by Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr.
“How big we talking? Ten foot, twelve?” Hector cocked his head, crossed his arms, slow picked at a string hanging down from the elbow of his ratty red and black checked flannel. “The way your eyes were popping, and you were going on, I was like—”
“’Bout fifteen,” Blair said to him as they stood in the small hilltop meadow, looking down at his hands, one of which held a cigarette, the other a sky-blue disposable lighter.
“I call bullshit, Blair. Ain’t never had but maybe one anywhere close to half that size here. An eight-footer would be huge; ten’d be stretching the truth in brand new ways,” Hector tapped his steel toe against his opposite boot.
“Well, I know what I saw,” Blair said, lit his cigarette, blew a big smoke ring into the still, damp air and watched it twist into the pine tree tops.
Hector Dunn and Blair Walker were brothers and cousins, had grown up together and knew each other in those ways that you only could by being more than family and less than friends. They’d run every scam from when they were little and stealing out of the collection plate to picking up receipts off the ground outside the Kmart as teenagers and matching them up with clothes they’d pick off the rack and return at customer service. They went kinda straight in their late teens working a project for the state picking up dead crows and setting mosquito traps when a bird virus blazed through the hills, but that played out when they set to killing ravens and jays and the occasional hawk too, just to keep things going. It worked for a bit, but the scientists started to complain that none of the dead birds had any cause of death other than too much #6 birdshot no matter how good the boys thought they’d cleaned them, and that was the end of that gig. Right now, well into their twenties, that still-youthful decade when you’re at your most mortal and immortal, when everything is the end of the world even as it’s just the beginning, they had a good thing going with the university over in Knoxville. They kept hellbender reports for and from the university’s lazy herpetology department. When they first started, as far as them eggheads knew, a three-foot salamander was one for the record books, but up here in the coves, well, those were just bitty babies. As warm as things had been getting in the world, four feet was getting to be on the small side; it seemed like they were growing by the week. Five and six feet were regular sightings, but the biggest they’d ever reported to the college was an estimated four feet. Hector kept a sapling he’d ripped from the ground and shaved the bark off of, sized up with his ma’s yellow sewing tape and cut to six feet on the nose just for measuring purposes and plenty of ‘specimens’ were a fair bit beyond the edge of his hickory stick. Him and Blair would snap obligatory pics of the smaller ones for UT but when they glommed onto a giant, they’d grab and wrestle the big rowdy sonofabitch and scrape its back with cedar shakes. They got the idea one afternoon smoking tons of ditchweed and watching a show on poisonous frogs down in South America. Sure enough, turned out the slime they’d gather and dry on green tobacco would cure the leaves and make you trip your balls off when you smoked even a little bit. Dose-wise, the bigger the ‘bender, the better it seemed, so they kept sightings of the massive ones quiet; their ‘nothing to see here’ maintained the nerds back on campus. The boys made good money year-round selling dried flakes of hellbender goo to local folks and repeat tourists in season.
“Did you call Professor Robinson yet, dipshit?” Hector asked, two fingers up to his lips, the universal sign for give me one of your smokes.
“For what?” Blair said, shaking out a menthol for him from his crumpled pack.
“To tell her about that five-footer,” Hector tapped his right foot against his left, that nervous habit Blair couldn’t remember him not having.
“Why would I do that? Thought we weren’t gonna mention anything over four and half?”
“We gotta give ‘em something. Four and a half is peewee anymore.” Hector took in a deep breath, tapped the cigarette on the back of his hand.
“Yeah, I suppose, but maybe you should tell ‘em that.” Blair handed him his lighter. Hector never had a light of his own.
“Tell ‘em what?” Hector took a drag, drew his eyebrows together focusing on a future he could see but not describe.
“That four and a half feet ain’t shit anymore.”
“I could, I guess,” Hector said. “I mean they’ll figure it out looking at the pictures, sooner than later. And sticking to the plan, we’re just talking it up, guessing at the size. We don’t have to give ‘em pics yet.”
