Tennessee creature story about one boy’s quest to find out where the strange noises in the local cemetery are coming from.
Tom McBride missed his Grandpa terribly. Well, he wasn’t really his Grandpa. You see, Tom was an orphan growing up in the hard scrabble Tennessee hills during the Depression. At age 12, both his parents drank bad milk from a cow and died. He would’ve been in a lot of trouble were it not for Benjamin Franklin Farley, an old farmer across the holler who agreed to take Tom in. “Mr. Ben,” as the townspeople called him, was getting up in years, and really needed a young man to help out around the farm.
As the years went by, Tom and Mr. Ben grew very close. Mr. Ben told Tom to call him “Grandpa,” and Tom always loved him like one. Tom was thankful that he and Grandpa got to share many special moments together before he died – swapping tall tales by a crackling fire, fishing for trout in the cool mountain streams, riding horses across the misty mountain ridges at dawn. But before Tom knew it, a week before his 17th birthday, Grandpa silently and peacefully passed away in his sleep.
One thing that Tom couldn’t get over when Grandpa was alive was how much he loved hazel nuts. As long as Tom could remember, Grandpa carried around a pocket full of nuts everywhere he went. At break time, or when he was just fighting boredom, Grandpa would whip out a large hunting knife from a holder on his belt, reach into the frayed pockets of his jacket for a handful of nuts, and start peeling those nuts with a loud CRACK! Tom remembered that the knife had a real fancy handle that glistened in the sun as his Grandpa went to work on the nuts. But most of all, Tom remembered the clock-like CRACK and munch, CRACK and munch of Grandpa eating those hazel nuts. Sometimes, he’d give Tom some, too.
In fact, Grandpa loved eating hazel nuts so much that he told Tom that he wanted to be buried with a handful in his suit pocket. This may have been a bizarre request to some folks, but Tom knew that there was no better way to honor his Grandpa’s life. As the family sat up with Grandpa’s body the night before the funeral, Tom did as he was told, slipping the hunting knife into the coffin and a handful of nuts into Grandpa’s suit pocket.
After the funeral, Tom went to live with Grandpa’s eldest daughter, Kate. “Aunt Kate,” as Tom always called her, was a bit on the heavy side – so large, in fact, that she could barely walk. After her father died, Aunt Kate was completely devastated. What little energy she had to raise herself out of bed in the morning quickly dissipated, and Tom was left with the task of running errands for her in town.
The road to town was a battered, one lane dirt road that snaked around the steep hills and down into the valley. During the day, it was a beautiful walk – on some days, you could see parts of North Carolina from up top. But most folks stayed away from the road at night, for it passed right by the town cemetery. The cemetery was already a spooky place, with its cold stone slabs surrounded by eerie oak trees, and a rusty iron gate that bent and creaked in the stiff mountain wind. To the already superstitious mountain folk, it was definitely off limits at night.
But to Tom, invincible teenager that he was, fears about the graveyard were silly. He thought nothing of returning home along the town road at sunset. One day, he even stayed at a friend’s house in town until way past supper time, when the skies were already pitch black dark. His friends tried to talk him into staying the night, but Tom shrugged them off with a grin. Lighting his lantern, he started on the long road back home.
Like he had done many times before, Tom strolled past the cemetery that night without a care. Suddenly, from somewhere in the darkness, he heard a rustling sound. He stopped and went over to the gate, more curious than scared. After a brief moment of silence, he heard it again – it sounded like a large animal rummaging around the graves. Maybe a dear eating some of the scrub grass, Tom thought.
Then a gruff, menacing voice cut through the darkness from beyond, causing Tom to jump. “That’s a good ‘un over thar,” it said. “There’s another good ‘un over thar. I think we’re gon’ have to go round us up some more. This ain’t near enough.”
What came next made Tom’s blood run cold. From around the area where his dear Grandpa was buried, he heard the familiar CRACK and munch, CRACK and munch of hazel nuts being eaten.
“Yessir, we’re gon’ have to git us some more.”
Everyone in town knew that, when folks died, the Devil and the Angel of the Lord came down to the cemetery to sort out the souls. Tom had always laughed at those stories, but now he found himself believing them. He just knew that the Devil himself had gotten a hold of the knife and the hazel nuts in Grandpa’s pocket and was having himself a snack. What’s worse, he’d probably gotten a hold of Grandpa’s soul!
Tom ran home faster than he’d ever run before. Out of breath, he barged into Aunt Kate’s bedroom and yelled, “Aunt Kate! Aunt Kate! I heard the Devil ‘n’ the Angel of the Lord up in the cemetery sortin’ out souls! I think th’ Devil’s got Grandpa!”
Now Aunt Kate, as has been said, was a large woman. She was so large that she had to lift herself up out of bed with a rope that was tied to an iron ring up on the ceiling. “Well, we’re gon’ have to go up thar, but I cain’t walk,” she said, pulling herself up until she looked Tom square in the eye. “Yer gon’ have t’ carry me.”
Tom swallowed hard at the thought of carrying her back up the road. “But it’s too cold out there,” he said, thinking of any excuse he could. “You’ll freeze.”
