CHICKADEE

August 16, 2017

Broken branches, disturbed forest floor… Pierre Rochon knew the signs. A seasoned voyageur, he could track a squirrel through the trees by sight alone. This was different, though, and it disturbed him. A trail of footprints littered the forest floor, wide and humanlike but the imprint was impossibly heavy, as if the creature that made it was made of something more than just flesh. The skin on the back of his neck and his thickly corded arms crawled. He was afraid, a strange feeling for him, a tough and fearless man. At least he thought he was. He gripped his musket tighter, feeling some comfort in its weight and heft. The presence of his tomahawk and longknife on his belt, both sharpened to a razor’s edge just that morning, were also of no small comfort to him. He checked his priming on the flintlock, making certain the fine-grained gunpowder was in place, then took a deep breath of the crisp, pure air of the mountain forest. He resumed his pursuit, because he had a job to do. 

 

Like most voyageurs he was descended from the original people of the land, a hybrid of French and Abenaki. He was dark-featured, slightly swarthy with dark eyes, long walnut-colored hair, and a somewhat sparse black beard. He did not look like a Native, nor would any assume he was fully French. He existed in two worlds, and neither at the same time. He had come down from Montreal with a handful of compatriots, each assigned to a different post by their military commander. The war effort required a diversity of experience and skilled scouts were in high demand. Pierre was assigned to a Cherokee outpost as an envoy to the Natives, a people who were naturally, and rightfully, suspicious of outsiders. He was to do what he could in order to try and sway them to fight for the cause, but also to help them keep the peace in their own lands. 

 

Pierre had made some friends amongst the villagers, some closer than others. His role as a peacekeeper and protector had landed him in his current situation. Children of the village had gone missing, vanished without a trace after playing in the forest. Their weeping mothers and stern-eyed fathers asked for his help in looking for them. It was not only his duty, but a proof of trust, a chance to let the village know his words and presence were more than mere political showmanship. 

 

He had traced the missing children to one spot in the forest near a swimming hole forbidden by the adults due to its distance from the village and the danger of slippery algae that covered the rocks bordering the water. Though it was off-limits, the children would sneak off it to it when they could. Now five youngsters had vanished in the last two days and it was his job to find them before things got worse. The tribe was on edge, dangerously nervous and threatening a retaliatory raid on a neighboring community, if for no other reason than the need to blame someone, anyone, for the disappearance of their children. He threaded through the forest warily, wishing desperately that his Cherokee warrior companion in arms Tsiyu, Otter, was with him. Somewhere above him a chickadee called, its trill a warning he was unable to heed in time. 

 

The bear attacked suddenly, a rush of brown fur and heavy muscle that knocked him to the ground and sent his musket flying. Pierre struggled to catch his breath and scrambled to defend himself. Above him the bear roared, its dripping jaws snapped at his upraised arms. The voyageur searched about for a weapon, his right hand finding the butt of his pistol, as the bear clamped down upon his left arm. He prayed the priming hadn’t been knocked loose. The bear began to pull on his arm, twisting its head, the pain of the powerful bite excruciating. Pierre knew it was a matter of seconds before the bear would rip his arm off with its powerful jaws, and he would be dead a few minutes thereafter. Through blinding pain and agony, he somehow cocked the heavy barreled pistol and shoved it up against the bear’s left eye. It was his only chance. Pierre prayed a desperate plea to the Almighty and pulled the trigger. 

 

The explosion was incredibly loud, temporarily deafening Pierre. The bear dropped to the forest floor with a muffled grunt, blood spewing from its raggedly torn and empty eye socket. Pierre pried his arm out of the bear’s mouth, grateful that the shock of the shot didn’t cause the bear to clamp down and chomp his limb off in death. He crawled away from the bear, his left arm bleeding profusely, in severe pain and slipping into shock. The forest was now eerily silent after the pistol’s discharge, save for the trilling call of the chickadee. He ripped a section of his shirt away and made a makeshift tourniquet above his wound, his breath coming heavy, his vision dimming, as he grew weaker by the second. He had just knotted the cloth before succumbing to shock and falling into oblivion.

