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The tractor emerged from the forest throwing up a cascading wake of gravel and belching a dark plume of smoke into the air. Slowly cresting the treetops, the potent midsummer sun had finally begun to burn off the last vapory wisps of morning fog. As he clutched the rim of the fender to stay aloft, Tobias craned his neck in an attempt to steal an early glimpse of Sweetwater. A few of the Priests had daily chores requiring regular trips to the modest little town, but for most of the Sacred Reserve’s inhabitants, Sundays were the only day of the week they had in which to escape the monotonous farm life and mingle amongst their neighbors.
On a typical visit, the Fulbrights—adorned in their “church clothes,” as Amos called them—would attend the late service at Sweetwater Lutheran and then stroll along the main thoroughfare before returning to the farm for lunch. Set loose on the town, Landon and Naomi would dart off to find their friends while Tobias stuck close to his parents, (and at least one or two of the farm’s Priests), as they popped in and out of the little shops and stores. Other adults always stopped them along the way to chat, though rarely about anything remotely interesting to a ten year old boy.
The men they encountered on their strolls through town routinely questioned Tobias’ father about the farm, (“which ones are lookin’ the biggest and meanest this year, Amos?”), and the women delighted in having his mother share with them the many clever ways that she has found to house and feed so many mouths as the collection of Priests represented. For their own part, the majority of the Priests—having no living biological families of their own—often limited their trips to purchasing a few sundry items from one or two of the little stores before hiking back through Founder’s Forest to await lunch at the bunkhouse.
Reaching the edge of town, Amos steered the tractor onto the shoulder of the road alongside Mr. Dwyer’s split-rail pasture fence and brought the noisy machine to a halt. Switching off the engine, the retort from the exhaust ricocheted down the still-sleepy street like a runaway bull before escaping into the cobalt sky above. Tobias allowed his father to climb down to the knee-high weeds before nimbly following down after him. Once on the ground, he wordlessly crouched beside the giant rear tire, plucked a handful of sunshine-yellow butterweed crowns, and then stuffed them into his trousers pocket. With a little luck he’d remember these ones were there and not—like yesterday’s pink and white lilies—forget until bedtime, when they were all but an unrecognizable pulp.
Massaging the side of his hip to drive out a fresh knot, Amos looked over to him and asked, “Do you know where we’re headed, Tobias?”
Tobias nodded confidently, but without expression.
“And do you know why?” his father pressed.
The boy gave another emphatic nod, tucking the butterweeds a bit further into his pocket as he did so.
His father regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. Despite the urgency of the situation, his normally rigid demeanor tempered (as it usually did) at the sight of his youngest child. Resting a hand on Tobias’ shoulder, he stooped down a little lower than his back typically demanded and said, “What the Lord kept away from your voice, he gave back ten-fold to your brain,” and then kissed his tousled brown hair. As Amos turned to enter the town, Tobias dutifully fell-in behind him, beaming proudly with each step.
Laid out in a rectangular grid, the longest street in all of Sweetwater ran predominately east to west for scarcely half of a mile. If you attempted to leave town to the west, or traveled four blocks to the south, you would find yourself on the threshold of a dark and impenetrable expanse of swamplands, the likes of which no one in living memory has ever walked into and came back out of again.
Looming to the town’s north like a doting parent, Founder’s Forest covered nearly eighty square acres of dense hardwoods. Just north of the forest—and connected to Sweetwater by the lone gravel road through the trees—the sprawling collection of pasture-pens and outbuildings known as the Sacred Reserve lie hidden away like a stolen gem.
The people of Sweetwater did not often leave town, and if so, even rarer still to live for good. Nor did they worry themselves with the seemingly endless string of dramas and crisis’ taking place in the world outside of town. Occasionally, a lost motorist hoping for a short-cut would find their way along the desolate road in from the east before being told that, “Sorry pal, we’re all dead-enders here,” and turning around again to leave. If, on their way out, they did decide to have a look around the hot and humid little township, they would likely declare Sweetwater to be just as plain and ordinary as any other backwoods Alabamian community.
