I can still remember my great-grandmother’s haggard voice repeating, “Darrell, you, and your brother John stay out of those woods, or else the Ew’ah will get you.” Gram was full-blooded Cherokee and loved sharing her folklore and fables. When it came to the Ew’ah, she would get serious. She described it as half man-half panther and swore it could drive a man insane just by looking at him. The story was no secret to the people of that tiny town in Alabama. It was shared in whispers every time they saw one of us. I am sure they all thought our entire family was a little nutty, but we never let it bother us.
Gram’s husband went missing about twenty years ago. There was no trace of his body. He had been out hunting with some friends, and none of them can recall what happened. I am sure you can imagine what Gram’s theory behind the disappearance was. That was the main reason she made us promise not to venture out there, especially at night. John and I joked about it constantly, but my father always told us to be more respectful. He reminded us that Gram had seen far more things in her time than we could imagine. I had no idea what exactly he meant by that at the time, but thinking back on it I wish I never had.
My brother and I usually heeded the words of our elders, but when you are a bored teen in a town with little entertainment boredom takes over your senses. We would wait until our great-grandmother took her evening nap, and sneak away through the thick brush. We darted between the overgrown grass and towering pines. Fallen sticks became swords or rifles as we hunted the dreaded Ew’ah. John would mimic the sound of a panther, considering that was how Gram always described it. We had always been told black cats like that do not live around here.
One summer night I convinced John to sneak out past sundown. We had packed our knapsacks, some canned beans, chips, a couple flashlights, and our father’s radio. I had this wild idea about camping out and trying to catch a glimpse of the fabled demon of the woods. John was a little more hesitant about stomping around in the dark, but it was easy enough to convince him. Little brothers always want to prove they are just as brave as the older one. John made sure to bring some ribbon from Gram’s sewing kit. He wanted to mark the trees so we did not get lost. I rustled his hair in appreciation and admitted it was a good idea.
We paused at the tree line for John to wrap that bright red fabric around a tall pine. The air was warm, but we had a breeze. The forest rocked side-to-side, giving in to the wind’s power. John thought it looked like rain, but I told him I could usually smell it in the air. That warm wet scent would fill my nostrils, and I would just know. Gram said that was I gift I got from my great-grandfather. The brush raked at our jeans as we made our way toward a clearing we frequented during the day. John followed a few feet behind me and would give a short whistle when he felt we needed to stop to tie off another ribbon.
Between the thin cloud cover, and the canopy, the moonlight did little to guide our way. It was not long before we were forced to use the flashlights we had brought. The tiny beams of light swayed back and forth as we marched along a semi-cleared trail. It had almost been stomped flat from our treks through those woods. John gave a quiet whistle, and I stopped to watch him tie another ribbon. I noticed I could not even see the back porch light of Gram’s house anymore. The trees had consumed everything behind us. I could see why Gram would get the creeps out here at night, but we had not seen evidence of the first spook or creep. I laughed a bit as I started retelling the legend of Ew’ah.
“A great Cherokee warrior went out hunting, and during his trip, he encountered the devilish figure known as Ew’ah. It stood far taller than any man, with the figure of a black mountain cat,” I stretched out my arms to make myself seem larger, and more ominous, “When the warrior saw Ew’ah, he was driven mad, and began scratching at his eyes until they were plucked from his head!”
As my voice echoed through the trees, John tapped me on the shoulder. He had already begun marking another tree when I turned to look at him. I could tell that Gram’s old story mixed with the darkness was starting to get to him. His eyes were wide, as he searched the trees around us. His hands shook while trying to tie his knot. I walked over and patted him on the back. I reminded him that it was just a story. He quietly nodded in agreement, but his eyes told me he was not sure if he believed me. We still had a few more minutes to the clearing, but I decided to hold off on any more of the tall tale.
Once our knees were no longer being bombarded by briars and bush, we made a lap around the clearing. It was just as empty and quiet as always. The only difference was the lack of light. The moon seemed to sit right over us, giving us a clear view of the patch of grass we stood upon. The trees around us still bowed from the force of the wind, but we were protected by their might. I gave John my pack and told him to set up camp while I went to look for some firewood. He began rolling out our bags as I reached down for my first twig. I kept to the tree line so I could watch over my brother. Pine straw and various sized limbs quickly gathered between my arms. When I could carry no more, I returned to our campsite.
The humid air and recent rain made the wood hard to light, but it was something my father made sure I knew how to do. When the straw crackled to life, I began huffing and puffing like crazy. As soon as the bark dried and burnt I knew we would have a fire soon. John watched in awe as the flame came to life in the little patch of red clay we had wallowed out. We hooted, and hollered, danced about, and howled at the moon like the natives long before us. We were far enough away from the house that we had little to fear of Gram hearing our antics. It felt like we were the only two people in the world.
