Payne Mountain
fiction by Michael Amos Cody

That evening, half a century ago now, just after supper when we had moved out to the veranda to worship the last light, something unspeakable asserted an ear-shattering claim on our fifty acres of forested mountainside. What we heard began as a forlorn howl, such as some creature might make if it returned to its den to find the place and its little ones destroyed, a howl that escalated into a scream of rage. Its echoes spread invisible fire through the woods and sent us scrambling for our front door, imaginations terrorized.

What on earth was that? we wondered again and again as darkness descended and night wore on towards bedtime. We dreaded putting out lights and retiring. Yet not putting out lights at our usual hour seemed as if it might draw the unspeakable’s attention; perhaps, we thought, we might hide in routine and our dark house.

Father had returned to the veranda after nightfall and stood smoking his pipe and staring into the darkness while Mother arranged the rest of us in our semicircle around the fireplace. Was he offering a challenge, maybe counterasserting our claim?  When he had twice drawn the bowl to ash, he came in again, passed by our reading semicircle with a light touch on Mother’s shoulder, and closed himself up in his study. Candlelight glowed along the floor beneath his door, and now and then Mother paused in her quiet, tremulous reading aloud to us from Chaucer when she heard him push back his chair and stand, pull a book from the shelf and again settle down at his desk. He eventually came out and asked her to help us prepare for sleep.

My older brother Samuel and I shared a bed in the room at the top of the house. We called it “upstairs” as if it were a second floor accessed by stairs rather than what it was—an unfinished attic accessed with a rough-hewn hickory ladder. Our three sisters—Emily, Sarah, and Harriet—shared another bed in a room adjoining that in which Father and Mother slept. My friends at school said we must be wealthy to have so many beds and so many rooms, but I never thought so—especially that night of the screams, when I wished we all slept in one room and in one bed instead of Sam and I huddling together so far from the others.

We slept in fits and starts, but before we became aware that the sky was growing light, we heard Father down in the kitchen preparing breakfast. Yet he did not stand at the foot of the ladder and call up to wake Sam and me, joking that it was going on six o’clock when it was barely a quarter past five. He ascended a few creaking rungs and spoke to us in a hushed voice and said that it was time to rise, that breakfast would soon be on the table.

By the time we rose from our morning repast, the sun streamed through our open kitchen windows and sparkled on the lawn. The sky hung blue and cloudless, and birdsong filled the cool morning air. The heavy terrors of the night before seemed no more than a bad dream. Nobody spoke of them over breakfast or as we prepared for school. Father had a steady watchfulness about him, but because he was a quiet man we were mostly able not to notice. I imagine he was struggling between wanting to walk us to school and not wanting to leave Mother and little Harriet alone even for a short time. Finally, after a whispered admonition to Sam and me—“Keep a sharp eye out, boys”—he stood on the veranda with Mother and Harriet and watched the four of us take the path into the woods.

Our walk down to school in Runion was about half a mile, mostly alongside Cook Branch. I had never been quite as aware of the lonely distance as I was that morning. Emily and Sarah did not fall behind whispering and giggling as they usually did but kept close to Sam and me. We talked very little and spent our energy listening to the woods and watching.

Cook Branch pooled and ran at turns, its water clear, its course dappled with what sunlight filtered through the overstory. The October morning air was that odd autumn mixture of warmth and chill. Although the leaves had just begun turning, the light had taken on that golden aura peculiar to October. All seemed at peace, the only sounds being the singing of the stream in its course, the whisper of the breeze through the highest boughs, and the light tread of our eight feet upon the path.

The sudden recognition that these were indeed the only sounds when they should not be took my breath for a frightened moment.

Why aren’t the birds singing? I thought. Not all flown south already, surely. And the squirrels?

Although deer and other creatures of the woods generally hid themselves at the approach of our tramp and talk, birds and squirrels paid us little mind and were always present. But this morning they were hidden and quiet, if they were there at all, and with a lowered voice I mentioned this to Sam.

“Just thinking the same,” he said.

“You give any more thought to those screams?” I asked. “What it was?”

Sam kept walking and scanning the woods. “It might have been a wampus come across the mountain from Tennessee,” he said with a glance over his shoulder at our sisters.

“A wampus?”

“Let’s not talk about it now,” Sam said. “I don’t want the girls to get scared.” He walked a few more steps before he added, loud enough for Emily and Sarah to hear, “And don’t say nothing about all this at school.”

