“It’s not something most people know. Hell, I bet you don’t know it yourself.”
Clinton was a big man, with a tangle of black hair just covering the tops of his ears. He stood in the doorway of the small cabin, swallowing the space around him.
“Know what?” My focus was elsewhere, inside. The cabin was tidy, its furniture well kept. There were no signs of a struggle.
“The mountains. They’re old.” Clinton paused, scanning the area outside. “Older than the trees. Older than the animals too. Hell, the Smokies, they’re even older than the Atlantic.”
I turned and regarded him. Clinton, a Gatlinburg police officer, wore his uniform loosely. “You’d never guess it, right? Appalachia was here even before there was an ocean.”
“You’re right, I didn’t know that.” It wasn’t quite dusk yet, and I could hear the trill of a finch just outside the cabin window. I recalled a saying, something I heard once: “If you want to learn, make friends with smart people.”
Clinton snorted. “Will Rogers. And you got the quote wrong.” He looked at me levelly. “He was Cherokee, you know. Will Rogers.” I waited for him to complete his thought. “Just like Appalachia. All of this, everything here. At one time, this was all Cherokee.”
It was getting late. I wanted to secure the cabin before nightfall; the roads on the mountain can be treacherous during winter. I turned back towards the room.
“What do you make of all this?” I gestured to the sofa, the cedar ottoman. Whatever happened to Anna didn’t happen here, but I was curious to hear his thinking.
“You know exactly what happened. She planned this. She closed her bank accounts, sold everything she had. She didn’t even tell her roommate she was leaving. And Boston’s not a short drive. We haven’t been able to find a crime anywhere, much less a victim.”
Clinton breathed out, slowly.
“Sometimes people just want to disappear. It’s happened before, on occasion.”
Maybe he was right.
Twenty years ago, Elkmont, Tennessee was a ghost town. Even today it barely registers. Aside from a campground, (“Temporarily Closed”), and a turn-of-the-century cemetery, (“Most Haunted in the Smoky Mountains”), a traveler could make his way from Gatlinburg to Maryville and know nothing about the town or its history.
Recently however, the National Park Service had taken an interest in the area. It had been decided, by someone important, that the town, situated as it was at the base of the Smokies, would make an ideal vacation spot for well-heeled urbanites. That decision, more hopeful than sensible, explained the current and incomplete restoration of the town’s several cottages, (excepting the Wonderland Park Hotel, which collapsed in 2005), and also my lodgings in the historic district, near the bank of the Little River.
It was morning now, the next day, and I took my field notes to the Appalachian Clubhouse, a short walk from my cabin. I was greeted by a stocky woman in her early forties, wearing a checkerboard apron.
“Either you’ve got good timing or good luck.” She poured a cup of coffee and set a place for me at the table.
“What do you mean?” I felt I’d had neither recently. The past few days had been a slog. I was in law enforcement, an investigator with the National Park Service. When I was sent here, to what was essentially a ghost town, it felt like a punishment. It was almost Christmas, and I missed my family.
The woman smiled. “A small group is renting the Clubhouse tomorrow. Normally the town’s closed, but for these kinds of things I make my way from Gatlinburg to help out. It’s easy money. You want breakfast?”
I did want breakfast, actually. Something about the cold always roused my appetite. “What’s good here?”
She laughed. “Everything. I make it myself. You wait; I’ll bring you something you’ll like. My name is Daisy, by the way. You need anything, you ask for me.”
Daisy was right. The breakfast was delicious. She brought me a fried pork chop smothered in white gravy and a biscuit stuffed with pimento cheese.
I wondered, is this what Anna ate the morning she disappeared?
“Well? Was it good?” Daisy had returned and was refilling my coffee.
“Very good.” I motioned for her to sit with me. I figured she wouldn’t mind; we were, it appeared, the only people in town. “Do you know why I’m here?”
She laughed again, a short staccato. “Yes, I do, Mr. Agent. Small towns have big ears. And you can’t get much smaller than Elkmont.”
I smiled and showed her a photo of Anna. “Have you seen this girl?”
“Hard not to. A single girl, traveling alone? Traveling here? Of course I saw her.” Daisy paused a moment then, thinking. “But I’m not sure she wanted to be seen. You get a sense of people, you know? Like how I knew you wanted company the moment you walked in. This girl…” Daisy hesitated, “…she was solitary.”
“Was she with anyone?”
“No, she wasn’t.”
That was it, then. Clinton was right. I started to gather my belongings. Daisy stopped me.
“I said she wasn’t with anyone. I didn’t say she was alone.”
I looked at her, puzzled. Daisy fidgeted in her chair. She seemed self-conscious.
“I don’t know how I feel telling you this, Mr. Agent, but I think it’s something you should know.” Daisy was quiet for a moment. “You’re going to think me silly.”
I sat back in my chair. I waited.
“I’ve lived here all my life. My parents too. When I saw her, this girl, I saw someone else. Something else.
“There’s a story, an old Cherokee story, about a stone man. You know it?”
“No, I don’t.”
“He’s a monster. He looks like a man, but he’s not. He…” Daisy looked away, then. “He’s a cannibal. He hunts children. And then he eats their livers.” She turned towards me. “You can’t kill him. His skin. It’s hard, like stone.”
It might have been the look I gave her.
“I know what you’re thinking, Mr. Agent, but I don’t care. That’s what I saw, when that girl hiked to her cabin on the mountain. She was with the stone man.”