My younger brother pulled out our father’s radio and played with the dial. Static mixed with voices for a few seconds before the sound of the local country station bled through. John let it sit by his bedroll, leaned against his pillow, then reached for a bag of barbecue chips. I heard the distinct pop of air releasing from the bag and instinctively shoved my hand out for a helping. When he noticed, he simply shoved another wad of the snack into his mouth. I watched him grin triumphantly through his puffy cheeks before snatching the bag from his greasy hands. Being four years older, I had him in height so I simply took my share. I held the bag higher than he could reach to return his taunt.
John jumped for the bag a few times as I laughed. Normally this would have turned into a test of strength, but my laughter was cut short by a sound in the distance. We both paused, training our ears to hear. I think we both held our breath when the noise rang again. Neither of us had ever actually seen a mountain lion, but we could only imagine that was what one would sound like. The deep rolling growl seemed to reverberate through the trees. My arms lowered, my elbows bumping into John. He cowered behind me as we both searched the trees for a source of the noise. The creature cried out again, but this time it seemed closer. It was followed by the crackling of branches and rustling of leaves.
Despite my best efforts to appear brave, my shaking hand slid into my pocket to retrieve the pocket knife my Gram had gifted to me. It was only a small Old Timer that had once belonged to her husband. She said he would have wanted me to have it, so it was one of the first things tucked in my jeans each morning. My thumb pushed open the thin blade, and I gripped it tight. I have no idea what my brain thought I would do with such a small weapon, but at that moment it made me feel safe. The creature would be still for a few moments then move again somewhere beyond what we could see. It seemed like it was circling the small patch of grass we had made our campground. With each passing second, I could feel a lump in my throat growing. Then John grabbed for my arm to pull himself closer.
Our fire crackled and fizzed behind us, which drew my attention away from the trees. Right about the same time as I noticed the source of the distraction I also felt it. Cold droplets patted my head, and both of us looked at the sky simultaneously. The clouds had grown thicker and rolled above us. The sky prepared to release a torrent over our already failed camping trip. My father had always taught us that most predators would steer clear of fire, but there was no way I was going to be able to keep it lit in a rainstorm. I closed my knife and shoved it back into my jeans before grabbing John’s shoulders. I shook him slightly to break the trance he seemed to be in and instructed him to gather his things.
What few items we had brought with us were tucked in our bedrolls then secured within minutes. By the time we were ready to move our source of protection had faded away. I watched as the remnants of smoke slithered to the sky before looking back to the forest. Whatever was stalking in the distance was still moving. Each time I heard a twig break or leaves rustle I could swear it was drawing closer. The rain finally became steadier, and the trees were now begging for relief from the wind. I began walking back toward the trail we had arrived in, but when I reached the trees, I looked back to notice John had not followed. He was still clutching his knapsack and staring at the trees beyond our camp.
“John, we gotta get outta here!” I yelled over the racket Mother Nature had created.
He slowly turned to look at me. Pure terror had transformed his face. Even at a distance, I could tell his body was shaking. When a growl erupted from the tree line, I understood why. I still could not make out where the big cat was, but it sounded like it was inside the clearing. I eased my way toward my brother and regained a grasp on my pocket knife. I was only about ten feet from John, but it felt like a hundred. I strained to listen for the location of the predator considering I could not see it. John was whispering to me for help, and I noticed he had salty specks upon his cheek. At some point, he had lost control of his bladder, and the evidence was down his pant leg.
“I’m coming, it is going to be ok,” my voice cracked as I tried to sound reassuring.
I knew I had to reach my brother. My free hand pressed out into the darkness and focused on John’s terror-filled eyes. That is when a streak of lightning created enough light to see what had scared my brother senseless. Just beyond the tree line, a hulking black mass crouched and stared at the two of us. I can still remember the sickly yellow of the eyes. Another strike showed it rose on its hind legs. I looked at the spot until the silhouette became clearer. It resembled a mountain lion but stood as if it were a man.
My fingers shook as they inched forward as I looked back down at John. I clutched the collar of his shirt, turned on my heel, and began pulling him behind me. I am not sure if the pounding that echoed in my head was the creature following us or my heart, but I had no intentions of turning around to find out. My eyes remained aimed at what I knew was the way home. Even the drops of rain could not keep me from my focus. All I wanted to see was the dim amber glow of Gram’s porch light.