The trees ahead grew thinner, the landscape lighter, and soon we could see the outlines of Chunn’s Tavern and the footbridge across the Laurel River.

I listened all that day for any indication that my schoolmates had heard what we had heard at dusk the evening before. The only strange news was Jimmy Brown’s report that in the afternoon his father and he had found a dead deer that appeared to have been ripped apart to no purpose. Perhaps in pure rage. Its meat was all there, scattered around, not devoured and not taken. Mr. Brown and Jimmy had their rifles and followed a bloody drag trail, thinking that the killer—a cougar maybe—had come upon two deer and killed both, ripped one apart and took the other one away. How it might have struck so quickly that one deer did not escape when the killer attacked the first, Jimmy said they could not guess. When the blood trail ascended a great white oak and disappeared into the overstory, his father and he had turned and hurried home.

A sporadic breeze in the leaves kept us on edge during the afternoon’s long trudge up the mountain towards our lonesome outpost. Emily and Sarah walked ahead this time, perhaps feeling safer due to October’s clear bright air and rich blue sky. Sam and I did not lag far behind and remained wary, even as we talked. I told him Jimmy Brown’s story about the deer.

“Does that sound like a wampus?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he said. “I don’t know much about them. Just bits picked up from the Barnett brothers, who have kin over this side of Greeneville.”

“Well, what did they say about it?”

“It’s like a big cat. Like a panther, maybe.” He shifted his satchel from his left shoulder to his right. “But it seems more than an animal, maybe thinks like we do.” He stopped and puckered his lips in thought. “Maybe not like we do. Not as smart but eviler in the mind, maybe.”

I had no rational response to that and so said nothing. A tightening in my throat almost brought tears to my eyes.

We were less than one hundred yards down the trail from home when Emily screamed and Sarah almost immediately joined her, their terrified voices shrilling like madness.

Sam and I froze mid-stride for a moment and then rushed forward.

“I saw it—something moving—up there,” Emily shrieked, pointing ahead towards where the trail veered away from Cook Branch and disappeared around a laurel thicket. “It was—” She buried herself in Sam’s arms.

Sister Sarah blindsided me with a bear hug the next moment, nearly sending us both toppling into the singing stream.

I regained my balance and wrapped my arms around her trembling shoulders. “Did you see it, Sarah?”

“No,” she said. “Em’s scream scared me.”

I saw a flicker of annoyance touch Sam’s face, but he neither let go of Emily nor took his eyes from the path ahead and the laurel thicket.

Nothing moved.

We held our breaths.

Nothing made a sound.

A sudden crashing of tree limbs and undergrowth came from somewhere within or beyond the laurel, and my breath dug deeper and froze. But as the crash and crackle grew louder, it took on the step of a man, and Father rounded the thicket with a shotgun at the ready and a hatchet in his belt.

Emily and Sarah broke from us and flew to him, with Sam and me close behind.

Father let the girls cry for a moment and then listened to all of us babble our relief.

“I was pacing the edge of the yard,” he said, “when I heard the screaming.”

Sam gave Emily the benefit of the doubt and said she had seen something moving in the laurel thicket.

“And Sarah screamed because Em screamed,” I said.

Father hushed us then, and we all stood listening. Again, the wood was quiet around and above us—a slight sigh in the canopy, a slight murmur from Cook Branch.

But I felt something or someone watching. I think we all felt it.

Later, with all seven of us together behind locked doors, we relaxed as best we could. Father had done the chores Sam and I usually performed, so we had nothing to do but finish our homework and wait for supper. We talked some about our day at school, the walks there and back, about the day Father and Mother and Harriet spent around the homeplace.

By the time we finished supper, twenty-four hours had passed since we first heard that shocking cry in the woods. Other than the dubious fright at the laurel thicket, nothing happened in that time to suggest that we were not as alone and safe on our mountain as we had thought ourselves forty-eight hours before.

But I wonder now if we were safe and alone even then.

And was it, in fact, our mountain?

This led to other questions. Had we ever really been alone there? If land is beyond time, it could also be beyond ownership. We could be surrounded by creatures and spirits with claims so ancient and deep as to reduce all our haughty, childish claims to petty theft.