Broad Street, the main avenue bisecting the town, was lined with all the familiar brick-façade and plate-glass storefronts they would find anywhere else. And in the tidy little neighborhoods to the south of Broad, quaint, single-family homes dotted the narrow streets—their wooden porches and painted shutters sheltered from the harsh sun by a leafy canopy of elms and oaks. Likewise, the collection of buildings comprising Sweetwater Central, (built on the site of the town’s original drug store, which happened to burn down in the winter of ’28), appeared every bit as formal and organized as any school from the larger and more cosmopolitan cities. And, should that very same wayward visitor elect to pop their head into one of the several church services, he or she would find that they could sing right along with all of their favorite hymns and devotionals.
It was only if an outsider were to attempt to take the gravel road north through Founder’s Forest that they would be stopped—typically by one of Sweetwater’s two police officers, though not necessarily just—and politely informed that the area is off-limits to non-residents. For most motorists, no other explanation was needed. If it were, however, locals typically spun foreboding tales of unpredictable sinkholes involving ancient coal shafts buried deep beneath the earth. These gaping chasms could strike the surface at any time, they’d caution, and were capable of swallowing a family car whole without a trace. It was enough to make even the most determined of would-be tourists turn back for the relative safety of civilization.
As Amos entered the town, hitch-stepping along the sidewalk in front of the little stores, Tobias could see the thinly veiled apprehension upon the faces of what few residents they passed. Mrs. Hotlz, the grocer’s taciturn and willowy wife, smiled thinly and bid him and his father both a good morning—though she did so at a breathless hustle and while avoiding any more eye contact than was necessary.
Tobias followed his father along Broad Street until they reached Harker’s tailor shop. If his mother were along, she would no doubt stop and tediously scrutinize the long pleated dresses displayed enticingly in the big glass window. Safely at home as she was however, Amos just turned south into one of the little neighborhoods with Tobias close on his heels. Passing by the shaded houses, they could hear the owners inside laboriously hauling out the heavy boards and other barriers that each family kept stored away for just such an occasion. In most cases, they were the same thick oaken planks that had been passed down through generations of unwelcomed necessity.
When they reached the Reeb family’s white two-story house on the corner of Maple and 2nd, Amos stopped in the shade of an old magnolia and turned around to face Tobias. Gesturing to the base of the big tree, he said, “Now you go ahead and wait out here Tobias, I won’t be long.”
Tobias flopped his head to the side and gave his father a pleading look. Above them, a trio of wrens chased each other around the maze of branches, knocking tiny twigs and dead leaves to the ground below. The day was already growing hotter, and by noon even the most playful of birds would be seeking out the shade to rest.
“No, Tobias. Listen, I’m not even sure if they’ll see me, but there’s certainly no good to come of parading you around in front of them.”
Dejected, Tobias’ shoulders slumped at his sides. Amos had made up his mind though, and like usual the subject was firmly closed. As his father limped his way up the handful of steps attached to the front porch, Tobias plopped down in the dirt and leaned back against the mighty magnolia. It was some small consolation at least that he could pass the time while watching the shady street come to life.
Over at the house across the street, a grizzled and ravenous looking calico prowled the holly bushes in pursuit of a mouse. Just as the cat slunk around the corner of a garden shed, he heard his father knock on the front door behind him. There was a short pause before the metal hinges creaked sharply in the quiet morning air, and Amos cleared the dust from his throat.
“Mornin’ Clarence; Miss Annabelle,” he said cordially.
There was a perfunctorily murmured reply, and Tobias heard his father continue. “I, uh… well, I’ll just come right out with it—there’s been another incident, and I wanted to come by and tell y’all first.”
Clarence Reeb spoke slowly, and with a molassesey drawl so thick you might think he’d never be able to carry on a conversation in the cold weather.
“The may’r already come by an’ toll us, Amos,” he said not unkindly.
Tobias overheard his father’s frustrated sigh, and he said, “Yeah, I figured he might. All the same, do you mind if we have a word?”
Judging by the pause, the Reeb’s appeared to be thoroughly considering the request. From his seat behind the magnolia tree, Tobias didn’t hear anyone speak for a long moment. Then, the front door hinges creaked even louder and soon Amos disappeared inside the house.
