Desperation, and its cousin desolation, are close kindred when it comes to vernacular in the Appalachian Mountains. Each word denotes a singular loneliness renowned for causing men to do terrible things; they gamble, and sometimes desert their families. Some have even killed as a result of the fear and suffocation that isolation can bring. Still others have escaped away into the hollows, remaining hidden away for decades, perhaps, finding new life and rejuvenation in the echoes of solitude that only nature can provide.
There are other things in those hills, some will tell you—though to say it this way evokes more nostalgia and pure camp than any sense of foreboding. Charles Pierce’s narration comes to mind, perhaps, in his drive-in campfire story-come-to-life that became The Legend of Boggy Creek. In it, a beast that is equally disturbed, as it was disturbing, terrorizes the simple folk of Fouke, Arkansas.
A monster, they called it.
And yet, this monster walked on two legs. How better to present difficulty in drawing clear distinctions between the creatures of myth and shadow, and the monsters purported to exist around the corner, perhaps in the very most remote and isolated areas of the modern world. What are we to make of a monster that, in truth, is more human than it is animal? Where are such distinctions successfully drawn, assuming that such a “beast” does indeed exist… somewhere?
Even before his tour serving in Vietnam, William Smith had no doubt wondered about this too. He returned from a foreign war with a new idea about what monsters were… he had fought among them, and perhaps, lived among them too. And yet, all along there had been something else that occasionally caused him to wonder; something that caused him to question where we, as humans, fit into all this.
He had been only thirteen years old at the time, and heading off to visit his cousins for the weekend, a long afternoon had already been spent outside playing under the hot sun in the fields off near the lumberyard where his uncle worked. The scent of sawdust and poplar sap had been strong in the air, and their clothes smelled of it as they came in from the day, and began washing in advance of a Friday evening meal.
“Don’t wash just yet,” William’s aunt Clara could be heard calling. “I need you boys to go up to the chicken house and fetch me eggs for the biscuits I’m making.”
“How many?” William’s cousin Ernest shot back at her.
“Several,” she said. “And any more mouth out of you, and I’ll have ya out there to sleep with ‘em too.”
William and Ernest wandered down the hallway toward the back porch, badly in need of repair, that leveled off into the grass at the base of the hill in the back yard. The chicken coop rested at the top of the broad hill, which sloped upward and entered a thick band of birch trees that stood at the edge of the forest. The boys walked along, when suddenly, Ernest took off running back toward the house.
“Where are you headed?” William called to him.
“I forgot the damned basket, how the hell are we gonna carry any eggs if we don’t have it? Be right back.”
William kicked his foot around in the dirt between two thick tufts of grass while he waited. It was just after sundown, and as the sky wilted into pale strands of blue and pink, he felt a chill come over him while he watched the soil turn under the toe of his shoe. The wind, he thought, without really thinking much.
There had been no wind, however, only that incessant knocking from up the hill. The chickens could be heard parading around in their coop, although the knocking seemed to be coming from something else. William looked up the hill, shifting his right foot away from the depression he had made in the upturned earth, and as his first step landed, he froze.
The animal—it must have been a bear—was already halfway into the coop, the door torn partly off its hinges. He could see the thing moving back and forth, as it pawed at the eggs, and the chickens, within the narrow wire box.
“Hey!” came the sound of Ernest’s voice. “Make some noise, Bill! Or that damned thing will have all our eggs!” William didn’t hesitate as he started shouting at the beast, hoping to scare it away. It was large, but it couldn’t be a full-grown black bear; while the color was right, it’s shape was far too thin.
Suddenly, as the sounds of the boys’ shouting wafted up the hill, the creature sprang out of the coop, and standing up straight, somehow rose head and shoulders above it. The boys, maybe twenty yards away by now, stopped in their tracks as the animal stood glaring at them, which lasted only seconds before it ran off into the forest, dropping eggs as it went.
William would tell his story occasionally to family and friends, describing for them what he had called “the sloth.” It would be several decades before I ever learned of what he had seen, and arranged to meet him one afternoon, to talk about the animal that went after his aunt’s eggs that evening.
“It was just after sundown,” William remembered. “Ernest and I had gotten about halfway up the hill before we saw it. The thing had been bent over inside the coop, reaching around so that we couldn’t see it.
“I thought for sure it was a bear,” William told me. “We started making noise, and then the thing stood straight up. If that chicken coop was about six feet tall, I’d guess, this thing probably stood another foot and a half above it. Then, it took off running, and we watched, but it never dropped to all fours. It ran away on two legs.”
The creature had appeared covered in black hair or short fur, while the face and hands were light colored, and clearly bare.
“I’ll never forget its hands,” William told me. “They looked crooked, or disjointed.” I asked him to describe these crooked hands again, or to elaborate. “They just looked so odd, and they were turned inward, with these long fingers, that it was holding those eggs with as it turned to run off.”
“Did you see a Bigfoot?” I asked him. William paused, and I watched his eyebrows as they lowered for just a moment, then raised again.
“I don’t know what it was,” he finally said. “For all I know it was some crazy old man.”
Madison County is the area of Western North Carolina where William saw the thing, whatever it was, for what would be the first, and the last time. There are local legends around the nearby Sunburst community that tell of the “Boojum,” borrowing its name from the writing of Lewis Carroll. Similar tales extend back further among the Cherokee Indians, who spoke of savage men of the mountains they called the Kecleh-Kudleh. Though seldom reported, similar beings are still seen in the more remote parts of the Appalachian Mountains even today, representing an animal that is one half beast, and one half something else, if not a man.
There are occasional whispers that arise from time to time, of things that should not exist like this, but seem to be persistent enough in our imaginations that it causes us to wonder. Perhaps they are not imaginary at all… but if real, what are they? Are they man, or are they beast? Or, could they be something else entirely, which challenges our every conception of the separation we presume to exist between civilized mankind, and the beasts that haunt the shadows of the wooded hills and hollows?