Perhaps our semi-circle before the fire that night was a bit tighter than usual. Perhaps Father’s voice as he read to us was a bit quieter. Perhaps we behaved a bit better, not poking or kicking one another or sticking a spit-wet finger in an unguarded ear.

No, not perhaps. I am certain that was the case.

Sometime in the night—I had finally fallen asleep—a sound patterned like mad laughter startled me awake so violently that I elbowed Sam in the ribs. He swore under his breath but did not elbow me back as he usually would have done, shushing me quietly instead. I sensed that he had not slept, only lay for however long, listening to the dark. Now we lay side by side, taking shallow breaths through our mouths and listening together.

The sound came again but not quite the same. The tone was similar, but it stuttered like a crying child trying to catch its breath in an attempt either to stop crying or to gather force for a new onset of wailing.

“Is it close to the house?” I whispered to Sam.

He did not respond immediately. Then he whispered back, “Maybe at the edge of the side yard. Up in the trees.”

I knew Father must be awake. I expected every moment to hear the furtive sound of his rising or his whisper up to us from down below or a scream from one or all of the girls.

But what came next came from Sam. In one stealthy motion, accompanied by only a slight creaking of the bedframe, he moved aside our covers, which fell on me, then swung his feet to the floor and sat up on the edge of the bed, his broad shoulders and shaggy bed-head silhouetted in the four-pane window of our west-facing dormer.

He sat looking out, now stretching his neck to look downward towards the edge of the yard, now leaning slowly from side to side to widen his view.

“Too dark,” he whispered, mostly to himself, I think.

All remained quiet.

Then Sam stood and stepped to the window with a confidence that gave the movement a sense of challenge to whatever watched from the woods.

I wondered if the starfield lit his pale face and chest and belly, giving him, from the outside, the appearance of a ghost. Looking at the Sam-shaped blackness cut out of the October night sky, I wondered if ghost would mean anything to the creature or if it thought only of devouring meat and creating offspring and defending—reclaiming—territory.

“Can you see it?” I whispered at last.

He made a gesture I could see only enough to guess that he waggled a finger at me to be quiet. Then I heard his breath catch and sat up, holding our quilts up to my throat and feeling a sudden chill at the back of my neck. “What?” I whispered.

Sam ignored me, and when, in a moment, a faint glow came up through our trapdoor, he turned from the window, took his trousers from a peg on the wall, draped them across a shoulder, and descended backwards down the ladder. He was only head and shoulders when he stopped and looked at me, put a finger to his lips, grabbed his brogans by their tops, and disappeared.

I sat on the bed and listened to the furtive sounds Father and he made downstairs, tried to imagine what they were doing, what they were planning, what they were feeling. They had recently begun hunting together for squirrel or deer—early mornings when they moved around in the kitchen and then went out into the darkness before the rest of us left our beds. I tried to make myself believe that this was simply another such morning.

While they yet remained in the house, I wanted to look out on the dark world as Sam had done. I pushed our covers off me and dropped my left foot to the floor and rose, twisting awkwardly to avoid turning my back to the window. Then I worked my way along the edges of our wool-stuffed mattress, keeping the backs of my thighs against it, until I stood on Sam’s side. I leaned forward and craned my neck to look into the night beyond the window.

Something moved outside to my left, down in the lower yard.

My breath caught, and my eyes momentarily blurred. When I steadied my gaze and let it drift to the side of the movement, I recognized that it was Father and Sam, whom I had not heard leave the house and who were hunkered down and moving towards the deeper obscurity beneath the trees.

Then it turned and seemed to look directly at me where I stood unable 
to move, the two of us separated by only fragile glass and a few feet 
of night air. But if it saw me—it must have seen me—it betrayed no sign.

I let my gaze continue to drift through the outer dark the window framed. After a few shallow breaths I became aware that my eyes shied away from a hole in the night—a more visible darkness than the rest. A blackness crouched like a gargoyle at the edge of the roof, only a few feet down the slope from the dormer window where I stood in my nightshirt.

My bare legs began to tremble as I watched the black thing watch Father and Sam disappear into the trees. Then it turned and seemed to look directly at me where I stood unable to move, the two of us separated by only fragile glass and a few feet of night air. But if it saw me—it must have seen me—it betrayed no sign. Slight, unconcerned movements, barely perceptible by starlight, made me think that it contemplated the house—maybe the pitch of its roof, its wood shake shingles, its dormers, maybe even its fitness for being here on this mountainside among old trees and ancient stone.

