by Michael Rafferty
The first time that Roberta had seen, or had even heard about the dark creature from the forest was in a series of photographs spread across her kitchen table in the old farmhouse. She and Walt had lived in it for just a year when, having met a man who lived in an adjoining farm a few miles distant at a fair, had struck up a conversation, which was interesting enough for an invitation to the farmhouse. Mack, the neighbor, farmed his property, unlike Roberta and Walt, and took photos as an avocation all his life. They talked over coffee.
â€śYou guys probably know by now of all the wildlife around you,â€ť said Mack, fanning the five-by-seven photos out. â€śThey keep me busy.â€ť He had shots of every familiar thing that the couple had seen, including some of black bears. Many of which were only a few feet distant.
â€śThey come that close?â€ť exclaimed Walt, surprised.
â€śOh yeah,â€ť said Mack. â€śIf they think thereâ€™s food, theyâ€™ll come right up. Youâ€™ll find out!â€ť He followed this with a snorting laugh. He searched through the pictures, found three and slid them to the couple.
â€śThirteen years ago I was plowing a short stretch of ground and I saw something. I always have my camera. This is what I got. . .â€ť The first picture was an figure of some kind standing upright at a distance of about seventy-five meters. It was dark, almost reptilian looking, with indistinct features. â€śI didnâ€™t have time to set the focus as well as I should have, and then it moved off. I got two more shots.â€ť The second photo showed a running creature stretched out, a leaping motion, blurred somewhat. The third picture was of the animal half into the brush.
â€śWhat is it?â€ť asked Walt.
â€śDonâ€™t really know,â€ť was Mackâ€™s reply. â€śOther people have seen it over the years. Some have claimed to even have shot one, but no bodies ever were found. Thereâ€™s no real name for it as far as I know. I never saw it again. Donâ€™t know as I want to.â€ť Mack paused, cleared his throat and continued. â€śThe animals from the woods that live around you are a charm, and for the most part, make your life really pleasantâ€”-even the bears!â€ť One of his big, leathery fingers hooked, and tapped the picture of the creature standing upright. â€śThis thing here, however, is different. If one gets into your livestock, it will cause serious shit, believe me! Iâ€™ve heard stories.â€ť Mack looked at the his new friends with serious concern on his face. â€śIf you see something like this thing on your property, do what ever it takes to rid yourselves of it! Pronto!â€ť
The conversation and pictures fell away as the years passed and the enjoyment of the farm grew. A late morning in November, a North Carolina November brought them all back when Roberta happened to glance out of her upstairs window toward the back of the property bordering the forest and the clear-cut running to the barn. What was that? Was it Rowdy, their Shepherd-mix mongrel back from a run? It was upright, suggesting a memory of something else, then the photo snapped backed from her subconscious mind to sharp focus. Robertaâ€™s eyes were pretty good, decent remnants of her sixty-something body, but the distance was at least a hundred meters. The animal came forward into a clearing, stood tall againâ€”-and she was sure. Mackâ€™s warning came back to ring in her ears, â€śDo whatever it takes to rid yourselves of this thing!â€ť A chill ran completely through her body.
With some apprehension in her stride, Roberta made her way toward the barn to check on her ladies as she liked to call them. Over two days had passed since she last had seen them; the old house had required maintenance and bills to be paid. The sky was light blue and clear, a perfect day when she lifted the latch and pulled the large door open to the barn. Strange, she thought, that there was no sound; the single rooster should greet her, or at least a few hens not out in the back yard foraging. There was nothing. She checked the laying areas but there were no eggs. Not that unusual, but maybe. . .
In the back of the barn were two small access holes cut into the wall to allow the chickens outside to free range. Just large enough for the hens, a coyote probably would not fit, although a weasel or mink could, and raccoons were sometimes visitors, for the eggs. Roberta went back out through the barn door and around to the back of the barn. She scanned the short-grassed and scrub piece of land that ran from the barn to higher grass and ended at the woods that eventually circled the entire farm. The dozen chickens never entered the taller grass or woods; never actually strayed that far beyond the short grass perimeter and yet she could see none of them. There was no sign of Billie the rooster, either. In the stone quiet of the afternoon light, a shudder ran through the lone woman. What the hell was thisâ€”-and where was Rowdy?