Plucking up a handful of pebbles to toss out into the street, Tobias tried to envision the uncomfortable conversation inside.
When his father had first come upon the Priests in front of the town barns that night, (quivering in the ominous glow of the full moon), he had insisted that the search party stick together until they were able to corner and overwhelm the beast. Rightfully assuming that Number 3 would set her sights on the people of Sweetwater next, he led the Priests, (their razor-sharp lances glinting in the moonlight), back into town. As they stopped to listen for any sign of the monster’s whereabouts amongst the murky shadows, distraught cries from one house window to another had created a confusing and chaotic scene.
“It ran by here!” some unseen neighbor would shout, trying to get the men’s attention.
“No, it’s gone from there now, but it slammed against my door not two minutes ago!” another protested, desperate for the safety of the needle-like lance tips.
Before long, so many expired or outright false reports had made it impossible to know for certain just which direction to bring the Priests. In truth, it was those shuttered behind their doors who were the least vulnerable to attack. In all of the years since the Founder’s age, no escaped Chotgo had ever managed to bust through the simple yet ancient personal home fortifications—not even on a full moon. For everyone and everything on the other side of the barricades however, any encounter would immediately turn into a bout of kill or be savagely killed.
As Amos and the other Priests had hesitated, standing in the middle of Broad Street attempting to pinpoint the sow’s ever-changing location, over at the house on the corner of Maple and 2nd, seven year old Daisy Reeb’s spotted beagle puppy “Toy” sprang from her arms with a hop. She quickly tried to wrap her hands around the excited pup, but Toy had proven too nimble and all she managed was a passing glance on a rear flank. Toy had then leapt from her bed onto the little writing desk beside it, sliding on a few sheets of loose paper before knocking a pile of crayons to the floor.
The sight of Toy atop the desk caused little Daisy to laugh and giggle, and her blonde curly locks bounced up and down like marionettes. It was a costly distraction however, and before she could react the dog had turned and bounded through the open window and out onto the roof covering the front porch.
Once outside, little Toy quickly succumbed to the primordial demand of his nose and began feverishly sniffing up into the air. As he unwittingly crept closer and closer to the edge of the roof, little Daisy climbed out after him, determined to effect an immediate rescue. Growing even more frenzied at the arrival of a nighttime breeze, Toy bounced and hopped and wild arcs until at last he strayed too close to the edge. There was a short yip that descended like a falling star before Toy crashed harmlessly into the boxwood shrubs along the front porch.
Gingerly peering over the edge to see Toy resume his sniffing from the ground, Daisy had given little thought to jumping down into the cushiony boxwoods after him. The shrubbery scraped and poked her sun-kissed skin more than she’d anticipated, but it was still not unlike leaping into Mr. Tolleson’s haystacks at the end of each summer. Emerging from the leafy crash pad, Daisy Reeb had then resumed chasing Toy around the darkened front yard, giggling quietly so as to not alert her parents to her escape.
How long she had been out there was anyone’s guess. Neither Clarence, Annabelle, nor any of the neighbors remembered hearing her scream. They did recall a puppy perhaps barking and snarling, but at the time no one had given it much thought, brief as it was.
When Annabelle had gone upstairs a short time later to check on her daughter, she saw the empty bed and open window. Putting two and two together, her blood had immediately turned to ice as she tasted the bile creeping up the back of her throat. Screaming frantically to her husband, she then yanked away the heavy wooden barriers from the door and run out to the front yard with no regard to the prowling Chotgo.
Alerted by her anguished cries, that was where Amos and the Priests had found them: Clarence, Annabelle, and the torn remains of both Daisy and Toy. The toddler’s night shirt, with its tiny light purple flowers and slender, leafy green vines, was shredded to ribbons and soaked so dark with blood that it looked as though she’d been dipped in tar.
Sadly, there was absolutely nothing to be done for the poor girl. As his wife knelt on the edge of the street incoherently sobbing and cradling the remains of their only child, Clarence Reeb had burned holes into Amos Fulbright’s soul. Turning away in a mixture of shame and revulsion, Tobias’ father had then quietly led the search party away to find the transfigured sow and kill her once and for all.