And then it disappeared. The darkness outside became just the darkness of the night, no black hole in the heart of it.

I blinked to be sure I was not seeing things in not seeing the thing there at the edge of the roof.

I must go down. Two irrefutable reasons trailed this realization. Either I must go down to try and protect my mother and sisters or I must go down and out to try and find Father and Sam in order to warn them that their efforts at stealth were useless. Sam, that thing already knows you pursue it.

I resolved to see to my mother and sisters first and forced my eyes to turn from the window and my legs to move me towards the trapdoor. Just as Sam had done, I took my trousers from the peg, backed down the ladder, and dressed in the mudroom off the kitchen. I decided to remain barefoot for the moment, so I picked up my brogans and stepped quietly into the kitchen.

I sensed at once some movement in the front parlor and knew the black thing was in the house. How it might have entered, 

I could not fathom, but the fact that it was inside with us without any brutish crashing through windows or doors frightened me almost to paralysis. But before I froze in place, I padded as quickly and quietly as possible to our parents’ bedroom and slipped inside. Just as I closed the door, my mind caught up to the moment and showed me a peripheral image of a shadowy figure standing upright near Mother’s piano. Thinking I had expected something on all fours like a bear, I gently set the lock and joined Mother and my sisters on the bed, where we huddled together and listened to slow, creeping footfalls as the thing moved around the parlor.

Something fell on the high-range piano keys—a crack of clustered dissonance, a bumpy confusion of movement and a muffled kind of bark, a low and rumbling growl, and the quiet again.

We waited.

The loose floorboard near the threshold between parlor and kitchen creaked, and then the creature was just on the other side of the bedroom wall, perhaps between the buffet and our dining table. Movement became more rapid and less furtive. A table chair scuffed on the wood floor and then fell over with a crash followed by another muffled exclamation that might almost have passed for some profanity.

A cacophony of heartbeats seemed to fill the house. One came up through my throat. Others throbbed around my ears like the wings of darting hummingbirds. I wondered, were I able to pull apart those crowded pulsations, if I would find one of them to be that of the beast.

Then a new sound joined the thundering in my mind, and at first, as the heartbeats—real or imagined—receded into the background, I took it to be the susurration of shuffling feet in dead leaves as Father and Sam returned from the October woods. But at the same time that I realized they would never be so incautious, I knew that the sound was the black thing snuffling the air of the kitchen and that it might not be lingering aromas of Mother’s home cooking that excited it but the blood and sweat of five frightened humans nearby.

The sound suddenly grew sharper and more insistent, and then it seemed to be tracing the edges of the bedroom doorframe—along the top, down one side to the floor, along the bottom, back up the other side to the top again. And then it stopped with an abrupt inhalation.

I felt as much as heard the pads of fingers or paws touch the other side of the pine wood door and slide along the same path that the snuffling had followed moments before.

No tapping.

No beating.

Just the touching and sliding.

Then the pressure of pushing.

Then nothing but quiet except for a few shallow, open-mouthed breaths—five from the bed and one from the other side of the bedroom door.

A hollow thudding broke the moment and started a half-formed thought—What is it doing?—that then broke apart against the recognition that the sound was that of boots on the front porch, a sound straightaway drowned out by the piercing dissonance of four terrified screams.

I felt as much as heard the beast bound across the kitchen and crash through plate glass to the veranda. This breaking stopped our screams, and we heard one set of footsteps—Sam’s, I soon learned—thunder in that direction and another set—Father’s—running through the house towards us. Then all sound drowned beneath the roar of two quick shotgun blasts, out from under the echoes of which emerged Father’s rattling of the doorknob and calling for us to unlock it. My sisters and I—dissolved almost to a jelly in our fear—could not move, but Mother, with a strangely quiet Harriet in her arms, sprang out of the bed and let Father in, with Sam at his heels.

For long minutes, we cried and laughed and whimpered by turns as we huddled together in and around our parents’ bed.
When we had gained control again through telling each other our stories of the night’s terrors and marveling at the unaccountable composure of our little Harriet, Father said that he was going out again to track the black thing, but we swelled so quickly back towards panic and terror—for ourselves and for him—that he conceded to wait until daylight and settled down on the bed with our mother and sisters. Sam and I sat cross-legged on the floor, facing each other. We all remained there—together like that—until the windows glowed with dawn.

