So they say…
They say black panthers don’t live in this part of the country. But the people that say that don’t live around here. Ask any of the older people that live back in the the hollers. They‘ll tell you stories about hearing them at night; roaming hungry and fierce through the mountainside, screaming like a woman being killed. The older folks laugh when people say ‘they don’t live here,’ because they know better.
My daddy always kept us kids close to the house when it started getting dark. Other kids would be out running around the woods until they couldn’t see their hand in front of their face. Daddy would let us play in the yard until near bedtime. But he wanted us home, where he could watch us from his rocker on the porch with his .22 beside him leaned against the house. I didn’t really know why, but I knew better than to disobey him.
After a ten hour workday in the mines, Daddy would come home and work in the garden. One night, when I was about twelve, Daddy and I went out on the porch. His jeans and shirt were dirty from working in the garden and his red cap sat somewhat askew on his sweating head. Moths flitted around the light above the screen door and the sound of the frogs out in the darkness were a loud and steady background noise. Daddy slowly rocked back and forth in his worn old chair. He had a wad of tobacco in his jaw and stared out into the yard as the last bit of light faded.
I sat down on the floor of the porch beside him and looked up at him.
“Daddy, why do you get nervous when it gets dark out?” I asked him, wondering if he’d tell me.
He glanced down at me for a moment, eyes trying to discern if he should tell me or not. Then he stared back out at the yard. He spit in the can he kept on the porch (Momma wouldn’t let him chew in the house) and cleared his throat.
“I wasn’t too much older than you when my daddy and your uncle was makin’ and sellin’ moonshine. People got caught and arrested for it all the time. If they didn’t get caught makin’ it, they got caught carryin’ it. So my brother had the idea to make me carry it across the mountain. It wouldn’t be likely for anyone to stop a kid. If someone did stop me I was just supposed to say I was on my way to Papaw’s house or make up something. Daddy wasn’t sure about the idea but his friends in the next town said they’d help look out for me, so he agreed. Every Friday night after school I’d come home and load up my bag with jars of shine and start walking. It would take me a couple of hours to get to the meeting spot. Shine delivered and money in my pocket I’d start walkin’ home. I did it for a couple of years and Daddy paid me a little to do it, so I didn’t mind.”
He stopped talking and adjusted his hat just to give his hands something to do. He sighed and spit in the can again.
“I was walkin’ back, it was probably about eleven o’clock at night. There was a big full moon out, it was just huge and yellow and lit up the path. I’d always heard tale of weird things being out on full moons so I was always a little more watchful. But the closer I got to the house, the more relaxed I got. I had my empty bag slung over my shoulder and was shufflin’ my feet along, hummin’ some tune or other when I heard a sound that chilled me to the bone. I swear to God I thought somebody was being murdered not fifty feet from me. It was a painful, hair-raising sound. I didn’t know what to do. If a body really was hurt what could I do? I figured I’d end up getting myself hurt too. But I couldn’t just leave and not try to help. So I hollered, “Is anybody there? Do you need help?”. Nobody answered. By that time my stomach was one big knot. The hair on the back of my neck was standin’ straight up. All I wanted was to just get home. I started walkin’ again, just a whole lot faster. When I got to the house and stepped into the yard I had a strong urge to turn around. Up on the hill I’d just walked down, sitting pretty as you please, was a wampus cat. Black as pitch she was, if the moon hadn’t been so bright I’d never have seen her. Guess she’d been followin’ me the whole way home trying to decide whether or not I was a good dinner. I told Daddy about it the next day and he never made go on another run again.”
Daddy’s story had been scary up to the point he said wampus cat and I chuckled. I knew it was what most of the people around here called a panther, but the name was just so silly. It seemed strange for my dad to still be scared of something that happened that long ago. I took my own hat off and ran my fingers through my sweaty hair. I hadn’t been home from baseball practice long and hadn’t even changed out of my uniform.
“Dad, you’ve had run-ins with bears and rattlers and plenty of other things that could have killed you. Why did the panther get to ya so much?” I looked at him, puzzled.
He let out a long breath and I could tell he wanted to reach for the little flask he kept in his pocket but he didn’t. He always tried not to drink in front of the kids.
