By the Hair of the Head

Once Upon a Time

 

Once upon a time, Ug said to Gar, Let me tell you a story.

This was around a campfire, you see, people sitting around with their naked asses hanging out, maybe a bearskin over their shoulders, or when that wasn't available, a dog or wolf skin, something that might have given the camp dog pause from time to time, lying there beside the fire, listening to Ug tell Gar a story, trying to determine if that dog skin looked like a relative or friend.

But I, as omniscient narrator, have departed from what I first intended to do. This is common to me, and must be forgiven, and if not forgiven, what can I say, I'll most likely do it anyway.

So Ug, he says to Gar, says it soft so his voice seems part of the night and the high full moon, the not-so-distant howl of a wolf, says: Once upon a time, I was down in the valley, the valley way low, over there where the big thickets grow and the brambles twist and the trails are thin, way down there, I heard a noise. We're not talking your usual noise, some wolf or bear or tiger or such, but something that moved silent from tree to tree, in the dark. It was like the shadows of the moon came unglued, swung swift and silent through trees. And when I saw it, I said, Damn, that don't look good, and I started moving away, slow like at first, then with a trot, carrying the rabbits I'd killed, and then I realized that this shadow, this thing in the trees, was following from limb to limb and gaining on me rapidly, and so, to keep it at bay, I began tossing one rabbit back at a time, and when I looked over my shoulder, lo and behold, that thing, that shadow, would drop from the trees and stop to maul the little hopper I had tossed back, and when it did, in the moonlight—and it was less light than tonight—I could see it had big white teeth and big yellow-green eyes, the color of pus in a wound, and I ran and ran, dropping rabbits as I went, and soon, way too soon, I had but one rabbit left.

What did you do? Gar asked.

I tossed it, too. What could I do, and I looked back, and it stopped to eat it, and I ran faster, until I thought my sides would break, and then, over my breathing, which was loud and pained, my friend, I heard it breathing, right down my neck, and its breath smelled of rabbit flesh and blood and dirt and bone and all the death you could imagine, and up ahead of me I saw a break in the trees, and somehow, somehow, I knew if I could get out of the trees, out of the shadows they made, I'd be home free.

Wow! How would you know that?

I felt it. In my heart. I just knew. But just before I reached the opening, the way out of the trees, I tripped.

Dog Butt! Gar said.

You said it, and when I fell it grabbed my ankle, pulled at me, tried to yank me back deeper into the shadows of the trees, but there was a stone in the field, and I took hold of it, and it held, and I used it to pull myself forward, but just when I thought I had it made, it came loose.

Oh no.

You said it. But I turned, rolled on my back as I was being dragged, and I threw that stone as hard as I could, threw it at its open mouth, and the stone went in, and it gagged and swallowed, and let me go. I stood up to run, but before I turned I saw it choking, rolling all over the leaves, thrashing up against trees and bushes, twisting in brambles 'til it was wrapped in them thick as this skin over my shoulders.

And then it coughed, my friend. Coughed. And out burst the rock, like it was thrown. And it slowly turned its head and looked at me and came for me and I ran, boy, did I run, even though I thought my sides would explode.

But when I looked back it stood on the edge of the forest, looking at me, not able to go out into the full moonlight, away from the trees and shadows. So I stopped and I yelled and it hopped up and down and I laughed and called it all sorts of names and finally it quit hopping and just looked at me, as if to say, brother, you had better not come back. And then, it turned and it took to the trees, climbing up and away, fast as a spear flies. Faster.

And it was gone.

Damn, Gar said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

That beast is gone, and you can go now, too, but head on back this way on Thursday, December 4, for another love-in with Champion Mojo Storyteller Joe R. Lansdale!

 

ŇOnce Upon a TimeÓ originally appeared as the introduction to Brian Hopkins' book, Thirteen Horrors, an anthology celebrating 13 years of the World Horror Convention. But that was a different version. In this form, it appeared, with illustrations, in the book that was printed to accompany an art show in Nacogdoches. ŇOnce Upon a TimeÓ © 2003 Joe R. Lansdale. All Rights Reserved.