April 25, 2011

The Beast of Blue Mist Road

As the Great Depression shook the economic foundations of the early 20th century, millions of formerly working men crisscrossed America in search of jobs. Hitching rides on trains that travelled the country, these men joined the legions of travelling hobos, engendering a culture and way of life that became a part of America’s heritage. For some of these travellers, however, the railway life offered the chance to travel not in search of work or handouts, but in search of victims.

George writes to tell me about his boyhood during the Depression and the many hobos that he met near his home in Tennessee. Railway tracks bordered George’s family’s property and when men came to the back door asking for food, George's parents sent them on their way empty handed. George’s Granny, however, was more gracious, and she was the one who usually answered the door. “Granny had a big heart for people down on their luck,” George tells me.

In those days travelling hobos used signs carved on trees or buildings to communicate with those who came after. As a boy George found such a sign on a post by the tracks. A crude cat carved into the wood let other hobos know that George’s house was a friendly place where food was available.

One summer day George was helping his Granny prepare the evening meal in the family’s small kitchen when a sudden knock on the back door startled the pair. Granny wiped her hands on her apron and moved laboriously toward the door. Just before she opened it, she seemed to hesitate for a moment, as if she sensed something not quite right but didn’t know where the feeling came from.

Granny shrugged off the fancy and opened the door. She peered into the gathering dusk and found a man staring back at her, back-lit by the setting sun. He stood proudly with his arms crossed against his chest and his head held back, but his threadbare clothing betrayed his desperate station. “Evening, ma’am,” the stranger said to Granny. “I’d appreciate if you could spare some food. I’m awful hungry.”

Granny opened her mouth but didn’t speak. She eyed the stranger with unusual caution. Her customary warmth was replaced by hesitation and apprehension. “We don’t give handouts at this house,” Granny said to the stranger in a low, firm voice. “I’ve never heard her speak that way to anyone,” George tells me.

The stranger stood his ground and as the sun set behind him, his eyes seemed to reflect the scattered, fading light. “Just like a dog’s eyes,” George recalls. “I’m awful hungry,” the stranger said again, but Granny was already closing the door. “There ain’t no help for you here,” she said.

Granny was shaken the rest of the night and the evening meal with George’s parents was tense and quiet. George’s father left the table early and announced his intention to take the air in the neighborhood of Moody’s Tavern, meaning he wouldn’t be back until late that night. “That’s if he could find his way home from outta that bottle of whiskey,” George tells me.

As his father left, George could sense Granny’s agitation. She seemed only half-aware of her distraction, as if she couldn’t detect the origin of the dark well of fear inside her, but later that night, after the torment of restless dreams, Granny awoke with the stranger’s eyes alive in her thoughts.

Granny grabbed her long coat and stepped outside into the silver light of the full moon. She knew that if she made it to Moody’s and brought George’s father home by way of Blue Mist Road, they would be home before dawn. The cool night air seemed to stiffen Granny’s resolve and she made her way silently through the night.

“When Granny got an idea into her,” George tells me, “there was no stopping her. Taking off in the middle of the night to drag her grandson home seemed like a reasonable proposition to her.”

Getting George’s father out of the bar was easier than anyone would had thought, although shame may have helped in Granny’s case. As she pushed George’s father down the road, cajoling and chiding him, they turned onto Blue Mist Road and the way home.

George’s father hesitated and told Granny that the travelling hobos sometimes camped out along the road and Granny ought not to be out at night with men like that. Granny scoffed and replied she ought not to be out with men like him and steered him down the road.

George’s father grew sullen as the whiskey faded and his humiliation grew. The pair continued in silence along Blue Mist Road until they came to a bend that brought them close to the railroad tracks. The overnight trains were running and the still night was quickly filled with the engines’ cry.

“That’s why they didn’t hear it at first,” George remembers, “because the train was so loud. But Granny saw it.” Granny reached out to grab George’s father by his shoulder, stopping him cold in his tracks. His bewildered face was directed by Granny’s finger to a clearing just up and off and into the woods.

George’s father looked but didn’t know what he saw. The clearing was deluged in soft moonlight and the figure crouched within seemed all the more strange in the gleaming clarity. Hunched on the ground, a monstrous wolf was making short work of some unfortunate meal. With it’s paws holding the meat down, it dug massive jaws into the unrecognizable flesh, sawing and ripping off chunks to swallow whole. Granny thought she could hear the crunch of bone over the engine’s thunder.

As the sound of the train faded in the night, Granny and George’s father edged along the road, keeping watch on the ravenous beast all the while. Granny thanked God that the beast hadn’t noticed them, but in a moment of sickening terror, the creature’s ears unexpectedly perked up and the vast head rose from the feast. Granny’s hand went to her mouth to stifle her scream as she saw that the giant wolf was much more than just a wolf, but somehow less than a man.

The giant snout tested the night air and the bright, unblinking eyes scanned the woods. Granny recognized the eyes from her dreams, the eyes of the hungry stranger she had turned away from her door. “I’m awful hungry,” he had said to her and she knew that although she had denied him, she had believed him.

“Granny and my pa made it home,” George recalls, “And no one got home from Moody’s that fast before.” Although Granny’s disposition to travelling hobos hadn’t changed after her encounter, few men ever knocked on the back door ever again. George and his family rarely saw the men in the area after that and no one seemed to wonder why except for little George.

“I thought Granny’s story was a load of bunk for one thing,” George tells me. George remained a unbeliever until one day at the end of that summer when he happened by the post that bore the sign of the carved cat. The old hobo mark had been gouged out by a gigantic claw, a claw larger than anything George had ever seen. “And only something standing on two legs could’ve reached it, too,” George tells me. “All the hobo men would’ve seen it from the train.”

It seems Granny’s stranger found his meal elsewhere that night and most likely hopped a passing train onto new hunting grounds. The nomadic lifestyle of the hobo offered opportunities to men and to the things that hunt men. How far did the stranger travel and for how many years did he hunt? How long is the life of a monster, a werewolf? Maybe he travels still, maybe his travels have brought him to the unremembered corners of the world, far from the tracks of Tennessee, far from the moonlight of Blue Mist Road.

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