01 Feb My Grandfather saw a Skinwalker
My grandfather told me a story once, as we sat around a campfire in his backyard, in the cool night of the Arizona desert. The horizon was clear, and each star twinkled in a purple sky, with a full fat moon hanging low over the mountains.
His voice was raspy and gravelly, the result of a lifetime of smoking cigars and drinking whisky. The fire danced and shined across his wide dark eyes, as he settled into his seat, ready to tell his story.
“Way back when I was a boy, about your age,” he began, “I lived outside an Apache reservation, with your great-grandfather. He had returned from the war, and set about raising horses and cattle, on 100 acre ranch settled between a brambly mountainside, with dirt good for growing thorn brush and not much else. One night, my mother was sick, and Pa and I took a trip into town, about 50 miles away, straight through a dry desert, over a washed out creek, and some old abandoned farmsteads.”
The fire sparked, and a log cracked, jolting me out of the story.
“What next?” I asked. “Settle down boy, you’ll hear soon enough.”
“Pa and I were driving in an old Ford Pick-up truck, I remember it was dark out, inky and thick, with only the lights of our old truck lighting up the road. I remember too, when the engine began to sputter, and the truck slowed to a jerky stop. ‘God damnit,’ Pa said, guiding the Ford to the side of the road, as it coasted to a halt. ‘Stay here, son’, as he stepped out into the darkness, shutting the door with a heavy thud.
“My window was down, and the cool desert air was breezy and felt good on my hot face and neck. Pa was getting water from the back to cool the engine, and that’s when I smelled it. Rotten eggs. Strange I thought, to smell sulphur in the desert. My nose also picked up carrion, like one of them dead bloated cattle that would drop from the heat, and lay there, until the crows pecked enough holes in their hide to cause the whole thing to explode. It stunk, and I gagged. My skin started to tingle too, the back of my neck felt itchy, and my face started to get hot. The wind stopped blowing, and hung still and heavy, with the stink filling the cab. ‘Pa’, I called. ‘Pa, PA!’. No answer. My heart started beating, and I felt such a fear in me, in my bones, in my chest, boy, I tell you, I never felt fear like this, not until Vietnam, not until I saw men dying around me.”
“I locked the door, and reached over for my Pas door, and saw a shadow bound across the road, through both dim beams of light, across the partly open domed hood.”
Grandfather paused. He spit a fat wad of tobacco spit off to his side, and he looked pensively into the darkness. I realized I was holding my breath, and gasped for air. The night was cool, but I was sweating and clammy.
“Well? What happened, what about your father? What did you see?”
He sighed, “A creature.” He shook his head. “You have to understand, there were legends, old legends, older than the rock cairns out in the valley, older still than Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull, than the old Injun chiefs and their shamans. The Apache, and Hoppe, and Cherokee, and all them old tribes and first peoples, they told tales, old stories, about dark Injun magic, a deal made with the old spirits, of blood sacrifice, to gain power, old power, enough to fight each other, and the Spaniards, and later the White men that came for their land and women. They called them…”
He paused. Grandfather took a deep breath. And bodied forward into his tale. Across the fire, and the sky, the desert, the creek, the moon, the sun, and old mountains, he bodied forward.
“They called them Skinwalkers. Shapechangers. Old warriors resurrected as skinless men, all sinew and muscle, walking on deer legs, with the torso of a man, and the head of a coyote. But messed up, boy, long and malformed snouts. Teeth like a bowie knife. Long arms, and standing seven foot, even hunched over. They’d gut the old cowboys, and White Riders, they’d run through bullets and sabres, part the Spanish armor like it was a potato sack. Wiley too, they could change their voice to match a person you knew, or might know. Boy, that’s what I saw. Big, and fast, only for a second, it ran across the road. Grey and mottled. Muscle flexing under it’s legs, hooves clomping on the road, stringy muscled hunched shoulders. And it turned. Looked right into the cab, looked right into my eyes, and I swear, boy, I swear it grinned at me. I sank into my seat, in shock, in fear, shaking. I knew death was near. The air was electric, I smelled ozone, and brimstone. The air felt like right before the lightening comes, and blows a tree to smithereens. Charged and full with power. I yelled for my pa, but no words came out just a dry squeak.”
I was shaking, as grandfather told his story. He was still here, so I know he lived, but the supernatural always fascinated me, and even now, I felt the force of his words.
“The real power of Skinwalkers was trickery. Sure, they could change their voices, but also their skin, that’s why the Gods took their hide. So they could take others. Not for long the legends say. Maybe an hour, before the soul of the skin they wore would come looking for their mortal shell before going to whatever Hell awaited them. Though I think, that getting skinned alive, was Hell enough. A minute passed in what felt like a lifetime, 1 second in 1000 years. My father’s door opened, and I jerked my head to the left, putting my fists up to fend off attack. “Son, it’s me”, my father said, before climbing into the cab. He grasped the steering wheel, and pulled himself in awkwardly, jerking himself into the seat. I cringed into the corner. I looked at him. I looked hard. Boy, your great grandfather was a good man, treated me and my ma right. He fought the Nazis and saw the worst of man in Poland when he freed all them camps. And now I was taking his measure. Is this my father? Do I make a run or do I die? Is it him or not? ‘Lets go get that medicine for your ma,’ as he pulled the truck into gear, and pulled it out onto the road, and our trip resumed. I guess it was him after all.”
“But how did you know? Was it because he said something about your mom?”
“No boy, I knew, because out the window, out the corner of my eye, I seen that beast running 50 miles an hour right next to the car, looking at me with them yellow eyes and grinning mouth. I looked and saw it, hunched and angry, running next us, boy. My Pa kept his eyes on the road, locked straightforward. ‘Son’, he said, ‘Don’t look at it, DON’T LOOK AT IT. That’s how I knew, boy.”