Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Hodag

I still remember that cold October afternoon in 1936 when Whitey McFarland’s old coonhound Maggie dragged herself out of the forest, whimpering and yowling. Her skin hung off her sides in red flaps and her eyes rolled wildly. She collapsed on the ground and howled.

All us kids loved Maggie, but not one of us dared go near her, not while she was baring her teeth and snarling. Benny Carper dropped the bat and ran off; Ira Schmidt just stood there staring at the half-dead animal as it pawed the frozen dirt. I tugged on Whitey’s sleeve and told him to stay with Maggie while I got my dad—Whitey’s dad was a drunk and never easy to find. When he finally nodded in understanding, I took off running.

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I ran past the loggers walking home for the evening. Oswego was a tiny lumber town in northern Wisconsin and our neighbors were almost like family, but even when the men called after me, I kept running. I found my dad in the mill yard picking up tools, and he caught me up in those tree-trunk arms of his. Between panting and sobbing, I told him that something had hurt Maggie real bad and she looked like she might die. He tucked his lips into his beard and his eyes hardened in his usual look of concern. He slung my legs around his waist and had me hold around his neck as he ran home. The wind bit my cheeks. Even now I can almost smell that musky flannel.

Dad banged open the patio door and my mom must have jumped a foot off the kitchen floor. Before she could scold him, he told her to draw up a warm bath as it sounded like the McFarland dog had a run in with a wolf or a cougar, or maybe Mr. McFarland. Without another word, he went to the closet and grabbed an old blanket and headed out again, pausing only to hold the storm door open for me to follow.

It was dark by the time we got back to Whitey’s yard. Whitey was lying next to Maggie, stroking her head and speaking in a low voice. I felt a lump in my throat thinking we were too late, but when we got closer I heard whimpering and I could see her flayed side rising and falling. I noticed her fur was streaked with black, greasy marks. Then the smell hit us, and I immediately felt sick. I didn’t know how Whitey could stand it.

I asked my dad if it was a skunk, but he didn’t respond. He cast the blanket over Maggie and the wild look came back to her eyes. She yipped when my dad scooped her up and she snapped weakly at his face. He gently shushed her and held her close to his chest as we trotted home.

Maggie screeched when dad lowered her into the tub while Whitey, my mother, and I looked on. Maggie thrashed and sloshed water everywhere, but my father held her in place and she soon gave up. We watched in silence as he picked twigs and bits of dirt from Maggie’s wounds. She hardly made a sound. My mother clasped and unclasped her hands beneath her chin and her lower lip trembled, but she never said a word. The bath water turned a pinkish hue and then it got so dark you couldn’t see to the bottom. Dad peeled the tar-like junk off Maggie’s fur and that made the water stink something fierce. He told my mother to heat up more water and then he drained the tub and repeated the process.

When he’d gotten her reasonably cleaned up, he patted Maggie dry and let Whitey and me help wrap bandages around her middle and legs. We covered her with a blanket on my parents’ bedroom floor and she fell asleep immediately. Mom said Whitey could stay the night and, after a quick dinner, we piled a mountain of blankets next to my parents’ bed and nestled the dog between us, listening to her shallow breathing.

Whitey drifted off right away but I kept my eyes on the dark hump that was Maggie. She whimpered and kicked her back legs as she dreamed, but she never woke. I never remembered falling asleep.

In the bed above me, I could hear my father turning throughout the night.

• • • •

“Wasn’t a dog or cougar that did that,” my father said, and my mother told him to lower his voice.

Morning sunlight spilled through the frost-wreathed window. Whitey snored quietly beside me. Maggie’s face peeked out from the blankets. My father paced in the kitchen and, between his thumping footfalls, I caught snatches of conversation.

“Whatever got at her was mean. Real mean. It didn’t want to kill her or she’d be dead. It just toyed with her. I’m amazed she survived.”

My mother said something I couldn’t hear.

“Keep him closer to the house, that’s all. Make sure he doesn’t go wandering all over creation.” His clomping boot heels blocked out the rest.

“What do you think it was, Jack?” my mother asked.

There was a long pause before my father answered. “I don’t know,” and even without seeing his face I could tell he was lying. I’m sure my mother knew it too.

The bedroom door creaked and I snapped my eyes shut. I waited an eternity before opening them again and when I did, I saw my father leaning on the doorframe, staring at me, his face creased, his lips buried in the depths of his beard.

