The Whippoorwill Clan
Another hard right as he wound around another corner; most of the locals in these parts would say that this road had more curves than the underside of a snake's belly. James O'Brien found the locals charming, with their Southern metaphors. Coming from Boston, Massachusetts, he thought it might be annoying, but he found the small-town folks of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to be genuinely polite. In his business he didn't run into too many people who were warm and nice, not unless they wanted something. The entertainment business tended to bring those types frequently and often. But what he found here in the hills of Northeastern Oklahoma were off-the-hip kind of shooters. If someone wanted something, there wasn't any tickle of the balls and application of lubricant; they came right out and asked of you what was asked of you. And that was that. To James, there was nothing more genuine.
"On your left, those are called brakes," Tawodi Mankiller said. "Use em, would ya?"
"Ahh," James replied, with a grin behind his eyes. When he had bought the one-ton truck, the dealer told him that big trucks were meant to drive fast. Even though he bought it to haul around his video equipment, he still drove it like a Formula One. "If they knew how to lay roads in Oklahoma."
"You're in the Ozarks, James. Nothing but hills for miles around." Tawodi was caught in the sway, leaning hard to the left. "This is as straight as the roads get."
It had been Tawodi Mankiller who'd brought him to Oklahoma. James had been back in Boston at his studio checking film when he had opened a letter from a young Cherokee man. The letter talked about a group of Indians known as The Whippoorwill Clan that had been dead for centuries, but was often seen haunting a local highway. A haunting; that was what had grabbed his attention at first. Catching ghosts on film was his business. And it was a good business to be in, with the recent surge of curiosity about the paranormal. Good enough to get his film on not just the cable channels but network channels as well, and good enough to give his wife and kids everything they needed to live comfortably, which at one time he wasn't sure he'd be able to do. But it wasn't the talk about a haunting that had brought him to the heartland of America; it was the intrigue behind the haunting. Tawodi Mankiller's letter said that no one knew why an entire clan would be stuck here on earth. Some said it was a massacre by blue coats, but that would be a part of Cherokee history, and it wasn't. Others said that a witch from a rival tribe put a curse on the clan, while many of the elders said that the Great Spirit brought down a violent snowstorm and froze the entire clan in their homes, for abandoning the old ways. As he had read the letter he kept thinking 'spin.' Spin the story this way and spin the story that way. If he was going to sell a haunting it needed substance, it needed backstory, and this one had more than enough.
"You say this is the highway?" James asked, as he leaned into another turn, sharp right, sharp enough to make him slide into the door. After driving up and down this road all night, coming up on four o'clock now, he didn't want to come to find out that they'd been on the wrong road.
"The only Highway 10 that I know of," Tawodi replied. "I come out here with my friends every summer to float the Illinois River." He pointed out of the window to the east side of the road. "We camp out and everything, for about a week."
James glanced in the direction where his new friend was pointing and saw a shimmering sheet of moonlight bouncing off the water's top, flowing with a quiet ease along side the highway. He couldn't let the peaceful river entrance him, not with another curve coming up fast. It was the reflecting eyes of possums that warned him of the turn; the rat-like creatures lined up along side of the dark road as though they were glaring guardrails. They were so numerous that not even the one-ton truck frightened the marsupials away. He went into the turn and counted at least a dozen possums in his truck's headlights.
"Have you ever seen anything, any ghosts? Or your friends?"
"No, I haven't," Tawodi replied. "But I have a few friends who say they have. But they don't mention it until after they've had a couple beers, so there's no telling. Mostly I heard about it growing up, overhearing my grandma."
"You should put on your seatbelt," James said to his passenger, as he took another dangerous curve.
"I'll be fine," Tawodi replied. "Just slow down a little."
"Slow down? I've weaved through Boston traffic jams with one eye closed and the other eye shut. A couple of hills aren't going to slow me down."
"You know how many people have been killed on this road?" Tawodi asked.
James figured Tawodi would know these roads better than he would, so he heeded to the young man's warning. He took his foot off the firewall, but before he could transition to the brakes...
There was a long, brown face, gray hair falling over shoulders ... old, bare chest, frail. The elder was standing in the middle of the road.