“Well I guess it’s cause your grandpa had an experience with one when he was a young man too. He and his brothers and sisters were in their room one night. It was a little bitty house and back then all the kids slept in one room. It was winter, so the more of them that could pile together the warmer they’d be. Anyway, on this night, a noise woke them up. They were used to animal sounds, but this was different. Not too many critters would be out in the snow and definitely not making that much noise. Strangest of all, it was walking on the roof. They all huddled up together and listened as whatever this thing was walked above their heads. Each step in the frozen snow crunched loudly against the tin roof. They figured it was some kind of monster and thought at any minute it was going to come crashing through the ceiling and eat them. Finally, it left, and the next morning they went outside and looked up to the roof. They saw huge cat paw prints across the top of their house where the creature had walked. There was more tracks down on the ground leading into the woods. Wasn’t but a few days after that some people’s dogs and small livestock started disappearin’. Grandpa said his daddy had a panther story too but I don’t recall him ever tellin’ me.” He stopped to spit. “Just seems a bit strange to me that the men in this family have all had encounters with an animal most people round here have only heard of. Feels like they’re followin’ us or somethin.” He chuckled “I know that sounds silly.”
I understood a little more of why Dad was so wary now. “Do you think I’ll ever run into one?”
“I hope you never do, Son.”
Years passed and I never forgot the stories Dad told. I never let his stories keep me out of the woods, but I did try to get myself home before dark most nights.
My dad’s land was mine now, but I wanted my own house. I built my house just a little farther up the mountain. I didn’t clear many trees when I was building. I wanted to be able to look straight into the woods. It was a pretty place and I miss it sometimes.
I lived there several years before anything strange happened. One night, I heard something on the deck. I figured it was just a raccoon or possum scrounging around. I flipped on the porch light and didn’t see anything so I didn’t think much more about it. That night I went to bed and dreamed there was an old woman in my room. She had long, white hair and her face was soft and kind. She was wearing a long white nightgown and she smiled gently at me. But as her smile kept growing bigger, I saw there were no teeth. Then, I realized she had no gums, just blackness in a pale white face. She began walking towards me. Her face started to change as she moved closer. The soft lines on her aging face turned hard, deep and menacing. Her long, silky white hair turned yellow and stringy. I watched her crystal blue eyes bleed to black as she approached the side of my bed. As she reached out her bony hand, I saw her fingernails weren’t human. Her nails were thick, brown and claw-like. She pinned my arm down.
My heart raced and I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or awake. I tried to push her arm off mine but she wasn’t weak as a frail old lady should be. She had the strength of several men. She leaned her upper body over mine, still smiling so I that I saw nothing but blackness. The blackness poured out of her mouth and took the shape of black beetles that ran across me and down under my sheets.
Surrendering to the terror, I screamed . I knew no one could hear me. I knew no one could rescue me. I screamed because it was all I had left. Then someone screamed back. Someone was screaming louder than me, fiercer than me. It was a sound of pain, anguish, and anger. I didn’t even realize I had closed my eyes until they opened. I saw it wasn’t the old woman screaming. It was someone or some thing outside. It was the scream of a panther.
. The old woman backed away. She was frantically trying to cover her ears. She backed herself against the wall of my room. Suddenly, she was just gone. The scream outside ended just as quickly. I didn’t know if I should I be relieved or more scared.
Some time later the adrenaline subsided and sleep took over. The next day I was left to wonder if everything I had gone through, had really happened. I’d never doubted my sanity, but I’d also never seen someone come out of my wall.
I’m not ashamed to admit I wasn’t looking forward to going home the next day. I made work drag on longer than usual. I also decided to stop by my buddy’s garage before heading home. The fluorescent lights in the garage were harsh as I walked in and Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing loudly.
“Hey Sam,” I called.
Sam didn’t look up from underneath the hood of his truck but he threw his hand up and waved.
“Get yourself a beer!” He yelled over the music.
I went over to the fridge and did just that. Sam joined me a minute later. He looked me over and wrinkled his eyebrows.
“You look like hell.”
I sighed, and took off my hat, working the bill over in my hands like my dad used to do. I told Sam about hearing the panther the previous night. I left out the part about the old hag. I just didn’t feel like hearing myself say the words out loud.
Sam nodded, “Yeah, every now and then you hear ‘em or hear about ‘em.” He sipped his beer. “You know we ain’t even supposed to have those things around here, they’re supposedly not native. My grandad always said there was a legend that if a woman’s husband died in a tragic way, that’s what she’d become, a panther. That’s why they sound like a woman in pain, because she has a broken heart.”
“Hmm” was all I could think to say. We talked about cars and finished our beers and I decided it was time to head on home. It was nearly dark and I was starting to think maybe I shouldn’t have killed quite so much time.
My driveway was long and narrow, winding up about half a mile through the woods. It was a nightly occurrence to see deer and turkey as I drove. My headlights shone on something laying across the road up ahead. I knew what it was before I got close, another downed tree. “Damn”.