• • • •

It took Maggie a few days before she could walk comfortably, and Whitey stayed with us the whole time. At age nine, I hardly noticed that my parents took smaller portions to help the food go around four ways instead of three. Dad never mentioned it and neither did mom.

Whitey’s dad finally came around looking for him. Whenever he realized he hadn’t seen his boy for a few days, he’d stagger the streets shouting Whitey’s name and expecting the boy to appear. My father stepped onto our porch and waved Mr. McFarland over. Mom kept us from the door but we still heard dad telling him that “he’d whip his ass” if he so much as laid a hand on either the dog or the boy.

My mother and I watched through the kitchen window as Whitey followed his dad across the yard with Maggie hobbling after them, wrapped in a fresh set of bandages. My dad closed the door, then knelt and gripped my shoulders.

“Did you hear me and your mother talking the other morning?”

“No sir.”

His eyes smiled but his lips did not. “Well, if you had been listening, you’d have heard me telling her that I don’t know what did that to Maggie. Could be a wolf or some kind of nasty cat, but whatever it was, it’s dangerous. I can’t find any tracks or any other sign, so who knows where the dog found that trouble. Some other fathers and I are going to look around again tomorrow, but I’m telling you Jacob, you stay close to home, you understand?”

“Yes sir,” I said.

The humor in his eyes had completely disappeared.

• • • •

Oswego was never a big town, not even in its heyday when the lumber industry was booming. The population had been halved after the First World War and dropped by another half during the Depression. Oswego wasn’t unique. The same thing was happening all over the country, but us kids didn’t know we were poor, and the adults never talked about times being hard. It’s amazing what you don’t think about until you’re older.

Telling a nine-year-old boy to stay close to home in a small town defines impossibility. To this day, I can’t honestly say whether Whitey and I deliberately went looking for trouble or whether it somehow found us. We went for our usual Friday after school ramble with Maggie, and we roamed a little further than usual—both of us noticing that we’d wandered more than we should have, both of us understanding that we ought to turn back, but neither of us saying a word. Nine-year-old boys can communicate in such ways.

We were on the winding path near the woods when Maggie stopped and raised her nose.

“What is it, girl?” Whitey said as she growled at the air. She stared across a grass field that separated us from Pochman’s Pond. Maggie barked once, then again, then whimpered and looked at Whitey with frightened eyes.

“What do you think it is?” I asked.

In my mind, I can still see Whitey’s profile against the steel-gray sky as he stared across the field. The trees on the horizon had lost their leaves and looked like black, spiny fingers reaching for the sky. Whitey’s face was set in a frown, his forehead wrinkled beneath his crew cut. His right eye was bruised and his cheek below it shiny, his lip slightly split at the corner. Whitey had told me he’d been hit by a baseball playing catch with his dad and I believed him, or told myself I did. We never talked about Whitey’s dad.

Whitey took a step into the long grass. Maggie barked and ran a few yards in the opposite direction. She barked again and then took off towards home.

“Come on,” Whitey said, taking a step forward. “She knows the way back.”

I swallowed and followed him. The yellow grass rolled like waves in wind. We didn’t have to go very far, only a few dozen yards of high stepping through the tall grass before we found it.

It was a dead deer, but unlike any carcass we’d ever seen. Hunting season hadn’t opened yet but it wasn’t uncommon to find deer parts in a field. Still, we knew no hunter was responsible for what we saw.

The deer had been ripped from the throat down and its insides had been strung out in a wide, rusty red circle around the body. Its skin had puncture wounds, as though it had been jabbed with a serrated knife. Three of its legs had been broken, the bones jutting from the flesh like pieces of splintered wood, and the fourth leg had been ripped off completely. Strings of intestine were draped from its antlers, hanging across its face as it stared into the sky with black, vacant eyes. Both the carcass and the circle of matted grass were smeared with greasy, charcoal-black streaks.

We stood gaping at the mutilated carcass as our eyes flitted from detail to gruesome detail. Then the wind dropped and that familiar rotting smell overwhelmed us. I nearly threw up right there but I made it back to the path before I puked up my lunch. I heard Whitey retching next to me.

We ran all the way back to town.

When we reached the McFarlands’ tumbledown shack, Whitey’s dad was waiting for us, swaying in the yard. “Where the hell you been? Your goddamn dog been wanderin’ all over the place,” he slurred.

“Dad,” Whitey said and tried to catch his breath. “We saw something. Out in the field. A dead deer.”

