A Tale of the Appalachian Mountains
It was the night of the new moon, full of glowing stars and a soft summer breeze. He loved nights like this. They were almost luminous. He was walking home from prayer meeting, coming up through the Blackberry field. The hiking trail ran right through it, before crossing spice creek and then up and over the ridge toward home.
The crickets were chirping, and cicadas sang their summer song. He heard tree frogs calling, and a barred owl hooted somewhere close by as crossed the log bridge and headed up the mountain.
He had just passed an abandoned missionary Baptist church when the forest grew quiet around him. The cicadas stopped singing, the night creatures went silent, and the breeze died to a whisper. He paused, his heart thudding apprehensively. Why had the night gone so still? Then he heard it. In the quiet, he heard something sliding stealthily through the trees on his right. Something was stalking him.
He caught his breath and picked up his pace, hurrying away from whatever it was that lurked in the bushes. A moment later, he heard the soft rustle of leaves as it circled behind him. He could hear the creature moving around him, first in the bushes, then slinking through the leafy underbrush behind him, then rustling the laurels on the other side of the path. The creature was hunting something. He was pretty sure it was him.
He moved faster, climbing the steep hill at a trot as the critter drew in closer and closer. He could feel its eyes on him, making the hairs on the back of his neck prickle and his legs shake. It was no longer trying to hide its approach. He could hear the rustling a few paces behind him, growing steadily closer as it wove in and out of the trees on either side of the trail. “Oh lordy, lordy,” he prayed, quickening his pace until he was almost at a run.
When he was a boy, his old granny told him a story about his uncle who’d once been hunted by a panther through the woods above their home. His uncle was sure he was a goner, but at the last minute, he’d turned on the creature and stared it down. He pretended that he was the predator, and the panther was his prey. And it worked. The creature backed away, and his uncle was safe. “You can’t show them no fear,” his granny said. “Else they’ll tear you apart. You remember that, boy. No fear.”
“No fear,” he whispered, trying to believe it.
He reached the steep part of the trail and started climbing, looking up the dark path toward the place at the top where it was open to the sky and a bit lighter. He kept his eyes on that light bit as he climbed higher and higher. Suddenly, he reached the top of the rise., where the trail leveled off and then entered a dark tunnel of trees.
When he stepped inside the tree tunnel, the light vanished completely. His heart started pounding so fast, he thought it would come clean out of his chest. He could sense the creature closing in. It was coming for him. Right here, right now at this very place. He felt in his pockets, but he had no weapon. Not even a pocketknife. There was nothing he could do but go on. So that is what he did. He had to feel his way along the path with his feet. It was so dark on the trail that he might as well be blind.
He was right in the middle of the dark tree tunnel when the bushes on his left rustled as something moved through them less than a foot from the path. To heck with it, he thought suddenly. Let’s get this over with.
“Live or die. There’s nothing else I can do,” he muttered and turned to face the bushes. “No fear.”
He squatted down in the path and put his hands into the dirt directly in front of the place where the creature lurked.
A tense moment ticked by. Another.
Then something swept onto the path and circled around him, pressing so close that he could feel soft fur against his skin like velvet. The creature took a swipe at his hands, pressed there in the dirt, but it did not use its claws. This was a test, he realized, and slowed his breathing.
No fear. No fear.
A second circle. A second tap.
A third circle. A third tap.
He stayed still as a stone while it moved around him, facing the creature down.
No fear. No fear. He projected the lie with all his might.
He heard a small thud in front of him, as if the creature had sat down on its haunches. He could feel it staring at him, but it was so dark he couldn’t even see a reflection from its eyes. The critter seemed baffled by this strange behavior.
A moment passed. Two. Then he heard a rustle in the bushes to his left. The creature – whatever it was – was walking away. It was heading back the way they’d come.
He stayed completely still until the crickets started chirping and the cicadas took up their song. It was only then that he was sure that the creature was gone.
Sweat poured suddenly down his body, and he collapsed on the path, shaking in terror and relief. If he’d run, it would have torn him to pieces. They chase when you run. But he stood his ground when it slapped his finger, and because he didn’t care and wasn’t frightened, it backed off.
He’d probably never know what it was. A panther? A wild cat? Maybe a yearling bear? It didn’t matter. It was gone.
He picked himself up off the ground at last and felt his way out of the tunnel of trees. He looked down the long meadow on his right. His cabin gleamed in the starlight, only half a mile away.
Praise the Lord and thank you, Granny, he thought. No fear.
Then he trotted down the trail toward home.
Copyrighted content: This is a retold folklore story by S.E. Schlosser, who owns the copyright. This version of the story may not be reproduced, reprinted or used in any other way without the permission of the author. Teachers may link to or photocopy this story as part of their classwork.