The town of Hickory was wrapped quietly in a bow of conifers. It was laced in pinecones. An island set within a deep and green moat of needles, sap.
Frank Matherson was crouched behind a grey trunk. All spread before him were ferns and rocks and hidden creekbeds.
It had started earlier that afternoon.
“Let’s play Blind Man’s Bluff.”
“It’s a cruel game. Pretending a blind man has to chase us about the room.”
“Aw be quiet, Howard. It’s a game. How many blind men do you know anyway?”
“I don’t know.”
“Too many to count or none at all?”
“Hey,” said Frank. “I got a better idea.”
“You kids got any weapons?” asked Frank.
“Sure, well of course.”
Everything needed was rounded up. What had started at Rusty’s house sent them all dispersed. Be your own quartermaster and reconvene behind the butcher’s shop. The butcher had a prime door behind his business, a prime door to plunge into the woods. Five boys, standing straighter now with their gear, trundled into the bushes and trees, sure to return with a hundred little bites all over their scrawny joints.
“What’re we doing anyway out here?”
“We gonna rob travelers?”
“We’re gonna have a war?”
“No, you kids,” said Frank Matherson popping a little square of gum into his mouth. “We’re hunting.”
They stopped at the White Stone to examine what armaments and provisions were among their party, considering no one had really made a plan. The White Stone was a nice boulder planted in the ground at the top of a little hill. Its peak was big and round enough for three of them to sit on. It was buried a million feet beneath the earth. Like an iceberg, Howard had said. Just the top part is here for us to see. All around was the silence of the trees. All to be seen were needles and rankled trunks.
Frank commanded they present their weapons, chomping on his gum as he strolled in front of the line of boys. The air was pure mint and spruce, so he’d chosen cinnamon flavor to balance everything out. It did little in the way of balancing; everything was spice and cold and living to his senses. He smiled and nodded at the boys’ presentation. Rusty had brought an old baseball bat and slingshot. Bo had a broomstick, no broom, like a tall knight’s lance, or an islander’s fish spear, though both ends were pretty well flat. On Arthur’s army belt was a space gun that turned blue when you shot it, making a loud blinking whining noise. That was mainly for show, but for practical use he’d also stolen one of his mom’s croquet mallets.
“Good, men, good,” said Frank nodding. He popped a tiny bubble in his mouth and got to Howard. He saw what he’d brought. “Aw, Howard you dodo bird.”
“What good’s this gonna do?” Frank held up Howard’s Excalibur. A fly-swatter. A rubber square all cut up in crisscrosses, fixed to a wire wand as long as your shin.
“I don’t have any weapons anyway,” said Howard blinking his eyes. “I went to Grover’s Store and asked him for one, and he said he wasn’t an arms dealer, and I told him I needed something to take with me, so he gave me this.”
“Don’t blame him, Frank,” said Rusty. “We’ll teach him.”
“Yes we will, we will,” said Frank clicking his tongue.
“He also gave me these when I told him we’re coming out here,” said Howard. The boy had brought his knapsack as well, a little schoolbag, and inside were two tins of sardines and a sleeve of saltine crackers. Best of all, five pieces of candy: Butterscotch Suckers.
“Say, you’re okay by me, Howard,” said Frank. “Whatever the other guys think.”
“Gee, thanks Frank.”
“We’ll find you a sharp stick or something, like Bo’s.”
The others had crowded around the food bag, but were soon warded off.
“We don’t need none of that yet,” said Frank. “We can feast when we’re finished. Those of us who survive.”
“What weapon did you bring, Frank?” asked Arthur, frowning, thinking it’d been a good few hours since lunch.
“Just this,” said Frank pulling up the hem of his shirt. They saw the metal handle of a real knife, tucked in its sheath, tucked in his pants’ pocket. He unbuttoned the holster and drew it out. Seven inches of steel. It almost looked sharp. The other boys leaned in and passed it around.
“Yep, I’ve seen this kind before. Used to have one myself, but my kid brother lost it.”
“Yeah it’s okay.”
“Can I have it back?” asked Frank holding his hand out. Howard had barely gotten his turn, but pushed it back to its owner, blade out. Frank took it and sheathed it and cleared his throat. He climbed up on the White Rock and looked down on the four braves.
