In the midst of a starving winter, a cocksure hunter ignores his neighbors’ advice to come down from his lonely cabin on Jawbone Ridge: they avoid the sinister area during the savage winters, but he savors its isolation. But when he and his three hounds are unexpectedly trapped there in a blizzard, he grows desperate for food, and doesn't hesitate to chop off and eat the long tail of a bizarre, cat-like creature he catches in the woods. But the animal wants its tail back, and the deep gouges it has clawed into the door are beginning to concern him – especially because the creature knows exactly where to find it's beloved "tailypo"…
T A I L Y P O
It's terrible, what they say happened to old Jack Grier. Terrible, but we really can’t say that he should have been surprised – living alone up there on the mountain during the dead of winter. It was a fool’s errand, and we all told him as much. The mountain is a strange place, especially when the weather takes a turn, and none of us ever hunt up there alone or for any longer than three days. But Jack was strange in the head – a loner, a rebel, “self-sufficient,” he said, “independent,” he said. But the old women in town called him a damn fool, and when they found him after the thaw, and what he had been cooking and eating on the night that it happened – well, it proved them right.
See, old Jack didn’t like society and he spent nearly all his time in the cabin his great-grandpappy built on the leeward side of the ridge, under the shadows of the flint wall where the snow piles into wispy tufts that look like pointed teeth in a lower jaw – that’s why it’s called Jawbone Ridge, if you hadn’t guessed. Most of us hunts in the summertime for sport and in the fall to feed our young ones, but we stay home during the winter. The Ridge is treacherous once November starts brewing, and if you get caught up there when the weather turns, it probably won’t go well for you. The whole lee side of the mountain is a graveyard holding the bones of dozens of men who dallied up there alone, and even a few who went up there in parties and tried to play it smart. It’s like the sea – vast and merciless, and not giving up her dead, as the preachers say, until the resurrection. There’s some who even doubt that the Lord will be able to pry those corpses out of the mountain’s jealous grip.
And so when October came, we went out hunting in parties. Brought back deer and hares and possums and coons, and our womenfolk skinned them and dried them in the smokers so as we could have meat over the long winter. And old Jack Grier went up there, too. But he didn’t go with just a gun and a haversack: he filled up his big wooden barrow with supplies, and had his three hounds at his heels, and a big, bulging knapsack weighing him down. His gun was slung over one arm and his axe was tucked under the other, and we saw he had parts for a still hidden under the tarp covering his barrow (well enough: his great-grandpappy built that cabin as a moonshining base). He was covered in furs even though it was a warm, October afternoon, and that’s how we knew he meant to stay there well into winter – maybe longer. He didn’t say a word to any of us as we went up the trails and split off on our separate way. Johnny Aberdeen was the last to see him – lugging his barrow into the hills, the three dogs close behind, the sun sinking into shadow.
Old Betty McCallister has a witching touch, they say. She’s not gone over to the darkness, we don’t think, but when her grandmammy came over the hills from the Old Country, our great-greatgrandparents heard that her grandmammy – Betty’s great-great-grandmammy – had been strung up for a witch. Well, she goes to Sunday meeting, and she says the Lord’s Prayer and says it well, but she has a touch of the uncouth about her, and some say she has the second sight. She’s old as dust, indeed, and remembers all the lore of the mountain, and when she dreamed about old Jack Grier that third week of December – nigh a month after the big blizzard snowed us off from the valley – we knew something had happened, and when the snows thawed the week after Epiphany, we sent a party of men to find him, and when they found him we remembered what Old Betty McCallister dreamed.
The hunters returned with hares and coons and some does and a buck, but old Jack stayed where he was. Johnny Aberdeen says he seen smoke coming from the lee side under Jawbone Ridge, and we knew old Jack was fixing to stay up there for a while. Halloween come and passed and old Jack stayed put. The Election Day came, but Jack didn’t come down from the hills to vote. Thanksgiving came and the hunters went out to fetch turkeys from the thickets, and they said they saw the smoke coming up in curls from Jawbone Ridge. Still alive. Still staying put.
