Young Corn Tassel ran through the darkened forest, moccasin clad feet crushing pungent meadow garlic plants beneath them. His heart pounded harder than it ever had throwing smooth stone balls in the game of Digadayosdi. What he now did was no game. Despite the light of the crescent moon hanging over Dahlonega Mountain, the risk of colliding with a hickory or chestnut tree remained. That could prove fatal . . . or worse.
Had the thing that reared from of the darkness a few moments ago, sending him running, really been Spearfinger? Spearfinger was the most dreaded of the Devouring Spirits that plagued the Aniyunwiya; or, as their neighbors called his people, the Cherokee.
The sound of something pursuing him, crashing noisily through the brush, made him fear that it was so. If Spearfinger caught him, her long, sharp, stone finger would pierce his liver. No matter how tiny, he would die as soon as a chunk reached Spearfinger’s mouth.
Not only that, but Spearfinger would be able to take his form. Even worse, Spearfinger would know everything that Corn Tassel knew. That included where his parents, Red Clay and Grouse, and his younger sister, Startled Deer, lived. Once Spearfinger started, she rarely stopped until she had claimed an entire family.
For the dozenth time since his wild race began, Corn Tassel wished he carried one of the iron axes his Long Hair clan had obtained from the whites in trade for deer skins. Corn Tassel only carried a blow gun, the Aniyunwiya’s usual weapon for hunting small game. Would a blow gun’s dart harm Spearfinger, even if he could sink it into the palm of her right hand, where her vile heart lay? A blowgun was all he had, though. Hunting for opossum, he had not even taken one of the old stone axes that his family kept for smashing hickory nuts.
A dying-ember glow came from the sky. A scent like the thunderstorms that danced around the mountain peaks in summertime filled the air. Despite his fear, Corn Tassel froze. A glowing orange-red triangle, bigger than the largest house in Itawah village, larger than the ancient earthen mounds that gave the village its name, hung in the sky. It roared with a sound like the western Thunder Beings might make, but resembled no spirit that the wise men of Itawah had ever told of.
Could it be an angel, like the white men talked about? Unlikely. Something that resembled a blowgun, only glassy smooth, emerged from each of the triangle’s three sharp angles. Neither the Thunder Beings nor the whites’ angels carried blowguns.
A blood-red glow blossomed about the three blowguns’ tips. The triangle screamed like all the cicadas that had ever been. Despite the autumn cool, Corn Tassel felt as though summer sun beat down on him. A taste, more bitter than the holly that went into the purging black drink, filled his mouth. Pain exploded in Corn Tassel’s head, calling to mind the image of someone threading a briar in one of his ears and out the other. Small balls of round red lightning darting about the blowguns. They came toward him, faster than any arrow.
Then there was nothing.
Corn Tassel woke. An animal scent, between muskrat and water snake, filled the air. Wide bands that felt like rigid leather bound his wrists to a wall. Short cockle-burr quills inside the bands dug into his flesh. His bonds were made for someone shorter than him, so Corn Tassel more squatted than stood.
Corn Tassel’s eyes crept open with lizard-on-a-cold-morning slowness. Was he in some cave? The temperature, cool but not chilly, felt like he might be. The walls, floor, and ceiling, of a greasy material resembling stone, were rounded in shape, like the mud hut his family retreated to in Winter. No, a cave would be dark, or lit by firelight. Four dull red glowing balls, each sized like a Digadayosdi stone, provided the dim light. The glowing balls might be the color of a dying flame, but they neither flickered nor smoked. If they gave off heat, it was too little for Corn Tassel to feel.
Corn Tassel tugged at his fetters. Nausea welled up within him, causing his most recent meal, dried beans and Jerusalem artichoke, to fill his throat. Did the bands have some medicine that sickens people who try to break them? Corn Tassel stopped struggling. The nausea receded. Escape, he decided, could wait.
“Huh. You’re awake now,” the voice of an older woman said. “Beginning to wonder if they had killed you when they brought you here.”
