“Story” Dark Supernatural Fiction by Alan Caldwell

"Story" Dark Supernatural Fiction by Alan Caldwell:  Alan Caldwell has been teaching in Georgia since 1994 but only began submitting writing in May 2022. He has since been published in over two dozen journals and magazines. He is being nominated for the Pushcart this year.

I heard about him when I was a boy, all his stories. My daddy spoke of him, so did my papa. In fact, if you lingered about the courthouse, or the feed and seed, or anywhere old men sat around whittling big sticks into smaller ones, you were likely to hear about him. As time passed, and the old men passed, so too did his legend. Many forgot about him, and though I didn’t really believe the stories, I didn’t forget them.

His oral biographers claimed that he was a lone specter, part man, part animal, but mostly demon, or maybe even the high Satan himself, who thrived in the vast cloistered valley that lay north of Rockhouse mountain in the southern terminus of the Appalachians just west of the Georgia border in northeastern Alabama.  Most white settlers called him “Old Scratch” or simply “Scratch.” The aboriginal Cherokee and the Creeks called him “A-sgi-na,” the evil one. Sometimes, according to legend, he assumed the form of a small, bent, feeble old man of apocryphal ancestry, dressed in rags or skins, who would approach homes or encampments seeking sustenance, speaking a convoluted tongue reminiscent of old English peppered with flat Indian hill dialect, only barely able to make himself understood in any language. The accounts varied but little. The gaunt, gray, bent, and humble vagabond would show up at a door or gate and beg for bread.  Later, in the small hours, a clamorous commotion would erupt during the night and the resident would emerge with his weapon of choice, hurrying to guard his stock only to find that all, or most, of them were dead, their throats torn open and their blood drained. When frolicking children and venturing hunters disappeared without a trace, locals would proclaim, “Old Scratch got him another one.”

Occasionally, a terrified rural denizen, out and about in the fading gloam after sunset, might observe a beast, resembling a lion, or panther, or a wolf, depending on the teller, but running on two legs, like a man, an immense man with dark gray or black fur, standing seven or eight feet tall. Many frightened men sent many charges of buck and ball, and even stone tipped arrows, his way but none found their mark, or perhaps, he was immune to such paltry armaments.


By the 1930s, much of the low-lying land in the region was denuded, stripped of its trees and soil, and abandoned. Progress-minded men harvested every accessible stand of old-grown forest. Only those stands cloistered by steep ridges remained, like those stands that thrived in the vast cloistered valley that lay north of Rockhouse mountain. The federal government soon purchased a half million acres of these lands. and within two decades, the new growth pine silviculture served as an evergreen moat further isolating the already isolated ridges and valleys at its core. If Old A-sgi-na was alive, he was alone, completely alone, just as I was alone.

Many lonely nights after my wife passed, I lay awake, missing her, and thinking about the stories of my childhood, stories about hunting and farming, stories about dogs and men, and stories about the land that held their bones. It was one of those nights, last October, that I decided to study my maps, and locate, and search the vast cloistered valley that lay north of Rockhouse mountain. I didn’t expect to find a devil. I had long since stopped believing in any devil, or any  deity, or any myth of any sort. In retrospect, perhaps belief is what I sought. I’m not sure. I had become an old man of forgotten stories, an old man who longed to linger with other old men of stories, but there were no longer old men of stories. I was solitary in the otherwise forgotten stories of my mind just as surely as Old Scratch, or his apocryphal legend, was solitary in his sheltered valley.

The next morning, I prepared and consumed a cold breakfast, readied my pack for travel, loaded my Winchester with 6 slender brass cartridges, drove my rusty Ford to the closest access point in the national forest, checked my geographical position and compass, and set about in the direction of Rockhouse mountain. By maintaining constant attention to topography, I selected a circuitous route which would avoid as many strenuous ascents as possible, though I knew the final climb would be a treacherous one. I hoped my aged muscle, bone, sinew, and cartilage might be sufficient, but I wasn’t sure.

After twelve hours of intermittent hiking, I found myself at the base of my mountain, his mountain. I cleared a section of the forest floor for my campfire and my wool blanket, gathered wood, and then warmed a cup of thick beef stew and a cup of strong black coffee. After my minimalist meal, I wrapped myself in my covers and, being too tired to resist slumber, I quickly fell asleep under a canopy of fierce stars. I dreamed of stories, always of stories.

The next morning, I drank yet another cup of bitter brew, ate an apple and a sleeve of salty crackers, filled my canteen with cool spring water and began scaling my personal Everest.

