My grandmother’s farm was situated on 15 acres of land north of Hayden, Alabama. It was several hours from our home and we would make the drive there a handful of times a year, mostly in the summers. I can remember the anticipation I would feel as we drove up the long driveway to find the modest house, which my grandfather Elmer had built with his bare hands, perched atop the hill. Picturing it now, I see the rusted tin roof, the weathered porch, and the dilapidated barn that stood out back.
As a child, none of that mattered to us, obviously. We spent our days roaming the rolling countryside, swimming in a nearby creek, and playing on the old oak that grew beside the house, who’s branches were so large they scraped the ground. The fields surrounding the farm house were no longer fertile, providing ample space for us to properly conduct the adventures we concocted in our minds, and were surrounded by the dense forests of the Alabama countryside.
I always cherished the time I spent with my grandmother. When we were inside, she was always singing to us, telling us stories about when she was a girl, teaching us how to make things out of sticks and string, and passing down the type of random wisdom that only a grandmother can. Unfortunately, I never knew my grandfather. My grandmother said he died in a hunting accident when I was very young. I heard so much about him from her and my parents, however, that I felt like I knew him. He was a large man – strong as an ox my grandmother would say – who would farm the fields from sunup to sun down without so much as a whisper of complaint. My grandmother, her family of Cajun descent, had met my grandfather at school in Louisiana and the two had moved out to this land, left to them by Elmer’s uncle, to start a life together. My mother had been born in this very farmhouse.
I respected my grandmother more than any other person on the earth, but she was not without her quirks, the strangest of which was her insistence that we follow three specific rules as long as we were there. I can remember her pulling my sister and I close, kissing us on the forehead, and gently reminding us about them each time we arrived, her frail and wrinkled hands cradling ours. Don’t leave food outside. No singing past dark. And most importantly, Never go into the woods. She never explained why they were important, only that were important.
The rules were something we rarely questioned. Grandma said to follow them, so we did. Simple as that. The first two were pretty easy – I wasn’t much of a singer and we didn’t have food outside unless my grandmother had given it to us – but the third was a bit more challenging. Her property was surrounded by woods on all sides, with a buffer of several hundred yards between the house and the treeline, and my sister and I were often tempted to go exploring within. We’d ask permission, stating our ages as proof that we were responsible and could take care of ourselves. Without fail, she would always reply, “The rules are for your safety, sha. You musn’t break them.” (“Sha” is a Cajun word that means “dear”. For the sake of clarity, I’m translating the rest of her Cajun speak into regular English for this account).
I can remember one evening, when my sister was only 3 or 4 years old, when she accidentally left some food outside. We had been eating bologna sandwiches on the back steps; I remember we both liked ours smashed down and cut into little squares. Having finished mine, I had gone inside to get something to drink and she had followed me, leaving her plate behind.
Later that night, we were all in front of the fireplace, curled up in Grandma’s lap under one of her large quilts, telling stories and laughing when we heard something scratching at the back door.
Immediately, I felt her body tense underneath me, and she shot a glance over to my father who was sitting on the floor. He tried to keep his face blank, but I could see the worry creeping through.
“What is that, Grandma?” I asked.
“Probably just a raccoon,” my father said, starting to stand.
“Sha let me,” Grandma said. My father picked us up from her lap, gently placing us on the floor as she made her way to the back of the house.
A few moments later, she walked back into the den and sat back down. She was holding my sister’s empty plate from earlier. When my sister saw the plate and the look on my grandmother’s face, she burst into tears.
“It’s ok,” she said, hugging my sister tightly. “Let’s do our best not to do this again. OK?”
Later that night, when everyone was in bed, I crept out from beneath the covers and tiptoed to the back door. It was open; I don’t think the house had air conditioning and the doors were often left open with the screen doors closed to keep the bugs out. I was old enough to be curious about what had happened earlier and young enough to not be scared about what I might find. There was a single bulb above the back door that cast a narrow beam of light that illuminated the back steps.
On the top two steps, bathed in the eerie light of the dim bulb, were dozens of long, black hairs.
After the food incident, I became a bit more aware about the things that happened around the farm house and started to have the notion that my grandmother was hiding something. I wasn’t sure what it was, but whatever was at the back door was a part of it.
The next year, my sister and I found a dead deer about 50 yards in from the treeline. I think it was a deer at least – its head was completely missing and its body was completely mutilated. Even at my young age, I knew no other animal had done that. When I told my grandmother about it, rather than being shocked, she acted as if it was commonplace, saying to stay away from it and my father would take it somewhere.
The next year, there was one night where we were all awoken by something banging around in the barn. In the morning, when we went out to investigate, it was clear that someone had vandalized it: one of the barn doors was completely ripped off of the front, and everything inside was torn apart, like someone was looking for something. Grandma said it must have been thieves looking for iron to scrap, but what thief would go looking for iron in a barn in the middle of nowhere?
Later that same trip, as I was playing on the old oak, I noticed my sister had strayed rather close to the treeline. The next thing I knew, I saw my father sprinting across the fields towards her. When he reached her, he grabbed her, threw her over his shoulder, and sprinted back towards the farm house. He had scared the shit out of her, so I guessed that’s why she was crying hysterically, but my father never would say why he had to get her away from there so quickly.