“Sure, but you know it’s hard to even find a new smallfry to take pictures of. We’re gonna have to do something, so you better talk it up good, bro, help ‘em visualize one of these big boys, while figuring how to keep them schoolboys outta here,” Blair spit in the grass. “Because if they think they need to head out into the field or whatever they call it, our business’ll be in the shitter.”
After sending pics of the same tired three-and-a-half footer for a week, the nerds in the lab asked them if they had anything new to send along. Blair and Hector realized the patterns on the salamander skin must have been recognizable enough that they’d have to up their search game. Even the old guy at the Sevierville Fotomat would’ve noticed if they still had to take their pics to him. Good thing phones had cameras now.
“Yup.” Hector said.
“Mmmhmmm,” both agreed.
Leroy Fouts was a world class drunk by any standard, but as the proprietor of his own illegal distillery with an output as good if not better than anything dripping down the stillhouse lines over in Chestnut Flats, he achieved undreamed of shitfaced levels, and hadn’t yet accidentally burned the whole thing down. Fouts, no relation to the quarterback, was actually an adjusted surname. Leroy, family name, dropped an e and replaced it with an s in his last name when he volunteered for the Marines during Viet Nam; both actions were an attempt at redemption for his Confederate-sympathizer ancestor who urged his only son to join the CSA and lost everything after the war here in abolitionist East Tennessee. Leroy lost a few things as well during his own particular war, not the least of which was his ability to control his liquor intake. Upon his return as one of the survivors from Operation Babylift’s maiden mission, he took his half physical, half mental 100% disability and crawled into a bottle. He came out every now and again to buy groceries in town and to walk through the ancestral woods he loved more than anything else, except of course, liquor. A couple times a year he went further afield to arrange for delivery of supplies to keep his operation going.
Tonight’s stroll didn’t involve groceries or business at all, and Leroy walked along, slow swinging a jug from his latest batch. This one was exceptionally tasty, so Leroy kept it full strength, the white lightning name wholly appropriate and well-earned.
The woods were busy and loud. The full moon and some high humidity had brought out the bugs. Blackflies and mosquitoes took turns yelling at each other, squaring off in front of his face to see who’d get to bite him first. Mist and fog hung in the trees like cotton candy.
He’d been walking the path for a while, taking pulls off his jug and whistling a tune that never seemed to go anywhere when the air condensed around him, the low clouds of fog coming together in a solid pressure he could feel just over his shoulder.
Leroy staggered forward through a clearing in a frantic attempt to put some distance between himself and the newly arriving presence. Looking back, he watched it trying to take shape across the damp dying leaves of the forest floor. Its mid-air writhing looked wet, and there was a tail that ended in a whip sharp tip lashing back and forth as the body proper formed in the moonlight.
This wasn’t a Bigfoot, a Sasquatch, any of that. It wasn’t a Swamp Thing or a Werewolf by Night, not a Man-Thing or a Skunk Ape even if the smell. Oh my god the smell. Like a cow fart trapped for a month at the bottom of an old-time fishbowl that hadn’t been cleaned in a year. Leroy squinted as the shape came clear, a huge, rounded diamond shaped head rearing up into the dark canopy as fleshy folds of mottled olive, orange, and chocolate pudding skin glistened under slime that picked up the glow from the full moon above. He shuddered in disbelief as too-small deep black eyes appeared on the side of the head, rolled down at their own rows of tiny razor-sharp teeth and…smiled. The creature had decidedly human features swimming under the surface of its smooth skinned face, trying to express themselves but buried under that flattish amphibian nightmare head.
Leroy was surprised it stood so easily upright. Sobriety rushing right at him, he took a look at the feet the amphibian walked around on. Its rear legs were long boned and muscled like a man’s. Snapping into full view it stood at least twelve feet tall even with its head hunched forward on the hunt. Leroy Fouts might’ve been the first but definitely was about to be the last person to see a Werebender for a minute; a formerly human half-salamander roaming deep in Cades and Tuckaleechee Coves, its slashed, drooling maw snapping open and closed, an obscene probing pink tongue visible behind its grey, rubbery lips and sharp, translucent teeth, wide-set nostrils sniffing the air for victims in hungry and desperate ways. He couldn’t imagine what it had been surviving on but then he remembered that since hellbenders can swallow prey just shy of their own body length, there were plenty of supper options on the table.
