Appalachian Grandpa- The Bone Collector- Part 1
By J Campbell
"Come on, kid. Not gonna let an old man outstripe you, are ya?"
I armed sweat off my forehead as I tried to keep up, Grandpa cackling as he looked back at me.
The leaves were in full color in Appalachia, and Grandpa had roused me early that morning for a hike. I would have liked a little more sleep, but I hadn’t minded. It had been getting colder lately, the wind becoming crisp as the season crept closer to winter. There wouldn’t be many more opportunities for a hike this season, and I didn’t really have anything else to occupy my day.
I pulled in a lungful of air as I walked, enjoying the day as we took in the beauty around us.
The birds fluttered overhead, many of them preparing for their trip to warmer climates. The squirrels gabbled as they played amongst the bows, their nests ready for the coming cold as they gathered their food. Soon, Grandad and I would pick up our treats for the kiddos who came to the flea market booth and prepare to put out the Christmas decorations again. It seemed that the year had flown by before my eyes, and I wondered what awaited me in the year to come?
Watching Grandpa amble over the familiar paths, I wondered how many more of these walks we'd get to take, as well.
Grandpa had disappeared over a low rise, and I sped up to catch him.
That was when I noticed the weird collection of bones hanging in a nearby tree.
The circle of bones was arranged in an oddly mystic pattern, with the outer ring made of thicker, larger bones and the inner symbols made of small, delicate ones. It was hanging by something that looked like fraying rope, but I sort of thought might actually be hair. I didn't recognize the configuration, but the edges led me to believe it was something not of the light. The protective wards Grandpa usually arranged were made of smooth geometry and clean angles. This pattern, however, looked like it might be a warning.
It looked like those no trespassing signs at the edge of someone's property surrounded by a chain link fence.
The longer I stared at the pattern, the more I felt myself begin to shake. My fists were balled up at my sides, and I was filled with a sense of dread. What was going on? I had never felt like this, not since I was a child faced with something I couldn’t understand. Had Grandpa made this and left it for me? When had he had the time?
I reached out to touch it before I could even think about it, and as my fingers slid over the bony surface, I heard Grandpa call out a warning a second before the thing fell to pieces.
“Don’t!” he yelled, knocking my hand away, but it was too late.
"Grandpa? Are you okay?" I asked, shaking him a little as I looked down at him.
He looked like he had come back at a dead run and his breath was ragged and gaspy.
"No, son. No, I'm not. This is bad, boy. He's too close to the house, too close by far. We've gotta get out of here. We've got to get home. We cant….we need to…." but Grandpa seemed to get lost in his plans then.
It was the most frantic I had ever seen him, and it frankly scared the hell out of me.
“Who are you talking about, Grandpa? Didn’t you make this?”
Before Grandpa could say a word, I heard a sound like the gates of hell opening up and all the souls of the underworld spilling out.
"Damn it, boy!" Grandpa yelled, grabbing me by the arm and setting off at a sprint, "Run, RUN, RUN!"
We ran, the woods around us no longer bustling with the activity they had before. The birds and squirrels had all hidden their faces, and even the low drone of the insects seemed to have gone to ground. That scream started getting closer as we ran, and it sounded huge. It was like a monstrous bear or a charging elephant, and I could see the tops of the trees shaking as whatever it was slammed its way toward us. I had always marveled at Grandpa's speed, but today it was like trying to keep up with a hummingbird. No roots or holes got in his way, and he had his eyes forward and his feet on the trail.
"The river, boy, the river! We need to cross running water so it can't follow us!"
I was already out of breath, but I buried it as the thing shook the ground with its lumbering steps. Birds took flight behind us as whatever it was slammed into the trees. Its roar split the air again, and I put on an extra burst of speed to catch up with Grandpa. I didn't think he would leave me behind, but I wasn't completely sure either. I had never seen him this angry, not even when I'd broken the bottle tree, and that anger was twinged with fear. Grandpa didn't run from much, and watching him in full flight told me all that I needed to know.
Whatever this was, it was too big for Grandpa, and that was terrifying.
