I’ve told this story a hunnerd times before and no one believes me so I don’t expect you to, neither. I seen it, my sister seen it too, both of us did, exactly twice. The first time, we was out there in the pasture, jumpin over cow pies. I know that probably sounds like a stupid thing to do for y’all who didn’t grow up in the country, but that is what we did sometimes on sunny days when we didn’t have chores to do. I musta been nine so that woulda made her six. She remembers that first time clear as day, same as me, and she would swear to it, except for she can’t, on accounta her losin her voice.
Like I said we was out there jumpin around in the pasture when somethin caught my eye. It was spring and the cows had been out to pasture all week, so the grass was low except for the milkweed, which was yellow and almost as tall as my sister. We called it milkweed because if you broke the stalk, white stuff like skim milk would come out. I tried it once and it tasted nasty. The cows wouldn’t eat it so it got tall in the spring even as the grass got shorter. I remember the milkweed because out of the corner of my eye I saw somethin black against it, between the yellow of the pasture and the blue of the sky. Somethin black as night.
I did that thing where I looked a little bit with my eyes but then needed to go back real quick and look with my whole head, because what I saw didn’t make no sense and my brain had a hard time believin my eyes. It was a huge black cat-lookin thing, with no tail. A bobcat, I figured. A big, black bobcat that was headin towards the woods, a hunnerd yards away, all low on its haunches like it was stalkin somethin. I had never heard my daddy or Grandmama talk about bobcats around those parts, and they had killed all kinds of other things on our land: coyotes, deer, voles, snakes, raccoons, foxes, rabbits.
My sister caught on to what I was starin at and looked herself, and when she looked, the thing looked right back at us. I felt a wave of fear wash over me as it stared right at me. I could see that its eyes were red. Not the middle of the eyes, but the outside. The part that’s s’posed to be white. It stood there starin and its mouth started to open real slow, like it was smilin, but then its jaw dropped and we heard this thing scream the awfulest scream you ever heard in your life. It was high pitched and hurt my ears and my chest. But I could feel the noise tuggin at somethin in my gut too. It took my breath away and made me feel like I was fixin to puke.
Before I even realized it, I had grabbed my sister’s hand and we took off for the house. I remember runnin so fast it felt like my feet weren’t even touchin the ground, and somehow I managed not to step in cow shit even though I wasn’t even tryin not to. It’s like I was flyin or somethin. I could feel my heart just thuddin as loud as it could inside my chest. I felt like surely this thing had took off after me when it saw me startin to run but I was too scared to look back to make sure.
The house was in my sights at that point but felt like it was miles away. I could see the barb-wire fence gettin closer. My sister was cryin and wailin and not able to keep up runnin, so I picked her up and slung her round my waist. She saw behind me, looked right at what I had been too afraid to look back at, and screamed as loud as she could, shakin like she was havin a seizure, and started clawin at my skin, aimin to climb on top of my head. She scratched up my left ear pretty good. You can still see the scars.
I trucked it as fast as I could and tossed her over the fence and slid under it, smooth as I could, like I had practiced in baseball, picked her right back up off the ground, and kept goin. Somethin hit the fence a beat behind me, and I heard another awful scream, this one with this sharp heat that blew at my back and carried an awful stench with it. We busted up into the house and slammed the door behind us, locked both locks, and ran into Mama and Daddy’s bedroom, where we jumped up onto the bed and got under the covers, shakin and whinin like a couple of scared dogs.
Mama came in there and asked us what in the world was goin on. We were out of breath and my sister’s eyes were wide and she just kept shakin her head back and forth. I felt like my heart was gon’ burn a hole in my chest, it was beatin so fast. We told her that somethin had got after us out in the pasture, somethin like we had never seen before, and she took off to the back door to have a look out the window. There was nothin there, far as she could see. She grabbed the shotgun and walked out to the fence to check it for fur or feathers or whatever. She didn’t see a damn thing. We looked out window and didn’t see nothin neither.
Later that night, as I was tryin to fall asleep, I felt the back of my head and noticed that some of the hairs at the nape of my neck had been singed.