But the day after Thanksgiving, the weather shifted, the clouds were an off-color, greyish-green, dark with snow. Betty figures that Jack was stuck in his cabin up there under the Ridge, even though he had the lee. She tells us he was expecting bad weather so it didn’t trouble him. But she also says that his food ran out by the second week of Advent, and when she told us the rest, we knew he was dead.
Snowed in with his dogs, he was. He could force his way out about a quarter mile if he absolutely had to, but it was risky moving about in the snow with the winds shifting the banks and knocking over trees without warning, so he mostly stayed put. There weren’t any deer to be found or coons to be grabbed. He was just there with three dogs – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The dogs were his kin, as far as he was concerned, and he was looking out for food for them as much as himself, bringing in a few squirrels at first, then catching some mice in the house, then boiling roots and walnuts for broth. It was out of the question to put the hounds to the axe, but time was running out for all four of them.
It was a few days since they’d had bite – just melted snow to drink – when we think he first saw It. It was the most curious critter he’d ever laid eyes on, just scuffling in the shadows at the far side of the cabin, chasing some beetle or moth as if it was the only creature in the room. The hounds watched it warily, cause it was foreign to them, too, and had the look of queer bogey. It was black all over, and half the size of any of the hounds – something like a cat. And it looked like a cat, too, with pointed, tufted ears and great, golden eyes that flashed green in the shadows.
But it wasn’t quite a cat, not like the one that Old Betty keeps and has been keeping for nigh twenty years – a strange, unaging tomcat it is, too – because its paws were clumsy and large – the size of apples – and it flourished a great, shaggy tail – black as coal and twice the length of its spine.
The creature pounced on the moth or beetle, and delighted at the sight of its victory. With a casual glance, it finally looked over at old Jack. Old Jack saw its eyes – wide and glowing like two embers smoldering in a hearth – blink twice at him before it turned back to the crushed insect under its ungainly paw. Old Jack reached over for his gun. He handled it gently, and with the slowest movements you ever did see, without even standing up from his chair, he held the stock against his shoulder and leveled the tube at the bogey. He rested his thumb on the hammer and slowly pulled it back with a hollow, steel click.
The bogey’s eyes suddenly rose with a jerk; they were staring right at him. Jack tilted the barrel so that it was pointed directly between the eyes, and he pulled the trigger tight with a sudden jerk. The cap snapped and a whiff of powder stung his nostrils – but the main charge hadn’t gone off. He sat there, hanging fire, until he realized that the powder had probably been ruined by the snow while he was foraging that morning. He set the rifle down. His axe was leaning against the woodpile at his elbow. The two eyes watched him unblinkingly. They blazed with fear and wonder.
Old Jack was loosing patience, we figure, because now he didn’t take it slow: he grabbed that axe by the very end of the hickory handle and swung out at the two eyes like he was holding a saber. The bogey jumped into action, racing up the wall, along the ceiling, down the other side, along the floor – scrambling wildly like a salamander, scuttling nimbly as he dodged Jack’s frantic blows.
The hounds backed off and watched with wide eyes. The creature was on the floor, running madly for the fireplace. A clump of pine brands were snapping with large, white-and-blue flames, but it didn’t seem to care: it was making a mad dash for the chimney. And then it was among the fire and through it and going up, and old Jack knew it was now or never, and by God he swung out – the bogey rushed up the chimney, but its long, black tail had been severed at the base and was tumbling into the fire.
None of it could be wasted, so he reached into the flames and recovered the bogey’s tail. Compared to roots and nuts, the prospect of boiling the tail into a broth must have seemed like a feast, so he quickly melted a kettle of snow, skinned the member, and boiled away the meat and sinew.