We had crossed the river about thirty minutes before, but our frantic pace brought us close to it far sooner than expected. We had been ambling, taking in the sights, and our hike had been more of a stroll. As it stretched before us, Grandpa prepared to jump. He clearly meant to splash into the stony creek bed and keep running, but I felt sure he might just leap over it. We had called it a river, but that might be too grand a term. It was hardly a creek, the bank about eight feet wide on either side, and the water wasn't exactly raging. It hadn't rained in a few months, and the snow melt that added to the creek had it barely more than a foot deep. The two of us had stopped for a drink here when we'd crossed, and I could recall that crips taste as my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.
When the edge of the creek gave way under me, sending me spilling into the foot of cold water, I groaned as the rocks dug into my hands and buttocks.
"Come on, boy!" Grandpa yelled, flapping his hands frantically, "Get across, quick!"
I got splashily to my feet and started running. Whatever was behind me came thundering towards the bank, and I could feel the river trying to drag my feet under. Unlike Grandpa, my foot seemed to sink into every hidden crevice, and I expected the thing would jump on me at any minute. Grandpa's eyes got wide as he stared at what had come lumbering out of the woods behind me, and I put on an extra burst of speed as I churned up the water.
When I flopped onto the bank at Grandpa’s feet, I felt the stitch in my side grip painful fingers into my ribs. I was shocked I had made it at all, and when I looked up at Grandpa, he was shaking in his hiking boots. I rolled over, wanting to see what had him so spooked, but my curiosity was far from rewarded. As I gulped in frantic lungfuls of air, I caught sight of something large and white as it ran back into the forest, and the image filled me with fear.
I didn’t get a good look, but I could see a white horse skull as it glared at me atop a pearly mass of moving parts.
It rushed back into the woods too quickly for me to see, but I could still feel those dark pits as they bore into me.
"What," I breathed out, lungs still trying to process oxygen as I gasped, "What was that?"
Grandpa was quiet for some time, and I didn't think he was going to answer me for a second.
Then he half whispered, "Bone Collector." and the way he said it sent a shudder through me.
"And what is a Bone Collector?" I asked, sitting up as I tried to control my breathing, getting back to my feet as I looked off in the direction it gone.
"Somethin I thought I had dealt with a long time ago, kiddo. Come on, doesn't look like we're gonna be busy for the next couple of days."
As he helped me up, I glanced back to the other side of the river to see if it had come back. It seemed that whatever instinct had brought it to us would not let it cross the river and we were safe for the time being. How long we would stay safe remained to be seen, and as Grandpa started making his way back through the forest, I followed close behind him.
"So, why didn't it come across the river after us?"
"It can't. The Bone Collector is a beast that follows the ways of old magic. It can't cross running water, or its form will be broken up. You can bet that it's looking for a place to get around and get after us again, though, so let's get the hell home."
Despite his earlier speed, Grandpa had apparently been holding back. He was like a little gray squirrel as he made his way through the woods, and if he hadn't had my hand, I would have been left behind. I could hear something out in the woods every now and again, a faint sound like trees being pushed over and the loosing of that terrible cry. It scared me, scared me more than anything ever had. Had that creature just been in the woods this whole time? We had walked this same trail again and again; how had we never once encountered this thing?
"So, what is the Bone Collector?" I asked, ducking a branch Grandpa had let go a little too soon.
"A mistake," Grandpa half said, "but I guess it's something they felt they had to do."
"Who?" I asked, trying to keep up.
"I'm sure you know our ancestors haven't always been the best house guests, kiddo. We rolled into the Appalachian countryside like a wrecking ball and slowly pushed the native people out. They were patient with us, but we made it pretty clear that we did not return their patients. There was once a town nearby named Kaelick. It was close to a major river, close to the woods, and the logging trade had sprung up there easily. When it came time to build the city, the settlers thought the big open plot of land near the lumber camps was perfect for settling on. The natives, however, disagreed. They disagreed so strongly that they went to talk to the city elders several times before building began on the site. This was a sacred place, their relatives were buried there, and building anything there would upset the spirits buried there. They couldn't just let the settlers build on the site and disrupt the spirits of their ancestors. So, they attacked the site twice, burning it down once, and occupied the site until the Georgia militia came down on them in force."