Corn Tassel turned his head. A woman, hair still dark despite her wrinkled face, was bound to the wall in the same manner as Corn Tassel. Her chin approached her nose, as happens when someone loses most of their teeth. Had she been free to stand, she would be a head taller than Corn Tassel. As it was, she squatted in a position that looked even more uncomfortable than Corn Tassel’s.
Beside her lay a shaven-headed man who looked perhaps three summers older than Corn Tassel. His leather leggings were torn, and small triangular wounds dotted his bare torso and arms. Nothing visible bound him. Instead of rising, he simply curled in place and softly moaned. Had something so tormented him that he had retreated within himself?
Corn Tassel turned back to the old woman. “I am Corn Tassel, of the Long Hair Clan,” he said, puffing out his chest. A young man of the Aniyunwiya would never surrender his pride, no matter his circumstances.
The old woman snorted, as though unimpressed. “I have been called Stone Skirt.” Corn Tassel frowned. The woman’s speech and broadcloth wraparound skirt said she was Aniyunwiya. What sort of Aniyunwiya would not mention her clan? Stone Skirt nodded toward the limp man. “This is Owl Swooping, of the Muscogee.”
Corn Tassel nodded. Muscogee men often substituted roaches of porcupine hair for their own, which they removed with sharpened clam shells. “Where are we? Who did you think had killed me?” he asked. He nodded toward Owl Swooping. The wounds were too regularly shaped to be animal bites. What sort of weapon would leave such marks? “And what happened to him?”
Stone Skirt did not answer. Maybe her silence meant she did not know. Maybe she was mad, and could not form sensible replies. That must be it. Trying to find answers for himself, Corn Tassel’s eyes swept the room. On a low table lay his blowgun and darts, along with a bow and quiver that probably belonged to Owl Swooping, all beyond his reach. Other than that and the captives, the chamber contained only the glowing Digadayosdi stones. At first, he thought that woven vines or animal sinews held the glowing stones near the ceiling. On examination, he saw that the ceiling emitted bands of barely visible light that seemed to support the stones. How, Corn Tassel wondered, could light hold anything?
“What happened to the Muscogee? Who did I think had killed you?” Stone Skirt spoke up, breaking the silence. “You will know soon.” She wrinkled her nose, as though something unpleasant assaulted her nostrils. “What they are I cannot say, except to tell you that, no matter how they appear, they are not spirits.”
A soft hum filled the room. The wall split, as though an invisible knife sliced it. The muskrat/snake scent became overpowering. Two beings, not spirits, Stone Skirt had said (but Corn Tassel put little weight on a madwoman’s words) emerged, their gait more resembling the Gourd Dance than walking.
They stood about the height that Corn Tassel’s chest would have been if he had stood upright. They resembled, more than anything else, upright opossums. They had naked tails, like opossums, although one was long and lashing and the other short and stout, one of the few features that distinguished them. They were not opossums, though. Instead of an opossum’s greasy gray fur, a soft-looking down, like one finds in a milkweed seedpod, covered their bodies. They stood on three feet, each ending in three grasping, curve-nailed toes. Three three-fingered hands, each finger having too many joints, waved before them. Stubby’s rightmost arm carried a short wand of what looked like polished stone, ending in a broad head. Long-tail carried nothing. Both wore bracelets about their middle wrists, Long-tail’s set with glowing orange stones and Stubby’s undecorated save for two short spikes.
For a moment, Corn Tassel had thought that the opossum beings were without heads. Then he noticed the small bulb atop their shoulders, and recognized the nostrils there, taking breath in and out with a slow pulsing. Three, equally spaced eyes in a triangular pattern, each an expressionless black pit almost as wide as Corn Tassel’s palm, dotted their midriffs. Below was a mouth, locked in an opossum’s perpetual mirthless grin.
Long-tail’s mouth opened. A shrill sound that grated Corn Tassel’s ears, resembling rocks rubbed together emerged. Long-tail gestured toward Owl Swooping. Stubby prodded Owl Swooping with the rod. An orange glow surrounded the rod’s end. Owl Swooping’s eyes shot open. His body contorted. He screamed in pain. A burnt-flesh scent came from where the rods touched him.
