“Are you gonna kill the leech, Mister H?” Tucker asked me through the hole in his front teeth. The seven-year-old asked with all of the gravity of a child worried Santa didn't know his new address.
“What are you talking about, little man?” I asked him.
“The leech!” Tucker exclaimed. He bounced with his excitement. “The leech that got Timmy! It’s back!”
I was hanging out with half a fifth of Sailor Jerry’s and trying to remember what exactly had happened to the other half I’d pulled into town with. My ass was planted in a La-Z-Boy in the den of a boarding house that’d had more old days than good ones. Tucker had come bursting in through the back door and it was still swinging shut behind him.
“Tucker, Timmy drowned,” I said to him with all the sensitivity of a half-drunk hitman. “The leech is just a legend.”
“Oh come on, you know better than that,” Damien chided me as Tucker’s bottom lip began to quiver. Damien is a Dragon that lives in my head. We talk in blue, and I can use my fingers for blowtorches thanks to him. Tucker was the seven-year-old son of Carissa, the woman who owned the boarding house I was staying in.
“No! Timmy swam really strong!” Tucker said with a stamped foot and an angry hiccup. Carissa and her pack of mutts and hounds came in through the back door of the boarding house at precisely that moment. All six of the canines came in baying and panting, their nails clattering across the wooden floors in their rush to the trough of food bowls in the kitchen.
Whether or not she’d heard her son’s outburst or if she could just read a tantrum brewing at a glance wasn’t clear, but she strode briskly over to the boy,
“It's time for bed now, Tucker,” she said, in a tone that brooked no nonsense. “You’ve got school in the morning, and I don’t want to hear Mrs. Crabpear say anything but how good you were.”
If a tantrum had been brewing, it was in full effect now at the prospect of a sun-still-out bed time. He screamed such while she took him up to her own private quarters on the third story of the blue boarding house.
Bedtime took until dusk. By then the pack had gorged itself on kibble and made their way back to the den to join me in my silence. I raised the remaining quarter fifth of Jerry’s to the dogs’ company and watched the world through the back window. The over-flooded Valley River meandered over what had been a gravel walking path that hugged the shore.
What had been a severe drought had transformed completely over night from the storm. Where once there had been parched vegetation, there was now semi-flowing river and wetlands. The backyard was bisected by overgrown rails that had been used for a century but hadn’t been used in decades.
Carissa made her way down the stairs after a time and wandered through the kitchen. The old-timey fridge closed with a latch and the gentle clink of longneck on longneck. The matching recliner she practically threw herself in groaned familiarly.
“Sorry about Tucker,” Carissa said halfway through her lager. “He’s got such an imagination.”
“Not a problem,” I said, “He’s got a head for stories and losing his older brother has to be hard,” I replied. It was harding to measure my fifth in fractions.
Carissa didn’t reply but for another sip of beer and then, “I know you and your Boss know a lot about all of that… mumbo jumbo and legends.”
I waited for an actual question. This wasn’t the first time I’d sat with someone struggling to come to grips with a world they didn’t actually know.
“Tucker’s got an imagination but he hasn’t talked about that Leech in years. Last time he did was right before Timmy drowned. It had rained real hard then too,” she said.
I wasn’t going to make her say it, make her ask it. She was a God-fearing woman, went to church on Sundays. All the good it did her, she didn’t need to cross a line into doubt before I’d step in to help. I finished my fifth and got up to help keep her faith.
“I think I’ll go take a walk.” I said to her. I collapsed the recliner and made my way to the door. I left the bottle beside the table and went out into the warm, muggy twilight.
“Careful now, it's real slippery out there since the rain.” Carissa called out behind me. One of the dogs scrambled out the door past her legs and fell into step behind me before I’d made it to the tracks. Of course it was Merlin, an ice blue-eyed white Australian shepherd with a tail nub that defined wagging the dog.
“Good dog!” Damien said only in my head. Merlin’s ear perked up and his head cocked. I chocked it up to rum and shit I wasn’t thinking about right then.
“It’s a blue thing, you wouldn’t understand.” Damien said.
The gravel shifted and the rail ties creaked beneath my boots. Merlin barely made a sound. Normally the path would have passed between the banks of the river and the raised embankment of the abandoned rail line. Because of the storm, there was a few feet of sloped vegetation between me on the rails and the water below.
Dragonflies and mosquitoes, along with fish and minnows, kept the top of the water rippling in constant motion despite the turgid immobility of the river. Every once in a while there was an audible splash in the water and something ate.
After a while, the straight arrow tracks came to cross the snaking river. The rust-iron red rail bridge was fenced and gated. On the left, the footpath came up out of the water to cross the tracks. To the right, they continued up above the water and into the woods. Behind me I could make out glimpses of the outskirts of ‘downtown’ Murphy through the trees- a few country houses turning out their lights as the stars came out.
Footsteps that weren’t mine came up the path from the woods. Merlin barked in excitement and wag-ran his way to the older man making his way towards us. He was getting on in years, his skin cracked and tanned from the sun, his hair bleached white. He was tall, but the stick he held in his hand was even taller.
The man chortled a greeting and bent down to pet Merlin behind the ears. The two-year-old Merlin jumped up to lick the man’s face and head butt him between the eyes in his excitement.
The man put his hand to his face with an even deeper laugh, and I chuckled an apology to him.
“It’s no problem! Such a good dog you’ve got.” He waved to the wetlands cloaking themselves in darkness. “Can you believe it? Just overnight!”
I shook my head. “It really is something else. How’s the path up there?” I asked.
“Oh well, you can make it to just the Leech point observation deck, but past that, it goes down into the water again. Now you could cut through downtown and get back onto the trailhead ‘bout a half mile down the street. Then it's clear on up to the learning center.”
I thanked him and he pet Merlin again as way of goodbye. At this point, Merlin wasn’t so much wagging as oscillating on a transmittable frequency.
“Watch out for Tlanusi’yi!” the old man said with a wink and a wave, not even stumbling over the Cherokee name for the Great Leech out of folklore.
I shook my head and Merlin fell back into step as I made my way down the path. It was a peaceful walk, the woods chirping to my right and the occasional sound of human habitation filtering in from the one stoplight downtown just beyond them.
It wasn’t long until I was standing on a wooden observation deck jutting out over the water maybe a few feet below me. I could make out a wooden bench submerged beneath the waterline down past the deck.
The rail bridge was a dark shadow on the purple and violet horizon, the river a ribbon of rippling orange reflecting the last dying grasp of sunlight on the clouds above. It was peaceful; a wake of ripples made its way downstream around the bend, though I hadn’t caught sight of its source.
Jutting off from the railing of the deck, hanging out over the water, was a sign put up by the Town of Murphy Tourism Council:
You Are Here Overlooking The Leech Place of Cherokee Indian Legend
[Cherokee in English phonetics: itla new see na nah eeI]
The Great Leech of Tlanusi’yi
Here where the Valley River moves on to converge with the Hiwassee River, look carefully out into the water and you will see an old rock ledge crossing just beneath the surface. Used by the Cherokees as a footbridge across the river, it was there the legendary Great Leech was said to be. Dating back to the 1700s and early 1800s prior to the Removal, Cherokee stories of the Great Leech of Tlanusi’yi are carried on to this day.
Cherokee legend describes the great leech with its red and white stripes stretching itself out along the rock ledge, curling up and stretching out again, then disappearing into the deep waterhole below. The water would then boil and foam. Geysers of steam and water would rake back and forth, sweeping people on the rock ledge down into the deep hole below. Many were never seen again, but the bodies of some people were found lying on the banks of the river with their arms, head, and legs eaten off.
Those who could run away at first sight of the Great Leech were saved from falling to its prey and warned others of the danger.
Cherokee legend also says the Great Leech traveled from its deep hole in the river through an underground waterway across to the Nottely River near its bend toward Murphy, making the water boil there as well.
To this day some say the great leech is still here, moving underneath the ripples in the water below.
There is a vein of marble in the river, in the hole where the greet leech lived. The marble has layers that are red and white; when the sediment isn’t built up you can see it.
It looks like a red leech under the water.
Below the text was an artist’s rendition of the leech sweeping hapless braves into the river, the leech a great undulating mouth without end beneath the waves.
The rock ledge mentioned on the sign was completely hidden from view, and even if it hadn’t been the darker side of twilight, the high water would have likely obscured the view.
Years ago, Tucker’s older brother Timothy had dove into the river from this very spot. The water had been even higher then than it was now, lapping up at the planks of the deck. He’d never come back out. Tucker had run home from the path after Timothy never came back. He was smaller then than he is now, and his talks of the Giant Leech were credited to the spooky stories his teenage brother had been telling him before he dove in and broke his neck.
“You of all people know The Illuminati isn’t going to let ‘Killed by a Giant Leech’ land on this kid’s death record,” Damien said. “’Stupid kid breaks his neck’ is the easiest cover ever.”
This far west into North Carolina we were south of Tennessee and north of Georgia. Atlanta was a hop, skip, and a jump down the road; not so far that an Atlanta branch office Illuminati G-man couldn’t make a quick trip to scrub the record.
I hadn’t been in town when it had happened, but I’d heard of it. I’d been cooling my heels here for years between gigs when I wasn’t up to putting up with the hustle and bustle or the drama of the Elves and their Eldurado. The fact that I regularly frequented the town of Murphy didn’t help matters- with my background and track record it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the Illuminati to have an agent stationed in town just for when I made my field trips.
“Or maybe they’re here to deal with Tlanusi’yi and you’re a self-centered asshole,” Damien said.
Merlin put himself between me, the sign, and the water. His hackles were raised and his head was low, an adorable growl squeaked out from exposed fierce teeth.
There was a massive splash like a tree falling into the water, though none had that I could see, and none of the underbrush was disturbed. Waves began to break against the shore. Upstream, a gout of water and steam shot into the air like some freshwater Blue Whale surfacing for the first time in years.
“Guess that settles it,” I thought to Damien. The gout of steam and water had come from the other side of the bridge, the same side that the path had submerged into. Come to think of it I hadn’t seen which direction the old man and his stick had gone.
Merlin barked once at the water, and then turned back to me, his nub beginning the wind up back to peak vibrational resonance. He bumped his shoulders into my shins like a cat, or like he had so much energy he had to transfer it to me somehow or he’d burst into a poof of fur.
I made my way back to the bridge. The geyser had been closer to the far shore and I’d determined to melt my way through the padlocked gate to get to the other side.
Except someone had already opened the gate.
I pushed the gate open enough to get through myself, but Merlin beat me to it and took off running down the ties and into the darkness. There was another splash and wave, and then a series of staccato Merlin barks from somewhere in the darkness ahead.
I broke into a jog down the bridge. After a few dozen yards, I came to a shore nearly identical to the one I’d left, submerged path branching off from it and all.
Merlin was standing at the head of the trail leading into the inky surface of the river, barking his head off at a series of swirling ripples circling under the bridge. I came to stand beside the dog, who looked up to me and bumped my shins with his shoulders again.
“You are the bravest dog!” Damien exclaimed. Merlin circled in place. I looked out to the waves and saw it: pale to the point of translucence like a waterlogged corpse, a stripe of red the size of my leg glowing through its body. The whole monster was easily fifty feet long or more judging by the fifteen feet I could see.
A few dozen feet away Tlanusi’yi reared its massive mouth-end, row on row of circulating teeth ringing its maw. It could have swallowed me whole if I was willing to lay down for it.
“Or if you were swimming on the surface.”
The Great Leech’s head dripped water as it reared back- a movement that bore a striking resemblance to an accordion being compressed. My gut said it’d be something far worse than bad music that would come ripping out of it.
I reached down and scooped Merlin into my arms and dove out of the way, up the path towards the bridge. Good thing for it, as I put the bridge between me and the myth, a geyser of super heated water hit the bridge with the force and fury of ten firehoses.
I ran down the path on the other side of the bridge through the mist that had suddenly clouded the air. There was no observation deck and sign on this side of the river, just gravely walkways with a steep slope down into the river on the left side.
I ran, but before I could go far, my foot turned on a slippery river stone and I fell forward. I let Merlin go, his furry shape heading up the path with his paws already out. I made to roll with the fall but instead caught my foot on a root and ended up hitting the ground gut first.
Behind me the Great Leech charged through the floodwaters towards me. I rolled to my back while reaching for the 1911 holstered there. In all the confusion I was slow on the draw. Merlin planted himself between me, the water’s edge and the Myth surging its way towards us.
There was a charging through the underbrush behind me. Tlanusi’yi let out a hissing roar, he wasn’t far from the water’s edge and my booted feet. There was a human scream from behind and over me- part rebel yell, part Cherokee war cry. A phosphorescent whooping thunderbolt fell out of the sky.
It struck the Great Leech just behind its gaping maw. The Old Man from before was on the other end of the glowing stick. He was suspended in the air for just a moment, connected to the ground through his spear, through the monster’s head. He looked for all the world as if his blow had been meant to wound the earth.
Merlin was ecstatic at the old timer’s arrival. He circled and yipped around the man, and barked at the corpse-colored-beast stuck through its head to the earth. Tlanusi’yi thrashed and thrashed, wounded but far from dead. Its massive size churned the water to froth in its throes.
“Before he cooks us then, lad!” the Old Man cried to me. It was only then that I realized just how hard he was straining to keep the monster just barely pinned as it was.
I clambered to my feet and sank to my ankles in the banks of the river. I holstered the 1911 and instead held both hands out before me. I pumped white hot dragon fire down my arms and out of my fingertips. If Tlanusi’yi shot geysers, I was duel-wielding flamethrowers with my connection to Damien.
If you didn't know, Dragon fire is hot enough to melt anything.
Tlanusi’yi burned and burned, twisting up upon itself as the fibers of its primitive muscles popped and crackled in the intensity of the heat. The river had half turned to fog with the conflict and conflagration.
The Old Man jumped away, leaving his stick behind to be consumed in the pyre. Merlin was behind me, sitting back on his haunches, his ears rigid at attention. The dog, more a puppy still really, looked at me and The Old Man with a somberness I could understand: It's not every day you get the assist on a river monster.
Tlanusi’yi was done.
I turned from Merlin back to the Old Man, but he was already making his way away from the corpse and towards the path leading into the woods.
“So that’s the Removal then?” I asked.
"This time anyway.” He shrugged and made his way into the trees.
“You were late! That thing got Timmy,” I called.
“It rained. Someone had to pay for it,” The Old Man said over his shoulder. He slipped behind a tree and was gone in the darkness of night-shrouded forest and mist.
Merlin bumped into my legs with his shoulders again. It was starting to get later on in the night. If I got back too late, all the dogs would raise cane and the dead alike, ruining any chance of slipping back unannounced.
I made my way back over the bridge and down the track to the three-story blue boarding house. By the time I got back, the sun had been fully set for a while, the sleeping hounds woke, boofed once or twice, and then settled back in when they recognized me.
Or maybe it was the way Merlin walked in with his same puppy energy but a new found fire.
I wondered if I would say anything to Carissa.
I knew for sure I was going to tell Tucker to stick with the dog. And to stick to the pool.