Trudging toward the house, she thought about Walt and what would he do. He would know what to do, he alway did, but Walt was gone, dead now fourteenâ€”-no, fifteen months. Killed in the very barn she just left. She had heard a noise and rushed to see and found him on the barn floor, fallen from a broken ladder rung while working the loft. A freak of a fall, striking the base of his skull on the way down. He lasted long enough to squeeze her hand as the paramedics took him. A big, gentle, intelligent wonder of a man who died at sixty-five years, leaving her with plenty of money, and a farm to share with no one.
She ate dinner in front of the TV news, still thinking about the thing she had seen in the morning, and wondering knowing it was the reason for her chicken problem. Done eating she went to the large hall closet, pulled the light switch and saw the Remington pump in the corner. Amazingly it was free of rust(Walt had seen to that)and on the shelf was a box of shells loaded with number 4 buckshot. Walt wasnâ€™t interested in hunting anything, but he knew that predators could come around anytime and number 4 could reach them at fifty yards or so, and this pleased him. At closer range, it could knock down anything.
She took the gun into the kitchen and toweled it down, opened the slide and shined a flashlight down the barrel to check for obstacles or rust; it was clean. The model number 870 on the side of the breach was familiar as she loaded the gun, sliding the green shells one at a time into the long chamber. Outside, she walked into her front yard, aimed the weapon up, away from the house, tight to her shoulder as Walt has instructed, and squeezed the trigger. The resounding crack-boom into the black sky told her that the ammunition was sound. Tomorrow the might try a little target practice, but tonight she would sleep better.
â€śCarol! Youâ€™re looking well! Where are the little ones?â€ť Roberta was watching her daughter in San Fransisco organize herself to have a conversation, a weekly one, on Skype. Carol tried in vain to seize her youngest daughter for her grandmother to see, but she slipped away.
â€śDanny!â€ť Carol yelled, â€ścome over here!â€ť and had more luck with the older boy who plopped into her arms.
â€śGod, heâ€™s getting big!â€ť said Roberta, who had only seen her daughter but not the children for a while. They talked of social things; their appearance, the weather and then Carol said, â€śMom, have you decided yet. I know youâ€™re thinking about it. Itâ€™s been too long.â€ť
â€śSoon, sweetie, and I mean that. I have some issues I have to resolve myself, and I have to be alone to do it.â€ť She and her only daughter had talked at length about Roberta selling the fifty acre farm and moving to be with her daughter on the west coast. Roberta knew it was inevitable that it would happen; she could not be alone too much longer, and she could not take certain things with her. Some things had to remain on the farm. She wasnâ€™t sure if her daughter would understand. â€śBesides, something just came up, a farm issue that I have to deal with. Once thatâ€™s done, I promise Iâ€™ll give you a timeline for a move.â€ť Roberta thought of Rowdy, the hens. Where were they?
â€śOkay. Iâ€™m holding you to that. Go solve yourâ€”-whatever it is, and get back to me with something solid. I love you, so does Larry and the kids, bye.â€ť Carol was gone.
Roberta had a primordial fear of the deep forest. She could deal with groves of trees, parks and such but a large woods was more than she could handle. Walt would simply smile at her when they would drive the pickup through the dense forest to and from the farm. It was part of a protected tract of state land; thousands of acres, and the farm, grandfathered, was situated almost in the center. The original builders had taken advantage of a state deal long ago when the land had cost almost nothing. Walt and she had purchased it as part of their dream which had died when he did. She felt that whatever had invaded the farm had come from the forest, but she would not go into that black place in pursuit.
Early next morning after a near sleepless night(she reached for and touched the gun at her bedside several times)she ate her bacon and eggs and, gun in hand, walked to the area behind the barn and began to search the ground. She knew nothing about tracking or animal sign, but what ever took her chickens had to leave some trace behind. She would find it.
After twenty minutes, in the ankle high grass thirty yards from the barn, she found, attached to stringy tendon, a single foot. Farther out, toward the higher grass, were other parts of hens; nothing larger than a head or feet. Either they were consumed on the spot or carried off. Somehow this creature had taken them, one by one, in a matter of hours. Chickens were not too smart, but their instincts were pretty good for predators. Why had none of them made it back to the barn?
â€śHi Phil! Yeah, Iâ€™m fine, I first of all wanted to thank you guys again for all the support after Walt. It was all so terrific. Now the reason I called. It seems that a fox has gotten a few of my hens, so, Iâ€™ve been meaning to add anyway, why not send me a dozen Reds, laying adults, if you have them. I wonâ€™t need a rooster. Some feed also, about six bags will do. . .â€ť Roberta had called the local farm supplier Phil Clawson to get some hens, Rhode Island Reds.
The next morning the chickens arrived and she was busy all day situating them into their new home, the barn. She had closed the back access to the forage open area using the trap doors Walt had built. When she was ready, she would introduce the Reds to the forage in the back.
The second story of the small barn held lofts but no hay, any hay or straw was for the chickens in the bottom area, and you could walk around the entire barn using the heavy boards of the loft. At the front and back was a heavy double window-door, one side of which was always open. If very high wind or a bad storm was predicted, Walt would close both doors, but he rarely did this. Lighting in the barn was poor, so the open doors provided that in the daytime.
Robertaâ€™s plan was simple: Keep the new Reds in the barn for a day with a little feed and plenty of water with the sure knowledge that the hungry birds would want to forage once the access was available. She would allow a few birds out in the morning and keep watch to see what showed up. She would observe from the open loft door using field glasses and if she was lucky she might get a shot.
Before the light of the next morning, she scattered handfuls of feed out to the edge of the short grass of the forage area. This was within shotgun range from the loft. The hens might wander farther, but would probably prefer the easy feed. She went to make her breakfast.
The morning turned cloudy and a light rain began to drizzle. It was cool with no wind. Roberta pushed three hens out through a back exit. Excited to be free, and not bothered by the rain, they began their search for food in earnest. She climbed to the loft and waited.
Days ago the forest creatures had come to the farm. From the edge of the woods they watched the chickens, the dog, and the lone woman. They killed the dog first, out of necessity, not food. They had arrived late in the day, the hens were close to the barn, but the next morning when all the birds came into the light, the creatures moved. The male circled to the barn and then like lightning, began to slaughter the birds, the female joining him from the woods side and in a few minutes they had gathered them all and taken them into the darker forest, and feasted.
He was aware of her pregnancy, her needs, urges changing. Twice before, in years past he had been with females. Once the young came, he stayed a short while, tending to them both, then he left. This was his way. There were very few females in the large forest tract. In his long life, he had found only three.
They rested, the hens lasting for days, and then, finishing the food, they were about to move on. The female wasnâ€™t due quite yet and they needed to find a sufficient nest area. In the morning, they heard the sound of more chickens; only three, but certainly worth the effort. This time the female moved around to push the hens to him. He watched her kill the first oneâ€”-his keen eyesight caught something high up in the barnâ€”-too late, as the shotgun blast hit the female, spun her around. He heard her cry. And then the second loud crack and she was silent.
Something akin to anger seethed throughout the animal as he watched the human drag the female away. He knew about humans and their weapons; had the scars to prove it. He had escaped numerous traps and snares set for himself and other animals, been shot at, wounded slightly. He would not attack any human with a weapon. He watched the white-skin human enter her dwelling, close the opening. He wondered if she were alone. He made the decision to find out, but not until dark.
Long after the dark, he circled her domain, found a hole, an opening at the bottom of a side, and went in, dropping to a flat stone bottom. The darkness was complete here, the odors strange, unfamiliar, rancid to his senses. Ahead of him he saw a way up, if the human was not here, perhaps she was there, so he moved forward, carefully, using his great night eyes that gathered the tiniest bits of light. Despite his stealth, his claws made scratching sounds on the hard, flat surface as he climbed the strange elevations. He emerged into a larger area and beneath his feet was a slick, shining surface difficult to walk across. He started toward another opening, around him high, shiny, hard objects reflected his dim image back at him, his footing unsure, slip-sliding sideways until he reached this new opening onto a soft, yielding, almost pleasant something underfoot.
This second space was very large, a forest clearing, without trees. Overhead, a close sky, cavelike, but not cold, warm, mixed scents, he could smell, taste the human female here, and he was surrounded by things so alien, and still he did not see what he had come for. At the far end of the space was another opening and he moved over this strange, soft underfoot toward it, but as he started into it he was held by something at his throat and legs from going forward. He pressed at this thin, seemingly invisible thing, but it didnâ€™t yield, and he suddenly recalled a snare some years back that he had the good fortune to escape. He backed away.
He crouched in the middle of the large space for a moment and surveyed his surroundings. There were three exits to this space and he had experienced two; the third might yield results and it also was a way up. He went to it, but on the second of the two elevations, he encountered another of the strange unyielding forces, and retreated to the center of the space.
A complete silence like he had never known surrounded him; no familiar night forest sounds, nor constant tree-breeze whisper, no night calls of animals near and far, nor rustle of tiny brush creatures and insectsâ€”Light suddenly exploded into his sensitive eyes, blinding him. Light from everywhere! Flashing like lightningâ€”-and then came pounding soundâ€”-Rhythmic noise so loud that it shook his entire body. He screamed in protestâ€”-He must escapeâ€”-and bolted back toward the direction of the slippery floor which he landed on and fell sliding sideways, flailing helplessly, crashing into unknown objects until he came to the down tunnel from whence he had entered this horrible place. His momentum carried him cascading, tumbling down the hard levels, landing with a numbing thump onto the stone floor. He searched for and found finally the hole he had slithered down and after the second leap, gained a foothold and was pulling himself to the wonderful night air and freedom, his body almost outâ€”-another piercing beam of light stabbing into his eyesâ€”-he froze in place, uncertain of a direction to takeâ€”-BLAM! The explosion of her weapon directly in his face!
He crumpled to the grass, cringing from his wound. But he was not wounded! Rising warily to his feet, now in darkness, for the light had moved away, he looked for, found the female human shape over him. She stood still, watching, her weapon silent. He crawled from her for a few meters, then, rose and began to run toward the darkness of the distant forest, wailing as he ran, glad to be alive.
Roberta had watched the dark-furred creature emerge from the basement window in a furtive scramble, and at a certain point she switched on the LED light attached to the shotgun and caught the yellow eyes in the beam. She was three meters away, her target dead to rights. A moment of decision hung in the air, then she pointed the gun into the ground at his feet and fired.
As she watched him run toward his salvation and heard his cry of relief, she had sudden thoughts of her dead husband and knew that she had done the right thing.
â€śNo more killing today,â€ť she said softly to the figure retreating in the darkness. â€śIâ€™m sorry I killed your mate. I know that loss.â€ť She started back toward the house. She stopped halfway and looked at the darkened barn. â€śHey Walt! Itâ€™s time!â€ť
The long-leaf pines shivered in the morning sun and were the only moving things except for the lone woman dragging the body of a strange dead creature toward the front of her farmhouse. Many years before, as the house was being built, the originators had decided to dig a well in the front yard and line it with fieldstone. After some years the well failed, but the charm of it, with its little slate roof, made it an enviable structure worth maintaining, and Walt had done just that.
â€śThat thing goes down over a hundred feet!â€ť He told her this one day after plumbing its depths out of curiosity. Then he added, â€śDry as a picked chicken bone, though. Itâ€™s actually a safety hazard. Donâ€™t want any little ones playing around that thing!â€ť Roberta thought of these words as she neared the well and pulled the carcass, rope attached to the hind legs, between the roof supports to let it hang below the lip of the stone edge. She tied it off and then released the knot holding the bound legs and heard the body thump after a few seconds.
â€śHey Carol, listen sweetie, before you say anything,â€ť Roberta was once again looking at her daughterâ€™s face, the face of a person she loved more than her own life. â€śI just want to tell you that I called a real estate agent this morning and I put the farm up for sale.â€ť