Leroy himself at five feet six was a prime and easy candidate.
The Werebender moved surprisingly fast across the clearing, its six or eight clawed fingers delicately fluttering through the night air before it grabbed him in a steel-trap icy embrace. It grinned a bit, then craned its neck down, opened that glittering mouth black and wide and popped off Leroy’s head like the last bite on a popsicle stick. It made an audible sound as it left his neck, echoing under the dew dripping from heavy poplar leaves that were slightly quaking, whether from the breeze or the act they’d just witnessed, it was hard to say.
This was all Cherokee territory back in the day, back when the first half of Hector and Blair’s family, the white Walkers and Lawsons, Dunns and Birds showed up to meet the other half, the Indian side, Virginia way too crowded for them already in the 1650s. Marriages and alliances between settler and Cherokee communities happened in the territories throughout the long years, but the folks who kept most of the tribal traditions had left a long time ago, their legacy a few richly mixed families who knew what they were but not who they were. In any instance, Hector and Blair had going on four centuries worth of knowledge of the land they lived on and off of. They might not’ve had enough blood left for some to be Indigenous, but they had plenty of kinship indigenous to the hills, hollows, and balds, knew every bough or sigh, scent or sound as familiar as their own hearts beating loud in their big mountain-born ribcages. They knew streams you could still drink from, where to find the good stuff like hairy blueberries way up high and how to look down low in the valleys, where other kinds of good stuff like red mulberries that if you get em before they’re ripe, you can trip your balls off. Both sides of their families knew that, but only the Native side knew that red elderberries could help you out with your stomach pains after.
Right now, they had to figure out how to keep these folks in the lab on the line and paying out. Time to calculate if they were going to up the parameters of the game; the nerds were hungry for bigger specimens. Hector and Blair had them to be sure, but it was about controlled release. Eventually their supply wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demand for bigger and better. Once the white coats saw three feet, it was a quick road on up to four and more. Problem was, if they showed any of the big ol’ jumbos that were easy enough for them to come by, there might be a big national rush on these record-breakers in the cricks and streams of the coves, with feds a-poppin’ and formerly lazy lab rats headed for the hills, cameras and clipboards at the ready. They had too much at risk up here in the hills to be entertaining those dickheads in their backyard.
“What’re we gonna do, man?” Hector said, tapping his shoe, thinking maybe the university crew would keep their mouths shut for a while on account of greed, or having to write papers or whatever.
“About what?” Blair asked.
“Keeping these nerds horny for the product.”
“You mean folks tripping on the ‘mander goop or the dorks at the university looking for hellbender pics?”
“Both, maybe,” Hector said.
“Which one are you worried about?” Blair said.
“Both, maybe,” Hector shrugged.
“How come, bro?”
“You know how people get, man,” Hector said. “It ain’t never enough.”
“Nothin’, I guess. Ain’t nothin’ never enough. You know—”
“Bro, quit. These people don’t know no better. We’ll be alright,” Blair said, the ‘l’ and ‘r’ scarcely audible.
Blair wasn’t even thirty, but he had a couple teenage kids with different gals, and he spoke like his offspring a lot of the time but mostly when he was trying to sound cool or win an argument. Hector didn’t have any kids. He’d had a couple girlfriends here and there, but mostly kept to himself. He knew Blair thought he sounded cool with the lingo and all, but it was sad, really. Shiiit. Thirty years old around here was practically elder status. It had been a rough couple of decades on top of a hard enough lifestyle in the hills.
“Whatever, man. I think we should give ‘em one of the big ones,” Hector said. “Not a whopper, but bigger’n three and a half, at least.”
“Now? That’s way ahead of schedule, my brother.”
“They’re getting antsy. And they figured out we been recycling pics. Only seems fair we give ‘em something new and exciting,” Hector said. He thought about bringing up his plan to scrape up some slime from one of the six-footers if they could get it and sell it special at jacked up rates to their best customers. After they tried it themselves first, for sure, but Blair was acting kinda pissy. He should probably wait to spring it on his partner who . . . lacked vision sometimes.