We never determined how the monster got in the house without as much noise as it made getting out. While Mother, Emily, and Sarah cooked breakfast, I showed Father and Sam where the creature had stood upright—not on all fours like a bear—when I glimpsed it in the parlor. The doors and windows were, of course, not locked, but all were securely closed. We had difficulty imagining that such a thing could manipulate an entrance and then muster the wherewithal to close the door or a window behind itself. Be that as it may, it had indeed entered by some means—a means that remains a mystery to me half a century later.

After breakfast, Father again left me in charge of the house and grounds, proclaiming that I had done well in the night, and went off with Sam to track the criminal, the destroyer of our Payne Mountain peace. But they soon returned, having found and followed a trail of blood into the woods and then lost it at the base of an aged white oak. As my friend Jimmy and his father had done, my father and brother turned and hurried home, keeping an eye on the mottled canopy as they came.
Emily and Sarah swept up the broken glass that had exploded onto the veranda at the intruder’s escape, and when they finished, Sam and I began working to board up the opening. Father entered his study and closed the door, while Mother paced up and down the yard with a suddenly—strangely—inconsolable Harriet. After a time, Sam caught my eye and motioned towards Mother with a jut of his chin. I turned and watched with him as she grew less attentive to Harriet’s wails and her footsteps became more decisive. She finally stopped a moment and stood staring into the woods. Then she carried the baby to our sisters and went into Father’s study without knocking and quietly closed the door behind her. As Harriet began to calm down in the care of her Emily and Sarah, Sam and I gave each other our look and continued to work.

Just as we finished, the study door opened gently, and Mother came out, this time leaving the door ajar behind her, and disappeared into our parents’ bedroom. When Sam had gathered our tools and I had reswept that portion of the veranda, the study door flew open, and Father emerged. Despite the abrupt exit from his solitude, his voice, when he spoke to us, was calm and kind as always.

“Children, we are going down the mountain,” he said, taking Harriet from her sisters. “Pack your valises for a couple of nights and don’t forget to include anything you need for school.”

“Yes, Father,” we said and went to our rooms.

By noon, we were trooping in a line down the mountain path towards Runion. According to Father, we would pass through the town—I was not sure whether to be thrilled or embarrassed that we would march directly past the schoolhouse and would surely be seen—to the cable ferry that would take us across the French Broad to Christabel Island. There, Father said, we would lodge two or three nights with Mr. Spellman Anderson and the Avalon Pantisocratic Community. In early September, we had already made our annual visit to Avalon Orchard for apple picking, but my mouth watered at the possibility of tasting for the first time a Limbertwig, a late-ripening variety Mother reminisced about every year in November.

That night, after Sam and I bedded down on the floor in the library of Avalon Cottage, a question that I had earlier in the day reoccurred to me.

“You think you hit that thing?” I asked. “Or maybe it cut itself on the glass?”

Sam lay quietly for a few moments. “I’ve wondered that, too,” he said at last. “I couldn’t see it good in the dark, but I thought I saw it stumble.” He raised his arms and laced his fingers beneath the back of his head. “The blood in the yard could’ve been from the shotgun or the glass. Or both, I reckon. But it’s more likely to have been the glass. Seems like we might have seen more blood from a shotgun wound.”

I heard sleep coming for him in the slow alterations of his breathing, and then it took him and left me lying awake and alone in that strange place. I actually said my prayers without prompting for the third night in a row and then lay thinking about rising and finding a candle and exploring one or two of the thousand volumes that lined shelves built into the walls. But I could not move for listening—listening for some howl or scream from out in the orchard or some thump on windowsill or stair. I could not move for watching—watching for the movement of a blacker shadow among the shadows in the room. So, I lay there wide awake and never realized that I fell asleep until Father entered with a candle and quietly called us to rise and dress for breakfast and school.

When we traipsed through the orchard in half-light, I knew by the things they carried that Father intended to take Sam back up the mountain with him, leaving Mother and Harriet at Avalon Cottage and Emily, Sarah, and me at school.