We had probably made it halfway back when my shoe dug into a large tree root and sent me tumbling. I cursed from my misfortune as my face crashed through brush. It scraped across my cheeks just before I plowed into the dirt. My hand had never left John’s shirt and pulled him down as well. The weight of his body crashing into my back forced the air from my lungs, and I struggled to breathe. The sound of the thing was close now and I expected it to pounce at any moment.
I felt John roll off me and listened to him groan in pain. I turned on my back and tried to catch my breath while looking at my brother. The blade of my Old Timer had plunged into his shoulder during the fall and hung there as his shirt was painted red. John reached to grab for it, but I smacked his hand away. I had always been told not to remove things like that unless you could stop the bleeding. I was not sure how true it was, but I knew that this was not the time to test the theory. As I regained my ability to speak, I told him to lay still, and leave the knife alone until we were safe.
A short distance behind us was the thing, hunkered over with one hand balancing its weight almost like a gorilla. I stared back at the thing, wondering why it had not caught us in our weakened state. It simply stood there watching as I tried to get to my feet. I tossed my brother’s arm over my shoulder and helped him up. I kept my eyes trained on the creature the entire time. My knee screamed under the weight of carrying John, but I knew I had to move. My left foot moved back first then my right. I made each step slow, and deliberate in an attempt to keep from falling. As I moved, so did the beast. After a few steps, I knew what it was doing. It knew we were hurt, and that we could not outrun it. It was toying with us.
Though the action seemed futile, I kept moving backward. I kept telling myself that if we could just get back to that porch, we would be alright. Looking back now I have no idea why I thought Gram’s house would save us. We retreated, it advanced. I felt as though it was smirking at me even though I could not see it through the rain. I mentally cursed myself for suggesting the trip. I had put us out here alone. Now we were soaking wet, injured, and being chased by some demon beast that could not possibly have good intentions. I did the only thing I could think of.
I began to silently pray, “Dear God, please help us. Please let us get back to Gram’s.”
A strange rumble broke through the wind and rain. At first, I had thought it was thunder. When the sound continued it finally dawned on me what I was listening to. This thing was laughing at us, it was laughing at me. Something about that realization broke me. I had tried so hard to be strong all this time, and the laughter sent me over the edge. Tears flowed across my cheeks, and my body trembled with my sobs. I cried out for help. I cried out for my Gram, for anyone to hear me.
It laughed more, mocking me as it approached. John finally noticed our situation, and began screaming in my ear, he pulled away from me and tried to get me to move. I knew even if we did run we would not make it so I simply stared back at the thing while the creature came to a stop above me. I could smell the thing's hot breath upon me and a sound echoed within my head. I closed my eyes and covered my ears. I tried to shut out whatever was happening.
Suddenly my body was jerked backward away from the beast. My eyes shot over to see my Gram stepping between us and that demon. She was wearing a strange looking cat mask and chanted while staring it down. I could not make out the words, but I knew that at that moment she was trying to protect us. She stopped long enough to tell us to run, and we did. The sound of my great-grandmother’s chant grew louder as we disappeared through the trees.
John bounded onto the porch and inside. I had told him to get the phone and call for help. My eyes turned back to the forest as I listened to the spiritual battle that continued behind us. I remembered the story of the brave native woman who sought revenge for the damage inflicted on her husband, the brave warrior from Gram’s story. She adorned the mask of a great mountain lion spirit and used it to ward off the Ew’ah
The rain slowly died down, and the forest went silent. I called out for my great-grandmother but received no reply. I wanted to run back to help her, but I was truly afraid of what I might find. It took about thirty minutes for my father to arrive, but when he did I was still standing there waiting for Gram. I remember him asking me what really happened. I am sure he did not believe the scared ramblings of my younger brother. If I had not been there, I would not have believed it either.
My finger pointed back to the trail as I started walking. I lead my father past each ribbon tied tree, and to the spot where Gram should have been. The creature was gone, but so was Gram. My father followed a trail of blood that led back to the clearing, and I was right behind him. That was where we found her, kneeling under the moonlight of the clearing. I watched from the trees as my father approached. I searched the clearing for our attacker but saw no sign of it.
Her nightgown looked as if it had gone through a garbage disposal. Beneath the cloth were a myriad of cuts and lacerations. Her fingers were still clawing at her eyes, and her mouth hung open wide to reveal her tongue to be missing. She gurgled as if still trying to chant, but no words formed. My father pulled her hands from her face then helped her to her feet. He yelled for me to go back and call an ambulance. I ran as fast as I could back to Gram’s house. In Gram’s story, the native woman found justice for her husband, but my great-grandmother had not been so lucky. She had managed to save us, but the Ew’ah took her sanity to make up for it. I write this as a warning. If you find yourself down south and lost within the woods, keep an eye out for the Spirit of Madness.
Written by L0CKED334