Fur of White, Frosty Night:
Diary Entries of a 19th Century Mountain Schoolgirl
by Melissa Rose Rogers, 3.24am May 10th 2021
NOTE: This was inspired by the local legends of Western North Carolina, where I lived for much of my life. Many of the area place names pay homage to Tsul’Kalu, a Cherokee cryptid who was also called Judaculla, the Ridge Runner, or simply the Devil.
The main character expresses herself using dialectal peculiarities inherent to this particular microcosm of Southern Appalachia, which might not align with other representations of Appalachian English. Developing in geographical isolation, the patois demonstrates the strong influences of Shakespeare and Celtic ancestry.
Y’uns’d think that this here December would have some brrr to it, but I ain’t seen a speck of snow so far.
Miss Mary Catherine says I have to start writing out you ones and stop saying y’uns. I heard y’uns my whole life, but Meemaw says I should heed her.
So, let me start over.
You ones would think that this December would be cold. It’s been warm. It’s just not had the bite that Good King Wenceslas felt. That’s one of them songs that Miss Mary Catherine taught us.
Pop says my voice is like an angel’s, but I know that Wally makes fun of me when he thinks I can’t see him. Even if I can’t see him, I can still hear my brother and his pack of good for nothin’ friends.
Well, I hear Tansy barkin’ up a storm, so I better go check and see what she’s on about.
I think it’s just a squirrel. One of them gray ones that melts into the oak trees like a rabbit in the briar. Out of sight, out of mind. Then it starts chittering away ‘till I want to throw acorns at it.
Wally takes me to school most mornin’s. I sit behind him on our old mare and then he drops me off at the big one room schoolhouse on his way down to the mill.
Meemaw said I should think about the sights and sounds that I see as I go to school each mornin’ and write them down. She says it’ll make my writin’ better. Wally don’t write much. He knows his letters and all. When he was little, though, that’s when Pop did a lot more farming. Wally had to help out with the farm by putting up fences. Hoeing the dirt. Plantin’ the seeds. Pulling the weeds. The hard red clay would pack up around his boots from toilin’ away in the hot sun. We had four cows back then. They were great milkers. We made a lot of butter and cheese back then.
After Mama died, Pop sold three of the cows. He said it was just too much work. It’s hard when you rely on someone, and then they’re gone. It’s been hard on all of us. I think that’s why Meemaw came here to live.
I can’t think of anything else to write. I hope Meemaw is proud of me practicing my letters. She says Pop and Wally have worked so hard so I can go to school. Wally learned his letters, but he rides his horse every day to the grist mill to work. He can’t read as much as me. I’m proud we have books – King James’ Holy Bible and the McGuffy’s Eclectic First Reader. On Sundays, Meemaw reads from the Psalms iffen a circuit preacher ain’t in town. That’s most Sundays, and I’d rather listen to her soothing voice. I don’t like none of that fire and brimstone those preachers like to try and scare us with.
Anyway, Meemaw wants me to practice my letters and get good at readin’. She said mayhaps if I try real hard I could grow up and be a school marm like Miss Mary Catherine and impress me a good husband.
I don’t know about all that. Jack Cochran got ink in my hair, and I know it was on purpose. I had to wash it with lye soap over’n over again ‘till my palms were red and the water was black, and I still gotta streak like a skunk. I braid it so as ya don’t notice it too much. I wish Pop would let me wear it in them crisscrossed Dutch braids like Anna Louisa wears, but he says it’s vanity like them fashion dolls down at the mercantile, and pigtails were good enough for his sister and my momma when they were my age. I tried doing my hair that way anyway, but it fell down without hair pins.
You ain’t gonna believe what I saw last night. First I heard it. That noise weren’t no panther or a catamount wallerin’. It was more like a cow lowin’ or a bear growlin’, but it wasn’t no bear.
When I heard it, I slinked down the ladder from the loft shiverin’. I had finally got that cold weather I wanted. Pop was snorin’ like a hurricane. I never seen a hurricane, but I’d guess that’s the sorta ruckus it’d make. The embers were low in the hearth, but bright enough for me to make my way.