He froze suddenly, holding up a hand and listening. I stood still, cocking my head as I tried to hear what he was hearing, but failing miserably. Grandpa liked to joke that he could hear a squirrel curse from three groves away, but it was spooky what he could pick up in the woods. We stood there for a count of sixty, and as the sounds of playing squirrels and chattering birds became background music, I finally heard what he was hearing.
It was faint, but that crashing and roaring was no longer behind us.
Now it was to the southeast and coming towards true east.
"We've got time, but not much," Grandpa hissed, pulling me along behind him.
As we ran, he told me the rest of the story.
"They had killed the invaders, but it was more than that. They had spilled blood upon blood, and the spirits in those mounds were angry. They attached themselves to the bones buried there, taking the bones of the animals and the recently deceased as they warped them into something terrible. The militia unit never returned, and when they sent another unit to see what had happened, they found the bodies of the first, minus their bones. I'd read the reports from people who saw the site, and they said the ground was churned up, the bodies still present nothing but pulped and rotten meat. From that day on, people reported being stalked by a huge forest creature. Rumors of the creature were talked about until just before the Civil War when a local preacher went into the woods and was supposed to have put it to rest. No one knew how, and no one cared much. They were just glad to feel safe in the woods again. It came back from time to time, needing to be put to rest again, but it was laid in the ground anew each time. It went pretty well until it was," he trailed off, looking away as we came to the edge of his property.
As we came to the border of Grandpa's home, he touched one of the trees, and I saw something on the bark sparkle a little. He had set one of the wards he often used into a sturdy oak, and when the sun hit it, I saw the energy crackle inside it. Grandpa's wards always gave out little pushes, protecting people by making them feel braver or warding them by making them seem repulsive to creatures best avoided, but Grandpa was not some pointy hat-wearing wizard. His wards were more like a suggestion than outright magic, and Grandpa said that's why it worked so well. People couldn't mistrust or outright despise something that applied the feelings they or the creature already possessed.
Case in point, the ward was similar to a stone thrown in the opposite direction.
Whatever creature tripped the ward would suddenly hear a sound and go to investigate instead of walking onto Grandpa's property.
"Walk around and touch the wards. We'll meet at the far side of the property when they're all empowered. Hurry up; we don't want it to get inside."
He set off without another word, and I was left with no other choice but to walk in the opposite direction and arm the wards. The wards sparkled when I touched them too, but it was getting on in the afternoon, so it could have just been the setting sun making them twinkle. I understood that some of the practical arts that Grandpa taught me, stuff like herbcraft and woodsmanship, had basis in science but the wards and sigils that Grandpa used were something else. They worked because Grandpa believed they worked, and mine worked because I had seen Grandpa's work. That being said, I had no clue why they functioned.
As I touched them, I knew it was just something I would have to believe in, whether or not I understood it.
I met Grandpa about twenty minutes later, and he nodded after glancing around.
"That's all of them. Let's hope it's enough to keep it occupied while I'm getting ready to put it to sleep again."
I nodded, kind of expecting that, "So you were the one who put it to rest last time?"
Grandpa didn't say anything, though. I expected this to be a setup for yet another Grandpa story. He would tell me about his battle with the Bone Collector, and I would sit on the porch at dusk and take it all in as a beer sweated in my hand. It was how we had spent most nights since I came to live with him, Grandpa spinning tales and me soaking them in, but tonight seemed like it might be different.
Grandpa mounted the stairs to the porch, stopping at the top as he realized the silence had gone on too long.
"Go get the red and blue herbs from the shed, along with all my mason jars. I'll go get my exorcism kit, and we'll,"
"I fear you may need more than your tricks this time, Fisher."
Grandpa jumped, and I whirled to see Glimmer coming out of the woods, her long silver hair still hanging in that intricate braid she wore. Her purple eyes were mischievous, but I could also see something like fear behind her cheeky smile. She had a bow slung over her shoulder and a knife in a sheath on her shoulder. She came up next to me, tossing her hair before planting a kiss on my cheek and turning back to Grandpa.
"The Bone Collector is madder than I have ever seen it, and with very good reason. One of your kind has dug up his resting place and filled it with garbage."
About the author
Writer, reader, game crafter, screen writer, comedian, playwright, aging hipster, and writer of fine horror.
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