My story takes place in a backwoods town in south-eastern rural Kentucky. It’s a small town that you’ve likely never heard of – its people sparsely peppering the mountainsides to-and-fro. It’s the type of town where it isn’t exactly uncommon to find neighbors bartering for goods with livestock and services, living off what the land provides, and generally making do with what they’ve got. It was here that my father was raised.
It is here that my father raised his family.
Now, my father was a proud man; short, barely 5’7”, but stout. He was many things – a mountaineer, a carpenter, a survivor, a hunter…but mostly, he was proud. He instilled in me all of the virtues that I believe in today. He’s the type of man that would give you the last dollar to his name. The type that would go hungry to make sure his children were fed…and there were times that he did.
I suppose I should clarify that I grew up in poverty. I have no doubt that there were people worse off than we were, but times were hard nonetheless. My father worked intermittently – mostly in construction. There were few homes within our community that he did not at least help with. He built our house from the ground up; dug out the basement and leveled the land with little more than a shovel, wheelbarrow, and the helping hands of my uncle and two older brothers. Our house sat on a hillside, in a leveled out alcove; the yard stretched on for what seemed like an eternity, ending at a fresh mountain brook with the woodland just beyond.
He spent a lot of time in those woods – hiking trails, digging ginseng, hunting, and otherwise passing the hours by. The mountains provided our family with many necessities: our water was pumped from a mine near the mountain’s peak, our food consisted mostly of game and livestock, and our income often came in the form of valuable roots. My mother is a wonderful cook. She had a particular fondness for chicken – which we raised. My father, on the other hand, preferred game. No stranger to the culinary arts, he was adept at preparing a wide variety of dishes; all of which he tracked, killed, and prepared himself. Long before the sun would rise he would set out with little more than a flashlight. He would follow the mountain stream before turning off onto one of the many mine roads that were carved out along the terrain. One such road ran by an old graveyard long since forgotten by the rest of the world. Some of the
headstones there dated back to the onset of the 19th century.
I recall one night my father decided to go spotting. For those of you unfamiliar, spotting is a common practice amongst Appalachian hunters – perhaps amongst hunters in general, but I’m no hunter so I’m not entirely sure. The hunter sets out before the sun rises – as my father often did – with a flashlight; this flashlight is used much like a spotlight. By scanning it back and forth over the landscape, the hunter hopes to catch a glimpse of the animal’s eyes. You see, the eyes of an animal are luminous; and in complete darkness, when the light passes over them, they will shine. This is a method of establishing good hunting venues.
On this particular night, my father broke tradition and decided to bring his shotgun with him on this spotting expedition. A decision that, I would later learn, saved his life.
It was a warm spring night. I was always a night owl, so when my father stirred I was still wide awake, playing my Super Nintendo. It wasn’t a school night, so he greeted me with his ever present smile.
“Hey big man,” he chimed. “You’re up late.”
“I want to beat Mario,” I told him, my eyes leaving the screen for the briefest of moments. Long enough to see him tying his boots. He didn’t respond, he just continued to smile and rubbed my head as he passed me on his way to the gun cabinet. From it, he removed his 12 gauge shotgun, some rounds, and a miner’s light. The light, I recall, strapped to his forehead and attached to a rather large battery that he hung at his waist. He then made his way to the couch and sat next to me – casually lifting the TV remote. He waited for me to finish the level.
“Pause it,” he requested. “I need to check the forecast.” I obliged and he flipped through the channels. He watched as the forecaster rambled on about weather and seemed content. “Not giving rain for today,” he nodded approvingly, “that’s good.” He changed the channel back and turned to me. “Okay, you can go back to your game. I’m going out. I’ll be back in a while. When your mother wakes tell her I’m bringing home supper. Tonight, we’re going to have rabbit.”
He kissed my forehead as he stood. I smiled at him as he rounded the hallway corner to our front door. I listened to the door shut and to the clunk of his boots as he made his way off the porch, down the steps and through the yard; his steps fading in the distance.
From this point on, I cannot vouch for the validity of my tale, but I can tell you that the man who returned was not the man that left. Make no mistake, my father did return…but he was a changed man. He never spoke much of that night until after I had started college. This is his story.
Like most other nights, he headed up the mountain via a trail that ran alongside the brook. The air was still and warm – the moon and stars shining brightly. There were no clouds and the forecast was clear. The sound of cicadas and crickets filled the air. He made his way along the trail, intermittently shining light on either side of the stream. He followed it until he reached a fork in the path. To his left was his customary turn off – further up that trail was the old slate dump. Above it was a derelict coal chute. He shined his light along that trail and contemplated – he had been talking with his hunting buddies and they had mentioned a sweet spot near the abandoned cemetery. A warren of rabbits had taken up residence in the graveyard, and they had all had good fortune while hunting there. The right trail continued along the stream, towards the mine where we drew our water – it passed by the cemetery where the rabbits were said to reside. After some consideration, he continued to follow the stream until making his way to the cemetery.