 

* * *

 

He was shaken into wakefulness by a gentle hand. He blearily opened his eyes and felt the reawakened pain of the bear bite. When his eyes came into focus, he found himself looking into the smiling eyes of an elderly Indian woman. Her wrinkled brown face hovered over him with an expression of kindness. He tried to speak but could only muster a weak grunt. She nodded anyway, understanding. She stood up and walked away and fetched a rough travois of saplings and old deerskin. With some effort she rolled the heavy man onto it and strapped him firmly onto the frame. With a strength that seemed greater than any that could be possessed by an elderly woman she grasped the handles and pulled the travois at an impressive speed across the forest floor. She sang as she trudged along the path and he could just make out the words though his tired brain was too fatigued to process them. “Uwe la na tsiku. Su sa sai!” she sang. He felt himself passing out again, but before he fell back into the oblivion of sleep he felt a tiny chickadee alight on his chest and chirp fervently as if desperate to communicate. How strange birds were, he thought, as he passed out again. 

 

* * *

 

He awoke in a smoky hut redolent with the smell of burning wood and pungent scent of herbs hanging from the rafters. The place was dark but cozy and he glimpsed the old woman stirring something in an iron kettle suspended over the central hearth fire. Her dark eyes glittered as she looked up at him and smiled. Her gray hair glittered like silver in the firelight and her teeth shone like polished stones. 

 

“Oh, so we’re up are we?”  She spoke in strangely accented Cherokee and her voice was oddly grating, but not unpleasant. 

 

“Y...yes, I’m awake, grandmother,” Pierre spoke, using the traditional honorific for elderly Cherokee women, forcing his brain to remember the language he had spoken so rarely. 

 

“You were hurt bad, Hairy One, you need food. I am making something special for you.” The old woman spoke kindly, gently, reminding him of his own long departed grandmother.

 

As she toiled over the kettle he noticed her right hand was buried inside a checkered blanket that covered her like a cloak. 

 

“Your arm, are you hurt Grandmother?”  

 

“Oh, it’s nothing. Just an old wound that bothers me from time to time.” She smiled again and spooned something steaming into a bowl formed from the burl of an oak. The old woman shambled over and sat down next to him and lifted a horn spoon to his mouth. He swallowed the morsel and the warmth and nourishment of the food suffused his body almost immediately. 

 

“Grandmother, thank you. This food is good. What is it?”

“My hairy faced son, this is my specialty. Liver in blood broth.” She grinned again and spooned the whole bowlful into him one bite at a time. When he was finished, she bade him rest again. And so he did…

 

When the morning light filtered through the thatch of the hut, Pierre was fully awake. He examined his wound and found with surprise it was healing at an incredibly rapid rate. Whatever salve the old woman had applied to it worked wonders. He felt his strength returning and smiled at the comforting warmth the filtered sunlight brought. The elderly Cherokee matron was looking at him from across the small space, her right arm still clutched under her blanket and her smile bright and honest. He smiled and sat up, and though he ached, the act of being upright made him feel better than he had since the attack.

 

“Grandmother, thank you. Your medicine is working very well. I feel much better.”  

 

She nodded gently. “Good, grandson. I am glad to hear it. I must go and gather food for us. I will be back soon.”  

 

“Grandmother, why not butcher meat from the bear I killed?  It’s just waiting and will spoil soon.”  

“Grandson, I have something much sweeter in mind. I will return. Rest and get well.” She stood up and shuffled out of the hut. Pierre felt guilty he was unable to help this poor old woman gather food but was in no shape to do so. Perhaps tomorrow, he thought. Perhaps tomorrow…

 

He was awakened by the heart-hammering tingling of a sense of danger, a trait honed over many years in the wilderness. He couldn’t quite place it at first but crawled over to where his absent host had placed his belongings. He rummaged through the small pile for his powder horn and bullet pouch and located his pistol. With furtive but expert movements he loaded the heavy weapon and tried to stand. His knees were weak but after a few attempts he succeeded and crept to the door of the hut. He thought he could hear a shuffling and sniffling from without—another bear! It was night, so he looked away from the fire to let his eyes adjust to the dimness to avoid night blindness before leaving the shelter of the hut and into the danger of the moonlit exterior. Pierre took a deep breath to brace himself against the pain of his own body and the fear of the unknown. Cocking the huge pistol, he stepped outside and prepared to encounter any danger that awaited. 

 

The snuffling of something large was still audible. He knew he may be able to simply frighten the beast off with a blast from the gun but he was sure a bullet through its thick hide would serve even better. He sprung from the doorway weapon at the ready, its barrel swinging to point wherever his own keen eyes did as he scanned for the beast. He saw nothing. He stalked around the walls of the small roundhouse, searching the perimeter for his enemy. Pierre circled the hut without spotting anything of danger; he was confused. He knew he had heard the sounds of something large lurking. 