“So why are we out here?” he asked.
“Um,” they said to their chief. “We don’t know.”
“We’re here to hunt!” said Frank. “There’s all kinds of creatures in these woods.”
“Yeah,” said Rusty. “Squirrels, rabbits, deers, turkeys, bears.”
“No no,” said Frank. “Those are just animals. We’re hunting creatures! One especially.”
“What’s that Frank?”
“Yeah what is it?” asked Bo.
Frank gave his cinnamon gum a last couple squeaky chews and spat it out into the needles below. “A Waggamump.”
“What the heck is that?” asked Arthur.
“It’s kind of like a Rastorex,” said Frank, “but bigger.”
The boys scratched their ears. Arthur looked sideways at Howard’s schoolbag, thinking of the contents therein.
“Okay okay, I guess you kids haven’t explored as much as me,” said Frank Matherson. “It’s tall as a telephone pole. It’s furry like a buffalo head. It’s got claws on each toe and upside-down tusks. And its eyes are—are yellow. As yellow as those Suckers that Grover gave us. It lives all over the woods. I’ve seen it at night sometimes on walks, I’ve seen its big round head looking out of the trees into Hickory. It’s watching us. It’s always been watching us since we were little kids.”
“Why’re we hunting it?” asked Howard squinting up at the boy on the boulder.
“Remember when your dog disappeared last year, Rus?” said Frank.
“Sure,” said Rusty. “Dad said it ran away, probably got hit by a car.”
“Lies,” said Frank. “It was the Waggamump. He ate your dog.”
Rusty frowned, his nose scrunching.
“It was the Waggamump that stole your bicycle last month, Arthur,” said Frank. “It was the Waggamump that blew your fence down, Bo. And—”
“What it ever do to me, Frank?” asked Howard.
“Well,” said Frank, looking off at the tops of the pines around them. “Nothing yet, Howard. But don’t worry. I’m sure it’ll get you sooner or later, which is why we gotta get it first. Ready?”
“Let’s go hunt!”
“I’ll kill that goshdarn tar-lickin’ Waggamump if it’s the last thing I do!” said Rusty. “I loved my dog.”
“Okay, okay, Rus,” said Frank. “It’s just a game, you know. Now come on!”
Soon Frank Matherson was crouched behind a grey trunk. All spread before him were ferns and rocks and hidden creekbeds. The others were likewise positioned; behind rocks or stumps or laying on the ground like snakes.
“I think I hear it,” said Bo, both hands on broomstick.
“Yeah, what is that?” asked Howard, actually hearing a sound.
“Waggamump tread?” asked Rusty. “Huh? Is it? Hey Frank, is that the Waggamump coming?”
It wasn’t. They saw a deer with a scruffy coat walking along. Two points on each antler, just a young fellow, tramping along soft and slow.
“Boy we’re real quiet for it to come out like this,” said Rusty.
“You’d be more quiet if you were quiet,” said Arthur.
Rusty flicked a rock at him, no bigger than a button. The deer didn’t seem to notice any of the predators or their striped red shirts or caps or round pink faces. It grazed at a few spars of grass and moved on.
“Is that the Maggawump?” asked Howard noticing a scratch up in the trees.
“You don’t even got the name right, Howard,” said Arthur.
“That’s okay, Arthur,” said Rusty. “He brought the food, remember?”
The animal continued its scratching up in the tree, unseen, and soon forgotten. All the boys looked to Frank Matherson, who had arched up his back and locked up his knee, ready to leap.
“Hey you kids,” said Frank in a whisper. He popped the metal button on his scabbard and drew his genuine knife. “It’s coming.”
Croquet mallet was steadied, broomhandle poised, slingshot loaded, flyswatter wiggling.
“Where? Where?” Howard’s pale cheeks seemed ready to scream.
“There! Get it!” said Frank Matherson flying to his feet.
Arthur and Bo went after him, and Rusty shot a baby pinecone through the cool air.
“I don’t see it!” said Howard.
“Sure you do, Howard,” said Rusty. “Now come on!”