“Well, then wrap this sheet around me,” she replied, ripping a sheet off the bed. After she got dressed, Tom sighed to himself, wrapped the sheet around her and, with a grunt, lifted her up on his shoulders. He lit his lantern and stumbled out the door.
Tom stumbled up the road a bit, his knees buckling from Aunt Kate’s weight. He knew that the road to town would take too long, and he wanted to get this trip over with as soon as possible. So he decided to take a shortcut across the fields. Luckily, most of the fences and gates were down. It took them a bit longer to cross the stream, but Tom had heard that the foot logs they normally took to cross had started to rot, and he wasn’t about to get wet in this cold night.
Finally, huffing and puffing, Tom made it back to the cemetery. He put out the light, crept up to the iron gate and waited, straining to hear the noises from before. Sure enough, after a few agonizingly-long minutes, the same gruff voice boomed out of the darkness.
“Yep, that’s plenty of ’em now,” it said. “Nearly ‘nough, we got nearly ‘nough. Got ’em all around here.”
Then came the CRACK of the nuts, and the munching sounds. Aunt Kate gasped and whispered, “We’ve got to get up closer. I’ve got to see.”
So Tom eased through the cemetery gate and crept toward where he thought the voices were coming from. With Aunt Kate on his back, still wrapped in the white sheet, Tom bumped and stumbled against the large headstones until he thought he could see two shadow figures in the moonlight. Crouching down behind a headstone, Tom could see that one of the figures was bigger than the other, and was counting something with its hands. Sure enough, they were sitting right by Grandpa’s grave!
“You take that half an’ I’ll take these,” one of them said.
Suddenly, the larger of the two stood up and pointed in Tom’s direction. With a gruff, bloodcurdling voice, he screamed, “Hey, looky yonder! Look at that biggun right over thar!”
At that moment, Tom’s bravery forsook him. He dropped Aunt Kate on the ground with a thud and ran full tail out of the cemetery. He dashed into the forest, the briars ripping and clawing his clothing. He leapt across the stream, the rotten foot logs he had so deftly avoided before shattering under his feet. Cold and damp, he sprinted across the fields.
From behind, he thought he could hear footsteps running after him. When something splashed in the stream behind him where the rotted foot logs were, his eyes bulged out of his skull – the Devil was after him! He ran faster and faster toward the house, its lights only a distant speck on the horizon. The footsteps behind him moved closer and closer. Tom was too frightened to look back. If only he could make it to the house!
Minutes later, Tom sprinted up the hillside. There stood Aunt Kate’s house, and he had never seen such a welcome site in his life. The footsteps behind him were so close that he could hear the Devil’s breath – deep, labored and spitting fire. Tom lunged at the door, flung himself inside and slammed it shut. He bolted the front door, then every window in the house, and collapsed on the floor.
For a few moments, the house was excruciatingly silent. Then, the back door began to slowly creek open. In his haste, Tom had forgotten to lock it, and now the Devil was inside. He could hear its heavy, cloven hoofs stomping like thunder across the kitchen. In just a few moments, Tom knew that he would be joining his Grandpa in Hell.
Tom frantically searched the room for a weapon. He finally spotted a hot poker in the fireplace, grabbed it and hid behind the wall. He could hear the thunderous hooves coming closer and closer, the heavy, unearthly breathing, and he knew that it was now or never. As Tom heard the Devil walk through the door toward him, he took a deep breath, swallowed hard and leapt out toward it, hot poker raised high, screaming at the top of his lungs:
The monstrous shadow figure before him screamed in terror. It was not the gruff voice from the cemetery, but a woman’s voice, and strangely familiar. Tom slowly put the poker down and, in the firelight, could see the most torn up, wettest, horrified looking Aunt Kate he had ever seen in his life, her chest heaving.
Tom’s jaw dropped. “Aunt Kate!” he screamed. “I thought you couldn’t walk! I’m sorry I left you back thar, but I thought I heard the Devil and…”
Aunt Kate raised a hand to stop him. Her breath labored, she smiled, pointed at her legs and said, “Son, let me tell ya’. I don’t know if that was the Devil and the Angel of the Lord out thar or not. But between the good grace of the Lord Himself an’ these brand new Sears and Roebuck support hose, I nearly beat you home.”
A few days later, word came up the mountain that two of the most notorious sheep thieves in the county had been caught and were sitting in the county jail. Turns out they had used the cemetery as the place where they rounded up the sheep, and it was their voices that Tom and Aunt Kate had heard that night. What’s more, just like Grandpa, one of the thieves had a particular affinity for hazel nuts.
But for the rest of his life, whenever Tom walked home at night from town, he’d walk by the old cemetery just a little bit quicker. Just so he didn’t ever have to hear the horrible CRACK and munch, CRACK and munch of another Nut Eating Devil.
– THE END –
The Nut Eating Devil – Story Credits
Written by Jim McAmis with Craig Dominey
Told by Jim McAmis
Music by Les Scott
Photography by Jon Kownacki
Sound Design by Charles Brown and Henry Howard