair, footprints–things like that.  But they began picking up a lot of electronic interference, which they didn’t realize was from my home.  I was outside and had to run.  I have to get everything shut off before they realize that I have technology and follow it right to me.”

“How do you know about the electronic interference?” 

“ I was hiding in the woods, watching them more closely than they knew.  I heard them talking about it, but I couldn’t safely get to my home to shut it down. None of them seemed to associate that with me.”

“Did you come here in a spaceship?”

“Yes, you would call it a spaceship because I traveled in space.  But it was designed to be much more.  It became a home.  It has the technology to open up an area underground and then transform itself into a community dwelling, which it did.”

So he obviously didn’t plan to return.  It was a one-way trip.

“Why are you here?” 

“My people want to have a settlement here.  We have a few already that are scattered around your world.  The reason I am alone is because I was sent to set up our community.  A few families will join me later.” 

“Are you married?”

“No!” He laughed.  “I’m only 40.  We live much longer than you, so I’m considered almost a teenager in my world. 

“How did you come to follow my blog?”

He smiled.  I see you in the mountains often, hiking and taking pictures.  Sometimes you video your blog posts and I heard you mention the name of the blog.  I started following it.  It’s really good!”  

I had continued driving while trying to process this and realized I was heading towards home, trying to fathom the fact that Bigfoot was digital and used modern conveniences.  “I guess I’m taking you to my Mom’s house.”

He laughed.  “You still live with your Mom, dude?”  Later I would learn much of his English training involved movies, and his favorite was an 80s film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Shaking my head at Bigfoot sitting in my truck and calling me “dude,” I gave him a half smile.  “My parents passed away a few years ago.  The house was my mother’s.  It had been in her family for many years.  It’s mine now, but I still think of it as Mom’s house.”

He nodded in understanding, and we soon arrived at my little piece of land.  Six acres in the Smoky Mountains.  Under the circumstances, the best thing about it was that I had no neighbors within sight of my house, so Ted was able to walk in freely—well almost.  My blonde lab, Dooley, came running up, growling in warning. 

To my surprise, Ted bent towards him, giving a few yips and barks, and Dooley settled down, wagging his tail. 

“How did you do that?”  I exclaimed.

“His language is easy to understand and has some of the same nuances as mine.”

“Can HE understand YOU?”

“Of course. But his language is more advanced than yours.”

I’m sure I must have had a slightly offended look on my face.  “Well at least I can talk.”

Ted smiled, which was almost a friendly baring of teeth,  and lowered his large head a little.  “Dooley can talk too.  Did you ever think maybe you’re the one who can’t understand HIM?”

I would learn more baffling things about Ted and his world later, but for now we had to tackle the problem at hand:  “Bigfoot Lives.” For I had decided to help him.  Bigfoot deserves his privacy too.   We bent our heads together as much as a giant and an average-sized man can do, and came up with a plan.

When I arrived at the site, I was greeted by several men who must have been serving as security.  They were big and beefy, but did not appear to be armed.  I headed towards the biggest one and stuck out my hand.

“I’m Bill Toliver.  I write a blog called “Mountain Dweller” about life in the Smokies.  I interviewed Jonah in town the other day and I’d love to get some shots of him in action.”

The man responded by jerking a thumb towards a semi-official-looking tent. “Jonah’s in there,” he grunted. 

Jonah greeted me with suspicion at first, as I’m not sure I’d hidden my opinion of his group during our interview.  But having learned about Ted, it was easy to convince him that I believed him.    After taking a few pictures, I volunteered for the search and was accepted. 

I was given a grid and told what to look for:  hair, footprints, waste, or anything that looked like it did not necessarily come from any known animal.  Ted had told me where his underground home was, and my grid was headed in that direction, which was perfect. 

Accessing the secret entrance would be the hardest part, because I had to be completely alone.  That’s where Ted came in.  He was back here, running through the woods, dropping clues, and trying to lead them away. 

I heard a shout not long after I started searching, and saw one of the women running towards Jonah’s tent.  “We saw him, we saw him!”  He’s headed east.  More shouts rose up and the searchers began to shift, heading in an eastern direction.  Everyone but me. 

Ted had given me precise instructions and a device.  When I reached the proper GPS coordinates, all I had to do was push a button.  There was a soft whirring sound, and a door appeared in the ground.  I felt like my world was spinning.  Of course I had believed Ted, but here was the proof.  I entered and closed the door behind me.   Shutting down his power was pretty easy.  Levers, switches, and a button or two.  He had written it all out for me. Yes, Ted can write.  His mastery of language is something to behold.

“Bill!”  I heard Jonah’s voice and I froze.  He was out there calling my name.  How was I going to be able to leave?  After shutting down the power, the door would have to be manually opened, which was going to take some effort.  I would have to wait until Jonah was gone.

I would have loved to look around Ted’s home, but without power I was sitting in the dark.  I probably could have used the flashlight on my phone, but Jonah’s presence outside was paralyzing. 

“Jonah, why are you still here?”  One of the other searchers must have joined him.

 “I saw that fool blogger head this way.” Jonah answered.  “I was trying to find him and send him in the right direction.”

“He probably went home.”

“Maybe.  He’s not as invested in this as we are.”