Wally was stuck last night at the mill coz of the heavy snow, or I woulda gone and shook him from his spot next to Pop. Pop’s too tired. I wouldn’t wake Pop unless the cabin were ablaze. Meemaw was still asleep in her chair by the hearth, her feet propped high on an old apple barrel. She could sleep through anythin’.
I crept up to the window. Ole Jack Frost had paid us a visit, breathin’ his lacy snowflakes all over the thick glass panes so I couldn’t see much. The moon was full and big as a top in the ink black night. It reflected off the snow in the woods like somethin’ eerie from one of Grimm’s fairy stories that Miss Mary Catherine reads to us in the big one room school house.
I made him out once I scritched a bit at the frost.
The moonlight shimmered off his fur coat that covered him head to toe, but I couldn’t quite make out what his boots or hair or anything else looked like. I didn’t see his face, but he mighta had a bushy white beard.
I thought he mighta been a traveler lost, half froze, and Pop wouldn’t stand for that, so I unbarred the door and called out to him. He spun his big old head around like an owl and once he caught sights of me, he hightailed it on outta there faster than a spooked deer. I couldn’t make out his face, but that snap of his neck seemed like it woulda hurt a body.
I told Pop about him this morning over our warmed up porridge and scrambled eggs. He said it weren’t nothin’ but a bad dream. I didn’t wanna argue with him, so I held my tongue. He’s got enough weighin’ him down. I know it weren’t no dream though – the spot on the pane from where I scritched it is still there, and there were strange prints in the snow.
It gets worse. Last night I saw the critter again and this time Pop can’t say it were no dream. Even Meemaw woke up.
Tansy started barkin’ something fierce in the barn. My eyes shot open. Her barkin’ was frantic and my heart near leapt outta my throat. I was lyin’ in my straw bed in the loft. I had Momma’s quilt, the last one she made afore she died, snuggled up to my chin. I’d been asleep, and it couldn’t a been too late coz the fire was still goin’ low and hot, a blue log with white and those orangey speckles flutterin’ like a bee on a day lily.
I pulled my nightgown closer and crawled to the ladder just like the night before. When my feet hit the cold rough floor below, I heard Pop’s feet hit the floor too. Next I know, he’s cocked the shotgun, slung the bar off the door, and headed out into the dark. He just rushed out there without botherin’ with a lantern, but I reckon the snow was shinin’ enough.
A moment later Tansy’s barkin’ changed to growlin’ something fierce.
PE-OWWWWW. Pop’s shotgun rang through the cold, still clearing.
I scratched the fresh frost off the window where it was thinner from last night, and saw white fur dashin’ through the poplar trees. Pop’s dark figure stalked back to the cabin, Tansy trottin’ close behind. When Pop slid the heavy bar for the door, Meemaw’s feet hit the ground. Pop told her Tansy’d gone crazy for prowlers. We heard somethin’ later that sounded like a panther screechin’. It weren’t no prowler nor no panther. It was that same white, wide faced devil.
Maybe it’s a ghost.
Pop reloaded the shotgun, cocked it and leaned it against a chink in the logs. Makes me nervous havin’ a loaded shotgun ready to blast the moon from the sky just leanin’ against the wall like that where it could fall over and go off. Pop musta done it so he’d be ready in a flash iffen that white devil came back.
Tansy curled up at the fireplace, and Meemaw put her feet back up on the barrel and spread her afghan over her knobby knees once more. Tansy’s tawny fur shed all over the hearth rug. I’ll have to beat that rug somethin’ awful to get it clean.
I climbed up the ladder and tucked Momma’s quilt around me. I tried to think of all the love she put into it and how iffen she were here, she would brush my hair and sing to me.
Pop never had much of an ear for a tune, but his snores startin’ back up made me feel normal, safe. That’s as close to a lullaby as I can get. The fire was dyin’ down before I fell asleep and I listened to the cracklin’ logs. Soon it was a choir of snores – Pop, Meemaw, and the dog. If anythin’ was amiss, Tansy would let us know. That’s what Pop said.