“Get home,” he said to me without sparing a look. He grabbed Whitey’s jacket collar with one hand and tugged off his belt with the other. “The dog’s been howlin’, gettin’ on people’s property. Makes me look bad.”

Whitey looked at me with the same terrified expression Maggie had when she caught a whiff of the deer. I looked back, helpless.

Whitey’s dad jerked his son towards the house. He fixed a hard, glassy gaze on me and said a single word: “Get.” It was every inch a threat as a command.

I sprinted home, my lungs burning from swallowing the chill air and choking on my tears.

My dad’s mouth drew into that thin, straight line when I told him what happened. I didn’t know what bothered him more, the dead deer or Mr. McFarland. He knew Whitey’s dad from when they both worked at the mill. Once I asked my dad what was wrong with Mr. McFarland, and he told me that Whitey’s mother had run off with some traveling snake oil salesman and his father had been living in a bottle ever since. The mill was always looking for excuses to trim payroll and it wasn’t long before they gave Mr. McFarland his walking papers. Then things got worse.

That’s no excuse, and I still hate him for how he treated Whitey, but that doesn’t make what happened next any easier to talk about.

• • • •

That next morning, my dad formed a posse armed with rifles, hatchets, and hoes, and they headed out towards the woods. They trudged back at dusk, weapons slung over their shoulders, heads bowed. I remember my mother waiting on the porch, working her hands, and my dad giving her a slow, apologetic shake of the head when he got home.

Weeks passed, and the temperature plummeted, too cold to even snow. Eventually, the fervor died down and parents slowly loosed the reins on their children. The escorts to and from the schoolhouse ended, but not before my parents sat me down at the kitchen table and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was to stay within earshot of home at all times. Under no circumstances was I to wander outside of town. Not in the woods, not down by the stream, and nowhere near the pond. My dad shook one calloused palm and said he’d give me the hiding of my life if I disobeyed and, even though he’d never as much as spanked me, I believed him. I’d wager the same conversation transpired in every kitchen in Oswego.

Yet sometimes trouble comes out of nothing. We weren’t doing anything wrong, just playing baseball with Ira, Benny, and Whitey in his yard like always. We had a diamond worn into the grass and Whitey’s dad didn’t care if we tore up the yard sliding into the bases. He was never around anyway to yell if the ball hit the house and we could be as loud as we liked, so we played there most often.

Ira Schmidt was two years older than Whitey and me and could really knock the cover off the ball. He used to say he could hit it even further in the cold air. At his turn at bat, he cracked the ball into the weeds behind Whitey’s house where they grew thick and deep before tapering off at the edge of the forest. We spread out looking for it but it was Whitey who made the big find, and I don’t mean the baseball. I wish to God it had been me or one of the other boys, but it was Whitey.

I was parting handfuls of frozen grass when I heard Whitey say in a flat voice, “A boot.” He lifted a brown workman’s boot from the grass. I glanced over and went back to searching when I heard his strangled gasp. I looked up and saw that the boot still had a foot in it; it terminated at the ankle in a maroon stump with a circle of white bone, sheared cleanly like one of the fancy steaks in the butcher’s shop.

Whitey’s girlish scream sounded comical and for a second I thought it was a gag, but then his eyes fluttered back and the boot slipped from his fingers as he collapsed. I tried to move but I couldn’t, transfixed by the boot resting on its side on the bloodstained grass.

“What is it?” Benny asked, but my mouth wouldn’t work. I looked around and in a moment of stark clarity, I couldn’t believe we hadn’t seen the clues. They were faint but patently obvious now. The ruffled swaths of grass. The rust-colored ring. The scratch marks in the dirt where something had been dragged into the forest. My shocked brain wasn’t fully registering what I was seeing, but I suppose I knew even then that what had been dragged was Whitey’s dad.

My memory gets foggy after that. I remember some women shouting, hands grabbing me by the shoulders, and Benny’s mom’s face in mine asking me what happened. I just pointed to the boot in the grass. Then I remember being dragged back towards town while two other women struggled to lift Whitey to his feet.

Then my mother was there, and she had me under the arm. She led me and Whitey, now conscious and stumbling under his own power, back to our house. She had just seated us at the kitchen table when the porch door flew open and my father barged through. He grabbed his padded flannel and the rusty spade we used to feed the stove. My mother asked what was happening. “We’re going after it. Stay put,” he said and disappeared out the door.