“We might really get him this time.”  The man’s voice quivered with excitement.

“We will get him.”  Jonah’s voice took on a fervor I didn’t like.  “And we’ve gotten more proof than ever before.”  His voice began to rise, almost to a yell.  “And those scientists who laugh at us will see!  They will see when we bring them a new link in the evolution of man!”

Sitting in the dark in Ted’s spaceship community, I could see why Jonah must never be trusted with the knowledge of Ted.  He was obsessed, and he was wrong.  Ted needed to steer clear of him, and I would help with that however I could. 

 I don’t know how many hours I stayed there.  I heard Jonah and his companion leave, but I wasn’t sure the coast was clear. 

“Bill!”  A familiar voice sounded outside and my laugh was weak with relief.  Ted was safe. When I look back on that day, I realize how quickly Ted and I had bonded. 

With his coaching, I was able to turn the manual wheel on the door and open it.  We then slipped quietly back to my truck.

Ted stayed with me a few more weeks until we were sure that “Bigfoot Lives” was gone.  While he was staying with me, we had some more question-and-answer sessions, leaving me more dumbfounded than before.

“When will your people be here?” 

At this he winced.  “Ten years.”

I was thunderstruck.  “Ten years!”  What are you going to do for ten years! 

He explained that some of his duties so far had been to maintain the underground community, set up supply chains, and get hydroponic gardens going.  He had done this but of course, I had to shut everything down. 

“I’ll have to see what kind of shape everything is in when I get back.  I also need some help from you.” 

I looked up calmly at the hairy face that was already becoming quite familiar.  “Whatever you need.”

He began to explain.  “I’ve been here for three years,” he said.  “I have been able to produce food in addition to the stores I have with me.  I also have much better internet than you, and I have been able to build up some nice investments for my people.

I laughed. “Do you spend a lot of time on the internet?”

“Oh yeah,” he responded with a smile.  “Twitter is my favorite.”

He turned serious then.   “But I can’t do it all online.  I sometimes need a friend to sell gold or other items for me.  And I need someone to pick up packages at my P.O. box because UPS doesn’t deliver to the middle of the woods and Bigfoot can’t exactly walk into the post office. That’s how I was able to get my watch and whatever else I needed.”

“Well, who did it before?” 

“Jacob,” he said simply, looking sad.  “He was a “friend” of my people who served as a sponsor when I arrived.  He was quite elderly, but he did those things for me until he died a couple months ago.  I had plans in place with Jacob in case Bigfoot Lives or other groups came around.  Without him, I began to look for someone else.  I was already following your blog, so I began to watch you and waited for the right time to approach.  I was trying to stop your truck when you hit me.”

“How come I couldn’t see you watching me?”

“I can blend into the forest pretty well.  It’s just something my people can do.”

“Do you have other contacts on this world?”

“My people do, of course.  They’ve been coming to your world for a long time. But Jacob was the last one around here. 

“Will you reach out to the whole planet one day?” I asked.

“One day.  But your world isn’t ready yet.  For now, I need your help. Will you do it?  I can pay you, in a way.”

Of course I said he didn’t have to pay me to pick up his packages, but he basically ignored that.  I became Bigfoot’s sponsor, and ultimately, he became my best friend. 

So now Ted visits a lot and spends quite a bit of time in the basement of my house, which is now known as “Ted’s room.”    His love of the internet continues, and he is often engaged in political arguments on Twitter.  If he could vote, I would guess he would be an Independent.  He seems to get a kick out of enraging both sides of the aisle.  For a while back in 2016, he pretended to be someone called “Q,” but I put a stop to that.  He thought it was great fun, but I became worried because people were actually beginning to believe him. For all of his knowledge and abilities, he is still a teenager at heart.

Mostly he gives me great investment tips and great conversation. Thanks to Ted, I was able to retire  a couple of years ago at the ripe old age of 32.  He will not yet tell me how he knows what is going to happen in the investment world, but he always knows.  Thanks to that, I get to spend a lot more time hiking and taking photos.  If I can pry Ted away from Twitter he joins me, blending seamlessly into nature whenever someone passes by. 

What does the future hold for Bigfoot?  His people will eventually join him here, and he is working towards that.  Meanwhile, in his downtime, Ted is considering starting an online blog from Bigfoot’s perspective.  I’ll keep you posted.

Author’s note: We realize there are Bigfoot research groups out there and are not picking on them at all. “Bigfoot Lives” was not inspired by any of them. We just wanted to put a fun twist on the Bigfoot legend and we hope you enjoyed it.

© Bonnie DeMoss and Douglas DeMoss

#2022ShortStoryChallenge: A Helping Hand #DanielBoone #Trailblazers #WildernessTrail

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.


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.


Short Story Challenge: The Gift of Gab #2022ShortStoryChallenge

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 caught him 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.”

            I forgot my own dilemma for a moment and gleefully grabbed her in my arms, jumping up and down and taking her with me.  “Congratulations!”  “That’s amazing!” 

            “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?”

            I nodded. 

            “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. 

2022 Short Story Challenge #2022ShortStoryChallenge

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.


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.

“They’re gone!”

“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.”

“My children?”

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.

© Bonnie DeMoss