 

A familiar trilling sound rang out from behind him and he whirled around, his head spinning from the sudden action. At first he could not locate the source. It repeated itself and he looked down to discover a chickadee chirping frantically at him from a spot near his feet. How very odd, he thought, Chickadees were not night birds. What is this one doing here? And where is the bear I’m sure I heard? He scanned around one last time searching for the source of the noise that had roused him from his sleep, the hair on his neck and arms still raised in alarm. He found nothing but trees and stars and abundant moonlight. He shrugged, still baffled but went back to the hut’s entrance, the chickadee chirping at him from the thatch where it had perched. He ignored the strangely behaving bird and went back inside, moving slowly do to pain renewed by his activity. 

 

He was startled to see the old woman inside, he hadn’t heard her approach. She was roasting something over the open fire using a stick suspended by split wooden stakes stuck into the ground beside the hearth. He started as he saw her. “Grandmother, I didn’t hear you return. I thought I heard a bear or some large creature lurking outside and went to check.”

 

“What a good boy, looking out for this old woman’s home. What a magnificent warrior you are!” She smiled as she rotated the roasting meat and revealed again her gleaming teeth. Pierre noticed for the first time how small and sharp they looked, an unusual feature and somehow unsettling. He shrugged it off and sat down next to the warm flames. 

 

“How did you come to be here, grandchild?” intoned the elder woman in her strange gravelly voice. As she spoke, she continued to turn the spit with her left hand, her right still buried in the folds of her blanket. 

 

“Well, I was sent to find children missing from a village nearby. Several have gone missing lately, and I was tracking the culprit. The children wouldn’t have left on their own.”  

 

“Ah. A hero. A good man. Doing the right thing to protect the village. Good for you,” she responded, a smile etched on her weathered brown face. 

 

“You haven’t seen them around have you? Cherokee children of many ages, last seen at the Slippery Place, the spring they use as a swimming hole. Covered with algae? You know the one?” Pierre asked.

 

“Oh, yes. I know the place. It is not far from here. The children play there, do they?” She looked up from her cooking as she asked him, her face in the shadows cast by the firelight turned her kindly features into something angular and fearsome. A trick of the light, thought Pierre, a sudden chill rippling down his spine.

 

“They do,” he responded, moving from the fire back to his bed. “They have been told by the elders not to go there, because of the slippery algae that can cause them to fall, but they do so anyway and now five have vanished. It is my task, my duty to find them.”

 

“Oh, I’m sure you will. I’m sure you will,” the old woman said as she turned the meat. Against his will he found himself falling asleep. A chickadee’s call came through the noises of the popping logs in the fire and the low humming of his elderly host. He still found it strange a chickadee would be flying around in the darkness, but once again fatigue overtook him and he could give no more thought to the enigma.  

 

 

* * *

 

He was awakened again by the old woman’s gentle jostling. Opening his bleary eyes, he saw her holding out a chunk of steaming roasted meat for him. He sat up and took it, devouring it ravenously. It was sweet and juicy, tasting of blood and iron.

 

“Thank you, Grandmother. What meat is this?” he inquired around a mouthful of the morsel.  

 

“Liver,” she chortled, “from the sweetest beast there is.” She grinned and again he saw her sharp white teeth, so strangely shaped, more like those of a possum than those of a human being. 

“I’m going to gather more food, grandson, stay and rest.” She patted his shoulder with a hand that felt strangely hard and heavy for such a small old woman.

 

“Let me go with you. I can help you,” he said as he sat up. “It’s the least I can do to repay your kindness.” His wound, he noticed was nearly fully healed and he felt much stronger than he had in days.

 

“Oh no, grandson. I’ll be fine. You just rest and stay here and I’ll be back soon.”  She stood up and pulled her blanket tighter around her shoulders, her right still bundled beneath. He wondered what hurt could have caused such a thing. She shambled out the door, looking behind her, her eyes glinting as she grinned. 

 

“I’ll be back for you soon, my dear,” she said in a sing-song manner, almost too cheerfully.  