My mother paced the kitchen. None of us spoke. She put her arms around our heads and drew us to her while she murmured something about things being okay. “Whitey, your ears are freezing,” she said and placed a hand on his face. “Your cheeks, too. Let me grab a blanket.” She disappeared into the bedroom.

I looked at Whitey who was staring past me. He leaned so far to one side I thought he might fall off his chair. “Whitey,” I said in a small voice. “You okay?”

He focused on me as if just realizing I was there, then shook his head. We sat in silence for another moment and I heard my mother quietly curse as she rummaged through the linen closet for the heavy blankets we only broke out in the deepest winter.

Whitey’s eyes met mine again, then he bolted from his chair like a frightened deer. The porch door hadn’t even had a chance to slam shut before I was after him, my mom’s shouts drowned out by the wind in my ears.

“Whitey, stop!” I yelled as I ran but I knew he wouldn’t, and honestly, I didn’t want him to. Chasing him would be my excuse to follow the hunting party, and I knew it.

Whitey raced past his house and the field and I was on his heels as he headed into the trees. As we reached the far end of the forest where it opened to the pond, we heard men shouting and the crash of a shotgun.

Whitey stopped dead at the frozen edge of Pochman’s Pond and put his hands on his knees to catch his breath. I skidded to a halt behind him and together, silent except for our panting, we watched the events unfold.

A dozen men stood in a wide semicircle twenty yards away out on the ice. All of them wielded some type of make-shift weapons—hatchets, hoes, Benny Carper’s dad and two others carried shotguns—and they surrounded a broad, four-legged creature. At first, I thought it was a black alligator, but I knew alligators weren’t that big and didn’t have long snaking tails with a spade at the end. Plate-sized ridges ran the length of the creature’s back.

The winter air exploded with a confusion of sounds: the men shouting over each other, the creature’s low growl like an engine that won’t catch, and the deep groan of the ice under their weight. The tips of the men’s weapons glanced off the thing’s hide with metallic clanks. Its tail whipped high and low to fend off the attackers; it swept out the feet of one man. The creature scrabbled to attack him but thankfully its claws couldn’t find purchase on the ice. Mr. Carper fired the shotgun into the creature’s side and it jerked its head around, seemingly more at the sound than in reaction to being shot. And that’s when we saw its face.

The face looked hauntingly human despite its oblong shape, the mouth crowded with sharp teeth, and its black leathery skin. The eyes burned like embers and there was an unmistakable intelligence behind them, perhaps even cunning. Worse, the face was grinning in pure malice. The creature’s eyes locked on us across the pond and I swear it licked its lips. My stomach fell into my shoes and I felt sick.

Mr. Carper shot the thing point-blank in the face and it just flapped its head, like a dog getting water out of its ears. It whipped its tail over its head at Mr. Carper, who fell onto the ice. The spade came down and crushed the ice between his legs instead of his skull.

We heard a rumble we thought was thunder, then dark cracks spider webbed across the ice . The men bolted for shore but they couldn’t get more than a few yards before the whole ice sheet collapsed with a sharp crack and groan, dumping them all into the water in a cacophony of shouts and splashes. The thing sprayed a plume of water like a whale then sank out of sight.

“C’mon Whitey,” I screamed, barely noticing he hadn’t followed. I found a downed branch and extended it into the open water where the men half-swam, half-pulled themselves towards shore. The ice broke beneath me and I plunged into the pond up to my waist. Air burst from my lungs with the shocking cold, but I managed to hang on as the men used the branch to pull themselves to shore.

“W-what are you d-doing here?” my father stuttered as he stood shivering, his beard already frozen. He turned to look at the hole in the ice. No bubbles broke the surface, no signs of movement in the water. “C’mon,” he said and grabbed my collar with a wet and freezing hand.

We stumbled back, each man’s family collecting him at the edge of the forest. “Come with us, Whitey,” dad said in a tone that brooked no argument. Whitey paused to look at the shack where he lived, then to the long grass where he’d found his father’s foot. My dad caught Whitey under his arm and held him close.

Even though my dad was a block of ice by then, Whitey didn’t pull away.

• • • •

Us kids were under complete lock-down for the next week. No school, no leaving the house, no nothing. My dad said they never found any sign of Mr. McFarland, but parents sometimes forget kids are neither stupid nor blind. They couldn’t hide the black tendrils of smoke rising from the field bordering the forest, and we all knew it wasn’t dried leaves they were burning.