As you might imagine, I was awful leery of goin out in the pasture after that. My sister didn’t much want to have anything to do with the outdoors at all anymore, so she tended to stay inside. She was hoarse from screamin, but still managed to tell Ms. Petty, her teacher at school, what we had seen. Ms. Petty had told her that we did have bobcats in our part of the world. She said black ones were real rare but that they were real. That put us at ease a little bit, even if we weren’t too thrilled to have been chased by one.
That next spring Grandmama came to live with us. It wasn’t too much different from before because she had always just lived on the other side of the pasture from us and was always at our house anyway, but it was upsettin to see her so sad and confused all the time. Daddy said she had a brain disease where she was losin all her memories and would forget how to take care of herself. All her brothers and sisters had died a long time ago, most of them when they were kids, so we had to take care of her, Daddy said.
She would say some of the craziest shit to us. Like this one time at dinner, when I was goin round the table and puttin mashed taters on everybody’s plate. I got to her and she looked me in the eye and said, “Your great-grandfather was a demon.” That was her talkin about her own father, the man who had bought and cleared and farmed our land, the man who had given us all his name! I swear to God, that’s what she said to me. Everybody just stood there and stared at her, not sure what to do. “He’s a demon and he’s tryin to bring someone back to Hell with him.”
Daddy tried to shush her but she started yellin over him and thrashin around. Mama took my sister out of the room and I held Grandmama’s arms to her side while Daddy pushed two pills down her throat, held her mouth closed, and stroked her throat so she’d swallow, like I had seen him to do the dogs when they needed to be wormed. She calmed down and passed out sittin there at the table. We had dinner around her and nobody said a word.
Over time I forgot how scared I had felt that day with the bobcat, and I started to venture back out into the pasture and the woods again. We owned a lot of land back then and Daddy had started teachin me how to hunt. I didn’t feel any fear when I was out in the woods with him. My Daddy was a big man with skin dark from spendin all his days in the sun. He took me to the deer stand he had built near the gravel pit, and told me it was the best place on our land to get a deer.
As we were walkin to the deer stand, I noticed somethin big and yellow peekin out from behind a big clump of brambles and weeds. “That’s a school bus,” Daddy told me. “Somebody used to live in it.” That was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. I went over to have a look and Daddy told me to be careful and not get too close. He and Grandmama had stored a bunch of barrels of old farm chemicals in the bus, and he didn’t want me near ’em. But I had to get closer. I could see ratty curtains hangin from the windows, and half a dozen candles melted on the dashboard. The bus was filthy and halfway covered up in that mossy stuff that grows on the side of trees and looks like bark but ain’t. I took a step back and hollered when I got caught on somethin. It was thorns from a yellow rose bush growin in the mess of weeds.
I asked Daddy who lived there and he said he didn’t know. “How come you don’t know who lived in a bus in your own back yard?” I asked him and he shot me a dirty look. “Boy, this ain’t your back yard and don’t you ever forget it. This is the woods and the woods is wild.”
We found the deer stand and only sat up there for half an hour, felt like, before the biggest buck I ever saw wandered up. Daddy let me have the first shot at it but I got nervous and my gun kicked and I missed. The buck took off but Daddy was a good shot and brought him down easy. We had venison steaks the next night and venison stew the night after that.
After dinner, when Mama was cleanin up and Daddy went outside to smoke, I asked Grandmama, “Who lived up in that old school bus out near the gravel pit?” Grandmama had barely been awake through dinner. We had learned to give her a pill before dinner or else have to sit through some awfully weird shit. But I knew she knew somethin Daddy wasn’t tellin me so I had to ask. Childish curiosity and all that.
“Your great-grandfather was a demon,” she told me, just like she had before. She looked me right in the eye and she said: “Mother loved him but couldn’t have him in the house because the babies kept dyin.”
Just then I realized that my sister was in the doorway listenin. She got scared and ran off to tell Mama, who came stormin in and shooed me away.
That night my sister woke up screamin and hollerin like she was bein murdered. She woke the whole damn house! Mama and Daddy came runnin into our room and askin me what happened, even though I was barely awake myself. “You’re havin a nightmare, you’re havin a nightmare!” they told her over and over to calm her down. She finally hushed her cryin and told us that in her dream she had been buried alive, and had tried climbin out, but there were thorny vines wrapped all around her legs tryin to pull her back down.