James flinched, brought in too much air, and tensed every muscle in his body. He clumsily whipped the truck to the right and tried to dodge the old man.
There wasn't enough time to warn his passenger, there wasn't even enough time to brace himself. Heads snapped to the side, thud, metal crumpled, heads flung forward, and chunks of mud went flipping into the air.
Not a noise, not a sound.
The woodland creatures of the night always paused for a moment of silence when a victim fell prey to the twisting highway; a homage, nature's wake.
Then it was broken.
"You sorry bastard," Tawodi yelled as he threw the passenger door open. He was holding his nose and blood ran out from underneath his hand. There was a jagged cut beneath his hairline and his eye instantly began puffing up, as well. "I told you to slow down!"
James had that big breath slapped right out of him, so he was gaping like a perch lying on a wooden dock. After a few desperate reaches he finally found some air and gasped with a watery wheeze. He unlatched his seatbelt, opened his door, and rolled out of the truck.
After he landed in the ditch on numb feet, he took a moment to pull in a couple of breaths, regaining his calm as his lungs began functioning normally again. He gave himself a quick examination and found that all his parts were fine, except for the bruise running across his chest where the seatbelt had kept him from flying out of the window. He heard Tawodi on the other side of the truck yelling and barking about his broken nose, so he figured the guy was all right otherwise.
Knowing that they were both alive and intact, James went to examine his truck. There was a piece of his grill laying against a nearby tree and his hood had a crease down the middle, but other than that it seemed in good shape, even though both of the headlights were busted out and the engine had cut off.
With his hunter's instinct on full automatic, he turned his thoughts to the old man that ran them off the road. He felt certain that the old man wasn't just an old man, but a ghost. He went to the bed of his truck and discovered all his equipment scattered. He rummaged through a vinyl tote bag and pulled out a camcorder. The trail was ripe with fresh blood. He couldn't forget about the hunt.
After checking all its working parts, he slid his hand underneath the designated strap of the video camera and made his way out of the ditch.
He came up to the road looking left and right, searching for the old man on the darkened highway. He didn't find anyone in the road, so he turned to the surrounding forest and began looking for the ghost among the trees. He found ghost hunting to be extremely addictive, with the excitement injecting adrenaline into his veins.
"You knew I didn't have a seatbelt on," Tawodi said, as he came climbing out of the roadside ditch, holding the blood inside his damaged nose with the bottom of his tee shirt.
"Did you see it?"
"You broke my nose."
"He was standing in the middle of the road," James said, heedless of his companion's anger. Focus on the trail. He lifted up his video camera and started to record the spot where he seen the ghost, aiming the device at the road. "I can't believe it. First night, it never happens on the first night."
"Hey," Tawodi yelled. He marched over to James and slapped the camera away from the man's eye. "Did you hear me?"
"What?" James asked, completely surprised by the look of anger on the guy's face. "Look, I didn't mean to crash the truck. I'm sorry about your nose. But there was something standing in the middle of the road."
"Bull." Tawodi took the bottom of his shirt away from his nose and freed his hands for a double slap shove to James's chest. "You broke my damn nose."
"Don't you push me," he replied, lifting his chest and clinching a fist with his free hand. "I apologized. I'm not doing more than that."
Drawing up for a show down, Tawodi said, "We're both going to be doing a whole lot in about five point two."
"Then let's do it."
"Aniyawisgi uha aquatseli nvwoti...," a strange voice hollered from up the road.
James and Tawodi took the focus off their impending battle to locate the caller.
"...aniyawisgi ase ayohisdi aquatseli nvwoti. Itsula ayhuhisdi."
Above the yellow line in the center of the road, James saw the old man who'd run him into the ditch, as frail and as haunting as before.
James instinctively pulled up his camcorder and aimed it at the Cherokee elder. Through the lens he could barely make out the old man's form, but his breechclout and leggings were visible enough to distinguish legs, while the frame of shoulders and head made up the rest of his body; the old man was standing on nothing because he had no visible feet.
"Let's go," Tawodi said.
"No way, not now," James replied, holding tight to the camcorder.
Tawodi reached over and smacked the camera away from James's eye for the second time.