 

Pierre slept for only perhaps half an hour before awaking. The persistent shrill call of that damned chickadee forced him awake. He groggily got up and wiped the sleep from his eyes. The fire had gone out, and he knew he should reignite it before the old woman returned. He searched the hut for flint and steel, or whatever else she must use to make her fire, but he could find nothing. After exhausting every avenue he searched under her straw-stuffed mattress on a whim. What he found made him draw back in alarm, gasping with surprise. 

 

The bloodstained deerskin clothing of many small children was stashed haphazardly beneath her mattress. He took up a shirt and sniffed the pungent garment; the blood was only a few days old! He felt sick as he checked the load on his musket, and sheathed his knife and tomahawk on his belt. He gathered his gear and set out on the trail of the old woman, running weakly but at a steady pace, his mind racing. She had sang on that day when she found him. He tried to recall the words. “Uwe la na tsiku. Su sa sai!” she had sung. The sudden recollection chilled him to the bone: “Liver, I eat it!”

 

  He ran as he had never ran before towards his goal—the forbidden swimming hole. With dread he knew what had caused all the disappearances and he now knew he was the only one who could stop it. 

 

After much running he reached his destination, breathing heavily from his exertions. He approached the edge of the swimming hole with musket in hand, yet another chickadee perched in a nearby tree chirping away incessantly. He stealthily crept to the edge of the surrounding thicket and saw several village children laughing and playing and taking turn diving into the deep clear water from a large rock at the edge of the pool. A young woman dressed in the clothes of his elderly savior was brushing a young girl’s hair in the small clearing close to the pool. Pierre watched as the woman reached her right hand from beneath her blanket and, behind the girl’s back, revealed a clenched fist with a finger extended; a finger that was not a finger. In place of that digit a horrible, huge claw was present. A shiny, serrated bony appendage, sharp and menacing, shaped like a knife or a spear point. It was slowly brought up to point at the girl’s back; menace heavy in the action. Pierre leapt out of the brush and raised his musket.

 

“Hey! Grandmother, what is your name?” He leveled the barrel towards her face. The children screamed and ran off, frightened by the large hairy white man with a musket, and the woman with the evil claw arm.  

 

The thing before him laughed as it transformed before his eyes into the old woman he had known. Only now, she was not the pleasant matriarch he had known, but a misshapen back-bent hag. Her nose was long and pointed. She had grown to be at least eight feet tall and her face was misshapen, almost human but with too many teeth. Her smile now was one of malicious enjoyment, the expression of a fiend. She held up that awful, sharp, bony finger that was long as a spear point and beckoned to him.

 

“I have been called many things over the years for I am very, very old. Mostly I’ve been called Nun’yun’i.” Pierre recognized this to translate into “stone dress.” A strange appellation, he thought.

 

“Why did you take me in? Show me kindness?” Pierre shouted, his voice echoing off the thick rocks of the place. 

 

The thing laughed. The sound was of crunching bones or crushing rock, a hideous grating cackle. “Why, you had something I truly desired. Something to keep me feed and whole,” it rasped.

 

“What thing? What could you need from me?” Pierre said over the sights of his musket.

 

“My other name, is U'tlun'ta. I wanted your big, juicy liver, but I had to wait until you were healed. Liver tastes better from the healthy. Those from children, though, are much sweeter, don’t you agree?”

 

Pierre’s blood froze. U'tlun'ta meant “she had it sharp,” or more commonly “Spearfinger.” He had heard of this ancient legend, a being that could take the shape and form of a child’s kin and then lure them away into the forest where it would use the sharp claw of its right hand to gut its victim and remove its liver. Pierre felt sick. He suddenly understood where his meals had come from. 

 

“You’re a monster!” He heard himself shouting. He fired his musket, aiming directly at her face, hoping to smash that hideous visage into bloody shards. His aim was true and despite the cloud of sulfurous blue smoke, he knew the shot had hit home. Even before the cloud of gunpowder had cleared, he knew something was wrong. A bright cackling laughter echoed within the watering hole. He was suddenly frightened. Spearfinger was tougher than he realized.  

 

When the cloud of smoke cleared, he saw the tall, vicious ogress stomping toward him, her footsteps impossibly fast for a creature of her bulk and size. She cackled as the distance between them rapidly closed, the sound freezing his blood and making the hairs on his neck stand on end. Immediately upon hearing her laughter after his shot, Pierre had begun reloading his musket with the smooth and practiced precision that was the reward of a lifetime of practice and familiarity. 