I wanted to tell Father and Sam something I had been thinking about the monster. Had I, as that almost-nine-year-old boy, been in command of the intricate thought processes and language necessary, I would have told them that this monster—this black thing—was beyond our control, maybe even beyond our comprehension. I would have told them that, even as they had hunted it the morning before, they did so without the knowledge that what they considered their prey was really preying on them. The beast—if I could even call it such—was outside the œcology that we believed encircled and secured and served us. Although I could not express it, I felt with certainty that it was part of the mountain and woods we called ours in ways that we could never be. Real as its screams were, real as its breathing on the other side of Mother’s bedroom door and its crashing from the kitchen onto the veranda were, it seemed, at the same time, a spirit of loss or guilt—something. I wanted to tell them these things, but I had not the words. And so, I just walked along behind them.

We worked the cable ferry from Christabel Island over to the Drovers’ Trail and walked from there up the path into Runion. And the entire way, this fog of ideas and the weight and tangle of inadequate means to express them lay so heavily on my tongue that I could not speak. They filled my throat and mouth like bile.

“Solomon,” Father said to me. “Sol.” He placed both huge hands on my shoulders. “Sam and I are going back up the mountain to gather more of our things. If we are not here when the school day ends, I’m trusting you to see your sisters safely back to Avalon Cottage, where Mother and baby Harriett will be waiting.” He tousled my hair. “Tell Mother we hope to return before nightfall.” He bent to kiss Emily and Sarah on their foreheads. “Ask them not to wait supper for us but to save us some if they will.”

“Yessir,” I said, the simple utterance escaping me with surprising ease.

Emily and Sarah walked together into the schoolhouse, and Father and Sam turned away.

I stood as if stuck to the spot, listening to the chattering and laughing and banging of my schoolmates and watching my father and brother walk down the hill, across the footbridge over the Laurel, past Chunn’s Tavern, and up our trail into the woods.

“Solomon,” Mrs. Stackhouse said from the doorway. “It is time to begin.”

I turned and saw her standing sideways to allow me to pass but looking towards the mountainside woods above Chunn’s.

“Will Samuel not be in attendance today?” she asked.

“No, ma’am,” I said and squeezed past her.

I lasted until lunchtime when I could no longer stay still. As I entered the trees and started up the mountain, I imagined Mrs. Stackhouse as she noticed my place occupied only by my books and slate and hurried to the schoolhouse doorway, scanning the woods above the roof of Chunn’s Tavern and hoping to catch a glimpse of me.

I listened between footfalls as I trudged upwards towards our abandoned place, but I heard nothing—no sounds of bird or beast or Father or Sam. As I passed the laurel thicket and rose towards the lower edge of our yard, I became impressed with myself, with how quietly I moved, and I began playing a game of pretend in which I was a Cherokee approaching the camp of some trespassing interloper, approaching with such stealth that I could not hear my own steps or even my own breath, approaching with intentions unknown or undecided. And in the midst of this make-believe, I sensed some connection to the ineffable ideas I had desperately wanted to share with Father and Sam that morning.

I found myself standing just inside the tree line and looking up at the house, and the thoughts nearly realized in words collapsed.

Nothing moved.

Nothing made a sound.

The house shone white in the early afternoon sunlight. Blue-gray shadows hung under the eaves. The closed windows and open front door framed darkness as if night huddled inside our rooms. Mother’s flowerbeds remained neatly winterized. The only sign that she—and we—had been away was a scattering of fallen leaves on the veranda steps.

I held my breath and listened. I wanted to hear the clatter of Father gathering pots and pans in the kitchen, the thud of Sam’s boots on the rungs of our attic ladder. I wanted to hear Father whistle a snatch of some old air or maybe a string of his bird calls, to hear Sam call down from our room to ask if he should or could take this or that.

Two quick shotgun blasts dropped me to my knees. They sounded off to my right, along the mountainside, and within the rolling echoes, I thought I heard shouts, thought I heard Father cry, “Sam!” Another blast shook me, and beneath its echoes, screams.

Nothing changed in the scene before me. No startled birds launched into the blue sky above the trees. No woodland critters fled across the yard. The house and flowerbeds and leaf-strewn grass remained still.

Then everything changed when Sam bolted out of the woods and into the yard, making for the house, his clothes splotched with blood, his left arm flopping at his side, his mouth agape with a voiceless scream. He threw wild-eyed glances behind him, over one shoulder and then the other.

I tried to call to him. Sam! I wanted to shout. Over here! Where is Father? But I found myself voiceless as well.