“Stop!” Corn Tassel demanded. He yanked at his bonds. Again, the nausea welled up in him. He stopped struggling. He glanced at Stone Skirt. “What are they doing?”
Stone Skirt shrugged. “Perhaps they steal his medicine, lengthening their own lives by shortening his. Perhaps they take his memories, to learn how to better attack the Muscogee. Perhaps, like some men, they simply take pleasure in pain.” Her lips twisted in a way that reminded Corn Tassel of the masks worn at the Booger Dance. “Who can understand such beings?”
Again and again, Stubby prodded Owl Swooping, each time leaving another triangular mark. After a time, he stopped screaming, although Owl Swooping still breathed. Long-tail made a hand signal. Stubby stopped. Long-tail screeched again. Stubby gourd-danced about and inserted the spikes on the wrist band into the wall. The wall absorbed Stone Skirt’s bonds. Stone Skirt stood upright.
Corn Tassel’s eyes shot about in panic. “Are they going to torture you?” he shouted to Stone Skirt.
Stubby came toward her, rod extended. “That might be their intention,” she responded. She stood impassive, as though she did not care.
Corn Tassel cared, though. Allow these creatures to torture an elder of the Aniyunwiya, even a mad one? No! He yanked at his bonds. Again, nausea gripped him. Was it worse than what came after the purifying black drink, something he had endured many times? Maybe, but Corn Tassel was Aniyunwiya, and the Aniyunwiya prided themselves on resilience.
Corn Tassel pushed forward, fighting back his gorge. The bonds gnawed at his wrists. He tugged harder, harder still. He struggled as he had never struggled against anything, all the while fighting his rebelling stomach. Suddenly, the bonds surrendered. Corn Tassel was free.
Long-tail and Stubby made rock-on-rock noises. Their arms flailed. If there were others of their kind, surely they would come. Long-tail and Stubby would be on him before he could reach the weapons. What to do? Corn Tassel’s eyes lit on the glowing balls that lit the chamber, much closer than the weapons. Why not use his skill at Digadayosdi? Corn Tassel grabbed one of the glowing balls. It weighed almost as much as a stone Digadayosdi ball. Corn Tassel took aim at Stubby’s middle, with its staring eyes and grinning mouth. He threw the ball with all his might.
The glowing ball sank into Stubby’s middle. The creature dropped its weapon and made a sound like one hatchet blade striking another. Its three hands went to its middle. Corn Tassel kicked Stubby between the three eyes. Stubby wheezed and went down, trembling much as Owl Swooping did.
Corn Tassel heard the cry of Long-tail behind him. However strange the cry, Corn Tassel could not mistake the sound of panic. He turned, and understood Long-tail’s fear.
Stone Skirt grew even taller before his eyes. Her formerly dark, thick hair became gray and stringy. Her face flowed, eyes becoming smaller and more serpent-like, chin retreating from nose as teeth, mountain cat sharp, sprouted from her gums. Her broadcloth wraparound transformed into a garment of stone. Most hideous of all, the index finger of her right hand grew long and sharp, its tip a curved talon fit to rip open an unsuspecting victim’s flesh.
“Spearfinger,” Corn Tassel whispered in horror. Long-tail and Stubby had obviously mistaken the Devouring Spirit for human. Corn Tassel could understand their error, for she had changed her form into that of some old woman whose liver she had, at some time, eaten. He had no excuse for his own foolishness. She had told him she had been called ‘Stone Skirt’. He had known that some villages so named Spearfinger, but had failed to realize his danger!
Spearfinger’s probing finger shot toward the howling Long-tail. The finger sank into the creature’s flesh. Long-tail’s screeches grew worse as Spearfinger probed. Then she chuckled, as though she had found what she sought. She yanked her finger out, a mass of pulsing flesh on its tip. Spearfinger brought the mass to her lips as Long-tail collapsed. Spearfinger’s long, serpentine tongue licked her finger clean. As it did, knowledge lit in her eyes.