Upon arriving he skimmed his light back and forth across the plots. If there was a warren here the rabbits were definitely not being very active tonight. He trudged amongst the tombstones until finally deciding to move on. He walked back to the trail and stopped. He could go back – towards the slate dump. At the very least, he thought, he could cover grounds he was used to hunting. Instead, he decided to continue up the mountain. He hadn’t been walking very long when he noticed a peculiar phenomenon – the light from the moon and stars had disappeared. He was enveloped in darkness. Clouds covered the sky – and in the distance, somewhere, there was a flash of lightning. He counted the seconds to the thunder – the sky roared, then fell silent. There was no rain. Silently, he observed his surroundings, tracing the light on either side of the trail. Pausing for the briefest of moments, he trekked on. As he walked he noticed something else: very faintly, very rhythmically, his footsteps were echoing. This was unusual – if you’ve ever been in a wooded mountain, one thing you’ll notice is that the mountains are excellent listeners and seldom repeat what they’re told. It was then that the silence consumed him. The cicadas, the crickets, the owls – they were all hushed. My father stopped and shined his light around him – he saw nothing, so he continued along the trail.
The echo was silent for a moment, but then stirred up again. With every crunch of his footsteps, he could hear a crunch simultaneously hit the trail behind him. Someone, or something, was following him. Deliberately and furtively stalking him. He stopped again…and so did his echo. He shined the light around him once more, in all directions: down the trail, into the trees. Even into the air.
He carefully observed his surroundings – it was then he noticed another trail, not three feet from him on the other side of the brush. Silently, he began devising a plan. He decided that he would begin walking again, and when the echo recommenced, he’d take another step…but he’d stop before his foot hit the ground. If it was just an echo, if he was hearing things, or if his mind was playing tricks on him, then the echo would stop too. He turned up the trail and continued along his way…within moments, the echo re-emerged. He waited until he was confident that the time was right. He stepped…and stopped mid-step. His foot was barely an inch from the ground.
The sound resonated through his very being…sending shivers down his spine. He wheeled around, shining his light again…only to be greeted by darkness. He turned back up the trail, quickening his pace. Again, he heard the footsteps behind him…only this time, the strides did not mimic his own. They were faster. Louder. It dawned on him at this point that his stalker…whatever It was…was no longer interested in remaining unnoticed. He loaded his shotgun as another plan developed in his mind. He decided to step through the brush to the trail on the other side. There, he would wait for It to pass him, and he would turn the tides. Without hesitation he cut off his light and stepped across the brush and waited in darkness. The sound of Its strides continued up the trail before coming to a halt what sounded like mere feet away. Then it crossed through the brush.
It was standing beside him.
His stomach sank as he fumbled for his light. He could feel eyes burning into his skin, boring holes into his brain. His hands were shaking, his knees trembling. The light came on with a sudden flash…
Again, nothing. There was absolutely nothing there. He shined the light in all directions…hoping to find some evidence, some indication that something was there. Broken branches, footprints, anything. But there was none…there was no sign of anything passing through the brush, no sign of anything walking along the trail. My father, an expert hunter, could find no trace of the thing that was stalking him.
Could I be sleeping? Is this a dream? This was the only explanation his mind could conjure. He gave himself a tap on the face; pinched his own arm, hoping to rouse himself from slumber. Instead, he only flinched from the pain.
He was awake…of that he was certain.
He shined the light further up the trail and saw something. A building…stone and steel. The old coal chute. If he could just reach it…
Without reservation, he bolted for it. He could hear Its strides coming up fast behind him. He turned onto the coal chute and dove in – it collapsed around him, sending him pouring down onto slate and rock. Quickly, he made his way to his feet and shined the light towards the chute – shotgun in firing position. He could hear It moving fast up the trail…he heard It hit the coal chute. It thundered and shuddered under Its weight.
But my father couldn’t see anything.
He blindly fired, pumped, and fired…again and again and again. The boom of his shotgun echoed throughout the valley; a sound matched only by a roar that made the hair on his neck stand.
The chute was silent for a moment. Then he heard Its strides bolt in the opposite direction. It made Its way up the mountain trail, towards the mine. He stood in darkness…he waited for a long time, listening, until he heard the first chirps of crickets break the silence.
He made it home around noon – beaten up pretty badly from his fall. He wouldn’t speak a word. My mother attempted to console him, but was met only with a silent look of despair. His eyes filled with a dread like I had never before seen…and his ever present smile gone.
Not long after, he and my mother separated. The court ordered that the house be turned over to me upon my 21st birthday. The summer before my senior year in college, I returned home to find him sitting on the porch, shotgun in hand. He had long since erected a security fence that enclosed the entire property. He told me his tale…and he told me that he continued to hear it. When he walked to his mother’s or when he trimmed the hedges and mowed the lawn. He could hear It following him. Ever presently, It stalked him. Hunted him.
After he passed…I left the house empty. It didn’t feel right taking it when he had built it from the ground up. But then I met the woman who would become my wife. Now we are married and expecting a son of our own. I brought them back here…to raise my family where I was raised.
But I write this now because I am afraid. Each night I do a quick sweep of the property. I check the house and then I check the yard…and each night I can hear my footsteps echoing beyond the fence.