Oswego hunkered down for the winter like northern towns do and the months passed, cold and harsh. Whitey spent time with a number of different families, ours the most, until one clear, freezing February morning the county sheriff arrived with a wiry man who said he was Whitey’s uncle, come to bring Whitey to live with him in Wausau. You could tell Whitey didn’t want to go, but those were lean times for everyone and getting leaner, and no one wanted to interfere with what boiled down to a family matter.

My dad wore a pinched expression but, in the end, said nothing. He had his hands on my shoulders as I waved to Whitey who looked back out the police car’s rear windshield. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time he saw the world from that perspective.

The mill closed that March and we moved to Marquette, Michigan before the thaw. Just a few years later, my dad would be called up for World War Two and killed in combat. I never got the chance to ask him about that afternoon at Pochman’s Pond.

As a teenager, I wrote Whitey McFarland a letter to see what he remembered from that November afternoon. Six months later, Whitey’s uncle responded with a curt note informing me Whitey had been sent to the juvenile home in Rhinelander and wasn’t accepting letters. The note was accompanied by my envelope, still unopened.

• • • •

The years rolled by, many of them hard, but Mom and I survived. I went to college, met a lovely girl, and we had a son. He’s grown now, with a family of his own. I’ve been blessed with a life with far more ups than downs. Through all those years, I tried not to think about that afternoon at the pond but it haunted me across those years. I always felt that faded memory lurking deep in my mind, waiting to surface.

And it finally did.

For my eightieth birthday, my granddaughter gave me an encyclopedia of Wisconsin folklore. Quite a tome, it became a nightly ritual of mine to sit in my favorite reading chair under a halo of light, browsing deep into the night about Bigfoot, the haunting of Science Hall on the UW campus, and the ghoulish history of mass murderers Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer.

Late one night, unsuspecting, I turned a page and I felt my heart seize. Staring up at me was the likeness of the thing from Pochman’s Pond—those same evil eyes sizing me up, the fang-filled mouth, the twisted grin.

My pajamas clung to my sweaty skin and I couldn’t catch my breath. I forced myself to calm down, to take deep breaths and relax before I gave myself a heart attack. I had told myself that I wasn’t in danger, that the house was still dark and quiet, that my wife was still upstairs peacefully asleep; that we were safe. The damn thing hadn’t gotten me then, and it sure as hell wouldn’t get me now.

I composed myself enough to read the page. The thing was a hodag, a mythical creature of the Wisconsin northwoods. Legends say the beast rose from the ashes of a lumberjack’s ox whose body had been burned for seven years to cleanse it of the profanity the loggers had hurled at it. The depiction of the creature wasn’t quite right, a little too cartoony, but it was damn close. They got the eyes and the grinning mouth perfect though, and that was enough.

I read and reread that page for God knows how long before I set the book down with a trembling hand and, without knowing exactly why, I wept. Unbidden, memories rushed back. Memories of Whitey, his father and mine, and how you can’t always catch the curveballs life throws at you. We all knew the thing hadn’t been killed that day—it just sank into Pochman’s Pond and crawled back into the dark.

I dried my eyes, turned off the light, and went upstairs, wincing with each creak of the steps. I crept into my own bed and slid a hand on my wife’s warm stomach. She murmured something and I kissed her silver hair. I drifted off telling myself my family was warm, happy, and safe.

• • • •

That night I dreamt of the northwoods in the splendor of autumn. I was skipping stones on Pochman’s Pond with my grandkids beneath a canopy of colored leaves. I keep telling them to get away from the water’s edge but they don’t listen.

Whitey McFarland’s there too. He’s still only nine years old and he’s wearing his swimsuit. He dares no one in particular to race him out and back, and wades into the pond up to his knees.

I shout for Whitey to stop but it’s a perfectly warm, sunny day and the pond is dark and cool. Suddenly, I feel very small and I start to panic. I shout again.

Whitey doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t even turn to look at me. He just watches the breeze rippling the water’s surface.

Trent Hergenrader

Trent Hergenrader is an English professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he spends much of this time using role-playing games to teach aspects of fiction writing and worldbuilding. He also teaches courses on fantasy and science fiction in popular culture, such as Game of Thrones in Media, Tolkien in Print and on Screen and Transmedia Storyworlds: The Star Wars Galaxy. His short fiction has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk and elsewhere. His nonfiction book Collaborative Worldbuilding for Writers and Gamers will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in fall 2018. Find him on the web at trenthergenrader.com or his Twitter account, @thergenrade.