Mama lifted up her nightgown and there were awful scratches all over my sister’s legs. Mama looked at me as if to ask what I knew about how they got there but I could only shake my head.
“One more to go and then he’ll leave us be,” said Grandmama, who had apparently been listenin in from the doorway without any of us noticin.
That upset Daddy and he asked her what the hell she meant by that.
Grandmama stood there and looked up toward the ceilin, like she was listenin for somethin. Then she started to whisper: “Eleven souls to feast on, a bounty well arranged. The devil seeks another and the demon will be changed.”
Mama had to hold Daddy back. He looked like he wanted to tackle his own mama. He started yellin about how he couldn’t take hearin about demons all the time from her and how she was givin my sister nightmares, and why couldn’t she just go on and die if she was goin to spend all her time in his house talkin bout the devil while her brain rotted away. Grandmama just kept starin at the ceilin, listenin. My sister was back to cryin at this point and my Mama started rockin her like a baby.
“One more and then he’ll leave us,” Grandmama repeated, and she lifted her hand real slow and pointed. She pointed right at my sister.
Daddy let me go out huntin on my own when I turned twelve. By then he and I had been in the woods enough for me to have lost my fear, or so I tried to believe. My Daddy wasn’t scared of nothin, far as I could tell, so I tried real hard to carry myself the same way in case fake courage could turn into real.
It was after Thanksgivin and we were out of school. I woke up real early, before the sun came up, and kissed my sister on the forehead before tip-toin out of the room. I had got my gun and pack set up and ready the night before so all I’d have to do was grab and go. The moon was still out and it was fat and full and bright as hell which made it real easy to make my way over the fence and out into the pasture and to the woods. Everything was lined in this strange blue, like from some other world, and it was pretty to look at but put me a little on edge, on accounta it not bein a color you see very much in the world, just in picture books.
I knew the moon wouldn’t be much use to me as soon as I got to the stand. See, deers know better than to be out and about in a full moon. They ain’t stupid, they spend a full moon ruttin and hidin, not tryin to be out and gettin caught in the bright light. But I’d been plannin my first solo hunt for a while and I knew I needed to just get it behind me, fat moon or no fat moon, so I just kept walkin.
When I came up on the school bus, my heart started poundin. What all had been growin up around the bus was dead now, turned black. All except the yellow roses, which were fully in bloom and climbin up and around the sides of that nasty bus. I looked straight ahead and just kept walkin. I had a shotgun in my hands and that made me feel more brave than I would have felt empty-handed, for sure, but without my Daddy there with me, my heart was goin wild. I tried to talk myself up — “Scared of a goddamn school bus, boy? Is you scared of them roses too?” — I said to myself, my words makin clouds in the cold. I set my jaw and wrinkled up my face in the meanest look I could conjure and kept walkin until I got to that deer stand, which was really just seven little pieces of wood nailed to a tree to make a ladder, and half a dozen bigger pieces wedged between two big branches, really just big enough for one person. Well, one person or Daddy with me as a kid, I guess.
I settled in and tried to get comfortable so my feet wouldn’t fall asleep. I had learned the hard way what happens if you let any of your limbs go numb and need to move when you really need to be still as possible. The woods were quiet except for the wind. It kicked up and died down. I figured maybe it was a trick of the moonlight but it looked like the wind and the leaves in the trees were not quite synced up. The wind would kick up one way but the leaves would seem to go the other way or not go at all. I thought maybe I was still tired and my brain wasn’t up for handlin all the information comin at that early hour.
I didn’t remember to bring a watch so it’s hard to say how long I sat there before I fell asleep. When I woke up, the first thing I noticed was the light. It had changed from a silvery blue to a strange yellow. I reckoned because the sun was comin up and crowdin out the moon. I felt around for my pack and realized it had fallen to the ground while I slept. I said a cuss word that would have gotten me in trouble if Mama had heard it. I was fixin to head down the ladder when I saw the black thing.
It was standin fifty feet away and it was sniffin the base of an oak tree. I flashed back to that day in the pasture years ago when fear had taken over and sent me boltin toward the house, but my mind snapped back when I realized it wasn’t the black bobcat at all; it was a black deer. It was fully grown, long and muscled, with a big eight-point rack. I had never seen or heard of a black deer. Its antlers looked to be a strange shade of this dark reddish blue, nearly the color of a real bad bruise. I thought no one would ever believe me if I told them I had seen a black deer, so I had to bring this’n down and get a trophy out of it. I thought about how Daddy would mount the rack right in the livin room, he’d be so proud.