Hector wished every now and again that he could approach life like an artist, or a junkie, not giving a fuck about tomorrow, about business, about the cops or the system or old age or family, or any of that shit. Just me, me, me, all the time, fuck consequences and the universe. Responsibility was ass some days.
“I suppose we could do that,” Blair said. “What have you got in mind?”
“What about four-foot Fred? He don’t move too fast, seems old and farty. He’ll be good for plenty of pics. And when they come out to see him, which they will, on account of his record-setting size, he’ll be easy to find. Hell, Fred likes donuts, now. I think you’re giving him the diabetes. He looks fat as shit,” Hector said.
“Always a critic,” Blair smiled.
“I’m just saying, man. It ain’t right domesticating these guys. They’re hanging out, getting too close.”
‘Fred,’ as he’d heard them call him, was his youngest of a couple dozen or so. The two shithead halfbreeds had been harassing his kids for months now. He’d told his littlest one to stop eating the handouts left by the humans, that he’d get fat and lazy. Their baiting pissed Cecil off but still he’d refrained from retaliating. Well, until the other night when Leroy had stumbled into his hunting grounds. Ever since he popped the head off his drunkass cousin, he’d felt a little bad about attacking a human, but that was fading fast. Now that he’d finally cracked that level, these two hillbilly scam artists weren’t doing much to keep him from taking another bite out of crime.
His kids were everything and he doted on them incessantly even as he marveled at his own new extraordinary size and strength. Thing was, he had no clue how he’d come to be in this monstrous state or how to get out of it, and even less ideas about how he’d wound up with so many kids — or do I call them newts? — but he had a pile of ‘em, so here he was.
He laid back in Abrams Creek, twisted his long body in the cool mountain water and dove for the bottom. Government idiots had poisoned it a long time ago to try and kill off everything that wasn’t rainbow trout. Stupid, but fine, because now no one came here at all, fishermen or not. Cecil split a lot of time between here and Ekaneetlee Creek, keeping the kids down in Abrams and heading for Ekaneetlee when he needed a little peace and quiet, which he definitely did right now. He normally went alone, but tonight he brought his youngest with him, figuring he’d keep him close, teach him a thing or two about diet and exercise, along with being safe.
Cecil’s great grandfather William Jefferson Foute, yup, the originator of that name Leroy worked so hard to get rid of, was the Confederate sympathizer who sent his son off to die in that futile conflict. After the war, the townspeople were so incensed and wildly pissed that before they sent the elder Foute off to federal prison, they gathered two granny women together to put a curse on him. They women knew he’d be dead sooner than later on account of his treason, so they made sure his dependents would pay, and they went Old Country with it. The two neighbor ladies, after working out the math for maximum cruelty, declared that every fourth generation the eldest male Foute would be doomed to walk the earth after the first full moon of their eighteenth birthday as a twisted half-human, half-salamander abomination. They ascertained that the space between generations would preclude these miserable wretches ever actually figuring out what the fuck had happened to them ‘cause on the white side of things nobody knows nothin’ about their great-grandparents. They were particularly delighted to have chosen the hellbender for their curse not only for its slimy amphibious nature, but as the male of the species was responsible for the raising and protection of the young it seemed a fitting fate for future generations to recall the needless sacrifice the original Foute foisted on his child. The citizens of Cades Cove laughed approvingly as the women laid their symbols, did their work. Foute raged in his cage in an appropriate display of indignation, but his outsized ego seemed to delight in seeing his family marked in such a public display, even it was in service of them being cursed for all eternity.
“Ssssshhhhh, dumbass. Be quiet,” Hector glared at Blair, whites of his eyes glowing just blue in the magic hour light.
“Fuck you, bro. I am being quiet,” Blair said, a little too loud.