My investigation was complete. I looked forward to going home.
I’ll tell you a secret, something everyone in law enforcement knows. Eyewitness testimony is unreliable, notoriously so. Whatever it was that Daisy saw that day, I thought no more of it.
In truth, I wanted to see my family. This case, my time on the mountain, it was affecting me. When I thought of Anna, I thought of my daughter. I missed her terribly.
Another thought occurred to me then, a memory. It surprised me that I should think of this now, but I did. I recalled a conversation I had with my father several years ago. It was the last time we spoke.
We were alone that evening, my father and I. I was in his apartment, a sparsely decorated two-bedroom unit not far from the local middle school. He was sitting in his recliner. I was standing. Looking back now, it seems odd which details held meaning for me, that I was able to recollect same with such certain clarity. For example, that recliner; I remembered it clearly.
It was a deep burgundy, almost the color of walnut. Over the years, however, it had become faded, and compressed as well; the padding had compacted, and over time slowly had become worn. This was his chair, in the corner of his apartment, and growing up I was not permitted near it. Next to his chair was a tray table, and on a coaster on that table was his drink, a tall glass of Coke spiked with fernet. My father was wearing a wool cardigan, and somewhat incongruously, a pair of brightly colored golf pants decorated with a harlequin pattern of red and green diamonds.
I was never close to my father, but not by choice. He just seemed to recede, especially in those later years. The man kept his secrets.
This is what he told me: “Whatever it is you heard, it’s a damn lie. I was nowhere near that girl.” I remembered looking at my father without speaking. The silence was stony. “For Chrissake, my bus stop is right outside the school. How the hell else am I supposed to get to work?”
I remembered trying to control my voice, unsuccessfully. “I don’t want you anywhere near my family. Near my daughter. We’re finished.” And we were.
Two months later, I saw my father on television after his arrest. He was smiling.
It was evening now, and even the finches had gone quiet. Most people who come to the Smokies do so in the summer, when the lightning bugs are active, and the crickets sing to the stars. Not so in the winter; it was quiet now, and Appalachia was hibernating.
I readied myself for bed.
And then, I began to dream.
I saw myself, not as myself, but as a spectator to my own life. Looking down, past the spruce firs and pine oaks, I saw that I was sitting with Daisy on the porch of my cabin. She wasn’t stocky now, but beautiful, and I thought of my wife in a way that I hadn’t in years.
She spoke to me.
“I wasn’t completely honest with you, Mr. Agent.” Her voice wasn’t staccato now, but lyrical, and hearing it, I saw myself as a young man. “There is a way to kill the stone man, a way to banish him forever.
“I can tell you how. If you want me to…”
I was dreaming, and I wasn’t. I didn’t know what Daisy was offering, not really, but I knew that I wanted it badly, whatever it was.
“Please.” I spoke to her above the treetops, but she was looking at me on the porch, her hands in mine.
“Blood. From a woman. The stone man can’t abide it.
“This is how you kill him, the only way. When it’s their time, the women surround him on the mountain where he lives. And then the stone man is banished, and he can never return.”
I heard a rushing sound then, like a rising chorus, and I knew my dream was ending.
“Don’t forget our conversation, Mr. Agent…”
I didn’t forget.
It was colder now, the next morning; the winter frost had begun to settle on the ferns and evergreens outside my cabin. It was of no matter. I had come to a realization—I wasn’t investigating a disappearance. I was investigating another, older crime.
I needed to return to the mountain.
The cabin was as Clinton and I had left it. A wool blanket was neatly folded on the sofa. The cedar ottoman was set carefully atop a braided rug. I was unsure exactly what I was looking for, but I knew that once I found it, I would know.
I wondered whether Anna had a sister. I hoped not.
At first I didn’t see him.
That’s what strange about mountains; they hide the smaller things. It’s the immensity of it all, I suppose. Maybe he was there all along.
He was tall, taller than a man, and he carried a cane with a crossed wheel at the handle, and three feathers attached at the collar. His skin was a dusky gray, the color of shale. He smelled of ammonia.
He smiled at me.
I wasn’t Anna, however, nor was I a child. I knew the stone man wouldn’t touch me.
I thought about my daughter.
Gathering my courage, I approached him the only way I knew how, with my 9mm pistol held before me. I slid closer and closer, until the sharp tang of his scent almost overwhelmed me. As if in a dream then, I began to hear a rushing sound, rising in volume, while the world before me emptied. But still, I could see him there standing, the stone man.
And all he did was smile, smile, smile, smile, smile, smile, smile, smile, smile, smile.
I awoke the next morning in my cabin. And I knew. I found what I was looking for.
I’d seen a smile just like that, years ago.
I placed a call to the Boston Police Department. I had nothing more to offer than when I had arrived, but I had to make the report. I asked them to investigate.
At least they were polite.
I thought once more about Anna, about Daisy, about Appalachia. I remembered what Clinton told me: that the mountains were here before the trees, and would be here, I knew, even after the oceans had boiled, and the land turned to ash. And then I thought about my family.
In two hours I would be on a plane heading east.
And then, God willing, I would be home.
Jeremy Akel is an attorney. He received his Juris Doctor from the University of Florida, and his Master of Laws from George Washington University. As an undergraduate he attended Vanderbilt University. Jeremy also teaches Aikido, a Japanese martial art, and is certified by the United States Aikido Federation as Fukushidoin. His work has been published in Altered Reality Magazine, Rue Scribe, and Sundial Magazine.