There were other incidents like that over the years, but what they meant in sum I had never figured out.
The last time I visited my grandmother’s farm was the summer I turned 16. It was the summer my grandmother finally told me about the secret she had been keeping for so long.
At 16, as most kids are, I was pretty defiant. I still had great respect for my grandmother, don’t get me wrong, but I was growing a bit tired of the seemingly arbitrary nature of her rules, especially the third one. Never go into the woods?, what was I five? By that time I had basically run out of things to do at the farm and wanted desperately to explore the woods I had been barred from entering for so long.
So, one day, I did. It was an exceptionally hot July day and I decided to follow the little creek that wound through the corner of her property into the woods. The foliage was dense and unforgiving, blocking out much of the sun and providing much needed respite from the heat. I kicked my shoes off and began walking along the creek’s sandy bank, losing myself in the hum of the water as it rushed around various sticks and stones and the chatter of the birds and insects around me.
When I had gone far enough that I couldn’t see the treeline, I noticed that aside from the sound of the water, I couldn’t hear the sound of the sounds of the birds or insects any longer; the forest had become deathly silent. The air was unnaturally still, creating an odd sense of uneasiness within me. Never forgetting my grandmother’s warnings and believing I had somehow worn out my welcome, I hastily turned to head back to the farm house.
I stopped when I heard the crack of a branch far off in the distance behind me. Afraid to look back, I started walking again. A few steps later, I heard it again. It was the sound of someone or something moving through dense underbrush in my direction.
I turned slowly, and what I saw scared the living shit out of me. In the distance, I saw the silhouette of some lumbering beast walking towards me through the forest. It was tall – over 6 feet – and looked mostly like a man, except there appeared to be ears sprouting from the top of its dark head. I could see its eyes, large and yellow, shining at me even though the rest of its head was shrouded in darkness.
I stumbed backwards, falling into the sandy water, then turned and tore through the woods, sprinting over rocks and pinecones and briars in a mad dash to escape whatever was coming for me. I didn’t even bother stopping to grab my shoes.
When I made it back to the farmhouse I slammed the outer door and locked it shut, then ran inside to find my grandmother. I found her sitting at the kitchen table preparing some beans for dinner. I was a mess. I was covered in sweat, wet and sandy, and I’m sure my eyes belied my terror. When she looked up at me, she could tell immediately that something had happened.
“Were you in the woods?” was all she asked.
“I’m sorry, Grandma, I didn’t know…..there was a thing……a…..” I stumbled over my words, not sure exactly what to say to her. Instead of being angry, she looked at me with sadness in her eyes and motioned for me to come and sit beside her. My foot was bleeding, and once she had bandaged it up, she began to tell me a story.
“The loup-garou is what you saw. It’s also called a Rougarou outside of Louisiana I believe. My mother used to tell me the tales – about a monster, part man and part wolf, that would roam the swamps around her home and snatch children who had strayed too far from their parents. A children’s fable, surely, which I never really believed it to be true, yet the stories still scared me.
It wasn’t until we moved here to farm that I realized it wasn’t just a story.
Your grandfather, on one of his hunting trips, found the carcasse of an animal that had been ripped to shreds, beyond recognition. He hunted the animal he believed had caused it, thinking it was a bear, and finally tracked it to its den deep in the forest. It was no bear, child.
Your grandfather described it as a man, with long, dark hair covering his body, yet with the head of a wolf, just like the stories. The two fought, your grandfather prevailing, but not before being gravely injured.
Several hours after he came back that night, a sickness overtook him. He wailed and moaned in his sleep that night, and in the morning his eyes had sunken into his head and the hair on his body had started to grow, long and deep and black.
A few hours later, he was gone. I guess he had realized what was happening and didn’t want to endanger me. The thing you saw today in the forest, child – that was your grandfather.
My heart was broken, having lost the only man I had ever loved.
I didn’t know how to cope with it. I would sit out on the back steps and sing, old songs my mother used to sing to me. And I would see him…it….creep out of the forest to listen, only coming close enough to show me that he was there. I would leave food out on the back steps at night and he would come and eat, always licking the plate clean. I don’t think the transformation was fully complete then – your grandfather was still there inside, somewhere. I hoped he could somehow come back from whatever he had become.
Then, I started to hear the howling and find the dead animals. That’s when I knew your grandfather was gone. The rules, now you can see, are meant to protect you, child. He is drawn to the food and to the singing, still remembering how I comforted him during those early days. And anything that goes into the woods doesn’t come out alive. I’m thankful you’re here.
This must be your last trip here, child. Now that he has seen you up close, he will have a taste for your blood, and he won’t stop until he drains every last bit from your body.
Your grandfather has several guns here, but I dare not use them, and I caution you to heed this warning. I see the look in your eyes.
If you did succeed in killing him, I fear you would face the same fate as your grandfather. If the old tales are true, he who kills the Rougarou eventually becomes one.”