I left the truck running and got out to see if I could move the dead wood. Sometimes big branches were deceiving. They looked heavy but were light and easy to move after being eaten away by years of rot and decay. Other times, the tree had fallen because it was too heavy for the roots to support it. Those were a beast to move. After a few of those I just started keeping a chainsaw in the truck.
It was too dark to tell much about the tree that had fallen. I tried to push it with my boot, it didn’t budge. I went back to the truck for the chainsaw. I looked the saw over the best I could by the light of my headlights and and started it. I breathed a sigh of relief when it started on the first try. I got the first piece of the tree cut and out of the way within just a few minutes. I was almost through the second when the saw started making an odd noise and came to a stop. Something had thrown the chain off track. I could fix it, but not in the dark. It would have to wait until tomorrow. If I wanted to get home, I was walking.
I’d walked my driveway more times than I could count. I had walked it in the daylight and a few times after dark. I never really minded walking the driveway. Nothing bad had ever happened when I had walked it. It was a long, uphill walk. I would arrive home sweaty and out of breath, that’s all. But after last night’s events, I wasn’t looking forward to walking it tonight.
I told myself I was being silly and to just think about something else until I got home. I turned off my truck lights, grabbed my flashlight and pistol from the glove box and started walking.
My footsteps crunched loudly in the dirt and gravel as I walked. A screech owl screeched and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I had a bit of a laugh at my own expense as my heart rate tried to slow back down. The flashlight covered a lot of ground in front of me but the darkness at my back seemed to follow me, threatening to swallow me up. I walked faster.
The faster I walked, the faster the darkness followed. Soon I was very nearly running. Something between a laugh and screech rang through darkness ahead of me and I froze. I wondered if it was another screech owl making his nightly calls. But I knew there was something slightly human in the sound. I knew it wasn’t an owl. The advancing darkness stopped when I stopped. It hung just at my back as I shined my light in front of me, trying to see where the sound had come from.
I was terrified to look into the darkness and see the old hag coming for me. If I ran, she could chase me. Maybe, whatever was following me, had gotten ahead of me. I could run into the clutches or claws of whatever had been behind me. I was trapped. Paralyzed by fear with no good options.
I wrapped my hand around my pistol but it gave me no comfort since I couldn’t see whatever was toying with me. My house wasn’t much farther ahead. I decided I would have to try to get there. With a deep breath I took a step, my feet were as heavy as if I were dragging them through wet cement. I concentrated on walking the best I could, one foot in front of the other.
The darkness followed me again as I walked. A hot breeze across the back of my neck made my hair stand up. Another hot puff of air on the back of my neck. I knew it was not a breeze at all. It was the breath of the thing following behind me. I swallowed hard but didn’t turn around. I just kept moving forward. A deep, guttural growl trickled from the blackness over my shoulder. I knew my end was near. I kept walking, waiting for the panther to take me down. I could see my porch light now, but it was still at least fifty feet away. I was going to die just outside my own house.
Then, an eerily familiar laugh came. There was no humor in it, only a sickening sense of malice. With another laugh came the hag out from under the shadows of my deck. The first thing I saw were her eyes. Her eyes were pools of emptiness in a pale, withered face. Her stringy hair seemed to whisper in the breeze and her black dress blended into the shadows so that it appeared she was simply a floating head and hands. Oh, those hands, so pale they were nearly gray. Her nails looked worse than I remembered, yellow, jagged claws. She had been waiting for me. Even if I’d driven up in my truck she could have taken me.
Before she could even begin to move toward me I felt a rush from behind. I braced for the impact and closed my eyes. If one of these things was going to kill me, I’d rather it be the panther. But the beast didn’t lunge for me. In one long, graceful movement, the cat sailed past me and landed within inches of the hag. She growled at the hag, then let out one of her screams. It was so loud and piercing, my ears were left ringing. With a leap, the panther grabbed the hag by the throat and started dragging her into the woods. The panther had saved me.
I’ve played the night over in my head more times than I can count over the years. I don’t know where the hag came from or why she was after me. I’ve got a hunch about why the panther saved me. There’s no family left around here to ask about it. When I was little daddy told me one of my great-grandfather’s was murdered. He left behind a wife and three little kids. The wife was so distraught she went missing only a few weeks later, leaving her sister to raise the kids. Everyone thought she drowned herself in the lake. When I remembered Sam’s story about the old legend it made a little sense. Maybe the panther that had followed all the men of my family was related to us. Maybe she was our protector.
I don’t live in the woods anymore. I moved a little closer to work. Still, when the subject of panthers come up, I hear people say “we don’t have those around here”. I just nod and wink. “Well, so they say.”