"All right, now we got a problem." James grabbed him by shirt and lifted the video camera in the air to smash it into the guy's face. He swung the camcorder at Tawodi's face and watched as the guy swung a fist at him. A double-punch crunch. James took some knuckles to the lower lip while he blasted his new friend across the forehead with his video camera. Those thick knuckles knocked him good, so James staggered backward a couple of steps.
As he put his free hand up to his split lip, James looked at his camcorder and saw that it was in pieces, many of them lying on the road. "You broke my camera with your fat head!"
More of the Whippoorwill Clan began to appear: two men, a young woman with a baby, and a little boy stood beside the Cherokee elder, all a hazy cloud. As each moment passed, more and more of the clan materialized, but James didn't his eyes off of the shattered camcorder long enough to notice.
"Now I'm going to break your fat head with my camera," James said, as he advanced for another attack.
"No, wait," Tawodi replied, looking out into the road, as he raised his hands. "We have to stop."
"You already got me started. There ain't no stopping now."
James stopped himself, because his opponent wasn't paying attention. Instead of thrashing Tawodi into the street, he followed the guy's gaze, turning a full one-eighty. Instantly he also became captivated, because now a dozen more of the clan stood on the highway.
"They're feeding off of us," Tawodi Mankiller said. "My grandma used to tell me that ghosts would use emotions to get stronger. I thought she said it to keep me from beating up my little brothers, but I guess not."
"Aniyawisgi uha aquatseli nvwoti. Aniyawisgi ase ayohisdi aquatseli nvwoti. Itsula wili ayohuhisdi," the elderly Cherokee man said.
"What's he saying?" James asked.
"I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know?" James said. "You're Cherokee."
"You're Irish. Do you speak Gaelic?"
"We're not in Ireland," James replied. He couldn't believe his luck, out with a Cherokee who couldn't even speak Cherokee.
By the twos, now the clan was appearing at a faster pace, growing out of the dark like an airborne fungus. Stout warriors to petite maidens, fragile grandmothers to innocent infants. At first they lined up across one end of the road, cutting off the northern route, but then they began materializing on the southern route, as well.
"They're still coming," Tawodi said. "I don't understand. I'm calm. Are you calm?"
"No, and hell no. Neither are you. I can see your hands shaking."
"Because I'm scared. They're surrounding us. How are we supposed to get out of here?"
"Let's try to get the truck out of the ditch," James said, as he turned toward the vehicle.
The old Cherokee man instantly materialized at the tailgate, moving with the speed of thought. His sunken face seemed to stretch down to the road and his wrinkles were a maze of canyons. "Aniyawisgi uha aquatseli nvwoti. Aniyawisgi ase ayohisdi aquatseli nvwoti. Itsula wili ayohuhisdi."
A foot away from the translucent face, James jumped backward a good ten yards, bumping into his companion. He didn't notice running into Tawodi; he didn't notice anything but the cloudy figure cutting him off from his truck, from his only escape.
Ghosts were supposed to come in glimpses, popping up at the corner of an eye, streaking down a hallway, coming out of a wall. And James would usually see specters on video, because ghosts were often hard to see with the naked eye. This was a first. He had never seen so many spirits materialize at one time, and he had certainly never been surrounded by an entire pack, either. As he stared at the pack's leader, a knot tied inside his throat, but he swallowed hard and managed to say, "Give me God."
The elder's eyes were so full ... he wanted to get away from the heavy gaze. He turned and sprinted, heading straight for the forest that was lining the road.
Leaping from the highway, James O'Brien didn't notice his Cherokee friend taking up stride alongside him. Instead, he came off the road and slipped through the wall of trees, using fear as his compass. On the highway it was dark, but under the canopy of the Ozark trees it was like running through tar. He cut through the dense forest with as much caution as he could spare. It was like his eyes had been buzzard-plucked, but he didn't want to slow down, not when there were more than two dozen ghosts reaching for his shoulders. Which was what it felt like as though the Whippoorwill Clan were floating through the forest directly behind him, stretching out their milky arms, inches from touching his back. With Tawodi at his side, he ducked branches, hopped bushes, ripped through thorns, and didn't slow his pace a single stride, because all he could think of were spirit fingers clasping onto the back of his neck.