Frank was ducking under heavy falling paws, avoiding claws and the grasping fingers of a giant. He stabbed at the air. Bo stabbed a breeze. Arthur was smacking the limp branch of a young elm to kingdom come.
“Watch out!” said Frank, falling over. Rusty came up alongside him, hitting a homerun with his baseball bat, slingshot safely sticking out if his pocket. Frank made a roaring sound as the monster stumbled away. Just like a howler monkey from the city zoo, Howard thought. Howard had finally understood the game, and so all five fine fellows were dancing about the clearing. They fell and rose and fought, and the fracas carried on merrily till they sweltered and panted, knees scraped.
“It’s on the ground!” said Frank. “We got it at last, men. Finish it off Howard! Get its head!”
“There! Right there!”
If any fly was resting on the stone where the Waggamump’s head happened to lay, it met its plastic doom soon enough. Down came Howard’s mighty weapon, again and yet again, slap slap slap, until the flyswatter broke at last against the stone and went flippering off into the air. Howard stood, panting, and wiped at his forehead, the metal wand of the swatter in his trembling hand.
“I guess he’s dead now, right Frank?”
“Yeah Howard. Sure is.”
Soon the five were sitting round the White Rock, which Frank had declared was turned into the Waggmump’s head, rather than the jagged grey geode Howard had defeated.
“Closer in size, anyway,” said Frank. They caught their breath and didn’t mind the sweat so much anymore. Evening was coming on. The sky was soft and God sent a colder breeze their way, just for the warriors.
“Spoils, kids, spoils,” said Frank opening up Howard’s bookbag. “Got a nice Waggamump haunch for all of us here.”
Soon their hands were sticky from the feast of crackers and sardines. Salt and scales glittered on their fingers like plundered rings. Everyone got his fair share, though Arthur pouted a little when it was all over.
“Look, dessert,” said Frank taking out the Butterscotch Suckers that some had forgotten. The change in flavor from fish to candy would have bothered most, but the five hunters cheerfully ground their teeth and cracked flakes in their mouths against the balls of butterscotch.
Bo, littlest of all, cackled at the sight of themselves. “Looks like we’re all smoking my dad’s cigarettes.”
“Boy that was a good fight,” said Rusty.
“Sure was,” said Arthur rolling his cigarette from one molar to the next.
“That Waggamump finally got revenged,” said Rusty.
“What are we going to play tomorrow?” asked Howard. He was fondly admiring the remains of his weapon, though it now looked like a marshmallow poker.
“Play?” said Frank. “We can be whatever we want. We can go to the moon or conquer a castle or ride broncos through the desert. We can build a city out of mud. We can read comics all afternoon.”
“We can fly to Mr. Oxx-Orx’s planet!” said Rusty.
“Or just visit him at his cabin at the lake and hear about it,” said Howard.
“We can beg for more candy at the store,” said Arthur.
“No, Grover’s not nice more than once a week,” said Frank Matherson.
“Shh, shh!’ said Bo, his broomhandle in his hands. “Look over there!”
They hadn’t noticed it at all. Only Bo. When they saw it, they were quieted as only a frozen tempest hitting your face or a giant ocean wave rising above you can quiet a person. Like a sudden shooting star that hovered in the sky for a time.
There was a creature walking among the trees, as tall as some of them. Great shags of clumped round hair, like a buffalo’s head. Small tusks coming up from its bottom lip. Claws on every toe. Its eyes were yellow, but a bright yellow, like the light from the setting sun was finding its way to the creature’s face. It walked slowly, as if wading through a pool. Slow its great shaggy leg swung through the air. But the creature was quiet as it went, almost respectfully. It saw the five boys sitting with their tired backs against the White Rock. It gave them a brief, slow swiveling gaze. They stared back, mouths as shut as their own eyes were open. A deep, crooning sigh came from the creature as it trudged on into the pines. Soon they only saw the back of its feet, the crown of its furry head. The pines closed it in. They could hear its large, shrewd footfall.
The sun was almost down and a hundred crickets began to talk.
The boys sat there, not saying anything for a while.
“Gosh,” said Howard. “Guess we oughta go home.”