That thing got into the chickens with Tansy bein’ in the cabin. They didn’t have nothin’ to guard ‘em and warn us. I didn’t hear their squawkin’ or nothin’. I’m not sure they even made a peep. There was blood and feathers all over, but Pop said most of their necks were wrung and there weren’t no marks like a struggle. It musta wrung them one by one in their sleep real quiet like. There was a mess of feathers and scarlet blood. It hadn’t had time to dry afore I found it when I went to gather the eggs.
That thing killed Little Blue, my black hen with the pretty tail feathers that look blue in the bright sun. I raised her from a chick. She was the funniest of all the hens, and a good layer too. May she Rest In Peace.
It’s warmin’ up today. Even the icicles are mourning for my Little Blue drippin’ like tears. Pop said he don’t trust it to melt too much. Meemaw’s ankle throbs from where she hurt it muckin’ the stalls last summer, so Pop says more bad weather is on its way. It’s still not been good enough weather for Wally to get home from the mill. It’s slicker than snot. I think he coulda made it, but Pop says Wally’s too smart to try that and woulda stayed in town iffen he knew what were good for him.
This is the last I’m writin’. I don’t care if I never get better at penmanship and can’t become a school marm. My heart hurts too much to care ‘bout that now.
More snow came in like Pop said. It was like the clouds opened up to sprinkle down a cleansin’ hand to sweep away the barnyard deaths.
Like last night, Pop left his loaded shotgun against the wall and had Tansy sleep inside. Meemaw had the lantern at the ready by the fireside in case we needed it.
We didn’t hear that white devil and its blood chillin’ noise like we had when Tansy was barkin’ in the barn. Everything was all calm and quiet when I looked out the window – like a lithograph print from one of Miss Mary Catherine’s books. Pop snored all through the night, as he’s wont to do. Meemaw got up to use the chamber pot once and Tansy stirred then, but we all settled in again after that. Close to dawn I heard Tansy scritchin’ at the door and her soft, high whinin’. I was a mite afraid but there weren’t nothin’ else to tell me somethin’ was amiss so I pulled the quilt up to my neck and went back to sleep.
When I opened the front door to go milk the cows, Tansy bolted afore I could get my boots over the threshold.
I headed toward the barn thinkin’ the poor dog needs to relieve herself. Next thing I knew, there was mournful howling. I ain’t heard noises like that outta no dog’s jowls before. I froze in my milkin’ with my rear on the stool, the cow standin’ there waiting for a different kinda relief.
The howlin’ kept on. Somethin’ had to be wrong, so I followed her sound. Pop barreled outta the cabin haulin’ that shotgun toward the baleful calls.
We both dashed through the ice and snow slippin’ like greased pigs.
When we closed in on Tansy, I stood stone still for a moment afore falling to my knees. Wally was splayed on the ground, his legs bent at odd angles, his skin blue as a crocus. Frost whispered over his lips. Deep purple circled his neck where he’d been choked. His eyes bulged glassy, frozen in cold and death and fear. Blood, dark and thick, pooled away from the ribboned flesh of his abdomen.
“This weren’t no catamount neither was it a panther,” Pop got out. “This had ta been that white devil. It killed our chickens. Wally musta headed home and didn’t make it afore night fall. We gotta get some men to comb these woods and smoke that demon out. Send it back to hell.”
A stone’s throw away, I found the horse too. It wasn’t in much better shape, but I think its neck was broke not wrung. Wally was so close, but he didn’t make it. I was asleep in bed, all cozy, not far away, but he needed me. That’s what gets me. Not one of us knew he was out there dyin’.
Pop rode a cow into town and came back with every able bodied man he could get. They combed the woods hollerin’ about odd tracks and swatches of shiny white fur.
They didn’t find nothing worth anything though. They told us stories how that devil only comes out on cold winter nights when the moon is bright – Fur of white, frosty night. They told us how Bobby’s second cousin once removed was headin’ north and thought he saw that same devil in the woods.
I knew they wouldn’t find nothin’.
I wanna practice my aim. Pop’s been helpin’ me become a better shot. All I want for Christmas is revenge. Meemaw says it ain’t proper for a young lady. I wanna make sure I’m alert on those nights when the moon is bright and there’s a nip to the air. We’ll be ready next time. I will avenge my brother.
Fur of white, frosty night
Be ready for the devil’s bite.