"If we can make it to the river I can get us back to Tahlequah," Tawodi said mid-stride, huffing out each word.
"How far is it?" James asked, wheezing, taking it harder than the young buck.
"Not far. A half mile. Maybe."
Up and over, left and right. When James was slapped in the arm by a limb, when he was knocked in the knees by a rock, he spun with the blows and kept in stride.
Until he saw that the spirit fingers weren't reaching from behind him anymore. A row of Whippoorwill appeared in front of him, popping out of the night.
James reached out and grabbed Tawodi just as he went to put on his own brakes. He slid and fell to the forest floor, taking his Cherokee friend down with him. James looked up at the ghosts, who weren't but a few yards away, and shivered from the hovering darkness as much as from the hovering spirits.
"Come on, get up," he said. Sweat slipping into his mouth, panting like a trapped animal, and when he came up to his feet, that was exactly his situation. He was fenced in. There was another line of Whippoorwill to the left and right. He turned and found himself squared off, surrounded.
The Cherokee elder came stepping out of the circling ghosts, presenting himself as the leader of the band. "Aniyawisgi uha aquatseli nvwoti. Aniyawisgi ase ayohisdi aquatseli nvwoti. Itsula ayohuhisdi."
Talk about persistent, James thought as he spun around with an owl-eyed stare. He knew they had to want something. Every time a ghost was this aggressive, it was for a reason. He had filmed spirits who wanted lost jewelry, relatives, or just to be left alone. And the one thing those spirits all had in common was that they were aggressive, always trying to get his attention.
So all he had to do was figure out what they wanted. If he could do that, then from experience he knew they would move on to the Other Side, leaving him and Tawodi in peace.
Before he could even begin to find an answer, he noticed something different about the surrounding ghosts. Their translucent skin began to form bumps. He watched as the bumps bubbled up to blisters and then burst, oozing out a mixture of pus and blood.
"What's happening to them?" Tawodi asked with a shaky moan.
"I don't know. Let's just stay calm."
"Yes, stay calm," James replied, doing his best to find an old memory of a haunting, something that might help him figure why these ghosts weren't backing off. "I can't think straight. So stay calm."
"I'm trying, James. I'm really trying."
James wanted to withdraw from the sight of the converging blisters as they formed across the ghost's faces, covering lips, noses, and brows. He especially wanted a place to hide when the lesions grew to the size of half-dollars and he could see the red of muscle tissue. Then the translucent skin started to peel off, exposing translucent flesh. Piece by piece the dozens of specters began to lose their skin. It flaked, it dripped, and it fell from knuckles and elbows, forearms and biceps, until every ghost was wearing sleeves of bloody muscle. Then their faces began to peel.
"Smallpox," Tawodi said, as his eyes filled with tears. "My grandmother told us all stories about smallpox. How she watched her elders fall to pieces when she was just a little girl."
"They're putting on a show," James said, as much to calm his friend as to calm himself. "That's all they're doing. I've seen it before. I've seen a ghost jump off a bridge to show that it committed suicide. They do things like this all the time."
"Oh, my God," Tawodi yelled. "No, not me."
James spun and found his new friend being covered with bumps and blisters, as well. He looked at Tawodi's face and saw that it had already spread to his cheeks and forehead.
"Help me, James. They're infecting me."
James watched as the blisters spread across Tawodi's body, bleeding and peeling. There wasn't anything he could do to stop it, but he reached out and took the man into his arms. He went down to his knees and laid Tawodi in his lap, holding him by the shoulders. Skin was slipping off underneath his grip, but he did his best to ignore the slimy sensation. He didn't know what to do as Tawodi started to scream from the pain of his flesh flaking from his body, so he started to rock him back and forth, soothing him the way he would soothe one of his children back home in Boston. It did little. The screams still came, the flesh still fell. But he kept the dying man in his arms and tried to do what he could to soften the torture, as futile as it appeared to be.
Give me God, he kept thinking, Give me God. He watched his friend fall to pieces. Finding a lost wristwatch or vacating the area wasn't going to help these spirits move onto the Spirit World. He didn't have a clue as to what would. But he knew he had to figure it out soon, or he would be next.