Then, as if I had actually called out and he had heard, he suddenly veered away from the house and ran in my direction. But he seemed unable to see me, and I had to dive to my left to keep from being bowled over and trampled. In moments, he was past the laurel thicket and fading towards Runion, leaving me behind.

I found my feet and stood, the sound of Sam’s retreat lost in my sudden heavy breathing. I looked again at the compound—all unmoved and unmoving.

And then something did move.

A black head and shoulders and chest rose—upright and lurching—above a gable ridge, like a storm cloud ascending the blue sky. Its awkward movements as it emerged into view made me wonder if one or more of the shotgun blasts from Father or Sam had hit home. I wondered if it was a fatal wound and wondered which of my heroes had fired the blast that found its mark. I wondered if Sam had reached Runion yet, and I wondered where Father might be.

And then I saw.

As the beast hove fully into sight, I saw that in its clawed left paw—or hand—it gripped my father’s body by the scruff of the neck. Then with an effortless movement it draped the bloodied mass of flesh and shredded clothing across the gable’s ridgeline. It looked at me where I stood in my own filth and seemed about to say something. Freed from the slight burden of its kill, it stood to its full height as if it might beat its chest and roar in triumph. But it did neither. It just stood atop the house—my father’s body at its feet, the blue October sky above its bestial blackness—and looked at me.

I do not know how long I stood there before I broke our mutual stare and turned away and stumbled down the hill. At first, I steeled myself not to look back. If it was coming after me, I did not want to know. But then several feet before reaching the laurel thicket, I stopped and turned.

The roof of the house was empty. The blue sky likewise empty of all but a single puff of white cloud. Our homeplace stood against the mountainside as if it were a painting leaning in a doorway and waiting to be carried away.

I turned, as if with that painting tucked under my arm, and never again climbed Payne Mountain.

All my life to that point, Sam had been my brother and my best friend. But the last time I knew him as the latter was when we lay talking on the floor in Avalon Cottage’s dark library that night just over a half century ago. He was never the same after what happened the next day. His left arm healed, but we were never close again. Although Mother tried for weeks to learn from him what had happened up on the mountain, he would not—or could not—say.

The men who later climbed up there—little more than a horror film’s mob of villagers armed with pitchforks and torches—found the house and grounds undisturbed except by small signs that the mountain was already reclaiming its own. They followed my directions towards the area from where I thought the shotgun blasts had come and found nothing.

My father’s body was lost.

My sisters, Mother, and I soon moved to Runion, where we lived in a house on Main Street, secure among the growing cluster of dwellings and businesses.

Sam quit school and remained on Christabel Island, where he lived alone in a small cabin provided by Spellman Anderson in return for work around Avalon Cottage, the grounds, and the orchard.

I came of age in Runion, seeing Sam rarely, and then left to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduating, I moved to Chicago where I began working in the insurance industry.

When the first world war broke out in Europe, Sam, even though he was in his early thirties, signed up to fight and soon afterwards died near an Austro-Hungarian village called Vimperk.

I still hear the screams—ours and the monster’s—ever so often in dreams. Sometimes they surprise me in broad daylight, seeming to come from just outside my twelfth-floor office window or to fall out of a sunset sky as I walk the five and a half blocks to my apartment building on South Michigan Avenue near Grant Park. Those screams should have been buried long ago beneath the noise of the first world war, the dancing feet and laughter of flappers, the groans of the Great Depression, and the second world war now underway, the rattle and rumble of automobiles and trains, the roar of airplanes overhead, the chatter along telephone lines and across radio airwaves. But the screams have not been buried. And if they have not been by now, I do not expect they ever will be.

Michael Amos Cody was born in the South Carolina Lowcountry and raised in the North Carolina highlands. He spent his twenties in Nashville writing songs, a handful of which were recorded by such performers as Glen Campbell and Gary Morris. His thirties were spent in school at UNC-Asheville, Western Carolina University, and the University of South Carolina, Columbia. He is author of the novel Gabriel's Songbook (Pisgah Press, 2017) and the short story collection A Twilight Reel (Pisgah, 2021). His novel, Streets of Nashville, is forthcoming (Madville Publishing, 2025). He lives with his wife Leesa near Johnson City, Tennessee, where he teaches at East Tennessee State University. Find him on Facebook and Instagram @michaelamoscody.

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