They could hear the crick slosh along in its banks, running heavier on this side of the hills. They’d ranged down to the North Carolina border, following Ekaneetlee Branch to the mountains then picking it up on the other side when it became a creek proper. They were in pursuit of pics for the lab nerds but were losing the light just as they’d seemingly lost all their usual suspects back in Tuckaleechee and Cades Coves. They knew this territory pretty well over here. Nothing like back home, but still. Even so, the woods seemed a little darker, a little wilder, a touch colder, and a hair deeper on this side of the mountains. Blair didn’t seem to notice, but Hector shuddered as they moved toward the mossy banks of the crick, hoping for a new five- or six-footer maybe.
The boys were armed per usual. Bears were out and about most all the time, and lately the hills had seen carpetbagging meth cookers who were super jumpy out here in the trees trying to set up shop in what they thought was an uninhabited national park. They both had holstered pistols; Blair a Glock 9 (of course), Hector a .45, because if you needed to stop someone or something, you wanted your weapon to do the job, no questions asked. He also had a Mossberg 12 gauge with a strap slung over his shoulder and fistfuls of shells in the black backpack he never went anywhere without. He said a little prayer to the ancestors, the river, the hills, the stars just winking in on the scene below, and made his way to the water’s edge, camera in hand, ready to make a living in a semi-honest way. Blair seemed oddly focused, following close behind.
“Hey, man. You ready for this?” he asked.
“What are you talking about?” Blair replied.
“Whatever’s coming,” Hector said.
“Bro. What are you talking about? Don’t get weird. We’re just taking some pics.”
“It feels different. It feels like—”
“Quit, bro.” Blair said. “It don’t feel like nothing but getting some snaps for the lab nerds. Heyyyyy. Is that a menthol? Where’d that come from? Let me get one, bro.”
“Yeah, sure. Just keep it down, yeah?” Hector said, digging for the pack.
Blair lit his smoke with his sky-blue disposable lighter, stuffed it back in his pocket. He pointed and said
“Holy shit. It’s Fred!”
“Get the fuck outta here,” Hector said. “Not this far from home.”
“Look. I’d recognize that fat, farty ass anywhere.”
Sure enough, the four-foot hellbender lolled on the far side bank, heavy head laying on his front legs, looking forlorn and hungry back at Hector and Blair.
“Did you bring any donuts?” Hector asked.
“You’re the one with the backpack,” Blair said. “If anyone has ‘em, it’s you.”
“I got nothing but some jerky in there,” Hector said. “And I think old Fred has the sugar.”
“He’d probably eat that deermeat just as soon as anything, I imagine,” Blair said.
“Maybe. I don’t feel like giving it up just yet though. Let’s see if there’s enough light to get some pics. Maybe the lab folks’ll buy a change of scenery. And be quiet, for fuck’s sake. Man, you are loud.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Get the pics, bro.”
Fred hadn’t moved anything but those beady eyes. Hector inched closer, fucking with the light delay on his brand-new fancy phone. The focus was fuzzy, and he wasn’t digging it at all. He moved ever closer.
“Hey, don’t get too close!” Blair hollered. “You’ll scare him away.”
“Shhhhhh, dumbass! Be quiet!” Hector said.
Fred raised the ridge above his right eye in lieu of a brow, rolled his left down and toward the middle of the crick.
Hector peered over the top of his phone where he had been popping off bursts of Fred, hoping to get something good for the lab. He got a bad, bad feeling that grabbed him deep inside. He shoved the phone deep in the side pocket of his camo pants.
Blair finished his smoke, assessed the situation. “How’s it going, bro!?” he blurted out.
“Sssssshhh! Fuckin’ A, man. Be quiet,” Hector said.
“Okay, bro. Jeeeeez,” Blair replied, as the crick surface shattered, water arcing way over the bank, soaking both cousins and
Cecil’s twelve feet exploded into the air high above the middle of the Ekaneetlee, head whipping around on his descent, starting straight into the eyes of Hector and Blair.
“Holymoly! This giant motherfucker looks like Fred!” Hector yelled.
“What?!” Blair replied.
“For real. Look!”
“It must be the dad!”
Damn…Hector thought. For real. These two are related. But as fat and lazy as Fred was, this giant motherfucker was lit, and active, and angry as fuck.