 

She was perhaps twenty yards away when he brought the heavy firelock to his shoulder and squeezed off another round, the smoke of the priming pan stinging his eyes. He immediately leapt to the right, just off the trail to avoid the cloud of blue smoke and see where his shot had fell. A hole in her deerskin dress just above her left breast attested that his shot had hit home but her continuous, maddening cackling proved that no damage had been done. He was helpless against her he realized as she doggedly advanced with her horrible claw extended before like some demonic bayonet. 

 

“Pah! Your weapons cannot hurt me! My skin is made of stone! I am one of the last of the Stone People, beings who inhabited this land long before your soft fleshy kind came to this place. I watched the Great Ice melt, and hunted herds of creatures you cannot even imagine once roamed the earth. I have lived so long I have seen the very stars themselves shift. I am immortal. But you? You are not!” 

 

She moved with a quickness he could not comprehend or match as he back away. His fate was certain he felt and terror and desperation gripped his heart. She was nearly upon him, mere yards away when the chickadee’s warbling trill filled the air. He stared in astonishment as the tiny bird alighted on the wrist of Spearfinger, warbling away with an intensity he had never seen in a bird. Spearfinger grunted and tried to shake off the tiny bird. But each time the chickadee returned and called loudly, shrilly as if trying to tell him something. 

 

Suddenly, it dawned on Pierre. The Cherokee called the chickadee the “truth-teller.” He understood what he must do. Once again, Spearfinger shook the bird from her horrible fist and ran towards him, her thick legs eating up ground and devouring the distance between his life and death. 

 

Pierre reached for his tomahawk, a weapon he had always been well acquainted with. As the huge ogress lunged towards him, her claw extended to impale him, he threw the short axe. The short sharp blade whirled through the air and struck her wrist behind the ball over her murderous fist. With a sickening ripping sound her gray flesh parted at the point of impact, the weight of her heavy stone flesh bringing the appendage crashing to the earth. Black blood gushed thickly from the stump, and the ogress’s scream was deafening, shaking the very earth around them, a monstrous shriek borne of defeat the like mortal man could never comprehend.

 

Spearfinger, the stone-fleshed child-killer collapsed to her knees wailing, crawling desperately toward her severed hand. The chickadee alighted on the grotesque appendage and again chirped furtively at Pierre. He rushed forward and seized the oozing fist just before she reached it and back away. The chickadee alighted on the hideous paw and chirped again. Pierre was confused until the tiny bird pecked at the fingers still clenched in a fist below that deadly finger. He back away as the rock-fleshed ogress continued to wail piteously, menacingly crawling towards him. He pried the fingers open, one by hideous one. 

 

“Hadi!” she screeched, screaming the Cherokee word for “no.” Her pleas did not stop him in his efforts to pry her former hand open. He finally pulled the last finger from its tight, dead grip and was shocked to see what it had held. 

 

A pulsing black heart lay on the ground, the key to her vitality and her only weakness. He looked up at the crawling, wounded ogress whose obsidian eyes where wide with terror. 

 

“Hadi!” she cried out, “Hadi howatsu!” He found her begging a strange politeness from a creature that moments before was seeking to rip him apart and devour him. He scowled down at her and shook his head.

 

“Hadi, U'tlun'ta,” he said with conviction and a rare menace in his voice. He drew his pistol and cocked it, the triumphant chirping of the chickadee somewhere behind him. He set the heart down upon the ground, and looked the creature in the eyes and saw its fear, genuine terror at being destroyed. Pierre brought the barrel of the weapon down and blasted the ancient black heart into pieces, each one shimmering like polished river stones as they exploded into dust. 

 

* * *

 

Pierre returned to the village after backtracking to Spearfinger’s hut to retrieve the clothing of the children she had slain. He then burned the structure to the ground, raking over its ashes to ensure its total destruction. Upon his return to the village, he gathered the people together and delivered the unpleasant tale of the fate of their children, omitting the part where he partook of the livers of several of their offspring. At first they were angry and disbelieving, but when he unwrapped a parcel of black-stained deerskin and revealed the clawed hand of the ancient ogress they became silent. He handed the gruesome trophy to the village headman, collected his belongings, and never returned to the Cherokee lands. 

 

For many years afterward, strangers would ask Pierre about the strangely shiny jet-black stone he kept on a pendant round his neck. He would simply sigh and tell the stranger to order drinks for them, and to keep them coming, for they would both need them if he was to tell the tale. 

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