There were a few dried herbs left in his haversack: a couple of bay leaves and some sprigs of rosemary. He added these to the brew along with some snips of wild garlic that he had found growing in the dirt floor by the door. It rendered an oily, pungent broth that filled the cabin with a greasy steam. He greedily slurped down half of the soup, chewing the bones into pulp and sucking out the marrow. He gave the rest to the dogs who sniffed it, but they refused to even try it. He finished what was left, and as the wind pounded its way across Jawbone Ridge overhead, he was thankful to be on the lee side where he was safe and warm, and now – finally – full.
The fire guttered as the wind moaned across the chimney top, scattering red sparks in the fireplace like flakes in a snow globe. He doused the lantern, leaving only the molten glare of the three smoldering logs in the fireplace, and climbed the ladder to the loft which made up his bedroom. He had created a very comfortable bed there out of bear skins and beaver pelts piled on top of a bed of fresh hay that he changed every couple of months. He slept on top of this under two camp blankets that he had from his stint in the army and a quilt that his grandmammy had made to keep her kids warm on the boat over from Ulster during the Great Famine. It was as warm as he could hope for. His belly was heavy with the soup, and even though he hadn’t been able to have any bread or potatoes with it, he felt full, and the flavor hadn’t been bad either – rather like a pork-trimmings stew. He listened to the fire snap below him and fell asleep.
When he woke up it was because of the angry scratching at the door. The embers had died to a white ash, with only a few lingering eyes glaring up at him from the grate. He sat for a spell, listening to the noise; it was intentional, all right. Like the sound of a dog shut up in a room, trying to force the door open with a combination of his claws and throwing his entire heft against the door. But somehow it sounded smaller. No, it wasn’t a dog at all. And where were his dogs? There. There in the corner – bristling and shaking and staring at the rattling door. Old Jack Grier wasn’t afraid of a rabid coon or a hungry cat – or even that queer bogey whose tail had just filled his belly with warm comfort. He reached for his rifle, but remembered the spoiled powder; he would have to draw the charge eventually, but in the meantime, he grabbed the axe. It still had a brown smear up the middle of the blade where the tail had been severed. He gripped it by the middle of the handle and threw open the door.
Nothing was there – just a howling, black gulf unbrightened by stars or moon. The only light came from the oil lantern in his left hand, which threw a severe, red glare on the dusty snow shifting from bank to bank outside his door. But there were prints in the snow near his feet: large, awkward paw prints, strangely close together, resembling the marks of a housecat, but heavier – almost wolflike in their heft. He walked around the door, holding the axe even tighter. The outside planks had been lacerated viciously: the old, grey, weather beaten skin was stripped with deep yellow gashes – up and down, criss-crossing, webbing wildly – as if some desperate person with a straight razor had been trying to slash his way inside. Long, grey, corkscrew peels of wood lay in front of the door like the castoffs of a carpenter’s shop.
As he stared down at the ravaged wood he heard a frantic clatter and glanced over his shoulder just in time to see the three hounds – their bodies freckled with lamplight – barging through the door and down the path, into the deadly snow. They had stayed with him through harsher starving times, had saved him from the attacks of two bears, three wolves, and one bobcat. They were scored with gnarled, white scars from their combats, and were disciplined from age, experience, and hardship. And yet they ran – away from him, away from the kettle that stank of the bogey’s tail-stew, away from the lacerated door.
And while old Jack Grier stared after them – into the formless blackness that closed in around the defensive light of his lamp – he heard something. At first he thought it was the flight of some ghastly, heavy insect, or the unseasonal groan of a cicada, or the rasp of the door on its hinges. It was a voice, however, a horrible, horrible voice. Harsh, gargled and inhuman – simultaneously hoarse and deep, frail and raspy, like that of a bitter old woman or a sleepy young boy – it growled at him from somewhere overhead —
“Tailypo, tailypo — you’ve got my tailypo…”
The word meant nothing to Jack Grier, other than the vague allusion to a tail coupled with a childish sense of fond endearment. Looking into the trees above, he thought he caught a glimpse of two green cinders blazing in the dark – but in a wink they were gone.