And though I don’t think it necessary to recount specific details of my climb, it was treacherous and exhausting. I reached the summit just after noon, six full hours after I began. From my lofty perspective, I surveyed the valley below, a view only a Bierstadt or Cole could have depicted. I could easily imagine the valley as a home to gnomes, or cryptids, or demons.

The remainder of the afternoon, I examined the rock formations along the western face of the prominence. I unearthed many interesting stones and minerals but nothing demonic or even unusual. I made my camp in the valley below, with the same comfort and sustenance as the previous night.  The firelight cast eerie shadows on the earth and trees, more so than usual I decided, though the legendary accounts of this valley may have colored my perceptions. Sleep came slowly. Dreams followed shortly thereafter, dreams, at first, of pleasant times with my wife and our children, of my own idyllic childhood, and then my dreams grew dark and I found myself alongside my wife’s deathbed once again and then in my own silk-lined coffin as the lid closed and then something, some sound, or some premonition, quickened me. And there he was, just as I had imagined it, standing at the edge of my fire’s circle of light, as tall, as terrible, and as dark as those long-gone men of stories had described.

Old Scratch was so near that I could hear his breathing. He circled in the dancing shadows just at the edge of the light, obviously repelled by the fire. I had earlier unearthed a rich and resinous pitch pine stump to rouse the campfire quickly if necessary. I tossed this fuel into the coals and the flames soon blazed six or eight feet high. I don’t believe the demon expected this conflagration, and in the new light I could see him clearly, clearly enough to see his red demon eyes, his grotesque form, his ivory teeth, pointed like daggers, and as long as a man’s longest fingers. I could also discern the brass bead at the end of my rifle’s barrel. I drew this bead on the creature’s broad chest, thumbed back the hammer and pulled the trigger. At the reverberant clap of the rifle, the beast roared, a roar that would have shamed the most vocal black-maned lion on the African savanna. 

The wounded A-sgi-na turned and melted into the night. I contemplated constructing a torch and identifying a blood trail. I knew I couldn’t have missed and I knew he carried my slug deep in his breast. I contemplated pursuing my injured quarry only briefly. If a man of six decades has acquired no wisdom, he is incapable of doing so. I decided to wait the two or three hours till daylight. Here in such a valley, the autumn sun’s rays do not reach the forest floor till almost noon, but the general ambient light would be sufficient.

I made a mental note of where the creature had been standing when I fired. I immediately located where he had turned and fled, the leaves and soil disturbed as if tilled. I followed the spoor but found no blood for the first hundred or so feet, but then a drop, and then a few more drops, and then a steady stream of bright red arterial gore. I was certain that an animal so wounded could not go far. I was wrong. I followed the flow all morning. Having hunted my entire life, I knew that a little blood can look like a lot of blood on a forest floor, but this stream was wide, and constant. I followed along the edge of the mountain, across a fast-flowing stream, and then up a gray granite outcropping. All along the path, I discovered an ever-increasing number of bleached bones and skulls, deer mostly, but also bear and smaller bones like those of possums and racoons. I paused and examined what looked like what must have been the femur of a man, a tall man. I held the bone up to my waist and determined that the man had been as tall as me. I dropped the bone and continued following the blood.

About halfway up the rocky face, I spotted the opening of a cave, and I knew that was where he, and I, were headed. I expected to find him there, dead from the loss of blood.

I ascended slowly and approached the cave’s mouth with no little trepidation. The cave was shallow and faced the now risen sun. I expected to find a stiff, huge, hirsute form, but what I found was a small, naked, emaciated man, an old man. He was unconscious and breathing raggedly, but he wasn’t dead. I nudged him with my rifle barrel. He startled, and then tried to crawl beneath a low stone shelf. He shivered as if with chill, and auge, and fear. I saw then that his skin was as pale as cold ash, his eyes clouded with cataracts. He began to speak, and though I could discern a few words from various languages and dialects, I could make no sense of any of it. He clutched his bony left hand against his chest. I pulled it away. I had to know. It was there, just as I expected it would be, a small round hole just about where a man’s heart should be. The edges were already beginning to heal, and the dried blood was already forming a scabbed seal.

I suppose it is here that I should tell you that I put that man, that remnant of a man, that demon, out of his misery, that I saved the life of some future lost traveler who happened to find his way to this valley, but I didn’t. I simply left him in his place, left him to heal. I left the valley, his valley, and brought back only his story, and my faith.

Alan Caldwell has been teaching in Georgia since 1994 but only began submitting writing in May 2022. He has since been published in over two dozen journals and magazines. He is being nominated for the Pushcart this year. 

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