And he was headed right for him and Blair. Bet that’s some magic fucking goo I see shining in the moonlight, he thought to himself, saying a little prayer he’d live to try it.
Hector reached down to his side, pulled out the .45.
Cecil angled closer, all smiles.
“Blair! Grab your piece. Here he comes!”
Hector squeezed off three shots. Poppoppop. The slugs sailed right through Cecil’s gelatinous flesh.
“Dangit, Hector. I should’ve loaded my hollow points in here,” Blair said, taking aim with his nine.
“I don’t give a fuck if you got a clip full of Cheetos in there, man. Squeeze that trigger!”
Blair popped off three shots of his own that passed through Cecil like nothing at all. The Werebender laughed like a clogged toilet and looked down at his unharmed self.
“Goddamnit, Blair. Now what?!” Hector worried out loud.
“I don’t know, bro,” Blair said.
“We better think of something. Pull back,” Hector said, the two of them heading for a bit of higher ground.
The sounds of Cecil sloshing around in the crick faded a bit behind them; he was heading up the bank but having a hard time hauling his bulk out of the water. Clawing his way onto the scrub and mossy rocks, the sight of his skin glistening in the dying daylight and under the bright rising moon triggered Hector’s memory.
He remembered how Grandma would catch slugs in saucers of beer backwash she’d collect the morning after a payday party and let him put salt on them. The sizzle bubbled up in his ears as he dug around in the bottom of his backpack pawing through a bunch of # 6 and 7 birdshot along with a couple of .00 deer slugs to find the half dozen shells he’d packed with rock salt for back when they needed to protect their weed patches in the woods around Tsiya’hi from pesky Smith kids looking to pre-harvest glean some of their buds. He bit down on two, held them in his mouth, and loaded three into the Mossberg. He racked a shell into the chamber, jammed the two from his teeth in the shirt pocket on his flannel, leaned the shotgun over his shoulder with one hand and fished in his pants for the pack of menthols he’d been hiding from Blair with the other.
Cecil appeared in his field of vision seemingly even bigger than his twelve feet. His grinning face and dripping translucent teeth gave zero indication of being in the mood to talk about why that might be.
“Fuck it,” Hector said to no one in particular. He pulled the Mossberg tight to his shoulder and popped a shot.
The werebender screeched and twisted at a just audible register, his high-pitched thrashing roiling the water; blood and smoke from a gaping hole in his left leg snaked toward the muddy bank.
Hector fired again, up and to the right, one of Cecil’s black bulbous eyes winking out even as the side of his face opened wide, blood and ocular fluid sheeting down over those clear wet fangs.
Last shot, this one tore deep into the Werebender’s chest, the salt searing through Cecil’s chest and wherever else the rock crystals struck, boring into Cecil’s mottled skin and slick muscle, chewing at his bright red heart.
His salamander body writhed and tore, tail whipping, jaws opening and slamming shut. An ignominious end, particularly at the hands of these two crooked fucks, but here they all were. Cecil’s giant body slipped below the surface of the crick, no known burial, much less a remarkable life. The servants and household of his grave should be, would be immortalized by their absence. That was maybe the worthwhile part, the redemptive part, of this story.
Hector scooped up a crying, mewling Fred, held him under the arms, belly out for Blair to snap some pics with a long exposure on his own phone that stayed in the dumbfuck’s pocket the whole time the monster was going under, then plopped him in his pack as they headed back to Cades Cove.
Theodore C. Van Alst Jr. (enrolled Mackinac Bands of Chippewa and Ottawa Indians) is Tilikum Professor and Chair of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State University. He is the author of award-winning mosaic novels Sacred Smokes and Sacred City as well as the editor of The Faster Redder Road: The Best UnAmerican Stories of Stephen Graham Jones. His co-edited (with Shane Hawk) Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology will be published in September 2023 by Vintage / Penguin Random House. He is an Active Horror Writers Association member whose work has been published in Southwest Review, The Rumpus, Chicago Review, The Journal of Working-Class Studies, Apex Magazine, Red Earth Review, Electric Literature, Indian Country Today, and The Massachusetts Review, among others.