It was only on a single occasion that Tobias ever heard how the Priests had managed to find Number 3 so quickly after the pig had savaged little Daisy Reeb and her puppy to death. It had been during a particularly harsh late-summer thunderstorm and Landon was re-telling the story for the hundredth time. Only this time, when he went to skip over the part about how the Priests had finally tracked her down, Tobias held his hands up in the universal halting motion. Arching his eyebrows imploringly, he’d demanded to hear the full and unabridged version.
“Okay, fine,” Landon had said in a low voice, “but don’t you ever repeat it.” Tobias had just given him a sarcastic look, at which point his brother clarified, “you know what I mean, squirt.” Then Landon had gone on in his typical theatrical story-telling manner. “As mister and missus’ Reeb collapsed to the dirt in tears, they were just trying to hold Daisy’s mangled body together in one piece. That’s when Pop noticed that ol’ Number 3 had left a swath of the Reeb girl’s blood leading all the way to the alley out back of the Tannery. They say it was so much blood, it was like walkin’ through a slop-trench.”
Despite his brother’s penchant for the dramatic, Tobias always took it to be a true accounting. In every telling before or since however, the official story was that the Priests had simply ran off in that direction on a hunch, ultimately cornering and impaling the vicious monster in the Tannery’s narrow brick alleyway. Even to young Tobias it seemed a tragic enough event without the need to either inform or remind the Reebs that sweet young Daisy had been mauled so viciously, her killer had continued to shed her blood for hundreds of feet.
On the street out front of the magnolia tree, a beige Oldsmobile slowed to a crawl as it drove past the Reeb house. The driver, an elderly man in glasses with close-cropped dark hair that had begun to gray around the temples, looked at Tobias disapprovingly and then shook his head. When Tobias glanced away uncomfortably, the man accelerated down the street and then disappeared.
Turning his attention to a yard three houses down the street, Tobias was watching a young newlywed couple—with no children of their own—hurriedly harvesting what few vegetables had managed to sprout in their garden when he heard the sound of the front door opening behind him. There was the familiar limp-step onto the porch and he overheard his father say in a sincere voice, “We’re not gonna let something like that happen again, Clarence. You have my word.”
“Don’ much matter t’ us this time ‘round; but y’ got a lot fewer sunsets than you did ‘fore.”
There was a guarded pause, and Tobias wished he could see the men’s faces on the other side of the tree. Then his father said simply, “I know it. And I best be getting back to it. Please give Annabelle my regards. I understand how she feels.”
Tobias detected a subtle softening in Mr. Reeb, who then said, “I will, Amos. And ’m sorry again. She’ll be alright once this one blows over, I’m sure a’ it.”
“No apology necessary, Clarence. I might have done worse were the shoe on the other foot. I’ll be in touch. Y’all just board up like the rest of ‘em.”
Hearing his father descend the steps, Tobias stood up to brush off the seat of his pants. Joining him on the sidewalk in front of the house, he wordlessly fell in behind as they made their way back to the tractor.
By the time they made it back to the Sacred Reserve, all of the Priests were engaged in a flurry of activity underneath the bright sunshine. While a few continued on with the pre-full moon preparations that took place every month, many others were gathered in front of the main barn to distribute the six foot long lances that served as the only authorized means of killing a sacred Chotgo—escaped or otherwise. The rule, like each and every other rule, dated back to the town’s founding days.
Similar to the specially braided wire-fence pattern, or the narrow enclosures that the Chotgoriin Gakhai were crammed into during non-festival full moons, each rule was explicitly relayed by the mysterious Mongolian livestock trader who first arrived at the port of Savannah with the unknown pigs centuries ago.
The various rules—like never maintaining more than ten of the surly pigs at any one time—were stringently observed for everyone’s safety as much as they were to ensure Sweetwater’s continued isolation and prosperity. And while the townspeople typically only need concern themselves with the many edicts during the weeklong festivities, it was the Priests who served as the wary watchmen of faithful obedience day in and day out. To them, a violation of any rule, however slight, brought with it more shame than the customary sentence of banishment from town. And for a group of men whose ranks were comprised solely of Sweetwater’s orphaned children, such a punishment was worse than death itself.
While his father went over to address the group of Priests in front of the main barn (with the Sacristy inside), Tobias ran across the yard to the modest farmhouse that Fulbright families had been calling home for generations. Taking the freshly painted porch steps two at a time, he bounded through the screen door. As he rushed into the kitchen with a commotion, Tobias found his mother standing in front of the stove untying the strings of her red checkered apron.
Much younger than her husband, Ruth’s crisply permed hair still shone with the brilliant auburn color she had when they first married. Whenever she laughed, which was often and freely, her green eyes sparkled like the flames of a deep-burning fire. It was her voice, though, that people fell most in love with. Some of Tobias’ first and fondest memories were of his mother singing to him. The songs were seldom, (if ever), the stuffy hymns from church, but rather the beautiful and usually exciting local folk-rhymes from her own youth. As the sun would descend below the trees beyond the pastures, she’d gently rock him back and forth out on the front porch, her voice carrying with it every melody of the songbirds.
At the sight of her youngest baby boy, Tobias’s mother dropped her apron strings and rushed over to embrace him in a hug.
“I thought I heard the tractor.” She squeezed him once tightly and then held him back at an arm’s length. Her voice lowering solemnly, she asked, “So is it true?”
Tobias just twisted his lips into a knot and nodded.
“Oh dear. Well I pray it was just one then.”
This time Tobias’ nod was more optimistic.
“Well thank heavens for that!” His mother finished removing her apron and hung it on one of the little brass hooks on the wall. After stealing a glance through the window above the sink, she added, “Maybe you should stay here until the Priests find it, sweety. There’s a lot to learn about raising Chotgos that isn’t so dangerous. Your daddy didn’t even go along with Papa Daniel until he was already a teenager.”
They were only the very predictable words of a concerned mother however, and convincing as she sounded, they both knew that his place was out searching with the older men. His mother must have seen the look on his face because she said, “I know, I know. But stay with your father. I don’t want you getting off that tractor with that pig out there on the loose. Especially not today of all days.”
From in front of the oxblood barn across the yard, Amos’s voice rode the wind through the screen door. “Tobias!”
“Sounds like they’re about ready out there.”
Before Tobias turned to run out the door again, he rushed over to his mother and squeezed her in a crushing hug. When they parted, she cradled his cheeks with both hands and said, “You be careful now sweety. Stay smart and safe, but also be brave. Remember, you’re a Sweetwater Fulbright—there’s no other bloodline on this planet so well suited for our duty.” Kissing his forehead, she quickly wiped away the red lipstick smudge left behind.
As Tobias retraced his path down the front steps, his father cranked the tractor back to life causing another oily plume of exhaust to besmirch an otherwise spotless sky. Reaching the tractor, he was just in time to see Landon leading a group of Priests away down the dirt road that disappeared into the south pasture, their long spear blades glinting in the sun.
Amos extended a hand down to him and said, “Come on up here, Squirt.”
Accepting the proffered hand, Tobias took his customary seat on the fender and looked over to his father questioningly.
Reading his face like a book, Amos said, “I sent Landon with one group to try and cut Number 8’s trail. The first thing we need to do is figure out which way he’s heading. Then, hopefully we can maybe cut him off.”
Tobias knew full well the difficulties facing the search party. Despite their immense size, Chotgo pigs were more clever than a fox when it came to leaving a trail. They always knew when they were being pursued, and how best to elude recapture. It was their very cunning, in fact, that made the “Mikkal’s Hunt” event of the festival so popular—not to mention the carnage, of course.
“Meanwhile,” Amos went on, “I sent Elijah and another group to meet us back out at the fence. I want to have another look at that break. Something’s not adding up with all this.” Tobias just nodded silently as his father let off the clutch. The tractor lurched forward once and in no time they were steadily puffing towards the back of the pasture.
To go to Part: III, just click here.
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