I brought the shotgun up to my eye as slow and careful as I could, but the wood under me shifted and creaked. The deer snapped its head up and looked right into my eyes. Its eyes, where they were meant to be white, were red. I started thinkin “what the—” when this thing spread its lips out into a smile and I could see its teeth. They were all crooked and spaced out. Its jaw dropped and it let loose a scream, the same scream that I had heard come from that bobcat. Then, and I know how unbelievable this sounds, but I swear to God, that thing stood up on its hind legs while it was screamin and kept lookin right at me the whole time. Screamin and standin up. It had to be ten feet tall. My mind felt … I don’t know … scrambled and my heart was hurtin and I thought I was fixin to go crazy, right there on that deer stand, but somehow I managed to get my shit together enough to pull the trigger. I watched that thing fall to the ground and I went on autopilot. I dropped outta that deer stand quicker than a jet plane takes off and ran fast as God would carry me. The house was about a mile and a half from the deer stand so I knew I had a haul ahead of me.
I felt light on my feet but it was sort of hard to run with the gun in my hands. I wasn’t about to give it up, though, long as I could hang on to it and still keep movin. I honestly thought I had killed the thing until I heard what sounded like thunder behind me and inside my head. I couldn’t tell if it was my heart beatin or what. When I hit a clearin, I summoned the courage to twist my head just enough to glance behind me and what was comin for me, and I quickly realized that what felt like thunder was actually the rumble of hooves behind me, as the black deer was after me, its red eyes weepin and its nostrils flarin and spewin snot ever’which way. But I swear when I looked behind me it looked more like ten or twelve black deer runnin after me.
The sight of that caused me to run so fast that I think I took years off my life. I couldn’t really process what I was seein at the time, but I swear when I passed the clearin near the school bus, I saw a circle of fresh dirt surroundin the bus, and them yellow roses from the bush — I don’t know how many, there wasn’t no time to count — were spread out along the circle. The black deer screeched at the back of my head as we passed, and I could feel its breath on me, scaldin hot, at the base of my skull. At that point I knew I had to do somethin to buy some time so I chucked my gun round my waist in the hopes that it would trip the beast up. Sure enough I heard a stumble and a snort and a scream and that gave me the push I needed to top the hill and sprint through the pasture, over the barb-wire fence, and toward the back porch, where my little sister was standin and watchin, her eyes wide open and her hands mufflin her own screams. I tackled her and we collapsed into the door and slammed it shut behind us, and scrambled to move away from the door just as we saw Grandmama come up the hall — runnin almost, faster than I ever saw her move — and open the damn door. We screamed “NO!” but it was too late, she had already flung it open. We saw what looked like a burst of wind hit her and knock her to the floor. She screamed a scream that made my heart hurt and my guts twitch. Then the wind seemed to suck back out of the house and the door slammed shut by itself.
My sister and me crawled over to Grandmama. She was lyin there with her eyes wide open. They was red, in the parts that ought to have been white. She wasn’t breathin and she wouldn’t ever again. My sister looked out the window and saw a yellow rose on the porch.
Mama and Daddy sold our family’s land not long after and we moved here. Our house hardly has a yard at all, and there’s no woods anywhere near us. Daddy got a job at the manufacturin plant and makes enough money that Mama can stay home and work in the flowerbed most days and take us to school and back.
My sister lost her voice from screamin so hard that mornin when she saw me comin back from the deer stand. She ain’t been able to talk at full volume since, even when she wants to. So I am the one who always has to tell this story when people ask how she lost her voice. Which is a lot. And ain’t nobody who believes it in the end. I don’t expect you’ll be any different.
Lindsey Turner is a writer, designer, photographer, crafter, and nonprofiteer in Nashville. She lives with her husband, son, and dog in a perpetual state of disarray. Her writing has been published in The Commercial Appeal, The Great and Secret Thing, and Coffin Bell. She blogs every now and again at theogeo.com and wastes more time than is wise on Twitter: @tindseylurner.