“Who would have believed such things possible?” Spearfinger muttered. She seemed to talk to herself. She gestured at Long-tail and Stubby, smiling an unpleasant smile. “These creatures come from so far away that no one could walk there in a lifetime. Perhaps that is why they have no families or clans. They are all children of one mother.”
Corn Tassel glanced at the dead body. He had heard such things of ants. Could these creatures be the same? It must be so, for Spearfinger now knew all that Long-tail had known.
“These two came scouting for their family, beyond the clouds.” Spearfinger said. Her smile grew even more unpleasant. She turned to face Corn Tassel. “But before doing anything else, I will take your liver.”
Corn Tassel broke free of the horror that had momentarily frozen him. He darted for the table, hands seizing his blowgun. The bow might be deadlier, but the blowgun was what his hands fell on. Loading it, he aimed a dart at Spearfinger’s palm, where the hag’s heart lay. The dart flew, burying itself in Spearfinger’s flesh.
Spearfinger withdrew the dart and threw it down. “Boy, did you think such a feeble missile could fell me?”
Corn Tassel reached for the bow. Before he could, Spearfinger’s long, stone finger shattered the weapon. Corn Tassel reached for another of the glowing stones. Spearfinger blocked his path. Corn Tassel clenched his fists in impotent rage. “You’ll not get my liver without a fight,” he snarled.
“Your liver?” Spearfinger laughed uproariously. Her laughter was the sound of ice breaking beneath the feet of someone walking across a frozen lake. “I have changed my mind. Why bother with you and your feeble kin?” Spearfinger lifted her palm, revealing the tiny dart wound. “Besides, you continue to fight when hope is gone.” A hint of softness crept into her voice. “I like that.”
Corn Tassel swallowed. “What will happen to me?” He cut his eyes toward Owl Swooping. “And to him?”
“I have not decided.” An expression, suggesting something important had just entered her mind, crossed Spearfinger’s face. “No, I have decided. You will both be messengers.”
Spearfinger nodded toward Owl Swooping. “He will tell of how fearsome these creatures are.” Her eyes fixed on Corn Tassel. “You will tell your people that Spearfinger has traveled farther than any other Devouring Spirit,” she commanded. “Tell them that Spearfinger now claims as prey a family larger and stronger than any that ever walked the mountains.” Corn Tassel’s brow wrinkled. Did she mean the opossum creatures? Perhaps, for Spearfinger now knew how to reach Long-tail’s relatives if Long-tail had possessed the information. “If the Aniyunwiya and the Muscogee know of my triumph,” Spearfinger continued, “the Devouring Spirits who are my people will soon learn.” Self-importance filled her voice, for Devouring Spirits are proud.
With those words, Spearfinger shrank. Her two arms became three, as did her legs and eyes. Her three eyes sank to the middle of her torso. Her shoulders swallowed her head. She became the image of Long-tail.
Spearfinger’s leftmost hand tapped one of the orange stones on the bracelet she now wore. Heat wrapped around Corn Tassel. Pain exploded in his head.
Then there was nothing.
Corn Tassel woke lying on Pumpkinvine Creek’s cold banks. Had this night been a vision? No, his blowgun was gone. The unconscious Owl Swooping lay twenty paces away. Corn Tassel raised his eyes. An orange-red triangle climbed into the sky, growing smaller by the moment. It became a point of light, and then vanished.
Corn Tassel frowned. His family might believe his tale or might judge him mad. Either way, Itawah’s medicine men would treat Owl Swooping’s wounds, for the Muscogee and Aniyunwiya had been at peace for several generations. Corn Tassel began breaking branches from small trees to make a travois to carry Owl Swooping.
Lawrence Barker lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife Pam and multiple four legged beasties. Lawrence is the winner of the 2007 James Award for his short story, Cyrus Fell’s Blues, a tale of space alien vampires in 1950s Georgia. Lawrence’s novels, Blood Red Sphere (set on a Mars that should have been) and Mother Feral’s Love (a tale of an heroic ghoul) are available from Swimming Kangaroo Publications. When not writing or working as an epidemiologist, Lawrence plays clawhammer banjo.