He heard Tawodi begin to breathe with a watery rasp, so he tilted the man's head back to help with his air passage. But a few moments later, he heard the breathing stop, and he felt the struggling stop. And he knew. There was no need to check for a pulse. He was holding a corpse.
Once he'd watched the ghost of a boy wipe a pair of dirty hands on a bathroom towel. He couldn't figure out how the young spirit had left actual smudges on the towel, but he didn't understand how a ghost could push someone down a staircase, either. So how was he supposed to understand the skinless corpse in his lap? One of the first things he'd discovered when he got into the ghost-hunting business was that spirits lived by a forgotten science. Still, he had to decipher this paranormal physics, or he wouldn't make it back home to Boston, back to his family.
James turned his attention away from the bloody face that used to be his friend and looked at the surrounding ghosts. He saw limbs and faces of blood, tissue over skeleton; the whites of their eyes looked like a pair of moons stuck in a bloody sky. And there were dozens upon dozens of these bulging eyes all around him, all staring at him. He wasn't encircled by ghosts anymore; now they were hairless scalps, lipless skulls, and skinless arms. These specters were more than mangled.
He rolled Tawodi's body onto the ground and crawled back up to his feet. He tried to hold his fear deep inside his belly, but he couldn't keep it from sweating out of his pores.
Arms out, stretching, reaching, dripping, the Cherokee elder said, "Aniyawisgi uha aquatseli nvwoti. Aniyawisgi ase ayohisdi aquatseli nvwoti. Itsula wili ayohuhisdi."
Even though he knew the ghosts had him surrounded, spreading a deadly infection, he didn't feel threatened. The ghosts kept their distance. With his arms outstretched, the leader of the clan appeared to be pleading. Not yelling. Asking. Not angry. Desperate. James could guess how despondent the entire clan was, to put on such a morbid display, to spread smallpox at such an intense speed. This was charades from The Beyond. He studied each strip of skin as it peeled, each lesion as it spread, and each muscle as it bled. Unfortunately, his fear was a mental block.
"I don't understand!" James yelled, growing frustrated. "I want to help. But I don't understand. Help me understand!"
He felt an irritation on his arms. He glanced down and found that the ghosts were going to oblige. They were going to help him understand, but he didn't want to find out this way.
Bumps lifted across his hands. Then more on his forearm. Not this, he thought, I'll help. I promise. Just not this.
Within seconds, bumps were growing into other bumps, and suddenly he was hit with muscle cramps. As the pain came out of his skin, it felt like hypodermic needles were being planted into each and every pore and a searing solution was being injected underneath his skin. The bumps blistered and then bled. He had to drop to his knees to hold against the pain. He knelt above Tawodi's body, seeing what would become of him. Muscle tissue glowing with red.
He dragged his eyes away from the sight of his dead Cherokee friend, sickened by the sight. But he was quickly distracted, by the sight of his own skin flaking. The torture was terrible, so terrible he shut his eyes to it. But he also shut his eyes because he didn't want to watch himself peel.
As blood poured from his expanding sores he became weaker and weaker. The weakness was enough to numb the pain until the pain moved from his arms and face into his throat. The blisters crawled down his larynx, bursting and stinging. Soon he was struggling to draw air into his lungs. Then he had to gasp in short bursts.
When the last of his skin dripped from his face, when the last of his skin slipped from his arms, he tried one more time to drag in a breath, but his throat was swollen with lesions. Suddenly his body jerked forward and he vomited up a gush of blood, spilling it onto his chest and lap. As he wobbled on his knees, he stared at the river of blood soaking through his shirt and pants, thinking, Where's a doctor when you need one?
He was too weak to hold himself up anymore. He swayed for a moment and then toppled over, landing beside Tawodi's body. With his skinless face pressed hard in the dirt, he saved his last moments for his wife and children. I couldn't save me, he thought. I'm sorry, honey. Tell the kids I'm sorry, too. I couldn't save me. Not even a vaccination shot could save me now.
Then it hit him. The Whippoorwill Clan wanted what he wanted at that moment. To be rid of the virus. The Cherokee elder was pleading for medication, a vaccination. That was what the ghosts needed in order to move on to the Other Side. But the realization didn't come soon enough, and James had no solace as he released a final warm breath into the forest floor.
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM