Tennessee creature story about a mysterious monster named Old Talon terrorizing a remote Appalachian community. Written and illustrated by Seth Boyden.
I was younger, in my twenties during the time before the automobile road came to Knoxville, when I wandered through the Blue Ridge. Back then I made twenty cents a week peddling shoes in the far mountain villages of Tennessee. I was hired by Mr. Barnard, who made goat skin shoes in a stone-built workshop just outside Pigeon Forge, and would send me to journey out to the endless winding trails of the Southern mountains selling his wares. Fortunately, I was given his old pony Gertrude to carry the old flour sacks filled with shoes through the treacherous wilderness, and was the only company I shared as we slept through the black nights beneath the mountain’s towering pines.
The old mountain trails stretched along the Tennessee land farther than my memory could ever strain to recount. The peaks of the mountains were hidden in the day by great veils of blue mist, which rose from the rivers in the valley below. Everywhere the ground was seeped in spongy moss and curling ferns bedecked the trails beside the high cliffs of slick black stone. Most impressively, were the ancient pines of the valleys, which rose high above the brush, constantly creating a gloomy shroud of shade on the forest below, even during the noonday sun. In the shadow of the pines, a sudden cold rush of air would come out from the mountain’s limestone caves that would give a shiver to even the toughest Appalachian ridge runner. At night, the wood smoke would rise from the mountain towns hidden in the forest of the valleys, and as the blackness of the Tennessee night crept in, the yellow glow of the lamp lit cabins could be seen suspended high on the distant mountaintops miles away.
Seasons went by as I trekked all across the Tennessee Blue Ridge selling Mr. Barnard’s shoes. The Appalachian folk used no modern currency, but traded generously for the shoes with a variety of homemade goods that could be sold back at Pigeon Forge, from amber glazed crockery to jars of molasses, sour mash, and wild honey. Occasionally, I would be paid with English minted coins held on from the revolutionary times. How many years the ancient money circulated from hand to hand in those mountains, no one can tell.
On one of these trips in the late summer, I was headed to an unfamiliar village called Second Providence, hidden in one of the farthest reaches of the Shaconage. With my pony laden with newly made shoes, I hiked up the trail that would reach the peak of the mountain where the town stood. Before making the summit, the trail dipped into a sudden ravine where the air was chilly and quiet. Fine fingers of mist played through the overhead branches of the towering pines, which stood tall and black on the overcast sky. Suddenly, Gertrude stopped behind, jerking the old leather rein in my hand. The old nag began to stamp and whinny nervously, the whites of her eyes visible as she gazed somewhere into the forest. Before I could pull on her reins to keep moving I heard the sound. Rising from the misty forest came a slow resonating tapping sound, tap…tap…tap. The noise seemed to be made from something tapping on the trunk of one of the ancient pine trees, like a woodpecker but it was too slow and to deliberate to be made by a bird. In the stillness of the ravine, the tapping seemed as if it was echoing from every corner of the glen as it continued tap…tap…tap. As suddenly as it started, it stopped, and I searched through the swirling fog hoping to see some sign of the man or animal that created the sound. Finally, as the silence became too heavy, I continued with Gertrude through the glen and to the mountain village above.
Second Providence was built in a small clearing nestled on the shoulder of a massive mountain peak. The village was no more than several wood and clay chinked cabins roofed with mossy alder bark shingles. The grass that grew to feed the livestock was yellow and scraggly, and the crops were withered and gray. Surrounding the town, the giant pines stood silently in a close circle around the cabins, barely providing enough of a view to see the endless expanse of blue mountains, stretching beyond the horizon.
The people of the town were exceptionally kind, presumably from having scant visitors. They were frail in appearance, and spoke more softly than the people in other villages, with more caution as if being listened to. I was met by the grandsire of the clan named Jashub, who gave me several finely made wool blankets in exchange for Mr. Barnard’s shoes. Also in return, the people of Second Providence fed me a dinner of salt beef and corn pone, and a place to stay till morning, which they were particularly insistent in giving.
That night in one of the larger cabins, the villagers gathered around the river stone fireplace to sing the old mountain songs. Most were sad ballads written in the Appalachian folk style, but others were older, stranger songs I was not familiar with, about the places and people across the ocean, from where the ancestors of Second Providence must have traveled and passed down the songs for generations. A few of the women played from turtle shell mandolins and an old lap harp known as a zither. One boy named Ezekiel tried his best to play a dulcimer, newly made from cherrywood, but being only six years old, struggled clumsily to keep up with the other musicians.
As the fire began to settle to a deep red in the hearth, and the children went off to bed, I sat with the men sharing stories about one another’s various travels through the mountains. I told them about the ravine I passed through earlier on that day, and the tapping sound I heard in the forest. Immediately, the eyes of the men flashed, and Jeshub’s wrinkled mouth straightened behind his long white beard. Then, lowering his voice, he explained to me that I heard the tapping of what they called Old Talon. I watched as the other men sat up tense, their eyes gleaming in the firelight as Jeshub slowly recounted his story.
He said that long before his great grandsire settled in the mountains, the ancient Shawnee race spoke of an eyeless demon that wandered blindly through the pines of the Shaconage. It was the spawn of Yakwawi, cursed by Moneto to lurk in the shadow of the mountains, and preyed on the people of the ancient tribe. It lived in the endless labyrinth of caves that wind through the mountains, coming out to capture victims and drag them back into the caverns where no one dared to venture. It was known for its intelligence, and its ability to learn the songs of the ancient people, and tap their rhythms on the trees to lure curious prey into the caves. At first, the early settlers in Second Providence discounted the rumors. But as time went on, strange things began to happen to the folk of the mountain. Children began disappearing in the forest. Women would wake in the middle of the night moonstruck, screaming in the tongue of the ancients, gone mad by what seemed a tapping sound out in the forest. On some nights, the families would wake and see it through the small slats of the cabin window, its black hairy body standing taller than a bear, tapping on the walls and windows of the neighboring cabins. It’s life in the caves removed its sight, and in replacement, massive bat-like ears to hear and listen. Worst of all, Old Talon got its name from its humanlike black hands, which possessed an unnaturally long forefinger, as long as a fiddler’s bow, which it used to play on the trees…tap…tap…tap. Always the people of Second Providence speak softly, in cautious whispers, knowing that Old Talon is waiting in the gloom of the endless pines, listening and learning.
Suddenly, Jashub was interrupted by a splitting shriek that echoed through the forest night. Lanterns and rifles in hand, the men rushed out to the center of the clearing to find one of the women wrapped in an old quilt, pointing out into the forest. She screamed that her little Ezekiel had been taken, dulcimer and all by Old Talon. Immediately, the men of Second Providence formed a search party, and with their rusty lanterns burning, they plodded through the dark of the Appalachian night calling for Ezekiel. I was ordered to remain in the cabin to wait. I laid wide awake all through the night, listening to the distant baying of the men’s hound dogs searching through the Blue Ridge, and waited for the long black finger to rap against the cabin wall. Tap…tap….tap…
Morning came, and the men returned late morning empty-handed, covered in mud and scrapes, confounded and heartbroken. As much as I wished to help the families of the village, I wanted nothing more than to turn down the trail and run as far away from Second Providence as I could. I secured my goods to Gertrude’s saddle, said my most respectful farewell to Jashub and his kin, and guided the pony down the trail and back through the woods for home.
I was no more than a half-mile through the dense forest when I stopped in the middle of the trail. Rising from the pines came the sound of a cherrywood dulcimer, playing brightly in the morning mist. It was little Ezekiel coming back from the woods to Second Providence! But the more I listened, the more I realized I was dead wrong. Echoing from somewhere beyond the tendrils of mist, the melody from the dulcimer began to play faster, spinning into intricate arpeggios dancing in the air wilder and more complicated than any six year old could ever play. I listened in terror as the music became faster and more complex, switching from screaming, sliding glissandos to a heart wrenching ballad, finally distorting to a wild and primal song in which no words could ever achieve to describe. All around I could hear the ancient horrible music, the sound of fingers, as long as a fiddler’s bow, plucking the strings of the dulcimer faster and wilder than any man could ever play music. My legs finally began to move, and pulling the pony as best I could, fled down the trail. I couldn’t help but think I saw what looked like a black shadow, with bat-like ears standing taller than a bear off in the pines before vanishing like a specter into the mist.